Is Theory on Time?

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“How could theory once again become a dislocation between everyday experience and the expectation of a time yet to come?”

Peter Osborne’s edited volume Thinking Art: Materialisms, Labours, Forms (2020) is an impeccable attempt at the endless renewal of contemporary art theory’s topics and vocabulary. In general, its contributors—Caroline Bassett, Dave Beech, Ayesha Hameed, Klara Kemp-Welch, Jaleh Mansoor, Christian Nyampeta, Peter Osborne, Luger Schwarte, Keston Sutherland, and Giovanna Zapperi—deal wittily with current topics of materialisms, the plantationocene, feminist critique or art and labor. The point, however, is not so much what they’re saying but how this and other similar works situate themselves in the field of art theory to produce and reproduce it. 

We’ve been in this conjuncture for a while. The International Symposium on Contemporary Art Theory—or SITAC, as its Spanish acronym reads—has convened since 2001 in Mexico City and included such thinkers as Nina Möntmann, Boris Groys, Marina Vishmidt and Peter Osborne. In 2004, for example, Hal Foster, Yves Michaud and Anton Vidokle among others gathered to discuss ‘resistance’ in the art world. I was there too, endlessly discussing ‘the very possibility of resistance, of confrontation, of negotiation, of looking for alternatives’. Mainly sponsored by private companies, SITAC has succeeded in spectacularizing global art theory in Mexico by diverting it from the political debate at large.

In a previous work, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Osborne had pondered ‘the way in which the structure of historical time has been affected by the historical development of capitalism and the experience of historical communism.’ This query could be posed to the contemporary art theory offered in Thinking Art: what are the ways in which its practice has been affected by the development of capitalism and the experience of historical communism? If doing art theory is not immune to those transformations and not above the changing structure of historical time, what kind of strategies is it devising to deal with them? 

Although not his primary concern in that older work, Osborne provided a clue to think through these questions by turning to Reinhardt Koselleck’s distinction between space of experience, or a present past, events that have been incorporated and can be remembered, although there is also alien experience contained and preserved by generations or institutions, and horizon of expectation, or a future made present that directs itself to the not-yet, to the nonexperienced, to that which is to be revealed in hope and fear, wishes, desires, and rational analysis. For Koselleck, historical time is the result of the conflict between the horizon of expectation and the space of experience: ‘it is the tension between experience and expectation which, in ever-changing patterns, brings about new resolutions and through this generates historical time.’ 

However, it has now become a commonplace that there is no historical time since capitalism has induced a crisis that has made the horizon of expectation collapse into the space of experience. They can’t be told apart. With social and individual imagination harnessed to predictive algorithmization and an inevitable ecological disaster, history, experience and expectation seem sealed by an already calculated and decided future. What part can art theory play in this conjuncture? How could theory once again become a dislocation between everyday experience and the expectation of a time yet to come? How can it enact disjunctions in which the unpredictable arises and yet also serves to mobilize us? History, time, theory, writing are terms and practices that are now routinely dismissed as outdated. And they may be so. It is precisely their inadequacy, though, what may make them still suitable for disentangling experience and expectation.