The following is the first part of a two-part article. Part II, the second and final part to be published later in the week, continues with Theses X-XVI.
Walter Benjamin’s strategy in the Theses on the Philosophy of History was to focus on a non-human moment in human time and to present this instance on blast in his prose style. What I mean by “blast” here is the fact that the message had to be pirated past ideological hangers-on and historical barriers, past both Marxist and theotropic renditions, and also past the Nazi episode that might have been his more obvious target in 1940. His prose is clear but depth-charged, resonates at another frequency, still as if exploded past the imaginary proscriptions of Theodor Adorno, who was already in situ in New York as Benjamin tried to flee Paris. I try to rearbitrate this tab here, replicating violences of style and abbreviation. I run together logics and act as if Benjamin’s wavelength were not yet an infinitely weak signal.
Benjamin was headed for Central Park specifically in 1940, not far from where Public Seminar is based in New York City. His essay “Zentralpark” was even partly named after the New York park, “because of the central importance he ascribed to these fragments in the context of the work on Baudelaire, as well as to his hopes for resettling in America, where his friends spoke of finding an apartment for him in Central Park in New York” (Selected Writing: 1938-40, editor’s note). The zone that opens up here between suicide on the Spanish border in 1940, with the text of the Theses sent to Hannah Arendt in the post, and Central Park as the outdoor aquarium and Edenic refugee basin of the capital of telepolitical capital, not to mention Donald Trump 2016, must of course spread further back and forward still.
What Benjamin calls “natural history” — our becoming-geological, marked now by the word “anthropocene” — is the central trans-historical judder here, a type of spread of stone, occlusive mnemonic instances, peak toxicity, white-slavery aporias, limited computation, comedown, group icons, global poison containers, all within a canopy that takes in the next drone war front in Somalia, and so on. Tom Cohen, the ideal receiver and completer of Benjamin’s text for my money, has mock-cajoled with deadly seriousness that Benjamin was perhaps choosing death “over the company of Adorno in New York” in 1940. Benjamin’s slightly crypted style, which then reveals itself in the open, acted not just to oppose Marxism and historicism, but also to close them out, to autocide them. I would argue that Benjamin’s essay also closed out in advance all current forms of leftist denialism around climate change, social identity politics as a form of forever legitimate anthropo-denialism, and hyper-evolved aesthetics as more of the same tropic defense arabesques.
This essay was gathered especially for Public Seminar, as a kind of experiment in hors-garde journalism. I follow McKenzie Wark in wanting to accelerate and reformulate the public debate around extinction logics and how they impact aesthetics, but also fail to predetermine what or who the public and private now might be. As Wark writes, with shattering simplicity, “one has to keep stating and restating certain bullet points even if in terms of how people think and feel they are besides the point.” One has to risk, I would echo, a type of monomania that won’t always aid online presence and profile, and yet which must go public and clear.
Benjamin’s bullet, now faster, still traveling, was to expose the shared atomization of the theotropic and the Marxist and (in our terms) of social identity politics and even the most radicalized and beautiful aesthetics. If Benjamin wrote in such a way as to give the slip to Adorno, whose final letters play a certain policing role, it is almost with an appearance of softness, pretending that Adorno was the one leading for later installation’s sake. Benjamin’s bullet, still traveling, is the distinction between natural history in his special sense and all forms of historical materialism (Marxism, art, Facebook, identity formations, resistance, stack theory, retro-deconstruction, poetic exceptionalism, Facebook art, and so on).
Perhaps the single most remarkable fact about Benjamin’s text, homed in on repeatedly by Cohen, is that in 1939/1940 he does not explicitly name the emerging event (“Hitler”) as the enemy (Fiend). Perhaps the equivalent now would be to ignore what seems to be an epochal tunnel-visioning on race politics as a chosen cipher, and instead to insist on other horizons. Fred Moten has risked this conversion at moments, but then perhaps hesitated and moved back, at least apparently, into ana-angelic mode. But there is no angel of history here.
We may hesitate too, and want to look back, but the angel disappears, bullet-like, scintillated into a stone vortex. According to Benjamin’s algorithm, in fact, “Marxism” as the very form of relapse (reading as material drift away from “Marx”) contained in any text over the past 250 years may have turned out to have been bad for the proletariat class Marx seemed to formulate without being able to discover. Marxism, it turns out, was bad for the working classes. Now the point might not be to think or change the world; the point might just be to read what has happened to the world before it goes.
Even at its most honest and direct, contemporary online culture may act as something like a massive disowning system, countless nodes of emotional shunting and mis-recognition taking the place of a more difficult work “offline” and still perhaps to come. The recent glut of insta-tweets and preemptive think-piece palinodes in response to Beyoncé’s “Formation” video indexes this, as did the permanent war-state of mediatic abeyance called “Kanye’s Next Album.” The world online community — partitioned, segmented, an engine of inequality — is now at a boiling point of language fatigue and transition that may make nothing or everything happen at once. There is only one world, and it is this one. What is happening there — to all of us, and not just within aesthetic enclaves — has and must have several names: climate change, critical climate change, gender change, race change, possibility change, language change, emotional critical language change, global language warming, fast semiotic evolution, quadruple heart bypass of global language mourning, trans ego scriptor, robo-denihilism.
Online debate is increasingly militarized and awash with subtle and grosser cognitive splits, anti-racism mimicking anti-whiteness mimicking logics of eco-suicide. To go online is to invest in an electronic war of inscriptions that easily outdoes AFK (away from keyboard) activity in advance. The “abstinence” Derrida practiced in relation to the World Wide Web is no longer possible. An irenics of inscription reads off folded within this: the possibility that all the positions now available (anthroposcenester, object ontologist, Marxist, poet, Internet artist, retro-Derridean, social porn addict, Credit Suisse phenomenologist, 2016 dead-ass doper, Ryder Ripps debunker, neo-modernist groupie, white anti-white ally, and so on) are held at the cost of and through a certain invisibility of all the others. Nobody can catch up with or picture the amount of intersecting life occlusion, and yet nobody can shut it out. We are well within the blind hearing of others. While some nodes enter into the fray of deep mutual addressability, other codes skip back into exo-channels, necessarily so to an extent, but thereby making more work for anyone who reads and follows positions as such. Affective labor may be redefined in terms of emotional and critical language climate change politics. The positions “Green Marxist” and “post-anthroposcenester” are viewed as user identities whose very invisibility to each other presents an opportunity. The work is not just aesthetic or theoretic or hybrid, but larval and semioliquid and perhaps unable to cathect at all as theory or art in their material and post-material superbases. The question is one of granular speed and mourning between competing regimes of carbon-based life taxed as if with the need to pirouette into the next phase of existence first — dawn and trauma time for post-carbon toys.
In today’s light-speed artistic worldwide diasporas, in which the digital zeitgeist thrill beyond celestial joy renders newly available perfection a coy-fetish (think, for example, of Ryder Ripp’s update of the already enhanced virtual male gaze with Ho), the anthropocene might be seen as passé, old before its time precisely, already out of date just because it is: the sheer anachronicity of time side-swiped by what cannot quite be thought and yet is increasingly felt and traced as an acceleration and woundology of occlusive “white-solidarity” hashtags. Every such topoi between now and a putative 3000 will really only exponentially be about this. Local constellations, no matter how well meaning, abandon us to the void. As Isiah Medina puts it, “ultimately, any striving for communitarian, authentic and small-scale communities abdicates a commitment to humanity.” All forms of intractable denial and repression shelter in this suppression of the anthropocene in today’s artistic and social meme-space.
Perfection of form may be the most sophisticated transcendental contraband, denying itself away in a spasmodic complexity and null certainty that nevertheless delegates everything back to what is still a sort of penultimate counter-fetish. Everything grows frenetic and relaxed and focuses as if only on it, impossible formalizations loading a resistance that is both futile and more accelerated than ever. The anthropocene goes hyper. All that perhaps remains by dint of art would be the irreversible endless interrupted teleology of a monomania.
Something like a bad case of esprit de l’escalier comes to mark a broad phase of Marxist writing in the late anthropocene. As the radical or even classical Marxist — whose speculative identity now gloams in eclipse — shows signs of vital obsolescence, there is inevitably doubling down, defensive mania, subtle palinodes, hidden meme retirement. Those in “leftist denial” leak signs, the whole of language now a sounding sieve and tip-tonguing for that one word, the It, the das Ding, the what-do-you-call-it, the what-did-you-call-it, the formerly known as — the FKA-anthropocene. The cyphers are more and more troubling and deluxe, like the enigmatic solicitations Leo Bersani and Uylsse Dutoit describe in Caravaggio’s Secret, sexualized, hermetic, erotic, provocative, twentieth-century pedigree. There are enough, degenerescent and efflorescent pornographics that leave a heavy and phallic streak on the screen. The illusion of revolutionary progress has been fully inverted. The only successful recent revolution is the flipped waterfall of world treasure up to the top percentile (0.00001%).
Bitcoin and “the poets” have presented exits and/or aesthetic sophistications and endgames scarcely different from future entrapments and collaborationisms; Occupy was effectively gone, with no Internet to follow you; the Genius beta tool is a pastime; Greece African; perfect capitalism perfect occlusion; Shia LaBeouf’s “Just Do It” the leitmotif of relapse; and on the Internet that continues, people talk of a GitHub plug-in that is language agnostic yet does nothing but repeat the conditions of the medieval scriptorium. Even the best art is now just material, and the resistance to conceptualism is legitimately symptomatic. Neo-Derridabase and the hyper-stack gather at the rim of an oasis.
The “anthropocene” is not just a word and a set of vocables but a concept and, as with any concept, it is open to historical vicissitudes. Speaking of damage as it does, the term may be damaged and quickly. This is already happening in the social-mediatic YOLO or YALA bubble; whether you only live once or you always live again, this bubble proffers its own internal recurrence where it is as if the term is either already too jaded to be of use or so close to the bone and aporetically hot as to be capable of ruining a creative trajectory (cultural capital, online presence) through its persistence. The art demanded now — art only and constantly about this — would risk being vanilla art, and so perhaps not art at all, losing the space needed to vibrate across itself toward an absolute politics still surging into view. One temporary fate of the word “anthropocene” is that it be eaten up in meme-space, mistaken inevitably (this will happen again and again) for a mere meme, just another contender, to be missed, tabooed, mock-cajoled, updated, doubly forgotten, repressed. The contemporary shout-out for “any memes” or “any parties” would be both the perfect submergence point of anthropocenic consciousness — release from and capture of its claim, blazing fun — and its catastrophic horizonless denial and joyless rescind. The term may coincide with other names, go under them, be confused with them, be submerged or adjacent — but nothing can not return us to the fact that the anthropocence now raids transcendental sense from within and -out.
The hyper-anthropocene — the anthropocene named as broad FKA-transing — updates current historical modes at such a speed that it cannot really be recognized as an era or epoch with which any one thinker might commune. If the hyper-anthropocene were a mere object, I might pray for and to it. But because we are beyond peak and beyond fleek — on point is off base — that seems impossible. And yet, after a moment’s consideration, this new “object domain” is no bigger than the history of truth or love, or the word “capitalism” and its stats. The hyper-anthropocene can, like anything, become a fetish or even an erotogenic zone. When Justine bathes naked outside in the blue light of the oncoming planet in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, she has found the ultimate planetary fuck. After this she glows with the human tenderness of resignation; she knows it is all over even before a headcount or apodiexis is in. That which produces intractable denial because it constitutes the ahistorical condition of our own disappearance and the contiguous transformation of death into something it does not resemble (death is not extinction) cannot be reined in by any social, activist, meta-ontological, artistic, or therapeutic effort of counter-denial or counter-occlusion. The thinking of It, the hyper-anthropocene, is caught in a teeming of paradoxes that seem most pressing at the precise moment an unprecedented relaxation is beckoned. There is no way to stop the schematic addictogenic updates and reprisals of thought, and yet what reverberates across them is the singular need to start stopping as the diagram of their momentum.
Just before the pirouette that allies poetry and war at the start of her book Stupidity (“We go first to the poets, and then to war”) Avital Ronell speaks of “the other of war, the peculiar experience of an exorbitant peace treaty, a kind of relinquishment that resolves itself into passivity.” That irenic passivity shades into the ironic war-like activities of those she calls (perhaps with irony) “the poets,” their staged dumbness and denial acting as a form of powering-up from known limits. The secret of poetry’s war would be knowing when to stop; even if we do not. But the poets’ language power, of (relatively classical) hermetism and retreat and of staging the political even more by turning away from it, is circled by Ronell without exactly returning fire. Literary implication and all its license not to name directly that which now bears down on us may, given supreme atempestivity, be a question and wound. In remarking as she does this implicit language power as there to be seen, Ronell opens a different space, minimally. This space is not just commentary as a ground of witnessing, a type of speculation lounge, but the semioliquidity of inscription crying out for rearbitration, trending toward meta-extinction and, up against it, a possible facing-up and irenics to come.
Climate changes and yet nothing’s gonna change my world, and so we relax again and give in to a different style. You try to stop the accelerations in thought. I love you too much for that. It is too beautiful to let us stop it; and we are too beautiful to try, and nobody ever can. You try and become even more beautiful. But climate changes and nothing’s gonna change my world, and so I love you instead; and we actively forget, as we always did. The polis of aeons counts nothing next to newly downloaded Mac OS El Capitan. Such is the magenta choral family meaning of “Ultralight Beam” on Saturday Night Live. The possibility of relaxation seems like a magical aspiration the more the hyper-anthropocene immerses us (in advance) over the centuries to come. There is (only) this to be thought. Every new effort to up the ante on this protomeme (its hyperiority) to upgrade it or, inversely, to give in and accept, to know that thing you really should know by now — these efforts are just that, effortful, hard to maintain, and vulnerable to amnesia and habit, like efforts of the past. The will to the irreversible is subject to angelic flop.
In “Art, the Anthropocene and the iPhone 3G” about the artist Erik Wysocan, Rory Rowan writes of how it is “perhaps fitting that the ubiquitous Apple infused aesthetics of ‘post-internet art’…are trending on the art world’s Richter scale (Contemporary Art Daily, e-flux, etc.) with almost synchronized frequency and intensity as the concept of the Anthropocene.” Rowan accurately notes this coincidence of Anthropocene’s rise as a meme and the predominance of the zoomed-in iPhone aesthetic lite on content. The danger here, to be stressed across and away, is that this concept, which could easily be shown not to be one, could become what Rowan calls a “curatorial meme employed to add a dash of deep time drama and geological grandeur” to #our art and praxis. For example, Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar starts off with painfully aporetic scenes of future austerity on Earth (the glimpse of a literal anthropocene cinema) only then to launch into space and blur out that original rub with a flurry of molecular love (“love is the avatar”). The risk, that it gets lost in deep space-time drama or the biometric turnover of meme-space or the apophatic materialism of popular leftist riffs, is not just accidental but essential and to be expected from the start. The anthropocene is a holocenic concept.