Fillip — Folio A

Judgment, Objecthood, Temporality
Diedrich Diederichsen

Some time ago, I began playing a game with myself: whenever a gallery opening threatened to be boring, I compared every art object at hand with The Simpsons episode that aired the same afternoon. I probably don’t need to tell you that, in most cases, the cultural industrial product of three scriptwriters, three hundred Korean draughtsmen and women, several actors, and many other people was not only more intelligent, funny, and entertaining than its counterpart, it also succeeded on the home turf of fine art: a self-reflexive discussion of its own means in order to achieve a specific aesthetic goal: justification of that goal.

This game interrupts high art’s dream to live in a perfect world in which human production is not measured and debated on the grounds of normative ideas and criteria. This dreamworld—in which art exists outside of the rules of cultural industrial production—is not pleasant. It is a hellish, petit-bourgeois dystopia in which people play games without winners and the idea that anything is preferable to anything else is grinned away by zombies who avoid conflict by any means.

Judgments, especially negative judgments of value, have increasingly bad press. Opinions are supposed to be relative, debates open, and results postponed. The widespread attitude among artists and curators these days is that recipients (many single people) would rather interact than judge. Theoreticians seem to agree. Complaining about this is similarly widespread. Here, I agree with Tirdad Zolghadr’s remark that complaining about the lack of judgment is as widespread as judgments are absent.

But to support the notion of judgment is not necessarily to call for a return to order, as Zolghadr suggested in his keynote address. It may as well be a leap forward, a redefinition of disagreement on the basis of argument instead of taste; a re-rationalization of distinction against its naturalization. Only the ironicist, who observes discourses not for their argumentative, transitive value, but for their object value (beauty, rarity, newness, complexity)—an almost a hegemonic intellectual type these days—will refuse this possibility. He or she avoids right / wrong alternatives by all possible—and often dandyistic—means. I have certain sympathy for this attitude based on historical merits that date back to the days of a hopelessly deadlocked but still hegemonic critical discourse. But I disagree in the contemporary situation, in which an avoidance of judgment is not only held to be natural, it is also politicized in a semi-heroic rhetoric. These were the programmatic and normatively anti-normative statements of the 2006 Viennese conference Kritik on the state of the art of criticism: What is critique? It is certainly not simply a practice of judging, much less of condemning. It may be that these kinds of reactive, abbreviated forms of “critique” charged with resentment are still being preached from the pulpits of academic teaching and announced from within the bunkers of art criticism, a practice that is perhaps even stronger than ever. In a contemporary concept of critique, however, it can no longer be a matter of a more or less rigorous yes or no to a certain object.1

I would indeed agree that it is reductivist to limit critique or criticism exclusively to judgment; one could say, for example, that this would identify the process with the result. But certain things in these programmatic sentences irritated me: “Condemning” and “negative judgment” are “stronger than ever”? Where? In which “bunkers of art criticism,” and where in the discourse of “academic teaching”? Where are you living? If there is one thing you never read anywhere nowadays, it is a negative judgment against any show, project, book, or catalogue by anyone involved in the fine art world—this simply does not exist any more. The reason is that, in all likeliness, producing negative criticism results in social death. Writers would need the support of other structures, outside of the art market, to achieve the social power to negate any object or project within it. But, on the other hand, to adequately address contemporary art, one needs so much insider knowledge that criticism from outside is hardly possible and not even desirable.

There is a similar situation in newspaper journalism and in many specialist discourses such as film criticism. The only exceptions, at least in the European situation, are theatre and classical music. Here, at least in some old-school bourgeois newspapers—which nobody takes seriously anyway—the editors keep up a traditional form of review culture in which negation is still possible. This often leads to a widespread misunderstanding: judgmental criticism is possible only within traditional fields. In today’s complex contemporary art world, you can only guess the value of art in general. But if traditional rules don’t apply within contemporary art criticism, the social rules that make certain art beautiful for specific people are based on judgments and their defence. Every conversation about contemporary art progresses through disagreements, exposure of criteria, and so on. The unexplained absence of these discursive habits in written art criticism fulfils even the easiest criteria for some kind of false consciousness or ideology —that is what a certain discourse hides and that it is hiding it.

I want to support a practice of criticism that eventually produces judgments—of course not final, holy judgments, but judgments of value. Eventually, I hope to come up with some ideas for a certain practice of judging that I will find defendable, as opposed to the pseudo-noble withdrawal from judgment. But first I want to discuss an antagonistic constellation that I found in one of the texts of another Viennese symposium on critique and criticism, organized by the same European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies that was responsible for Kritik in 2006. In his introductory lecture for the conference The Art of Critique (2008), Gerald Raunig refers to distinctions based on Foucault’s text “What is Critique?” and a reading of Foucault by Judith Butler.2 In this discussion, Raunig makes a distinction between critique as an open process—a general perspective towards the world—and a narrow-minded notion of critique as a practical and useful instrument that helps you get through the world—or rather, helps you decide between consumer options.3 Raunig quotes Butler as having argued that critique in the first sense is the very process that suspends judgment.

By the way: I found my fellow panellists at the Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism forum well dressed. I like Jeff’s jacket, I like Maria’s jacket, I like my jacket.

This idea of critique as a process-oriented attitude gravitates towards the description of people, their personal mindset, their self-image, their morality. In other words, it develops a tendency which drives the practice of this process-oriented critique-as-way-of-life towards focussing on issues of the self, a self which is not completely free of petit-bourgeois notions of the value of a self. It does not prescribe the discursive side of a discursive practice, but the personal, psychological, habitual side of it. This critique might still be a discourse, a discursive practice, but in order to conceive of it in that way—as a suspension of judgment—it must be thought of as a discursive activity involving living people, not just critical or theoretical production. This suspension of judgment can make sense only as a quasi-aesthetic and / or ethical practice that organizes itself around the life of thought, its infinity and physicality. It is by no means the asymmetrical activity of people vis-à-vis objects or vis-à-vis the world, which one might associate with critical practice in the first place. Instead it describes people vis-à-vis themselves, how they grow, develop, avoid, play and maybe even produce—but all from a position of sovereignty, self-control, and even narcissism. Maybe this is a deeper reason for the strategies of avoidance and fluffiness that Zolghadr mentioned in his opening lecture. You shy away from judgment because you feel that, in this post-Fordist world, objects, especially art objects, are people or are very close to people. That means that when you judge, you insult someone, not just on a professional level, but on a personal level. We are all far too well educated to do that.

Here is a very different idea of critique or criticism, involving value judgments: I am talking about value judgment and criticism in the discourses of “emergent people”—young, recently immigrated or arrived, recently allowed to speak, and so on—vis-à-vis an already finished world of objects. This position can be found amongst non-emergent populations as well. In Gerald Raunig’s introduction, he makes reference to Raymond Williams, via Butler, who argues that one should think of critique as open-ended practice instead of a teleological activity leading to judgments. But it is exactly the possibility of arriving at judgments that makes this particular critical activity an unstoppable one, because it articulates seemingly final decisions all the time. It has to continue forever; it has to permanently rediscuss what it has seemingly been decided for good. Only because a sentence has the seriousness of a final decision and an eternal damnation will it be discussed over and over again.

Of course the subtext of Foucault’s, Williams’s, and Butler’s privileging of a critical attitude, a critical project, over critical judgment is the ethics of politicization, the ethics of political activity or even activism, be it in a revolutionary sense referring to some normative idea of turning your life around, turning it into a responsible revolutionary one, or in a democratic sense, as a normative idea of participation and involvedness, permanent questioning of and constant skepticism toward official truths. It owes its idea of a criticality that reaches the entire body of the critical subject to ideas and lifestyles of the 1960s and after, which are based on the idea that everyone should change their life and live holistically, dedicated to their own ideas, and not by an old, bourgeois double standard. I have to say, anticipating slightly arguments I want to come back to later, that while I grew up in solidarity with these ideas and still hold them dear, I feel I must note at this point that the investment of your whole life, the ethics of a holistic existence, the exploitation not of labour but of life force, is exactly the motor contemporary forms of capitalism are driven by.

Now, in order to go back, this existentialism of the critical position—a slightly polemic exaggeration that is a bit unfair to Foucault, who knew about the dangers of existentialism—is opposed to the seemingly apolitical consumer whose judgments of value are nothing more than judgments of exchange value, or, at best, judgments of a certain economic rationality in relation to a form of use value. They are not free judgments—that is, judgments made outside a relationship to a necessity based on the realities of life.

Aesthetic judgment, in its classical form, at least in the German tradition, is connected to an idea of judgment without relation to a worldly interest in the art object, any use value of it as a thing in daily life. Instead, it is based on a suspension of use and exchange values in favour of a general openness towards pleasure not related to instrumentality and calculable gain. The conditions for the ability or capacity to receive and enjoy artistic objects that particular way can of course be located historically and sociologically; they can be found in a fully developed Western bourgeois culture, beginning somewhere around 1750. They were first studied and systematized by Immanuel Kant in the work that in the English-speaking world is known as the Critique of Judgment (1790), although its correct translation should rather be the Critique of the Capacity of Judgment.4 This capacity assumes, without declaring it explicitly, of course, that whomever makes an artistic experience is carefree and socially safe enough to look at an object without desperately needing its use value. You can only enjoy the peinture of a still life when the food that it depicts does not make you hungry. This is what Kant calls disinterested pleasure. Bourdieu adds that, of course, only when you’re not hungry are you able to remain disinterested.

Identifying this tradition of disinterested pleasure as an element of Western bourgeois culture might be a judgment too, even a condemning one, but I introduce “Western bourgeois” here at first as a technical term. There are two ways to criticize this concept. One follows Bourdieu: to be disinterested is affordable only by the ruling class. Hence whatever this experience might intrinsically be, it cannot be human or universal, since it is constituted through exclusivity. The other critique of this concept does not condemn the concept itself but the uneven distribution of its availability. Maybe there is nothing intrinsically wrong with good wine or pleasant country architecture—only its exclusivity. (This would be a rather Marxist reading of Western bourgeois aesthetic privilege; one would deny a moralist Protestant understanding of privilege.) Maybe the same is true for the disinterested pleasure at the heart of the bourgeois conception of aesthetic experience.

This disinterested affection—at least with Kant—leads to a specific form of judgment that lies at the centre of social formations. Your highly subjective and untranslatable experience with an artwork or some other aesthetic object needs to be communicated. You want to talk about it—and you have to, in order to socialize in the bourgeois sense, based on free will, not on necessity. Maybe disinterested can be read as unforced, i.e., not driven by necessity, despair, or need. Positioned as such, aesthetic valuation could be seen as a perfectly agreeable idea, a kind of utopian break from the management of daily duties and outside forces (if only available to some less than others)—a source of socialization, and maybe the only one we know, that is based not on your needs but on your unforced subjectivity. Its historical basis on exclusion is not necessarily intrinsic to the concept, only to its historical formats—which are of course at least obsolete today if not reactionary.

But whatever our decision about the conception of critique as suspension of judgment, as in Raunig, Butler, and Foucault, I want to argue that it is also basically an extension of a bourgeois idea of aesthetic experience as essentially unconnected to necessity and instrumentality. But it is also an extension of the critical impulse from an object and result-oriented activity to one that includes any human capacity. Beyond the Kantian idea of a critical judgment as an individual’s attempt to socialize a subjective experience on the basis of an encounter with an external object, judgment is meant to form an aesthetic basis for how we live. This would be the aestheticized synthesis of the two previously introduced possibilities of critique as a normative idea for a way of life and a revolutionary or democratic-participatory break. In an incorporated, fully internalized lifestyle of critique, even the decision between revolution and reform is delayed for later since the suspension of object-related judgments transforms all—including political—decisions into the eternal postponement of critique as a way of life. The dialectic between extreme subjectivity and the confrontation of the external object tends to evaporate here.

But since this seems to be an ambivalent maneuver, because it is extending the critical impulse, which we agree about, but at the same time limiting it, by cutting off its capacity to interfere by judgment, which we disagree about, I will not pass from my side a final judgment on this discourse. Rather, I will postpone, just as the supporters of this idea tend to endlessly postpone judgment. But I promise not to do so endlessly.

So we have two groups here that I have introduced and two different forms of judging. Group one is judging enthusiastically. They are emergent participants in the market or society in question. They constitute what was once was called “youth culture.” But among them you also find social climbers, recent immigrants to a different society, or those recently arrived in a different social stratum. Simon Frith describes their idea of judgment in his book Performing Rites: “Good” and “Bad” or their vernacular versions (“brilliant” and “crap”) are the most frequent terms in everyday cultural conversation.... Though all of us knew that what was at issue was personal taste, subjective response, we also believed passionately at times, that we were describing something objectively in the music, if only other people could hear it. Value arguments, in other words aren’t simply rituals of “I like / you like.”... They are based in reason evidence, persuasion. Every music fan knows that moment of frustration, when one can only sit the person down and say (or, rather, shout) despairingly, “But just listen to her! Isn’t she fantastic!”5

The other group—including Raunig, Butler, Foucault, Williams and the majority of theoretical thinkers in the contemporary art world—shies away from the moment of judgment. They are mostly better-educated academics who do not shout judgments of value at other people. This deep conviction in their education, that a judgment of value is something that you cannot force upon someone else, also shapes their idea of critique as a non-normative, non-conventional endeavour—something that cannot be played by rules because it is precisely about the questioning of rules. And yet if there are no rules, there is also no judgment. This is the program of a critical left that implicitly argues that the lesson from communist and other radical leftist history is the radicalization of a certain unpragmatic relationship towards power and its execution and thus the transformation of its moralistically depoliticized radicalism into an aesthetic position. This last bit remains, of course, implicit and is my polemic.

At this moment you might already smell a conclusion based on a certain class analysis—academic radical refusal vs. young proletarian enthusiasm.

Here, I want to look at the object of these critical positions—if it is really an object at all—and the relation between subjectivity, judgment, and value. The case Frith refers to above developed from a heated debate among music fans on a boat from Stockholm to Britain. In this story, one shouting fan, forcing his enthusiasm upon a non-believer, refers to a song and its singer. Music, although it can be stored and reproduced, altered and rearranged or remixed, has a strange object ontology. It is normally considered to be essentially immaterial and thus not objectifiable. Music fans, of course, have fetishistic relationships to records and other objects related to musical performances, a kind of shared idea of the objectivity and reality of the experience that allows for a meaningful discussion about some record or song. But the experience itself is strongly one of temporality. It is about how things are happening within a time span, which is experienced as beyond the control of the listener or the recipient. You are placed in a time continuum that resembles the way you are situated in the time span that defines your lifetime.

How does one deal with value under these conditions? What is valuable in relation to a lifetime whose length is beyond your control but whose texture is not only not beyond your control but essentially your major obligation? If music happenings occur against time, time is made enjoyable by dividing it up in funky beats, endings are suspended by repetitions, then not, they are played with, all the elements are exposed to a dialectics of convention and surprise—all these occurrences add up to a discussion of the value of life in relation to time: in an anthropological sense as much as in a political sense. This implies that not only openness and contingency, but, more precisely, a ratio between high emotional involvement, and that has to be, to a degree, a passive one and ways out—ways to not become fully subjected to the course of the beats and the chords.

But that is already a description from outside the emotionally involved listening experience, the description of an algorithm of musical enjoyment. Rather, one has to describe the impulse to judge as the main tool, by which listeners position themselves within the continuum that forces them to be emotionally passive. A listener’s tendency towards final judgments, total agreement or disagreement, does not only reflect the emotionality of the connection between all time-based-arts to the urgency and the need to decide in real time. This is a characteristic of life itself, especially within a capitalist system where you sell your workforce by the hour. Time based work also appropriates the sovereignty of finality, playing on the temporality of life and its economy. Symbolically this type of work offers the ability to intervene in this temporality to the audience, although they are the ones who are exposed to the temporality in regular life. In a reversal of classic catharsis this is not an effect they experience later, but all the time, whereas the anti-cathartic judgment they use to intervene, to interrupt, to make themselves heard, interrupts the exposure to the domination of time.

Music, in a strict sense—that is, if we don’t think of it as a commodity like scores or records—has neither use nor exchange value. It cannot be produced and then later be used like all things that have a use value. It can also not be exchanged for the same reasons. This non-value is, at the same time, its commonality with life itself, which, like music, has a huge value only when connected with a specific human body and specific individual human knowledge. The life of a person, his / her life force, his / her living energy, his / her possible future—all these are not only biopolitical items of investment, but already have represented values for many industries in pre-biopolitical days, when the attributes of liveliness or living energy were still transformed via discipline into old-fashioned labour. But from the perspective of the living being, of the recipient of music, the experience of being overwhelmed lies in the commonality with his / her own life as open and undecided, which causes euphoria or panic. That is why conventions in music are so often needed and welcomed: they anchor it in objectivity and external rules. Judgment helps at least one of its functions, to make the panic and the euphoria tolerable and translatable—to socialize it.

But, at the same time, judgment allows the experience of being overwhelmed to be shared on another, discursive level. Here, the experience becomes manageable, in a cooler temperature, with more distance and sovereignty. It also allows establishing rules around it, building groups and gangs, constructing social scenes and social sense. The judgment of value bridges immediacy and self-organization. It comes before any other form of reflection. It partly mimics the bureaucracy of regular culture and is one of the most passionate translations of experience into discourse imaginable: this is great / this is crap. It is in this area of tension that the birth of subcultures is situated.

Art objects, on the other hand, have their own management of time. Like music, they are also understood by their recipients in relation to an experience of temporality. But in the case of objects, this temporality is a sublimely endless period of existence. They are either old or incredibly old. They are looked at with the idea of ars longa, and that is even a valid idea, if we talk about ephemeral or process- or project-oriented art in the contemporary spectrum. The main idea is that we have time, because the object-related experience is based on the difference between our lifetime (and its sense of temporality) and another temporality not based in human life spans but on truths and experiences that remain to be seen or experienced in the future.

The distinction between art that works only in an immediate relation to our living here and now and art that “has something to say” in a hundred years is normally based on quality or complexity—“old-fashioned” judgments of value. By relating this distinction to the difference between object and process, assigning thus all so-called high art to objects, in a way, and all subcultural art to processes, and then basing these distinctions on the difference between two sensory practices, visual object production versus aural social temporality, we come to another basis for judgments of value that lead to the distinction between art—an investment in the future—and sound—hedonistically taken in, swallowed, gobbled, without any value at all.

Both of these categories of value transcend the Marxist distinction between use value and exchange value. Since both Marxist categories, as I have indicated earlier, rely on the idea that an object or a tool will be used later, can be stored before usage, and can be integrated into some ecology of people and thus build an economy by starting exchange. Music, in its original format, cannot be used later. Art objects can never be properly used, because they exist forever, and forever is always after us. They can be exchanged, yes, but only in an unfinished process of speculation—different from regular speculation, because their exchange value is not based on a specific date.

It is no surprise then, that by constantly judging the first group, emergent people try to symbolically stop the non-reversible passing of their life, whereas the other group, the art historians and political philosophers, avoids judging because this would undermine the very ontology of the art object. But it does not stop there. The aesthetic experience is really endless, but only in relation to the physicality of a mortal human being; the endlessness cannot be experienced in eternity, but in time. In the same way, the total presence of living the experience can only be tolerated by erecting bureaucratic history writing, an attempt to collect experiences like you collect photos in an album. But as much as this activity tends not to develop a reflexive relation to its administration of nostalgia, the relation between speculation, history writing, and the non-objective individual remains non-reflected in many contemporary art debates.

Two historical positions have produced methodologies that might be useful in this context. One is the politicization of pop music, the other is the politicized aestheticism of the Frankfurt School. The various attempts at a politicization—in the broadest sense—of pop music, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to the Gang of Four, from Red Crayola to Public Enemy, drew from a tension of anti-disciplinary pleasure and the time management of Fordist capitalism articulated in various forms of syncopated or irregular rhythmic music and integrated into a larger participatory art form based not so much on the expressionism of their protagonist but on their ability to offer territory for projections, debates, and identification—more or less progressive psychological and discursive activities—to the audience. There is no doubt that time management became the content of many of the decisive changes in pop music: massive acceleration (punk) and deceleration (reggae) could mark, at least temporarily, the same change. Gestures and practices of endlessness (improvisation / raves) would also initiate paradigm shifts. In most cases, those were attempts to break with the object ontology of music, reappropriating music as time-based practice. One of its key methods is an uninterrupted practice of judging with the adequate gesture of finality, while at the same time renegotiating every judgment.

The aesthetic position of the Frankfurt School, on the other hand, as articulated mainly by Theodor W. Adorno himself, but also by some of his followers like the writer, theorist, and composer Hans G. Helms or the musicologist Heinz Klaus Metzger, tried to relocate the work of art and the aesthetic experience with some quasi-heroic gesture completely outside of the management of everyday life. Art was positioned outside not only of use degenerated into instrumentality and exchange as the false equivalence of capitalism, but also outside the bourgeois psychological need for life after death provided by art. Thus art’s claim was entirely outside the temporalities of bourgeois capitalism, and at the same time it was its product. It would have to constantly reflexively and negatively deal with these two antagonistic conditions.

Both positions are based on radical assumptions against which one can measure or judge actual results. They produce categories that are not deduced from a pragmatic discourse of art practice but from impossibility and / or negativity. Both positions applaud a euphoric moment that can last only a few seconds, screaming in the first case, or asking for an even more increased negation in the second. Basically, these are the positions that make it possible to realize how a judgment of values relates to temporalities. In the case of the fan of pop music, it’s all about the utopia of the moment; for the art or music writer influenced by critical theory, it’s all about the critique of bourgeois eternity.

But in both cases, it is history that makes these two types of judgment productive: in the first case, the history of great moments, the history of suspended time, the history of syncopation and suspension of temporality. In the second case, the critique of eternity in the name of history, which might be as long, but as opposed to eternity it is not empty. History not as the narcissistic idea of magnifying life, but of objectifying it: without some necessarily complicated idea of history, judgment is not possible. Especially, the critique of the recuperation of devaluation and revaluation of certain artistic values and values of emancipation by turning them into engines of capitalist production is not possible without the comparatism that looks at the differences between historical stages. You have to be able to think progress in order to criticize regression. Everybody criticizes regression and reactionism, but today nobody acknowledges that any reactionary attack on possibilities of life in our lifetime can be perceived only if your perception is based on an alternative normativity.

  1. From the editorial of the symposium Kritik, organized by the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, Vienna, 2006. See
  2. Judith Butler, “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” in David Ingram, ed., The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy (London: Basil Blackwell, 2002).
  3. Gerald Raunig, “What is Critique? Suspension and Recomposition in Textual and Social Machines,” The Art of Critique, conference organized by the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, Vienna, 2008. See
  4. Many of the problems with the original (mis)translation of Kant’s title have been rectified in Cambridge’s 2000 edition of the text. See Paul Guyer, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), xlvi–xlix.
  5. Simon Frith, Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4.
About the Author

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic of art, pop music, theatre, and politics. He is currently Professor for Theory, Practice, and Communication of Contemporary 
Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and was formerly editor at the music magazines Sounds and Spex.

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