HTDTWT 2017-2018: SPECULATION AS A MODE OF PRODUCTION: FORM AS CONTENT AS FORM FROM MONTH TO MONTH
The Production of Subjectivity vs Subject vs Object: On the Speculative and Systemic Prisms of Psychic Life
The two final texts we will be reading in this seminar present approaches to mapping the conceptual premise of the subject and subjectivity. The difference, as might already be evident, could be seen as temporal: ‘subject’ seems to describe a position, and ‘subjectivity’ a process. The difference can also, however, be taken as the difference between a systemic and a speculative approach – subjectivity as something which is emergent and whose co-ordinates and boundaries in relation to other scales and layers of reality are always shifting, while the ‘subject’ seems encased in the frozen dualism with its ‘object’ on the chess board of instrumental reason. Given there are numerous divergences between Felix Guattari and Theodor W. Adorno’s philosophical approaches that could be cited, for our purposes we could briefly encapsulate the gap between these two texts as one which is charting a subjectivity- to-come that can undermine the brutalizing agencies of ‘Integrated World Capitalism’, and one which charts an epistemic itinerary for the subject as a presupposition: how this capitalism became established and maintains itself, through a naturalised power relation between the knower and the known. If Guattari’s approach is to offer an ‘ethico-aesthetic’ paradigm for how to get out of the mess, Adorno’s hyper-dialectical critique of epistemology offers a backstory, and perhaps an obstacle, suggesting there is an infrastructure of domination and exploitation which organises the range of possible moves. The encounter between the two texts is likewise staged to illuminate some of the principal aspects of the notion of speculation we have been working with, and even the principal affects of it. The speculative is both rigorous and provisional, moving between antagonism and proposition. Speculation, then, is a critical terrain whose morphology is both material and inexistent, with a desire to root the one in the other.
Some questions for us to consider in this reading, in addition to the many others that will come up:
If epistemology is a theory of knowing and ecology a theory of the relationship between scales (starting with the household, or oikos, to its environment), how would we define the difference in what they do? What forms of action can we locate within and between them?
Is ecology, in Guattari’s sense, a way for subjectivity to make or be in a world without the need for an ‘object’?
What is the status of concepts of unification, as opposed to difference or dualism, in the two texts? We can think of concepts like ‘totality’, ‘system’ or ‘integration’ as examples. Does the idea of ‘mapping’ or cartography, as in Guattari’s text, rely on a premise of a ‘whole’ of this type, or can mapping be an activity without an object?
Realistic, Rational, and Indeed Useful: Forms of Use in Contemporary Art and its Institutions
This month, the Speculation as a Mode of Production: Form as Content as Form seminar will foreground some of the ethical, aesthetic and political conditions of ‘social practice’ in the field of art as currently constituted. We will look at how this work may situate or situate itself in relation to gaps in the fabric of social reproduction in the West and elsewhere in a period of multiple, escalating crises, but also how it can be discussed in terms of ‘reproductive realism’.* Larne Abse Gogarty’s empirically and theoretically wide-ranging analysis sharply underlines a series of paradoxes in the demand that art and art institutions make themselves ‘useful’. Some of these are conservative notions of ‘use’ that please politicians and funders but do nothing to expand the capacities of sociality or critique among collectives of art production and encounter; the nostalgic affirmation of a benign Fordist welfare state; and the accumulation of heterogeneous activities and organizations under an authored trademark, as in the case of ‘arte utile’. Does art refuse its role as the idealised other to power and exploitation by embracing use, or, as we saw in the discussion of abstraction, does this simply double down and help to obscure the harmful structures that throw up that relation in the first place? Likewise, does the practical subjugation of use value by exchange value in capitalist society suffer any defeats if the debasement art suffers through its ‘cultural confinement’ (Smithson) in the white cube gives way to an art that attempts to shed its guilt by helping put people to work? Ultimately, the romanticism of ‘use’ cannot be discarded one-dimensionally, as happens in many choleric complaints of ‘instrumentalization of art’. Not only should we be interested in the desires that animate the fascination with useful art, which are., at the end of the day, desires for social change, but we can also look to some examples of practices that stay with the negative in their anti-aesthetics, suspending both the glibness of ambiguity and the piety of usefulness.
Full reference: Larne Abse Gogarty (2017) ‘Usefulness’ in Contemporary Art and Politics, Third Text, 31:1, 117-132
*a term which I am developing, and which outlines a terrain similar to ‘capitalist realism’ in its individualism and cynicism, but which is marked by a high level of assimilation of discursive radicalism. The typical gesture of reproductive realism is to identify the speculative and the critical as unaffordable for those who lack privilege. It usually ends up validating the (art) market, and other established circuits of valorisation.
The World-Gender Complex
This month we will be reading one of the central texts of decolonial thinking, a theoretical and political turn that emerged from Latin America over the past few decades. Decolonial thinking was interested in not only the deconstructive critical project of postcolonial thought, but in a wholesale overhaul of the epistemic categories of modern thought insofar as they provided the script for colonial domination and authorize the lethal exercise of a capitalism that was never anything but patriarchal and racial. While a relentless focus on historical and ongoing power relations are key to this approach, the violent production and enforcement of binary gender systems is not often developed in great depth, with Lugones as one of the better-known exception. Gender systematizes existing patterns of misogyny first in the modernizing West, as Silvia Federici shows, then expands outwards to populations of newer worlds as part of the civilizing, e.g. colonizing, process. It is not a simple but not an impossible task to demonstrate the historical emergence of concepts of race and whiteness; more fiendish is a genealogy of gender, which might seem to manifest as a division in nearly any human society that has been documented. Yet Lugones’ project is to show that gender is not simply a social category for an eternal sexual division beyond time and place, but that both are produced as part of colonial systems of knowledge and discipline. Gender is rendered specific even as colonization (a historical event) is extended to become ‘coloniality’ (a logic), a dynamic of power which is not simply about material forms of domination but about the de-legitimation of worlds and ways of being; what some scholars describe as ‘epistemicide’. This bi-directional movement of the abstract and concrete should pick up on the discussion from last month, as well as Jason Moore’s writing on the material resonance of gender and raciality as a de-valuation of labour which is also ontological; a discount in the ‘price’ of the human which capital is always trying to negotiate.
Some questions we can consider here could be: does a category like the ‘subject’ and ‘subjectivity’ also fall into the biopolitical theatre Lugones outlines here using the category of gender? What would it mean to ‘overcome’ gender, and how can we think of that in specific modes (technology, for ex.) as well as more broadly? How do we distinguish ‘capitalism’ and ‘coloniality’ if they exhibit such similar structures and drives, as they do in this text, and how does it matter?
Full reference: María Lugones, ‘The Coloniality of Gender’, in Globalization and the Decolonial Option, Walter D. Mignolo and Arturo Escobar, Routledge: London and New York, 2010: 369-90.
Who’s Afraid of Abstraction?
The fourth seminar this year, hosted by Anthony Iles, engages with the question of ‘abstraction’ as a (politics of) method, as a socio-economic force, and as a philosophical problem or problem for knowing and for action. Working through Peter Osborne’s 2004 essay ‘The Reproach of Abstraction’, in this seminar we will consider various valences of ‘abstraction’ in philosophy and art. Social life is dominated by ‘real’ abstractions such as money, race, gender, nation-states and likes, whereas abstraction can also describe operations of thought which generalize too much, thus neglecting, if not eradicating, specificity. At the same time, ‘abstracting out’ is the only way to discern patterns and tendencies, to get the ‘big picture’. Such a tension is particularly notable in the relationship between theory and praxis, be this political activity or artistic production.
Nevertheless there are other proximate concepts: system, systematicity, totality, absolute and so on which abstraction can help us to elucidate and think in relation. Thus one of the central questions is how abstraction as a social form may be diagnosed and outlined through epistemic apparatuses that themselves reflect and reproduce the violent forces of abstraction that underpin institutions of aesthetic valuation and knowledge production, even while notions of emancipation lend them a (speculative) affective charge? At the same time, the immanence of those material conditions means that epistemic rather than structural critiques of ‘abstraction’ can be reductive if not obfuscating. Osborne proposes the idea of ‘actual abstractions’ as the methodological key to a transdisciplinarity covering real abstractions of the value form and concrete practices of artistic abstraction. What then is the problematic of abstraction that troubles so many philosophical projects, leading to the common assumption that we can ‘get closer to things’ or ‘matter’ if we jettison the habits of abstract thought – an ideology that discounts the abstractions that mediate our encounters with that matter in the social reality in which it is embedded? How can we move beyond the tyranny of social abstraction and the bogey man of abstract thought to consider ‘actual abstractions’ in practice and in theory? In the seminar I will ask you each to provide two examples of actual abstractions which we discuss and together attempt to produce synthetic viewpoints through which to rethink our received understanding of artistic and philosophical abstraction.
Peter Osborne, ‘The Reproach of Abstraction’, Radical Philosophy 127, 21-8.
The Creatures, Too, Must Become Free: On Nature, Power and Capital
For our third seminar this year, we follow the critical and methodological trajectory set by our readings of Anna Tsing when it comes to the constitutive role of difference and affect in the political economy of nature, and of Marx and Sutherland in how theoretical abstraction may ‘dumb down’ the experience of social abstraction if it is unable to confront the complexity and indeterminacy of how things work – to be speculative enough, in other words. Concepts can both clarify the dissociated or object-like character of everyday life and ‘re-fetishize’ it by claiming to resolve with explanations what can only be resolved in practice. By engaging with the important contemporary work of ecologist Jason W. Moore, author of Capitalism in the Web of Life, we are led to reflect on both the inadequacy of hegemonic frameworks like the ‘Anthropocene’ and the various ways ecological thought has attempted to address environmental crisis without fundamentally considering how that environment is produced; or, as Moore puts it, we need to think past society and nature by thinking always society in nature, and vice versa, sticking to Marx’s insights into how there is no such thing as nature unmediated by social activity and the Frankfurt School’s concept of ‘second nature’ – social structures petrified into an appearance of the natural. Additionally, like Tsing’s discussion of the cultural and contingent as intrinsic to the operations of capitalist ‘ratiionality’, Moore outlines how the ‘exceptionality’ of unpaid labour performed by ‘human and extra-human natures’ is positioned centrally in capitalist accumulation, under the rubric of the ‘four cheaps’: cheap labour (unfree and/or unwaged), cheap nature, cheap energy and cheap food. This switch of perspective from the exceptionality to the centrality of the unpaid and the unmeasured – the dynamic of appropriation over the one of exploitation - to capitalist extraction and accumulation is a major clarification of the political stakes of overcoming the separation of the economic and the cultural, as well highlighting the limits of recognition and representation alone – whether symbolic or financial – as an answer to the problem.
Jason W. Moore, ‘The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:3, 594-630.
Standards and Diversity: Capitalist Worldmaking and the Fractured Totality
Can we understand speculation as a mode of production as an ongoing effort in making difference productive? Differences which are both encountered and generated by metrics, by standards, from ranking algorithms to the most established standard of all – money - along with the standards that speak in the voice of nature: gender, race, nation. Capital as an agency of world-making homogenizes with standards but needs differences – as we will see next month when we read Jason Moore, capital converts nature into a free good that it could never afford to pay for. (Ironically, the notion of ‘ecosystem services’ presents us with capital’s attempt to ‘value’ nature as a strategy of preserving it). In this session, we will be looking at the articulation of diversity with homogeneity as a core mechanism of capitalist life, with the example of the supply-chain as a key site of accumulation and signification in a financialized and global-scale market. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, a remarkable thinker of anthropology and economy, explores the role of difference and especially of scale in the world of logistics as well as the force of differentiation in the subjectivation of atomised workers always called upon to perform exploitation as (speculative) self-realization – the realization of a value that is always experienced as a need. In a second text, a chapter from her book, we are invited to follow inter-species collaboration and re-view ruins as living entanglements. Can contamination be a way of - non-capitalist - knowing?
Our final reading is a short extract from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, which suggests that the archetypal form of contemporary capitalist organization represented by logistics can in no way be understood without its first key innovation: the transport of millions of human beings across an ocean, the conversion of subjects into objects, into commodities in a supply chain used to produce other commodities. However, there is also a poetics of collectivity that such a violent transformation can also make possible in our present.
Anna Tsing, ‘Supply Chains and the Human Condition’, Rethinking Marxism, 21:2, April 2009, pp 148-76
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Chapter 2, ‘Contamination as Collaboration’, in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2015, pp 27-34
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, ‘Fantasy in the Hold: Logisticality, or the Shipped’, in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Wivenhoe, New York and Port Watson, Minor Compositions, 2013, pp 92-97
Fetishism and Form in Poetry and Praxis
In this session, we are going to investigate how subjects are transformed into objects in the production process in the classical text on the topic, Section 4 of the first chapter of Capital vol.1, 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret'. The necessity of this transformation, the fact that it is a presupposition for a whole mode of production, is conveyed here in a dense, logically challenging nutshell, making this text a sort of hieroglyphic key to the project of the critique of political economy initiated by Marx. With the second text, we encounter several other kinds of necessity, ones associated as much with the activity of criticism as the perils of exploitation. We work here through Marx’s use of figuration, evoking both anger and sinister comedy as both representation and method. The use of figurative, or, in the words of Keston Sutherland, ‘disfigurative’, language illuminates the role of form in the political imagination – not simply as a rhetorical strategy easily separated from a neutral ‘content’ but as the production of concepts: a method to describe an impossible, violent social reality itself
The second text is a sort of backstory to the concept of fetishism we find in Marx. It embarks on a deconstruction of many theoretical approaches that take an academic rather than visceral approach to Marx's work, which is to say, they employ a rhetorics of distancing rather than perform the pathos of engaging with social reality and its contradictions. With a hallucinatory, angry precision, Sutherland, who is also a contemporary poet, hones in on Marx's rhetorical strategies as they box the reader into a helpless position of implication in a panoply of horrors described. An external, or, vegetarian, standpoint is sadly out of reach. Sutherland thus provides us also with a manual for reading which does not only identify necessity in the position of the worker whose labour and life must become invisible in the system of equivalence represented by commodities (only to be conjured back at the point of consumption) but narrates the necessity of a certain position of reading, where the reasoned consumption of a critical text by a well-meaning reader is connected to, and even made phantasmatically equivalent to, the consumption of labour by the capitalist who is in turn rendered as a compulsive but not unappealing figure: the baby vampire.
Karl Marx, 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret', Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, Penguin edition, pp. 163-177
Keston Sutherland, 'Marx in Jargon', World Picture Journal, Issue 1, Spring 2008