May 31, 2024

Marina’s Cues

Kerstin Stakemeier

Marina Vishmidt, 2018. Photo by Rose-Anne Gush.

Us, we have been reading a lot of Marina Vishmidt’s words in the past month. The words Marina placed in her books, her essays, the talks she sent to us and exchanged with us, the notes, the emails, the text messages riddled with stickers. Her most obscure stickers! Her most evident dedication! Her consistent curiosity and wit in staging what is speculative (as in, everything), the ever-present plentitude of the real abstraction of life’s necessities under capitalism, to set it up for scenes of rebellion. Marx’s “real abstraction,” a favorite of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and the value-form theory with which Marina is consistently (but comradely) at odds, circulates all too often as the cipher of a groundless, self-reflecting exchange. Marina catches it partway. She makes real abstraction figural. Because really, real abstraction marks scenes of unending substitutions. Our lives. Totalities in which no exchange is ever smooth, no speculation ever incorporeal. All speculations and exchanges display favorites, misconstrue sense(s), spill out sediments, spell out inadvertent critique, feed elective affinities and Übersprungshandlungen (that word we never find in English). Marina scoops them all up, nothing is dropped in her play of living negatives, and so the real abstractions come to align with Frantz Fanon’s “real fantasies”1: not Marxism as a negative Idealism, the enlightenment unending inside out; but rather Materialism as decapitalization, the Enlightenment’s collection of loose joints, with negativity of all shapes and sizes squirting out of each and every speculative figure. Positions. They pile up and move around in the arts Marina writes through, the films she screens, the discussions she enters, the organizing she joins in all places, the collectivities and communions established with her. Fuses for rebellions all over. And not the heroic kind. The “Aller Jamais Retour” kind.2 Watch it.

Watching it, committing to how Marina moves matters and language and also with—with others, with objects, with concepts, with some art and with most small, furry animals, this is not an obituary. This is a cue. A prompt. Try. I have. And am. Even though it does now inconsolably lack the ridiculousness Marina and I discovered in the dilatory staging of our mutual imitations. We were always aligned in our convictions when it comes to real abstraction’s messy materialisms. But me, I kept flamboyantly dropping things, like critique, because the stabilizing merits that genre grants to its authors creeps me out. Posing an impossible “critique no more,” I would pick up other, more social genres of conduct, like love and its anti-colonial, rebellious forms. Marina’s undercutting of critique’s state of artful excellence exempts her from the need to drop it, gluing it instead to where it hits the ground, seizing on the merits of its anti-dialectical ends. It’s simple: “Critique is just a cutting tool, not the price of admission,” a prosaic laser-pointer marking real abstractions, whose function as the admissions office of cultural righteousness might be a pain, but one that serves only to provoke something between irrelevance and occasional amusement.3 Marina replaces standing out with standing in. No flashy Mic Drop. Instead, material(s for) organizing. And thus, the need to propose Marina’s sense as our prompt. Mine most definitely. All I want to do right now is gang up with the extended “us” I started from and try to figure Marina’s speculative materialism, infrastructural commitments, “dialectics/anti-dialectics” that seek

the significance of concrete universals, positioned against both the real abstractions of capitalist social relations and the placeholders of liberal rights discourse … [where] by concrete universals I am thinking of the need to affirm contingent and grounded versions of political ideals—such as justice, equality—but also their means, such as the abolition of private property, wage labor, the commodity, imperialism, war—in struggle and as objectives of struggle, as prescriptions for a transformation of the whole, not merely for this or that defensive struggle (and the inextricability of affirmation and negation also means that no struggle can be characterized as purely defensive).4

This is Marina taking up the universalism she and Zoe Sutherland sought out in Marxist feminisms some years ago.5 Nothing is dropped. Nothing can be dropped. All is both cutting tool and glue of our seismic struggles in real abstraction’s tectonics.

Think of Walter Benjamin’s invitation to “cross the frozen waste of abstraction.”6 In Marina’s version, that’s Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Sea of Ice (1823/34) and General Idea’s installation “Fin de Siècle” (1990) as mutually reversible figures. The neediness of Friedrich’s melancholic beholder cuddling General Idea’s perplexed plush baby seals. The tragedy of alienation is not left to indulge in its narcissistic enclosure politics—to greet Fanon’s “real fantasies” and Marx’s “real abstractions” with sentimentalism only amounts to more labor, that of working through—and does nothing but push back the overcoming of defensiveness to a yet further horizon. Lately Danny Hayward and I keep circling back to Marina’s disinterest in narrations of personal crisis, working through, and … I’m gonna just say it: psychoanalysis. Quite a complication of the prompt for some of us, I am aware. Some of us, including Marina, share quite solid tectonic plates with many of the comrade-heretics of that discipline. And some of us, including Marina, are not very disciplinary in any of our leanings to start with—real abstractions in a state of tectonic shift don’t care so much for measures of scientific immanence. In fact, Marina is less disciplinary than most of us. The art histories, for instance, that quite a few of us have been piling up in proximity to her come to figure as curiosity cabinets out of which we pluck infrastructural levers. This is not the archive. It is the convenience store.

In 2003, Marina, Jackie White, Chloe Stewart, Em Hedditch, and Caye Castagnetto, working in close proximity to Cinenova,7 teamed up with El Sueño Colectivo from Barcelona, with striking workers at The Other Cinema, with a prison guards’ social center, the gay night club Duckie, as well as Mike Sperlinger and Ian White from Lux, and gave themselves a name: mary kelly.8 mary kelly produced a small publication and a series of screenings in which

“a common and absolutely exposed singularity” refutes the lie of originality and … takes a collective name: “mary kelly.” No voice can be switched on by another. It is a collective enunciation of no composite parts. Mediation throws up immanence. Intimacy becomes revolutionary when it becomes a desire to communicate. The lie of alienation scrambled by a flurry of small, purposeful moments.9

Now think of psychoanalysis again. All these collaborations were moments of showing up for and with one another. So do note that Marina’s contribution is to orchestrate a screening of Joanna Davis and Mary Pat Leece’s Bred and Born (1983), a film generated over a period of four years from interviews with four generations of women, and the proceedings of a women’s discussion group on mother-daughter relations in an East London community center. Marina’s text in the booklet ends by stating her intention to screen the film in the courtyard of her estate; it begins by addressing Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–79), produced at the same time as the film: a sympathetic feminist endeavor, but one located, significantly, firmly within art(’s history). Vishmidt does not drop Kelly. Why would she? mary kelly just picked her up, redistributing her into “a flurry of small, purposeful moments.” Marina quotes Kelly positing that at the time, “psychoanalysis itself … became the ‘third term’ in the feminist debate … like the ‘third term’ of the Oedipal triangle.”10 Marina doesn’t mind, really. She understands this as a social choice, a political means that was deemed necessary in the face of a radical Conservative government, intended to communicate and agitate “the slippage of an assumed female univocity,” a tool chosen for what Marina calls its maximal “conceptual malleability.” Marina isn’t interested in working through “the lie of alienation,” but more like Fanon, in orchestrating the necessity of disalienation. Social Flurry. Showing up. Mary Kelly was reportedly not so into her becoming a communion, a social choice. But “an institution,” like art, like psychoanalysis, like Mary Kelly, like … take your pick, your own disciplinary soft spot,

can be a type of infrastructure, but the shift needs to be understood as moving from a standpoint which takes the institution as its horizon, to one which takes the institution as a historical and contingent nexus of material conditions amenable to re-arrangement through struggle and different forms of inhabitation and re-distribution.11

Reading this now I kind of wonder about “re-distribution” as distinguished from dispossession. But then, you shouldn’t go around dropping things out of moving infrastructure.12

In a footnote in her brilliantly moving and mobile book Speculation as a Mode of Production, Marina posits that

it would not be the search for conceptual priority, but rather an exact description of the quality of the mutual determinations between these moments, that would provide us with a chance of developing a convincing summary of “real abstraction” in a historical, rather than trans-historical, register.13

These exact descriptions have need of General Idea’s disoriented baby seals… at least, that is, if they want to grasp the fantastic nationalism of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic sentimentality, the ecological disaster of his white male lead advancing into the polystyrenescape. Not a tragedy of the romantic subject, but at once a struggle over its colonizing sentiments and an awareness of the farce of its real emissions. Marina is guiding us and herself into landscapes of touchingly real abstraction; I recognized it recently in Saree Makdisi’s crystal-clear rearticulation of that landscape, wherein “the older, nineteenth-century imperial logic of racial hierarchies and superior and inferior civilizations” has drifted into a “new, postmodern discourse of empire in which crude power is dressed up in the language of progressive values such as sustainability, democracy, inclusion, and tolerance,” a discourse of one civilization only, one prepared to turn merciless killings of the outlawed and a categorical violence against all who stand with them into the most imperative form of abstraction today.14 The real abstraction of modern colonial law is with us. And

what kind of subject should be expected to emerge from this ongoing crafts project, the maintenance of a self whose self is questioned, pushed down in the most prosaic terms every second? What is the subject, then, as this project of construction that’s constantly being torn down, like a Palestinian home, and what political questions and desires oscillate around this?

Marina asked this in 2018 in a workshop Danny and she staged together under the title “Dissolution to the Left of Me, Dissolution to the Right: A Political Glossary of Self-Overcomings.”15 So, as I already noted: this is not an obituary but a cue. A prompt.

Everything Marina does not drop she attaches to a cause, a text, a work, a person, a song, an animal, a meme. She lets it bounce around and in between them. Pinball materialism. The bounciness of it has a game-changing effect: the longer all elements remain in play, and the more material contact they undergo, the more expansive their material attachments become. And this is crazy rare: it needs not just a self-perception channeled through commitment, but also an acute and unrelenting dedication to dropping nothing that has ever emerged as a product of revolutionary sense(s). It resembles the “I am packing my suitcase …” game, only in this instance, in every round, you have to reintroduce all the contents anew without dropping anything. Or the one where you have to wear excessive winter gear, gloves, puffy jackets, caps, etc., and then try to use a knife and fork to cut a bar of chocolate out of its packaging … but without removing any garments. It’s really a matter of finding other players with the same predicament. As mentioned, over the years that Marina and I have known each other, I have dropped so much gear. Only to learn how to pick it up anew when the need for it manifested all too materially.

What Lisa Robertson writes about Simone Weil is true for Marina as well: she

refused to submit her vocabulary to an ideology of terror … If value is largely contextual, iterative, contractual, then in order to protect and diversify the agency of liberatory language we must make new contexts, new contracts, not yield any language at all to the ideologies of language thieves.16

This is a slight change of tone, but only a slight one, because Marina gives us a living cue not to be haunted by our losses. Though faced with the loss of her, I find it hard to commit to this entirely. I never trusted the positivism of death. Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” his proposal of mourning as a way to depathologize our grieving, always made me mad.17 How. Why? Death is nothing short of a pathology, a pathology that we share. And melancholia might not be a state of sentimental isolationism, but one of body parts missing and shared. Marina so often chooses humor where I choose anger. Her pathos formulas are kitten-shaped. Though I am not entirely sure “choosing” is the right word to describe either of our temperaments. It’s just what struck us. No psychoanalytics intended. But the humor that struck her makes everything bouncy so that nothing needs to be lost. The day after Marina lost her life, I spent hours upon hours rewriting what I mistook for a bad poem. It is the cue I can offer. Pinball time.

with M

with spelling out the spirits emergent in the rebellions

with drawing out horizons from the unruly forms

with addressing eroding pasts to our present measures

with holding on to what slipped to refold it all in

with passing on borrowed clues for undercurrent infrastructures

with inviting in reified bits for wits. fun fractions.

with speculating for measures in excess of surplus. subsistence senses.

In communion with


Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (Grove Press, 1967), 106. Quoted in David Marriott, Wither Fanon? (Stanford University Press, 2018), 50.


“Aller, Jamais Retour” is the ticket that Tabea Blumenschein buys to Berlin on her way out of Rotonda in Ulrike Ottinger’s film Bildnis einer Trinkerin (1979) .


Vishmidt, “‘A Self-Relating Negativity’: Where Infrastructure and Critique Meet,” in Broken Relations: Infrastructure, Aesthetics, and Critique, ed. Martin Beck et al. (Spector Books, 2022), 34.


This is from a talk titled “Dialectics and Anti-Dialectics: Between Affirmation and Negation” that Marina gave at the conference “Dialektik und Anti-Dialektik” at the University for Applied Arts Vienna on March 23, 2024 .


This has been an ongoing collaboration since at least 2015, of which this 2022 essay is but one example: Marina Vishmidt and Zoe Sutherland, “(Un)making Value: Reading Social Reproduction through the Question of Totality,” in Totality Inside Out: Rethinking Crisis and Conflict under Capital, ed. Kevin Floyd, Jen Hedler Phillis, and Sarika Chandra (Fordham University Press, 2022).


Quoted by Theodor W. Adorno in Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge 1973), xix. I am not particularly fond of Walter Benjamin and his writings, but I know that Sam Dolbear is, and so I quote Benjamin here.


Some of them, including Marina, would later join Em Hedditch at Cinenova, but that is Cinenova’s story to tell .


I lifted some of the information here about mary kelly and Marina’s text contribution “Her, Her, Me, It, Them, There” from their 2003 self-published booklet, which Karolin Meunier gifted to me some years ago. And now Em Hedditch told me about the collaborations that made mary kelly’s sense.


From the self-introduction of mary kelly on the opening page of the 2003 booklet.


Vishmidt, “Her, Her, Me, It, Them, There: Scripto-Visual, Socio-Economic, Post-Partum, East End, TV?,” in mary kelly (2003), unpaginated.


Vishmidt, “‘A Self-Relating Negativity,’” 30.


In his beautiful text for Marina published on May 3, 2024, Andreas Petrossiants takes a more in-depth look at her understanding of infrastructural aesthetics, a concept Marina proposed in 2016 and has returned to since, offering the impossible: to usher institutional critique out of self-emulation . Andreas’s use of Marina’s cue in his “Preliminary Notes toward a Destituent Art,” forthcoming in Social Text 42, no.2 (June 2024), takes it up to reconfigure something equally needed: to investigate what we could mean by “political art.”


Vishmidt, Speculation as a Mode of Production. Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital (Brill, 2018), 64.


Makdisi, Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial (UC Press 2024), 149.


I am very grateful that Danny Hayward and I were able to speak about much of the above over the last weeks in Vienna and that he read and edited this piece with such affirmative precision. For the announcement for the talk and the workshop, see .


Robertson, Anemones: A Simone Weil Project (If I Can’t Dance, 2021), 34.


Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,“ in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, volume XIV, ed. James Strachey (Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1981).

Critical Theory
Memorials & Obituaries

Kerstin Stakemeier teaches in Nuremberg and Lisbon and writes in Berlin. In 2016 Marina Vishmidt and she published Reproducing Autonomy (Mute Books).


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