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The Politics of Absolute Contingency


Having for the most part abandoned any coherent sense of political programme, critical practices now position themselves in relation to - or avoidance of - power, authority, etc on a contingent basis. More overtly political practices seek to expose a pragmatics of power without resolution, destruction or revalidation. In any case, the avoidance of 'closure' is a political proposal taught by a generation of political theory wary of the disasters of mid-twentieth century dictatorships sometimes under the name of a 'post-foundational' philosophy or critique.

This denial of the identifications that could firm up a foundational politics has been allied to a wariness of the image as in itself a form of closure, such as in prevailing theories of the spectacle. This has led to a theoretical and artistic crisis of the image as central to dominant power yet incapable of transforming it. Such a perceived crisis affects the received operations of representationalism, realism and rationalism in that the defining feature of radical or critical practices has turned to non-teleological, anti-schematic operations that celebrate eventhood and finitude as a condition of politics. 

That is, contemporary formations of critique are contingent through and through: they are only occasional and dependent on the operating conditions in which they take place and which they seek to expose. The prevalence of contingency as a condition for critique – not least for a diversity of arts practices that privilege the local, the specific and material or social processes - make it increasingly urgent to reconsider the assertions of critique in relation to power now. 

Our guiding questions are:
  • How is this contingency to be understood when it cannot be secured in terms of a larger ambition?
  • What are its politics?
  • What political formation - if any - arises in its wake?
  • If contingency cannot be programmed can it be schematized or even comprehended as such?
  • Can power be schematised without denying contingency's exacting demand?
  • Without cause, programme, destination or fate, what if contingency as a condition of politics is absolute?


In Part One we examined arguments from the European philosophical tradition. For details of the these three seminars held in 2009, please go to Archive.

In Part Two, in 2011, we will examine arguments from the Anglophone-liberal tradition. Specific reference will be made to contemporary art and other cultural production throughout.

Recent Seminars:

Seminar #5 Wednesday 9th March 2011, 7.45pm
Venuexero, kline & coma
258 Hackney Road, London E2 7SJ

Is contemporary art the production of objective contingent truths? In its contingency, artwork would no longer be identified through an essence (its philosophical determination), a doctrine (its modernist prescription) or
its sanction (its institutional-conventional recognition). As objective truth, art would no longer be subject to the priority of interpretation for its effects (the viewer), nor then perpetuate the assumption of the common freedom of the liberal-democratic subject that hermeneutic primacy
supports. In other words, understanding contemporary art as contingent truth requires its political reorganization.

But such a redetermination requires the very notion of contingent truths to be better understood, and to do so on the basis of an empiricism (the attachment to the object) that does not forsake, as Meillassoux does, its comprehension by ordinary language. Turning to Saul Kripke’s seminal
lectures Naming and Necessity (1970), and in particular his deduction of a posteriori necessity, this session examines whether contemporary art as contingent truth is best taken to be not the referent for a discourse of tastes, opinion and their identity-less dispute but as a name.

Saul Kripke, 'Naming and Necessity', Chapter 3 - click here:
and here:

Quick summaries of Kripke’s main ideas in Naming and Necessity can be found here 
and here:

and with a comparison to Duchamp:

and if you want to know about the man, click here:

Seminar #4 Tuesday 8th February 2011, 7pm
Venuexero, kline & coma
258 Hackney Road, London E2 7SJ

A theory of absolute contingency situates the dilemma of how a pre-given unconstructed reality can be thought without: a) idealising the thought that thinks this reality; or, b) assuming a poetics that embodies reality within objects and experience.

In light of this, we seek in this session to address what the ‘invisible’ or ‘thought’ of absolute contingency in relation to language without reinstating such limitations. 

Donald Davidson’s short essays look to the problem of reference; that is, how to analyse the language we use with a concept of another order that that does not explain the relation between language and reality. His argument for a theory of absolute truth returns us to discussions on correlationalism, the attempt to relativise reference without a fixed ontology, the split between empiricism and non-linguistic concepts, and the distinction between theories within language and theories of language.

Taking up this analytical approach presses towards the questions of a politics of absolute contingency, presenting not only questions to the idealisms mentioned above, but also to Davidson’s analysis and its limitations as well as the rationalism of Meillassoux’s own materialism. 

Donald Davidson: 'Reality Without Reference and The Inscrutability of Reference', from "Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation", Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001.

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