Precariousness and Aesthetics

This Colloquy assembles an interdisciplinary group of voices that consider the relationships between aesthetics and precariousness. Emanating from a symposium at California State University, Los Angeles (2014) and a subsequent special focus section of minnesota review entitled "Emergent... ... more

This Colloquy assembles an interdisciplinary group of voices that consider the relationships between aesthetics and precariousness. Emanating from a symposium at California State University, Los Angeles (2014) and a subsequent special focus section of minnesota review entitled "Emergent Precarities and Lateral Aesthetics" (2015), it focuses on the relative capacities of aesthetic forms to give shape and critical texture to experiences of fragility, emergence, vulnerability, dispossession, attrition, and attenuation. It takes as its frame the contemporary conditions of neoliberalism and climate change under which so many subjects, in different ways and in disparate locations around the world, find their lives and futures perpetually insecure, under threat, and beholden to economic forces beyond their control. And it investigates how the compromised, nonsovereign experiences of selfhood increasingly experienced by, and in many cases forced upon, such subjects translate into unconventional kinds of agency marked less by any sense of intention or momentum than by compression, exhaustion, survivalism, and extemporaneity.

Because these subjects, agencies, and modes of existence are often diaphanous, unstable, spread-out, and even aleatory, they frequently challenge and confound prevailing schemes of classification, representation, and affective response. Efforts to aestheticize them risk sentimentalizing and naturalizing their differences, occluding the oppressive systems that subtend them, and/or underestimating their aspirations to escape precarity. Another artistic and ethical danger is that, in some instances, a curious and earnest depiction of some of precarity’s defining attributes, such as creativity and flexibility, merely entrenches the neoliberal logics that necessitate them. That is to say, artistic efforts to acknowledge and intervene in what might be described as the "at risk" nature of precarious subjects, agencies, and modes of existence sometimes run their own risk as well. Specifically, such efforts can, and often do, threaten to overlap with, and in turn reinscribe and reinforce, those very properties of being at risk, those experiences of exploitation, frailty, incapacity, and outright failure that have become endemic under neoliberalism.

But to forego artistic explorations of precariousness would mean ignoring the tribulations of vast swaths of populations across the globe, and it would mean missing the opportunity to find, within the conditions and practices of what Judith Butler calls "precarious life" and what Lauren Berlant calls "lateral agency,"  alternatives to the ecologically disastrous, ethically unconscionable, and economically oppressive priorities of neoliberalism. As we write in minnesota review, "the point of talking and thinking and writing about precarity is not (only) to eradicate it but (also) to plumb its diminished capacities for ethical orientations and relational configurations disarticulated from conventional logics of strength, growth, development, and individual achievement" (113). Art is, of course, not the only domain in which to address these urgent and difficult concerns, but given what often seems to be our ever more instrumentalist, spectacular, and profit-driven consumer culture, in which imagination is frequently more slogan than substance, critically engaged artistic expression is itself precarious, threatened variously by anti-intellectualism, commercial cooptation, and governmental disinvestment of the kind valorized by neoliberal privatization. Perhaps, we posit, the very precariousness of critically engaged art grants it a slantwise view of the dominant order, even if only in partial or temporary terms.

The authors and artists whose texts and projects constitute the conversations that are the basis for this Colloquy conceive of aesthetic expression broadly and at its productive intersections with activist politics and social movements organized around racial, sexual, economic, and environmental justice. Its archive and contributors come from art history and visual studies, literature, film, performance studies, philosophy, cultural anthropology, and women’s, LGBTQ, and ethnic studies. The Colloquy takes up Butler’s proposition that "if the humanities has a future as cultural criticism, and cultural criticism has a task at the present moment, it is no doubt to return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty and at the limits of its capacity to make sense" (150). Butler’s "if" conjures the humanities’ endangerment at the present time—which forums such as this one work to counter—and emphasizes the provisional character of both precarious life and the artistic responses it solicits. If precarity is both a limit for the human and an opening for imagining the human differently, what limits and openings does it offer to aesthetic practice, and what limits and openings does it expose within our reigning critical paradigms? 

Benjamin Bateman's picture
Curator Benjamin Bateman

Benjamin Bateman is Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality St

Benjamin Bateman is Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, where he researches modern and contemporary anglophone literature, queer theory, and ecostudies. His first book, The Modernist Art of Queer Survival, is under contract with Oxford University Press.

Elizabeth Adan's picture
Curator Elizabeth Adan

Elizabeth Adan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Design at California

Elizabeth Adan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Design at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where she teaches modern and contemporary art history and is affiliated faculty in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Her current research investigates early second wave feminism in the visual arts via U.S. third world feminisms.

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Towards a Grammar of Emergency

by Hal FosterJournal Article
(2016)
The Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn builds from the bad new days, not the good old ones, as Bertolt Brecht urged us all to do. This is so because Hirschhorn aims to confront the present, which, in his idiom, is also to ‘agree’ with it. more

Improper Selves: Cultures of Precarity

by Gabriel GiorgiJournal Article
31.2 115 (2013)
Giorgi considers the relationship between neoliberalism and precarity in Latin American fiction and documentary film.  more

Precarity and Performance: An Introduction

by Nicholas Ridout and Rebecca SchneiderJournal Article
56.4 (2012)
Ridout and Schneider ask whether performance-based art and affective engagement can help us understand the nexus of capital, neoliberalism, and precarity.  more