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The politics of taste and the order of the world

Eduarda Neves



…my meaning is self-evident, namely, a herd of blonde beasts of prey, a race of conquerors and masters, which with all its warlike organisation and all its organising power pounces with its terrible claws on a population, in numbers possibly tremendously superior, but as yet formless, as yet nomad. Such is the origin of the “State.” That fantastic theory that makes it begin with a contract is, I think, disposed of​​​​​.[1]



Private and public institutions and structures, administrative apparatuses for central and local decision-making, legislation on cultural policies, statements, museums, foundations, competitions,[2] application forms, judging panels, diplomas, commissions, networks, awards, acquisitions, grants, financial and symbolic support programmes with strategical-ideological purposes, ethnic, social, and age quotas, canonisations, regulations — the State reflected everywhere. In intrusive fashion, art and culture are quite often put at the service of the State to support that which, both socially and politically, it is unwilling or unable to counter or carry out. The politics of taste is not a neutral territory; and both the rigidity of bureaucracy and administrative rationality constitute a veritable entourage of such politics — an implacable technique and a firm obedience to better protect its structure and cohesion.[3] By producing and accumulating strategies, discursive procedures, and expedients, the State ensures the continuity of its modes of action, for, even in democracies, instrumentalisation is a practice familiar to the established powers and has been a steadfast tool throughout the history of domination. Who ensures the existence of judging panels, commissions, and networks; who approves regulations? What authorises the judgement behind an acquisition and an award? The cogwheels of the State function as in a gear — a gigantic army of links across the productive machine. Along a path of successive regressions, this “chain of delegation,”​​​​​​​[4] to take Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase, leads us to a kind of uncaused cause or immobile substance — the State. A liturgy. For a belief to be true, all that is necessary is for us to believe in it.​​​​​​​[5]

Though a privilege of the sovereign and a principal means of wielding power, exercising the right to life or death is symbolically not only a strategy to control and subject bodies, but also a biopower that produces political bodies. Through the later, State apparatuses maintain connections of dominion, hierarchy, and exclusion. They underpin various forms of capital investment, whether biological, historical, economic, social, or cultural. Like communicating vessels, they establish the efficient performance of the official machine through which the reasons of life and the new language of salvation can be shaped into diverse typologies reproduced by the State's subterranean, decreed significations. As argued by Michel Foucault, biopolitics shows us that power is wielded in view of a defence of life rather than a bygone will to condemn to death. Operating the monopoly of legitimate physical and symbolic violence, in the terms of Pierre Bourdieu, the porous voice of the State decrees that which is more or less significant; it imposes hierarchies and the principle of order:​​​​​​​


… the State is the name that we give to the hidden, invisible principles—indicating a kind of deus absconditus—of the social order, and at the same time of both physical and symbolic domination, likewise of physical and symbolic violence [6]

In other words, what we call the state, what we point to confusedly when we think of the state, is a kind of principle of public order, understood not only in its evident physical forms but also in its unconscious symbolic forms, which apparently are deeply self-evident. One of the most general functions of the state is the production and canonization of social classifications.[7]


From the sociologist's viewpoint, the State is the largest producer of the instruments by which social reality is constructed. In turn, the common code of these structured tools of knowledge is related to the very structures of the State (and to those who dominate them), including, for instance, national culture, as referred to by the aforementioned author, and — we may add — an official taste. Between high and mass culture, cultural democratisation, the demand for citizenship and education, theory and practice, the judgement of value, mediatisation and ideological struggles, the State has been the place wherein the cacophonous machine has operated for centuries. Whether as the arbiter or the conciliator, it is the State which presents itself as a means to govern those who fall outside the rule, the code, the alliance. The ideology underpinning the diffusion of and access to culture usually promoted by the State — often to so-called “high culture,” which is determined by a certain class taste — renders it an exchange value and a model of artificial representation at the service of a populism which establishes a false levelling of social and symbolic capital. It is the liberal colonisation of society and politics which, through de-historicisation, conceals the ideological signification of a predictable taste, which we may call “average,” borrowing a notion from Bourdieu's research on photography practices and class tastes. Nobody is condemned because the centralised taste, as a “despotic signifier,”​​​​​​​[8] ​​​​​​​protects all of those willing to observe its sovereignty and to fit within the (false) democratic consciousness for which the State vouches. Even when the dominant forces do not conform with the State apparatus, they make use of it as it submits to them. Their knowledges can interdependently assist the State, prevent destabilisation, and accomplish necessary goals, not as opposite but rather as complementary forces. Between the centre and the periphery, every player becomes key to the machine's effective functioning. The inferno and its wraths. Mobilised by the State, the producers of culture — whatever it may be — contribute to ensuring welfare,[9] whether by offering public art, turning the monument into a public good, or representing conventional taste as a formula or enigmatic marker of belonging and non-exclusion for all citizens: “To be sure, the process that creates public art suffers from over-management, but equally unfortunate is that the product suffers from the same fate, for there is no visual object that better represents monologic tyranny than the monument.” A space for supposed meditation is thus created “where individuals can commune with the wonder and mystery of the state.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​[10] Fruition — for it shall prove contemplative, that is, resigned — disguises the violence which subjects and is subjected to a certain script. Like Oedipus, the State always wins. An evil cynical consciousness completes the unitarian trinity. Assuming a judicial form as an extension of the State, biopolitics accompanies the totalitarian body:

… death, the desire of desire, the desire of the despot's desire, a latency inscribed in the bowels of the State apparatus. Better not a sole survivor than for a single organ to flow outside this apparatus or slip away from the body of the despot. This is because there is no other necessity [no other fatum] than that of the signifier in its relationships with its signifieds ….


Whilst, as Pierre Clastres states, we are unable to conceive of societies without the State, it is the empire of the narrative of speech that organises itself as an instance of power being exercised: “To speak is above all to possess the power to speak. Or again, the exercise of power ensures the domination of speech ….”​​​​​​​[12] The breadth of language as a mechanism of domination through which authorised, legitimised taste is enacted as surplus value.​​​​​​​[13] ​​​​​​​ As an imperative which silences or pushes away, the State deploys speech and writing to establish itself as the main signature of connivance, despite being “deeply illiterate,” to use Deleuze's words about capitalism.

As an archaism of the State, bureaucracy situates the latter as an axiomatic signifier that is indifferent to all other bifurcations and manners of subjectivisation—which, in fact, it attempts to cancel out. The institutions that produce and reproduce the State's administered culture and the regime's taste—through more or less subtle mechanisms and a wide-ranging array of principles suffused by a tamed, acritical, risk-free, and/or assistencialistic security disseminated by administrative and State techniques—act in accordance with the social, political, and symbolic effects of normalisation, thus ensuring organised and regulated behaviours which objectivise the relationships of subjection:


Again and again, we come upon the monstrous paradox; the State is desire that passes from the head of the despot to the hearts of his subjects, and from the intellectual law to the entire physical system that disengages or liberates itself from the law. A State desire, the most fantastic machine for repression, is still desire—the subject that desires and the object of desire.[14]


The politics of taste expansionistically disseminated by the State becomes an hegemonic practice, integrating the technology which regulates existence. It thus develops into a model of domination, permanently infiltrating the circuit of long-term instruments of cultural control. This web of connections and alliances among minor fascisms, reflecting material life itself, expresses the uniformisation processes of organised power. Our time, marked as it is by a dissimulation of the State's taste, renders any critical attempt into a programme subjected to the diffuse interests of editorial staff, offices, directors, trustees, and other modalities of survival. Problems of a regime which, despite its commitment to discretion and modesty, is not always capable of concealing the signs of its struggle for self-preservation.

In his book “L’excès-l’usine” ou l´infini morcelé,[15] Maurice Blanchot readdresses Leslie Kaplan's question: “Where is taste?” Like in the factory, we live and die crushed by the State. Dead flesh. No taste. Only stench: “Time is outside, in things.”​​​​​​​ [16] If Blanchot recognised that power always finds accomplices in culture, Castoriadis, apropos of modern art, also wrote that:


Even if it was not easily accepted by those to whom it was addressed, and even if it did not correspond to “popular taste,” modern art was thereby democratic—that is to say, liberatory. And it was democratic even when its representatives happened to be politically reactionary, as was the case with Chateaubriand, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Degas, and so many others.​​​​​​​[17]


The taste of the State is intended to safeguard the world's order, establishing itself as a territory for deploying biopolitics. Like in Ingmar Bergman's film The Hour of the Wolf, maybe one day, after midnight and before the break of dawn, the apparatus will render visible its most sinister memories and question the limits of reason — a horror film. A film of fear. In it, we shall muster the will to get out of this. A coup d'état.


Eduarda Neves. Professor, essayist and independent curator. Her research and curatorial activity articulates the fields of art, philosophy, and politics.




Translation PT-ENG: Diogo Montenegro



Image: Ingmar Bergman, Vargtimmen 1968, Sweden.



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche — The Genealogy of Morals: The Complete Works, vol. 13, ed. Dr. Oscar Levy, trans. J.M. Kennedy. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1913, 103.

[2] Regarding competitions, regulations, and juris in which representatives who perform administrative duties within the State apparatus take part, let us recall Theodor W. Adorno's stance: “Specialists must exercise authority in fields in which they cannot be professionally qualified, while their particular aptitude in abstractly technical matters of administration is needed in order that the organization continues to function.” Theodor W. Adorno — The Culture Industry. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, 112.

[3] Critical Art Ensemble have shrewdly written that “Artworks which depend on bureaucracy in order to come to fruition are too well managed to have any contestational power. In the end they are acts of compliance that only reaffirm hierarchy and the rational order.” Critical Art Ensemble — Electronic Civil Disobedience. 1995, 45.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu — On the State: Lectures at the College de France, 1989–1992. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014, 219.

[5] “The state is this well-founded illusion, this place that exists essentially because people believe that it exists. This illusory reality, collectively validated by consensus …” Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] As Deleuze and Guattari argue, “Of course the scientist as such has no revolutionary potential; he is the first integrated agent of integration, a refuge for bad conscience, and the forced destroyer of his own creativity. … In comparison to the capitalist State, the socialist States are children—but children who learned something from their father concerning the axiomatizing role of the State.” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari — Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 238.

[9] “Only the serene voice of the welfare state (a system concerned only with the benefit of its citizens) gently whispers in the realm of the monument.” Critical Art Ensemble — Electronic Civil Disobedience, 46.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] Deleuze and Guattari — Anti-Oedipus, 213.

[12] Pierre Clastres — Society Against the State, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1987, 151.

[13] About the power of legitimate language, Pierre Bourdieu wrote that “A legitimate language is a language with legitimate phonological and syntactic forms, that's to say a language meeting the usual criteria of grammaticality, and a language which constantly says, together with what it says, that it says it well. And in so doing, it implies that what it says is true, which is one of the fundamental ways of passing off the false in place of the true. One of the political effects of the dominant language is this: 'He says it so well, it must be true.'” Pierre Bourdieu — Sociology in Question, trans. Richard Nice. London: SAGE Publications, 1993, 174.

[14] Deleuze and Guattari — Anti-Oedipus, 221.

[15] An article by Maurice Blanchot in which he reflects on Leslie Kaplan's book L’excès-L’usine, in Écrits politiques (1953–1993). Paris: Gallimard, 2008, 235.​​​​​​​

[16] Leslie Kaplan — L’excès-L’usine. Paris: P.O.L. éditeur, 1994, 13.

[17] Cornelius Castoriadis — The Rising Tide of Insignificancy. Anonymous edition, 2003, 276.


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