Immanence of Intervention, Revival of Critique


The 2013 winning essay for the Hannah Arendt Prize by Nate Harrison.

The Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research is an annual prize competition for those interested in the juncture of art and creative research and in the principles at the heart of the arts and humanities, including sense-based intelligence; the reality of singular, nonrepeatable phenomena; ethical vision; and consilience between inner and outer, nature and reason, thought and experience, subject and object, self and world.


Above, photograph of Hannah Arendt, NYC, 1944. Courtesy of the Estate of Fred Stein.

Immanence of Intervention, Revival of Critique

by Nate Harrison

What would art be without the idea of intervention? So much of cultural practice takes as given the artist’s historical inclination to alter, defer, or collapse a semiotic program, a supply chain, an institutional framework, a state of oppression. Prototypical artistic intervention into the social fabric’s system of signs existed before the emergence of mechanical reproduction; at the doorstep of the modern era sat Goya, who fashioned vernacular aesthetics in ways that anticipated direct intervention into mass-produced culture a century later. And it is within the context of a thoroughly industrialized modernity that Duchamp’s readymades launched an assault on the conventions of art by intervening upon their fundamental processes of legitimation.

The mythic status of the Duchampian narrative is matched only by the utopian thrust of much twentieth-century artistic intervention. In the last 100 years, scores of artists have montaged, appropriated, and remixed existing materials as commentary on the standardizing and de-authenticating effects of industrial development, and the increasing commodification of daily life. If a critique of cultural production under a capitalist configuration is latent in Duchamp’s interventions, it comprises the kernel of the Situationists’ subversion of spectacular society or, more contemporaneously, the Billboard Liberation Front’s commandeering of outdoor advertising. [1] Thus, to inquire as to the state of artistic intervention necessarily demands interrogating the legacy of artistic critique of various stages of capitalist development. Stated otherwise, Marion von Osten asks, “Aren’t artists’ historical and current forms of self- organization, and interventions into the art system’s historical division of labor, signs of a détournement within the actual distribution of wealth and value, whether monetary, cultural, or symbolic?” [2]

However, part of a crisis of intervention—increasingly apparent in the postmodern aftermath of 1968—involves advanced capitalism’s inherent ability to absorb the content of critique, and to redeploy it in form only. Capitalism’s talent for self-representation is located in its perverse ability to disentangle expression from operation, and vice versa. We see this in the co-optation of subcultural transgression in the 1970s and 80s (e.g., punk and hip hop) and, more recently, in the jargon of artistic entrepreneurship and creative industries. [3] “Without courting the slightest paradox,” so say Luc Boltanksi and Eve Chiapello, “it may be argued that anti-capitalism is the most significant expression of capitalism in the eyes of history.” [4]

Yet such a state of affairs has not mitigated the significance of intervention. On the contrary, it has compounded it. Intervention is now more common, though less subversive. This is especially so given a further mutation in post-Fordist economies, where intellectual and service work displaces traditional, manual labor—to what Franco “Bifo” Berardi terms “semiocapitalism,” that which “takes the mind, language, and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value.” [5] Integral to semiocapitalism is frenzied innovation within a technological communications apparatus that consequently enables for end-users ever finer degrees of modification and manipulation—of “intervention.” In this shift, intervention is fundamentally redefined. Every auto-tuned YouTube video is an intervention. Every Wi-Fi signal snatched is an intervention. In a sense, by virtue of a near ubiquitous network of communication technologies, we are now all interventionists.

Interventionist, however, in name only. Our capacity for critique has been squandered, or at least misplaced, in the face of newfound ecstasies of communication. In order to retrieve it, we mustn’t abandon the idea of intervention as such. Rather, we must probe its relation to intellectual property regimes and those whom McKenzie Wark describes as the “vectoral class” [6]: “The vectoral state encourages diversity in the content of representations as a cover while abolishing diversity in the form of representations. . . . All information is to be subordinated to the private property form.” [7] Thus, with authorizing certain interventions (e.g., licensed music sampling, Nike shoe-design contests), the vectoral class offers a semblance of freedom of expression from which it extracts surplus value. Fair use becomes fared use.

Crucial, then, are distinctions between interventionist practices that “customize” representations but reaffirm the power dynamic of the vectoral state and those that restore critique against it. Given the velocity of an ever-refreshing feed of representations under semiocapitalism, the question, What does this particular intervention express? must be supplemented with, According to what property relation does the intervention operate? Consequently, artistic critique becomes social critique such that it questions the production of culture and information’s scarcity. This questioning brings to light the two necessary halves of a resonant, critical interventionist practice—expression and operation.

Traces of this expression/operation coupling are found in a legal dispute pertaining to a recent set of artistic interventions, Richard Prince’s Canal Zone paintings. The collaged canvases rely heavily upon the content of Patrick Cariou’s photographs. At issue in the case (Cariou v. Prince) is whether Prince’s appropriations constitute fair use or copyright infringement. [8] After a district court ruled against Prince, several prominent U.S. arts institutions filed a brief in support of his appeal. [9] By addressing the judge’s reliance “on the perceived failure of the artist . . . to articulate . . . the precise ‘message’ . . . of his creative work,” [10] the brief asserted that Prince’s paintings are fair insofar as they communicate “new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.” [11] In other words, the measure of the works rests on the baseline of expression (indeed, expressive critique: the central debate was whether or not Prince’s paintings exhibited discernible commentary or criticism of Cariou’s photos, which would qualify them as fair uses).

Perhaps more interesting is that Google also filed a brief in conjunction with Prince’s appeal. [12] While careful not to take a position on the merits of the case, the company nonetheless stressed the importance of a copyright law flexible enough to allow for copies of cultural works to be created without a requirement that they expressively refer to an original source through either comment or criticism. From Google’s perspective, the gravity of the court’s ruling was plain: The company’s business model relies heavily on copy-reliant technologies employed towards nonexpressive ends (e.g., indexing algorithms and book scanning). A finding of infringement premised upon lack of referential expression would have put Google’s enterprise in jeopardy. [13]

Google has built a vectoral empire organizing “the world’s information and [making] it universally accessible and useful.” [14] It may appear that the company embraces an immanence of intervention in line with the contemporary technological and creative moment (i.e., “information wants to be free”). Importantly, this position would seem to betray the proprietary interests of the vectoral class itself. Yet Google’s stated intention deserves scrutiny. We would do well to recall that Google’s ultimate interests align not with the public but with its shareholders. As it collects vast amounts of data from its users, Google’s ultimate aim is—as that of any vectoral venture—the further accumulation of surplus value, if at a higher level of abstraction. Google sells its information to other vectoralists, as well as age-old capitalists alike, and the reproduction of scarcity continues.

It is by recognizing intervention as not only an expressive but also an operational gesture that we revive critique and enter into what Sonia Katyal terms “semiotic disobedience,” an occupation of both representations and their vectors. [15] From such civil disobedience, laws are reexamined, and even improved. [16] And by chipping away at the ideology of ownership culture, we move toward actualizing the social potential with which the vectoral state lures but ultimately withholds from us.


1. Billboard Liberation Front, accessed May 30, 2013,

2. Marion von Osten, “In Search of the Postcapitalist Self,” e-flux journal 17 (2010):—“in-search-of-the-postcapitalist-self”/.

3. Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, ed., My Creativity Reader: A Critique of Creative Industries (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2008).

4. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2007), 36.

5. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 21.

6. McKenzie Wark, Telesthesia: Communication, Culture and Class (Cambridge, UK.: Polity, 2012), 208.

7. McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 269.

8. For the United States Court of Appeals ruling, see Cariou v. Prince, 11-1197-CV (US Ct. of Appeals, April 25, 2013):

9. Brief for the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Museum Associates, DBA Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art as Amici Curiae, Cariou v. Prince, 11-1197-CV, (2011):

10. Ibid.

11. Pierre N. Leval, “Toward a Fair Use Standard,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 103, no. 5 (1990): 1111.

12. Brief for Google, Inc. as Amicus Curiae, Cariou v. Prince, 11-1197-CV, (2011):

13. Matthew Sag, “Copyright and Copy-Reliant Technology,” Northwestern University Law Review, vol. 103 (2009):

14. Google, accessed May 30, 2013,

15. Sonia Katyal, “Semiotic Disobedience,” Washington University Law Review, vol. 84, no. 2 (2006):

16. Maria A. Pallante, “The Next Great Copyright Act” (lecture, Columbia Law School, New York, NY, March 4, 2013):

About the MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research

The MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research (CT+CR), the first of its kind in the U.S., is an accelerated, 45-credit, seminar-based program (one year + summer intensive) that prepares students for opportunities at the intersection of art, theory, and research. Located in the metropolitan heart of the Pacific Northwest, a center of creative risk-taking and social experimentation, the program combines the study of critical theory as a mode of socio-political critique and creative research as a process-driven form of inquiry, pushing both theory and research in new directions within the context of a 21st-century art school. The program is devoted to people and ideas and to a rethinking of the present and future of cultural production; of arts-based research and research-based arts; of curatorial practice, documentary, and the Archive; and of social and political reconfiguration in relation to major sites of contemporary contestation. See additional information on the MA CT+CR Program page. Founding Co-chairs: Anne Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders.

— Posted on 09/06 at 03:55 PM

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