Usership & Spectatorship

Stephan Wright is a professor at the European School of Visual Arts. For the Museum of Arte Útil Wright has been commissioned to write 'A Lexicon for Usership'. The below entries are excepts from the Lexicon. They meant as a useful entry point to the Museum of Arte Útil and to two opposing ways of viewing - or using - the museum. 


The past two decades have witnessed the emergence of a new category of political subjectivity: that of usership. It’s not as if using is anything new -- people have been using tools, languages and any variety of goods and services (not to mention mind-altering substances) since time immemorial. But the rise of user-generated content and value in 2.0 culture, as well as democratic polities whose legitimacy is founded on the ability of the governed to appropriate and use available political and economic instruments, has produced active “users” (not just rebels, prosumers or automatons) whose agency is exerted, paradoxically, exactly where it is expected.

Usership represents a radical challenge to at least three stalwart conceptual institutions in contemporary culture: spectatorship, expert culture, and ownership. Modernist artistic conventions, premised on so-called disinterested spectatorship, dismiss usership (and use value, rights of usage) as inherently instrumental -- and the mainstream artworld’s physical and conceptual architecture is entirely unprepared to even speak of usership, even as many contemporary artistic practices imply a regime of engagement and relationality entirely at odds with that described by spectatorship. In the artworld and other lifeworlds, it is expert culture -- whether embodied in curatorship or formulated by the city hall’s design office and other wardens of the possible -- which is most hostile to usership. From the perspective of expertise, premised as it is on notions of universality and the general interest, usership is a particularly egregious mode of self-interest. For the expert, to put it bluntly, use is invariably misuse. Usership represents a still more deep-seated challenge to ownership in an economy where surplus-value extraction is increasingly focused on use: how long will communities of use sit by as their user-generated content value, rather than being remunerated, is expropriated and privatized?

Of course, usership is a something of a double-edged sword, which is precisely what makes it interesting to consider. It is also what earns usership such disdain from so many contemporary theoretical outlooks. Politically, it is as ungovernable by neoliberalism (which nevertheless relies on its dynamism as a form of accumulation) as it is unpalatable to those seeking to perpetuate the social-democratic consensus. Usership is neither revolutionary (usership shares none of the messianic potential of the proletariat) nor is it docile or submissive. It is hands on, task specific, proximate and self-regulating. And it is operative only in the here and now – it has no transcendental horizon line. We might put it this way: users always and only play away games -- they don’t have their own field. They just use the available fields. For one thing, because users know they are not owners, and that whatever their demands, whatever their successes, users know that, no matter what, it will never be all theirs. The challenge is clearly to imagine, and to instantiate, a noninstrumental, emancipated form of usership.

Though usership remains dramatically under theorized -- indeed, the word itself, though immediately understandable, has not been ratified by those indexes of expert culture called dictionaries -- there are some compelling philosophical underpinnings that may help to better grasp the concept. The most over-arching is perhaps Ludwig Wittgenstein’s user-based theory of meaning in his Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein argues that in language, all the meaning that there is, and all the stability, is determined by the users of that language, and by nothing else. It seems radically relativistic, yet language usership provides a relative stability of meaning – for the language is used by all, owned by none. It changes, but no one user can effect change; we are, at best, co-authors in the language game of usership. Wittgenstein’s insight provides a sort of prism through which to imagine all forms of usership in terms of a self-regulating language game.

So if usership names a category of engagement, of cognitive privilege (if one may call it that), of those whose repurposing of art is neither that of a spectator, an expert nor an owner, then why has art-critical discourse and practice been so reluctant to adopt it? Artworld ideologues speak of “participation,” often front-loading the term with adjectives like “free” and “emancipated.” We speak freely of “art lovers,” but “art users” smacks of philistinism – which certainly says something about the lingering aristocratic values underpinning contemporary art’s ostensibly democratic ethos. Perhaps part of the reason for the artworld’s discomfort with usership is that it is an eminently unromantic category. It has none of gusty tailings of hijacking, pirating, détournement and other such forms of performative high links that have become so fashionable in artworldly circles. It may ultimately better name the underlying logic of those operations, but it remains essentially different. Because it is radically un-performative. To perform usership would be to spectacularize it, make it an event -- that is, to negate it, to make it into something else. Here the distinction between spectatorship and usership is clearest cut: spectatorship is to the spectacle as usership is to… the usual.




To a still greater extent than objecthood or authorship, spectatorship continues to enjoy almost self-evident status in conventional discourse as a necessary component of any plausible artworld. Indeed, in both popular and learned parlance, there is a tendency to conflate looking at something, and in some cases simply seeing something, with spectatorship. Yet spectatorship is not synonymous with mere viewing; it is a powerful conceptual institution in contemporary societies with a specific history – one whose historical underpinning needs to be unpacked.

The critical sermons of contemporary art are rife with celebration about free and active viewer participation. Yet there is something almost pathetic about such claims at a time when ever more practitioners are deliberately impairing the coefficient of artistic visibility of their activity, beating an offensive retreat into the shadows of the artworld’s attention economy, envisaging forms of relationality and usage that fly in the face of the very regime of visibility designated by the collective noun “spectatorship.” When art appears outside the authorized performative framework, there is no reason that it should occur to those engaging with it to constitute themselves as spectators. Such practices seem to break with spectatorship altogether, to which they increasingly prefer the more extensive and inclusive notion of usership. Is the current mainstream focus on spectatorship – evidenced by a number of recent theoretical publications (Marie-Josée Mondzain’s Homo Spectator, Christian Ruby’s Figure of the Spectator, or Jacques Rancière’s Emancipated Spectator being but the most speculative examples) – anything more than a last-ditch effort to stave off a paradigm shift already well underway in art? The real question, of course, remains: what alternative forms of usership of art are today being put forward to displace and replace it? But to better understand the full implications of this now largely obsolescent institution, it is useful to recall its historical trajectory.

It was Nietzsche, who, in the third essay of his Genealogy of Morals, first pointed out how the concept of “spectatorship” was cunningly introduced into aesthetics in the late eighteenth century by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement, “unconsciously” making the spectator the new heroic figure of art of the modern era. Nietzsche’s own rather conventional proposal – reintroduce the artist as the authentic subject of art – is less interesting than his mordant critique of what is implied by the paradigm shift brought about by Kant. The problem with Kant’s aesthetic paradigm, he argues, is that it sets up a conceptual edifice in which “a lack of any refined first-hand experience reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error. ‘That is beautiful,’ said Kant, ‘which gives us pleasure without interest.’ Without interest!” One can only imagine Nietzsche’s incredulous howl at the very thought… Yet his insight is unassailable: Kant introduced what he called “disinterested spectatorship” into aesthetics and made it one of the two mainstays of the conceptual (and hence physical) architecture of museums for the two centuries to come. The consequences of Kant’s paradoxical brainchild can hardly be overstated, for not only did he introduce a fundamentally passive form of relationality (spectatorship) as the cornerstone of the aesthetic regime of art, he shored it up by insisting on its désintéressement – in other words, that it remain exempt from any possible use, usership or use value. This would be the grounds for art’s permanent status of ontological exception throughout the twentieth century.

In Shipwreck with Spectator, Hans Blumenberg examines the genealogy of spectatorship, with particular attention to the metaphorical imperative of spectatorship to contemplate the distress of the shipwrecked from a safe vantage point on dry land -- metaphorical, that is, of theory's relationship to practice ("theoría," he points out somewhat speculatively, derives from theoros, "spectator"). It must be said, however, that the advent of Kantian spectatorship had the tremendous advantage of opening up a new space for aesthetic practice – the autonomous field of art. Yet, at the same time – though this would only become obvious two centuries on when art had conquered and fully occupied that space – it tethered art to autonomy and to spectatorship. Today we see cutting edge practices seeking to wrest themselves from spectatorship and the autonomy of art (perceived as shackles rather than opportunities), not in a desire to return to a pre-modern paradigm, but to reactivate a mode of usership that remains forbidden under the regime of spectatorship. It is nevertheless remarkable to see the extent to which the conceptual architecture of contemporary art conventions of display derive from Kantian premises; and to what extent they have been at once normalized through institutional embodiment and naturalized in discourse – even as they are becoming increasingly out of joint with emergent practices