Contemporary proponents of conceptual writing set themselves against the lyrical claim to represent a self, for, they maintain, such a subject is inherently linked to capitalism. A poetics that eschews this subject, it is argued, is thus either blocking capitalist exchange, or skirting around it altogether. And indeed, there is a subject linked to capitalism, but we need to proceed slowly if we are to understand how different poetic strategies may, or may not, alter the relations between this and the economic systems to which it is related.
Under classical, fordist capitalism people are defined as “free workers.” As a worker a person is at liberty to sell, or rent their labor power on the open market. This includes, skills, knowledge, time and energy, but it does not include our souls or selfhood. In other words, under the organization of work in classical or liberal capitalism, our sovereignty remains intact. This is because classical capitalism makes a clear distinction between “self” and “labor capital” such that one’s selfhood remains sovereign and inalienable, outside the vagaries and contingencies of the market it’s value beyond measure. This means that the Self cannot be exchanged or substituted for any other item. For this reason, under classical capitalism, the Self acquires an absolute or quasi-sacred value. Furthermore, being positioned outside the mechanisms of exchange the private individual subject of liberal humanism is in fact peripheral to the economic system. Indeed, within liberalism/capitalism, the concept of “selfhood” effectively navigates around the laws of the system, defining its edges – literally enacting its periphery, or limit. (For more on this topic see “The Medium of Contingency,” by Mathew Poole, in The Medium of Contingency. I am indebted to Matthew for drawing my attention to this dimension of the relations between capital and subjectivity.) We could say the liberal subject or Self is thus the event horizon of capital. It is the limit of a set that, in lying outside of that set, can never be attained from within the series that constitutes the set itself. This “subject” is the dominant effect of liberal capital, but it lies beyond the internal interactions of the system. It is the telos of the system of exchanges, but it can never be attained from within the system. This is why there will always be “progress.” For we can forever strive to draw closer to the goal of attaining fully present subjectivity, without ever actually reaching it.
This positioning of the self as a sovereign and absolute presence outside the system of economic exchanges also explains the quasi-sacred status of Art and Literature under classical capitalism – for these are simply analogues of the sovereign subject. Or rather, they are the modes of making in which we see the sovereignty of the subject displayed, because they are modes of making which are themselves outside the system of substitutions that constitutes capitalism. That is why, even though a price often is, in point of fact, attached to it, ultimately a work of Art or Literature is priceless. This is the paradox of Art under capitalism – for even when it is bought and sold, Art is assigned a value in the capitalist system that is literally beyond (economic) valuation. We can see this as the economic or material basis of Art’s famous autonomy. (From hereon I use the generalized, and capitalized term “Art” to designate all the “creative” arts, including literature in all its genres, cinema, music, and all the performative arts, irrespective of whether they adhere to principles of originality and creativity or not.)
However, according to Foucault, with the shift from classical to neo-liberal or post-fordist capital, the relationship between people and economics undergoes a change. (See “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” by Michel Feher, trans., Ivan Ascher, in Public Culture, 21.1.) Whereas the subject of classical-liberal capitalism was a free worker with a sovereign self understood as necessarily outside the sphere of capitalist production, under neo-liberalism the subject undergoes a radical transformation, for now the private and public, social and commercial merge and combine to produce a new measure of value, known as human capital.
‘Human Capital’ is the combined value of what constitutes one’s (let’s for now say ‘public’) labor power plus all of one’s Personal (let’s for now say ‘private’) attributes, where these ‘private’ attributes are drawn into the ‘public’ world of commercial exchange as valued assets. This includes those skills, experiences, knowledges and energies expended and used within dedicated (public) work time, but also…all those valuable aspects of one’s (private) life such as one’s fashion sense, sense of humor, wittiness, diplomatic skills, likes and dislikes, sexual prowess, and all other tastes and attitudes developed and deployed within one’s ‘private’ life…plus all the inherited qualities of one’s self such as one’s physiognomic, mental and even genetic strengths. Human Capital is the total measure of productive potential of one’s entire self, (M. Poole, Medium of Contingency).
In other words, under neo-liberal capital, the immeasurable, quasi-absolute qualities of the self have become measurable and exchangeable. Furthermore, as commodities to be sold on the market, the qualities of our subjectivity become items in which we must invest. As a store of human capital, the neoliberal subject thus becomes itself a micro-corporation, or mini Me Inc.(R), that invests in itself (as human capital) through education, health-care, and self-help, but also through buying cool outfits, new haircuts and being up to date with the latest cultural movements, all of which have currency in the marketplace, and all of which potential employers now attend to. (Though the idea of human capital effectively eradicates the distinction between material and immaterial, or social labor, it continues to leave outside the market, many aspects of care and reproduction that are still mainly performed by women.)
One effect of this shift is that the neoliberal Me Inc.(R) never leaves the economic sphere, for its whole life is caught up in its corporeal investment-advertisements, constantly investing in and advertising itself and its skills. Aside from rendering us all equal, and thus not distinguishing workers from capitalists, what is the aim of this self-investment, if not self-appreciation?
I invest therefore I appreciate.
I invest therefore I appreciate, myself.
This is the slogan of Me Inc.(R) subject of Human Capital. Self-help as market mechanism.
It is no wonder that Jean Luc-Nancy dubs this self-regarding subject, narcissistic, for it has no other aim than self-appreciation. And just as narcissism is capitalized through rendering it the defining psychological trait of the age, so society is recast as a human stock exchange. No longer a free-market but a mechanism for speculation, society becomes just one more arena for betting against the sustainability of some phenomena in favor of others: gambling with evolution, albeit that of human currency, not biological survival. And you don’t even have to last the long haul. You can win at this game by successful short-term investments, if you have enough (human) capital to play with, that is, enough ego. (The lack of a clear distinction between subject and ego is one of the many theoretical confusions plaguing contemporary debates about the relations between poetry and subjectivity.)
Of course there are questions. Who decides what constitutes appreciation? Precisely which kinds of appreciation translate into a market-(izable) value, and which do not? And who decides this? The market decides, dummy: the speculators, or their collective greed and panic mechanisms. A far more complex and difficult question is whether, instead of trying to completely resist capitalization of the self, (which is different from the more traditional commodification of the self), we can somehow resist the neoliberal system by embracing the notion of Human Capital, just as old-fashioned unions and socialists resisted the worst effects of classical capital by embracing the notion of the free-worker as a bargaining position? In other words, can we destabilize capitalism from within? Or, to put it another way, within the neo-liberal arena can one become a critical subject? And what would such a critical subjectivity actually look like?
One who invested in themselves, not to bolster their own ego and currency, but to in some way develop new modes of being with others in the world? Can Me Inc.(R) invest in itself, and in others, outside of monetary concerns? Can I invest in myself in ways that are non-economic?
Can this question even be asked? Or is the whole discourse of investment, (self)-appreciation and (human) capital so tied to economics that it makes no sense to speak of these terms in any other manner? Can another (non-economic) sense be given to these ideas? Are there examples? In the art world? Or the world of contemporary letters? And if not, where does that leave us, as subjects trying not to be completely capitalized within a market that can commodify anything? Does the human stock market also necessarily absorb all human behaviors?
Questions for a Neo-liberal poetics. If everything we make and do, including our “selves,” can be commodified and marketized – meaning that a critical art practice can no longer base itself on any putative resistance to commodification – can artists resist at another level by avoiding becoming capitalized subjects (in) themselves? And how would this subjectivity be displayed? For it would still be manifest in a commodity – owned, rented or freely donated to some institution, even a non-profit one. Under today’s neoliberal conditions can subjects produce art-(commodities) without becoming self-appreciating micro-corporations? Is the line, “Be negative, not just a blood-group, but a way of life,” a joke or a slogan for 21st century resistance?
What if I deliberately make “bad” investments in order to de-preciate myself? Is this resistance? Or simply failure? Can I deliberately make “bad” investments in order to depreciate myself on the market and yet still appreciate myself outside the market, and thus stand as some kind of example to others? What if I am all over the shop, sometimes making good self-investments, sometimes bad, so that my market value goes up, and then down, rather than maintain a consistent rating? Does unreliability translate to unbankability and hence to resistance? Is financial failure and/or a failure to gain widespread recognition, that is a failure of one’s cultural stock, a form of resistance, or simply bad economics, bad betting? To quote Rodrigo Toscano, “Can OCCUPY occupy OCCUPY?”
The first point to recognize here is that, under the neo-liberal rubric Art, including poetry, no longer functions as any kind of alternative to the capitalist relations of exchange and substitution. It may be critical of such relations, but no artist is operating outside these terms, as was possible under the classical system, not even conceptualists. This brings us to a point of clarification concerning the relations between the subject, capital and conceptualism. The classical conceptualist position as outlined by Duchamp was not so much a critique of capitalism, as an argument against the romantic elision of art and subjectivity. What Duchamp wanted was not an artform that could not be bought – he was after all a master at manipulating the market for his own work. He wanted an artform whose non-economic, or aesthetic value was completely severed from the sacred autonomous self. In other words, Duchamp was not a critic of capitalism and economic value. He was a critic of Romanticism and reigning early modern notions of aesthetics. (This raises the question of different kinds of value, different ways of assigning worth and significance, and of the relationships between these. But this would require another discussion.)
In Duchamp’s aesthetic dreaming, what reigned was not a post-capitalist art, but a post-subjective one. The fact that the self appeared then as outside capitalist exchange mechanisms seems not to have been a major issue for Conceptualism’s founder. But whatever the meaning of Duchamp’s gestures, conceptualist moves today must be seen entirely differently, for as Patrick Greaney and others have noted, the same gestures performed at different times have very diverse meanings. Thus, whatever motivated Duchamp then, today, when even the liberal humanist self has been incorporated into the economic exchange mechanism, conceptualist gestures can no longer be see as skirting around the capitalist system.
Of course, this is true of all artistic styles and viewpoints, from the most lyrical and self-centered, to the most impersonal and unoriginal. From the perspective of neo-liberal capital, both in theory and in practice, conceptual strategies are not categorically different from any other aesthetic modalities – they are simply competing ways for differentiating oneself on a marketplace that now includes everyone and everything. From the perspective of capital, like all other artistic styles, they are merely modes of branding. The (re)-introduction of conceptual gestures is thus a repeat of the introduction of the different forms of mark-making developed by the Impressionists to differentiate themselves from their competitors in the first wave of modern visual art – the famous gestures of the hand exemplified by Seurat, Cezanne and Van Gogh. (For more on this point, see Griselda Pollock’s great essay “Avant-Garde Gambits,” on Gaugin, colonialism, and the development of early avant-garde art markets. According to Pollock, the Impressionists may have been originals, but above all their creativity lay in their unique capacity to brand themselves as “original and unique.”)
In sum, as neo-liberal capitalism does entail a subject, even if only as its externally defining horizon, we can no more see this as the subject of lyric poetry than as the subject of conceptual poetry – or rather, as the subject of conceptual poets. For the subject of capital is not constituted by either a work or by its narrative perspective, including the apparent lack of such a perspective. The subject of capital is constituted by the person who makes that work, even if they do so by means of appropriation and copying. (One could even argue that these are the post-fordist modes of production par excellence.) It is thus not by their work that we can judge whether a poet is resisting the forces of capital, but by their actions in the world, especially their actions around the circulation and advertisement of their work. That is to say, if art can in any way be related to a resistance to neoliberal capital, this can only be through a deliberate strategy of non-distribution and non-promotion of the work – a keeping secret or withdrawedness – that is at complete odds with todays success-oriented culture. (In the visual arts there are some who have adopted this approach, though, by definition, all but a few have never heard of these geniuses.) In other words, whatever we think of their work, poets of all stripes, especially those engaged in the promotion of their artistic persona, are micro-incorporated mini Me Incs.(R), not just subjected to human capital, but willing, enthusiastic participants in the project. Where, one must ask, is the “blockage” in that?
Acknowledgments: This article forms part of a paper originally written for the seminar “Poetic Capital in Circulation: The Political Valences of Transnational Experimental Form” – part of the 2014 annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association. I am indebted to Ignacio Infante and Jennifer Scappetone, for convening the panel, and for inviting me to participate.
PS – The question then becomes: whether there is not some “other” way of understanding the subject, some alternative definition that would enable us to do something more with our selves than simply invest in our own appreciation? In my view, there is. However, we must approach the “subject” in a very different way, not as a phenomenon inherently related to, and produced by capital, but as something wholly separate –even if this Øther $ubject is undoubtably disturbed by the systems of capital with which, today, it is inevitably infected.