Patricia Reed

From Culpability to Capacity

I know better, but…, this is perhaps the most telling slogan that could adorn our T-shirts today (or environmentally friendly, ethically produced cotton, organically dyed, biennale branded, re-useable shopping bags for that matter) if the way we display ourselves to and in the world would purport to take any sort of “honest” presentation. More than just do-ing it, “I know better, but…” is perhaps the most uniting slogan of passive nihilism that exists in our contemporary plight—traversing classes, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, economic statuses, intellectual positions, and political orientations. What this little, seemingly harmless slogan reveals about us is an underlying and pervasive denial through which the apparatus of spectacular capital operates. We may be attracted to vastly different goods, products, and brand identifications, yet what unites us is the very drive to participate within the rapid flows of circulation at the core of consumption. Our situation is all the more interesting, perversely so, since we are all to aware of the false mythology surrounding brands, yet persist in our patterns of behavior—what Slavoj Žižek, following Sigmund Freud, has called the “fetishist disavowal.” Rationally speaking, I know that typing this text on a shiny MacBook Pro won’t suddenly infuse my capacities to write with unbeknownst acumen, wit, and virtuosity, yet I have been driven (beyond means) to acquire this particular good since its creative-class aura and polished styling targets my artistic identity as a cultural producer. Yes, even Žižek, our Marxist enfant terrible, admits to his hypocritical culpability, unable to escape the spectre of the fetishist disavowal, having recently scooped up a fashionable iPad as a gift for his son, shortly after it hit the market.[1] What these crass, yet hopefully highly identifiable examples reveal is the gaping chasm between logical rational and our resulting behavior, between knowledge and action, between cause and effect. “I know better, but…” is symptomatic of this inconsistency embodied in drive that generates behavior unaffected by a reasoning calculation.

Contained within this fundamental split between knowledge and action lies the crux of our problem when trying to confront the pervasiveness of the solicitation of ever more excessive desires through increasingly subtle and sophisticated modes of brand association. This fundamental inconsistency is symptomatic of one of the quintessential problematics of being human in and of itself. We humans are a particular species with no definitive surrounding, existing in an environment overabundant with stimuli disconnected from operative tasks of fixed biological finality.[2] The experience of our world is always over-full, turning culture into our first nature. Culture is imprinted as an innate biology upon the plasticity of our being, sheltering us from the terrifying contingency and indeterminacy of being-in-the-world.[3] That is to say, there is no biological, anthropological, divine nor “natural” order of human (co-)existence—and that is perhaps both our utmost possibility, yet also our greatest risk. There is no manual for learning or practicing culture, no list of inscribed imperatives, culture is rather perceived, traversing by and through us, arranging orders of things, people, functions, and places; in the parlance of Jacques Rancière, through the distribution of the sensible.

Common Sense

Within the distribution of the sensible, ways of living, being and co-existing operate through a certain perceptibility, to the exclusion of that which is imperceptible (in French the expression is partage de sensible, with partage denoting that which is both shared and that which is divided). The allotment of parts and roles is based on a particular allocation of spaces, temporality, and modes of operation that delineate the common, or the topology of the normal, the sensus communis, and the ways in which individuals may partake in that distribution.[4] The distribution of the sensible sets up the relations between the seeable and sayable configuration of the world we live in as to what can be perceived by the senses or what is comprehensible as being visible. The key to this particular conception of culture is its grounding in aesthetics—aesthetics here not referring to a hierarchical system of display in art, but rather associated with the Kantian notion as simply that which can be experienced sensorially. It goes without saying that the sensibility to consume and partake in the experience economy pervades our contemporary perceptibility, our veritable normality, where the allotment of spatiality in a great number of our “public” spaces is, as we well know, reduced to functions of consumption. Countless architectural/ urban studies research projects, as well as, art and design projects have been articulating our alienated plight of disavowal for decades—with the Situationist Internationale, being the most influential (persistently so) amongst the critics of the capital/ spectacle matrix, yet even in the mid-nineteenth century we can already trace Charles Baudelaire’s lamenting and poetic reflections on Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s infamous redesign of Paris (largely constructed for an emerging bourgeoisie and the developing, privatized, marketplace).[5] Since the advent of privatized spatiality and the domination of the market ethos upon the masses, there has been an unrelenting, systematic critique running in parallel.

Mechanization of Critique

Now some will say if it is indeed true that critique has proliferated the institution of the public sphere since the Enlightenment,[6] that if this is the case, the deployment of critique has been a dismal failure. Yet we shouldn’t be too quick to suggest critique in itself has failed. On the contrary, as thinkers such as Rancière and Bruno Latour have noted, the project of critique (in its unveiling and deconstructive guise) has been overly successful. The success of a certain genre of critique built upon persistent doubt as to the “truth” behind the “lies” of images, the dark reality behind the brilliance of images, or the legitimacy behind empirical “facts,” has been wholly integrated in our ongoing negotiation with information in various forms. Once heralded as an emanicipatory weapon against the reign of the commodity, or the autocracy of scientific fact-making, critique now serves an obverse, and sometimes even dangerous function. In the case of rampant consumerism, critique persistently portrays a law of domination whose force and omnipresence seizes everything it comes into contact with, even antagonistic forces, making “any protest a spectacle and any spectacle a commodity [generating] an expression of futility, but also a demonstration of culpability.”[7] We are here caught again in the obstinate grips of the fetishist disavowal (also symptomatic of leftist melancholia), where all forms of deconstructing the spectacle continually reveal the “law” of commodities, not with an impulse to rethink the potential contingency of this perceived “law,” but wholly confirming it. In the case of science, and its social studies counterpart, Latour points to the ways in which the proliferation of critical doubt has been perverted against all rationale. Citing the case of the climate change debate in his essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,”[8] he examines how his own discipline, which positions scientific fact-making under a sociological/ anthropological microscope (the social contingency of scientific facts), has been distorted towards the private aims of lobby groups. In a New York Times article, Latour cites a Republican strategist who states that the public must be continually fed doubtful publicity as to the socially constructed “facts” of climate change, so as to instil a mode of cynical skepticism upon a populus. Here we can see, in an overt way, an appropriation of critique (the critique of scientific fact-making) deployed not to put into question the socio-scientific instantiation of “objective” facts, but rather mobilized to reify existing, profit-generating (non-)regulations. Critique, here, has been fully usurped within the distribution of the sensible—provoking Latour to pose the provocative question when enacting these conventions of critique as “unveiling:” “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?”[9]


Our supposed tool of enlightenment, critique was believed to be our cognitive light against the dark colonization of capital upon our minds, seeking to liberate us with knowledge of the “truth,” or “reality” of things, spurring better judgments and therefore, better actions. And, we have fully ingested its lessons—endlessly returning, however, to the very same reality, or better apprehension of reality, time and time again—reinforcing a given perceptibility rather than redrawing the limits of that which has yet to be given, that which is potential and not-yet-given. Does that mean any attempt today to “be critical” is doomed to the same fate of confirming the spectacle, of confirming the (imaginary) “fact” of our reality, like Latour’s mechanical toy? In seeking to antagonize and render politically affective an intervention upon the coordinates of the given, common order of things, Rancière offers a particularly helpful concept of “dissensus,” which is no longer caught up in the work of excavating surfaces, unveiling illusions or deconstructing façades of things, but one that operates under principles of gathering and precisely un-working our sensibility of reality, mobilizing the very contingencies of the symbolically constituted order (the distribution of sensibility).

Dissensus, as Rancière defines it, is politics; it is the clash of sense and sense—a struggle between the distribution of sensibility and the ways of making sense out of it. An aesthetical grasping of dissensual politics, as fleeting and fragile as it may be, acts as crucial modality through which an affective cultural praxis can be positioned. Not merely revealing or representing the symbolic structuring of the “given,” as in the now inverted function of critique, but the augmentative activity of redrawing the aesthetical frameworks in which the given-ness of a particular sensible ordering is apprehended as such. One prime example here, one that seems to be returning of late in discussions of political affectivity, especially given a direction of political thought examining notions of Deleuzian “lines of flight,” comes from Herman Melville’s character of Bartleby, the Scrivener. Although several prominent thinkers have analyzed Bartleby, his character becoming the poster-boy image of passive refusal, his character remains useful when we amalgamate some of these theses in formulating a portrait of a resistant figure from several angles of interpretation, elaborating on his actions in order to understand his particular process of resistance. Bartleby’s infamous phrase “I would prefer not to,” is what Gilles Deleuze called a formula of “secret agrammaticality.” The phrase in itself is, of course, grammatically correct, yet in its brusque cessation “not to,” leaves what it rejects undefined. His phrase (“statement” seems too determinate to evoke here) is neither affirmation nor negation, but a “logic of negative preference, a negativism beyond all negation.”[10] There is a logical unworking between words and actions, between acts of speech and the words themselves, creating a world of suspended syntax; a performance of language without reference. Bartleby’s (non-)action disrupts to coordinates of the normal operation of things in the office of the attorney, not via a statement of negative refusal (as when one would suddenly, loudly stand up to one’s boss), but something vastly more confounding (and agitating) for the actors involved in the performance of work. Bartleby’s is a contestation of the partitioning of the sensible of the world of the attorney to whom he speaks; his “agrammaticality” disorganizes a particular, and reasonable organization of life and work:

It shatters not just the hierarchies of a world but also what supports them: the connections between causes and effects we expect from that world, between the behaviors and the motives we attribute to them and the means we have to modify them.[11]

Bartleby’s formula defers the orders of “operative” being through an agrammaticality that destroys the syntax of reasonable organization. By neither negation nor affirmation, he opens up a relation of tension between the two oppositional states of “yes” or “no.” His is a calmly repeated radical utterance, Bartleby’s formula, is nothing less than an enactment of the fundamental contingency of the “reasonable” operations of things, a disruption of the grammar of the given.

Bartleby’s formula is not, in the conventional sense, formulaic—there are no equations or systematic methods that generate this sort of disruptive “agrammaticality.” If this formula were indeed formulaic, it would become a mere rule, a certain task that must be fulfilled in order to enact resistance—the paradox of course being that if this formula fell into the domain of the virtuousness of good consciousness (morally tainted task), it would cease to be resistant at all—its resistant forces would have already been subsumed within a nomos of behavior. This is precisely where cultural critics, whether they be designers, thinkers, artists or whomever seeks to engage with notions of resistance upon the given order of things, should take as exemplary. The field of resistance has dramatically changed, from the once effective modes of mass gathering organized to negate a certain delineation, injustice, or direction of the social, these modes have since been fully regulated, often quarantined into highly controlled zones of negation—as in the paradoxically designated “protest zones,” or “zones of free speech.” Something vastly more imaginative needs to take shape if we are to affectively resist, and it is precisely upon and within the coordinates of the habitual operation of things where the contingencies of the distribution of sensibility can be demonstrated. Bartleby’s formula is an open-ended example, for it continually demands reinvention on the part of those who seek to enact an echo of Bartleby’s “secret agrammaticality.” What is, however, a consistently occurring force in this unsettling capacity of Bartleby, is a fundamental fidelity to the performance of agrammaticality, and it is here where one can start to negotiate his performative ethos, as such.

Imagination and Good Life

“One should reduce and limit the realm of morality step by step: one should bring to light and honor the names of the instincts that are really at work here after they have been hidden for so long beneath hypocritical names of virtue…”
Friedrich Nietzsche: The Will to Power. New York 1967, § 327

Ethics, if it is to be broadly defined in this brief account, can be summarized as an ongoing search for a good life,[12] asserting Aristotle’s differentiation between “bare-life” into which human-animals are born, and “good life” (eudaimonia) as that which perpetuates and gives birth to the polis, and thusly, politics. Some thinkers, such as Rancière, are opposed to these binary categories from the beginning, suggesting that the notion of these differences is in itself tied up with the distribution of the sensible and cannot be taken as a “fact” of (co-)existence. Whether these categories are “facts” or not, is irrelevant in my opinion, since forging a discussion about ethics of the “good life” is wholly related to the a priori contingency of human (co-)existence, that modes of organization, exchange and co-existence can be other; that what appears as steadfast and unchangeable is largely a problem of imagination itself. Does this mean that I am naïve enough to believe we can simply daydream ourselves away from the imposition of commodity culture and the experience economy? Certainly not. When we take up the question of imagination through the lens of Immanuel Kant, imagination is seen as a symbiosis between sensibility and intellect that allows one to produce a concept-image of that which is not directly represented. Such image-concepts become mental schematics—so that when I say “blue table,” one possesses at hand a mental image of blueness and tableness, allowing for some form of common communicative ground. In the world of tables and colors, this is perhaps, quite banal, yet the stakes are greatly raised when we start to ask ourselves about schemas of (co-)existence itself. It is of interest to note, that in a 2003 survey of the working and living conditions of so-called “critical cultural producers” when asked point-blank about their visions for a “good life” or other modes of organization, no one possessed an answer,[13] there was no discernible possible schema, even among a presupposed cultural elite. It is from this position of a dominant lack of other imaginaries towards what could possibly constitute a “good life” that an ethics of dissensus can be situated.

If ethics in general is indeed the search or quest for a “good life” (here I think it is important to use the article “a” and not “the” since this notion of a “good life” is not universally enduring), Simon Critchley has postulated that an ethical position results from the feeling of a demand—a demand that is not objectively given, but is internalized nonetheless as a sentiment, a demand that is sensed. A system of ethics ensues as a result of this demand, but only when the self is able to bind itself wholly to the perceived demand—the self must remain in absolute fidelity to this demand of a perceived good in order to perpetuate an ethical act.[14] It is here where we can witness the exemplary ethics of Bartleby with his unfloundering commitment to the performative event of a radical agrammaticality, with his uncompromised fidelity to the event(s) of his utterance.

The ethics of dissensus can only be affective within a fidelity to the event of its articulation. As an aesthetic event, dissensus works upon imaginations toward forging other schemas, or possible ordering through a clash of sense and sense—an abutment with given meanings and order of things. Dissensus contaminates imagination—a touching of the senses, it opens the possibility to experience something other, working on the plasticity of our modes of (co-)existing. These are not necessarily revolutionary, grandiose, or immediately paradigm-changing sensibilities, but slowly work towards the perception of other modalities of dwelling, unworking the virtues of those that have already been schematized. Dissensus was not intended by Rancière as a particular ethical system, but nonetheless requires a certain and sincere commitment to the events it antagonizes, and therefore takes on ethical characteristics of the fidelity of perceiving, performing, and imagining. It is here where the thoughts of Nietzsche come to the fore with his system of ethics outlined in the Will to Power, known as virtù ethics. Just like the aesthetical articulation of dissensus, which tests and demonstrates the contingency of the order of things; and those things, people, places, and situations which are excluded from the distribution of sense, virtù “calls attention to the remainders of a system, to the insistences, cruelties, deceits, and inconsistencies, or virtue as a system of values.”[15] Such an ethics is not simply negative, or critical in the sense of pointing fingers, nor does it take up the spirit of the enfant terrible, but looks towards aesthetic, or experiential disruption as a mode of reinscribing the coordinates of the given.

With the ethics of virtù denoting a fidelity to the event of dissensus, we can seek to unwork the “inevitable” passive nihilism evoked by our original slogan, “I know better, but…” At the beginning the slogan presupposed our fate of culpability in the grips of the commodity machine and our irresistible drives to perpetuate its operative functions. Yet it is in this very slogan that we can perhaps recapture our own secret agrammaticality, for located in the ellipsis itself, the “…” of literary suspension lies a crucial indefinition, the very possibility to articulate something other. Our principle challenge as cultural producers is to apprehend the potentiality of this indefinition embodied by the ellipsis, unworking the “law” of its presupposed culpability, transforming this culpability into capacity. Capacity, here, is wholly non-prescriptive, slipping through the boundaries of an instructive manual, a speculative capacity that can articulate other distributions of sense, contaminating imagination in the ongoing search and experimentation with and for a good life, and no longer a life of mere goods.


Essay originally published as a critical introduction to the research project framework entitled “Kapital G: Facing the Good, How to Cultivate Commercial Attitudes?”, initiated by Onomatopee, Eindhoven (October 2010);

[1] See Sean O’Hagen: “Slavoj Žižek: Interview,” in: The Observer (06/27/2010), p. 16. Status: 12/04/2011,

[2] See Paolo Virno: “Anthropology and Theory of Institutions,” in: Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray (eds.): Art and Contemporary Critical Practice. London 2009, pp. 95–112.

[3] See ibid.

[4] See Jacques Rancière: The Politics of Aesthetics. London 2004, p. 12.

[5] See David Harvey: “The Political Economy of Public Space,” in: Setha Low, Neil Smith (eds.): The Politics of Public Space. New York 2006, pp. 17–34.

[6] See Terry Eagleton: The Function of Criticism. New York 2005, p. 10.

[7] Jacques Rancière: The Emancipated Spectator. London 2009, pp. 32 f.

[8] Bruno Latour: “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” in: Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004), pp. 225–248.

[9] Ibid., p. 225.

[10] Gilles Deleuze: “Bartleby; or, The Formula,” in: idem: Essays Critical and Clinical. New York 1997, pp. 68–90, p. 71.

[11] Jacques Rancière: The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing. Stanford 2004, pp. 146 f.

[12] See Branden W. Joseph: “Interview with Paolo Virno,” in: Grey Room, no. 21 (Fall 2005), pp. 26–37.

[13] See Isabell Lorey: “Governmentality and Self-Precarization,” in: Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray (eds.): Art and Contemporary Critical Practice. London 2009, pp. 187–202.

[14] See Simon Critchley: Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. New York 2007.

[15] Bonnie Honig: Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics. Ithaca 1993, p. 3.

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