Cancel Culture Is Built on the Culture of Exploitation and Free Labour
A personal testimony from Budapest, Hungary:
By Orsolya Bajusz:
"To illustrate this claim, I would like to begin with my own story - how I was exploited and then mobbed.
I used to be so eager and idealistic (or rather my head so high up in the sky) I thought feminism is where posthumanism becomes praxis, something practical, a lived experience, so I wanted to produce feminist tactical media. I read the right books, studied sociology at Goldsmiths. I really wanted it and I really meant it!
However, there was one problem:
The ‘feminism’ I encountered basically was the backwater of political parties and lobbies.
The remarkable part is who really wanted to do me in. No, not Viktor Orban and Fidesz (this happened in Hungary). They brought forth court cases, some censorship, some threats, but nothing really extreme, basically lawyers corresponding with institutions. It was all quite predictable- until I committed the “moral crime”, of daring to disagree with identitarian dogma.
Then it was immediately open season, and it escalated.
What actually happened on the level of stories was absurd and petty, but the dynamics were psychopathic - scapegoating, aggressors posing as victims, stalking, lies and slander **. Yes, I got more abuse for daring to disagree with woke-social constructivist dogma than for a website censored for ‘promoting abortion’ or for trolling a world congress of government politicians and the leading fundamentalists of the world.
The twist was that some of my ‘friends’ and ‘comrades’ were worse than the mob - they wanted me to bear this as a saint (or rather a doormat), so I don’t threaten the alleged moral high ground and the network building efforts of the local feminist movement. Also many enjoyed the chase - the smell of blood was more real than what passes as actual ‘culture’ and ‘art’.
‘Art’ for them basically meant ritualized self-importance, and the domain where these people acquire cultural capital (add insult to injury, this coexisted with the rich local neo avantgarde traditions based on mysticism and seeking freedom). The whole milieu was so thoroughly authoritarian (and embedded into old state nomenclature networks) many thought something like ‘cultural capital’ is an objectively existing value they will acquire from their investment.
They adopted critical theory into their authoritarian cognitive frames, and became extreme social constructivists. I kept hearing “everything is politics” - I was so wrapped in my own thoughts I assumed it means everything is ideologically embedded. No, in reality it meant everything is a quest for power. I encountered the “critical constructivists” Bruno Latour has warned us about: a social milieu with a consensus that all social relations are structured by power and the ‘social’ is nothing but the interplay of domination, legitimization, fetishization, reification.
People who were the main ‘activists’ within this milieu tried to pose as cultural workers or artists, yet they did not emerge through the local art scene, where no-one thought of them as ‘one of us’. They were what they were - agents of lobbies pretending their activities belong on the subjective domain beyond politics. Their role was to depoliticize political mobilization, and the toolkit-discourse of contemporary art was instrumentalized for this purpose.
Under the guise of community engagement and various morally superior agendas, people were pooled into network hubs, and openly treated as free labour. One ‘community center’ (often featured in foreign liberal media, but much, much derided by the locals and usually empty as a drum) is run by a man whose wife’s father is the main adviser of Orbán. I would not care the least bit, but with such family connections, it is glaringly dishonest to portray yourself as the underdog persecuted by the state. Also there were 3 deaths among the volunteers of this community center, and all of them directly connected to their ‘community’ activities.
With the political instrumentalization of art, after years of creative industry jobs, parties and art schools, people were thrown into a viper’s nest with power hungry psychopaths from political parties, lobbyists, the legacy of the communist state security - pretending to be your friends, and preaching about dialogue and collaboration! All of this was awash with drugs and an extreme amount of alcohol.
The effect was predictable- a string of suicides, people going mad, and a psychotic and suffocating social milieu.
I realised my role was to be a puppet in a representation industry engineering neoliberal relations between subject and state and legitimising global structural dependencies, through staking out moral positions - oppressed, oppressor, benevolent helping hand, the vanguard leading the backward Eastern country towards Western progress. I felt my real role was to appeal to the enlightened West, in the name of given designated victims. NGO imperialism would have been a more fitting name than feminism.
So when my mobbing began, instead of protecting me (or at least not enjoying the whole bloody spectacle) some of my ‘comrades’ and ‘’’friends’’’’ became drunk with the smell of blood. Only some: most were disgusted and fiercely tried to protect me. Only the authoritarian types were swept up by the mob mentality.
But how come authoritarian, kiss-up-kick-down, subservient types ever got involved with tactical media, critical theory, contemporary art?
It was a bloodfeast for vampires. Free labour up for grabs! Death of the author, so you can be an author too, you can simply pretend to be more than you are. You can pretend to be right and just, and trample over everyone’s boundaries!
I was blind to such dynamics. I did not care about social hierarchies, and thought myself generous when I turned a blind eye to power games. Yet for some those power games were the real deal, and the rest (new body ontologies, media theory) was like watching a nature channel.
These people used me before to ‘acquire cultural capital’, to be in the media, to swan about at exhibition openings, to have lines on their cvs. I was like the frog slowly boiling: first the creative industry, then unpaid artistic work, and then I had to pity mean little girls, and let them play pretend they are more than they are. The core lie was that we were equal partners. No, we were not when we invested different resources. When something was my idea, and I got the funding we were not equal partners with people who just wanted to work a few hours for a line on their cv or pose at openings. You need to have certain skills and knowledge to make media art, and I have such skills and knowledge. Many who wanted to be authors did not.
The logic was that the author is dead - so you can pretend you are the author. Yet for most of the time I was the author, and everyone knew it, and many wished me dead. The mobbers for disturbing their network building efforts, those who used my resources because I reminded them of their own pettiness and mediocrity. They knew too these were not equal partnerships, so they tried to gain the upper hand.
This is the logic of parasitism. They know no generosity, as they have nothing to give, and they will hate you for what you have, and what you naively share. Any marketing expert would tell you to not cut hair for free, and I did way more valuable things for free.
At its most extreme a permanent martyr kind of sociopath wanted to train me like a dog to shut up and ‘not be aggressive’, because that would cast a bad light on her! Like I was her property, and she has the right to determine how I behave. It is logical: she used me to pretend she is more than what she really is. She used me as a tool to acquire ‘cultural capital’, and she thought of me as an object to use. Also these people have no internal moral compass, no autonomy, and they don't understand boundaries (as they are authoritarians). They have no empathy, and what I thought was empathy or friendliness was submission: they sensed I have more power. And when I became vulnerable they attacked.
Contemporary art was about instrumentalizing subjectivity. Both the lobbies and the little mean girls thought it meant instrumentalizing people. It became a carte blanche for plain sociopathy.
I am not saying it was any way deterministic, if anything was deterministic it was free labour. I engaged in self-sacrifice to be able to do the work I wanted to do, and it culminated in a horrific public human sacrifice ritual- a mobbing. Mob mentality is authoritarian aggression, and the most horrific thing how we (the competent ones) pampered power hungry little sociopaths and talked about “horizontal decision making” or “death of the author”.
- To quote Nina Power: There are those people who – out of fear, a desire for simplicity, a need to bolster one’s own group standing or individual position – will think nothing of sacrificing another for a transgression, real or imputed. The internet especially allows for a ‘bloodless’ sacrifice, though we know the consequences can be real, material – job losses, the police knock on the door, social shunning, suicide. These reporters, information-gatherers, spies, inquisitors, paranoiac interpreters, prosecutors and punishers are by definition on the side of the law and the police, perhaps even especially when they think they are not. (source https://ninapower.net/2019/04/06/cancelled/)
"Orsolya Bajusz is based in Budapest. Besides soon defending her Ph.D at the Sociology Department of Corvinus University of Budapest and teaching there, she produces work across multiple platforms, preferring to work in collaboration, networked practices or anonymously.
Her Ph.D explores the role of the affective and visual registers in contemporary public debates and controversies around biotechnology, and thus exploring how posthuman praxes clash with the existing cultural imaginary, and she is working on developing a methodological framework to analyse the intersection of science communication and contemporary art. Her first book (a theory fiction) is being prepared for publishing.