The Work of Crisis

The Work of Crisis

Steven Connor

An opening statement made at the Art, Money and Crisis conference, Cambridge, 29th April 2016.

The configurations of 3 are very much more complex than the configurations of 2. There are 2 ways in which 2 items can be ordered, but 6, or 3 factorial, 3x2x1 ways in which 3 items, like Art, Money and Crisis can be ordered. Each of the elements may be imagined as the mediation of the others – art might be thought of as the mediation of money and crisis, money as the mediation of art and crisis. Perhaps we might change that metaphor, and imagine the mediator as a kind of intermediary interruptor, diagonal distraction, or noise on the line – something that insinuates itself between two terms. I suspect that we will have plenty that we think we know, or at least know we think, about art and money and the relations between them, ways in which art can induce us to think about money, for example, and money can make certain things in art and certain kinds of thinking about art possible.

But what of crisis? What are we to make of crisis, what can crisis make happen, and hold at bay?

Crisis is related to Greek krinein, to judge, determine, or decide. In Greek, krisis could mean both the act of judging and the actual judgement – the event or issue of the judgement. As such, it is first cousin to words like criticism and critique. This makes phrases like ‘the crisis of criticism’, which used to abound in literary and cultural publishing, immaculately tautological – all criticism is the effect of a kind of crisis. Medicine preserves the link between crisis and the idea of a decisive turning point: to be in a ‘critical condition’ is not to disapprove of your treatment plan or consultant’s bedside manner, but to be at the point at which something will be decided. The earliest citation given by the OED for crisis used in this sense, from a medical text book of 1543 tells us baldly that ‘Crisis sygnifyeth iudgement’. The judgement in question is a judgement that we are not necessarily going to be called upon to make, or may be as Larkin calls it, ‘what something hidden from us chose’. In a medical crisis it is often the body that will make its own judgement on itself.  The word crisis has also been used to mean a sign, symptom or determining feature, even a criterion, which shares its Greek root. Thus a seventeenth-century entomologist writes that the beauty and vigour of certain flies is ‘a Crysis of their youth, not their idleness’.

So the time of crisis is an exceptional time, a time of change, renewal, revolution or even revelation – the time not of chronos, or one thing coming after another, but of kairos, that which breaks into or breaks out in ordinary clock or calendar time. Michel Serres proposes in his book Temps des crises that crisis must accordingly always imply a breakthrough into the absolutely new: ‘If we are really going through a crisis, in the strong medical sense of the term, then a return backwards is no good. The terms “stimulus” or “reform” are irrelevant. If we are really dealing with a crisis then no “recovery” is possible’ (Serres 2015, xii).

So a crisis always in a sense is a matter of life and death, a choice between the life of the new and the death of the old. As such, it may seem exhausting, painful, stressful, and so in almost all cases to be averted or avoided. And yet much of modern art, if not also of modern life seems to suffer under a kind of deficit or unavailability of crisis. ‘Should I, after tea and cakes and ices’ havers Eliot’s Prufrock ‘Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?’

This might suggest that another view of crisis might be available. What if the condition of crisis were not a malign and unpredictable eruption, but had become a permanent possibility and even a permanent necessity – what if kairos had become chronic, and crisis had become structural? What if it might be necessary to manufacture and maintain crisis? One version of this hypothesis is Heiner Mühlmann’s proposal about Maximal Stress Cooperation. Put at its bluntest this means that dangerous and menacing events or periods are powerfully and paradoxically cohering. Or, as Peter Sloterdijk has put it, human beings are always getting het up about something or other, and this is a good thing, as long as the cooperation produced by the stimulus of crisis does not itself result in the intensification of crisis – as the response to 9-11 might seem to suggest. For Sloterdijk, the stressory response is a good thing because it confirms what he sees as he immunologic structure of modern civilisations, which engineer security not from but through exposure to risk.

We might further wonder if this might have more to do with the relations between art and money than we might think, and not in the banal sense that art can be a form of reflection on such things – or even a resistance to them – or in the even more banal, if undoubtedly powerful sense that art is subject to material pressures from the availability or not of money. The possibility I am mooting is that art, which, like academic communication in general, has become more or less completely absorbed into the contemporary ecology of media, were one of the subsystems on which we rely to produce and prolong crisis at a manageable level. For, if there is a theory of such a practice, or a practice of such a theory, one would surely be able to point to a version of it in the state of permanent excitation of art, which has taught us, more powerfully than any other medium that only unrelenting crisis can validate its operations or our interest.

One obvious objection to this is that, if art is just playing at crisis, then it’s not crisis, but just play. But that’s perhaps precisely what immunity is – and perhaps what, in the animal world at least, play is too. Playing is rehearsing, anticipating crisis in order to head it off. The slogan employed by the Commercial Union insurance company used to be ‘We won’t make a drama out of a crisis’. But the kind of dramatisation produced by the artst and media is surely just the way in which crisis is managed, that is to say, maintained at optimal levels of stressory coherence-induction.

So, if crisis is a kind of judgement, might we not wonder if the work of judgement requires, profits from, and perhaps itself precipitates and prolongs conditions of crisis?

Peter Sloteridjk has written commandingly in his book Rage and Time about the ways in which states and political movements capitalise anger. Sloterdijk draws on the sociobiological arguments of Heiner Mühlmann regarding the fundamental role in culture formation of ‘maximal stress cooperation’. But the originality of his argument is in the link he makes between rage and temporality. For the strength of rage, which may be defined as the passionate inability to tolerate delay, is also its weakness, since rage is so apt to squander itself, in glorious but ultimately ineffective effusion. In order to maximise its powers, rage must be concentrated, agglomerated, saved up. In the process, rage becomes revenge, and the ever-lengthening interval between offence and vengeance produces history. Subjected in this way to time, rage gives to time its very temper and tonality. As ‘a vector that creates a tension between then, now, and later’ (Sloterdijk 2010, 60), the desire for revenge is the most perfected form of the human sense of historical project.

But there is an economic as well as a temporal dimension to rage. And, given that the name for the system for making time and economics equivalent is capitalism, Sloterdijk would have us think, not just in terms of a rage against the machine of capitalism, but also of a veritable capitalist machine of rage. Sloteridjk makes out a religious prehistory for this in the Judaic notion of the wrathful God, seeing the capacity of Judaism to defer yet nurture revenge for its wrongs as confriming Israel, along with Greece, as ‘the most important export nation for age-manufacturing systems’ (Sloterdijk 2010, 91), its most important trading partner of course being Christianity, whose eschatology Sloterdijk reads as a system for maintaining through history ‘a transcendent archive of rage’ (Sloterdijk 2010, 97) which will be made good only on the Day of Judgement. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought about a secular diversification of this system, which never got beyond the primitive accumulations of the treasure-house or savings bank, into an ever more complex and intricately administered system of rage accounting and transaction.

Surely we have gone further, or further in. The work or art and the world of art are part of a significant and reticulated work of affect-symbolic administration. Along with academics, and other media functionaries, artists are the hedge-fund managers of crisis banks. I do not mean to snicker or, for reasons that should be obvous, critique this crisis-work, that we might do well to think of on the analogy of the Freudian dream-work, or joke-work. Crisis requires managers and management, not just to ensure that the crisis does not sweep us away, but also to ensure liquidity, making sure there is always an adequate supply of the crisis on which our collectivity increasingly depends.



Serres, Michel (2015). Times of Crisis: What the Financial Crisis Revealed and How to Reinvent our Lives and Future. Trans. Anne-Marie Feenburg-Dibon. London: Bloomsbury.

Sloterdijk, Peter (2010). Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation. Trans. Mario Wenning. New York: Columbia University Press.

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