Felix Stalder (via video): For me, the critical question is really “What can we be critical of?” In terms of a critical discourse and art as a critical practice to have some meaning, you have to have this sphere in which opposites or opposing opinions meet; this classical public sphere. But increasingly, we organize our practice in communities. And communities are not so much organized around differences but around similarities. A lot of community building and community maintaining goes into affirming these similarities. So we can be critical of something that is outside of the community but increasingly we cannot be critical of something that is inside the community. That is no big deal if the community is okay but the community is not just the resource which we draw on, but also the audience to which we speak. So when we are jointly critical of something that is outside of the community, that does not really affect anyone because those on the outside will rarely hear it: after all, they belong to a different community, a different mindset, a different set of opinions. So what I am really interested in in terms of a critical practice are the bridges. It is the question of how we can translate knowledge or practice, or how can critical thinking that is developed within one community be made available to impact on other communities. Otherwise we will run into the danger of producing knowledge and critical practice just for ourselves. So how can we on the one hand use this idea of community, because that’s what we are stuck with now that the public sphere is about to disappear, or has already disappeared, and how can we draw on these resources without falling into the danger of just producing for ourselves and the people who like us and who are critical in the same way that we are critical, and thus reproduce a thousand solipsistic communities. How can we engage in something critical,
how can we engage in opposing opinions rather than just the people that are like us?
Konrad Becker: So are we all bound in these communities of self-fulfilling silliness or is there an option out?
Steve Kurtz: As we know, the heyday of community arts, and building communities, and organizing communities, was the early ’90s, and probably by ’96 or ’97 this fantasy concept of the community was pretty well discredited. I mean, community art, it has been kicked to death. Perhaps this was not the case everywhere, but to put it very simply, our answer was always, “Coalitions, not communities.” That has been understood for a long time, certainly pre- Seattle. And Seattle happened as it did, in part, because of that kind of slogan.
Claire Pentecost: I am wondering, when was there ever a public sphere? I don’t really know what we are talking about. There have been a lot of theories about the public sphere, Habermas etc., and there has also been also been a lot of talk about the disappearance of the public sphere, but I don’t really know what we are talking about and it seems to me there have only been intimate spheres, and there are still intimate spheres, and more significantly, there are aggregates of them.
Rene Gabri: I agree with what Claire said about this invocation. I don’t know if we only have intimate spheres and there is no public sphere, but I think that that remained a suspended question for me: what is this kind of notion of “a public”? And the other was the idea of community itself — of course especially in the last 15–20 years, even during the period that Steve was talking about, philosophically became a question to reconsider. What do we mean when we say “community”? But let’s say even if we accept everything Felix said, which was quite a limited idea of community, I still found a kind of problem because he was saying there is a problem that we have community, and a community are like-minded people. And then we have a hard time translating what we think to another group because we are like-minded and it’s very hard to externalize that. Whatever you say can’t even be heard by an outside. But then he comes to this response which is preaching to the choir, which always hurts me to hear as it is a popular notion among critical leftist thinkers or activists. Maybe we should think just for a second, “What if it was just the opposite of this and what if we need to not preach to the choir, but really interrogate the choir?” There was a potential of that within Felix’s talk. I think there is a place for reexamining your own “community” if we accept this idea of “community” and questioning it and being critical within it because the only part that he just assumed is that within these communities that are homogeneous, they all agree! And I think it’s important to take these places where there is agreement and not make them places of disagreement just for the sake of it, but also places to scrutinize and be critical. This is why I don’t like this idea of preaching to the choir because I think there is always room for improving and it’s not the only thing one can do. Sometimes this idea of preaching to the choir can be really problematic because it assumes too much common ground within the space you already inhabit. And I think it’s always important to not only not assume that, but be critical within a community.
Steve Kurtz: Well, there is quite a bit to say about this, especially in terms of defining communities. And community to my mind in a place like New York, in an urban center with such dense populations, is almost ridiculous. Such an extreme division of labor alone makes community in any kind of sociological sense impossible. I think Felix was using the term correctly, as something that is based on likeness, and exclusion, and tradition, and place — it tends to be a rather simple division of labor. We just don’t have it here. What we live in is society. It’s complex; it’s fragmented; it’s diverse. To try and construct sameness in such an environment is really difficult, and I agree with you, you can’t just preach to the choir. How do we do something pragmatically that will have a political impact? We are all probably fairly similar here, but I call this meeting “exchanging research and experience,” not “preaching to the choir,” nor do I see this as a project in the “public sphere.” I think we are trying to create a new kind of conversation among ourselves. The language of community, as I usually hear it, is something like, “the Black community”: I don’t know what that is. Or, “the intelligence community,” or “the law enforcement community.” These are singular points of identity that are little more than social aggregates — an abstract census category. They have nothing to do with social relations.
Claire Pentecost: But I think also, at least now, we can only guess what it used to be like in the kind of Gemeinschaft/ Gesellschaft differentiation of community and society, but for now, communities are always imaginary. It’s something we figure in our minds and between each other; either someone else is figuring it and we think that it’s a misrecognition or we have a feeling for it and we don’t really know how to define it but we work toward actualizing it. I’ve also heard a critique of the breakdown of centralized media and the rise of the internet: Farhad Manjoo typifies this critique which says that what the internet has enabled now is basically that people only go to the news that conforms their beliefs and that people don’t look at anything that challenges their beliefs; that’s an upshot of his argument. I’d like to know what people think about this, because it is certainly not what we used to have. We had this engineering of consent by three major networks and a few papers of record and then a lot of smaller media outlets, and now we have a whole proliferation of sources which seems to me still better, it still has more possibilities for diversity and of the kind of contestation that produces different kinds of understandings.
Konrad Becker: I’m kind of glad that you said this. Felix is not here to speak for himself, so I feel somewhat inclined to defend him. For those who don’t know, he is certainly not one of those who have of this naïve kind of community concept. The use of the term refers to what Claire was saying very much. Together, we are also doing this research on information retrieval and the Googlization of everyday life. On how on that level people just keep within certain channels and it basically creates this situation of self-enforcing tribal silliness in very complex digital ways. Felix is certainly aware of this critique that Steve was just making about communities.
Jim Fleming: We have another little prepared digital film clip in the can — the last one here is by the cultural critic Brian Holmes, who we asked to weigh in on the issues of the day. He gave us this clip.
Brian Holmes (via video): Open border, open societies, open systems. After 1989, Neoliberalism became a utopia for hundreds of millions of people. What we call “tactical media” was its form of critical optimism. If over-identification was a great artistic technique at that time it’s because it allowed you to affirm Neocapitalism while critiquing it. I think that utopia is totally over. The worst thing you can do is that you cling to a dead utopia. Donald Rumsfeld completed and finished the over-identification with the excesses of Neoliberal power. The critical challenge of today is the “unknown knowns”: Reasons why people continue to believe in truths and ideals that have been proven over and over again to be totally damaging and false. Why do they believe, why do we believe? The artistic challenge now is that we have to convince ourselves that another future is imaginable.
Konrad Becker: So Brian says that hopefully “another future is imaginable,” but that the neoliberal utopia is definitely over, and that we should not bind ourselves to it in any way. It was actually fascinating that this Neoliberal belief system could be created so effectively. How could so many people so deeply believe in such a cheap set of notexisting theorems?
Ayreen Anastas: I think, Brian is one of the people who has commented on this earlier — that basically they had an agenda. It is a constructivist project — it is not by chance that people believe in this Neoliberalism, as the whole ideology is built up in institutions like schools, etc.
Claire Pentecost: It goes back at least to the Thirties, in response to the New Deal. PR people like Edward Bernays actually made a campaign to link democracy and freedom with business, and the New York World’s Fair in 1939 was very much about that. A campaign to convince us that capitalism is actually identical with everything American. This was not always so in the understanding of the general populace. But Brian also said: over-identification is over. I think he is responding to that artistic strategy that Žižek called over-identification which has been applied to groups like The Yes Men, which is to inhabit completely the figures of power and say back to them and whoever is listening “Go even further in order to expose the barbarism we live by!” I think what he was saying is that, the strategy of exposure is exhausted, and in fact the challenge is more to try to imagine a different future.
Ted Byfield: When was this mystical, magical America ever dissociated from commercial venture? The history of America is inseparably bound up with corporate history. So, on one level, the question is mainly one of historical description: what happened in the Thirties, in the wake of World War II, with the rise of national television as a prominent feature in everyone’s household, with the rise of the internet? There been quite bit of emphasis on 1968, but Ken brought up the minor issue of 1989. There are many other such dates. I’m not at all suggesting that these moments or transformations, like the development of “media,” aren’t significant — on the contrary, they’re extremely significant. One of my students recently made an argument, based on a very surprising source, that bubbles have become the norm, and that the interstitial periods between them are the awkward moments…. But it’s crucial that we separate the actual changes from tactical possibilities. One premise of this conference is the recent financial crisis, but it’s hardly the first, even in recent memory.