For A Vernacular Of Possibility?

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Tony Cokes, Evil.27: Selma, 2011. Installation view, Atlanta Contemporary, Atlanta, 2019.

Fragments from Sven Lütticken’s new essay E-FLUX Journal #115 – February 2021:

In the 1970s, the Marxist theorist Raymond Williams warned against treating “feudal culture” or “bourgeois culture” as monolithic blocs by focusing exclusively on their dominant features. He distinguished between residual, dominant, and emergent social/cultural forms. Vehemently opposed to a simplistic “superstructural” definition of culture, Williams discussed social and cultural forms as profoundly imbricated:

The residual, by definition, has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present. Thus certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practised on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social and cultural institution or formation.

Beyond the residual and the dominant, “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship are continually being created.” As a Marxist, Williams’s key historical examples of emergence were the new cultural forms generated by the rise of first the bourgeoisie and then the working class, but more broadly he notes that in any given society, “there is always other social being and consciousness which is neglected and excluded: alternative perceptions of others, in immediate relationships; new perceptions and practices of the material world.” Some such perceptions have been bursting to the surface in recent years, which in turn has strengthened a reactionary backlash and a reemergence of fascist tropes and forms. Perhaps the crucial stages precede such public manifestations. Williams argues that emergent culture

is never only a matter of immediate practice; indeed, it depends crucially on finding new forms or adaptations of form. Again and again what we have to observe is in effect a preemergence, active and pressing but not yet fully articulated, rather than the evident emergence which could be more confidently named.

Historical thought needs to be attuned to such preemergence, as much as this risks lapsing into wishful thinking and projection (to which the annals of operaist and autonomist theory attest)…

After decades of There Is No Alternative ideology, we see a pathos of the possible that aims to quell fears about empty possibilities without potentiality. But what are the potential possibilities—as opposed to largely hypothetical ones? In Peter Osborne’s characterization, the space of art is project space, and hence the space of the projection of possibilities and the presentation of “practices of anticipation.” And indeed, much contemporary aesthetic practice is possibilist—from speculo-accelerationist “we were promised jetpacks” retro-Prometheanisms to various forms of social and political practice seeking to foster and form alternative forms of assembly and cooperation.

Artists organizing training camps, such as Jonas Staal with Training for the Future and Jeanne van Heeswijk with Trainings for the Not-Yet, sound out and strengthen possibilities for alternate social forms. In the words of the Alabama collective Our Literal Speed—reused by Tony Cokes—à propos of Rosa Parks and the Selma Bus Boycott, such projects seek to “[concretize] possibility in the here and now,” and to establish “rudiments for a vernacular of possibility.” Which possibilities are—or can be—invested with potentiality? How to foster the “care of the possible,” in Isabelle Stengers’s words? Such are the central questions of possibilist politics and aesthetics, but in the marketplace of possibilist projects it can be hard to see the forest for the trees…

Kierkegaard’s philosophy of possibility, and of anxiety as stemming from the “infinity of possibility,” has recently been marshalled by Patricia de Vries to analyze “algorithmic anxiety,” as manifested for instance in the fear of being replaced by machines, or in the “Black Box anxiety” triggered by the alleged unknowability of algorithms. Analyzing a number of speculative media art projects, De Vries argues that “it is neither the algorithms nor the infrastructures that cause anxiety, but the experience of a lack of possibility,” an “algorithmic determinism.” While such determinism may be characteristic for certain narratives (we will all be replaced by robots), it seems that the more productive level of inquiry concerns the role played by the very concepts of possibility and probability in algorithmic culture.

Raymond Williams developed his account of dominant, residual, and emergent social forms in the late 1970s and early 1980s—at the dawn of the neoliberal era, when a different conception of emergence would come to dominate. By 1988, Ronald Reagan was in Moscow, heralding the new age being born in Silicon Valley:

Like a chrysalis, we’re emerging from the economy of the Industrial Revolution—an economy confined to and limited by the Earth’s physical resources—into, as one economist titled his book, “The Economy in Mind,” in which there are no bounds on human imagination and the freedom to create is the most precious natural resource.29

Of course, the prerequisite for this conception of a postindustrial economy, and for the widespread belief that new technologies would be inherently liberating, was “the free market,” taken as the natural economic life-form of such freedoms. This was freedom without its old corollary, social atomization and alienation; in some ways, it was a lot like Soviet or Chinese collectivism, minus the top-down force. In March 2000, Bill Clinton sarcastically wished China’s leaders “good luck” in trying to censor the internet. Oh, how we laughed!

One of the cheerleaders of the new economy, Wired’s Kevin Kelly, published a volume that jumpstarted the Silicon Valley–affiliated “hype surrounding emergent behavior,” in which notions such as the “hive mind” and “swarm intelligence” were applied to networked human (or human-machinic) behavior. For his book Out of Control (1994), he took inspiration from William Morton Wheeler’s “bombshell of an essay” from 1911, “The Ant Colony as an Organism” in the Journal of Morphology, in which he analyzed the ant colony as an organism in its own right. As Kelly wrote:

Wheeler saw “emergent properties” within the superorganism superseding the resident properties of the collective ants. Wheeler said the superorganism of the hive “emerges” from the mass of ordinary insect organisms. And he meant emergence as science—a technical, rational explanation—not mysticism or alchemy.32

The concept of emergence is part of modern genealogies of vitalism and organicism. In her early book Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields (1976), Donna Haraway distinguishes between the two by noting that vitalists “assert some nonphysical entity—either a nonquantifiable vital force like Driesch’s entelechy or some basic difference between ‘vital substance’ and ordinary matter,” whereas organicists “insist that wholeness, directedness, and regulation can be explained fully without such notions.” Form comes to the fore precisely because as an emergent property, as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, life is form:

From an organismic perspective, the central and unavoidable focus of biology is form. Every other consideration of the biological sciences leads up to the task of at last stating the laws of organic form. Form is more than shape, more than static position of components in a whole. For biology the problem of form implies a study of genesis.

As Andreas Malm has argued, acknowledging the emergent properties of aggregates does not absolve one from trying to analyze the various factors; the fact that the climate is a complex system with emergent properties does not absolve any human, political, or corporate actors of responsibility. However, for all the debates that are still raging between reductionists and emergentists, “there is one sphere into which [reductionism] seems unable to make any inroads: that of society. Properties of society cannot be derived from the atomistic aggregation of its members.” Again, however, this does not let anyone off the hook when it comes to the question of how to live together, how to organize society. In this respect, a certain discourse on emergence has, however, done much to muddy the waters. In Jussi Parikka’s words, “Being connected in networks or in swarms does not imply an emergence of political formation with common goals, and hence addressing swarms as democratic tools in an overly straightforward way should be avoided…”

For Williams, emergence “depends crucially on finding new forms or adaptations of form.” When ecolo-esoteric anti-vaxxers, self-identified leftists and white nationalists become one QAnon-infested unmasked crowd taking over the streets of Berlin, such a Querfront (“cross-front”) is a grim parody of Williams’s insistence that “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship are continually being created”—even if this is perhaps best seen as a reemergence of fascism with digital means. As with historical fascism, any new forms and relationships created in the progress are a violent reterritorialization of emancipatory movements: a white pseudo-multitude reasserting its sovereignty over possibility and probability, and ultimately over life and death. Wearing masks is an affront to the sovereign white subject, which finds itself humiliated by looking like a veiled woman or a muzzled slave: hence it cannot be admitted that wearing masks might make sense. Global warming would lead to a curbing of consumption and a shrinking of one’s options (at least when reasoning within the current paradigm), hence it cannot be admitted as fact. From this perspective, migrants and the BLM movement likewise threaten to impose limits on individual sovereignty…

Inevitably, in a post-9/11 context, the catalogue analyzed the camp through an Agambenian lens, in terms of the state of exception and its generalization. Antonio Negri has attempted to separate constituent power as the perpetual potential of human creative force from actualized constituted power; when it becomes formalized and detached from its popular (multitudinous) base, the latter becomes sovereign power. Contra Negri, Agamben conceives of sovereign power as “[dividing] itself into constituting and constituted power,” and insists that the relation between these two is

just as complicated as the relation Aristotle establishes between potentiality and act, dynamis and energeia; and, in the last analysis, the relation between constituting and constituted power (perhaps like every authentic understanding of the problem of sovereignty) depends on how one thinks the existence and autonomy of potentiality.

In Agamben’s account of the sovereign ban structure, sovereign power is unleashed in the state of exception when constituted power suspends the law, suspends itself, chooses to not-be.

If Agamben insists on the generalization of the state of exception, beyond the confines of the camp, then the new walls theorized by Brown “would seem to signify a problem usually identified with sovereignty’s external face—enmity, rather than order—and run it through the whole of society, producing pockets and islands of walled-in ‘friends’ amid walled-out ‘enemies.’” However, this is anything but a sign of the state’s health: Brown diagnoses a “detachment of sovereignty from the nation-state,” and argues that beleaguered states are increasingly non-sovereign actors—which raises the question, beyond Agambenian abstractions about the law suspending itself in the sovereign ban, of just where political sovereignty is actually located.60 Of course, one answer is that capital is an “emerging global sovereign.”61 If for modern political theory, culminating in Schmitt, sovereignty is identified with the nation-state and is conceptualized as indivisible, perhaps it is time to reconceptualize sovereignty as constantly contested, renegotiated, parceled up, being performed variously by different actors, by various claimants—sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. The notion of a single sovereign may itself be a theoretical echo of the modern nation-state that needs to be rethought…

Pockets are proliferating, from camps and corridors to freeports. Of course, from the Paris Commune to later communes and autonomous zones, radical movements have long carved out spaces of alterity from the terrain of the nation-state…

This situation complicates progressive notions of dual power. In Murray Bookchin’s definition, dual power is “a strategy for creating precisely those libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies that would oppose and replace the State. It intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist, and one must sooner or later displace the other.”70 Here, then, the state is the power to be opposed and ultimately replaced; however, the second step has proven a rather big hurdle—and at the moment, under the right-wing onslaught, it is often a matter of defending the state’s institutions even while building up popular, assemblist power.

Dual power is often discussed with reference to Rojava or Chiapas, the Zone à Défendre near Nantes in France, and various temporary autonomous zones that emerge from urban confrontations. Emancipatory “liberated zones” carved out of the territory of the globalist empire are attempts to build up bases within the heartlands of empire…

Even while Agamben is busy discrediting himself, there may be residual use-value in (a critical reading of) his writings on destituent power and inoperativity—specifically, in his insistence on opening existing forms of work and activity to “a new possible use.” In other words, it is not so much about a creatio ex nihilo as it is about adaptation, modification, through habits. An example is a feast, where eating is not primarily about feeding oneself, and where dance liberates the body from “utilitarian movements,” instead unfolding “gestures in their pure inoperativity.” Building on but going beyond the concept of “destituent power” as developed by the Argentinian autonomist left, where it referred to inchoate and disruptive popular power preceding the constituent moment, Agamben refuses to posit a linear sequence of destituting–constituting–constituted power. He advocates a habitual use of the power to not-be or not-do, against the sovereign ban and its instrumentalism: a new “ontology of potentiality” needs to replace “the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality,” and this means exploring forms of destituent power that resist being captured and constituted.


Sven Lütticken teaches art history at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He recently coedited the volumes Futurity Report (with Eric de Bruyn, Sternberg Press) and Deserting from the Culture Wars (with Maria Hlavajova, BAK/MIT Press). His book Objections (Forms of Abstraction, Part 1) will be published later this year by Sternberg Press.

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