Cover of Issue 2, Declarations of Dependence by Scott Ferguson

Faith in Abstraction: A response to Scott Ferguson’s Declarations of Dependence

By Scott Richmond
Issue 2 February 14, 2020 Download PDF

In the present moment—however you want to name and periodize it, but let’s just call it neoliberalism—both aesthetics and the practices of aesthetic critique seem to have lost whatever political force they may once have had. This is not necessarily because aesthetics seems no longer to matter, for if anything, as Virginia Heffernan insists, the internet is a vast, collective aesthetic project.[1] Rather, it is, in the last forty to fifty years of catastrophic political economy and wanton technological development (read: the internet), that the very categories we use to articulate aesthetics and critique have gone weird—they no longer seem to reach our contemporary forms of life. From my own disciplinary position in humanistic media studies, the rise of networked, always-on computing devices has been the proximate occasion for the loss of our faith in critique and in the aesthetic. Theorists like Mark Hansen, Alexander Galloway, and Wendy Chun have inventoried the various impasses of our critical theory when it meets computational networks.[2] The patron saint of this impasse is, of course, Gilles Deleuze, with his “Postscript on Societies of Control.”[3] Whatever your specific intellectual, aesthetic, and political commitments, if you’re a lefty media theorist, you’re likely haunted by a sense that you have no really good ways of getting a grip on the present, and no sufficient way of orienting a scholarly or activist practice that might respond to it. I know I am.

One response to this shared sense of an impasse has, perhaps predictably, been an impulse to describe the gap between contemporary lived reality and political economy, and the critical terms we know how to use to render the present. Thus in the past several years, we have seen a set of books that attempt to reorient our critical sensorium, a widely shared project of renegotiating both the targets and, especially, the procedures of the fundamental humanistic work of describing our present to ourselves and to each other. Patrick Jagoda wants us to learn how to lean into our ambivalence, unlearning our attachments to the familiar melodramas of critique—and in the process, embodying a logic of both/and that allows us to get closer to the phenomena of our networked lives.[4] For Kris Cohen, the present moment is marked by a confusion of what he calls group forms, a confusion between public and population. When we engage online, are we individual members of a liberal public? Or are we members of a population, subject to statistical norms and procedures of biopolitical governmentality? For Cohen, we are both, but not in a symmetrical way. Because of the performative and circular nature of publics, however much we may misapprehend the nature of the internet, when we feel like we are participating in publics online, we really are participating in those publics.[5] At the same time, however, on the internet, you are more than anything a member of a population: not self-identical, possessed of rights and reason, expressive of a fulsome interiority; but a statistical regularity, a cluster of data points, a target for advertising and surveillance. Not an individual, but, in Deleuze’s jargon, a dividual.[6] Cohen is far from the only thinker to paint this picture; to be sure, his scheme seems to embody something of Jagoda’s ambivalence. And, in different tones and with very different critical resources, John Cheney-Lippold’s We Are Data shows that social media and algorithmic technologies render our digital selves as “measurable types”—and frets a fair amount that our measurable types only haphazardly coincide with our self-perception or offline identity.[7]

In any event, to continue painting with this broad brush, our present technological regime and political economy address us at once as individuals and dividuals. Our regime is both liberal and biopolitical. The best description of the critical impasse may not be that we’re now dividuals, but rather that we’re both dividuals and individuals, and we have not found the critical vocabulary to describe the ways we live across the contradictions, and often unpredictable oscillations, between these two regimes. And, to the extent that our ordinary lives are organized by various kinds of stuckness—the frustration of impasse, the depression of withdrawal, the anxiety of overexposure—our shared critical intuition has largely been to attempt various reorientations of critique towards this stuckness. The old verities of critical theory must give way if we are to continue to practice theory; anything else is, in Lauren Berlant’s redolent phrase, cruel optimism.[8]

Why we can’t have nice things

He never quite says it outright, but Scott Ferguson’s Declarations of Dependence also forms a response to the various critical and affective impasses of the present.[9] That said, he has very different ideas about the problems of the present and the terms of a critical reorientation. Where Jagoda, Cohen, and Cheney-Lippold, in different ways, locate the impasses of theory in the present in the technological surround, aesthetic forms, and political economy of (to use my preferred abstraction cluster to name the present) intensively computational neoliberal capitalism, Ferguson offers an altogether different historical frame and diagnosis of such impasses. His critical resources differ so much that it is difficult to locate Declarations in the context of contemporary theory addressing the aesthetics and politics of the present. The balance of this essay is my attempt to do so—and in so doing, to describe the work I think Declarations does, and what we can do by thinking with it.

Declarations is, to put it bluntly, a very weird book. It does not fit into any genre of scholarly work that I know; it asks a great deal of the reader because it strays much, much further from our shared ways of knowing, and of writing theory, than any work I’ve encountered for a long time. It is dense, but not very experimental, in its prose; for a while now, theory has been pretty comfortable with formal experimentation. Instead, with a polymathic impulse, Ferguson brings together bodies of thought that don’t feel like they belong together: heterodox economics, in the form of modern monetary theory (or MMT—more on this below); the political and aesthetic history of early modernity in Italy; Marxist theory of several flavors; contemporary blockbusters and children’s movies. It is wildly, implausibly ambitious. It calls for a set of extremely thoroughgoing methodological revisions (or revolutions) not only in the practice of aesthetic criticism but also of economic theorizing, and, beyond that, in the intellectual means to connect the two. I feel fairly confident that nobody I know could possibly embody all these revisions. I’ve read it a few times, and taught it in a graduate seminar last year, and I still don’t feel like I can quite keep up with it. It is the sort of book I didn’t think anybody was allowed to write, at least not anymore, and certainly not as their tenure book. I should say: I mean all of this as very high praise.

(One note, here, about what it is like to read this book. Ferguson dwells on some of the technical details of MMT, and that can be rough going for humanities readers. Since the 2008 financial crisis, I’ve made a hobby of following political economics discourse, at least in its public-facing side; I’m no specialist. But the best man at my wedding works in high finance; he’s taught me a lot just by kvetching about his job. So I suspect I have a higher tolerance for this sort of thinking than Ferguson’s audience in humanistic theory—and even I had a few moments of hesitation. Sometimes, MMT just doesn’t feel relevant. This is partly because we are not used to thinking about the relations between political economy and aesthetics outside of Marxism. If you had never heard of Marx before, it would take a lot of technical argumentation to get anything like a clear understanding of the ways Marxist theory construes the relationship between political economy and aesthetics, not all of which would feel very relevant along the way. Ferguson has a lot of explaining to do; he is mostly very good at it. Nevertheless, it is sometimes hard to see where he is going. It is sometimes easy, because economics pretends to be an empirical science, to wonder whether all this is correct and therefore worth spending time with. Ferguson is, as I understand it, the only person in the MMT world that’s working on aesthetic criticism rather than policy or political economy or law. As I indicated above, Declarations of Dependence is preposterous in the best way—not because it’s wrong but because Ferguson is doing too much, and asking us to do too much, in rather too short a book.)

I won’t try to summarize Declarations of Dependence, exactly, but I do think it is worth saying what I think it does for me, from my position as a scholar thinking and writing historically and theoretically about the structures of subjectivity computational and networked technologies have brought into being. Its most important contribution, and one of its plainest aspirations, is an attempt to rethink the relationship between political economy and aesthetics. For most thinkers in the critical humanities, it is Marx and his apostles who tell the best story about the relationship between aesthetics and political economy. Allow me a brief caricature of Adorno’s thought as a convenient point of reference. Aesthetic production, in its mystifying vocation embodied in the culture industry, serves as a place to rehearse the ideology so necessary to keeping the masses in their state of oppression, elaborating ways of reconciling selves to their conditions of domination. In its liberatory vocation, however, high art (to be sure, of a particular avant-garde type) takes the form of “the negative truth of the world”—a place to work out the utopian negation of the inhumanity of damaged life under late capitalism. Aesthetics, in its ambivalent position inside or outside of capitalist political economy, is either domination by other means or the utopian glimpse of a less damaged world.[10]

Ferguson has a cognate figure, to be sure. For him, aesthetic forms such as Blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), or children’s films like Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014) do not simply rehearse an ideology: they train us, at what we might call a sensorimotor level, to orient ourselves by the stars of what Ferguson calls a “hyper-Newtonian” physics (172 and passim). Reworking or rejecting the ideology that oriented the project of 1970s film theory, Ferguson sees these films working on us at the level of embodied perceptual habit. This is not an enormous departure. In some moods, Marx himself depicted ideology as a training of the senses;[11] and Walter Benjamin’s Artwork essay understood the promise and peril of the cinema as its ability to address its viewers at just such a sensorimotor level.[12] So if Ferguson asks us to unlearn something, it is not the idea that cinema—and other hyper-Newtonian media, such as video games—offer a sensorimotor training for how we apprehend the world. It lies, instead, in the substance of that training.

If, in film theory’s mostly Marxist account, ideology is a kind of therapy for alienation, making the current relations of political economy bearable for the masses (and thus sustainable for the capitalists), for Ferguson the Blockbuster is sensorimotor training in hyper-Newtonian physics. Unlike ideology’s therapeutic vocation, this training instead serves to occlude what is, in fact, an inalienable relation: that of money. Money, for Ferguson, is one name for the relations of care between the state and its subjects. In other words, this training occludes the state’s relationships of care to its subjects, and thus renders unintelligible political claims made in the name of this relationship of care. Ferguson’s arguments—about the nature of the aesthetic, about the work of critique, and for his positive, frankly utopian, political prescriptions—all pivot around how we understand money: what it really is, why we have mistaken its nature, and what we should do once we recover its true nature as an inalienable medium of care. In turn, his account of money comes from MMT.

MMT is heterodox economics, although it is, to my eye, becoming a more common-sense idea on the left.[13] Certain, less Marxist, leftist thinkers espouse versions of its basic insight. Michel Foucault’s lectures on governmentality and liberalism offer similar ideas about the relationship between the state and the market; David Graeber’s anarchist take on debt purports to show that money is invented by governments for their own purposes; and Maurizio Lazzarato’s work on debt shows how debt has been weaponized as a political technology in recent decades.[14] MMT’s way of putting this insight is as follows: money is not only an invention but a manifest creation of the government, and no government that borrows in its own currency could ever “run out” of money. (This would be akin to the referees in a sports game running out of points.) The point, roughly speaking, is this: we have an unbounded capacity to create money; we do not need to tax or borrow to spend (although both taxes and government debt serve useful purposes in regulating the economy—including, respectively, salutary redistribution and stable savings vehicles); and, again roughly speaking, the austerity that characterizes neoliberal political economy is a positive choice to give up on the obligations of the state to care for its citizens—that is, a positive choice to allow, and indeed enforce, unnecessary suffering on a massive scale. Its alibi is always this: there just isn’t enough money to have nice things.

MMT insists that there is always enough money. And thus, we can in fact have all the nice things we might want: government funded healthcare (as an American living in Canada, I promise you it’s just as great as it sounds), functional infrastructure (ditto, mostly), a Green New Deal (we need one of those up here, too), and so on. MMT demands that we unlearn a naïve and fundamentally parsimonious theory of money: that money is like stuff; that it is finite; that we could run out of it (and when the left is in power, that we’re always on the precipice of doing so); that it moves from one place to another; and, that it comes from the market. Ferguson’s term of art for this theory is haecceity, which is Latin for this-ness. In Ferguson’s hands, it’s more like stuff-ness, and it names a fundamentally stupid attachment to rote materialism. The world is just stuff, concrete matter colliding with other concrete matter. So what the hyper-Newtonian mechanics of Big Hero 6 (or, for that matter, the gravitational verticality of Italian Renaissance painting) insist upon is the haecceity, the stuff-ness, of the world—including money. In other words, we have been trained to be blind to how the world is not concrete, and thus blind to the fundamentally abstract nature of money. If Marx wants to set dialectics on its feet by insisting on its materiality, Ferguson argues that MMT entails the precise opposite. We will recover the progressive possibilities for increasing human flourishing only if we can come alive to the ideal, abstract, and immaterial dimensions of the world. Only if we awaken to the true nature of money, and political economy, can we rescue political economy from the last 40 years of disastrous neoliberal austerity.

Losing, and regaining, faith in abstraction

For Ferguson, interestingly enough, that will also entail a criticism and an aesthetics that aims at increasing our capacity to think and feel and perceive abstractly. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this will mean a reappraisal of the midcentury aesthetic proclivities for abstraction; it will also entail a reworking of contemporary aesthetic-critical impasses. Ferguson writes, “In the domain of aesthetics, the neoliberal period finds critical theorists declaring more or less defunct the once-utopian strivings of aesthetic modernism and avant-gardism, which had given formal and technical abstractions pride of place” (12). He goes on to track the positive value in utopian abstraction in Adorno and also Lazlo Maholy-Nagy. In late capitalism, however, critics have sensed that abstraction capitulates to capital; abstract art can no longer resist the reifying logic of commodity capitalism, and art’s abstraction is subsumed under the reigning logics of monetary abstraction. Ferguson glosses the result thus:

With genuine exteriority to monetary abstraction made untenable, contemporary aesthetic interventions are forced to situate themselves within and against what critics regularly envision as capital’s “global flows.” As a result, the neoliberalization of money and the neoliberalization of the aesthetic converge in an abstract money physics. The neoliberal age forfeits abstraction’s formal and technical potential for the private sphere and flees to relations of material propinquity to confront the privation now associated with all types of abstraction. (12-13)

The story Ferguson tells, effectively, is that the interwar avant-garde and especially midcentury experimentation with abstraction was, at least at its best, an aesthetic exploration with what abstraction tout court might furnish for collective life. Aesthetic abstraction did the crucial work of elaborating forms of abstraction that might be life-sustaining in other, more directly effective domains, like political economy. Note that Ferguson’s account is decisively distinct from Adorno’s take, or our verities about midcentury high modernism. For Ferguson, midcentury abstraction did not resist the commodity form, and in so doing offer a utopian glimpse of a world without the contemporary conditions of domination, but elaborated abstraction as a crucial resource for collective life. It is also decisively distinct from how many contemporary critics understand abstraction, since aesthetic abstraction is now the dominant mode of high tech visual culture, and serves as an advertisement for a political economy whose abstraction is now fully in the service of exploitation, domination, financialization. We have lost faith in abstraction; Ferguson laments this loss of faith.

And this is where I don’t exactly part ways with Ferguson, but do want to indicate what I take to be some of the more important unfinished business in Declarations: abstraction is a complex word, and we mean many things when we say it, and the politics of abstraction in histories of artistic practice (in painting, in film, in sculpture, in, and so on) are fiendishly complex. I could dilate here (with reference to artists and practitioners from Julie Mehretu to John Simon to Andy Warhol to Charles and Ray Eames, and many others besides), but aesthetic abstraction comprises many, many different kinds of practices with many different aims and potentials for political resistance and refusal. I wonder what a more highly resolved understanding of abstraction and its many meanings would do for Ferguson’s argument, especially in its way of articulating the aesthetic cultures of the present. He rightly insists that “the sweeping arguments set forth [in Declarations of Dependence] demand more extensive and fine-grained analyses” (187). His examples for the work that deserves to be more carefully treated, however, include Thomist metaphysics and the Medieval eucharist. Perhaps distinguishing between the various kinds of abstraction in late 20th century art practice is too desultory for the level Ferguson wants us to learn to see.

To the extent, however, that the dizzying historical scope Ferguson brings to bear is nevertheless still a critical history of the present, and the transformations he wants to see in the relations between political economy and aesthetic practice turn fundamentally on abstraction and its peripatations, getting our heads on straight about abstraction seems like an important task. One of the more important lessons I have drawn from Declarations is that abstraction is a weirder, and more interesting, problem than I quite understand yet—and that it cuts across more domains than I had imagined. In my own current research, I argue that the invention of personal computing in the 1960s and 1970s entailed the lamination of graphical abstraction onto computational abstraction—and that the dominant mode of contemporary screen-based subjectivity entails a constant perceptual training in orienting ourselves towards certain kinds of abstraction. In contemporary networked life, we feel perfectly comfortable with relations of non-propinquity, of action at a distance, of the profound warping of phenomenal and geographical space by our always-on networked computing devices.[15]

I worry that a call for more work on—even a renewed faith in—abstraction may appear as a turn away from the intersectional analysis that are absolutely crucial for working politically in the present. Abstraction, to be sure, has often been rightly understood as on the side of political oppression: it organizes the political technologies of white supremacist and settler-colonial domination;[16] it is the basic aesthetic and epistemological technique of capitalism in its longue durée;[17] it is the aesthetic language of a very white and very guyish midcentury modernism.[18] And dominated and marginalized populations have often been understood to be too particular, too specific, and too embodied to achieve the abstractness necessary for participation in public and political life.[19] Lest an interest or even faith in abstraction be understood to be so much white-guy stuff, fundamentally unconcerned with the lived realities of oppressed peoples, I want to follow Kris Cohen’s recent indication that many Black American artists have turned to abstraction since the 1960s—and more recently—not only to escape the necessity of “representing their race,” but also to work out, mimetically, responses to the growing sense that political economy was, in its increasing abstraction, making forms of life and labor ever more precarious for communities of color.[20] Abstraction really isn’t only for straight white guys, and the familiar intersecting axes of domination—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability—do not only operate according to representational or embodied logics. In fact, as Cheney-Lippold makes absolutely unavoidable, increasingly, such categories operate in ways that are resolutely non-representational, but are instead statistical and abstract.[21] What is a race, or a gender, or a sexual orientation, when it is now unmistakably abstract? Abstraction, it seems to me, is as much a technology of domination as it is a site of practical, critical, and aesthetic resistance in our age of intensively computational neoliberal capitalism.

We have, in fact, a variety of ways to grasp abstraction beyond its deployment in the service of domination. You could find some of them in Deleuze and Guattari or Fred Moten or Paul Preciado.[22] The sense I get from reading Ferguson, however, is that what we make of abstraction—in all its iterations: monetary, financial, computational, theoretical, and aesthetic—lies at the heart of at least some of the work that presses upon us in the emergency of a catastrophic present. The problems we face now are not organized by a logic of propinquity, don’t behave according to a by-now commonsense (hyper) Newtonian physics of stuff, and often because of that, present impasses of imagination, organizing, and action. Better ways of grasping, and repairing, these problems will depend upon better ways of understanding abstraction, imagining its possibilities, grasping its dynamics, and using it for progressive ends. Ferguson has shown just how pressing, and how difficult, and how possible, all of that is.

[1] Virginia Heffernan, Magic as Loss: The Internet as Art (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

[2] Mark Hansen, Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000) and New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004); Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004) and The Interface Effect (Malden: Polity, 2012); and Wendy Chun’s trilogy, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), and Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).

[3] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (Winter 1992): 3–7. For a useful take on Deleuze and his influence on politicized media theory, see Mark Hansen, “Foucault and Media: A Missed Encounter?,” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 111, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 497–528.

[4] Patrick Jagoda, Network Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” in Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone, 2002), 65–124.

[6] Kris Cohen, Never Alone Except for Now: Art, Networks, Populations (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

[7] John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: The Making of Our Digital Selves (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

[8] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[9] Scott Ferguson, Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2018). All further page references will be given parenthetically in the text.

[10] Sometimes, of course, it is both—and the domination is all the more effective for attaching itself to the genuine utopian wish for a more humane form of life. I am of course channeling Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 94–136.

[11] To wit: “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present” (Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx–Engels Reader, 2nd. ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker [New York: Norton, 1978], 89).

[12] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, 2nd Version,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 3, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996–2003), 101–33.

[13] For example, the mainstream-left news anchor Chris Hayes dedicated an episode of his podcast, Why is This Happening?, to an interview with Stephanie Kelton, a leading exponent of MMT in academic and policy circles—and a high-level advisor to Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns (“Debunking the Deficit Hysteria with Stephanie Kelton,” May 7, 2019, in Why is this Happening? with Chris Hayes, podcast).

[14] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008); David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011); Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012); and Governing by Debt, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2015).

[15] Scott Richmond, “Of Mice and Turtles: Papert and Engelbart and Transitional Objects,” Thinking with Computers (blog), March 31, 2019,; accessed January 2020.

[16] Here I am thinking not just of Michel Foucault’s famous analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995), but also of Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); and Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[17] Of course, this is the basic point in Marx’s analysis of the commodity form in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1990). But it also the same insight that drives his claim about the training of the senses—that they become “theoreticians”—in the “1844 Manuscripts.”

[18] The obvious point of reference here is “abstract expressionism,” embodied by the last names of famous white guy painters: Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and so on. See, for example, Clement Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 208–29.

[19] I make this argument at length in Scott Richmond, “Feelings,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Visual Culture, edited by Aubrey Anable, A. Joan Saab, and Catherine Zuromskis (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, forthcoming).

[20] Much of this work is as yet unpublished, but see Kris Cohen, “The Irresolutions of Charles Gaines,” in Johanna Gosse and Tim Stott, eds., Nervous Systems (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming 2020).

[21] Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data.

[22] Imagine me making a broad, sweeping gesture at various sections of a bookshelf; this note condenses a lot, perhaps unfairly. I have in mind Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Capitalism and Schizophrenia), trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); a great many things by Fred Moten, but for a start try Black and Blur (Consent Not to Be a Single Being) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); and Paul Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013).

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