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On Hito Steyerl

Next in our tour of new-classic works of media theory, after Jodi Dean and Tiziana Terranova, I turn to Hito Steyerl, and her collected writings The Wretched of the Screen (e-flux and Sternberg Press, 2012). If Dean extends the line of psychoanalytic and Terranova the autonomist strains of (post)marxist thought, Steyerl does something similar for the formalist strategies of a past era of screen theory and practice.

Hito Steyerl is from that era when the politics of culture was all about representation. Sometimes the emphasis was on the question of who was represented; sometimes on the question of how. The latter question drove a series of inquiries and experiments in form. These experiments tended to focus fairly narrowly on things like the logic of cinematic editing, not least because the larger technical and economic form of cinema was fairly stable.

It’s a line of thought that did not survive too well into the current era, which Steyerl alternately calls “audiovisual capitalism,” or “disaster capitalism” or “the conceptual turn of capitalism.” (33, 93, 42) Neither capitalism – if this is still what this is – or media form seems at all stable any more. (For Lev Manovich media dissolves into software). The formal questions need to be asked again and across a wider tract of forms, and for that matter for new categories of that which might or might not be represented. It may even turn out that the formal questions of media are not really about representation at all.

For this is an era in free-fall without end, to the point where it feels like a kind of stasis. But perhaps this free-fall opens onto a particular kind of vision. For Platonov, the Bolsheviks had taken away from peasant society both the heavens and the land, leaving only the horizon. Like Virilio, Steyerl thinks the horizon has now disappeared as well. Once it was the fulcrum that allowed mariners to find their latitude. But the line they drew was already an abstract one, turning the earth from a continuum of places to a grid-like space.

This abstracted perception of space both affirms and undermines the point of view of the spectator, making all of space appear as if for that point of view, but also making that point of view itself an abstract one. Steyerl doesn’t mention longitude, but one could think here also about how the chronometer created a second axis of abstraction, of time and longitude, to complete the grid, and making time as smooth and digital as space. “Time is out of joint, and we no longer know whether we are objects or subjects as we spiral down in an imperceptible free fall.” (26)

Perhaps there is also a shift in emphasis from the horizontal to the vertical axis. This is an era that privileges the elevated view, whether of the drone or the satellite. The spectator’s point of view floats, a “remote control gaze.” (24) If everything is in free-fall then the only leverage is to be on top of the one falling below, a kind of “vertical sovereignty.” (23) It is the point of view of “intensified class war from above.” (26)

It is hard to know what kind of formal tactic might get leverage in such a situation. Steyerl counsels “a fall toward objects without reservation.” (28) This, as it will turn out later, yields some striking ways of approaching the question of the subject as a formal problem as well.

Falling toward the image as a kind of object, Steyerl is drawn to the poor image, or the lumpen-image, the kind that lacks quality but has accessibility, restores a bastard kind of cult value, functions as “a lure, a decoy, an index.”(32) This reverses one of the received ideas of cinema studies subset of screen studies, where “resolution was fetishized as if its lack amounted to castration of the author.” (35) Steyerl celebrates instead Kenneth Goldsmith’s Ubuweb, which makes a vast archive of the avant-garde available free online (but out of sight of google) at low resolution.

The poor image is cousin to Julio Garcia Espinosa’s manifesto ‘For an imperfect cinema,’ and as such is one of Steyerl’s many reworkings, indeed détournements, of classic ‘moves’ from the formalist critical playbook. Like Third Cinema before it, the poor image works outside the alignment of high quality with high class.

The poor image is not something that can just be celebrated. It is also the vehicle for hate speech and spam. The poor image is a democratic one, but in no sense is the democratic an ideal speech situation. Maybe its more what circulates in and between Hiroki Azuma’s databases. Poor images “express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind…” (41) Their value is defined by velocity alone. “They lose matter and gain speed.” (41)

But there are other contradictions inherent in the poor image. It turns out that dematerialized art works pretty well with conceptual capitalism. The tendency of the latter may well be to insist that even non-existent things must be private property. So, for example Uber is now a major transport company yet it owns no vehicles; Amazon is a major retailer that owns no stores. Dematerialization is in my terms the strategy of the vectoral class. Or rather, not so much a dematerialization as a securing of control through the information vector, and thus an exploit based on certain properties of ‘matter’ of fairly recent discovery.

On the other hand, the poor image can circulate in anonymous networks, yielding anomalous shared histories. Perhaps it produces Vertov’s visual bonds in unexpected ways. Steyerl’s figure for this is David Bowie’s song ‘Heroes’, where the hero is not a subject but an object, the image-as-object – that which can be copied, that which struggles to become a subject. But maybe instead the hero is that which Mario Perniola, after Benjamin, calls a “thing that feels” (50).

In the era of free-fall, perhaps trauma is a residue of the independent subject, “the negativity of the thing can be discerned by its bruises.” (52) Things condense violence just as much as subjects; things condense violence just as much as desire. “The material articulation of the image is like a clone of Trotsky walking around with an icepick in his head.” (53) The thing is an object but also a fossil, a form that is an index of the circumstances of its own death.

Again, Steyerl will reach here for a détournement of the old tactics. In this case it is Alexander Rodchenko, for whom all things could be comrades, just as for Platonov all living things could be comrades. In free-fall, the living and non-living things might be a heap rather than a hierarchy. “History, as Benjamin told us, is a pile of rubble. Only we are not staring at it from the point of view of Benjamin’s shell-shocked angel. We are not the angel. We are the rubble.” (56)

Steyerl thinks not just the micro-scale of the image but also the macro scale of the institution, and asks questions with a similar formal lineage. From the point of view of screen studies, the museum is now a white cube full of black boxes. You pass under a black curtain into a usually quite uncomfortable little black box with a bench to sit on and bad sound. The black-box in white-cube system is for Steyerl not just a museum any more but also a factory. Strangely enough they are now often – like Tate Modern or DIA Beacon – now also often in former industrial sites.

Steyerl: “the white cube is… the Real: the blank horror and emptiness of the bourgeois interior.” (62) Or was. Now it is a sort of a-factory, producing transformations in the feelings of subjects rather than in the form of objects. The museum even functions temporally like work does in the over-developed world. Once upon a time the factory and the cinema disciplined bodies to enter, perform their function, and leave at the same time. Now the museum allows the spectator to come and go, to set their own pace – just like contemporary occupations where the worker is ‘free’ so long as the contract gets done on time.

There is a sort of illusion of sovereignty in both cases, where one can appear to be ‘on top of things’. The spectator in the museum is as in charge as the artist, the curator or the critic. Or so it appears. It’s a sort of public sphere in negative, which does not actually foster a conversation, but rather produces the appearance of a public. Maybe it is something like the snob’s means of sustaining desire, identity and history, as Azuma would have it.

The labor of spectating in today’s museums is always incomplete. No one viewer ever sees all the moving images. Only a multiplicity of spectators could ever have seen the hours and hours of programming, and they never see the same parts of it. It is like Louis Althusser’s interpolation in negative. There’s no presumption of an ideological apparatus directly hailing its subjects. Rather its an empty and formal gesture, an apparatus that does not call ‘Hey you!’ But rather ‘Is anybody there?’ And usually getting no answer. The videos loop endlessly in mostly empty blackened rooms.

Expanding the scale again, Steyerl considers the white cube-black box system as a now international system. No self-respecting part of the under-developed world is without its copy of these institutions of the over-developed world. The art world’s museum-authenticated cycles of “bling, boom and bust” are now a global phenomena. (93) A placeless culture for a placeless space and time in free-fall.

“If contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?” (93) Contemporary art mimics the values of a ruling class that I think may no longer quite be described as bourgeois and is perhaps not even capitalist any more. Both imagine themselves to be “unpredictable, unaccountable, brilliant, mercurial, moody, guided by inspiration and genius.” (94)

The abstract, placeless space of international contemporary art is populated by “jpeg virtuosos,” “conceptual impostors” and “lumpen freelancers” all “hard wired and thin skinned” and trying to work their way in. (95, 96, 100) Not to mention the women whose affective labor holds the whole art world together.

For Steyerl there’s a new kind of shock worker, a post-Soviet kind used to churning out affects and percepts, living on adrenalin, deadlines, exhaustion and an odd kind of quota. Steyerl seems to think they cannot really be defined in class terms. But perhaps they are just a niche version of what I call the hacker class, adding transformations to information but who do not own the means of realizing the value of what they produce.

Here Steyerl usefully augments our understanding of the contemporary production of subjects. The art worker subcategory of the hacker class makes visible certain traits that may occur elsewhere. With some, for example, they no longer have work so much as occupations. These keep people busy but lack the classic experience of alienation. Work time is not managed the old fordist way, and nor is there a recognizable product into which the worker’s labor has been estranged.

The workers from the 60s on revolted against alienation. “Capital reacted to this flight by designing its own version of autonomy: the autonomy of capital from workers.” (112) The artist is person who refuses division of labor into jobs. To be an artist is not to work but to have an occupation. As Franco Berardi argues, it forecloses the possibility of alienation as traditionally understood.

The dream of the historic avant-gardes was to merge art and everyday life under the sign of an expanded concept of use value. Like all utopian projects, it came true, but with a twist. Art and the everyday merged, but under the sign of exchange value. Contemporary art became an aesthetic and economic project but not a political one. The Capital-A Artist is a mythic figure, a creative polymath as legitimation for the amateur entrepreneur, who does not know much about the forces of production can can read a spreadsheet and talk a good game.

Perhaps occupation is a category that could be pushed in other directions. Steyerl gestures towards the occupiers of the New School and their attempt – brief though it was – to occupy time and space in a different way, picking up where the Situationist International left off with their constructed situations.

But for many the free-lance life is not one in which to realize one’s dreams. It is a part of a world of freedom, but of freedom from social bonds, from solidarity, from culture, education, from a public sphere. The term free-lance probably comes from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), and meant a mercenary rather than a casual worker. In Kurasawa’s Yojimbo (1961) the mercenary plays one side against the other for the common good. Perhaps there’s a hint there at strategies against the ‘sovereign’ powers of the present.

In the legal concept of the king’s two bodies, the actual body of the sovereign, which is mortal, is doubled by a formal body, which is immortal. Steyerl’s détournement of the concept proposes thinking both the actual and formal bodies as dead. A dead form is kept half alive by dead subjects. Maybe its a kind of negative sovereignty.

Here Steyerl focuses on the unidentified dead of the civil wars, from Spain to Turkey. The unidentified dead “transgress the realms of civil identity, property, the order of knowledge, and human rights alike.” (151) Like poor images, the unidentified dead remaining unresolved. “Their poverty is not a lack, but an additional layer of information, which is not about content but form. This form shows how the image is treated, how it is seen, passed on, or ignored, censored, and obliterated.” (156) In an era obsessed with the surveillance of the subject of both state and corporate power, Steyerl locates a dread exception.

A different kind of negative or blank subject comes up in Steyerl’s study of spam. “According to the pictures dispersed via image spam, humanity consists of scantily dressed degree-holders with jolly smiles enhanced by orthodontic braces.” (161) They are “a reserve army of digitally enhanced creatures who resemble the minor demons and angels of mystic speculation…” (163) Image-spam is addressed to humans but does not really show them. It is “an accurate portrayal of what humanity is not. It is a negative image.” (165)

As is Steyerl’s habit, here again she pushes this reading further, to ask whether these non-humans of image-spam could be the model for a kind of refusal or withdrawal, avatars for a desire to escape from visual territory. Contra Warhol: today everyone can be invisible for fifteen minutes. It’s a walkout: “it is a misunderstanding that cameras are tools of representation; they are at present tools of disappearance. The more people are represented the less is left of them in reality.” (168) The abstraction built into modern modes of perception marks the position of the subject as the central node in the visual field. But rather than stress its relentless centrality, Steyerl points towards the uses of its other quality – its abstract inhuman quality.

In an era where political art is reduced to “exotic self-ethnicization, pithy gestures, and militant nostalgia,” perhaps there’s a secret path through the free-fall world of floating images and missing people. (99) “Any image is a shared ground for action and passion, a zone of traffic between things and intensities.” (172) The poor image can perhaps be a visual bond in negative, marking through its additional layers of information some nodes in an abstract space where we choose not to be.

One way of thinking about the figure of the modern is that it was about relations between a past and a future that was never reversible or cyclical. Whether good or bad, the future was in a relation of difference to a past. But art is no longer modern, it is now contemporary, in which art has a relation only to the present, and to other art with which it synchronizes, in the present. Perhaps what Steyerl is attempting is to open a difference between the modern and the contemporary. It does not work quite as the internal difference within the modern did, but at least it opens up a space where historical thought, feeling and sensation might live again, if only in negative. As the residue of futures past.


McKenzie Wark

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