Conference (Please RSVP)
17 Nov 2016 – 19 Nov 2016

The Politics of Form: What Does Art Know about Society?

Venue: ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

Organized by Ulrich Plass (ZfL/Wesleyan U, Middletown), Matthias Rothe (U of Minnesota, Minneapolis), Falko Schmieder (ZfL)

Made possible with the support of the University of Minnesota (Talle Faculty Research Award), Wesleyan University, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

The Interest in our conference has been higher than expected. Because we have only limited space available, we are asking that you please register for the conference. Please send us an Email specifying on which of the days (Thursday/Friday/Saturday) you want to attend. We will confirm your registration by November 16.


Thursday, November 17
Ulrich Plass, Matthias Rothe, Falko Schmieder: Welcome and Introduction

14.15–15.30 Keynote Lecture
Moderator: Eva Geulen (ZfL/HU Berlin)

  • Caroline Levine (Cornell University, Ithaca): Formalism for Change

Panel 1: Contemporary Artistic and Economic Practices
Moderator: Alexandra Heimes (ZfL)

  • Tom Holert (Berlin): Reconfiguring Practice: Contemporary Art's Organizational Response
  • Leigh Claire La Berge (CUNY, New York): Wages Against Artwork: The Social Practice of Decommodification

19.00–20.30 Attention!
location: Kino Krokodil, Greifenhagener Str. 32, 10437 Berlin

  • Film Screening: Havarie, directed by Philip Scheffner

Friday, November 18
Panel 2: New Forms of the Documentary
Moderator: Maria Kuberg (ZfL)

  • Maria Hofmann (U of Minnesota, Minneapolis): Documentary Film Between Telling and Showing the Truth
  • Hilde Hoffmann (Ruhr-Universität, Bochum): The Experience of Society: New Forms of the Documentary

Panel 3: Expanding Aesthetic Form 1
Moderator: Hannah Wiemer (ZfL)

  • Matthias Rothe: Mobilizing Critique: Brecht’s and Diderot's Expanded Theater
  • Rita Raley (U of California, Santa Barbara): Data Visualization and/as the Calculation of the World

Panel 4: Expanding Aesthetic Form 2
Moderator: Ulrich Plass

  • Sianne Ngai (Stanford University, Stanford): Theory of the Gimmick
  • Anna Kornbluh (U of Illinois, Chicago): The Order of Forms

Roundtable Discussion: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Form
Moderators: Matthias Rothe, Falko Schmieder

Participants: Eugen Ruge (novelist and playwright, Berlin), Merle Kröger (author and film producer, Berlin), Philip Scheffner (director and video artist, Berlin), Torsten Michaelsen (performance artist, Berlin)

Saturday, November 19
Panel 5: Representation and Temporality
Moderator: Stefan Willer (ZfL/HU Berlin)

  • Alexandra Heimes (ZfL): Immanence, Repetition, and Revolution: De Sade's and Auguste Blanqui's Axiomatic Writings
  • Johannes Lehmann (U Bonn): Picturing the Situation: On the Genesis of Discursive and Aesthetic Methods of Rendering ‘the Present’ in the Late 18th Century

Panel 6: Literature and Social Totality 1
Moderator: Maria Hofmann

  • Christine Achinger (U of Warwick/U of Chicago): The End of the Story? Bourgeois Society and the Possibility of Literary Realism in Hegel, Freytag, Lukács, and Adorno
  • Jette Gindner (Cornell U, Ithaca): Representing Fictitious Capital

Panel 7: Literature and Social Totality 2
Moderator: Jette Gindner

  • Suvadip Sinha (U of Minnesota, Minneapolis): Spaces of Literature: Imagining World through Rabindranath Tagore
  • Ulrich Plass: The Whole Is the True: Realism and Paranoid Knowledge

“The situation becomes so complicated because a simple ‘rendering of reality’ says less than ever about reality. A photograph of the Krupp Works or of A.E.G. yields nearly nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relationships, such as the factory, no longer produces the latter. So there is in fact ‘something to construct,’ something ‘artificial’, something ‘put in place’.”
Bertolt Brecht, The Three-Penny Trial (1931)

What is the task of literature and the arts “when all heads turn towards useful subject matters dealing with administration, commerce, agriculture, import and export, and finances. […] In the midst of this spirit of calculation our taste for comfort expands and our enthusiasm is lost. […] It is a nice thing, this science of economics, but it turns us into morons.”
Denis Diderot, Salon of 1769

Diderot’s criticism here is in reference to Raynal’s multivolume history of European colonialism (Histoire des Deux Indes). What disquiets him is the mode of representation. Numbers and data narrow our perspective and thereby interfere with the actual task of critique, a task that, at every step along the way, requires attention to a larger context. Over 150 years later, Brecht puts this challenge in more radical terms: The focus on facts, as that which can be readily seen and objectively verified, makes it impossible to understand capitalism as something which is grounded in specific modes of social relations. Diderot and Brecht both respond to this “withdrawal of reality” with artistic means. Diderot participates in Raynal’s project and ‘theatricalizes’ it; Brecht, too, employs theatrical means in representing the social world in its complexity and contradictoriness. He advances a realism that harnesses the constructive powers of aesthetic form in order to undermine the mere appearance of what is right before our eyes.

Both Brecht and Diderot assert implicitly that aesthetics and epistemology ought to be thought of in conjunction, that art makes knowledge available by bridging the gap between the factual and the structural. At issue is not persuasive presentation (which would be the task of rhetoric), but how things are shaped into form. Where art is concerned, a mode of knowing is at play that does not differentiate any longer between the object and its representation. Art, as Adorno says, derives critical social meaning through the autonomy of its forms. The crisis of rhetoric was the politicization of form.

In light of the (ideal-typical) constellation 1769 – 1931 – 2016, our conference enquires, on the one hand, into the historical genesis of aesthetic form and, on the other, into the potential of contemporary art to serve by means of its form as – in Adorno’s words – “stand-in of a better praxis and the critique of praxis.” Aesthetic form, tentatively understood as construction or as mediation between ‘contents’ and modes of representation, is our main concern. Throughout this conference, its theoretical and practical vicissitudes will be at stake.