Art’s Realism in the Post-Truth Era
Amanda Boetzkes and Käte Hamburger Kolleg Aachen: Cultures of Research (c:o/re) are hosting this three days Workshop on 21 – 23 June 2022
The last decade has seen a growing preoccupation with philosophies of realism from artists, curators, and theorists. But while the art world benefits from this domain of philosophical inquiry, the reverse is also true: the significance of realism in an era characterized by fake news, post-critical theory, mass extinctions, climate change, and the precarity of existence due to war and other forms of displacement, can only be fully appreciated by attending to the ways that art captures, mediates, and even shapes our understanding of reality. Taking art’s constitutive relationship to realism seriously, this workshop intervenes on contemporary debates about realism after truth by demonstrating that art does not simply illustrate philosophical theories, it requires their redefinition. The contributors will situate realism in relation to the aesthetic dimensions of media imaging, scientific visualization, bodily expression and perceptual enhancement. Bringing together advanced scholars from art history, media studies, philosophy, literature and social theory, the workshop foregrounds the importance of art’s realism in a global ecology.
Organized by Amanda Boetzkes
Raphaelle Occhietti (University of Guelph)
Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou (École des Hautes Études et Sciences Sociales)
Coordination of event
Ana María Guzmán Olmos (c:o/re Aachen, University of Bonn)
Haus Matthéy, Theaterstraße 67, 52062 Aachen
We have a restricted number of seats to attend in person. After we have reached the amount of available seats in person, we invite you to join us online.
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Tuesday, June 21, Haus Matthéy
Introduction: Eight Theatrical Rotations Around Art’s Realism
Amanda Boetzkes (c:o/re Aachen, University of Guelph)
In the Thickness of Reality: An Aesthetic of Indifference and Concealment in Eva and Franco Mattes’ The Bots
Maryse Ouellet (University of Bonn)
In 2017, film scholar Erika Balsom wrote a plea for a realist approach in film, namely the observational mode. Her essay argued that the task of vanguard documentary in the posttruth era was to “problematize access to phenomenal reality.” The notion of “access,” however, must be questioned, since it presupposes our separation from reality (Benoist, 2011). In a time when the fabric of reality is stripped from moral standards and lies are allowed to circulate more or less uncensored on social media, the challenge facing art’s realism today is perhaps less a matter of problematizing access to reality than problematizing reality itself, that is to say, to probe the chasm between reality and truth.
In their recent video series, The Bots (2020), artists Eva and Franco Mattes’ have taken on this task, by tracking down former Facebook content moderators who disclosed the psychologically damaging work they used to perform, skimming the illicit and the obscene “digital waste” (Roberts, 2016) like janitors in the shadows of social media. The videos, however, do more than giving access to a hidden dimension of reality: they also merge heterogeneous layers of reality, thereby situating the testimonies in an economy of the visible governed by “radical indifference” (Zuboff, 2019). The testimonies are indeed rendered on screen by six actors who lend their bodies and voices to the anonymized workers, while pretending to deliver makeup tutorials, speaking to their cellphones from their apartment. The disconcerting and humorous channeling of unknown individual predicaments through the widely disseminated and standardized tutorial format takes inspiration from an activist practice ironically consisting in circumventing moderation by sneaking political content into apparently innocent beauty videos or reels (Kuo, 2019). In this workshop, I want to examine The Bots’ aesthetic of equivalence and concealment to reflect on the implications of art’s realism in the post-truth era. How can aesthetic convey the thickness of reality on social media? How to be realist, when reality is deceptive? These are some of the questions I would like to offer for consideration.
Homeless realism (post-metaphysics, post-truth and posterity)
Hilan Bensusan (University of Brasilia)
The realist stance is a combination of two gestures: one that affirms the independence of things from us and another that asserts their permanence, stability and full presence. Both gestures were combined in Plato – and tied together by Aristotle’s reading of Plato’s positions – into what became metaphysics. Around this endeavor, the first gesture – that of independence – was sometimes questioned and abandoned. The second one, nevertheless, proved to be more persistent. Speculative realism, intending to revive the issues around realism, often elaborates new strategies to argue for a package involving the two gestures. The spectral realism gambit, arguably a post-metaphysical one, is to dismiss permanence while keeping independence. In that sense, it discards ousiai as the ultimate commitment somehow required by any form of realism. The rejection of ousiai – substances, presences, homes or perhaps archives that keep something in its proper kernel no matter the concealment happening in what appears – makes room for a realism where what is real is intermittent like what depends on the retrieval from an archive.
Post-metaphysics is contemporary of post-truth. There is a sense in which post-truth is a consequence of the original metaphysical efforts to be able to extract the intelligibility of truth and be able to mimick it by artificially producing its effects. One of the effects of truth is that it generates a network of reliability. Reliability itself has connections with permanence stability and substance. Interestingly, post-truth also reveals the limitations of asserting the full presence of things. Two kinds of responses are then possible: to recoil to a defense of a metaphysical realism or to move somehow forward and explore the impermanence of what is archived – and the ireducible indexical character of whatever is in the past (and can only come back to the fore if rememorated now).
Wednesday, June 22, Haus Matthéy
The Theatre of Operations
Oxana Timofeeva (European University St. Petersburg)
The talk will conceptualize the idea of the theatre of war operations. The theatricality of war, read literally, will be addressed in its specific temporality of repetition, as well as in its spatial characteristics, its architectures and geo-logics – the scene, the battle ground, and the undergrounds of war, from bomb shelters and trenches to mass graves. I will also focus on the unconscious scenarios in the theatre of war, discuss the structure of desire and the scenes of its phantasmatic realization.
Can Waves Write Poems? Immanent Purposiveness and the Matter of Meaning
Jeff Diamanti (University of Amsterdam)
Can matter story itself, and (if so) is its story coherent? It would appear so given the citational record mounting in various branches of environmental and post-humanities. Yet the largely unresolved polemic of the infamous “Against Theory” by Walter Benn Michaels and Stephan Knapp resolves precisely on this question posed from the standpoint of meaning’s hermeneutic envelope. Returning to the formative distinction between form and matter at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy—and more specifically two recent resuscitations of Formtätigkeit (form activity) in the philosophy of Karen Ng and Michael Marder—I attempt to ask and then answer if indeed the nominalization of “storied matter” underwriting much ecocritical theory is an analytic contradiction in terms (and hazard two arguments about what that contradiction might inflect elsewhere in the constellation of materialist criticism).
Thursday, June 23, Haus Matthéy
Art Between Realism and Warnings (via zoom)
Santiago Zabala (ICREA/Pompeu Fabra University)
The ongoing return to realism and order in art, politics, and culture and the increasingly narrow focus of experts have prevented us from taking warnings seriously. Too often these are discarded as useless or insignificant—much like environmentalists, artists, and philosophers—when in fact they are vital to understanding our spiritual predicament. Though philosophers can’t solve the ongoing emergencies—philosophy was never meant to solve anything—we can interpret their signs. Warnings—not to be confused with predictions—are not meant to convince anyone but invite us to reevaluate our priorities for the future. Unlike recent philosophies of animals, plants, or insects, my philosophy of warnings is more than a philosophical elucidation of a global environmental emergency. It is the ontology within which these issues exist. Phenomenologically we could say that these reacting philosophies are regional ontologies whereas ours is the fundamental one that encompasses all of them. Warnings allow us to think transcendentally without losing sight of actual political, social, and technological urgent matters.
“This word Being,” as Martin Heidegger once said, “serves as a warning to us,” a warning that reality is not made merely of beings and that its truth is not exclusively what can be measured or verified. The central argument in favor of a philosophy of warnings is not that what it warns of comes to pass but rather the pressure it exercises against those emergencies hidden and subsumed under the global call to order. This pressure demands that our environmental, political, and technological priorities be reconsidered, revealing the alarming signs of climate crisis, democratic backsliding, and the commodification of our lives by surveillance capitalism. These warnings are also why we should oppose any demand to “return to normalcy” after an emergency, which signals primarily a desire to ignore what caused the emergency in the first place. A philosophy of warnings seeks to alter and interrupt the reality we’ve become accustomed to through stances that are engaged, interested, and respondent to warnings.
Parallel Perspective: A Forgotten Realism
Jens Schröter (University of Bonn)
One of the classical ingredients of the difficult notion of realism, at least in the history of painting, is central perspective. Central perspective (ideally) follows the rules of the propagation of light (at least as seen from the standpoint of geometrical optics) and thereforen mimics the appearance of the real world. It produces thereby (ideally) a coherence of the depicted space and a potential continuity to the space of the beholder. By relating the representation to the viewpoint of an observer (at least in one point-perspective) it moreover
seems to duplicate our experience of watching the real world. But this subjective aspect of perspective also potentially disturbs the alleged realism, since it shows an object or scene from one, contingent standpoint. This leads, on the one hand, to the complicated problems of perspectivalism and the questions of the situatedness of knowledge.
There are a lot of discussions on that (see e.g. Alloa: Partages de la Perspective). On the other hand, there is a much deeper problem for ‘realism’ caused by central perspective: Central perspective distorts the represented scene, relative lengths, angles etc. change. It is for example difficult to reconstruct a machine or a building from a centralperspectival representation – for images that do realistically pre-present structures like machine or buildings forms of parallel perspective are routinely used. These are much more important as a medial infrastructure for modern technical culture as is central perspective. Moreover, digital image generation can use routinely parallel perspective – as different from the optical media like photography. With digital imaging an important representational tradition from drawing and painting is revived (e.g. in Computer Aided Design).
Given this extreme importance it is strange, why parallel perspective does not play a for more central role in discussions of realism. Parallel Perspective is used for a realism of the objects instead of the subject, so to speak. That should also make Parallel Perspective an interesting topic of study for theoretical positions that discuss the properties of the ‘object’ as such. Several aspects of these complicated problems in and around parallel perspective are discussed in my presentation.
Thursday, June 23, c:o/re, Theaterstr. 75 (Statdpalais), lecture hall
Steve Fuller (c:o/re Aachen, University of Warwick)
Closing Remarks and Discussion
An-Archaeology and Spectral Realism with Hilan Bensusan at c:o/re (June 14)
As an introduction to this week’s workshop on Art’s Realism, organized by Amanda Boetzkes at c:o/re, on June 14th at 17:00 Professor Hilan Bensusan gave a lecture on An-archaeology and spectral realism. The manuscript of the talk can be found here.
Hilan Bensusan is Professor of Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Brasilia. He is the author of Indexicalism: Realism and the Metaphysics of Paradox (Edinburgh University Press, 2021) and Being Up for Grabs: On Speculative Anarcheology (Open Humanities Press, 2016). He also published Portuguese: A diáspora da agência – Ensaio sobre o horizonte das monadologias (The diaspora of agency – Essay on the horizon of monadologies) (EdUFBA, 2018), Linhas de animismo futuro (Lines of future animism) (Mil Saberes, 2017), Heráclito – Exercícios de Anarqueologia (Heraclitus – Exercises in anarcheology) (Ideias e Letras, 2012) and Excessos e Exceções (Excesses and exceptions) (Ideias e Letras, 2008).
Steve Fuller, Frederik Stjernfelt and c:o/re are hosting this one-day workshop April 21st 2022
In this seminar, we’d like to draw a line between recent intense research into the intellectual history of the Enlightenment and our present situation. What would Radical Enlightenment mean today? How would a 17-18th century Enlightenment view on our present predicament look like? – given pressing issues of academia today, the fate of the universities, the development of AI, tech, the new West-East cold war, populism, globalization, post/trans humanism, the future of humanity?
To attend online please register with events[at]khk.rwth-aachen.de
Free Speech and Enlightenment: Lessons from the World’s First Full Press Freedom
Frederik Stjernfelt (RWTH Aachen/ University of Aalborg Copenhagen)
September 14 1770, full press freedom was suddenly declared in Denmark-Norway by king Christian VII and his German favorite, the radical enlightener doctor J.F. Struensee. That signaled the beginning of the dramatic three-year Press Freedom period, effectively kickstarting modern debate in the double kingdom. In the middle of the period, there was a coup, Struensee was decapitated after a mock trial, and Press Freedom was slowly smothered. What can be learned from this strange event of the High Enlightenment?
Condorcet’s Predicament- can the democratic republic work?
Jonathan Israel (Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton)
Those late Enlightenment figures such as Condorcet, Destutt de Tracy, Paine, Palmer and Barlow and others who had reason to feel profound disappointment and pessimism at the defeat of their plans during the 1790s and opening years of the nineteenth century, apparently nevertheless refused to give up hope of eventual success. But they could hardly avoid a lot of soul-searching and especially asking themselves what are the minimum requirements needed to ensure the stability, viability and survival of a modern democracy. Significantly, all of these tended to see the solution in restructuring, in fact revolutionizing education.
12:00 – 12:15
In Favor of Patterns: Reviving an Enlightenment Ideal
Rens Bod (University of Amsterdam)
There are two opposing traditions in the longue durée history of the humanities: one which searches for patterns and regularities (in texts, languages, art, music and the past) and one which rejects any notion of pattern and focuses on the unique and the exceptional. This opposition is found already in 250 BCE between the Analogist school of Alexandria and the Anomalist school of Pergamon and has not disappeared ever since. And yet, there have been periods when the search for patterns, regularities and underlying principles was dominant. The golden period of pattern-seeking was the Enlightenment: patterns were discerned in history by Vico, Condorcet and others, patterns were found in music to build musical grammars by Rameau and Koch among others, and principles were found to underlie languages (De Laet, Hemsterhuis), art (Bellori, Winckelmann) and literature (Boileau, Gottsched), not to speak about the search for patterns and principles in the natural world that has become dominant ever since. Very few of the Enlightenment patterns found in the cultural world have stood the test of time though, but the endeavor to try to understand the world by patterns and underlying principles remains a major feat of the Enlightenment. The opposition between patterns and the exceptional flared up again in the 19th century and arrived at a zenith after WWII with the advent of the Frankfurt School and the postmodern turn. And yet the search for patterns has recently shown a revival in the humanities with the appearance of new disciplines such as digital history, comparative global humanities, environmental humanities and digital humanities. I will show that the return to pattern-searching has also influenced the more traditional humanities disciplines, from philology to art history, and has resulted in a myriad of new discoveries in art, music, literature and history. I will argue that the revival of the Enlightenment ideal of pattern seeking may arguably be the only way for the humanities to survive.
Kant Between Swedenborg and Linnaeus: A Fork in the Road to the Enlightenment’s Legacy
Steve Fuller (c:o/re RWTH Aachen/ University of Warwick)
I am currently writing a play about a possible but fictional event that would have Kant travel from Königsberg to visit Carolus Linnaeus and Emanuel Swedenborg, who made their reputations in Uppsala. The lives of the three significantly overlapped in time, and Kant was significantly influenced by the two Swedes – to be sure, more positively by Linnaeus than by Swedenborg. However, the three never met. Even Linnaeus and Swedenborg are known to have only met once, namely, when Linnaeus turned over his Stockholm flat to Swedenborg in 1741. Nevertheless, the fictional encounter is significant for marking a fork in the road of the Enlightenment’s legacy, which becomes clearer in the later, ‘critical’ phase of Kant’s career, on which his own reputation as the foundational figure of modern philosophy is based.
My play takes place in 1756, the year after the famous Lisbon earthquake that inspired Voltaire to write Candide and provoked a wide-ranging discussion of theodicy across Europe, epitomized by the question: Do we live in a just world? In that year, Kant was 32, Linnaeus 49 and Swedenborg 68 – each belonging to a different generation. For Kant, Linnaeus was someone who understood the empirical limitations of the ape-like nature of the human condition better than Swedenborg, even though Swedenborg’s more adventurous speculations about the powers of the human mind were often based on a remarkably prescient understanding of the brain’s workings. Kant’s first book, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766) was a comprehensive takedown of Swedenborg, which anticipated his later scepticism about ‘pure reason’.
The play is very much a work in progress, and I plan to discuss the various considerations that the two Swedes might try to bring to bear on Kant, who himself reaches a kind of divided judgement on the matter, which is reflected in his later strong distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘practical’ reason, which effectively has noumenon do double duty in the epistemological and ethical realms.
16:00 – 16:15
The Enlightenment Now: The Human Skeuomorph://Public-Private
Cheryce von Xylander (Leuphana University Lüneburg)
Respondent: Steve Fuller (c:o/re RWTH Aachen/ University of Warwick)
This talk about the deep, taken for granted legacy of the Enlightenment, is based on the technological capabilities that were unleashed and largely celebrated in the eighteenth century. Social platforms have migrated discursively from purveyor of a utopian future that would unite users in egalitarian online activity to public enemy that threatens to wreck the democratic cultural order. This trajectory from paragon to pariah has much to teach us about human self-fashioning in the advanced capitalist, neoliberal dreamscape. It should give pause that a service sector that arose from the defence arsenal of the military-industrial complex ever inspired blind faith in its potential to better the human condition. An epistemic prosthetic as powerful as the vast knowledge repository that is the internet will rework cognition. The online industry is forever aggregating digital traces of enacted rationality. This smart techno-habitat systematically conceals what it emphatically re-enacts, namely figuration of the modern user as an aesthetic contrivance conjured in the eighteenth century. I propose to call this enabling latency the human skeuomorph. Skeuomorphism is a concept used by archaeologists to describe aesthetic attributes that outlast their utility in tool evolution. Like other tools in the archaeological record, the human skeuomorph has been subject to material transformations, yet persists as a semiotic undercurrent. The retooling of this apparition in new media will hinge on future interpretations of its Enlightenment past.
17:15 – 17:45
The c:o/re Team will be chairing a panel at the EASST conference “Politics of Technoscientific Futures” in Madrid, July 6 to 9, 2022. Our panel “Making Media Futures” focuses on the role of different media in making and disseminating scientific imaginaries of the future and on their variations according to their interactions with different communities and contexts. If you want to contribute to our panel, send us an abstract with your ideas through the conference website form. The full call for abstracts can be found here. The deadline is
February 1st, 2022, has been extended to February 7th. Looking forward to seeing you in Madrid!