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A Plea for Ambiguity and Aesthetic Being in the World: A conversation with Pascal Gielen

26 March 2020

Text by Lies Mensink

Photo by Veda Tarik

On the 19th of March, we were supposed to begin our ten day program on Discourse with the lecture ‘On the art of getting beyond identity politics’ by Pascal Gielen. As many art institutions are, we are searching for other ways to share. We try, as Pascal names it, to ‘reinvent the social’. From his home quarantine in Antwerp and through the lens of recent developments with COVID-19, Pascal reveals some of the thoughts he had planned on sharing that Thursday night.

“Instead of a model based on ‘identity politics’, you suggest a model based on so called ‘commonist politics’, what does that look like?”

“It relates to my research of the last five years on the commons. Let me give a very brief definition, but as it is brief it is not totally correct. ‘Commons’ is for me something you share; a building, the air we breathe, it can be immaterial or material. What is important is that it is not commodified. It cannot be something that is sold or rented on the market and neither subsidized or regulated by a government. So, there are people who share something and they need to find regulations in order to do this. The commons is a self-regulated system of sharing a resource.”

“Commoning politics refers to the practice of making regulations to share and manage your common resource, to try to collectively share a political or social sphere in which you are living and working. It can be a village, an organization, water, a language, a culture, etcetera. When you look at people who try to govern a common resource together you will discover a lot of discussions, dissensus, conflicts, and struggles between them – different from living in a harmonious community. This ongoing discussion is a typical characteristic that we discovered through research. In fact, it is the basis of the commons: self-governance is made through those discussions. Commoning politics is not about simply finding consensus, but about persisting in finding a consensus in dissensus – again and again. Nobel prize winner Elinor Östrom notes seven so-called ‘design principles’ to govern the commons. There is one basic principle I think you cannot violate if you want to develop a commoning practice; that is ‘the reciprocity principle’. You have to give to, otherwise you cannot get from the resource.”

“Commoning politics is something different from national politics or nation-state politics. Nation-state politics is always made for a community and a community needs to have an identity. This is visible in integration policies. It is expected from refugees and immigrants that they share values and norms of the place they are in. They need to share the same identity in order to get full citizenship rights or to be allowed to use the ‘resources’ of a state. Nation-state politics starts from the necessity for a shared identity, shared values and norms in order to use a resource. And there we come back to identity politics! Commoning politics and the commons is not related to identity, it brings people together who just want to share a resource. If you for instance want to share a house or studio with other artists then you are interested in the resource, not in sharing the values of the others. You don’t need to have the same identity to share a resource. This requires a completely different way of thinking in politics. It is a completely different conception of citizenship as well. One that is not based on identity, values and norms, but based on the right to share. What if we would say to immigrants and refugees: ‘Yes you can share our ground, on the condition that you want to share the ground with us. But you don’t need to share our values and norms or our Dutch, our Belgian identity. The only thing you need to do is to respect the reciprocity principle.’”

“Why do you criticize identity politics?”

“My critique of identity politics stems from my personal experience and – I have to be honest – frustration. I’m very interested in feminist theory since Butler’s Gender Trouble. However this last year, I’ve been confronted with a kind of feminist activism that I do not like. I think sometimes the strategies they follow, are the same power strategies as the enemies they try to combat. You can recognize this mechanism in other kinds of identity politics as well, like for subaltern or ethnic groups. Jean-Paul Sarte for instance observed the notion of ‘anti-racist racism’ when he wrote about Négritude. This problematic flip side of identity politics led me to think more critically about it.”

“One and a half year ago l was asked to give the keynote for the conference ‘Conflict Matters’. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with this idea of anti-racist racism. There was a protest against my lecture, not because of the content. One of the reasons for the protest was that I was a white middle-class man who they believed had no right to talk about decolonialization issues. It was not my thoughts that the protesters were protesting. They did not know what I was saying because they stood outside the room where I was lecturing. So, I was used as a kind of symbolic figure to protest against. I thought, now I understand really what racism is about: it’s not about what your ideas are, or what you are standing for. Regardless of your ideological position you are discriminated because of the colour of your skin or your origin. From then on, I started to think it was necessary to look at the complexities and contradictions of identity politics and also to look at the flip side of identity politics in general.”

“I really believe in equality for all genders and people of different social or cultural backgrounds and I’m very convinced of the fact that on a structural level we have to reorganize our institutions based on that equality. But I believe the way to get there should be fought differently, the strategies are not nuanced enough. In this moment I observe a blind dogmatic radicalization that is not helpful in solving our social problems. I think we need not combat the enemy, the racist, the macho or the capitalist. You can only overcome racism, patriarchal societies and capitalism by convincing racists, macho’s and capitalist of other attitudes, of other and better ways of living. So, we need to ‘seduce’ them towards better principles, and not stigmatize them. If we do the latter, we get trapped in the same problematic attitudes as the enemy we are fighting.”

“In what way does the fight need to be fought?”

“With what I call ambiguity politics. I am aware that ambiguity politics has a bad name in policy sciences, because it means politicians say things they do not really mean in order to get elected again… etcetera. But what I mean by ambiguity politics, how I translate and transform it, is based on aesthetic ambiguity. From a phenomenological stance, the world is never black and white; it is all shades of grey. Everything is fundamentally ambiguous. As Bruno Latour says: we are living in the Empire of the Middle, it is always in between. Which means bluntly said: even an extreme right position has in itself some left ideas.”

“There are two positions: You can try to fight the enemy, like a lot of activists do, which can certainly be a good thing, with protests for instance. I do not contest that. But you can also try to seduce your enemy… Seduce your enemy to other thoughts or to point to the paradoxes and contradictions in their own thoughts. This means you always need to go into dialogue with your enemy. It really is about making the enemy curious of your own position and your own thoughts. With curiosity you can make an opening for other political positions, which at first sight can seem completely in contradiction with your own.”

“We have to recognize the ambiguity constantly within ourselves, precisely to try and convince the other of a certain position. For me this is also a pure humanist position. We are all different identities within one person. One individual has multiple ways of being in life. People and societies are always gradual, not only black or only white. We are in fact all ‘in-between’. And, it is this gradual complexity we need to understand better. If we want to understand each other better we need to study those different shades of our own and of society at large.”

“For how ambiguity politics can look like, you turn your gaze to artistic practices, why?”

“It has shown me the potency of ambiguity. In some artistic practices I see an interesting way of dealing with the world which for me is also related to the play between fiction and non-fiction. Artists can take on different positions, play with different identities, because they are able to stand above their own identity from an imaginary or fictional point of view. When you write a novel, you are playing with different identities and positions. It gives you the opportunity to come up with other ways of looking at the world and the ambiguity of all the things.”

“For me it is very important to look at art or aesthetics. Artists taught me, as a sociologist, that there is another way of understanding the world rather than just a scientific or empirical way. I define aesthetic as aesthesis as the possibility to feel the world with all your senses. Rational sciences are abstracting things, they analyse, categorize and segregate the world. From this perspective you can also, in a way, lose the holistic touch of its totality, maybe even its spirituality. At least you can say, that the scientific gaze requires distance. So, that means that you have to sacrifice the direct and sensuous contact with your social context or your natural environment. Just to make it less abstract, I will give an example. Navigating with GPS is a rational or scientific way of being in the world: finding the fastest and most efficient way to get from point A to B. But what an aesthetic way of being in the world teaches us is that while you walk on the path or drive down the road, you can experience the landscape. You can feel the landscape, you can smell it, you can touch it, you can feel the rolling of the tires on it. So, you get an impression of the landscape – the landscape ‘impresses’ you, it ‘presses’ on you. By this, you also become aware of the use value of the landscape. You use it and you can feel what you leave behind. GPS can never let you feel or smell the pollution of the landscape… The latter is just mathematics, it is an abstraction of the landscape even a ‘purification’ of it. I think an aesthetic being in the world is a being in which you are totally in touch with it. So, being aesthetically in the world, means you become aware of its complexities, its nuances, its heterogeneity, its dirt and its beauty at the same time. Indeed, you become aware of its fundamental ambiguity. The same can be said about an aesthetic relationship with other people. It means you almost viscerally ‘feel’ a person in their total complexity, their gradual being in the world. It’s a way to experience the fundamental ambiguity of the other as if it is your own ambiguity.”

“You say artists can stand above identity, but often artists are labelled as having a certain identity by others.”

“An artistic intervention, an artwork is always outside identity. When an artist makes a real art work by which I mean something that is very singular, something so new, that no one knows what the artist has done. At that moment, the artwork doesn’t have an identity yet. It is before and beyond identity, because it is not yet identified. It does not yet have a fixed place in our symbolic and linguistic order. We try to give it an identity afterwards. We do this for instance by mentioning the background of the artist, ‘he is Turkish,’ or this is typical ‘female art’. It is what all art historians try to do with their ‘-ism’s’, they try to label it and give it an identity by relating an artefact or an artist to a certain time and a specific place. While I like this process of trying to find out what the art work ‘is’, I think a singular proposition always escapes from that. An artwork which sees the light of day for the first time is so to say ‘an unidentified object’. The wonderful thing of this, is that it provokes our thinking and we start trying to label it. This is what I call the performative power of an artistic intervention in the world: It provokes our thinking and imagination, it starts our quest to find words for it. This is why Antonio Negri says that the art work is not a conclusion, but a starting point.”

“Is being able to move beyond identity a privilege and not a given?”

“When you mean ethnical identity or social class identity, indeed some people are privileged to escape, while others are not. But I think even the most famous ‘white heterosexual male artists’ are often confronted with a kind of identity and labels that are put on their work. It is interesting that a lot of artists are trying to escape from their own artistic identity – to stay creative and to reinvent themselves. Because they get stuck to one idea as an identity. This labelling is a problematic disease of Western Society. Artists often try to avoid the theorizing of their work, they don’t want to be caught in words, because they are afraid this will block their creativity.”

“Speaking of problematic diseases… In Commonism you write that commoning practices are often born from crisis. Are we with COVID-19 in such a crisis? Do you see commoning practices rising up now?”

“The crisis I wrote about in the Commonism book was related to the financial crisis of 2008. When there is a financial crisis you see that people have to develop alternative ways of sharing. But ‘the commons’ was not something new, it was not an invention because of the crisis. The financial meltdown only led to the reinvention or rediscovery of it. Commoning practices existed long before we ever had a clue of what a state, a government or a so-called ‘free’ marked could be. Commoning practices were already discovered in the fourteenth century.”

“The rise of commoning practices is indeed related to crisis, but to a very specific kind of crisis. I think the corona virus also points to this specific kind of crisis. It is what I call a ‘crisis of the social.’ When you are put under quarantine you immediately see what you miss: social relationships. I think the hunger for commoning practices is again pushed forward when our social relationships are in crisis. And I think this is one of the similarities with the former, financial crisis. This crisis too made us aware of the total social deprivation that a dogmatic free-market-thinking and neoliberalism brought us. The contemporary boom and ‘trendiness’ of the idea of the commons, has to do with this awareness. We realise we have to take care of our social relationships again.”

“I think this is very interesting when you see for example what people are doing now as a response to the corona crisis: they reinvent the social. Exploring online possibilities to stay connected, but also to show solidarity again in completely different ways. In Belgium people are applauding every day for the health care workers. There you see commoning practices again, at least at the symbolic level. Even a liberal politician in Belgium said ‘we saved the banks in 2008, by giving them financial support, now we ask them to save our system.’ What this politician is pointing at is the principle of ‘reciprocity’. I think this crisis makes us at least aware of the possibility of other systems”

“I hope that in the Netherlands too they start thinking more in depth because of this crisis. How to solve for instance the precarity problems of freelancers, the so called ‘ZZP-ers’? It is something I have criticized already for ten years. We need to organize ourselves much more collectively in a kind of solidarity that is structural. This means that you cannot trust on individual volunteering for solidarity by for instance a ‘Broodfonds’. On a voluntary basis it does not work, you really have to make regulations and laws to make collective solidarity and reciprocity possible. I hope at least that this crisis shows this and makes people act. A bad solution -a short term solution- could be to give financial credits to freelancers for a period of time. Because once again that is a regulation on the individual level. We really have to think about how we can structure this system for the long term to make it sustainable. And again, what can be helpful here is to understand the freelancers in an aesthetic way: as people that not only work, but also love, live, drink and have different beliefs and mental states. The freelancer is not just an economic figure, a homo economicus, but a total person, a homo faber in all its ambiguity. If we do not take this aesthetic approach serious, we will never come to sustainable solutions.”

Pascal Gielen (1970) is professor of sociology of art and politics at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts (Antwerp University – Belgium) where he leads the Culture Commons Quest Office (CCQO). In 2016 he became laureate of the Odysseus grant for excellent international scientific research of the Fund for Scientific Research Flanders in Belgium. His research focuses on creative labour, the common, urban and cultural politics. 

Gielen is editor of the international book series Antennae-Arts in Society. You can buy these at our book store, next time you’re able to visit our house. Just like his  (sill to be published) volume: The Arts of Ambiguity: Addressing and Understanding Monoculture (Valiz, 2020).