Counter-violence in the Arts and Education

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In 1995 a University of California student, Paul Alexander Julitainen, made a film called Herbert’s Hippopotamus: Marcuse and Revolution in Paradise. One of the film’s highlights is an interview/exchange between German philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, and a journalist, wherein the latter attempts to elicit the professor’s advocacy of violence, referring particularly to student-led rioting over the Vietnam War. Finally conceding to at least the idea of a ‘counter-violence’ on the part of the students in their response to the belligerence of the state, the journalist nevertheless continues to pine for sensationalist simplification:

J: If I understand the theory there is supposed to be some redeeming virtue for participants in violence, that it lets them work out their frustrations and get them out of their systems, and that this somehow does them some good, and that therefore it is a positive social good to engage in violence.

HM: No, you see, that I consider a vulgar psychological interpretation, which is, in addition, not applicable here because it completely overlooks the motives and objectives of the protest movement. But there is, we talked about it, a difference between the violence of defense and the violence of aggression.

J: Well there was certainly violence against people in the Paris riots.

HM: Counter-violence. That I have seen. The students were perfectly peaceful, and the police got orders, first to clear the core of the Sorbonne, and then to clear the streets. And you know that they don’t exactly do that in the way of a nursemaid singing a baby to sleep.

J: Counter-violence is okay, in your view?

HM: It’s not a question of whether or not it’s okay. It’s a question of when and where it is necessary, necessary in order to keep alive yourself and what you stand for.

Ironically (though not unsurprisingly) Marcuse was then labeled an advocate of violence by the mainstream media and was eventually forced into retirement by UC management. It is worth bearing these kind of power structures (right-wing politics, mainstream media and their confluences within education) in mind. What I want to do here is apply Marcuse’s idea of a counter-violence in a broader sense to the everyday work of academics, teachers, artists and those who recognise the violence inherent in the process of sublimating public needs to those of capital. The focus is on the changing nature of funding streams, and a proposed response to that change that involves the retention of some form of independence from the pervasiveness of the market, if this is at all possible. To illustrate this change I use a brief and by no means total example of two different kinds of ‘strategic framework’. I then turn to the theories of Marcuse and German social theorist Jurgen Habermas respectively in order to explain what I think is going on, before offering some ideas on how to move forward.

With the complete revocation of arts funding within education, and the waning capabilities (purposefully induced through government cuts) of the publicly funded Arts Council, most projects now rely on private finance. Even before this, no one project could ever claim to be independent, as in free from outside control or support. Nevertheless, we can make a distinction between public and private funding on the basis of their different ends. Consider, for example, two different strategic frameworks, both published in 2013: the first by Arts council England, the second by the Creative Industries Council. Through analysis of these texts we can discern two fundamentally opposing goals: the pursuit of fulfilling the public interest, and the pursuit of private gain. I do not want to claim, however, that the texts in themselves embody the opposition between violence and counter-violence, nor that the ideas therein can even be traced back to a single agency such as an individual or group of people (a corporation, for example). They are moments in a continuous procession of dynamic forces, which, when taken together, demonstrate the sublimation of the public interest by the overriding critical standards of society’s dominant institutions. Furthermore, they need to be looked at in the context of a huge reduction in public spending on the arts and a closer bonding between government and industry.

In the opening statement of the Arts Council England strategic plan, entitled Great Art And Culture for Everyone, the council identify themselves as follows:

“We are a custodian of public investment, and we are charged with getting the maximum value out of this: the enlightenment and entertainment arts and culture bring us; the enriching of our lives and the inspiring of our education; the vital contribution to our health and well-being and the powering of regional regeneration, tourism and our standing abroad”.

By contrast it is difficult to identify exactly who and what the Creative Industries Council is, what with its diffuse membership comprising MP’s such as Vince Cable and Sajid Javid, as well as employees of a variety of multinationals including Warner Brothers, BskyB, Amazon UK and Facebook. The introduction to the CIC’s strategic plan runs thus:

“It’s an exciting and pivotal time for the UK’s creative industries. Recent statistics show the sector punches above its weight for the economy, generating £71.4 billion gross value added (GVA) in 2012 – a 9.4 per cent increase that surpasses the growth of any other UK industry”.

Far from nurturing creativity for the sake of the enlightenment, enrichment, health and well-being of society, the CIC’s agenda is laid bare repeatedly throughout the document as putting “the creative industries at the heart of the growth agenda”. The government describes the role of the CIC as such:

“Setup to be a voice for the creative industries, the council focus on areas where there are barriers to growth facing the sector, such as access to finance, skills, export markets, regulation, intellectual property (IP), and infrastructure”.

The creative industries must develop in tandem with the needs required to sustain growth. In other words, that which cannot be rationalised along monetary lines is considered a barrier to growth, and has no place within the creative industries, due to be consigned instead to the destitute realm of the arts as the value of human flourishing is reduced to what Habermas calls ‘instrumental rationality’ – a relationship based upon domination and manipulation of the subject for private gain. Barriers to growth can also be found in areas such as education, where the idea of knowledge for the sake of it struggles against the profit-motive. One of the CIC’s long term goals within education, therefore, is to increase “employer investment in and ownership of skills development meaning more and better ladders of opportunity”. In other words, industry will use inroads chiselled out by government members of the CIC to make direct interventions into education with the goal of cultivating employable students. This is an organisation that doesn’t have a mandate. What they have are three MP’s sitting on their board. The fact that multinationals are even allowed to have plans for our education system is indicative of a broader shift within society, from a concern with maintaining the public interest, to a marketised rationale.

One of our primary concerns should be the effect this specific brand of reasoning will have (and is having) on the younger generation. The extent, that is, to which it fosters what Marcuse calls the falsification of the needs of the individual, that is, the process by which a repressive society imposes its own requirements on all aspects of a persons life. Their needs come to reflect “the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice, products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression” (Marcuse 1964: 15). The satisfaction gained in fulfilling these needs amounts to a “euphoria in unhappiness” as the individual undergoes a repressive development which hampers the emergence of their consciousness, and thereby their consciousness of servitude.

Marcuse uses the term ‘affluent society’ to describe an overtly consumerist society constituted by an inseparable unity between productivity and destruction. It’s rationale “lies in its very insanity, and the insanity of society is rational to the degree to which it is efficient, to the degree to which it delivers the goods”. The message is that productivity must be heralded above all else, especially when it is couched in short-sighted backwardness and destruction. Productivity, that is, in tandem with the interests of societies dominant institutions. The effect this form of production has on learning in general is evident in the entitlement students feel they have to good grades based on their £9000 a year bill rather than the quality of their work.

As far as educational practices are concerned, they become subject to what Habermas calls colonisation by subsystems such as the market and state bureaucracy. In an essay on journalism and the academy, Lee Salter outlines this process:

“Practices are colonised when pressured to adjust to the pursuit of external goods rather than their own internal goods and the goods of the communities in which they take place. When external goods dominate, the practices are prevented from facilitating human flourishing, and the practices in which they take part are instrumentalised and oriented towards the pursuit of these external goods” (Salter, 2012).

With all this in mind, it seems almost impossible for any project or organisation to exist independently of the market. What I want to suggest, then, is that rather than thinking about ‘independence’ as a goal, we might instead aspire to an ‘anti-dependence’ – a project that, in recognising the economic apparatus bearing down on it, works towards its critical negation and ultimate subversion.

To misconstrue this step as a concession to capital (in the sense of doing away with independence as a higher goal) is to overlook the appropriation of independence as part of the left-wing arm of capital, capital’s conscience, so to speak, evident in areas of film production and exhibition the world over – spaces where these power structures are rarely, if ever, engaged with on a critical level. We do not need this form of independence. Anti-dependence, with its anti-neocolonial connotations means that artistic works acknowledge their inherently political status and moral responsibility, as well as their own pedagogical process. It enables students and teachers to apply theory learnt within institutions, not to some abstract ‘out-there’, but to their immediate lived surroundings, so that countering the violence of sublimation, falsification and colonisation in itself becomes a pedagogical process.

Author: Anthony Killick

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