segunda-feira, 9 de fevereiro de 2009

“On Lusitania”

I would like first of all to thank our hosts at the University of Evora, and especially Filipe Rocha da Silva, Marta Riera, and Gwenn Thomas for inspiration and their hard work in bringing us together on this occasion to honor Lusitania and the achievement of Martim Avillez. Lusitania has had a great influence on the place I work – the Department of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, and the Ph.D. program in Visual Studies there – I hope that this is the just the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between UCI and the University of Evora’s new programs in Visual Studies and Visual Culture. We are all deeply displaced people at UCI – California is a place made up almost entirely of immigrants, exiles, both willing and unwilling, opportunists, upstarts, and illegal aliens. Lusitania as an idea exists in California….It gives us some orientation and invisibly, its influence has worked to make the University of California feel more like home to me –Edward Dimendberg, Peter Krapp and Catherine Benamou, colleagues of mine in the Film and Media Studies and Visual Studies Programs are all Lusitania authors, and they send their greetings to all of you here. In many ways, we can say that UCI the university itself have become a small island where survivors of the shipwreck, not only of Lusitania, but of the dream of a utopic space of the city, a cosmopolitanism that has almost been entirely appropriated by real estate speculation and the financialization of the economy of Manhattan. Loft lifestyles have been sold to a younger generation of new economy workers from sea to shining sea, where lofts that represent the merging of work and play were made unaffordable to artists and intellectuals.
Russell Jacoby’s screed against young academics and his denunciation of the suburbanized of the intellectual turned professional neglects the economic problem, the affordability problem, the economics of urban life as a function of real estate development. I would argue that the university as one of the last refuges of the resistance to profit and market driven logics of neoliberalism, that have proven more powerful than the aesthetics of postmodernism. Martim Avillez, the creator, the publisher, the designer and the impresario of Lusitania enjoyed the benefits of “rent control” in New York – laws passed through the struggle of rent control – a result of Progressive – Era urban activists…and in New York, the efforts of radical Jewish exiles and immigrants. From Wikipedia:
In the United States during World War I, rents were "controlled" through the efforts of local rent anti-profiteering committees and public pressure. Between 1919 and 1924, a number of cities and states adopted rent and eviction control laws. Modern rent controls were first adopted in response to WWII-era shortages, or following Richard Nixon's 1971 wage and price controls.
New York has had the longest experience of rent controls, since 1943…The period has been marked by the lack of an "adequate supply of decent... housing."
So we have gone from rent control to the University, which is in no way an ideal place for the life of artists and intellectuals, but it is one of the last institutions in the United States that provides an economic security zone for refugees the political and economic developments that have turned artists and intellectuals into something called the “creative class.” De-industrialization of the West has produced an officially sanctioned fantasy that “creativity” will solve the problems of economic inequity – in the skeptical spirit of Lusitania, I urge you all to be skeptical of the European Union’s year of “creativity and innovation.” I do not want to be in any way melodramatic of our victimization – but I find Saul Ostrow’s term of “refugees of the culture wars” extremely apt. We should in fact, here renew our solidarity with the refugee of the economic wars against all workers/employees in the latter half of the twentieth century.
What I would like to discuss with you with regard to Lusitania as a journal, a collaborative project, a concept, a trans-Atlantic space today can be divided roughly into two parts, that in my discussion will be interwoven, but it might be good to keep the two ideas discreet, separate and mobile:
1. Lusitania and the anti-institutional, flat, entrepreneurial model of production. Translation and interdisciplinarity were watchwords at Lusitania. This method of production, plus Martim Avillez’s prodigious graphic and illustrating talents allowed for the creation of a journal as an integrated textual and theoretical object
2. Lusitania, New York City, the decline of the urban intellectual: Lusitania emerged at a moment when finance capital’s power in the New York art world ebbed briefly after the collapse of the stock market in 1987. The art world experienced an unprecedented surge of interest in matters theoretical and economic and it seemed possible to forge a truly hybrid space of productivity and improvisation between art and theory. Can we understand this ebullience as a reaction to the temporary retreat and disarray of the stock and real estate markets? Can we account for the marked retreat from critique that characterized the 1990s as a function of the irrational euphoria of the New Economy?

Martim’s gift for collaboration led to a remarkable series of publication. Irregular and unpredictable, Lusitania was if anything the vision of a singular, but responsive person. If the late 1980s and early 1990s were a time when a new flattened model of production appeared in the corporate world, where creative and flexible teams of collaborators produced the marketing and technological breakthroughs that would shape new economy – at least according celebrants of the new order from George Gilder to Robert Reich, Anglophone academia remained quite unmoved and untouched by the forces of globalization and personal computing. The Culture Wars raged on between the canon protectors and the proponents of new methodologies and new interdisciplinarities, and despite the infusion of post-68 “French Theory” freshly translated and disseminated by Sylvere Lotringer’s Semiotexte imprint, Cold War erudites from Eastern and Central Europe commanded authority and power at Columbia University and the New York Review of Books. October represented another kind of intervention: ambitious and pedagogical, with a sense of its own disciplinary importance, the editorial board was directly anti-Establishment, even as it set out its own orthodoxies.
Artists read the Semiotexte translations of Baudrillard and Deleuze and discussions at New York art world dinners could often take on the allure of a seminar on the political economy of the sign. Into this particular mix, emerged Lusitania, the brainchild of a man who was hungry for theory and able to give ideas graphic life. Martim was the Frank Miller of downtown theory, but he was never content to work alone. Lusitania was firmly grounded in an urban situation: its identity shaped by Water Street as much as Front Street. It emerged in that city celebrated by Jane Jacobs, and mourned by Russell Jacoby. Jacoby’s criticism of younger academics – probably like myself – who became suburbanites and retreated from public participation in cultural discussions. Our fates are directly linked is to the destruction and enervation of the cosmopolitanism of the American city that nourished that sense of participation and community. If so many Lusitania authors, like so many artists of the 1980s and 1990s have ended up in the UC system, it is not because we retreated into institutionality and professionalization as a programmatic choice. Along with rent control, there are two words that are the miraculous guarantors of a kind of intellectual and aesthetic and political autonomy of which I had such a giddy, but unrealistic taste in my twenties – Health Insurance. Martim represented that integrated sense of bohemian, intellectual life that he and I sought out in New York City, in Manhattan of that period, and which we found. We were both children of Cold War military dictatorships – his in Portugal, mine in Taiwan: this made us particularly suspicious of all official discourses, be they progressive or reactionary. It made us particularly vulnerable to belief in cultural production as a pathway to a more general emancipation. I say this only out of inference, not because we discussed directly this shared reflexive and some times destructive anti-authoritarianism. The secret link between Taiwan and Portugal has to do with nominalism – in the 16th century Portugese explorers named the island Ilha Formosa – which is a name early modern Europeans used – Formosa to name this island that Portuguese explores were content to name, but not colonize.
The Abject, America came out of a collaborative to disrupt two forms of official intellectual discourse that were rising in power and influence on the Left. They were the discourses of multiculturalism and post-colonialism. Our skepticism about this emerging politics of identity was expressed in humorous, and often purely graphic ways in that issue. Perhaps we should have been more polemical, but we didn’t want to give succor to the Right in its attacks on identity politics. We wanted to expand the performative and theoretical frames in which we might think about America as an object of fantasy, and abject sort of America, the one that we share as a symptom, a nightmare and a dream. The Abject, translated into an American thing, spanning many languages, an ocean, many nations, called to us – at a time when Julia Kristeva was theorizing this and Jacques Lacan’s objet petit a was also capturing the imagination – we wondered, how do we illustrate the breadth and width of a transcontinental fantasy of redemption and harmony, now offered to us in the discourses of immigrants, and various races, reclaiming their rightful heritage, calling up the traditions of the people – to provide a new kind of crazy quilt image of inter-racial, inter-ethnic harmony. Of course the homogeneity of the elites had to be broken down, but would proportional representation be enough to create the kinds of freedom and creativity that we hoped or? Could we not imagine, did we not have to imagine utterly new forms of solidarity and mobilization? This was before the rise of Web 2.0, Facebook and other forms of life on line that Lusitania would explore in subsequent issues. The concern of the Abject, America, for me was to explore the libidinal economy of solidarity. This call to be diverse was also being carried forth at a time when new forms of economic consolidation, new forms of corporate sovereignty were in fact being strengthened. America, as a site of “discovery” – as a site of the visual mystery and as a new site of pageantry as diversity were evoked in Lusitania’s pages – What was being discovered by theorists like Fredric Jameson during that precise era, was that if nineteenth century capital could be allegorized through massive narrativization, as in the novels of Balzac, Flaubert or Zola, we had the visual experience of the Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles with its forbidding exterior, its vertigo inducing interior balconies as the crystallization of “postmodernism” or the fragmentation of spatial and temporal experience – as the logic of late capitalism. Lusitania and its authors avoided those terms, and the celebration of the mixing of high and low went into the practices of visual and illustrative saturation rather than into an explicit program that had become the intellectual consensus of New York during this period – where everyone from downtown to uptown was caught celebrating the hybridization of high and low culture.
By the end of 1980s, forward looking theorists and thinkers all affirmed that a salutory destruction of divisions between high and low culture had been realized by the new conditions of postmodernism. The hybrid and the impure embodied a kind of aggressive transgression that was almost universally irresistible in its pure power of innovation: when Anna Wintour took on the editorship of American Vogue in 1988, she seemed to be on the same page as the theorists of the postmodern. Her first cover featured a three quarter length portrait of a smiling, pre-Raphaelite model sporting a $10,000 necklace, Christian Lacroix jacket, and ripped blue jeans. Another Wintour commissioned cover from that period featured a group of sylph-like models posed artfully on Harley Davidsons sporting Chanel skirts paired with leather jackets and caps. This mixture of high and low, of the hand made and the industrially manufactured, the opulent and the everyday continues to distinguish the seductive powers of “modern fashion.” It was the same mixing that was championed by cultural and academic populists. At the Museum of Modern Art, Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik found that modern art and artists had always drawn upon irresistible energy of popular culture.
If we found ourselves in a new cultural field defined by a ludic post-modernism that had demolished historical orders, it was no accident that the divisions between high and low culture were broken down so that all culture could be liberated from the burdens of history. To express a critical view of “high” modernism was de rigeur. In the postmodern objects surrounding us, the present had overcome the historical and conceptual mistakes of the past, because Jameson identified in them
the effacement in them of the older (essentially high modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories and contents of that very Culture Industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Leavis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School.
The great divide between “high” and “low” culture as a geological and spatial divide that made of modernism’s progress a natural history of the aesthetic. The gulf separating high and low culture rather than being the overdetermined symptom or the condensed result of a great struggle for symbolic legitimization of domination is apprehended instead as a geological scar, a great rift in the cultural topos that is somehow miraculously healed by the appearances of “texts” infused with “contents” from both sides of the gap.
The overcoming of the great divide overturns the privilege of “bourgeois high art.” Huyssen imagines that a sufficient reform of modernism would occur as inclusion of women artists, avant-garde practices and popular culture in an account of the aesthetic. In the modern /postmodern divide that Huyssen draws upon, the masculine/feminine dyad is reversed in order of privilege and the feminism and femininity of postmodernism and its practices represents the postmodern overcoming of its patriarchal, modernist past. In the end, he too renounces critical analysis of instrumental rationality for the benefits of postmodern self-reflexivity, or “growing awareness.” This is what characterized the weakness of Andreas Huyssen’s recourse to feminist artworks as the actualization of postmodernism’s historical innovation. For Huyssen, the postmodern names a political crisis of “capitalist modernization and of the deeply patriarchal structures that support it.” But what exactly was the nature of this crisis? More than anything, it appeared to be dominated by the demise of the patriarchal order, which lead to a sexual and cultural revolution: because of the depth of such a disruption, the postmodern moment seemed to offer genuine and more far-reaching changes than “traditional” revolutions were unable to imagine. If there were “economic and social dislocations” to be dealt with, artists and more specifically feminist artistic production will offer a road map towards a new and more liberated way of being.
The creation of the difference between highbrow and lowbrow cultures in American history is intimately related to an administrative solution to the problem of hegemony. But, as Lawrence Levine reminded us in his intervention in the culture wars, culture was not always divided so neatly into high and low. In 1849, popular outrage against William Charles Macready’s performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth produced popular protests that ended in bloody violence of the Astor Place Riots; in morgue and police records, it is easily proven that the protestors were working class New Yorkers. Levine offers many accounts of the unruly nature of the mid-nineteenth century audience: empowered to pass judgment on performances of all kinds, undisciplined, impolite and highly opinionated, it is hard to imagine that touring artists feared the American audience not because of its philistinism, but because of its irreverent sense of authority in matters of taste and culture. Audiences felt entitled to loud expressions of pleasure and displeasure: this was the kind of “participation” that today’s concert hall and museum education departments supposedly want to inspire, but control. In 1873, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park was designed with the explicit intention of disciplining New York City’s unruly masses: Olmsted’s goals were explicitly geared toward creating an urban pastoral that would designed with the aim of “harmonizing” and “refining” the “most lawless classes” of New York City. The intense efforts of a reform-minded elite focused on policing behaviors in spaces such as theaters and parks and the public galleries of new museums. Levine demonstrates that in New York City, the working classes of 1849 felt that they were in full possession of the space of the theater. It was after the Astor Place riots that restrained reverence and politely admiring applause would become the enforce forms of correct response to performances of Shakespeare. The urban working classes had to be taught the properly reverential and docile attitude toward the cultural treasures. The intensive re-ordering of culture would play a vital role in the solidification of a hierarchy of value in the waning years of 19th century America. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s admissions policies were vigorously debated by political and cultural elites because trustees felt that the galleries might be used inappropriately by the working classes as places of rest and unregulated leisure. Would the popular classes benefit from being exposed to great art, or would they sully the newly sanctified spaces of American wealth’s new passion for great collections? These questions had become moot at the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st, when museums vied with each other to produce the most popular and populist programs to spark the appetites of a jaded and indifferent mass audience.
Would identitarian cultural politics, or a playful postmodernism be powerful enough to counter the logics of neoliberalism that according to David Harvey were gathering strength in reshaping precisely the spaces and places of Lusitania into sites of spectacle and real estate speculation. In fact, neoliberalism would come to play a greater role in urbanism than any of us could have realized at the time: finance capital would engineer more freedoms for itself to increase its powers and art objects and lofts would become some of its favorite objects of speculation. In fact, as Harvey has shown, the financial collapse of New York City during the 1970s and its subsequent rescue would pave the way for its “regeneration” during the following decades.
Martim gave me the opportunity to do something extraordinary with him while I was very young – he trusted me to be able to pull something off and I will be forever grateful to him for this. Lusitania represented a way I could temporarily evade the hierarchical, punishing logic of academic professionalism – and it gave me the confidence to be improvise and create with some one who was really truly inspired. Subsequently, I would argue with Martim that he should give up a little autonomy for regularity – I have always had to repress my pragmatic streak with him, but little by little, it came out. He resisted, evaded. I thought that the journal, if left to pure idiosyncrasy could be construed as a kind of vanity press affair – I thought that there was something to be said for if not peer review, then at least more editorial discussion. I have to say, that even though I mentioned the anti-authoritarianism we shared, we were neither of us very good at democratic process either – Martim would often make sudden decisions that caught me completely off guard. He could be a dictator when necessary and it was infuriating to me, but I understood it. As I have gotten older, and more worn down by bureaucracy, I see the ways in which there is room for improvisation and creativity within processes that are more sticky and more institutional. I have also come to accept that intellectual life and the spirit of critique and innovation is going to have to find a way to sustain itself in large, cumbersome institutions like the university. I am not particularly hopeful that it can survive in these places, but that is not reason enough to renounce our efforts to promote stealth forms of creativity and experimentation. I have nostalgia for the urban, organic sense of adventure and danger and I mourn its loss, but I think that we have to fight to keep a space in the University open for work that is truly alive. Unlike Jacoby, who deplores the whole generation of academics who he says have abandoned the discomfort of public engagement for the emollients of professional existence, I think that the Internet and other forms of access and association that it has facilitated may be providing us a great challenge and opportunity to expand our notion of participation and innovation. This isn’t to say that we can transform the punishing and often repressive and unjust system by which academia vets its insiders – the tenure system – overnight, or that we can make academics into public intellectuals and restore intellectuals to a bohemian freedom made possible by rent control and urban density…We can’t, but Lusitania’s very legacy may be the sustenance of that kind of existence as a possibility – for the sustenance of intellectual productivity, in the spaces where it is still possible.
Lusitania may actually have a responsibility to go on, and to assess its historical importance in the brief convergence of art and theory that occurred in New York City. Can it exist elsewhere, preserving always that organic relationship to the web of connections that bound us all to a small piece of a small island. Can we re-invoke the chance encounter? The late night discussion, the para-institutional mischief that Martim was especially fond of? The final issue of Lusitania is a masterpiece and it touches in its illustration of the little known history of Portuguese Jews, on the issues of exile and persecution, displacement and destruction that have preoccupied Martim – but he is able to deal with a piece of painful history without sentimentality, but with a gorgeous kind of compassion – that is finally able to produce the kind of tiger’s leap into the past that Walter Benjamin described as being critical to the best kinds of historical materialism.
If Lusitania can have a future, and I think it can, perhaps it can have a more institutional and regular existence, so we are all older now and financial and process-based concerns I think do have to be taken into account without compromising Martim’s vision. As it was, one of Lusitania’s best qualities should never be changed – its bilingualism. Transnational before it became chic to speak of such things, this journal really was about cutting out a space of intellectual and visual experimentation that cut across disciplines, national boundaries, languages and continents, that identified with global flows even as it tried to interrupt them with its dynamic commitment to more than one language. Lusitania was always about making Ocean crossings, which we have all done to be here. I remember Martim’s delight when he finished the logo of the sinking Lusitania – the sinking ship, the transatlantic vessel, the object of international contention in a long, and exhausting war….

Catherine Liu

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