The Grammar of Contemporary Art

March 13, 2014

Note: A version of this paper was initially published in the catalogue for the exhibition “Poems in a Room”, curated by Alessandro Keegan at Magic Pictures.

Abstract: This paper examines and compares two recent readings of Contemporary Art and Communization theory (Suhail Malik and Ray Brassier, respectively). It suggest that both are limited by their current epistemic regimes, and that a reconsideration between the ideal and real is needed if any transformation of the present circumstance is to take place. Furthermore, the inferentialism program of reason can help us unpack the useful functions and techniques currently trapped in these structures of power, and build new criteria for an alternative institutionality.

“The living form defies evolution at its peril; if it does not adapt it will be broken. The idea of completed man is supreme vanity: the finished image is a sacrilegious myth.” — from John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids”

“The point about humanism, about enlightenment humanism is that it recognizes the constitutive inhumanity of the ideal of the realization of the full capacities and potentialities of the human. The old dialectical opposition between the anti-human and the human or the human and the inhuman is precisely what needs to be called into question.” – Ray Brassier [1]


In a recent talk Ray Brassier articulates communization theory’s incapacity to conceive of the future, except in an apocalyptic or theological tenor: “If politics is about some kind of orientation towards the future, then the future can’t be defined in terms of the dread of annihilation, extermination, etc., it has to be grasped as a space of possibility which is not necessarily commensurate with existing possibility but which has more determinacy than a wholly indeterminate abstraction; the negation of actually existing conditions and circumstances.” [2]

Brassier begins by discussing the condition of ‘real subsumption’ . Unlike formal subsumption, which is identified by Marx as the movement of social forces of production into the abstract mode of valuation by capitalism; real subsumption identifies the point at which all of social reality has been totalized by the capitalist relation, and it is no longer possible to identify the contradiction between the class position of the proletariat and the mode of production, since all of social production in reality is now identified with the value form.

The implication then, is that it is necessary to locate a community outside of capitalism, from which to form resistance and begin the movement towards communization. Brassier examines a text by Endnotes [3], where they call this the ‘autonomy thesis’, and identify a form of it in the recent theories of Tiqqun. [4] Endnotes read this movement as a voluntary ‘we’ which is constructed around modes of tactical resistance. But, the division of the totality of capital into the ‘we’ and capital, is an abstraction that simply allows the continuation of capital. For the human community is itself implicated in the total subsumption of capital, since its modes and techniques of resistance are themselves conditioned by that relation, and any tactical attempt to shift away from it results in a sundering of this totality that continues the interminable condition of capital:

“The prioritisation of a certain tactical conception is a major outcome and determinant of this position. Theory is called upon to legitimate a practice which cannot be abandoned, and a dualism results: the voluntarist ‘we’, and the impassive objectivity which is its necessary counterpart. For all their claims to have overcome ‘classical politics’, these texts conceive the revolution ultimately in terms of two opposed lines: the we that ‘gets organized’, and all the forces arrayed against it. Tactical thought is then the guide and rule for this ‘we’, mediating its relations with an object which remains external. Instead of a theoretical reckoning with the concrete totality that must be overcome in all its determinations, or a reconstruction of the real horizon of the class relation, we get a sundering of the totality into two basic abstractions, and a simple set of exhortations and practical prescriptions whose real theoretical function is to bring these abstractions into relation once more.” [5]

Endnotes therefore conclude that the production of an alternative ‘we’ is impossible without the abolishment of the totality of capitalism. Thus, the overcoming of capitalism is the self-overcoming of the ‘we’. There can be no division between the ‘we’ and ‘they’ for this distinction is a part of the productive relation by which capital extends itself. It is only, as they argue, at the limit of the struggle that communization occurs; communization has nothing positive to say about what ‘we’ are to apart from maintaining the negation of capitalism.

However, as Brassier argues, this self-overcoming is paradoxical, since if we (the agents of overcoming) are to overcome ourselves, it is in the act of overcoming capitalism that we will erase the agents of the movement, thereby eliminating the movement of transformation.

As he says: “Since the capital relation has been aligned with representation, the refusal of representation becomes tantamount to the refusal of capital relation; here total abstraction is the seal of thinkings traction upon the antagonism constitutive of reality […] by abjuring representation communist theory secures its grip on the real movement that is communism as such, but only at the cost of erasing everything that might have distinguished the movement of ideas from real movement.” [6]

We can see a similar myopia in the development of contemporary art, where it seems impossible to conceive of a succession to the predominant mode of art as it is practiced. In a recent series at Artist’s Space Suhail Malik discusses the demand for an exit from contemporary art. He regards contemporary art as representative of a politics, which, while professing a radical agenda, is at its core complicit with and anesthetic to the transformations of capitalism:

“Arts’ contents and claims are now at best place holders or alibis for a series of power operations to which it is now subordinated, which it serves. These operations are the distribution and power channels in the artworld and outside of it, through cultural legitimation strategies, for example in gentrification, marketization, and also in institutional positioning, and so on. And these power operations are most often not often declared as such, but mobilized through the presentation of certain art, at certain places, at certain times. The art itself is like chess-piece for a set of tactics with no particular global strategy, apart from the dominant discourses of contemporary art, which asserts that the moves being made are of art and not of power.” [7]

He takes contemporary art as a totality, considering not just art works, but also its institutions and discursive regimes. His account of how contemporary art maintains its ideology, and continues to prevent all exits from its program is divided into two major components:

First, he believes that contemporary art abides by what he calls an ‘anarcho-realist maxim’. This maxim requires that art be more real, more true to life than actually existing art. This is, in his words, a charge against “art’s artificiality”.

Secondly, he recognizes what he calls contemporary art’s ‘meta-generic limitation’. That is, there is no particular form which art must take, instead it is indeterminate. This is the non-identity of contemporary art, which is characterized by the indefiniteness of its content, subject of address, and criteria of judgement. Because this non-identity of art is not definable by a particular genre, but is any conceivable genre characterized by some a common method, it is itself not a genre, but a meta-genre of art.

Malik sees this focus on indeterminacy as driven by a category mistake, in which contemporary art, in its attempt to appeal to the present, focuses on the non-unity of the present, and identifies indeterminacy with that non-unity. That is to say, it identifies in the complexity of the present an essential unknowability, which it objectifies and turns to a programmatic method.

To conceive of an exit from contemporary art, however, Malik believes that it is vital that we understand how these two precepts function together and maintain the interminable condition of that art. For, though they operate as two limits to what contemporary art is, they comprise contradictory demands on what it should be. To understand how they function together, then, we must synthesize their relationship.

It should be somewhat evident that these two limits contradict one another, for while the anarcho-realist demand calls for an art beyond already existing art, the meta-generic-limit is focused on the present, and so believes that it is actually existing art that addresses the present. [8]

To demonstrate how the two limits are interconnected, Malik performs a dissection of Thierry de Duve’s “Kant after Duchamp” [9]. De Duve asserts the genealogical primacy of Duchamp over contemporary art, and given that historical influence, how we subsequently form aesthetic judgements. Prior to Duchamp, art history could be understood as a series of negations, in which avant-gardist movements defined a new art against the existing discourse and institutions. With the introduction of the readymade Duchamp erases the distinction between art and non-art. This gesture conforms to not only the anarcho-realist maxim that Malik identifies, because it is an attempt to produce an art that is more real than art (by naming non-art art), but it also inaugurates the indeterminacy of art; for, as de Duve argues, the readymade supersedes art’s history of negation.

Without the art/non-art distinction we must reconsider what it means to make the judgement that something is ‘art’. Under de Duve’s new (non)-criteria, there is no good or bad judgement of what is art, but only a designation of “This is art”. This is a personal aesthetic judgement, which is contestable, but only results in a condition of dissensus, because one can have criteria for the judgment other than one’s own personal conviction. “Art” then becomes the amalgamation of judgements that can be made over what could be art, and any contestation of what is art simply expands the category of already existing art. This post-negational art is the condition of indeterminacy, for the judgement of art appeals to no particular content, subject, or criteria by which one could nominate art other than a privatized feeling which nominates itself under the abstract general principle ‘Art.’

Because it is nothing but a proliferation of differences that inflate art, there can be no end to contemporary art. There is no distinguishing between the principle of ‘Art’ as an abstract theory and art as a social abstraction, for it pre-empts and conflates the negation of social judgements about art with the category of art itself. And, in order to sustain itself, it demands an ideal of art which is more real than existing art.

To exit from contemporary art, Malik calls for a negation of art’s internalization of the historical negation. [10] This means a move away from the super-idealization of the engine of history as it has been sublated by art, and a return to treating the present in its actuality. The question that remains, however, is how do we distinguish between the elements of the present that perpetuate the capitalist power relation that Malik identifies as hiding behind the dialectic of contemporary art, and operations that sustain an emancipatory practice? In other words, how do we instantiate a criteria that is not co-determinate with capitalism, but evaluates art by other means?

Though the object of their critique is distinct, I believe that we can recognize a certain similitude to the concerns about art developed in Malik’s argument and those of Brassier’s on communization: Parallel to the anarcho-realist maxim of contemporary art, communization demands a community that is autonomous to the conditioning of its relations by capitalism; a community that is more authentic than the one which is already implicated.

Parallel to the meta-generic limitation, the tactical response to capitalism argues that the agents of communization are not defined by any particular manner of resistance, agent of resistance, or criteria of resistance, other than their self-identification with the resistance to capitalism. This ‘we’ is guided by whatever agents and forms of practical proscriptions ally themselves with the abstraction of communization.

Brassier calls for a renewal of criteria for recognizing the distinct operations of different social forms by their function, and not their historical determination, or genealogy:

“While technological function is socially mediated and enveloped by the value form, this need not be a saturated mediation, it need not be exhaustively constitutive of the functioning of the technology in question. A suitably abstract conception of function will allow for its transplantation and where necessary re-purposing across social contexts. More generally, determination is not constitution. We have to find a way to articulate theoretical and social abstraction that does not involve the complete relinquishment of the achievements of capitalist modernity en bloc. Communization short-circuits conceptual and social abstraction in an insurrectionary praxis whose fixation on totality prevents it from formulating criteria for distinguishing between progressive and regressive forms.” [11]

A particular technique or function is not necessarily determined by its history, but may be disambiguated from it and transposed. We can derive this assertion from the function of the inferential activity of norms. Norms, as defined by Robert Brandom [12], are not just the institution of mere social standards, but a part of the process of giving and asking for reasons. When one commits oneself to a concept that concept is passed back and forth through the discursive structure of reasons. I have a responsibility to things that I commit myself to, but it is up to others to judge my commitments, and they have a recognitive authority over what I have said. I, in turn, have an equal capacity to judge the contents of their commitments. It is only through this mutually recognitive and symmetrically reciprocal program that norms are instantiated. The only true authority is that of the better reason, assayable by all.

This is a linguistic process, in that it can only occur within the socially mediated and discursive structure of a language speaking community. It is also due to this mediating function of language that normative commitments are distinguishable from the real, and maintain an autonomy from it. This autonomy from the real is what gives normative commitments their liberatory power; for the kind of commitments that they entail are distinct from the causally determined force of nature. Norms, with their capacity for abstract representation allow us to say not just how the world ‘is’, but how it ‘ought’ to be. We can thus distinguish between the contingencies of causation and rely upon the justification of reason in our commitments. We must not conflate justification with causation; as Brandom says, “Replacing theological necessity with rational necessity as the fundamental explanatory category is disenchantment of the world. Replacing rational necessity with natural necessity is disillusionment.” [13]

While de Duve’s program of dissensus seems to follow the operation of normativity, his account is limited by the underdeveloped Kantian account upon which he relies. For his is an essentially one-sided and asymmetrical account of the normative function. It is not the individual’s judgement alone that holds authority over the determination of ‘Art’. But, as Hegel recognized, it is the reciprocal and social process of the community’s judgement and its history which develops the norm. In attempting to conflate individual and historical judgement, de Duve makes the mistake of idealizing the real process of history, and similar to the meta-generic limitation, confounds an unctuous indeterminacy with the negations whose real contradiction propel Art forward.

If we hold art hostage to the Duchampian gesture, we risk becoming like flies trapped in amber, beautifully immobile, but always caught in the same pose. The human, and its art are not moored to any idealized and eternal ‘present’; “the finished image is a sacrilegious myth.” We must exit the ideology of contemporary art, and liberate those techniques and functions which may be turned to better purpose. It is only by considering the force of the better reason that we can begin to distinguish and make criteria for an alternative program, one that will challenge and negate the institutions of power in which our present circumstances are bound. Art has yet the possibility of supervening on capitalism, if we can unbind it from the stone. [14]


1. Ray Brassier, “Wandering Abstraction”. The Accelerationist Symposium, Berlin, moderated by Armen Avanessian, December 14, 2013. From Brassier’s comments after the presentation of the paper. My transcription.
2. Ibid.
3. Endnotes, “What are we to do?” ( Accessed: January 12, 2013.
4. Endnotes refers to the journal Tiqqun and their related group, The Invisible Committee. Most notably the book “The Coming Insurrection”, published by Semiotext(e).
5. Endnotes, “What are we to do?”
6. Ray Brassier, “Wandering Abstraction”. Transcribed by me from the text of the talk.
7. Suhail Malik, “Exit not Escape: On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from the Contemporary”. Talk Series at Artist’s Space, May 3, 2013. ( My transcription
8. Suhail Malik, “A History of Negations”. Talk Series at Artist’s Space, May 31, 2013. ( My Transcription.
9. Thierry de Duve, “Kant after Duchamp”. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 1998. Most of my discussion follows Malik’s interpretation of the book.
10. Suhail Malik, “Exit not Escape: On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from the Contemporary”.
11. Ray Brassier, “Wandering Abstraction”.
12. Robert Brandom, “Reason in Philosophy”. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2009.
13. Robert Brandom, “Reason, Genealogy, and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity”. September 21, 2012. Unpublished.
14. I want to make it clear that the rationalist program has much to offer for reforming the institutions of art, and the criteria by which we judge it, but I am not so certain that we can apply these same techniques to the process of art production itself, which is situated in its own linguistically impoverished, yet gesturally rich vein. We must be careful to recognize that art is its own domain. However, this does not mean we should not be critical of the institutions and discursive structures in which it is couched, and seek to improve those, while sharpening our criteria for art itself.