Gloria Zein, Prof. Roberto Nigro: Reflections on Art in a Fragmented Society of Control. KVL Bulletin. 2019.

Gloria Zein in conversation with Prof. Roberto Nigro, Leuphana-Universität Lüneburg, 18.09.2019

GZ: You have extensively researched and written on Foucault, and especially on his seminal publication Discipline and Punish, which also had a great impact on me when I was a student. In summary, I would say that in this book he analyzes power structures by means of the history of disciplinary action and education within western societies. Having said this, I would like to start with a fundamental question: What is a school?

RN: The school is an educational institution. The school forms humans, it turns human beings into subjects – and not only into subjects but into subjects of knowledge. We all are born as humans but then we are turned into subjects or individuals. This individuation comes into being via procedures: rituals, punishment, rewards, education. We can take into account the “good” sides of this institution, called school: it allows for transformation and learning; it produces awareness and knowledge. Of course, one could ask, which type of knowledge is produced? Is the knowledge produced there useful and meaningful? And if so, for whom? According to how we answer these questions, we can interpret the school as a “good“ or a “bad“ institution.

At school, there are a lot of rituals that take place and are not necessarily to be considered in themselves bad or good. Some of these rituals involve disciplines. For instance, children are obliged to go to school and to be there every morning at, let’s say, 7:30. Your exhibition is also about eyes. Children are constantly controlled. Their discourses, their way of speaking, is selected, controlled and shaped. That also has to do with social obligation. It’s not inscribed in my nature to attend school. If I want to or not, I have to go to school until age 16. So society forms educated subjects.

Then again, our education is never completed. Also after the age of 16, there’s a constant formation. We are relentlessly asked to attend further courses and achieve more competences. It might sound as if I desire to criticise the school system. That’s not the aim. I just want to show that these processes are socially constructed and have nothing to do with so-called human nature.

The school, as we know it, is a modern invention, although the idea of education is an old one. For the Greeks “paideia“ was an important process, too.

Foucault’s analysis does not focus directly on the school, but he examines structures or institutions that function by the means of discipline. He particularly looked at the prison. This parallel might appear a bit sinister, since we could immediately think of the school as a prison: pupils are forced to stay in classrooms, where their freedom of movement is controlled.

GZ: Considering the analogy of school and prison, Foucault’s description of the prison comes to mind as a place, where people are educated or re-educated. They’re no longer quartered, nor are their hands chopped off after they have stolen. They are confined in a prison in order to be improved. Likewise, we’re supposed to leave school as improved humans.

RN: Yes! Certainly school also fulfils many smaller tasks. In our society compulsory schooling implies parental freedom. Parents can go and work. But here, I prefer to insist on the other function I have already mentioned. The school system produces knowledge. In a world where information has become crucial, where it is extremely difficult to live deprived from information, knowledge and cognition, school plays an important, emancipatory role.

However, this function cannot be dissociated from the constant control of attitudes and gestures that are an issue in the educational system. That has to do with civilization. We also learn at home how we’re supposed to eat properly. If we wanted to paraphrase Nietzsche, we could say that human beings separate themselves from their animal nature by means of discipline – i.e. punishment and reward. Besides the school, there are other institutions that play or have played the same role at different levels: the army, the church, the hospital, the prison, as well as the family – to name a few – which have the task of turning humans into subjects or into citizens or subditi.

If we still want to refer to Foucault, we can also remark that the word “subject“ includes two meanings, both of them closely intertwined: Subject, sujet, can also be referred to as assujettissement, which means “subjection“ or “subjugation“. Subjectification, that is to say the constitution of an individual in Subject, implies subjection. Here, both poles unite. The repressive and negative function of power – the school is a power institution, the fact that I HAVE to attend school – this subjection also produces knowledge, and knowledge is embodied. Knowledge is no longer separated from me. It becomes a part of myself. When I am speaking as a philosopher, I am using discourses I was able to appropriate. I wasn’t born as a philosopher. I was trained to learn philosophy, to practice some forms of discourses that are now part of my temporary identity. I now embody this discourse. This training, this apprenticeship is the school’s function. We could also ask whether the so-described model of school is still relevant, or whether it has dramatically changed. The school is being destroyed by neoliberal practices.

GZ: In fact, I’ve asked myself, too, how the school has evolved since Discipline and Punish (1975). I had directed my thoughts towards pedagogic innovations since 1968, i.e. attempts of abolishing hierarchy or searching for alternative teaching models. However, the issue of neoliberal practices suggests an altogether different view, which looks less at the processes inside the school but rather at its societal function. Has the school evolved in different directions?

RN: Of course! Let me repeat that Foucault’s focus was not on the school. Nevertheless, we can adopt his research in order to analyse institutions such as the school. From a historical point of view, certain subjects are constantly excluded from the school system. Women have been excluded for a long time, for example. This exclusion implies forms of subjugation. Struggles for having free access to the school system entail an emancipatory potentiality. I believe that there has been a large transformation during the 20th century – maybe around 1968, but not only – when certain formerly excluded subjects have attained access to schools. It’s maybe banal to say that this access was and is very important, but things are not so easy or linear. The emancipated subject is also confronted with other problems. The educational system functions as barrier. I am confronted with a culture that, without being mine, has to be assimilated. In that sense, there is always a struggle around this limit or barrier represented by the school. That leads to the following question: Which forms of knowledge are crucial today and by which means or procedures are they communicated and assimilated? Does the school have the same function it had in former centuries or has there been a transformation? In the USA, for example, there are a lot of private schools, only accessible to a few. These institutions are often the ones allowing the best chances for success in society. Or just in order to take another example, in many European countries, there are regions with 30 to 40 pupils attending one class, while other schools have less than 15 pupils per classroom. This makes a huge difference in terms of opportunities to access knowledge. The implementation of hierarchy or the distribution of wealth within society is specifically reproduced by the school.

GZ: On one hand, we acquire knowledge at school, for example the alphabet, but on the other hand we also acquire an attitude or a form of self- awareness.

RN: Yes, a form of sociality.

GZ: Graduating at two different schools might also lead to substantially different self-confidence. Could you elaborate on the concept of subjects of knowledge?

RN: Let’s take into account the example I referred to previously. In order to become a philosopher, you need to be trained, educated. It means that you also have to confront yourself with several discourses, which shaped throughout centuries. These particular practices, we use to name philosophies. But it is not only a confrontation with discourses, practices or with an object of knowledge that is simply outside of you. You also have to incorporate this object, to transform it and make it become a part of yourself. Thus, a subject of knowledge is formed. It might sound a bit odd, but philosophy, that is to say some philosophical discourses, are now a part of myself, part of my subjectivity. If contemporary philosophy makes use of the notion of subject –, instead of simply speaking of a human being, it is because this notion refers to a more articulated reality. I am not only a human being as a biological entity, I am also all the discourses which haunt me. Discourses that are by now mine, although they also belong to others. Or, put differently, they do not belong to anybody, although anyone can make use of them. In this regard, as a subject, I am a multiplicity. What I am saying is no prerogative of philosophy. Each individual is a multiplicity. Each individual has at its disposal capacities, agencies and so on that he or she acquires throughout his or her life.

GZ: Having said this, I wonder: The school is also a site of obedience. For one year, Fridays for Future have arranged demonstrations worldwide to foster awareness about climate change and to call governments to action. The movement of pupils, who skip school to join the marches – an act for which they have been criticised, is a form of civil disobedience, performed by the very subjects that embody obedience. Apart from Fridays for Future’s constitutive goals, what is the social impact of pupils carrying their bodies to the streets while they’re supposed to attend lessons?

RN: I believe that obedience has been at the core of our political systems for a very a long time. And it is still there. Probably the whole building of our societies would have been impossible without this cement that has become part of western subjectivity. Human beings have been subjugated and obliged to obey for centuries. Without obedience our social and political systems couldn’t survive one more minute. Obedience is also an attitude that must be produced and incapsulated in the subject: obedience for the sake of obedience. It is not inscribed in human nature. It is a social product. Therefore, there is also a constant opposition. At least since modern times political and power systems try to control and regulate life, every single aspect of our existence. It is a topic that has received a lot of attention in the last decades and is well-known under the label “bio-politics”. A concept we owe to Michel Foucault once again! But even if power systems try to control life, life constantly escapes, resists. One tries to discipline bodies, but they are undocile. They do not want to be governed in this way, they resist, they criticise. Criticism is a form of disobedience. In this sense, I believe that pupils have always played an important part in disobedience. I am very pleased that this new generation – also compared to my own – pays attention to ecological and environmental issues. And of course this is a disobedient attitude, which different powers try to direct, regulate and govern. There is always action and reaction.

GZ: If we allow for the production of knowledge at school (instead of merely communicating pre-existing knowledge), pupils might draw conclusions from what they’re taught, which certain people would rather not hear. My impression is that two types of fear currently arise within our governing or controlling entities – on one hand the fear of uncontrolled production of knowledge, i.e. the questioning of existing discourses, and on the other hand the fear that disobedience itself could cause for the system to get out of control. Is our society at a crucial point, or are these thoughts too far-fetched?

RN: There have at all times been urgent matters. However, today we’re confronted with rapid transformations. Take, for example, digital transformation, which has had a strong impact on our way of speaking and thinking, every day at every moment, and which school has to face as well.

Maybe, we should differentiate whether we speak about school or about university. School conveys basic knowledge. It transmits information that has to be incorporated. At university level, broadly speaking, it is no more or not only a question of transmitting knowledge, but also of production. The University system is based on the idea of research. Research involves the production of knowledge, not only its transmission. But let’s come back to the school. Everybody remarks that a true gap nowadays exists. There’s a gap between media and digital transformations, i.e. certain forms of knowledge, which pupils learn from society, from friends and from forms of sociality that take place outside the school, for example via their smartphones and what they learn (i.e. the types of knowledge) at school. There are discourses, ways of being, of existing, that are formed outside the school. Once transported into school, they are sorted.

GZ: Children and teenagers are considered society’s most easily controllable subjects. Will their failed regulation cause unsettledness?

RN: Certainly, various attitudes are dangerous, potentially destructive and are for this reason controlled. This happens often, as you know, in the difficult situations of banlieues. It is not a peculiarity of French suburbs. I only take this example, because I have many witnesses of friends of mine, who tell me how difficult it is to be confronted every day with the reality of poverty and exclusion (although sometimes it is a very enriching experience on a human and personal level). There, you might be confronted with “undisciplined” subjects. (Although we should agree on the definition of “undisciplined”. From which perspective one can consider a behaviour as undisciplined? But let’s put aside these important remarks). Often, repressive solutions are found, which means that the cause is not thoroughly analyzed or not found – who has really interest in that? Indeed, if the cause were seriously broached for one moment only, the entire system of our society would explode! But I took into account this example to only draw your attention to possible forms of disobedience, which can also take a very destructive trajectory.

The critical attitude of the pupils who currently march the streets to evoke the problems of climate change is somewhat different. I have said that I am very pleased about this movement, but at present, it’s not yet “dangerous” for anybody. Therefore, it can take place so smoothly. Schools even promote Fridays for Future as for now the discourse is non-specific, it doesn’t explicitly attack anyone (or, put differently, it distributes responsibilities to such a large spectrum of people, that nobody can feel himself/herself concerned anymore – i.e. the 1% or 2% of the worldwide population that detains the whole wealth of the planet! All firms and corporations keep doing what they do. Having said this, the movement is important for the general awareness, as it might lead to a transformation of forms of existence, of an aesthetic of existence.

In both cases, we have undisciplined attitudes. One is destructive, moves in all directions and is repressed, the other is at present not yet “dangerous” and is perceived as a potentially positive impact on the development of society – until a new awareness arises. Maybe there will be an understanding that environmental issues can never be separated from other social and political problems. And maybe the movement will then take a stronger political turn. Who knows?

GZ: In 2017, on the occasion of forty years of Discipline and Punish you published with Marc Rölli a miscellany (in German) probing today’s relevance of Foucault’s power analysis. In your book, Andreas Reckwitz writes about the disciplinary gaze. Working on my piece for the classroom, this naturally attracted my attention, as it speaks about the GAZE.

RN: Discipline still plays a role in society. However, today something else has become central: A permanent control, which exists not only during the six hours pupils sit in class, but constantly, 24/7. Maybe, in this sense, we’re no longer in a disciplinary society: Gilles Deleuze points that out very well and suggests that we entered a society of control. Of course, discipline still exists – the school is still a disciplinary institution. And there are other institutions working in the same way. But probably permanent control has become more relevant in today’s society. New media also brings it about. They normalise life and tell us – in different ways – how our life should be. Guidelines such as diets, to be fit, are imperatives which we hear everywhere and which try to level our lives. Therefore, if schools still play a role, they nevertheless face processes that take place elsewhere and are equally important. Consequently, there’s a big gap between classic forms of knowledge and the new ones. At school, only a small part of knowledge is transmitted. Other forms tend to be more important for the pupils, insofar as I believe that the idea of a society of control is an important category.

GZ: The society of control also makes me think of self-monitoring.

RN: That’s absolutely important. Talking about school, control can only be executed by the other – the teachers confronting pupils, but the society of control develops a form of self-control or self-regulation. The rules are embodied, one becomes one’s own director.

GZ: The users of social media produce and control themselves via photographic documentation, which seems a form of controlling gaze – as social media is visual. However, most users don’t appear to be profoundly interested in other people’s posts. They look at images very briefly, and often enough they wouldn’t be able to assign something they have seen to its author. What’s left is the hope to be seen, the hope for the other’s regard, which is hardly ever returned.

RN: Yes...

GZ: In your paper Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter des General Intellect (The artwork in the age of the General Intellect) you write: (…) we could (…) say, that we have left modernity behind and moved into an undefined post-modernity. In this passage and due to this deferral figures of transgression are formed, which are also figures of crisis. (We are) in “a not anymore”, but also in “a not-yet”: Discomfort is the experience of the in-between. I am interested in your use of the term discomfort.

RN: There are certain signs that tell us that an era has come to its end. We cannot pretend any more to be in modernity (I do not take here into account the difficult question if we have never been “modern”, as some important contemporary authors point out. I am thinking of course of Bruno Latour). But where we are, figuring out how we can define this new situation is still difficult. Therefore, we often use the label post. Post-feminism, post-industrialism, post-structuralism, and so on. This imprecise definition reveals a crisis. Antonio Gramsci used the term interregno, i.e. to refer to a period between two moments. We are aware that we’re no longer in the former era, that structures have changed, but we cannot define our present, yet. Post-modernity has been a completely imprecise definition as well. Aesthetics, as one of philosophy’s disciplines that emerged in the 18th century, also knows a form of crisis. Freud used the expression Civilization and its Discontents in one of his essays. In Aesthetics, the discomfort is precisely this situation in which artistic forms are no more those of modernity. In this sense I spoke about Aesthetics and its discontents, which is, by the way, the title of a well-known book by Jacques Rancière.

GZ: As a matter of fact, I have the impression that visual arts today still deal, in many ways, with modernity – with regards to content and form. I also observe that artists whose practice is not oriented towards an Aesthetics of modernity, tend to provoke discontent.

RN: Yes.

GZ: What are signs for the social changes you mentioned earlier on?

RN: For my own work, the transformation of the working class is important. It’s an ambivalent term, because the new working class is no more a homogenous class. And yet, the notion of class has become ambiguous. Today, production – including the production of wealth – is based on cognitive dimensions, the brain, language, discourses and even affects are crucial elements for the production of wealth. These are signs of an important transformation of the forms of production. This leads to a transformation of the subjects; who can be considered a part of production today? Additionally, we can no longer separate productive from non-productive work. In other words, production time no longer equals working time. At any given moment, we are productive, even when we sleep! This transformation brings about the transformation of political participation. A rising populism and the disappearance of former parties also show that political representation, as conceived in modernity, no longer functions. There is the emergence of new forms of the political; new social and political movements that arise throughout the world. These are crucial issues for me. Surely, there are signs in other fields, too. Not to forget the major questions related to feminism and decolonization.

GZ: However ¬– material production still exists. Having outsourced it, we just don’t witness it any more. In Asia or Africa a good deal of work is done by hand. We simply rather not watch people, for example, carve rare earths from rocks with their bare hands.

RN: Yes, it has been outsourced. Maybe, over-there now exists a form of the original accumulation, as we’ve known it throughout the past century. But we should remark that to say that cognitive work has become hegemonic does not mean that material work (or work done by hands) has disappeared. It means that it commands over all the other forms of work, without letting them disappear.

GZ: Before, people formed groups that stood for certain ideas or goals. Today, we get together for projects, but there’s no more long-term thinking.

RN: Yes, society is increasingly fragmented into the positions of different singularities. Political representation of these differences becomes very difficult, and probably is not desirable anymore.

GZ: And what’s the role of art in all of that? The title of your essay is the artwork in the age of the General Intellect.

RN: Of course, there are different art forms. Philosophy and literature are part of them. Art establishes a regime of visibility – or audibility. Art tries to make the still invisible visible in order to produce experiences or emotions which might change the way we live or experience the world. In doing so, it changes our perception of things. We could say that art tries to make visible the invisible of the visible. The idea is not to imagine a different world in the sense of a utopia, but to conceive, to realize this world differently. But maybe this is a traditional, romantic image of art as a force of resistance.

Within a currently completely fragmented society, the function of art could also be inventing new forms of relationality. Paradoxically, capitalist production today is based on social cooperation. Without networks capitalist production would be impossible by now. At the same time, capital as a network of relationships requires fragmentation or, at any rate, does never cease to produce isolation, solitude and fragmentation. In this sense, art can maybe create different relations or a different system of ways to live together. Of course, this has nothing to do with communities in the sense of new forms of identity, but rather with giving other forms to our existence.

GZ: In that case, is the experience part of the artwork? Or is the artwork the trigger?

RN: I think it’s both. It’s difficult to localise art. Where does it begin, where does it end? Furthermore, art is now controlled by capital. It’s a production of goods, like many other goods.

GZ: Only if we agree to accept the so produced good as art. We could also claim that it is sold as art without being art.

RN: It’s not a pessimistic evaluation. I just wanted to say that this type of art has ceased to play a role of resistance. Surely, art can simply reproduce society. However, at every point in society resistance is possible, including in the field of art.

GZ: Baldessari is reported to have said, art could not be taught. Rather, we can create places where art might happen. I like this approach. In this line of thinking, we could postulate that art happens within a network of relationships, i.e. not solely the artist is the creator of an artwork, but also those who gather around a person named artist. Maybe, the artwork is our present conversation, or the correlation of all activities and players enrolled in this project – including the bodily experiences and thoughts that the pupils might produce and take home.

RN: Yes, indeed!