The idea of the “individual” is a decidedly modern preoccupation – a singular being characterized by its so-called individuality, ostensibly distinct from the community in which it resides. In the art market, as in other streams of capital, the “individual” is often thought to be an exceptional subject, an “influencer” capable of cohering and directing flows of value and power. But as this modern subject, the “individual” can also be understood as a self that is targeted as a commodity itself. As our cover suggests, there is an inherent tragedy to this individuated being that cannot escape itself; however seemingly autonomous, it is nevertheless still beholden to, and even constituted by, a program of being in the world that it must internalize at the price of suffering enormously. In the present tense, individual subjects, as German sociologist Ulrich Bröckling discusses in these pages, are taught to seek fulfillment through achievement (being good at what one does) only to be evaluated by a society oriented toward competition (being good at promoting the fact that one is good at what one does, regardless of the actual quality of one’s work). In turn, the subject finds that the agency she thought she possessed no longer applies; her claim to personal rights, reliable work, and ownership over her own body – elements by which she would normally establish identity – are now mere potentials that, in order to have value, must be maximized. She is told that success lies in her own “responsibilized” hands, even though it is, in fact. increasingly out of her hands and relative to the actions of others, contingent on her network and its programmed algorithms, which, increasingly, she is unable to personally effect.
In the 1990s, a great deal of Foucault-inspired writing, from Deleuze’s “Postscript on Control Societies” to Tiqqun’s “Theory of a Young Girl,” focused on a particular, then-emergent version of the neoliberal self – one wherein the shopper-consumer (defined by objects) has become the user/experiencer (defined by the networks she can access and mobilize). In the decades since, the related forces of subjectification – media’s decentralization, the proliferation of user-generated content, the rise of the attention economy – have only intensified, leading to increased polarization, the dominance of affective speech over rational thought, and in turn, a discourse increasingly shaped by post-truth, the hyperreal, and identitarian politics. If we understand the “individual” not as a fixed category but as a trans-modernist mode of the self that shifts according to the form of governance (and era of capitalism) in which it operates, certainly we must therefore be dealing with a different kind of individual than had been active 20 years ago. Outlining the formation of this figure at various historical turns, American scholar Wendy Brown and Texte zur Kunst publisher Isabelle Graw open this issue with a discussion regarding the state of today’s entrepreneurial subject. In her 2015 book “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution,” Brown speaks of this figure as a “fully financialized self,” “a homo oeconomicus across all dimensions of life.” But can such a totalizing definition still hold in light of the pivotal political changes of this past year? Citing the shift toward antidemocratic, nationalist policy that’s recently unfolded across Europe and the US, Graw asks Brown her thoughts on the limit point of neoliberal order, the subject’s status in turn, and whether she feels the long-standing labor-capital relation that Marx hypothesized remains viable.
No doubt the recent resurgence of right-wing influence renders social analysis more challenging. But as Brown and Graw note, and Nina Power in her text for this issue further cautions: we must always see the complexity of our present moment, and never buy into the illusion of moving from one fixed regime to another. Indeed, modes of governance are always overlapping. And just as multiple, interfering systems can co-exist, so too can a single body simultaneously harbor various formations of the self.
Multiplicity figures centrally in Sven Lütticken’s essay, which thinks through the current correlation between language transmission and individuation in light of writing’s post-Gutenbergian form. He speaks of a pitchification of culture on the one hand and, on the other hand, a new kind of collectivity to be found in a trend toward group reading (whether online or in physical space). Lütticken diagnoses that per Flusser, information, in order to circulate now, requires gesture and the social bodies that enact and process it.
But how does this square with the very definition of the artist as capable of separating him or herself from society while still forming him or herself in objective relation to it? Here, cultural historian Wolfgang Ruppert looks at instances of artist-entrepreneurial selves across centuries, showing that though a constant position in relationship to society might be sustained, each age produces a unique formation thereof. Alex Israel’s practice is interesting in this regard; Israel being someone who – by dint of his work, but also his adroit circulation as “artist” through art-world channels (TZK now inclusive) – very quickly found what is taken to be art-world success. To borrow Bröckling’s terms, Israel is not just skilled at negotiating contemporary art, but good, also, at promoting that he is so. But then where, in a practice where self and product are so closely aligned, can critical distance be found? We discussed these issues with Israel and publish, here, our exchange.
Finally, in this issue, we look to the mid-’00s, when the expansion of online social media and new government surveillance brought the limits of identity and authorship into sharp focus. In turn, many people took the buffer zone between public and private identity as a site of production, reviving the use of guising and alter-egos to defend against the pressure to self-instrumentalize. We include, here, a short roster of these figures – from JT LeRoy to Reena Spaulings – profiling that which doesn’t want to be profiled, glossing the history of what resists historicization. Especially at present – and particularly online, where, for example, an incendiary political climate can be harnessed to accrue hyperreal attention without regard for real life repercussions of one’s words – it is important to consider that the “individual” is not an absolute but a product of social forces; ones that act upon the self in various, conflicting and certainly palpable ways.