Ghostwork: Endgames in Art & Politics
Along the Limmat River in Zürich, the Swissmill building is in operation at full clip around the clock. Originally a textile factory, the site at Sihlquai was converted to a grain mill in 1843. By 1876 it was considered the most modern milling facility on the European continent with its use of chilled cast iron rollers for cracking open wheat grain and separating the outer layer of bran. Now a patchwork of buildings that harken back to different eras of growth and expansion, the Stadtmühle (or City Mill) exterior conceals a complex, digitally controlled high-tech organism that vibrates with the mechanical rhythms of modern production. With only 78 listed employees1 and over 1000 machines in ceaseless operation, the mill functions nearly autonomous from human intervention.
The fourth floor of the stadtmühle houses tall, green mechanical sieves that line up with the nine or so windows across the face of the building. These machines shake in time from left to right sifting particulate through metal screens to eliminate anomalies. As seen at night from across the water, the stilled blank exterior of the building appears to contain a ghostly mass of painted steel silently vibrating under over-bright tube lighting. Simple tasks once enacted by bodies in motion are instead carried out through algorithms and digital interfaces as the assembly line has rapidly, almost instantaneously 2 been replaced with the automaton. Employment figures are reduced and people find work in the managerial operation of fleets of machines or in the servicing of technology when errors occur. In some cases physical labor is eliminated entirely and work is transformed into corporate abstractions of words like innovation and revolution.
When looking across the water at the pulsating sieves and the relatively few men in white uniforms lingering near the windows, it is noticeable that the social energy of the body at work is rendered null by this juddering. The transition from manual to automatic labor began immediately eroding the social bonds of work, culminating in the worldwide refusals of the 1960s. These rejections of power, themselves already reflections of the French and American revolutions in the 18th century, return now in serial format, each progressively more transparent.
In 1086, according to the infamous Domesday3 survey, there were 5,264 mills operating in the state of England. Some seven hundred years later, the patent on the Watt steam engine would inflate this number until the mill’s ubiquity spilled over the old world and into the new. Nearly simultaneously, Oliver Evans4 was developing new technologies for the milling of grain in America that eliminated or diminished the reliance on physical labor. Evans saw the poor quality of hard wheat5 in colonial America as stemming directly from two distinct problems. Due to the near uselessness of American wheat, the first problem Evans sought to solve was the need for sufficient grinding to separate the bran from the endosperm. And second, a hybrid of cross-contamination during processing and inefficiency in the human labor required. He sought to consolidate the mechanisms of the mill and limit the movement of bodies inside as a means for decreasing impurities in American flour.
And by 1790 he had secured federal patents on his designs for a fully automated grain mill. The motivation for this pursuit of labor-free production did not come from violence towards a class of workers, but rather from the desire for consistency which capital requires to maintain equivalency.
This term consistency varies in meaning from industry to industry and product to product. For some businesses this entails an increase in output to overwhelm quality, with the word consistency referencing the ability to sustain production benchmarks of cheap, mass-produced goods. While on the opposing end of the spectrum producers find consistency to mean the output of small quantities of high “quality” goods. Innovation drives both forms, embodying only that which extends the ease and flow of exchange.
Equivalency changes along this spectrum, but remains the central component of exchange and embodies the reductive nature of capital. Labor is abstracted and comes to hold value or meaning only through its relationship to the bodiless body of money6. Even in its negative form this relationship proves to determine the value of work in the behaviors of equivalency.
When dealing with this abstract foundation of equivalency, capital finds its bearings in consistency, but one that need only exist from moment to moment at the speed of exchange; a consistency that is made to subvert the inevitable tilling of innovation towards techniques of compression and evening. One hour of machine labor in Evans’ automatic mill was immediately more valuable than an hour of the body’s slow, unhygienic movement. With the accelerated speed of production, the standards for consistency altered, giving way to a conditioned preference for manufactured goods over the handmade. Clean, white flour comes pouring out of the machine dusting nearly every surface. The peculiarity and aberration of the body’s presence during processing was diminished and a glut of mass produced, well-formed goods poured out of the mill and later the factory.
In art these terms should be inverted; or slightly perverted to shift from a rigid consistency into a more fluid concept of novelty. Here again innovation rears its head as that which seeks to flatten pathways for the unending circulation of capital and allows for an unhinged, fraudulent objectivity that valorizes as it consumes. Consistency comes to mean constancy, a pattern of shifting judgments and rotating positions about the nature and value of artistic production in endless repetition. These positions circulate as apparitions themselves, standing headless and transparent just behind us, coming sometimes to embody the vessels of refusal, sometimes compliance. Novelty saps the radical for its difference and converts inconsistency back again to regularity at record speeds. This is thanks to the flags of innovation, change, and progress indiscriminately staked into each development or shift in production. The lack produced by this immediate and perpetual ineffectiveness has become the content of art with artists attempting to conjure ghosts both in works offering a body for possession, with all their romantic idealism, and those exhibiting a grave as a haunted site.
Alienation is born or exaggerated by the obsessive pursuit of consistency through innovation and offers the ground for a figure to enact refusal. Standing against a backdrop of diminishing political agency, a progressively distanced labor practice, and the requirement to monetize emotional or intellectual behaviors, this figure attempts to cease the destructive processes. But a refusal of this sort comes much beyond any perceived point of reversal and exists as the twisted deferral of a self-destructive impulse.
The strikes of French laborers and students in May of 1968 along with the cartoonish American version of Sixties counterculture are often invoked as hallmarks of this refusal. But even these very real, relatively violent actions against power echoed off some surface in the past and after moments of brutality arrive in the present as thick outlines of cartoon ghosts protecting every concern from sea turtles to steelworkers and smacking of adolescent rebellion.
The inane plunge of humanity into the depths of barbarism onwards from the 18th century was met in art’s recent history with similar tactics of refusal, denials of logic or social codes and the deconstruction of semiotic connections in a pursuit of a free socius. In the face of mass death artists sought to shred meaning for its culpability to power and the traditions of war, but ended up perversely enacting the chaos of their environment as a knowing, cryptic mimesis or vice versa. Positions of opposition and critique, congruent to the moments of revolution across history, are now doomed to return iteratively in characterized versions of themselves. Arriving drunk on self-reflexivity in costumes fashioned out of manufactured bed sheets, toting prop injuries, severed heads and altered body parts.
Ghostwork9 is a term used in business to describe the tasks left behind by workers who are fired or forced to resign. The assignments left in the wake of the departed are often pushed onto their colleagues who, already overwhelmed, inevitably allow the work to linger, haunting the office. Mechanical vacillation, of the likes seen along the Limmat, holds a twofold responsibility for the spectral phenomenon of ghostwork. The consistency and precision of digital tools of production generate the leaner workforce, but simultaneously increase the burden on the remaining workers through a relative form of efficiency that changes with technology. Work is expanded into a clockless activity that hums interminably.
Ghostwork has also come to mean work that is billed but never performed, the update to common theft that is no doubt a product of the credit economy. The term has been used to describe bribes in the form of large sums of cash stuffed inside backpacks and plastic thank you bags10. The construction and maintenance of so-called “black sites” operated by world governments could also fall under this terminology. Art produced as refusal, after refusal, and under the guise of a dissolved subjectivity could also very well be named ghostwork. Ghostwork can generally be taken to mean work whose origin and purpose is unclear, work that is unfulfilled, unfinished, or that “never happened”. It is work that has been disappeared, spectralized by indeterminacy and perpetual reflexivity.
The socialist spirit that overcame the general public in the sixties presented capitalism with a unique problem of how to maintain production in the face of widespread strikes. Unfortunately, this set of problems had been witnessed before and were, in effect, being solved from the industrial revolution’s outset if not earlier. Traditional responses to worker strikes are well documented, ranging from the hiring of scabs to violent intimidation and media slander. The end game for capital, however, has been a complete separation of the body from labor through the perfection of efficiency and the creation of nodal points of production that operate in isolation. Innovation, new methodologies and technologies for achieving this detached, extreme productivity have led to the near total reliance on technological means as characterized by the mill in Zurich.
While our mechanical replacements are far from being traditional scabs, they now occupy a large portion of the social space of work. The move towards increasing automation is a main factor in the destruction of a political agency centered on the economic interests of the working class. Machines have no interest in May 1968, and the removal or reduction of bodies within the workplace facilitates a more manageable workforce, a workforce that will invariably never stop working.
The move away from physical labor and towards cognitive or psychic modes of production can signal capital’s advancement towards the complete negation of the necessity for bodily experience or movement. Just as the body’s function within capitalism has been studied and increasingly eliminated in favor of a more efficient technology, the cognitive has been under intense observation in order to monetize and streamline thought work.
Here the pursuit of consistency performed by the digital machinery of the mill can be extended to reveal the desire of capital for a monitored, regulated, predictable even programmable pattern to neurological processes. Capital, having vanquished in great majority the social capability of the body, is now attempting similar attacks on the brain. Oscillating between complete homogenization and an extreme personalization we are imagined, ideally, to be wholly individual, yet identical. Each body frozen as the mechanisms of capital vibrate in the brain under the managerial operation of a perverted consciousness.
Capital’s response to the violence of labor was to streamline the body, technologize its functions and move quickly to dismantling its social capabilities. The same can now be said to be happening, in regards to cognitive labor, with the functions of the brain. The psycho-social behaviors of the public are increasingly inching towards completely automatic patterns predicted and implemented through algorithms.
Predictive text messaging, search engines, social networking sites as well as a large, general portion of the internet seek out data on pre-existing behaviors of its users in order to imitate, alter, and control those same actions in the future. Our interactions have become concretized, stripped of ephemerality and housed on servers to later be used as reference or proof, for or against us. Our day-to-day presence is frozen instantly in the past and sent drifting into the future across the “forever” of the internet.
Work and a more general element of our social interactions have also been converted to the ghostly, an unbounded haunting, vibrating against the body and inside the brain. Networked thinking and the dispersion of the collective concerns of labor have left the social sphere, the realm of traditional political action, in question as to its potential for resistance. If contemporary artists are akin to strike workers11 managing the administrative leftovers from the last round of firings or resignations, then the ghostwork left in our laps is indisputably that of reckoning with the failure, subsumption, and monetization of the revolutionary thought and actions of the last 150 years worldwide.
Art, having been stripped of a social potential and left struggling to manage this ghostwork, seems to mimic the movements of capital in ways that offer a surface of hostility, but that lack the political capabilities for real backlash. Stemming from a tradition often accredited to Duchamp, although likely extending backwards in time, art’s refusal to work returns time and time again, it repeats its enunciation, and is then in a rapidly accelerating process, analyzed, appraised, and repurposed as affirmation. It haunts itself with both its supposed possibilities and its unashamed self-exploitation, with the same being true of technological advancements.
It could also be said that this haunting is the very nature of what the art world considers to be expression. The outward display of sentiment consciously enacted by the artist and solidified through physical material is widely still accepted as the character of an artwork. It can be argued, however, that art is not a simple one to one relationship between expression and material, but a complex web that spans across history incorporating future potentialities and past outcomes within an evasive present. Art’s referential traits, both historical and physical, suggest its essence to be spectral from the outset.
The ghostly nature of art indicates a corpse somewhere in the past, an original genesis of a belief in the power of the action. The ritualistic markings classified in art history as the first drawings seem to eulogize this as art’s corpse. Even then, however, the action was in conjuration of a spirit and art, as it were, held no power in and of itself. It exists now much as it has existed throughout its recent history, as a cultural reminder of the domination of logic over magic. Its search is not for a body it once had, but for a body it has never had. Refusals of labor in the course of modern art history have sought to abandon meaning and to leave the grounds of logic. But, like a trap door, these grounds have given way and allowed for new meaning to be culled from each attempt to thwart it. As refusal has been converted back to compliance, oppositional positions against meaning or power within the cultural field have thoroughly been eradicated.
The resurgence of expressionistic and formalist painting (along with its sculptural counterpart) with its blind attachment towards a Kandinskian philosophy operates as one response to the diminishing presence of the individual in contemporary art production. Striving for a supposed underpinning of truth, it offers bodies, the artist’s body and the bodies of believing viewers, for the spirits of romanticism to possess in hopes that invoking a transparent, ghostly sensibility will bring about its permanent return. Conversely, artists who seek to embody the emptiness of contemporary involvement often rely on the commercial tools of production, running images through machines, creating ghosts of both themselves and their audience. The double binds of contemporary art production, and of modern existence generally, are ones that generate divisive horizons of irony, separating all comers into those who believe and those who give up.
In the face of an automated, generic, horrendous monoculture that seeks to homogenize and instrumentalize every function of the human body, mind, and soul for the purposes of profit, it has become impossible to elaborate positions of opposition. For decades artists have struggled to reinvent the purpose of art as the birth of photography bled into the pursuit of abstraction and ultimately to the conceptual dead-zone of current art. Recently calls have been made to push art entirely into the immaterial and to abandon the prospects of objecthood in response to their mechanical perfectibility. These reactionary cries for a potential agency that comes at the cost of a near total deactivation of the body and a reliance on a technological or historical surrogate echo the longstanding tradition in art of emulating the developments of capital.
The “magic” of money is its conjuration of value, a fact no less important in an era defined by free-floating signification and financialization. This magic however is in no way oppositional to logic or power. It is in fact the hyper-logic of the linguistic machine operating at warp speed with no regard for the lives it regulates. Choosing to function from a position of speculation, to follow an endless stream of data into the cloud or embody an intentional spectralization runs parallel and is perhaps entirely supported by the semiotic operations of finance. As seen in the recent failures of accelerationist politics in art, if keeping up with capital is the name of the game we will always lose, most of the time.
On the other hand a desire to return to a humanistic sensibility of overt, sincere expression offers little in response to the singular, exclusionary perspective of an individual artistic genius. Expression is approached from an opposing view, but the problems of Greenbergian essentialism allow no greater possibilities from either side. Modernism finds its way back into the minds of so many artists not because its values are the values of truth, but rather because of a conditioned belief that sincerity is a possibility, and possibly a duty. While the nature of truth is best left to the individual, the adoption of individualism, exceptionalism, and a pursuit of purity are clearly also in line with the goals of capitalism, offering merely a different kind of mechanical engagement.
Somewhere along this spectrum of certainty is what could only be characterized as the middle point between both these positions. Regardless of one’s view of this spectrum as being a line or a circle, the middle would ideally occupy a space of equal distance to any extreme and may in fact not be found in the traditional mean, but in the ability to function at both extremes concomitantly. Neither opposition nor compliance in totality, a middle ground offers exactly that, distance from the extremity of belief and non-belief, of working and not working through a process of double negation. The ghost operates from this middle ground as well, being neither present nor absent, alive nor dead, spiraling towards the unseen. And there is here, somewhere, a space of inconsistency that rebukes novelty and allows an artist a means for staving off the leaching forces of capitalism, vacant formalism, and work. The space generated by a denial of consistency or novelty is not, however, neutral or somehow outside of the systematic violence of capital. Equidistant as it may seem to be from definition or distinct positionality, this space is in a fact a vacuum of circular dialectics and innocuous self-reference that resides quite comfortably within the codes of entrepreneurial capitalism. It is the arena for run of the mill confidence games that offer no claim to believe in and disguise their hollowness in specialized language. It is the space of strike workers and snake oil salesman, of people willing to “do what it takes”, of mercenaries unencumbered by affiliation and myopically focused on survival. And it is the space of ghosts, a shadowland.
If total detachment is more commonly comparable to suicide or death and faithful sincerity to perseverance, then the ghost is seen to operate from both positions simultaneously. Not quite the dead and certainly not the living, a ghost comes to stand for both the past and the future. It signifies an end, but an end that returns as a reminder of its potential to end again; of its own inability to fully escape temporal cycles of recurrence. The endgames of revolution and refusal are these very same kinds of ghosts, announcing their possibility in ceaseless repetition that nullifies their effectivity while ensuring their future return as spectre. They do not exist in the concrete form and seek to communicate nothing other than their own existence as an endlessly recurring desire.
The destruction of the social spaces of work by the forces of innovation, novelty, and disembodied labor clearly delineate new arenas of resistance as primarily immaterial. For artists this presents a not so unique problem of reconciling the traditions of physical production with a dematerializing social existence. Highlighting art’s circulation beyond institutional structures and within a broader social context, artists have long attempted to separate ideas from their material embodiment in hopes that the play of free floating signifiers would translate into freedom in socio-political environments.
This freedom, however, has historically operated either as precursor to or blatant mimicry of the evolutions of a capitalist system that looks to the cultural field for suggestions. With opposition presumed entirely absent, inoperability, illegibility, and contradiction can be wielded as tactics for an attempted withdrawal from capital’s requirement for artistic novelty and innovation. A withdrawal forced by its own parameters to waiver in its denouncement of power. But one that falters publicly, unashamed, and returns endlessly with the grinning resignation to certain death, to utter failure.
“Let there be a chamber wherein no other light comes, unless by the door or window where the spectator looks in. Let the whole window or part of it be of glass, as we used to do to keep out the cold. But let one part be polished, that there may be a Looking-glass on bothe sides, whence the spectator must look in. For the rest do nothing. Let pictures be set over against this window, marble statues and suchlike. For what is without will seem to be within, and what is behind the spectator’s back, he will think to be in the middle of the house, as far from the glass inward, as they stand from it outwardly, and clearly and certainly, that he will think he sees nothing but truth. But lest the skill should be known, let the part be made so where the ornament is, that the spectator may not see it, as above his head, that a pavement may come between above his head. And if an in- genious man do this, it is impossible that he should suppose that he is deceived.”
Giambattista della Porta
“…an abstraction, of what happens in the head, of what comes only out of the head, that is, of what stays there, in the head, even as it has come out of there, out of the head, and survives outside of the head.”
Visit Utah Snyder’s website to view his artwork.
1 One of whom is listed as Roman Signer, although it is unclear if it is that Roman Signer who lives just 86km away in St. Gallen.
2 In 1795 Oliver Evans, an American engineer, was already publishing and testing plans for a fully automated grain mill
3 Commissioned by William the Conqueror (also known as William the Bastard) this survey of the English countryside took account of all property for the purposes of feudal taxing and was equated to the Book of Judgment by the native English “not because it contains decisions on various difficult points, but because its decisions…are unalterable.” as quoted from Richard FitzNeal the treasurer of England under Henry II. It is unclear if the account was finished before William the Bastard’s death in 1087. This manuscript can be seen as a central moment in the birth of modern capitalism as well as a precursor to the division of subjectivity and objectivity that fueled portions of the Enlightenment.
4 Twenty years later in 1801 Evans would build the first American steam engine and be dubbed “the Watt of America”
5 In a prime example of how innovation and efficiency are seldom rooted in basic ideas of quality or usefulness, as well as the total dominance of such an antithetical logic, the American hard wheat varietal is now the most commonly produced grain.
6 From Jacques Derrida’s book Specters Of Marx
7 Moments that undoubtedly extend well into the lives of those who survived them as the material and immaterial alike.
8On December 14, 1999, a 60 Minutes II report by Scott Pelley opened with this characterization of protesters in Seattle during the WTO opening ceremonies. Immediately following were violent images of excessive force inflicted by police in a seemingly obvious attempt at misdirection by the editing team at CBS. At one point Pelley asks a group of anarchists “What do your parents think of all this?” seeming to frame the protesters as mis- guided teenagers. It should also be noted that the crew of anarchists inter- viewed refused to reveal their actual level of involvement in the protests.
9 Coined by the chairman of the Strategic Leadership Group in Arlington, VA, Hamilton Beazley in the book Continuity Management
10 Payments were delivered to the office of Afghan president Hamid Karzai over the course of a decade by the CIA in an attempt to buy political influence during the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The money, however, is also credited as a large source of corruption within the Afghan government during these years with most of the cash ending up in the hands of America’s enemies.
11 Hito Steyerl makes this analogy in her essay Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, which talks of a hyperproductive cultural field whose workers “churn out feelings, perceptions, and distinction in all possible sizes and variations.”