Glenn Wallis: How would you characterize our current dominant ideology?

Tom Pepper: I would say that overall, the dominant ideology is the belief in exchange value. This is the one belief-in-practice on which all our other ideologies depend, including our ideology of the subject.   In our world, we cannot conceive of any action that does not involve money, or that has no potential to have an abstract “value” assigned to it. Just the other day, I read in the New York Times that medical associations like the society of oncologists and the American College of Cardiology are now encouraging doctors to use something called a “QALY,” a “quality-adjusted life year,” to assign a monetary value to a year of human life. So, everything has to have an “exchange value” inherent in it. Of course, since Marx we know that this is an illusion, that the belief in “exchange value” only “conceals a social relation,” as Marx put it. Still, we are so attached to the idea of the inevitability of the commodity form of money, that we can’t help but believe that every thing, act, even emotion must have, inherently, a monetary value inherent in it. The one thing nobody, not even the left, can imagine as a solution to our current crisis, is eliminating the social practice of the commodity form of money.

And, of course, there is, in a kind of homology with this, the belief in the Lockean empiricist ideology of the subject. We assume there is a brain and a body, which somehow interfere with the proper working of the free consciousness (Locke could just explicitly call it a “soul”), and what we need to do is to adjust the working of the brain and the body to maximize the pleasure of the “thought-free consciousness” that exists in this soul. Locke was very clear on this—he needed to believe in the existence of thought that occurred outside the brain and outside of all language, and had a more affect-like quality, in order for his empiricist system to work. But what is this illusory abstract “true self” except the equivalent of the non-existent universal “exchange value,” the magic number that the invisible hand will guide us to if we can just stop interfering with its “pure” working?

So I would say the most fundamental beliefs, imbedded in practices, that work to reproduce the existing social formation, are the belief in exchange value (and the practice of using money for every human interaction) and the belief in the empiricist model of the subject (and the practice of “adjusting” the interfering brain/body with medications and mindfulness and a host of addictive behaviors).

GW: Does art, and specifically literature, have any power to counter that ideology, and to show the way to radical change in our social formations? What would be some of the features of an art that does not merely reproduce the ideological status quo?

TP: I think it can, but it doesn’t today. In What Is Art, Tolstoy essentially proposes that the nature of art in all forms is to produce ideology—he focuses on the use of art to produce what Lacan would call the imaginary, to create our emotional and bodily experience of the world, and so to produce our values and motivations to act. Tolstoy’s point is, in part, that in forgetting this, we have begun to accept as art anything and everything that gives pleasure, and have forgotten that much of what gives pleasure is not producing beneficial ideologies (he doesn’t use this term, but this is essentially what he’s talking about). What he misses, I think, is that this is exactly the ideology of capitalism—to always only seek what is pleasurable. So, in calling whatever produces enjoyment “art,” Tolstoy thinks we have abandoned the goal of art, while in fact we have simply accepted the goal of capitalist art—the goal of producing the imaginary relations most beneficial to capital.

I would say that art always produces ideology, that Tolstoy was right about that. And that he was right to assume that we might need to produce art that is a bit more difficult to “enjoy,” that takes some mental effort (and even bodily effort), if we want to produce beneficial ideologies.

I would love Literature to be a radical force, but the reality is that we have massive institutions set up to make sure it doesn’t become one. The educational and publishing industry will function to ensure that anything that might produce any kind of transformative ideology is buried, not even condemned, just dismissed and ignored. This is their task, their social function, and to the degree that they stop doing it, they will be “unfunded” and eliminated—as the teaching of Literature at colleges and high schools is being eliminated gradually now.

Zola’s unfinished “Four Gospels” are a good example here—an attempt at truly racial fiction, advocating real social transformation, trying to motivate a communist movement, but even the left insists they are “unreadable” and dull. But what is it that makes Travail more tedious than La Curée? I don’t find it so, personally. We have mostly learned, however, to only “enjoy” what promises us pure effortless success and infinite bodily bliss, without thought an labor and collective efforts. So, we can’t enjoy reading a work that encourages social activism and daily bodily effort to provide our daily bodily needs. Our psyches are structured by the fantasy of imaginary plenitude, that illusory belief in a lost state of perfect, effortless bliss. We can’t imagine, anymore, the joys of unalienated labor, the only joy we can imagine is the joy of effortless bliss. And art must promise us that, to be enjoyable today.

It’s more that just content, right? It ‘s the practice itself. Performing Brechtian theater in community collectives might just be a radical art, but binge-watching Game of Thrones over Netflix on our laptops never will. A radical art would have to make us uncomfortable, to make us think, and to motivate us to actually go out and do something in the world. Instead, what we “enjoy” is art that produces a pleasant emotional state, and motivates us only to try to move on to the next work to recapture that pleasant affect with minimum effort. This emotional bliss is the “exchange value” in the realm of art—well, that and the money it makes. Instead, we need an art that privileges “use value,” and fails to be a mass-marketable commodity. The ideology of exchange value, as it operates in the realm of art, is what makes it impossible for any real radical art to exist today.

My maxim is always that if it is popular, it certainly reproduces capitalist ideology and reinforces the existing social formation. If you enjoy it, be suspicious of it, because it is probably constructing your imaginary register in ways that produce a kind of pleasant and addictive jouissance, but that forestalls any motivation to act to change the world. The result is that our artworks tend to leave us with a kind of emotional hangover, craving the next fix, never quite satisfied but unable to imagine what else we could do.

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