Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Ploughshares into Swords: On Our Surreptitious Essentialism

Janet Wolff has noted with concern the “lure of immediacy” in contemporary thought about the images.1 The concern is that unanalyzed notions of immediate, unmediated, direct experience—made available by the “power” of the work of art—evade developing notions of meaning and significance. Suggestive of this lure of immediacy is the current prevalence of several “pessimisms”: afropessimism, gynopessimism, ecopessimisim, and so on.2 These represent not just situations of abjectness of their objects—the black, female, earthly—but self-given ontological differences that found whole worldviews.

The present paper is devoted to addressing the basic asymmetry of a move from what can be called “passive metaphysics” to “active metaphysics,” the overcoming of formalism, structuralism, and semiotics by post-structuralism and its hasty replacement with new forms of thought that presume matter that is alive or animate transparently makes itself available to experiencing subjects, who are affected by it immediately, without mediation, directly.3 For various reasons, the various forms of thought I will review—historiography, affect, metaphysics—have not cashed out this active metaphysics. But the general orientation remains there, ready to be abused at any time. If postmodernism turned swords into ploughshares, we have recently turned ploughshares into swords.

The term I have chosen, “active,” is meant to be non-technical. Indeed, theory that has embraced it—from affect theory to new materialism and realism—purposely does not engage with older literature and nomenclature. Like postmodernism, it is motivated by a sense of endism, of newly discovered truths. Its power lies in its vagueness. But what it promises is the overcoming of the effort of signification, language, discursivity, representation. It is immediately available because it has a power that is strong, available, and transparent. The problem of naïve realism is immediately raised. Why then is there error? However, the new active metaphysics believes that this power is selective. But that raises another problem, for whom is the power available? Surreptitiously, we are letting essentialism in through the backdoor.

Surveying the contemporary philosophical landscape and following Giorgio Agamben’s distinction of a “line of immanence and a line of transcendence,” we can see that the defenders of immediacy have an advantage.4 They count among themselves Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Latour, Agamben himself, and other forms of posthumanists. On the side of transcendence, we can count, besides Kant and Husserl, Levinas, Derrida, Badiou, and Zizek. These latter traditional Marxists and Communists uphold the old categories while immanence is built to respond to new realities. Indeed, the failure of post-Fordist economics and the evaporation of a workable definition of labor marked the death of traditional leftist politics. Immanence seemed to describe a politics adapted to the challenges of modern life.5 Although the “turn to religion” is shared between transcendent and immanent strands (Agamben, Badiou, Zizek), among the ominous signs accompanying the rise of immanence is the uncritical rehabilitation of (admittedly important) figures like Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, introduced without the usual disavowals.6

Ironically, the breakdown of postmodern discursivity is a part of its very foundation. Theorists like Roland Barthes or Julia Kristeva were writing about the materiality of the sign as excess in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Memory and trauma studies arose in regard to the Holocaust. If we had to pinpoint the emergence of an active metaphysics, it would have been bootstrapped by experience and the weaknesses of social construction to contain identity. In post-positivist philosophy of race and identity (Satya Mohanty), experience became the bedrock of a new search for “real” identity.7 In epistemology, still afraid of realism, theorists explored “response-dependence” as underwriting the semi-objectivity of otherwise fugitive qualities like color.8 True ontological realism, whether in Austrian, neo-Austrian, or neo-Marxist strains, were too much to countenance and were largely ignored.

Turning toward visual studies, there was a parallel emergence of (at first tentative) considerations of the voice of the work of art. This was underwritten in the very practice of Actor-Network-Theory, which was always ambiguous about the agency of the actor and network. Writers like W. J. T. Mitchell and Bill Brown introduced the potential power of the visual, which increasingly tipped away from the network toward the object. By 2007 and the introduction of object-oriented ontology, a way was cleared for full-scale continental realism. If we follow the development, it is clear that the movement has traveled from representation to presentation, from the mediated image to presence, from signs to raw being. In this case, the arrival at “thing” theory or “object-oriented ontology” is apt because images become some of the most embarrassing props of civilization, mere flat surfaces erupting with signifying surplus.

The result is that in both cases of sensation and object, they evade the mind and attain their reality in some direct, aggressive way. In no case, however, are these fully worked out metaphysics of event or object. They are under-theorized and do not connect meaningfully to developed academic discourses on such topics. In general, the rise of essentialism was surreptitious. For example, Keith Moxey adopted the presence of history because heterochronologies, he believed, allowed art history to shed the “provincialism of its Eurocentric bias.”9 In other words, pursuing the aims of standard postmodern art history (anti-ethnocentrism) fueled the adoption of a rather untried ontology of time. Slowly, standard postmodern nominalism was not deemed to have a strong enough ontology to handle identity or race or process something so powerful as the Holocaust. The practitioners of the new essentialism simply saw themselves slightly shifting focus, bringing out latent possibilities. But the fact that for them “ontology” was almost a mere possibility means that it was not taken seriously as being.

Now, those against mediation have not simply gone back to the older theories or revived the older theorists. Instead, they have relinquished theories, sometimes of their own making. The result is the richness of some system of thought—let us say, René Wellek’s literary formalism—was negated by post-structuralist literary critics, who then negated their own negation, creating a positive literary theory that does not even seek correlation with any past thought (like Wellek’s). The perversity of the situation should be appreciated. Once metaphysics, ontology, biology, physics, and whatever else are unleashed, they will be absolutely essentializing. And we won’t have any defense against it.

In fact, the only thing that has saved this left Spinozism from becoming a reactionary theory of affirmation is its traditional commitment to latent postmodern ideas. The embrace of “scientific” outlook of biology and general materialism has brought it into essentialist territory, but its optimistic politics (recall, that which makes politics possible again) causes it to focus on the affirmative, generative, and new. Postmodernism was in general devoted to indeterminacy, instability, and was anti-metaphysical; these habits do not die overnight. When materialist feminists venture into biology, it heretofore describes only new possibilities, for example new gendered possibilities, but never as pointed out by sociologist Lena Gunnarsson biological limitation.10 When an object exerts its powers it heretofore corrects a past record in order to suggest new meanings, but it does not lead us astray. I call this “half-materialism,” materialism that is an engine with a governor restricting its full expression.

As I suggested, what is remarkable about the fashioning of ploughshares into swords is that much of it has been undertaken by those who originally turned swords into ploughshares. Although the immanent turn is indeed an intellectual trend encompassing a whole generation, much of its work is marked by strong conversions or at least significant changes of emphasis by thinkers. Those that will be discussed below have careers marked by an apparent volte-face. I have chosen these thinkers to leave hanging larger questions about the humanistic intellectual field and the way in which it consumes theories. But more importantly, I want to show that the deskilling accomplished by the first theoretical wave has decisively affected the second wave. This should heighten the crisis that I feel as I approach a series of theories of incredible reactionary potential.

In the following, I want to review three case studies: presence in historiography, animate objects in visual studies, and the material brain in affect studies. I want to review not only the theories and the criticisms that have been made of them but also their potential conflicts. After discussing each of these problem areas, I turn to the consequences of what I call a surreptitious (in)active metaphysics. I use the parentheses in order to stress that even the first generation of inactive metaphysics had surreptitious elements. The final section is an appeal to heighten sensitivity to handle the active metaphysics—the swords—with care.

Turn to Objects

Active metaphysics is embraced, as I have sketched, first in regard to life itself. We are to engage the world and people around us in a more active manner, and its power is supposed to engage us directly. In the discourses studied here, on the other hand, an active metaphysics is invoked to erase the distance of mediation, whether historically in the texts of historians, or representationally, in the pictures of artists. In fact, it is mediation itself that is the embarrassment, and there is no shortage of writers who wish to evade the very modernist notion of mediating.

The history of postmodern art can be told as the embarrassment of the pictorial. Waves of art have pushed the artistic message away from the licentious image, with its seductive indirectness, to the realm of being. This is the path obviously of Rauschenberg, the Minimalists, and all subsequent developments. In a related way, the art historian has rejected the old interpretive schema of causal history, symbolic interpretation, and cultural codes in favor of arriving back at the work of art, hic et nunc.

Of many contemporary thinkers, one who had a dramatic conversion from ploughshares to swords is the art historian Keith Moxey. In early works like The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics and Art History, Moxey was an interpreter of the post-structuralist revolutions wrought in comparative literature and continental philosophy for art history.11 His book was a relentless championing of a triumphant outlook in which the work of art had been reduced to an arbitrary “semiotic” sign. He rejected a correspondence theory of truth and reduced representation to a mere code. So complete was his critique that it almost seems an inverted canon—against the apparent preceding commitment to humanistic values, a stable canon, objective interpretation, he offered the unconscious subject, the radical construction of values and the appreciation of works of art varying with our needs and ideology.

After another book, The Practice of Persuasion that continued themes from the first, it seems surprising that in the more recent Visual Time he has turned interest to contemporary “object” and “ontological” turns. As he explains, however, he has shifted the problematic from individual difference to temporal difference. Indeed, the main focus of Visual Time is temporalities, art history’s investment in modernity, and the damage to the rest of the world in such a reckoning.12 The book then is styled to be a kind of postcolonial critique of art history undergirded, however, by the adoption of materialities and ontologies that affirm the ever-presence of objects.

We evade western temporal hegemony by accepting that works of art are continually with us, not in the historicist past. The turn toward the “phenomenology” of the work accomplishes something similar as Ankersmit in avoiding the fatigue of language and representation. Moxey is intrigued by the developments in Germany and the writing of Gottfried Boehm, Hans Belting, and Horst Bredekamp, as well as French science studies of Bruno Latour, all of which in different ways affirms the power, animacy, and embodiment of images.13 Images are “present” to us. But this corrective is either partly metaphorical (as in the networked animacy of Latour) or else too literal (as in Belting’s images as body substitutes). As we would expect, such intuitions are not matched against prior phenomenological notions of the image, which means that the metaphysics (ontology of materiality) is not fully understood. It is enough that its “status as an agent in the creation of its own reception, its anachronic power, shines through.”14

But what does this mean? Because Moxey is tied to the postmodern project of relativism, his adoption of strong ontologies of the image seems blunted. But strong ontologies they indeed be. If a work can partially dictate its reception, even if that reception can change, it seems to accord an important role to the work itself in the manner of some kind of formalism. In the rush to overthrow sign systems, Moxey even takes a look at Hans Sedlmayr’s notorious theory of Brueghel’s macchia, an expressionist reading of paintings that served his own symptomatologic interests in the rise of modernity because it is a mark that resists totalizing meaning.

This swing from semiotics to anti-semiotics is too perfect to be trustworthy. Evidently, the political aim has been the same to disrupt meaning or disrupt time. But the choice of tools has been remarkably hasty and left open many theoretical and methodological problems. The semiotic theory was relatively sketched out, if one sided. The anti-semiotic theory is hasty and of potentially violent interpretive power. Only the norms of postmodern relativist ethics keep them in check for the time being.

Turn to the Brain

The embarrassment of the picture and its representationality is mirrored in the indirectness of mental experience in relation to the world. The long postmodern critique of “Cartesianism” is cashed out in what has to be labeled as varieties of naïve realism, radical physicalism, and monism. The impulses of affect theory assume that the physical intensities can be directly registered by sense organs and the nerve cells of the brain itself resulting in affective experiences that evade the level of conscious experience, occurring completely at a sub-personal level. If the work of art could be directly registered, this would constitute an improvement.

The second case study I will review is the neural turn promoted by Norman Bryson. Even more than Moxey, Bryson was the one who lodged a devastating critique on western naturalism and the “perceptual” attitude. He digested post-structuralism and in particular the variety of “apparatus” theory based on Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser, which made western modes of picturing—and linear perspective in particular—a species of illusory ego-building. If he here helped bring the “linguistic turn” to art history, more recently he had a hand in the “neural turn.” Clearly, like the “presence” and “object” turns, the neural turn stresses immediacy and lack of mediation.

To be sure, Bryson’s neural turn is limited to a single essay, but his sentiments are shared widely by varieties of “affect” theory, which stress pre-cognitive intensities as bypassing signification.15 In this sense, Bryson’s embrace of the neural does not put him in company with more scientistic authors like John Onians or David Freedberg.16 Instead, he is attracted to the positive work that directly registered neural affect may bring the art viewer. If affect is the engine of post-Marxism politics—the possibility of spontaneous solidarity—rather than the top-heavy machinations of the antiquated party system, then affect can communicate a feeling (not a message!) to new audiences.

The radicalism of neuroscience consists in its bracketing out the signifier as the force that binds the world together: what makes the apple is not the signifier “apple” (though this, too, may play an important role in the process of reality-building), but rather the simultaneous firing of axons and neurons within cellular and organic life. The level of the ground of being, or of the real, shifts from the signifier to the neural configuration, the orchestration of myriad plays of lightning across the ramifying branches of the brain.17

Clearly, if for Bryson “[t]he radicalism of neuroscience consists in its bracketing out the signifier as the force that binds the world together,” such an operation would not be desirable were it not for the fact that the content is desirable.

The reader will sense that I am about to indict the contradiction of a strongly cognitive approach to the image—against the “essential copy”—and its apparent overthrow in an anti-cognitive approach to the brain. As with Moxey, the postmodern commitment to the politics of the image that does not delude us about its naturalness, is now the one that allows us to resonate with our fellows in a politically productive way. Obviously, it is presumed that this resonance will be new, positive, and productive and not of the kind that cheered on Hitler or Mussolini.

Turn to Historical Presence

For a last case study, a final domain of mediateness—memory—is overcome. I have already made brief reference to trauma, and memory, a re-presentative medium par excellence, as a first means of recuperating presence. However, it was not enough because it still required first-hand experience, which could not be recreated. Therefore, it too was an embarrassment. The solution was to affirm that in history, although it is a constructed, retrospective operation, one could still be in some direct contact with history and the past.

A similar trajectory to Moxey’s has been traversed by the philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit who has led the “experience turn” in the philosophy of history.18 Ankersmit began as a follower of Hayden White, stressing the importance of narrative for history and language as a representational medium. Increasingly, Ankersmit was interested in memory studies and wished to embrace the past-in-itself, whether this was a new interest in the sublime or his own residual foundationalism recurring.19 He ended up affirming historical “sublime historical experience,” a direct connection to the past. This is obviously a great distance to travel, from the emplotted individual facts of narrative historiography to direct connection with the past.

Ankersmit came to believe that having a sublime historical experience automatically, in some sense, makes history available to “a nation, a collectivity, a culture, or a civilization … ineluctable realities.”20 Intellectual experiences are like sensory memories. Because experience is sublime, it transcends truth or falsity; it just is. This is a good solution for a recovering relativist because he has managed to escape rationality yet achieved some kind of unassailable connection to the past. He escapes language in favor of experience; he has been able to overcome postmodernism (and overcome contradiction) by shifting to a different register of reality.

In the hands of Ankersmit’s pupil, Eelco Runia, sublime historical experience is translated into “presence.”21 Runia registers tangibly the yearning for meaning, prohibited in the traditional philosophy of history, which he sees as making representationalism (White’s program) ultimately impossible. Like Ankersmit, however, Runia seeks to allow the compatibility of presence and meaning, which he allows by saying that meaning relates to connotation and presence to denotation, to metaphor and metonymy. The past becomes accessible, surprisingly, at inopportune times. Characteristic of half-materialist writing, presence is evoked by a text and is an apparently formal quality. But it is not appreciated sufficiently that it is ultimately epistemic.

It is well known that debates over the Holocaust challenged Ankersmit’s mentor, Hayden White, greatly and caused him to rethink or clarify some of his ideas on the emplotment of history leading him to outline a species of “historical modernism” that anticipates sublime historical experience.22 Indeed, the ethical challenge of genocide to representationalism has no doubt been a spur to presentist, or sublime, approaches to history. It is a way to affirm existential contact but obliquely, via metonymic contact. Holocaust studies always highlighted the “aporetic unrepresentability of traumatic experience,” well beyond representation.23 However, survivors’ stories were testimony and not (at least immediately) history.

Interestingly, one could argue that to become historical these testimonies have to be given at least some representational form. For example, Marc Nichanian has noted the gradual transformation of testimony from the silence of the survivor’s own private memories, to the sharing of the trauma with the witness (a dialogic concept) to a “mediated,” “public concept of testimony.”24 Similarly, Saul Friedländer has responded to White, who had praised his “alternative” narrative devices for telling the story of the Holocaust in The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945, affirming instead that he had merely added “some new elements to the existing ways of writing history within the limits of traditional rules of historical research.”25

The theory of historiography that preceded White’s and Ankersmit’s interventions was caricatured by Arthur Danto as quibbling over the “covering-law” approach to history, that is, the logical positivists’ method of seeking to place events under laws. Such positivism and empiricism were clearly not apodictic approaches to history, though they may have sought to fulfill Ranke’s search for “what really happened” in history. In any case, it can be seen that the newest theories of Ankersmit and Runia are much stronger than their theoretical grandparent and do not address the same problems. The new theory responds to its predecessor, not providing a “whole” theory of evidence, fact, knowledge, and narrative. It can hopefully be seen that historiography does not need presence instead of representation; it needs both.

Surreptitious (In)active Metaphysics 

I have refrained from spelling out the consequences of the surreptitious essentialism that has been increasingly promoted in academic discourse, but I have stressed that only norms constrain the metaphysically aggressive theses from being exerted in different (political) contexts. A work of the past could supersede the historicist past and its temporality and share ours, but it might falsify its nature and give us misleading ideas about the structure of our current society and its allocation of resources and the pressing demands of the present. Sub-personal affect—the sum total of our autonomous reactions to the world—might arise from convivial social bonds that form new political alliances. But as with history, they could also be pernicious bonds. Finally, a mysteriously sublime or present sense of history can affect one to shudder in horror about the Holocaust, creating a deep ethical impression, or it could affirm something more pernicious. As noted with Line Gunnarsson’s discussion of materialist feminism, the gain from essentialism is always deemed to be positive, stressing the spontaneous or liberating. But essentialism goes in the other direction too.

In all these cases, the inherent asymmetry of a move toward essentialism (rather than its opposite) places undue pressures on theoretical consistency. Meta-philosophically, it is a completely different proposition to find exceptions to a universalizing stance than to do the opposite, to find universalizing generalizations that resist exceptions. But each of the problem areas that I have mentioned do not enter into full-scale metaphysical discussions. Therefore, we are left with apodictic statements that, once again, are merely metaphorical (and therefore of misleading interest) or too strong.

Taken at face value—and that is how other, less sensitive interpreters will take them—these words about history, objects or the brain are aggressively active/essentialist. The pragmatics surrounding those words—the context, scholarly conventions, background knowledge—are not built into them. In fact, because as I noted some authors wrote both the original scripts that they deposed, the authors have their own built-in theoretical pragmatics. But theory is text. It is meant to be read at different times and in different places. The theories I have reviewed do not reveal their intention to be treated non-literally, which is a major problem.

Surreptitious essentialism is already being diffused into vulgar outlets, just as deconstruction and post-structuralism became a surreptitious antiessentialism in its interpreters. We can expect educators and those “applying” theory to state flatly that “history is present,” “objects are alive,” and the “brain registers the world directly.” (In a sense, because the two art historians discussed above are not philosophers, they can already be called popularizers, in a way not appropriate for Ankersmit or Runia.) Any of these truisms can be appropriated at any time by anyone of any political persuasion. What damage can they do? An answer can perhaps be had by looking backward.

It is a sticky subject, but there is a case to be made for the connection between postmodern relativism and some forms of revisionist relativism appropriated by the political right. I don’t mean to take a strong stance on this question as done by Daniel Dennett except to point out that the political right both undermines academia and uses it for support when convenient.26 The vulgar relativism promoted by the most extreme forms of postmodernism (convenient foils are Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard) could give an intellectual sheen to those seeking to justify their agenda.27 At least one recent commentator argues that Rorty, in failing to condemn post-truth politics, did not cause but was complacent about its rise.28

Contemporary writers could be in the same position with the reverse, essentialist politics. Proof that we need to tread carefully can be found at close hand. Claudio Fogu has outlined how “actualism” informed the fascists historical imaginary in pre-World War II Italy.29 It does not need to be stated: essentialism is problematic if not framed and clarified properly. Swords are swords. They are engineered to kill.

Swords—Handle with Care

I have pointed to the insularity of a reaction (“ontological,” “material” turn) coming against what is itself a reaction (“linguistic,” poststructuralist) to earlier events (structuralism, formalism). There is virtue to a singular, slowly evolving point of view. The name of René Wellek was mentioned to point out that scholarly trends do not necessarily seek to do justice to their predecessors. Briefly, I want to point to Maurice Mandelbaum as of the same generation as Wellek and as someone who developed a careful point of view over a number of decades.30 Because he was deeply concerned with historical objectivity, he can be expected to serve as a useful point of reference for “presence.” Mandelbaum struck a balance between the narrative element of the history and its absolute reference. He granted that atomic facts could be verified but that one required a spatial or abstractive frame of reference to understand them. This is a kind of spatial emplotment that saves the facts from excessive rhetorical baggage. On the other hand, he rejected the phenomenologists who believed that one could have direct access to the essence of history. He supported relationism, not relativism; critical realism, not direct realism.31

As noted, most of the ideas reviewed here are not given full metaphysical analysis as they are introduced. If one were to anatomize the different strands of thought that I have traced, one would arrive at the irreducible emergence of internal thought (“sublime historical experience,” “material brain”) or the irreducible emergence of the external object (“objects”). It would constitute an internal epistemic essentialism or an exterior ontological essentialism. But in neither case would this be fully worked out for the very reason that the authors I have cited apparently do not believe in pure essentialism. They seem to parade essentialism but never presume to allow it to work. It is the apparent force—the suggestiveness—of essentialism that seems to be interesting for them. Or better, they simply are too ingrained in postmodern habits to even countenance what a real essentialism or its true power might be.

There are suggestions that this is true because of the weakened way in which “ontology” and its cognates are used today. For example, in a manner reminiscent of the historiographical theories of the sublime historical experience, race and ethnicity have been given reality through their “epistemic status.”32 The theory is anti-essential but “realist” in the sense that individuals with experiences affirm some objective status to their identity beyond themselves. This is about all the “real” a recovering postmodernist may want. But a true realism would like to move beyond concepts to inquire about the transfactuality of the aggregated experiences brought together, which supposedly have explanatory value.33 Only this, I hope we can agree, would allow for structural transformation rather than mere “consciousness raising.” (I need not elaborate that all people’s individual experiences have “epistemic status.”)

Something similar can be said about the animacy of objects in their wavering between the phenomenological and the ontological. Their effect on us is partly experiential and partly resides at the level of being, but the exact status is not exactly clarified. But as any first-year philosophy student knows, Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology placed being in the constituting ego, whereas his early ontology was applicable to the mind and all of nature. Furthermore, most theories of the animacy of the image, beginning with Alfred Gell to Bruno Latour, find the animacy in a parasitic relationship with agents, so therefore not really animate at all. Animacy is anyway often expressed in a hedged, metaphorical way, so its authors don’t really accept that objects are truly agents.

A conclusion we arrive at is that essentialist-talk is inherently more potent than anti-essentialist-talk, in the way that a sword is inherently more dangerous than a ploughshare. It requires an ethic, a heightened responsibility when wielding it, because it can do more damage. What has been deskilled is apparently the lore and training of potentially dangerous concepts. Only a dogmatic realism would disarm the resulting profile of structure and powers the thing might reveal. A true realist does not prejudge what any “thing” can do but discovers this through experience, causal interaction (“experimentation”), and even a priori means. The result would be a stratified realism that when applied to history or the brain or an object reveals different results and modes of reality.

For example, when faced with the peculiar power given to images or objects, we would begin a process of analyzing its behavior. People speak to it. But does it speak back to people? Before assigning the term “agency” to an object (if it is to mean anything), we should agree that it is more than an adjective loosely suggesting some kind of animacy but rather something like the “intentional display of causal powers.” Then agency would be “the name for the expression of a distinctive kind of causal power, one had by sentient substances.”34 Put another way, artifacts might not have agency but they would “have consequences.”35


I have not been arguing against a philosophical position (strong essentialism) that I do not happen to like. Nor do I deny that such a philosophical complex has a right to exist. To paraphrase Thomas Kuhn, no matter what happens in the world there will always be Aristotelians. I am making a different point, which is that the neo-materialist, Spinozist point of view risks being presented with a degree of naivete. In many of its guises—particularly secondhand—these points of view risk not actually putting forward a coherent position. I fear that such views exist owing solely to an economy of knowledge in the arts and humanities that allows them to persist. Otherwise, it is scarcely conceivable that the way in which essentialism has re-entered the academic and artistic field could be taken seriously. This is not only inconsistent but also dangerous. When one promotes an active, essentialist theory, it has to be contextualized carefully. This has not been done.

What can improve this situation? The level of philosophical dialogue will have to improve, lest art history, art theory, and visual studies remain a provincial backwater with no return traffic to philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Theory has to aspire to something more than glosses, conversions, volte-faces, or non-asserting “interesting” scenarios. A meta-analysis of new materialism has determined that it is prone to committing performative contradictions between its theoretical statements and practice, and art discourse is particularly prone to being unaware of such contradictions.36 It is time that we become sensitive to them, lest we become complicitous in circulating notions of unanalyzable essentialist power to history, objects, and minds.


1.  Janet Wolff, “After Cultural Theory: The Power of Images, the Lure of Immediacy,” Journal of Visual Culture 11 (2012): 3–19.
2.  For afropessimism, see Kevin Ochieng Okoth, “The Flatness of Blackness: Afro-Pessimism and the Erasure of Anti-Colonial Thought,” Salvage, January 16, 2020,; for gynopessimism, see Jodi Dean, “Against Gyno-pessimism: A Response to Liza Featherstone,” Public Seminar, December 31, 2019,
3.  I will use this “active metaphysics” and “essentialism” alternately throughout this essay. Neither is ideal because the uses to which these are put do not actually align with proper philosophical categories that have been developed in discussions of “powers” ontology; c.f. Ruth Groff and John Greco, eds., Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: the New Aristotelianism (New York: Routledge, 2013).
4.  Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 239.
5.  Neil Turnbull, “On ‘Left Spinozism,’” TELOSscope, February 17, 2010,
6.  On the turn to religion, see John Roberts, “‘The Returns to Religion’: Messianism, Christianity and the Revolutionary Tradition. Part I: ‘Wakefulness to the Future,’” Historical Materialism 16 (2008): 59–84; and John Roberts, “‘The Returns to Religion’: Messianism, Christianity and the Revolutionary Tradition. Part II: The Pauline Tradition,” Historical Materialism 16 (2008): 77–103.
7.  Robert Young, “Postpositivist Realism and the Return of the Same: The Rational Subject and Post(post)modern Liberalism,” Cultural Logic 5 (2002).
8.  Christopher Norris, Truth Matters: Realism, Anti-Realism and Response-Dependence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002).
9.  Keith Moxey, Visual Time: The Image in History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), xi.
10.  Lena Gunnarsson, “The Naturalistic Turn in Feminist Theory: a Marxist-Realist Contribution,” Feminist Theory 14 (2013): 3–19.
11.  Keith Moxey, The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).
12.  Moxey, Visual Time.
13.  Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, 2nd ed., trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Horst Bredekamp, Theorie des Bildakts (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2010).
14.  Moxey, Visual Time, 3.
15.  For a review, see Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011): 434–72.
16.  John Onians, Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese, “Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience,” Trends in Cognitive Science 11 (2007): 197–203.
17.  Norman Bryson, “Introduction: The Neural Interface,” in Warren Neidich, Blow-up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2003), 11–19.
18.  Eelco Runia, “Presence,” History and Theory 45 (2006): 1–29; Anton Froeyman, “Frank Ankersmit and Eelco Runia: The Presence and the Otherness of the Past,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 16 (2012): 393–415; Ranjan Ghosh and Ethan Kleinberg, eds., Presence: Philosophy, History, and Cultural Theory for the Twenty-First Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013); c.f. H. U. Gumbrecht, Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).
19.  Peter Icke, Frank Ankersmit’s Lost Historical Cause: A Journey from Language to Experience (London: Routledge, 2011).
20.  Frank Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), xv.
21.  Eelco Runia, Moved by the Past: Discontinuity and Historical Mutation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
22.  Saul Friedländer, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
23.  Michael Rothberg, “The Witness as ‘World’ Traveler: Multidirectional Memory and Holocacust Internationalism before Human Rights,” in Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture, ed. Claudio Fogu, Wulf Presner, and Todd Presner (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 360.
24.  Marc Nichanian, “The Death of the Witness; Or, The Persistence of the Differend,” in Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture, ed. Claudio Fogu, Wulf Presner, and Todd Presner (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 141–66.
25.  Saul Friedländer, “On ‘Historical Modernism:’ A Response to Hayden White,” in Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture, ed. Claudio Fogu, Wulf Presner, and Todd Presner (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 72–78.
26.  Daniel Dennett, “Postmodernism and Truth,” Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy 8 (2000): 93–103.
27.  For a balanced and non-reactionary though still Marxist account of this development, see Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992).
28.  Joshua Forstenzer, “Something Has Cracked: Post-Truth Politics and Richard Rorty’s Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism,” Ash Center Occasional Papers (July 2018). This paragraph appears also in another essay: Ian Verstegen, “Is Historical Anti-Realism (Ever) Politically Progressive?” in The Poverty of Anti-Realism: Critical Perspectives on Postmodernist Philosophy of History, ed. Tor Egil Førland and Branko Mitrovic (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023), 141–61.
29.  Claudio Fogu, “Actualism and the Fascist Historic Imaginary,” History and Theory 42 (2003): 196–222.
30.  Mandelbaum wrote two principal works on the philosophy of history: The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism (New York: Liveright, 1938); and The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
31.  A similar analysis is made for Rudolf Arnheim in “New Materialism and Visual Studies: A Critical Realist Critique,” in The Art of the Real: Visual Studies and New Materialisms, ed. Roger Rothman and Ian Verstegen (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015).
32.  First in Satya Mohanty, “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition,” in Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, ed. Paula Moya and M. R. Hames-Garcia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 29–66; c.f. Linda Alcoff, “Philosophy and racial identity,” Radical Philosophy 75 (1996): 5–13.
33.  Young, “Postpositivist Realism”; Laura Gillman, “Critical Realist and Postpositivist Realist Feminisms: Towards a Feminist Dialectical Realism,” Journal of Critical Realism 15 (2016): 458–75.
34.  Ruth Groff, “Sublating the Free Will Problematic: Powers, Agency and Causal Determination,” Synthese 196 (2019): 179–200.
35.  Alf Hornborg, “Artifacts Have Consequences, Not Agency: Towards a Critical Theory of Global Environmental History,” European Journal of Social Theory 20 (2017): 95–110.
36.  Michel van Ingen, “Beyond the Nature/Culture Divide? The Contradictions of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman,” Journal of Critical Realism 15 (2016): 530–42.
Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment