Unplugging the Risk Frame

Unplugging the risk frame:
On self-entrepreneurship and art in post-Fordist times
Lecture @Welcommon in Athens
April 2, 2018

This lecture could be about many subjects. It could be about issues of migration opposed to (neocolonial) practices of tourism for instance. After all, we are abroad now, and more particularly in Greece, a place of utter contemporary political, economic and social relevance given both the refugee crisis and the austerity measures imposed on the country by the European Union; and in this building, more specifically, with its continued history of commitment to the refugee community. This lecture, however, will only be about those topics sideways, how important they are, as the issues I will be discussing are somehow “closer home.” The main topic then of this talk will be about the precarious working situation of creative hopefuls as I have encountered it myself –and have seen others struggle with it around me—where I come from in the south of Belgium but also during my studies in Spain and later in my teaching and writing practice in the Netherlands.

Let me start then by exploring the concept of “creative dispositif” advanced by Angela McRobbie in her book Be Creative. According to McRobbie, the “creative dispositif” is a broad set of non-violent disciplinary means by which the youth becomes acquainted and endeared to the idea –and practice—of risk taking as a natural and necessary part of a rewarding –i.e. creative—working life.[1] In the face of shrinking employment opportunities and labor reforms in the UK and across Europe, the “creative dispositif” works as ideological training for preparing young people to a labor system deprived of social benefits and State welfare. In Gramsci’s terms, the “creative dispositif” would be the means by which the youth is trained to spontaneously consent to its own precariatization while being under the impression that this type of career will bring upward social mobility and a rewarding –read: exciting—working life.[2] In other words, it fosters a neoliberal agenda by making “a new very swollen youthful middle class bypass mainstream employment with its trade unions and its tranches of welfare and protection in favor of the challenge and excitement of being a creative entrepreneur,” as McRobbie puts it.[3]

Indeed, the “creative dispositif” is constituted by, among other instances, the media, entertainment and education. It is the way in which newspapers favor individual success stories and the American dream. It is the glamour of Hollywood praising the young and the bold, the kick of hyped startups, or simply the alluring idea of making a sustainable income from your passion whether it’s baking cookies or making films. It is also the glamour associated with the nomadic life of the studio-less artist who travels, from country to country, chasing prestigious residencies and masquerading, often precarious living conditions under the appearance of a leisure-based lifestyle.

The “creative dispositif’ then redefines the meaning of “autonomy” to signify self-entrepreneurship and the need to constantly redefine oneself, working several jobs and juggling projects to ensure cash flow. It is the relentless pace of the post-Fordist production of “semiocapital” in Berardi’s words.[4] It is the excitement of the potential, and supposedly unforeseeably large gain –the practice of “being on the edge” as part of the job and its very reward. It is becoming part of a new “risk class” as Ulrich Beck puts it, at the frontline of innovation yet barely able to make ends meet.

It is then easy to see how art educational programs today play on those ideas, and seek to prepare students for the current labor market. One could argue indeed that such adventure as the one you are living now is part of that ideological training. It translates quite literally the idea of a rehearsal/simulation of risk taking. So how take affirmative action in the face of a system that goes well beyond the academy, and shapes the desires of a large part of the youth driven by the dream of self-creation.

The history of the shaping of the “creative dispositif” might give us some clues about how to perhaps reclaim the realm of the imagination. The development of an ideological apparatus surrounding creative work went hand in hand with the appearance of alternative professionalisms taking place outside of the traditional institutions of art as early as the 19th century. Think here for instance of the flourishing of small independent publishing practices by the turn of the century in France that marked the increasing importance of social and creative networks on the margins, and sometimes in opposition to, the traditional ones then dominated by the academy.[5] It is indeed with the rise of avant-garde culture that the ideal of a self-reliant and groundbreaking class of cultural workers came into being.

In other words, avant-garde artists were the precursors of the current “risk class.”[6] As the economy turned away from manufacturing to service production (from Fordism to post-Fordism) the avant-garde –with its emphasis on lifestyle and experience over the making objects—moved from the margins of mainstream culture to its heart.[7] It secured the permanent cultural rejuvenation needed by an economic system based on the necessary production of novelty and sensation.[8] As the character of Neo in The Matrix trilogy, avant-garde culture strengthened the system it initially sought to overthrow: It acted in the manner of a virus that reinforces the defense mechanisms of its host once it’s been overcome. [9]

As attitude became form, creativity became understood as something inherent in personhood (childhood, adolescence and young adulthood; less often, old age) rather than the outcome of a specific practice.[10] To be creative became the defining characteristic of the “good” modern citizen and risk-taking, a naturalized feature of the life of an increasing part of the population in Western countries. Avant-garde ideology became part of the (neo-)capitalist meta-narrative of self-fashioning: Achieving one’s alleged true potential became a moral imperative.

What are then strategies to possibly unplug from that frame of thinking? The “lines of flight” to offer resistance to the forces of co-option at work today? Many thinkers have spent time devising emancipation scenarios. One of the most famous perhaps is Hakim Bey who coined the notion of “temporary autonomous zone” (TAZ), a free space where citizens but also activists, artists and philosophers would come to participate in rebuilding a sense of community and solidarity through alliances and open communicative strategies.[11] In a similar vein, Franco “Bifo” Berardi advocates “active withdrawal” meaning the creation of autonomous spaces where solidarity can be rebuilt, and where self-sufficient and self-organized communities can start a process of contagion, proliferation and eventually, of reversal of the trend.[12]

Another influential voice in this debate has been that of work sociologist Richard Sennett who champions a return of craft to foster a fulfilling life through repetition, focus and dedication to the work at hand for its own sake –instead of the fast-paced, immaterial labor fostered by post-Fordist production. The image that springs to mind when reading Sennett is that of a carpenter at work in his workshop. He also mentions (in passing) the mothers and fathers who care for their young children and who perform daily repetitive gestures that require as much attention as craftwork if not much more.

Underlying most of these scenarios is a need to break with an individualist understanding of work. To do away with the idea that results are achieved on one’s own and that failure or success is a measure of one’s own personal effort only (even Sennett’s vision of the lonely, Enlightened craftsman implies a certain communion with the physical world around him). Nothing happens unless there’s a collectivity to support it, whether the contribution of that collectivity is actively acknowledged or not. Even in our sleep we rely on the work of others to survive. (I’m always amazed at how much I myself take for granted access to most primary life resources, and how powerless I feel when there’s a power failure of just a few hours for instance.)

In order to foster this awareness a process of radical de-mythologization of the notion of “personal achievement” is needed. We need to do away with the fetishization of the single voice, the litany of endless success stories, and the unnecessary glamourization of individual bravour. With this, however, I do not mean the painful process of awakening to “real-life conditions” as described by neo-Lacanian and neo-Marxist intellectuals such as Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed or more recently Slavoj Žižek in his work on the notion of “ideology.”[13] The idea that critical Enlightenment should be a revelation—a stroke of ideological clairvoyance—itself embodies once again the vision of a triumphant singular individual whom by the force of his own character and willpower achieves intellectual liberation.

This is where the problem of criticality itself resides and which makes it utterly suitable as a means of regeneration by an economic system that feeds on its own critics as Boltanski and Chiapello studied in their work on the failure of artistic critique. We need to go beyond deconstructing systems of oppressions and rather seek to develop our own systems of alternative collaboration and self-organisation. “We don’t need another hero” as Tina Turner once sang; we need to care, together, and for each other while also taking care of ourselves. We should unplug the risk frame.


[1] The notion of “dispositif” is taken from Althusser and translates in English into “apparatus.” The notion of the “creative dispositif” is further modeled on Michel Foucault’s theory on modern crowd control effected through the working of modern disciplinary institutions that reform and educate rather than punish such as medicine and public education. In Foucault’s understanding of modern crowd control, individuals are trained to self-manage by making their own, norms and values initially to be found outsides of themselves. This is what Foucault calls “micro-politics,” politics exercised onto and through each individuals onto their own body and mind.

[2] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, (trans. and ed.) Joseph A. Buttlegieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[3] Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016).

[4] Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of Post-Alpha Generation (New York: Autonomedia, 2009).

[5] David Cottington, The Avant-garde: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) pp. 22-47.

[6] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Ltd, 1992).

[7] Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitch, Postmodernism, 1987 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996) pp. 119-124.

[8] Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (New York: Semiotext[e], 2004).

[9] Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), (trans.) Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2007) pp. 419-482.

[10] Thierry de Duve, “When Form Has Become Attitude –And Beyond,” The Artist and the Academy: Issues in Fine Art and the Wide Cultural Context, (eds.) Stephen Foster and Nicholas deVille (Southhampton, England: John Hansard gallery, 1994) pp. 23-40.

[11] Hakim Bey, “The Temporary Autonomous Zone,” T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Autonomedia, 1985) pp. 91-125. Available at http://nomadism.org/pdf/taz.pdf. Accessed February 1, 2017.

[12] Franco Berardi, After the Future (Chico: AK Press, 2011).

[13] Sophie Fiennes (dir.), The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (London: British Film Institute, 2013).



Works Cited

Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Ltd, 1992.

Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Autonomedia, 1985. Available at http://nomadism.org/pdf/taz.pdf. Accessed February 1, 2017.

Berardi, Franco. After the Future. Chico: AK Press, 2011.

—. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of  Post-Alpha Generation. New York: Autonomedia, 2009.

Boltanski, Luc and Ève Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999). Trans.

Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2007.

Calinescu, Matteo. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence,

Kitch, Postmodernism. 1987. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Cottington, David. The Avant-garde: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

De Duve, Thierry. “When Form Has Become Attitude –And Beyond.” The Artist

and the Academy: Issues in Fine Art and the Wide Cultural Context, eds. Stephen Foster and Nicholas deVille. Southhampton, England: John Hansard gallery, 1994. pp. 23-40.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. Penguin Classics, 2017.

Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Trans. and ed. Joseph A. Buttlegieg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries.

Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin, 2009.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext[e], 2004.

Fiennes, Sophie (dir.). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. London: British Film Institute, 2013.