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Issue 101 of Texte zur Kunst takes “Polarities” as its theme – one that in the first degree we associate with what’s unfolding around us right now: ideological polarization, from Pegida to ISIS to Donald Trump. Though the art world no doubt generates an internal political climate of its own, it is one necessarily informed by these global forces. And so with this issue, we aim to consider some of the macro conditions in which art critical and art historical discourses are currently being formed – and within which they will need to position themselves.

This trend toward polarization is particularly striking in light of the popular tendency, in recent decades, to speak of increased unification. But how is such polarization reconciled with the ideals of the dominant, and inherently continuous, neoliberal system – one characterized by the global economy’s promise of inclusiveness; utopic visions of peace (if not survival) via the “singularity” of screen, mind, and body; and a European Union as project of post-Soviet unification, striving to push all conflict to its periphery. This, even while the number of global refugees is rising, there is increased militant extremism, and racial conflict has intensified. How do we understand this growing gap between the ideals of tech/smooth space (where the art world often resides, swiftly neutralizing any resistance as “content”) and the striated regions of material unrest? Could the image of polarization be a generative model for times that are anything but ideology-free? Or how better to understand true opposition within a continuous system – one wherein extremes are nevertheless causally connected?

Current theoretical propositions come to mind: How discourses of accelerationism and posthumanism, for instance, look for new (faster, more efficiently parasitic) forms of thinking within present conditions. But are these just ways of avoiding concretely organized claims upon the state? American cultural studies scholar Timothy Brennan argues, yes, explicating his position in an interview for these pages by Berlin-based historian Philipp Felsch. Together, they reflect on the pre-1970s, pre-neoliberalized, pre-poststructuralist critical left which, in Brennan’s view, has been lost to a vague and shifting habitus that refuses to interfere with professional prospects or external positions of power. But with said power now under rising duress, what better time to revisit the classic left question: Do we work within or against? While strong antagonisms might seem, for some, unfit for our networked world, we instead ask how they could be reinserted into decidedly contemporary thinking. This can be done without an outright condemnation of ­poststructuralism’s accomplishments, as Helmut Draxler, in his contribution to the issue, shows. Reflecting on the concepts (antagonism, dichotomy, dialectics, etc.) that postmodernism ostensibly overran, he asks how this thinking in “polarities” shapes theoretical and political discourse. And what happens when past polarities are imported to the present? For example: Can refugees really be understood as a proletarian mass (in the Marxist sense)?

A closer look at the current refugee debate can be found in Gabriele Werner’s text. The Berlin-based art historian focuses on visual representations of this so-called crisis. Taking her research on the Heimatfilm (post-war German homeland movie) as a starting point, she uses the notion of Heimat – a particular, homogenizing concept of “we” – as a framework to look at those narrative schemes of thinking and debating that have been so present in Germany following the recent attacks in Cologne.

It’s a central reference point throughout this issue, the creation of popular narrative, and one that American writer Roy Scranton (author of “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene”) and pop agitator Lil Internet (see work with, e. g., Beyoncé, Diplo) directly take up here. Examining the difference between semiotic and material violence in defense (or pursuit) of “freedom,” Scranton and Lil Internet find our current stories to be inadequate, observing our time to be one characterized by subjectivizing forces in excess of what humanity has experienced before. We have also asked Carolin Emcke to weigh in, inviting the German journalist to speak to notions of “freedom” and “security” – terms employed by US-American and European politics to cohere partisan definitions of “us” vs. “them.”

But what baring do these emerging conditions have on aesthetic understandings of, for example, the assignment of an artist’s or critic’s point of view, and how value is accorded to works of art in turn? The label “political art” has, in itself, become a marketing strategy. Indeed, the art world often indulges in a default “right” kind of (left) politics – only to draw very different conclusions as to how to act within this field. For this issue, we’ve asked artists Davis Rhodes (with Daniel C. Barber) and Antek Walczak for statements. Rather than arguing for reviving “activist” art, Rhodes and Barber aim to address the position of artistic communication within a field of language and visual representation that might stand against (racial) violence – a violence underlying the social field and still eluding discourse, they write. Walczak, in his contribution, offers his insights into the Internet as catalyst for polarization, the fragmentary buzzing of communication that allows for new formations to arise, new trends to emerge. Mass media, here, function not to convey a singular message, but as platforms for all kinds of positions: Do we sense a hint of multitude?

Ausländer vs. Inländer, left vs. right – polarization is a distinct reality of present conditions. Particularly germane here is Gerhard Richter’s center image spread for this issue, presenting rarely viewed early photographs of Ulrike Meinhof from her time at Konkret (just prior to her radicalization). Alluding to a turning point for the (West German) left, they also suggest, as does Richter’s iconic RAF cycle (painted more than a decade after the German Autumn and to which these early portraits directly relate) that models of polarization are indeed always socially and historically constructed – not least by means of public discourse.

Caroline Busta, Hanna Magauer