The Conjuring Trick

July 12, 2008

or, Cultural Critique in the Present

When I was a child, my grandparents from the old country reserved a familiar surprise for their young visitors. A black lacquered box was produced at bedtime. It opened with a great creaking sound; a ghostly white hand emerged, gesticulated, disappeared. Strange as it may seem, the shiver of fright was supposed to ease us into sleep.

Those were the mid-1960s, when U.S. power trembled and a critique of American democracy began, inspired by liberation movements at home and abroad. Over that decade the country went through immense changes; after Nixon’s resignation it seemed as if a heavy trance had lifted. Never did I imagine that the ghostly hand of Cold War power would reemerge from the black box of the 1990s, to become the new imperialism.

Culture is the waking dream through which we experience the transformations of our civilization. Why has artistic practice at the outset of the 21st century added so little awakening to our ongoing nightmare? We are transfixed by the spectacles of imperial power, yet we do not grasp its functions, its roots, its consequences. There has been no fundamental critique of empire in the world, or in our daily lives. And therefore no desire for liberation.

Art is a visionary practice that can open up new realms of perception, new thoughts and feelings, new styles of communication and interaction with others. But it needs a backdrop of analysis. Cultural critique sets the stages on which artistic experimentation takes place, by identifying geographic contexts, social relations, economic processes, legal and psychological trends. And never has there been so much to do: world society has mutated beyond recognition, since the fateful year of 1989. The opacity of the present is what permits the resurgence of executive privilege and blind military force. We’ve lost the mental representations that helped earlier generations press for equality and solidarity.

These are the reasons for Continental Drift. It’s a long-term, collaborative project for the development of critical maps and world pictures, detailed enough to reveal the determinants of a globalizing society, succinct enough to create new common senses, radical enough to shape possibilities of action. The first thing we’ve tried to do is grasp the contradictions of liberal empire: how it extends individual freedoms, democratic elections and a so-called level economic playing field, while at the same time enforcing labor exploitation, ecological devastation, social exclusion and open war. But it’s just as important to see how this liberal empire is already breaking down – and to gain some inkling of how we might live in its aftermath.

Those who believe the ghostly hand of power can be conjured away by a mere change of president are wrong; they want to be lulled into sleep. Let’s hope that artists won’t be tricked. It will take a tremendous investigation of real conditions to transform culture back into an awakening dream.

Further information:
16 Beaver Group
Brian Holmes text archive


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