Since the primary promise of “Millennial Marxism” is the return of and the return to political economy, it is clear that the very emergence of the term registers, at the minimum, a desire for a change in the very visibility of the economy itself. It is, however, not clear that “the economy” is a visible object. The situation appears to force us to make a distinction between mere economic activities (that are often visible) and the economy as such (or what we could call “the economic” in general). It is as if the emergence of the category “Millennial Marxism” itself aimed for a “redistribution of the sensible” (Rancière) in such a way that a previously unseen object that, nevertheless, was a sublime object with unimaginable powers, had to reemerge again as a sensible reality. Thus, one of the tasks of Millennial Marxism will be aesthetic in nature: to render the economic visible.
Hence the attraction of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs. In “Oil Fields #28: Cold Lake Alberta, Canada, 2001,” an oil pipeline cuts through the quasi-romantic natural scenery as a profane substitute for a bolt of sublime lightning. The pipeline figures in the image as a force of division, as a direct means of the distribution of the sensible. It is simultaneously the line that divides nature from itself and marks the emergence of the social, and the normally invisible line that divides our social world as well into conflicting categories. The photograph renders this force of division visible that goes beyond mere economic activity. The historical task appears to be once again to render visible the primary divisions that make it possible for certain activities to become visible as “economic” in nature. To put differently, the task ahead of us is not only to produce a documentary of a visible but neglected economic reality. Neither is the goal, strictly speaking, a documentary of something unrepresentable (a negative theology of the economy). Finally, neither is the goal the technologically enhanced aestheticization of an economic reality for mere special effects. What Burtynsky’s photograph illustrates is that maybe there is such a thing as a “documentary of an immanent cause”: the aesthetic representation of something that only exists in the forms of its effects.