Underlying conditions

The Editors

From Wiji Thukul’s “Aku Masih Utuh dan Kata Kata Belum Binasa” [I am Still Whole and the Words Have Not Yet Been Destroyed], translated by Eliza Vitri Handayani. Published online by InterSastra, 2018.

October 2, 2020

There is a temptation, when writing these letters, to put forward a hot take on the morning’s news. This is especially the case when the US president announces that he has contracted a potentially fatal virus on the eve of a tinderbox election. That you will already have been bombarded by kneejerk reactions, conspiratorial whisperings, and wild speculations is all the more reason to resist that impulse.

This is not to say that art criticism should be silent on the proliferating emergencies: only that it must take a longer view. Writing last month in e-flux journal, Franco “Bifo” Berardi identified the past four years’ shocks as mere symptoms of a “widespread psychosis” that, in his evocative phrase, “has invaded the scene of the global brain.”1 Neither this psychosis nor the pandemic can be dismissed as the unpredictable consequence of a freak set of circumstances or as a limited disruption to a status quo that will soon be restored. Both result from historical processes—whether the destruction of the planet or the erosion of truth—that can be traced through artistic production. As Berardi points out in his jeremiad for American democracy, the signs were there for anyone with the courage to look.

Through a close reading of American literature Berardi finds evidence to support his claim that the present constitutional crisis was, if not historically inevitable, then certainly foreseeable. If it is to participate meaningfully in the political discourse, art criticism must pay similarly close attention to artworks and their effects. Publications such as this one gather these readings in the expectation—or at least the hope—that they might together reveal new patterns. Which, incidentally, is why one of our present priorities is to make it possible for researchers to navigate in new and imaginative ways through our archive in order to identify emerging themes.

Without wanting to stretch this analogy beyond its limits, the symptoms of the present malaise have been hiding in plain sight. Among the shows reviewed in art-agenda this month are a reflection on mass incarceration that reveals it to be less an aberration of American democracy than a direct expression of the violence underpinning it, and a retrospective of Trevor Paglen’s investigations into how surveillance and automatization are entrenching historic social injustice. We’ll have lengthy reports from two cities which this month expected to host the international art world’s caravan—London and Paris—but are instead teetering on the verge of army-enforced lockdowns. Yet Berardi also reminds us that an obsessive focus on inhumanity risks aestheticizing it, and so we’ll continue to stage encounters around the world between artists and writers addressing subjects other than catastrophe. Disasters, after all, are effects of the same conditions that shape all aspects of our collective experience.

In a recent video announcing that the committedly anti-fascist Austrian arts festival Steirischer Herbst has reimagined itself as a fictional media conglomerate called Paranoia TV, an avatar resembling Sigmund Freud states that “it is the normal that has brought us this virus, it is the normal we should fear.”2 Art criticism might do well to resist reflex reactions to the latest outrage in favor of attending to the myriad and cumulative effects of a longstanding and decidedly fucked-up normal.


Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “The American Abyss,” e-flux journal #111 (September 2020) https://www.e-flux.com/journal/111/343656/the-american-abyss/.



Crisis, Art Criticism, Covid-19
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