The Body: From the Autonomous to the Slow Fabric

dr. Petra Van Brabandt


In this text I wish to analyse the relation between the body and the autonomous fabric. How do our bodies structure the autonomous fabric, and which promises does the autonomous fabric hold for our bodily experiences? The impact of society on the body should not be underestimated. The body is the main target of social engineering, which produces emotions, desires, and expectations that generate behavioural patterns and rhythms. It is therefore important to be critical about the body’s so-called natural intuition or vitalism that could break through the grip of social conditioning and create autonomous spaces; what the body experiences as natural, liberating or emancipating has often been carefully engineered and administered through mass media, education and (hidden) advertising. Furthermore, post-Fordist capitalism, which relies on immaterial labour, symbolic capital, and lifestyle engineering, deals extensively in the illusion of emancipatory and liberating experiences; it is not at all self-evident that these bodily experiences are ideologically different from those realised by the autonomous fabric. To understand how the body really relates to, and functions within, the autonomous fabric, we will need to take a closer look at what kind of ‘autonomous’ fabric we are talking about.

‘Autonomous’ is an ambiguous term with a wide rhetorical reach, and needs therefore to be critically unpacked. Autonomous is she who makes her own laws (auto-nomous); which is something that is epistemologically, ontologically, and socially impossible. No human being is autonomous or can achieve a state of full autonomy. The same holds for a collective of human beings or an organisation; they can never operate independently from a broader political, judicial, economic, cultural and ecological – in the best case, democratic – system. And what about an autonomous fabric, a structure of collectives that interdependently generate a state of autonomy, or at least a sustainable self-sufficiency? Even an ‘autonomous’ fabric tends to operate in a broader socio-economic and cultural context, and will always be responsive to this context, be it in a critical or pragmatic way.1 Even more, the ‘autonomous’ fabric can be part of the system’s ideology, and be entirely at the service of its flourishing and expansion.

Autonomy is not a realistic objective; the term primarily operates as a rhetorical device. In the cultural sector, it functions as the rhetorical distance from, on the one hand, the state and its control and subvention mechanisms, and on the other, the market and its commercial and competitive logic of growth. It reflects a Dutch (and wider European) cultural reality which is abandoning the European model of state subventions to art and culture, and at the same time is reluctant to subject art and culture entirely to capitalist market mechanisms. In a post-1989 context, the welfare state is framed as something outdated: hierarchical, bureaucratic, and patriarchal. State funding is framed as pocket money that makes daddy’s boy lazy and psychologically dependent. Note how this is a very peculiar re-conceptualisation of the welfare state: following the breakdown of the socialist regimes, there has occurred a conceptional conflation between socialist and social-democratic welfare states. The negative appreciation of the socialist state, in terms of bureaucracy and cultural control, has been transferred to the formerly much appreciated welfare state funding for art, culture, and education. It is important to highlight how this post-1989 reframing of the welfare state is not coincidental or innocent; it served, and continues to serve, the ideological pursuits of an accelerating neoliberal capitalism which silently undermines the achievements of more than 100 years of social struggle. The meaning and history of the welfare state as a democratic process of redistributive justice has been in the last decades completely obscured.

It is remarkable how the cultural sector, one of the main victims of the dismantling of the welfare state, has uncritically endorsed this post-1989 conflation. Inspired by the desire to be more contemporary than contemporary – in itself symptomatic of an outdated ‘avant-garde’ aspiration – the cultural sector has proven to be one of the more prominent critics of the welfare state. In this way, its rhetorical enthusiasm for autonomy is not only taking a saw to the branch on which it is sitting, but it is also obscuring the democratic nature of the welfare state, and therefore questioning the project of democracy altogether, in a way that is completely in tune with the objectives of repressive neoliberalism.2 It is important to add that most of the ‘autonomous’ fabric organisations still heavily depend on state funding, yet this aspect is completely ignored in the discussions about autonomy. It is true that this funding is less structural and more project-based than in the past, yet it is hard to conceive of this as an increase in autonomy, unless this means nothing more than an increase in precariousness and insecurity. The resulting flexibility might enhance the temporary impression of autonomy, yet real autonomy develops and proves itself over time, which is de facto impossible in a position of precariousness, in which bodies just ‘autonomously’ burn out. The irony might not be lost on the careful reader: the cultural sector’s ideal of autonomy as a critique of the old welfare state is compatible with the rhetoric of the neoliberal state that dismantles the welfare state and sells enhanced flexibility and insecurity as autonomy.

‘Autonomy’ claims independence not only from the patriarchal state, but also from the logic of neoliberal capitalism. Unfortunately, capitalism is always one step ahead of its critics. It is not the cultural sector that has invented ‘autonomy’ as a new organisational ideal; this was in fact first used in the neoliberal managerial discourse of the 1990s.3 The same goes for such terms as creativity, local, small scale, self-organisation, network… All of which entered the managerial discourse to condition our bodies to the new demands of post-Fordist capitalism. The post-Fordist system needs bodies that work flexibly and autonomously, that create small, local and self-sustainable networks, and that never stop mining their own creative resources. Its labour organisation is that of the military drone, its rhythm that of pornography – not surprisingly, two of the most profitable sectors of today’s capitalist economy. The military drone is flexible and small; its operations are autonomous, local, and dependent on networks. Enhanced with artificial intelligence, its solutions are creative and self-organised. It exemplifies the ideal cost-effective organisational structure, and it is not unlike the organisational structure of the autonomous fabric. Today’s model of profit-making is more about diffusion than production. Its rhythm is inherently pornographic: it diffuses (even the most critical) images, discourses, and experiences in an ever-accelerating procession of images, discourses, and experiences. This fast, multi-sensorial, and experiential rhythm neutralises the critical as just another experience, quickly followed by the ever-next image, discourse, or experience.

The autonomous organisation follows the format of the military drone and pornography. The Performance Bar, for instance, programmes performances as short as ‘the time needed to drink a beer’. Everybody ‘with a good idea’ can do a performance on stage, and try to give its audience ‘a good time’. During the 10 minute ‘nude model drawing’ event, women were encouraged to jump on the stage/bar and perform as a nude model, while the problematic position of the female nude in western art history was ignored. The nude model was then praised for her ‘courage’ and ‘beauty’, endorsing the traditional idea that nudity sets (women) free, no matter the context in which the nudity is exposed. It was clear that this was not an emancipatory context; the nude model was entirely at the service of the fast, fun & event culture of the organisation. The platform Performance Art Event (PAE) seems less problematic at first sight, but is likewise questionable. Offering ‘healing’ meditation sessions in the context of an art ‘festival’ promotes the idea that healing can be provided as just another experience or performance. Healing, however, is a durational process, dependent on safe spaces, community, and context; it is not just another experience to be diffused without contextual considerations.

Our autonomous organisations are in fact neoliberal organisations; coherent with the neoliberal dismantling of the old welfare state, and incorporating bodies that are structured by labour relations and rhythms that are inherently post-Fordist. The rhetorical use by these organisations of ‘autonomy’ is fashionably yet blindly recuperated from post-Fordist managerial discourse; as a result, their cultural critique of neoliberalism is itself neoliberally structured. Endorsing and embodying the same ideals, their critical potential is neutralised in advance. The ‘autonomy’ of the autonomous space is not guaranteed; more often than not it is dependent on state funding. Furthermore, the neoliberal state funding is so limited that it disables any structural autonomy from the neoliberal state and capitalism. It is true that the market is not necessarily the action domain of the ‘autonomous’ space, but the latter’s (even critical) discourse, labour relations, rhythms and organisation are deeply post-Fordist, and therefore support the neoliberal system and affirm its hold over our bodies and imagination. Today’s capitalism is not about what we produce, but rather about how we produce; in networks, creatively, and incessantly. The autonomous organisation, as long as it is structured by the military drone and the pornographic rhythm, will allow this conditioning of our bodies. Moreover, the autonomous organisation is enthusiastically promoting this organisational model and rhythm. The bodies working in the autonomous organisations are bodies belonging to the creative class, often creative freelancers, yet they are also part of the larger precarious class. However, instead of opting for precarious class awareness and resistance, they self-exploitatively embrace their precarious position and promote it as the regulative ideal for non-creative workers. In this way, the creative worker in the autonomous organisation serves the neoliberal system twice: selling post-Fordist labour organisation by proudly becoming its excellent, self-exploitative model.

The pornographic rhythm runs through our bodies and organisations. It is the beat and buzz that echoes through the autonomous fabric, yet it is also the scream of the exhausted body that mines its creative and social resources till exhaustion. Fortunately, it is precisely in this breakdown of the exhausted body that we find the antidote to neoliberalism’s grip on our bodies and organisations. The body that breaks down, can step back from its functional role and gain a clear view of the system. There we discover our systemic heteronomy; the laws that govern our bodies and organisations, and whose laws these are. We realise how our bodies are subjected to non-stop activity and visibility, and to extensive de-politicisation. Because neoliberalism orders acceleration, resistance thus implies slowness; slow spaces inhabited by slow bodies that resist the accelerating rhythm of working, sharing, networking, creating, and experiencing. Because neoliberalism claims visibility, resistance goes underground – a good example of this is Frans van Lent’s Unnoticed Art initiative, which goes against the visibility, individualism, and event culture of contemporary art.4 And because neoliberalism is repressive of the political, the resisting body and fabric will be political. In this regard, the queer communities are instructive; they create safe spaces where trauma is not an individual burden, but a shared history, and where the body installs the relational as an emancipatory politics.5

In the creation of slow spaces, a slow fabric might emerge that resists the format of the military drone and pornography. In these slow spaces, we might generate the time and space necessary to reconsider the urgencies of our times, and become reacquainted with our bodies as political bodies. The urgencies of our times are, first of all, democracy and ecology. Both are radically threatened by neoliberalism, and by its complicity with neo-colonialism and nationalism. Our slow spaces therefore should be radically decolonised spaces and inclusive spaces of common-ing. This is not realised in the organisations of the autonomous fabric. The organisation MAMA, for instance, is clearly aiming toward a more diverse audience, yet its organisation and power structure is white. A decolonised organisation on the contrary is radically aware of its white privilege and ‘innocence,’ and engages in a self-reflective decolonising practice.6 Decolonisation is not about diversity, which can just be another form of white supremacy; it is about who is in power. Furthermore, inclusive spaces of common-ing reclaim space between the private and the public, where new practices of sustainability, self-governance, democratic negotiation and creative resistance are explored.7 These spaces are not autonomous – which is neither desirable, nor achievable – but are engaged in the ongoing democratic project, and are critically aware of our ecological and economic interdependence.

Our bodies are intimately governed by neoliberal rhythms. The autonomous fabric offers no politicised resistance to this devouring system. We rather need a slow fabric of decolonised, common-ing spaces where we can heal, relate, and resist.


Date written
dr. Petra Van Brabandt
Literature & Footnotes

A good example of a semi-autonomous fabric is the Architectural Free Zone, which is ‘a radical and pragmatic implementation of escape from the control from the State’ in the context of colonial resistance and self-governance (Philippe Zourgane, The Architectural Free Zone, Thesis Goldsmiths, University of London, 2013).

See Pascal Gielen, Repressief Liberalisme. Opstellen over creatieve arbeid, politiek en kunst, Valiz, 2013; Robrecht Vanderbeeken, Buy Buy Art. De vermarkting van kunst en cultuur, EPO, 2015.

See the first part of Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalisme, Gallimard, 1999, pp. 93-238.

Frans van Lent, Unnoticed Art, 2014.

See for instance the socio-sexual video by A.K. Burns & A.L. Steiner, Community Action Center, 2010, and the art installation by Tejal Shah, Between the Waves, 2012.

See Gloria Wekker, White Innocence. Paradoxes of colonialism and race, Duke University Press, 2016.

See Stavros Stavrides, Common Space: The City as Commons, Taschenbuch, 2016.