20/12/21 | By Alberto Toscano

A Complex Seeing: Toward an Aesthetic of the Economy

This is the translation of an interview with Alberto Toscano, from a collection of his essays on aesthetics in Spanish: Una vision comlpéja: hacia una estética de la economia edited by Stephan Gruber and Mijail Mitrovic.

Martha Rosler - Prospect for Today, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c. 1967–72)

Stephan Gruber + Mijail Mitrovic: The texts that make up Una vision comlpéja: hacia una estética de la economia, as well as the works with Jeff Kinkle compiled in Cartographies of the Absolute, offer us an interesting panorama of cultural and artistic production around the complicated object of capitalism and the economy. On the one hand, they pose a critical discourse in the face of the inability - especially of aesthetic-political discussions in contemporary art - to deal with the representational problem of capitalism, but on the other hand, we see the reconstruction of an alternative genealogy of cultural creations (especially in the field of cinema, television, but also in art) that shows creators involved in producing images, metaphors and narratives about capitalism, sometimes even with the deliberate intention of making it visible, understandable and criticisable.

We would like to start by looking to broaden the reflection on this part of your criticism a bit: Is there something in the discourses or institutions of contemporary art that has postponed the discussion on the political aesthetics of the economy? Why amid the great re-politicisation of contemporary art since the 1990s has capitalism been relatively absent? What explains these exceptions like Farocki, Sekula or Lombardi?

Alberto Toscano: I think it’s fair to say that a widespread, if often rather gestural or superficial, political turn in the mainstream of contemporary art over the last couple of decades has not always been accompanied by a thematization of political economy. Now, I believe that, to the degree that we can advance such a comprehensive, and somewhat generic hypothesis, it would need to be developed along a number of distinct axes of inquiry: Is there something about the institutional compulsions of the ‘art world’ that privileges attention to the ‘political’ over the ‘economic’? Is the psycho-social type of the ‘artist’ impelled to take on the trappings of the ‘activist’ to mark out a kind of ethical distinction? Why have the spaces of the ‘art world’ increasingly come to demand political content (and legitimation), at the same time as other spaces (including ones priced out by the very dynamics of gentrification that galleries and museums notoriously accelerate) have been marginalised or shut down?

I don’t think there is any single story to tell here, no silver bullet. But I do think it is nevertheless striking that we have had a shift from post-68 traditions of institutional critique and contestation (say, in the US context, Hans Haacke’s 1971 piece Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, in a political-economic vein, or the Art Workers’ Coalition poster And Babies, in a more strictly political one) to the idea that the institution (including the modern mega-museum, a veritable accumulation-machine in its own right) is the space for critique. We can’t but confront this situation in all its ambivalence – notwithstanding much pseudo- political posturing, it is also true that certain institutions and curatorial practices (say, the Reina Sofia in Madrid and MACBA in Barcelona), have been able to articulate theoretical, political and cultural discourses in generative and incisive ways. A certain marginality, perhaps diminished post-2008, of the political- economic may also be chalked up to the fact that it cannot channel the experiential intensities, the little bit of the Real, which ‘politics’ promises, and which can serve as a warrant for the authenticity of art spaces. The political-economic often remains necessarily lateral, oblique, unconscious, even dreary and banal, only problematically linked to the perceptible and the sensual, in ways I’ve tried to explore with Jeff in Cartographies and in the essays collected herein.

That said, it is possible to reconstruct capacious archives of artworks in the past few decades which have articulated an ‘aesthetics of the economy’ in various ways (one can begin to gather some elements for such an archive from collections like It’s the Political Economy Stupid by Sholette and Ressler, or Money by Siegel and Mattick). I’m not certain we can talk of Farocki and Sekula, or Lombardi, as exceptions – rather, especially in terms of the first two, they are figures who were able, arduously, to invent ways of remaining faithful to the conjunction of radical politics, Marxist theory and critical art practice – tellingly, in terms of Farocki and Sekula, through extremely sophisticated recodings of photography and film via the ‘essay as form’, and vice versa. We should also not forget or minimise the collective dimension of their work (see for instance the recent reconstruction of Sekula’s place in the ‘San Diego school’, alongside Rosler, Lonidier, Steinmetz, the Antins, etc. in the show and catalogue The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium).

Harun Farocki - Eye/Machine (1991)

SG + MM: Marx is central to this project of an aesthetics of economics, and to other projects of yours. In Cartographies of the Absolute, Susan Buck-Morss criticises Marx's contribution to “imagining capital”: according to her, this would have contributed to making “sensitive” the violence of exploitation that was hidden in the visions of the economy typical of the invisible hand and the Ricardian system. How, then, can we better understand the contribution of Marx and Marxism to this perspective?

AT: I don’t think there is any single contribution of ‘Marx’ or ‘Marxism’ to the problem that, by way of shorthand, we can term the ‘aesthetics of the economy’ – as the German interwar debates between the likes of Bloch and Brecht, Lukács and Benjamin, already demonstrate, even within a relatively circumscribed and homogeneous region of Marxism, the differends are legion. I do think it is possible to excavate from the vast and layered work-site or quarry that ‘Marx’ and ‘Marxism’ represent elements of method and analysis that can help us to define a contemporary approach to these issues. Our objection in Cartographies to taking the idea of making the violence of exploitation visible as the primary task of such a Marxist ‘aesthetic’ is, to begin with, that such a revelation of empirical economic brutality can turn out to be perfectly in keeping with a liberal politics and a liberal aesthetics (as numberless exposés of hidden abodes of production, from Amazon distribution sheds to factory farms, daily demonstrate). Rather, as both Brecht and Eisenstein long ago intuited, and as Jameson sought to explore (for instance in the brilliant essay on Dog Day Afternoon in his Signatures of the Visible), the truly difficult problem is how to make sensible (which need not mean visible – something that Fred Moten rightly chastises Jameson himself for in his chapter on the ‘tonality of totality’ in In the Break) the very violence of capitalist abstraction itself.

This entails an aesthesis of systemic relations, processes, logics, not just of the stigmas, traces and wounds of capital on individual bodies – though, to cite Jameson’s reflections on Sidney Lumet’s film, the corporeal dimension is critical to cognitive mapping (aka class consciousness): ‘To be sure, as Althusser tells us, the concept of sugar does not have to taste sweet; nonetheless, in order for genuine class consciousness to be possible, we have to begin to sense the abstract truth of class through the tangible medium of daily life in vivid and experiential ways, and to say that class structure is becoming representable means that we have now gone beyond mere abstract understanding and entered that whole area of personal fantasy, collective storytelling, narrative figurability, which is the domain of culture and no longer that of abstract sociology or economic analysis’ (Signatures of the Visible, p. 38).

SG + MM: Following this line of inquiry, some interpreters of Marx propose a marked difference between Marx's project of a "critique of political economy", which would basically be the process of showing the contingency and ideology of the theories of Smith and Ricardo (or Bentham ); and Marxian "political economy" as a more adequate understanding of capitalism and economics in general. Sometimes the second is even posited as a falsification of Marx's project, carried out by the Social Democrats or the Soviets, domesticating the critical potential in Marx and being part of the reasons for the failure of actually existing socialism. From the point of view of your investigation of the representation of the economy and of real abstractions, how do you position yourself in these discussions? Is there a Marxist political economy or is it a counterfeit of the Marxists and Soviets? How do you articulate the "criticism" with the proposal, with the affirmative dimension?

AT: I think that the two extremes of this debate, which we can name positivist and iconoclastic, are both untenable. By positivist, I understand a view that, for instance, we could draw from Marx a correct way of calculating value production alternative to dominant economic paradigms. This presupposes a separation of the ‘real’ economy from its ‘theories’ which is epistemologically dubious, and which evacuates ideology of any dialectics and historicity – turning Marxism into the scientifically correct theory of a socially wrong practice. By iconoclastic, I mean the attitude which supposes that Marxism is strictly limited to a theory of capital and has strictly nothing to say about whatever may lie on the other side of that event horizon which is the abolition of value. The problem with both perspectives is made evident if we revisit this fallacious antinomy in terms of how the problem of transition is posed by Marx in his ‘Critique of the Gotha programme’ (and by Lenin’s glosses on this same text in State and Revolution): the issue is that of a determinate or immanent negation of capitalism which takes time, the truly dialectical time of the destruction and reconfiguration, the abolition and repair of a world both materially and abstractly formed by capitalist relations.

It is only if we foreground the problem of transition (which should not be misunderstood in terms of any homogeneous temporality of approximation, gradualism or progress, but as an uneven and conflictual time, the time, to borrow from Althusser, of the formal subsumption of capitalism by communism), that we can begin to articulate a political critique of political economy. The alternative is a kind of anti-economic hyper-politics (or political metaphysics), on the one hand, or an anti-political economism, on the other. And, to return to the representational register, the question that Marx poses (and Lenin after him) is precisely this: does (abstract) labour stop ‘representing’ value right away, once the political order that allows capital to reproduce itself is brought down? The answer, I think, is no. The destitution of the real abstractions and the material infrastructure (as well as the corporeally embedded ideologies) of capital is not an instantaneous event – capital cannot be decapitated, and, as theories of state capitalism sought variously to elaborate, the disappearance of the social figures of the financier, the robber baron, the latifundista, should not be mistaken for the abolition of the relations that made them possible in the first place.

Gustav Klutsis - Electrification of the Entire Country (c. 1920)

Gustav Klutsis - Electrification of the Entire Country (c. 1920)

SG + MM: In your text, "Seeing Socialism", you go from the problem of representing capitalism to the problem of "imagining socialism". This was undoubtedly the great problem of the Socialist Revolutionaries when the circumstances that occurred towards the end of the First World War brought them to power (not only in the USSR, but in the brief European experiments of Hungary, Bavaria and Austria): With what do we replace capitalism? This led to debates on socialist calculus and even the very first Frankfurt School (before the hegemony of Horkheimer and Adorno) discussed the possibilities of a rational economy of workers' councils. However, this enthusiasm for the "plan" was disappearing in Western Marxism, showing its relationships with figures of state capitalism and even totalitarianism. You also raise a tension within these "aesthetics of the plan", but what would be the dialectical lesson here when alternative economies to capitalism are imagined? How can we clearly articulate the need for transparency and rationality in economic organisation, keeping in mind its risks?

AT: As I’ve tried to explore recently with my friend Matteo Mandarini, in an article entitled ‘Planning for Conflict’ (included in a recent special issue on the return of economic planning in South Atlantic Quarterly) this problem of planning and imagination may be best recoded as a problem of antagonism and subjectivity. The legacy of the interwar calculation debates is to frame the problem of planning primarily in terms of information and efficiency. But what if – as I tried to intimate in Cartographies via the young Perry Anderson musings on Swedish social democracy or Vertov’s kino-eye – the issue where above all that of who can represent the economy (or better, class-relations) and against whom? The Bolshevik slogan ‘Who whom?’ could also be recoded as a principle of cognitive mapping. Alternatively, as Matteo and I tried to explore, the moment of the New Economic Policy (a pretty literal ‘formal’ subsumption of capitalist market economy under communist dictatorship), can also be regarded as one in which a transitional revolutionary formation tries to ‘frame’ the continued existence of class relations and class conflict ‘after’ the revolution. We can then ask whether the recognition of a continued vitality to (class) conflict doesn’t undermine the notion of transparency and calculation in a radically different manner than the one adduced by socialism’s neoliberal refuters – namely, by showing that transparency is not impossible because of the lack of knowledge or information (matters that, as some have argued, may be dispensed with by an augmentation in computing power) but because of an intractable excess of politics, of partisanship.

Dziga Vertov - Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

SG + MM: This reflection also brings us to the present time, since the context of revived socialism that is observed in the USA or Europe seems to pose this question again: moving from criticism of globalisation, financial capitalism and the 1%, to looking for alternatives to economic organisation, from measures such as universal basic income (with its implicit utopia of a post-work society), new forms of cooperativism, solidarity economies, business co-management and “market socialism”. Again, what dialectic must be taken into account now in the face of these proposals? What could you tell us about these contemporary developments in the left's political economic imagination?

AT: I was very struck, in the context of preparing a symposium some years ago on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century(1) (perhaps the chief theoretical and ideological monument of this moment – that of an urgent if often hesitant challenge to capitalism’s pensée unique), that Piketty proposes his taxation plans not primarily as a redistributionist measure but as a cognitive and representational one. Very much in keeping with the watchword of the 99% versus the 1%, Piketty is promising the possibility of mapping inequality, treating this as a precondition for achieving democratic political control over economic decisions. Leaving aside all the warranted objections to the deep limitations of Piketty’s reformism, I think it is extremely relevant and symptomatic that the book is driven by an anxiety to represent contemporary capital such that we may act upon its distribution. The rather monomaniacal obsession with taxation is justified by its promise, in Piketty’s eyes, to fuse intelligibility and action. What his fiscal proposals would do is allow people ‘to grasp their position in the contemporary hierarchy’, as he rather nicely puts it, in a passage that could have been borrowed from Jameson (with the caveat that hierarchy is a rather limited diagram for a totality of domination).

I think it would be both fascinating and fruitful to engage in a survey – perhaps analogous to the one Jeff and I undertook with regard to representations of capital in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis – of the representational, imaginary and visual dimensions of contemporary anti- and post-capitalist imaginaries. Roughly, I think that here too we can find iconoclastic and positivist temptations – fascinations with social conflagrations pointing to a life fully other than that of capital, unimaginably so, but also diagrams of alternative ways of organising the economy that often underestimate how many capitalist schemata and imaginaries they drag in their wake. Perhaps more fecund are those efforts, in theory, fiction, politics, to ‘speculate’ about different forms that the determinate negation of capitalism could take. I think some of this was at stake in debates, in which I too participated, around the imaginability of logistics in non-capitalist futures (see Jasper Bernes’s critique of what he sees as my ‘reconfiguration thesis’ and my reply) (2), but also in widespread efforts to discern islands or shard of post-capitalism in the now.

SG + MM: In your work on real abstraction you emphasise how the relationship between social phenomena and conceptuality (or even metaphysics) is not one of concreteness and abstraction, sensations and ideas, but one of constant insight. Also, and more mundanely, you are a philosopher and a cultural critic who teaches in a sociology faculty. From that position, then, how do you consider the relationship that can be drawn between aesthetic reflection, philosophy and the social sciences? Can aesthetic criticism occupy a place beyond the "hysterical " before the social sciences, that is, go beyond accounting for the limits that the attempts at representation and cartography of the social sciences produce? How can artists, sociologists, and economists concretely collaborate in dealing with real abstractions?

AT: My impression with respect to the points of intersection and friction between different areas of intellectual and institutional work (the arts and aesthetics, philosophy, the social sciences) is that the prism and problem of ‘cognitive mapping’ already forces us to abandon some traditional presuppositions about the production of knowledge and its related divisions of labour and authority. In other words, once we try to attend to the production of situated representations of one’s position or trajectory within a totality of social relations is there really a difference in kind between forms of enunciation associated with art, philosophy and social science. I’m not merely trying to blur over boundaries – which in other respects are worth retaining – but I think that it is precisely in the desire for, or the moment of, cognitive mapping that a kind of (political or meta-political) transdisciplinarity comes into effect. That is what I was trying to get at with the case of Piketty – after all this is an economist who is seeking to propose a practical and planetary response to the chronic ravages of inequality but presents his solution as… a representational one! Now, though this can be a matter of ‘collaboration’ between people with distinct analytical and representational resources and abilities, I also think that attention to the aesthetics of real abstractions, as it were, to the question of how to make impersonal and invisible systemic violence ‘sensible’, reveals the significance of ‘impure’ (if internally rigorous) approaches. This is why I think the proliferation and redefinition of the ‘essay as form’ across artistic, theoretical and academic registers (thinking here of Rosler, Marker, Sekula, Farocki, and many others) is so important, if nothing else as a reminder that a politically vital critique needs to be both an art and a science.

Martha Rosler - Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)

(1) Alberto Toscano, ‘Capital (It Fails Us Now): Introduction to a Mini-symposium on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, Historical Materialism 23.1 (2015): 53-69.

(2) https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/jasper-bernes-logistics-counterlogistics-and-the-communist-prospect; https://www.viewpointmag.com/2014/09/28/lineaments-of-the-logistical-state/

Translation by Mark Montegriffo


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