The Spirit Of Recession

The following is an excerpt from Paul Chan's "The Spirit of Recession", a Public Art Fund Talk originally recorded by WPS1, New York, in April 2008.

You can listen to the whole speech here, which is an mp3 posted at National Philistine. It is well worth your time and consideration. was a rare moment when the course of the world seemingly revealed itself on our streets. History became available as an experience in the here and now, through the uncanny alignment of the local and the national, both of which expressed this new course in a negative light - that is to say, as the experience of the way we are being impotently dragged along in its wake, regardless of our own will and power of resistance. That feeling of forces over our head, pushing the course of the world onward like blind and unavoidable fate, would not feel so blind and unavoidable if not for the fact that these forces expressed themselves through us. They speak in attitudes and forms of thinking that compel from within an elective affinity that not only accepts these forces as right but more acutely as natural to the ways of the world.


In the interest of self-interest I had to understand the ways in which the social conditions were shifting, either to get in or out of their way. Yet the more I understood those conditions, the more I felt like I was being conditioned by them, so that over the course of surviving, I reproduced, rather than resisting, the impulses that were aligned with the forces throwing an entire epoch into a state of petrified unrest.

But what are you supposed to do?

Self-preservation is the only game, in any town. because even if you don’t play, it doesn’t mean you can’t get played. The urge to join the game is strong, and not necessarily because everybody wants to win, but because nobody has the luxury of losing.


The speculative form of revelation that unveils the seemingly inevitable course and consequence of a society progressing over time by virtue of an unending conflict that pits itself against its own best, which is to say human interest, has an illustrious name in the history of ideas. It is called spirit.


A recession is more than an economic and social phenomenon that must be endured. It holds within itself a kernel of unreason that promises to release it from the constraints of rationality so that new possibilities can come about in its use and meaning. That unreason is its religiosity. For the other definition of recession has to do with the church. Namely, the time after church service, when the clergy departs and the people who make up the congregation are left to themselves. As the church authorities leave a hymn is sang. That is called the recessional. And it is here in the act of leaving and singing that the idea of a recession gains its transformative potential – for a church without authority is blessed indeed. The end of the service announces the beginning of another kind of time. No more commands for sacrifice and expression of faith, no more sermons from the book of progress, no more exchange of prayers. Time holds no more duties and returns to the people a sense of being neither guaranteed nor determined; an inner composition unburdened by the anxiety of influence, and which finds its own shape only when power recedes. This is the time when thoughts turn away from authority that captures their attention, from above and from within, and towards the radical demands of life after church. The recessional marks the moment of this turning. It is the emphatic image of time shaped by the invisible currents of something both passing and coming. It acts like a lyrical farewell and charges the entire space with the anticipation of new tidings that only real endings can bring.


The spirit is a bone, the philosopher Hegel once declared. to find the courage to say the very last words and to make them sing like the recessional to the very last service - this is what I call art. And then to master the strength to stay on firm, not leave and endure through spirit - this is what i call the creative act today.

50x365 #355: Anika

50x365 #354: Neil