Jan Sieber

Art and the Capitalist Economy of Desire

In his work project for Büchsenhausen, Sieber was interested in how the libidinous economy of desire in capitalism, as well as questions of subjectivity and identity, are echoed, reflected and criticized in contemporary art.

Capitalist society does not just suppress and repress human desire, so that its liberation develops a subversive character per se. Nor does it simply utilize human desire – in alienated form – as a kind of natural resource. Instead, capitalism actually generates this desire as something specific, i.e. as a desire that bolsters the capitalist utilization context, and at the same time as a desire whose negativity should be suppressed and distorted. This structural antagonism brings together the psychoanalytical theory of unconscious desire (Freud and Lacan) and Marx’s analysis of the workforce as a commodity.

This becomes obvious, for example, in an increasing commodification of identities (gender, sex, origins, class, political orientation, religion, taste and more). Life in capitalism is a permanent invocation. We are constantly called upon to be individuals, individuals with a specific identity, which we should represent. At the same time, the negativity that emerges through the production of identity – but is not identical – must be repressed. The desire is to remain identifiable at all times, not violating the law of the reality principle and being satisfied within the framework of whatever is offered on the market, or in ways that make it able to symbolize and to be exploited.

In art, desire becomes a moment by which, as Adorno argues, by which work, as a productive force in Marx’s sense, gets objectified. Accordingly, art always deals also with what it signifies to be a desiring subject under the conditions of the capitalist mode of production. Understanding art as a show-place of the antagonistic structure of desire, however, should not mean that artworks are reduced to subjective sign systems of the individual that produces them; art must not be romanticized as an outlet for his/her psychological suffering and a means toward his or her adaptation to social reality. Equally wrong is also the vitalist fantasy of the liberation of a quasi-natural force of desire through art. Far more, art’s objectivity lies in its expression of the contradictions of capitalist modes of production concentrated in desire, respectively in the work force. It has critical potential wherever it creates space for the negativity of desire and foils the distorted fantasies of fulfilled desire untouched by capital. The measure of such criticism formulated in art would not be developing a specific awareness of something but an expression of the subject’s negativity and the disclosure of affirmative positivizations of subjectivity as a zone liberated from the contradictions of the capitalist modes of production.

Starting out from such observations and by referring to psychoanalysis and critical theory, Sieber’s project intended to aks how contemporary artistic practices thematize the problems of subjectivity, desire and identity, how they suggest forms of subjectivation that do not simply renounce desire but propose queer or other non-identity-related ways of rescue it. How can art stage or promote subjectivation without merely repeating or working towards the production of capitalist subjectivity? How can art be understood as criticism of the capitalist economy of desire?

(Text source: Jan Sieber)

Jan SIEBER (1982 – 2018) studied cultural sciences, philosophy and art theory at the University of Bremen, Leuphana University Lüneburg, and at Middlesex University London. Between 2011 and 2017 he worked as an academic associate at Berlin University of the Arts, where he completed his doctoral thesis in the field of Aesthetic Theory. The emphases of his research lie in Aesthetics, Psychoanalysis, Critical Theory, Cultural Theory, and contemporary French Philosophy.
Following a brief but serious illness Jan Sieber died on 22 May 2018.