[-empyre-] Fatigue and the world-system

joseph tabbi jtabbi at gmail.com
Wed Apr 29 00:01:26 EST 2009


I see what you mean and in my post I did speak of a current 'world
system,' one that has achieved credibility in the eyes of enough
people to keep things running (away). My reference point was Luhmann,
but there's also the whole 'world-systems theory' elaborated from a
Marxist standpoint by Immanuel Wallerstein and company. Wallerstein,
by the way, sees the current troubles as nothing less than the
unravelling of "capitalism as the world-system":


There are also anti-systemic forces, which is how Wallerstein
describes the former Soviet Union for example and current violent and
mostly decentralized resistance to Western models of capital formation
and the organization of a liberal society. Also there are
transformative efforts, in "the spirit of Puerto Vallarta" (site of a
convention for the World Socialist Organization) not "the spirit of

As I understand Wallerstein (generally, not just in that one Nation
essay), the world-system for him /is/ capital. Luhmann differs in that
'society,' and also 'art,' are systems separate from capital - or, as
Luhmann would put it, capital might be the /environment/ for art and
society, and vice versa. Each system is closed on itself, but each is
also the environment for other systems: this closure (at the level of
operations) and openness (at the level of information or selective
perception) is what allows systems to interact with one another -
though they cannot merge or become the other, not without losing their
identity or (better) their autopoietic capacity (the ability to
rereproduce themselves and their operations, distinct from all the
other selves and operations in the environment).

The artist as a hitchhiker (Davin), who enters the car and hence the
entire supporting infrastructure of roads and energy production and so
forth: that's a pretty good depiction of how "we" - people,
individuals - enter systems: temporarily, and with parts of ourselves.
We might bring curiosity to the encounter, small talk, and a view of
the passing environment (including passersby in other vehicles, who
speed along more like phantoms than fellow consciousnesses). But never
are "we" asked to believe in the system, nor are "we" parts of
society: we belong, rather, to the environment.

There are many differences, between this systems description and the
grand old narratives. The one difference to emphasize here, in the
context of our discussion, has to do with questions of credibility
and, to put it in spiritual terms, "belief." I would aproach the
difference between then and now, between modernist meta-narratives and
the current world-system, not from the angle of which system is more
totalizing or totalitarian (even as capital and commodification do
seem to enter more and more into areas of everyday life, giving some
measure of credibility to Wallerstein's assertion that capitalism /is/
the world-system). Rather, I would point to differences in the kinds
of belief that the different narratives require of "us." I gestured at
this difference, with a broad stroke admittedly, when I said the old
meta-narratives no longer could support a full-hearted, passionate
commitment - a commitment that one would be willing, say, to die for
in battle. The current world-system, to cut straight to the point,
does not require that kind of commitment from anyone. Indeed, the
ideal of 'liberal governmentality'  could be said to be devoted to
avoiding questions of belief altogether.

True, there are people dying in battles, and there are committed
people who effect real change in many areas. But even the U.S.
government, with the biggest military in the world, does not impose a
draft on its people. Commitment and battle-readiness, where it is
found, gets channeled into NGO's and other projects with limited aims,
working collectively perhaps but not often, as formerly, at the level
of "nation" or "class." Arguably, this is all to the good. But at the
same time our collective efforts do tend to be disaggregated,
numerous, and limited in the transformations we can imagine or hope

This discussion may be linked to our discussions of the artist's place
within or against the world of finance and capital.

The kinds of arts that have interested me, are those that work at the
boundaries of systems, not resisting them, critiquing them, or even (a
la DeBord or Certeau) detourning them, repurposing them to suit
alternative lifeways. I am more interested in arts and artists who
transform elements of one system (say, high finance, or branches of
the mass media), into elements of their own art-system. A few weeks
ago, I encountered the compositions of a Chicago artist (and current
professor at Rice University), John Sparagana. For years, John has
been working with glossy magazines. Any day, anywhere he might be,
chances are he will have in his pocket a crumpled up page from a
magazine. He keeps the page in his pocket for several days or weeks,
until the gloss is removed and the words become illegible or
semi-legible. Eventually, he assembles pages into sizable collages
that have a sometimes smooth, sometimes striated, texture that is hard
to describe - though it's anything but "glossy."  The lines of text or
the arrangement of images on magazine pages gives to the collage its
visual patterning, so the origins in commercial texts do continue to
function, but in a ghostly "fashion."

John generally wears fatigues, an outfit available for civilian wear
now that there is no official draft by the U.S. military. The process
of preparing his pages, he calls 'fatigue-ing." This seems to me a
model for describing a person's ability to contfront the systems we
inhabit without participating in them directly.

The Chicago gallery where I encountered Sparagana's work is called
Corbett vs Dempsey:



On Mon, Apr 27, 2009 at 2:33 AM, sdv at krokodile.co.uk
<sdv at krokodile.co.uk> wrote:
> Joseph,
> It always interests me how when people write of Lyotard's understanding
> of the post-modern they write as if his writings of 1979 remain and were
> accurate. As if the death of the meta-narrative of human liberation
> meant the death of all meta-narratives. But actually as the past month
> has demonstrated this is not the case.
> The Meta-narratives that have survived and proposed during the past 30
> years since Lyotard's post-modern condition was published are broadly
> speaking those which can be grouped under the heading 'theories of
> liberal governance' , the internal arguments being around the subject of
> how things should be governed - the critical one being neo-liberalism
> with it's libertarian overtones. Given its existence I don't see how the
> acceptance of the misreading of the 'passing of grand-narratives' is
> really that helpful. That the postmodern stopped believing in the
> narrative of human liberation did not finally mean that the liberal
> narratives of human governance went away,  it mean rather they were
> never stronger. So that when Michael writes of meta-N passing he was
> ignoring our actual history to maintain a particular theoretical
> understanding which at its best could only address the passing of one
> set of enlightenment discourses but not the one that we most need to
> critique that of 'liberal governmentality'.
> steve

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