Marina Vishmidt / How To Do Things With Theory - seminar 2014-2015 / Speculation as a Mode of Production, or: What Problems Can We Decide In This Room?

tag: Arnhem

Participants: Coco Duivenvoorde, Eduardo Cachucho, Michelle Brown, Eona McCallum, Julieta Aguinaco, Nil Ilkbasaran,  Valentina Miorandi, Martha Jager, Hu Wei, Avan Omar Muhammad, Panagiotis Panagiotakopoulos, Savannah Theis and Sebastian De Line. 

Speculation as a Mode of Production, or: What Problems Can We Decide In This Room?

How can we describe the relationship between art and capital in the current phase of crisis?

The logic of speculation makes them increasingly convergent, both dedicated to the erasure of labor and open-ended expansion and incorporation as their spontaneous ideology. Even though economic value is not created in traditional Marxian terms in the sphere of art production, abstract value derived from elsewhere is the law of operation both semantically and materially for contemporary art.

Yet, I will argue that speculation is a paradoxical mode in the sense that just as capitalism itself was once judged to have a progressive side through power to abstract and dissolve, we can see a propositional and negative side - negative in the sense of corrosive to the status quo - in the speculative movement of contemporary art.

The central distinction of the argument however is that art is 'socially speculative' in relation to labor as it performs suspensions of use and ethics in human and social activity - not just a speculative commodity in the market. Thus, I designate as the 'speculative' the moment of reflexive and suspensive production of subjectivity as it echoes across the fields of art, labour, politics and the economy.

In this seminar we will be looking at the genealogy of the figure of the artist: as a profession, as a cultural profile, as a skillset, as an image (negative and positive) that points beyond itself.

If the condition of contemporary art as post-conceptual (Peter Osborne) evacuates it of any positive content besides the network of relations in which it is positioned – we may also say 'the institution' – and the act of enunciation itself, how are we to understand the figure of the postconceptual artist beyond a residual, formal authorial function for contemporary art?

We will be departing from the premise that no positive content can be assigned to the term 'art' or 'artist'. 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-(condition of possibility) philosophical determinations that obtain on the entity 'artist' as it has developed in European modernity and into the current, global period. Which is to say, the understanding that the term is a relational one does not mean that we can only proceed through nominalism; it is possible to develop a historically grounded ontology of art.

Questions we may ask could be, for example: what differentiates artistic practices from other kinds of activity, and primarily from labour? How does the artist live her 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 use? 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? What is the negativity of speculation, in the landscape that Bassam el Baroni described so acutely in the introduction to his seminar ? Here we will be reflecting on investigations into these and similar topics by authors such as Helmut Draxler, Andrea Fraser, Stewart Martin, Melanie Gilligan, John Roberts, Claire Fontaine, Josef Strau, Viktor Shklovsky, and Boris Arvatov, among others.

A linked question will be subjectivity as premise and performance. We will be looking at the production and reproduction of subjectivity from the standpoint of its most developed, or most saturated, instance in a capitalist society: the artist. We will consider the question through recent attempts to address it metaphysically, phenomenonologically, critically and through the lens of political economy. The subject will be taken 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. 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 and the gendered 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.

One approach I would like us to focus on is French philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon's writing on 'transindividuality'. Here we will read texts by Caroline Lesjak, Jason Read, Gilles Deleuze, Fred Moten, Saidya Hartman, Jared Sexton, Felix Guattari, Theodor W. Adorno, and G.F.W. Hegel.

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 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. 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.

From DAI-week to DAI-week

Seminar 15 June, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

To Be and To Have: Economic Ontologies of Subjects and Objects

This seminar will be dedicated to considering the genealogy of the Western (modern, capitalist) subject as a property owner in the self. This is a theory of being (onotlogy) as having (economy), and using what is yours by right. The legal form of the individual and his/her property rights begins with this fundamental relation of oneself to oneself as a relation of ownership. This then echoes in further historical developments such as the juridical subject of rights, and the owner of commodities, including labour-power, which becomes the object of contractual rights. One transfers ownership of rights of disposal over something one has, not over something one is. Yet this normative understanding is tested by the key figure of modernity which is the slave. The slave is a human subject whose rights are abrogated in favour of their instrumental and economic value as an object. The resonance between theological and philosphical readings of the subject-object distinction and exploitation could not be starker than in the liminal figure of the slave, at one human and commodity, a concrete and tormented body and an abstract financial instrument. Legal scholar Brenna Bhandar's essay 'Property, law and race: modes of abstraction' seeks to install the technologies of race and value at the complex and contradictory core of modernity itself, rather than the conventional view of racism as an unfortunate leftover from 'less enlightened times' . She does this precisely by charting the history of financial abstraction through race as a technology: rationalized, calibrated and adjusted to the ends of accumulation, rather than as an irrational barrier to it. She writes, 'The treatment of people as objects of ownership through the institution of slavery calls our attention to the relationship between property as a legal form and the formation of an ontology that is in essence, racial.' Bhandar thus calls our attention to how value is reproduced as the thoughout the fabric of contemporary life in a way that is always already financialised even as it persistently embodied.

Also for our next meeting, and with relation to an ongoing thread in our discussions: a short but cogent reflection on the abiding problematic of art and value by Daniel Spaulding.

'A Clarification on Art and Value'

Seminar 18 May, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

In this session, we return to the consideration of art as a social form in a complicated dialectic with the abstractions of value in capitalism. Is the critical potential of art manifest in its distance or its embeddedness in dominant forms of market exchange and value-producing labour, or its negotiated distance from them? Some recent analyses have approached this problematic through locating suggestive analogies between the opacity and speculative nature of art and finance. Others have rather pursued the structural affinity between forms of self-exploitative and speculative labour and art practice. While many important contributions have come from both these approaches, Stewart Martin's take on this field of issues is distinctive insofar as he focuses on the logical instead of the empirical correspondences between art and non-art objects, practices and conditions. His project is to situate the relationship between art and capital in a negative dialectics of abstraction. He links the formal, structural and logical features of the commodity as the basic capitalist social form with the artwork as a perverse and paradoxical, though no less illuminating, instance of the commodity. The touchstone of the inquiry is Adorno's suggestion that there is something immanently critical about the perversion of the commodity that an artwork is and does; roughly, that the uselessness of an artwork is the basis of its critique and its autonomy, and that autonomy doesn't arise out of distance from the commodity but from full immersuon within it. This unfolds through the idea that the more the artwork is abstracted from the use-value that turns most other commodities in the market into a legitimation of the system that produces them, the more it constitutes an implicit negation of the rule (of value) to which is it supposed to represent an exception. However, this presupposition of negation needs to be extended beyond Adorno to not just a closer look at the value relations involved but to an analysis of what kinds of art practices responding to which shifts in the operations of capital are capable of actualizing it.

Reading: Stewart Martin, 'The absolute artwork meets the absolute commodity' Radical Philosophy 146, November-December 2007, pp. 15-25.

Seminar 20 April, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00

Paths Of Primitive Accumulation

In this seminar, we continue our excavation of the ontological and historical preconditions – which remain abiding conditions – of the commodity form and its production of subjectivity. The focus is on what Marx referred to as 'so-called primitive accumulation', an ironic designation for the phenomenally violent inception of capitalist relations that the ruling class preferred to see as a closed chapter, thus deflecting too-close scrutiny of how they came by their position. The dispossesion of peasants from their land in Europe, earliest on in England, kick-starts capitalist development. However, not only would this development have been materially and politically unthinkable without the concomitant global extraction of wealth from colonized territories and enslaved labour in the early modern period but myriad processes of violent expropriation continue to unfold everywhere, accelerated in the recent 'neoliberal' period as what some theorists call 'accumulation by dispossession' - once familiar from the structurally adjusted post-colony but now making inroads in Europe in the era of permanent austerity.

We will approach the question of the permanence of primitive accumulation through the analysis of Jason Read, who develops a multi-faceted genealogy of the concept by following the tension between contingency and structure in the kind of historical claim that it makes. We then look at the introduction to Glen Coulthard's Red Skin White Masks , which situates the concept in relation to the First Nations movement in Canada and finds it useful for prioritising political claims rooted in dispossession over ones that seek 'recognition', no less than its potential to forge solidarity between struggles predicated on indigenous sovereignty and anti-enclosure struggles elsewhere in settler society. Finally, though no less centrally, we read a section from Silvia Federici's Calibal and the Witch which explores how women's bodies became the first 'internal colony' disciplined by early modern capitalism. This final reading also initates next month's discussion on the profound connection between financial abstraction and slavery, displacing the prism of our discussion on 'subject-object' relations until now.


- Jason Read, 'Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism' in Rethinking Marxism, Volume 14, Number 2 (Summer 2002); pp. 24-49

- Glen Sean Coulthard, 'Introduction', in Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014; pp. 1-24

- Silvia Federici, Chapter 2 'The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women', in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia, 2004; pp. 85-115.

Seminar 23 February, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00


- 'Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System', I.I. Rubin

- 'Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A Few Clarifications', Claire Fontaine

- ' Art After Social Media', Brad Troemel

In our session this month, we will build on the previous sessions' discussions of the relational parallax between subject and object, knowledge and fetishism and continue deepening the theoretical axis while also swinging around to a more immanent perspective on working conditions for artists. It is often argued that for better or for worse the artist is the prototypical worker in the age of unregulated human capital in a creative economy – flexible, self-motivated and driven by passions other than a paycheck. The counter to this argument is to criticise the ideological agendas of such claims, whether they are made by business consultants or gender-blind post-operaist theorists. However, what if we reverse the direction of analysis and set the artist on a continuum of exploited and dependent labour, albeit defined by a horizon of autonomy and creativity? What new insights, and possibly new distortions, are afforded by such a shift? Is labour a determinate activity undertaken in a determinate set of conditions, or is everything we do productive labour for someone, somewhere? Is the artist a specialised service provider or simply good at being unemployed, and can cultural workers go on strike? And, ultimately, is labour a political rather than ontological identification?

The readings for this session will explore aspects of this question which have to do with the production of artistic subjectivity, its mediation and grounding our understanding of abstract labour as the characteristic form of labour in capitalism. The commodity of labour power and the commodity of art seem to bear different relationships to regimes of value, yet both can be seen as generic, especially as part of the generic human capacity for refusal. However, it could also be proposed that this generic capacity in the sphere of art takes the form of subjectivity as commodity – with or without a market.


Seminar 19 January, 2015, 14:00 - 18:00


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

Commodity Fetishism and the Unspeakable: the Horror-Comedy of Misrecognition

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 chaper 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 capsule form, 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. 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, paradoxically, a dismembering rather than engaged approach to social reality and its contradictions. With a hallucinatory, angry precision, the writer, who is also a contemporary poet, hones in on Marx's rhetorical strategies as they box the reader into a helpless position of appetite and 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 re-enchanted 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.

SEMINAR 8 DECEMBER, 2014, 14:00 - 18:00

Reading: Jordana Rosenberg, 'The Molecularization of Sexuality: On Some Primitivisms of the Present', Theory & Event,Volume 17, Issue 2, 2014; pp. 15-30.

Materialism at the Limit, or, The Nest of Spiders

In this session, we will be looking at an essay by Jordana Rosenberg which tries to chart a pathway through a number of theoretical objects – new materialisms, object-oriented ontologies, vitalism, etc. - and tries to read them as symptomatic of certain social shifts, even though the 'social' is something they emphatically exclude from their frameworks. These shifts include developments such as financialization or an intensified military-colonial apparatus. Rosenberg employs a higly digressive style which makes the text porous and open to intervention, giving it a texture of being constructed in 'real time', so to speak. The text thus in its materiality seems to emulate the structure of argumentation, which is that objects cannot be divested of the social relations in which they are embedded in. Those theoretical projects that poise themselves to do just that can be deemed reactionary, in both senses: reacting to what is seen as the 'hegemony of the human' both in the academy and in thought more generally, and politically reactionary, in that they turn the 'human' itself into an object, without engaging with the power relations that actually turn humans into objects (of power), such as capitalism and white supremacy. The downgrading of relations in favour of objects, or the positing of a flat and unspecified ontological continuum, is discussed by Rosenberg as 'primitivism', also in two senses: it is a 'pre-critical' endeavour, and it is a colonialist endeavour, with a fantasy of the 'primitive' that yearns for origins and (speculative) capital in a 'New World' without people.

By tracking the various 'turns' Rosenberg enumerates, we can get a grasp of how the 'subject-object' debate has played out on the theoretical field since the turn of the 21st century and what kinds of polemics and positionalities it has generated in light of the emergence of critical subjects in post-colonial, queer, feminist and race theory contexts. It also gives a portrayal of how futurity and a speculative horizon may be envisioned in terms other than the ones which have dominated the stage and shaped the debate in recent years, splitting off philosophy from politics and creating the abject object of 'theory' to be cast aside. The cross-disciplinary nature of the text is also evocative with regard to the aesthetic dimension of subject-objects relationships, as Rosenberg is in dialogue with the radical science fiction of Samuel Delany at key points of her discussion.

SEMINAR 3 NOVEMBER, 2014 14:00 - 18:00

In the first session, we will be establishing this year's focus on the production of subjectivity in and through art as an institution in a society organized through labour, class and the commodity – social relations which art mediates or displaces as symptom, omission or rupture. Criticality is situated within this field as both a normative mechanism, that is, homeostatic and reproductive of the field, and conducive to the professionalization of its agents, as well as a fissure or a leak that introduces the 'outside' in reflexive and contingent ways. Criticality should be seen as a material dimension of making, and the degree to which deliberately shaped matter can be self-reflexive is the extent to which its construction is part of a social process: the art object can be comprised of any materials, social or physical, but that only means that the porosity of this work's artistic status is inextricable from its relevance as art. Key to setting out the terms is an understanding of the status of 'subject' and 'object' as categories in philosophy and social theory, allowing us to see how the relationship between them is an index of historical process rather than an epistemic invariant or a theoretical conceit. As well as giving us a more complex overview of contemporary debates about the agency of objects, it will give us an insight into how a critical notion of 'autonomy' can still be signficant for us as artists, thinkers and social beings in our practice and the world where that practice is compelled to act.

Two texts will start us off here, one that develops a prismatic concept of critical reflexivity from the example of institutional critique in the 1980s and 1990s, and one which unpacks the subject-object relation.

Helmut Draxler, 'The Turn from the Turns: An Avant-Garde Moving Out of the Centre (1986–93)' in Exhibition as Social Intervention: 'Culture in Action' 1993, London: Afterall Books, 2014, p. 46.

Theodor W. Adorno, 'On Subject and Object', in Critical Models Interventions and Catchwords, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.