Living in pre-period conditions

DV: I wanted to ask a few questions in relation to our issue of the newspaper which we are calling “The Sublime Is Now?” The urgency of this discussion emerges from the possibility and need to question once again the category of the sublime and its relevance to the political practice of art and activism today. Also in this issue we want to test the old forgotten trend in the traditional Soviet interpretation of the sublime that was focused not on the Kantian relation to nature but instead emphasized the fact that nothing can be more sublime than the people’s struggle for liberation. It also had a connotation of danger: it was delightful, yet horrible. At the same time people believed that art and human consciousness are capable of tangibly representing such sublime struggle. Also it is important for me that this Soviet aesthetic tradition was based on figuration and narrative; it actually shared a general modernist pathos in representing a sublime event while denying the mystical and esoteric qualities, which are so obvious in the best examples of abstraction and minimalism. And of course all these issues are very much related to the question of revolutionary romanticism’s actuality in relation to the current situation of the global struggle for democracy.

But here I want to make a small twist and take as a point of departure for our talk the link between these issues and how they might be related to the speculation that postmodernity is over. Has it really become irrelevant? If we have indeed overcome postmodernity, how exactly did this happen when no consistent attempt was made to forge a new relation between aesthetics and politics (which shape any ethical system), one that could desire the Ideal (Absolute) and Truth as the old categories of the Beautiful and the Sublime once did?

CE: I think the postmodern was simply a misnomer because it continued to privilege modernity and therefore a hyper-EuroAmerican centrism. Postmodernity was formulated as depending on a reconsideration of modernity, assuming that it is necessary but insufficient. At some point it was inevitably going to become unfashionable because it could not transcend itself and claim some positive capacity. Nevertheless, it stands for changes that did happen: the invention of the internet, the construction of neoliberalism, the fall of existing socialism, the shift to a politics of affect and attention. All these things are with us, but there is much more involved in our current historical phase.  Postmodernism was used as a transitory notion.

DV: Transitory – but to what?

CE: To the situation in which we are beginning to find ourselves now. If some of the conditions today are not so different from those described by Jameson, for instance, it no longer feels that his analysis is predictive. The term is no longer adequate to describe events and movements which are no longer dependent on modernity and which move beyond postmodernity itself. What I mean is that we should start to describe our situation as in some sense a pre-period. I do not yet have a word for this, but I think many of us feel we are on the cusp of a paradigmatic shift, certainly in the position of EuroAmerica within the world, but also in terms of our collective relation to the state.

DV: Yes, one of the weaknesses of leftist analysis recently has been the lack of discussion about the state and what sort of relationship might be possible with it.

CE: Yes, I find it difficult to separate private and public interests or desires in Western Europe. CEOs and top politicians swap jobs with alacrity and often without any intervening election. This is a shift in what the state is today, and it covers economic and military power, but it is equally a cultural and social phenomenon. Postmodernity is similar to post-socialism or post-communism, it defines itself in relation to a positive notion of statehood and state power and frames everything in terms of that past, questioning the extent to which it can be reconstructed. I want to think outside modernity’s silos, like the public-private distinction, even though they are deeply part of my history and I am not sure I can escape them. Maybe our condition could be more accurately described as “post-medieval”, in which the state was a very different animal. This would also bring us back to your ideas of romanticism.

DV: In his book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fred Jameson made a very poignant comment on the so-called “end of history.” For him what was ending was the expansion of capitalism. Globalization had exhausted the limits of our planet. What interested him was the paradox that no one, not even the biggest apologists, claimed that neoliberalism was a perfect system. It was always considered something imperfect, but realistic. My hypothesis is that the introduction of postmodernity coincides almost perfectly with the introduction of neoliberalism and that it also brought about a symbolic break. What was the link that formed between art, the absolute and truth? Human beings have always had the capacity to imagine things outside their reality. With postmodernism this imaginative capacity was blocked – so what do we have left? I believe that to break away from postmodernism we should dialectically embrace the very contradictory unity between the beautiful and the sublime, while problematizing its links to the absolute and truth. Throughout the 20th century all these concepts have been seriously questioned, and by the Left first of all. I believe that today we must reclaim them because, in my view, we will never be able to imagine another way of running things without conscious and passionate appeal to the Ideal.

CE: It occurs to me that what ended was not history, but the arrow of history driven by modernity. In pre-modern societies time was circular, dynamic and repetitive. Modernity introduced the arrow of time, a belief that had consequences in the real world, giving rise to speculation that the world might get better. This end is what we call neoliberalism – a kind of weak cynicism and abandonment of ambition beyond self-satisfaction. I think reconnecting to truth rather than progress might be an interesting way of circumventing modernity now.

DV: Of course, and here we arrive at the critique of the notion of progress that began with revolutionary romanticism. There is a need to reflect hard on this period at this juncture. During those times, people experienced the brutality of industrialization and as a consequence they looked back towards pre-capitalist subjectivities, albeit in a naive way. Take for example, William Morris who led the Arts and Crafts Movement. But today could offer another interesting twist that we should consider – a way out of today’s progressivist logic could be found through addressing and actualizing experiences from the histories of real socialist experiments of the past.

CE: What is really interesting to me is what we can do with the end of progress. It has been a hugely important device to ensure both the collapse of the left and the hegemony of cynical pragmatism in the guise of neoliberalism. Yet we cannot restart progress…maybe we can restart a quest for truth, as that is indeed post-medieval. If we are cut off from the notion that the truth is somehow attainable, then we fall back on pragmatism. So then the question becomes how to base relationships on ideas of positive change and emancipatory goals that do not simply become homeopathic cures for neoliberalism? This might well have a connection to truth and to a romantic idealism. What has come through recently are quite radical attempts to restart democratic processes that have become ossified within the sick structures of the nation state. What I think is happening now in Gezi Park, or in Brazil or Greece are people bodily experiencing what it means to live in a different kind of democracy, and how that can be expressed outside of any parliamentary conditions or party. We don’t know what this kind of democracy feels like, and we can’t imagine it because, as you say, neoliberalism forbids imagination. Yet, through their movements, encounters, shared moments, a ‘pre-period’ is emerging, even though their participants don’t have a program or manifesto written down. People are learning to move differently again, to talk in ways that are different from the traditional trade union organizing, social democratic parties, communist parties, nation states. You could say these movements are a-modern, but I would not want to ascribe them to postmodernity. In Gezi Park what happened was that suddenly there was a sense of responsibility and care towards the individual and the group, a self-organizing impulse, because the state was no longer present. However romantic this may sound, at least temporarily people felt an urge to take responsibility into their own hands. In these moments people learned a different kind of democratic behavior, which doesn’t rely on a representative notion in which you hand over all responsibility to a corrupt politician. I think that this is a very exciting moment, one in which I see the potential for the beautiful to be materialized perhaps.

DV: Here in Russia we also had Occupy Abay. In parks and on boulevards in Moscow people reconstructed the occupation model, including sleep-ins, talks, seminars. People here also felt that amazing inspiration which you talked about, but I see a limit to this movement. I remember what happened in Soviet times when people built camps outside of the cities, played guitars, respected nature, felt like being part of sisterhood and brotherhood, and all that was a form of withdrawing from society. So for me this is just the first step in the building of a new politicized consciousness.

CE: I don’t think what we are seeing now is this hippie type of revolution which you allude to. It is happening in disputed public spaces, not it the countryside for a start. And I do not think it is without self-consciousness in the way hippies sometimes appeared to be. They are not only dealing with the ‘policeman in their head’ but with real ones on the street. I don’t think the current social movements are a withdrawal from the political but the discovery of a new location for the political and perhaps a new politics that does not fit our models. What does a revolution look like today? I don’t know but I am sure it is not about storming the Winter Palace any more.

DV: For me withdrawal from the political is not about hippies, but it represents a stubborn refusal and inability to problematize representation. During the Bolshevik revolution a very strong system of soviet councils was formed, and it functioned as an amazing dialectical structure that combined professional and non-professional groups, representation and participation. While it remained an experimental body, people understood that they needed to build true democratic principles of representation and participation. In my view, within the current social movements there is no consciousness about how to make even this first step.

CE: On the other hand, if we look at what is going on in Gezi Park right now, after the conflicts there emerged small networks where people are having precisely the kind of discussions that may lead to the formation of democratic representation. Also, technology affords us the possibility of doing away with representation at some levels. Think about the English Chartists demands from the 19th century. Only one was never enacted – annual general elections. Maybe the time has come to fulfill that condition too. And you are right, this is only a first step, but neoliberalism has been so successful in its hegemony that no entity, perhaps with the exception of North Korea and Cuba, can stand up to it. Now we have to rebuild that sense of resistance from scratch more or less.

DV: I agree, but for me the chain of Occupy movements was also a powerful materialization of an artistic project. It was participatory, aesthetically compelling; it had an educational aspect. Interestingly enough, the recent biennales and roundtables in which we participated in many ways predicted the forms of social and cultural organization of the Occupy movements.

CE: It shouldn’t be surprising, and I think developments in culture are in many ways a good indicator of what will happen next. Take for instance, Caspar David Friedrich who anticipated the idea of the super-individual, or the birth of an individualist ethos, through a romantic image that predicts the level of postmodern individualization that happened 150 years later.

DV: Related to this, I also think that we should reclaim another temporality: because we now live in the temporality of the media where things are immediately swallowed up and then disappear from public attention.

CE: Indeed, there is the media attention span which usually has a 10-day limit, but there is also the share-holder temporality of the financial quarter, and there is the political temporality or the election cycle, which is five years. In art I believe we have a much longer cycle…

DV: For me the more important question is how to build an alternative system of value production, and what material base should it have? We understand how the market is constructed, how media attention functions. But if we go deeper, the question is how to actually build a permanent and viable challenge to the hegemonic structures. There is also the question of value production inside the museums, and how to counter projects that are totally senseless and bad. I also think that at the micro-political level, we should consider and develop certain strategies that can work for different and bigger constituencies.

CE: Firstly, I think that the task we have before us is not determined by the hegemonic players, even though they grab the headlines. We need to build organizations slowly, even though they may collapse, and try to sustain each other. I think it is sustainable to have a plural-form, multi-personality type of collective like Chto Delat, and to use it as a tool that can be directed toward particular urgencies. The thing that we should hold on to, and maybe this is where a relation to the absolute or truth lies, is a set of ethical principles. The ethics of our praxis, of our negotiations with the world are what we should discuss. I am not talking about non-negotiable, naive ethics, but the ethics of a particular action or activity that is being carried out. If you want to attack those corrupt museums you referred to, then you should look at their ethics first, not at their aesthetics – anyone can do a good show or choose a good artist. I am sure that the Van Abbemuseum can be criticized on an ethical level, but I would be happy to stand up next to any other museum and say, here are our ethics, what are yours? That is a discussion we don’t have often enough.

I believe thinking in terms of rigid, formal institutional structures, which would make something sustainable, is not the answer. I think that’s a very modernist way of thinking. I am on the side of institutions that are sustainable as fluid ethical principles. Here I draw inspiration from El Lissitzky’s practice: he was always trying to construct possibilities through art and he believed in the ethics of communism. I think that it is precisely at this juncture where the political can be found. If we look at what happened in Gezi Park, we can see that this event politicized the people in the classic communist tradition of getting involved in the struggle.

DV: In Russia on the other hand, the situation seems less optimistic: we experienced a similar situation after the last presidential elections, when the protests of the 6th of May happened. A few thousand people took part, even in bigger numbers than, for example, Occupy Wall Street. However, now I don’t see any significant consequences on the level of oppositional structures emerging.

CE: Wait, Dima, wait! I believe we are now in a pre-time…we may have another dozen years to go before we will be in a revolutionary situation and we will have to be sharp to recognize what it looks like when it appears.


Charles Esche (born 1962, England) is a curator and writer. Since 2004, he has been Director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands. He is co-founder and co-editor of Afterall Journal and Afterall Books with Mark Lewis. He lives in Edinburgh and Amsterdam.

Dmitry Vilensky (born 1964) artist and cultural activist, co-founder of Chto Delat collective. His activity includes art projects, educational seminars, public campaigns, and ranges from video production to theater plays, graphic works to radio programs. He lives in St. Petersburg.