The Crises of (Com)passion and the Corrupt Audience

The Crises of (Com)passion and the Corrupt Audience
Alina Popa

– an analysis of affect circulation and border movement in the Postspectacle Shelter(1) – 

 The Crises of (Com)passion

 How does the relationship between compassion and injustice work? And how does it function in an institutionalized museum context? Does it work to produce a shift or is it a mere dioramization, a murky mirror of reality? Capital of compassion is being constantly accumulated through the charity-economy with artists, NGO’s and foundations acting as agents of the soul, that soul which is put to work(2) in the new financialized economy. The whole image production representing far-off colonial subjects and as well as hidden backyard misery within the first world is in search of the becoming-spectator. Becoming-spectator to the pain of others generates the illusion of agency through the involvement in a circuit of feelings that actually sustains and reproduces social injustice and economic inequality. There is always this becoming-spectator implicit in the representation of injustice.

Compassion implies hope, hope for justice, it implies the transformation of a singular instance in a potentiality for its perpetual existence. But capitalism today relies on the relentless branding and marketing of even the most ‘inner’ aspects of subjective experience(3), so ‘hope’ is immediately commodified as a warranty that the system will go on, will have a future, so that the structural inequalities and generalized injustice cannot be challenged. Thus, we have to acknowledge that at work in the new economy of emotions that animates current financial numbers and profits is a compassion-without-hope. That is why in the Postspectacle Shelter – with its No-Hope-slogans and the performance of compassion brought simultaneously onto the artistic and political scene(4) – there was no illusion. The spectacle of compassion was made manifest, all that was performed was pure soothing effect (inviting the homeless, offering food, medical care, knowledge, affectivity and voice). In the neoliberal reality, in order to annihilate resistance to the exploitation both of humans and non humans (animals and environment), big companies and supra-democratic organizations (World Bank, FMI etc.) use whitewashing strategies such as engaging in fighting poverty (when at the same time they perpetuate it), in investing in research to clean the ecosystem (after they have destroyed it), in rehabilitating communities (before they dislocate or evict it) etc. In this ‘reality’ there is always the ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down’. In the Postspectacle Shelter there was only the ‘sugar’, the comforting, without the ‘medicine’ and nevertheless without hope. This is why, although there were no illusions, the situation seemed unreal. It was clear that no hope lies in the neoliberal ‘spoonful of sugar’, but is there any hope at all?

Slogan of the Presidential Candidate campaigning in the Postspectacle Shelter

Who is more prone to being identified as compassionate? The present economy manages compassion as it organizes moods and states of mind. In this emotional organization chart roles are assigned and registered, the psychic space is being constantly modeled and produced on the immaterial assembly line of the postfordist factory. The idea of care becomes a commodity to be sold for profit under the strict regulation of the economic logic. One example of the way this affective regulation works we find in the dominant rhetoric of the West as capitalism arrived in the Eastern Block, at the beginning of the transition period. The West self-proclaimed itself as compassionate and performed the agency of care in the East. So powerful was this ideology that it still pervades public opinion today. For example, there was a comment about the pampers packages brought into the Postspectacle Shelter for a young couple with a baby, which were subsequently identified to have been actually brought by the ‘French’ – in the foreign AID rhetoric, compassion and help have to come from the West, as from an alien force.

Reversely, in the spectacle of compassion, the subjects of injustice are caught in the trap of performing their suffering in front of an audience who must develop a psychic transformation to-not-feel-empathy in order to adapt to the emotional requirements of the neuropolitics at work. Like for the ‘tributes’ from Hunger Games(5), the spectacle seems the only escape, the only way out from the precarious life and all that you are left with to perform is your own enacted bare life.

How to exhaust this spectacle potential, how to achieve a zero degree of attention which could give way to affective attention as opposed to the current marketization of attentiveness? How can we place ourselves in a position of self-fragilization(6), which allows not only a power to affect, but a power to be affected?(7) Maybe this aesthetic vulnerability implied by the spectacle of suffering can be transformed into an ethical vulnerability – the reciprocal acknowledgement of a shared fragility and precariousness of our body-psyche both politically and ontologically.

Compassion and distance

There is a multiple layer of distance in compassion. The first layer is the one that enables compassion in the first place, it is the distance between the subject and object of compassion, which involves a sort of hierarchical relationship(8) between the object of compassion that has the suffering itself and the subject of compassion which has the thought of suffering. Compassion in itself involves an unequal relationship between the thought of emotion which then becomes an emotion in itself (feeling the pain of others) and the emotion lived (one’s own suffering, feeling pain).

The second layer of distance comes from the overwhelming enormity of the painful spectacle(9), which results in feeling powerless. The scenes of vulnerability produce a desire to withhold compassionate attachment, to be irritated by the scene of suffering. The spectacularization of poverty (in numerous commercials, TV docs, movies) produces a numbness of empathic feeling. It produces the possibility to disconnect, to run away from the scene of suffering, to refuse actual engagement with the reality of pain. Lack of empathy (impairment of compassion) and apatheia (impairment of pathos) are the states of mind produced by the late capitalism with its now primary function as an emotion-shaping belief system.

The third layer of distance has its origins in the Cartesian view on the mind-body relation, where one’s own body and emotionality is perceived as external, detached and hence controllable by the sovereign-mind and rationality. In this case, distance – which actually characterizes the whole post-Renaissance scientific, patriarchal paradigm – is projected upon one’s own body-mind. Through will, judgment and reason, the unruly, animalic body should be tamed and controlled, the same way that the state functioned as the centre of command to discipline the bodies of people under its rule. As Silvia Federici was writing: in other words, … the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.(10) At the same time, as a historical moment, the Cartesian paradigm coincides with the advent of capitalism, the erosion of community and of every form of communality, based on proximity and compassion, as opposed to alienation and estrangement, which were triggered by the dominance of capital and money relations.

The unruly body-mind is now controlled by psychopharmacology and the medico-chemical apparatus, an extension of the Cartesian paradigm modelated by the present financial capitalism. So what the current economy produces is the automation of the body-psyche through its hegemonic machines that generate the plot we play in without sensing, the affects we capture without knowing.

Could we then think how the automatized body-mind – automatized both in the Foucauldian sense of discipline and control and in the posthumanist sense of the prostheticity(11) – could revolt against its own affective, bodily programming?

Bodies out of place. The power of homelessness

As we are more and more becoming precarious and home-less, there is a backlash of intense movements of home-finding(12), home-creating as all-too-familiar (and dangerous) ways of escaping the frail ground of economic insecurity and no-future-ism. The new old homes are the solid, enclosed (and oppressive) territories of nationalism, racism, homophobia, speciesism, all the community-forming practices based upon exclusion and impaired compassion – on identity politics be it related to nation, ethnicity, sex orientation, species, and so on. The alignment of family and home-ness with whiteness, heteronormativity and carnophallogocentrism(13) is powerful, and works to transform all these features into familial ties, into a form of racial kindred that recognises all non-white [I would add here the queer subjects] others as strangers, as ‘bodies out of place’(14) Identity politics is based on an unidirectional empathy (excluding the bodies out of place), on a compassion-within-borders which is strictly regulated top-down by the neoliberal economic hegemony, by the state and by religion.

Likewise, the institutionalization of resistance and autonomy potential through the NGO system is part of another home-seeking mechanism, which acts through division and dissipation. It finds a cozy home for every social anomaly, disregarding the ‘homelessness’ of all these anomalies in accordance with the arbitrariness of power(15) and avoiding their common cause which is left unchallenged (this would in fact terminate NGOism, as it’s precisely the neoliberal system that is funding it). We can speak of unidirectional empathy to characterize the affective restraints of the charity economy that treats the symptoms and not the sources. This system of rationalized, algorithmic philanthropy is another mechanism by which a generalized impaired compassion is being institutionalized on a grand scale.(16)

For art, home equals the art institution. There is an inflation of art with socio- political content today, which is in constant search for homes, and like the NGO system, it doesn’t challenge the causes but only quarantined effects, disregarding the position from which it criticizes and who actually profits from the symbolic capital it amasses. As long as it remains inside the comfort zone of the home-institution, the subversive, disruptive potential of this alleged revolutionary art is easily tamed and its acts of representation cannot escape depolitization, its semiotic charge cannot turn into real action. Maybe political art today relies too much on a hope-rhetoric that disregards all the present refrains of collapse echoed by an art system deeply embedded in the capitalist profit-logic, by the fiasco-politics of Western representative democracy, the abysmal effects of the current expanded biopolitics or the coming ecological catastrophe.

The state of homelessness is usually associated with the refusal to work, it’s a position outside the production time – which is not anymore factory or corporation time, but personal time, as productivity now equates the speed of reaction, the velocity of response-ability and the constant shaping of subjectivity. Homelessness is sheer precariousness (physical) combined with dark precarity (economical). It’s the anticipation of the imminent generalized dystopia. A homeless on the street was saying: I have no place to sleep so at night I study, I do my research on the street. The depressed cannot wake up, the homeless cannot sleep. There is an inverted depression characterizing the homeless. They are hyper-active waste of the neoliberal flood of meaning and information overflow, they embody the dark restlessness and über-consciousness.

Homeless as the first ones to be 'possessed' by the dark force in Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, 1987

Homeless as the first ones to be ‘possessed’ by the dark force in Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, 1987

The newly developed system of ‘Food Banks'(17) in Great Britain seems like a prophecy for the reality to come. The homeless are offered due-to-expiration supermarket products in return for sentiments of gratefulness towards the merciful new economy and the religious big-hearted-ness – aid and compassion usually come along together with religious indoctrination, as in the case of the Food Banks. The present charity system replaced the function of the former welfare state, as the emotional turn in politics took place along with the post-70’s financialized economy. Compassion management has changed from being regulated by public policies which guaranteed the economically disenfranchised the right to social benefits to being part of corporation strategies and the affiliated NGO system. Social assistance moved from being a right to being an opportunity that depends on humbleness and speed, another link in the neoliberal chain of impaired compassion. The Trusts (although it’s a name worthy of dystopian novels, these are foundations which administrate the Food Banks) manage compassion and food. The food they distribute through their centers (one example is the Hope Centre-another name worthy of the same dystopian script) is actually the debris of technologically processed stamps, which remain unsold at the end of the day. The circuit of compassion is completed by the specificity of the working conditions. The standardized care is performed by volunteers. Volunteerism is the legitimate form of compassion today – it is based on unidirectional empathy on one side (that promoted by the employer – foundations, trusts) and on lack of empathy on the other side (the volunteers perform unpaid labour). So no trust and no hope.

The Postspectacle Shelter made visible the crises of compassion, recognizing that the only possible place to defend while affirming the common fragility of the bodies (in and out of place) is a No Hope shelter which takes over a public institution by overstating its past and present failed promises of compassion and care for the people: The House of the People which now houses the Romanian Parliament. The grand narrative produced the concept of a grand ‘home’ which was never belonging to the people as its name promised. At the same time, the current representative democracy failed to meet the necessities of the demos, the people itself stopped believing in it.

There was an interesting relation between food and affect in the Postspectacle Shelter. Food was the materialized desire, it was what actually becomes body – the emotions shape bodies as well. So on this level there is a resemblance with the two main acts of production, circulation, distribution: food and affect. Hierarchically, food has always been subaltern to the higher functions of the body-mind. How do we then re-think a flat organization of food and affect?

The homeless who usually come to openings for a snack and a drink (in Romanian Pișcotari) were always treated as inferior because they preferred food to emotional, cathartic states of mind allegedly stimulated by art. Could there be an emancipatory potential in the subjectivity of this spectator (embodied by the homeless) who doesn’t privilege catharsis over bodily needs?

In a society ruled by economic laws, which produces value mostly immaterially, outnumbering by far the profits made by industry and agriculture, the politics of food is well entangled with a politics of emotions. How to incorporate the immateriality of food and at the same time how to feel the materiality of affect? Both are flows that shape subjectivity and create forms of life. Like in one example above, eating meat has to do with the love for the nation and the values promoted by the official politics (for example, heteronormativity). Moreover, thinking the environment in terms of domination and extraction since ancient times has created subjectivities that developed lack of feelings or apatheia to cope with the violence and exploitation necessary for food to be produced.

Homelessness becomes a kind of ominous, pre-apocalyptic state, both virtual and actual. In its actuality it defines bodies out of place, at the mercy of the neoliberal compassion apparatus. Nevertheless, in its virtuality ‘homelessness’ can become a state of continuous de-subjectivation, a zero degree of Being, from where new forms of life autonomous from the hegemony of the economic system could appear. The refusal of ‘homes’ is bound up to the refusal of work, to the acceptance of fragility, of precariousness, to the escape from normative subjectivities. How to overcome attachments to ‘homes’ that promise security and success and at the same time end up abiding sociopathic subjects, depressed and standardized bits of aliveness? ‘Homelessness’ at molecular level is the displacement of the habitual microstructures from the monolithic body-home and their autonomization. When the body de-organizes and de-connects from its familiar, habitual structure, when the body movements override the normative patterns prescribed by the late capitalist rule, then the body can become something else.

The Corrupt Audience and the Illusion of Spectatorship

The audience-performers/ performing audience : the guards (spp), the museum wards, the director, the employees, the artists, the homeless, the ngo, the philosophers of depression, surveillance cameras, the golden bulan, the black bulan etc.

What happens when the only audience is corrupt and does not respond to the same rules of valorization as the ones established by the history of an institution, like the museum? New forms of truth telling can arise if the spectator de-automatizes affectively and semiotically from the system of valorization that makes art art. This transgression of the codes could actually possible on other levels as well. Maybe bringing the homeless as audience is a necessary act of cynicism, it breaks the art bubble autarkeia, it annihilates the usual self-gratulatory ceremony (which happens in restricted circles, while self-praising the practice of addressing a wider public). This practice can be a contemporary parrhesiastic game to change perception of art/institutions/politics for performers and audience alike. The homeless seem to be paradigmatic for the function of the subversive spectator. They are the unbearable audience, the constant reminder that biopolitics is real, that’s what is at stake is life governed by politics, that the spectacle is outside and we are merely training to take part in it.

Freeing the homeless from ‘representativity’, from being caught in the rogue algorithm of compassion operates a shift in the relationship between representation and injustice. There is no sure ‘home’ for the spectator and the performer. The audience is as fragile as the performing bodies. The assigned roles inside the spectacle are in themselves precarious, unstable, oscillatory. The partial-spectator becomes the partial-performer and vice versa. There is no pure audience. Like in the performance of compassion, mere spectatorship generates the illusion of agency, but there is first and foremost the illusion of spectatorship that shadows any oscillation between comforting agency and the much-feared passivity. The stakes are not about seeing a spectacle, but about sensing the movement, the uncertainty of every moment, the fragility of borders and of the possible outcomes.

What does it mean to be passive as a corrupt audience in a museum? Isn’t this passivity a subversion of the codes imposed by such an institution? Why is passivity always associated with the incapacity of judgment? Why is this incapacity demonized? Isn’t this incapacity preferable to the process of surrendering one’s skills to a machine, giving them up in the technosphere/infosphere, where then by algorithmic processes (which are beyond individual capacity of judgment and understanding anyway) value is formed and inequality perpetuated and enforced.

‘Passive’ and ‘passion’ have a common Latin root – passio, which means ‘suffering’. Com-passion should be common passion, a shared passion, a suffering experienced together. To be passive is to be enacted upon, as a negation that is already felt as suffering. The fear of passivity is tied to the fear of emotionality, in which weakness is defined in terms of a tendency to be shaped by others.(18) The emotions cannot be incubated in the body, there is no well-sealed interiority. There is a permeability, fluidity of affectivity, no vacuum chamber to isolate affect inside the body. That is why the psychological apparatus is so deceptive. In compassion, co-passivity should be the shared capacity of being affected, of being able to co-suffer and should be shared by the partial-spectator (the subject of compassion) and the partial-performer (the object of compassion).

1. In the Postspectacle Shelter the homeless were offered food and medical assistance, and a voice in the Presidential Campaign. The House of People was given back to the People, all these between the heavy brackets of double walls, that of the Parliament and that of the contemporary art museum.

2. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work From Alienation to Autonomy, Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2009

3. Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales in Film-Philosophy Journal, Vol 14, No 1 (2010)

4. The Postspectacle Shelter was inside the House of the People (which presently hosts the Romanian Parliament), inside the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC).

5. Hunger Games is a 2012 SF film, directed by Gary Ross, after the book of Suzanne Collins. The story takes place in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, where 12 boys and 12 girls must participate in the Hunger Games–a televised annual event in which the “tributes” are required to fight to the death until there is one remaining victor. (Wikipedia)

6. term used by Bracha Ettinger, lecture, Future Art Base, Helsinki, 2012. Self-fragilization in Ettinger’s sense implies the dispersal and loss of the self, becoming sub-subjective. It is thus a concept opposed to oversensitivity.

7. Akseli Virtanen, lecture, Future Art Base, Helsinki, 2012.

8. Lauren Berlant (Ed.), Compassion The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, New York and London: Routledge 2004

9. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002

10. Silvia Federici, The Caliban and the Witch, New York: Autonomedia, 2004

11. Cary Wolfe, What is posthumanism?, Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Prostheticity in the sense of the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world, the prosthetic coevolution of the human animal with the technicity of tools and external archival mechanisms (such as language and culture).

12. One of the most repeated slogans of Mihail Neamțu (an important figure of the center-right party in Romania, assiduous promoter of the neoliberal doctrine) which he propagandistically used by in his hysterical speech against the ruling social-democrat party during the right wing’s official demonstration at the beginning of July 2012 was “Welcome Home!”. He was referring to the alive, dead and ‘unborn’ Romanians patriots who would not emigrate.

13. In the periods of mad cow disease outbreak, in countries such as Great Britain in the 80’s and 90’s and Canada in 2000’s there was a powerful nationalist discourse tied to the consumption of beef. As Nicole Shukin notes, there were dramatic public displays of cooking, serving, and consuming Canadian beef, modeling a metabolic commitment to the health and “carnophallogocentrism” of the nation through patriotic displays of meat eating. Not only is the purity of a nation’s meat representative, on a deeply affective level, of its domestic economy; meat also enciphers ideological investments in the masculinist virility and racial purity of the national body. (Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

14. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004

15. Arbitrary power is a concept developed by Akseli Virtanen.

16. Gary Olson, Empathy and Neuropolitics: This is your brain on neoliberal culture. Any questions?

17. Amelia Gentleman, Food banks: a life on handouts, 18 July 2012

18. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004

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