In August 1971 Richard Nixon during some kind of panic attack abolished the gold standard. Congratulations, universal equivalence i.e. money was from then on free from any attachment, sailing about without being anchored to no nothing. Universal equivalence means money can buy anything, but when not connected to actual gold it also means that value in general no longer is attached to nothing at all. On the 15th of August 1971 Richard Nixon abolished truth once and for all.
That same August Jacques Derrida delivered a lecture in Montreal called “Signature, Event, Context” where he for the first time – at least sort of – proposes, along with Austin’s thinking around speech acts and performativity, that language can have no origin but is in its entirety performative. If language wasn’t imposed on humans by some amazing super power it can simply have no starting point, no substance, but is in fact through and through conventional and hence value, whatever value cannot not be relative. In August 1971 Jacques Derrida abolished truth once, no second and for all.
Remarkable, that was indeed a kick ass month for humanity as both money and language totally lost its reliability. From now on everything started to float and truth was just nowhere to be found (as if it had before). It is not far fetched to claim that that week of 15th August 1971 was the day neoliberalism for real entered competition and that there were no other contenders left. Shit happens.
From this perspective it’s kind of comical to think about how Judith Butler twenty years later added identity. Until then one could at least, with a bit of good will, say things like “true for me” but with “Bodies That Matter” not even that. I mean who me if at all in the first place?
August 1971 could also be understood as a performative turn or turn towards a hegemony of language and language as we know is conventional. Now, if Derrida argued something in the line of that language is the capacity with which we have access to the world it comes not just with a price but several. The first that postmodernism must be understood as altogether anthropocentric and the second (and there are more but not here), which is not exactly new but now better, that only that can exist that can be contained, named or located by language. In other words only that can be that is possible, that is already possible for humanity and language. Shit happens, but really, from then on only that that could be named had a place in the world, dreams and imagination included. If language is how we have access to the world and language is conventional, dreams, fantasy and imagination is too however hard one tries. Thinking outside the box which already felt a bit embarrassing become in the fall of 1971 simply bogus.
That fall must obviously have been a terrible moment of crises for any avant-garde attitude as Nixon with his gold also made the idea of explorer deflate and Derrida made sure that there was no such thing as an outside any more. But the men – they were always men – of the avant-garde quickly re-educated themselves and found a new name institutional critique. Brilliant and equally male. How many artists and art lovers et al. mustn’t have taken down their Yves Klein “Leap Into The Void” postcard from the fridge that autumn. Oups.
But there is one more thing, a thing that I think hasn’t been considered properly that Nixon and Derrida collapsed, which of course is aesthetic experience. Because if language is the capacity through which we access the world art and its encounters can not be otherwise and detach from the conventionality of language, from relativity or from performativity which means that aesthetic experience either simply ceases to exist or is transformed into something that can be dealt with through reason and ethics. Art can no longer be contemplated because there simply is no way out of teleology. At the moment when any kind of transcendence, truth, metaphysics or great outdoors is abolished art become synonymous with culture, something that can be measured and calculated, i.e. instrumentalized and smart ass. In a way postmodern understanding of art in fact reminds us about pre-Kantian 18th century rationalism. In 1971 art lost its transformative capacity and postmodernism disgraced it by forcing it into the narrow world of possibility, or in other words into the predicable backyard of probability stealing away from art the universe of indetermination and potentiality.
It is paradoxically this moment when neoliberalism kicks in and makes art into policy documents and business proposal that that also is the green house of socially engaged art. Of course if aesthetic experience has been ostracized and art has become brimful of discourse social engagement makes perfect sense, but it certainly has nothing to do with aesthetic experience and again judgment is not aesthetic but ethical or moral, even more 18th or even 17th century art theory.
Recently though it seems we have bumped into a problem again. Derrida was totally crucial and so was Butler, but something has gone wrong when both language and then obviously identity has been down to its knickers co-opted by capitalism. Identity is big bucks and dollar signs and according to e.g. Franco Bifo we live in semio-capitalism where language itself has been financialized. So however much we were impressed by postmodernism and it’s companions might it not be high time to reclaim aesthetic experience and however it feels weird insist on aesthetic experience – which obviously is not an art work but a possible experience generated through an encounter with an art work or situation – and that those experiences by necessity brings with them a, however minute or tiny, encounter with something beyond language, value, history and convention, something that has many names and non of them is good enough. Yet, in the vagueness of those names resides the potentiality of other kinds of life – because if capitalism owns language we can not imagine a way out of where we are now, but need those experiences that bypass the possible more than ever. That is the hope that resides in art, in those experiences that art carries within.