The more saints, the more laughter; that’s my principle, to wit, the way out of capitalist discourse—which will not constitute progress, if it happens only for some.
This essay will explore Claire Fontaine’s assertion that the adoption of the “whatever-singularity” as an artistic subjective position is the only manner in which to resist the instrumentalization of subjectivity within capitalist discourse. Claire Fontaine’s famous text, “Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A few Clarifications” expands the concept of the ready-made as it is delineated within artistic discourses to think Giorgio Agamben’s whatever-singularity at the level of both subjects and objects in our current artistic climate.2 The goal of this essay is to explore how by adopting the analytic position within artistic education we could work against the homogenized forms of singularity that have emerged within capitalist discourse and the assembly line that art school is at the risk of becoming.3 Art school could instead become the site for the treatment of the capitalist object-relation and the subjective crisis that its discourse perpetuates. I will differentiate art that pursues surplus jouissance in a ‘stupid’ manner from art used as a tool armed against an excessive-real object through processes of symbolization. I will end by considering how we might expediate the latter process within an analytic based art education, as part of a critique of the conditions of subjectivity in capitalism in general.
I agree with Claire Fontaine that the adoption of the position whatever-singularity is a more effective resistance to capitalist discourse than our common turn to identity politics (which have segregative effects), or the myriad other attempts to re-gain a lacking subjective plenitude inherent to the myth of the artist herself. Claire Fontaine has stated that it is the artist’s desire to “make an original work” that turns them into “multiples of what-ever singularity.”4 Despite my agreement with Claire Fontaine’s critique, I want to work through their ideas from the perspective of ‘the science of the unconscious’ rather than through the dominant assumptions inherent to their argument that are determined by the ‘philosophy of consciousness’.5 From the perspective of psychoanalysis a subject’s behaviour is structured by their unconscious enjoyment, not their conscious identifications.6 As such, the solution to the problem of subjective and thus artistic homogeneity will require something a little more ambitious than facilitating a short-lived identification with whatever-singularity. Given their diagnosis that contemporary art lacks character, I will corroborate their claim using Lacanian strategies for transforming subjective alienation. This requires working with the un-conscious as the seat of singularity rather than the conscious ego.
Capitalist discourse is a structural logic not unlike that of art in relation to modernism. For example, abstraction was both a radical subversion of the classical realist style that determined the salon and its rules for academic realism. However, it is also apparent that abstraction was an effect of a kind of disintegration of the ‘sense’ of a previous world that had its radical moment in relation to that discursive structure. Thus, the logic of subversion of imposed sense and perspectival forms as critical holds no weight within our contemporary situation that lacks any holistic symbolic–imaginary universe other than the chaos of western spectacle and consumerism.
Modern art marked the shift in discourse wherein the particular, repressed by the universal sense of the master discourses of church and state, was able to flourish against those universal impositions, but now, it is the particular that represses the universal!7 Part of the redundancy of contemporary art is that it still occupies a position of resistance—one that was critical in relation to the modern ‘master’s discourse’, but is not necessarily so in the capitalist paradigm.8 The critical problem now is not the repression of immediate libidinal enjoyment, but the need to symbolize in a way that has collective resonance beyond demonstrating our subjugation to the object of consumption.
A critical form of art education then, within and against the logic structuring capitalist discourse, should no longer be this childish resistance to the imposition of universal principles, nor the mere demonstration of subjective crisis. Also, it should not be the popular turn to assemblage and what has been called “trash art” exemplified by the likes of Rachel Harrison “who evades all categories of modern-art” as if the transgression of modernist rules were critical at this point.9 This dependence on loose material signifiers to produce critique dismisses the continued relevance of universal questions and instead merely aestheticizes the fragments of western spectacle. Harrison’s work is an ambivalent mixture; it functions as both homage and ridicule of an unspecific slew of western art and pop cultural references. At best this type of work demonstrates subjective crisis, “she takes a bad thing and makes it worse,” and yet it is still recognized by art institutions as doing something of universal importance.10
Benjamin Buchloh addresses this trend with respect to Isa Genzken’s recent work.11 He argues that her reliance on figurative assemblage refers back to the figurative paintings of Georges De Chirico in 1917, produced in the same year as Duchamp’s Urinal. Buchloh identifies a dialectic within 20th century art between assemblage-figuration (De Chirico, Harrison, Genzken) and ready-made as figure (Duchamp). Duchamp’s Urinal (1917) recognizes the already-existent libidinal and identificatory effect of the mass-produced object as figure without the need for the objects to be literally built into a vertical and thus figurative shape and aestheticized further with graphic elements, in order to retain their status as art. Harrison and Genzken’s work remains conservative because both artists welcome the implications of the mass-produced object, but only to aestheticize it further. They refuse to lose the particularity of their signature, despite the authorial anonymity (at the level of the hand) ushered in by the ‘event’ of the Duchampian ready-made.
Instead of advocating critique through strategies like trash-art, wherein the critique collapses into mere perpetuation, art education should prompt its subjects to put into social and symbolic mediation the immediacy of their particular desire and enjoyment.12 Through this strategy the morbid enjoyment of the destruction of culture and the social bond via the capitalist object relation could be counteracted.13 What I am saying is that the unconscious of trash-art is ‘enjoyment of the problem,’ not critique.
Thus, we need to investigate our enjoyment in order to counteract the crisis of singularity, both in and out of contemporary art. Singularity is in crisis because it is not something earned through the struggle within alienation, but rather has become the site of so many prescriptive demands. Although art has the capacity to facilitate a temporary experience with universality and thus a subtraction of particularity, it has instead become the place to stubbornly assert our particularity. I am focussing on the unconscious in artistic practice because the unconscious is universal, and it creates ‘events’ that disrupt the particularity of the alienated ego. Analysis of the unconscious within artistic practice could force us to confront the contradictions between our conscious intention and our unconscious practice, for example, the contradictions inherent to trash-art. In analysis you experience a loss of sovereignty when faced with an interpretive event that hits the truth of your unconscious desire. An analytic experience centered in marking unconscious desire allows us to access the singularity of our desire and enjoyment, and in the end, become whatever-singularity.
What sets Lacan apart is the argument that our subjective structure is determined by a universal entry into language and two structural moments—alienation/separation—that occur within development.14 Our alienation in language produces the ‘object a.’ The object a is a virtual inter-subjective object, a detachable part of the body that we seek to recapture in other things, people, and experiences. The object a is that little bit of surplus jouissance that emerges in what is otherwise a castrated real. In other words, it is a point of nothingness that has real effects.15
The major change in discursive structure between the modern and capitalist master is our relation to the object cause of desire. According to Lacan, the object is lacking because it is alienated in our symbolic world, and is therefore not really an actual object (an object in a dual relationship between subject–object) at all, but rather its trace. That is, it is a trace that is determined by our desire and enjoyment. Instead of prohibiting the object (that we supposedly lack), capitalist discourse provides the object and then compels you to pursue it, because it’s right there, and there and oh, over there. What emerges is a ‘lack of lack,’ a ‘too muchness.’ This ‘too muchness’ is clearly the object of practices like those of Genzken and Harrison.
It is here that I counter Claire Fontaine. The problem isn’t so much the alienation of subjectivity in capitalism—alienation being an important structural moment in the emergence of the subject of desire—but rather a crisis of subjectivity, which is, ironically, a crisis in the process of alienation. Instead of focusing on the alienation inherent to capitalist social relations, I will focus on the crisis of subjectivity that occurs within capitalist discourse as a result of the dissolution of tension between the particular and the universal or, in other words, the decline in the dialectic between alienation and separation. Claire Fontaine has diagnosed these conditions as producing homogeneity rather than creativity, aka. whatever-singularity.
The capitalist system is paradoxical because its immediate form of consumption and gratification is actually predicated on a lack-of-enjoyment. This is due to their origin in a relation based on the object, not the ‘Other’ of intersubjective recognition. Capitalist discourse starts from the presumption of a division that can only be remedied by ‘whatever-object’, so we go from object to object, seeking a surplus jouissance (signifying surplus) in whatever-object to remedy our castration (lack of jouissance). Whatever-object promises to reconcile our subjective division and lack. However, the division is not something that can be reconciled, it can only be transformed or positivized. Capitalism thus converts our structural lack of being (structural alienation in language) into a lack of having as a way of avoiding lack, as if lack can be resolved with the consumption of the right commodity. However, lack is the condition of desire, and ultimately it is what moves people to participate in the world, to move beyond the direct masturbatory enjoyment of the body, in order to gain jouissance that is lacking in relation or with an ‘Other’. Hence Lacan’s famous statement, that jouissance must be sacrificed and then sought on the inverted ladder of desire.16
In order to return to our goal of reading Claire Fontaine’s project through the terms of the ‘science of the unconscious’ and how this relates to the challenges facing contemporary art production and education, we need to explore the ready-made within Claire Fontaine’s project. The ready-made is the central figure in which Fontaine is able to enact their critique, as this figure shares similarities with Lacan’s assertion that within the logic of capitalist discourse, the object is master. Lacan’s thesis is that everyone, including the capitalist, becomes a proletariat within capitalist discourse—a proletariat subjugated to a libidinal object who has nothing to produce a social bond out of (bonds are always discursive in Lacan).
Claire Fontaine works with the ready-made for Duchamp’s conscious-apprehension of the function of exchange value within capitalist society as contained in the unprecedented gestures of Bicycle Wheel (1913), Bottle Rack (1914), and Urinal (1917). Their Marxist-inspired conception of the ready-made pertains to the logic of surplus value within capitalist society and the effect of this on the ‘practices’ and modes of exchange that make up life. As they state,
Showing objects from which, the use-value had been once and for all subtracted, such that an exhibition value could be assigned to them, tells us that use-value is a concept which concerns life and not art (the joke of the Mona Lisa and the ironing board is only another proof of this).17
The central critique goes like this: the ready-made (as figure for art in general) is an object taken out of use for its exhibition value (similar logic to exchange value), and ultimately this logic infiltrates all of life in capitalist society. Life itself has been taken out of use. “We are expropriated from the use of life” and only experience it in the same spectacular manner by which we experience art objects in a gallery—as “absurd and displaced vulgar object, deprived of its use and decreed an art object.” Instead of art being an activity subtracted from the instrumentality of use—“use is a question of life not art”—art becomes an object subtracted from its use-value for its exchange value. For Claire Fontaine, the artist, like a ready-made art object, is an absurd, useless object without professional or social destiny, a practice reified into an object taken out of use and rendered to a kind of exhibition/exchange value.18
At this point we must consider the logical affinity between Lacan’s notion of surplus jouissance and the Marxist notion of surplus value (Lacan having developed his concept through working from Marx’s concept). Surplus value, like surplus jouissance, is pursued beyond the satisfaction of need such that the ‘surplus’ is what drives human behaviour and our societies. For Lacan, this is precisely what constitutes humans’ ‘de-naturing’ in relation to their environment and is the result of the effect of language on the organism. The idea being that the human subject is an automatism driven by the pursuit of surplus jouissance. The success of capitalism is its ability to hook onto the function of surplus jouissance which, as far as satisfaction goes, is like pouring water into a leaking barrel.19 The solution to treating this structural dynamic, which is clearly incredibly destructive for individuals and society (be it the surplus jouissance gleaned in symptoms and or the symptom of surplus value in our society), cannot be accomplished through a primitivist and or nostalgic idea of ‘to everyone his need.’20
Accordingly, the solution is counterintuitive. If the problem is taking an object out of use, then it would merely need to be put back into use in order to counteract the function of exchange value. This is the logic driving our ‘return to the artisanal’ or what I’ve called artisanal expressivity.21 Or, the solution could be to nurture the useless as this is the proper terrain of Art, in terms of both exchange and use-value, what is the de-objectification of practice. But for Lacan, the surplus jouissance (value) gleaned from an object is actually a pathological form of use that has been subtracted from exchange and remains un-dialecticized within the signifying chain and thus needs to re-enter circulation. This formulation aligns with the idea that surplus-value needs to be circulated and expended rather than hoarded. Some might argue that art is a form of expending the excess, and surely it is, but we need to differentiate between dumb private expenditure as instrumentalized within the symptom and the de-instrumentalization of the symptom through subjectivization.
Claire Fontaine’s approach to the homogenous conditions for artistic practice is to refuse to ‘enjoy’ being “whatever singularities, supposed to be artistic.”22 Instead they present the conditions of subjective alienation to the viewer, a position that risks what Lacan calls “les non-dupes errant.”23 Instead of what I think easily becomes a push to a cynical identification with whatever-singularity, we might consider other alternatives.
Lacan’s argument considers the problem within the terms of general economy and offers an interesting provocation. For Lacan, laughter is the mark of the saint in capitalist discourse, and only a saint will locate a way-out of capitalist discourse.24 The only way I can make sense of this slightly ambiguous assertion is to consider laughter as a moment where surplus enjoyment is expended, in a social way that produces a bond rather than in an idiotic/private manner. Could Laughter then counter our status—as whatever-singularity supposed to be autistic?25
Laughter brings together the symbolic and the libidinal, rather than repressing one by the other, and generally emerges when an ideal is confronted with its degradation, or the falling of an ideal.26 This also pertains to Lacan’s understanding that the saint’s duty is not Caritas but Trashitas.27 That is, the saint attends to the abjected in society, the waste, left-over etc. This parallels the job of the analyst and it should be clear that the analyst is Lacan’s saint. The analyst needs to become the object a for the analysand (in some sense to become whatever-singularity) so that they can subjectify it and then reject it; the I must come to where It was, and this occurs through transference. Before I am contradicted, Trashitas is very different than trash-art. There is a major difference between attending to the waste in order to subjectify it, and mere dumb enjoyment of the waste. Essentially this is the difference we are after: Trashitas, not trash-art.
Within Lacan’s assertion that “there is no sexual relation,” there is the recognition that jouissance is idiotic/stupid/dumb, which means private within one’s own body. The symptoms occurring in capitalist discourse are jouissance-laden symptoms that don’t signify because they aren’t addressed to anyone—unlike the classic symptom of the hysteric. Claire Fontaine’s discourse is more the classic subject-of-desire in critique with the subject-of-enjoyment produced within capitalist discourse. There is no partner in capitalist discourse, unlike other forms of the master’s discourse (hysteric–master, student–teacher, patient–doctor) which essentially means they involve transference onto an ‘Other’ and thus have the possibility of setting the analytic process in motion. In capitalist discourse there is an appeal to an object, not an-Other, and thus no transference. This symptom is present in art where a person’s singular private enjoyment occupies the gallery without signifying anything to anyone in a coherent manner. What is being pursued is a libidinal kick, not symbolization. The point being, the solution to the crisis in subjectivity is not the totalitarian imposition of sense, but rather the need to produce singular strategies for managing enjoyment and putting the object in circulation, which ultimately means producing discourse in order to limit it. This entails taking the enjoyment that is instrumentalized within a symptom and deinstrumentalizing it. To be clear, as I have stressed in other writing, the art object itself can produce discourse through non-linguistic signifying means. Art is speech that can be analyzed in the same way that an analysand’s speech can be analyzed in the clinic, where, if successful, overrides the capitalist bond.28
Many art students go into art school seeking a surplus jouissance out of painting, drawing, sculpture, etc., and their identification as an artist within the cultural myths that give these endeavours a sort of value while also dealing with an excessive real through symbolization. This push to put the object into circulation aligns with the attempt to deal with excess through symbolization. Visual art works mostly with non-linguistic signification—which doesn’t mean that it is outside language. In the art school I imagine, the student would bring the immediacy of their symptom into a dialectical process of interrogation by group critique aided by art historical, cultural, and theoretical challenges. This form allows the singular to be interrogated by a universal, meaning that a process of alienation and separation can begin. A student might be willing to part with some aspects of their object, over others, some sooner than others. Part of analysis is the need to hystericize the analysand; that is, to have the analysand begin to question their desire. The art student might be willing to begin to question the desire that brought them to art school, or they might cling to their fantasy, defending their enjoyment from the interloper. The work will be scrutinized for unconscious enjoyment and desire in order to subjectify it and transform it.
What I am describing is not really the Freudian notion of sublimation where a lower base sexual activity is elevated into socially acceptable forms: it’s all sexual anyways. Instead, the question is whether the enjoyment is ‘stupid’, and /or masturbatory or not. In other words, is the enjoyment marked for a subject or is it stupid—which implies it knows nothing about itself, and doesn’t think (it’s unconscious). The other question: is the enjoyment masturbatory or does it collectivize? Asks, if the subject merely engages with the object in fantasy or is there an engagement with a degree of otherness beyond the fantasy? Is their practice linked to anything that will take them beyond their ‘known’ coordinates?
Claire Fontaine speaks of the de-functionalization of subjectivity, or subjectivity freed of all utility. I think an actual (rather than merely ideal) method for the de-functionalization of subjectivity is contained within the Lacanian method for traversing the field of identifications.29 Within the context of artistic practice, we can then traverse the identifications inherent to our work. As Claire Fontaine puts it: the “I” has spawned into so many objects. Because, as Lacan has famously said the “unconscious is structured like a language” we can interpret art as speech through the function of metaphor and metonym. The point of this interpretation is not to give the artist a didactic meaning or explanation of the work (symptom), but rather to intervene at the point of their division and cause interpretative effects. The analyst must occupy the position of the object and give back to the analysand what it is that the analysand’s unconscious is saying, using ambiguous, and equivocal means rather than reductive diagnosis.
An analytic educational posture begins from the premise that there are no ready-made art ideals and parameters to adopt, but rather that what the analysand brings to the studio is the content to be analyzed. In this instance, the desire of the analyst becomes the pursuit of the analysand’s absolute difference, rather than the re-education of the artist/analysand into some form of university discourse of art, or the coordinates of the teacher’s ego. The adoption of the analytic discourse within art school is the only way to subvert the assembly line of education in order to produce singularities.
The desire to be an artist is connected to a conception of life not limited by that what produces surplus value, and for most artists makes no sense within the push to ‘have’ property. However, jouissance is also a kind of property: one that might need to be sacrificed when pursuing and scrutinizing our desire to be an artist. Lacan has stated that what is rejected in capitalism is precisely castration, which ultimately means we are condemned to castration, because we continue to demand an impossible satisfaction. The drives that are always demanding MORE, will we never be satisfied?! ENCORE?! Analysis has proven its capacity to help subjects find a mode of satisfaction and a desire that will enable them to say “no” to the demands of capitalist discourse. The goal is to orientate subjects away from the pursuit of surplus jouissance with it’s a-social effects in order to repair the social bond. To do this, subjects have to develop singular strategies for managing enjoyment which surely involves the production of a discourse (in analysis or artistic practice) without the totalitarian imposition of ‘sense’.
–Leigh Tennant, January 2020