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What does “emancipatory” mean today?

Alexander García Düttmann

Cold Distance

Published: 25.10.2018


Let us pretend one more time that the world can still be saved. Let us raise one more time the question of the emancipatory potential supposedly inherent in art. Let us ask what has happened to this potential, whether and how one can still attribute it to art. Let us do so at a time when the exhaustion of artistic form manifests itself in a ubiquitous perception since everything is perceived under the aspect of form, of design, of the display of commodities in so-called aesthetic capitalism. For this perception goes along with what appears to be opposed to it, or rather with what complements it, namely a moralistic codification of form that presents itself as progressive, as concerned with the emancipatory potential of art or with art’s liberating transformation of society.

Pretending one more time that the world can still be saved and asking whether art contains an emancipatory potential can be a meaningful endeavour only if illegitimate attempts at appropriating this emancipatory potential are thwarted. Its usurpation, which amounts to its abolition, must be prevented. Critique that deserves its name must first and foremost struggle against false pretenders, not against those who do not even claim to be pretenders. The efficiency of critique’s propaedeutic character should be sought in this struggle against false pretenders. If one fears that its negativity may entail a dangerous impotence and if for this reason one wishes to supplement it with a justifying and constructive “affirmationism”, mindful of the fact that it was once meant to prepare the outline of a metaphysics purged of precritical dogmatism, then one risks forgetting that critique ceases to hurt and can no longer trigger an impulse the instant that it needs to reassure and assert itself in a larger context in which pretenders continue to aspire to the emancipatory potential of art. There is always an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the triggering of an impulse, in which the practical dimension of critique consists and on which its cognitive dimension ultimately depends, that is, the possibility of recognising something for what it is, and, on the other hand, the attempt to subordinate this impulse to a definite purpose. In short, the more critique reveals itself to be pertinent, the more it features an anarchic moment. This moment cannot be functionalised or instrumentalised. Otherwise chances are that critique will lose its critical edge.

A first thesis could read as follows. The ideological and repressive reaction formation provoked by the ubiquity of form in aesthetic capitalism, the reaction formation that is a symptom of form’s exhaustion, consists in a moralism that aims at thought, whether in philosophy or in art. It aims at thought inasmuch as its practice is informed by an emancipatory potential. For an emancipatory potential cannot be an object of knowledge. Such a moralism of form does not point beyond aesthetic capitalism but rather surrenders the emancipatory potential of art as a practice of thought to capitalism, to existing social conditions or to the world as it is. The moralism of form is a figure of conformism produced by aesthetic capitalism, no matter how little this moralism considers itself to be such a figure. It is the normative order of a society that proves to be essentially anomic, disorganised and disoriented, lawless, of a society in which at best a semblance of adhering to conventions, following rules and respecting the law is maintained. In what, exactly, does the moralism of form consist and how is it produced by aesthetic capitalism?

It consists in a substitution. Diversity as a recognition of positive instances takes the place of difference, of the split that renders recognition itself a problematic concept, a concept that differs from itself or whose unity is traversed and divided by a tension between the confirmation and the institution of whatever it is that demands to be recognised. In fact, positive instances can only be accepted, or rejected, in their very diversity; they do not even allow for recognition. Diversity can be represented but not presented. What amounts to a moralistic stance then is that such acceptance and such representation of diverse positive instances are invested with moral value, with a conception of goodness. In the process, goodness becomes correctness, as it must when diverse positive instances are at stake.

An objection that was raised after a projection of the film The Long Summer of Theory (2017) in Berlin is telling in this context, regardless of what one may make of the film and what it means by theory. A young spectator objected that it centered around three pretty white German girls, one of whom wants to explore the notion of theory and conducts conversations with theorists, a set-up that cannot be considered representative for theory in a city as diverse as Berlin, diverse both in ethnic terms and in terms of gender. This dissatisfied spectator did not even consider that he was referring to a film based on an artistic artifice, that a minimally ambitious film cannot be a positive instance in charge of representing positive instances, and that a pretty white German girl in such a film is not simply a pretty white German girl.

This example shows that positive instances seek to be represented independently of the difference between art and non-art. They register a claim for recognition, as it were, that can be seen as valid only if it is contemplated in a legal context, as a claim for a positive securing of positive instances. This is the reason why the recognition of positive instances promotes a general juridification of society, a faithfulness to the letter and a form of puritanism that originate in the dismissal of promiscuous mixing, of the promiscuous mixing proper to the law. The interpretation and implementation that pertain to the law participate in such dismissal, which is why Kafka locates the truth of the juridical sphere in promiscuity, in what remains sexually ambiguous. Inasmuch as diversity is endless, juridification, or that which is designed to secure the permanence of positive instances in their diversity and to preserve them from violent collision, proliferates in society without encountering a limit at which it would need to stop.

The moralism of form is generated by aesthetic capitalism on two accounts. On one side, the aestheticisation of the anarchy of commodity production, of an anarchy pushed to the extreme, continuously engenders positive instances that no longer distinguish themselves by way of differences and that aim at affirming their diversity. On the other side, the ubiquity that attests to the exhaustion of form under conditions of aesthetic capitalism does not permit for social transformation that would change things for the better unless it keeps presupposing the existence of something given, of positive instances and their juridification. In truth, where everything circles around positive instances and diversity, one cannot speak of form anymore, a circumstance that points once again to its exhaustion. For the positive and the diverse do not have a form, at least if form is a concept that, like the concept of recognition, designates a tension that disrupts conceptual unity. Form is a concept for the tension between an under- and an overdetermination, for the dilemma resulting from the necessity of pinning something down, arresting movement, interrupting a dynamics. It must turn against itself, differ from itself, if it is not to succumb to its own power. Perhaps even recognition and form hang together. As a confirmation and institution of what seeks to be recognised, recognition is a stabilisation, a solidification, an imposition, it is a form, while the divergence of confirmation and institution, the fact that what seeks to be recognised exists already and at the same time does not yet exist, challenges form, the form that recognition is to bestow onto the recognised, and makes it into a precarious form, into something formless that lets form come into its own since it protects it against self-destructive rigidification.

That aesthetic capitalism cancels out difference where its complement, the moralism of form, constitutes itself, the moralism of form, can be gauged in recent years from the erasure of a difference that is decisive for art, namely the difference between art and non-art. This difference is not cancelled out so as to enlarge the space of contemporary art, in which undecidability keeps art and non-art merging into each other, especially in the installations and events of relational aesthetics. Rather the difference between art and non-art is cancelled out in order to subject art to the normativity of non-art.

Two articles may be cited here as exemplary of this tendency toward an erasure of difference. One article appeared in Der Spiegel and was written by a specialist for film, television, and media in general. The other appeared in the New York Times and was authored by an esteemed film critic. The two articles prove to be all the more revealing the more the tendency in which they share, the tendency toward an erasure of difference, is thwarted by a hesitation or indecision.

Oliver Kaever hails, in a fairly grandiloquent manner, the emergence of a “new culture of debate”1 after “the unmasking of Harvey Weinstein as an unremittingly rutting groper, a rat and a potential rapist”. Film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen serve him to sketch out case studies and to ask how to deal with works created by artists who, as human beings, have “become guilty of serious crimes”, as their legal convictions show, or who could be found guilty of such crimes, as public allegations make evident. Kaever argues that Polanski has directed films belonging to our “cinematic World Cultural Heritage”. The public realm must have access to them if this heritage is to remain a world heritage. An “experience of the world”, or a “worldly wisdom”, is said to be contained in Polanski’s films, an experience or a wisdom that “concerns everybody and everyone”, even though “most people will have been spared” experiencing the world in the manner reflected by the films, and “fortunately” so. Art, the art of film, discloses to many what they have not actually experienced. It is because, as Kaever suggests, one should have experienced what one should not have experienced, that art is needed. Art, the art of film generates the difference of experience, the difference without which there could be no experience, no “experience of the world”, no “World Cultural Heritage” and possibly not even a “world”. This argument, which Kaever does not formulate explicitly, is not developed further in his article. Instead Kaever reminds the reader of Polanski’s childhood, of “the horror of Nazi power” he experienced in Krakow’s ghetto where he witnessed the deportation of his parents to concentration and extermination camps. When he turns to the life and films of Woody Allen, he observes that the director has continued shooting films “unperturbed” by the allegations of sexual abuse of minors brought against him. And he adds that this has led to the creation of “gems” of motion picture art. The relationship of spectators to Allen’s films has remained one of “submissiveness”, Kaever notes, and the “view of this clever and funny man” has not been altered. He does not specify whether he talks about the “man” or the artist here. However, that each time he seems to talk about the “man” he is also addressing the artist can be inferred from sentences that include a reference to a lack of representation of diversity: “In Allen’s films the conflict between the sexes takes place at eye level, though the society [the director] depicts only pretends to be liberal and open, and is composed of a sealed and mainly white, heterosexual and privileged segment. Today one cannot but watch the scenes between Allen and seventeen year old Mariel [sic] Hemingway in Manhattan, perhaps his most beautiful movie, with different eyes. Certainly, it is important and necessary to scrutinise one more time and much more closely his perception of women in his other films.”

As an author Kaever is a little juggler eager to please the reader, to tell him or her what he or she wishes to hear, to fulfill anticipated expectations that are perhaps his own and to get in line so as not to let down conformism. In his article, the spirit of the times carves out a career path. That Kaever speaks of a mere “process of weighting and assessment”, no matter how “necessary, difficult and painful” this essentially “discursive” process must be, that he keeps repeating the harmless platitude of the impossibility of separating work and artist only to qualify it further by saying that “undoubtedly” there are artworks or films that remain “important” independently of the artist, should not obscure the fact that the article in question adopts a clear stance, the stance of a moralism of form. Precisely because Kaever appears to withhold judgement by constantly changing perspective, an oscillation that betrays cluelessness rather than a pressing struggle, precisely because he persistently advocates the inseparability of work and artist against their separation and the separability of work and artist against their inseparability, he encourages neutralisation, or the elimination of difference. The occasion for the publication of his article is not the possibility of a tension arising between the man and the artist, or between the artist and the work, a tension that may arise if one is convinced that the artist whose art one trusts should be a good human being. The occasion is the impossibility of not looking at art and film “today” with “different eyes”. To stress the unavoidability of such a shift amounts to a relinquishment of difference. It is assumed that each time one wants to hold fast to difference the attempt must prove “awkward”, to use a well-tried euphemism.

In the New York Times Manhola Dargis reviews a new film by Woody Allen, Wonder Wheel, which, in her eyes, is not a significant contribution to the art of filmmaking. At the beginning of her article she tells the reader that she is not keen on putting a film on the analyst’s couch. Yet after drawing a parallel between the contents of Allen’s film and the director’s private life, she mentions the possibility of a film itself climbing onto the couch and beginning to wink. What happens in such a case? To get an answer to this question, one must read the entire article to the end and wait for its last paragraph. Here, Dargis quotes a phrase from the film’s dialogue. It has an aphoristic quality to it: “When it comes to love we often turn out to be our own worst enemy.” Then Dargis comments upon this phrase in the following manner: “Not for the first time you wonder what Mr. Allen, who has long blurred fact and fiction, thinks he’s doing here. He couldn’t have anticipated that his name would be in the news because of the allegations of sexual abuse upending the entertainment industry. Yet how could we not think of him? In 1993, he was accused of molesting his daughter, Dylan Farrow. He maintained his innocence and was never prosecuted, yet the allegations as well as discomfort about his marriage to Soon-Yi [the daughter of Allen’s former wife] have hovered over him like a malignant cloud. Critics have often uneasily ignored his history, but he himself seems perversely intent on invoking it.”2 Although one does not have to know anything about Allen’s private life to understand the plot of Wonder Wheel and discuss the film, for example the relevance of melodramatic theatricality central to it both in terms of its visual experience and its dramaturgic conceit, Dargis gives the reader the impression that the film forces upon him a more a more or less conscious confession, so that the fiction confronts him with facts he must take into consideration, whether he likes it or not. To talk about the film means to talk about these facts, about a private life that the artist has placed himself in the public realm by making Wonder Wheel, perhaps because he could no longer bear to live with the facts of his life and remain silent. The film becomes a clue. Is this the reason why it does not convince the critic? If one assumes that Dargis’s reversal is persuasive, the reversal that consists in the artist and not the spectator reducing the artwork to life, as if the artist made the wonder wheel of art turn around one more time and the spectator had no option but to recognise the facts in the fiction, one could still ask a question whose answer might reveal something about the intention of the critic, about how seriously one should take her criticism. To the extent that the reduction of fiction to fact, or the retraction of aesthetic distance, can be deemed legitimate when the film fails artistically or aesthetically, and only then, there is no need to make a big fuss about it. However, if the facts themselves can trigger the film’s failure or if the fiction can come off successfully and continue to be deciphered as a cipher for the facts, the question that may be asked at this point and the answer that may be given to it are both pivotal. The question to be asked of Dargis is whether it is conceivable for her that an artwork, a film, can redeem an artist, who, inseparably from his existence as an artist, is also a human being or a private person. The question to be asked is whether a successful film can redeem an artist from guilt he or she might have incurred, and whether such redemption would be an indication of its artistic or aesthetic success, of a moral sensitivity expressed in and as art. If the critic denies this possibility, her criticism clings to a moralism of form.

Art engenders difference. The moralism of form in aesthetic capitalism liquidates it. How art engenders difference is something that can be understood from the last section of the digression on the Odyssey in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. It makes this understood in a paradigmatic fashion, provided the idea it presents can be generalised and does not remain indissolubly tied to the medium of language, to which it refers. In this last section, language as speech, or as a discourse of storytelling, is said to distinguish itself from non-art by virtue of its “cold distance”3. It is thus contrasted with “mythical song”, with “song” that conveys a mystification because it minimises distance, denies it, and at the same time makes it increase immeasurably. A mystification that attributes fatefulness to the domain of non-art disavows difference in that it comes closer and closer to non-art and yet keeps moving away from it. The difference between art and non-art that the artistic use of language marks appears here in the guise of the difference between speech and song. Speech, the discourse of storytelling, acknowledges the difference between art and non-art, while song negates it, siding with non-art or serving its purposes. The coldness Adorno and Horkheimer ascribe to aesthetic distance is therefore a coldness that comes about because distance proves to be what it is in the first place, because it is neither a closeness that gets too close nor a remoteness that is too far off. Distance maintains itself as a distance. But this coldness comes about also because distance enables the precision of a description. Precision is the opposite of mystification. It irradiates, as the authors put it, the “coldness of anatomy and vivisection”4, it has an unflinching quality, like a record, no matter which event is being described or how the event described impinges on the description itself. When “atrocious” events are being told or described as if they were “meant to entertain”, it is the “cold distance” of speech and discourse, or of form as form, that accounts for this, not a certain intention, a particular manner or a peculiar style.

“Cold distance”, or the giving of form, entails a kind of “self-reflection” that has little in common with the artist as a subject capable of such reflection and that is unrelated to an explicit verdict, to a judgement passed on the object presented in an artistic form. Rather it has to do with the transformation of the events of the story into something “long past”. This transformation results from “self-reflection” under the aspect of time, it results from the “self-reflection” that speech induces in the present of the events it presents. Regardless of the form an artwork may give to its temporal dimension, regardless of how close it may come to current events and even intervene in them, to the extent that it is an artwork or that it is art, its time is the time of what is “long past”. What is “long past” is the logical or structural time of art, of its “cold distance” or of its difference from non-art.

More precisely, Adorno and Horkheimer define the transformation of the events presented into something “long past” as a transformation provoked by a “caesura”, by “speech coming to a sudden halt”. What at this point may still appear to be a mere stylistic or formal peculiarity, to which attention is drawn by the philosophers when they discuss the Odyssey as a “testimony”5 to the dialectic of enlightenment, is shortly afterwards understood in more general terms. For what is mentioned then is an expressionlessness, a “silence”6 or a “muteness” whose “petrification” is said to be the “true remainder” or the “genuine rest” of speech. The difference between expression and expressionlessness, speech and silence, must be comprehended here as a difference inhering in speech itself, in speech that does not simply place itself at a “cold distance” with regard to its object, the events told, but that lets itself be affected by this distance. Once again, the difference doubles and reappears in what it keeps apart, and this is why speech exposes itself to silence, and why form exposes itself to formlessness, to monstrosity. Speech and form do not coincide with themselves. They produce a remainder that they cannot appropriate; otherwise the remainder would not be a “true remainder”. That silence “petrifies”, as Adorno and Horkheimer put it, that it turns into mutism, must hence not be interpreted conventionally, as an effect of the content of speech, of Homer comparing the “destiny” of maidservants hanged to the “death of birds caught in a snare”. The reason for such petrification must be located in a difference beyond content, in the difference between the fluidity characteristic of speech and a halt, or a caesura, that does not oppose this fluidity but that pertains to it essentially, to its “inner movement”. The halt or the caesura of speech is conditioned by it, since its “inner movement” creates an outside that it cannot reintegrate and dissolve within itself, an outside that detains speech inconspicuously and makes it stop irredeemably. The halt and the caesura are not the contrary of speech’s continuity and progress, of discourse’s uninterrupted unfolding, for fluidity and life also depend on “petrification” and death if, in the very course of their movement, they are not to cause “petrification” and bring death. At the same time, however, “petrification” and death are still exponents of violence and unfreedom in the midst of fluidity and life, and presentation is always “meant to entertain”. Speech and form distance themselves from themselves and it is this very difference, the difference between what can be named and what cannot, between a “not-so-long-ago” and a “long-past”, between form and what resists the giving of form without opposing it, that makes the distance into an aesthetic or artistic one.

The moralism of form, one could conclude, cannot bear the “cold distance” of art, perhaps because, as a symptom of an exhaustion of form and as a complement of form’s positive diverse hegemony in aesthetic capitalism, it harbours within itself a solidification, a horror, a death, a coldness. In an operation of mystification, the moralism of form has to equip this coldness with the features of warmth. It cannot relate to this coldness as art does, that is in terms of a difference inscribed in fluidity and life. The moralism of form is unable to maintain the “cold distance” of art and therefore stages an experience of warmth, creates an illusion of nearness and non-violence, and surrenders to repressiveness the emancipatory potential that develops only on the basis and by way of such distance. It falls prey to violence, to the unfreedom whose effects it wishes to attenuate, and reproduces them.

When examining “cold distance”, Adorno and Horkheimer at one point use the expression “semblance of freedom”7 and unearth the force of this semblance in temporal difference, in the transformation of presented events into something “long past”. It is this force that endows the artwork with an emancipatory potential. Yet what does “emancipatory” mean today? What can it signify, especially in the present times?


1 Oliver Kaever, “Can One Still Watch Them? Films From Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen”, in: Der Spiegel, online-edition, 4th November 2017. 2 Manohla Dargis, “Wonder Wheel: Woody Allen’s Coney Island Memory Palace”, in: The New York Times, 30th November 2017. 3 Max Horkheimer und Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, in: Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, volume 5, Frankfurt am Main 1987, p. 102.4 Ibid., p. 103. 5 Ibid., p. 67. 6 Ibid., p. 103. 7 Ibid., p. 102.

  • critical theory
  • aesthetics
  • contemporary art
  • political aesthetics
  • morals

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Alexander García Düttmann

Alexander García Düttmann

is a philosopher and translator of many philosophical books. He teaches at the Institute for Art History and Aesthetics at University of Arts in Berlin.

Other texts by Alexander García Düttmann for DIAPHANES