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Review of books

December 2009
spiked review of books
Proud to be flesh!

James Heartfield

Proud to be flesh!

A collection of articles from Mute - an arts/politics journal and website – provides some rich and rewarding insights into the political and cultural trends of the past five years.

Fifteen years ago Simon Worthington and Pauline van Mourik Broekman of the Slade and St Martins schools of art started a broadsheet newspaper - Mute - published on the Financial Times’ distinctive pink paper, which mutated into a journal, a website, and a whole host of collaborative projects.

‘The Mutants’ swam in some interesting tides. Mute shared premises with Tracey Emin in Shoreditch and bumped up alongside Gary Hume and Gregor Muir among the ‘Young British Artists’ whose careers were just about to go stratospheric. Still, van Mourik Broekman reacted against the cult of Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi, sniffing out the neo-liberal worship of the market behind it.

The Mutants were part of the ‘movement of movements’, too - the anti-capitalist protests and the World Social Forum are a backdrop to Mute‘s attacks on big business, marketisation and the creeping gentrification of the EastEnd of London. But just as Mute has been lifted by the tide of anti-capitalism, it is a surprisingly critical friend, calling out the climate camp for its twee self-indulgence. Mute published my pamphlet Green Capitalism, and sampled it in the journal, organising debates with some green activists; the journal is always looking for a critical take on the idols of the age.

This collection of articles from the many incarnations of the Mute project is a great read, and a summation of that remarkable period of recent British history running from 1994 to 2009. Reading over it, it is compelling that Mute is a wholly post-Cold War operation, whose contributors and editors are untroubled by the political baggage that dogs much of the more traditional left.

On the other hand, it is surprising to see just how important the birth of the World Wide Web is as a marker for social change. For the last few years, Mute has carried the slogan ‘Culture and Politics After the Web’ on its masthead, and Josephine Berry Slater’s account of the history of Mute in this collection usefully explains how a sceptical approach to Web 2.0 helped Mute to avoid the Dot Com cheerleading that was so prevalent at the time.

There are some very useful engagements with the New Economy fantasists in this collection, first and foremost from Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, with their characterisation of the ‘Californian Ideology’ of internet freedom and free markets liberating technology as if it were a force of nature - as well as some interesting iterations and questions on the theme from Franco Berardi, Louis Rossetto, and a telling interview with Wired editor Kevin Kelly. Barbrook and Dmytri Kleiner do a good job on showing up the shabbier exploitation underneath the shiny exterior of the seamless web. Gregor Claude’s essay ‘Goatherds in Pinstripes’ does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between the utopia of the ‘Digital Commons’ and the evolution of property relations.

A theme flagged up in the title – ‘Proud to be flesh’ – is today’s morbid fantasy of the transcendence of the human, one of information technology’s weirder fantasies that we might all upload our consciences into the World Wide Web and leave our fleshy prisons behind. ‘Proud to be flesh’ is an argument that runs through a chapter on ‘reinventing the human’.

Throughout this collection is a rich and rewarding insight into the intellectual currents of the past five years, with striking contributions from socialist historian Peter Linebaugh, alongside great analyses of the art scene from Suhail Malik and Benedict Seymour. It does make you wonder, though, just how it was that the idiom of anti-capitalism – or the critique of alienated labour, seemingly grounded in a movement, the old left, that, by any objective account was dead – could revive itself in this second life. What is it, exactly, this crossover between art and politics that feeds Mute? Their critical engagement with the present state of affairs certainly seems to generate some interesting angles and insights. But it is open to the question of whether there is a point to the criticism - any attempt at programmatic solutions would surely compromise the project. But without those, what is the point of difference with the state of affairs?

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. Visit his website here

Proud To Be Flesh: A Mute Magazine Anthology of Cultural Politics After the Net, by Josephine Berry Slater, Pauline van Mourik Broekman and Michael Corris (eds), is published by Mute. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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