"The Politics of Exhaustion"

Directed against this conservative moment,
the politics of exhaustion inherent in countercultural
rites of excess have always been about
deliberately squandering that capital. This
philosophy of self-destruction is born out of the
realisation that the accumulation of capital is
tied to the moment when profits are skimmed
off and stashed away in the bourgeois private
sphere to secure property. The rebellious
response of bohemian culture has therefore
always lain in the commitment to never accumulate
profit but always waste it and get wasted,
to consume and be consumed, and refuse to
save anything or be saved by anyone. Most
beautifully maybe, this spirit is expressed in the
so-called “devil’s verse,” the anonymous Latin
palindrome in girum imus nocte et consumimur
igni (“we wander around in the night in circles
and get consumed by fire,” originally a riddle
alluding to moths or mayflies). Guy Debord
used it as the title for a film he made in 1978
and Cerith Wyn Evans turned it into a neon
sign in which the letters of the palindrome were
arrayed in the form of a ring which is suspended
from the ceiling like a candelabra designed to
illuminate a celebratory space for a potential
congregation of the wasteful.
A nagging doubt of course remains as to
whether this politics of exhaustion is not merely
adding a little more fizz to the spectacle of
cultural consumption—and whether the insouciant
consumers and collectors of art are not
just all too eager to see another bohemian go
up in a blaze of glory, be pleasantly entertained
and in time move on to applaud the next eclipse.
Still, there is a beauty and dignity in gestures of
expenditure that, I believe, will always exceed
the petty rationale of the lucratively spectacular.
This is because the deliberate exhibition of
exhaustion in art or writing deprivatises exhaustion
by exposing it as an experience that may be
shared. The exhibition of exhaustion produces
public bodies. In this sense, Vito Acconci told
me in conversation that among the Marxist
beliefs he had espoused in the 1970s but still
felt compelled by was the conviction that the
rejection of the value of private property should
begin with a changed attitude to your own body,
with the radical readiness to understand this
body and self as public and political, 24/7.

The refusal to claim your potentials as private
property and the will to allow them to be
exhausted by others implies a generosity that
has little to do with moral altruism. It seems
rather more driven by an unrestrained desire
to enjoy and be enjoyed by others. Bill Withers
probably best expressed this in his R&B classic
“Use Me” (1972) “I wanna spread the news that
if it feels this good getting used / Oh you just
keep on using me until you use me up.”

The erotic force of this desire to be
exhausted in turn points to the sexual dimension
of a high performance culture. Sex work
is one of the fastest growing industries today.
And, without wanting to turn “sex work” into
a loose metaphor, I still feel that the unconditional
readiness to perform whenever and
wherever that is expected from freelancers as
well as from artists and intellectuals operating in
a project-based arts economy somewhat
resembles the pressure put on the sex worker to
always get it on. Yet, even though this pressure
can never be disconnected from the potential
to perform, it should also not be confounded
with it. For there is undeniably a genuine joy in
recognising one’s own potentials in the act of
realising them.
There is a beautiful drawing by Frances
Stark which shows the outlines of a peacock
in a perky pose, but its tail feathers are not
yet unfolded. Among the collage of different
small cut-outs of texts that the feather
texture is composed of, a Henry Miller quote
written backwards in capital letters reads:
The words read equally like a firm admonition
(Do it!), a declaration of will (Yes, I will do it!)
and a supportive cheer (Come on, you can
do it!). As you can also tell by its pose, this
bird both wants and needs to get up and go.
This inextricable ambivalence between what
you want and expect of yourself and what others
want and expect from you is probably one of
the hardest puzzles for anyone who works both
creatively and on demand to solve. One consequence
is that an uncanny feeling of outside
determination and dependency might never
leave you, even if you are positively sure that
you only do what you want to do. Here again,
to push yourself beyond the point of exhaustion
is a common technique to relieve yourself of
the burden of outside expectations; you simply
incapacitate yourself to a degree that no-one
can possibly still expect anything of you.
The Dead Kennedys summed it all up in
“Too Drunk to Fuck” (1981): “But now I am
jaded / You’re out of luck / I’m rolling down
the stairs / Too drunk to fuck.”

-JAN VERWOERT : Exhaustion and Exuberance


Jan Verwoert: Exhaustion and Exuberance
Emma Bayley