This will elaborate an aesthetic distinction between ‘satisfaction’ and consumerist ‘enjoyment’. Following recent psychoanalysis, enjoyment can designate an impossible excess that keeps markets in motion. This is never satisfying as it always restores the dissatisfaction that keeps workers and consumers striving for more enjoyment. Enjoyment is an absence that holds consumer consciousness in its tantalizing spell. Following Todd McGowan, satisfaction would be something different, that could break the cycle of consumerism, and which only becomes possible through the failure of enjoyment.
The consumer’s future enjoyments are represented as quantitative excess. This extra-ness could be faster, bigger, longer, further, stronger, smaller, cleaner, smoother etc. Enjoyment promises to extend or expand finitude, so that in the future there will be more than there is now, more energy, more friends, and more fun. But where this consumer enjoyment implies a difference in degree, satisfaction would imply something else, such as qualitative difference, or singularity that is less representable, or perhaps even a disruption of finitude.
Consumer consciousness implies the unreflective or unconscious acceptance that some conditions are necessary, which Georg Lukacs called reification. This immediate perceptual belief is like a hallucination or delusion. When these consumerist conditions are expressed academically, then this includes the belief that free markets are natural, since they are a case of evolutionary competition where everyone is tested, and which passes judgements on what is permitted to exist, and what is worthy of respect. This scholarly articulation expresses something in the popular imagination which is monstrously affected and associated with fantasies of primary masochism. The scholarly rhetoric of liberal economics is merely a mask that provides an official voice for a dangerous pathology which has apparently spread to all corners of the earth.
Enjoyment holds populations in a spell of reified dissatisfaction. This is a belief that the presently accessible commodities are insufficient, and that some improvement will someday make them sufficient. This improvement fantasy implies a passage of time where a commodity becomes increasingly satisfying as it is redesigned and more work is put into it. This is the competitive time of product evolution. Older models are assumed to be less satisfying, because they haven’t endured the evolutionary process of the market for so long – they haven’t ripened in the mania of creative destruction.
The term ‘commodity fetishism’ refers to this search for a product that has undergone a longer improvement process, so that all forms of surplus enjoyment are created by extra time. This implies specific temporal value-schemas which are applied to objects as well as to people when they are evaluated according to their education or experience.
Surplus enjoyment is also sought outside of the market. These are quests for extreme experiences, such as the adrenaline rush of extreme sports or drug addiction, along with occult exercises that aim at extreme emptiness or rapture or relaxation. These routes may successfully circumvent consumerism, in that the surplus enjoyment could be detached from the time of the market. But insofar as they remain fixated on quantitative excess, then they are not likely to be satisfying.
Enjoyment is merely the promise of extended finitude, whereas satisfaction implies infinity.
Gerhard Richter’s art provides a paradigm for such aesthetic satisfaction. He broke the spell of consumer time-values by disrupting the perception of historical images. Consumer time is oriented in relation to traumatic coordinates, and gets structured by political antagonisms. The antagonisms draw their energy from the traumas which they repress. Richter’s art disoriented the sense of history by suspending traumatic antagonisms and releasing their energy into the reverie of the image. Those images court the traumatic energy invested in history to abolish it’s structuring of consumer perception, and deliver the image into itself. The image is displaced from its traumatic documentary position, and gets released for infinite reverie.
Richter’s artwork is a descendant of the readymade, which was an earlier disruption of aesthetic satisfaction. He repeated disrupted photographs – through blurring, dripping, squeegeeing – so they couldn’t be perceived according to prevailing habits.
But however effective they might have been, Richter’s techniques succumb to exhaustion as they are metabolized back into consumerist perception. So, this leaves the aesthetic problem of discovering new techniques of satisfying disruption.
To address this problem, it is important to appreciate how present conditions differ from those under which Richter’s techniques emerged. His images attained a globality closely associated with the liberal Zeitgeist at the end of the Cold War. His work required a consistency in the historical orientation of consumers. Spectacular events were invested with intricate significance, where there was antagonism with a high degree of consistency. Under these conditions, Richter attracted a viewing public that shared temporal coordinates.
This consistency has bifurcated over the intervening years, and Richter’s work has likely contributed to that bifurcation. I am not concerned with discussing the causes of these changes, such as the waning of broadcast media, but rather just getting some description of how the conditions have changed.
Richter considered the consistency of his age to be illusory, and he dissipated that illusion in a satisfying way.
In the description of our present conditions, I want to emphasize an inter-regional dissonance which is both developmental and linguistic. Commodity fetishism is always framed by developmental temporality, which is a time of overall improvements leading to surpluses of enjoyment. Today there are notable inter-regional inconsistencies in this framing. Relatively undeveloped populations are enrapt in the ecstasies of improvement, and committed to the promises of industrialization. They readily assume the burden of dissatisfaction as a virtuous imperative to improvement. Whereas more developed populations are less enthralled with the promises of new commodities, and are more likely to resort to extreme sports, drugs or occultism for their surplus enjoyment.
These inconsistencies in temporal orientation vis-à-vis the commodity are consequential for art and politics, and make the conception of a global public difficult if not impossible.
Under these conditions, it may be tempting for art to retreat into limited regional orientations. But such retreats may prove impossible, because of inter-regional interferences due to migration. Other populations have already been cathected, they are unconsciously registered within the affective field, and artwork that does not implicate them could prove hollow. The same goes for news media and politics.
So, there is a problem of selecting geohistorical references which could allow for aesthetic satisfactions. The material would have to be affected inter-regionally, though its connotations would vary depending on perspective. Following Richter’s example, these references would be the traumas that today’s antagonisms are staged to avoid.
Some dialectical thinkers are eager to assert class antagonism as a universal condition. This idea is interesting as an aesthetic principle, but less convincing from a political angle. The connotations of the term ‘class antagonism’ can shift wildly as it translates inter-regionally. The idea is often considered passé, in that the cold war has concluded, and the bourgeois have won. This conviction can be a source of comfort, in that it establishes a distance from traumatic antagonisms. Disrupting this conviction seems essential for breaking the spell of consumerist reification, but this can lead to a reawakening of antagonistic attitudes.
Then there is the term colonialism, as the name of a global historical trauma. This term again can be interesting aesthetically, but not so interesting politically. The concept lends itself to unhinged abstraction, while charged with moral antagonisms. It gets zealously iterated into a cliché which requires frequent debunking. The recent interpretation of kingship by David Graeber attempts to break with this pervasive historical stereotype – to expose the oversimplification and misunderstanding implied by this term – and it is interesting to consider the aesthetic consequences of that sort of work. If the energy invested in this traumatic colonial antagonism were ever released, then we would probably enter a very different kind of world. That energy could go into commodity fetishism, or into aesthetic satisfactions, or elsewhere.
Class war and colonialism are historical gestalts which might be aesthetically dissipated the way that Richter’s work dissipated the Cold War. But it seems that satisfaction may require more than such routine ‘liberal dissipation’ of historical traumas.
To reach the singularity of a satisfying aesthetic might require that some material become a vessel of historical energy. A material substance such as opium could be used as a kind of level for disoriented termporality. Such as substance has an historical itinerary where it travels as an allegory for commodification. This is not to suggest a documentary where everything is linked to this commodity, but rather that this material provides an allegory for surplus enjoyment which communicates the energy of historical traumas. In a manner something like Richter, distorting the history of opium could disrupt the time of commodification in a satisfying way. The strain of opium runs through the history of diplomacy and the formation of nationalities, urban design and religion, law and overseas study. So, it can provide a conduit for an inter-regional transfer of traumatic energy.
Moving beyond the domain of psychoanalysis, the disruption of consumer consciousness would also imply a disruption of synaptic processes. When a certain form of consciousness is disrupted, that means that the nervous system would influence consciousness is new ways. The nervous system can be considered a transcendent realm that is intricately differentiated, and which operates according to complex dynamisms. Recent neurosciences have emphasized the brain’s isolation and singularity within the cranial casing of the skull.
Drawing conjectures from this model of synaptic disruption, I want to introduce the metaphysical term ‘atavism’. This term will likely arouse suspicion, but it can be given a sense which is consistent with material sciences. There are doubtlessly synaptic processes which have repeated for aeons, but which get marginalized as consciousness forms into gestalts. Consumer perception combines optical focus with orientation towards future enjoyments, and this configuration marginalizes dimensions of the nervous system which may have previously influenced consciousness. Conscious activity inevitably gets concentrated within certain limited spectra. The kind of splitting that psychoanalysis associates with fetishism can be reinterpreted here along neuroaesthetic lines. The term atavism can describe how consciousness restores contact with synaptic processes or dynamisms from which it was divorced.
This neuroasthetics of atavism also implicates with the trope of the uncanny. This is an event where consciousness is transformed from the inside. Something perceived externally in an image stirs something internal in the nervous system, leading to an anamnesis of forgotten sensibilities or temporal orientations. This conception of satisfaction is speculative, yet perhaps not so far-fetched.