Late Holocene Style

There is no other world, and it is this one. The impossibility of the artwork is in the end the impossibility of the divine.

Commodity production produces a universal alienation. Writing and art, for a long time, thought they could escape this general condition, through formalist strategies, or through détournement of the text or artwork as property. But even these attempts of writing to prefigure some other world fall back into the commodity form, and into alienation. Adorno and Debord: the tactics they authorized became information that you need expensive grad school education to perceive at all – that ultimate luxury commodity of the age.

Alienism acknowledges this foreclosing of longed-for possibilities. Alienism refuses all alibis for writing as outside of alienation as a general condition. Alienism opens toward a writing that is free of the expectation that it can lead to the saving of the world. Rather than wait for the disenchantment of the reader with writing’s sacred claims, alienism pre-empts it. Alienism alienates itself in advance. Why wait!

Alienism no longer belongs to aesthetics. It no longer has anything to do with art. Modern art appeared as the bespoke handicraft of an elevated caste of craftsman (mostly men…). In the world of machine production, of the product alienated from its producer, the artwork’s alibi was to be made another way, to be imbued with a free spirit, that special soul-juice of the master outside of labor. But in reality this merely encouraged artists to become petit bourgeois…

Art could escape alienation at the price of becoming autonomous. But its autonomy became merely a categorical alienation. The modern artwork had a special relation to capitalism as its exception, but one eternally condemned to alienation from that to which it would be the spiritual alternative.

The avant-gardes of the modern: futurists, dada, surrealists, fluxus, situationists – got their wish. The abolition of the alienation of art from life. Only it happened in reverse. Not the liberation of life but the alienation of art in an everyday life of generalized commodification.

But all this is ancient history. This is no longer capitalism; it is something worse. Commodification has wormed its way out of the thing, into information about the thing – about all things. All objects, all subjects, were first doubled by, then subordinated to, information about them. Or to information not about them but about any and every possible configuration of them – as commodities. Information plays out every destiny in advance, and the ruling class of our time selects from all the possibilities those that will alienate the most of the world.

Rather than a special class of object, art became a special class of information. Art is a derivative, a financial instrument. The art object is the repository of the sum total of all information about it. The artwork is merely the receipt for its own resonance as information.

Alienism refuses to play the role set out for it, of decorating this alienation and posing as an alibi for the absence of another life. It refuses the sleight of hand of promising not only a critique of alienation but of promising also a cure for it. The avant-gardes are no cure for us. They are not even a tonic.

The avant-gardes have become part of that which they were against. Only not, as anticipated, as recuperated commodities, although there is that too. They became instead derivative financial instruments. The grandeur of the avant-gardes as information becomes a hedge against the banality of other art-world financial instruments, but their value declines every time they are traded.

The alienation of the thing from its maker, in the form of the commodity, made a second nature within which it appeared as if this was always and forever what the world was or ever could become. The built-form of this second nature as an alienated world impresses its form not just in conscious and unconscious life, but into the flesh.

There were once two kinds of dream, perhaps two kinds of mania, to overturn this second nature back into some sort of primal nature, unknown and unknowable, but which was taken on faith to exist. It had to exist. In part to account for where the base matter out of which second nature was made might have come. But it had to exist also as an alibi, as that which would place us elsewhere than at the scene of the crime, the scene of alienation become an entire second nature.

One dream was political. The proletariat, the most abstract and alienated subject, would dialectically reverse its own alienation, and restore to the world a totality not riven against itself. A totality which does not make of nature, whatever that is, a second that that is made by us but not for us. That is not for anybody.

The other dream was aesthetic. The artists, those who were free from labor, would through their play within and against second nature find the tactics that would undo its seeming naturalness, and restore through temporary works of artifice the possibility of a re-enchantment of the world.

Neither dream came to pass, and perhaps they were just dreams. A nature was not restored. If anything, it became further alienated – a third nature. For it was neither the artists nor the workers who overthrew capital as a ruling class from below. It was taken over from above – by another ruling class.

This other ruling class, the ruling class of our own time, does not own the means of production as such. It does not own the factories that alienate the thing as commodity from the worker. All that still takes place, of course, but it is not what rules the world or how it is ruled. The ruling class of our time owns and controls not the means of production but the vectors of information.

If the thing rendered into a commodity is alienated labor, what is information rendered into a commodity? Alienated art. This new ruling class, this vectoralist class, made us all artists. From each and every one of us it wants nothing more than to extract more information than it gives. The avant-garde dream of a world not of labor but play came to pass – but in the alienated form of a third nature. All around us is information alienated from us, and further alienating us from anything that could be a nature, could become the world.

The capitalist class at least had to pay wages to get labor, even as it exploited that labor. The vectoralist class sometimes pays wages, but sometimes it get us to make information for it without paying anything at all. It relies sometimes in wage labor, but sometimes on free labor. This free labor has a double aspect: you can play however you like so long as you accept the alienation of the information from your play, and in exchange for no wages. In exchange for nothing but the only place to play.

The vectoralist class outflanked both the workers and the artists. It gave capital the information vector, so that it could route around any blockage organized labor might impose. Your workers are on strike here? No problem! Invest in these information vectors and any strike can be countered by the routing of supply chains elsewhere. Capital thought it had won in its struggle against labor, and it had, only to lose to the vector itself, and to its owners.

The artists thought they had won for a time. This world of free information seemed to realized finally the dream of a universe of play outside the commodity form. This was perhaps the last of the classical avant-gardes, that of the good old cyberspace days. Only some of us saw what was coming: a recuperation at a higher level of abstraction. Sure, have this information for free. Sure, play with your information however you want. But just so you know, says the vectoralist class, you signed an end-user agreement that gives us the ownership of information as an alienated totality.

And so finally: alienism. Which starts from the knowledge that all this has come to pass. That all the formal tactics and avant-garde poetics all end up within the same information-commodity form. Just as labor makes and is made by a second nature of the generalized commodification of things; so too art makes and is made by a third nature of the generalized commodification of information.

A third nature that inflated like a detergent soap bubble, rainbow colors shining in the light, but which knows it is bound to pop. Whatever nature is, it remains unknown, unknowable, buried under the detritus and waste not just of a second nature but also of a third nature. If there is a novel twist, a dialectic without resolution, it is that third nature has the instrument panel, the information, the simulation power, to model its own demise. You can feel the heat as it rises, or track its progress on the screen in your hand.

All of the aesthetic movements were creatures of the Holocene. Nobody knows anything about what an aesthetic would that is not just for a different historical era, but a different geological aeon. Alienism is not an aesthetic. It can’t be. Not now the Holocene is over. But perhaps it can be a marking of the absence of the possibility of an aesthetic. A marking of the place, in art and writing, where they know what they can’t do.

Art as a stand-in for the divine, or even as a stage toward a philosophy that could really grasp and imbue the totality of nature with its spirit – all this lies in the past. There can be no aesthetic when there’s no way to know what or how to perceive. We no longer have aesthetics we have anesthetics.

And it won’t do to critique the fashionable aesthetic styles of the times, as it would be presumptuous to know what to put in their place. But it might be possible to treat the styles of the times as raw material for a poetics that at least deprives them of the desires they hide.

For instance:

The abolitionist style, which seeks to free itself from hierarchical categories by subtraction.

The accelerationist style, which in total alienation from any other possibility wishes just a faster refresh rate on the same.

The ambient style, where undetectable sense shows up indirectly, as echo.

The apocalyptic style, which still trades on the alibi that soon it will all end but the end will be its meaning.

The autofictional style, which gives the alienated concept a home in a particular neurosis.

The conceptual style, which makes the banality of the surface profound at one remove.

The gentrified style, in which what were formerly bohemian pastimes become middle class and respectable.

The hyperstitional style, which imbues abstract narratives with the aura of absent meaning.

The manifesto style, where declarative sentences create the effect of a group fused to its project by simply saying so.

The memetic style, which measures it’s meaning by its circulation, repetition and variation.

The neobolshevik style, as if pretending it was still capitalism meant it could be negated the old fashioned way.

The postplanetary style, which pushes alienation past the limits of the atmosphere itself.

The radical style, which, rather than making the personal political – makes the political very, very personal.

The weird style, which recycles the old uncanny effects, allegedly shorn of their race-panic.

And so on. The alienist style is of course no better, other than in that it knows this. Alienism plunges off the dock of language with no hope of surfacing again, anywhere else. It drowns without hope. The best thing about living without hope is that then you know who your real comrades are.

The alienist style can at least candidly admit that it is an avant-garde for no reason other than that it gives certain people peculiar pleasures to conduct themselves in such fashion. To play with the noise, knowing it may not lead anywhere at all. That we may not even speak the ugly language of our century.


McKenzie Wark

published in Alienist #4 (December/January 2018/2019)


! the tautology of political art small


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