Stephen Wright — Devising the Post-Capitalist Imaginary/A Device for the Post-Capitalist Imaginary

Image credit: Arne De Boever

The text below was initially presented at the “Algorithms, Infrastructures, Art, Curation” conference, organized by Arne De Boever and Dany Naierman, and hosted by the MA Aesthetics and Politics program (School of Critical Studies, California Institute of the Arts) and the West Hollywood Public Library.

The text is published here as part of a dossier including the lecture by Brian Holmes to which it was responding.

–Arne De Boever


by Stephen Wright

Above all, what I take away from Brian Holmes’s Cascadia project, and from the broad conceptual and affective setting that informs it — both nicely laid out in his user-friendly paper — is this: that we don’t so much lack a critique of capitalist globalization; we don’t even so much lack theories of communism; what we lack is a post-capitalist or post-globalization imaginary. We need, in other words — and those words will prove crucial in their own way — to experimentally implement full-scale (even if on a modest scale) devices to give embodiment to that imaginary. We need, that is, to devise a post-capitalist imaginary. And the good news is — at least, this is what I would like to be able to assert! — that this is precisely what his new projects on Bioregionalism put forth. But the reality is far more complex and it really does him no service to portray his critical cosmovision as incurably optimistic. Brian’s texts have always exuded a sense of pessimism, and delving deep into his findings over the course of detailed conversation where his critical edge is unchecked or unaccompanied by concrete experience of boots on the ground, one often feels that more critical knowledge in and of itself doesn’t lead to the heuristic elation one might expect; it sometimes feels more like backsliding into a wormhole — as if too much critical lucidity alone, or too much disembodied critical distance, occasions a kind of paralysis. This would be the sterility of critical theory for its own sake — fine for those of use who like that sort of thing, but not at all on a par with Brian’s demanding ethics of engagement.

Let me quickly but systematically unpack some of those remarks which I admittedly draw as much from my several decades long friendship (and occasional collaboration) with Brian as from the paper he has just presented.

When I first met Brian in Paris where he lived until 2008, he was a translator — he still is, in an expanded sense of course, but I mean in those days he was making a good living translating texts between one language and another. This obviously couldn’t last because, however one may learn by the more-than-intimate contact with the translated subject (I mean the internal merging with their perspective), one is inevitably frustrated by a kind of paradoxal algorithm of translation: the better the translation in a sense, the more one’s own subjectivity disappears.

So Brian began to inject his writing skills into political activism, working with groups on the fringe of art and activism in Barcelona, Paris, London and elsewhere, and working as a core member of collectives as different (and hard-hitting) as the conceptual design activist group Ne Pas Plier, the critical cartography collective Bureau d’études, or the post-operaist journal Multitudes, amongst many others. I’m saying this stuff not because I’m planning to write Brian’s Wikipedia page (which presumably already exists, I don’t know) but because I want to draw out what are the underlying ethics of his practice as it evolved over time.

Even as he was engaged in these collectives, another more ambitious but more personal investigative project was developing — in keeping with the rise of the continental trading blocks that were the jugulars of globalizing capitalism. In those years, Brian (and not only him) kept feeling like he was waking up on the wrong side of capitalism — no matter where on Earth he woke up! That graffitied slogan became the logo to the website Continental Drift, as the project came to be known. It was a staggeringly ambitious project, but simple in its conceit. As economic and financial power was usurped from sovereign states and concentrated on continental scales, then it was fair to assume that subjectivity was henceforth also being produced at that same macro- or mega- scale: NAFTA subjectification, EU subjectification, China-Japan-Korea subjectification. And Brian wanted to mobilize a critical analysis of the former to investigate the latter, and vice versa. So, Situationist style, Brian began to self-organize with a host of likeminded comrades and local informants, drifts across the continental subjectivity-production zones, in the Americas, Asia, etc. Rather than approach the macroeconomic and macropolitical exclusively on the level of critical analysis, he would do cartography with his feet. As if there were a need to feel, see, smell, hear — affect the affects — to keep things from being overwhelming.

Perhaps for this reason too — or perhaps another — Brian chose as his lens of predilection for these drifts (their subsequent restitution, but on the ground too) the most micro-configurations he could find: artworks. Artworks are perhaps the pithiest, the most affect-intense and knowledge-energized symbolic configurations there are, and from their material can be teased out any number of insights, to which they themselves are often partially blind. Actually, this is the only thing that redeems art at all; the only justification for an other unjustifiable pursuit (I mean that in a good way!).

Continental Drift was and was not an art project: it was an art usership project, not in any explicit way an artist-initiated endeavour.  But one can see all the methodology in germination of the current projects: the vertiginous confrontation of disparate scale, the paramount importance of clarity, the imperative to make territory palpable, pedestrian. Of Continental Drift one might say that although its ontology was not of art, its coefficient of art was already high.

It came as no surprise that it was often taken as art, though not performed as such. Brian had become as he wrote to me “una suerte de artista que sabe de libros”. When he finally did become an artist in 2015, it was less of a coming out — though with hindsight one can see a logic unfolding — than a tactical choice for a site of engagement. For this is what it has always been about: not the specificity of some mode of doing or being, but its compatibility with other modes of doing and becoming. More precisely, about social engagement. In his text, he writes, “One of the most important things that artists and intellectuals can do is to express and analyze the constituents, forms, desires and aims of a bioregional culture.” Importantly, there is no conceptual distinction between “artists and intellectuals”; maybe just a slight shift in focus.

Important too is the plural form. Brian didn’t spell it out in his text so I will (though it is abundantly implicit and should not really require emphasis): critical engagement of any kind cannot be done meaningfully alone; it is an inherently collective undertaking. That is the lesson of the avant-garde — the mutualization of competence and incompetence. Even the most strikingly original turn of phrase or analysis is never anything more than a collective enunciation in disguise. So people, work together! It’s at once the ways and means of devising the post-globalization imaginary…

After Continental Drift, after the exhaustion of globalization, Bioregionalism appears a logical deduction — though that is an illusion due as more to the clarity of Brian’s exposition than to the reality of it — since it remains, precisely, an imaginary to be built. That clarity of exposition may be the upshot of years of writing, but it also embodies a deep-seated ethical imperative — a commitment to popular education, the exigency to vulgariser and render accessible — the essence of Brian’s ethics of engagement, which could more simply be described as generosity.

Inseparable from this — and no less important, especially in this setting today — is the fact that all of these broad-scoped extradisciplinary investigations were done without any of the epistemic high-tailings and legitimation of academia. But they have all been informed — and Brian is inflexible on this — by a standard of rigor to which academia could rarely hold itself. We are talking about an emblematic instance of autonomous knowledge production — not the only one, to be sure, but one that is particularly exemplary. Like Continental Drift, we can look forward to finding in Bioregionalism a voracious appetite for theory and often dense analysis, crunched and if not quite digested, reformatted in reader- and user-friendly fashion. What a great way to practice theory! Make it palatable; make it palpable, make it useful.

For sure there’s something of the escapologist in Brian’s work: Escaping the Overcode (2009) was the title of his third and most comprehensive collection of essays; escaping epistemic and academic capture; escaping institutional framing; escaping ontological capture as “just art”. But the singular temporality that in each of those cases characterizes escapology is that escape precedes capture — indeed only from the perspective of power is capture primary. Escape is always already underway; we never know when people may choose to escape; but we can be sure that they already are — which is what renders power so paranoid — and provides such traction to embodied projects of devising a new imaginary, rather than merely falling back on the disengagement of critique.

A few years ago, my son Liam and I used to watch a mainstream TV show called Prisonbreak. It was a bit of a dudefest of a show, but beyond the action-packed episodes, there was something about the conceit that attracted my attention — and that in a way reminds me of Brian’s work. It’s the story of a man who wants to spring his brother from high-security prison, where he has been unjustifiably put by none other than a Wyoming-based vice president of the United States… So in order to orchestrate the escape, the protagonist first has to get into the prison himself, as a prisoner, and then use a sophisticated map of the super-max establishment to find the way out. The map, it turns out, is an incredibly detailed tattoo on his own body… This is the paradoxical and dialectical relation between the need to penetrate to the very core of the oppressive system, in order to embody the map out. On a wholly different scale with utterly different collaborators, but with a similar logic, this is the plan for Cascadia. Our bodies and practices as devices of the becoming bioregional imaginary.


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