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Crowd out

 

Text by Anton Jäger

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Despite his stature as one of the founding fathers of Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a cool lover of the theatre. When his friend Jean Le Rond d’Alembert proposed opening an opera house in his hometown of Geneva in 1758, Rousseau objected violently in his personally addressed Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles, which marked his break with fellow contributors to d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. As inhabitants of a small city republic with stern military mores, the Genevans would inevitably lose their sense of civic pride once the amusements of  the theatre were introduced, Rousseau believed: “People think they come together in the spectacle, and it is here that they are isolated ... The continual emotion that is felt in the theatre excites us, enervates us, enfeebles us, and makes us less able to resist our passions,” he concluded, and “the sterile interest taken in virtue serves only to satisfy our vanity without obliging us to practice it.”

Rousseau’s letter regularly serves as the template for a critique of consumer culture that only attained full maturity in the 20th century – visible in works such as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964), Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism (1989), and Guy Debord and other Situationists’ work on the society of the spectacle. All these books took up Rousseau’s objection to a culture of theatricality latent in modernity, distracting citizens from the task of social transformation which the modern age so desperately demanded.

It is not easy to mount a defence of this genre of anti-consumerist writing in 2024. In a world in which the internet seems to have commercialised the outskirts of human sociability and creativity, and cultural consumption has itself become so stratified as to render the very idea of a mass public questionable, complaints about a culture of spectacle risk a certain superfluity. Still, it is this core insight – the illusion of immediacy as conveyed in the theatrical form of art, inviting the spectator in and thereby corrupting them – which organises one of the most interesting works in recent art theory. Anna Kornbluh’s Immediacy, or  The Style of Too Late Capitalism (2024) is a daring attempt to come to grips with both the nature and extent of the theatrical in contemporary culture and politics. Driven by the intuition that there is, in fact, a dominant style that unites a wildly disparate range of contemporary cultural phenomena, from the visual to the literary to the performance arts, Kornbluh embarks on a quest for unity unseen since the postmodernist theorising of the 1980s and 1990s. As she intimates, an undeniable similarity unites today’s cultural products: a need for speed or instant access, experientially related to the just-in-time supply chains and clickable content we know from the online world, shortcutting the notions of representation and mediation once seen as central to any artistic enterprise. Comparing a novel by Knausgaard to an HBO series to an immersive video installation of Van Gogh’s paintings, viewers are bound to be struck by family affinities. Is there a concept that could guide us here?

Kornbluh believes there is. Surveying cultural phenomena such as autofiction, streaming television, immersive art displays, and activist trends in critical theory, Kornbluh concludes that all of them, despite disciplinary divergences, share a central commitment to immediacy, which is to provide viewers and listeners with instant access to the artwork in question. In Knausgaard’s novels, Bernard Harcourt’s critical theory and Édouard Louis’ fiction, the idea is to disable the mechanisms of abstraction that classically constitute the art form in question, trading a sense of fiction for verisimilitude and formal coherence for a claim to authenticity. Individualisation and immediatism go hand in hand: the increasingly personal consumption of art has meant a decrease in the collective experience of viewing and reading, visible in the movies and videos now suggested by algorithms and consumed on work commutes. While the 1980s television show still allowed for a residual sense of shared space, the streaming platform customises the very temporality through which movies are consumed, coercing each consumer into a socially mediated yet solitary binge.

 

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The first manifestations of this style were already visible to previous generations of art critics and theorists. In the 1950s, Michael Fried’s work on the new literalism in particular registered an emphasis on immersion and the exploitation of the medium itself at the expense of intentional autonomy in many works of art. The point of action painting, he claimed, was to draw the spectator in through a focus on the very materials with which the art itself was made. Action painting à la Pollock thereby did not represent any external referent, but simply brought the base material of art to the viewer – an intestinal image without a body. Literalist art, Fried claims, “stakes everything on shape as a given property of objects, if not, indeed, as a kind of object in its own right”, thereby aspiring “not to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, but on the contrary to discover and project objecthood as such.”

In this promise of immediacy, however, Fried also detected the essential untenability of the demand in question. Theatricality did not transcend the fact of artistic representation. In the end, in fact, it would make it even harder to demarcate art as a domain of human experience. Propaganda and pornography both presupposed a calculated reaction in the eye of the beholder; they were engineered for effect. They thereby embodied the point Marx made about the commodity’s dual nature – that its worth was not its intrinsic use-value but the expression of exchange value. If art was to be submitted to the same principle, however, Fried worried that it might lose its distinctness as a human form, and thereby give up on its political promise. Art would no longer break with the world but would simply extend it, reproducing the world without representing it. Immediacy in art was not only undesirable; conceptually, it was impossible: to make art was to insist on the gap between the work and the world, and thereby open up a space for reflection. 

Kornbluh’s book does not occlude her debts to the Friedian critical tradition, indicated by references to work by Nicholas Brown and Walter Benn Michaels. Yet her book does offer an ambitiously broad application of its arsenal, which far surpasses the more sector-specific interests we find in Fried himself. Beyond the latter’s focus on painting or photography, Kornbluh aims to subject the entire macrocosm of contemporary culture to her critical lens. In Kornbluh’s view, what Fried recognised as an early emphasis on theatrical immersion and the decline of authorial autonomy in certain sectors of the art world has expanded into a full-blown style, covering disciplines from cinema to painting to novels to political philosophy itself.

 

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Inevitably, this metastasis poses an analytical challenge unfamiliar to Fried’s generation. How could a theorist come up with a general theory of Netflix, Object-Oriented Ontology and Sally Rooney?

Aesthetics and politics also prove hard to separate here. In the terrain of the political too, a demand for immediacy characterises recent protest movements: no layers to intervene between base and leaders, no intermediary bodies such as parties and unions, a focus on short-term visibility over patient, long-term base building, an abjuring of representative institutions such as states and parliaments. In the latter sense, the style of immediacy Kornbluh discerns in the art world is hardly exclusive to the sector in question, and can easily be applied to other sections of the contemporary public sphere. A cult of immediacy also marks recent political movements: Extinction Rebellion draws its members in on a temporary basis, while the George Floyd protests mobilised millions only to disperse afterwards. The Gilets Jaunes blockaded the country’s highways – and then scattered. Pirate parties ran platforms as digital parties throughout the 2010s and then unlisted. Like the short cycles of financial markets and new media, today’s public sphere spasmodically convulses and contracts, without ever crystallising itself into lasting organisational infrastructure.

The parallel between the arts and politics is even more direct than it seems. The preceding decade, for instance, has been characterised by an effusion of protest movements across the globe. As Vincent Bevins has shown in If We Burn (2023), it is conceivable that in no time in history did such a large percentage of humans engage in protest activity; from Rio de Janeiro to Seattle, the most prominent approach in the repertoire of social action now is the march or the occupation. Here, too, the absence of mediation is the abiding aspect of these political forms: purportedly leaderless, without representation or delegation, uneasy or openly hostile to the prospect of institutionalisation, particularly in organisations with mediating layers such as parties or unions (or unable to, given the strict legal restrictions on union formation in the United States, for instance). The era of representative politics was focused on a mediation between base and cadre. This relationship carried real risks, just as the authority of the artist as an author had its downsides. In both cases, however, mediation also harboured a revolutionary promise: in politics and art, mediating layers serve to effect durable social change. For contemporary viewers and activists, impatience and immediacy are a symptom of the impossibility of real change.

All in all, the concept of a culture of immediacy marks a new stage in the commodification of culture first analysed by a generation of German and American critics in the 1940s and 1950s. It was visible in the ugly compound of the “culture industry”, which for Adorno and Horkheimer connected two phenomena usually considered separate (Kultur as high culture and Industrie as standardised mass production). From Siegfried Kracauer to Fried to Rosenberg, the culture industry’s style of pop art long battled with categories of high and low, only properly reaching a resolution through postmodernism.

 

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Yet the very category of immediacy invites scepticism, as Hegel already pointed out. “Immediacy” is itself a compound of “mediation” and its negation, entailing both mediation as premise and its absence as manifest content: immediacy presupposes mediation by cancelling it out. The argument can also be rendered politically. In a world in which mediation and abstraction determine all of our social structures, the demand for immediacy is, in the end, a demand for a different type of mediation. Representation and mediation form an intrinsic part of our social reality, but this is not to say inescapable. To abjure them is not to flee into organisational innocence, but rather to defer and delegate – themselves essential acts of mediation. Not just in art but in politics as well, the culture of immediacy has led to a painful diminishing of any emancipatory horizon, privileging the performance of public opposition to the actuality of institutional change.

Already in the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht worried that the increasing complexity of the capitalist production process made its depiction in single artworks nigh impossible. As his colleague Kracauer stated in the 1930s: “A hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of a factory but remain for all eternity a hundred views of the factory. Reality is a construction,” and, as Brecht added, the reality of a factory or workplace could not be conveyed by a “merely photographic” reproduction of these institutions. A snapshot of a Siemens factory would not tell us anything about the social organism of which the industrial plant was part; the very network of supply lines in which it was nested would simply disappear in the instantaneity of the single image.

For Brecht too, this objection to immediacy went hand in hand with a plea for mediation – particularly through the relationship of accountability that an artist had to a movement as organised in a party, which would tie aesthetics to a broader political project. The hoped-for supersession of art in a world which the very division of labour between artists and ordinary citizens would disappear has been delayed; but, through immediacy, it is now fulfilled in a perverted form. Even Brecht’s Marxism has re-appeared as coded lingo in the arts. As the novels of Sally Rooney make clear, the revival of ideology has come without the previous organisational mediation of the party. In the 1940s, declaring oneself a Marxist inevitably meant a commitment or membership of a specific party – ideology meant party cards above all. Today, Marxism can be taken up as one of the many options in the menu of ideologies offered by the online world without any direct institutional affiliation. Even in a world where the cool, post-political energies of the 1990s seem rather alien to our contemporary sense of excitation, the culture of immediacy puts us at a fatal distance from the 20th century. 

Few books provide as sharp a definition of this Rousseauvian problem. This merciless focus does come with downsides, however: in the end, Immediacy’s style often seems to fall prey to the very imperative of immediacy the author decries across contemporary culture – neologisms, pop references and internet lingo litter the pages, an illustrious display of the style she seeks to expose. Unexpectedly, this leads to a disjunction between form and content: objection to immersion on the level of the concept, immersion on the level of form. Yet Kornbluh’s might just be one of the few books that properly coheres our cultural experience of the 2020s, an achievement in a world in which the demand for coherence has come under crippling suspicion. ◉