The Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm: Tribal Assemblages and Space Rock


Here is a transcript of the talk I delivered at the Royal Academy for the GSK Contemporaries. The evening was titled Psychosomatic Acid Test and hosted by Mark Titchner. My mini-lecture preceded a Hawkwind tribute band, Evel Gazebo, who played Space Ritual in its entirety, hence the references to ‘Space Rock’ in the closing part of the text.

The ethico-aesthetic paradigm is an object of experimentation that seeks to circumvent obstacles in the formal structure of power – whether it be neoliberal-democratic, Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, or whether that power is constituted by Habermasian democratic consensus or by LacLau and Mouffe’s antagonistic discursive negotiation of difference.

Subjectivity – or that which constitutes the self – is key to the ethico-aesthetic paradigm that Félix Guattari prospectively traces in his late book Chaosmosis. Here he attempts to conceptualize the creation of new collective subjectivities and in this it is very much a continuation of Foucault’s writing on the self and bears some similarities to Marshal McLuhan’s move from individualism and fragmentation towards a collective identity, with a ‘tribal base’. Throughout the 20th Century being-against is pretty well formalised and Guattari seeks to enquire into being-together. Much of this research is derived from Guattari’s own psychiatric practice at La Borde Clinic and his afflilations with political groups, such as Italian Autonomous Marxism.

The subject and its individuation is an objective and target within Capitalism. The most of obvious historical example of this is the creation of the figure of mass assembly-line worker called forth by Fordism. Under capitalist command, the subject is individuated through particularly miserable processes of subjugation and capitalist discipline. So Guattari’s inquiry into subjectivity concerns new possibilities of being and consequently experimental political configurations, coordinations and situations that have yet to be defined.

In Chaosmosis, Félix Guattari develops a geneaology of Assemblages of Ennunciation (i.e modalities of subjectivation). He then uses this to illustrate how art has recently detached itself from its axiological references – particularly, Capitalism’s overcoding field of axioms/the laws governing and pertaining to capitalist society. Accordingly, he identifies an exceptional new paradigm that art has come to embody. Art now has the ability to produce alterity, mutant creative subjectivities and actualisations of heterogeneous otherness. Through art, individuals find themselves ‘enveloped by transversal collective identities’ and ’situated at the intersections of numerous partial subjectivations’. The subject is now connected to the exterior with a direct contact to outside/social life rather than building ‘interiorised faculties’. Guattari states that a new ethical understanding is brought about from this relation to the exteriority. In a sense, ethics reconnects us to the external. Importantly, when Guattari talks about art he is not referring to the institution of Art – which is completely compliant and intergrated with Capitalism – more the techniques and practice of art and the emergent creativity it privileges and engenders.

Art, in contrast to other spheres of human activity, through the restraints of finite materials, through percept and affect, allows the infinite, virtual and immaterial instances to irrupt and crystallize on the plane of the real (and for us this is Capitalist reality). This is entirely a result of certain mutations that have allowed art to detach itself from its historical axiological references and ascribe it a privileged position as laboratory for the subject. This has its beginnings back in the Renaissance, when artists first began to express their own subjectivies. Gauttari’s genealogy of this evolution of the Assemblages of Enunciation is divided into three modalities of subjectivation, which chart the development of societies through history to demonstrate how art has arrived at what he names ‘the ethico-aesthetic paradigm’. It is perhaps useful to point out that these assemblages overlap somewhat and are not necessarily distinct historical periods:

  • The first assemblage is the Collective or Existential Territories. This is the nascent, emergent territorialized assemblage, the clan, tribe or collective-for-itself; that which we previously and erroneously called primitive hunter/gatherer societies. This assemblage articulates itself through pre-institutional religious practice and has the ability to actualise immaterial universes through chants, ritual drug use, dances and animism and affect a positive, affirmative drive toward deterritorialised infinity. Everything the collective-for-itself does connects it to the immaterial or cosmic and all other universes of value and their consequent potentialities. So, all practice, including hunting, healing and reproduction performs this.
  • The second phase in the geneology is that of the Transcendent Universals (or Capitalistic Deterritorialised Assemblage). The mechanisms of this assemblage are very much in keeping with Lacan’s Name of the Father, which Guattari expands and retools here. The society of transcendent universals ‘erects’ an autonomised pole of reference, which precedes the individuation of the subject and gives rise to the error in thinking of the individual as the end-point of a progressive specification of the species. The Assemblage of the Transcendent Universals attempts to reify the immaterial universes of the collective-for-itself into material form, a process of concretization. It creates hierarchies of Will, Reason, Understanding and Affectivity. What was rhizomatic and polyphonic in the Collective Territories of the tribe now becomes bi-polar, dualist and dialectical. This bi-polar nature results in valorisations such as good/evil and creates its own axioms of morality. It also rests on a continual recourse to transcendent, despotic and homogenetic instances such as Truth, God, the Signifier, the Scriptual, the Law, the Phallus, the Name of the Father, the Familial, the Imperial Order, The State, and eventually Capital – Finance Capital or Cognitive Capital in its highest incarnation. In contrast to these universals the collective-for-itself becomes unsure in the face of this signification. It is now risky for the collective to perform its ritual activities in the face of such universal surety. So there is a motion from the emergent values of the tribe towards neutralised universals, which operate via the Lie of the Ideal, as Nietzsche calls it. Through this standardisation of the subject the ennunciative compositions are limited. In some respects these mechanisms infantilise us and, as Lacan would no doubt say, fix us as the cause of others. This is the nature of collective individuation and subjectivation under Capitalism. In the most extreme instances the subject is informationalised ‘as so many pieces compatible with the mechanics of social domination’, that is to say, reduced to mere data.
  • The third assemblage, the most pertinent to contemporary art practice, is Processual Immanence. This is the assemblage we currently find ourselves partially situated in. Guattari traces out this assemblage somewhat prospectively, as it still bears many symptoms of the proceeding assemblages. We should perhaps be mindful that this is also the assemblage under which global Capital operates. Yet, rather than marginalising the aesthetic paradigm it privileges it and ‘confers a key position of transversality with respect to other Universes of Value’:

    “Patently, art does not have a monopoly on creation, but it takes its the capacity to invent mutant coordinates to extremes and engenders unprecedented, unforeseen and unthinkable qualities of being.” [Guattari, Chaosmosis]

    Art contaminates homogeneity through creativity and the affirmation of the extremis. In this respect, artistic practice is an auto-affirming and self-creating machine. It crosses the threshold of Capitalist values and ideological structures. Art under the new aesthetic paradigm, through its extreme modalities, creates a perspectival ethics of its own not dependent on transcendent values. Art manages to crystallize into singular and dynamic constellations through its own mechanism: self-creative and ethico-ontological. The third assemblage should lead to the fall of an ontological Iron Curtain, the one erected between mind and matter. So this is a call for univocity from Guattari.

So if we are to wind back slightly, to the assemblage of the collective Territories and tribal cultures that proceed the fixed assemblages under the Transcendent Universals, then it is probably useful to discuss the anthropologist Pierre Clastres and his studies of Yanomami and Gauyaki Indians in the Amazon. Clastres, along with Richard Lee and Marshall Sahlins,was involved in a reversal of anthropological orthodoxy in the 1970’s and very much informed by May ’68 in Paris, which had radical implications for their thinking. Both Sahlins and Clastres’ provided a polemic to the received ethnomarxist understanding of what were erroneously called ‘primitive’ societies.

Clastres levels his argument directly at Marxist anthropologists, who he accuses of ‘curling up in Marx’s beard’, and takes issue with the ethnomarxist presumption that primitive tribes live a life of subsistence, when in fact Clastres characterizes it as one of superabundance. Clastres mentions this isn’t entirely the fault of Marx and much of the problem lies with the understanding of scarcity that he inherits from the classical economists Adam Smith and Ricardo. There is both a Capitalist and evolutionist moral dimension to this assessment of lack. This inadequate perception of hunter/gatherer societies then persists unchallenged in the 20th Century academy, where primitivism is still prescribed as being a society without a State and living in bare subsistence; in other words societies without distinct organs of power or economic development. Clastres overthrows the received Marxist ethnological idea that the economy of these tribes is one of scarcity and poverty, he points out that if anything they suffer from an overabundance in relation to their needs that allows them to pursue their primary recreation: warfare. They work to clear the land for growing crops for two months of the year, the rest of the year is their own to produce their own cultural life, via warfare, hunting, shamanistic practice and reproduction. They do much more than merely subsist. Similarly in North America the ‘cult of the brave’ emerges historically with the arrival of horses with the Conquistadors, a technology that allows the sedentary pueblo farmers to follow the migratory paths of the buffalo, creating a situation of superabundance that frees them up to pursue expanded cultural practices.

With regards to univocity and cosmic universes of value, when Clastres comes to describe the therapeutics, drugs and shamanic activities of the Yanomami and Guayaki, he explains how these rituals take the form of an exploration of the invisible world and spiritual combat with entities that have broken the body/soul unity of the sick individual. So here we have a clear example of the assemblages connection to cosmic universes of value through the ritual practice of  therapeutic rites.

In the books The Society Against the State and The Archeology of Violence Clastres not only elucidates how the ‘primitive’ political organization of the Yanomami and Guayaki tribes is horizontal, that is to say egalitarian, he states that they actively resist hierarchy and the rise of any one individual over the rest of the tribe through complex political structures. The tribe is cleary an expression the collective-for-itself, a being-together or assemblage of the Collective Territories, as understood in Guattari’s genealogy of assemblages of enunciation. Violence in these societies maintains their singularity. Violence resists and wards off the rise of ‘monstrous’ power structures within the tribe and consequently the rise of The State, whilst the tribe continues to operate as a unitary whole. The role of the chief in these societies is unique in that he has very little agency and authority within the tribe. His main role is to speak for the tribe and determine the collective will of the tribe. If he is too forceful or initiates a war that tribe doesn’t want then he will be replaced or forced to commit suicide (usually through suicidal combat with an enemy tribe). War, therefore, ‘maintains the dispersal and segmentarity of groups’. It is a differential motor of distribution.

By positioning the subject of warfare at the heart of the tribe’s principal activities, Clastres asserts it as a positive affirmative trait that ensures the health and parcelization of tribal units that maintains their autonomy. Therefore, violence maintains difference and heterogeneity. The more warlike these tribes are the more they resist outside interference and this isolation protects them from our diseases and the ethnocidal consequences of contact. Homicide rates within their society are extremely high, and the average male has killed at least one other man in his lifetime. A couple of months ago the Brazilian department for Indian affairs released aerial photos of one of the last remaining uncontacted tribes on the Peruvian/Brazilian border. Members of the tribe were pictured fully painted red and black, which a representative of the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency identified as war paint, confirming this as a positive trait. He says:

“When I saw them painted red, I was satisfied, I was happy…Because painted red means they are ready for war, which to me says they are happy and healthy defending their territory.”

In Clastres’ writings in Society Against the State and Archaeology of Violence we find an effective model of how artistic-practice and other radical assemblages might function in creating emergent externalities to Capitalism, capable of instances of resingularisation and the preservation of heterogeneity. This is why Clastres becomes important to Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualisation of the nomadic War Machine – a nomos against the logos of sedentary distribution – finding an expression of the ‘crowned anarchy’ that Deleuze privileges in Difference and Repetition.

Contemporary art is shorn of the mystical and magical aura of tribal practice and techniques, but bears some similarities, namely the emergent nature of its creativity and ability to produce novel subjective configurations. So, if we take the 70’s rock group Hawkwind we find an example of a contemporary artistic assemblage that typifies Guattari’s ethical-aesthetic paradigm. They also perform the noisy, chants and dances of the tribe, but coordinate in a novel configuration. Here we have a group, an assemblage or collective-for-itself that creates new modalities of being-together. Hawkwind perform not only as a rock group – musically, within their accepted genre – but also as an ethico-aesthetic object; an experiment in anarcho-syndicalism and communal living that seeks to break capitalist temporality, occupying urban ‘space’ in an unprecedented manner. In fact, they seem to have a preoccupation with space and consequently time. They seek to rupture the striated space of capitalism, in order to create a smooth space for their war machine through operations of different speeds. They are literally In Search of Space. Consequently, they herald a new ethical situation and seek a qualitative transformation of values that are simultaneously archaic and futural. They retroject themselves into the archaic past and project themselves to speak of societies and situations yet to come. They do so in an untimely speculative manner that is counter to the present, in the manner of science fiction.

In so doing, Hawkwind and other experimental groups from that period mobilise the materials of sensation and co-ordinate with similar collective assemblages which operate through transversal relations between different orders, artistic and anartistic, political and non-politcal, discursive and non-discursive, offering resistance to the overcoding axiomatic of capitalism. These materials of sensation are fashioned into what Alberto Toscano identifies as ‘new vectors and components for the construction of collective forms of existence […] a form of production which subtracts itself from the blackmail of security and the perceptual lures of a fragile and anxious commercial peace’. So the ethical-aesthetic paradigm is a mode of construction and production that attempts to discover a politics adequate to the desires of the collective subjectivity and productive forces of society.

Mark Tictchner's flyer for the Psychosomatic Acid Test

Mark Titchner's flyer for the Psychosomatic Acid Test

About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
This entry was posted in Art, Art against Homogeneity, Capitalism, Clastres, Guattari, Pierre Clastres, Subjectivity, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm: Tribal Assemblages and Space Rock

  1. Pingback: Art & Media « Advanced Media Issues

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