neil cummings

A Shadow of Marx

 A Shadow of Marx a chapter I wrote in 2004 for  Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945 edited by Prof. Amelia Jones. The publication has an innovative structure, it mixes thematic sections with historical overviews, and is intended as a student 'primer'. This text looks through particular artworks, artists and groups of artists to illuminate legacies of Marxist theory..............


Love Cinema

It’s June 16th 2001, and I’m standing behind a rope barrier with a crowd of people in a sloping field, on the edge of a village in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, England. On the other side of the rope are hundreds of people practicing how to perform a running battle. They shout at each other; one side charges and the other retreats, and then vice versa. Some are dressed as police officers—I can see riot gear, shields, snarling dogs and even horses, the others, the civilians, are all men dressed in slightly out of date clothing, from around the 1980s. A voice comes over a loudspeaker system and a number of small two-person film crews with digital cameras mingle with the participants.

And then it starts—shouting, charges, chanting, the throwing of surrogate stones and other objects, skirmishes; dogs are used and people are apparently arrested.  The confrontation gets very violent and everyone surges into the far bottom corner of the field, and then the action stops. The participants move to another location obscured from my view, although I can see thick black smoke and smell burning rubber.  Eventually a loudspeaker crackles into life and we are asked to move down onto a nearby road, where a terrifying battle is raging. Cars are overturned and on fire; there is blood. Mounted police gallop down the road followed by a hail of thrown rocks and debris, confrontations flare up; beautifully choreographed violence leaves bloodied and injured men scattered along the road. A claxon sounds and the violence subsides. People stop skirmishing, help each other up, start smiling and hugging and begin clearing things away.


This is all taking place at the spot where, twenty years ago, 4000 striking miners from across the UK tried to stop coal moving into a coke works and were confronted by a force of 3000 police brought by the government to ensure the coal was delivered. The pitched battle that ensued was one of the most bitter of an already desperate struggle between the remnants of unionized labour and a government determined to introduce deregulated markets as a disciplinary force. For many, this event was a defining moment for contemporary Britain.

The 2001 restaging of the event, is one of the most powerful artworks made in England for as long as I can remember—Jeremy Deller’s The English Civil War Part II, colloquially known as the Battle of Orgreave. This amazing event was conceived by Deller and organized through Artangel, an independent commissioning agency that works with artists to realize site-specific projects.

For the previous eighteen months Deller had been researching in and around Orgreave, talking with residents, ex-miners, local historians and the police.  For The English Civil War, Deller meticulously reconstructed the battle, choreographing 800 people (including 300 ex-miners and police officers, some of whom had taken part in the original confrontation) in collaboration with amateur re-enactment groups, whose members are known for dressing-up as soldiers and replaying battles belonging to deep historical time. On this occasion the historical battle was within living memory. The audience consisted of local people and a smattering of art-world types who had been persuaded to leave London for the day. 

The event was, and is, difficult to describe because it occupied many different cultural categories at once: it was a work of art, a re-enacted battle, an extraordinary celebration, a struggle to represent history and part film-set—the film director Mike Figgis had been commissioned by Channel Four television to make a film of the strike using the reconstruction as source material, and this partly paid for the artwork. Overall, it was very difficult to pinpoint the experience in relation to a particular object or ‘site’ as a work of art, or even to acknowledge where the various components of the ‘art’ project began or ended. But over time, it became clear that Jeremy Deller had produced an extraordinary artwork, the effects of which are still reverberating.

Marxism and Ideology

We are, all of us, enacting a text written elsewhere. And this text, whether we like it or not and whether we can name it or not, is called ideology. Jeremy Deller’s The English Civil War is a rich, profound and provocative contemporary artwork that uses the legacy of a Marxist cultural critique to bring one strand of this ideological text explosively into the present. The ‘battle’ memorialized a profound historical moment, through denying us the luxury of forgetting its effects, and simultaneously challenged contemporary art to engage with important issues of social representation. At the same time, it avoided reducing those formative events and complex social processes to illustration, entertainment or empty spectacle.

Deller deployed one of the most powerful tools in contemporary art, which is the use of ‘research’ or ‘fieldwork’ in the making of the work within a specific location. Because the ‘work’ of a contemporary work of art increasingly takes place through distributive, communicative or social networks, research is beginning to replace ‘site specificity’ as a means of engagement between an artist and a location. And it is now understood that the ‘site’, like the artwork itself, doesn’t simply pre-exist its display and interpretation; both the work and its site are made simultaneously through the act of engagement.

In the case of The English Civil War, it is clear that an artwork as complex as this cannot be bound by the physical exhibition space of a gallery or museum.  Its site—which is one among many—is the social imagination. The English Civil War exists differently for each of its different participants and audience members: from those participants who fought in the initial confrontation and collaborated with the restaging to those who have read the countless accounts of it in magazines, websites, and journals the world over.  And now, even those of you reading this text.

As huge areas of social life are spiraling into abstraction largely as a result of the complexity of our globally networked economies, the most basic functions of our daily life, such as the simplest purchase of a pair of shoes, involve lines of debt and credit, chains of labour relationships and complex supply routes of materials, images and information which circle the globe. If art has traditionally been able to make visible and thus give form to the most subtle yet powerful of beliefs, it is not surprising that the most ambitious contemporary art would seek to engage with these forces.

In our networked economies the exchange of accumulated value as capital has becomes slippery and complex. It is no longer clear where the creation of value, the foundation of political economy, fits into our accelerated exchange of signs, services and information. The theory of value based on the accumulated profit extracted from labour, which emerged in industrial-age economic models and is principally identified with the work of Karl Marx, has little or no purchase on the possibilities introduced by immaterial labour.  The kinds of ephemeral ‘products’ manufactured by contemporary cultural, entertainment and creative industries like museums and galleries or in public relations departments and advertising companies are difficult to represent. But what is clear, is that art is no longer a luxury by-product of financial capital that can transcend political and economic structures; it must be seen as central to these ‘new’ economies.

Art’s dissolution into the space of the commodity was critically deployed by a group of American artists during the 1980s. Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine and Heim Steinbach, for example, utilizing the material vocabulary and syntax of ‘goods’, to intensify the lack of art’s representational authority.

At the same time, other artists have critiqued the commodification of art, opening out its structures of reproduction. Daniel Buren traces the intersection between the work of art and ‘everyday’ aesthetic exchanges; Hans Haacke investigates the corporate, state and private investments inherent in the circulation of art through cultural institutions; and Michael Asher explores the misrecognised obligations—such as the commercial imperative behind art’s exhibition and display—that produce the work of the work of art. Collectively, their practice of interrogating the institutions of art since the 1970s has laid the ground for the 1980s-1990s work of Group Material, Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser, defined by its strategic ‘institutional critique’.

Jeremy Deller is one of a range of contemporary artists—including Mathieu Laurette, Thomas Hirschhorn, and the members of collaborative groups such as Inventory, The Free Copenhagen University or Superflex—who are building on this legacy of ‘institutional critique’.  Artists such as Deller have turned their attention away from the institutions of art themselves to concentrate on the network of economic, political and social structures of which art is increasingly an integral part. Rather than merely illustrating these structures through artworks and exhibitions, they attempt to vividly re-animate the world as experience through critical reception. The encounter with art, the artwork or the event is no longer a passive encounter through the medium of display, but is articulated as a place of engagement and production. Artworks are no longer viewed as points of origin, imagined to be founded on the artist’s creativity, or of termination, housed in museums and galleries or their stores, but as nodes in networks of exchange.  Such artworks and practices are only possible because of a wide and deep-rooted engagement with cultural criticism, the legacy of which owes an enormous debt to a Marxist-inspired engagement with culture.

Classic Marxism

Marxism is the political practice and/or social theory based on the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883), a German philosopher, economist, and revolutionary. Marx borrowed a core philosophical model from Friedrich Hegel, a political economy derived from Adam Smith, and aspects of nineteenth-century French socialism to develop a critique of European society. This critique achieved its most systematic expression in his major unfinished three-volume work, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy.

Marx used Hegel’s model of historical progress, in which ideology and knowledge gradually develop towards their intended conclusion, but inverted its cause and effect, proposing that material circumstances shape ideas, instead of—as in Hegel’s model—the other way around. Marx ‘s material theory of history, otherwise known as historical materialism, is beautifully summarized in his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he notes,

 ‘[t]he mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’.

Marx could see that the means of controlling the material reproduction of life had divided society into two broad social classes:

1) The working class or proletariat: Marx characterized this class as individuals who sell their labor but do not own the means of production, and argued that, through their labour and the profit extracted from it, the members of the industrial working class are responsible for creating all the given wealth in a society.

2) The middle class or bourgeoisie: those who own the means of production and extract the profit from the labour of the proletariat.

A traditional Marxist view of capitalist society is seen through this prism of class antagonism, played out through the means of production. However, since 1945—sometimes referred to as the period of ‘late’ capitalism— there has been a relentless drive to overlay the ideologically determinative spaces of production with the equally disciplinary spaces of mass, or popular consumption. The development of a vast, interlinked media system of radio, television, film, magazines, advertising and retail culture, could be seen as an extension of the ideological arena of bourgeois culture through which various class, ideological, aesthetic and/or political interests are reproduced. And artworks, which were once seen as resistant to, or outside of ideological influence, must now be seen as having become (if not always having been) absorbed into the very symbolic terrain through which ideology is contested and capital reproduced.

Frankfurt School Marxism

What has become known as the ‘Frankfurt School’ inaugurated a Marxist-inspired critical study of the ideological effects of the burgeoning mass culture of Fascism in Germany. The Institute of Social Research, which opened in 1924, was inspired by Marx's ‘classical’ method of historical materialism; the original staff members of the Institute, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, were intent on trying to combine theory and empirical research.

In January 1933, the Institute was raided by Nazi stormtroopers. Many, including Adorno (who was part Jewish), managed to escape. After their arrival in the USA, Adorno and Horkheimer began to realize that they were living under a new and an even intensified system of capitalist social relations in which a popular mass media culture, including radio, Hollywood movies and the record-player, was extending relations of production out into apparent leisure time. For Adorno, who worked on a social research project funded by The Rockefeller Foundation in 1937 studying the effects of new forms of communication on society, the space remaindered by labour—that of culture—was beginning to obey the rules of mechanical production just like any other industry.

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Adorno and Horkheimer developed the first critical theory which addressed the crucial roles of mass culture and communication in contemporary society and coined the paradoxical but hugely influential phrase ‘the Culture Industry’. Here, the authors argue that

‘[c]ulture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part’ (120).

Adorno and Horkheimer identified a fatal flaw in classic Marxism. Marx, via Hegel predicted that the inevitable historical development of the working class would drive its members to seize control of their own means of production, which suggested that capitalism contains the revolutionary potential to generate a genuinely free society. In a society driven by productive relations, which extends into commodification and communication, mass culture becomes a logical extension -a superstructure, to Marx’s primary economic base. But for Adorno and Horkheimer, the products of a ‘culture industry’ held no such promise of emancipation, because mass culture forsakes real freedom in the pursuit of endless novelty and entertainment. Through this logic, whereby Adorno and Horkheimer begin to identify the structures of what would later be called ‘late capitalism’, the evolution of capitalism through culture is not towards freedom but towards even tighter discipline and domination.

So Adorno and Horkheimer look for the sources of revolution elsewhere. And they identify in the supposed autonomy of the most demanding, difficult, avant-garde art works of their time the radical emancipatory potential envisaged by Marx’s political economy. In this potential they locate a ‘pure purposelessness’, which offers a means of contesting, denying even, the utility and instrumentality that reigns in mass cultural production and entertainment. Of course Adorno and Horkheimer recognize that works of art are commodities, and therefore subject to the logics of exchange, but as pure commodities, they never have any recourse to utility and therefore fall outside of Marx’s ethical distinction between objects.  

The autonomous work of art offers an unconscious promise of freedom, because its autonomy, its purity, can never be instrumentalized.   But Adorno and Horkheimer’s position is further complicated because avant-garde art is to be appreciated, but only by the exclusion of the working class:  it is the latter’s freedom and emancipation with which ‘art keeps faith precisely by its freedom from the ends of the false universality’.  Now, there is clearly a contradiction in critical theory claiming that autonomous bourgeois art is what sustains the promise of freedom for the members of the working class in the moment of their exclusion. Adorno and Horkheimer thus deploy an infuriating, paradoxical and contradictory Marxist inspired critique, but use it to productive effect. They simultaneously engage with and disengage from coherent criticism, opening a sort of non-place of criticism as a negative dialectic that mirrors the ideal position of the artwork they champion.

Adorno and Horkheimer were working at the pinnacle of industrial or managerial capitalism, which disciplined workers through relations of production, and they could glimpse a homogenous mass media through film, radio and soon television, which would extend those productive relations into the spaces of leisure. And yet the culture industry was never as coherent or homogeneous as Adorno and Horkheimer proposed.  Although there was and continues to be a corporate and monopolistic drive, its products are more varied, dynamic and conflictual than they credit.  Also the audience of the culture industry are not necessarily the passive dupes of a cynical mass deception. In popular music for example, which Adorno in particular famously detested, there is the potential for building communities of ideological resistance—as in the case of jazz, which has been intimately linked to the development of a radical black urban culture in Europe and the USA.

Essentially, Adorno and Horkheimer forgot the sociology of Marx, failing to produce any empirical analysis of the political economy of the culture industry or of the actual processes involved in the uses of mass culture by its audience.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s model of culture, which only ascribes critical and emancipatory potential to privileged autonomous art, is thus highly problematic. Avant-garde art of the 1950s such as American Abstract Expressionism—which art critic Clement Greenberg claimed to be autonomous from the social—would loose any critical purchase when the mass culture against which it was so negatively opposed fragmented, and ceased to exist. At the same time, as the work of Mark Rothko illustrates, art’s very negativity (the potential of colour-field painting to ‘critique’ bourgeois aesthetic values) would be absorbed by sections of the culture industry—like corporate lobbies—and redeployed as a marketing device. The legacy of Marxism needed a more sensitive model of art and culture to account for new developments in the modes and methods of cultural production, dissemination, and reception at all levels.

A Practice of Everyday Life
A flea market is where objects fall from their position within the circuits of mass consumption imagined by the retail industry and enter their rich and varied lives. A logic of use is at work in the flea market, it re-imagines retail culture’s intentions by diverting commodities from their expected pathways; objects switch contexts and gain new potential based not on their image, but on their utility. For example, the novelty mug, designed to remind you of a past visit to a tourist attraction—to remind you in fact of a moment of consumption—can be remaindered and purchased at the flea market; the new owner can put it to use perhaps to store pens and pencils or to catch the drips from a leaking radiator. The original ‘intention’ inscribed on the novelty mug by its producers and promoters—the refreshment of capital through a commodity economy—is subverted through its secondary purchase at the flea market and re-imagined uses, which, through diversion and deviation, offer a means of producing different kinds of value.


The Situationist International (SI) was a primarily French group of artists, intellectuals and activists who, from 1957 into the 1960s, proposed a revolutionary reinvention of life through the enactment of situations that disrupt the habitual order of things that jolt people out of their customary ways of thinking and behaving. In place of petrified labour and commodified life, they proposed the derive—a wandering, improvisery flow of acts, encounters and images, and the détournement—a rerouting of existing events, actions and images towards unintended consequences. A perfect dérive is wandering through a flea market, driven by an aimless need rather than the imperatives of instrumental exchange.

The Situationists dedicated themselves to such hybrid maneuvers simultaneously through art and politics, through public institutions and the street; they produced a staggering quantity of journals, paintings, pamphlets, scrapbooks, tape-recorded presentations and lectures, conferences, exhibitions, events, performances and architectural models. They made films, organized boycotts, and initiated disruptions of "spectacular" official cultural events. What united these activities, these moments, these situations, was the Situationists’ collective desire to resist producing objects that could be commodified as ‘official’ art, or texts that could be reified as ‘political theory’. Through diverse practices, and by all means necessary, they hoped to act as catalysts within Marx’s revolutionary process, encouraging vandalism, strikes and sabotage as a way of disrupting the forces of production, and the commodity realm of ‘spectacle’.

Guy Debord was the most prolific and influential theoretician of the SI. The group emerged from previous formations influenced by Dada and Surrealist actions, specifically the COBRA group based in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, and the Letterist International movement based in France. The SI was an intentionally small group free of national allegiances, designed to be mobile, militant and extreme; as such, they were to mirror to evolution of global capital itself. They were dissatisfied with politics as represented by the pro-capitalist political parties of the ‘west’ and the socialist (read Stalinist) alternatives in the ‘east’. They also had no faith in the existing forms or institutions of contemporary art. In complete contrast to Adorno and Horkheimer the SI saw that for contemporary art and political action to have any creative potential they would have to reconnect with and not retreat from the lives of the majority.

Debord’s important and influential 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle is a tirade against the ways in which corporate life and impersonal bureaucracies were increasingly dominating, controlling and exploiting the lives of individuals. Capitalism had turned virtually all relationships into commodity exchange and, having treated workers with the utmost contempt as producers, now lavishly seduced them as consumers. The images and information that constitute and regulate a public sphere had been appropriated by advertising. Society had been reduced to ‘spectacular’ commodity consumption, and divided into professional media agents and spectators. The SI advocated taking to the street, the factory, the home and the flea market, places where the creativity of most people still flourished outside of the spaces of commodification.

Debord’s book and Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 The Revolution of Everyday Life served as virtual manifestos of the Situationist moment. In opposition to the society of spectacle the Situationists proposed a society that abolished money, commodity production, wage labor, classes, private property and the control of the state. Pleasure would replace profit, and the historic antagonism between labour and leisure would dissolve. Above all, they insisted that every individual should actively participate in the construction of everyday life through the creative enactment of ‘situations’ that would enable all individuals to release their own potential and obtain their own freedoms.

Extraordinarily, these ideas had widespread political influence during the May 1968 student rebellion and the wildcat strikes that followed, which paralyzed France for over two weeks. The SI had been predicting the spontaneous potential of the ‘situation’ for almost a decade; they quickly grasped the importance of the events, were able to mobilize quickly, act with confidence and contribute effectively during what they called the May ‘festival’. Consequently, the uprising could not fail to have certain distinctly Situationist flavour—images appropriated from, altered and then used critically against popular culture deployed the tactic of détournement; demands for the revolutionary alteration of everyday life exemplified the radical dérive; and much of the graffiti daubed on buildings, and banners used in demonstrations—such as ‘Free the passions, never work, live without dead time’—quoted freely from Debord’s book.

Despite the prescience of their critique, and the fact that much of their work predicted the strikes and confrontations that engulfed France in spring 1968, politically the SI seem wildly optimistic, contradictory, even naïve. But once again, as with Adorno and Horheimer, this critical ambiguity becomes a creative device. If the Situationists strove against an alienated consumer lifestyle, they also offered—through interventions and situations—alternatives to art simply becoming a commodified extension of the society of spectacle. It has now become a commonplace for contemporary artists to reinscribe the products of culture with different intentions and potentials, but these are all too easily aborbed as marketable differences by the collectors, dealers and institutions that make up the ‘market’ for art. The Situationists’ project was much more radical in that it attempted to interfere with the value system of the market itself.

Towards a Theory for the Practice of Everyday Life

Intellectually, the Situationists were more indebted to Henri Lefebvre, who taught in the sociology department at the University of Paris, Nanterre, where Debord and Vaneigem attended his classes, than anyone else.  Lefebvre was central in re-introducing the writings of Marx into academic and popular discourse in France, translating key early texts of Marx into French in 1933 and instigating a peculiarly French interpretation of Marxism that was tinged with humanism.

Lefebvre’s influential 1939 book Dialectical Materialism emphasized Hegel's dialectic model of historical progress as a key methodological and theoretical concept for Marx. Lefebvre recognized in the dialectical model of thesis, antithesis and synthesis the potential to transcend both ideological theory and social practice, hinting at a resolution of these habitual oppositions, through praxis. For Marx praxis is the process by which a theory becomes part of lived experience, where an idea ceases to be an abstract concept and becomes an everyday reality. With the publication of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life in 1947 praxis was put to work. Unlike Adorno, who scorned the lived or popular practices of the majority, Lefebvre reanimated Marxism as a critical philosophy of social action. It was not enough for critique to engage with conditions of production and culture at the level of theory—Lefebvre admonishes theorists who witness and judge life form the outside, arguing that critique through praxis had to produce the means to transform lived experience.

Lefebvre developed the theme of alienation from Marx into a key theoretical concept. Alienation, a deep historical process viciously accelerated by industrial production, describes the process through which the surplus derived from workers’ labour, transformed into sparkling commodities, or ‘free’ time, returns in a form unrecognizable to them, as dispossessions. And for Lefebvre this disembodied return of labour value causes an impoverishment of everyday lived experience. Alienation turns all of life into an abstraction (such as the division of life into the brutal opposites of work and leisure). Workers no longer produce their own lived experience, they produce financial, material and cultural capital; the time, space and materiality of the modern world becomes alien to the very people who are reproducing it.

‘Man must be everyday, or he will not be at all’ leaps from the first few pages of Lefebvre’s Critique, introducing the radical theme of a revolutionary attention to the practices of everyday life. In the foreword to the book he also sets forth a new method for analyzing the culture of the everyday:

Thus the simplest event—a woman buying a pound of sugar, for example—must be analysed. Knowledge will grasp whatever is hidden within it. To understand this event it is not enough to describe it; research will disclose a tangle of reasons and causes, of essence and ‘spheres’: the woman’s life, her biography, her job, her family, her class, her budget, her eating habits, how she uses her money, her opinions and her ideas, the state of the markets, etc. Finally I would have grasped the sum total of capitalist society, the nation and its history (57).

Here, Lefebvre is groping towards a kind of ethnographic method, where the empirical study of Marx is wedded with a new kind of philosophical and political sociology. Lefebvre advocates the study of trivia and the overlooked, of the products of everyday social exchanges and not the products of an already prescribed ‘culture’.  In the book’s foreword, Lefebvre expressly pays homage to Marx for uniting economic and political theory with its living formation in ordinary social relations, in everyday experience.
As some critics have pointed out, however, Lefebvre shows a troubling lack of criticality in his romantic embrace of French peasant culture, especially in the chapter ‘Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside’ from the Critique. Here he suggests that in rural France there is no differentiation between work and leisure and thereby that people live without alienation. Although he did turn to study urban life in 1968 with his book Everday Life in the Modern World,  Lefebvre tended to downplay the urban present as insignificant in contrast with the profound certainty of a rural past.

Critical attention to the everyday was taken up by the Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau, who burst into cultural consciousness with a series of dazzling articles that analyzed the political and cultural fallout from the strikes and demonstrations of May 1968 in France. The articles built upon the work of Lefebvre, although they opened a new critical potential latent in urban cultural production. By attending to ‘anonymous’ or ‘everyday’ creativity through the unconventional and inventive ways people use ‘things’ De Certeau challenged the perception, all too common in mid-twentieth-century Marxism, that the popular masses engage in passive consumption. De Certeau proposed to attend to the practices and habits of the users of culture who in countless ways appropriate the property, intentions and values of more powerful economic and cultural forces, arguing that, through tactical mobility, technical invention and moral resistance they operate between the institutions of social and cultural regulation.

In the work of Lefebvre, Debord and the SI there is a tacit assumption that social life is inevitably atomizing towards the alienated individual.  But de Certeau spectacularly reversed this logic, suggesting that, rather than being assumed as a coherent ‘self’ preexisting the social, an individual could only be understood as a nexus of complex social relations, as a subject constructed from a network of shared beliefs, habits and practices.  De Certeau set out to trace these networks, mapping fields of everyday practice that have no institutions, official or otherwise, that leave no record in ‘official’ culture; that cannot be easily capitalized by the media class, have no coherent ideologies or manifestos and yet are not indeterminate because there is a logic at work in their enactment and deployment. 

De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, first published in French in 1980, articulates terms to clarify these ideas—in particular, ‘strategy’ and ‘tactic’.  A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed, a proper place. Strategy, he suggests is a mode of operation through which legitimate power operates from within a designated field; for example, through language, political structures, retail culture, the law, discourses of the body and so on. In short, strategy is the place of official power. A tactic, in contrast, cannot count on a proper place or field of action. The place of tactics is the place of the ‘other’ and the tactical is a mode of operation used by all those unrecognized producers of culture whose lives are constrained by the impositions of others. A system of production and its ancillary forces of promotion and consumption are imposed upon us; tactics are the means for taking back that which belongs to us from production.

In the chapter ‘Uses of Language’ de Certeau considers reading as an example of a tactic used against the strategic field of the published text—as a kind of ‘poaching’. A book is the result of strategy, the proper record of a text produced by the power of finance, including structures of commissioning, editing, printing, distributing, advertising and selling, all of which are protected by the force of the law. The writer through the field of publishing assembles words into social authority. From the editor’s and writer’s point of view, the reader is imagined to be following the logic of the book from the beginning to the end, reading each text thoroughly to retrace their intended meanings. Copyright protects the text as the author’s or publisher’s property. 

And yet, even as you read this text here, I suspect—no I know—that your attention is wandering, you are skipping sentences, paragraphs, and even cutting to the end; you may be listening to music or reading with half an eye on the television. And if you want to, you will take the words ordered by me, and pass them off as your own. You will use the book for your own devices, which will be many and varied. Perhaps you will use it as a doorstop for propping the door open. All of this is to recall the words of literary theorist Roland Barthes, who famously argued that reading is the origin of writing and not its destination. Or, as De Certeau might say, the tactical reader slips effortlessly into the author’s place.

Critical Consumption

Since the 1970s, Belgian artist Guilllaume Bijl has been investigating the endless equivalence between objects as commodities in situations of social exchange, installing facsimilies relating to or approximations of different social contexts in galleries and museums.  In 1979, for example, he installed a Driving School Z, and a voting booth in Galerij Ruimte, Antwerp. These installations consisted of meticulously recreated tableaux with the appropriate architectural features, including furniture, décor, plants, and relevant technologies. There quickly followed, amongst other things, a fitness centre (1983), a used car salesroom (1984), a conference and waiting room (1988), and a wax museum displaying artist, curator and collector at Docummenta IX  at Kassel (1992). Over almost thirty years Bijl has displayed many of the spaces through which individuals are inducted into the appropriate behaviour for social life. He arranges these threshold spaces between the individual and the social around the various points of exchange between work and leisure. The playful consistency of the installations could be seen as tracing a trajectory for contemporary capital—a trajectory wherein leisure itself, traditionally outside of productive labour, is fully absorbed into retail culture and turned into a site of production.


Following the logic of capital’s trajectory, during the 1990s the museum and gallery entered the lexicon of Bijl’s social spaces. A suite of installations including a Wunderkammer, an auction house, a museum of transport, a collector’s apartment, and a gallery exhibition were all displayed rhetorically within various actual, functioning museums and galleries. Bijl was inviting visitors to link the represented ‘cultural’ spaces to his previous installations of more familiar spaces of commercial exchange.  At the 1994 Basel art fair, Bijl installed a trade stand promoting and selling crystal chandeliers. With a simple gesture Bijl deprived the Art Fair of its principle alibi—the notion that commerce is a disinterested consequence of cultured aesthetic engagement—and exposed the operational logic (the exchange of money) which is at work underneath all aesthetic exchange.

In all of this work Bijl reveals that he shares with American artists of the early 1980s and the 1990s a fascination with commodification and the endless potential—as theorist Jean Baudrillard so perceptively noted—‘of playing with the code’. If Marcel Duchamp with his purchase of the bottle rack in 1914 signaled the creative potential in consumption, he also moved the locus of the creative act, from a struggle to produce, to a struggle to choose—the ultimate shoppers dilemma. And so the endless manipulation of marginal difference that defers monotony for the shopper, transfers to the gallery visitor, as one object or one artist replaces another in the circuitous play of similarity and difference. Consumption becomes the creative motor and destructive motive in any exchange, and this is what gives artists who work with its forces a critical and corrosive nature.

Bijl literally exhibits the common processes of manipulation, through which we structure the value between things in any commodity exchange.  And these processes are indeed common to all objects, even the artworks themselves; objects are sourced for the installations, bought from shops or markets, classified, arranged and displayed for exhibition. After the duration of the exhibition he either sells the objects as art works—to be frozen in galleries or museums as ‘art’—or dismantles the installations, dissolving the objects again into the second-hand commodity circuits of flea markets, thrift stores and car-boot sales. The temporary suspension of exchange through gallery exhibition enables consumer desire itself reflexively to become the object of the work. We only desire what others like us also desire. And so this interrupted exchange is a way of gaining a critical purchase on processes that are otherwise so habituated as to be below our level of everyday comprehension. With Bijl’s work we are offered not the goods themselves, nor the glories of ‘disinterested’ aesthetic contemplation, but the endless process of ‘becoming-ourselves’ through shopping. Bijl thus points to the fact that consumption is no longer limited to the appropriation of goods but has become very means by which we are socialized.

Much was and continues to be made of the irony of artworks that engage with commodification only to become commodified themselves. What once was a critical intent (such as the impulse initiated by Duchamp’s readymades, picked up by Andy Warhol’s practice, and reworked by Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach) quickly becomes absorbed as knowing consumerism. But unlike these more celebrated American artists, Bijl does not rely on irony. His project is a visual and critical archaeology of a particular moment in which the scene of capital’s reproduction shifted from the spaces of material production, the factory, to the spaces of consumption and culture—where the spaces of art are seen as a continuum with those of the shop, solarium, hairdresser, and fitness centre.

Towards a Theory of Critical Consumption

While the influence of Marxism in France took the form of tactical resistance that fractured into studies of everyday life, in Britain a different genealogy developed, dominated by what is now called Cultural Studies. A mode of intellectual inquiry, Cultural Studies has generally been concerned with the very materials that Adorno despised—popular and mass mediated cultural forms such as magazines, radio, film, broadcast television, advertising, shopping, and so on. In Britain we could start this genealogy with the work of Richard Hoggart’s 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, a nostalgic anthroplogical account of his own working-class environment in relation to an emerging popular culture, and Raymond Williams's two early books Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961).

Williams, the most influential figure in British Cultural Studies, proposed that a proper study of society cannot just be concerned with only some of its products—such as the fine art, literature, furniture and architecture of a particular class—but should attend to the whole of material production. He argued that distinctions made between types of cultural production—avant-garde art and popular music for instance—are ideologically invested. While Adorno and Horheimer imagined passive consumers, fooled by a culture industry beyond their control, and Lefebvre and de Certeau sought for sites of resistance outside of commodity system in the forms and processes of everyday life, Williams suggested the possibility of active and critical consumers who endlessly contest the ideological forces of capitalism. Williams does not—as some critics would contend—reduce culture (including art) to ideology, but rather insists on recognising the often hidden forces at work in structuring cultural forms, and their modes of dissemination and participation.  Williams insists that the struggles within our political economy are played out through representation; they do not merely exist elsewhere in abstracted relations of labour and capital and thus they can no longer be excluded on the basis of the projected, or desired ‘autonomy’ of art.

In his book Communications (1962) Williams turns his attention directly to the relationship between political economy and the new communication industries. This book marks an important step towards a subtle re-appropriation by Marxist theorists to understanding rather than (per Adorno and Horheimer) simply dismissing the products and structures of the culture industry. Williams recognizes that through the development of manufacturing technologies, industrial labour was beginning to loose its centrality as a source for capital; correlatively, the agent of historical transformation, the working class, had begun to disappear as an easily defined ‘mass’. Williams argues that the communications, information and service economies introduce new modes of exchange that are less amenable to the kinds of crude Marxist analysis that had dominated cultural theory in the mid twentieth century. 

To replace this crude determinist model, wherein culture was placed as a ‘superstructure’ subordinate to the economic and ideological ‘base’ of society, Williams suggested that culture is simultaneously composed of dominant, residual and emergent forces and thus no longer simply reflects the ‘base’. Culture is thus defined by Williams as a potential site of contestation, where different groups or communities can struggle over their relationship to dominant capitalist forces, both those emerging from below (the popular) and those imposed from above, (‘high’ culture and the mass media).  The study of culture in Williams’ terms –which became the designation Cultural Studies—subverts academic boundaries because the tools needed to grasp its movements combine social theory, cultural analysis, history, visual culture studies, aesthetics, art history and political theory.

Williams’s colleague Stuart Hall has been the most powerful figure in the institutionalization of Cultural Studies in Britain through his directorship of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (founded in 1964), and his later tenure at the Open University. Hall and his colleagues were among the first actually to study the effects of newspapers, radio, television, film, and other broadcast cultural forms on audiences. They also focused on how differently constituted audiences interpreted and used broadcast culture in varied and often contradictory ways; in so doing they developed methodological models for doing cultural studies. Hall’s particular influence has been a sustained engagement with writing on culture, race, class and identity—what we might now refer to as postcolonial studies. It was Hall who began the ongoing dialogue of what multi-ethnic British identity might consist of, questioning what it means to be black and British. British Cultural Studies, which started by focusing on the potentials for resistance and contestation in working class cultures, had begun to look for new agents of social change as, in the 1980s, sectors of the working class were being seamlessly integrated into Margaret Thatcher’s radical conservative ideology. Cultural Studies turned its attention to researching more broadly and yet less homogenous oppositional subcultures.

In the work of Hall and others, British Cultural Studies went on to appropriate successive waves of race, feminist, film, psychoanalytic, gay and lesbian theory, and began to cross fertilize with art history and literary studies as well as with the social sciences.  Journals such as Screen and Block, the latter published by the Art History Department at Middlesex Polytechnic from 1979 to 1989, meshed aspects of Cultural Studies with art history, helping to inaugurate the cross-disciplinary field that we now recognize as called ‘Visual Culture’. 

And in works such as Subculture the Meaning of Style, (1980) and Hiding the Light (1988), cultural theorist Dick Hebdige who studied under Hall began to look at the potential of youth or ethnic subcultures to resist dominant forms of culture and identity.

And yet the deficit of a critique built around resistance and subversion is obvious: its focus on subcultures, on the shared meanings and values of a group within a dominant ideology, tends to ignore the fact that capitalism is replicating itself and expanding into a globally exploitative system. Within this drive towards ‘globalization’ we crudely feel the effect of capitals force as it roams the world looking for advantage, but the mechanisms directing these forces are abstract, complex and slipping beyond our control, even comprehension. Cultural Studies, with its enormous overemphasis on local resistances, fails to acknowledge and come to terms with the actual political economy of capital; something of Adorno and Horkheimer’s ambition is missing.

A Shadow Recast

There is a general consensus within theories of contemporary culture, economics, and politics that under our contemporary networked and electronically facilitated forces of globalization, economic relations of exchange have become divorced from previous political controls. Some people celebrate this unleashing of the ‘market’ from political restraint and state interference, while others mourn the demise of systems through which we can contest the remorseless logic of capital—its inexorable tendency to extend its influence and continually maximize profit. If this contestation has any future, we will need to inhabit the same structures and spaces as global capital itself—which is to say everywhere, in everything, and all the time.

In our global economies of trade, the traditional source of wealth—productive factory labour—is certainly being augmented, and perhaps even being superseded by ‘creative’ economies founded upon communication, aesthetics and service.  And in these communicative and information-based ‘industries’, the production of profit is founded on immaterial labour—labour that produces ‘commodities’ like knowledge, images, cultural experiences, brand loyalty and informational databases. Within these economies the exchange of capitals—whether economic, ideological, emotional or symbolic—becomes slippery and complex.

At the moment, perhaps the most accurate portrait of this immaterial realm is drawn by the idea of value as represented by money. Money swirls in markets and flows between them; it gathers in pools and congeals as capital.  And yet money in the form of material currency represents only 3% of value currently in circulation; the remaining 97% of value has little or no material presence—it exists as networks of obligation etched in computer hard drives in financial centres the world over. The fashion of the moment is to keep congealed capital in the smallest amounts possible; value is more productive when in motion, being absorbed and refreshed by exploiting the tiny differences in each and every market. Money is both a force wielding extraordinary power and a communicative medium, and nothing moves outside of its sphere of influence. Everything is permeated by money.

So, the financial expert can no longer ignore the force of what Adorno might call ‘aesthetic experience’ or disregard the effects of culture—its passions, complexities and negations—as ‘un-economic’ or as merely superstructural to a more primary economic base. And likewise, the artist cannot be ignorant of the forces of capital, as they increasingly merge with, dissolve and influence the very symbolic terrain on which artists are encouraged to work. This is not merely to acknowledge that art is bought and sold, or, that artists should be conscious of a market, but to recognize that exchange is a powerful aesthetic object in and of itself.


Clearly capital, as an index of creativity, is peerless. The formal structures that frame different economies, their rules, restrictions and subsidies, give form to exchange, and by extension to the social and creative relations they facilitate. Exchange, per Marx’s model, is first and foremost a social transaction, destined to produce relationships. For contemporary artists such as Deller, Thomas Hirschhorn and others who engage with the power to define, produce, present and disseminate the work of the work of art, a move out from the comfort of the institutions of art and into interlocking fields of social practice, economy and knowledge has become necessary. Art has to stop pretending to sublimate consumer desire, and like Jeremy Deller’s English Civil War, reengage with the social imagination.

Selected Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer (1973). Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Allen Lane.
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer (1991). The Culture Industry.  London: Routledge.
Barthes, Roland (1977). ‘Death of the Author’ (1968), in Image Music Text, tr. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana. 
Baudrillard, Jean (1996). The System of Objects (1968), tr. James Benedict. London: Verso.
Baudrillard, J. (1988). The Ecstasy of Communication, tr. Bernard and Caroline Schutz. New York: Semiotext(e).
Bijl, Guillaume (1998). Guillaume Bijl.  Antwerp, MUHKA.
Debord, Guy (1977). Society of the Spectacle (1967). Detroit: Black and Red Detroit.
De Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), tr. Steven F. Rendail. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Deller, Jeremy (2001). English Civil War Part II: Personal Accounts of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. London: Artangel.
Garcia, David and Lovink, Geert (1997). The ABC of Tactical Media <;.
Hall. Stuart (1988). The Hard Road to Renewal. London: Verso.
Hebdige, Dick (1980). Subcultures: the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen and Co.
Hebdige, Dick (1988). Hiding the Light. London: Comedia.
Hoggart, Richard (1957). The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto and Windus.
Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso,  London.
Lefebvre, Henri (1968). Dialectical Materialism (1939), tr. John Sturrock. London: Cape.
Lefebvre, Henri (1991). Critique of Everyday Life (1947), tr. John Moore. London: Verso.
Lefebvre, Henri (1991). The Production of Space (1974), tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.
Marx, Karl (1976). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (1867), tr. Ben Fowkes.  London: Penguin.  
Marx, Karl (1971). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1843-44), tr. S. W. Ryazanskaya. London: Lawrence & Whishart.
Vaneigem, Raoul (1983). The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), tr. D.N. Smith. London: Left Bank Books.
Williams, Raymond (1958).  Culture and Society. London: Chatto and Windus.
Williams, Raymond (1961). The Long Revolution. London: Chatto and Windus.
Williams, Raymond (1962). Communications London: Penguin.


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