[Steve's notes: this is a great text and there is obviously potential for you to develop the issues further and to link them to your own practice. The conclusion, however, is not really a conclusion as you bring up new subjects and issues which seem to extend into a possible 'second chapter'. I would advise you to consolidate your critique of Martens' film in your conclusion and make a synopsis of the development of your argument.]
Ideology is the ruling class's best instrument to organize social relations within a given economical apparatus. When this instrument is menaced by the power of critique, its best strategy is to co-opt it, void it of political content and make it so, that, at some point, this monstrous body of capital develops such an immunitary system that even before critique exists as such, it's been already engulfed in it and instrumentalized. This shouldn't mean, however, the assumption of a posture of inevitable doom and hopelessness, but rather an attitude of awareness regarding the challenges it posits for artistic, political, revolutionary critique. Renzo Martens' "Enjoy Poverty" is, in my opinion, a perfect example of misguided criticism, so lost in its own privilege it fails to present politically relevant content, leaving it to uncertainty whether this was the artist's intention in the first place.
- Introduction -
In the chapter "The Concept of 'Ideology'", from his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci clarifies the meaning of ideology as a "system of ideas", as opposed to its original meaning as the "analysis of the origin of ideas”. In pure marxist terms, ideology needs to be analyzed as an historical product, constituting that which is called the superstructure. This means, as explained by Marx and Engels on the "German Ideology", that the ruling ideas appear as expressing the dominant material relationships (infrastructure) of a given time. Hence, only those in control of the means of production hold the power of producing and distributing ideas, thus guaranteeing their dominance over the whole economical system. In order to do so, the ruling class has the need to represent its ideas as being in the common interest of all the individuals in a given society, to provide them with a character of universality. Its strength relies heavily on its power to coopt critique, to absorb everything produced within the existing apparatus. On his essay, "The Body of Capital", Steven Shaviro defines our relationship with capital as one of a Kantian transcedental condition of experience, as something we cannot experience directly, but within which we are deeply embedded. Only in the sense that it depends upon the labor of the multitude can we control it, for, as Gramsci put it, as "organizing" of the human masses as it is, this ideological organization also refers to its dialectic negative - the gaining of consciousness of the masses and subsequent struggle. Even though capitalism has proven its power to instrumentalize critique, it is worth noticing the disruptive power of the antithesis. In his "Enjoy Poverty" documentary, Renzo Martens pretends to act as the glasses of the movie "They Live", which, as Zizek points out, function as 'critique of ideology glasses'. Did Martens embark on a mission his privilege doesn't allow him to accomplish successfully without falling on the same traps he unveils?
- Let me Liberate You -
Says Zizek, on his "Pervert's Guide to Ideology", that in order to become part of a community you need to follow some unspoken rules which regulate your identification. In his interview to "The Politic", Renzo states he plays the role of the cliché white filmmaker, "coming up with a novel theory". However, as he himself declares, it only serves as a reproduction of that same old cliché. The cynical reason here shows its face, not at the level of the performance which mimics it, but when the performance becomes the self. That is, when ironically portraying the role of the white filmmaker, Martens falls into the pit of the enlightened individual, whose non-altruism and "honesty" provide him, conversely, a sense of good-doing. Slavoj Zizek says of the cynical reason:"Pretend to renounce and you can get it all" - when renouncing all clichés and altruistic intentions by pretending to mock and deconstruct them, Martens gets his altruistic rush.
The vanity of the glasses can also be discerned in Renzo's project as the Artistic Director of the Institute for Human Activities. This project consists of building an art center in the Congolese rainforest, a workspace where the participation of locals will be encouraged. This participation will be done in terms of, for example, engaging plantation and logging companies' workers, with wages of about a $20 a month, in artistic production. Confronted with the request to reflect on their situation in an artistic manner, say, through a drawing, the fruits of such an interaction are then sold to a prominent gallery in the West. Thus, by engaging the worker critically, it is expected that he/she will understand that reflection upon his/her conditions can be more lucrative than just getting the job done.
However, let me point out the problems of such an approach. While it is true that one can can underline such benefits as the engagement in critical thinking as being more beneficial to the laborers' struggle than just prolonging their situation with thoughtless charity,the revenue these locals get from such sporadic drawings, assuming they actually get it, represents no long-term solution to their problem. In that sense, it is very much like charity - even though, as stated already, one can argue that the critical thinking in which this project intends to engage the workers bridges the gap between short and long-term problem solving. Nonetheless, we can counter-argue that the basic problem with this is the very inhability to escape the privileged western gaze over the subaltern classes. Engaging in a conditional training that, in a very reductive fashion, equates critical thinking with "immediate" financial gratification provides no real tools of liberation, and only reproduces the ruling ideology which allows for their conditions in the first place. It also poses the dilemma of the white Messiah arrogating to teach them how to think of their own situation, how to represent themselves - "Let me liberate you!".
This same problematic can be witnessed when, in "Enjoy Poverty", Martens attempts to teach the locals how to exploit their own resource - poverty. Despite incurring in the same logic of impacting social relations somewhere else but their own, this exploitation and its aesthetics are still pretty much informed by the "post"-colonnial gaze. They still provide the western society with a pretence of renunciation, the cynical reason of our enjoyment, an atonement for the dependance of our commodified culture on their low-waged labor.
- On Volunteering and Charities -
Another aspect of this pretence is voluntary work. Says Gramsci, on this subject, that apoliticism and detachment from the popular masses can provide some explanation for this phenomena. Gramsci goes so far as to characterize the volunteers as déclasses, and, in that sense, one can almost talk of the volunteer as being in a state of exception. Not representing an unified social bloc, the volunteer's political impact and revolutionary potential is never fully realized, because in itself represents the contrary tendency towards passivity. This "false heroism", as Gramsci puts it, represents the phenomenom described in Matt Bolton's essay - "The Cult of the Volunteer" as the 'displacement of politics by morality'. Matt Bolton's picks up on some examples of voluntary work in the context of softening the effects of several strikes. This voluntary actions generally depart from a common-sense frameset which very clearly portrays the volunteer as the good, exemplary citizen, as opposed to the striker, characterized as the rebel, the lazy outlaw - thus undermining effective social change through an hypocritical instrumentalized action which, for the common good, denies the political rights of the labourer. Ironically or not, these same rights the volunteer denies to him/herself - not surprisingly, he/she is, for the most times, mobilized by government and state apparatus.
One of the rare successful critiques in "Enjoy Poverty" may actually be the one concerning these voluntary movements, when Renzo approaches a UNICEF aid worker and confronts her with the need of "a logo everywhere" - it seems the message here is one that posits the existence of a Western volunteering market, selflessly providing care to the ones it enslaves.
All of this can be read in the same line as Zizek's critic to charity work, which alleviates but doesn't solve the situation that allows for the existence of poverty and inequality. In fact, it ultimately reproduces these conditions. Notwithstanding the fact that charity and volunteer work are better than nothing at all, they ultimately represent the instrumentalization of socialist critique towards an ethical capitalism, or, as Zizek puts it, "cultural capitalism".
- Conclusion -
In conclusion, Renzo Martens' "Enjoy Poverty" can be classified as a redundant piece which insufficiently detaches itself from media clichés, despite the author's claims of deconstruction and satire. Intending to mimic the power of the glasses in "They Live", it falls flat when proving itself as a powerful political tool for change; this is mainly caused by Renzo's inhability to escape his own western privilege, for while "attempting" to denounce it, it still reproduces the white gaze stigma over the subaltern classes when pretending to know better what is best for them.
Can we really say Renzo's critique was absorbed by ruling ideology or didn't it possess any negative political charge in the first place? I maintain that the latter is the case, and thus his position was not up to being instrumentalized, for it was already instrumental and in tune with the current ideological apparatus.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "The German Ideology." The Marxist Archive. Web. April/May 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/>
Gramsci, Antonio. "Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks." The Marxist Archive. Web. April/May 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/prison_notebooks/>
Shaviro, Steven. "The Body of Capital." The Pinocchio Theory. Web. April/May 2014. <http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=641>
Žižek, Slavoj. "RSA Animate - First as Tragedy, Then as Farce." RSA Free Public Events Programme. YouTube. Web. April/May 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g>
Episode 3: 'Enjoy Poverty' Dir. Renzo Martens. Perf. Renzo Martens. 2009. DVD.
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Dir. Slavoj Žižek. Perf. Slavoj Žižek. 2012. DVD.
Bolton, Matt. "The Cult of the Volunteer." New Left Project. April 2014. <http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/the_cult_of_the_volunteer>.
Gramsci, Antonio. "Prison Notebooks - The Modern Prince." The Marxist Archive. Web. April 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/prison_notebooks/modern_prince/>.