Have been at Marxism all weekend, for some fine debates and scuffles. Highlights included an unusually measured and non-contrarian Zizek, Esther Leslie on art against art and a wonderfully clipped discussion of conspiracy theories from Lenin: but the stand out for me was China Mieville’s Marxism and Rubbish, or as it might have been titled, ‘Why Socialists Should Support Rubbish Monsters’. This was a potted history of rubbish as a political/aesthetic category, from Philip K Dick’s disintrestedly malevolent, self-generating Kipple, through to the garbage monsters in a Friends of the Earth children’s book that fight a willow tree (the young China sided with the monster, unsuprisingly), and then to Bristol City Council’s 'Uncle Tom' rubbish monster, which promotes recycling. This was a ‘Rejectamentalist Manifesto’ (he can turn a phrase, this man) in which rubbish is, like the proletariat, capitalism’s byproduct that it desperately disavows.
It began by invoking the rubbish that makes up the basic building material of the favelas, what Zizek described earlier as the ‘white areas’ on the map, and politicising it. Rubbish as something that is obsessively expunged by administrative, managerial neoliberal capitalism. Meanwhile ‘rubbish is inherently collective’, with each bit of mess of no more worth than the other, and something which offers a genuinely uncanny counter to neoliberalism’s totality – to humanise it, make it mawkish (as would Folk Art) is to neutralise it. He cites Tynan’s adding bodies to the debris of Beckett’s Breath – ‘by adding humans to the rubbish, you demean the rubbish’. (whether the cheery frequenting of jumble sales, junk markets and charity shops by art students and fashionistas is a political act being quite another matter, as Martha Rosler’s garage sale maybe inadvertently demonstrates). I was also reminded of a late 1920s Brecht story, 'North Sea Shrimps', where a couple of WW1 veterans visit an old friend who now dwells in an impeccable Bauhaus Wohnung - on finding a small part of the apartment contrived to look untidy and unmatching, one of the old soldiers tears pages from magazines and sticks them on the wall, rearranges the furniture, throws crap everywhere...
Brilliant as this was, it hit at something I’m very ambivalent about (and which I raised, in a very rushed and garbled manner) The political aesthetics of Schwitters’ Merzbau or Hannah Hoch’s collages, of (de)assembling the fragments, and of Lenin’s claim that ‘we will build the new society out of the bricks that were thrown at us’, versus the Brechtian-Benjaminian, Productivist/Constructivist imperative Efface the Traces! The Watts Towers or Tatlin's Tower. In the debate, someone mentioned the Haussmannisation of Paris, and slum clearances, whether there or when Shaftesbury Avenue was built, are frequently about purging the slum dwellers as human refuse, Yet – isn’t there a counter-tradition to this too?
That is, the occasionally rather seductive notion that in order to create the new society (or merely the new aesthetic) you ruthlessly vaporise the remains, the remnants and the detritus, lest they maintain their grim, phantasmagoric hold on the new world after their death. Gropius vs Schwitters, or The Fall vs Kraftwerk. Purity or Mess, both have their ideological elements – an obsessive purging being every bit as dubious as a fetishisation of picturesque dilapidation. But then these aren’t always irreconcilables – both were responses to the same conjuncture, both stressed collage and fragmentation, both were hostile to the world as found. After all, Moholy-Nagy helped out building the Merzbau. But as much as a question of monstrous trash, this is a question of Ghosts. Benjamin had two conceptions of this, the raging commodity phantasmagoria of 'Dreamkitsch' that claws at attempts to escape from the chintz, waste and ornament of the past, and on the other hand, the unquiet debris of the Theses on the Philosophy of History: the rubbish heap of history as a spectral avenging horde.