Of all the different figures who formed part of the Situationist International, Asger Jorn is the one who resonates the least with me, and even so, McKenzie Wark managed to make him interesting. Wark will write something like this, and I’ll think hm, maybe I should read that guy Jorn:
The suns around which Jorn’s thought orbits are, as for so many others, Darwin, Nietzsche and Marx, although his path was more elliptical than most. The Marxist in Jorn expects capitalism to collapse, but not through class struggle so much as ontological struggle. Its inability to grasp its own nature condemns it. For Jorn, “the socialist way of life is the natural way of life.”9 (120)
There is this too:
The working class is present in Jorn. Unlike bourgeois economics, he does not want to hide them away behind the surface-effects of exchange. Rather, he shifts attention away from exchange to production; not to production as quantity, but production as quality, as difference. The key to this is not labor as the universal content of value, but form as difference, as the production of differences. Labor may be the content of value, but creation is its form. There is both a laboring class and a creating class. Capitalism is the alienation of labor from creation.
In short: substance is value, value is process, and process is difference. (206)
Even in this there is something, I’m not quite sure I know what it is, but it seems worth struggling a bit with. We are alienated from creation and creativity in our work, this is part of what we are fighting for. Both Marx and Morris tried to return creation to labour, and there is something of importance here I think.
That last sentence though, I just don’t know what it means. But it’s the challenging kind of not knowing that pushes my thinking outwards, which I like very much, not the obfuscation that makes me write people off.
Important to note, of course, what I don’t like at all about Jorn:
Jorn’s is perhaps a perverse kind of Leninism. It is not the party that brings class consciousness to the workers from without, but bohemia. The nucleus of a radical form of action is not the specialists in political praxis, but the connoisseurs of the free use of time (Gilles and Carole, wandering the labyrinth of the city at night). Theirs is not a politics of work, but an aesthetics of leisure. (209-210)
I feel many ‘bohemians’ suffer from just such a misapprehension. I’m in a bit of mood today having just finished my article for Salvage on the situationist’s abandonment of their Algerian comrades, for which I’ve been reading all of this when I had some time ago all but written them off. I’m glad I didn’t, but that kind of presumption makes me want to do some damage. Pain and poverty are too real. Last night we heard Linton Kwesi Johnson say that poetry would never itself create change, that art does nothing to stop injustice. It is action and struggle that change the world.
The relationship between art and revolution, the finding of voice long oppressed and silenced, the sharing of it with others, the supporting and inspiring of movement and solidarity, the catharsis through shared anger and screaming, the whispering of hope — these are not small things, unimportant things. They rarely emerge from bohemia and the art of ‘free time’, just as Asger Jorn is no Linton Kwesi Johnson.
So it is worth returning to Jorn after that?
If there is a Situationist praxis, it has to take time in a quite different sense to a Marxist one. It is not just that capital quantifies time and cheats the worker of the value of it. Rather, it is that the quantification of time suppresses the qualitative aspect of the transformation of one substance into another. The slogan “live without dead time” comes to mean something quite specific here. It is not that the situation is the spontaneous irruption of a pure event, severing all ties with the past, freeing itself from the grip of technologies, built spaces, all the massive forms of dead labor. (212-213)
There is still something here. Something we have to free in ourselves, transform in ourselves. Something signified here, but that I don’t think Jorn will help many to find it. I think I myself will go looking somewhere else. But in the one quote of his that caught my attention, I did like his recognition that there are no true breaks for us, and that culture grows from all that has come before.
In formulating an irrational architecture, leaving out these capital facts would be unthinkable. It is easy and undoubtedly amusing to come up with new ideas opposed to the previous ones, but culture consists in just the opposite: it is the continual education and transformation of pre-existing phenomena. (54)
Excerpts from Image and Form, Asger Jorn, 1954 (Situationists and the City, Tom McDonaugh)
Oppressed peoples, though, it is worth remarking, often have more layers of culture to draw from as they negotiate more than one world, one language, one official history.