Apparatheid: Ideological Apparatus as Art Form & Media
Originally written in 2012.
Consider the following proposition: The Highest Form of Artist is God/the State/Capital.
This essay will present a way of understanding the apparatus of a medium as its main meaning-making loci in contemporary art and politics. In doing so I will also attempt to define a struggle in what these “apparati”, enmeshed in social and civil life, may represent or enable (as actual consequence) according to current political hegemony. I foresee a near-future conflict arising from the intensifying (partly) desire and (partly) “push” to activate citizens in civil life and daily undertakings by way of objects, often ideologically complicit in upholding certain world-views. Modern commercial-industrial design and “radical arts practice” can thus begin to confront each other, critically examining issues of democratic participation happening in their objects. Ideological objects are being produced at a rate which far exceeds that of other times, and they are created with an elegance and discipline that is truly new. In a time where “mental disciplines” such as psychology, psychiatry, neuro-sciences, cognitive sciences et cetera are all gaining history and perspective respectively, and their knowledge-domains are put to task in the making of ideological objects, it makes sense to be cautious of their collaboration with capitalism. It should not necessitate remark, but there is most often no real exercise of force in an object. What it does instead is relate a psychological space in which some actions may be undesirable/impossible and others are deemed as the “right” ones. At root this is not a new issue, but my argument is that it is fast becoming the center-piece in contemporary society’s proliferation of high-technology and devices, in short, interfaced technologies. Their methodologies of becoming (creation, design, production) is valid also in perceiving classical forms of art-making.
The Human Unit
First we should understand that there are several layers of problematics and divergences occuring in any discussion of how objects exist, are created or imbued with meaning and in the greater ecology of psychology, politics, law and other fields. Especially uncomfortable becomes the question of an emancipatory quality and how to reach it. If one knows the mystical way to freedom, what are we freed from? It’s suggestive to answer “slavery” here, but I am both more devious in my scheme and more modest. What I propose emancipation from, is an oncoming era that will integrate a deeply externalized mode of existence into our current hegemony of Capital. This new era, that of apparatheid, is a natural extension of recent developments — surveillance, modern warfare, culture of fear, permanent discrediting of political alternatives — and is also one that ties in organically into the business model thinking of the politico-economical machinery. A long-standing battle in political thinking surrounds the concept of the individual. It stands to reason that every person might be affected or “changed” by others, and by external stimuli. In an ironic twist of massive proportions, capitalists are both paying fortunes for advertising campaigns and brain research, but claim that every man is his own island. It’s high time to deny this falsity by accepting the changing nature of the human being:
Humans are similar to clay — malleable, possible to change by force, willful or subversive — and Ideology is the fire that makes us hardened porcelain — beautifully uniform but easy to break completely, impossible to piece together, forever fragmented.
To search for how we become affected by objects (the intra-personal is not part of this essay) we should look beyond representation and more on the actual forms of media. One recalls McLuhan’s statement that the “medium is the message”1 which we will expand to the extreme end of an object directly shaping ideological percepts by its very existence and form. As humans, we make things that may show who we are, what we think, what we’d like to make easier or how we want to let others do something. Every man-made object (concrete or conceptual — no difference) is a “knowledge” or trajectory which begins and ends in its own history of discourse, and within its mental constructions and limits and possibilities. The object is being mass-produced or otherwise inheriting from a disciplined form: a painting draws influence from endless similar (formal) objects, the television format somewhat dictated by broadcast standards but resembling photography. The knowledge is the understanding that informs the shape of the particular instance, directing attention at that towards which it travels. Individually they exist like instances: as discrete objects. Objects are in no way only material in the physical realm: spaces and other mental materials are likewise materials used in creating the spectrum of affordances in the object.
Consider the school teacher’s pointing stick: produced in a factory according to some informed decisions concerning length, circumference, material, color et cetera. The stick, wielded in the classroom — a physical space indeed, but mental in that it enforces submission — is lashing through the air, pointing, directing, ordering. As a tool, one first ignores the stick, simply following its motions, but soon one understands its true significance as being that of making us pay attention. One might also add that it creates a fear of physical violence without ever necessarily being made to us. Similarly we must turn attention to the act of manufacturing the very stick itself, becoming stick makers and not sign-readers, in order to gain the power to order and direct. For the current regime (the hegemony) the individual — the human unit — is the highest valued asset. Being a “user” is being an object-user as much as a user of the state (nevermind the devious implication of being a drug user).
As Gilles Deleuze writes, we are moving to a society of control from the older discipline-based society. Its most pervasive change may be how in the previous society, the forming of the citizen happened in “[en]nclosures” which are molds, distinct castings (and thus large, institutional — the State) and in the new society controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.2 This marks a remarkable change in how the human subject is seen.
Creating the Subject
Politics is that which is “belonging to the State”3. In daily life, politics are the continuous formulation of sets of laws and regulations that enforce certain relationships between the citizen-subject and its greater context: the polity or the state. This is its connection to policy: any idea which is formulated into state policy with intended effects — real or proposed — on a society.
There is practically no art that is outside the political sphere, so the maker of an object (again, conceptual or physical makes no difference) creates objects relating to those structures, even if very vaguely. That is not to say that any and every thing is politicized, but rather that it presupposes some view of the work’s relation and functioning in the world and that it has some stance toward the spectator, in effect the artwork also creates an implicit subject. The subject is the most important factor in politics, since that is what is being politically engaged with.4
The most pervasive level of control is the hegemony, drawing slightly on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony5 (the complete overriding power of one culture). In the Western/Northern countries neo-liberal capitalism is likely the best candidate for the role of our current hegemony. Hegemony is the distillation of numerous ideologies into a coherent grand narrative or weltanschauung (world-view). It is what forms a culture or nation or even transnational positioning. Their power comes through the use of firstly large-scale apparatuses like institutions, but also through the reification inherent in material objects and spaces.
An object (or art-work) can be both entirely automatic or conceptual but still retains the quality of being made and set apart to create a position to be seen from. That is how art is external even if shaped as being bodily, momentary or imagined.
Let us think of examples of this intertwining of object-creation and its subjectification. A road allows movement in either direction, but legislation makes it practically criminal to use it on foot or with vehicles other than cars, ergo, it is an indicator of freedom but only within certain conditions.
The buddhist monk with his rice bowl is placed in a situation of asceticism and the need for others to donate food6. The bowl-object is in a vital relationship with its owner as it directly enforces a certain life-world upon the monk. Think also of avatar-based games: every avatar is only ever allowed a certain degree of freedom and flexibility in the world. Very little is actually possible to do and few reactions will thus be had to any action made; a cycle of teleological determinism is enacted.7
Software suffers bias as it is always based on a “metaphor”, using staples such as the window, the desktop or the trashbin, all obviously having little direct connection to the computer and its life-world. This in turn leads to the you-being-this-or-that effect: While digital imagery is wildly different than its analog counterpart, programs like Photoshop still use a rhetorical platform directly connected to a paradigm of darkroom techniques to reproduce similar effects. Using it, you are a darkroom operator. Making music on a computer, you use music-creation programs. Most of these build on traditional, note-based and linear composition: You become a composer. However, new modes of thinking are opening up, allowing for new possibilities: Ableton Live8 allows loop-based or segmented music creation and Max MSP9 enables entirely custom-built interfaces and audio programming on the signal input and output levels entirely bypassing any “natural” or standardized (instrument-based) way of making music. Because applications as these are production tools their output becomes doubly important as new processes and media are enabled where previously none existed.
The artist opens possibilities for affect and/or reflection by working with any number of forms and media to accomplish the aesthetic communication (s)he has in mind. In a world full of ideological objects, the artist navigates equally among them all, commercial and art-world-relating, because all of them create a view to something new or old, but always Other. In the above example of music-creation programs, previously non-linear music could not be made. In a consumer society it is said that the consumer gets what he can ask for, so the “unthinkable” can never be had when no one will not (or cannot) speculate nor redefine desire. Orwell’s10 newspeak and indeterminate wars are not so much elements of dystopian fantasy as they are on a current sliding scale with the “liquid truths” of capital: “It has always been so”. Therefore making the “unthinkable” thinkable is the goal of the artist or object-maker in general.
God, State, Capital
Why God, the State or Capital as the “highest” form of an artist? Because their function has been precisely, and only, to order inventories of material and human resources and to create conditions for existence and circulation within it. One could see them as the highest level of instrumentalized civilization, setting up a top-tier horizon showing the very limits of social (im)possibility. As such they are this far the only concepts that have exercised the kind of power needed to singularly legislate laws, punish and discipline: they are the only ones able to create hegemony. From the perspective of the State — or (to some extent) the artist working from this dizzying level — one is already creating meta-narratives for Subjects. Recall Louis Althusser’s interpellation metaphor11 of the police officer: “Hey! You there!”. You are the one he calls for, you are “it” and you lose the game of anonymity and privateness when you look the officer in the eyes and acknowledge his power over yourself.
Something like Facebook acts on our desire to express our views, show ourselves and to some extent over-emphasize our positive sides. “Social” media makes it possible to create a persona, an external entity. Furthermore there is the problematic issue of self-censorship, voyeurism and control-patterns that occur when larger amounts of personal information becomes public. Yet again, we have a problem in that these media-outlets are pervasive and general purpose, basically creating a “templated mind” into which users try to flexibly expand what the objects/tools/interfaces can allow.12
Other similar concepts, like gamification — the application of game-like structures on life activities — give extrinsic, direct rewards like compliments, badges or points when we are doing things like shopping, exercising or saving electricity. They are entirely complicit in positioning and directing efforts by people to certain activities, negative or positive. Herein lies also the yet-untapped power of physicality, social interplay and play. It is also the first opt-in gateway into ordering “real” subjects in real space, outside of the previous hegemonies. How these will interact over time is still uncertain. Where art, design and object-making becomes extremely socially difficult is in its wide-spread use in depoliticized populaces, letting social media, as just one example, become the mouthpiece rather than by way of direct politics. We may use more channels to express ourselves, but ultimately they mean essentially nothing in practical terms. One might call this the logical end of representational democracy: you create an external entity-avatar to bring forth your opinion, a purely symbolic relation.
With the evolution of objects that are this complex, they move into the troubled realm of a perverted, “magical” Capitalism13, and even sometimes, direct usefulness — for example with the advent of industrial design — it is no longer sufficient to deal only with content or surface qualities, especially when it is already established that Hegemony is using media in this expanded sense. See for example unmanned drones14, the iPhone15 or pervasive CCTV16 or even the bizarre hybrid of all three, the smartphone drone17. It should come as no surprise that Hegemony has a stake in producing space(s) but also collecting materials from them, indefinitely.
The capacity to hijack or critically construct (art) objects comes from the understanding that there is total equality between objects in these three paradigms: the Sacred/Iconic of religion; the Sanctioned of states; the fetishized commodity in capitalism. The essential raison d’être of these objects is in their role as supporting Hegemony.
3. Ordering the Real
Finally, again consider the proposition: The Highest Form of Artist is God/the State/Capital. Set outside the wrapping-paper of content and illusionistic mind-games, the peak-form of this abstract language which art is will be found in the staging of society, with all its little people and pawns, door mats, kitchen utensils, Gods, waterfalls and plastic recyclable bottles. If art is truly the act of staging a Subject (the “you”, or “I”) in relation to something external with whatever pre-conditions and variables that may apply — the artwork as being foreign or positioned somehow — then the movements, oscillations and forms of its constituent parts will be nothing less than the most complex construct of possibility ever conceived of. Except that the tools at the disposal of these Hegemonies are unparallelled in complexity and span, being able to order the Real itself and not merely the Representation of it.
In the beginning of this essay I asked what emancipation might mean in relation to ideological objects. Let’s restate the being of an object: every object including its ideology is a knowledge, a thinking, a voice, a being, a trajectory: thinking becoming material. Because we make things, the promise of one’s own voice — the essence in supporting democracy — is always in there, somewhere. The destructive force of an ideological object is unleashed the moment that it begins negating other spaces and turns into Hegemony, dictating the allowed ideologies. Democracy has been an unprecedentedly fertile ground for the cynical plantation of apparati, not yet but possibly later turning itself into the unmaking of itself, a politicosmological inverse Big Bang — a “post-democracy”18 or even the “totalitarian democracy”19: if I am allowed to say anything and everything, I will say that you must no longer say anything at all. With these objects it is no longer even necessary to enforce regulations by auxiliary force (police etc.) if there was never a choice to be made at all: That is the stage for the permanent conflict in our society.
- Gilles Deleuze. Postscript to the Societies of Control. 1990/1992.
- Louis Althusser. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. 1974.
- Marshall McLuhan. The Medium is the Message. 1964.
- Mark Fisher. Capitalist Realism. Verso, London, 2009.
- Colin Crouch. Post Democracy. 2004.
- George Orwell. 1984. 1948–1949.
- J. L. Talmon. The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. 1952.
- A Latin Dictionary. Entry for “politicus”. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0059:entry=politicus. Accessed May 18 2012.
- Wikipedia. Entry for “Cultural hegemony”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_hegemony. Accessed May 23 2012.
- Pacific Asia Museum. Buddhist Art. http://www.pacificasiamuseum.org/buddhism/html/essay4.htm. Accessed May 18 2012.
- Vancouver Courier. “‘Bum-proof’ benches highlight hardened urban areas”. http://www.canada.com/vancouvercourier/news/opinion/story.html?id=53836c28-88c9-4cf3-9060-c4d0f09790d7. Accessed May 18, 2012.
- Parrot AR Drone. http://ardrone.parrot.com/parrot-ar-drone/en/. Accessed May 18, 2012.
- The Atlantic Wire. “Your smartphone is spying on you”.http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2011/11/your-smartphone-spying-you/45575/. Accessed May 18, 2012.
- The Guardian. “You’re being watched: there’s one CCTV camera for every 32 people in UK”. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/02/cctv-cameras-watching-surveillance. Accessed May 18, 2012.
- Cycling ’74. Max MSP. http://cycling74.com/products/max/. Accessed May 23, 2012.
- Ableton. Ableton Live. http://www.ableton.com/live-8. Accessed May 23 2012.
- Design Observer. Designing Our Own Graves. http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=4307. Accessed May 23, 2012.
- Harun Farocki. Eye-Machine I-III. 2001–2003.
- Interacting Arts et al. Avatarvaro/The Avatar Condition. http://interactingarts.org/widing/2011/the-avatar-condition. Accessed May 23, 2012.