Left and Right Contemporaneity
A conversation between Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik
continues from the previous post:
SM: This comes back to what we were saying earlier: that the future itself becomes part of the present. This could be taken as an extension of the present without a future radically distinct from it. And it often is, with the leftist-critical claim of the loss of futurity under the capitalism of complex societies. That is the fundamental limitation of contemporary leftism that Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have identified, and which they look to countermand with their specific determination of what, in their contribution to this issue, they identify to be “a better future,” which provides an active horizon to direct the politics of the present.
AA: I think we have a slight disagreement on the current state of neoliberalism, which you define as a state-business nexus directed to the concentration of capital and power, which requires and consolidates increasingly autocratic elites. I tend to think that we are already going past this stage. For me and others, neoliberalism is a move toward something one can call financial neofeudalism, in which key columns or foundations of the political economy of capitalism — like a safe nation-state, a governed population and a market regulating itself, or other basic economic assumptions like economic recovery or growth leading to more jobs or higher profits leading to greater competition instead of monopolies or oligopolies etc. — have started to disappear, and we are now in a fundamental financial and social crisis, with increasing depth of inequality.
But instead of debating whether we are at a new financial feudalism or just another stage in capitalism, let’s instead focus here on the basic hypothesis we are jointly proposing: given the social, technological, and political transformations since the 1960s and 70s that we’ve already mentioned, and which are also embodied in contemporary art and in literature with the emergence and consolidation of the present tense novel in the period since, we live in a new, speculative time structure. There have been basically two responses to this transformation. On the one side, there is a right-wing or reactionary countermanding, looking toward the past as a kind of counter-balance against the negative aspects that everyone observes and feels: the frustrations, disadvantages and mistakes of neoliberal financial neofeudalism. The other standard response to the speculative time structure is the left or critical one, which is also the prevalent one in contemporary art. The focus here is not the past as a place of semantic security but instead on the present as a site or condition of resistance against the change to a speculative time.
Yet, for all the contentions between left-critical and right-reactionary responses to the emergence of the neoliberal mobilization of the speculative time-complex, both are just playing in different ways into the hands of this new formation of neoliberal capitalism, or financial feudalism. It’s perhaps more obvious with the right-wing reactionary tendencies, which in no way disrupt but rather reinforce power structures that enabled the new social, economic, political formation. However, with left-critical reactions too, there is a kind of suffocation, to the extent that most people have the feeling of not being able to gain traction in the present, to change something, and to have something like a future worthy of its name. Contemporary art is both a symptom and surrogate of that futurelessness, with its constant celebration of experience: aesthetic experience, criticality, presentness and so on.
SM: That is an instructive formulation of typical left and right reactions, and typical defensive moves around the emergence of the speculative time-complex and the loss of bearings that it institutes in relationship to both the past and the future. Though there are many ways of understanding or setting up a relationship to the speculative time-complex, what the right does is to simplify it, to reduce it as a complex, and to recenter it on the present as the dominant moment on the basis of tradition. The right has always done this in modernity: if modernity is a paradigm in which the new happens in the now, what has characterized the right is a defense against the emergence of the new as the basis for actions, social organizations, aesthetics, meaning and so on. The authority of past conditions is invoked as a stabilization mechanism for modernization. To be clear: the right is not necessarily against modernization but stabilizes its disruptive effects by calling on what are then necessarily conservative or reactive historical formations. And faced with the operationalized speculative time-complex of neoliberal capitalism, in a way the right can carry on doing what it has always done without necessarily recognizing that what it is reacting against is no longer the modern but a new condition.
The Rightism of neoliberalism makes sense on this basis: even though I disagree with the adequacy of the phrase “financial neofeudalism” to describe what is happening in capitalism, it nonetheless serves to capture the increasing autocracy that goes along with the neoliberal restructuring. The political question then is how that autocratic, post-democratic kind of power is to be legitimized. Those on the right are very useful just here because what they endorse, essentially, is the authority of a recognised historical or elite formation that stabilizes semantics — and perhaps only semantics — in the newly established conditions.
AA: And the left-critical abreaction?
SM: In a way, leftism makes the problem of “the contemporary” more evident because the left in its progressive forms has been attached to modernism. The now in which the new takes place is the fetish of change for the progressive left, exemplified by its revolutionary ideals and clichés. The left’s abreaction to the speculative time-complex is to retrench the present as the venue or the site for thinking about and confronting the reconstitution of social and time organization, and semantic reorganization too. Instead of seeing the future as condition of the present, the present is instead taken to extend out indefinitely and cancel out the radically different future (the revolution, notably).
But the speculative present as we are identifying it is, by contrast to this leftist melancholy, the entrenchment of the future and the past which folds into the present, in a way that certainly deprioritizes it and maybe even makes it drop out — as in the phrases demonstrating tense structures we discussed earlier. The past was the future, and the future will be the past.
AA: There is no critical interruption from the present in this speculative present.
SM: No, it’s constructed by the uncertainties of the future and the absence of the past.
AA: That’s why the left-critical thinking of the event or the emptiness or openness of the present — of contemporaneity — is still vestigially modernist. And, as Laboria Cuboniks remark in their contribution from several different angles, it’s not adequate to the tasks and conditions of the twenty-first century.
SM: What the left sees in the speculative complexification of time is an extension of the present rather than its thinning out by the forcing of the future or the disestablishment of the past. Historical, futural, anticipatory relationships are maintained with an emphatic insistence on the presentness of action, aesthetics or experience. This is insistence on “the contemporary.” It is still premised on the present as the primary tense. And what happens with the emphasis on contemporaneity is a determination of the present as indefinitely extended. The contemporary is a time form that saturates both the past and the future, a metastable condition.
A leftism still attached to modernism won’t have traction on the speculative present, even if that leftism is more attentive to the time-complex than the right because it’s not trying to restore a past (though its revolutionary wing does seem largely interested in restoring a historical semantics, while its social-democratic wing now maintains an interest in failed market solutions). Even if it’s accepted that the left is more open to modernity than the right (which is questionable outside of the left’s self-reinforcing phantasm), it holds that the present extends into both the past and into the future, which supposedly destroys the future as a future. And, as Esposito remarks in her contribution, it doesn’t see that what it is actually involved with is the future now. That today is tomorrow, as you put it in another occasion.
AA: It was “Tomorrow Today.”7
SM: Exactly. That title indexes how the speculative present is in a pre-post formation, or post-contemporary. The present now is not the time in which the decisions are made or the basis for the new, as it was in modernism. The new is happening instead in a transition between a past and a future that is not a unidirectional flux, but a speculative construction in or from the directions of past and present at once.
AA: The whole idea of what in German is called Zeitgenossenschaft — the contemporary, more literally, “comrade of time” — is problematic because it far too often signifies the wish to change the present completely with an insistence on the present. The contemporaneity of Zeitgenossenschaft indicates the idea of having traction in the present by getting closer to it, and that is no longer adequate to the task. It is simply the wrong way to think. What is needed instead is neither Gegenwartsgenossenschaft — comradeship of the present, nor Vergangenheitsgenossenschaft — comradeship of the past, but rather a Zeitgenossenschaft from the future (die Zukunft), a kind of Zukunftsgenossenschaft. We need to become comrades with and of the future and approach the present from that direction.
7. See here
A conversation between Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik is taken from:
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