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23 November 2016
ACCA special: Interview with Federico Campagna

Marina Vives

Federico Campagna is one of those thinkers that put wind in your sails. Author of The Last Night: anti-work atheism adventure (Zero Books, 2013)[[]], he is now working on another book on magic and the creation of a new reality. He sees the light within the (last) night’s darkness, and from his answers a sort of clean energy emerges. A magic hope for contemporary intellectuality, which should be, as he suggest, not related to its present time, but to a utopian –and better- future. Currently working as rights manager at Verso Books in London, Campagna is also a close collaborator of the Italian “Autonomia” philosopher Franco Berardi ‘Bifo’. In the same brilliant 2009 that he began this relationship, he cofounded the multilingual platform for critical theory “Through Europe[[]]”.”.

Let’s move forward. Let’s do things differently. Let’s do it individual by individual. Let’s stop complaining and start making. Campagna is one of the international guests at this years’ ACCA Seminar, entitled “Subjects for sale”. It is planned to deal (once again) with precariousness and professional practices in the art world. But perhaps, some voices will offer an alternative to fatalism. Looking forward to it.

M.V. You have been invited to this year’s ACCA Seminar, which will be entitled “Subjects for Sale: Labour precariousness and professional practices in the art world”. Acknowledging the benchmark is very different if we consider the English (London) context, where you currently live, and the Catalan (Barcelona) context, were you have been invited to come; While England is known to have a quite independent and celebratory cultural policy, the Spanish, and also the Catalan contexts are undergoing, if it has ever been otherwise, a long cultural winter. In addition to the historical disrespect for (let’s call it) “high culture” and arts independency inherited from Franco’s time in the Spanish context, public resources in the last few years have been scarcer than ever. I personally have not experienced a better time, but people say it was better…perhaps 15 years ago. Critics and curators are parasitic by nature; we are always “dependent on”. If we can accept that, why do we keep on talking about precariousness in professional practices in the art world? Does it mean we think we work more (and better) than we are given credit? Does all that mean we should begin to think and live our reality differently?

F.C. I don’t think that London represents an oasis of cultural vitality and respect for high culture. On the contrary. Much like the whole of the Western world, of which it is one of the centres, London is plagued by a new wave of anti-intellectualism and cultural conformism. A lot of it has to do with what we mean by ‘contemporary culture’. What is contemporary is truly ‘of its time’: it is in line with its own historical moment, and aims only to represent it as precisely as possible. Conformism is thus implicit in contemporary culture, since the very act of conforming to the present (and thus, indirectly, of glorifying it as the only possible present) is implicit in the very notion of being contemporary.

The contemporary Western world seems to have almost entirely expelled humanistic culture and, with it, the idea of human perfectibility as the ultimate ethical aim. There is no point in pursuing high culture, because really there is no difference between high and low: and there is no difference, because apparently there is nowhere ‘higher’ than here to go to. It’s all just an exercise in safely killing time before we die, possibly avoiding destroying our planet in the process. Now, a culture that is contemporary to such spirit of our age is necessarily a non-culture. It is merely a matter of administrating entertainment for the mortal masses while they work their way to the grave. As entertainers, curators and artists are pretty low down the list: their stuff is not very much fun (although they often try to compete with theme parks and comedy shows) and their contribution to the general economy is very marginal. Their marginality is completely understandable.

If one wished to revive their role, one could immediately think to improve their offer to their contemporary audience along the line of the culture of our time. Alternatively, we would have to rethink what artists, writers, musicians etc. do, and what we can mean by culture. Does culture have to be ‘of its time’, if ‘its time’ is an abyss of cruel mediocrity and nihilistic stupefaction? How can we start talking of a time and a world that is not the present one? And if we did so, would we still be doing culture at all? In other words, the question of ‘cultural work’ in its contemporary declination doesn’t deserve any more attention than any other issue related to employment in any field – there is truly nothing special or unique about the creation of contemporary culture. But if we want to discuss the possibility of creating a new type of culture, and thus a new type of culture-makers, then we have first of all to start talking about the creation of a new type of reality. We have to snap out of our present time and look towards a time that is not just ‘contemporary’, or ‘future’ or ‘past’, but that is truly another time. This, I believe, is our task and challenge today.

In your book The Last Night: anti-work atheism adventure (Zero Books, 2013) you affirm that work is the new religion, and the way people are increasingly and intensively relating to it, a response to this “obedience” -to put it in your words- we cannot escape: We, as humankind, are constantly seeking to pay homage to these “normative abstractions” (some call it ideals other might understand the concept faster it if we call it God, or Nation, or Work). You also defend, as a definitive autonomous distancing from this obedience, a “radical atheism”, which shall free “us” from these normative abstractions by becoming “squanderers”, a label you suggest to define an ethical modality of subjectivation as regards to community or the world we live in. In such an exaggeratedly symbolic-based working (and thinking) field, how can we manage to defend culture-based critics and yet squander (or parasite) our closest context?

The subtitle to my book mentioned a form of ‘radical atheism’. But, as it is often the case, when atheism is pushed to the extreme it finds itself paradoxically very close to religious thinking. When I was talking about squandering, I was advocating a relationship of detachment towards the ‘normative abstractions’ of the world that isn’t too far from the suspicion towards ‘the world’ that you can find in several religious experiences – particularly with the Gnostics.

My invitation was to consider the linguistic apparatus that holds together our world, for what it is: that is as mere language rather than as the totality of existence. On that basis, one can relate to the demands issued by the normative abstractions of the day (Work! Consume! Enjoy! Play! Hate!) with a certain distance. Not a critical distance (there is no point in trying to prove wrong something that, as language, is constitutively true only in reference to itself) but an emancipatory distance.

Yet, if we wish to develop this distance, this squandering distance between us and the language that rules our world we need to have something that exceeds and escapes this linguistic web. As long as we are reducible to our linguistic definitions (our data and identities), we are necessarily unable to escape the trap. We need to look elsewhere, towards the ‘ineffable’, to find a terrain from which we can act at a distance – and thus, from which we can begin a process of emancipation.

Although this isn’t something that I discussed in my previous book, this is the central part of a new book on ‘magic’ that I am currently writing. I believe that the creation of a new reality starts with the identification of an alternative reality principle: if the central reality-principle of our present era is absolute language (see for example the all-pervasiveness of the language of finance, IT and information), the core of an alternative system has to be the field of the ineffable. If we fail to identify a new reality-principle, we won’t manage to create a new reality-system, and without a new reality-system we have literally no hope to affect any substantial change to our world, particularly if we wish to push it towards any form of emancipation.

Please correct me if I am wrong: as a “utilitarian” anarchist, you have defended the existence of a “State” in terms of practical use: besides the living together “in peace”, it is useful to have a public education, a public health-care, a public transport system. You have also defended your anti-Brexit position. I wish it was not so, but instead of a cohort of intellectual individuals that fundament their living together in terms of “comradeship”, to use your terms, what I see now, in the light of the recent events (Mr Trump became the 45th President of the USA as these questions were formulated), is a western society increasingly self-chained to the appearances, vertiginously selfish and dwelled on short-term and superficial reflections. Trump has, in that sense, become a sort of “normative abstraction”, the personification of that rude sheriff a lot of people were waiting for, that “Messiah” whose arrival would instantly solve their problems. People’s minds and spirits seem to become smaller and their scope narrower. Is that a step prior to something else? Where should contemporary Criticism locate itself? Where is contemporary art, as in art related to its time, being produced and/or hidden? Where should we demand to find it?

I don’t know what kind of anarchist I am. Perhaps an individualist anarchist, or a ‘functional’ one? In any case, my political positions at the moment have to do not so much with anarchism directly, but with an attempt to create or maintain the conditions in which a work of emancipation is still possible. If we imagine the world as governed by people like Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others, we can immediately see what kind of priorities will be pursued. We’ll have a form of national-capitalism the same way that we had national-socialism almost a century ago. If with one hand you retain the ideology of Technic (as in the reduction of everything to a mere instrument for the endless expansion of production) while with the other you exhume the demons of xenophobia and murderous paranoia, the result is something very, very ugly. It doesn’t take much to see this, as it doesn’t take much to realise that we are going exactly in this direction.

In historical moments such as this one, I believe that there is a crucial use also in those weak and complicit institutions that represent today’s Weimar. For example, the EU as it is at the moment is hardly a beacon of emancipation. Nonetheless, it is one of the very few institutions left that at the same time carries a spark of that humanist energy that emerged after WWII, while also being able to act as the katechon (in theology, the ‘withholding power’ that delays the apocalypse). Of course, none of this is going to be enough in the long term: it is just a way to gain a bit of time, while we try to organise our response to the events.

As I said earlier, I believe that the real challenge at this point is more cultural than political, and even more fundamentally at the level of reality-systems. In this sense, culture-makers have a tremendously important role – a role, of course, that can be fulfilled only inasmuch as they cease to be ‘contemporary’ to their historical time. We need to delve into the depth of imagination, looking for new structures upon which we can create an alternative reality that we can offer as a mythological alternative to the present mythology of Technic and national-capitalism. We should recoil from ‘ironic’ displays of conformism and for the temptation to give in to the normative abstractions of our time. For one, I believe, we should dare to proclaim that we need again to have a truly high culture, because there is certainly a world higher and better than this one that we can create – and people better than us that can exist one day.

Marina spent the first two years of her life without saying anything: they told her parents that she was internalizing. And even though it’s a while now since she learnt to talk, she still needs to internalize. To then shake things up, question, order, disorder and celebrate. She finds politics in many places and has a special interest in all that’s subaltern, in the “commons”, and in the points where all this has an impact on creative expression.

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)