Lorem Ipsum, or Towards a Cultural Luddism

In what ways is it possible to subvert the dynamics of the culture industry embedded within a market society?

Woman using typewriter in shower, 1922

Woman using typewriter in shower, 1922 | Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress | No known restrictions on publication

Hyper-productivity and self-exploitation are not extraneous to cultural work. Faced with the incessant demands of the culture industry, we ask whether it is possible to update luddism in the field of culture and to use culture as a device to counter neoliberalism.

The first thing I do in writing this article is to fill the Word document with Lorem ipsum, the placeholder text used to see how much space a certain number of words will take up in a pre-designed template. In my case, a minimum of 1800 words. That’s what I’ve been asked to do. With the premise of writing freely about any current issue related in some way to the exhibition “Graphic Constellation. Young Women Authors of Avant-garde Comics”, I was commissioned to write the article a few weeks ago. Now, with the placeholder text in front of me, I can see that it will need to be about three or four pages of Word. I adjust the settings so that, as I write, the Lorem ipsum text disappears. This is what is happening now: the new letters are eating up the placeholder in an exercise of constant voracity. The number of words, however, remains the same. 1800.

 I take a deep breath. You’re always running late. You’re behind. The voice is right. I am always running late, and I am behind. These are expressions – like “I’m swamped” or “I’m rushed off my feet” – that have become so normalised that they’ve even become a status symbol, making their whiff of desperation dissipate a little. But the truth is that there is nothing glamorous about the situation. I have two jobs, both in the culture sector, plus other sporadic jobs and unpaid work to prepare “my own creations”; I take all the jobs, I say yes to all the proposals; I’m managing to squeeze in a few hours just now, on a Sunday night that is already almost slipping into the early hours of Monday morning, with the deadline approaching inexorably. Exhausted and with a feeling of anxiety starting to well up, I open my “sent” folder, scroll down a bit, find the message I was looking for, and double click. I read what I sent: Yes, of course! Thanks for asking me! I’ll write about working in the culture sector and self-exploitation, what do you think?

I have to stop this, it’s pointless. I have to stop the machine. I write these words and they swallow the Lorem ipsum. Stop. But stop doing what? What is the machine that has to be stopped?

In The terror of Total Dasein. Economies of Presence in the Art Field, the artist and researcher Hito Steyerl talks about an event that happened in 1979: the conceptual artist Goran Djordjevic called an International Strike of Artists. The purpose of the Strike was to protest against repression in the art system and the increasing alienation of artists from the results of their own work; Steyerl explains how Djordjevic personally wrote to hundreds of artists to join the strike. Even so, his project failed. The reason was not that the artists were opposed to the strike, but that many of them wrote back explaining that they had in fact been on strike, i.e. not creating work, for some time, but no one had noticed. They wanted to get back to work whenever the art sector opened up a niche for them again.

If it is possible that an artist can be on strike and the art market doesn’t notice; if for the art sector there is no difference between an artist creating or not creating, it means that it is not their own creations (their paintings, sculptures, performances or talks; their novels, plays or articles) that they need to sustain themselves. What is it, then, that is required of an artist in a society like ours?

In El artista y el frutero (The artist and the greengrocer), Núria Güell gives a clear answer:

Museums and cultural or creative centres, or cultural laboratories, or whatever you want to call them, need to cover certain demands, programme activities, workshops, talks, school visits, and fill up the spaces they have created for exhibiting these strange phenomena that we call “works-of-art”. Agreed. The fact is that, in order to fulfil their purpose, museums and cultural centres need producers of art, artists, and artists need these spaces to legitimise their work, and this is the point I want to make. What is a professional artist? It’s an individual who makes a living by meeting the demands of museums and cultural centres, the cultural industry, etc., for exhibitions, workshops, talks, etc. What am I doing here? Trying to meet these kinds of demands.

She also points out that:

The professional artist is a professional artist because someone requires their services, they are not an artist because they like their work. The carpenter is not a carpenter because they like to work with wood, the carpenter is a carpenter because someone requires their specific services; whether or not they like to work with wood or is their own business.

In other words: if, in the culture industry, to give an example, an artist creates a sculpture or carries out a performance, or, to give another example, a writer pens an article about the possibilities of sabotaging cultural work, these are circumstances that are contingent on a need (to fill some empty space in a museum, or in an auditorium, or the 1800 words of an article). It is the industry which decides, at each moment, what its needs are and, consequently, what art or culture is, i.e. what type of product will most successfully meet its requirements. And if all this is done with pleasure, as Remedios Zafra shows us, it’s an added bonus.

Neoliberalism is a hole that sucks up jouissance and feeds on constant production; culture, in this context, is not only no exception but can even function as a catalyst to deepen the hole further and further. In fact, the key signifiers used by the culture industry are also the key signifiers of the neoliberal economy. Let’s think for a moment about publishing: “a radically new voice”, “promising young author”, “ground-breaking”; different ways of saying “novelty”, “fresh product”, “commodity” ready to compete with others in the book market.

As the former bookseller that I am, I can assure you that the endless hunger of the publishing market translates into pain: metacarpal and lower-back pain for those who must open up endless boxes of new books, place them on the display tables, then remove the unsold volumes after three weeks and put them back in the boxes, before stacking them onto giant pallets to be sent back to the warehouses (with luck, they will be distributed again to other bookshops; without luck, they will be turned into pulp after a few months); but the pain, above all, of the world, which is endlessly drained of resources (trees, water, energy) to supply paper, ink and fuel to feed the bubble of an unsustainable industrial model based on overproduction and the occupation of space in the market. In Páginas en negro. La edición como práctica forense, the publisher Gabriela Halac points out in this respect how “books are occupying forces, and bookshops, conquered territory”. She also talks about ghost ships – the printing ships on the high seas that cut down printing costs and where a large part of the books consumed by the common reader are printed. Another scene: not so long ago, the raw materials crisis in the book sector led to extreme speculation in paper. The big groups that could afford it stockpiled tonnes of paper left waiting to be filled with content, taking it out of the reach of independent groups and therefore of those writing on the fringes of the publishing market. Industrial warehouses full of blank pages; ghost ships where words are born in absolute darkness: spectral images of the capitalism that, in the name of culture, devastates everything in its path. Of course, art is the first thing to fall.

Okay then, so we have to stop the machine. How do we do it? The early 19th century saw a wave of revolts among English artisans whose livelihoods were threatened by the introduction of machinery at the dawn of the industrial revolution, posing a serious threat to the system of production of incipient capitalism. Luddites burned automated looms and destroyed machinery that forced them to put their bodies at the service of new inhuman models of production. Luddism – a spontaneous movement of direct action focused on sabotage – was harshly suppressed by the authorities; but as historian Gavin Mueller recounts in Breaking Things at Work, it has never disappeared. The working class has updated Luddism in each of its struggles and demands. Cultural Luddism, then, is brought into play every time we ask ourselves about sabotage, about refusal, about the strategies through which we can not just appropriate the means of production of the culture industry in capitalism but destroy its machinery. Can we expropriate a machine aimed at commodifying the creative work, the knowledge and the desires of so many? Are we willing to forego the symbolic value, the identity with which the industry rewards us in exchange for oiling its machine? Is it possible to defect? Can we turn the tables? Can we smash the tables?

Cultural Luddism is Núria Güell, an expert in expropriating the position held by power in order to subvert it, in using the world of art to influence, through direct action, the ways in which neoliberal society exerts control. Cultural Luddism is Gabriela Halac, who, considering the ghost ships of industrial publishing, defends the mutant volumes that remaining from excess production and converge in a slime of black pages open to forming a different future for the term “book”; Gavin Mueller published his book on Luddism thanks to secret organisations outside of the official institutions, which sustained and supported his writing beyond the laws of the market.

Hito Steyerl, for his part, proposes an exercise in illusionism. Against a market that demands the continuous presence of the artist, there is nothing more subversive than Lorem ipsum: filling the space and then leaving, going somewhere else and doing other things (conspiring with others, creating works that nobody will buy, or doing nothing at all), while the placeholder text gives voice to the void, the emptiness, the immense hollowness of capital.

Luddism has never disappeared. The saboteurs are among us; desertion, in fact, is within everyone’s reach.

These bring the word count up to 1713. I need 87 more:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec viverra faucibus justo, eget maximus tortor molestie sed. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Nulla lectus nisl, consectetur sed faucibus eu, posuere a orci. Vivamus vel nulla eget dui scelerisque aliquet. Mauris condimentum erat justo, quis vestibulum leo accumsan posuere. Suspendisse potenti. Sed viverra non odio vitae dictum. Nulla gravida neque eget nibh mattis porttitor. Morbi in metus suscipit, finibus justo sed, placerat libero. Aenean viverra, leo id interdum imperdiet, odio nunc pellentesque mi, sed rutrum elit quam non massa. Nulla facilisi.

Pellentesque lacus libero, ultricies.

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Lorem Ipsum, or Towards a Cultural Luddism