exodus & afrofuturism

June 17th, 2010 | 5 comments

interstellar tones transport Sun Ra offworld

But in reality, it is the inherent failure of representation, both in the visual and the political sense, that continually leads activist-artists to abandon their works and their familiar skills, and to dissolve once again into the intersubjective processes of society’s self-transformation.

This moment of dissolution is where one could locate exodus, not as a concept, but as a power or a myth of resistance. On the one hand, exodus is a pragmatic response to the society of control, in which any widespread political opposition becomes an object of exacting analysis for those who can afford to invest major resources in the identification, segmentation and manipulation of what we naively call the public. In the face of these strategies, exodus is a power of willful metamorphosis: the capacity for a movement to appear, to intervene and to disappear again, before changing names and recommencing the same struggle in a different way. (Brian Holmes, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering @ 185)

Exodus is a movement — defection from the State, exit from the state of things, toward the formation of a “new republic” (as Paolo Virno puts it). While Virno and other Italian-based theorists of the Autonomia/Operaismo movement have traced exodus as a response to the factory regime of Fordist labour that saw its dismantling in the ’70s and ’80s, Brian Holmes has placed exodus within the artistic lineage of interventions and occupations, in which the fluidity of art, and of art as an occupation or role offers an exit strategy from institutionalized engagement. Holmes’ historical references are those of the alterglobalization movement, notably the public sonic occupations of Reclaim the Streets and the deployment of carnivale tactics in general, but also in specific art projects such as Nikeground. Here, art (and the artist) move through an interzone of activism and art, a zone in which intervention and representation are no longer distinct sides or sites of the work.

Significantly, Holmes writes how the passage toward exodus opens in the breakdown of representation. One can think such representation in (at least) two ways: the representative politics of the democratic order and the politics of representation of the object and identity, or rather the ordering of representation in which art is supposed to traffic (albeit at a distance). When representation fails, or rather proves itself inadequate through its persistent failure (some might say its planned obsolescence), then strategies of exodus come into play.

And quite literally — exodus as a myth of resistance is also a time of play, a site in which the play of representation can be remixed, through exit from its confines, into a new scenario. For the artist, exodus from an institutionalized art world changes the play of what it means to respond to a Call — no longer a competitive call for new works, but now a Call for collective action, in which art becomes the performative habitus for an alternative republic, a “non-state public sphere” (Virno).

Exodus is thus a spacetime of energies; a site of withdrawal in the gathering of force. Nor is this performed alone. Play takes at least a few, if not the many. Exodus is a collective gathering of experience:

…exodus seems to designate an existential reserve, that psychic space where fragments of artistic, poetic and musical refrains are inseparable from the wellsprings of action, but expressible only as a kind of myth. To touch this intangible space is the ultimate intervention on social material — something no individual can do, because it is only achieved through a collective experience, by a multiplicity that has no authority, no signature. (Holmes, Unleashing @ 186)

At times, Holmes risks representing exodus as a near mythical or “intangible” sign — which is perhaps due to a received idea of engagement or rather perspective upon the appearance of engagement that remains within either declarative art (despite its activism) or activism (despite its  aesthetics). This is surprising given that exodus, as a withdrawal or disappearance, would seem to call into question the appearance of things, and consequently of of activistism and art as being the only hybridity that registers exodus’ passing. In some forthcoming work for Dancecult: Journal for Electronic Dance Music Culture, I have set out to think rave culture as an embodied, collective exodus that performs all the ambiguities of its play, from its sonic interventions to its interruptions of politics, within the broader schema of a worldwide alternative network of soniculture.

In short, exodus needs to be thought beyond or rather before the realm of myth. Exodus happens. It occurs; it is a strategy of the cultural unconscious manifest in collective and energetic desire. It organises and disorganises vast collective actions in tandem.

In this respect Holmes is entirely correct: exodus can only be experienced through collective passage. But to say this collectivity has no authority nor signature leaves many questions concerning its manifold of structures, signs and play. The multitude that is rave culture has its many signatures, even its signature of a soniculture, qua rave culture; and it too has its authors and its authorities. In this respect, exodus as the pure flight from authority or signature remains a myth – but as such a myth, it loses much of its efficacity. I am more intrigued by the taking-place of exodus on the ground, so to speak (and I might add, like Holmes, who spends much of his excellent book detailing “activist aesthetics” and delineating the heritage of the 20thC avant garde).

And so Holmes leaves us with:

Exodus is an expression of process politics. It points beyond the distorting mediations and structural inequalities of capitalism toward a strange sort of promised land for the profane, which is the immediacy of the everyday, the direct experience of cooperation with others. The carnival that sometimes breaks out in the midst of concerted political action is a way to celebrate the occasional reality of this powerful and persistent myth. (Holmes, Unleashing @ 186)

I would like to reverse the proposition: it is protest that breaks out in the midst of carnival, it is political action in the realm of appearance that interrupts the exodus toward disappearance, it is the coming into the light of Reclaim the Streets that was the anomaly to rave culture’s occupations by night. Exodus has more to do with the collective unconscious of the everynight than the everyday — it has more to do with creating the alternative habitus of a place to sleep and to dream without fear, then to awake and, with a shit-eating grin, make that which is desired take place — regardless.

This reversal stakes out a different terrain. Exodus, or the exit strategy in general, is a priori to (as its qualifier phoneme suggests) representation. Exodus does not take its place after the fact; it is the escape which something has come to capture. In this respect, Deleuze and Guattari were correct; even if the State is a priori (arising always), exodus is that which the State arises against.

Secondly, it reinforces my intuition that exodus, like Virno’s contentious theorisation of multitude (and much to Negri’s discontent), is without content. Exodus is the state of most States. Most “people of the State” are in a state of exodus; they do not vote, they do not participate. Rather, they flee to various safehouses and wait it out. Unfortunately, this form of exodus – properly, perhaps this is not exodus as liberty but as confinement – is not collective but individual, even as it is the dominant form of being-together of so many. The political apathy of overdeveloped nation states of the 21C is an expression of this collective exodus. So is the collective experience of consumption. However this exodus is not energetically collective; it is collective without connection, a disconnected exodus, a passive escape from exodus itself. Various traces of its potential are found here and there in technological infonetworks, particularly with data piracy (music, film, software, intellectual property). However few P2P downloaders have connected their bits & bytes to a connection with their peers in the flesh, or with an organised attempt at its force (such as open source, hacking, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or the Pirate Bay – all of which signal the new republics of data and property).

In this respect, we might consider “downloadable data piracy” the capitalist answer to the challenge that remixing/sampling and rave culture provided to infotainment as a containment apparatus. By this I mean that data piracy, even with all the publicized hype surrounding its damage and its prosecution, is a contained strategy, or rather an attempt to contain what could express itself in a global cultural form and network of the likes we have not seen since the rave/alterglobalization convergence of the 1990s. (Music industry executives and the defenders of intellectual property will of course disagree with this premise, pointing out that infopiracy is truly a threat to IP; however in this respect capitalism itself is far ahead of them. Capitalism always cannibalizes its own.)

Third, exodus is a cultural strategy that has already shaped the 20thC. Though Italian Autonomist theorists such as Virno, Marazzi, Negri and others theorised exodus as a response to Fordism, I believe that its force was already well underway as a cultural strategy of transformation thanks to Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism as cultural exodus

Holmes mentions several key concepts in relation to exodus: myth, collectivity, transformation, metamorphosis, and the blend of direct action and art. Perhaps we should look no further than the mythical corpus of Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism plays out an abundance of interstellar exits from planet earth: alternative alien origin myths, the power of sound to transport us beyond prejudice and conflict (if not space and time itself), transforming the forced exile of the Middle Passage into an interplanetary and cosmic exodus.

Afrofuturism demonstrates that all humans are in some way or other fundamentally alien. What Marx thought through labour (like the Autonomists) Afrofuturist artists, musicians, poets, writers, sci-fi writers and prophets have lived through the exploitation and cultural memory of  of (post)slave labour. We are all alien in this alien nation. This is an accurate myth, precisely attenuated to the truth of a reality constructed upon the myths of racial origin and supremacy.

Afrofuturism has engineerd various exits (not the least of which is an exit from philo sophia – but this will have to wait for a future post). At the very least, we can speak of the Afrodiasporic exappropriation of technology and mutation of the cultural viruses of sound and rhythm that engendered jazz, hip-hop, techno, electro, disco and house – not as musical genres but as cultural interventions that changed the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, autonomy, carnival, and liberation — up to and including the cyborg heteronymy of the human form itself, from becoming-alien (Sun Ra) to becoming-machinic (Model 500).

One can think the vastness of these interventions: within property (sampling, riffing, remixing, improvisation), white culture (the dance Twist, the disco fix, the funk phenomenon), politics (what is Afrofuturism other than the mythus to black power?). All the Greek conceptual categorizations (polis, mythus, tekhne) are remixed through Afrofuturism. In this respect Afrofuturism plays out an exodus from the default culture (whose colours until recently have been Imperial White). Afrofuturism is not constrained by soniculture, however. It has its articulation (Kodwo Eshun, Paul D. Miller, Alondra Nelson), its literature (Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler — only to name a few), its science fictions and phonofictions.

Significantly, Afrofuturism was an alterglobalization network before activist-artists, high on a rave culture directly engendered from black gay disco, Chicago acid house and Detroit techno, decided to bring electronic soniculture and carnivale into the light and name it as such in the 1990s.

Afrofuturism is a network from Jamaican dub to British ska-punk, New York hip-hop to disco, Chicago house to Detroit techno, dancehall to Dogon and Ngome ritual. And, of course — jazz and rock n’ roll, Chubby Checker and Little Richard, the blues and Dixieland. That said, it traces its historical appearance far beyond its  postslave / postcolonial cultures and the advent of recording technologies that echoed and intensified its force (in a manner which needs further explanation, technology is essential to Afrofuturism). Ron Eglash’s research into African fractals suggests that there is more Africa in the computer than Brian Eno thinks. Afrofuturism is the cultural evolution of black secret technology that underlies algorithms of computing technology. It arises at the same time as the invention of the computer as an exit from what Heidegger identified as technology’s apparent containment of being within en-framing. If the computer is the machinic materialization of African fractal thought, then Afrofuturism is the cultural anticipation of its machinic overcoding. Think on this. This is an entirely other and radical justification of sampling, remixing, open use, piracy, sharing networks, and otherwise collective exappropriation of technology. And not only a justification before the Law, but a rethinking of its basis.

Exodus, then, is vast, trans-epochal, interstellar. In its lineages it sustains both apathy and energy. Reconnecting or hooking-up apathetic exodus to its energizing variant – without burning out, as rave culture did – is a question of sustained and urgent consideration.

Beside itself: alterglobalization as alternative power

The parallel polis

does not compete for power. Its aim is not to replace the power of another kind, but rather under this power – or beside it – to create a structure that represents other laws and in which the voice of the ruling power is heard only as an insignificant echo from a world that is organised in an entirely different way. (Václav Benda, quoted in Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering @ 180).

The alternative power grows within existing structures; like a weed it cracks the cement walls and foundations. But what has come of the strategy? Is it at all a possibility in the 21C, and what is its efficacity?

Perhaps, again, the question and its problem should be reversed. Not only is the parallelism of alterglobalization possible, it operates as the basis of existing distributions of power today. That there is no unification to power, no centralization of its control (and thus no conspiracy of the few over the many) is the secret hiding in plain sight — the purloined letter of alterglobalization. Alternative globalizations exist as the means by which attempts at militarized and economic centralization take place. In this sense, the strategy of the parallel polis has been well incorporated within military strategy; but this also only acknowledges that the terrain of its passage remains open.

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