The Great Karaoke Swindle

Let’s not long lament the death of the COMECON1, which came crashing down with the last statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky; it has been revived. And as always after a resurrection, the eternal reign of the Holy Spirit has begun: Contemporary western or westernized society (what we shall henceforth call the Integrated, short for the integrated global system) has recovered the COMECON’s carcass and, following a bit of sophisticated tuning, has readapted it to current demands. Although a single letter has been changed (COMICON)2, its scope of activities has been markedly enlarged. Let’s take a look at what its Visual Culture Department is up to.

The department oversees creating publicity and turning out discourse for a significant number of cultural productions. It is responsible for organizing countless events, from official kitsch to design kitsch via the tricky management of exoticism. This particular COMICON has no Moscow, but we shall not linger over network theory. The COMICON distributes tasks, value, means of production and distribution, audiences, and great amounts of theory for clarifying the frontiers. The COMICON is indeed what it is, a principle of economic organization for artistic production. Nevertheless, one of the most daunting and fundamental of tasks rests on the shoulders of its Department of Development and Research (DDR), a venue for innovation and a future guarantee of the cultural community for which the COMICON works. The DDR attends to art that in principle isn’t academic, kitsch, design, or exotic. It is the art of “malcontents.” “Political” art. “Socially engaged” art. Art that produces an elsewhere or positions itself with respect to that elsewhere. Elsewhere, because Greek is pretty; they called it utopia.

Why does the Integrated not only tolerate but produce (i.e., finance, support, and render visible) this “socially utopian” art? In France there is a state program called the Cultural One Percent, which entails setting aside one percent of the budget of a public works project for the production of a contemporary work of art. The COMICON does the same, reallocating a small sum of money to the DDR on behalf of the “Alternative One Percent.”

In terms of volume, the COMICON basically manages products in the visual arts that enjoy relatively wide distribution: new academic artists, watercolors, functional/decorative design, spectacular-cynical products, humanist-exotic works and their notional heritage (art as togetherness, art as bourgeois pop as opposed to the moronic pop of rogues, art as a lifestyle of the hip international class, art as a department of the self-referential luxury-goods industry for connoisseurs). No need to point out what this amusement park is good for. From the French cultural public policy version of the five-year plan to the competitive Hayekian laissez-faire of New York galleries, the heavy industry is revving its engine, peeling out, and racing off to spread oil stains on a tour of the world in 80 biennials. Once again, a question of tuning.

But just as champagne represents one percent of the world’s output of wine, the COMICON treats its luxury gray zone with great care, a DDR for neo-neo-neo critical art, or art that is committed, that confronts reality, that raises consciences, that produces dissensus. This critical art is also an economy of discourse, which is in turn a strategy for visibility and legitimacy. It is a particular place, the locus of Trotsky-chic, where the most apparently contradictory, yet integrated production proliferates. A course in Diskursethik every evening on Radio Glasnost.

Let’s debunk the myths about pure and/or accursed exteriority. There will be no debate on the COMICON’s exterior. One does not hold a discussion by oneself. Daddy Gilles D. and Uncle Michel F. were not selling Brazilian bracelets on the beaches of the Riviera. They earned their salt thanks to their integration into a true infrastructure of mental control, a Ministry of National Education, but not for Transnistria. The DDR is not interested in the Bada Dadas? Good. There will be no debate on the capacity of the Integrated to eat up everything. We know the statement: the experience of the contemporary climate is like watching a trader read What is Philosophy by Deleuze and Guattari on the subway. There will be no paranoid madness about conspiracy theory. When the group Bilderberg hires contemporary artists to give t’ai chi lessons, it respects labor laws. There will be no illusions about the value of cultural policies. French President Jacques Chirac on Bastille Day, 2006, said, “France has considerable cultural power, military power, and diplomatic power.”3 When can we expect the landing of the Curatorial Intervention Force of the Comikenta XII in Upper Karabakh?

There is but one plug-and-play axis of logic in the Integrated, and that is perestroika. It is a principle of permanent renovation, pacification through reform, a perpetual effort to take conflicts into account, an ingenious form of the solution industry that produces supply and demand. Nowadays the very basis for making demands of the Integrated’s protest movement is the question of third world debt. If this problem is not yet “solved” by the decision-making authorities of the Integrated, it is because numerous world leaders are 19th-century men, educated in the archaic model of the immediate preservation of privilege by (neo) crypto-conservatism. Nevertheless, the very spirit of the Integrated, perestroika, is indeed to annul the debt, to erase the all-too-obvious inequalities in order to maintain the fundamental ones. That is certainly the gospel of a socially responsible (utopian?) market, the market of perestroikists like the wise director of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, who, like Gorbachev, is bald, a socialist, a maverick partisan of sustainable development, and well informed about the workings of the particle accelerators of Catastroika. The USSR was a trial balloon; we now know how to save Africa. We need to tax humanitarian aid.

Even if its favorite pastime remains the reification/spectacularization of reality, capitalism, as everyone knows, very clearly needs antimatter — granted that antimatter is a commodity like any other. Even if perestroika is the Integrated’s tactical Wunderwaffe and glasnost supplies it with a great range of munitions, the spiritual firing pin is still missing. Let’s wager that it will be Utopia.

The U-Topia discourse is always the best sales technique for getting people to board the U-boat of voluntary servitude. Thomas More, creator of the first prototype, had managed to become not only a priest and lawyer, but also Lord Chancellor to the king and the posthumous patron saint of statesmen. “…In the world today there is ‘a growing awareness of the matchless dignity of the human person, who is superior to all else and whose rights and duties are universal and inviolable’… The life of Saint Thomas More clearly illustrates a fundamental truth of political ethics. The defense of the Church's freedom from unwarranted interference by the State is at the same time a defense, in the name of the primacy of conscience, of the individual's freedom vis-à-vis political power. Here we find the basic principle of every civil order consonant with human nature… I am confident therefore that the proclamation of the outstanding figure of Saint Thomas More as Patron of Statesmen and Politicians will redound to the good of society.”4

Utopia is the heavenly destination of the reformist travel warrant. In the days of modernity, a misunderstanding hoped to distinguish an altogether expeditious form from the reform that went by the name of Revolution. Let’s not be dupes. Utopia is the mirage at the end of the perestroika tunnel. Let’s not be dupes. There is nothing at the end of the tunnel.

For artists, insular Utopia is absolute independence. Concrete utopia is a bureaucratic post in the DDR, one that is relatively independent and comes complete with job security. The slip of the tongue that replaces independence with liberty is a frequent mistake in the dreams of self-made men.

In 1920, Charles Ponzi was probably dreaming of nothing else when he perfected his truffa, a principle of financial investment that was to make him one of the great avant-garde practitioners of the con game. The Ponzi scheme involves promising investors colossal returns in very little time. The promise draws a flood of capital through word of mouth. The fraud works by paying off the initial investors in the chain with the money of those coming after. Just when the chain is about to explode, the person who began the con takes a powder with all of the remaining investments.

Charles Ponzi’s start-up was of fundamental use to society. Penalized by the law that condemned the scheme’s originator to prison, it allowed society to draw the line between the principles of legal and illegal pyramid investments. To be precise, it validated financial speculation by defining for it a “bad other,” the financial confidence game, even if it is increasingly difficult to tell what differentiates a true investment from a Ponzi investment. Charles Ponzi is an integral part of a certain world, a social climate in which he has the chance to do his business: a world in which financial investment that is opaque — and this by necessity — exists altogether legally; in which it is not shocking to be caught up in a pyramid, since everything there is a pyramid; in which the societal demand for Ponzi’s supply is (in principle) materially and symbolically high. Because Ponzi is “in compliance,” he exists, functions, and is indirectly used by financial law. What formally separates a Ponzi from a financial investor is that the Ponzi invests in nothing other than his own capacity to rake in money on a rhetorical basis.

In its advanced forms, the Integrated obeys a contradictory, sadomasochistic logic in the true sense of the term: its pleasure is to inflict suffering on the one beating it by making him feel the impossibility of destroying it. Artistic modernity got caught up in a paradigmatic spiral of mithridatization. If it has disappeared, it is because the social climate became inured to its poisons. From now on, the Integrated along with its COMICON can “falsify all production as well as perception, [become] the undisputed master of memories just as it is the unchecked master of projects that shape the most distant future.”5 The projects that shape the most distant future? Now there’s a good definition of Utopia. Nowadays, the culture of the Integrated works like a junkie’s immune system. It seeks the threshold point, when the most extreme contradiction, the fiercest radical stance can still be assimilated, integrated, in compliance. The fascination with overdosing is proportional to its impossibility.

Société Réaliste, Paris, July 2006.

1 Council for Mutual Economic assistance (or COMECON), which existed from 1949 to 1991, was an economic organization of communist states and a kind of Eastern Bloc equivalent to the European Economic Community. >>> back
2 Council for Mutual & Integrated Economic Assistance. >>> back
3 Televised speech by the President of the French Republic, TF1, 14 July 2006. >>> back
4 Ioannes Paulus PP. II, Apostolic Letter Issued Motu Proprio Proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, 31.10.2000.
5 Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la Société du spectacle, 1988.