The Visibility of the Economy

Curator's Note

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. 


Fascinating take Roland, thanks for your contribution. I'm curious what you might add as it regards "art" in this context. Burtynsky’s photographs are quite interesting and I'm wondering if this call for "aesthetic representation" is specific to art? Put another way, is this mode of representation possible with images that circulate within wider, mainstream circuits (i.e., instagram, twitter, etc.), or would these modes of circulation evacuate the possibility for the seeable to become thinkable in the way Ranciere might suggest?

In the first paragraph, I was worried about the possible ways in which rendering the economy visible may collapse into the imaginary register. Yet, in the second paragraph the problem of visibility gained a Real dimension. In the past, I tried to think through aesthetic representation as a possible means for "encircling the Real". What Vegso refers to as "immanent cause", as "something that only exists in the forms of its effects", I read as the Real—not as an ontologised ground but rather as (to use Vegso's formulation) "force of division" which is constitutive of much more than mere distribution of oil to the markets. My initial sense is that this way of formulating the matter provides a non-reductionist way of thinking through the relation between aesthetic representation and the social formation, rejecting both the representationalist as well as the performative frames. It is a rejection of the representationalist frame because it renders visible something which is not there (or there only in its effects). It is a rejection of the performative frame because in the sense articulated here aesthetic representation is not a pragmatic means of making the world but rather a "documentary" of conditions of both making and unmaking of the world and as such an intervention that dislocates the viewer.

Adam, there are moments when I am actually slightly disturbed by Burtynsky's photographs because I see in them an excess of "artistic" aestheticization. I feel that these are the moments when he is going for an artistic "special effect" rather than what I envisioned in my descriptions above. (Some of his photographs would make perfect screen savers, for example.) I chose this photograph precisely because it avoids the overly formalistic aspects of some of his other works. It is more brutal for me in that sense: this photograph appeals to me because there is something "anti-artistic" about it in the sense that it looks like a photograph taken either by misguided tourist (who does not know what he is up to) or by a documentarian with a purpose (who is simply taking an account of what he can find in the world). Somebody's uncle could have taken this photo. To respond to your question, then, I would like to expand the aesthetic possibilities of the visibility of the economy as an immanent cause beyond the traditional definitions of "art."

Dear Yahya (if I may), all I can say is that I am grateful for the generous reading of my short comment. It appears to me that we are in agreement here. The question of the making and unmaking of the world is especially of interest to me, so if you could say more about that issue, I would be grateful.

There are a couple of threads operating here. Perhaps the main one was a friendly critique towards the performativity literature (which is gaining some traction in Economics through the very useful work of Callon, MacKenzie, etc.). While they emphasize, and rightly so, the role in which discursive practices (representations) are constitutive of the social world, the only way in which some negativity (or "unmaking") enters the frame is either due to "unintended consequences" or due to a conflation of contradictory vectors. In short, to my reading, for the performativity literature, negativity is always a by product and subordinate to the constructive emphasis. This is partly because the flattened ontology of performativity theory allows no room for a category such as "death drive"—that which is simultaneously making and unmaking the world. Making the world, because with its repetitive loop drive is that which solidifies the materiality; unmaking the world, because the very same repetitive loop knows nothing about moderation. Aesthetic representations, if they are not merely participating in the pragmatic making of the world, they must always entail also an unmaking of the world. In my understanding, they do so whenever they are able to render "visible" (or better yet, perceivable) the effects of different material conjugations of death drive as an immanent cause—this in itself has a dislocatory effect on the viewer. In this case, I presume the pipeline itself (and of course as it is represented in the image) is a conjugation of the death drive. I am not sure if I am able to convey what I mean successfully, but at least I thought I should give it a try.

Fascinating note and photograph. Your analysis implies, as does any analysis faithful to Ranciere, that the "partage du sensible" is logically (and somehow temporally) prior to economic activity, and economic activity ends up qualified as "mere. I wonder what would happen to the analysis, to for example the category 'documentary,' if one were truer to Marx, Benjamin, Panofsky and Eisenstein, and instead of securing an aesthetic sphere in the priority of perception, we posited perception as formed by the demands of economic activity and struggle against it. What happens when we start to follow the demands made on perception by the labor capital relation: by the wage, its mediated form, and the modes of repression necessary to keep it in place. This might lead us from seeing Burtynsky's project in terms of a problematic of making seen within a restricted, occluding visual field into one of the creating of new percepts and affects in the process of more or less specific topographies of struggle. In other words, I wonder whether assuming that a distribution of the sensible is a condition of possibility of the economy, instead of the economy's product, one doesn't end up with a period eye utterly subjected to it's limitations, instead attempting to assert itself against it's limitations as it does in Baxandall.

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