Remote relations, cultures of distance


Artwork from Zoom website,

Among the most unsettling attributes that have quickly gained notoriety (and poignancy) due to the current crisis’ new linguistic conventions and discursive framings can be counted “from a distance” or “remote”. In particular, the prescription of “social distancing”, which for too long has been met with incomprehension and reluctance, plunged the idea that intimacy relies on physical proximity into deep crisis. Instead, the possibilities and necessities of non-physical proximity as well as long-distance business and educational relationships have been granted utmost importance. The Greek prefix τῆλε (tele) and its inimitable career in image and media technologies, through optical devices such as the telescope and the telephoto lens or in apparatuses like “tele-vision” gains an ethical dimension and at the same time seems to break ontological ground.

This new meaning of the long-distance relationship is far less novel than what is being presented at the moment. If Skype and Zoom are heralded as tools of learning and teaching, planning meetings and unplanned socializing in “remote” mode, they can also be seen as a re-enactment of individualized and locally unbound study. This was the case with television and how it was implemented by Western educational systems through didactic – rehearsed pedagogical sub-departments such as tele-learning or school television and educational institutional inventions exemplified by the distance remote learning universities of the late 1960s to the 1980s – arguably the most glorious example being the BBC’s intersection with the British Open University.

At a more fundamental level, however, every image is to be considered a distancing tool. In “Nah und Fern zum Bilde”, a short 1986 essay (the title of which was also used for a later anthology of some of his miscellaneous essays) by the late art historian Martin Warnke incorporated these somewhat mysterious sentences: “The gaze from a close range can be found suspicious of wanting to examine something, as if to watch something with a magnifying glass. To look at an image from close range usually implies wanting to get something out of it that it never wanted to give.” This formulation, inspired by a Rubens drawing of a Pordenone fresco, may be taken as advice for how to behave in these days. TH

March 19th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020, Tom

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020, Tom

Bernard Stiegler, quoted from The Neganthropocene (trans. Daniel Ross): “Does anyone really believe that it is possible to ‘solve’ the problems of climate change, habitat destruction and cultural destruction without addressing the consumerist basis of the present macro-economic system, or vice versa, or without addressing the way in which this system depletes the psychic energy required to find the collective will, belief, hope and reason to address this planetary challenge? Can this consumerism really survive the coming wave of automation that threatens to decimate its customer base and undermine the ‘consumer confidence’ that is fundamental to its perpetual growth requirements, themselves antithetical, once again, to the problems of biospherical preservation?”

August 14th, 2020, Tom
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