Opaque Epiphanies


[image from Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile]

Some years ago, it was common to lament, in critical circles, the taboo on “naming the system”: capital’s unlimited reign was everywhere cloaked in euphemism. While challenges to that reign have been fitful and fragile over the last decade of staggered crisis, the cognitive demand for figures, images, narratives, and allegories of the social totality has been nothing if not insistent.

Across domains, genres, and media—from the economic treatise to the television serial, the novel to the art installation—the same prescription: it cannot represent itself, it must be represented. Underlying it, a common sense: disorientation is the quality of our present; a strategy of emancipation demands a cartography of domination; the collective must be cognitive; knowledge of the levers prepares the power to seize them. And, over and again, the urge to represent is itself the object of dramatization—each fiction a metafiction, every scene tracked by its commentary, all information transmuted into its allegory.

That the representation of capital should so often devolve into a representation of representation is perhaps unsurprising. The demand to visually or narratively identify and encompass a social form, a relation, a totality—a demand often acknowledged to be impossible in the same breath it is proffered—cannot but raise metaphysical conundrums, in all their sordid anxious everydayness. Among them is what we could term the speculative identity of epiphany and opacity.


The remainder of the essay can be read in the catalogue to the exhibition I stood before the source at the Blackwood Gallery, Toronto, Oct 16-Dec 3, 2016.

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Circulation Against Circulation


For the scourge of the people, the source of the scarcity, is the obstacles placed in the way of circulation, under the pretext of rendering it unlimited. Is public subsistence circulating when greedy speculators are keeping it piled up in their granaries? It is circulating when it is accumulated in the hands of a small number of millionaires who withhold it from the market, to make it more valuable and more scarce; who coldly calculate how many families must starve before they reach a price fixed by their terrible greed? Is it circulating when all it does is cross the regions that produce it, before the very eyes of destitute citizens suffering the tortures of Tantalus, to be swallowed up in the unknown pits of some entrepreneur in public scarcity? Is it circulating when beside the most abundant harvests the needy citizen languishes, unable to give a gold piece or a slip of paper precious enough to purchase a little bit? Circulation is that which puts essential foodstuffs within reach of all men, and carries abundance and life to humble cottages.

(Robespierre, ‘Sur les subsistances’, quoted in the forthcoming book by Geoff Mann, In the Long Run We’re All Dead)

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Louis Althusser on Wifredo Lam


In anticipation of visiting the Wifredo Lam exhibition at the Tate Modern, London, here is  a translation of a short text by Louis Althusser on the Cuban painter, included in vol. 2 of Écrits philosophiques et politiques (Paris: IMEC, 1995). The text in italics is from the volume’s editors.

Lam (1977)

This text, entitled “Lam” by Althusser, was commissioned from him by Wifredo Lam in a letter dated 18 August 1977. It was to feature in the catalogue of a retrospective on Lam’s work at the Nanterre Maison de la Culture in April 1978, which was ultimately cancelled. Going by Lam’s letter, the catalogue was to also include texts by Aimé Césaire, Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier. Althusser sent this text to Wifredo Lam, along with a letter dated 13 October 1977. Continue reading

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The multiplication of traces


Multiplication of traces through the modem administrative apparatus. Balzac draws attention to this: “Do your utmost, hapless Frenchwomen, to remain unknown, to weave the very least little romance in the midst of a civilization which takes note, on public squares, of the hour when every hackney cab comes and goes; which counts every letter and stamps them twice, at the exact time they are posted and at the time they are delivered; which numbers the houses . . . ; which ere long will have every acre of land, down to the smallest holdings . . . , laid down on the broad sheets of a survey – a giant’s task, by command of a giant.” Balzac, Modeste Mignoncited in Regis Messac, Le “Detective Novel” et l’influence de la pensee scientifique (Paris, 1929), p. 461.

– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (p. 221)


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Capitalism, Gender and Blaxploitation


“The cinematic deceit transmuted liberation into vengeance, the pursuit of a social justice which embraced race, class, and gender into Black racism, and the politics of armed struggle into systematic assassination. The screen impostors occupied a manichaean world in which whites were evil, corrupt and decadent; where Black accomplices to white venality were tainted with a similarly debased nature; and the central Black protagonists were preoccupied with vigilantism. Capitalism, signified at most by skyscraper exteriors, almost entirely disappeared, constituting a normalising space whose interstices lent marginal terrain for the practices of the drug trade and prostitution. The real world of the market, unseen and unremarked upon, hovered above the ghetto streets, the police station, the strip club and the dealer’s locales (storefront, suburban home, high rise apartment, etc.). The world in front of the camera was some sort of twisted, perverted mirror of the normal, the reasoned, the ordered, the safe and unremarkable American landscape. The denizens dwelling in the nether world were as different from real America as gargoyles are from pigeons. The object was to exhibit these bizarre and semi-mythic life-forms while assuring the screen audience that they inhabited a space some safe distance away.” Continue reading

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Energy accounting as cognitive mapping


If we go back to the origins of tires, we will discover which part of its cost must be attributed to energy expenditure. These require a flux of a given climate’s solar energy, physical work in rubber plantations, coal for the railways and ships which transport the raw material from the tropics, as well as for the factories which transform it into tires. The railways and ships, in turn, and all the buildings and implements necessary for their manufacture, as well as the materials used – the iron and the metals, and the coal that must be extracted – are the result of the spending of physical energy.

– Frederick Soddy, Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (1926), quoted in Luis Fernández-Galiano, Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy (p. 198).

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Truth and navigation


From a 1973 talk by Michel Foucault on the history of madness and anti-psychiatry, partly reproduced in Artières and Bert’s stimulating dossier on Histoire de la folie:

[There is] an entire geography, an entire differentiated chronology of truth, in other words truth was not always conceived as the very element of the universal, but in our culture there is – running through the centuries and no doubt yet to be extinguished – this idea that truth is an event that produces itself in certain places and certain moments; one could perhaps say, and indeed I do, in brackets and by way of hypothesis, that the moment in which this idea that truth is an event that is simply produced in certain places, in certain moments, in which this idea started to be seriously shaken up, my impression is that it was with the great techniques of navigation, that is to say when one was compelled to invent instruments such that one could register, discover, define, formulate truth in any place whatever and any moment whatever. The ship, that placeless place, lost in infinite space, which at each instant must take stock of its situation; it is, if you will, the very image, the very problem that is at the heart of our society: how, everywhere and no matter from what point of view, to grasp truth, and, here and there, the great problem of navigation was the great moment of rupture [coupure], I don’t mean in scientific consciousness, but in what I would call the technology of truth. 

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