Neoliberalism and Acceleration(ism)
by Philipp Hindahl
The idea of acceleration seems to be inherent to capitalism and modernity. In the logic of capitalism we lose time in order to generate surplus value. This has been valid for 19th century commodity exchange, and is equally valid for economy by the end of the 20th (cf. Noys, p. 40).
Accelerationism as an exit-strategy from capitalism can be traced back to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who, by the end of the 1960s observed that the socialist utopia of a pre-capitalist society is unattainable. The failed revolution of 1968 has shown that a critique from an archimedal point outside capitalism is impossible (“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” says Fredric Jameson in 2003). Instead, capitalism’s internal contradictions should, via economic and cultural acceleration, cause capitalism to collapse by itself (cf. Shaviro).
In the late 1970s, the notion of unmitigated acceleration is realised by neoliberal economics. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher implement an economy with deregulated markets and a restricted welfare state. The notion of individualism and self-improvement — ideological residue of 1968 — ties in very well with this ideology.
Not even crisis can harm capitalism. The permanently impending collapse has become normality. At least since the end of the Soviet Union capitalism seems without alternative. Even if crisis delegitimizes neoliberalism, it persists (cf. Shaviro). Constant crisis means for late capitalism what permanent revolution means for communism: the motor and a guarantee for social and economic renewal.
If all aspects of the everyday are reducible to financial processes, what happens to aesthetic experience? Kant has defined art as the disinterestedly beautiful, and has accorded art a non-cognitive status, rendering it independent from science. Ever since, the art system has claimed its autonomy. This is only seemingly a contradiction to the mercantile logic of late capitalism. Aesthetic production is already an integral part of commodity production, and the modes of the art system could be seamlessly integrated. Not only the beauty of a product increasingly figures as a sales argument. The imperative of innovation, that belonged to the art world at least since romanticism, is equally a feature of commodity aesthetics. Closely linked to the demand of innovation is a logic of transgression, constant surpassing and the calculated breaching of rules. An product of cultural industry, such as Fifty Shades Of Gray is marketed as scandalous, and yet no one is really shocked by the rather conservative aesthetics.
Accelerationist theorists suggest an intensification of the atrocities of capitalism, and the same goes for aesthetic programs of accelerationism. Branding and an aesthetic of surfaces are the methods of choice. Acceleration in art may well be an attempt to overtake the innovations of consumer aesthetics, as does DIS-Magazine with its fashion editions. What remains is the feeling that this is just another turn of the screw of “postmodern” irony, and another stale proclamation of inauthenticity. As Mark Fisher observed, pop culture seems trapped in endless repetition that does not entail progress but a paralyzing deceleration.
This lack of unanimity about cultural deceleration and acceleration suggests that the term innovation can not be understood in an absolute way. Something is only ever new in relation to something else. Something new is to be distinguished from something old. For 19th century avantgarde Pierre Bourdieu has coined the term “dialectics of distinction.”
Bourdieu makes his observations under laboratory conditions. His subjects are a restricted group of artists and writers working in a restricted space. But these conditions ceased to exist since contemporary art operates transnationally. And yet: the dichotomy of periphery and centre is not abolished. The artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas tackles this inequality in his project “When Platitudes Become Form.” Kulendran Thomas buys works by successful artists from Sri Lanka and transplants them into western museums and galleries. But not only the works’ context is changed. With his case study, Kulendran Thomas concentrates on media such as painting and sculpture: Media, that play only a marginal role in western contemporary art.
Kulendran Thomas applies the clichés of contemporary art to paintings by Kumar Ratnayake. With neon lights and translucent foil Ratnayake’s works no longer seem like alien elements in exhibitions in London, Paris or New York. One might well accuse Kulendran Thomas of a cynical and colonialist attitude because he uses works from the margins as raw material to create surplus value. But at the same time, he shows the formulae and clichés of the international art market. Because the paintings classified as contemporary art in galleries in Colombo resemble cubist forms, and would hardly stand a chance in a gallery in London. New and and old function as relational principles.
At the same time, the term “contemporary art” seems to have lost its referential value. “Contemporary,” as observed by Kulendran Thomas, does not denote the art being made in our immediate presence: “The term Contemporary Art has been used throughout the last half-century to refer to art being made at the time but it seems to have mutated over time into a proper noun, now referring to a particular (but unstated) globalising ideological formation.” (Kulendran Thomas) Contemporary thus is not free of ideology, referring to whatever happens in our time. The term rather implies a difference that is interpreted as the difference of old and new by the art world.
The ideology of non-ideology, that is tied to the term “contemporary art,” can serve as a case study for neoliberal commodity exchange, as well as for the interdependency of economy and art world. In the 1980s, precisely at the time of deregulated markets, a new class of young, wealthy managers and entrepreneurs came into being, able to spend money on artworks. Following the increase in demand, by the 1990s the so-called Young British Artists emerged who catered to exactly that market. Although their political position at least nominally remained critical, these artists are entrepreneurs as well, and they adapt their habitus to this image — even if their work may contain mild criticism — as “easy listening for the failed political left” (cf. Kulendran Thomas, “Art & Commerce: Ecology Beyond Spectatorship”).
This development of the art world particularly shows that art creates structural realities that exist regardless of the individual observer’s interpretation. This idea ties in very well with the recent “new” realism in philosophy. The new realism tries to avoid a subject centred epistemology. Further, Kulendran Thomas’ work does not create escapist counter-realities but takes place in what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism (Fisher, Capitalist Realism, p. 2).
This realism (not to be confused with the New Realism) hinges on two aspects. On the one hand the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism’s market-driven logic. This belief is presented as non-ideological, and thus made invisible, but it is also the condition for what Fisher calls “corporate anti-capitalism.” A kind of protest against the system according to the rules of the system: “All we have to do is buy the right products” (Fisher, Capitalist Realism, pp. 13 and 15).
A similar mechanism is at work in the art world. The critical positions implemented in the artworks are based on a correlationist premise. Institutional critique and participatory practices are supposed to dissolve classical hierarchies between artist and museum-goer, curator and observer. For instance, Thomas Hirschhorn’s grand-scale work “Flamme eternelle,” exhibited 2014 at the Palais de Tokyo. Ranging somewhere between happening, environment and occupy camp, the work tries to create an autonomous space within the exhibition. This is site specific and in this case the site is the sanctioned interior of the museum.
A kind of artwork that explicitly works with economic mechanisms, such as Kulendran Thomas’ “When Platitudes Become Form”, cannot be site-specific. The same goes for artists gathered under the label “post-internet,” because their art often deals with objects that are not bound to one point in space. Philosopher Timothy Morton has coined the word hyper objects. Structurally made possible by the internet, these objects are distributed worldwide. If there is such a thing as an accelerations aesthetics, this kind of object is a necessary condition. If the hype about the new, object-oriented philosophy is here to stay, hyper objects are an intersection between speculative realism, accelerationist theory and artistic practice.
-Fisher, Mark, “‘A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude’: Popular Culture’s Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams”, in: e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/“a-social-and-psychic-revolution-of-almost-inconceivable-magnitude”-popular-culture’s-interrupted-accelerationist-dreams/.
-Mark Fisher., Capitalist Realism, Winchester, Washington 2008.
-Noys, Benjamin, “Days of Phuture Past: Kapitalismus, Zeit, Akzeleration”, in: Armen Avanessian (Hg.), #Akzeleration, Berlin 2013, S. 35-40.
-Shaviro, Steven, “Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption”, in: e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/accelerationist-aesthetics-necessary-inefficiency-in-times-of-real-subsumption/.