Bassam El Baroni / HOW TO DO THINGS WITH THEORY - SEMINAR 2015-2016: 


Participating students: Miguel Angel Rego Robles, Mathilde Sauzet, Kristinn Guðmundsson, Peter Sattler, Katja den Dulk, Jammie Nicholas, Maja Renn, Dimitra Kondylatou, Giulia Crispiani, Hannah Kindler, Helen Zeru Araya, Mirjam Linschooten, Zhenia Vasiliev, Astarti Athanasiadou.

Seminar Bassam El Baroni; from month to month, from DAI-week to DAI-week

Constructive Alienation and the Anti-Sublime

By Bassam El Baroni



This seminar establishes connections between different research areas but is primarily axised on the complex question of subjectivity in connection to political agency in art practice today. Increasingly a general demand on artists is to either come to terms with a shrinking or undoing of political agency in a non-human-centric cosmos or to practice art in the ‘now’ of a specific context, sacrificing representation and replacing it with interaction. But, the question runs deeper since both of these impulses are annexed to canonical ideas of truth i.e. reality that in the case of the former binds artistic subjectivity to presumed laws of nature while in the case of the latter marshals that subjectivity according to the dictates of short term political urgencies.

Generally speaking, there is a noticeable tendency for the first impulse to end its journey at a station we know all too well, that of the sublime that contradictory feeling of “pleasure and pain, joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression”[1] born of the sense that “we are one with the world, and therefore not oppressed, but exalted by its immensity…”[2] In relation to the recent reinvigoration of this classical form of the sublime, there is also an intensification of the technological sublime as an alternative binding horizon. As for the second impulse, the gamble is on direct impact and political change, knowing very well that art practices/projects, in general, usually don’t instigate more than cosmetic or minor changes to a context. One can label this situation ‘the trench’ and we can find a well formulated expression of how it challenges us in the following quote by Reza Negarestani:

This is the paranormal metaphysics of force to which the triad of art, philosophy and politics have, for the longest time, been tethered, whether under the heading of the sublime (Kant) or the event (Badiou), where the canonical truth is in fact the logical expression of a classical regime of force […]. In divorcing ourselves from one species of metaphysics of force, we simply encounter another. The shift from art to politics in order to jettison the aesthetic paradigm of the sublime finds itself at the doorstep of the political event. Likewise, in taking shelter from the politics of the event and its assertive rhetoric, one is lured back to the sublime, in which the most violent manifestations of force associated with an inaccessible global structure of powers (nature) are enforced by the subtlest modes of rhetoric and mystical otherworldly insinuations: ‘The beauty of the sublime is that it is encountered only rarely, but when it is…’ [3]


Against this background and as a possible way out of such limited and historically conditioned trenches the seminar suggests a reification of artistic subjectivity along revised notions of ‘the self’ and personal identity through an investigation of the differences and tensions between a) what science tells us we are (scientific understandings of human subjectivity) and b) what we cannot help but think we are in everyday interaction (popular, socially constructed understandings of human subjectivity). This will take us into the territory of philosophers such as Thomas Metzinger, Wilfred Sellars, Johanna Seibt, and Ray Brassier. By working toward engendering forms of artistic negotiation between these two separate understandings of selfhood (the scientific and the popular), both of which remain real and necessary, the aim is to forge ways of approaching art that are both intellectually honest (a notion that we will explore through the work of thinkers such as Metzinger and aim to develop together) and constructive. This commitment to a constructive non-sceptical approach to thinking about art, one which adjusts itself to take scientific understandings into account is connected to the burgeoning notion referred to as Constructive Alienation which can be detected in various Promethean philosophies and theoretical writings.

Constructive Alienation is the idea that alienation, usually considered a negative side-effect of capitalist expansion and progression, should rather be understood as a desirable and positive condition from which to investigate and navigate the future of the human in a world of unbridled financialisation, dwindling natural resources, advanced technologies and digitality, and a growing awareness of the chasm between scientific disclosures of the human and popular constructs of the human. This contemporary form of ‘Constructive Alienation’ has been incubated in recent philosophical and aesthetical thinking as the field of germination from which to probe and attempt to articulate what it might take to flesh out new and sophisticated agencies that would take all these factors into consideration, agencies commensurable with the demands of a complex future unfolding as we speak. This operation has demanded a constant reassessment of our understanding of pivotal notions such as freedom, will, and consciousness and the wresting away of any false or unrealistic hopes in the immediate present of the general socio-political condition. It thus takes steps toward understanding human subjectivity in relation to registers in science, (information) technologies, and updated analyses of the workings of present day capital.

Consequently, the seminars will work through writings from each of these registers, a journey which will stop at the writings of thinkers as diverse as Thomas Metzinger, Riccardo Manzotti, Ray Brassier, Johanna Seibt, Quentin Meillassoux, Luciana Parisi, Matteo Pasquinelli, Matthew Poole, Suhail Malik, Amanda Beech, Patricia Reed and others. Furthermore, working toward and speculating on a constructive and anti-sublime vision of art we addresses the growing importance of the notion of ‘Real Abstraction’ and the question of why it is gaining traction in the fields of political theory, philosophy and art. The aim will be to locate the overlaps, intersections, and convergences between Real Abstraction and Constructive Alienation. Real Abstraction can be understood as the process that essentially creates value in the human brain through the acts of exchange that happen outside it. Some thinkers have implied that if understood properly and interlinked with different fields of knowledge and interaction, Real Abstraction is key to an intellectual rigorousness and plasticity capable of transforming the current limitations of art practice. To this end we will explore Real Abstraction through Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s groundbreaking book Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology (1978) and the writings of Alberto Toscano as well as others.


[1] Lyotard, Jean-François. 1992.The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Stanford University Press, p.92

[2] Schopenhauer, Arthur.1909. The World as Will and Idea (Vol.1 of 3). p.272

[3] Negarestani, Reza.2013. First and Final Machines: From Metaphysics to the Forensics of Force in Final Machine – Amanda Beech. Falmouth: Urbanomic, p. 9-12