Against Human Nature

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

The idea of artistic authorship is grounded in a notion of exceptionalism. We may no longer believe in the particular skillset associated with the concepts of ‘talent’ or ‘genius’, yet even within post-conceptual contemporary practice, with its distributed, collaborative models and lack of disciplinary allegiances to specific media, the artist must bring his or her own brand of specialness to the table. Though it might no longer be associated with the indexical ‘signature style’ of the artist, the production and maintenance of the artistic self is still very much at the heart of art making today. The complex relationship between these forms of artistic authorship and other forms of capitalist production in the framework of neoliberal ideology merit a thorough consideration. In particular, it is important to consider the naturalised ideological components of current hegemonic socio-political and artistic structures that participate in the economy of the production of ‘human nature’ at the same time as they flaunt it as a foundational anchor. As noted by many writers on post-Fordism and immaterial labour, the premising of the production of work on the production of the self results in unprecedented proximity between artistic labour and work in general. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine a critical space for art to operate in relation to what has historically been understood as its inverse, the servitude of work. The demands for liberation from work and its replacement with free play, made by certain strands of the avant garde and its 1968 inheritors, ring hollow when creativity is not only encouraged but frequently enforced in an economy that valorizes experiences and ideas. It is hard to imagine how the famous Situationist slogan “Ne travzaillez jamais!” (never work!) would apply to the conditions of labour today, when one is always working even (or especially) when engaged in social and creative activities. In many ways, the project of artistic critique has been all too successful, but the irony of its success has been the capture of yet more areas of life by the very system it wished to abolish. This irony is widely acknowledged, and indeed much critical art practice is currently focused on highlighting it, reveling in its own impotence.

To go beyond this impasse we must unpack the assumptions underlying the latent ideology of neoliberal late-capitalism and look at the way in which talent, creativity and exceptionalism are configured within it. At the heart of this investigation is the need to pinpoint the contradiction that sustains this ideology, namely the idea that, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, success, equated with wealth, is the consequence of the hard work of individuals. Yet, this linking of merit (talent, hard work, the belief in oneself etc.) and reward (wealth and social status) is anything but obvious. This outlook can roughly be divided into two categories: the biological argument posits that merit is a reflection of a natural genetic ability given from birth, while the social-constructivist argument purports that certain individuals receive better education and parental support to allow them to make better choices in life. The latter, social-constructivist approach is clearly evident in David Cameron’s policies on education and the family. In a speech from January 11th 2010, the prime minister said that, “even if you don’t buy the idea that good parenting is the key to creating responsible individuals, the evidence shows that it is the single most important determinant of our future success or failure… It shows that the differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by ‘confident and able’ parents”. [1] Yet how one becomes “confident and able” is left deliberately vague – a naturalized, human quality that cannot be thought of in political, social or economic terms. Indeed, when presented with the question of whether the success of those who are wealthy could be attributed to an inherent quality that only they, and not the poor, possess, many people dismiss the correlation between success and merit. Similarly, when asked whether someone with severe learning difficulties deserves a lower standard of living than a person blessed with a high IQ, few actually support any financial discrimination. And yet the idea of self-made bootstrap wealth persists. This is frequently due to personal anecdotes favoured over hard statistical data about social mobility (“my grandfather was poor and yet made money through sheer hard work”). This social mobility is of course the particular project of liberal capitalism under a specific historical regime, rather than an inherent value of the capitalist system. The social democratic compromise that emerged in Europe at the end of the Second World War enabled limited social mobility through welfare structures to lure the masses away from communism. Since the end of the cold war, however, much of the wealth of the last few decades has derived from a competing project – the spectacular dismantling and deregulation of these structures by neoliberal policy.

It is to the credit of Milton Friedman, neoliberal capitalism’s most consistent apologist, that he does not shirk away from the real implications of meritocracy. In one of the founding texts of neo-liberal thinking, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman articulates the arbitrariness underlying the biological argument succinctly: “The man who is hard working and thrifty is to be regarded as ‘deserving’; yet these qualities owe much to the genes he was fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to inherit”. [2] For Friedman, the construction of the individual is wholly outside of the social or the political. The randomness of genetic distribution is justifiable precisely because it is natural and without socially determined ground that might be contested. Biological chance thus gives capitalism an ethical dimension, even though there is no logical necessity in the suggestion that given natural differences, it is the role of the state to encourage rather than mitigate them. But whether locating class difference in nature or nurture, both these theories are constructed around a hollow core of theological dimensions. In both, the individual – a subject already capable of ethical choices and reasoning – precedes a society that is forged as a result of the negotiation between individuated free agents.

In spite of the deep faith inspired by the myth of meritocracy, and Friedman aside, few defenders of capitalism would profess their ideological conviction in this economic system. Capitalism is most often naturalized as inevitable. It would be great if we could all be equal, the rhetoric goes, but that is simply not possible: humans are naturally competitive, naturally endowed with different skills, abilities and aspirations and it would therefore be unnatural to force identical living conditions on them. Human nature forms the uncontestable ground within which the belief in the principles of neoliberal capitalism is concealed, even from those who bear it. Meanwhile the rules and regulations of society are never understood to be a product of the same nature. The most obvious fallacy supporting the idea of naturalized inequality is the conflation of equal and identical. The liberal boogieman is a world of identically clothed drones in grey shift dresses, marching to work silently on a stomach barely full with tasteless gruel. The liberal discourse of choice is used to mask the fact that choice is always already constrained within capitalist society. Since one doesn’t choose to be born rich or poor, there is little sense in understanding subsequent sartorial or culinary decisions as self-determined. As demonstrated by Pierre Bourdieu’s study of taste, consumer choices are by and large predicated on class distinction. [3] There is therefore no reason to imagine that a more equal society would reduce choice: for the majority of the world’s population, it would most likely increase the opportunity to make real decisions between genuine options, generating more differences than similarities.

More importantly, however, the emphasis on a human essence anterior to the social production of subjectivity dislocates the origin of such traits as competitiveness and produces an untenable justification for the preservation of the power of the few. Liberal political thought has historically relied on the fiction of the brutal ‘state of nature’ to construct society as a flight from naturalized violence. Misrecognising this competitive violence as nature itself, when in reality it is the product of a particular society’s fantasy nightmare scenario, this theory necessitated exclusion to produce the internally coherent rule of law. As demonstrated by Giorgio Agamben in his book Homo Sacer, the state must perpetuate the idea of the barbarian at the gates to justify the violence it takes upon itself to manage through systems of enforcement and justice. [4] But once we concede that humans never actually exist outside of society, we begin to see that the state of nature is actually contained within the social organization that pretends to exclude it. And if we cease to understand human nature as preceding society, we can look at the way in which different modes of social organization generate different modalities of the human.

The liberal reliance on the notion of the human subject as a theological construct that stands outside or precedes the socio-political is systematically critiqued in the writing of Karl Marx. Echoes of this anti-humanist tradition can be found in the work of Hannah Arendt, Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou and the Italian Autonomists, and it is a tradition that is more relevant than ever today. Returning to the question of art and immaterial labour, recent changes in work patterns present a deep contradiction between two competing notions of humanism, both playing a significant role in sustaining hegemonic political and economic ideology. On the one hand, the arguments briefly presented earlier still make up the ethical plateau from which capitalism operates: reward for individual merit is the sole motivation of a capitalist worker and serves as moral justification for an ever growing social inequality. This discourse was prominent in the response of the government to last summer’s riots in the UK, where disturbances were only addressed as belonging to the privatized sphere of the individual, as the pathological choice of specific individuals acting outside and against their communities. On the other hand, the move from Fordist to post-Fordist work means that the individual is also thought of as the raw material from which wealth is produced. The very things that constitute the human – sociability, language, creativity, cognitive ability etc. – are thought of as economic products of what Negri calls the “society factory”. [5] And, since the post-Fordist worker does not produce commodities external to the self but merely enhances or invests in the self by acquiring skills, generating ideas, extending networks and so on, the individual paradoxically occupies two opposite positions: the human as the foundational myth of liberalism, outside and untouched by economic forces and the human as a product of immaterial labour, produced, traded and managed as a pure economic commodity. Older models of criticality based on the dialectical relationship of work and life or alienated labour and creative freedom are no longer adequate to this condition. But the internal contradictions of the neoliberal order are the logical result of opposite forces that operate on its subjects, each with an equal validity and conviction. Criticality needs to work through these contradictions, not by creating distance from either of these positions (by arguing for a kind of abstract humanism against alienated work or for a greater integration of social or creative activities into work), but by using the space created by paradoxical demands for maneuvering.

In the 1960s, Althusser claimed that thinking beyond the dialectical methodology of critique is a central and urgent task of philosophy, and to an extent this is still true today, with the disappearance of the work/life binary in relation to the notions of humanism we described earlier. [6] To do this, Althusser attempted to purge the writings of Marx from the humanist traditions that had attached themselves to Marxist discourse since they were written. Rather than disowning the inhumanity of Stalin’s regime or the cultural revolution, as much of the Left was preoccupied with doing at the time, Althusser strove to show that it was humanism itself that lay the ethical ground for the continued domination of capitalism. Indeed if we go back to Marx himself, we find strong support for Althusser’s reading of Capital as a basis for an anti-humanist critique. In Capital, Marx argues that it is in work that man finds his humanity. [7] For him, humans only become humans through the technology required for work: being human is not a quality preceding the extension of the body through this technology. In fact, Marx adopts the anthropological definition of man as the ‘tool-making animal’. [8] Yet even though humanity is founded on work, under capitalist conditions of production, work also produces the exact opposite of this process of becoming. In commodifying his capacity to work, abstracting and separating it from himself, the labourer starts to reverse his ascent from the realm of the object. The industrial worker is therefore already trapped in a paradox: his humanity is produced at the same moment of its negation – he is at the same time subject and object, human and abstract labour power.

This situation sets the scene for a battle of conflicting interests. Since the factory owner wants the worker to work the longest possible hours to produce surplus value, the workers must retaliate with a demand of their own for time outside of work. But for Marx, it is crucial here that this demand should not be grounded in a different kind of discourse to the capitalist logic of exchange, it should not be constituted as an outside to it but operate from within. The capitalist’s argument cannot be countered by a moral notion of ‘natural’ or ‘’inalienable’ human rights. The humanist appeal to the respectable and charitable side of bourgeois culture is insufficient in resisting the rational, albeit ruthless, demands made by the factory owner, whose vampiric character, when it comes to managing capital, makes such moral conventions irrelevant. Marx argues that the worst possible position the workers could take is to suggest to the factory owner that the conditions of work are inhumane or to beg for the reinstatement of some self-evident human rights. As he convincingly demonstrates, capitalism is a system that transcends the personal qualms of the individual, and an appeal to the kindness of the exploiter would be futile. In other words, even if the capitalist owner is a terribly nice person (who, Marx mockingly says, could even be a member of the RSPCA), the liberal ethics of capitalism are exposed as hollow by the logic of its economic system. Since inequality is represented within capitalism as natural, asking for reprieve merely produces a weak critique that is easily waved away with the pretense of charity, which keeps existing power structures in place by reaffirming the positions of benefactor and beneficiary. Indeed it is no wonder that calls for more voluntary donation have accompanied the coalition government’s dismantling of the remains of the welfare state.

Despite the fact that Marx shows the weakness of humanist critique, much Marxist theory continues to follow a humanist trajectory that seeks to reinstate the human nature lost or compromised by alienated labour. The question of an effective critique against the regime for capitalist labour has become even more urgent with the transition to post-Fordism and has been taken up by the writers of the Italian Autonomist movement in the last few decades. Emerging in 1960s Italy, the Autonomists took alienation, or rather estrangement, to be a ground for a collectivity autonomous from capital. Not being lonely, but feeling distanced from one’s work under capitalism would be the basis for the refusal to work. Estrangement was thus the starting point of the struggle that would allow them to redefine the proletariat in terms better suited to late capitalism:

Compositionism [as Bifo prefers to call Italian Workerism insofar as it addresses class composition], […] does not anticipate any restoration of humanity, does not proclaim any human universality, and bases its understanding of humanity on class conflict. Compositionism overturns the issue implicit in the question of alienation. It is precisely thanks to the radical inhumanity of the workers’ existence that a human collectivity can be founded, a community no longer dependent on capital. [9]

The Autonomists did not wish to pit an inhuman capitalism against a humanity that might be regained if we fight this system, but rather to start from the oppressive form of human life that is capitalism as a ground for this fight. More recently, Michel Feher has attempted to show how this logic might be applied to the struggle against the exploitation of creative or affective labour in the post-Fordist job market. In his essay “Self-Appreciation or, The Aspirations of Human Capital”, he describes the way in which neoliberalism turns the self into the never finished product of immaterial labour. [10] Through the perpetual training described by Deleuze in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, the labourer must continually develop capabilities that appreciate the value of the human capital embedded in his or her body. [11] Rather than replacing the free labourer with a commodity, what the notion of human capital actually does is produce a neoliberal subjectivity premised on entrepreneurialism. Unlike the owners of a business, however, these entrepreneurs do not own their enterprise. As investors in their own human capital, neoliberal subjects do not own their labour power in the way that the free labourer did. They can never sell it on, only affect its value through actions taken or not taken. Feher suggests that the only way forward for the left today is to embrace the neoliberal condition of human capital in the same way that past incarnations of the left have attached themselves to the condition of the free labourer. Instead of denouncing the place of the personal in politics, and again rejecting the humanist critique of the idea that some things should not be commodified, he proposes that the we concede that we are all investors in our own human capital and focus on challenging “the conditions under which we appreciate ourselves”. [12]

We could take the demands of the post-Fordist worker even further. On the one hand, the worker is now expected to invest in the construction of his or her subjectivity. On the other, as we have seen, this subjectivity is premised on given genetic inheritance and social conditions. If we accept these propositions, we take away the grounds for any kind of meritocratic notion of remuneration: one can only invest in the self insofar as circumstances beyond the self have made this investment possible on the basis of pre-existing (human) capital. Post-Fordism contains within it a strong paradox that undermines the consistency of the neo-liberal argumentation. In Althusserian terms, it is a condition where the economic base of production, that is the production and accumulation of value directly from human capital, is in direct contradiction to the ideological claims that support it. Subjectivisation has a double, and contradictory, function under post-Fordism. In the first instance, it is a product of labour that is as unstable as any other commodity: its value must be constantly maintained via the economic functions of exchange and investment and measured against other productive subjectivities. But, if the process of becoming is a commodity produced by labourers and is exposed to capitalist speculation and circulation, then it cannot also be of intrinsic and constant value. And since the sphere of the individual is not external to the precise social and economic conditions of post-Fordism, there is no basis for any differential valorization of these subjectivities. In other words, inequality can no longer be seen as a natural human condition but only as the direct product of a particular economic system.

So, if art, particularly the deskilled, dematerialized art most often associated with critically engaged practices, slots so neatly into the ‘social factory’ of post-Fordist labour, how can artists produce work that deals with these issues critically? Much art still relies on two unsatisfactory and ineffective critical strategies that could roughly be divided into a category of a humanist critique of labour and a category of irony. The first continues to preserve a tension between work and other social, linguistic and creative activities as a critical space. Cao Fei’s film Whose Utopia (2006), filmed in a factory in the Chinese industrial region of Pearl River Delta region, utilizes this strategy. The press release accompanying the film’s exhibition at the Australian Institute of Modern Art states that “the predominantly young factory workers come from around the country, lured by opportunities. Whose Utopia contrasts the harsh reality of their repetitive manual labour with poetic moments they imagine and perform as dancers and musicians.” [13] This poetic treatment of the workers’ creative aspirations against the background of the industrial setting fails to address the problem of immaterial labour. For many Western art audiences the repetitive and alienated labour of the factory seem like an image from a bygone era while dancing and music would be viewed as viable economic activities at the heart of the creative industries, and certainly not as a utopian realization of personal freedom. As Keti Chukrov puts it: “In the social space of developed countries, physical labor is invisible; and if it comes into view, it is seen as something hovering between the exotic and the obscene”. [14]

The other ineffectual critical position taken by many artists today is that of irony directed at art’s inability to create a language and institutions that are removed from hegemonic social and economic forces. Many of the works of artists duo Elmgreen & Dragset fall under this category and a good example is their recent exhibition at the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art in Germany entitled Celebrity – The One & The Many. One of the installations in the museum consists of a “fictive hall where a VIP party is in full swing”. Visitors to the museum cannot participate in the party but only imagine the events unfolding within by “the silhouette cast on the frosted glass panes of the closed doors.” Barred from the exclusive society portrayed inside the installation the visitors are only able to hear the noises of the excessive party taking place within. Elmgreen & Dragnet’s installation is a direct representation of the exclusions that are at play in the art world and presents the democratic aspirations of art as deeply inauthentic. Moreover, the VIP party, the epitome of post-Fordist activities where power is maintained and shared by a minority through a structure of leisure as work, divides the exhibition into two spaces: one where immaterial work is produced through socialization and one where this space is supposedly critically dissected. The position that the work of art itself takes here is akin to the sphere of mass media – transmitting and reproducing the glamour and exclusion of the world of the rich for the masses. Again, this deeply ironic work fails to overcome the difficulties we have been described for two reasons. First, it holds on to the idea that there is an outside to the world of the spectacle where critical or intellectual work could be produced through an act of viewing (where in fact the museum itself is a zone of exclusion produced through a discourse of criticality shared by a social elite). Second, art is presented here only negatively – as a power that participates in a mechanism of exclusion but that cannot generate an equal critical force outside of these narrow parameters.

By contrast, in the work of the Museum of American Art Berlin (MoAA) we begin to identify a strategy for art that neither naively reverts to the modernist work/art dyad nor offers an ironic and ultimately weak critique of its own inability to produce alternatives to capitalist labour. Rather than produce new subjectivities for the reinvestment of human capital, or new ironies from the impossibility of not doing so, MoAA treats the story of modern art not as an open project to which new forms can be added, but as a closed narrative ripe for institutional reframing. Spanning over three decades, the complex and diverse activities of MoAA revolve around the recreation and representation of historical exhibitions from the canon of modern art. Although the Museum operates from residential addresses in New York and Berlin (and previously Belgrade), its reenacted exhibitions were included in Biennials and various art institutions. For example, at the Venice Biennial in 2005, MoAA presented an exhibition devoted to the curatorial selection for the America pavilion at Venice in 1964 in which, famously, Europe finally acknowledged the vibrancy of contemporary American art by awarding the grand prize to the then little known Robert Rauschenberg. The exhibition in 2005 included not only reproductions of some of the original art presented at the American pavilion in the 60s, but also a scaled down model of the pavilion (and the work in it) and various ephemeral materials related to the original exhibition – press coverage and pages from the catalogue – that were also transformed into paintings and hung on the walls. The exhibition itself was divided into two main spaces named after the legendary curators Dorothy Miller and Alan R. Solomon who commissioned the original exhibition.

Although many contemporary artists deal with questions of copying and originality (for example, Sherrie Levine’s recasting of Duchamp’s Urinal in Bronze, “Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp)”, 1991), MoAA goes beyond a problematizing of artistic authorship. Whereas other copyists have used this strategy to suggest that the act of repetition could in itself be original and authored, the work of MoAA upsets the dialectical balance that governs much of the contemporary thinking about critical art. The place of the author, synonymous with artistic insight, originality, a unique style or language etc., is sacrificed for an anti-humanist historical narrative. The differences between original artworks is blurred by the monotonous and flat painting style of their recreations, which are also treated in the same way as the ephemeral paper trail that the exhibition has left on history long after the event. According to the titles of the Venice show, it did not take place in 1964 or even in 2005 but in 2064. This fictional, future point of view is used as another critical weapon against humanist notions of art production. By 2064, the original American artists (Rauschenberg, Johns, Noland and Louis), their life stories, opinions and style, will have receded into the background, their work merging with the social events that surrounded the exhibition and its critical reception: the art object turns into the story of art. The material mechanisms of production of meaning in art - the paintings and gallery structure - and their twin immaterial ones - the gala events, the press release, the catalogue essays - are given an equal treatment of disinterestedness. The fictional bundle that is the author becomes a pure signifier, a representation of an idea, in the greater story of art history in which it is embedded. In other words, the human individual here is not the foundation of society but is produced only in retrospect and only by the forces of history dwarfing it. The historical narrative, of the American economic boom after the war, of the change of cultural hegemony, of the cold war, is already in itself passé now, but MoAA reminds us that rather than look for essential truths in art or an irreducible humanist quality in the artist, it is social forces shaped by history, and far greater than any individual, that give a place and meaning to creation.

If there is any irony here, it is the irony of history that wrests intention away from the individual and produces meaning in spite of its originator. We do not know whether one or more people are responsible for the output of MoAA, but the critical proposition at the heart of the project suggests that there is in any case never one person behind any art project. The museum’s spokesperson is a posthumous Walter Benjamin still commenting on art now, in the age that comes after mechanical reproduction, perhaps the age of psychical reproduction, the infinite dissemination of ideas. In an interview, he states: “For me it is now clear that the entire art domain is a thing of the past and will continue to exist only by inertia, the way religion continued to exist after the Enlightenment”. [15] If we heed this new Benjamin’s call to look at art in its modernity as a particular historical configuration, perhaps we can begin to think alternative models for creativity and ultimately for human nature that go beyond the competitive valorization of the new.


[1] Cameron, David, Supporting Parents, available at: [accessed 12.8.11]

[2] Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 166.

[3] Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste [Richard Nice – tr.], Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

[4] Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, California: Stanford University Press, 1995.

[5] Negri, Antonio, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twentieth-First Century [James Newall – tr.], Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

[6] Althusser, Louis, “Contradiction and Overdetermination”, 1962, available at:

[7] Marx, Karl, Capital: An Abridged Edition, New York: Oxford World Classics, Volume 1, p 115.

[8] Ibid., p. 117.

[9] Berardi, Franco “Bifo”, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy [Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia – tr.], Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 44.

[10] Feher, Michel, “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital”, in: Public Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, Volume 21, Number 1, Issue 57, Winter 2009

[11] Deleuze, Gilles, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Issue 59, Winter, 1992, pp. 3-7. Ibid., p. 38. Available at:

[12] Chukhrov, Keti, ”Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality”, in: e-flux journal: Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art [Aranda, Julieta, Kuan Wood, Brian and Vidokle, Anton - eds.], Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p. 104.

[13] Kopsa, Maxine, “The Museum is History: Museum of American Art at the Van Abbe Museum”, Metropolis M, 28 May 2010, available at: [accessed 16.8.11].