Laments from a Salted Corpse
It seems high time for a reckoning...
The impulse to annihilate anyone acting in disregard of the ever-shifting conventions of pseudo-progressive decorum—that what we call cancel culture—started to be openly addressed in art world circles only once it became clear that even those saying all the right things and reading all the right books from the right bookstores would not be safe any longer. But cancel culture is nothing new. Its current theatrical manifestations are only the peak of a fermentation process set off by a generalised sense of impotence and despair, an emptiness perceived, which however remains largely unaddressed.
Vast swaths of what used to be a truly diverse and impenetrably intricate system of thought have disappeared behind thick fog. For those old enough to be able to think back to a fairly recent past, today’s art world must appear like a tedious, scorched planet, which one navigates out of habit. In droves, artists seem to have vanished, together with the objects of their enquiry. But neither did they die nor did they stop making art, nor has their work necessarily regressed to the point of becoming undeserving of any attention: it simply doesn’t lend itself to being retroactively embellished with the necessary identitarian pathos and the usual grievances du jour.
Curatorial efforts at establishing a dialogue between works produced only one or two decades ago with more contemporary works promptly result in failed attempts at harmonising two distinct disciplines: art before and after its forceful “compensatory functionalization [...] into an instrument of the practical-political realization of utopia”, as Juliane Rebentisch has aptly put it (1). The quality of a work of art is now determined solely on the basis of its compatibility with current discourses. And unless young artists are addressing the limited range of issues deemed relevant, they are cancelled before their careers even start. For this erasure, no one in particular is to blame. It is the result of a long process of colonisation of every sphere of intellectual life by ideology.
The destruction of what used to be an exciting, intellectually diverse and deviant place for experimentation is almost complete. Art is now—more than any other field of cultural production—a catalyst for mediocrity, something you are comfortable with only if you are able to directly profit from it. It is not surprising that within such a highly toxic environment, people would recur to a sublimated form of violence such as cancel culture. It represents the last permissible excitement left, the last thrill, the last hardcore thing to do. Equally unsurprising is the fact that resistance to cancel culture and its motives is conveniently shrouded in a nimbus of right-wingery, so that its disgraced victims are additionally muzzled in their protest by fear of being stamped as “free-speecher” bigots. The hegemony of an anti-intellectual monoculture that has allowed for censorship and self-censorship to become the norm has caused irreparable damage. Art’s degradation to a didactic tool for the dissemination of academia-driven obsessions over identity has left nothing but an eviscerated, mummifying carcass on which nothing can grow.
It would almost come as a relief if cancel culture were motivated solely by personal vendetta or the desire to clean the field of competitors in an overcrowded market. Although it can be very effectively weaponised to remove the undesired from positions of power or to strip them of their status, the main driver of cancel culture is ideological hysteria, not careerist opportunism—which makes for a much darker scenario. Most willing executioners of cancel culture must be seen as victims of their own ideology, not as enemies. Little to no real agency is to be found in cancel culture, just intimidated conformists following their authoritarian instincts, anxious to fall into line. The most rabid representatives of cancel culture can be easily made out, but a large, rather passive mob tags along with feverish zeal. And since within this hell of boredom that art has become there is no outside, the place of real agency can only exist beyond these circles of compulsive conformity.
Twenty years before the internet took off, a loose amalgam of marginalised youth known as the “Metropolitan Indians” shook Italian society in 1977, with their radical challenge to the austere, humourless authoritarianism of the Italian Communist Party, to the neo-Leninist and workerist Autonomia and to the optimism of the ageing sixty-eighters. Their ante-litteram social media platforms were free radio stations broadcasting phone-ins from ordinary people, while montages of newspaper clippings were used to “spread false news that produce real events” (2), functioning like Dadaistic memes. Their mockery of serious militancy and their opposition to any ideological system, fuelled by the old anarchist adage ‘‘A laughter that will bury you all’’, makes them the innocent precursors to today’s 4chan trolls—the target of their disparaging sarcasm being ultimately the same.
As Richard Rorty already noted in 1998, the adherents of the modern Left "have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to the public debate"(3). The old anti-authoritarian, libertarian and hedonistic Left has emerged as the main casualty of the primacy of this punitive and identitarian cultural Left, and is therefore virtually absent from today’s culture wars. With the citizens of almost every Western country increasingly turning towards right-wing populism, it seems high time for a reckoning.
This is why the radicalisation of cancel culture comes as a blessing in disguise: the fact that it will not be stopped anytime soon is irrelevant, since things actually have to get much worse in order for a different culture to emerge, and for that culture to be embraced by more and more disgruntled and damaged dissidents. Fighting cancel culture means ridiculing its puritanism relentlessly, triggering ever more unhinged reactions and relying on the revelatory potential of its escalating madness. Change will only be accomplished through implosion. The coming insurrection will see an alliance of unlikely fellows, an anti-ideological leaderless movement operating with unrestrained and joyously unapologetic ferocity.
The future belongs to those who’ll dance on graves.
Niels Betori Diehl and Barbara K. Prokop
"Laments from a Salted Corpse " was published in print issue 11, "Faux Culture"