Essays

“artists-run futuresex, or, on the husbandry of the libidinal economy” by Kristi McGuire was commissioned by Chicago Artist Writers as part of Field Perspectives 2019, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field. Field Perspectives 2019 invites thinking that reflects on the future of the artist organizing field. The program is a collaboration between Common Field and nine arts publications and published in two parts. Part 1 includes texts by Chicago Artist Writers, The Rib and Sixty Inches from Center. Part 2 includes texts by Art Papers The Artblog, BMore Art, Momus, Terremoto, The Third Rail and Title Magazine. Generous support for Field Perspectives is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Figure 1: ACRE Zombi Disco Halloween Party (2017).

For a party at an artist-run space last Halloween, I went as “The Slow Cancellation of the Future,” the first chapter from deceased anti-capitalist theorist Mark Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures (2014). In choosing that title, Fisher was signaling to—or more bluntly, borrowing a concept from—Italian autonomist critic Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s After the Future (2011), leaning in to impotent timekeeping of our era, in which a combination of financial aggression, technological displacement, and retrospective culture traps us in a present that has long since replaced the idiomatic expression, “Tomorrow is a new day!,” with something, like, “Eventuality is the junkyard dog of yesterday!,” or better: a “Past to the Future” sale at a Party City franchise located someplace just beyond the strip mall of the real.

In the future, all artists will have sex with social practices. The same drives that allow artist-run organizations to determine an institution through the common actions of individuals are those that would perpetuate the present as a form of the hereafter. If that holds water, futurity isn’t progress—it’s a marketing tagline. Most of us who tread the path of aesthetic resistance in the face of certain fiscal and temporal inheritances know enough to at least insist that it is through agonistic engagement outside and beyond institutions that we will come to know enough to hate the bank (or the bankers)—but maybe not sufficiently plenty to hate the Future (or the Futurists).1

This, despite the fact that both institutions—speculative finance and conjectural futurity—paradoxically draw their shared power from the quotidian desires that shape our experience of the present. Finance capital wants to infinitely, if virtually, reproduce itself so the free market can live forever; we yearn for something called “the future,” so that we might one day die.

Figure 2: “This is a beautiful vintage computer style text effect with a vector collection of letters to let you create your own styled text effect.”

The “Mega-Sonic Retro Text Effect,” a font popular on Pinterest, amplifies and then solidifies its presence by overlapping each element to project a nebulous space of extra-dimensionality that never quite fully arrives—much like the future, to do so would require a piecemeal dismantling of reality in order to achieve perceptual hijinks. Consider the etymology of “overlap,” from the Old English (ofer– + læppa) was charged to mean “extend beyond,” as early as the 1630s. Prior to that, “lap” euphemistically referred first to the upper legs or at least the portion of such encumbered by a skirt’s fabric, then later and more explicitly, to female genitalia. The gestures of a libidinal economy, all things considered; film critic Anthony Lane likely put it best in his review of Showgirls: “To lap dance, you undress, sit your client down, order him to stay still and fully clothed, then hover over him, making a motion that you have perfected by watching Mister Softee ice cream dispensers.”2Neoliberal late capitalism put it even better by including the quote as an aside in a generic online etymology dictionary.3 Ladies and Gentleman, to misquote Stereolab c. 1997, our signs are floating in space.

Figure 3: “Alien Sci-Fi Iron Sew On Patch Applique Badge Motif Science Fiction UFO Space.”

On a recent trip to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, while waiting for a colleague to walk over from the second-least expensive parking lot, I circled through the gift shop. I had never been to the MSI before, premised on one hand upon my own fear that every museum is an ill-conceived diorama to the genealogies of industrial capital, and on another, because I had worked down the street at a marketing job for over a decade, and found myself filled with dread at the thought of lingering in any extra-institutional confines beyond that particular false portico façade. The only object I felt tempted to purchase at the MSI was a stick-on embroidered patch featuring the word, “SPACE,” administered in that same Mega-Sonic Retro Text Effect —a commodified darning, with slightest psychedelic styling—relayed in all-caps bubble letters, as if its displaced signifier were moving impossibly toward you, albeit in a flattened, two-dimensional landscape. “This is nowhere, and it’s forever,” said the showrunner for Star Trek, or Quantum Leap, or Black Mirror, or The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, perhaps themselves an artist confronting our macabre fetish of futurity as a “die-in,” pre-empting our regularly scheduled broadcast of the present.

Future Studies is a bifurcated field: its objects of inquiry both continuity and also that which is subject to change. As Alfred Hitchcock films go, Rope’s novelty rests on the delusion that it was shot in a single take—one long sanctimonious present—in actuality composed by a series of pans from Hitchcock lasting ten minutes or so each (the length of a film roll in a camera magazine; Hitchcock shot with a then-conventional 35mm lens), often beginning and ending with an object’s interference, as when the camera zooms in on the protagonist’s jacket, which soon covers the entire screen.4

Ironic, the smooth illusion of continuous progress mapped onto and predicated by a desire to shield our gaze from the abrupt transitions of one sequence to another. Trim the excess; quell the buzz; capture the significance—or as Elon Musk once said of Tesla, Inc.: “We could definitely make a flying car—but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is, how do you make a flying car that’s super safe and quiet? Because if it’s a howler, you’re going to make people very unhappy.”5

Speaking of happiness, or not worrying about it, I have no problem admitting I have Googled, more than once, “Is Bobby McFerrin a neoliberal?”

The Museum of Science and Industry’s permanent collection includes both a twenty-foot, ceiling-mounted Tesla Coil and a 2008 Tesla Roadster, the same make and model as Musk’s personal vehicle, which served as the initial dummy payload for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, launched in February 2018, making it the first CEO’s car to reach beyond the orbit of Mars, and also marks the debut of that one time when the world’s 54th richest person looped the David Bowie song, “Space Oddity” (David Bowie; Philips, 1969), via a piece of soon-to-be-interstellar debris’s banger sound system.6

Figure 4: “I wish I were making this image up.”

SpaceX’s second autonomous drone ship goes by the name, Of Course I Still Love You, an ode to Scottish sci-fi writer Iain M. Banks and his book The Player of Games (1988), which advances the idea that a society based on the mastery of games is inhumane; game theory started to scare the shit out of me when I learned Bob and Alice were common placeholder names in science and engineering, and that I had confused a description of Nash equilibrium (“Alice and Bob are in Nash equilibrium if Alice is making the best decision she can, taking into account Bob’s decision while Bob’s decision remains unchanged. . . . .”) with a 1969 film by Paul Mazursky. Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and coincidentally, was the first film in which I bore witness to 1/ an implied orgy, and 2/ the pre-post-Fordist libidinal economy. Same thing!

A recent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle relayed the following anecdote about Elon Musk: while visiting the Gigafactory 1—Tesla’s lithium-ion battery production center, located in Clark, Nevada, about seventeen miles outside of Reno, aligned to True North to facilitate GPS locating—Musk observed that “a machine that wound electrodes into formations known as jelly rolls was too slow.”7 Musk jammed the machine, as the French say, to increase the speed of manufacture; by the end of the day, it was operating ten times faster.

Jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton purportedly struck a series of bargains with his godmother, Laura Hunter, a voodoo priestess, involving the “give-man zombie,” a ritual in which one’s own good fortune is guaranteed by the reclamation of another man’s soul, a profit model similar to sub-prime-mortgage lending. Ostensibly, the only problem with this scenario was the clause that when your priestess died, so did you: in keeping with the voodoo curse or an undercurrent of reified coincidence, Morton heard news of Hunter’s passing on July 6, 1941, then died four days later.8

Copacetic with the labor theory of value, Marx rather famously suggested that after you remove the use-value of a commodity—like, say,  the future—all that remains is “the same spectral objectivity, a pure jelly of undifferentiated human labor.”9

Figure 5: Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) is the world’s largest third-party sports card authentication service, “the experts in grading cards.”

I remember the first time I learned that a member of the Trump Administration’s legal team was named Ty Cobb. “Ty Cobb, King of the Smoking Tobacco World,” was the header on a 1910 Lucky 7 baseball card priced by the Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) at $1 million, while “Former Trump lawyer Ty Cobb dances to band called Copstabber,” read the recent title of a post at The Hill.10 Public Service Announcement (PSA): Paul Kammerer, an Austrian biologist and early adopter of epigenetics, was the world’s first taxonomist of seriality. For Kammerer, these concurrences of events without any apparent causal connection were merely “visible peaks of larger moving entities of organized information.”11 In keeping with the Law of Conservation, information can’t be lost; instead, it “vanishes from our bandwidth of perception, to reappear in altered but often recognizable form down the road.”12 Kammerer’s book Das Gesetz der Serie (The Law of the Series, 1919) would not only go on to influence Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity (1922) and the erratic web postings of quasi-New Age inquirers but also presage much of today’s debates about the behavior of dynamical systems. In other words: a riot of coincidence diagnosed the civil disorder of the future.

“Momentum,” in financial literature, refers to a repeated performance distributed over hypothetical time; oil futures, for instance, possess tremendous momentum, because they are the most actively traded. I’m thinking of a line from the Juliana Spahr poem, “Transitory, Momentary” (2016), where she writes of Brent geese and West Texas Intermediate sweet crude, among other things:

“The refrain is the moment when the singer makes it clear that they understand something about what is being lost.”13

Figure 6: Courtesy of the author.

The Italian Marxist semiologist Paolo Virno, in his recent book Déjà Vu and the End of History (2015), part of the Futures series put out by Verso Books, attempted to embed Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time—the crucial components of which include the memory of the present and the experience of déjà vu, via which, according to Bergson, the future becomes closed—into the origin story of historical materialism.14 For Virno, the spectacle of déjà vu, “concerns, first and foremost, the post-historical inclination towards watching oneself live.”15 What he means is that déjà vu is the experience of the ordinary: there’s nothing novel about repetition, a project meant to trap us in the viewmaster of an inescapable present, only legible at the moment when we narrate the future as anything other than a prescriptive sequence a la Groundhog Day (1993). In other words: memory time is pathological time, and it makes us accept as naturalized, even fatalistic, certain phenomena better attributed to the potent unconscious algebra of misrecognition.

Libidinal Economy (1974), a book by the French postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, was published three years after then-President Nixon ceased the international convertibility of the US dollar to gold. Though Lyotard’s helped to institutionalize the micropolitics of desire, in which the coercive stunting of libidinal intensities leaves us so woke and shook that we cannot deny our investment: all political economies are libidinal, and every exchange originating in the libido is unconditional. The libidinal economy was theorized because orthodox Marxism let us down—in my humble opinion, all Marx ever wanted was to write a historiography of capital that ended with a temporality no longer predicated on the internalization of labor-power, and what he got was “late capitalism” as a generic synonym for the totalizing experience of time, as extrapolated by the inheritances of lazy post-Enlightenment metaphysics, under the impetus to keep producing something, like, for instance, criticality.

Of course, as we produce more and more, reanimating old forms into new ones, we not only become complicit in the perpetuation the market, but also the multiplication of our own unconscious drives. Parse Lyotard: “We will never be dead enough.”16

In the libidinal economy, surplus value is sexy; the pulsation of the libido and its pursuit of the pleasure principle are fresh out of signifiers. We’ve already untethered money from currency and affixed it to the penetration of our political desires.17  If it’s baroque, don’t fix it: in the age of financialization, in which everything can seemingly be made over in the image of the market, the intertwining of pleasure and commerce no longer has much to do with use or exchange. Now, instead, the interstice assumes the position of the speculator, alternately satisfied and repulsed by how a Donnie Darko-beam of blue light emerges from unconscious experience and pulls them into political common sense. Once we realized desire produced both capital and kink, we rethought the tools of our engagement—if anything can be a dick, we will manufacture more meaning, not less. The experience of surplus isn’t surplus, of course: it’s built into the idiom of the free-market—those who better know how to co-opt our libidinal intensities, best know how to put hegemony in praxis. Oddly enough, you can’t terminate the pleasure principle but can terminate: NGOs, non-profits, public-sector funding, benign middle-management positions predicated on bureaucracy’s structural violence, and your slate of adjunct classes.

Perhaps Catherine Malabou put it better: “What should we do so that the consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?”18

The end-game of the artist-run organization isn’t a licentious orgy, then, but rather, the deferential refusal of intimacy on the usual terms. The easiest way not to get in bed with capitalism isn’t by sleeping on the floor, but by staying up all night demanding self-determination, and never once looking at the clock.

  1. The Millennial Disruption Index, a three-year study (2014–17) that surveyed the consumer expectations of the generation born between 1981 and 2000—conducted by Swatch, the creative consultancy arm of Viacom, Inc., the world’s ninth largest multinational mass media conglomerate—concluded that of those surveyed, 71 percent would rather “go to the dentist than listen to what banks tell them.”
  2. Anthony Lane, review of Showgirls (October 9, 1995) in Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker (Vintage Books, 2002): 150–51
  3. Online resource: <http://www.etymonline.com/word/lap?ref=etymonline_crossreference#etymonline_v_2057>.
  4. ASC Staff, “Flashback: Hitchcock Talks About Lights, Camera, Action,” ASC Magazine (June 12, 2017). Online resource: <https://ascmag.com/articles/flashback-hitchcock-talks-about-lights-camera-action>.
  5. Chris Green, “Elon Musk: It’s Always the Quiet Ones,” Independent (June 8, 2014). Online resource: <http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/elon-musk-its-always-the-quiet-ones-9506963.html>.
  6. Ben Kaye, “Elon Musk’s latest SpaceX rocket is soundtracked by an infinite loop of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’” Consequence of Sound (February 6, 2018). Online resource: <http://consequenceofsound.net/2018/02/elon-musks-latest-spacex-rocket-is-soundtracked-by-an-infinite-loop-of-david-bowies-space-oddity>.
  7. David Gelles, “In Elon Musk’s world, brakes are for cars, not CEOs,” San Francisco Chronicle (August 31, 2018). Online resource: <https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/In-Elon-Musk-s-world-brakes-are-for-cars-not-13198077.php&gt;.
  8. Sarah J. Lauro, The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death (Rutgers University Press, 2015): 67–70.
  9. Karl Marx, Das Kapital Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Dietz, 2007), 52
  10. David Seideman, “Controversial $1 Million Ty Cobb Baseball Card Found In Old Paper Bag Sparks Big Debate,” Forbes (March 17, 2016). Online resource: <http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidseideman/2016/03/17/controversial-1-million-ty-cobb-baseball-card-found-in-old-paper-bag-sparks-big-debate>. Emily Birnbaum, “Former Trump lawyer Ty Cobb dances to band called Copstabber,” The Hill (July 9, 2018). Online resource: <https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/396110-former-trump-lawyer-ty-cobb-attended-show-of-a-band-called-copstabber>.
  11. Bernard D. Beitman, MD, “Seriality vs. Synchronicity: Kammerer vs. Jung,” Psychology Today (March 25, 2017). Online resource: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/connecting-coincidence/201703/seriality-vs-synchronicity-kammerer-vs-jung>.
  12. John Townley and Robert Schmidt, “Paul Kammerer and the Law of Seriality: The Lost Paradigm of Coincidence,” Fortean Studies, ed. Stephen Moore (John Brown Publishing, 1994), 254.
  13. Online resource: <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58455/transitory-momentary>.
  14. Henri Bergson, “Memory of the Present and False Recognition,” in Mind-Energy: Lectures and Essays, trans. H. Wildon Carr (Henry Holt; 1908/1920), 174.
  15. Paolo Virno, Déjà Vu and the End of History (Verso Books, 2015), 55.
  16. Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Continuum, 1974/2004), 113.
  17. Janani Balasubramanian, “How Many Licks,” New Inquiry 33: Dicks (October 20, 2014). Online resource: <https://thenewinquiry.com/how-many-licks/>.
  18. Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, trans. Sebastian Rand (Fordham University Press, 2008), 12.