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Not right now

On immediacy and the ironies of life in a hypermediated world

“The museum is a nightclub, the nightclub is a factory, the factory is art”

 

Text by Benjamin Bratton

Immediatisation and its Contentedness

One of many ironies of life in a hypermediated world is the intellectual valourisation of immediacy and the earnest “pursuit of presence and hyperexposure” (Anna Kornbluh) as a personal strategy against Power. As mediation becomes more pervasive, essential and confusing, the personal experience of what is “right here, right now” is awarded seemingly limitless prestige. But at what cost? Kornbluh’s slicing new book on the topic of immediatisation is a fluid guide to how we got here. She writes that “unrepresentative personalism becomes an epistemic silo and political prophylactic.” Indeed it does. It corresponds, she says, with a suspension of reflection and a militant suspicion of abstraction that allows the outside world in only to the extent that it serves as a thematic backdrop for one’s protagonist syndrome.

As a new way of doing what he calls “critical theory” to address the big crises of the day, Columbia Law and Political Science professor Bernard Harcourt declares that “every one of us must write in the first person.” Sure the Anthropocene is a big deal, but at the end of the day, it’s really about you. This tendency builds on the hard-fought insights of “the personal is political” but actually inverts the political into nothing but the personal. The first-person present idiom is politics as memoir, an approach fully compatible with the ambient solipsism of our times. The pervasiveness of Harcourt’s vision is why Chris Kraus’s books showing up on Oprah’s recommended reading list doesn’t surprise anyone anymore.

This cultural megagenre is characterised by an intensely confessional prose, posture and point-of-view. Its confessionalism oscillates between Catholic forgiveness ritual and Maoist struggle session. As it flip-flops between the two, self-help is affirmed as the most raw, authentic form of communitarian politics. The performance of subjectivity as naked mindful catharsis takes over for the struggle, not the other way around, and yet this performance claims to have the equivalent counter-hegemonic effect. Agency is reduced to subjectivity, subjectivity is reduced to identity, and identity is reduced to confession. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of art.

One Thing Not About You

Several semesters ago, I taught a studio in our programme at the University of California, San Diego, and gave the students what I thought was a simple, open prompt: to make a project about something other than themselves, their autobiography, or their lived experience. The prompt received more pushback than any I have given. The blowback was swift and personal. Some students produced good work, but others refused the brief altogether for two related reasons. First, their art practice is so inextricably tied to their being an artist that to separate the two would be, they claimed, an erasure of their identity, and even, as stated by one, a violent silencing. The second response was more pragmatic. Their ability to succeed as a professional artist depends on how their work reflects their persona and (in not so many words) their brand as an artist, and so to make work that does not further this career requirement is a time-wasting distraction. Some students didn’t want to work with the prompt because to imagine the relevance of the world independent of their subjective experience is proto-traumatic; others refused because of how cognisant they are of their place in an art world outside of their control to which they must conform. In the end, we all had a good and difficult discussion about the differences between these responses.

One conclusion, drawn by some but not all of the students, was that, similar to conspiracy theorists who would prefer to believe that governments can coordinate plots with exacting foresight rather than accept that the world is chaotic, practitioners of institutional critique are the last true believers in the power of art institutions. No one is actually moved by the heroic revelation that art museums are nodal conductors of financial capital or that past curatorial decisions bear the imprint of their histories. Another conclusion, also far from unanimous, was that their experience of the art world was akin to a durational restaging of the Asch conformity experiment, in which test subjects are pressured to channel ideas through autofiction, autotheory, autosculpture and a lot of autoperformance, even when doing so is absurd. Here “auto” meant both autonomous – “my own self” – and automatic: from the personal is political to subjectivity as format.

Why do so many exhibitions speak of the artist’s special obligation to speak truth to power and to mobilise their special sensitivity to bear witness to injustice, as if society as a whole depends on them to say what must be said? Climate change? Let’s ask an artist. Gaza? I wonder what the MFAs at Yale think. No one is sure who really believes this, but there is a surfeit of half-hearted commitment, so regularly is it used as heraldry around new work. But art is not for these presumed duties. Art is a precious capacity for creative aesthetic abstraction available to all humans, honed since the Neolithic era. Art exists but “the artist” is a myth, a vestigial position from a more theological time, when the link between aesthetics and mysticism was firmer and when the professional outsider had a more credible claim on deeper truth. That residue is persistent, however, because it confers economic and social value.

The premise of “artwashing”, for example, is based on a conceit that art occupies a moral high ground, confers honour by proximity, and must be vigilant against others coercing association by inappropriately extracting its ethical prestige. Arguably, the real dynamic is the inverse. Art regularly employs “politics washing” by wrapping itself in serious issues to give gravitas to superficial gestures, and “institution washing” by constructing awards, ribbon cutting ceremonies, named dedications, board seats and annual selections, etcetera, so as to pool and earn interest on its cultural capital. The two dovetail as art constructs institutions out of nothing, then celebrates the critique of these institutions, using them as the platform for their own deconstruction, and enjoying preferential tax status for these good deeds.

Despite its discursive revolt against the vague and totalising spectre of capitalism, art is nothing if not a highly processed asset class, as many artists, art critics, art historians and art dealers regularly bemoan, with both sincerity and cynicism. Every day, major works are bought and sold and careers are made and unmade by arms dealers and pop stars because their financial advisor suggests Julie Mehretu as a hedge against platinum futures. The summer of NFTs collapsed the teeny-weeny space in art between satire and the satirised. It made even more clear that not only is its world an intricate mechanism for commodified vacuousness, but that for this to work it must be balanced by countercultural moral triumphalism. Critical art is not the adversary of art financialisation; it is its essential alibi. The more radical the art, the better the alibi. Win-win. And yet, the same art discourse defines itself by the renunciation of social, economic and technological forms it disqualifies due to “tainted origins”. It pursues a position from which the world can be forever refused as inadequate to its simplistic politico-aesthetic judgment: “Computation is War, Maps are Colonialism, Science is Whiteness.” In full bloom, this worldview is delusional, if not psychopathic, and possesses no real ethical authority at all.

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Figure one. Twitter post by @deathpigeon, 2019

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Critical art is not the adversary of art financialisation; it is its essential alibi. The more radical the art, the better the alibi. Win-win

 

International Art Theory

As we know, art journals, reviews, curatorial issuances and artists statements are articulated in a baroque patois of post-structuralist prose and activist manifesto, as filtered through the syntactic creativity of the non-native speaker, known as International Art English (IAE). A future AI may determine that the origins of this dialect lay in how American graduate students in the 1980s cut their teeth on awkward English translations of now-canonical French and German texts that were evasive in the original (Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida most obviously) and imitated these semantic distortions to write as a practised style. If so, IAE is only international because it is another American cultural export. People from all continents write in English based on how Americans imitated how they thought Europeans write: a classic case of data degradation and model collapse.

I submit that this language contains not just a pretentious way of writing but that its self-reducing monotony also expresses a regular and specific point of view. IAE not only describes art with goofy words, but produces and is the vehicle for International Art Theory (IAT). The basic tenets are clear. Everything worthy of consideration is a hybrid, everything juxtaposes, everything challenges, everything is a proposition, everything contemplates, everything does something to the viewer, everything is radically this and that, everything is an experience for a “community,” everything definitely relates to power and vulnerability, and is “of course” liminal. Good culture means community experience of liminal hybrids proposing to the viewer a radical challenge that contemplates a vulnerable juxtaposition of power. But what if it’s not? What if this theory is actually a stupid theory?

Marshall Sahlins proposed that paradigms in the humanities lose significance not when they can no longer explain enough, but rather when they come to explain everything. Such is the status, he suggested, of the Foucauldian connotation of “power.” From restaurant menus to electric chairs: it’s all power. The same principle applies to International Art Theory’s incoherently tribalist embrace of individualist anarchism and all the contradictions that entails. Paul Valéry’s chestnut that “everything changes but the avant-garde” described the circular orthodoxy of IAT in advance. That circularity inevitably produces art practices built specifically for the reenactment of earlier artworks and practices. Like the fellow who started off in a Judas Priest cover band and then found himself singing on tour with the real band, some artists aspire to and fully achieve karaoke recreations of Judy Chicago (or Mike Kelley, or John Baldessari, or whoever). Who can blame them? This feedback effect is a feature of their milieu, not a bug.

Art may be preoccupied with the repetitive expression of the artist’s subjectivity, but are the crowds of people who rotate the turnstiles any different? Just like the artist, what they most crave is to see themselves in the work. Or, at least that is what curators and museum boards suppose. How we ended up with selfie museums is not mysterious. It is partially the result of a shift of all art into selfie art, as perceived by those MFA students nervous about going off-brand. After a couple of decades of the mind-numbing narcissism of The Artist Is Present (2010), the twee collective infantilisation of relational aesthetics, the preening condescension of socially-engaged art, garish trauma reenactments, various blinky-blink interactive contraptions, paperweight versions of giant metal cartoon characters, and so on: you get what you ask for.

Besides the general pandering to closed-loop thinking, the really big cause, however, is an uncritical embrace of Representationalism. This may be defined as a confusion between a) widening the scope of included art and artists beyond the usual Global North metropolitan circuits to include a wider range of vibrant human creative production with b) the simplistic populism that supposes the purpose of a museum is so that everyone can see and feel themselves represented in the artwork as literally as possible. Corresponding with Kornbluh’s thesis, this Representationalist recognition must be immediate in both senses: experienced very quickly to keep the crowd moving and also viscerally without complicated pedagogy. In place of wall texts offering a curatorial argument, viewers are now presented with an open-mic experience: “What do you think about what you see?” The inevitable consequence is the theme park museum – what Brad Troemel calls “Adult Day Care Centres” – designed to frame customers’ subjectivity on elaborate stages next to charismatic objects and to provide them the opportunity to document and socialise this experience. Anything and everything is mobilised to congratulate the artist and the museum-goer as collaborative protagonists, each affirming their first-personness through the other.

 

An Open Letter  on Open Letters

The late Mark Fisher described “protest” in terms reminiscent of Theodor Adorno: “The protest impulse of the 1960s posited a malevolent Father, the harbinger of a reality principle that (supposedly) cruelly and arbitrarily denies the ‘right’ to total enjoyment. This Father has unlimited access to resources, but he selfishly – and senselessly – hoards them. Yet it is not capitalism but protest itself which depends upon this figuration of the Father.” Both art and protest define their authenticity by continually re-affirming their escape from the Oedipalised tyranny of abstract rationality and a conformist fetish for immediacy that echoes the impulse of unlimited desire that mobilised Baby Boomers in their youth. Consider how in 2021 some inhumanly cringe architects erected a “climate confession booth” inside a design school where one could be seen privately confessing personal sins against the climate. No joke. They were absolutely serious, but confess to whom? To the Father who represents society, or vice versa, a weird protest against the Father who forces us to destroy the planet, or perhaps both protesting him and confessing to him at the same time?

This sort of masochistic demand doesn’t invite precision but rather avoids it at all costs. The demand is not for this or that specific thing to be made true or made to go away. The demanding demands that demanding in and of itself must be recognised as sovereign, powerful and meaningful. It is at least as much about form as content; the wish is for wishing itself, or what Simon Critchley conveniently called “infinitely demanding”. There is a group called Architects Declare which organises public declarations by and for signatory architects. They provide a platform for the supply chain of demands, reducing the marginal cost of issuing public pronouncements for new and unforeseen events about which the important perspective of architects may be warranted. The methodology is borrowed not just from popular politics but, in this case, from the art world, where innovations in demanding are first prototyped. Quite often the process turns inward. Given how much time, energy and money is spent by the art world denouncing itself – from throwing oil on oil paintings to publishing letters of resignation – in the future, it will be difficult to convince people that the core function of a Biennale was once to gather and celebrate new and relevant works and not as a regularly scheduled megaforum for competitive repudiation, renunciation and withdrawal.

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Gerhard Richter (not that one) writes that “three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, exposed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit

Philosophy's Audience Capture Problem

Fortunately or unfortunately, most people don’t read books of theory. Statistically speaking the majority of those who do are college students, college professors, editors at academic presses, some artists and curators, or the occasional curious civilian intrigued by a provocative title or a glimpse of Žižek on YouTube. One serious but mostly unspoken problem is that the slice of the general population that buys the most philosophy books, college students – in limbo between childhood and adulthood – are preoccupied by the construction of their emerging personal identity. The injustices wrought by their parents’ generation, authority figures who are unamused by their perfectly healthy explorations of selfhood and uninpressed with by how the accumulated weight of history conjures their, say, “overflowing body full of infinite traces”. All this invites interpretation and praxis. The ultimate result, however, is the “audience capture” of philosophy by the special concerns of its readers and their particular neuroses. Audience capture is the feedback loop by which someone is rewarded for telling an audience what they want to hear and comes to believe this increasingly narrow range of ideas, ultimately offering little else, to the audience and themselves. By selection pressure, the kind of philosophy that animates the arts and humanities (far less so academic Philosophy departments to be sure) contains messages that meet the psychological needs of their consumers. There are reasons why every kid knows Foucault, Butler, Debord and Cornel West but not Sellars, Frege, Churchland and Carnap. The distortion by audience capture of philosophy as an intellectual initiative contributes to a severe loss of societal self-comprehension.

Historically, this has caused uncomfortable confrontations. Recall the correspondence between Adorno and Herbert Marcuse about the stupidity vs. genius of the collegiate New Left in the late 1960s. Marcuse basked in the kids’ adoration and the San Diego sun, whereas Adorno told his German students that they were an anti-intellectual mob of hedonists with no grasp of social history. For this, the dour wool-suited Marxist was accosted by his students during his lecture. Gerhard Richter (not that one) writes that “three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit.” This stunt was very “immediate” – and admittedly kind of funny. Other philosophers, going back at least to Socrates, leverage the audience capture dynamic into a decent career by dependably congratulating assemblies of young people, affirming that their post-adolescent alienation is a sign they are agents of radical change, that the world of the authority figures is about to collapse, that the revolution is going to be different this time and that they are all very special indeed. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, for example, has this down pat. It’s an evergreen grift.

 

The Experience of Experience

The significance of the concept of the Anthropocene was, at least for a moment, to demystify and collapse the culture/nature dualism, similar to what neuroscience did to the mind/body dualism. In the place of this dualism are broadly overlapping geospheres, biospheres, technospheres and, perhaps, noospheres (though I remain suspicious of how this last term’s theological tenor in the West reintroduces older idealist conceptions of “mind”). The moment didn’t last very long, in the humanities anyway. The tenacity of social reductionism and cultural determinism demanded that the planetary be subordinated to the realm of human social and economic relations, symbolic representation and the moral accounting of recent history. That recent changes in planetary systems were caused by human historical misadventures was confused with the more fundamental insight of the Anthropocene, one already clarified by Dipesh Chakrabarty and others, that all human history not only transforms planetary processes but is an expression of them. The planetary is not only artificialised; the planetary always precedes and exceeds the human history that it discharges. This is alien to an Environmental Humanities that sees the planetary as a spiritual form wounded by the external force of human rationality. But it is not external; rationality is something planets do through species such as ourselves. Further, the ecological precarity of the present is the result less of technological reason (a process that deduced the existence of climate change in the first place) than the presumption that the planet was infinitely available not just for use, but more importantly for experience and for the experience of one’s experience. Immediatism and hypersubjectivism are not the frontline resistance against the root cause of anthropocentric avarice; they are that avarice’s purest incarnation.

 

“We Live as We Dream, Alone”

Maybe the storm of subjectivity is a sign, more than anything else, of intense loneliness, less an attempt to prove that one exists than the natural response to a feeling that no one else exists. Where are we? What is here and now? We are all alone together in the most literal sense. Humans have established more scientific understanding of the astronomic reality of our cosmic predicament in the last century than in the previous millions of years of hominid evolution. From Edwin Hubble’s observational confirmation in the 1920s that other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way, to the space telescope named after him which in 2006 showed clusters of galaxies, the faintest of which extend back toward the beginning of time, life on Earth’s new conception of its real place and position scaled rapidly. Among the most chilling discoveries is the extent of the void all around us.

In 1984, Soviet astronomer Iosif Shklovsky and Carl Sagan met for the last time in Graz, Austria. Both scientists were instrumental in cooperative SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) efforts. Having debated the Drake equation for years, which estimated the number of technologically-advanced civilisations that might be capable of contacting Earth, Shklovsky was beginning to have doubts. Perhaps we are alone after all, he pondered. His doubt may have been religiously inspired or based simply on the lack of success in finding alien signals. In Graz, he communicated his apprehension to Sagan, a longtime proponent of the idea that the universe is teeming with neighbours, and left his American counterpart “somewhat unmoored.” If the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be the most philosophically significant event imaginable, Shklovsky reasoned, second only to communication with that life, then is the realisation that the unfathomable distances of space guarantee that Earth is for practical purposes all alone not an equally profound conclusion? As Peggy Lee once asked, is that all there is?

If the fundamental unit of life is not a cell but a planet, as some astrobiologists believe, then perhaps, like a cell, Earth life will eventually multiply beyond itself. In the meantime, a slice of the biosphere and technosphere – namely humans and anthropogenic technologies – produce images that are immeasurably more profound than any painting in any Biennale. The James Webb Space Telescope in 2022 produced images of ancient light bending around early galaxies before reaching us. In contrast with the Blue Marble image taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt (later a climate change-denying U.S. senator), an icon that implied both planetary fragility and the primacy of an anthropocentric observational perspective, the Webb Space Telescope’s images imply something very different: the depth of the real is a spectacularly beautiful and utterly indifferent elastic void.

Is the consequence of this to take comfort in the idea that the fullness of eternity resides most of all in the instantaneousness of experience? Compared to the life of a galaxy, the whole of terrestrial biology is a blip, and in a sliver of that blip is the picosecond of human language. Are we fooling ourselves? Is the immediate not what refuses the lesson of deep time but what accepts the death sentence it implies? Is the decision to live in the moment, as if the moment was made just for you to experience it, finally the same thing as thinking through one’s life in the full context of spacetime? In fact, it is not. To ask these questions seriously and not frivolously is to inhabit a long-duration project of abstraction: of distance, alienation, depersonalisation, scaffolding, quantification as qualitative judgment and mediation in all its guises. These are not what distracts each of us from the intensity of being alive but what focuses our patient attention on its strangeness.  ◉