“The history of human progress is truly heroic,” writes American philosopher Steven Pinker in his recent book Enlightenment Now. Pinker’s fact-driven call for humanism rooted in rationality seems to have been written at the right moment – at a point in time or rather in a socio-cultural climate in which precisely these fundamental categories are increasingly called into question. Enlightenment, human reason, fact-based knowledge, even aesthetic experience – all these cornerstones of the modern view of humankind and the world, which are increasingly discredited today, have one thing in common: they all offer as a response something better than what has existed or been achieved to date. Indeed, they strive to attain a transition from what is “old” and diagnosed as inadequate to something that is “new” and considered less deficient. This realm of the new is supposed to benefit as many people as possible and encompass the promise of prosperity and growth.
For a long time, this transition was designated as progress – a term that not even the boldest optimists (with the exception of philosophers like Pinker, who think in terms of longer time frames) dare to use today with no caveats. In current political doctrines of salvation, it is replaced by expressions like “reform” or the new magic word “change,” used as a means to signal openness on all fronts, although in essence it generally boils down to rolling back progress previously achieved.
What is the current status of progress as a category? Are our (Western) societies still developing further? Further in the “progressive” sense that efforts are made to eliminate circumstances that are identified as being unjust, actively triggering processes to promote a more balanced coexistence? Having for so long determined not just the narrative of modernization and social equity, but also narratives around artistic development and aesthetic education, is progress still a decisive factor today? Are elements of a progressive approach perhaps once again to be found in the cultural field today, with its long and extensive tradition of engaging with (postmodern) critiques of enlightenment and reason? By that we mean viable, projective approaches to overcoming the unjust, non-egalitarian conditions that people have long been prepared to accept in politics. And should one believe in ideologies of progress that primarily locate such progress in the technological field (or, as in Pinker’s case, in the scientific realm), with a hidden agenda that assumes social dynamics will somehow follow in the wake of headway made on the technical front?
Taken together, these questions form the starting point for the #Progress issue. This conglomerate of questions is presented as a hashtag to reference the complex entanglement of fundamental contemporary circumstances and the forms of critical thought embedded nolens volens in them. Yvonne Volkart explores one of these lines of critical thought in relation to ecological discourse and associated artwork. To what extent is progress in any way a viable category when it comes to the state of the world's climate or ecology? Wouldn't progress necessarily mean regressing in this context, in other words, turning away from the devastating situation? Yet as everyone knows, it is no longer possible to simply return to the past. Volkart responds to this dilemma by trying to strengthen the concept of the “event,” the idea of event-based becoming (something better, with small steps accumulating).
Diedrich Diederichsen also sets linear, in a certain sense irreversible, progress in opposition to an extended yet also indispensable concept of progressiveness. This progressivity, already abandoned by many as unreal or too complicated, would in fact have to be prepared to absorb many different fronts (the key term here being “intersectionality”) and could, as Diederichsen asserts, begin with a quite obvious subject position: that of those people who bear the brunt of the current global situation and are forced to flee from many places.
There is a general awareness of where the supposedly cosmopolitan society of the West is heading, and in his contribution Lawrence Grossberg once again portrays the roots of the pessimism that is spreading in this respect. Grossberg, who has analyzed the rise of the New Right for decades, never tires of appealing to an optimism of the intellect – a way of thinking that continues to focus on progress and advancement, which is more necessary than ever, especially in times characterized by a crisis of knowledge (and scholarliness) and truth, alongside increasing social polarization.
Art is perhaps always one step ahead of all this. After all, it operates on the basis of the specifics of aesthetic experience and attempts to influence an unedifying here and now from the vantage point of something different, such as the future or a utopian vision. Artists such as Danh Võ, Catherine Sarah Young or Chto Delat, who are represented here, take precisely this as their point of departure – the latter, for instance, as they explain in the interview, by attempting to transpose Kasimir Malevich’s historical dictum “Go and Stop Progress!” to the present.
All in all, this issue unfurls various scenarios relating to this kind of impact on the present, including several from Austrian art of the 1960s and 1970s, in the hope of creating an expanded space in which these topics can resonate and an openness towards a (not merely technological) idea of progress that actually deserves this name.