Our epoch seems characterized by an overabundance of crises: be it democracy, capitalism, climate, migration, the European Union, metaphysics, masculinity, you-name-it. From tabloid newspapers to academic discussions: we are all talking about crisis. This zeitgeist implies that most people would today affirm that there are some huge problems in something: we might not really be able to exactly locate it, but something seems awfully out of tune. A critical stance is necessary to identify problems, but if it turns out to be nothing more than denunciatory and subtractive, it might end up reproducing the structures it scoldsFor an interesting & recent take on crisis as a mode of government see: “Merry Crisis and Happy New Fear” in the book “To our Friends” of the Invisible Committee. Link to online version. Just by naming the problem, you are not part of the solution. As more and more right-wing populists take political offices, we see ever more clearly that this permanent mode of denunciation and ditheringIn her book “Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene”, Donna Haraway describes our age as the “Great Dithering” - thanks to Alf Hornborg for pointing this out to me with a critical perspective. is upholding the order, not changing it. At this point, it might turn out less productive to denunciate the problem, and much more productive to identify it, to put yourself in relation to it, to see yourself as a part of it. Because it should be affirmed, that in our globalized capitalist society, we are all entangled with it, we are all part of it. Let’s find out why we are – let’s find out why we love it.
To demonstrate the problem of a merely denunciative stance, I will make use of HyperNormalisation, the latest work of British BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis from 2016. Curtis can be classified to belong to a philosophical-political current that I propose to call hypercritical and could be said to start off with Guy Debord’s reformation of Marxism in the Society of the Spectacle from 1967. It stretches as a genre characterized by good, almost science-fiction-like readability and hysterically-brilliant big conclusions to the work of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, up to the contemporary Invisible Committee. What unites them is a shared feeling of a disappearance of the real that is replaced by consumerist society’s all-encompassing (media) simulations and spectacles—the Marxist feeling of alienation from reality intensives in post-WWII- capitalism into one of complete disappearance. In HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis portrays how US-politics have become detached from reality and instead worked within the logic of Debord’ian spectacle: while the real late—and post-soviet geopolitical landscape became ever more complex—"those in power" produced Hollywood-inspired images of great villains (Mummar Gaddafi, Hafez al-Assad, Osama Bin Laden) and threats to the free world to gain votes, while the people were increasingly depoliticized and caught in their bubbles of self-emancipation and individualism. "Those in power" manipulated all of us to such an extent, that what used to be mere simulations and figments were now defining the real world and its politics, warfares and material organizations—we can not discern between manipulation and reality any longer, is Curtis' credo, which he popularly and understandably links to Trump’s success in the last US-American presidential election For a example from the recent news highlighting this case, here is a BBC-news article describing the latest US- bombings in Syria as entertainment for the US president and his Chinese counterpart here.
Adam Curtis’ artistic method is defined by his hypercritical stance in a very consistent way: since he affirms that truth has been completely replaced by spectacle, he uses its simulations of truth. This leads to a somewhat schizophrenic result: although he scorns the manipulative ways of "those in power", he doesn't have any scruples himself to manipulate the viewers by any means necessary—he uses images of Hollywood-blockbusters and their incorporated sense of looming catastrophe—he accompanies his images with tragic, dark music that sets the mood for his message; and even the images used in the film frequently lack any correlation with the story that is told (for example, while his voice in the off is telling of the fall of Soviet Russia and the Kremlin in 1991, he is showing images of Elena Ceaușescu's execution in Romania of 1989). Curtis renounces the assumption that images represent reality and much rather uses them as thingsCompare Hito Steyerl: A thing like You and Me, to be used with all their manipulative ways to make the viewer believe a certain simulation. In his case: how capitalist power rearranged itself after 1968. One could say, he is hijacking the "weapon of the enemy": he is manipulating us to reveal the manipulators. Since everything is manipulation, he cannot restrain from it, seems to be his implicit credo.
The problem behind this stance is not, that it uses manipulation. The problem is, that it uses manipulation while at the same time denouncing it. It identifies implicitly with the problem, while through its denunciation simulates that it has a solution. This results in an all-too-easy (hyper)critical academic armchair position, that is very useful to get a job at a critical art university, but not very helpful in producing a successful political alternative from the left. If there is nothing but manipulation, why always scold "those in power" for using it? This narrative—and it is not by chance that Curtis uses the term “those in power” almost like a mantra in the film—is, as we today see, much more effectively used by the populist, nouveau-fascist right.
The campaigns of Trump, Hofer, Le Pen, Modi, Wilders or Erdogan are heavily driven by resentment against “those in power” and the establishment, however wrong this image might be But to stay true to the death of the real: it does not matter how wrong it is, but how effectively it produces feelings.. If the Left produces semi-conspiratory narration of evil manipulatorsFor a fictive speculation on how to deal with so called post-truth politics on the Left, compare my article: “Braucht die Linke einen Donald Trump?”, they might unknowingly and despite their best intentions help and sustain the conservative backlash, because if you denounce a problem, you usually indicate that you have a solution at hand. Since this does not seem to be the case for Curtis, he is at the danger of catering towards those who promise the same old simulated solutions resulting in xenophobia, nationalism and maintenance or even aggravation of the status quo.
We live in a time of huge—if not complete—distrust. To have a critical position towards the state, the institutions, the establishment, those in power, is not a privilege of the political Left, if it ever was. The New Right feeds on exactly this resentment and quickly overtook the Left in using its potential for political mobilization in most countries. If critical denunciation is no longer sufficient—and might even turn out to be counter-productive—what other stance for progressive political art could there be?
To attain a critical position beyond mere denunciationFor a brilliant problematization of denunciation and a proposal for pity instead compare: S. 23ff in Stengers, Isabelle: Au temps de catastrophes. Éditions La Découverte: Paris 2009., one will have to do away with one of the most resilient dualisms: the separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is not the uneducated, less privileged, stupid or rural people which are the problemThis dangerous attitude is not only deep routed within conservative elites, but as well among the left. Compare the enlightening article “Enemies of the People” by Angela Nagele, but we are all part of it: no matter if we vote our countries’ respective right-wing populist party, we are all part of a society that produces them—the fact that somebody identifies a problem, does not signify s/he is outside of it. This immanent view of politics becomes ever more pressing when we add an ecological viewpoint to the matter: the lifestyle of all of us currently seems to be the problem. Although Trump reinvests in the coal industry and plans to leave COP21, people who did not vote for him might still have a bigger ecological footprint than those who did, given their on average higher level of income and international connectedness.
So, in order to move on politically, we should find out more about the problem – and why we are so entangled with it. This requires to do more than denounce the alienation. It much rather requires to experimentally fall in love with it, to find out, what attracts us to it. This is exactly what Hito Steyerl proposes “I have repeatedly argued that one should not seek to escape alienation but on the contrary embrace it as well as the status of objectivity and object-hood that goes along with it.” - Footnote 13 of Hito Steyerl: Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life.. Her 2015 Venice Biennial contribution Factory of the Sun is an exciting high-end production, exactly what you might expect at an international art fair. The sound is excellent, the computer graphics state-of-the-art “Post-Internet” and the actors are Hipster-idols wrapped in golden foil. They dance in super-individualistic styles to Kassem Mosse’s techno beat on one of the fethishized abandoned sites of Berlin–Teufelsberg, while at the same time being somehow involved with past and future political uprisings of ‘the people’. They are the cool kids, they are on the right side—and you immediately want to become a part of this berlinesk Hipster-utopia. But then this:
"At this point in the game, everything flips. It turns out, you are your own enemy and you have to make your way through a motion capture studio Gulag. Everybody is working happily, the sun is shining all the time it's ... totally awful."
In this game – which is not a game, but reality, as we are assured several times—those cool hacker rebels turn out to actually be “orphans of the enemy” and “slaves of the light”. While believing they are part of the revolution, their movements are used by Deutsche Bank to accelerate the speed of light for even more profitable High-Frequency trading. We learn, that this is some disturbing contemporary dystopia, but it does not make it less sexy to us. The exploitation behind is somehow revealed, but the coolness and attractiveness of the setting remains intact: one might actually rejoice in becoming a slave to this capitalist factory.
This to me seems like an apt metaphor of our times: we all know somehow, that something is wrong with our social and political order, however, no one really does something substantial to it: we all are entangled in it and we all are mesmerized by its weird kind of beauty. To reveal this double standard game has immense political potential, because it disturbs the reassured tranquillity at our comfortable side of the dualism: we all know that something is wrong with the world, but we all equally like to feel on the right side—to feel like a part of the solution. Works like Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun lure us into identification with the alleged rebel-heroes, but then break the spell, show how much they are entangled with the problem—and still somehow it is too late for us to detach from it: we feel their Coolness, be it one of the good or the bad side. Its attractiveness is unaltered by its ethicality.
Another artist revealing this ambivalence is Argentinian artist Mika Rottenberg. Her 2016 exhibition at Palais du Tokyo Paris was a colorful, multimedia maze never finding any stable ground, but instead always opening up a new back or case door that reveals another side of our world’s order. This infinite sensation of falling and groundlessness As described by Hito Steyerl in her text: “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective” in her book The Wretched of the Screen. Sternberg Press: Berlin 2012. resulted in a vertigo that bore a feeling of ecstasy permeated with horror in perceiving the dark sides of the maze: layers of exploitation, children and women chained to the conveyor belt to produce unnecessary products for some rich, mostly fat humans in their plastic bubbles of modernism. But any monadic harmony will always be twisted by the next movement, revealing the interconnectedness of exploitation and wealth, beauty and ugliness, noise and harmony, resulting in a Gesamtkunstwerk that leaves the spectator with a feeling of disgust or guilt about the system while at the same time finding it sexy, wicked—or in German geil. To really get on with our problem, which is definitely a major one, we should finally get comfortable with being a part of it. Rejecting it and hurriedly simulating an abstract solution will not help us progress: it will only aggravate the sense of alienation and complete disappearance of reality by clinging on to some ideal-state solution that even we can never be part of. Works like those of Hito Steyerl and Mika Rottenberg illustrate this perfectly: they show us how each one of our bodies and desires is immersed by the problem and that facing it involves much more work than denouncing it. Just being critical is not enoughFor a little treatise on post-critical method, compare the text “Das Anti-Chamäleon” by Jorinde Schulz and myself.. Given that we are all part of the problem, mere denunciation (mixed with the unavoidable conclusion that you cannot really stay apart from what you denunciate) can easily reproduce some good old Christian feelings of self-hatred and sin, that rather prove to be one of the sources of our problem. No, we are all part of it, let’s face it, let’s work our way through it.