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Superconversations Day 6: Mohammad Salemy responds to Julieta Aranda and Ana Teixeira Pinto, "Turk, Toaster, Task Rabbit"


Between Angelus Novus & the Mechanical Turk

It is nearly impossible to read the allegorical use of the chess-playing mechanical Turk in the opening passage of Julieta Aranda’s and Ana Teixeira Pinto’s collaborative text and not think of Walter Benjamin’s deployment of the same allegory some seventy-five years ago in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.

It is not that hard to see why for Benjamin, Wolfgang von Kemplen’s automaton represented in the eve of the World War II the “fraudulent” technicity of scientific Marxism, which could pretend to operate smoothly only if secretly supplied with a religious belief in Soviet Communism. However, Benjamin’s Theses, as his longtime friend and collaborator Gershom Scholem claims, aren’t just the completion of his awakening from the Hitler-Stalin pact, or as Susan Buck-Morss puts it, a rejection of determinate revolutionary projects in favor of political relativism. In fact, the allegorical use of the mechanical Turk in the Theses is also an about-face from Benjamin’s more positive view of technology expressed in his Work of Art text, marking one of the first ever sightings of the rejection of technopolitical progress in Western Marxist discourse. This clean epistopolitical break from Promethean Marxism only rears its head around the end of World War II and with a rather muted pact between Western leftist intellectuals and the emerging constellation of liberal bourgeois democratic states in Western Europe and North America. Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Clement Greenberg, and the Trotskyist intellectuals of The Partisan Review are some of the figures which can be said to represent this pact who, by staying out of real politics and refusing to energize and supply the working class with fresh revolutionary platforms, managed to function as the official opposition to the new political and economic order, only not from seats in government, but from their positions in academia.

As the provider of the philosophical justification for such a shift, Benjamin formalized his exit strategy in the forward movement of the backwards-facing figure in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Thus, if proper historical dialectics before the Theses involved a straightforward synthesis of the past and present in the direction of the future, the utter failure of progress in the first half of the 20th century meant that from that moment forward, the past no longer acted as the engine of the future but instead as an anchor for the here and now, a perspective from which the present situation can be critiqued. As for the future, not only was it denied a productive role in Benjamin’s new upside down historicism, but it was also monsterized and casted metaphorically as the catastrophic “storm of progress”:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The irony here is that while the Frankfurt School figures identified the naturalization of political economy as the strategy of capital, they continued to celebrate Benjamin’s own naturalization of the technopolitical essence of progress as an inevitable natural disaster, in effect forfeiting to capital the concept and practice of future.

This reading of Benjamin’s story of the mechanical Turk and Angelus Novus is necessary first of all, because Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the 56th edition of Venice Biennale, has chosen to place the Theses and the angel of history at the center of his exhibition which he has bafflingly chosen to call All the World’s Futures. In addition to this, engaging Aranda and Pinto’s fair indictments against the cybernetic revolution requires a reexamination of one of the central philosophical allegories of twentieth century leftist thought.

As the mathematician and theorist of cybernetics Norbert Weiner put it in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, the possibilities offered by automation are politically unaligned and can either be utilized in the service of the emerging bourgeois-religious-military-industrial-system in the United States, or as a prosthetic enhancement aiding those seeking a better world.

The political indeterminacy of technology is also confirmed in a different way by the British historian John Agar, who believes that particular machines are often promoted by those who benefit the most from their promotion. Perhaps this is why Aranda’s and Pinto’s charges against our current technological condition, in one way or another, return to the late Benjamin’s change of heart. The emergence of the surveillance state; the splitting of the Internet into the good and the bad; the transformation of citizens to precarious users and the resulting disparities between the digitally obese and digitally lacking; and, finally, the tech industry’s sandboxing of our ability to repurpose technologies - all of these developments ultimately stem from postwar Western leftists’ mistrust of science, technology, and planned progress, and their nostalgic desire to follow the later Benjamin’s advice, to move backwards into the future.

Here, then, are two questions:

  • To what degree should the present form of advanced media and political technologies, resting within the grip of a corporate-government alliance, be blamed solely on the California Ideology? And, to what degree should it be blamed on the progressive left’s historic complicities, for rarely paying attention to the theory and practice of cybernetics?

  • Finally, and most importantly, isn’t it time to retire Benjamin’s Theses and abandon its epistopolitical ramifications?

Mohammad Salemy is an independent curator based in Vancouver & New York and an organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice. He holds an MA in Critical Curatorial studies from the University of British Columbia.


The Angelus Novus of Benjamin eventually came to define the way most artists engage with technology: A relationship of resistance, a yearn for the past, always accompanied with the knowledge of the ultimate futility of such a resistance. In short: I believe it is just about time we retire Benjamin’s Theses.

Platforms such as e-flux conversations, Facebook, Academia.edu, etc are creating an unprecedented acceleration of theory-oriented thought: some of the most interesting ideas I have came across in the last year did not come from traditional academic means such as classes, lectures, books. Instead, they were conversation threads on Facebook or e-flux conversations. While ideas are spreading faster than ever, artistic practice, through resistance perhaps, seems to have staled.

Similar to the Mechanical Turk, we are starting to wardrobe repetitive artistic strategies with the attire of newness whilst refusing to actively synchronize the creative field with faster growing branches of knowledge.

While I think it is to a degree fair to note that technology might be a potential threat to culture by means of globalization, enculturation, etc. I think over all, the benefits of, say, the internet for the very survival of culture far outweigh its caveats.


I found Aranda and Teixiera’s piece extremely well- reasoned (and creatively written) in a contemporary realist way. Your response Mohammad brings up the important issue of the how the Traditional Progressive Left (or institutional resistance to institutional progress: a symbiotic inertia) forecloses the idea of futurity with accusations of its complicity with a repressive, dehumanizing and dematerialized Techno-State. This techno state is typically posited as inculcating a repressive ontology or propagating an intentional, structural re-ordering of the apparatus of control to consolidate both mental and material slavery. What we are “Left” with is what Ray Brassier has termed the “perpetual advent” of emancipation narratives apposed to narratives of control. The interminable ping-pong game between these two positions represents a pre-technological form of discourse that of late has become augmented via the frictionless liquidity of contemporary news, editorial, opinion and education. The dialectical form-in- itself is a mechanical fortune teller of sorts perpetuating the illusion that it contains open dialogue free of traditional, customary terminal reasoning. We have inherited Benjamin’s angel. It protects and preserves the secretly animate, transformation narrative by covering the covenant of traditional judgement (religion) with the crossed wings of emancipatory superstition.


One thing I really appreciate about this response to Aranda & Pinto is its attentiveness to Benjamin’s multiplicity - the Benjamin who enthusiastically invokes Brecht’s “begin with the bad new things, not the good old ones”; who reminds us of the affordances of technological reproducibility insofar as it constitutes a breaking with ritual value, auratic authority, etc.; and, that thereby provides access to the optical unconscious via photography, cinema, etc. Given this opening, it might be worthwhile to consider an extended passage from Benjamin Noys’ Malign Velocities, in which the earlier, more tech/progress-positive aspects of Benjamin are brought into dialogue with the later Benjamin and also Jameson, in relation to accelerationism:

Fredric Jameson, reflecting on the contemporary moment, comments that: ‘we may pause to observe the way in which so much of left politics today – unlike Marx’s own passionate commitment to a streamlined technological future – seems to have adopted as its slogan Benjamin’s odd idea that revolution means pulling the emergency brake on the runaway train of History, as though an admittedly runaway capitalism itself had the monopoly on change and futurity.’ In light of the persistence and resurgence of accelerationism Jameson’s characterization of the contemporary left is dubious. Acceleration hasn’t gone away, and Jameson’s own retooled productivism is part of a ‘passionate commitment to a stream-lined technological future’ that persists and even increases at our moment of crisis. I want to pause on Jameson’s reference to Walter Benjamin’s ‘odd idea’ that revolution might be an act of deceleration, interruption, or stopping the ‘runaway train of History’. This obviously suggests a counter to accelerationism. The reference is to the notes for Benjamin’s 1940 essay ‘On the Concept of History’, where he writes: ‘Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.’ For Jameson, obviously, this conception is an ‘odd idea’ because it is a failure to measure up to Marx’s own embrace of capitalism, and capitalist production, as the condition of revolutionary change. Benjamin’s ‘odd idea’ had an explicit context. This was the critique of German Social Democracy, especially in Thesis XI of ‘On the Concept of History’, where Benjamin chided it for ‘moving with the current’. The conformity of Social Democracy to the ideology of progress and acceleration, and not least technological progress, meant that it was unable to grasp the dynamic of fascism and unable to critique capitalism effectively… [Yet] Benjamin adopt[s] positions that can, at times, loosely be described as accelerationist. I’ve tried to probe the fact that they also disrupt and interrupt the accelerationist fantasy of tapping into the capitalist forces of production. What I’ve suggested is that the image Jameson offers of ‘a streamlined technological future’ as the key to revolutionary change is precisely what they put into question. The result is not simply some nostalgic or pastoral vision, but rather an interruptive politics that refuses to treat capitalist production on its own terms. Instead, Brecht and Benjamin are attentive to the destructiveness of the productive forces, and particularly those that have gone off the rails. Benjamin’s registering of destruction, and its equivocation, suggests exactly that heterogeneity of time that will find its formulation in ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940). Homogenous empty time is the time of the train on the tracks, which can speed up and slow down. The emergency brake of Benjamin’s metaphor for revolution is not simply the stopping of a train on the smooth tracks of progress. Rather, as with the metaphor of the angel of history, it suggests that the train tracks into the future are being laid immediately in front of the train. In fact, the anecdote of the Tay Bridge disaster suggests that the emergency brake is applied precisely due to the derailing of the train, and threatens another catastrophic derailing. The ‘rails’ of history accelerate us to disaster if we are not aware of the destructive side of the dialectic of production. The irony, as Benjamin’s notes make clear, is that the desire for acceleration on the tracks of history breeds passivity before the productive forces: ‘Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogeneous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity.’ The idea of the tracks stretching into the future leaves revolution as a receding moment – the station we never quite arrive in. The result, contra to the revolutionary intervention, it is the constant stoking of the train, i.e. the capitalist productive forces. This is another instance of accelerationism, which either tries to actively increase the speed of capital, or simply becomes the passenger on the train, allowing the constant destruction of living labor at the hands of dead labor to do the work. The conclusion is that the emergency brake is not merely calling to a halt for the sake of it, some static stopping at a particular point in capitalist history (say Swedish Social Democracy – which the American Republican Right now takes as the true horror of ‘socialism’). Neither is it a return back to some utopian pre-capitalist moment, which would fall foul of Marx and Engels’s anathemas against ‘feudal socialism’. Rather, Benjamin argues that: ‘Classless society is not the final goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption.’ We interrupt to prevent catastrophe, we destroy the tracks to prevent the greater destruction of acceleration. The emergency brake is the operator of Benjamin’s non-teleological politics of temporality, which aims to wrest the classless society from the continuing dialectic of production/destruction that is our constant ‘state of emergency’. Instead of accelerating into destruction, we have to think destruction as an intimate and on-going possibility… Benjamin’s interruption suggests a more definitive break (or brake) with the aim of production. The stopping of the angelic locomotive tries to jump the tracks of history, or jump out of the vision of history as infinite waiting for the revolutionary situation. Inevitably this jumping of the tracks will produce something new – there is no simple way outside of production, as we have repeatedly seen. To interrupt acceleration(ism) is not to give up on the new. We can, instead, consider production as an interruption, as a series of experiments that have ‘frequently miscarried’. This does not prevent the ‘ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption’ which would be the real condition of the new. Brecht and Benjamin’s thinking of interruption is a thinking of intervention that not only stops acceleration, but also rethinks production and the very notion of ‘productive forces’. The difficulty of applying the emergency brake does not mean that interruption should be abandoned.

In other words, the emergency brake concept, like other elements of the Theses, is not an entirely anti-progress concept, and it’s not only about, as Noys points out, “slowing down”. But I’m left wondering what would result from excavating and articulating the manner in which Benjamin’s work can, at a minimum, be understood as “loosely” accelerationist, so that we don’t reduce him to a worshipper of ritual value, originary auras & emergency brakes (as Mohammad’s piece thankfully does not do!), but instead grasp the implications of his engagement with what at least in his time, were amongst the most advanced technologies: glass skyscrapers, cinema, photography, unconscious optics, etc. Keeping this in mind then, do we read Benjamin in the Theses as suggesting that the rails of history still accelerate us to disaster, even when we become collectively cognizant of the destructive side of the dialectic of production, which is to say, when we reach the point at which we might selectively affirm specific modes of acceleration, rather than, as Srnicek & Williams put it, “experienc[ing] [only] the increasing speed of a local horizon, a simple brain-dead onrush”? How might a close reading of Benjamin on these points still enable “an acceleration which is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility”?


Tom, please explain this sentence in the context of your description of how the cycle between domination and emancipation has become the standard future-discourse of the Traditional Progressive Left. Pretend (or think) that I am stupid, so be thorough.

@Dadabase There is a particular form of writing(?) that has thrived and been particularly useful in the tradition of the Benjaminian left, as you posit it; the “postwar Western leftists… who mistrust science, technology, and planned progress… with a nostalgic desire to move backwards into the future” (NB: I think a special place must be reserved for post-colonial theory in this narrative, for the way it posited anti-universalism as a new universal norm, but PWL’s will serve for this discussion).

I want you to speak about this form and perhaps name it: in some ways, one of the primary ways in which it has been refined has been on the pages of e-flux. As someone who is dedicated via this platform to building a community around discussion, the question of how we should talk and write to each other is no doubt on your mind.

This form gets made fun of at a surface rhetorical level as “artspeak”, or general humanities dissertation material: perhaps a fondness for neologisms/certain names, a dependence on the construction, “A both [verb]s and is [verb]ed by B”, and careful attendance to the law of three (see what I did there?). The general effect of this rhetoric is to make argument impossible. Perhaps this is also the proper effect of contemporary art. As @Victoria puts it in the Day 3 thread,

“contemporary art’s metaphorical condition operates as a poetic imaginary for futures that we could construct but shouldn’t be so foolish as to think we should actually construct them because that would basically amount to fascism.”

This operates as a parallel to the way that (note that the word “parallel”, because it flattens relationships and elides causality is a typical marker of such discourse)

“ontological liberalism “aids and abets” the current liberal formation because it so conveniently preserves the right to individuality while making it indeterminate. I suppose, to go back to more classical forms of liberal theory, ontological liberalism makes negative freedoms inalienable while positing positive rights as an overreach.”

What is the relationship between everything-is-connectedism (“All the World’s Futures” is very much in this vein) and this political position?

On a related note, Amanda Anderson has written with a determination that was important to me on the value of argument. A good review of her The Way We Argue Now points out an inescapably “meta” problem that I think you too are situated in: you are arguing that others are arguing against argument, when they might deny (without denying) that they are arguing at all. Why did you raise your voice? (I copied that from Bruce Robbins.)

In one section, she draws on her previous work on the Victorian liberal tradition (which via Arnold would later become in the American context institutional liberalism of, say, Lippman, Drucker and Wiener, which has, frankly, one of the most energetic defenses available of collectivity as the route to individualism) and in particular, the development of “forms of distance” (whether in telepathy, analysis, or aesthetics):

part of what defines the peculiarly Victorian response to the disenchantments of modernity is the attempt to imagine the methods of modern science, critical reason, and cosmopolitan detachment in terms of exemplary or heroic characterology: in this way, what we might call early antifoundationalism was underwritten by ethos, and thereby imbued with value, achieved or earned through practices that could successfully take on a human face.

She has argued very emphatically for character (she is coming out of novel studies, where character has frankly disappeared with the interest in narrative) as an appropriate and robust response to the critique that “everything is constructed”: yes, how encouraging, let’s “build character,” then.

So this has lead me, without planning, to a criticism, Mohammad. I can hardly fault you for not mentioning this, that and the other. But: the Theses’ critiques (and the inheritors, Aranda and Pinto among them) derive their energy from a normative ethics (that can never be formally described (why?)) that is implied usually through reference to historical conditions like precarious labor (Amazon Turk) or fascist states (the end of the interbellum). A proper refutation of such a position would require an alternate historical narrative, or the careful sifting of significant connections from incidental ones–which you are doing nicely, but also an idea of the good:

How should we go about thinking betterment? Where do we turn to, what traditions and what resources? You have mentioned cybernetics, which I don’t think has a fully-developed ethics; it’s a mechanics with perhaps an implicit ethics, but that still needs to be made explicit. I have mentioned Victorian liberalism and its inheritors in American corporatism/managementism (which is closely tied to cybernetics) and should note also Mou Zongsan and the other modern Chinese philosophers that I came to by way of Reza Negarestani.

PS I will note that I could have described the implicit ethical norms in the Theses critique as being another person inside the Turk, but I didn’t. That’s because not everything is connected equally.


I think the fact that the curator of this year’s VB begins his main statement by the most problematic passage of the Theses shows how right you are Manuel in highlighting the extent of the influence this text has had on artistic imagination in the last 50 years if not more. I really think reading Buck-Morrs’ The Origins of Negative Dialectics is crucial for rethinking the place of the Frankfurt School not only in the history but the future of culture.


@tommcglynn I cannot agree more. In order to turn around and attend to the future, the Angel of History either needs a loving kick in the butt or a new bionic neck that would upgrade (or downgrade, depending on how one views history) him to a Janus-like figure.

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I would never make the assumption or even pretend that you are stupid dxb as that would be an illusion that I would then have to prove in the light of divine reason. I would prefer not to do this. My point in evoking a mechanical fortune teller in substitution for a mechanical turk was to re-position the argument from an orientalized chess match toward the mystification that occurs when one sincerely asks an automaton to respond in dialectical fashion to one’s speculative query. The mystifying answer will always be automatically perpetuate another mystified question. The fortune-teller as noumenon, (or perhaps as the reflexively intuitive habit of reasoned discourse) can only be “played” when one refrains from putting another coin in the slot to perpetuate the virtual conversation. In other words the dialectic between the Left and the Right depends upon perpetuating an agreement on the abstract terms of that dialectic. To “make argument impossible”, not by winning the ground but by refusing to engage on compromised ground, therefore is a pragmatic goal that might be productively explored by whatever Left is still functioning at this point in time.

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@tommcglynn I have thought a lot about the interface of this early attempt by Europeans to construct an artificial intelligence. As one might imagine the skeumorphic operations in this crazy device is twofold: from the one hand, the mystifying & exotic value of the Turkish attire which already is associated with an oriental flavour of cunning is used to dress up the machinic claims of the device with a form of humanity. From the other hand the device as a whole is completely anti-skeumorphic, camouflaging its real human essence.


@DADABASE The fact that a necessarily smaller human actually manipulated the (inscrutible) illusion of technology is probably still how we reason and visualize technology to ourselves, not as alien but as other, compressed. This is not so much a form of ventriloquism as it is a form of anthropomorphic discovery. This notion tends to limit discourse to recuperation and conservation of “organic” reason. Interesting to think of nanobot research in this light.

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As asked by Mohammed Salemy above - and one wonders to what degree the fault with the Left lies in the tacit rejection of the technological in favor of the tried and failed methods of the past: organizing in the standard manner, pamphleteering, placard street protest.

Starting with the eden of cybertechnic aesthetic, the rave culture of the '90s is emblematic of how the world of “cyberpunk” was co-opted by entrepreneurial capitalism and made to work as a tool for the generation of surplus value and corporate profit. From DIY collectives of underground DJs the raver motto of PLUR (Peace. Love. Unity.Respect.) has been replaced by mega-DJs, and stadium dance parties; a generation earlier the sell-out musicians of a formerly revolutionary form of music, Rock and Roll, thrilled arenas full of adulating fans eagerly buying the t-shirt and smoking a little subversive weed. What need one say about the assimilationism of gay wedding cakes; are these symbols of revolt or bourgeois acquiescence of a movement formerly revolutionary? Has Stonewall become walled-in and safely contained within a manageable capitalist cultural ethos?

The Left, and those underground movements which have associated with it, have failed to engage the realities of Capital and its ability to assimilate the rebel for the cause of profit. This in answer to Salemy’s question squarely places the blame on the failure of the Left to fail to engage with the theory and practice of cybernetics.

Albeit a few, Anonymous is exemplary, along with a few cyber-heroes, Assange, Manning, Snowden, have successfully engaged the neoliberalism of California corporate Silicon Valley elites, the rest for the most part have passively depended upon the march down the public road with the hastily scrawled words of protest of a placard and method of self mollification in the face of the new reality of cloud computing. Who are the researchers of cloud protest, cloud riot, cloud molotov?

One recalls the dreams and aspirations inspired by the Apple commercial of the 1984 Olympics, does this commercial not now resemble the actuality of Apple with the latest gadget rolled out to an audience of slavish spectators( Apple 1984 Ad )?

Watching that ad shows the startling prescience of what has become the Californian Ideology and the failure of the Left to adopt and re-purpose these instruments to the end of reconfiguring culture. Have not these corporations become the hunchbacked dwarf inside the apparatus of the mechanical Turks of Silicon Valley?


@DADABASE, your question,

[quote=“TheNewCentre, post:1, topic:1639”]
To what degree should the present form of advanced media and political technologies, resting within the grip of a corporate-government alliance, be blamed solely on the California Ideology
[/quote] reminds me of the tendency to conflate finance as a tool with the manner in which it is predominantly deployed today (something that we have in part discussed in this conversation. While I wouldn’t go so far as to argue for a complete neutralization of the relationship between the constitution of tools/technologies that organize our present moment and the political “flavors” of the historically specific organizational modus operandi (a la Manuel de Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History), I do think that the resistance to constructively reimagine and repurpose these tools is not only holding the Left back from revamping its political project on a global scale but is also prohibiting those who are already working on these projects from gaining the needed traction and visibility to reach the set out goals. Not only do these projects have to deal with the difficulties of operating in an ideologically hostile environment, but the very factions that should be supporting them turn out to be their greatest critics! That’s a pity. I think this raises questions around solidarity that are rarely formulated as such.


I am also thinking about changes to technology as they relate to changes in platforms, specifically in regards to conversations that have come out of internet sites like Facebook (or e-flux conversations, Academia.edu, etc). One one hand, Facebook is business oriented --it sets itself up as the only means of access to this space. At the same time, Facebook is a massive platform that makes internet available to everyone. Publicly accessible platforms open up space for generative conversations and allow for more experimentation. These ‘open’ platforms are subject to privitization/commodification, but there is also the possibility for worldwide distribution.


In a broader sense, I think its pertinent to quote David Baltzer’s new book Curationism. On Jens Hoffman’s “Show time: the 50 most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art”, is yet another unintentional postmortem on the avant-garde, a beautiful coffee-table book asserting, through a list, a canon of shows that rarely predate 1990. The oxymoronic phrase instant classic comes to mind." Baltzer goes on in the next parragraph about When Attitudes become Form 2013: "An uncanny restaging of Szeemann’s famous show, it might be deemed “exhibitions porn.” It also belongs in the broader cultural context of “nostalgia porn,” (He cites other examples of this, such as pop bands reuniting and playing classic albums, without anything new. This is a fundamentally anti-avant-garde approach to art production. This all points to an obsessive fixation on a permanent past.


@Liev I can’t agree more. I think besides their romantic trust in the popular street modes of change and progress, the other major shortcoming of the classic left is their weak cybernetic conception of the trickling down effect, believing that whatever intelligentsia does in their specialized world will somehow naturally influences the bigger society and causes positive change. This is why epistopolitics is a better term than knowledge/power for describing the relationship between politics and truth. Not only is truth political but also that the direction of its “politicality” will have to be politically determined. In other words, even the production of good knowledge if not then taken up politically and pushed through in the right direction cannot be subverted by the powerful towards misguided aims.

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@victoria, I don’t think recognizing te socially transformative potentials of financialization should stop us from talking about the California Ideology or the progressive left’s inabilities in dealing with it. These kind of inquiries help secure a future in which financialization can be put to productive use.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it! - Ferrys Bueller’s Day Off

this is a truly fascinating discussion and many of the comments so far contemplate aspects of my reaction to these texts. there is, nevertheless, something i’d like to bring attention to. when aranda & pinto state that In spite of the political, economic, and ecological crisis of the last few years, the new social forms and categories that have emerged have failed to constitute themselves politically, and it’s hard to fathom what form change could take - i believe they might be a bit over pessimistic. in that respect, their text is genuinely illustrative of contemporary thought. after all, general pessimism is, together with cynicism, the overarching malaise of our critical thinking today. sloterdjik’s critique of cynical reason nails it:

cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. it is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. it has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered

left and right can be just as cynical, although in different ways. my point being that not everything is bleak and dark in the anthropocene. california has, at times, an abundance of sunlight to offer. if we look closely enough we will find visible indicators that represent how new forms of decentralised, autonomous, autopoietic political formations are beginning to emerge globally, challenging and undermining corporate control. higher social awareness of the toxic effects of corporate strategies has already had a concrete impact in catalysing loss of profits, two important examples being monsanto and mcdonald’s, two corporations which are experiencing serious damage from consumer rejection of their brands. of course my saying this makes me vulnerable to all kinds of deconstructive attacks based on the naivety of my arguments, or, better yet, on the “right-wing” approach which would be inherent to conceding to the existence of any positive aspect within capitalism. both critiques would miss the mark. it all goes back to paradox and contradiction (i’ve explored these ideas before in a comment i’ve made to jason’s response to boris groys). basically, i don’t think that the canon of the social sciences is the place to look for the answers we need today. my point of view would be that these answers have a better chance to be found via a direct and active transdisciplinary engagement with science and technology themselves - but that would be the topic of another conversation.


So true Victoria, there are few issues around the supposed failure’s of the Left that can be analysed, but the “lost in language” long critical process against the other’s use of language, is definitely a huge one. The fascist have more solidarity, as they are driven by impulses and affects, the capitalist are more practical, as they are driven by numbers. The Left is left with language as Boris Groys tell us in the Communist Postscript. Maybe this site could become a source for this possible potential force… but with out a common will to affect and solidarity how are we going to get anywhere?


Dear Mohammad,
thank you for your thoughtful response, whereas I am by no means sceptical about technology, I am very sceptical about narratives that conflate technology with potency. When it comes to cybernetics I think one should take into account that the twin principles at play, “information” and “noise” are a reconceptualization of the dual principles of “work” and “waste” in William Thompson’s formulation of the second law of thermodynamics, concerning the dissipation of energy, i.e., entropy. Thompson, on the other hand, mirrored Darwin’s concepts of “fecundity” and “selection,” which are roughly equivalent to the opposing forces of reproduction and starvation that Malthus argued would constitute a “Malthusian equilibrium” – a stationary state akin to what Adam Smith described as the equilibrium achieved by the law of “supply and demand” (regulating devices—especially after Watts’s incorporation of the governor into the steam engine in the 1780s—had been correlated with a political rhetoric, which spoke of “dynamic equilibrium,” “checks and balances,” “self-regulation,” and “supply and demand,” ever since the dawn of British liberalism, Otto Mayr wrote extensively on this topic, btw) Similarly, the notion of a feedback loop between organism and environment was already present in the theories of both Malthus and Darwin.
Though I would agree that, in principle, the “possibilities offered by automation are politically unaligned,” every scientific theory has a political unconscious. Simply put, although feedback and dialectics represent motion in similar ways, cybernetics is an integrated model, while dialectical materialism is an antagonistic one (obviously an integrated model is hard to reconcile with the narrative of class struggle, which is, I believe, the reason the left failed to engage with cybernetics).
On a more general note: before the 18th century, neither history or society were issues of primary concern for philosophic inquiry. Rather, both fields were seen as secondary to other problems, such as the nature of human consciousness or of the physical world. Social ills were understood to be the result of deficient knowledge, and expected to dissipate the moment one would manage to successfully describe the inner workings of the laws of reason or of those of physics (I am paraphrasing Hayden White). It was Rousseau, who first argued that no amount of intellectual progress can alleviate human suffering and that social ills need to be addressed by social means. Rather than an indictment of technology, our essay is meant to be a critique of the ideological forms that animate it, like the triangulation of novelty-potency-technology and the ensuing dismissal of the social as a domain of inquiry. Though I would totally agree the left needs to reclaim technology the devil is in the details: how? Without an a economical model you don’t have a political plan…


Rousseau has had great influence in the development of our society, that is for sure, but lets also remember, and to quote someone else on it
From Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy:
Ever since his [Rousseau’s] time, those who considered themselves reformers have been divided into two groups, those who followed him and those who followed Locke. Sometimes they cooperated, and many individuals saw no incompatibility. But gradually the incompatibility has become increasingly evident. At the present time, Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill, of Locke.
I wonder if a person that shuffled all his sons to orphanages and stole from friends can be very involved in alleviating human suffering. I mean, his immediate legacy was Robespierre’s reign of terror and the radical Jacobins. Is this the world we want to live in?