Updating Walter Benjamin — whose famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ on which the title of his book riffs — poet and critic Jasper Bernes seeks nothing less than a complete reconsideration of poetry and art over the past 50 years, coinciding with the emergence of neoliberal capitalism. More than simply reflect the changes wrought in American society and culture by the processes of deindustrialization and the rise of the service economy, Bernes claims that the vanguard art and literature of the 1960s and 1970s at least foreshadowed if not directly facilitated their coming to fruition.
The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization is Bernes’s first book of criticism (his two previous are poetry) and it heralds the appearance of an important new voice in the discipline. A student of 20th-century literary scholar Charles Altieri, who has also worked with art historian T. J. Clark, Language poet Lyn Hejinian, and other top academics, Bernes charts a trajectory of the evolution of political economy and aesthetic practice that reveals more than an elective affinity but instead a co-dependence (or in more academic patois a dialectical relationship), which weaves together material history and the means by which it is expressed, thereby enabling far-reaching real-life changes.
The discontent with 1950s consensus-driven managerial culture that erupted into the counterculture of the later decade was not caused by poetry and art per se, Bernes acknowledges, but was given what he identifies as its ‘key terms and coordinates’. The result was to provide capitalism with what Raymond Williams calls the ‘structures of feelings’ (i.e., patterns of thinking and organization of emotional response to lived experience) that permitted new models of workplace interaction and economic exchange to become available at a time when the previous regime of accumulation, known in some quarters as Fordism, was in a death spiral. This proceeded ironically against the conscious intentions of those writers and artists who believed they were charting a path out of capitalist social relations and who instead were circling back around into them, only in a new and more intractable form of their own creation. It is an argument that is erudite, elegant, and chillingly compelling.
A major source for Bernes is The New Spirit of Capitalism, by French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. That book — itself a riff on another earlier classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber — traces the changes in the ideology of corporate capitalism of the same period back to resistance movements of more than a century earlier, which they divide into two broad currents, the social critique of the labor and other social-justice movements and the artistic critique of the bohemian avant-garde. The former called for increasing equity, typically in the form of widely distributed improved material conditions, and the latter demanded liberation, typically in the form of personal autonomy and expressive individualism.
Since the 1960s, Boltanski and Chiapello argue, the social critique progressively weakened (along with the net profit rate of the industrialized economies) while the artistic critique became hegemonic. Corporate capitalism embraced the artistic critique’s demand for creative expression, self-determination, and flexibility against the staid discipline of bureaucratic policies and procedures and bourgeois conformity. (This ethos is the essence of Silicon Valley libertarianism as recounted in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner. Another study of the same phenomenon as it relates to consumer culture is Sam Binkley’s Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s.)Bernes demonstrates that the artistic critique as undertaken by the poets and artists of the postwar American avant-garde proffered a toolkit of liberatory feeling structures right at the moment that work began to transition from the manufacturing of things to work primarily involved in administration, information harvesting, and the providing of services.
The first example Bernes provides is poet and curator Frank O’Hara, especially his 1964 volume Lunch Poems, written as the title suggests, during lunch breaks from his day job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In addition to being composed during lunchtime, the poems often describe how O’Hara spent those periods of respite. Bernes reads the poems, which often include references to brand names and consumer commodities, through the lens of the Creative Revolution in advertising then in full swing, described in Thomas Frank’s book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.
Rejecting the 1950s technocratic pitches of the Unique Sales Point (USP) theory of scientific ad man Rosser Reeves, which sought to identify a commodity’s singular point of differentiation from its competition and pound it into the consumer’s head through relentless media saturation, the Mad Men of the Creative Revolution focused on lifestyle desire. So too, O’Hara in one of his more famous poems notes of a lover: ‘Having a Coke with you is more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irun, Biarritz, Bayonne or being sick to my stomach on the Traversera de Gracia in Barcelona’, a half decade before the Real Thing aspired to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
As Bernes notes, the Creative Revolution in advertising was only one manifestation of the broader transformation of advanced capitalism from object to experience. During this period of expansion particularly in the service economy, the ability to develop ‘rapport’ through interpersonal relationships became increasingly important to business success, both for the enterprise and for the individuals who inhabited its structures, feeling and otherwise.
A number of analyses of O’Hara’s poetry focus on its representations of the connections between the poet’s observations of characters and personal interactions described within the work and its ability to engage readers on an intimate level. Modelling the intersubjective as shared experience, of the universal within the particular, embedded in O’Hara’s poetry also served him in his curatorial work — the ability to negotiate with individuals and institutions across international borders being crucial to his assembling of exhibitions as part of MoMA’s International Program, much as it has become for other denizens of the new world order of global capital.
The example Bernes draws upon in visual art is Conceptualism and its influence on performance, ‘Happenings’, installation, and other vanguard work that began to appear in the 1950s and 1960s. A major theoretical inspiration during the period was cybernetics, especially its core concepts of information, feedback, and systems, which continue to inform the participatory and interactive art of the present as surveyed in the recent book Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art, edited by Samuel Bianchini and Erik Verhagen. Where Practicable embraces cybernetics as a wellspring of contemporary art and a model for social interaction, Bernes reads its impact in a less optimistic light.
While cybernetics was being discussed by the mostly French theorists, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes, and later on Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari, who were influencing the artistic avant-garde of the time, it was also being taken up by business management gurus and government technocrats, the latter of whom saw it as a mechanism for constructing an apparatus of increased behavioral control through a net of human-machine interaction. A key insight in this regard is Berne’s observation that ‘the cybernetic imaginary in its countercultural setting was particularly appealing to corporate managers looking to allay the dissatisfaction and rebellions of their workers through the incorporation of worker-management feedback loops’. On the shop floor, this took the form of so-called quality circles and the devolution of responsibility to lower levels of the workforce (without any increase in compensation, of course). In the white-collar world, the flexibility of networked computer communications opened the door to the 24/7 work cycle. (As they used to, perhaps apocryphally, say at Microsoft — ‘Sure we have flextime — you can work any 18 hours a day you want!’ Oh, for the good-old days.)
The visual artist Bernes focuses on is Dan Graham, a pioneering Conceptualist whose work traverses video, photography, performance, sculpture, and installation, as well as the written word. Especially in his later work, those incorporating video feedback loops, closed-circuit TV monitors, and architectural constructions featuring translucent and reflective surfaces that invite viewers to observe themselves and others interacting with their environments, Graham models what McKenzie Wark terms the ‘disintegrating spectacle’ of contemporary social media, the virtual Panopticon of self-consciousness, self-surveillance, and ultimately self-control, under the guise of a decentralized (and therefore theoretically more democratic) mechanism in which the consumers are in fact the product, the commodity being sold to advertisers by the click.
Others surveyed include John Ashbery and specifically the poem ‘The Instruction Manual’ and the collection The Tennis Court Oath as examples of ‘free indirect labor’, a gloss on the literary device of free indirect discourse in which third-person narration modulates between objective and subjective modes, giving readers access to the internal thoughts and feelings of various characters as a text unfolds. Free indirect labor is Bernes’s construction for understanding the indeterminate points of view and grammatical slippages in Ashbery’s work as indicative of the changing relations of capital and labor emerging in the 1960s. The polymodal perspectives and fragmented syntax of Ashberry’s work is representative of the deterritorializing, schizoid effects of late-modern capital as described Deleuze and Guattari, particularly in A Thousand Plateaus.
The postmodern concept of de-differentiation (the reversal of the highly specialized division of labor of modern industrialization and its administrative bureaucracy, whereby the distinction between work and private life is being progressively erased, a transformation made possible in part by digital technology) is exemplified by multi-media artist Berndatte Mayer, whose work employs stream-of-consciousness narrative and diaristic record-keeping and Bernes reads as an avatar of the postindustrial feminization of labor as part of the growing (low wage) service economy. The epic project Memory,begun in 1971, first exhibited in 1972, and released in book form in 1975, mixes photography, performance, and text in which clerical and domestic tasks intertwine the public and private spheres and converge in gendered labor. The need to multi-task, an essential aspect of the freneticism of contemporary work, has long been experienced by women in the form of the ‘second shift’ described by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1989 book of the same title. The extension of the work day, paid and unpaid, has become increasingly embedded into daily life as technology has enabled (or perhaps one should say doomed) us to be completely and inescapably connected.
Bernes does offer a window of opportunity for the resistance once posited by the aesthetic critique to continue. It operates in the interstitial zones of capital, filling the downtime of office drudgery, navigating the semiotic detritus of online search engines and social media, and practicing a digital type of Situationist detournement in the absurdist poetics of Flarf and other forms of trolling discourse ‘on the Man’s dime’. (Bernes doesn’t appear to offer much hope by way of critique for the visual arts, which at this point may be irredeemably corrupted by capital — as he writes: ‘art has manifestly lived on after its failed self-abolition [in Conceptualism], aerosolized, freed from the constraints of medium and institution, but nonetheless still domesticated by the commodity form and the world of labor it once opposed — a thesis I unhappily can’t really argue with.) It’s a rather decrepit iteration of negative dialectics, but all that seems to be left to us as we careen under capital’s end game toward the last days of the Anthropocene.
This was originally published in Motown Review of Art.