Quite often when I read mainstream American social science, especially of the “quantoid” variety, I’m reminded as to how much I appreciate literature. While acknowledging the importance of objective data collection and analysis in distinguishing social facts from all-too-fallible everyday perceptions, I also can’t help thinking that deeper, perhaps more significant meaning goes missing in the process. This occurred to me again recently as I perused the latest issue of the zine called Stupor, which for more than 15 years has surveyed the inner terrains of the shell-shocked victims of the class war known as neoliberalism.
Stupor was started in New Orleans in the spring of 1995 by writer and construction-business sole proprietor Steve Hughes and his friend Bill Rohde. It was originally supposed to be a vehicle for authors to publish experimental, confessional material. Not longer after, Hughes relocated to Hamtramck, Michigan, a mostly Eastern European enclave almost completely surrounded by the city of Detroit and once home to the now-demolished Dodge Main Plant, a massive automotive manufacturing facility that competed with Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex as a paragon of vertically integrated mass production.
With the move, came the conversion of Stupor into Hughes’s solo project. Instead of publishing stories written by others, he began writing all of the stories himself, using anecdotes he collected from people he met or conversations he overheard in working-class bars, construction worksites, and elsewhere he came upon people talking.
As is typical of the genre, the early issues of Stupor are crude cut-and-paste affairs, produced in small quantities using one-color quick-printers and extremely low budgets. (According to the “History” section of the zine’s website, the first four issues of 1000 each were all published for the cost of two cases of beer.) With experience and the capabilities afforded by newer improvements in desktop publishing technology, the production values have been raised somewhat, but not to the level where one would call them slick. More recent issues have been done in collaboration with visual artists who interact with the author to create thematic mashups of image and text, form and content. . . .
Read more: Washed in Dirt: Steve Hughes’s Stupor
I am often accused of being an optimist. I write “accused” because I take it as a mistaken characterization. I think it suggests that I am naïve and unrealistic. And as it happens, I don’t think I am naïve or unrealistic, and don’t feel particularly optimistic. I actually have a rather dark view of the human prospect, one of the reasons I am more conservative than many of my friends and colleagues. That said, I do know why people think I am an optimist. It is because I understand my intellectual challenge to be to find the silver lining within the clouds, to try to find ways in which it may be possible (even if unlikely) to avoid the worst. Thus, my study of the politics of small things, which started with the proposition that after 9/11 “it hurts to think,” and also thus, my investigation in my new book of the possibility of “reinventing political culture,” showing that political culture is not only an inheritance that constrains possibility, but also one that provides resources for creativity and change.
In Reinventing Political Culture, I make two moves: I reinvent the concept of political culture and I study the practical project of reinventing political culture in different locations: Central Europe, the Middle East and North America. I plan to use the book to structure a deliberately considered debate early in the new year. At this year’s end, I thought I would highlight some past posts which examine the power of culture and the way I understand it pitted against the culture of power, which also exemplify the course we have taken this year at Deliberately Considered and a road we will explore next year.
First, there is the link between small things and the power of culture. In a small corner of Damascus we observed people creating an autonomous world for poetry. Clearly the present revolution there is not the result of such activity, though it did anticipate change. But I think such cultural work makes it more likely that the post authoritarian situation will . . .
Read more: Hope against Hopelessness for the New Year
In a recent contribution to the Huffington Post, author and community organizer Yusef Bunchy Shakur and co-author Jenny Lee write: “Detroit is modeling life after capitalism.” One of the ways this is happening is through the work of artists who are helping to envision what that life might look like. These artists are constructing what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls an “aesthetic community.”
The aesthetic community of Detroit is more than simply a collection of artists and other creative types working in the same location. It’s a community of sense, as Ranciere expresses it, which operates on three levels.
The three senses of aesthetic community:
The first level of aesthetic community is a certain combination of sense data — materials, forms, spaces, etc. — that constitute the work. In particular in Detroit, this often consists of using recycled castoff materials, adopting makeshift techniques for fashioning them into artistic expressions, and doing so in locations that have been abandoned or otherwise marked by neglect. The notion of aesthetic community at this level comprises what Ranciere terms a “regime of conjunction,” that is, a bringing together of disparate elements into a meaningful whole.
The second level opens up a tension between this regime of conjunction and what Ranciere terms the “regime of disjunction.” The latter can be understood as the way the work points to that which is absent, specifically in the case of Detroit the sense of community dislocated as a result of the ravages of capitalism, the lack that registers the social, economic, and political deracination whose residue is emphatically apparent in the postindustrial wasteland of Detroit.
This aspect of aesthetic community is not the same as what another French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, terms the “inoperative community,” the longing for the original idea of community that was lost or broken in the transition to modernity, the dialectic of what sociologists term Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. That’s about Romantic nostalgia, the province essentially of so-called “ruin porn.” Instead, it’s what enables the third level of aesthetic community to . . .
Read more: Aesthetic Community in Detroit
In recent posts, Vince Carducci examining the urban environment in terms of psychogeography, derive and detournment, and the gift and potlatch, explored the art of Detroit, the city at the epicenter of Fordism and ground zero of post – Fordist devastation. While I think his inquiry is illuminating, showing art playing an important role in democratic society, I am skeptical about his political utopianism, as he stands on the shoulders of Marx and the Situationists and Ken Wark’s account of them. I don’t think that the full power of the artwork is captured as a critique of capitalism or that the full political significance of the work is in its message. We disagree, once again, on art as propaganda and how art becomes politically significant.
Artwork, and the world it creates when appreciated, is, in my judgment, more important than context. The art, its independent domain, is where the action is, which is then related to a variety of different contexts. To be sure, Carducci shows how this works. Detroit artists don’t only speak to each other, creating work that communicates for themselves and their immediate audience. They speak to the de-industrializing world, providing insights, suggesting an alternative way of living. But this can work in many different ways, not necessarily tied to political programs of the left or the right or the center.
Take an example drawn from two past posts: Ivo Andric novelistic depiction of The Bridge on the Drina inspired Elzbieta Matynia to reflect on the way that bridge, connecting Serbia and Bosnia, provided a space for interaction between people from elsewhere, at the kapia, the public square on the bridge, enabling civility. Her account, in turn, inspired me to reflect upon the bridges I observe on my daily run through the public park that was the Rockefeller estate, and provided me with critical perspective for thinking about the . . .
Read more: In Review: Democracy and Art for Art Sake (Without Elitism)
This post continues the analysis begun in Part I of this series, relating art in Detroit to concepts of the Situationist International. Part I provides an introduction and discussion of the concept of psychogeography. Part II discusses the concepts of derive and detournment. The final part, part III, looks at the gift and potlatch.
A second Situationist concept relevant to a discussion of the art of the commons in Detroit is derive, typically rendered in English as “drift,” the practice of meandering, unpredictable explorations of an environment in which its psychogeographic characteristics are exposed. The artist Scott Hocking has been exploring the nether regions of the erstwhile Motor City for more than a decade. In addition to sculptural installations that respond to the physical environment, the artist has recorded his perambulations in a series of documentary photographs organized under topics such as “bad” grafitti, abandoned boats and other vehicles, and present-day locations that were once sites of ancient burial mounds. As Debord notes in “Theory of Derive,” derive isn’t an entirely aimless pursuit, but one driven by an awareness of psychogeographical effects. One of Hocking’s more noteworthy derives is Detroit Love (2007-present).
The project is a miscellany of picturesque images of scenes around the city, moments in place and time that reveal the artist’s emotional connection with the environs. The images are often tinged with irony, capturing residues of the collective memory slipping away. Others show the persistence of the life force amidst the ruins. Among the former are Grand Army of the Republic, a head-on view of a Romanesque structure, built in 1899 originally for the Civil War veterans of the Union Army. Shortly before the last vet died in the early 1940s, the City of Detroit took over management of the building, using it as a social services and community center until closing it permanently . . .
Read more: Beneath the Pavement, the Beach! — Detroit from a Situationist Perspective, Part II
In reading and reviewing McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, I couldn’t help but think about the practice of art in the city of Detroit. Wark’s title refers to the Situationist idea of deconstructing the process by which nature has come to be overwritten by culture particularly in the urban environment. This in part entails the recognition that:
“The conceit of private property is that it is something fixed, eternal. Once it comes into existence it remains, passed in an unbroken chain of ownership from one title-holder to the next. Yet in the course of time whole cities really do disappear. We live among the ruins. We later cities know that cities are mortal.” (29, emphasis added)
In the case of Detroit “the course of time” has progressed rather quickly, basically with the onset of post-Fordism in the early 1970s, though some commentaries rightly see the seeds as having been planted in the suburbanization of the region that began soon after the Second World War. This reversal of the conceit of private property provides the basis for what I have called the art of the commons, art that is neither public nor private but that exists in a space in between. And many of the practices that comprise this work have something in common with what Wark tells us about the Situationists. In this post, I will reflect on the Situationist understanding of psychogeography as it appears in Detroit art work. Part II will similarly examine derive and detounement and part III will analyze the gift and potlatch.
In the “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” the Situationist theorist Guy Debord writes that psychogeography concerns the study of “specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviors of individuals.” One of the more well-recognized mappings of the ghost world of Detroit is the one undertaken by Tyree Guyton on the city’s East Side in the form of the Read more: Beneath the Pavement, the Beach! — Detroit Art from a Situationist Perspective, Part I
Vince Carducci blogs about art and other aspects of culture in Detroit at Motown Review of Art. He has also written for Artforum, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other publications.
On January 3, the online culture news service Flavorwire ran an item on a new book of photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre titled “The Ruins of Detroit.” Marchand and Meffre are French photographers who worked in the city over the last year or so as part of Time magazine’s “Assignment Detroit” in which a cadre of journalists took up local residence and reported on what they discovered. Detroit has long been a poster child for urban disinvestment and Marchand and Meffre discovered plenty of evidence of it.
The genre Marchand and Meffre mine is known locally as “ruin porn” and artists of all media here have been ruminating on the city’s gradual return to the state of nature for decades. (For a couple of the more interesting examples, see the work of Scott Hocking and the blog of painter Stephen Magsig “Postcards from Detroit.”) But while the city”s deliquescence holds an admittedly romantic allure, there is another potentially more fertile tendency emerging that I’ve come to call “the art of the commons.”
The art of commons has sprouted up in spaces created by the erasure of the distinction between public and private as part of the city’s wholesale abandonment over the last forty years — there are upwards of 80,000 vacant buildings and lots in Detroit and the population is less than half the postwar peak of approximately 1.9 million. Artists and other social entrepreneurs are using this preternatural environment to rethink notions of community and the role of art and other aspects of culture.
Perhaps the most well known is The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by Tyree Guyton. Working with his grandfather Sam Mackey, Guyton began cleaning up vacant lots in his neighborhood and used the castoffs collected to create dozens of outdoor art installations. As with other examples . . .
Read more: Detroit & the Art of the Commons