Spies and Art: in a State of Emergency

I want to talk about a series of encounters between art and surveillance and politics – in sections. The logic is perhaps convolute, and the themes sporadically surfacing and re-surfacing rather than tautly sustained. Whether the 6 sections form a whole argument or just a series of impermissably poetic scenes with little connection or truth-status is, of course, for you to decide.

Throughout this listening history of antifascist lyrics in Britcore Hip Hop, I want a quotation to be ringing in your ears. It is from Benjamin’s ‚Theses on the Philosophy of History‘ and it summons up the language of peril, of threat. Benjamin speaks of historical materialism’s need to ‘seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ – in order to make visible the true history of oppression. He continues:

The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

1. Low-life, high art

In a radio lecture on the Bastille, the French state prison, Walter Benjamin associates conspirators and artists. The Bastille was a place of incarceration for people who had contravened against state security. There were two classes of prisoner held there; those who were accused of conspiracy and treason, and those more numerous inmates who were writers, engravers, book dealers and binders, all people who had propagated books that offended the king or his favourites. Peopled by conspirators and seditionaries, and governed by an obfuscatory command-structure, it was no surprise that the Bastille prison was rife with rumours. None of the inhabitants were quite certain who else lodged there behind the screened windows that stopped the prisoners from seeing the governor’s strolling visitors and musicians. Sometimes the prisoners developed systems of communication, tapping information in code between cells. But prisoners disappeared from between its walls as swiftly as they had appeared, subject as they were to the whims of the powerful. The storming of the Bastille, home at that moment to just sixteen prisoners, was the first visible act of destruction of the French Revolution, and it occurred, insists Benjamin, because of the arbitrariness of its punishments, and the prison regime’s remoteness from any sense of Recht, of right, of law. What was released then into the French post-revolutionary cosmos was a ragged band of writers, artists, artisans and conspirators. In short, a low-life bohemia of gossip-mongerers, art-peddlars and revolters, who dispersed into the fertile air of a new class-rule. Having occupied the same space of confinement, they forged a bond that bore offspring. For it was from their ranks that the avant-garde was born, as Clement Greenberg has told us in ‚Avant-garde and Kitsch‘ [1939]. No longer ‘at home’ in the prison, these homeless rebels agitate and aggravate from inside the vaster prison of the bourgeois world; opposed to that world, but inside it, they figure a place apart.


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