The new ekphrasis of the V-shape
“Recessions start when no one sees them coming,” was the title of a Forbes article from May 2019. Economic forecasting, its author wrote, doesn’t usually include the likelihood of a recession: “When have you seen more than a handful of economists, stock market strategists or government agencies project the economy shrinking for two quarters in a row?” Now, obviously things look quite different. Thanks to the evidence rammed into reality and “our” perception/construction of it by SARS-CoV-2, the “handful” of economists and other pundits who expect a recession have multiplied considerably, in fact they have become the large majority.
What is a recession? Definitions differ slightly from national context to national context. This is the US National Bureau of Economic Research‘s (NBER) short version: “A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion. Expansion is the normal state of the economy; most recessions are brief and they have been rare in recent decades.” Apart from clarifying some of NBER’s and other economists’ basic assumptions about the economy (e.g. expansion being its “normal state”), the language is revealingly close to ekphrasis, it describes or rather evokes a landscape of peaks and troughs, of brevity, rarity, and temporality. The entire language of economic boom and bust, of surge and slowdown, of cycles and conjunctures, naturally relies heavily on metaphor, on slippage between word and image.
Hence the current conversation on recessions as V-shaped, U-shaped, L-shaped, W-shaped, etc. (recession shapes being helpfully summarized by Wikipedia), may also be discussed in terms of rhetoric and aesthetics. This is how classicist Froma Zeitlin introduces the subject of ekphrasis, probably most pertinently here: “Ekphrasis is a slippery topic. Although [normally understood] as a rhetorical figure (or figure of speech), its uses and functions far exceed this single classification. Whether defined as a rhetorical exercise, a literary genre (or mode), a narrative digression, a species of description, or a poetic (even metapoetic or meta-representational) technique, the properties associated with ancient ekphrasis are not in doubt. First and foremost are the qualities of enargeia (vividness), sapheneia (clarity), and phantasia (mental image), which, taken together, aim to turn listeners (or readers) into viewers and to evoke an emotional response through an appeal to the immediacy of an imagined presence. Yet, beyond this brief definition, the word ‘ekphrasis’ immediately ushers us into a whole set of questions regarding its intermedial status in a potential contest between verbal and visual representations, the uses of mimesis with regard to verisimilitude (reality–illusion; truth–fiction), and its cognitive, psychological, and mnemonic values in the cultural expectations of its era. It would not be hyperbole to suggest that no other rhetorical term has aroused such interest in recent years among classicists and non-classicists alike, involving aesthetic considerations, theories of vision, modes of viewing, mental impressions, and the complex relationships between word and image.”
It may appear somewhat far-fetched, perhaps even frivolous, to render the upcoming/ongoing recession in aesthetic terms, but there is no way one can avoid admitting the metaphorical nature of much of what is happening right now. The image of the V-shape recession, a sudden deep trough, followed by a quick surge—for a few, and particularly the Germans with their economic strength and infamous intransigence when it comes to economic solidarity (e.g. their refusal to accept “coronabonds” to help their European neighbours), this image is now ((in the wake of V-irus) coming close to being analogous to the V-ictory-sign. Thus the Kiel Institute’s most recent headline reads like premature cheers of triumph: “GERMAN ECONOMY: V(IRUS)-SHAPED RECESSION AHEAD.” TH
April 1st, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02
Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”
Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”
Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”
Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”
Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”
November 7th, 2020
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
T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk: “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