Beyond the Echo-chamber: An Interview with Hartmut Rosa on Resonance and Alienation

“If acceleration is the problem, then resonance might be the solution.” This is the shortest possible summary provided in the first line of the 800-page book Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016). The book is the latest stage and logical next step in the analysis and critique of modernity by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, which started with the equally ambitious and encompassing book Beschleunigung. Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne (2005).1 There, Rosa dissects modernity as a process of acceleration, comprising the three dimensions of technical acceleration, acceleration of social change, and acceleration of the pace of life. Although his analysis is largely in line with Paul Virilio’s “dromology” and David Harvey’s analysis of modernity as “time-space compression”, the underlying question and concern of Rosa is somewhat different. While Virilio seems to aim mainly at a cultural critique, and Harvey at an analysis of capitalism as a system, Rosa is first and foremost interested in the question of the good life. Like the earlier generations of the Frankfurt school, Horkheimer and Adorno and, with qualifications, Habermas, he considers modernity in terms of a broken promise: the very technology and social revolutions that were supposed to lead to an increase in autonomy are now becoming increasingly oppressive. In Alienation and Acceleration (2010) he even calls acceleration a totalitarian process, because it entails all aspects of our personal and social lives, and is almost impossible to resist, escape or criticize. Rosa writes: “The powers of acceleration no longer are experienced as a liberating force, but as an actually enslaving pressure instead” (Rosa 2010, 80). As the book’s title already suggests, Rosa considers acceleration as the primary contemporary source of alienation, along the three axes famously described by Marx in the fragment on “Estranged Labour”: alienation of people from themselves, from their fellow human beings, and from the world of things. While we feel the constant pressure of having to do more in less time, there also seems to be a shared feeling of a loss of control over our own life and the world, and therefore of losing contact with it.

Rosa’s latest book continues on the path of Alienation and Acceleration. For the concept of “alienation”, which has a long tradition in modern philosophy and was recently taken up again by Axel Honneth and Rahel Jaeggi (2016), is an inherently problematic category. The concept implies that you are alienated from something, where this something has often been associated with a conception of “true” humanity or authentic life, be it Rousseau’s noble savage, early Marx’s “species being”, or Heidegger’s Eigentlichkeit. Such conceptions of authenticity can easily become arbitrary or oppressive even, for who is the philosopher or critical theorist to decide whose life is “authentic” and whose isn’t? Then again, Rosa argues, if we drop the conception of the good life altogether, the concept of alienation also becomes empty; it then risks becoming a mere label for things we don’t like.

This is why in Resonanz Rosa sets out to analyse “resonance” as alienation’s opposite, thus also aiming at a better understanding of alienation as well as a conceptual tool with which to criticize it. Though not so much itself a conception of the good life, resonance according to Rosa lies at the basis of all conceptions of the good life. It refers to a relation between subject and world (Weltbeziehung) characterized by reciprocity and mutual transformation: the subject’s experience of some other calling upon it which requires understanding or answering, but that also has the ability to change the subject. Resonance, as Rosa is quick to add, is not a mere (subjective) experience belonging to the subject; he emphatically refers to the relation between subject and world, be it a relation between subjects, between the subject and object, or even of the subject to its own body. Not surprisingly, and in line with the first generation of the Frankfurt School, art is for Rosa an exemplary place for, and medium of, such relations (although religion and nature are also important examples), and indeed functions as a vestige as world-relations become increasingly alienated. Alienation, then, is precisely the impossibility or inability to enter into a relation with the other. Indeed, all problems or “social pathologies” of modernity according to Rosa come down to this: that we are unable to form a meaningful relationship of mutual understanding and interaction, either with our material surroundings (e.g. in the case of labour) or with fellow human beings.

For Rosa, as a critical theorist, the concept of resonance functions on three levels. In the first place there seems to be an anthropological undercurrent, in which resonance describes what makes us human; the first chapters of his study deal with such basic animal and human behaviours as breathing, eating and drinking, speaking and glancing, laughing, crying and love-making, all of which entail relationships of resonance. Secondly, resonance functions as a theory of modernization. In line with Charles Taylor, Rosa argues that modernity is a process in which the “self” becomes less porous, hence increasingly closed off from the world. At the same time, however, Rosa also considers modernity as a historical period of increased “sensibility for resonance” (Resonanzsensibilität): since resonance is not an “echo chamber” but a relation of questioning and answering, the subject needs relative autonomy in order to enter into meaningful relationships with the other. The promise of modernity was precisely this, “that we could move out into the world to find a place that speaks and alludes to us, where we can feel at home and that we would be able make our own” (Rosa 2016, 599). Finally, the concept of resonance is, as we already noted, a critical tool, providing a framework for criticizing both capitalist competition as a source of alienation, as well as false solutions and claims to authenticity, be it some fully individualized attempt at mindfulness, or populist discourses of social and cultural homogenization.

In January this year Rosa visited Utrecht for a seminar dedicated to his book, titled How to Slow Down Life without Stagnating Society. Resonance in an Accelerating World, organized by the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH). In advance of this seminar, Krisis talked to Rosa about social acceleration, alienation and resonance, and the role of art in an accelerating world.2

1. Acceleration

Thijs Lijster/Robin Celikates: You have written extensively about social acceleration, and you convincingly link technological innovation, social change and the acceleration of personal/individual tempo. With regard to the latter, however, we are wondering to what extent the kinds of problems or “pathologies” you are describing are happening on a global scale, and to what extent they are specific issues of the West or, to put it somewhat more bluntly, “first world problems”. Capitalism, to be sure, affects people all over the globe, but it doesn’t affect all of them in the same way, does it? What space does your theory allow for what is often called “die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen” (the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous)?

Hartmut Rosa:It is interesting that you mention “die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen”, which is a phrase made famous by Koselleck, for this phrase already suggests a kind of direction of history: it assumes you have things that belong to an earlier age and things that belong to a later age. What I’m trying to say is that we’ve reached the end of this idea of history moving forward, which means that you no longer have the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, but you just have differences. So, some people are under a lot of time pressure while others are not.

Your question has many layers. One has to do with class: people always ask whether the speeding up of life – the increase in the pace of life – is the same for all layers of society. And the other question is, of course, on the global scale: is it the same for all parts of the world? To the second question, I would actually say: yes, very much so, whenever you have processes of modernization. Acceleration basically is at the heart of modernization. For example, I just spent a longer time in China and there you see it almost like crazy. You have this logic of competition and of speeding up, so the people there know immediately what I am talking about. And it is not just on the scale of a small elite; it is very comprehensive. And indeed, it is the same in Korea, Japan, Brazil and other places in Latin America. Of course, there are some places, one would think of some regions in Africa, where this change in temporal structures is not very widespread, and which I therefore call “oases”, where these forces of acceleration are not yet taking hold. So I would say acceleration is a global phenomenon: wherever you have these processes of globalization or modernization you find acceleration. You will not always find individualization, divisions of labour, or democratization, and sometimes these processes are not even clearly capitalist, but the change in temporal structures is modernity’s most widespread feature.

Of course, there are always segments of the population- and this varies in different countries – which do not really struggle with the shortage of time. My claim is that when you look at the social strata, you find three different layers. The first, which you could call the elites but which is actually the middle class, has completely internalized this logic of speeding up. So: saving time is saving money. It is the logic of competition, in particular, that they have internalized, and competition is always related to temporality: “time is scarce, don’t waste it”. For the second layer, further down the social ladder, time pressure is not so much internalized, but coming from the outside. Of course, that is true for most conditions of labour: shop floors in companies, construction sites, care industries, etc. The people working there are always short on time but usually it is someone else – the boss or the clock – who creates the pressure, and it is not so much coming from the inside.

TL/RC: People have to do more in less time?

HR: Yes, always, and this is really true almost everywhere. Recently I looked into truck drivers. They are told: “you have to deliver your load in a certain time, we don’t care how you do it.” So, you either go too fast and you have to pay for the speeding ticket or you take the Autobahn but then you have to pay for the tolls, or you ignore the mandatory resting periods, otherwise it is a totally impossible task. It makes me angry when colleagues claim: “Rosa is only describing the academic elites.” I think someone who says that has no idea about empirical reality and I would actually claim that it is indeed almost the same all over the world.

Nevertheless, then you have a third segment of the population, I call them “forcefully excluded” or “forcefully decelerated”. If you are unemployed or so, then you might have a lot of time on your hands, but even that is not always true. It will depend on what you do for a living, whether you’re sick or if you’re depressed, etc. But this kind of forceful or enforced deceleration is a kind of devaluation of the time you have then. The time you have is without any value and the problem is that even then you feel the pressure of acceleration, because you feel like you are lagging behind more and more, and that it is impossible to catch up. So this is why I claim that acceleration is an almost totalitarian force, you feel the pressure wherever you are.

The distinction I’ve discussed, between the internalization of time pressure and time pressure as a force from the outside also raises interesting questions as to who has more resources to resist. Probably, you will find more possibilities and power to resist if the pressure comes from the outside. Once it is completely internalized you are lost.

TL/RC: What is your take on the more positive accounts of acceleration that have been put forward, for instance, by Deleuze and Guattari, who propose that we should accelerate even more, and enjoy acceleration. Or the #Accelerate manifesto, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, who argue that we should accelerate further in order to let capitalism crash against its own limits. In any case, acceleration in social and cultural theory has always had a rather ambiguous sense, of both alienating and liberating. Is there any “jouissance” of acceleration possible in your view?

HR: In my main book on social acceleration I first of all wanted to identify the change in temporal structure that accompanied modernity. There wasn’t really a systematic account of it. What I wanted to do was to analyze what is accelerating and what is not, and what might be the consequences of it. Looking to these consequences, I was not so optimistic about them. Nevertheless, I did not say that speed per se is bad, and I didn’t say that slowness is good; certainly not the latter. I do share with the accelerationists the idea that just being nostalgic about the past would be a mistake, because this leads you very quickly to the idea that the past was much better and that’s of course not the case. Today you sometimes find a nostalgia for the Fordist period, while this period was of course the most alienated age ever. So I agree that speed per se is not the problem.

TL/RC: Are you thinking of Richard Sennett, or would you rather not mention names?

HR: Yes, I was thinking about Richard Sennett, though I like his work very much. I very much liked the book on craftsmanship, for instance, because I think he has a very strong sense there of resonance with regard to work. Nevertheless, when you read people like Sennett or Zygmunt Bauman (and there are a lot of German sociologists too) and their critique of the postmodern condition, it all of a sudden sounds like the past was a great time.

I don’t think speed per se is the problem, but I also don’t want to just turn it around and say: well if you cannot do anything against it then let’s embrace it. That is not a sensible stance for me. What I dislike about the accelerationists is that they seem to give in and they say: “since we cannot do anything about it let’s just get on top of the movement”. They always claim that something good can come out of it, but I think that they are totally lacking the yardsticks of how to judge the consequences. Turning the perspective around doesn’t solve anything. In my book I basically say: indeed, speed is not per se bad, but it is bad when it leads to alienation. So, the question for me would be: what do the accelerationists do with this?

TL/RC: Perhaps some forms of alienation might not be bad. In Inventing the Future Srnicek and Williams argue in favour of total automation; this would in some sense be alienation, because it puts us even further from daily activities of the reproduction of life, but it also allows a lot of freedom to do other things.

HR: But this has always been the promise of modernization and acceleration, that it will eventually give us freedom, but there has been a betrayal on both ends. On the one hand, it didn’t give us freedom: you can see the exact opposite. I really insist on that. What I try to work out is a certain temporal logic, one that has a lot to do with the logic of competition, and that I call “dynamic stabilization”. That is really the core of my analysis of modernity. We can only keep what we have – both on an individual and collective level – if we increase speed and productivity and so on. And this increase does not fall from the sky: we have to do it ourselves. Every year we have to run a bit faster to keep what we have. So, the idea that this will eventually give us freedom is just wrong under the present conditions. If one does not see that then it means being blind to what happened the last 200 years.

It’s not that we’re just enslaved. I do think the liberating potential is there, but in this logic of dynamic stabilization there is a shift in the balance between the liberating aspects and the enslaving aspects. The promise of modernity has always been progress: let’s increase production, let’s come up with new innovative technologies, let’s speed up and so on, in order to reach some kind of Golden Age. But today most people no longer perceive this acceleration as progress: you have to run faster, but not to get somewhere, but to keep what you have. I think this horizon has become more and more pale; now the impression is that we have to speed up otherwise we will have much more unemployment.

TL/RC: Wasn’t it the case that up until a certain point in time, at least in the Western world, we were working less and less?

HR:You’re right, and that is basically also what I write. But now the increase in freedom, also what you could call progress, in the end will be sucked up again. I argue that we have to invest more and more psychological energy, political energy and material energy (resources) into the logic of mobilizing the world.

 You see this very clearly with our young people. In the age that you were referring to, when freedom was increasing, so up until the 1970s, when you asked young people: “what do you want to do?” they would talk about their dreams, or their aspirations, or their ideas. Now this has turned around. They ask: “what can I do in order to successfully compete?” It is no longer about developing your own perspective but it is about fitting in.

I’ve noticed this myself too. For some years I’ve worked with young people, just before their matura [secondary school exit exam, TL & RC], and each year we are talking about what they are going to do next. I think there has been a shift from about 20 years ago, where they would say “I want to do philosophy” or so, and now they come and ask: “what could I do if I study philosophy?” All our capacities, all our energies, all our dreams are fitted into the logic of increasing productivity. As long as the accelerationists do not see that, I find that really bad.

On one other point I would agree with them, namely that I think we are not at the end of the logic of acceleration, not in the least. Paul Virilio has said this a long time ago, and was really visionary in this respect, that we are on the verge of a fusion between computer technologies and bodies – biotechnology and computer technologies. With this, we can speed up our brains and our interactions probably much more. What I think we definitely need is an idea of “the good life”, and that is what I try to provide.

TL/RC:Coming back to what you said earlier, about modernity’s promise of progress, we were wondering what the implications would be of your theory for what we traditionally consider leftist politics? After all, we traditionally make the distinction between the “progressive” left and the “conservative” right. But what does “progressive” mean once progress itself is experienced as catastrophe, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin? And how would you see the contemporary crisis of the left, or of “progressive politics” in general in this light?

HR:The problem is that “progressive” has always been a very ambivalent term, covering a lot of things. On the one hand, of course, it has referred to technological development: progress in science and technology and so on. On the other, it refers to the emancipatory power, or the emancipatory ideals, which are probably more important when you think of the political left. The idea of progress in the latter sense was really about giving or having more autonomy: emancipating individuals so that they are liberated from traditional powers which have been repressive, like the Church, like the patriarchal system, but also clear exploitative systems. There has been progress historically right up to probably our present age in many aspects, but I think there are two problems with this idea.

The one thing is that this kind of formal autonomy has been counterbalanced by the logic of competition, which we were just describing. So, there is a loss as well: that people gain autonomy on the one hand, but that they lose it, on the other hand, because of the logic of capitalist competition. The other problem, and you see this also in the contemporary political crisis, is that there is a longing for something other than autonomy, for a kind of reconnection. That is why I came up with this idea of resonance: being connected to the world in a certain sense does not just mean: I want to decide for myself. Even progressive leftists define autonomy as living according to self-given rules and principles, and of course they have a sense that these self-given rules and principles should be intersubjectively discussed and so on, but nevertheless it is principles and rules. But I think that the good life does not mean that I live according to my principles; people feel the least alienated when they are overwhelmed by something. Adorno had a very strong sense of this, or think of Latour who’s talking about the feeling that you are called upon, and you answer. This kind of connection has to do with being affected and feeling self-efficacious, i.e. experiencing one’s ability to achieve things. This is more than just autonomy.

I believe we have a kind of crisis of autonomy, particularly when it concerns consumer autonomy. So, one problem is that the formal or political autonomy, which we did historically realize, is sucked up by the logic of speed and competition. The other problem is that autonomy is not sufficient; it is only one side of a good life. There is a double crisis on the left, which is very problematic. Whenever you raise leftist ideas, it is still the case that people ask you: “what, do you want to go back to the kind of state socialism which we had in the past?” and if you then of course say “no” and then that’s it, right? What the left is lacking is a vision of what the world could be like.

TL/RC: So, the concept of resonance for you is also a political category?

HR:It is definitely a political category and I cannot emphasize this enough because it is often misread as an individualistic notion. The book is probably too long, but what I try to say repeatedly is that resonance is not just about a subjective stance towards the world, that is why it is different from the Achtsamkeit or the mindfulness movement and so on. I’m not saying that if you are in the right mindset, that everything is fine. Resonance is a two-way relationship, so it depends on what you relate to, a mode of being in the world. And this is not up to individuals to decide. So, I really want to turn it into a political category and also an almost institutional yardstick: how should institutions be established?

My take – which I share with Adorno and Horkheimer and the older critical theorists – is that our whole mode of being in the world, of relating to the world, is, I would almost say, screwed. We have a very instrumental relation to the world. Max Scheler, followed in this by Marcuse, called modernity the Promethean stance. The world becomes a point of aggression: I want to explore it scientifically, I want to control it technologically, I want to rule it by law and so on. It is relating to the world in order to make it verfügbar – I don’t really have a good word for it in English – to make it controllable, predictable and so on. This has to change. But this way in which we relate to the world, the way we are set in the world, is not an individual issue, it is a deeply political category.

TL/RC: You are making a clear link between technological innovations on the one hand, and social acceleration. In the same way, since the nineteenth century, all kinds of artistic innovations have been linked to revolutionary politics. For certain moments in time, they even had this kind of alliance in which artistic and political vanguards together would attack the status quo. But do you think these are the same kinds of novelty or innovation? Is innovation in the arts the same as in revolutionary politics, or for that matter, in the succession of innovative commodities or technologies? And, related to that question, do you think notions such as “the new” (or related concepts such as creativity and so forth) are still of value in contemporary artistic discourses?

HR:There are two distinctions that to me seem important to make. One is that between technological and social progress. When you today talk with young people about the future it is very interesting that they think of it in technological terms: artificial intelligence, what will become possible to do and so on. That has changed a lot in comparison to the 1970s or 80s, when young people thought about the future in more political terms: let’s shape the future politically! So there has been a division in how we think about novelty, with a still unbroken belief in – and this is not only a belief but also a fact – the expansion of our technological capacities. We peer deeper into the universe with satellites and deeper into matter and we are more capable of controlling it, so innovation there can be clearly recognized, and there is progress.

What has been lost, however, is the promise it carried, namely that through these innovations in science and technology, life would become better. We would overcome scarcity, we would overcome ignorance and probably even suffering, we would finally know what the good life is and have the chance to lead it. No one believes that anymore, right? No one believes that we will overcome scarcity; it is rather the opposite, we believe competition will result in even more scarcity, so that in the future we will have to work even harder. No one believes that with faster technologies we will solve the problem of time pressure and we know that we won’t overcome ignorance. Precisely because of all the progress in science and technology, we now don’t know what to eat, we don’t know how to give birth – we don’t know anything. This promise that anything will get better has been lost. It seems that art is kind of in between these two notions of progress, although it has always leaned more to the political and philosophical idea of progress: liberating human potentialities for the sake of human life.

When you look towards the non-technological side (and that is true for art, but for science too), there has been a shift from “progress” to “progression.” Progress for me is the idea of moving forward; there is some element of increase, growth or improvement. In art, as well as in science, at least the social sciences, we have given up on this idea. You see it in many spheres, but most clearly you see it in science. In science progress meant moving towards the truth. Max Planck once said: “you shouldn’t study physics, because very soon we will know everything.” The idea is that we will move forward and forward, and even if we will move forward forever, we will get closer to the truth. Progression means something else. I expect that if you today ask students, at least in the social sciences, why they want to be a social scientist, and what they are going to do when they are social scientists, they will say: “I want to come up with new ideas, and new questions, and new principles and new perspectives.” There is still innovation, but just as progression, in the sense of new ideas, but no longer moving towards the truth of the good society or whatever it is. This is also what I mean with the phrase rasender Stillstand: you move very quickly, you have to be innovative and creative, original and so on, but you’ve lost the idea of where you’re moving to.

When it comes to the arts, this is why I am now so preoccupied with this idea of resonance. Art is not my expertise, and although I like it very much I do not consider myself as a philosopher of art. With regard to the creation of art, the emphasis has always been on the creativity of the subject. You have to be creative and come up with something new and so on. But I believe that even in art there has to be what I call this resonance: there is something out there that you need to connect to. It is not just the subject in itself.

TL/RC: Does this shift from progress to progression also make, in a way, superfluous or irrelevant the very notion of an avant-garde?

HR:Actually, I would not give up on this idea completely. I think art is still a vitally important sphere of society because it is the one sphere, perhaps next to religion, that is least dominated by this logic of dynamic stabilization. That means that art is one sphere where we can explore different ways of being in the world and of relating to the world and I think really that this is what art is about, no matter whether we are talking about dance, painting or literature. Exploring and experimenting with different modes of relating to the world, imagining, reconstructing or finding other forms of relating to things and to people, coming up with new ways and possibilities. This is still an important function of an avant-gardist art.

2. Alienation

TL/RC: In the tradition of critical theory, the critique of alienation – from Marx to Rahel Jaeggi – has tended to avoid making substantial claims about human nature or the good life. You seem less hesitant, especially with regard to claims about the good life. How do you think these can be justified under conditions of deep pluralism? And what is their scope, both historically and culturally?

HR:When you look at the history of it, alienation has been a very influential term, even up until the 1970s or 80s when sociologists strived to measure alienation in different contexts and with different methods. After that I think it disappeared in the background for some time, because we didn’t know what a non-alienated way of being in the world would be. Rahel Jaeggi puts it nicely, when she says: “alienation is a relationship of non-relationship”, so it is a wrong form of relating to the world. I think alienation is only a powerful philosophical and sociological term if we keep the sensation, the feeling, that something is wrong here. But if you then completely refuse to think about what would be the right way of relating, then you are kind of lost, and that is why the concept has lost all power. Richard Schacht has also written about it, and he said that in the end alienation was used for everything people disliked. At that point it is not a useful concept anymore, and you might as well give up on it.

What I am trying to do is think about what would be a non-alienated way of relating to people, to things, to yourself, and so on. I try to reconstruct this by looking at the tradition of critical theory. All early critical theorists had a strong sense of alienation; and even if they didn’t always use the exact term, they would have an equivalent like “reification” or “instrumental rationality”. And they all had a kind of counter-sense, of a different way of relating to the world, like “mimesis” in Adorno, or even “aura” in Walter Benjamin’s work. Aura is a very ambivalent concept, but he basically meant that even with things or with nature, or with a landscape, there could be different ways of relating: it is looking back at you, it is speaking to you, it is somehow getting through. The concept of alienation only gains its strength when you really make the effort to think of the opposite.

Now there you have the problem you mention that you have total pluralism in the ways that we relate to the world. That is why I am very confident about the concept of resonance because it describes the nature of a relationship, but it doesn’t describe or prescribe the substance: it leaves open what you relate to.

TL/RC:Is it a formal category?

HR: You could say it is a formal category, although the question of form or substance in this context is actually totally confusing. It’s a kind of Vexierbild; it shifts. I think it is substantive in terms of the quality of the relationship, but it is formal in terms of what is at the end. I am inclined towards a relational ontology, saying that the subject and the world are actually created out of the relationship. So, I can say something about the nature of relationships, and that would be the way to reconcile the idea of resonance as an idea of the good life with ethical and conceptual pluralism or cultural pluralism.

We try to study this at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt. We now have a long-term project, studying Weltbeziehung. This is actually a difficult term to translate into English because I would have to already introduce the subject – subject-world relationships – while I am not sure whether “subject” and “world” are not already secondary terms. Anyway, it is about these relationships in different cultural settings. In my book I say that resonance has three axes: social, material and vertical, and the way they are spread out is different for every culture. For example, in the vertical sphere it will depend on whether there is a god, or if there are many gods, or whether there are Daoist entities or whatever it is. It is the same in the inter-subjective realm: what kinds of relationships are made resonant, to whom and for whom? It is very different in all cultures and it is the same certainly with things. I think all cultures somehow have the idea that certain places or spaces are resonant, or certain entities like the forest, or the sacred stone or whatever it is. But I would even go one step further and say that maybe even those three axes are culturally dependent because to distinguish between the social and the objective, the artifact, and so on, is already perhaps not necessary.

TL/RC: Or between artifacts and spirits?

HR:Yes, exactly. In animistic societies you always find axes of resonance, although they might be ordered very differently. But this is still reconcilable with the idea of resonance. I would have still one question though, and that is that I do not know whether the very idea of resonance requires a closed subject, that is whether the subject and the world maybe have to be somehow closed in order to become resonant bodies. It is the same with physical bodies: if you have a musical instrument, let’s say a violin, it will only make its sound – that is resonate – if it is closed enough to have its own voice. So, it needs to be closed and it needs to be open in order to be affected. It is a very specific form of being closed and open. This is why I am a bit hesitant about whether on some level maybe other cultures cannot so easily be described in terms of resonance, because the relationships between subject and world may sometimes be more porous. This might be one level where maybe we have to adjust the concept in cultural terms, but on a basic level I believe that it is really true that all human beings, wherever they are born, only become an individual, a self or a subject, or however you call it, through processes of resonance.

TL/RC:Of course, your theory is also in that sense meant as a response to, and a theory about, modernity, right? In that sense it already is at least historically located.

HR:Yes, the main emphasis of my whole book was about how did this develop in modernity. What sensibilities for resonance, what axes for resonance and what obstacles, so to speak, emerge in modernity, and what is the modern way of relating to the world? But I did have this assumption that resonance is a kind of pre-modern capacity, so there is an anthropological element there.

TL/RC: To follow up on that, you say that at a certain point humans have a basic need for resonance just as they have a basic need for food. That seems like a strong claim which, if you look at it from a critical theory perspective, might raise some problems with regard to the historical and cultural variability of needs.

HR: Do you not think it is a plausible claim?

TL/RC:It might sound quite plausible, especially in the context of your book, but all the while there has been this debate in critical theory – for instance if you look at feminist scholars like Nancy Fraser, who articulate a critique of need interpretation and ascriptions in a meta-historical or meta-cultural sense. So, either it is a strong claim, or it is a conceptual overstretch or a truism, in which a large range of different activities or relations all fall under the heading of resonance. Then it becomes more a way of constructing a theory.

HR:There are two problems or misconceptions with the concept of resonance generally. The first is to think of resonance as just being harmony, as if I’m saying that it would be great when everything is harmonious or consonant. But I always say that total harmony or total consonance is not resonance at all, because for resonance there have to be different voices. The second is the conceptual overstretch, the idea that all relationships are interpreted as resonance. For example, if I punch you and you punch me back and we say: “well, that’s resonance”. I always emphasize that this is not resonance: resonance is tied to an openness, of wanting to be affected and answering, so it is a very specific form of relationship.

Thus far I am convinced that there is good evidence on all levels that human beings – and maybe this even goes for all mammals – are forced, by everything they are, to develop such relationships. As Merleau-Ponty writes: I start with the sense that something is there, something is present. This is the first element of awareness and you can actually notice this when you wake up from very deep sleep or from being unconscious. Before you know who you are and what the world is you have this sensation that there is something, right? I think it is totally inconceivable for a human being without this sense to develop relationships. So I would say yes, I am fully convinced that this is the basic category.

It is similar to what Axel Honneth writes with regard to recognition: human beings need recognition of some sort. Or what people talk about with regard to the language capacity of human beings. These conceptions have a similar structure to what I want to say about resonance. On a basic level, getting into resonance, developing a sense of who you are and what the world is out of moments, or processes, of resonance, is something everyone is engaged in. People need recognition and they need language, independent of the kind of recognition or the exact language they then speak. The latter is historically dependent.

So, there are two sides to what I want to say. There is an anthropological need or element of resonance, but then the specific form it takes, the specific need and the specific sensibilities you can only explain historically, which is what I try to do in the chapter on modernity, where I try to work out our modern conception of love, for example. I am not claiming that that particular conception is anthropological, not even the relationship to our children, art or nature. Whether you believe that there is a voice of nature, that is not anthropological, but a specification that developed out of this basic anthropological need. Again, I think it is the same as when you think about language; if you reflect upon our language then of course you would have to make a lot of historical qualifications depending on whether you are talking about Swahili or German, but you can still talk about a basic need or capacity for language. I can’t really see why you couldn’t do both, thereby avoiding the two pitfalls that you were rightfully pointing to.

TL/RC:On the one hand, it seems that you try to aim at developing a notion of alienation and resonance that is not reducible to a merely subjective experience. On the other hand, your notion of resonance is still experience-based – e.g. when you claim that alienation is overcome if the subjects in question make the experience that the (natural and social) world resonates with them. However, again from a critical theory perspective, one could imagine that such experiences of resonance are very much part and parcel of the most common forms of alienation. Do you end up having to claim that the neoliberal subjects who, say, really feel resonance when they go to their yoga class or have a break in Bali or go to the wine tasting in their local hipster bar (without having a purely instrumental relation to these activities) know deep inside themselves that this is not true but simulated (and thus alienation-enhancing) resonance. Your idea of simulated resonance is intriguing, but it seems that you then have to refer to objective criteria in order to distinguish actual from merely simulated resonance.

HR:Those are tricky points. On the deepest level, there is really a very difficult question: Is resonance a psychological relation – something I experience – or is it an ontological relation – something that is really going on between us. If it is ontological, then it is somewhere out there; if it is psychological, then I feel if our conversation was resonant or not. I really want to say that it is more than psychological, it is a kind of “in between”. Charles Taylor has something similar in mind in his discussion of romantic philosophy in terms of the “inter space”. You could also think of Bruno Latour’s work. Resonance cannot just be understood along constructivist lines – as if we could construct or project it – it is a kind of “in between”. As for the neoliberal subject and stimulated resonance: the feeling is that there is something wrong with going to Bali or the yoga class, but the question is: what is wrong? Let’s take the example of an ideal neoliberal manager going to the yoga class and to Bali on holiday, about whom I think I can make two points. The first concerns the basic disposition, the disposition towards the world within which you operate and which is not just of your own choosing: in the case of the neoliberal, what he does for a living in the business sphere is characterized by a very instrumental stance towards the world and this is at odds with resonance. Why? Because getting into resonance involves a kind of not knowing when it happens, not knowing what the outcome will be. So, it requires a kind of openness, which is a different disposition from the instrumental, optimizing, efficiency-oriented rationalizing stance which you normally have to take. The basic stance you take towards the world as a neoliberal manager is one of reification and then you seek to counterbalance it through what I call an oasis of resonance, like a yoga class. So, what is wrong with the yoga class? The main problem concerns the difference between resonance and sentimentality. I use the German term Rührung and develop it out of the work of Helmuth Plessner. Another example would be watching Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic, which are very melodramatic. Let’s say I cry at the end and someone asks me: “Oh, that’s what you mean by resonance.” I would respond that this is not exactly what I mean by resonance, this is Rührung, which does not involve encountering some other which really has this also irritating difference, which calls on me to answer. Rührung is just about having a strong sensation within myself and I only instrumentally use this other. It is not encountering an other, to which I then answer. What is also missing here is any sense of self-efficacy, this reaching out to the other and getting into contact with it and thereby being transformed. The vital element of resonance is tied to this encounter in which I experience a transformation of myself, I experience this other, which transforms me. And if I only have an oasis, e.g. if I meditate once in a while, then this feels totally empty, and this is not resonance. I call it an echo-chamber. Probably the same holds for the trip to Bali: It does not really involve getting into contact with something that truly transforms you, it is just for about forgetting the instrumental stance I am forced to take for a limited time.

TL/RC:So, it is also instrumental in that it allows you to momentarily get away from yourself?

HR:Yes, exactly, this is what I call the reification of resonance, the idea that you try to use these moments in order to be more successful, but the thing is that then your basic disposition towards the world, the way that you relate to it, remains instrumental, optimizing, speeding up. In this case you use remnants, or simulations or echo-chambers in order to be even more successful.

3. Resonance

TL/RC:Moving on to the theory of resonance, what struck us also as readers of Benjamin is that in your definition of resonance you speak of an instant, a “momentum”, an Aufblitzen, which could remind one of both the concept of aura and of now-time. Do you indeed consider this experience of resonance as so limited in time, and, if so, why? How do these instances relate to the more durable relations and axes of resonance that you refer to (do they give rise to them, keep them dynamic, undermine them)? And, following up on that, are these “instances” enough to counter (or answer) the problem of acceleration and the alienation that they somehow answer to?

HR:This is a very difficult question as well. In my book I do not really focus on the temporality of resonance, which is maybe surprising given my earlier work. It is true that I write that strong experiences of resonance are only momentary, and that this kind of dynamic cannot be put on a permanent basis. But we are speaking of experiences of resonance – and they are unpredictable. If you look at music, which has been a paradigm case for me, but also at religious experiences or love, I think there is empirical evidence for claiming that people who go to concerts a lot only one out of ten or even hundred times really have a strong experience, but it is strong enough to go back to it, to search for it again and again. So it is a momentary experience but you develop it along axes and axes are more stable, so if music is important to you, you keep going to concerts and you have at least memories, reminisces of resonance, which can permanently reassure your axes of resonance.

Rituals actually play a strong role in creating conditions for resonance. In religion this is very clear but also in rock concerts or in football stadiums there is a very clear ritualistic sense. This is something that we want to explore in Erfurt, in a research group called “Ritual and Resonance”. The idea is that this brings you into a certain disposition. I call these preconditions axes and these axes are developed over time because they also create the experience that resonance might happen and your sense of self-efficacy. The other very important element is the disposition. You can only get into these moments of resonance or relationships of resonance, if your disposition towards the world is resonant: being open to hearing the call, being affected, and you have to have the expectation that you can reach out. What I call self-efficacy is not exactly psychological. It concerns reaching out and making these moments possible, and this position is something that you can actually work on and that is more temporarily extended. So, you have axes of resonance, which are established over time and need a certain form of stability, and you have dispositions of resonance, and both involve long-term stability. In comparison, experiences of resonance are temporary. Still, I think it is wrong to assume that resonance means being completely in the here and now. When you really experience resonance, the temporal horizon rather widens, it extends; it is the co-presence of the past and the future. Once you are in resonance with something it is like the past speaks to you and through you into the future. It is this extending that makes it feel as if time is running through you. This is different from the examples of the Bali vacation and the yoga class as in these cases one just wants to be in the here and now and block out what one did yesterday and what one will do tomorrow – this is not the temporal structure of resonance. In resonance the past and the present are meaningfully reconnected.

TL/RC:You make it very clear that “resonance” isn’t the same as harmony, and you clearly delineate resonance from concepts such as Eigentlichkeit or authenticity. At the same time, the very metaphor of resonance, the usual meaning of the term, might be seen as working against you. After all, something only “resonates” if it is of the same kind, think of musical tones – this could be seen as the fundamental problem of the allegory of the tuning forks you use to clarify your notion of resonance. What space does this leave for truly dissonant voices?

HR:For me at least the greatest insight to get out of the resonance conception is a way to overcome the aporetic dualism between authenticity and identity theories on the one hand, and post-structural difference theories on the other. Resonance is not about authenticity in the sense that I must be true to myself or that it confirms my authenticity, because it involves transformation: it is feeling called upon by something different that transforms me. In that sense it fits difference theories, but I would argue that it is not mere difference, because I have to develop my own voice and answer the call. So, I would say that it is exactly in between those two. There are elements of dissonance, or difference, which cannot be overcome. But I cannot enter into a relation of resonance if, for example, it is a thought, or an experience, that is so different that I cannot relate to it. Of course, there are also those moments of dissonance that are tied to what I call repulsion. In my view there is no negative resonance. There is a very clear distinction, and you can really feel it immediately or reproduce it phenomenologically, between repulsion and resonance.

Take the example of a discussion: if we all agree completely, there is no resonance; if the interlocutor always agrees, there is no resonance at all, it is just a monologue. Resonance is not consonance. With my best friends I always argue all the time about everything; it involves hearing a voice that says something different and that makes me answer, a process whereby we both shift and transform into something else. The situation might turn if you say, for example, “You are just a racist idiot” – then closure occurs and I no longer want to be affected. That is a different stance towards the world and I want to conceptually distinguish these two elements: one is repulsion and the other is resonance. Resonance is not agreement; resonance is in between consonance and dissonance. Of course, there are moments of dissonance which are repulsion and that are not resonance at all, but in the hermeneutical tradition there is this thought – maybe first articulated by Gadamer, but you find it in Taylor as well – that an adequate answer to the claim “I don’t understand” could be “then change yourself in order to understand it”. Resonance is natural realization of this thought. It’s not so much “I have to change myself” but rather “let yourself be transformed by the other” by getting in touch with it. The more you already are in a resonant relationship with the world, the more your capacity widens to really get into contact with difference. Difference can become more different and it can increase if you have the expectation of entering into a resonant relationship, then you find it interesting to encounter a Muslim or a Buddhist or whatever it is. But if you have the feeling- and I read this in the political situation- if you feel non-resonantly connected to the world, if you feel alienated then your stance is “I do not want these Muslims here”, then you are closed to difference. I really think the political problem here might be tied to a lack of self-efficacy.

TL/RC:Doesn’t ideology also often work through resonance? Creating a group identity or a community can also be a way of creating resonance. So of course when you are afraid of the world, you might say “I do not want Muslims in my neighborhood” but it might also be that you have a tight community, e.g. in a small village, and when someone enters you cannot form this resonant relationship because of the kind of community you are in.

HR:Empirically this seems wrong to me. There is research that indicated that anti-immigration feelings are not strongest in tight knit, old communities like peasant villages, but in the commuter neighborhoods of the suburbs of big cities where people do not know each other, where they do not have a community- that is exactly the point where they might feel that they don’t have a voice or collective self-efficacy and therefore they turn against strangers. If you have a well-functioning community, then taking in strangers is a rather welcome opportunity. If you have the fear of losing the community that means you have the fear of losing your own voice. In such a situation you cannot answer, then you are overwhelmed and you feel that you have to give in to the foreigners. That is exactly the anxiety that fuels anti-immigration feelings all over the world.

If you feel you have a strong community, a vibrant life, then you are not so concerned that you have to give in. Of course, there might be a point at which you lose your own voice, but this is far from the situation we’re in. If you have the experience of a resonant community then it is not a problem to take in foreigners.

As for ideology, in my view political ideologies are only successful if they find an axis of resonance- they have to touch on this somehow. But of course, ideologies very soon become a kind of echo-chamber. Most ideologies live on resentment and resentment is the opposite of resonance. You even see this in the gestures, in the faces, you hear it in the voices: the whole attitude is repulsive towards the world. Therefore, I think that we can distinguish between a resonant attitude and an ideology which is not resonance, which is a kind of echo-chamber based on resentment.

TL/RC:You also describe resonance as a kind of emotive response. When discussing recognition you point out that resonance is closer to Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence, a kind of collective ecstasy in which members of the collective undergo a process of fusion which is largely beyond their cognitive and deliberative capacities and you also invoke Weber’s notion of charisma – turning to the politics of resonance, this does sound very familiar with regard to current right-wing populism and rather scary: How do you avoid the slide into an anti-rationalist collectivist politics which leaves little room for dissenting voices? Can the desire for resonance that you ascribe to citizens – including to the infamous Wutbürger – really be an emancipatory energy?

HR:This question has many layers. To start with, I think that in the case of the Wutbürger there is a lack of resonance. The desire for resonance creates the Wutbürger and even right-wing populist movements. They feel that they are not heard and not seen: they are not resonantly connected with politics. That is why they say all the time that the politicians do not hear them, they do not speak to them or for them. This is a form of political alienation. Right-wing populists give the promise of resonance: “We hear you, we see you, we give you a voice.” This is the case with Brexit, Trump, the AfD in Germany. But there is a double fallacy of right-wing populism. The first fallacy is to say that alienation is created by immigrants. If you look at East Germany or Eastern Europe, for example, there are hardly any immigrants. To believe that your deep sentiment of alienation is caused by a tiny minority of Muslims is totally idiotic, it is not a rational explanation. The second fallacy is even worse and consists in the promise of a “resonance” that is not resonance, but fusion.

I like Erich Fromm’s theory because he saw that alienation is the deepest fear of modern individuals. There are two ways to overcome it. One is through fusion: I want to overcome my isolation and fuse with all the others who are like myself and that is what right-wing populism really promises. The idea is exactly the opposite of getting in touch with the other or some other. Right-wing populism lives off this idea of being against: Those who support it do not want to hear anyone else except for themselves and this is normally just one voice – the leader. This is an ideology of complete harmony, which is not resonance at all. It is a total echo-chamber based on repulsion. Jan-Werner Müller gets this right with his idea that the populists claim “we are the people and no one else.” “Whoever is not of our opinion, is not the people.” This is so blatantly non-resonant that I don’t think it makes any sense to claim that right-wing populists create resonance.

Resonance is a multilayered phenomenon and I insist that it is not just cognitive. In contrast to Habermas’s and Forst’s emphasis on reasons, and in line with William Connolly, there is a visceral and almost bodily quality to politics. So, resonance is something that is always embodied, it is emotional but it is not dissolved from the cognitive element. Resonant relationships therefore also create resonance between rationality and emotivity and the embodied side. So there has to be some kind of rational control, and what I tried to develop in the book is that you can only be in resonance with something that is connected to a strong evaluation: something which you are convinced is truly important to even relate to, and therefore there is of course a kind of rational check. You cannot get into resonance with something you cannot rationally explain at least as potentially valuable.

TL/RC:To conclude, here are two more questions on art. First, you already mentioned the notion of “oases of resonance”, amidst an accelerating world, and in the book you also suggest that art might be a possible example. Would the early critical theorists agree? Think of Marcuse’s notion of the “affirmative character of culture”, which allows you to temporarily turn away from bourgeois society but therefore also affirms it and conditions it in a way, or of Adorno’s rejection of art as Sonntagsvergnügen. Should art offer an “oasis” and thereby affirm the existing order or should it not offer an “oasis” at all?

HR:This is a very interesting question. At least I have the intuition that I do not share Adorno’s opinion here; as I said there are moments of art that are more like Plessner’s Rührung, the sentimentality that I described above. It allows us to feel good for a moment. But I also think there is art that is neither “high” nor “low” culture and which is not about having fun or being entertained – I think of my heroes Pink Floyd – but where “something is going on” or “something comes across”. If it is only about having fun then it is like Plessner’s sentimentality… like the Hollywood blockbuster after which I want to cry, or feel good or sad. This is not about resonance. Art should insist on the transformative element of resonance. You see it even in rock music, where a lot of people say that after listening to a record or going to a concert they have become a different person. Of course, this is only a rhetorical way of speaking but there is some moment of truth here which points to the transformative effect that art needs to preserve. If it becomes only an “oasis” like the Hollywood blockbuster then we are lost.

If you really resonate with something then the result is unpredictable. It is not that you are better off on Monday. So even though you might go to the museum on Sunday, just as in in order to counterbalance the alienating experiences you have in the rest of the week, there might be this one moment, this experience of touching that has a kind of excess meaning, which gives you a sense of a different way of relating to the world. If you don’t have such experiences that reinvigorate your sense of the possibility of a different way of relating to the world, then you’re really in a difficult situation.

In the book I claim that even on the everyday shop floor level work is an axis of resonance. People love to work and they feel self-efficacy in their work. Even in the industrial factory workers say they have a sense of doing good work or making things well, and then they feel the counter pressures of being fast, efficient, and cheap. It is exactly in this resonant experience of work that you develop a counterforce, even a bodily felt resistance. My colleagues in industrial sociology are really struck by this, that people on the factory level say that the problem is that they are not allowed to do their work properly, to do good work. Even under alienating conditions there is therefore this moment of resonance in art as well as in work.

TL/RC:You write that much art is an expression of alienation, and the Winterreise is one of the best examples you give for this. On the other hand, isn’t this a somehow limited (romantic or early modernist) notion of art? How about conceptual art, pop-art, etc.? Is it necessarily the goal and/or responsibility of art to offer us “resonant” experiences? Aesthetically it seems a bit dubious to claim, as you do in the book, that atonal music, abstract art and fragmented literary narrative show how art can lose its force – how is that more than an expression of your own aesthetic preference? So in line with that, how does the concept of resonance here relate to other aesthetic concepts, such as the sublime, shock, the abject, and the like, because those can also be very strong aesthetic experiences, right? Perhaps an aesthetic experience doesn’t need to be resonant.

HR:I disagree. I would say that the experiences of the sublime or shock moments are moments of resonance because you encounter something that is irreducible. Strong evaluation can arise out of the experience – there is something, even in the experience of shock, that gets through to me and even I don’t understand it, it is a voice speaking that might have something to say. Someone will have to convince me that in some contemporary art, like atonal music, there is still this element of experience. Overall, my reflections on art and aesthetic experience focus on the receptive side: how do we experience these works of art? In the moment of strong evaluation we do not just say that an artwork is innovative, or original, but that there is something there that is truly important in itself and that speaks to us. I have the feeling that this sense is lost in many forms of contemporary art.


This interview was previously published in the book The Future of the New. Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration (ed. Thijs Lijster) and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher, Valiz Amsterdam.

The Future of the New: An Interview with Boris Groys


‘New!’ ‘Improved recipe!’ ‘Now better than ever!’ This much is clear: if you want to sell something, you have to emphasize its novelty. The driving force of history is innovation, constant progress and improvement. That is at least what we are made to believe; the dominant ideology of our times. This ideology was once most forcefully voiced and promoted by nineteenth-century artists and art theorists. Make it new! said Ezra Pound. Il faut etre absolument moderne, said Arthur Rimbaud. ‘And plunge to depths of Heaven or Hell, / To fathom the Unknown and find the new!’ said Charles Baudelaire. After God, morality and even beauty had ceased to function as credible criteria for evaluating the arts, all that remained were novelty and originality. The shock of the new, as Australian art critic Robert Hughes later called it, became the primary characteristic of modern art, the first as well as the final criterion for its valuation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, theorists of the postmodern argued that this final criterion now too failed us. In his essay ‘The Sublime and the Avant-garde’ (1984) Jean Francois Lyotard scorned ‘the cheap thrill, the profitable pathos, that accompanies an innovation’ (106), Fredric Jameson in his seminal essay ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ (1983) argued that ‘the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds’ (7), and American art critic Rosalind Krauss published a book titled The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (1986). In his essay ‘Comrades of Time’ (2009) Boris Groys writes:

The present as such was mostly seen in the context of modernity as something negative, as something that should be overcome in the name of the future […] Today, we are stuck in the present as it reproduces itself without leading to any future. […] One can say that we now live in a time of indecision, of delay—a boring time.

This boredom characterizes contemporary art, in Groys’ view. The contemporary artist for him is like Sisyphus, who in the same repetitive and senseless act has to keep rolling the boulder up the mountain. The modernist artist was facing the glorious horizon of the future, but the contemporary artist swims in a sea of contemplation and confusion. For Groys this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise questions on the nature and function of ‘artistic innovation’ today.

These were questions that he already dealt with in his book Über das Neue (On the new), which was published 25 years ago in 1992, in the context of aforementioned debates on art and theory.[1] According to Groys, something peculiar was happening with regard to the new: on the one hand, and in line with the theorists mentioned above, no one ‘believed’ in the new any longer; but on the other hand, everyone still expected to see or hear something new, upon entering the museum, going to concerts or theatre plays, or when reading novels, poems, philosophical books etc. For Groys, this meant that we had to start looking for a new understanding of the new.

In order to do that, Groys first stripped the new from its – mostly modernist – connotations of concepts such as utopia, historical progress, creativity and authenticity. Referring back to Nietzsche, he defines innovation instead as the revaluation of values:

Innovation does not consist in the emergence of something previously hidden, but in the fact that the value of something always already seen and known is re-valued. The revaluation of values is the general form of innovation: here the true or the refined that is regarded as valuable is devalorized, while that which was formerly considered profane, alien, primitive, or vulgar, and therefore valueless, is valorized. (10)

The exemplary work of art, to which Groys would return again and again throughout his oeuvre, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). What Duchamp did, after all, was not to invent something that was not there before, but to place something from the domain of the profane in the domain of the sacred. In retrospect, argues Groys, this was what art and artists have always done. Duchamp, by stripping the act of artistic transformation down to almost nothing, shows us what innovation comes down to: cultural revaluation.

For Groys this meant that the answer to the question of innovation was to be found in a specific place: the collection or archive. To collect something, whether it concerns the library, the collection of immortal souls, or the museum of modern art, means to grant it importance, that is, to sanctify it. Hence, Über das Neue can be considered as the starting point of Groys’ reflections on the function and status of the museum in our contemporary society, which he later developed in books such as Logik der Sammlung (1997) and Topologie der Kunst (2003). As the subtitle of Logik der Sammlung makes clear – Am Ende des musealen Zeitalter, ‘at the end of the museum age’ – Groys was already well aware of the waning influence and importance of the traditional museum, in the face not only of societal developments such as the suspicion of a supposedly elitist culture and the increasing power of private collectors, but also of artistic movements, which in several waves of so called ‘institutional critique’ tried to break out of, or emancipate themselves from, the museum. Still, as Groys emphasizes again in the interview below, without the museum, there can be no innovation.

Groys distinguishes the new from modernist ‘myths’ of historical progress and utopia, but also from contemporary myths such as creativity and the ‘Other’. With regard to the latter, he has always been critical towards the idea of the art world having to be a ‘reflection’ of society. In Art Power (2008), for instance, he writes:

When art relinquishes its autonomous ability to artificially produce its own differences, it also loses the ability to subject society, as it is, to a radical critique. All that remains for art is to illustrate a critique that society has already leveled at or manufactured for itself. To demand that art be practiced in the name of existing social differences is actually to demand the affirmation of the existing structure of society in the guise of social critique (113).

However, this does not mean, for Groys, that art is apolitical. On the contrary, as he argues below, the revaluation of values which is the general form of innovation, i.e. to value something that was not valued before, or to devalue something that was valued, is the political act per se. Scenes from everyday life, the dream, rituals, household equipment, advertisement and popular culture – all these things were considered too base or banal for art, but were included in the cultural realm by innovative artists, in much the same way as voices that are not heard in the political realm strive to be heard, and as entities that were not previously represented in politics and law gained rights.[2]

Born in East Berlin in 1947, Groys began his academic career in Leningrad and Moscow, where he was also active in the unofficial art scene. In 1981 he moved to West Germany where he later received his PhD at the University of Münster. Today he is Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, and travels around the globe as a lecturer and curator at art institutes, biennials, conferences, etc. His experiences of both sides of the Iron Curtain proved to be crucial for his thinking, which is always thought-provoking, sometimes puzzling, and which occasionally leads to controversial or even questionable statements. He has a way of thinking through a certain statement up to its most extreme and seemingly bizarre consequences, such as in Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (1988) in which he argues that Stalin completed the utopian project of Russian avant-garde artists like Malevich or Mayakovsky, and even understood it better than they themselves did; or in Das kommunistische Postskriptum (2006), where he argued that the Soviet Union was the realization of the linguistic turn in the political realm.

Another aspect of his work and style that makes him both a fascinating and provocative thinker is his apparent nihilism. In this interview as well as in any of his other writings, he resolutely refuses to be nostalgic or moralistic. He registers the differences between, and historical developments of, the modern and the postmodern, between the East and the West, or between the museum and the supermarket, but he nowhere speaks of decline. Rather than passing value-judgments, Groys seems to be more interested in analyzing what has actually changed, and how this change allows or forces us to reframe our concepts and practices.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Über das Neue, as well as, as it happens, that of the 100th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Krisis asked Groys to reflect on the legacy of this book, on the contemporary meaning of notions such as creativity, originality and novelty, and on the future of the new.

I. On the New, 25 years ago

Thijs Lijster: Could you tell something about the time in which the book was written? What was the situation in the art world, and why did you think it was important to write a book on the category of the new back then?

Boris Groys: That was the time of postmodern discourses: everywhere everybody was speaking about the impossibility of the new. That was a core belief of the postmodern mind-frame. At the same time, it was quite clear to me – I was teaching at the university and I was also, as a curator, participating in artistic activities – the factual criteria of the new were still valid. For example, imagine someone who has to write a doctoral thesis, saying: I don’t say anything new, because we live in postmodern times and the new is impossible, so let me only repeat what was said before. It would not be possible for him to make his doctorate. So, to make the doctorate, he would have to prove that he said something new. It was the same in the case of selection of artworks at an exhibition, especially contemporary overviews of the state of the art world. Here again, the first question was still: is the art work a new phenomenon, did this artist do something new or not?

So, there was a kind of duplicity in culture that I experienced at that point: on a theoretical level, everybody said that the new was impossible, but in cultural practice this requirement of the new was still valid. The goal of the book Über das Neue was to try to reconstruct and to describe the hidden, implicit presuppositions of this requirement. So: what does it mean to require something new after the new became impossible? What is the context in which the new is still possible? My book was an attempt to reconstruct the theoretical, and in a certain way also pragmatic, presuppositions of the new, against the background of this cultural duplicity.

TL: In order to do that, you rid the concept of the new from all kinds of ideological connotations, like ‘utopia’ and ‘progress’. You start out by giving a series of negative definitions of the new: “The New is not just the Other”, “The New is not utopian”, “The New is not a product of human freedom”, etc. Could one say you try to ‘rescue’ the category of the new, by detaching it from all these other categories?

BG: I wouldn’t say I tried to rescue it, and I wouldn’t say I tried to negate all the other concepts. I merely responded to the situation I just described. I saw that all these connections, between the new and progress, utopia and so on, became obsolete, if we would take the postmodern discourse seriously. All the while, the new hadn’t become obsolete; it remained operative in our culture. So, it’s not like I tried to do something – to disengage the new from all these associations, it is what happened in culture. That was the situation. I was not the author of this situation; I just tried to phenomenologically describe it.

TL: The new was, as you said, separated from utopia and progress, and with that also from its temporal dimension. You write: “The new stands in opposition to the future as much as to the past” (2014, 41). Innovation, in your view, is what happens when an object is transferred from everyday life into cultural tradition. Still, is it possible to detach the new from its temporal dimension? After all, isn’t the new what happens after the old?

BG: Again, I didn’t detach it; it was detached de facto. So, I asked myself: What is the function of the new in this context? It became clear to me that the new, in the context of art, is related to what is already in our archives. Our culture is structured in the following way: we have the archives, and the world outside of the archives. The archives exist in the here and now, and the world outside of the archives also exists now, it is not the world of the future or the past; both worlds – that of the archives and the outside world – are contemporary to each other and to our own experience.

But what is their relation? My idea was that it is in the intersection between these two worlds that the new emerges. If I write a doctorate and I want to show that the doctorate is new I do not compare what I said to all possible opinions in the world I’m living in, because it can happen that some of these opinions actually are part of my world. I begin to compare this text, my own text, with the archives, with what is already accepted as valid in a certain discipline. So, I take some opinions or knowledge – my own opinions and those of my friends – from outside of the archives, compare them to what is already in the archives and precisely if some of these opinions are not in the archives I present them as new. The artist does the same. That is something already described very well by Baudelaire, in his famous essay on ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. Baudelaire speaks about an artist who looks at the classical ideal of beauty and at the same time at what happens around him, and then what he tries to do is to combine them. The same can be said about the avant-garde. The avant-garde never ever indicated any future. If we look at the avant-garde writings, their programs and manifestoes, they tell you all the same: we have the museums, filled with ancient Apollos and so on, and outside of the museums and around us we have tanks, trains, airplanes, explosions and killings, industrial machines, and mathematics and geometry. Some kind of new order; these things are not precisely the things of the future, they are already around.

TL: All they did was implement them into the cultural realm?

BG: Precisely. That’s it, and only that. The avant-garde never went an inch into the future. The avant-garde always only wanted to transport and transpose certain experiences that the people in their contemporary life had into the museum space, into the space of the cultural archives. And the power of the avant-garde was precisely its ability to cross this border and to bring the lived experience into the cultural space. It was not concerned with some idle projection of the future, or some senseless utopia, but with the lived experience of everyday life in an industrial civilisation. It is the same with Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and so on. Duchamp doesn’t invent anything. He takes a urinal and places it in the museum. Now imagine that you bring to the museum another urinal, and say: this is a different one, because it has a different form. No museum would take it, because they would say: it is irrelevant, because it is not new enough. What does that mean, not new enough? It means that it might be different in form, but does not engage in the difference between art and life, between the cultural and the profane realm, between the archives and everyday existence. So, I would say that the notion of the new, and the effect of the new, is something that has its place on the border of the cultural archive and contemporary life.

TL: If the new is detached from the aforementioned categories like utopia, progress and human freedom, doesn’t that also imply a depoliticization of the new? In Über das Neue, also in Logik der Sammlung, you point to the many failed liaisons between artistic and political avant-gardes. However, if the idea of innovation is detached from the idea of a better world, what is then still the value of the new? 

BG: First of all, I consider my own theory of the new as a total politicization of the new. The decision to take something from everyday life or everyday experience and to put it into the archive is an eminently political decision. In a certain way, it is the actual political decision. It’s what Kierkegaard said with regard to Jesus Christ: believing he was not just a normal man but the son of God is simply a decision. To ascribe value to something that up till then had no value, to put it in a valuable context, is the Urform of political decision-making. Actual politics functions according to the same pattern. For example: up to a certain point in history the workers had no value in the system of representation. It takes a political decision to change this value, after which they are represented.

In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, Breton asks: What is an authentic surrealist artwork? And he answers: to go into the crowd with a revolver and randomly shooting into it. So, you take this action, a terrorist deed, and put it into another context, the context of art. In the same way, Marinetti speaks of the metallization of the human body, the wonderful effect of exploding African villages, and so on. If you look at those examples, you see immediately that what I describe is eminently political. Utopias are not by nature political, they are literary fictions. Whether they have any political value has to be decided politically. In other words: utopias are not a source of politics, but an object of politics. I have to make the decision, and this decision cannot be delegated to any theory or any utopian vision. That means that the value of my political decision cannot be deduced from utopia itself.

TL: The politics of the new, then, is that in the same way as people that were not politically represented get a vote and get representation, something that was outside of the cultural realm gets inserted.

BG: Yes. And with regard to politics, not only people, but maybe even lions or plants. There has emerged a new ecological consciousness that believes that also certain animals or plants should be represented in our culture, which means they should be protected. The question what should be represented is the crucial question of our society, because our society knows only two modes of relating to things and people: to let them perish, or to protect them. That is the basic political decision. If you decide to include something into the system of representation, this means that you are interested in how this thing – object, human being, animal or whatever – will be translated into the future. The museum, the archive in general, is a futurist institution, because it keeps things for the future. Futurism was never about the future, innovation is not about the future, but it relates to the future in so far as it gives us a promise of protection and preservation.

TL: So what is new now will be included in the collection and preserved for the future.

BG: Yes, precisely. Being included, it will not be discarded. That is the promise on which our culture is based. This basis is so fundamental that it is often neglected. For example, Nietzsche said: my writings will only be understood after three hundred years. It meant that he firmly believed that mankind, without actually understanding his writings, would be reproducing them, putting them in libraries, distributing them, for three hundred years. If you want to speak about utopia, this is a true utopia. There is an almost automatic and unconscious reliance on the institutions of protection in our culture. People writing books, producing art works, have an instinctive trust in the possibility of their survival. This faith is precisely what gives the basic energy to the effort to make something new, so that it would be safeguarded, protected, translated into the future. And that is precisely what I was and still am interested in.

II. The new, then and now

TL: What, in your view, is the main difference between the situation in the art world 25 years ago and now?

BG: The main differences have to do with the emergence of the Internet, as an electronic archive. These differences manifest themselves in the two following ways. First, if you think of the traditional role of the writer, philosopher and artist, it was precisely to mediate between the archive and everyday life, that is, to provide artistic (or theoretical) expression and representation of everyday life. But the Internet gives to everybody the immediate possibility to present oneself on the global stage – everybody makes selfies, videos, writes blogs, and so on. We no longer have a mass culture of consumers – the situation that was described by Adorno – but a situation of mass cultural production, where everybody is an artist, everybody is a writer, and a philosopher. We no longer need mediators, so we no longer need writers, philosophers, or artists.

The second difference, however, is that the Internet still does not produce the stability, security and protection that the traditional archives had. We often think this is an institutional question, or a technological one, but in fact it is an economic one. Internet platforms are privately driven, so they have to make profit. And that means that on the Internet there is no place for the museum, or an archive in any form. I’m quite sceptical about whether this will change. Basically, today, if you want to have an archive on the Internet, it should be based on already existing archives. Only institutions like the MoMA and Tate can establish something like an Internet archive, partially also because they are able to pay for this. In the EU, if you want to establish an Internet archive, you get a guarantee of protection of maximum 30 years. So it will cost a lot of money, and there is still a lot of insecurity.

What does it mean if you take these two points together? It means that in the contemporary global framework, you have total representation, but from a future perspective, it is all garbage. What is interesting is that the Silicon Valley people know this very well; they all create secret museums, libraries, documentation centres, etc. but these are not traditional archives in the sense I describe in my book, since they are not publicly supported and accessible for the public. There have been many attempts to create electronic archives, but de facto none of these attempts were really successful, precisely because of the general structure of the Internet and its relations of property.

It is the classical Marxist situation of collective use and private property. That analysis, if there is any place to use it, very much applies here. Everybody uses these Internet platforms, but they belong to only a few companies. There is a tension between the interests of the users and the interests of the companies, but this tension is hidden and not thematized, because people believe that the Internet is a means of communication. If we would start to think the Internet as a means of archiving, then this tension would be obvious. It is possible, however, that people would give up the archive in general, that people will be only interested in communication and no longer in archiving. That would mean indeed that they would not be interested in the future, and then the role of the archives would be decreasing. Partially we already are in this situation: the museums are poor; they cannot compete with private collections. Private collections are based partially on the current situation in the art world, but being private they are based very much on the collector’s taste, which cannot be collectivized. These private collections do not of course constitute the framework for protection that I was describing. The same can be said about libraries and so on. We more and more experience them as too expensive, taking up too much space.

It seems to me that today we are in a period of transition. On the one hand, the structures I described in my book – in academia, in museums, in the art world – are still existing and function in the same way. Parallel to that we have Instagram, virtual reality, viral videos, and so on. I don’t say we have to make a choice; I only want to say that there is a factor of uncertainty and a lack of clarity about their relationship, and I think that is a factor that emerged only after the book was written.

TL: You say that people are no longer interested in the archival function, but at the same time there is a lot of anxiety about the preservation of tradition, in the shape of ‘cultural heritage’ and so forth. In Über das Neue you write: “[T]he new ceases to represent a danger and becomes a positive demand only after the identity of tradition has been preserved” (2014, 21). Might one say that the contemporary anxiety emerges from a lack of historical orientation? In other words: since we cannot make sense of the present, or determine our direction for the future, we do not know what is historically meaningful and meaningless. And what would this mean for the category of the new?

BG: Indeed, we can no longer rely on the tradition. And again, I think this is related to digital media: we are confronted with everything at the same time, and everyone globalized him or herself. At the same time, we’re not sure what the archive still means under this new condition. But as long as there are archives, it makes no difference for the category of the new. There would only be a difference if the archives would dissolve completely. If that happens, then we no longer have the new, but then we also no longer have philosophy, literature, and art. Probably we’ll still have politics, but I’m not sure about it. All these phenomena relate to the archives, so if the archives dissolve, then all the other things dissolve as well.

TL: Is that a real threat?

BG: Maybe it is a threat, maybe a relief. I think a lot of people would see it as liberation. It is difficult to say. I think it is a mixture between threat and liberation, in the same way that every utopia is also a dystopia. But I think the fact is that many people welcome this development; that the feeling of liberation prevails, the feeling of being liberated from the archive, but also from literature, art and philosophy.

In a sense it would be another step in the history of secularization. European culture has a complex relation to its religious heritage. You still have the names of the saints, ideals of sovereignty and creativity, and an institutional long-term memory, which all together show that it is really a secularized version of a feudal or religious order. In one of my early texts, written at the same time as Über das Neue, I wrote that I would not be surprised if after a new revolution curators would be hanged on lampposts in the same way the French aristocracy was, because they incorporate the same feudal order. It is possible that we go through a new wave of liberation, which started in the 1960s, found its medium in the Internet, and now rids itself of the final traces of the feudal order.

TL: And would this also mean the end of the new?

BG: Yes. The problem is that the new itself, in European culture, has of course its origin in the New Testament. So what is the new? The New Testament is new in relation to the Old Testament. If you don’t have the Old Testament, you can’t have a New Testament. That’s only logic. Now, if we have an anti-testamentarian movement, as we have now, almost already full-fledged, then it is all over. There is no old, no new, there’s no culture. And I tell you: people experience that as liberation. I see that a young generation is very happy about it. And I’m not against it.

TL: In your book, you discuss the issue of representation, and also the struggle of minorities or socially oppressed groups that want to be represented in the collection or archive. This seems to be a highly topical issue (not only with regard to the museum, but for instance also with regard to popular culture, e.g. Hollywood that is considered to be too masculine, too white, etc.). However, you are quite sceptical of the way this debate is usually framed. You write: “Even if an artist or theoretician utilizes things and signs of the social class from which she comes, she has always already detached herself from this class and acquired a capacity for observing it from without.” (2014, 169). But isn’t it also the question from which direction the innovation is supposed to come? In other words: whether it is from the perspective of the collection that something appears as new (as you argued in your book), or that something from the outside demands access to the collection? In the latter case, you might say that claims to just representation or, in Honneth’s terms, cultural recognition, are in fact highly important.

BG: They are relevant. But first of all: if there is a pressure from the outside, a struggle to enter the collection, this struggle is almost always successful. Why is that? It is always successful because, as I try to show, it corresponds to a certain kind of inner logic of the collection itself. It wants to expand. When the collections are confronted with something they overlooked they are eager to absorb it.

However, as I tried to discuss in Über das Neue, the question of minority representation involves two problems. In my view, this whole issue has an American background. When I went to America some years ago, it was an interesting discovery for me that I had to fill in ‘race’ in many forms. I suddenly belonged to the cultural majority, because I am a white male. There are 1.5 million Russians living only in New York City, many don’t speak English, but they are supposed to belong to the majority culture of the US. So first of all, the problem is: what counts as a minority and what is the majority? These categories are always problematic.

The second problem is that the individual artist, writer or philosopher never really represents his or her culture of origin. Could we say that Baudelaire is typical French, that Huysmans is, or who is typical German or Dutch? After all, these artists represent only themselves. The idea that they represent a bigger group is, I would say, a very American idea.

TL: But even if you say that the individual artist doesn’t represent a group, you still might say that the museum represents a certain western white male culture, rather than other cultures, which are present geographically speaking but aren’t represented in the museum’s collection.

BG: I agree with that. We have a complicated structure of protest and domestication. To become a famous French poet you first have to hate everything French, to break with the tradition. Like Rimbaud who said: I want to become black, I hate France; or Breton who said: when I see a French flag I vomit, and so on. If you are really and typical French, you will never get into a French museum, and you will never be a French poet of genius, because you will be average French. You will have to break all the rules, hate France, committing some crimes is always helpful – think of Genet – and only then you get the status of being a great French artist.

The problem with the contemporary struggles is that people want to get access to the collection, but without putting into question yourself and your own tradition. You are not obliged or expected to make this detour, not obliged to become other to yourself, which is, actually, the meaning of the word ‘other’. As French philosophy crossed the Atlantic it changed in many ways, but the crucial change was in the word ‘other’. In the French tradition, the ‘other’ is either God, or the subconscious, but in any case, it is something living in you that is not you, that can possess you, destroy you, take over. You are struggling against it, put it under control or otherwise it controls you. It is an old story, and eventually leads to Bataille, Foucault and Derrida, for whom the other is writing: it is not you who write, but something in you and through you. But then, after this French philosophy crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the ‘other’ become simply: the other guy. People think they are already the other, because they are the other guy. This secularization or banalization of otherness is actually what constitutes the major part of contemporary discourse.

I don’t say it’s a wrong development, because secularization is at the core of our modern consciousness. I just wanted to point out that, in relation to the concept of the new, something changed. My relation to my identity changed. Instead of trying to destroy my identity, becoming other to myself and in this way gain access to the cultural tradition (as was always the case), now I simply reassert my identity and raise a claim to be accepted to the cultural archives, without any kind of suffering or inner struggle.

TL: Today, even more than when you wrote the book, innovation seems to be applauded throughout society, especially with regard to economic production. Think of Richard Florida’s praise of the creative class and the creative city, everyone has to be creative, think outside the box, every product has to be innovative, etc. How do you regard this imperative of creativity in the sphere of economic production?

BG: I think creativity is nonsense, total nonsense. The notion of creativity is a Christian notion per se, it is a residue of religion. I think that, if you are not a Catholic, and all these people probably are, you cannot believe in creativity. Mankind cannot be creative. It’s the worst form of religious naivety. The only form of human productivity is combining, putting things together. The Internet was modelled after an elementary Turing machine, and that was actually a full description of what a human mind can do. After all it is just copy and paste. We cannot do anything ontologically new; that is the principle of human activity. So creativity is divine privilege.

TL: You argue in your book that it is impossible to distinguish authentic from inauthentic newness. But don’t you think that newness/novelty means something different, or is used in a different way, in different spheres? For instance, the new iPhone that one needs to have every couple of years; is it the same kind of newness as an innovation in the art world?

BG: A new iPhone is not an innovation. It is repetition. The structural condition of innovation is the archive. We have two models in our civilization: the supermarket, and the museum. What is the difference? One model, the museum, allows for innovation, because it keeps all the old productions, and so you can compare the old with the new. If I introduce a new product in the supermarket, it is simply part of the offer. You don’t see what is not offered. Assyrian Gods, for instance, are not offered in the supermarket. What is not produced here and now is removed from the supermarket, and so we can’t see it. And because you can’t see it, you can’t compare it, and because you can’t compare it, you are in the same situation as you were before. Maybe you can remember what was in the supermarket two months ago, if you have a good memory, but not for very much longer. So if you are not in the archive but in the real world, there is no real change, because every moment is like the other moment. As long as you don’t think teleologically – so if you don’t think there is an origin, and don’t believe there is an end – you cannot differentiate between one moment and another, since you cannot determine their distance from the beginning or the end. If you believe in the second coming of Christ, you can calculate the distance of a particular moment from the first and the second coming, but if there is no such promise, whatever it is, then it is like if you’re running on a treadmill: you are running, but you remain in the same place.

When I came to America, there was the Obama campaign, with the posters “Change”, and “Yes we can”. I always told my students: changing is the only thing we can. There is change today, and change tomorrow. The only real change would be a change from change to no change – that is utopia.

TL: But social institutions can change. Replacing the feudal order with a democratic system is an actual change, isn’t it?

BG: Yes, that was a historical change. But after that, and if there is no longer a hierarchy, then you don’t have any change. The problem of our social institutions today is rather that they change all the time. You can never find the same person in the same place. I don’t think democracy has anything to do with it. What happened is that ever since the industrial revolution, there is constant technological development, and we as humans tried to accommodate to changing situations. Every day, all our effort is concentrated on how to survive this day under different conditions. I cannot send e-mails because my mail program is obsolete; I can’t install a new program, because my computer is obsolete; I cannot buy a new one, because I don’t have Internet connection, etc. I spend day after day just trying to accommodate to these changes. Today we are witnessing the disappearance of the division of labour: you have to do everything yourself on the Internet, become your own doctor, taxi driver, and so on. What our civilization is about is basically the sheer material survival of mankind.

The protection of human beings is very closely related to the protection of artworks. Actually, the museum was installed at the same time and by the same people who thought of human rights. Human rights are actually the rights of the artwork: there is this body that has to be protected, and so you cannot use it, you cannot mistreat it, etc. All you can do is look at it, and speak about it. And that is precisely what is established in the museum: you look at art, you speak about it, but you cannot use it. Human rights are basically art rights.

Now it seems to me that human beings are more and more left to themselves. We feel like Mowgli, or Tarzan, so that we have to look for ourselves what is dangerous, how we can improve our chances, and so on. Children are raised this way, with a very cautious and frightened attitude. If I remember my own young years, I was absolutely not frightened, but today my own students are scared to death. They have the feeling that if they lose, they’ll simply perish; it is sheer fear for survival. They no longer believe in the social conditions for survival. It is an interesting period in human history. But there’s no place to think of innovation, only of survival.

III. Innovation and acceleration

TL: A more recent plea for societal innovation and progress has been accelerationism, as explained in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ much-discussed #Accelerate Manifesto from 2013. They argue that capitalism has become a source of stasis rather than of innovation. Rather than working against the accelerating powers of capitalism – as in the different slow-movements, or romanticizing localism and authenticity – we should speed up even further, so as to let capitalism crash against its own limits and go beyond it. How do you consider this proposal, or how in general would you describe the relationship between acceleration and innovation?

BG: There is no acceleration, there is just more pressure. Moreover, you are not the subject of this movement. The problem of accelerationism is the belief that you can appropriate this movement and steer it. That is impossible. Even our friend Deleuze didn’t believe that. He believed we can enjoy acceleration, but he didn’t believe that we could control it, or appropriate it.

TL: In their recent book Inventing the Future. Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015), Srnicek and Williams further argue that left politics has abandoned the idea of progress and modernization, leaving them in the hands of neoliberalism, while retreating to a localized and romanticized ‘folk politics’, as they call it. In their view, the left should reclaim the future, and the category of the new is the instrument to do so. They write: ‘If the supplanting of capitalism is impossible from the standpoint of one or even many defensive stances, it is because any form of prospective politics must set out to construct the new.’ (75) How would you respond to this?

BG: I think that the moment we are experiencing now creates illusions of this type in the minds of young people. They believe that they are something like living start-ups. It’s a new neoliberal illusion. Our whole development will lead to stagnation. First of all, the globe itself is a symbol of stagnation: it circulates, while progress is linear. Today we speak not about universalism, but about globalization. But globalization is circulation and that means that we already reached the point of stagnation. The stagnation is not obvious for most people, because there is still a middle class, with its traditional institutions: the universities, the museums, etc. But as soon as these collapse, the middle class will also collapse. I sometimes tell my students that every day they spent at the university makes them poorer, because the people who have money, from Madonna to Bill Gates, never went to school. So, we will come to a very traditional situation of poor and rich, and this will produce the return of left ideas. Because, as long as you think that you can individually cross the bridge between poor and rich, as long as there is still a bridge to cross, you will always be neoliberal. You can think what you want, but you will try to do so. But if the gap is too wide, like in the 1920s and 1930s, like in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, then the only answer will be left ideas.

TL: What will these left ideas produce, then? A new middle class?

BG: We will see, we don’t know that. I am like Marx: never predict what that revolution will produce. He was always against French utopianism. But I think it will produce a new Soviet Union. Not precisely in the same way, but to the extent that the Soviet Union was basically the administration of stagnation. In the contemporary competitive world, it was difficult to keep it. But if the whole world becomes stagnating, then the question of world revolution can come again, the question of international socialism can come again, the question of world administration and world state can come again, all the Hegelian/Marxist/Kojevian line will come again. Right now, it is suppressed by this running to nowhere. The feeling of that may be exciting, but it is a certain period of time, and it will not last very long.

TL: So, if I understand you correctly, you say that the left doesn’t need new ideas, because these ideas are already there.

BG: Yes. In many ways we are back in the nineteenth century, and that is the rhythm of the European culture: the seventeenth century was reactionary, the eighteenth century was progressive, the nineteenth reactionary, the twentieth century progressive, etc. If you look at the reaction of the nineteenth century to the French Revolution, first of all, everybody believed that the Republican democratic regime collapsed because they could not succeed structurally, and secondly everybody believed the revolutionaries were morally evil because they killed children and young women on the guillotine. Both this moralization and the disbelief in the capacity of survival were general throughout the nineteenth century, but at the end everybody was democratic. Now you know how history works, there’s nothing new: now the Soviet Union is totalitarian, terrible repression, women and children killed, and it was impossible, it could not survive. But in 70 or 80 years it will be completely reversed. So, we should simply relax and wait, for in time we will be disappointed by neoliberal illusions and utopias, look at the reality of life, which is miserable, and then look at the models, not of the better life, but how to organize miserable life.

TL: Like in the saying of Brecht, that communism isn’t the equal distribution of wealth, but of poverty.

BG: Of course. And it is as bad as any other social system, but it has at least one advantage, that I understood when I went to the West. You really didn’t have Angst, this prominent insecurity, and this sheer fear of not surviving the next day. On this very basic level people felt themselves totally secure and protected. And I believe this desire for stability, protection, and security will emerge again.

Today you see it on the right. Why is that? The West believes it has won the Cold War against socialism and communism. But who exactly are the winners? It is neoliberalism and religiously coloured nationalism. Now they are fighting each other. But they will try to find a compromise, because they have a common feature, and that is competition. Neoliberalism believes in the competition of everybody against everybody, and the other in the competition of one ethnic group against the other. Both hate universalism, and both hate the ideas of solidarity and cooperation. They honestly believe that what is best should be defined by competition, and if you don’t arrange a harsh competition you won’t know what is the best, or who is capable of winning. The problem is that, as I believe, man isn’t capable of anything at all. The problem of nationalism and neoliberalism, then, is still the illusion of humanism, that humans can be creative, competitive, determine their own lives, can be responsible for themselves, and so on. They believe there is this kind of potential in human beings to deal with and manage any burden, going through any difficulty and making it: the American Dream. But it’s all a huge lie, and the challenge is to see it as a huge lie that was only invented to terrorize people. To say to them: why are you poor, you have to make an effort, you have to struggle, you have to constantly improve and update yourself. Somehow, and at a certain point in time, we have to be relieved from this blackmail.

When I was a child and responsive to these things, I was always fascinated by these Russian posters, saying: let us reach the level of the current day. This presupposed that we are somehow always behind. Stalin, who was a good thinker and much more honest than everybody else, said: when we really understand Marxism and Leninism, we should accept that our situation is always a bit ahead of our ability to reflect on it. So, our thinking is behind our real situation. And that is precisely what connects capitalism and socialism, this belief in the powers that are faster than we can think.

IV. The future of the new

TL: Let’s return once more to the concept of the new in relation to the art world. In the Dutch book of essays on your work, Dirk van Bastelaere argues that the concept ‘entropy’ you use in Logik der Sammlung (according to which the collection constantly extends and absorbs that which it is not) should – in line with your own economic jargon – be replaced by the concept ‘inflation’, which is less neutral. Inflation would then mean that the increase in artistic innovations (and hence the culturalization of profane domains) implies at the same time a decrease in value of these innovations. (Bastelaere et al. 2013, 85). Do you agree with that diagnosis?

BG: If we follow our earlier line of thinking, that is if the whole system of selection and representation collapses, then the new will have no value at all. It only makes sense if you have the archives and institution – and the critique of institutions is part of it. Without the institutions, the critique of institutions obviously makes no sense. Art that leaves the museum [e.g. street art, land art, performance art, community art, TL] always has to return to the museum in the shape of documentation. So, whatever you do outside of the museum, also in contemporary art, has cultural value only if it is afterwards represented in the museum in the form of documentation.

TL: In an interview I did with Luc Boltanski (Celikates and Lijster 2015) he argued, following Isabelle Graw, that the economic valuation of art works can never persist without the aesthetic valuation by critics, curators, artists, etc. If the two merge this is also destructive for the economic valuation. Do you agree with this analysis, and should this reassure us that market forces could never take over the art world completely?

BG: I think that art becomes more and more like a luxury product, like china or perfume. Everyone can make art, but not everybody makes a living from art. But if you don’t make a living from art, it doesn’t mean that you’re not an artist. If you speak about professional art, you speak about making a living from art. Then it becomes simply a segment of the general market, and it’s the same as Armani design and so on. If you look at creative districts in China, you see design, cutlery stores, fashion, art galleries, all together. But then it has nothing to do with general society.

TL: Is that so different from seventeenth century Holland, when art was also a luxury product?

BG: The institution of the museum, as you know, was created after the French Revolution. The revolutionaries took the objects of use from the aristocracy and instead of destroying them, they disenfranchised them and exhibited them, but forbid their use. It was a decision in between iconoclasm and iconophilia. What Duchamp later did was a repetition of this gesture – it is the same gesture.

This museum is a public space. Privatization recreates the situation as it was before the French Revolution, but then we can no longer speak of public institutions and we lose historical consciousness. So the problem is not if Isabelle Graw or someone else finds some painting beautiful, according to a certain aesthetic theory. The question is: Is a certain artwork historically representative, so that it can be put in the museum? For a private collector, this question has no relevance, because it is his taste that matters, and not the archival importance. After writing Über das Neue, I was invited to Switzerland, where they organize schools for leading European collectors. I told them I considered these collections as installations and not as museums, because the installation is the assemblage of objects according to a certain taste. At the moment you privatize, you get involved in private passions and relationships that have nothing to do with an archive.

I tend to think that the model I proposed is probably a model for secularized culture that started with the French Revolution and ended with the end of communism. Now this system of culture in general collapses – it still survives of course, this process of collapsing takes very long, and maybe the archives survive in another way. The first libraries were private collections, the first art collections were in the pyramids, and they survived. So maybe they will survive in a certain way, in so far as they survive the current model.