MARINA VISHMIDT / HOW TO DO THINGS WITH THEORY - INTRODUCTION TO SEMINAR 2015-2016: Speculation as a Mode of Production, or: What Problems Can We Decide In This Room?

Participating students: Nil Ilkbasaran, Valentina Miorandi, Martha Jager, Hu Wei, Avan Omar Muhammad, Panagiotis Panagiotakopoulos, Sebastian De Line, Melissa Tun Tun, Uri Ruff, Isabelle Sully, Sergi Salvas, Joy M. Smith, Despina Sevasti.

Seminar Marina Vishmidt; from month to month, from DAI-week to DAI-week

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

By Marina Vishmidt 


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

-'The proper orientation for critical practice is not to find in the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere a free space for the figuring of utopian social possibilities, but to recognize in aesthetic autonomy an already compromised class practice, a self-relating that takes its own denial into account and that is constructed around its own constitutive void. ' Marc Leger,

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

This seminar will articulate itself around two major poles: speculation and exploitation.

How can we describe the relationship between art and capital in the current phase of global crisis? The logic of speculation makes them increasingly convergent, both dedicated to the erasure of labour 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 – art both replicates the tensions of capitalist society and evacuates them. 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 a negative side - negative in the sense of corrosive to the status quo - in the speculative movement of contemporary art, just as we might in the 'abstracting' power of finanialization. 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. It is also speculative in relation to itself and its own legitimacy and survival – and here we can think of Adorno writing in 1969 that art is no longer sure of anything, not even its right to exist, and compare that with Suhail Malik thinking in this current moment about the need to exit contemporary art, and specifically the need to create 'institutions of negation.'

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, 'nature' and the economy. In this seminar, I want us to think about the 'speculative' in a broad sense, a political sense, and a collective sense, and not just as a gentrified way of talking about markets or entrepreneurship through the displacing capacities of art. If the condition of contemporary art as post-conceptual (Osborne) evacuates it of any positive content besides the network of relations in which it is positioned – we may also say 'the institution of art', as a social institution, a form of subjectivation, a social form – and the act of enunciation itself, how are we to understand the figure of the artist as anything more solid than the mystification represented by authorship or branding geared towards a market? 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-(in the Kantian sense, i.e. the condition of possibility) philosophical determinations that obtain on the entity of 'art' and its subjects as it has developed in European modernity and into the present. Which is to say, the understanding that the term is a relational one does not mean that we can only proceed through nominalism, through itemizing and extrapolating; it is possible to develop a historically grounded narrative for what we can call the 'double' 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 art live contingency? What kinds of things do we talk about when we talk about 'value' in art? Can we still think of art, as a practice or as a system, in terms of formerly polarized categories such as play and 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 and how is that like or unlike proximate categories like exploitation, subsumption and abstraction? Can we think of the agency of objects posited by some speculative materialisms in their social dimension, as part of social relations? Here we will be reflecting on investigations into these and similar topics by writers and artists such as Melanie Gilligan, John Roberts, Kerstin Stakemeier, Josef Strau, Viktor Shklovsky, Peter Osborne 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, also 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, gendered and raced dimensions of subjectivity will perhaps be of greatest interest for this strand of the inquiry, as well as notion of de-subjectivation and the subject as a radical nothingness, sometimes counterposed with a new sovereignty accorded to the object. One way of staging and querying the politics of this move is to take a look at the French philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon's writing on 'transindividuality', recently ably commented upon by Etienne Balibar and Jason Read. Otherwise we may read texts by Caroline Lesjak, Gilles Deleuze, Sianne Ngai, Fred Moten, Saidya Hartman, Karl Marx, Octavia Butler, Felix Guattari, Theodor W. Adorno, and G.F.W. Hegel. We will start the seminar with a reading of Alfred North Whitehead's essay 'Objects and Subjects', setting out some philosophical parameters for the seminar much as last year's first reading of Adorno's 'On Subject and Object did. The question of subjectivity and objectivity also needs to be asked from the standpoint of an actual but highly differentiated and differentiating eco-systemic crisis which will only escalate. Here I would like us to read works addressing some of the imperatives cited by Jason Moore in the quote with which I prefaced this lecture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer epistemologies of 'entanglement' such as those of Karen Barad, through which we will think about what kind of speculative and materialist 'xenopolitics' is possible for us now.

The conceptual methodology of this seminar can be summed up in one phrase: no abolition without realisation. Which is to say, no category or analytic orientation will be made into an object of study or an object of critique without extracting its historical and social truth content first, that is, how it may be relevant for us, even in what it ignores or disavows. Critical inquiry often proceeds one- dimensionally, turning its objects into 'things' which can then be accumulated and destroyed with the shifting tides of discursive capital investment. Think of the notion of the 'human' in speculative realism, the discourse of the Anthropocene, or the varieties of self-designated 'post-humanism', as if there was such an entity, even in thought, as the human as such, untainted by historical process or social contradiction. (Or we could, trivially, think of the usage of the term 'notions' or 'notions of' as used in current critical or marketing writing as a way of invoking ideas without saying anything about them). self-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.