Natalya Serkova: I’d like to start with the question of time and time dimensions of reality. There are now two successfully coexisting modes of discussion in the discourse of humanities. The first one refers to the formula 'here and now', so one may get the impression that everyone is obsessed with present and feverishly afraid of dropping and losing it. The second refers to all sorts of 'post-' prefixes intrusively penetrating research and theory as if pointing to the fact that the future is far behind for the contemporary subject. What does the active use of these two formulas signify for you?
Armen Avanessian: Maybe I reside too much in the tradition of Enlightenment optimism, but I think there is always a reason, one can understand it and make the contradictions disappear. This is also the case with regard to different notions of time and temporal experiences, even if there is a certain lack of understanding of real transformations that take place right now. As you might know, I worked on the concept of a new time complex. Today societies are increasingly governed and structured by automation and computer algorithms. Such complex systems have a huge impact on our lives and shape our environment way more than before. Things are influenced and governed from the future. Preemptive policing takes place, such as when people are investigated or even imprisoned before they act, as you see in Minority Report. Indications of the future become signs of the new temporality. It comes from the future and no longer works chronologically. A failure to understand this can lead us to regress to a nostalgic model of time and the good old days.
We long to live in the present while at the same time we realize that we are gaining less traction in this present. We have more and more difficulties changing our present with the means we got used to from the past. We don’t have the words, we don’t have the understanding, we don’t have the strategies to deal with what is new or the new normal. For example, it might be that we no longer live in capitalism but in something more like post-capitalist financial feudalism. So these things belong together: not understanding the new time, not having the terms for it, not having strategies for it. Not sufficiently grasping this is the reason for the longing to live or experience a full present (that we supposedly lived in the past). There are fantasies about the present being contemporary that are essential within contemporary art, as opposed to modern art, futurism and avant-garde, all of which must strive towards the future, whereas contemporary art is rather critically engaged with the present. And these fantasies do not help to grasp the new time complex we live in, which we haven’t understood either conceptually, or politically, and we fall from the one side of contradiction into the other, from the ‘post’ to the willingness for living in ‘here and now’. Whereas in truth we are neither in the ‘now’ nor ‘post’, but rather ‘pre’, with our problems approaching us from the future.
NS: The concept of post-truth implies that we had access to truth, reality, and facts in the distant days of miracles in contrast to the present moment. How relevant is the use of this concept, and why do you think that it became so popular?
AA: There is another concept I find very important—hyperstition. Together with Christopher Roth, I made a film with this title, implying that some questions cannot be tackled only by means of a philosopher, a writer, an artist, or a filmmaker, or a painter (As if these distinctions ever make sense; shouldn't isolate one’s field). Most likely it was Mark Fisher who came up with the term of Hyperstition as a mixture of superstition and hype. It is the phenomenon of ideas having the capacity to realize themselves, to become real and to do so from the future, and that’s what links it to the new speculative temporality and the new time complex. We are living in a time when things that are not true, apparently can nevertheless become true. Now in the 21st century, we are dealing with fiction being real and sometimes fake news having the capacities to become real.
There is a lot of discussion on social media about influencing people in a kind of preemptive way, all these rumours about Cambridge Analytics or Russia influencing American elections or meddling in Ukraine. On all levels, we are confronted with problems and unclarity. What I think is very important is not to react in an extreme way saying there is no such thing as truth, which would only play into the hands of regimes using disinformation strategically. A late 20th-century post-modern discussion of truth isn't that helpful anymore I fear. You have commentators who say: 'Well, it's Derrida's fault we now have populist leaders who blur the distinction between true and false'. I think that is also far too naive and far too easy. Instead, the present derives from the future, and therefore we need to understand the future to understand the present and not the other way around. This also implies a very different way of understanding what truth is. Truth is no longer what is here and now in front of us as we address it and try to say something adequate to what we see, but rather we have to preempt it, we have to grasp something of our reality before it arrives, which asks for very different concepts in a very different intellectual and artistic practice. That is what I am advocating for.
NS: Hannah Arendt, who at the time introduced the term totalitarianism into the philosophical discourse, later said she doubted its relevance. Today it seems we are well aware that there are blind spots in any totality not visible to the system. However, can we say with certainty that such blind spots exist in the modern neoliberal system, and if so, what is the most convenient place for a philosopher who wants to influence the existing order of things—on the outside or the inside of these spots?
We live in a neoliberal nexus of politics and economy. We need to come up with new terms to understand the 'new normal' instead of saying things like proto-fascism, neo-fascism or post-truth. All these prefixes indicate we don't get to the bottom of things. What are the alternatives to totalitarianism or fascism? I already mentioned one before: what we see about our current reality if we think about it as financial feudalism and no longer as capitalism or industrial capitalism. What if we live in a political economy where automation and financialization dominate the world with more and more money being created out of money? What are these new conglomerates we see, offshore zones and economical enclaves, with whole territories and governments run like businesses and by businessmen? Maybe we need to analyze such phenomena as part of a new configuration and not as a lapse back into totalitarianism and fascism or other things we know from the past. So let us ask, why we still call this a capitalist world? Maybe because we live in a kind of surveillance capitalism, according to Shoshana Zuboff. But I would distinguish between the economy and the technologies that create a world in which every one of our actions is monetized and it becomes less and less possible to hide.
NS: It is not obvious to me that a philosopher who creates a text makes any significant changes in social and political reality. The inextricable link between theory and practice remains a very difficult concept. It is not without reason Bourdieu begins his famous book Practical Reason with a quote from Joyce’s Ulysses, which compares such spatially distant objects as the woman and the moon. What is your answer to the question about this connection between theory and practice as a philosopher and practitioner, and how do you act strategically from your position?
AA: There is a difference between theory and practice. On the other hand, there is no theory without practice, theory is practice, and practice is always informed by theory. Theory and practice for me cannot be separated. I am not just a theoretician, I am very much aware of writing being a practice, a technological setting, an epistemic configuration that structures what we say and how we talk to each other and what we come up with. That is one reason why I am always interested in doing theory in the art world (which is not the same as writing about art, on the contrary). Am I doing what I do as an artist, as part of an artwork, am I doing it as a performance, am I doing it as a filmmaker? And what can I learn from all these practices that differ from the usual practice of academic or critical writing?
A blind spot of many theoreticians is that they are practitioners. There is not enough thinking about their practice, besides thinking about such things isn’t sufficient either. Instead of reflection, I’m more interested in recursion, in the idea of taking parts from a whole, putting it together with something else, thereby changing the whole and the part itself. What happens if I integrate some reality, some practice into my theory or the other way round? I always try to experiment with the platforms I use, or better: the platforms that help produce what I do and that I produce as much as they produce me. Recently together with others, I established together with others a School of Disobedience that is addressing this issue. The goal is to bring together theoreticians and practitioners on topics that cannot be separated: crypto-economics, climate change, artificial intelligence, technological disobedience in general, fact-finding, digitalization and digital environments, AI justice. Every time we try to engage with people and institutions that are working in the field and essentially are practitioners.
In any case, being sceptical about this distinction between theory or practice in the first place is not enough, but one has to make it a general practice to have some political or social traction.
NS: The speculative realism of Quentin Meillassoux gave us a notion of contingency. We can no longer consider the cause-effect relationship between objects and phenomena as we could have afforded to do before. In art, it is manifested in the tendency of objects producing reality instead of describing it. Do you think it is ultimately possible today to ‘do things with art’?
AA: Contemporary art is exhausted but is continued as long it is good for business, at the expense of possible alternatives for interesting artistic production and distribution. Whatever will become of this moment or period of transition I cannot tell, and it is not the function of philosophers or even art critics to prescribe what should happen. What I can speak about though from direct experience is how theory and philosophy start to relate differently to art. A while ago art history or art criticism had a very specific function, namely nobilitating artworks, being critical towards artworks, describing the alleged criticality of the artworks. I am not the first one who is commenting on the absurdity of all of the artworks that fuel a neoliberal art market and are supposedly anti-capitalist according to the corresponding critical catalogue texts. But recently, and because of the way the art market runs today, the associated art criticism is less and less needed to nobilitate artworks, instead the mere fact that an artist sells is enough.
Personally I more or less never write about art. I have ethical doubts about intellectually fueling this kind of industry, even though it could provide a good income. Plus I am not as much interested in understanding individual artworks and artists, as I am interested in the field of art, what it does and what possibilities it gives others and me personally as a thinker if I use it the right way. What role do I play in it, what are the constraints, what does it want from me, and how can I divert it? How can I get out of the constraints of always being asked to always do the same thing like panel discussions and talking about artists or with artists or writing about artworks? I am more curious about experimenting with concrete practices.
NS: New ways of making art, in turn, require a new descriptive language for such art. The old critique is becoming a cart trying to catch up with the car. Contradictions feed on each other, and the harsher critique sells better. What do you think the language of the new critical theory should become to finally get out of the bad infinity of the criticized object reproduction and to start making qualitative changes?
AA: I don’t think we need a new descriptive language for art. What we need is a more experimental and speculative approach. Getting back to what we spoke about before: we need progressive superstitions, speculative fabulations etc. And we need to learn how to manoeuvre and operate beyond an old critical or metaphysical distinction of theory vs. practice.
NS: Our talk took place in November, before the global lockdown, way before the collective realization dawned on us, that from now on we are to live in the unexpected conditions of the brand new coronavirus world. Does the current situation signify a paradigm shift or do you see it as an outcome of the conditions you prescribed in what you said earlier in our interview?
AA: Of course this first of all depends on what we understand as a paradigm shift. Historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote an important book on the topic, explaining it not as a one time change, but as the result of a series of new inventions, new phenomena that do not fit in the dominant existing paradigm, and that only at a later stage lead to a general shift of the scientific framework. In this sense I would agree that we are witnessing a cultural and political paradigm shift that already started long before the crisis, a great transformation so to say, which we see further accelerated by the current crisis, Covid-19 and its sociopolitical, geopolitical, economical consequences and effects. You know there is a lot of talk about the possibility of a second wave. I think that we are already witnessing the second, third or fourth wave. But not simply in a biological or pandemic way, rather we are confronted with economic and geopolitical waves, alongside the discussions and demonstrations addressing racism in the US and Europe. One part of the problem is the structural racism and another part is that there's no political, parliamentary support for certain people. The Corona crisis hits especially poor people and victims of structural racism in a very harsh way, which is one reason or element for the massive and legitimate outcry and demonstrations these days. The corona crisis and the way it is dealt with—or not dealt with—adds to the racist tendencies and underlying economic inequality in our societies. So with all this in mind and thinking about the paradigm change I would agree, but I also think the situation is accelerating already existing tendencies. But, of course, in retrospect, we'll be able to see more clearly how things evolved and accelerated during these months.
And then there is also another element in this crisis that is related to our conversation last year. It concerns one version of preemption called premediation—a concept by media scholars and sociologists indicating a certain media strategy that occurred after 9/11. After that media went into the mode of premeditation, focusing on things that could or might happen, in order to avoid them happening without us being prepared and therefore getting traumatized. However, I would rather say that premediation also leads to the constant production of fear and worries about events that have not taken place yet. So we get a very interesting preemptive kind of logic within the media: before something happens, the enemy is painted on the wall. What we witnessed as well during the crisis is the kind of recursive loop where also a virtual virus spreads—fake news producing effects in reality that otherwise wouldn't have happened, like supermarkets running out of certain goods and the biological virus spreading due to wrong informations. One could even say that together with the biological virus there was immediately a wave of virtual viruses, a whole infodemic. But again we are witnessing here nothing absolutely new, but rather the acceleration of already existing tendencies.