Bernard Stiegler

The Age of De-proletarianisation


Excerpt taken from “The Age of De-Proletarianisation: Art and Teaching in Post-Consumerist Culture” translated by Daniel Ross.

In the passage from Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) to Fountain (1917), Marcel Duchamp makes a leap from one type of technical reproducibility to another. It is a leap from the technical reproducibility of photography and chronophotography – that is, not only Muybridge and Marey but also cinema, a type of reproducibility that also makes possible the implementation of the Taylorist scientific organisation of labour and the assembly line – to another type of reproducibility that enables the mass production of “readymade” objects. Mass production that results in the establishment of consumerist society, the costs of which eventually reveal themselves as the accumulation of waste.

In the passage from Nude Descending a Staircase to Fountain, between 1912 and 1917, Duchamp inscribed the figure of his an-artistic becoming on the ground of general proletarianisation, that is, in the context of a general loss of knowledge which was then beginning to reveal itself. With general proletarianisation, human knowledge is short-circuited as a result of its technological reproduction and implementation, leading, after the Second World War (which is the time of Duchamp strictly speaking), to the globalisation of the consumerist model. In the consumerist model it is not only the know-how (savoir-faire) of workers that becomes obsolete, but also the knowledge of how to live (savoir-vivre) of citizens, who thus become as such mere consumers: a good consumer is both utterly passive and irresponsible, the complete opposite of what Kant and Enlightenment philosophy in general called maturity, that is, the citizen insofar as he or she attains rationality – in particular, according to Kant, through his or her knowledge of reading and writing.

The economic crisis of 2008 continues to reveal the global toxicity of a system that now extends across the entire planet. At the same time, a digital network is unfolding that engenders new processes of psychic and collective individuation, that is, new ways of being, new forms of knowledge, and new social relations. In this context, the question of a post-consumerist art and of a new social connectivity, regional as well as global, but de-territorialising as well as territorialising, becomes a crucial issue for the artistic world as well as for political economy. The issue raised by this enormous dissemination of digital cultural technologies is the need for a far-reaching process of de-proletarianisation, that is, the recovery of knowledge of all kinds.

There is currently much discussion about developing a “creative economy”, based on the model of “clusters” as first conceived in North America, especially in California, on the basis of analyses undertaken by John Howkins and Richard Florida. The notion of the creative economy, which rests above all on the idea that value and wealth are generated more than anything from ideas, may be incontestable as far as it goes. Be that as it may, this valorisation of ideas, the affirmation of this wealth that is the mind or spirit and its creativity seems to call for the de-proletarianisation referred to above. And yet this is not at all the case – and we must even conclude that the idea of the creative economy in reality derives from an opposing point of view: the creative economy model in fact further aggravates the calamitous situation to which general proletarianisation leads, because it aims to further entrench the situation established by consumerism when it created the mass media – that is, when it created what is known as the “culture industry”. (It is thus worth remembering that John Howkins spent a large part of his career working for television, notably for Time Warner.)

Consumerism liquidates the desires of individuals: the development of consumerism depended upon short-circuiting the social systems that transform the drives into desire, that is, into fidelity. The transformation of the drives into desire constitutes what Lyotard called a “libidinal economy” – for example, the early mother/child relation as described by Donald Winnicott, within which the transitional object appears that, for Winnicott, is the matrix of all those adult forms of play that are the arts, sciences and all the activities of social sublimation and individual investment in the collective. Consumerism has short-circuited the educative role of parents, through which the primary identification that constitutes the condition of the formation of the ego ideal of the ego and the superego is produced, and has, too, short-circuited national education, which enables secondary identification processes to be bound to idealised figures of knowledge and to the disciplines of the spirit.

It is in this way that consumerism, destroying the libido, becomes drive-based – the destruction of the libido means it is no longer capable of binding the drives. Consumerism tries to bind consumers and make them submit by producing dependence, that is, addiction – as was recently thematised at the Nantes CHU (Centre hospitalier universitaire) by Jean-Luc Vénisse and his team at the laboratory of addictology. And it was with the aim of fostering this dependence from the first months of life that Fox TV created the Baby First channel.

Approached from this angle, the creative economy appears to constitute a new ideological apparatus for producing cultural hegemony more than it promises some new age of the industrial world. What the creative economy model really proposes is a method for resuscitating the ever-weakening desire of consumers, by drawing together marketing and artistic creation to produce a kind of social Viagra. All this has little relation to the project of raising the general level of ideas, or of re-engaging the life of the spirit, which is the condition for any reconstitution of responsibility; this condition being itself, in turn, and according to all evidence, the necessary condition that would enable the world to forge for itself a new future.

In the end, this model is not only hyperconsumerist but also profoundly segregationist: it proposes in principle that, faced with a colossal mass of incurably herdish consumers, those few who remain “creative” must be penned together inside golden ghettoes designed to encourage their mutual stimulation, as if such “creative” types can no longer be stimulated – in earlier days one would have said inspired – by the everyday world of ordinary people, this everydayness that creativity always trans-figures into something improbable, that is, into something singular and as such extra-ordinary. This creative trans-figuration departs from everydayness both because, on the one hand, it arises from everydayness (referring here to everydayness in the sense in which Deleuze also speaks of immanence), and because, on the other hand, it rises up from everydayness so that it is above the everyday yet within the everyday, that is, it places the everyday into relief: elevation not as a “transcendence within immanence”, as we are tempted to say with phenomenology, but as a singularity that suddenly bursts forth as the infinity and salience of meaning and significance from within everything that seems level, flat and finite, that is, entropic, lacking perspective.

This trans-formation or trans-figuration of the ordinary into the extra-ordinary is not limited to the case of art: it is also found, for example, when Roland Barthes writes about the mythologies of what in his time (the 1950s) was still referred to as modernity. This elevation of the extraordinary from the ordinary is what Gilbert Simondon described as the tendency to ascend and the desire to climb to what he called a “key-point”:

Ascent, exploration, and more generally all pioneering gestures, consist in adhering to key-points that nature presents. To climb a slope towards the summit is to head toward the privileged place that commands the entire massif, not in order to dominate or possess it, but in order to exchange with it a relation of friendship.

The creative economy is the opposite of this conception of the creativity of the ordinary (or the everyday) and within the ordinary as the accessing of its extra-ordinariness, a conception that I believe characterises the artistic experience, particularly since the advent of modernity. It is a conception that can be recognised both when Baudelaire views the paintings of Constantin Guys, and in Manet – that Manet who is thought to be the model for the character of Elstir in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – a narrative that has plenty to say about the extraordinary becoming ordinary in a world that now belongs to the Verdurins, those whom Hölderlin or Nietzsche or Arendt would have called philistines; a narrative that is therefore a search, a search for other key-points, and a work that was composed during the precise period from Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase to Fountain.

And yet, if the ideology of the creative economy has today become so successful, not only ideologically but in terms of economic and urban organisation, it is because it also rests on a systematic exploitation of that new digital network, both territorial and de-territorialising, that characterises our epoch – and of which Facebook is an outcome, both astonishing and poor. As such, plans to constitute creative regions are very interesting and important. And this is the most interesting aspect of the current project to create a “creativity quarter” on the Île de Nantes. It seems this creativity quarter is to include some unusual architecture, architecture that to me seems somewhat to anticipate its own ruin, similar in a way to the ruin that Hubert Robert projected onto the Louvre.

Be that as it may, a project such as this, of turning a region (even if it begins with a city or indeed from an isle within this city) into a territory devoted to creativity, only makes sense on the condition that this territory becomes an avant-garde territory – on the condition that it rediscovers the question of the avant-garde. It is in this way, then, that I understand the potential of creative territories: as the possibility of an avant-garde territory, that is, an area capable of inventing a new cultural, social, economic and political model, of offering prefigurations of alternative “lines of flight” to those of a consumerist society that has now reached exhaustion.

Posted: January 2020
Category: Essays