Monday, 29 September 2014

The Tragedy of the Subaltern

Freedom of expression is essentially a property right. This isn't a particularly contentious statement, as it is broadly accepted across the political spectrum. The left draws attention to the way that free speech is conditioned by wealth: no money, no voice. The right believes that all rights are ultimately property rights, deriving from ownership of one's own person: the one, irreducible human right. The left's view is cynical (in the original and non-pejorative sense of that word), recognising the reality of power in the world. The right's view is cynical (in the pejorative sense), being a self-serving defence of existing privilege. The irony is that the former accepts the non-perfectibility of man, while the latter insists on a universal human right. This cuts across the traditional view of the left as the inheritors of the Enlightenment's secularisation of religious perfectibility and the right as the repository of skepticism and the preference for practice over theory.

In practice, what I have characterised as the left view is usually relegated to the margins by the liberal shibboleth of freedom of expression as a universal human right independent of social context. This liberal orthodoxy reveals its true, pro-property colours when it is challenged explicitly as a property right. A current example of this is the early closure of Brett Bailey's Exhibit B art installation at the Barbican. I should say at this point that that the campaign to boycott the work is neither politically insightful nor engaged with the piece as art, but that is precisely where the power of its objection lies. This is a dispute over property, not a critique of the artist's worldview or technique. I've not seen the work, but then what interests me is the argument it has stimulated, which is a joint production of the artist, the gallery, his liberal supporters and the protestors.

Predictably, the protestors have been criticised as "bullies" and "freelance censors", and absurdly equated with Mary Whitehouse (of The Romans in Britain fame) and the prosecuting counsel in the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Whitehouse and traditional censorship were examples of propriety: the idea that certain things are so unpleasant that they must not be expressed or acknowledged publicly (though they can be indulged privately, particularly among "responsible" social elites). This is not the same as the totalitarian instinct to thoroughly erase heterodox views, to the point of rewriting history and reengineering language as in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is also not the same as the insistence in respect of Exhibit B that "the Black community refuses to have racism defined for them by wealthy, white liberals". This is a contest over rights, not a refusal or rejection of them.

If this had been an installation on a similar theme by Steve McQueen, say tableaux vivant from 12 Years a Slave, it is hard to imagine there would have been the same protest, but then it would not have been the same piece of work because McQueen, both as an artist and an actor on the political stage, is not the same as Bailey. That said, there is an interesting parallel between the works. The key scene of the film is the moment when Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon slowly turns to the camera and holds our gaze. Similarly, the key device of Exhibit B appears to be "the steely stare that each performer locks on to the spectator". The difference is the way that cinema heightens the confrontation: you cannot break his gaze and must endure the long take. In a gallery, you can look down at your shoes or your exhibition guide and move on. Though the installation aspires to "lock" the spectator, I suspect it suffers the same fate as any living history re-enactment -  i.e. superficial engagement or embarrassed avoidance by much of the audience.

As far as I can tell from the various reviews, both of the Barbican show and its earlier incarnation at Edinburgh, Bailey sought to confront the audience with the living, breathing reality of the institution of slavery, the subsequent colonial commoditisation and ethnographic control of subject races, and the continuity of this with current attitudes to immigration and asylum. Bailey's defence of the piece ("The listed components of each installation includes spectators – it is only complete with an audience") suggests that the work is not for a black audience, but is designed to be consumed by a comfortable white audience primed for liberal guilt, some of whose ancestors will no doubt have been slavers and colonial administrators. Given the demographics of gallery-going, this is both reasonable and lazy.

The central plank of the boycott is the belief that, as a white South African, Bailey has no right to appropriate black history, even for anti-racist ends, rather than distaste over his artistic method. This is essentially a dispute over rights to the property of history, hence the protestors repeated reference to their "ancestors". In contrast, method (e.g. the depiction of anal rape) was central to the motivation of Mary Whitehouse (unless I'm much mistaken, she did not hold strong views on the historiography of Roman Britain). What is common to both the artist (in his asssumptions about his audience) and the protestors is the idea that they are tied to their ancestors through the inheritance of rights and obligations. This is a fundamentally conservative philosophy.

The treatment of black history, or any marginalised community's history, as a property in which only certain people have copyright has been common to both art and cultural analysis since the rise of subaltern studies in the 1970s. Originating in a post-structural reinterpretation of Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, this provided a handy framework for emergent identity politics in the 1980s, which meant it was contaminated by commoditisation from the off. Its focus on expression ("Can the subaltern speak?") was quickly exploited on the right as evidence of "political correctness", while liberals reduced it to the fatuous "giving voice to the voiceless" (the key word is the verb give, suggesting a donation).

This conservative tone can be seen in the way that defence of such property rights quickly comes to rely on exclusion. For example, some of the Exhibit B protestors implicitly criticise black arists who participated in the installation as Uncle Toms: "Black artists have a dubious track record of appearing in and supporting racist art in the past, for example the black and white minstrel shows" (as if they were making an error of judgement rather than making a living). The implication is that being a member of the community does not guarantee property rights, which reminds you that property is ultimately held solely by right of possession. Similarly, when you hear someone deride those who would contest property rights as "bullies", you know you are listening to someone who is already in possession. It's worth noting that much of the liberal critique of the protest has employed the same condescending tropes (violence, intolerance, stupidity) used against "flying pickets", the original Irish boycotters and other ne'er do wells.

The wider significance of this minor cultural kerfuffle is the way that the principle of free expression has been polluted over the last 40 years by the development of property rights as the chief means of enforcing social and political exclusion. This was a deliberate shift in elite strategy following the failure of traditional group rights under the onslaught first of democracy and then civil rights over the preceding 50 years. From the 70s onwards, class prejudice and racial discrimination were diverted into an abrasive, selfish ideology that David Simon accurately describes as "Fuck 'em I got mine". The tragedy of the subaltern is that equal rights have been replaced by exclusive property rights, while the "lost voices of history" have been recuperated as commodities.

There is no better illustration of the political dominance of property rights than George Osborne's recently-announced plan to abolish tax on inherited pension pots - the privileging of the beneficiaries of unearned wealth - which furthers his wholehearted support for patrimonial capitalism. There is no better illustration of the social dominance of property rights than the way that we struggle to debate the operation of the Internet in any other terms, with "free speech" and "privacy" reduced to matters of copyright and reputation management. Exhibit B will live on as an artwork, with the copyright invested in Brett Bailey, while the protestors will continue to insist on their right to manage the reputation of their ancestors. George Osborne is still in tune with the times.

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