HTDTWT 2017-2018: How to Do Things with Forms (a.k.a. How to Form Things with Theory) from Month to Month

Seminar 7

April 2018

Form has been so attractive and unavoidable a notion for the moderns because it embodied a promise of sensuous concretion: in a world beset by theoretical abstraction and scientific specialization, by a division of labour and a fragmentation knowledge and a regimentation of life, form appeared to provide a concrete and common realm. However, the divisions that marked the modern regime – the abstract and the concrete, the ideal and the real, the abstract and the concrete – ended up being rearticulated in the register of form itself. Form was often more distributed and abstract than desired; never quite as present as anticipated. After all, in addition to sensate forms on canvas or in music, theorists explored far less tangible forms that serve as deep structures preforming reality: for instance language, or the categories and schemata of the mind as such.

In the early twentieth-century the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer replaced Kantian schematism with a plurality of “symbolic forms” such as language, myth and science; by contrast, his student Alfred Sohn-Rethel developed a Marxian re-reading of Kant’s categorical formalism by arguing that it is a mere thought-form that reflects the real abstraction that is the value-form, as manifested in exchange. Sohn-Rethel’s insistence on a strict division between thought-form (which is conscious but not lived) and value-form (which is a social reality but remains unthought) has been criticized repeatedly. Why would there be a correlation between social reality and unsconsciousness? This is at the root of a pluralization of the notion of real abstraction that is underway in theory. In law, for instance, as Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano have argued, we encounter formalizations and protocols are hardly unconscious, while in technoscience thought itself has become operational and productive; we have moved from Kantian schemata to metadata schemata.

We have seen how Caroline Levine proposed a broad social understanding of forms in terms of arrangements and patternings; this can apply to a novel, but also to a school as described in that novel, and its institutional hierarchies and rhythms. Educational and art institutions are of course different entities now, in the networked society of control, than they were in the disciplinary nineteenth century (and DAI is a rather good example of that shift). As the art historians Branden Joseph and André Rottmann have noted, the traditional object of institutional critique—The Museum and its offshoots—today appears as a mere node in a network. Some have used this as the point of departure for a plea for a radicalized and generalized approach to institutional critique, taking in the “formal” features as well as the “material” or infrastructural dimension, and repurposing or undercommoning it (Moten/Harney).

 Forms of institutional critique and para-institutional organizing are in turn shaped by the very economic, juridical and technological conditions they seek to challenge. Radical assemblies are convened via Facebook. How, in fact, is the “assemblism” of contemporary art and activism related to the network form of value? In the context of Artist Organizations International (as analysed by Degott), we have artists adding their own (para-)institutional nodes to the network, “[exploring] a current shift from artists working in the form of temporary projects to building long-term organisational structures.” Meanwhile, what is the use value of existing institutional structures? What are strategies for “escaping, shifting, transforming” the institution (Raunig), for undercommoning it, for instituting para-institutional organizational forms, for moving from institutional critique to institutional activism?

Seminar 6

March 2018


A video from Zach Blas’ Contra-Internet project shows a desktop on which various text files are being opened, with bits from various leftist essay and manifestos being cut and pasted into a new file; the replacement of various key terms then results in the creation of a contra-internet manifesto problematizing the notion that the internet as “the hegemonic, or even only, present form of network politics and stressing “the prevalence and vitality of contra-internet network forms.” Recent reflection on the network form and its versions and varieties (centralized networks, distributed networks) has of course been informed by the rise of the digital network and its disruptive effects on social and economic forms.

This month we return to Caroline Levine’s neo-formalism. The tendency to equate form with a whole, with a Gestalt standing out against a ground, has always been strong; Levine, however, understands the network as a form, as distinct from the “whole” as another type of form. She characterizes the network as “defined patterns of interconnection and exchange that organize social and aesthetic experience.” Her analysis is marked by a tension between formalism and historicism. She refuses to base her analysis on the internet or on contemporary network culture, instead proposing a more general and fundamental understanding of networks; however, this does not mean that she wishes to posit “the network form” as a kind of Platonic idea. Rather, an analysis of the relation between “network” and “whole,” and between different networks, should allow for a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which networks have functioned historically—for instance the transportation and communication infrastructure of empire in conjunction with social networks. Her rather brilliant analysis of the ways in which Dickens’ Bleak House “does for character something like what Marx did for commodities: casting narrative persons less as powerful and symbolic agents in their own right than as moments in which complex and invisible forces cross,” is a strong demonstration of her method. However, one can wonder of Levine does not underestimate the radical effects of the digital network; if her historical formalism does not end up suggesting that ’twas ever thus. 

 By contrast, Galloway and Thacker from the offset anchor their analysis in debates within network culture. Written in a post-9/11 context that is by now already historical, Galloway and Thacker begin with wide-ranging ruminations on sovereignty and American exceptionalism, insisting (contra Geert Lovink) that “in recent decades the processes of globalization have mutated from a system of control houses in a relatively small number of power hubs to a system of control infused into the material fabric of distributed networks).” Today’s Empire, then, would be a different beast from Dickens’ British Empire. Breaking with 1990s net utopianism and its “tired of trees” rhetoric, Galloway and Thacker maintain that networks, even distributed networks, are not intrinsically liberating; they “exercise novel forms of control.” 

These days we see the return of a Thielian, technolibertarian form of net utopianism, and with artists like Christopher Kulendran Thomas embracing the disruptive innovations of Airbnb to make grand claims for the “geodesic space’ of the net triumphing over the physical territory of the sovereign nation state. Rather than buying into a schematic opposition between centralized state hierarchies and liberating distributed networking, Galloway and Thacker point out the ways in which multiple topologies can coexist within a network, such as the state-based and centralized Domain Name System and the distributed Internet Protocol. Even so, this aggregate is ultimately analysed in Foucauldian/Deleuzian terms of a society of control, in which the old “sovereign power” over life and death gives way to a new “regulative power” based on constant biopolitical monitoring and data-gathering. (“Express yourself! Output some data! It is how distributed control functions best.”)

Like Yuk Hui, Galloway and Thacker return to Aristotelian debates about substance—can a network be defined as a substance?—, though they quickly move on to the equally Aristotelian notion of individuation (with a passing nod to Simondon). As we’ve discussed previously, one way in which Aristotle addressed the problem of substance was in terms of form in the form/matter pairing. Yuk Hui, of course, discusses all these notions much more extensively, though at times one wonders about the productivity of his belaboured theoretical labour. To recap, last month we saw that Hui considers that in the digital realm “forms are abstract schemes,” and that online digital objects composed of data and metadata and “regulated by structures or schemas,” also known as ontologies. Hui suggests that the latter function as technological versions of Kantian schemata. Kant’s categories of understanding could be seen as a modern variant of hylomorphism: here the forms are in the mind, and they structure reality. These forms are the categories—or perhaps rather the transcendental schemata that “apply” the categories of pure reason to the sense data (Hui tends to lump the two together). 

In the chapter for this month, Hui focuses on the “digital milieu” in which the digital objects exists, which raises the question of relationality; metadata schemes not only shape the object but also its “beyond,” its relations. We get somewhat exhausting excursions on Husserl and Heidegger as well as on Aristotle and Kant, as well as on Leibniz and Russell, but from p. 137 we refocus on digital ontologies which, “in a manner similar to Kant’s categories,” are “also productive.” Now it is the relational nature of digital objects that Hui foregrounds, emphasizing that “content is not a key issue for a digital object; what really matters are relations.” The form, then, is indeed a networked form created by protocols and ontologies. In this semantic web, information retrieval “through virtually infinite linkages” creates precisely Galloway and Thacker’s net of control, though Hui does not focus on the political aspects, nor on the protocols that make communication within the net possible. With the focus on control, Galloway and Thacker do not get around to discussing if there might be a specific network form of value; Jodi Dean has invoked Metcalfe’s Law, which posits that “The value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of its users.” Activists and artists have attempted to quantify the value produced by each Facebook user for this company, sometimes coupled with calls for a kind of wage for users, who effectively work for free (see Laurel Ptak’s Wages for Facebook).

One motif that links all three authors is the insistence on temporality. We have noted at the beginning of the year that forms are not purely stasis and spatial. While Levine traces the movements that Dickens traces though Victorian networks, Galloway and Thacker oppose the “diachronic blindness” of graph theory, insisting that networks are “sets of relations existing in time.” Yuk Hui is interested in a temporal understanding of ontology and ontologies throughout, stressing that Kant privileges time over space and noting that “Science addresses the formalization of relations, while for Heidegger an existential analysis must find its point of departure somewhere else, and this is the temporal analysis. The totality of reference is also a temporal structure of being there. […]  Being “skilled” is a consequence of time, according to Heidegger. He responded to traditional ontologies by arguing that beings (Seiendes) should be understood through time.” Some of Hui’s passages on the “topological time” of technical systems in chapter 4, while not part of the course literature, are worth reading. 

Last month I mentioned Constant Dullaart’s The Possibility of an Army, for which he created thousands of accounts on Facebook with the names of Hessian mercenaries from the American Revolution. The project could be seen as Gallowayian hack or exploit, and as an anticipatory reflection on what happened in the US election of 2016. On a side note, its gothic dimension (return of the undead soldiers, in what may be a nod to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) also recalls one of the stranger aspects of Aristotelian hylomorphism. The morphe is not always the visible form. Take the case of a sculpture modelled after a human being: for Aristotle, these do not have the same form, as the real form of the human person is the soul that animates the matter. Likewise, a dead body does not have the same form as a living body, for the soul has departed. In the logic of the network, does it matter terribly if there is a living person behind an avatar, of if it is in fact a bot? Does the morphe of an entity posting propaganda on Facebook matter? What kind of relations and assemblages between human and technical entities are possible, and are desirable?

Seminar 5

February 2018

In-Formation: The Critique and Covert Return of Hylomorphism

Last month we made an attempt at tackling the mysteries and transformations of the value-form. In one of this month’s texts, Vilém Flusser bluntly states that “The material [plastic pens] are made of has practically no value, and work (according to Marx, the source of all value) is accomplished thanks to smart technology by fully automatic machines. The only thing that gives plastic pens any value is their design.” Hence Flusser effectively collapses the value-form with the visible, plastic form in his adoption of hylomorphism for a theory of modern design: design is the imprinting of matter (hyle) with a form (morphe). By contrast, the French philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon has extensively critiqued this rather reductive model. In his book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Simondon places technical designs such as that of vacuum tubes in successions, in “phylogenetic lineages” that are not too dissimilar from Kubler’s form classes; by analysing these successions Kubler aims to show a process of “concretization”: from a crude “abstract” state the object gets adapted and evolves into something more fully developed and carefully calibrated.

In On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, as well as in the parts of The Individuum and Its Physico-Biological Genesis that we’re reading, Simondon stresses that it not a matter of form somehow magically incarnating in matter, but of complex operations, of modulations—even in the case of something as seemingly simple as moulding clay into bricks. We’re always dealing with prepared matter and materialized forms (such as a mould). The third term, which classic Aristotelian hylomorphism leaves out is social life, human labour. In the process, Simondon suggests that the hyle/moprhe distinction reflects that between the craftsman/slave and free man/designer. Incidentally; Marx, as I mentioned in January, noted that while Aristotle made some headway with the analysis of value, but that “an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice.” According to Simondon and Marx, then, Aristotle’s thinking both as value theorist and as form theorist was marked by slavery.

Yuk Hui takes up some of Simondon’s key notions – such as concretization, individuation and individualization in his On the Existence of Digital Objects. Yuk Hui quotes the architect Christopher Alexander to the effect that “the ultimate object of design is form,” but with all the problems that come with hylomorphism, “our analysis must first place form under suspicion.” If in the digital realm “forms are abstract schemes,” then what does this mean for our notion of form—and of objects? Here we have moved from technical objects that share our three-dimensional space to online digital objects composed of data and metadata and “regulated by structures or schemas,” also known as ontologies. Hui suggests that the latter function as technological versions of Kantian schemata. Kant’s categories of understanding could be seen as a modern variant of hylomorphism: here the forms (the categories) are in the mind and structure reality. We have of course already encountered them in Afred Sohn-Rethel’s attempt to demonstrate that the “thought-forms” or “thought-abstractions” of philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to modern idealism, particularly the Kantian categories, reflect the “real abstractions” of commodity exchange.

In his analysis of real abstraction, Sohn-Rethel wavered between exchange and production. His take on the fundamentals of real abstraction in part 1 of Intellectual and Manual labor is very much focused on exchange, which allows him to discuss a fundamental logic he sees in both Ancient Greece and modern capitalism; hence he disregards or downplays Marx’s caveat about Aristotle. On the other hand, he fully acknowledges that appropriation (Aneignung) in premodern economies was fundamentally based on wealth redistribution, whereas modern capitalism is based on the creation of surplus value. Here he discusses Tayorism and the importance of technoscience in industrial production, and while he situates “mechanistic ideology” (certain forms of philosophy) in the ideological superstructure, he considers “mechanistic science” to be part of the productive “base.” He even goes so far as to posit a conflict between the value form and the production form, between the market economy of exchange and the time economy of production. In Fordist production, the “Unity of measurement of man and machine becomes and “operative formal principle” that is not just “a logical law of mere thought” but “a spatio-temporal reality.” Sohn-Rethel’s mention of ‘raumzeitliche realität” is one of comparatively few passages in which he addresses—on the side of production rather than exchange—how experience may be shaped by the mind, either in its basic evolutionary hardware or its historically and culturally specific modulations.

Sohn-Rethel has a tendency to isolate the Kantian categories of understanding from the Critique of Pure Reason, and for instance—as mentioned last month—does not truly engage with Kant’s passages on time and space. By contrast, Hui insists that the “architectonic” of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason comprises the transcendental aesthetic, with time and space as “two pure intuitions”, as well as the transcendental analytic with the famous categories of understanding, and the transcendental dialectic, which concerns the use and misuse of pure reason. While computer scientists and ontologists interpret Kant in terms of a (metadata) scheme that “produces the object through its intrinsic logical functionalities,” Yuk Hui follows Heidegger in proposing to understand Kantian transcendental apprehension “as a temporal process rather than a logical operation.” This is really developed in chapter 6, which is not part of our reading but which is well worth engaging with if you can find or make the time. Hui’s dazzling and at times bedazzling book certainly demands a fair amount of time and concentration.

Facebook will be using an algorithm to identify signs of suicidal tendencies in the digital objects produced by their users. While this may seem altruistic, the company uses similar technology to monetize the data and metadata it harvests from its users (would that be the network form of value?). In the past, Hui has worked with Bernard Stiegler and others on a project that aimed to develop a new concept of the social network as an alternative to Facebook (p. 250). It is clear that the syntactic/semantic schemata of our digital world are anything but neutral or natural. If the form is no longer a design imprinted on matter to create an object, but rather a crypto-Kantian metadata schema used to arrange, navigate and mine “digital objects,” creating value in the process, then what does this mean about the status of the digital object?

Seminar 4

How to Do Things With Forms, January 2018

Thought Forms, Value-Forms

So far we have navigated different levels of abstraction; Butler’s “assembly form,” for instance, is more concrete and physically localizable than Dean’s “part form.” Mostly we have focused on visible or otherwise sensate forms. This changes this month, when we’re confronted with a kind of political and economic formalism that revolves around Marx’s notion of the value-form. Why did Marx analyse value in formal terms? Precisely to address a failure of form, a failure of our sensory apperception and consequently of our understanding: we may see the “natural form” of a commodity (if that commodity has the form that we can have before our eyes, which these days is a big “if”), but we cannot directly perceive its value-form. In a non-capitalist economy, “value” may take on a completely different form; even within capitalism, a gift you received from a friend may have a value for you that is not reducible to the pure quantification of the market; to the capitalist value-form.

Within this formalism of value, labour is the substance of value, but according to Marx this substance is concealed. This is commodity fetishism: we don’t see that the real value of commodities comes from the labour invested in them; their value appears autonomous and mysterious to us. We are beguiled by what Marx calls the gegenständlicher Schein of social labour in the commodity (which one could translate as objectified appearance, or reified illusion). Ultimately, money functions as the medium for pure value-form, that is to say pure equivalence, as Alfred Sohn-Rethel puts it: “money must be vested with an abstractness of the highest level to enable it to serve as the equivalent to every kind of commodity on the market. This abstractness of money does not appear as such and cannot be expected to ‘appear’ as it consists of nothing but form”. Sohn-Rethel opposes but also connects money as a real abstraction to the thought abstractions of science. Ultimately, the latter are presented by him as a conceptual equivalent or culmination of the former.

Capitalist society is marked by the division of labour, and in particular by a separation between manual and intellectual labour. Science, which prides itself on its autonomy, uses “thought-forms” that appear to be pure and ahistorical (with mathematics and physics at the pinnacle), disavowing its social basis and historical trajectory. Sohn-Rethel stresses that from a Marxian perspective form is historical, and develops and decays in time, in a dialectical process. The disconnect between these two notions of truth (ontological and historical; the timelessness of natural science and the dialectics of political economy) is a problem for Sohn-Rethel, and one that he tries to resolve by historicizing the development of science itself.

Sohn-Rethel bases his take on the “thought forms” of science on Kant, specifically on the Kantian categories of understanding, which are twelve categories grouped in four sections: Quantity (unity, plurality, totality), quality (reality, negation, limitation), relation (substance and accident, cause and effect, reciprocity), and modality (possibility, existence, necessity). This is of course terrible abstract (which is part of the point), but suffice it to say that for Kant we can only know the world by having recourse through these fundamental categories—for instance by analysing natural phenomena in terms of cause and effect. Sohn-Rethel notes that the Kantian concepts (the thought forms) arrive on the scene preformed, and that Kant himself situates this preformation in the “intellect” or the “mind.”

For Sohn-Rethel, by contrast, this preformation is in fact social in nature and the outcome of a long historical process. Kant’s formalization of the human mind is a pinnacle of bourgeois-capitalist Kopfarbeit (intellectual labour), and as such the ultimate thought abstraction. As a Marxist who was in dialogue with Adorno and Benjamin, Sohn-Rethel attempts to reveal the specific historical and economic underpinnings of Kantianism and of modern western thinking in general. Much of this remains quite sketchy and speculative, though in the second part of the book he goes into further historical detail; while the Greeks and Romans had money and exchange, and thus produced a certain body of philosophical-scientific knowledge to mirror this real abstraction, it was only in the Renaissance that a truly capitalist economy based on the production of surplus value emerged. It is this that put modern science on a trajectory that went far beyond the ancient world. However, as critics such as Anselm Jappe have noted, Sohn-Rethel’s account of real abstraction is exchange-centric, and production hardly features. Thus much of what he says does indeed appear to be equally applicable to Ancient Greece, Medieval Feudalism or industrial Capitalism.

Sohn-Rethel notes that the real abstraction of economic exchange and the abstraction of thought both extirpate all sensuous concretion: “Alles Wahrgenommene, qualitative Sinnliche, wird den Begriffen underworfen.” (Everything that is perceived and qualitatively sensuous is subjected to concepts.) The disenfranchisement of qualitative sensory experience through quantitative abstraction thus plays a significant role in Sohn-Rethel’s work, but his analysis also seems to exacerbate this tendency. He tends to equate sensate experience with irredeemably private sensations, and in this sense he is perhaps more indebted to classical bourgeois philosophy than he would care to admit: “the commodity is not, like its use-value, the exclusive private datum of a solipsistic self, but belongs to a common world which is common to all the private selves. Although the perception is as multiple as the people perceiving it, its existence is one. If the existence of one object were divisible the object could indeed be owned simultaneously by separate owners. Each owner could not only experience the world as his ‘private datum’ but own it as his exclusive property.” In the age of digital commodities and social media much of this needs to be rethought; what happens when we produce value for Facebook by sharing what used to be private data? On the most fundamental level one could ask how the real abstractions of exchange “preform” our experience of social life, our embodied and social perception of the world we inhabit.

Sohn-Rethel’s key criterion for exchange being a “real abstraction” is that “Tun und Denken im Austauschprozess auf seiten der Tauschenden auseinanderfallen” (doing and thinking become disconnected for those engaged in a process of exchange). For an abstraction to be “real” it cannot just be conceptual, but must take on a social form. However, Sohn-Rethel seems to make a logical slip in suggesting that a lack of awareness is what makes it real. Does awareness—fostered by reading Marx, for instance—make capitalist market relations any less “real”? And conversely: have the “thought abstractions” of technoscience not proven to be operative and transformative, from nuclear technology to GMOs to cognitive computing and robotics?

From the 1920s to the 1970s, Sohn-Rethel never seems to have wavered in his conviction that the classless society was just around the corner. While I believe that his fundamental concepts can still be of great use value if deployed critically, much of what he took for granted needs to be questioned in the era of networked platform capitalism. This is where the debate between Boltanski/Esquerre and Nancy Fraser concerning a proposed differentiation between the “standard form” of value and the “asset form” and “collection form” can provide pointers. Value-form in the singular or value-forms in plural? Can we still assume that labour is the “substance” of value? What new thought forms might be needed to not just reflect, but reflect on the contemporary mutations of value? 

Seminar 3

How to Do Things With Forms, December 2017

John Baldessari, Painting for Kubler (1968)

The other day, The Guardian published an extensive report on the crumbling Houses of Parliament in London. The author, Charlotte Higgins, mentions that after World War II, Winston Churchill insisted that the House of Commons be rebuilt in its exact historical form: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Given that the confrontational layout of the House of Commons encourages men to shout at other men (and these days also at women) in a ritualistic manner, one may well wonder if all of these forms shape us in desirable ways. To what extent do forms—including parliaments, or the social forms of the assembly—constitute an “autonomous domain”?

In his 1934 The Life of Forms in Art, Henri Focillon quotes Balzac with the line “Everything is form, and life itself is form”— which Jean Molino in the introduction uses to defend Focillon against the charge of biologism or organicism, which George Kubler among others has levelled against him. Molino maintains that Focillon does not treat form as a living organicism, but life itself as form. In this seminar we have so far traced a move from “morphological formalism” in (visual) art theory and criticism to a structuralist understanding of signification grounded in linguistic semiology, and a move back from a linguistic point of departure visa the notion of performative speech acts into a morphology of assemblies as collective and embodied performances. Focillon insists that while signs may become form (the visual sign for a snake can become a certain kind of ornament), form is never just a sign, and the fundamental content of form is a formal content. Here we have returned to the kind of distinction that Adorno makes, between as kind of representational or denotational content and a different kind of Gehalt. Are we back where we were in October, or is this a repetition with a difference?

Both Focillon and Kubler focus on form in visual and material artefacts, in the realm of things, and oppose the rule of iconology in the discipline of art history. Iconology was in a sense the reverse of formalism: iconologists sought to “decode” the symbolism of artworks. When Kubler maintains that “structural forms can be sensed independently of meaning,” in the realm of visual art as well as in linguistics, he moved this opposition to iconology and meaning in a (proto-)structuralist context. As Pamela Lee has put it, The Shape of Time drew the greatest share of its interest in offering a new system for describing historical change in the visual arts, one with deeply structuralist implications.” Trying to avoid biological metaphors, Kubler posits the notion of the “form-class” as the entirety of a formal problem and its solutions: this structural set of formal possibilities is then analysed as playing out in time and as shaping time—sometimes playing out across centuries and in vastly different contexts.

           In his introduction to Focillon’s book, from the 1980s, Jean Molino rails against the rise of contextualism of art and art theory: against contextual analyses and institutional critiques of art, he seeks to reassert the primacy of form. For his part, Kubler was far from unaware that it could be problematic to reduce all art to formal problems, regardless of context; he notes, for instance, that modernist painting (abstract-expressionism) privileged “self-signals” that are “the mute existential declaration of things, while art historians focused on “adherent signs,” or meaning that is extraneous to form, resulting in a the utter miscommunication between Barnett Newman and Erwin Panofsky. Kubler also observes that modern artists found inspiration in various non-western or premodern kinds of art, including Aztec art (Kubler’s own specialism). As this modern work can thus be placed in a certain form-class developed by the Aztecs, Kubler does not want to interpret this simply as projection on of appropriation of forms that have lost all meaning. On the contrary, he suggests that “These twentieth-century continuations of the unfinished classes of fifteenth-century American Indian art can be interpreted as an inverted colonial action by stone-age people upon modern industrial nations at a great chronological distance.”

This kind of stunning—or outrageous—statement may help explain Kubler’s at first sight surprising popularity among 1960s and 1970s artists such as John Baldessari and Robert Smithson, who in many ways were part of the anti-formalist and contextual turn; what they appreciated was in particular Kubler’s shattering of linear conceptions of history in his account of form-classes. It seems to me that today it is precisely in the context of critical practices schooled in institutional critique that a resurgence of interest in formal matters and in the travels of forms across time and space can be noted. for their project Seeing Studies, for instance, Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Askhan Sepahvand explicitly referred back to Focillon and Kubler.

An early instance of this turn was Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack’s 2007 documenta 12, which revolved around the notion of the “migration of form” in a postcolonial context: “We are well aware that we remove things from their contexts. We do not do justice to this transfer by seeking to deliver their authentic contexts along with them, but rather by using the exhibition to create a new, radically artificial context. This context is based on the correspondence of forms and themes. The decisive questions in this endeavour are: will the migration of form allow non-Western cultures to achieve the resonance and historicity denied to them by exhibitions that work with fixed identities? And: will it be possible to take the art of our inherited Euro-American cultural arena, which we experience as so excessively familiar, and make it seem utterly alien and idiosyncratic, even unidentifiable, but for that very reason all the fresher and more radiant?” More recently – in a Roaming Assembly at DAI –Noack has raised the issue of non-transmittable form.

In the 1980s, Craig Owens argues that whereas “the avant-garde sought to transcend representation in favor of presence and immediacy,” proclaiming “the autonomy of the signifier, its liberation from the ‘tyranny of the signified’,” by contrast “postmodernists instead expose the tyranny of the signifier, the violence of its law.” Is there, at present, a return to the autonomy of the signifier—which is to say: the autonomy of the signifier as form, as self-signal? And what does such a return signify, or do? Does a focus on form and form-class lead to a neglect of context and to an embrace of pseudomorphosis? What happens when forms travel? Can and should we analyse them, as good structuralists, within a system of variations? Can forms upset the symbolic order, interrupt the play of signifiers? Do forms perform us, and/or vice versa? If matter imposes a form on form, as Focillon insists, then what happens when art moves from paper or canvas to the human “matter” that constitutes assemblies? Does biology offer valid metaphors and conceptual tools in an age of swarms and boids? What is to be learned in the insect wing of the Museum of Social Forms? What are the forms imposed by mineral matter such as coltan? Do we not run the risk of naturalizing what are after all social, political and economic forms? Can humans address and modify inhuman or posthuman forms?


Index cards from Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Ashkan Sepahvand, Seeing Studies, Casco (2010-11).

Seminar 2

Last month we began with some fundamental readings concerning the notion of form in modern aesthetics and beyond—with Adorno’s summa of modernist aesthetics and his take on the dialectic of form and content, with Bois structuralist critique of “morphological formalism” and plea for the structuralist signifier/signified as having displaced the form/content duo, and with Caroline Levine’s contemporary attempt to think form more broadly, in terms of social as well as artistic form and structure.

One thing we addressed—as it’s a feature in the Adorno and Bois texts—is the use of “formalism” as a disparaging term and a political weapon: formalism as (supposedly) an aestheticist fixation on “pure form,” to the detriment of art’s social role or political content. It is this understanding of formalism that Levin’es project is clearly aimed against, but she is far from the first in proposing such as “political formalism.” One could think here of the German critic and theorist Lu Märten, a communist and feminist who in her writings of and 1920s effectively replaced the term “art(s)” with that of “form(s),” precisely so as to counteract the reduction of formal questions to that of art in a narrow, institutionalized/high art sense. What mattered to her were the “forms of a revolutionized life,” of a new society in the process of becoming.

The other day I came across a striking passage in a late text by a critic who belongs to the same generation as Märten, Carl Einstein. This is from a late book, written in the 1930s, as fascism was circling in on him: “Die Modernen wähnten, man könne nach Belieben und unter jeden Bedingungen einen Stil prägen. Die isolierten Idealisten meinten, Form entwickle sich aus Form in abgeschlossenem, luftleerem Vacuum, und vertrauten einem rätselhaften, angeblich selbstständigen Automatismus des Geistes. Stil war immer der Ausdruck einer fixierten Gesellschaft, sei es der herrschenden Machtgruppen oder der Kollektive. Die liberalen Minoritäten verfielen. Tatächlich waren sie eine Ansammlung zusammengelaufener Parvenus, die weder eine sociale noch geistige Struktur kannten.” ("The moderns believed that it would be possible to create a style at will, whatever the circumstances. These isolated idealists thought form develops from form in a closed vacuum, and put their faith in a mysterious, supposedly autonomous automatism of the spirit. Style was always the expression of a stable society, whether of ruling elites or of collectives. The liberal minorities disintegrated. In fact, they were only a bunch of upstarts who knew neither a social nor a spiritual structure.”)

In his icy despair at the failure of the project of modernity, Einstein basically avers that “the moderns” never really came around to Märten’s project: they kept dreaming up forms that were not “forms of life,” but only of airless art. Adorno, of course, would take issue with that “only,” and would argue that the more successful works of modern art are “sedimented content” and transport and transmute experiences of modernity even while clearly not forming “a style” that would be “the expression of a stable society” in analogy to the Gothic, for instance. Indeed, the longing for a unified style or Formenspache is arguably a rather conservative trope.

All this by way of an indirect, historical introduction to this month’s contemporary readings: Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Jodi Dean and Jonas Staal. From Agamben’s “forms-of-life” to the political forms of the assembly and the party, these texts could be seen as reactivating Märten’s project of a comprehensive and political study—and practice—of form. But what is the relation between the form of the assembly and the party form as such (comparable to “the form of the novel,” for instance) and the specificity of this or that concrete assembly, or party? Do we need a dialectic of basic (or ideal) forms and the concrete labour of formation?

Do these writings provide pointers for a temporal as well as spatial understanding of form? If we want to move beyond form as a final, definitive “sedimentation,” as the crystallized end of process, how to think of form as a Gestaltung in and of time, as process rather than result? And if this is a social form, is there a need for master directors—in possession of superior formal intelligence or Gestaltungswille? Can social form be truly collaborative and collective, bottom-up rather than top-down? Is the focus on embodied presence and experience a and the return to the notion of morphology (which its roots in biology) be seen as critiques of structuralism? The texts and their interrelations and interferences trigger these and other questions, dependent on our particular agendas, experiences, intellectual makeups and forms-of-life.

Seminar 1: Friday October 20th, 2017

In the 1920s and 1930s, “Formalism” became a negative word for the orthodox Marxists who rallied behind the doctrine of socialist realism. The part of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory we’ve read is marked by a dialogue with Georg Lukács, who during the 1910s was instrumental in drawing art and culture into the orbit of Marxist theory; art was now no longer a mere ideological “superstructure” reflecting the economic “base,” but a subject worthy of study in its own right. This is one of the founding moments of Western Marxism, of which Adorno is an important exponent. Lukács later became an orthodox Stalinist, and held up the nineteenth-century realist novel as a model for the coming proletarian literature; in keeping with the doctrine of Socialist realism, he attacked modernist and avant-garde artists as “formalists.”  Even though Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was published only (posthumously) in 1970, the text is shaped by these pre-war debates.

Adorno defends the central importance of art in a way that both continues and critiques the aesthetic philosophy pioneered by the great idealist thinkers (Kant, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel) around 1800. As Terry Eagleton has argued, the “ideology of the aesthetic” developed by these and other authors represents an attempt to bridge the gap (as articulated or created by modern western philosophy) between reason and the world of matter and the senses through a theorization of aesthetic experience as a kind of imaginary synthesis: in the aesthetic experience, there appears to be a harmony between subject and object, between mind and world. Hence the “cult of art” in Romantic and post-Romantic nineteenth-century culture: aesthetic form was a refuge from a world rift asunder by economic inequality, rampant industrialization and colonial exploitation. With its “formalism,” modern art made any notion of art as escape much more difficult to maintain; at least it appeared like that to many.

Adorno reflects modernism’s critique of aesthetic unity by noting that “aesthetic form […] is the nonviolent synthesis of the diffuse that nevertheless preserves it as what it is in its divergences and contradictions, and for this reason form is actually an unfolding of truth.” If this can be read as celebratory, some passages hint rather clearly at the violence inherent in any formal articulation: “The unity of artworks cannot be what it must be: the unity of the multiplicitous; [if] that unity synthesizes, it damages what is synthesized and thus the synthesis.” Compared to Caroline Levine’s seemingly simple definition of form as “an arrangement of elements—an ordering, patterning or shaping,” and her clear-cut syllogism that if the work of form is to make order, then this means that “forms are the stuff of politics,” Adorno and his peculiar terminology can be hard-going for the uninitiated. But if Adorno’ labour of theory at times leads to laborious writing that in turn demands a lot of effort from the reader, an engagement with Adorno’s concepts and their interplay can be extremely rewarding. This is not to say that his outlook is not limited and dated in many ways; but could there be an anachronistic contemporaneity in, for instance, his take on the dialectic of form and content? Could Adorno provide pointers for the elaborations of a contemporary politics of form?

Hegel noted an “absolute correlation of content and form: viz., their reciprocal conversion or reversal [Umschlagen], so that content is nothing but the conversion of form into content, and form nothing but the conversion of content into form.” In his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno in turn stresses that form is the sedimentation of content—which suggests less of an easy and friction-free conversion than Hegel’s formulation, but rather a far from effortless and remainderless process. Adorno also notes that we should not equate content [Inhalt] with “What aesthetic terminology once called subject matter [Stoff] and Hegel the subject [Sujet].” The content of a painting is not what it depicts (a battle or a chair) but rather what Adorno calls the mimetic impulse. This a kind of primordial affective response, a form of empathy: it is the subjective part of art that informs the objective formal articulation. This does not mean that “content” for Adorno is not also social and political; the mimetischer Impuls does not exist outside of space and time, but is subject to historical conditions. As the space for mimesis shrinks in an industrialized and “rationalist” society, art becomes its refuge; but a genuine modern artwork is not some kind of “free expression” (a regressive illusion of pure mimesis) but precisely a dialectic of mimetic impulse and formal articulation (with the latter taking the form of pseudo-rational “planning” in some forms of abstract art or twelve-tone music). The “content” is not some pre-established human essence but itself already scarred and maimed; and its “sedimentation” into form itself takes the form of a mimetic appropriation of technological rationality.

Formal articulation must always remain partial and fractured: “The articulation, by which the artwork achieves its form, also always coincides in a certain sense with the defeat of form. If a gapless and unforced unity of form and the formed succeeded, as is intended by the idea of form, this would amount to the achievement of the identity of the identical and nonidentical.” The “non-identical” is Adornese for that which cannot be assimilated by reason; the mimetic is the non-identical par excellence. As with the Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics, the Aesthetic Theory is part of Adorno’s immanent critique of Western rationalism as having led to an impoverished and exploitative type of “purposive reason.” In factories and on plantations, in concentration camps and in factory farming, human and non-human beings are subjected to a formalism of death, a geometry that exists to suppress any form of subjectivity and empathy. However compromised and however powerless art may be, for Adorno it offers a key site in which mimetic and formal impulses, subjective and objective elements can negotiate and articulate difference: art as mute protest against the false life.

The Aesthetic Theory is modernist thinking at its most sophisticated. By contrast, the American critic Clement Greenberg—whom Adorno met in New York during WWII—developed a much more reductive theory of modernist painting, which revolved around the superiority abstract painting, whose abstract shapes or colour fields on canvas foregrounded the properties of “the medium” over any narrative or illusionistic “content.” Critics such as the Russian Formalists of the 1910s and 1920s (who were allied with Russian avant-garde art) had focused on ways in which new forms could generate new meanings and modes of perception. Through ostranenie (making strange), the artwork could break through ingrained mental, cultural and social habits. In Greenbergian modernism, which became a kind of readymade explanation for the perceived “superiority” of American painting during the Cold War, such critical political overtones had evaporated.

Due to Greenberg, “formalism” once again became a highly charged and negative term from the late 1960s onward, which has forced someone like the art historian and critic Yve-Alain Bois to defend himself against the accusation of formalism, and to stress that hisformalism is in line with the Russian Formalists and Saussurian/Barthesian structuralism, rather than akin to Greenberg. Bois thus opposes a structural(ist) approach to form and meaning to one that is merely “morphological,” with structural formalism being concerned with the differential value of signs instead of their Gestalt. One might say that form pertains more to the outer form as a whole, and structure to an inner ordering—a segmentation and sequencing, in internal differentiation. Bois, who claims the Russian formalists as well as Saussure among his ancestors, notes that a structuralist analysis of Mondrian’s work “examines the semantic function played by various combinations of pictorial elements as Mondrian’s work evolved and seeks to understand how a seemingly rigid formal system engendered diverse significations.”

However, is this formalism not also limited and depoliticizing in its focus on written or visual “texts”? What about structures outside the confines of a poem or a painting? What about social structures, for instance? Going beyond form and structure in visual artworks, novels, films or performances, one could examine social, economic, juridical and technological forms and structures. Could one problem with many historical formalisms be that they were not thorough and encompassing enough in their understanding of form? Here one could begin to stage a perhaps somewhat counterintuitive dialogue between Bois and Levine, who for instance discusses the way in which an artistic work (a novel) articulates a social structure (a school), which in turn informs the novel’s own structure.  

If, as Levine notes, “forms matter […] because they shape what it is possible to think, say, and do in a given context,” this also means that any form comes with blind spots: to make visible is also to create invisibilities, to articulate is to create that which cannot be spoken. As Adorno puts it:

“Form inevitably limits what is formed, for otherwise its concept would lose its specific difference to what is formed. This is confirmed by the artistic labor of forming, which is always a process of selecting, trimming, renouncing. Without rejection there is no form, and this prolongs guilty domination in artworks, of which they would like to be free; form is their amorality. They do injustice to what they form by following it. At least something of this was sensed by vitalism’s endlessly rehearsed assurance, ever since Nietzsche, of the antithesis between form and life.” (There we have yet another “form and…” pairing.)  A political and social formalism in art and beyond, one that attempts  to shape the social and create structures for living and working together, must also remain cognizant of this obverse of the labour of formation.