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Edward Burtynsky Thjorsá River #1, Iceland (2012) (detail).
Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Immediacy and
its discontents

In Anna Kornbluh’s book Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism (Verso, 2024), the author lays out both the catalysing conditions that describe life under too-late capitalism and the stylistic quality it produces: immediacy, or the prominence of presence, authenticity and direct message. Culturally, this has a vastly simplifying effect, the “hulling of artforms down to effective transfer”. The catastrophic present, which demands our expansive and extended attention, instead produces an aesthetic mode based on the economic premiums of directness and literalism. For this issue of TANK – in which we expand on the idea of immediacy – we sat down with Kornbluh to discuss her work, its origins and politics, and whether there is a way out of our unmediated present.

 

TANKHow did the book come to be written?

Anna Kornbluh It started in two places simultaneously. One came from a question. We’re drowning in heterogeneous content from so many kinds of producers on so many kinds of platforms – but does that mean that there’s not a monoculture? If there was, what would that monoculture be, if it’s not post-modernism any longer – both in terms of aesthetic representation, but also of ideological formation? The other place the book began was from being a scholar of the history of the novel, and from being stunned in the 21st century that there’s such attrition of the novel. This isn’t because people aren’t writing them, but because they’re writing them as anti-novels, as anti-fiction, against omniscience and third-person narration but also against plotting, characterisation, long temporal expanse and the thickness of prose. So I was trying to account for the thinning and evacuation of fictionality, and the militant programme to do so by a bunch of people who style themselves as avant-garde writers. The novel is the art form unique to capitalism, so that suggests to me that there’s something going on in the base. Is this anti-mediation, anti-representation, anti-thickness aesthetic that I see in the 21st-century novel shared across media? In what way does that also describe contemporary art, contemporary television or, indeed, contemporary thought?

 

TANKImmediacy is related to, but isn’t simply, “fastness”. Could you talk about what immediacy is, as it relates to speed?

AKSpeed is our everyday connotation of immediacy, which is inevitable because we live in a hurried culture. A certain compression of time was also a key way that geographers, cultural theorists, logistics experts and so on made sense of the specificity of post-modernism – the loss of historicity and the compression of space through accelerated commodity chains and information tech so that there could be this instant access to products and inventory. There are some wonderful theorists making efforts to account for our changing phenomenology of time in the 21st century. To me, the aesthetic, phenomenological and almost conceptual notion about speed as an economic value is very often signalled by flow and “frictionlessness” as well as by instantaneousness. That’s how I started to get that sense of thinness – a shearing down of representation to direct message, to instantaneity, “I see you” or “I feel seen”, this one-to-oneness, which goes with the idea of the mirror as the aesthetic technology of this moment. Thickness seems to me to connote art’s traditional mission, where we don’t know quite what to make of something. Why do realist novelists bother copying the world? With excessiveness and detour. For the subject who encounters those art objects, you have to figure out what the work is doing. What I think of as dimensionality seems to be under an active emptying or dismantling, or even repudiated as undesirable, by so many of our contemporary aesthetic forms.

 

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Edward Burtynsky, Tailings Pond #2, Wesselton Diamond Mine, Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa (2018). Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

TANKA lack of friction is often glossed as accessibility, particularly in the context of visual art – if anyone can walk into the gallery and understand what is happening and the response that’s expected of them, that’s good. How do you respond to that charge?

AKThis notion of access – of planarity and horizontality – is part of an ecstasy of democratic flatness. Anybody can make art because art is just self-being, right? It’s elitist if you need contextualisation – if you might understand sculpture better by knowing a little about the history of aesthetics. Instead, it has to be transmissible, it has to be obtainable. It’s fraught, because democracy – or the term I prefer, solidarity – is the work of political community-building, producing collective meanings and pursuing collective projects. This is the work of building bridges of language: how do you see this and how do I see this? Those are organising questions for developing politically shared values and figuring out forms for pursuing them. That’s all about thickness and not so much about instantaneousness. Further, the politics of pseudo-democratisation through flatness reiterates the ideology that accompanies the dismantling of the very institutions that would generate equality: public education, public health care, ways of cultivating shared literacy and shared processing skills, with equal access to the history of human knowledge and human creation and a wealth of cultural production.

 

TANKIs it possible to say what kind of politics, then, immediacy is in service of?

AKI’m not a scholar of politics, I am a scholar of aesthetics, and this book focuses on media forms because that’s where mediation usually shows itself. If you want to be a scholar of politics, you have to figure out what your apertures are, what your points of analysis are, and what the bounds are of the thing that you’re talking about. If you’re a scholar of aesthetics, the bounds are usually given to you by the work. I always refer to this Althusserian formula, that, roughly translated, art gives us to think politics. Luckily on the political front, some of the essays in the issue – Benjamin Bratton’s, and the TeleMeloni piece – really develop many of the phenomena that I talk about in the introduction to the book, about cults of charisma, how that power manifests and is understood to be the natural property of our leaders, so that political affiliation or identification with leaders in mass psychology becomes, “Oh, I vibe with his id” – an identification intensely rooted in the libidinal. There are left and right versions of immediacy politics. On the right, at least now, we have much more of the charismatic cult leader, and the “do your own research” contingent, or “I trust no authorities except for this charismatic id.” Then, of course, the massive project of cutting out regulation of political spending, of cutting out the power of institutions and their deliberative process. In the United States, we have all these procedures in the Senate for how you approve judges and procedures in the House for how you pass laws or approve a budget. The Republican tactic has been to refuse the meta-principle that there will be government, that things will operate. The rightist theatre is made of efforts to stagnate, which is an authoritarian strategy, to preserve the status quo. On the left, there is a politics that is also quite insidious and has enabled many of these effective tactics on the right – notions that we should not have to be formally organised, that organising itself – in terms of, say, unions, or parties, and the repetitive processes that are involved in that – are inherently oppressive because they’re vehicles of stasis or an oppression of individuated freedom. The idea that there should not be a mediator between the people and power – there’s a right version of that idea and there’s a left version of that idea and both of them need to be interrogated in terms of why they possess this antipathy to mediation.

 

The idea that there should not be a mediator between the people and power – there’s a right version of that idea and there’s a left version of that idea and both of them need to be interrogated in terms of why they possess this antipathy to mediation

 

TANKThere’s a question that you take up in the book about how artists or writers might grapple with these issues. For this issue we spoke to Victor Burgin, who was very taken by your book. What’s interesting about his work is that he is preoccupied with using the tools of immediacy to create work that isn’t necessarily immediate.

AKOne thing to note is that immediacy is something that artists and philosophers have been interested in, and maybe even interested in trying to produce, since the dawn of time. But there is a troubling convergence now, as exchange is the main source of value in the stagnating G7 economies because there isn’t enough production. That coincidence of the artistic propensity to generate and reflect on sensations of immediacy, or even to pursue or desire them, coinciding with the dominant matrix of value for the 21st century seems to me to be a kind of annulment of the critical possibilities of aesthetics. But that’s not to say that I don’t believe in immanently critical artworks and in the capacity of aesthetic representation to help us depart from our conditions – to both help formalise contingent alternative possibilities and to help us into thicknesses of meaning, collective experience and collective representation of that experience. So, there are ways that even some of the modes of representation or anti-representation that I talked about might be said in individual readerly or spectatorial experiences to conduce to something critical or thicker. Often I have given talks about, say, the video chapter of the book, and a famous, well-credentialed thinker will say, “But I love Fleabag!” I’m sure somebody can get beyond that love and articulate why Fleabag is actually somehow critical, despite this thesis. I think what I’m trying to diagnose in the book is the waning of that possibility for immanently critical aesthetics, even though that possibility is so central to especially Marxist aesthetic interpretation. So does Victor Burgin have the dynamic capacity to use immediatising genres and immediatising modes to precipitate certain kinds of thicknesses or mediations, or to propel new constructions or collected subjects or abstractions? Of course he does, especially because he’s an artist who reads books, and so he has a research-driven practice, not a bellybutton-driven practice. So what are our ways of trying to gain some perspective, trying to take some distance, trying to make things thinkable? Those tools that artists or intellectuals have traditionally used in more modernist or post-modernist modes – juxtaposition, contrast, estrangement and so on – may still be accessible to us to develop an immanent critique. But it has to counter the dominant logic in doing that, and, I think, making that logic perceptible is part of that form of differentiation.

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Mass mediatisation, mass access to documentation of calamity, is not the same as collective sovereignty

TANKThe conclusion of your book is reminiscent of Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (2015), where his recommendation for the way forward was, essentially, to avoid everything that works with the dominant form’s access to marketisation – to only make unsellable art that cannot be put in the gallery or auction house.

AKTo me, a whole lot of the “don’t put art in the gallery” version of de-mediation of experience and the cultivation of bodies vibing together in a room is actually the problem to be avoided. Maybe that was a technique of anti-commodification because the commodity is the medium par excellence of capital, but I don’t think that that is a strategy available for getting out of immediacy as a dominant logic. This idea of commodification and the possibility of being outside a commodity has long been a kind of modernist question about the function and role of art. Frederic Jameson argued that increasing commodification defined art in postmodernism. Recently Leigh Claire La Berge, a scholar of art, has pointed out in her book Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (2019) that this is perhaps not a coherent way to think about commodification, since it is a form, not a process, and can’t increase. Marx gives us periodising categories that are processes – primitive accumulation, real and formal subsumption, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. What would happen if aesthetic practitioners understood the determination of their exercises and the horizon that they might be trying to fight against not as commodification but as against some of these other processes? What are aesthetics around the problem of subsumption or the falling rate of profit or around primitive accumulation – and does that pose a different problematic to artists than, “Is my work a commodity or not”? To get at some of these other options for art, in the book I appeal to Raymond Williams’s framework of “dominant, residual and emergent” – that residual forms can bear interesting critical capacities. I turn in the conclusion to Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs. What are aesthetic processes of scale? What are aesthetic modes of abstraction? What are the kinds of ways a fixed or static representation can generate thoughts about context and system; having what Lucado calls the “point of view of totality”? It’s a technique, it’s not content to be presented. But that’s an old form, right? Big-panel landscape painting is 18th-century French. Who is making big art right now? Not that bigness is the only way, but just one little idiom of possibility. I also write about people who are still committed to narrative abstraction, and ensemble television dramas that are carefully written with teams of compensated experts. Those principles of social realism across literature and television or film still have something to offer us. We don’t inherently have to disrupt or get outside or innovate, to be able to reactivate some of that critical distance. Sometimes residual forms can be used.

 

TANKImmediacy always seems to come a cropper when it touches reality. We loved your elegant formulation of “Too-late capitalism”. Is perhaps the best solution to just sit back and watch the whole thing unravel – for immediacy to spin itself out and fall off the table?

AKThe idea that capitalism will destroy itself has been a way that people have responded to the possibility of historical exhaustion for centuries, and yet I would say we’re on a pretty strong trajectory of immiseration, not emancipation. We do have to rethink that form of passivity – the idea that we don’t have to strategise a transition, we don’t have to collectively determine our historical situation. We are at the place now, as famously formulated in so many ways, where ecological limits are a hard externality to endless resource extraction. Non-productive but energy-expensive exchange is going to come up against some limits. A major storm incapacitating Amazon might mean we’re going to have to wait for goods again, and that’s the minimum cost – people will drown, and people will be electrocuted. The internal limits of the system are an old Marxist and anarchist preoccupation. Now we have a new one, of the external limits to the system that pose the prospect of forced extinction, massive immiseration and unequal suffering.

 

In Burtynsky, it’s not the documentation of the supply chain which is the aesthetic point but the scale. There aren’t people in the photographs, which most critics hate, but which I think is key to their genius

 

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Edward Burtynsky, Tailings Pond #2, Wesselton Diamond Mine, Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa (2018). Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

TANK What might newer forms of media offer? Recently, we’ve been interested in the way that the dominant narrative in traditional media about Gaza has been upended by young people on TikTok.

AK I saw a story this morning in the New York Times that said Israel will “de-intensify” in response to pressure, many months into extreme violence and outsize retribution. I feel like this conjuncture poses a genuine political question. 75% of Americans are opposed to this war, yet despite mass access to footage of destruction or to testimony from Palestinians on TikTok, there’s a disconnect between us and our authoritarian weapons-contractor overlords. We have the knowledge and even consensus, but the power structure is simply impervious, partly because its interest will be perpetuated – securitisation as a project is perpetuated by destabilising the region. What would it mean to have levers of power against our democratically unaccountable overlords? Maybe TikTok is one part of a tactic of mobilising power, but there has to be something else. There’s a recent book by Vincent Bevins, If We Burn (2023), about how the 21st century has been dominated by the most large-scale mass protests in history, all over the world – in Brazil, the George Floyd protests in the United States, Hong Kong, Tahrir Square. And yet what has that wrought besides an authoritarian, repressive response? The right is organised and disciplined, and they know how to use the available means of help. I don’t say that to denigrate those movements at all, but it’s a real problem that has to be tactically answered. Mass mediatisation, mass access to documentation of calamity, is not the same as collective sovereignty.

 

TANKWhen we spoke to Christina Moon, she talked about how the work of photographers like Burtynsky, which express a certain aesthetic of the supply chain, has been co-opted by fashion firms in order to green-wash the processes behind their production.

AKRight. When things are stylised, they can become tools of any kind of ideological or political project. But this is why we have to think about the components of the style. In Burtynsky, it’s not the documentation of the supply chain which is the aesthetic point but the scale. There aren’t people in the photographs, which most critics hate, but which I think is key to their genius. They’re not personal. Is this an aesthetic that’s adequate to the notion of the chain? Which of the techniques get greenwashed and how they articulate to other techniques of representation is the key, because any of the techniques can at any given moment serve different functions. Additionally, there are other opposites of immediacy besides slowness. Slow food can become a movement or a tagline, or a way of ordering your groceries from Amazon – “I don’t order processed food, I order a cabbage.” But what are some other values, principles, strategies and tactics that are counter to immediacy that might be combined with slowness, in different political conjunctures or in different aesthetic works? It might not always be slowness, it might be tropological figures and counter-intuitive constructions. It might be rhythm. One of the things I tried to do in the book – that Anton Jäger complained about in his piece – is to have this jarring back-and-forth of long theory sentences with a lot of “-tion” words and then little, almost memetic sentences. I’m trying to record scratch, to make readers ask, what register of discourse are we in? And can we collate these together at the same time? That is a technique – and maybe an old one – of modernist juxtaposition, but one I do think conduces to friction as the opposite of flow. Can you combine certain slow moments, estranging moments, fictionalising moments, with certain scalar moments, or big moments, or impersonal moments? This is what I call, in the conclusion, “hold”, which is a little bit of an ambiguous aesthetic category but means something that has the potential to pose a counter-fluidity. Usually, we theorists are against stasis, and there’s an aesthetic bias – that turns into a political bias – that says that forms are bad because they contain, and they’re static – but we need things to be sustained at this juncture, for some stuff to be fixed in place, time or concept, so that they can be shared. So what are the aesthetics of hold? One is repetition, especially in organising – you have the same conversation over and over again, you have the spreadsheet of your contacts, you have the little scripts, all of which holds things in place. That’s how you accrete power sometimes.

Are there films that are really good at intercalating the history of other media into them? What would a novelistic TikTok be?

 

TANKSomething that Victor Burgin picked up on was psychoanalysis and particularly its relationship to the repetitive and fragmentary. If psychoanalysis is the “science of mediation”, as you call it, then perhaps BetterHelp is immediacy. What importance does psychoanalysis have in the book?

AKAnother way I could have answered your first question about where the book came from is that psychoanalysis has always vivified my academic engagements. I had really cool teachers in college who were interested in psychoanalytic theory and it always seemed to open up so much to me. I just love reading Freud and teaching Freud. One place the book came from is feeling like we live in an anti-psychoanalytic culture because this repudiation of texture is also about a rejection of the unconscious and a prohibition on non-transparency. It is the fantasy of sovereignty over selfhood – self-manifestation and self-stylisation, self-actualisation and self-care that adamantly rejects the unconscious and forecloses the other. It’s the idea that we can demand to be recognised as a certain thing in a certain way and stamp out the enigma of non-relation. I think that the tools of psychoanalysis provide a lot of insight into some of the peculiarities of our cultural psychic situation in terms of this injunction to planarity and to the non-topography of the subject, and these kinds of ego-ideations. It also provides some ways of accounting for why the aesthetic of flow – the seamlessness and instant transfer and guaranteed meaning that you get when you walk into the immersive art show – are shadowed by certain kinds of eruptive, sadistic moments. The mirror can shatter. The imaginary without symbolic remediation is tormented by eruptive reals. So, for example, on TV, there is an aesthetic of fluidity, imminence, integration and intimacy, which coincides with the rise of the sadistic spectacle. There’s just so much that psychoanalysis has to help us understand about how weird people feel – how much noise there is, for instance, on social media about how it’s bad to depict sex in movies. At the same time, it’s clear that in the pandemic, some people have concluded that cognitive behavioural therapy isn’t enough to repair a mass death event. There have been a number of stories in places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about people finding psychoanalysis. We have an epidemic of suicide and depression and a shortening life expectancy. People do seem interested in taking up psychoanalysis as some better practice for addressing that suffering, not curing it but remediating it, than some of the available industrial options. I’m teaching a seminar that is partly about the question of whether there are any kinds of countercultural aesthetics at present that are psychoanalytically responsive, or that demand some of the layered interpretations and careful listening that psychoanalysis practices. I’ve tried to make a list of marginal cultural objects that seem to not be anti-psychoanalytic, not against the unconscious or against sex. I’ll let you know what we come up with.

 

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Edward Burtynsky, Uralkali Potash Mine #1, Berezniki, Russia (2017).Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

TANKLet’s end where we started. Do you still believe in the form of the novel? What is its future?

AKThat’s always such a fun question. I strictly believe that novels are unusual as an event in the history of human cultural representation. Poetry has existed since the dawn of time, but the novel has a very specific historical emergence, and so thinking about the future of the novel means thinking about the future of capitalism. The novel isn’t dead because capitalism isn’t dead – yet. But I do mostly enjoy forms that are residual – not in the first person, or still interested in the exercise of omniscience or polyphony. Probably the best novel I read in 2023 that was published in the same year was Lydia Kiesling’s Mobility which takes place over a long temporal arc, and tries to think about petro-capitalism and petro-culture in its most intimate guise – a teenage girl who wants to be normal who becomes an oil executive. It’s got all this stuff in Azerbaijan and info dumps about the breakup of former Soviet republics and extractive processes and chemical info – kind of a Moby-Dick (1851) in some places, where the heterogeneity of discourses is being integrated. I do think it’s worth trying to be specific about those novelistic aesthetics – what are the features that novels afford that other modes don’t? Omniscience is important. Free indirect discourse and this idea of unknown thought that belongs to a broader socius, so that one cannot answer where an idea comes from – that’s crucial. Novels are dialectical forms because of this balance of inner and outer, character and setting, temporal processes and static form. So the question is, are there non-text-based forms that work dialectically? Are there more or less “novelistic” TV shows or films? In the film Nomadland (2020), one of the things that was so memorable was how it tried to use digital cinematography to make a Western, and so it stages a confrontation of the history of cinematic landscape shots and it does that often through the car window. Is that kind of media layering a version of novelistic heterogeneity, or heteroglossia as Bakhtin calls it, like the Melville infodump, when the form represents the metabolisation of all hitherto existing genres? Are there films that are really good at intercalating the history of other media into them? What would a novelistic TikTok be? These are all questions that the question of the future of the novel poses to us. Is it the bounded book form? Or is it something else – not narrative, but other techniques? 

 

Burtynsky: Extraction / Abstraction, which runs between February 14 and May 6 2024 at the Saatchi Gallery, is the largest exhibition of works by the world-renowned photographer. Kornbluh writes, "Immediacy stylises the spirit of circulation in instantaneity and realness, but Burtynsky’s works mediate the supply chains and resource development that materialise the platforms of the circulation economy."