Armen Avanessian

The Speculative End of the Aesthetic Regime

93-avanessian-4 Armen Avanessian, Reza Negarestani and Tom Lamberty at an event held at Merve Verlag, Berlin

We need not resort to Jacques Rancière to discuss the aesthetic regime that he believed dawned with the birth of idealist aesthetics – a regime that, Armen Avanessian argues, might be nearing its end. An entire chorus of voices, from contemporary art theorists to academic philosophers, forecasts the imminent demise of this formation.

So if we will soon speak of the age of aesthetics in the past tense, part of what will have done it in will be its failure to develop a poetics: A knowledge of the production that, in leaping into the speculative realm, engenders what eludes the loops of a meta-reflective critique – creation from the possible. If that has anything to do with critique, Avanessian writes, it is with the Romantic critique Walter Benjamin revived almost a century ago.

“In having a subject of aesthetic experience as its condition contemporary art is a correlationism. To be clear: Contemporary art as the aesthetic experience of sense- and value-making, as the co-constitution of the art object and subject, assumes correlationism and reproduces it, affirms it, in every moment of its open-ended experience.” - Suhail Malik [1]

“There is no critically relevant pure ‘aesthetics’ of contemporary art, because contemporary art is not an aesthetic art in any philosophically significant sense of the term.” - Peter Osborne [2]

I. Aesthetics

Signs are mounting that the hegemony of the aesthetic, a specific regime of defined practical and discursive rules on how to talk about and assess art, is coming to an end. In “After Art”, David Joselit has proposed two helpful ways to characterize our current situation. On the one hand, there are the dominant perception-oriented models of the relationship between work and beholder, which outline “the perceptual” – or more precisely, “optical sensation” – as a form of “knowledge”. On the other hand, we have psychological models that examine the “dynamics of identification between persons and images”. Both ultimately imply that the beholders are in sovereign control of their subjectivity, that they take possession of it, as it were. [3] This diagnosis should lead us to take a severe view of the equivocal nature of “our faculties” in the aesthetics of the past two centuries with its obsession with subjectivity and fixation on perception: “As both commodity and experience, art is the paradigmatic object of globalization – it occupies the vanguard in an economy hungry for authenticity.” [4]

Coming from a coeditor of October, that is a radical hypothesis about the aesthetic status quo: That we are not just approaching the line separating the aesthetic from a post-aesthetic regime but may already have crossed it; we may have entered a condition After Art and thus also find ourselves beyond a future of the sort the avant-gardes anticipated. In light of the infinite proliferation of images, that means art may have lost not only its unique selling point but its epistemological raison d’être as well. And an art criticism and “critical” aesthetics whose guiding values, since Schiller, have been authenticity and authority would be bereft of its object.

But it is presumably not so much the status of art or the “end of art” (familiar topoi since the birth of philosophical aesthetics, which is to say since Kant and, especially, Hegel) that are the true sticking point of the growing discontent, but rather the fixation on the aesthetic dimension of art and theory. Most recently, Peter Osborne spelled this out quite clearly; his “speculative proposition: contemporary art is postconceptual art[5] is linked to the claim that a concept of art that no longer invokes its media-based status implies a new significance of literature as well (a nexus previously posited by the German early romantics): “postconceptual art articulates a post-aesthetic poetics.” [6] With a view to the works of Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, Osborne highlights two philosophical problems I believe a poetics (not subject to the aesthetic regime) would have to home in on: An ontology of time and a historical ontology of art.

93-avanessian-1 The Atlas Group in collaboration with Walid Raad, „Notebook volume 38_Already been in a Lake of Fire“, 1999–2002

What Osborne describes as the resurgent salience of fiction in present-day art – for example, in the blurring of the boundary between the narrative and documentary registers – is a reflection of the true mission of art, which, he argues, is really con-temporary only when it engenders the fiction of a shared present. In analogy with what we may describe as a task of poiesis, of making time, this also implies a need to go beyond models of aesthetic critique, defamiliarization, or artistic strategies of making time perceptible. Without a philosophy of time to match – and no such philosophy is discernible in art criticism or aesthetics – or an commensurate speculative intervention, that is Osborne’s polemical twist, works of art ultimately remain unintelligible.

Suhail Malik, meanwhile, claims that a philosophical materialism or realism “speculatively indicates the conditions for another art than contemporary art.” [7] That this view is manifestly at odds with Osborne’s Hegelian-Marxist approach is of less interest to our question than the observation that both point out the distinction between contemporary and present-day art and express their opposition (on behalf of an asynchrony that is essential to art) to a cornerstone of (especially German) academic thinking about art: The category of aesthetic experience. As Malik sees it, “realism’s provocation to art” positively consists in the fact that it undoes “aesthetic experience as a condition or term of art, even in the avowal of art’s ineluctable materiality.” [8]

Malik is mobilizing the rationalist variant of speculative realism – in contrast with its object-oriented variant, which portrays aesthetics as prima philosophia rediviva [9] and which was rapidly and eagerly adopted by an international guild of innovation-hungry curators – a philosophy that may look at first glance like, and was initially received as, an apolitical and anti-humanist nihilism. Yet with its explicit opposition to official aesthetics – and especially to the “specious mystique of aesthetic experience as ethico-political edification” (Ray Brassier) – such speculative-materialist inhumanism does aim to explore the place and status reason holds in subjects. To put it in Kant’s aesthetic diction while rejecting the a priori psychologism he and his successors represented: what is at stake is a modification and expansion of our faculties a posteriori, not the interplay of a priori faculties we have but (can) become aware of (only) in aesthetic experience. [10]

II. Speculation

Does this mean that the category of experience as such has become obsolete? Or might we devise a poetic concept of experience that acknowledges the – not merely etymological – link between praxis and experientia? Is it not inextricably bound up with aesthetics, or with what Kant called sensus communis aestheticus? In that case, any attempt to pit the concept of experience against the limitations of the aesthetic regime would be counterproductive. Indeed, to quote Isabelle Graw, a theorist who is above the suspicion of speculative philosophizing: “Taken to its logical conclusion, ‘common sense’ should tear down Kant’s model of autonomous aesthetic experience,” since even “‘aesthetic experience’ is permeated by economic motives.” [11]

The avant-gardes had already leveled this argument at the “classical” aesthetics of autonomy, but Osborne’s theses put a new spin on it: The power of capital rests on that fiction of a present engendered by art; it is not least thanks to art that capital has become autonomous vis-à-vis politics and production. And the manifest product of this autonomy is the total aestheticization of life, politics, and (philosophical) thinking. It is in response to this aestheticization that we urgently need to consider (poetic) alternatives.

The main problem an “aestheticized philosophy” based on the concept of experience must address is that it hardly makes headway beyond the Kantian epistemology. The correlation of subject and object, of pure reason and pure intuition, stakes out the field in which it operates. To summarize the speculative argument (against Kant and the correlationist aesthetic after Kant) in the briefest terms: Kant’s critique of pure reason limited the space of our experience to what can be thought, to the conditions of the possibility of our thinking. Poetics, by contrast, refers to a making of something in which the boundary from non-being to being is crossed. The making of something is not reflective, it does not exhaust itself in its own operation; poietic praxis transcends pure thinking and materializes whatever it makes its object, and be it a praxis of pure thinking. Poetic experience is nothing other than this transgression: The experience of what is transgressed, of how it is transgressed, and not least of the boundary this very transgression brings into being. In other words, the possibilities of our senses are not intrinsically limited and cannot serve as a yardstick for the limitations of what can be thought.

But what lies beyond these contingent conditions? The Romantic answer was – the absolute. And the absolute, that was the Romantics’ objection to Kant, is poetic, not aesthetic. It is not what can only be thought, not what can be the subject but of speculation. It is immanent to experience. The absolute is the space poiesis opens up, secular illumination, that which emerges in a practical and perfectly non-mystical transgression. It is not a horizon in whose nature it is that we can never draw closer to it. The absolute comes into being at the moment of such transgression as a beyond that did not exist beforehand. That is the point in which Osborne’s and Malik’s hypotheses on contemporary art, however diametrically opposed they otherwise are in many respects, surprisingly concur. The possible is not defined by its logical opposition to the real; it manifests itself only by time and in time. [12] Time is not among the principles of pure intuition a priori but itself a product of language and experience. Time is asynchronous, non-present.

III. Poetics

With Walter Benjamin, we can trace a tradition of speculative poetics in this sense back to the Jena Romantics, whom Osborne also invokes. [13] Benjamin’s studies are always also methodological experiments in speculatively transcending the Kantian model of critical aesthetics and reflections on a poetic alternative to the idealist aesthetics of his contemporaries. With a view to the German Romantics’ divergent idea of critique, Benjamin developed a “speculative concept of criticism,” Howard Caygill writes, that was distinguished by its “method of ‘immanent critique.’” [14] In his concrete analytical contributions to the theories of literature and art, such criticism far exceeds the bounds of the Kantian (aesthetic) model of critique.

93-avanessian-2 Perspectival schema from Erwin Panofsky, „Die Perspektive als symbolische Form“, 1927

Yet why does this asynchronous (poetic) history, which might begin with Friedrich Schlegel and Hölderlin, remain unwritten, even though there is an entire subterraneous tradition of reactualizations of and with Benjamin? For a historical answer, we might turn to Giorgio Agamben, who has highlighted that the occultation of the concept of poiesis by praxis commenced even in antiquity and grew more intense in the modern era until, under the auspices of capitalism, the appreciation of poiesis was extinguished altogether by the dominant category of “labor” – a development that, not incidentally, paralleled the increasing focus of art historians and art market participants on great masters and masterworks. If Agamben is to be believed, the modern aesthetic-capitalist condition has pruned the poietic down to the mere question of the how, the practical matter of how works are made. [15] And once we lose sight of the difference between poiesis and praxis, between emphatic “pro-duction into presence” (be it the production of a shared present, history, or of time at large) and mere doing, it seems pointless to presume that poetics has its own concept of experience (let alone one that would be adequate to the anonymous and endlessly proliferating settings in which images and texts are produced, circulated, and consumed today). In contradistinction to this aesthetic view of the issue, however, only a poetic concept of experience is commensurate to the insight that our sense cannot have become common before becoming politically and economically contemporary.

The sensus communis Kant initially criticized but then brought back by way of the aesthetic register is a sense that is produced and hence social; aesthetics (which judges and argues on the basis of individual experiences) is inevitably blind to the extent to which that is so because it cannot go back behind the correlation between the (perceiving) subject and the object (of cognition). Poetics, by contrast, is cognizant of the fact that any object it comes into contact with is thereby altered. And that is true in particular (in the strong sense of Quentin Meillassoux’s explicitly speculative-materialist dictum le passé est imprévisible) of works of the past or the past as such. As long as we fail to project a different (contingent) future, we are stuck in nostalgic contemplation of a wrongful past. (similarly, we could then not derive anything from Agamben’s philological speculation but a culturally pessimist theorem about a universal oblivion of poiesis).

A poetic method that defies the aesthetic regime operates with a future that breaks out of the circular (meta-)reflective loops of aesthetic criticality and the reflective (or inductive) judgment critical aesthetics since Kant has championed. [16] A corresponding abductive approach by means of hypotheses or concepts of which we cannot say with any determinacy at the moment of judging whether they actually apply to any objects may likewise be regarded as a methodological imperative. That is because thought and insight, in art and literature as much as in the theories of art and literature, are not achieved in isolated acts of “genius discovery”; what makes them possible, the Italian philosopher of science Lorenzo Magnani has argued with respect to scientific innovation, is an abductive “thinking through doing […] by means of experiments and manipulative activity on external objects.” [17]

A theory of art or literature (or the humanities as a whole) that is alive to the implications of this insight into the necessity of manipulative abductions lets the speculative potential of the material it studies bring itself to bear (instead of concerning itself primarily with “intentions” or seeking to “do justice” to individual works) and materially alters the criteria of judgment or our judging faculties (instead of melancholically resigning itself to its incapacity to do more than render them perceptible). [18] Aesthetics works to draw the distinction between subject (the artist or scholar) and the (art or cognitive) object by promoting the correlationist myth of an experience mood that occurs between the two; poetics, by contrast, strives for its speculative transformation. [19]

Nietzsche’s essay on tragedy, Panofsky’s study on perspective, and Benjamin’s own book on the mourning play, to give just a few examples, illustrate what an engagement with, or integration of, artistic production and theory would look like that would address itself to the need for “practical and “external” manipulations”. [20] It is the virtue of these works that the criteria qualified to assess their truth content did not exist in their (own) present and must be derived from their (speculative) future.

In his “Phenomenology of Spirit”, the speculative philosopher par excellence described the “counter-thrust” the reading of a “speculative proposition” generates: “Starting from the Subject as though this were a permanent ground, it [picture-thinking] finds that […] the Subject has passed over into the Predicate.” Crucially, the speculative quality of a proposition lies in this sort of dynamic; it cannot be perceived any more than the poetic potential of a work of art, existing only in and by virtue of this movement: “This alone is the speculative in act, and only the expression of this movement is a speculative exposition.” [21] Hegel’s words fairly accurately define the speculative dynamic transforming the subject as much as the object that might lead to an engagement with art worthy of being called poetic.

(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)


[1]Suhail Malik, “Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art,” in: Spike, 37, 2013, p. 130.
[2]Peter Osborne, “Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art”, London and New York 2013, p. 10.
[3]And both are sufficiently conformable to the market: “Such a presumption of the self as property naturally corresponds to a type of artwork as property (which is the contemporary norm).”
[4]David Joselit, After Art, Princeton 2013, p. 84.
[5]Osborne, op. cit., p. 3.
[6]Ibid., p. 33. Osborne first put forward this hypothesis in “The Fiction of the Contemporary: Speculative Collectivity and Transnationality in The Atlas Group”, in: Aesthetics and Contemporary Art, ed. Armen Avanessian and Luke Skrebowski, Berlin 2011, pp. 101–23.
[7]Malik, “Reason to Destroy,” p. 133.
[8]Ibid., p. 132.
[9]See Graham Harman, “On Vicarious Causation,” in: Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, vol. 2, 2007, p. 205; Svenja Bromberg, “The Anti-Political Aesthetics of Objects and Worlds Beyond,” http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/anti-political-aesthetics-objects-and-worlds-beyond.
[10]See Reza Negarestani, “Synechistic Critique of Aesthetic Judgment”, in: Realism Materialism Art, ed. by Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, and Suhail Malik (forthcoming, 2014); Ray Brassier, “Genre Is Obsolete”, in: Noise and Capitalism, ed. by M. Attiarch and A. Iles, Donostia-San Sebastián 2009, pp. 60–71.
[11]Isabelle Graw, High Price. Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, transl by. Nicholas Grindell, Berlin 2009, p. 152 (translation modified). “Without recourse to common sense, no judgment of taste could claim universal validity. But if a judgment depends on ‘common sense,’ this relativizes Kant’s ideal of a ‘pure’ judgment of taste made in complete freedom.” Ibid., p. 153.
[12]I cannot demonstrate this point in linguistic detail in these pages. I should merely note that language (and the romantic experience of language) affords us access to a poetic dimension. Mode evolves out of tense (as tense evolves out of aspect); an iterative does not “exist” before but only, as one of the modes, “after” tense; modes, including the iterative mode, are temporal.
[13]David Joselit, too, argues that “there is still no better analysis than [Benjamin’s] of the economic-aesthetic “regime change” that occurs when mechanical reproduction causes the unit of aesthetic analysis to shift from individual works to virtually unlimited populations of images.” Yet Benjamin’s “brilliant analysis,” he notes, has become a “roadblock,” although “this problem is due not to Benjamin’s failure but to our own.” Joselit, After Art, p. 13.
[14]Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience, London and New York 1998, p. 34. Caygill highlights the nexus between the critique of speculation (which is aimed against Kant) and the critique of an idealist concept of experience (which is aimed against Hegel’s aesthetics-as-philosophy-of-history): “Benjamin’s elaboration of a non-Hegelian speculative philosophy of experience redefined the nature and limits of critique. The Kantian view that critique should confine itself to securing the legitimacy of judgments in terms of a categorial framework applicable only within the limits of spatiotemporal experience no longer sufficed. The extension of the bounds of experience brought with it the demand for a new and extended notion of critique. Benjamin responded to this demand by returning to the concept of criticism developed by the Romantic, pre-Hegelian generation of Kant’s critics, above all Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis.” Ibid.
[15]“The central experience of poiesis, production into presence, is replaced by the question of the “how”, that is, of the process through which the object has been produced. In terms of the work of art, this means that the emphasis shifts away from what the Greeks considered the essence of the work – the fact that in it something passed from nonbeing into being, thus opening the space of truth.” Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content, transl by. Georgia Albert, Palo Alto 1999, p. 70.
[16]This is not the place for a detailed discussion of how it does so. What is clear is that it involves temporalization instead of partial identification. See Armen Avanessian and Anke Hennig, Metanoia. Spekulative Ontologie der Sprache, Berlin 2014, especially p. 169, which also offers a general discussion of recursion and abduction in the humanities.
[17]Lorenzo Magnani, Abductive Cognition. The Epistemological and Eco-Cognitive Dimensions of Hypothetical Reasoning, Berlin and Heidelberg 2009, p. 42.
[18]Whether and to which extent this will require manipulative interventions in the service of other (actually) knowledge-generating formats also into the existing academic business (in the humanities) is a question for another debate. In any case, the growing purchase economic models have in institutions of higher learning is not the only culprit responsible for the current misery: As William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, Chicago 2006, has shown in detail, the Romantic university pioneered the contemporary economic regime of a knowledge-production geared toward originality and innovation. True, it depends on the observer’s frame of mind whether the preemptive obedience with which institutions in the art orbit train ever larger crowds of artists, curators, or art theorists in an ever more feverish production of symbolic surplus value is shocking, obscene, risible, or merely pathetic. But, and this is the crux, the situation is hardly more productive in literary, film, or theater studies, disciplines that are just as much under the rule of the aesthetic regime even though they are far less closely or directly interwoven with market-economic processes.
[19]I can only refer to initial tentative experiments from my own work such as the study of anonymous language-ontological phenomena (the genesis of the present tense as the tense of fictions) and attempts to manipulate my own authorship by means of intensified forms of collaborative writing, for example by jointly writing a monograph or speculatively “writing” an entire book in drawings; see Armen Avanessian and Andreas Töpfer, Speculative Draw­ings, Berlin 2014.
[20]Magnani, Abductive Cognition, op. cit., p. 42.
[21]Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, transl by. A. V. Miller, ed. J. N. Findlay, Oxford 1977, pp. 37, 40.