2017-2018 HTDTWT: Seminar Marina Vishmidt: Speculation as a Mode of Production: Form as Content as Form ~


Students participating in Marina Vishmidt's seminar: Olivia Abächerli, Luca Carboni, Alejandro Cerón, Mónica Lacerda, Agata Cieślak, Teresa Distelberger, Clementine Edwards, Edel O’Reilly, Rabea Ridlhammer, Elien Ronse, Duruo Wang

About Marina Vishmidt



Speculation as a Mode of Production: Form as Content as Form  


Stefan Germer: 'The artist’s political engagement cannot consist in expanding art into society, but only in reducing art’s claims through the deconstruction of those mechanisms that establish and maintain “the artistic” as different from other social practices.’

- ‘If freedom and slavery, or the abstract free individual and the slave, are locked in a fatal mutual interdependence, what is the synthesis or the knife that cuts through?’ Hannah Black, ‘Fractal Freedoms’

 - 'The limits of capitalist civilization include biophysical realities, but are not reducible to them. And if the limits of capitalism today are limits of a particular way of organizing nature, we are confronted with the possibility of changing humanity’s relation to nature – which is to say also humanity’s relation to itself.' Jason W. Moore, 'Nature in the limits to capital (and vice versa)'

Speculation as a Mode of Production: Form as Content as Form1

This seminar is about taking the indeterminate and the contingent seriously as they provide a structuring principle, and a structure of feeling, in contemporary life, from art to finance to politics and ecologies. This is articulated as speculation, speculation as the norm and the exception to the norm that is constantly being harnessed to expand the power of the norm as ‘hollow form’ with violent consequences. Taking on speculation as both a cultural logic and a method, this seminar will focus on the con/texts of theory, history, poetry and criticism to follow the materialities of (abstract) value as they summon the art and politics of the ongoing present.

What I am calling the 'speculative' relates to my research project, now underway for a few years, into the material dimensions of abstraction, chiefly of the speculative as it cuts across financial capitalism and artistic production, with echoes across the fields of labour, politics, 'nature' - the general economy. In this seminar, I want us to think about the 'speculative' in a broad sense, a political sense, and a collective sense, and not just as a gentrified way of talking about markets or entrepreneurship through the figurative capacities of art. The condition of contemporary art as post-conceptual (Osborne) evacuates it of any positive content besides the network of relations in which it is positioned – we may also say 'the institution of art', as a social institution, a form of subjectivation, a social form – and the act of enunciation itself. Yet this does not mean that an inquiry into the significance and operativity of these terms in the present need be confined to description (aesthetic or sociological) but can expand by investigating both the structural-systemic and the transcendental-(in the Kantian sense, i.e. the condition of possibility) philosophical determinations that obtain on the entity of 'art' and its subjects as it has developed in European modernity and into the present as a form of suspension of labour, use and as a source of productive estrangements, while also supporting existing and producing new contradictions and divisions. Which is to say, tI use ‘speculation’ is a relational sense, and that it is thus possible to develop a historically grounded narrative for what we can call the 'double' ontology of art, which is to say, it is double as an act or object and as a reflection on that act or object at the same time, presentation and representation. Questions we may ask could be, for example: what differentiates artistic practices from other kinds of activity, and primarily from labour? How does art live contingency? What kinds of things do we talk about when we talk about 'value' in art? Can we still think of art, as a practice or as a system, in terms of formerly polarized categories such as play and usefulness? Can we think of the speculative as a productive force, which can be mobilized by art as well as shaping it as an intimate exterior? Does the speculative produce a range of figures and imaginative proximities, can the speculative produce historically and socially rooted allegory? What is the specific modality of speculation and how is that like or unlike proximate categories like autonomy and heteronomy, subsumption and abstraction? This side of the inquiry into ‘speculation as a mode of production’ is about developing a conceptual architecture for thinking about art in relation to political economy and revolutionary politics, as well as oppression and annihilation as everyday phenomena, at the level of the collective and the level of the subject. So in the past, we have read Helmut Draxler, Daniel Spaulding, Brad Troemel, Bojana Kunst, Claire Fontaine and Stewart Martin around these topics. This year, I anticipate we might look at writing and work by Theodor Adorno, Peter Osborne, Josefine Wikstrom, Hito Steyerl and Ane Hjort Guttu. However, the questions elaborated above through the ontologies of art and artistic labour, artistic subjectivity, and so forth, have tended to play a smaller and smaller role in the seminar over the last few years, at least as a discrete field of inquiry (‘the artworld’). This is not to say that the perspective of aesthetics is eliminated, as it remains key to both our topics and our approach.

A linked question will be the materializations of subjectivity in the crisis ordinary of current capitalist life. This comprised the main emphasis of our seminar in the last couple of years. We looked at the production and reproduction of subjectivity, and its racialised and gendered materialities. We have considered the question through recent attempts to address it metaphysically, phenomenonologically, critically and through the lens of political economy. The subject is approached here as a 'real abstraction', that is, a social construct with real effects that we experience and embody, and which, as the felt sense of creative singularity, enmeshes us tightly with power as well as the embodied locus of experience which generates contradictions and excesses within it. At the same time, this post-Marxian and post-Foucauldian notion needs to be read through current scepticism about the 'subject' as a viable philosophical or strategic category. The collective, gendered and raced dimensions of subjectivity will perhaps be of greatest interest for this strand of the inquiry, as well as notion of de-subjectivation and the subject as a radical nothingness, sometimes counterposed with a new sovereignty accorded to the object. Some examples of the texts we examined in this direction are Hannah Black, Fred Moten, Lauren Berlant, Mykki Blanco, Lucy Beynon and Lisa Jeschke, Denise Riley and Sianne Ngai. We will continue thinking about gender, race and labour through the lens of poetry, looking at recent work by the poet and theorist Amy De’Ath among others. Last year Hegel, by way of Kathrin Pahl and Clarice Lispector, allowed us to experience the affective oscillation between subject and object positions. The question of subjectivity and objectivity also needs to be asked from the standpoint of an actual but highly differentiated and differentiating eco-systemic crisis which is continually in motion. In past years, we read works addressing some of the imperatives cited by Jason Moore in the quote with which I prefaced this lecture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer epistemologies of 'entanglement' such as those of Karen Barad, through which we thought displacement and scientific (sur)realism as method for thought and praxis. This was, and will be, done not as a way of affirming identity, even as a strategic or situated ground of critique, but of affirming the reality of antagonisms that produce identities- that is, the ‘real abstractions’ of gender, race and sexuality as well as the socially synthetic real abstraction of the value-form. Jordan/a Rosenberg and Brenna Bhandar have also helped us delineate the conjunctions of financial, social and philosophical abstraction through their considerations of the historical synchronies between the development of finance and slavery, or speculative fiction as a way of mediating and exceeding oppressive abstractions of race, gender and the academic radicalisms that purport to go beyond embodied critique. The question of the human was attended to through the colonial and racialised epistemologies which have sustained this precisely as a norm and not a question, often in relation to even more primordial and socially effective categories such as personhood, law and property. Around this we have read Marcelle Maese-Cohen Frantz Fanon, Charles Mills, and Sora Han. This year our thoughts will be urged on by Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Hortense Spillers and Maria Lugones.

In the last two years, I kicked off the seminar with a consideration of the subject: object relation, in 2014 through reading an essay by Theodor Adorno on the topic, in 2015 with Alfred North Whitehead, and last year with a more methodological inquiry into critique and proximity from Benjamin Noys. This year we will start the way I mean to go on, that is to say, with the section on the fetishism of the commodity in Marx’s first volume of Capital. So, to sum up, this year I anticipate a return to using the prism of art to reflect on certain of the tensions I outlined above, and expanding our focus on language and materiality as ways of considering social abstraction. We will continue to address race, gender and coloniality as markers of what Hannah Black terms the ‘the cut by which nature is distinguished from culture, labour from labour’s reproductive outside, object from subject.’ The ‘cut’, also in Karen Barad’s formulation of ‘cutting together apart’ and the dialectical scene of transformation through negativity, is a key methodological and political notion for this seminar.

Basically, the conceptual methodology of this seminar can be summed up in one phrase: no abolition without realisation. Which is to say, no category or analytic orientation will be made into an object of study or an object of critique without extracting its historical and social truth content first, that is, how it may be relevant for us, even in what it ignores or disavows. Critical inquiry often proceeds one- dimensionally, turning its objects into 'things' which can then be accumulated and destroyed with the shifting tides of discursive capital investment. Think of the notion of the 'human' in what has sometimes been called speculative realism, the discourse of the Anthropocene, or the varieties of self-designated 'post-humanism', as if there was such an entity, even in thought, as the human as such, untainted by historical process or social contradiction. Proceeding otherwise could mean thinking with Deleuze's 'critical and clinical' designation, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer's distinction between theory and critical theory, with only the latter seen as being reflexive about its social and material conditions, and drawing practical consequences from this reflexivity. We will endeavour to read symptomatically, putting ourselves into question as much as our 'materials'. By implicating ourselves in this way, we are able to productively inhabit the scalar variations of critical inquiry, and the different levels of abstraction that need to be borne in mind in our discussions.

1 ‘If art opposes the empirical through the element of form – and the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped without their differentiation – the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content.’ – TW Adorno, Aesthetic Theory