Memories of Marina – Marina Vishmidt, 1976-2024

Marina’s intellectual practice truly constituted a form of praxis. Her work was always embodied and situated in a commonly sensed world. For all its conceptual rigour, it was as aesthetic as it was theoretical; it would be a grave mistake to paint Marina as some niche theorist who happened to specialize in writing about value or autonomy. Such notions were not discussed as pure concepts but experienced and actively problematized in various collaborative contexts—ranging from the “old” Jan van Eyck, to Casco, W.A.G.E. and Cinenova. In the context of the project-based knowledge economy, the mutations of the value form and of labour through speculative modes of production were not a purely academic subject, but rather a lived reality demanding critical derealization.

A theorist in the context of art, Marina did not write all that many monographic texts on artists. Rather than art criticism, Marina produced critique in the context of art, and this entailed the questioning and the remaking of the relation between writer and artists. While some of her key interlocutors and collaborators were fellow theorists such as Anthony Iles and Kerstin Stakemeier, others were artists: Melanie Gilligan, Annette Krauss, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and many more. With Kerstin, Marina worked on a critical reconsideration of the problem of autonomy precisely through the lens of reproductive labour—a project she was very much intent on taking up again in the near future. This co-authored passage by Marina and Kerstin, from Annette Krauss and Casco’s publication Unlearning Exercises, can serve as an encapsulation of Marina’s stance:

The question of reproduction arises from the pages of these texts, as the shared site of debates, of antagonism, of divided labor, of group process, and of becoming critical of and for our (self-) institutions. […] The exclusivities which we attack are in no way external to us. Who are we to reproduce, to self-affirm our own form? Unlearning might be turning into the site of our deproduction. And this shared deproduction in fact might be the source of our commoning. We are hoping to be unlearning ourselves.

As is all too obvious, not everybody shares that hope or this particular form of practice. Marina’s illness fell into a period marked by aggressive re-assertions of reactionary ideologies and forms of subjectivity. Having escaped from post-Brexit British academia to Vienna, Marina was a close observer of the intellectual, ethical and political self-immolation of the generation that had shaped German cultural life from the 1990s on. This led her to join Strike Germany, and then to break that very strike by participating in events in Germany that were organized by some of those who do not subscribe to the hegemonic Teutonic ideology of Staatsräson (a.k.a. white supremacism rebranded as “anti-Antisemitism”). By November, she estimated that she was signing two open letters or petitions per day—though this was certainly not limited to the German-speaking world, with the rise of reaction being a transnational phenomenon.

The editors of Historical Materialism have a point when, in the wake of Marina’s death, they note that “it seems a fitting tribute that, on the day this wonderful Jewish anti-Zionist passed away, forty US universities were occupied by their students in protests aimed at Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza.” Still, as police and shadowy militias are beating up students on American campuses, and in the midst of a German-style ideological, legislative and executive clampdown in the US and elsewhere, I find it difficult to muster that famous optimism of the will. Like some of Marina’s other friends, I struggle to not see her cruelly early death as part of a pattern of collapse and defeat, as life is being exterminated at the biological level, but also at the level of cultural forms of life; as critical spaces are being shut down when critique becomes more than a genteel diversion; and as contemporary subject-formation is increasingly marked by the “reactionary autonomy” that Marina and I discussed in an e-mail conversation we had late last year.

In this conversation, which will be published (in print and online) in the French journal Perspective later this month, Marina and I unpacked “genealogies of autonomy” in theory and practice. In one passage, she references my quotation of an old German feminist-autonomist slogan, “autonomy is self-determined dependency,” and continues:

… such an acknowledgement of (inter)dependency can also be seen as a form of depressive realism/cruel optimism over something that is often reified as “complexity” or, even less insightfully, as “complicity.” This often equates critique with the politically dubious, elevated distance of the ostensibly white, male, bourgeois subject—one that disavows barriers to systemic critique faced by those locked in the marginality that a hyper-exploitative economic regime bestows upon any who do not play along. The conclusion thus drawn is that negativity toward the dominant state of affairs is a position of privilege, while a blithe defensiveness of “hustle culture” takes over—whatever elaborate grids of discourse occlude it, especially in the space of artistic practice. From yet another angle, I feel like a much more elaborated set of ideas and affects around “refusal,” “speculation,” and “pessimism,” often coming from Black aesthetics—as well as the renewed prominence of labor and class; identity politics among a younger generation; and the urgency of political ecology movements—has somewhat drained the self-evidence from many of the aforementioned positions, which were very prominent in the mid-2010s, although the conditions that informed them have, if anything, deteriorated even more.

Given the developments that we are witnessing right now, a lot of the ruling class masks have come off—that is, the ones that pandered to a certain liberal common sense now invidiously caricatured as “woke” by the flailing right. In the current political climate, neither your average plutocrat nor cultural administrator are ready to tolerate the “autonomy” of cultural and educational institutions, whether in the vein of pluralism or partisanship, even when it comes to a genocide unfolding before our eyes. (And forget about enjoining historical and geopolitical context.) This makes it ever more clear that autonomy’s philosophical aesthetics should be approached in a spirit of genealogical-critical inquiry but also contested—not just discursively, as it has been for years, but also practically.

This practical contestation is more necessary than ever—the proof being that it is being made increasingly difficult, as the masks have well and truly come off. Some ten years ago, I co-commissioned an essay by Marina titled “All Shall Be Unicorns,” which at one point contains a discussion of prefigurative politics as “premised on action in the present helping to realize a desired future scenario rather than putting everything off for a chiliastic moment of total rupture which almost by definition never comes.” Her work was in this vein, though the spectral status of those emancipatory “desired future scenarios” suggests that we could perhaps more properly speak of a reproductive politics: a Lebenspraxis fostering forms of life that thrive even among the ruins of infrastructure, like resilient weeds thriving on Beirut’s garbage dumps in work by Marwa Arsanios.

Even while undergoing cancer treatment and settling into her new environment in Vienna, Marina remained an acute observer of the ongoing political and social mutations, which she bore with greater equanimity than I managed to muster. Between her situation and my own state of exhaustion and depression, the pace of our correspondence was slow, even though we both also derived energy from it. When I privately apologized to Marina for my Eeyorish outlook on the present (art) world, she responded not just with some musings on the necessity and difficulty of boycotting disgraced magazines such as Artforum and Texte zur Kunst, but also by sending me “a good donkey screenshot.” Working and joking with Marina made it easier to imagine that donkeys, too, can be unicorns.

The first trace of correspondence with Marina that I can find was a 2011 email (having met in real life by then) in which she thanked me for pointing her towards a passage in Adorno’s essay on Wagner. If this is almost too true to type, the last communication could hardly be more different. I had sent a Whatsapp message to her in hospital, where she was receiving palliative care, and after a few days she replied with a single heart emoji. I’m not entirely sure whether she had the strength to even type this one character, or if Danny or somebody else did it for her; regardless, this little platform-capitalist glyph somehow managed to convey a wealth of emotion and memory. Taken together, these two extremes in online communication convey a sense of Marina as a someone for whom intellectual incisiveness never entailed flatness of affect. Intellectual inquiry itself was a source of joy, friendship and comradeship—as was the suspension or sublation of that inquiry in the form of all kinds of silliness.

It’s staggering to think that our exchange has been cut short; that so many people’s conversations and collaborations with Marina have stopped. Thankfully, the conversation with her writings will continue.