“It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself.” – A world made of stories
Bill: I think you and I would both say that a traditional experience of wilderness—the kind where you’re living outdoors for an extended period, in a landscape far away from ordinary comforts—is wholly a creature of civilization. It’s an expression of certain cultural values, but it’s still a real experience. It’s still something we can use to take our compass bearings. We can still look to those values for our sense of self in these places.
Michael: I think science can give us a measure, too. When you study how nutrients cycle in a natural environment, for example, you can learn something about how to nourish soil. The study of ecosystems in their untrammeled state can teach us ways to mimic them, and that’s a really important resource for things like sustainable agriculture.
Leaving “wilderness” aside, I do think there’s this wild other —I don’t know what exactly we should call it—that has an enormous amount to teach us. I think the encounters we have with plants and animals are really useful. We learn important things about what it means to be human and what it means not to be human. There is that quality of wildness that’s essential as something to learn from, to reflect on, to measure ourselves against.
Michael: Politics come in as soon as we attempt to define “sustainability.” I think we’re contesting it right now. There are meetings going on now between environmentalists and corporate leaders about how to define the sustainability labels put on products, and that’s a fiercely political argument.
Bill: That’s right. The other trouble with sustainability is that it tends to point toward a future in which the good system is a stable system. But that’s not how history works. History is unstable. Perhaps that’s why the word resilience now gets invoked. Resilience and sustainability together are the territory in which our political and theoretical work needs to be done. We need unstable systems that nonetheless operate within a band of sustainability.
Michael: The idea of resilience—there’s an example of drawing from what we understand about natural systems.
Michael: And there is some role for science in describing those systems and explaining how they work. I find the word useful.
Bill: I do, too.
Michael: The word is useful in many different contexts, because it links to nature qualities we like in ourselves, in our children, and in the social realm, so I think it’s very productive. But where does it come from?
Bill: Out of ecology and climate science. It emerged as more and more scientists began to believe that the effects of climate change are such that we are going to lose ecosystems that we hoped could be saved. As the larger system migrates toward its limits, the question of which systems are going to survive has become more and more compelling.
Michael: But the word also comes out of biodiversity studies, right? The idea that the more species there are in a unit of land, the more it can deal with fire, with changes in temperature, and so on? It’s an interesting measure to apply to certain things. I mean, we need words that constitute value judgments, right?
Bill: We do—so we can tell stories about them. Environmentalism at its best has been good at telling stories about the connections we don’t ordinarily see in our lives. How what we buy in a grocery store has consequences for the earth, for people, for animals. Taking responsibility for the choices we make in our daily lives: that’s one of the things environmentalism has been teaching all along.
I’d contrast it with the illusion of a transcendent leap, that if we can just embrace the cosmic good, we can have a revolutionary moment in which all is transformed. But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices. We can’t imagine one big apocalyptic change.
Michael: Wendell Berry has this great line about distrusting people who love humanity. You can’t love an abstraction, he says. You can’t love a statistic. You can love the person near you, and your community, and your neighbors.
Bill: Use abstractions as metaphors for humanity, but stay close to people.
Michael: I think that’s true. Another very important lesson I’ve learned from Wendell Berry is about the danger of specialization, the fact that we’re now good at producing one thing and consuming everything else. The sense of dependence that follows from the division of labor makes us despair of ever changing the way we live; it encourages us to feel that change can only come from outside—from government, from disaster—because we can no longer do very much for ourselves. That partly explains the power of gardening, which offers a reminder that, in a pinch, we can provide for ourselves. That’s not a trivial thing. It makes us more receptive to imagining change.
Bill: For me, the moral lesson of the garden—and I’m agreeing with you—is that being attentive to the work of the garden leads to greater appreciation for the work that makes life possible, which involves the work of others.
Bill: Right. Ecology, storytelling, history—they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.
Michael: Stories establish canons of beauty, too. There is a role for art in changing cultural norms about what’s worth valuing. One hundred fifty years ago, certain people looked at a farm and saw what you might see if you look today at a nuclear power plant or some other degraded landscape. Part of the reason we tell stories is to create fresh value for certain landscapes, certain relationships.
Bill: And stories make possible acts of moral recognition that we might not otherwise experience. They help us see our own complicity in things we don’t ordinarily see as connected to ourselves.
Michael: Yes, exactly. That recognition can help remove the condescension in so much environmental writing by showing us that, look, these things we abhor are done in our name, and we are complicit in them, and we need to take account of them. It was Wendell Berry’s idea that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. The big problem is the result of all the little problems in our everyday lives. That can be a guilt trip, but it doesn’t have to be. You can tell that story in ways that empower people.
Bill: Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together—the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels—these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.
Bill: Maybe that’s a good note for us to end on, don’t you think? The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that “the world is made of stories, not of atoms.” When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.
“They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior.” – 40 years of Theory talking to itself
Tradition, history and art were subordinated to a collection of thinkers and arguments that went under the name of “theory”. They provided abstract rules and explanations for how human events unfolded and artistic creation happened. Theory had all the attractions of being conjecture-clean, clever, overarching – but it squeezed the vitality and unpredictability from human achievement like juice from a lemon. Instead of reading classic poems and novels, scholars mastered theories of literature. Instead of learning the details of a historical record, they acquired a theory of historical change. Forty years on, the results are in. Learning has declined and the humanities are an impoverished field. The outcome could have been foreseen, for what is the theory of history and art, or of love, gardening or health, for that matter, compared with present and past realities? But the enthusiasms of the moment were too strong.
It didn’t take long to realise that other idols ruled the graduate programmes. Yes, we read Shakespeare, Hume, Austen and Lovejoy, but what we did with them depended on an entirely different group: the theorists.
Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Adorno, Rorty, Paul de Man… they set a powerful agenda for humanistic study. Their work was complex and diverse, but what made all of them theorists was a focus on method. Instead of studying directly the contents of history and thought, they said we should examine the tools of study – terms, evidence, values and practices. Biographers, for instance, aim to record a human life; theorists step back and ponder the narrative structure of that life (or any life), the nature of historical evidence and so on. The sceptical tenor was spreading in schools from Aberdeen to Berkeley to Sydney, and those of us who enlisted out of inspiration had to change our attitude. Theory was hyper-analytical and against common sense, leaving no ordinary enjoyment untouched. The beauty of Keats’s verse, the truth of Nietzsche on herd morality, the heroism of Lincoln… well, you couldn’t esteem such things any more. By their own declaration, the theorists probed the basic elements of language, culture and ego, and to affirm something as conventional as beauty was to be pitiably square and naive.
Some were turned off, but many were intoxicated by the approach. Indeed, it is hard for non-academics to grasp how heady those conversations in the seminars and the student lounge could be. The classic writers were still essential, but the theorists were daring and radical, and the mention of them made the energy level in class discussions jump. If a fellow student spoke about Gulliver’s Travels by borrowing from Swift’s life, one could cite Derrida on how outside materials don’t reveal the meaning of a work but close off multiple meanings to “privilege” just one. Or one could steer the talk towards Lacan on aggression, then apply it to the world of the Houynhnms and Swift’s portrayal of mankind as yahoos. Or one could take a postcolonialist tack and recount Gulliver’s efforts to “go native” (ridiculous, to be sure, but one heard much worse). At that point, the colloquy would turn theoretical, with people taking sides.
Usually, the theorists would win. Traditional scholars fell back on custom and textual evidence, while theorists and their disciples enjoyed the thrill of roguish poses and weighty topics – Derrida on Western thought, Foucault on madness and civilisation, de Man on irony and death. They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior. Think, for instance, how Foucault flattered the student ego. In a series of books, he argued that the freedoms we cherish in bourgeois society, along with the liberal reforms of the Enlightenment, were in fact subtle forms of social control working through heightened surveillance and low-intensity coercions. The compliment this outlook paid to weary junior scholars struggling to find a place in the world was hard to withstand. While the rest of society accepted modern life and muddled through, the clear-eyed minds we fancied ourselves to be understood what was really going on.
When it was a minority endeavour, it functioned as a gadfly, obnoxious sometimes, but useful for testing assumptions. When theory became a dominant habit, it lost its rationale. With nobody around to defend untheoretical positions, it had nothing more to say, no more bunk to debunk. As the numbers of old-fashioned scholars dwindled, theoretical interventions became pointless and predictable. A recent book by another president of the MLA spent pages blaming the poor reading habits of students on the New Critics, figures whose influence waned back in the 1960s. The antiquated target shows how empty theory’s victory was. How many times could you “call into question” a basic assumption or “problematise” a term without sounding like a cliche?
The test of time was undeniable. The simple truth was that the accomplishments of theory mocked its claims. Derrida and the rest spoke in grandiose terms about the implications of theoretical acumen, and their votaries echoed the tone in portentous statements. When de Man declared that “the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations”, his followers repeated it as if it marked a leap in the course of human intelligence. But nobody appeared to benefit from the insight except its practitioners. Theory infiltrated the humanities, theorists found jobs and changed the curriculum, new journals and programmes were founded. But the effect beyond the campus was negligible. A few psychiatrists remained Lacanians, and some architects practised a version of deconstruction, but the influences were scattered. To proclaim theory’s social impact was nothing more than a pretence.
Still, theory’s influence in the university has been enormous. Even among people who’ve pulled away, certain axioms remain a matter of principle – for instance, the notion that sexual identity is a social construct with no biological determinants. In the absence of support from the outside world, theory has become an insider activity. And with the anti-theorists routed long since, all theory can do is rehearse the arguments made 40 years ago, the same interpretations and same conclusions. The pretexts change – Milton yesterday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer today – but the outlook doesn’t.
Professors have profited from theory for a long time, and they’re too comfortable and invested to have second thoughts.
The arrogance was self-defeating, of course. Theory couldn’t sustain the humanities by itself, and the exhilaration that brought us into the habit struck outsiders as a self-congratulatory joy carried out in an affected tongue. With the public estranged from our practice and with younger scholars not replenishing the reserves of knowledge, the humanities are a guild imploding. Theory is dead, but it has taken something much more valuable with it: higher learning.
So yes, Alex’s hatred was most certainly pure. But somehow, for me, that doesn’t really get at what made his writing so wonderful. Because it was a joyful hate that Alex nurtured. An inspiring hate.
For all the talk of his sharp tongue and even sharper pen, we are, after all, talking about a man who once confessed to weeping on an airplane as he watched 1993’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, a film about two talking dogs and a sassy cat trying to make their way back home.
I always thought of this as the Cockburn version of Kafka’s famous dictum: “there is hope but not for us.” Which strikes me as wonderfully optimistic.
So Alex’s hate, ever pure, is just the twin of — and sorry to sound like a total hippy here — his love. His love of America’s lost interior. His love of freaks and weirdos, the dispossessed, the losers and the forgotten.
And the truth was that despite my supposed socialism, it made me a snob. Alex however, despite a healthy love for folks like Marx, Engels and even the dreaded Lenin, never became a snob. He never turned his nose up like I did at the Red States. Whenever I’d read him talking about his encounters bumping along the ex-Confederate hinterland, I’d find myself saying “goddamnit it, Alex. Don’t you get it? These people are racist, theocratic, quasi-fascist bastards. If you weren’t from Ireland, you’d totally get this.”
And it’s in this sense that Alex played what I think was his most valuable role for the left, though as a staunch anti-militarist, he’d probably hate the metaphor: he was like our drill sergeant. He hurled abuse at us — but beautifully stated and almost alway hilarious abuse — from every possible direction. “Oh, maybe if Hillary — SLAP!” “Oh, maybe if I buy organi — SLAP!” “Oh, if only the Democrats — SLAP!” “The Kennedys were the last true — SLAP!” But why was he doing it? Because he was mean? No. Because he wanted us to survive. He wanted us to win.
And honestly, we needed it.
Criticality as rearguard defense of capital – The “purity” of critique is the metaphysics of irrelevance
The Art – Architecture Complex is a book concerned with contemporary architecture and design, a subject I am vastly underqualified to critically pursue. How I could venture into this task without the requisite specialization is best explained by my conviction that marginality with respect to such specialization is sometimes preferable to expertise. And it may well be that both art and architecture are fields too important to be left to their professional defenders. And anyway, if Foster’s observations are accurate, architecture has itself been dissolved, our ways of building and dwelling transformed into cinematic encounters under consumer media’s management.
With this title, The Art – Architecture Complex, Foster invokes that sense of capitalist conspiracy first expressed in the 1960’s phrase, “military/industrial complex.” The book is massively informative but characterized by the author’s trademark polemic with regard to the pluralism that is post modernity in general. Foster has long made clear his preference for purity over plurality…
This metaphysics, the foundation for Foster’s criticism in general, is oppositional in form. He typically opposes resistance and transgression to complicity, outside to inside, the real to the illusory, and the virtual to the actual. This marks a limit to his analyses, and for some would render his conclusions helplessly conservative, even when his objections to “capital” might seem necessary. This is the crux of his situation; critical for his historical consciousness, conservative for the same, his oppositionality leaving him without traction with regard to a historicity of experience now re-composed by way of electronic “abstraction.” In this new situation, Foster refuses to acknowledge how antiquated his use of “the image” and “spectacle” has become, clinging as this does to some notion of an objective foundation, a reality that would offer an external standpoint from which critique proceeds. His fervent conviction that there is an “outside” from which criticism can orient itself and from which critical attacks may be mounted, that distance is definitive of criticality, fails to account for and integrate the pluralizing impact of electronic communications media with which the post modern is to be identified. Even a likely sympathizer such as Bruno Latour asks, “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?”
…Baudrillard, informed by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, developed a more “performative” vision of architecture’s relationship with new media. Although the literary character of his thought has often been anathema to traditionalists such as Foster, his observations are acute if expressed in apocalyptic language. His willingness to embrace the media as environment means he spends less time spinning his wheels on a positioning of critique now no longer available as it was in the nineteen eighties.
Perhaps what is needed, following Foster’s denunciations of design as mere consumerist manipulation in the service of greater efficiencies for capitalism, is recognition of a more general outline. That would be one that attributes the root of the problem more deeply in a description of the rationalist prejudices that dominate our thinking and being. For the style of critique demonstrated by Foster and his colleagues this would be bad news, leaving them revealed as a part of the problem in so far as their project is itself inextricably dedicated to the founding of criticality in a modernity already itself a practice of instrumental rationality. In this sense, the critique mounted from Foster’s “leftist” optimism has become a rearguard defence inevitably and finally supporting and requiring those elements of purification and linearity so essential to the drive of technics (including capital) for ever greater efficiency.
“Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something.” – Generous criticism for perilous times
Criticism was socializing by other means. And since socializing in those narrow literary and intellectual precincts consisted of egos battling for position, status, friendship, and love, it was inevitable that the criticism embody and sometimes exemplify what Delmore Schwartz—no mean takedown artist himself—once called “the scrimmage of appetite.” Pulverizing reviews were not taboo because the victims could always make their retort at the next social gathering, or on the pillow, or in one of the journals that served as kitchen tables for the extended family of writers who published there.
In the popular imagination, the intellectuals—especially the so-called New York intellectuals—were hugely influential, but this is a distortion. Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” published in Commentary in 1959, caused few ripples outside her own circle, even though Arendt’s argument that the United States was wrong to pursue integration at that moment was incendiary. By contrast, her article “Eichmann in Jerusalem” caught on in the larger culture because she published it in The New Yorker, one of the dreaded “middlebrow” magazines that was then in the process of making intellectuals like James Baldwin, Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, and Harold Rosenberg prominent national figures.
The insular, hothouse atmosphere of postwar intellectual combat is where, about twenty years after it disappeared, I schooled myself in the dark art of the takedown. I can now see the irony of my situation—or, as those bygone critics would have said, my “position.” My awareness of my own ineffectuality in the world also led me to seek out the power conferred by words. But the world had changed. I was not practicing a shared style. I was cultivating an idiosyncrasy: I was one of the few critics who carried a hatchet.
What had once been nicely divided into highbrow and middlebrow culture—even at the time a crude formulation of a complex reality—had become a wildly eclectic place where “high” and “low” and everything in between existed side by side. A critic I admired as I was starting out was Robert Hughes, who reviewed art for Time, ruminated more deeply on culture in the New York Review and in the back of the New Republic, published serious books on serious subjects, and introduced people to art in television series on PBS. His style was gripping, elegant, and, above all, popular. Though I didn’t share his fierce aversion to much contemporary art, I thought that the way his career blurred the distinctions between “high” and “low” was exemplary.
Authority is a slippery thing, and its nature is going through yet another permutation in literary life. There are plenty of young, gifted critics writing fiercely and argumentatively in relatively obscure Web publications. But they are keenly aware that, along with the target of their scrutiny, the source of their own authority is also an object of examination. Macdonald simply took for granted the fact that membership in a community conferred on him a certain accredited brilliance. This is what, for me, makes reading him now an incomplete experience, because the group that certified his judgments has disappeared. Literary criticism on the Web, on the other hand, draws whatever authority it has by renouncing any claims to authority. The Web critic relies on his or her readers for attentiveness and approval. A social style is gradually replacing an idiosyncratic one—whether it’s n + 1’s collective tone and worldly references to literary coteries and cliques or Choire Sicha’s slyly self-deprecatory exclamation marks.
Twenty years ago, Robert Hughes might have taken up the subject of Andy Warhol with a demon barber’s gleam in his eye. Instead, this article by Nick Faust in the online journal The New Inquiry, though its occasion is a reflection on Andy Warhol, captures the new spirit of criticism. It is a positive critique of the genre’s social possibilities, and it is expressed in a social tone:
Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.
In other words, the critics will leak the total secret context surrounding a work of art—Edmund Wilson meets Edward Snowden! The French Annalistes wrote history in such a way, characterizing a moment in time by reconstructing its finest, most mundane details. Why not a criticism that draws from the same energy? I have no idea whether it would be successful, but I love the possibility of it.
Applying old standards to a time when everyone is throwing everything they can at the proverbial wall to see what sticks is like printing out a tweet, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to someone through the mail. The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim. The very largeness and diversity of present-day audiences make less and less relevant the type of review that never gets beyond the book under review. It’s the critic’s job nowadays not just to try to survive and flourish amid ever-shifting modes of cognition and transmission, but to define new standards that might offer clarity and illumination amid all the change. Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on “Girls,” the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it’s worth a try.
New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.
Academics cloning themselves – On being critical of everything except the system that grants you prestige (because *that* is the one non-corrupt product of the system)
IT IS EASY TO SEE how the modern academic discipline reproduces all the salient features of the professionalized occupation. It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field. The history department does not ask the mayor or the alumni or the physics department who is qualified to be a history professor. The academic credential is non-transferable (as every Ph.D. looking for work outside the academy quickly learns). And disciplines encourage—in fact, they more or less require—a high degree of specialization. The return to the disciplines for this method of organizing themselves is social authority: the product is guaranteed by the expertise the system is designed to create. Incompetent practitioners are not admitted to practice, and incompetent scholarship is not disseminated.
Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers. The academic disciplines effectively monopolize (or attempt to monopolize) the production of knowledge in their fields, and they monopolize the production of knowledge producers as well…
Disciplines are self-regulating in this way for good academic freedom reasons. The system of credentialing and specialization maintains quality and protects people within the field from being interfered with by external forces. The system has enormous benefits, but only for the professionals. The weakest professional, because he or she is backed by the collective authority of the group, has an almost unassailable advantage over the strongest non-professional (the so-called independent scholar) operating alone, since the non-professional must build a reputation by his or her own toil, while the professional’s credibility is given by the institution. That is one of the reasons that people are willing to pay the enormous price in time and income forgone it takes to get the degree: the credential gives them access to the resources of scholarship and to the networks of scholars that circulate their work around the world. The non-academic writer or scholar is largely deprived of those things. This double motive—ensuring quality by restricting access—is reflected in the argument all professions offer as their justification: in order to serve the needs of others properly, professions must be accountable only to themselves.
The hinge whereby things swung into their present alignment, the ledge of the cliff, is located somewhere around 1970. That is when a shift in the nature of the Ph.D. occurred. The shift was the consequence of a bad synchronicity, one of those historical pincer effects where one trend intersects with its opposite, when an upward curve meets a downward curve. One arm of the pincer has to do with the increased professionalization of academic work, the conversion of the professoriate into a group of people who were more likely to identify with their disciplines than with their campuses. This had two, contradictory effects on the Ph.D.: it raised and lowered the value of the degree at the same time. The value was raised because when institutions began prizing research above teaching and service, the dissertation changed from a kind of final term paper into the first draft of a scholarly monograph. The dissertation became more difficult to write because more hung on its success, and the increased pressure to produce an ultimately publishable work increased, in turn, the time to achieving a degree. That was a change from the faculty point of view. It enhanced the selectivity of the profession.
The change from the institutional point of view, though, had the opposite effect. In order to raise the prominence of research in their institutional profile, schools began adding doctoral programs. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with Ph.D.s.
…What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available. The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates. Undergraduate teaching is part of doctoral education; at many institutions, graduate students begin teaching classes the year they arrive. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses. If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.
But the main reason for academics to be concerned about the time it takes to get a degree has to do with the barrier this represents to admission to the profession. The obstacles to entering the academic profession are now so well known that the students who brave them are already self-sorted before they apply to graduate school. A college student who has some interest in further education, but who is unsure whether she wants a career as a professor, is not going to risk investing eight or more years finding out. The result is a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals. Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. Liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.
And the obstacles at the other end of the process, the anxieties over placement and tenure, do not encourage iconoclasm either. The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms. And the gap between inside and outside academia, which is partly created by the self-sorting, increases the hostility of the non-academic world toward what goes on in university departments, especially in the humanities. The hostility makes some disciplines less attractive to college students, and the cycle continues.
…And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo. If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.
It is unlikely that the opinions of the professoriate will ever be a true reflection of the opinions of the public; and, in any case, that would be in itself an unworthy goal. Fostering a greater diversity of views within the professoriate is a worthy goal, however. The evidence suggests that American higher education is going in the opposite direction. Professors tend increasingly to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected. The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it.
You acknowledge that professional wrestling is often seen as anti-intellectual. Why do you say to that?
Pro wrestling at its heart, it’s like Greek melodrama. It has a very rich culture. I mean some form of professional wrestling has existed since late 1800s. It’s existed in its current scripted state since the 1930s. So it’s got a really long cultural heritage.
Because people engage in it in a very theater-like manner, it actually requires understanding the genre. So there’s a lot of discourse-specific language that goes with it. So one of my participants had to explain to me, Oh a “face” is a good guy, from the term baby-face. And a “heel” is a bad guy. And then there’s a tweener–in gaming terms, we call it a “chaotic neutral”–which means you don’t know whether they’re good or bad, and what they do in certain situations is relatively unpredictable. Watching people work through argumentation about different points and share resources and information shows me that this is a very intellectually active community.
If we’re talking about pro wrestling fandom as a learning community, who are the teachers? Are there ways to “graduate” to higher levels?
The teachers—it’s totally peer-to-peer. So everybody’s putting in their expertise where they have it. People who don’t happen to be as experienced in wrestling but are better at giving grammatical or genre-based writing critique get to put expertise there. Others put expertise when it comes to how wrestling storylines are developed, what elements go into that.
That’s another thing about wrestling–a lot of people think it’s very American-centric. It’s very international. My fans were from the Philippines, India, all across Europe, South America, the US. It’s a really wide fan base. So a lot of people who participate on these boards are English-as-a-second-language speakers. And so they get feedback on improving their written English. My participant from South America said he was able to not only get a community around his interest in wrestling, but they helped him to improve his English skills, which he took back and used in school. So the teaching kind of goes in multiple directions. Everybody’s a teacher and learner, as the situation comes up.
One of my participants, she’s 17 years old. She’s in the Philippines. And she came to the community because when she told her local friends she was interested in wrestling, it was very socially stigmatizing for her. They started making fun of her for being a tomboy. So instead of giving up wrestling, she just stopped talking to them about it, and she found this community online. The fantasy wrestling federation part of the community really drew her in, and she got hooked. And then she started writing for the school newspaper as well. That led to a medical career, where she’s gonna do a lot of technical writing. So her wrestling interest was an introduction to writing in a way that she found really engaging.
What’s different about learning inside the pro wrestling online fan community versus, say, learning inside school?
Like most interest-driven communities, it’s a much more low-stakes environment, so people are willing to try things that might not pan out. In a high-stakes learning environment, a lot of times what happens is, people feel so much pressure, they don’t want to try things that they’re not sure will work out exactly right, because they don’t want to suffer consequences of that. So this allows people to role-play different kinds of characters, and a lot are experimenting with making videos about being in character as a wrestler, or best-of videos. They put them online and get feedback on how their video editing’s going, so if it completely fails, they’re like, “Well I tried this, it didn’t work,” and people give them suggestions on how to fix the problem. So they’re willing to experiment in areas they might not be willing to try otherwise.
Self-fashioning is part of the age-old purpose of higher education, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences. The key point is to be aware, sometimes, that this is happening—to deliberately engage in fashioning—not just let events and experiences sweep you along without your conscious participation.
There is another thought-provoking maxim related to but distinct from “Know thyself,” also grounded in the Greek and Roman classics: “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” This variant was highlighted by Michel Foucault in a lecture called “Technologies of the Self.” Foucault insists that this “taking care of yourself” is “a real form of activity, not just an attitude.” It’s like taking care of a household or a farm or a kingdom. That’s what we are talking about in discussing “self-fashioning”: paying deliberate attention to your “self,” taking good care of it, tending and developing it, not just taking it for granted.
This all sounds appealing, but like most young people, and most people across history, you are more likely to be self-absorbed than self-abandoning. What we may all need most is reflection on the importance of community, of other selves. I’m going to link the two in this essay because I believe firmly that we fashion our “selves” both in solitude and in society.
For most of us—certainly those of us on a university campus—solitude is a relatively rare experience. If we are to fashion ourselves, we will be doing so in the presence of other people, most of the time. We develop as selves through our interactions with other human beings—through relationships, beginning with the family and then the school and the neighborhood, through art, music, language, culture, ideas. Our selves are never, and cannot be, purely isolated beings: we are the products of our experience and our environment, and we need to understand the self in and through society, not as a stand-alone cardboard cutout.
The warnings of Montaigne and Rousseau about how this experience can deform us, pull us away from our true selves, misshape our selfhood, should be in our minds. But we should also recognize that most of what is best about us comes from our interactions with other individuals.
So the formation of selfhood that depends on having someone else shape you like a work of art falls short of forming a successful human being. And it’s not surprising that theories of education since the eighteenth century rely much more on individual choices and taking a significant responsibility for your own intellectual development.
In college, you have an exceptional amount of freedom to choose from the bewildering variety of great courses listed in the catalog, and the amazing proliferation of extracurricular activities, including both those that are already established and those that you might help organize, as so many Harvard students do. If you sometimes think, as you make these choices, about what kind of self this seminar (or this sport, or this club, or this office) will help you to become, you may find guidance here. Does this activity promise to make you a deeper, fuller, more interesting person? Does it expand your life in new ways, or build on what you have done before in ways that make you stronger? Does it challenge you to develop new mental or emotional muscles, so to speak?
According to these pieces of advice, you should think about society not as a kind of zoo or curiosity shop where you can pick up a persona that suits you, but as the source of inspirational exemplars, diverse possible ways of shaping yourself, fascinating models. This means reading biographies and history, novels and essays, and paying attention to how people you admire handle challenges as they come along.
Yet society is not only a source of inspiring examples: it is even more often, as Rousseau said so well, a source of profound pressures to behave in certain ways. Society will surely shape you, the opinions and preferences and activities of your family, your friends, your classmates and professional colleagues, everyone with whom you spend any considerable amount of time. But too often the pressures are negative and will not help you in your self-fashioning, as all of us know when we reflect on peer culture, websites, TV shows, and movies. For worthwhile self-fashioning, you need a surrounding society that speaks to what is most importantly human, and brings you together with others in rewarding collective activities.
In the fifth chapter of her powerful work of political philosophy, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the connections between individuals and political communities. She notes that each human being is “distinguished from any other who is, was, and ever will be”—which is a vivid way of thinking about selfhood. Yet precisely because each of us is a distinct individual, we need speech and action to communicate; I cannot just sense instinctively what somewhat else is thinking. In speaking and acting, we “disclose ourselves” and thus expose ourselves to possible misunderstanding or exploitation by others, but also to the rich possibilities of communication.
Speech and action, in Arendt’s sense, cannot exist in isolation; they are meaningful only within human relationships. By the same token, “human nature”—as distinct from our more animal qualities—depends precisely on our capacity for speech and action: it is in fact through speech and action that each of us constitutes our self. This is Arendt’s distinctive contribution to our discussion of self-fashioning: the self is created not by each of us as individuals in isolation, but through the activities we share with other human beings—language, creativity, striving, politics. If your goal is to fashion a worthwhile self, you should be mindful of your surroundings and choose companions and activities that will give you opportunities to develop your language, creativity, striving, and politics in more depth.
…But if you are to have a whole, integrated, complete self, you must resist becoming totally immersed in private spheres. You must see it as part of your self-interest and your moral duty to play your part in society, to give something of yourself away to others who are in need, to help sustain the common structures that make up our public life. If you fail to do this, you will become a shrunken and diminished self. Recognition of this fact is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” or “enlightened self-interest”: not pure egoism or selfishness, but caring for yourself in the context of acknowledging your responsibilities to others, which brings with it significant moral commitments and deep rewards.
So whether they have too little solitude or too much, women have often had a different experience of solitude and society from men. Men can leave the house and go off on a journey in many societies where women can never travel alone. Women in most cultures have had much less opportunity than men to explore the world, follow their adventurous inclinations. And they have been less likely to have a place or time where they can enjoy solitude. It’s worth keeping this in mind when you read authors who write about self-fashioning. You can sometimes stop and ask: Would this advice have worked for a woman in the society this author is describing? Or are these generalizations accurate only for the men? What, after all, were the women doing in this society?
Let me close with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”: “It is easy to live in the world after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
This is the image I want to leave you with: developing the ability to maintain “with perfect sweetness” the independence of solitude—the integrity and wholeness of the self—in the midst of the crowd. Your education should give you the capacity to shape and sustain your selfhood. It should both furnish richly the back shop of your mind, and prepare you to be a productive member of whatever society you live in. And at best, it should also give you the ability to retreat into yourself even in the midst of a busy life when you need to get your bearings, refresh your spirit, reaffirm your integrity, and confirm what is most important to your self.
“Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
I want to reflect today on the title chosen for this gathering, “Beauty will Save the World.” That’s quite the assertion, and I don’t know if I can convincingly support it, but I’ll give it a shot. My tentative thesis today is that the best way to cultivate healthy local cultures is to celebrate their beauty. It’s not to pass laws, it’s not to develop rational or economic arguments for their benefits, it’s not to start some new program. All these might be needed subsequently, but if we don’t first bear witness to the beauty of a healthy culture, then other approaches are doomed. It’s in this way, by enabling us to see the truth and goodness of healthy way of life, that beauty will save the world. So I want to think with you about the beauty of local culture, why that beauty is important, and how to cultivate it. I’ll begin by describing a beautiful, and I think saving, activity that I’ve had the privilege of participating in this past year.
Rather, our hope is that the students and staff and faculty who participate will see and experience how beautiful it can be to grow and eat our own food. This rich, practical connection with our food is what Wendell Berry calls the pleasures of eating. These pleasures are complex, and they are nearly impossible to quantify, but if you’ve ever eaten a sandwich with tomato slices still warm from your garden, you know something of these pleasures. When you plant a seed, water it, weed around the delicate seedling, try to protect it from deer and bugs, watch it blossom and set fruit, and wait for that fruit to ripen, the act of eating the fruit is not merely an input of calories and nutrients. Rather, eating is just one part, perhaps the climax, in a whole narrative that we’ve embodied and lived out, a narrative that connects us to our fellow gardeners and to the place in which we live.
To call something beautiful in this sense is to speak about its material shape or form, and also about the meaning or splendor that emerges from the form and makes it desirable. And as von Balthasar goes on to argue, when we see a vision of the beautiful, when we see the contours of its form, we are enraptured by its splendor, caught up in a desire to participate in the radiance that beauty grants us to see as love-worthy. So to call this narrative of our community garden beautiful means that the whole way of living that the garden enables us to glimpse, in which we work together and share the fruits of this work, is desirable and love-worthy.
And yet oversimplification leading to disease marks nearly every aspect of our fragmented, modern lives. Our corporate medical system does not aim for health, but rather isolates various parts of the body and treats particular abnormalities. Hence our medical establishment has been particularly unhelpful at offering preventive care and treating complex problems such as obesity. Our monoculture agriculture is merely another instance of our propensity to isolate and specialize, and I’m not sure that our biculture of corn and soybeans here in Michigan is much of an improvement. We still don’t have complex polycultures that include animals and a true variety of plants. Such simplification works itself all the way down to our lawns, which we spray with toxic chemicals just to have “beautiful” grass.
In their false simplification, such specialized visions and the ways of life toward which they lead inevitably contribute to disease. These narrowly-focused ways of life become insipid, losing the splendor of beauty, and yet they define much of our lives as we search for quick and easy solutions. Wendell Berry notes the irony in our culture’s stereotypical view of country life as “simple,” noting that in actuality, it is urban, specialized living that is simple:
When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place. (The Way of Ignorance, “Imagination in Place” 47-48).
My point, then, is that our culture’s tendency toward reductive specialization is intrinsically un-beautiful, that beauty arises only from complex, harmonious forms, that health is beautiful. Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution. But perhaps beauty can save, or at least salve, our world by giving us a richer imagination of health and thus causing us to desire ways of life that, as von Balthasar might say, carry the splendor of truth and goodness.
How do we actually see such forms whose beauty might inspire us to find more healthy ways of living? I think there are at least two conditions for perceiving such visions of beauty. The first is that we see beauty on a local scale.
We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health). Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts. It becomes what von Balthasar calls “anatomy,” which “can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements” (Seeing the Form 31). This is the way the “industrial mind,” a term that Berry derives from the Southern Agrarians, sees the world. Such a vision, precisely because it is too narrow and specialized, inevitably leads to disease and deformation. In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” Berry argues that solutions based on this sort of specialized vision always worsen the problem—he gives the example of addressing soil compaction by using bigger tractors, which only compact the soil further, leading to the need for even larger tractors (The Gift of Good Land 136). So while a bad solution “acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained,” “a good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns” (137). In order to see the beauty of these larger patterns, and thus perceive what modes of life would harmonize with these patterns, we need to be able to see the whole form. When we try to imagine a beautiful whole on a global or even national scale, the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this task makes the temptation to perform a quantitative analysis of isolated parts almost irresistible. And yet such a fragmented gaze can’t see the living, beautiful whole, which is precisely the form that can give us the vision of health and beauty our imagination needs.
The second condition for perceiving this vision of healing beauty is a personal experience or encounter. We don’t see the whole form of beauty when someone describes it abstractly. I can tell you about the Sistine Chapel and describe its scheme and what the various parts depict, but you won’t really see its beauty unless you stand in it yourself. The same holds true for a Bach fugue. This is so because of the complexity and richness of beauty; there is a qualitative difference between an experience of the beautiful and an abstract description of that experience.
…Every morning the local bakery draws a group of men who drink coffee, eat pastries, and talk about the work that awaits them in the day ahead. Their conversation is punctuated by oblique references to stories they all know and by the habitual phrases of friends absent or dead. The community’s memory lives in such conversation. But it’s hard to quantify and analyze what makes this community a healthy one; merely listing its attributes does not convey the beauty of its form. We perceive its beauty as a whole, when we experience life in such a community.
…So we all need to practice creating beauty. It’s remarkable how counter-cultural this participation might be, since we now live in a society that thinks “beauty” is meant to be produced by professionals from big cities and consumed by the rest of us.
We may not all be gifted artists like Kathleen, but we can still all be involved in creating beauty. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Artists,” “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to participate in this task of culture, and our “sub-creation,” as Tolkien calls it, should be guided by the contours of the beauty we’ve perceived.
I am afraid that what often keeps us from embracing the quotidian work of sustaining the “little platoons” of which we are a part is the sense that this local work can’t affect the national and international problems over which the news media continually obsesses. But while such local work may seem futile in our current political and economic environment, it may actually be the most consistent and effective way to cultivate health, given the farce that national politics has become. This is why Berry believes that our “Our environmental problems [as well as our other diseases that afflict our society] are not, at root, political; they are cultural” (What Are People For, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey” 37). Dreher echoes this sentiment in an essay on Wendell Berry in which he considers him to be “a latter-day Saint Benedict”: “I am convinced that conservatives have placed far too much stock in political action and far too little in the work of culture” (The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry 281). Dreher hopes that Berry has begun a sort of monastic cultural movement, where instead of pouring their energy into national politics or the culture wars, individuals work to form healthy, beautiful communities in their homes. These communities might then preserve and sustain culture, providing beacons of hope that stand in stark contrast to sick society around them.
I do want to qualify this politics/culture distinction. Politics is indeed part of culture and a shaper of culture, but my point is that it shouldn’t be the primary arena in which we try to affect cultural change. Rather, fostering healthy and beautiful cultures will inspire others to participate and cultivate the communities of which they are a part. Representative democracy too often relies on the slim majority forcing everyone else to do the majority’s will, whereas culture relies on beauty to foster a robust conversation about the common good, and then to persuade others that this common good, that health, is desirable.
This distinction provides, perhaps, the clearest insight into the unique power of beauty: whereas political power ultimately relies on force, beauty simply invites others to perceive the splendor within its form. Beauty is an invitation, a gift, and thus it is always vulnerable to rejection. This is its weakness, and this is why beauty is often overlooked as a salve for our contemporary problems. But its weakness is also its strength. In our cynical world, where people are jaded by political posturing over truth and strident demands that some particular way is the only right way to live, beauty simply puts itself on offer. And if its form reveals truth and goodness, then those who behold beauty may find it love-worthy. Once our affections are moved, right action and truthful speech will follow.
The time has indeed come. Amidst the Googlization of everything, it has become clear that there are some things Google cannot and ought not do. Google cannot replace a distracted student’s brain with a curious and attentive one, nor can it enhance such qualities as courage, kindness, and truth-telling.
Given the aims of a humanistic education—the intellectual formation of human beings, whether they live in the digital age or the stone age—the production of ever sleeker and shinier gadgets is, despite proclamations of revolution, largely superfluous. As Coppage suggests,
[P]erhaps purchasing one more avenue for Google Now to anticipate our every need is not educationally value-added. Perhaps, what our education system should be focused on is keeping our minds sharp and disciplined, preserving the powers of self-direction and careful attention.
The powers of self-direction and careful attention are precisely things that are cultivated through the intellectual and moral habits of individuals and their relationships with other human beings, not through the replacement of mental and physical processes with Google products. When we discover that we are serving Google rather than Google serving us, we will find the service very poor indeed.
The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” If this is true, then our proper work may include carefully considering our use of technology and how that use shapes us, and regularly setting aside the speedy tablet to give our attention to the slow language, poetry.
Poetry is a better, though harder, master than Google. Reading poetry is a peculiarly difficult act, for it demands the devotion of body, mind, and heart. And, as Coppage points out, “There are no shortcuts,” and never will be, if poetry remains and we remain human.
A poem truly experienced is a poem that is lived with—memorized and spoken, recalled in the morning and remembered at night, growing more precious and meaning more deeply through days of recitation and reckoning. To appreciate poetry, we need to pay attention, and it may take some time to train ourselves to take the painstaking care needed to read a poem well. But the end of our labor is joy, just as a good meal needs time to slowly simmer and at last to savor and celebrate.
Now, what has all this Luddite romanticizing have to do with education?
A whole lot, it turns out, if we’re concerned with educating human beings rather than credentialing digital natives. Language shapes the way we think, and the words we use shape our vision of the world. Poetry renews our language, re-imbuing meaning into words maltreated by sound-byte discourse and Facebook memes.
Poetry demands both precision and imagination; it plumbs the depths of meaning, whereas Google can only optimize our search for information. Google can give us words on the screen, but it is up to us to make them our own.
If, as Plato said, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful,” then let us teach ourselves to love poetry. For love requires knowledge of the deepest kind—knowledge of an entirely different order from Google analytics—and learning to love requires profoundest attention.
“We must shift from a vision of intelligence, as a basically neutral cognitive ability, to a holistic vision of intelligence as an ability that nurtures the human spirit and enables a person’s full realization. Intelligence and love of life in this vision go hand in hand.” – Ramón Gallegos
“As Dewey says, ‘It is not experience which is experienced, but nature – stones, plants, animals, diseases, health, temperature, electricity, and so on.’ My valuing experience of an act of injustice as wrong is about value that I find in the same world where I also find plants and stones. To dismiss the importance of valuing in inquiry because it is merely subjective or a mere psychological reaction is to assume a dualism or to presuppose the supremacy of the theoretical standpoint in revealing what is real.” – Gregory Pappas
So much can be said about Sue Bell Yank’s post The Constructivist Artwork that it is difficult for me to address everything. Her piece is quite welcome as it raises many interesting questions. The quotes above hint at the crux of my response. Pragmatism, in many ways nullifies many of the “problems” posed by Yank. To start, the distinction between idealism and constructivism can be pragmatically useful, but the pragmatist believes that ideas are things, so they are as much a part of the world as ice cream. Pragmatism also preaches meliorism (which is essentially the belief that life can be improved) so it is not truth in any final sense that is sought, but a truth that “works.” Pragmatism, as William James describes it is “radical empiricism.” In his pragmatist version of empiricism, contra Locke, and Plato, the fact/value distinction (like so many others) dissolves. So if we apply some of these points of view to the piece by Yank, we see that she is correct that “constructivism is inevitable.” But, so is idealism, because the two epistemological nodes are part of a continuum.
This requires a holistic point of view to adequately address and leads to one of the difficulties with this piece. It suffers from a one dimensional understanding of what knowledge is and mistakes education as being solely concerned with this limited (intellectualist) notion of knowledge. As Gallegos points out above, knowledge and intelligence needn’t be the purely cognitive type of material Yanks seems to imply. She says, “But often, experiences that are novel and rich with ideas have an educational “potential” and therefore a position on how we acquire knowledge and what that body of knowledge is.” Note that she describes experiences rich with ideas. This point of view is similar to the proponents of academic standards in schools (which functions in somewhat the same way as Yank describes “museums, art spaces, and funding entities” engaging in.). It mistakes that which can be measured for that which is valuable. So I’m left with making two suggestions – one, is to expand what counts as knowledge, or two, advocate for art practices that do more than engage the mind. Holistic educators are a rich source of guidance here (see Nel Noddings, Ron Miller, etc.). Without this adjustment, we’re stuck in the art world academics want – one that cultivates their own specialist skills and interests rather than an art world that cultivates thinking, yes, but also joy, love, and the soul.
“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.” – R.R. Reno
artists without artworks – “who have radically chosen non-creation and have assumed the status of artist, the living for one’s self, outside of all artistic production”
These days the disappearance of the work increasingly haunts art. This unique thing to be venerated, to reflect upon, or to contemplate belongs less and less to our artistic practices. However, is this necessarily the same as saying that there is no art left? In a certain way art is done with art, in terms of what we have come to call art. We keep the name—art—yet, fundamentally, its content has changed. We can therefore no longer think through discourses on art, either aesthetic or historical, that unite notions of art and artwork to the extent of making us believe in the necessity of the latter as an absolute creation and of asserting the complete independence of the art field. Art practices themselves have abandoned the notion of artwork and the idea of art that accompanied it. Twentieth-century art has thus unceasingly been haunted by minority- becomings, those of “artists without artworks,” to borrow a phrase coined by Jean-Yves Jouannais, (1) who have radically chosen non-creation and have assumed the status of artist, the living for one’s self, outside of all artistic production (Dadaism is a fitting example). Moreover, in this century other artistic practices have come into being that make the word “work” difficult to use with respect to them, and the term “artwork” even more so: performances, actions, happenings, ephemeral art, certain installations and videos, and so forth. Finally, we know very well that we must not examine art as a series of incontestable objects to be preserved. Art does not deploy itself only as a succession of productions offered to the veneration of the public in museums or in galleries, but equally as an artistic path or trajectory.
It then becomes a matter of abandoning aesthetic discourse as a discipline that follows the artwork and takes an interest in its reception, in the notion of taste, and that analyzes the internal elements that objectively constitute the artwork. Even very recently, with a philosopher such as Nelson Goodman, we still consider the finished or accomplished work through a philosophy of interpretation that studies how to “make works function.” (2)
What is forgotten in all these perspectives is that art, before being an artwork, before it can be understood as a “masterpiece,” also constructs itself by means of the overflow that brings it into being, by experiences that result from a non-linear activity on the part of the artist. The artwork is not necessarily abandoned but reconsidered in the overflow itself. Ensuring that the trajectory is the equivalent of the work, that the work is nothing other than an artistic experience (including the experience of not making), may be the paradoxical signature of the contemporary artist.
However, how can we come to an understanding of art from the perspective of experience? If the artist’s experience actually exists, it always resides in a sort of formalization of experience itself. Art is no longer defined expressly through the creation of a work often associated with the figure of the inspired artist or of one who possesses genius; it is sustained through formalization, by means of a kind of language or art form, an individual experience rooted in the sensible world and in the singular impressions that are retained by the artist. In support of the idea that the work disappears in favour of the setting in place of artistic experiences, I would like to mention an artist such as Allan Kaprow who developed the concept of the happening in 1959 in New York. As a performer, Kaprow thought he could abolish the frontiers between art and life through a formalization of the experience that takes the shape of experimentation in happenings. Art had to return to events and daily objects in order to restore the proximity between artists and their public and between works and actions. Since the 1960s, the production of environments that introduce objects of daily use around which the public moves amounts to manifestations of a definition of art as an experience of the world that surrounds us. This definition of art brings it closer to life. However, it never reaches the point of confusing the two. The artist’s experimentation always amounts to a formalization of lived experience insofar as it stops short of making this experience sacred, which means that art sides with transience. The fact remains that such formalization in experimentation establishes the power of actions and events in art. The disappearance of the artwork resides in the erasure of its autonomy and of the myth of art’s exceptional character. Art becomes experience, experimentation, and intervention. Not only does it reflect on ordinary life but also, in the same movement, it affirms its precariousness against all logic of power. Precarious, art no longer recognizes itself in the enshrined edifice of the artwork, but tries tirelessly to reclaim the tangled web of experience with what constitutes its own work, formalization, but a formalization that has become uncertain and relational. In having become fragile or tenuous, the work on forms must always begin anew insofar as it has the tendency to melt into lived experience or into the complexity of the world.
It is specifically the artist’s experience, with his or her doubts and everyday uncertainties, that is formalized in such a way as to turn experience into an expression, and expression into an experience. Art distances itself from a thinking that would bring it back to the enshrined site of the work, better to correspond to a world of diversity, series, networks, and links; thus, the artist can experiment and produce an artwork that from now on stands as a fragile trace of this experimentation. Not only human beings are vulnerable, but also art itself as it bears the burden of vulnerability, far from the all-powerful artwork.
Nevertheless, has the work disappeared? No, it lives through its extinction. It still shines in the evanescence that dissipates it, similar to an ephemeral mark in a delimited space and time. In this dissipation of the artwork that postpones it without cancelling it out, the experience of the work’s absence maps out the conditions of a negative artwork. In contemporary art, the subject is not the folly of the artwork’s absence but a certain regime of experimentation of the covert work: the artwork’s disappearance as an illicit work!
“What could be more normal than artists producing artworks? After all, they’re just doing their job, and there seems to be no stopping them.”
Art’s broken promises
By and large, when artworlders talk about what might be broadly described as art’s ‘use value,’ they’re bluffing. Anyone who believes that art, in any conventional sense of the term, by ‘questioning,’ ‘investigating,’ or otherwise ‘depicting’ some socio-political issue, actually empowers anyone to do anything about it, is actively engaged in self-delusion. Yet art continues to make such promises — using its institutions to lend them not only a largely unchallenged semblance of truth, but all the trustworthiness of convention — only to immediately break them. Why? Is it because art is unable to do away with its romantic underpinnings, except by abandoning itself to all-out cynicism?
…What could be more normal than artists producing artworks? After all, they’re just doing their job, and there seems to be no stopping them. And besides, who would want to stop them? So they go on and on making art — adding to the constantly growing category of objects obeying that description. What is more unusual, and far more interesting, is when artists don’t do art; or, at any rate, when they don’t claim that whatever it is they are doing is, in fact, art. When they recycle their artistic skills, perceptions and habitus back into the general symbolic economy of the real.
There is, of course, a context for this shake-up of the status of art and the artist, bequeathed by the twentieth century: artistic activity itself is developing on a massive scale and in a mind-boggling variety of forms, and the production of meaning, form and knowledge is no longer the exclusive preserve of professionals of expression. One finds artistic skills and competencies at work in a variety of areas far beyond the confines of the symbolic economy of the art world, and the practices which they inform are in many cases never designated and domesticated as art. The fact that this sort of art-related creativity seeks no particular validation from the art world, that it pays scant heed to the values and conventions underpinning it, should by no means inhibit us from charting its genealogy and identifying its inherent rationality. And yet, aesthetic philosophy, persisting as it does in construing art as an enigma to be deciphered, as an object begging interpretation, seems decidedly ill-equipped to theorize art in this expanded sense. Beyond both the well-worn logic of appropriation, which consists of recuperating as art all description of objects and activities not intended as such; and beyond the converse, though symmetrical logic consisting of using artistic practices — those, in other words, initiated and managed by artists — to stake out and claim new territories for art, it seems worth pursuing use-value in this particular direction though on the basis of an extraterritoriality and reciprocity that prefigure an unforeseen future for it.
…Duchamp points to the symbolic potential of recycling art — and artistic tools and competencies — into the general symbolic economy of life (as opposed to the standard readymade, which recycles the real into art). The point, and starting point, of this project is to reactivate this unacknowledged genre of artistic activity.
Art without artists, without artworks, and without an artworld
So what happens when art crops up in the everyday, not to aestheticize it, but to inform it? When art appears not in terms of its specific ends (artworks) but in terms of its specific means (competencies)? Well, for one thing, it has an exceedingly low coefficient of artistic visibility: we see something, but not as art. For without the validating framework of the artworld, art cannot be recognized as such, which is one reason why it is from time to time useful to reterritorialize and assemble it in an art-specific space. In one way or another, all the collectives in this project confront a common operative paradox: though informed by art-related skills, their work suffers from — or, should we say, enjoys — impaired visibility as art. Yet this impaired visibility may well be inversely proportional to the work’s political efficacy: since it is not partitioned off as ‘art,’ that is, as ‘just art,’ it remains free to deploy all its symbolic force in lending enhanced visibility and legibility to social processes of all kinds. It is a form of stealth art, infiltrating spheres of world-making beyond the scope of work operating unambiguously under the banner of art. The art-related practitioners involved in this project have all sought to circumvent the reputation-based economy of the artworld, founded on individual names, and have chosen to engage in collaborative action; they use their skills to generate perception and produce reality-estranging configurations outside the artworld. As the wide range of tools developed by these collectives show, this has nothing to do with an ban on images; art has no reason to renounce representation, a tool it has done much to forge and to hone over its long history. The question is the use to which such tools are put, in what context, and by whom: tools whose use-value is revealed as they are taken up and put to work.
“The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored.”
All this is far from “how to” advice. I think we improvise our way into what becomes a life, and that means listening to the last two notes we played, as well as knowing some basics: Am I any good on the sax? Should I stick to drums? Am I paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing? And there are other questions. How do I discover a leaning, a capability, a pleasure, a calling? John Rawls talks misleadingly of “life plans”—I suppose this is on the model of “investment plans” or “career plans.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t put down general “learning objectives” for my classes. I don’t have a life plan for my life, and don’t know what my long term objectives are (if I have any). If something goes bad, I have something to say. But I don’t start with a plan or desire for specific outcomes—except in the most platitudinous sense: stay healthy, don’t starve, be a mensch. In class, if asked for an overall aim, I’d say “get to love these issues, texts, figures, passages. Praise what you love. Get comfortable sharing your growing interests and loves as you ramble or stumble through the whirl, eye ready for sudden insight, sudden center.”
A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking — rather than explaining. In a parody, we could say that philosophers explain-explain-explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of bad theories about to be replaced, thank God, by the good theory I’ve just concocted. Enlightened as I surely am, I hereby stop this proliferation of error by announcing the truth. (It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.)
Wittgenstein thinks philosophies are symptoms of unhappiness, of verbal and intellectual confusion, of anxieties that are nearly inescapable. (Don’t we really, really, need to understand?) But maybe these inescapable worries are rather unreal, like a bad dream—real enough in the moment, and troubling, but forgettable when you awake and can so easily change the subject. The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored. Whatever your reaction after fresh contact, you’d no longer worry about whether the world exists, or whether feelings are always dangerous and unreliable, or whether moral relativity is true or false. You’d soak up the morning, act as you act, and solve your daily problems the way most persons do—one by one, with a minimum of ‘theory’ directing them. So…stop explaining. Just look! That’s Wittgenstein’s advice. Acknowledge your confusion, but the aim is to move into life—join the dance!
Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. His Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, Science or Reason, and that it nevertheless has all the (God-given?) ground it needs—in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet, or a call to prayer from a minaret. To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, that’s good, but not quite Wittgenstein. For him, theory might be “cool grey ash” but life was too polychromatic, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. In any case, it’s not just too much theory that makes for what he called “the darkness of the times”—his and ours. In his 1929 Notebook he writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” He refused ashes. He could imbibe good: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
I know that’s not a ringing conclusion, but it needn’t be reason for disappointment or angst. Except in rare instances, it’s not a well-plotted research program that culminates in definitive findings, conclusions, and closure. It’s a register of deep wonder and yearning. If that’s right, then philosophy will be always asking, no matter what, and always opening an impoverished agenda, and always improvising its way.
Dean Dettloff: Wow. I feel as though you’re already performing this kind of intimacy-therapy on me in this interview alone! The themes of renewal you trace are neither bound to psychological experience nor public consciousness, though they deal with both. You clearly have a heart for interpersonal relationships and societal healing, which seems to bleed into your philosophy of education and a desire for these kinds of ideas to reach a public audience instead of staying within the academy. Would you discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?
Edward F. Mooney: “Intimacy-therapy” captures something about teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the ideal gets lost in the bustle about stiff “learning objectives,” about generating knowledge for the social-industrial-military complex—the specialized research university as a knowledge-generating machine. In my view (I’m in a decided minority), the best education is paternal, avuncular, maternal, fraternal, “sisterly” — where (Platonic) “care of the soul” is front and center. You and I in this blog can discover (and rediscover) the truths of “intimacy-therapy” in the company of other mentors: Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Nishitani, and countless others you feature for us.
…But the humanities ought to have care of our souls, so the loss of an articulate expression of this in that section of the university is especially unsettling. I think a certain ideal has been abandoned. I’d hesitate to share my enthusiasm about this ideal of intimacy with my colleagues, say in a department meeting where the dean has put pedagogic practice in the spotlight. This is what I could expect:
“Professor Mooney, what are you saying! That you throw a book out to a class and wait to see what happens? No lectures, no tests on information acquired, no honing of necessary skills? We pay you for encouraging free-form emotional response ?”
You have yet another part to your question that’s more difficult to answer. You ask me to “discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?” What makes it difficult is that it assumes I have a grasp of my sensibilities, a grasp of what underlies my love of Mozart or canoeing or Thoreau. But I want to say that I just am certain sensibilities whose provenance is dark or shaded, and whose agency now, in the life I articulate, is also dark or dappled at best.
If a writer knocks on my door, and I only remark on their height or weight, I’ll have missed an essential dimension of their being. I can report on what a philosopher said for an exam, if required. But that would leave the living spirit of the saying out of my response. I want to convey my sense of the living spirit I’ve been excited by. If I adopt “professional distance” as a posture of response, then I’ll be leaving out ever so much. Lyrical philosophers (I can’t think of a better name) deserve lyrical response, especially if there’s a reason they need to be lyrical. So I guess that leads to a question beyond the question of why I write the way I do. It leads to asking why Thoreau and Kierkegaard (for example) write the way they do. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?
DD: That, of course, is a question deserving some exploration. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?
EFM: Of course, that’s the big question. Let’s say we grant that Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Plato or Schopenhauer have moments of great lyricism. Let’s assume this isn’t an accident or mere aesthetic flourish but a moment when each feels that to say what they want to say lyricism is inescapable. Why should this be?
Well, it’s based in philosophical anthropology, I think. We are calculating logic-wielding creatures and can be marvelous proof machines (and counter-example machines). We can shine at producing persuasive logical argument tending toward definitive conclusions. That’s our stock in trade as philosophers. We are also, at a more primal level, deeply moral creatures, wanting a fair deal, wanting reciprocal trust, needing to promise and to have promises honored. So lots of philosophy deals with understanding these matters of logic, argument, and morals.
We are, at an equally primal level, creatures of dance and singing, theater and narrative. Sometimes—especially when we move out of the corrals of logic and forensic morality—we face wild questions (Why death? Why birth? Why suffering? Why rain? Why love lost? Why love requited? Why injustice? Why beauty?). These can be given “social scientific” answers, but they also resonate deeper than that. At this deep level, they can best be articulated (if not answered) lyrically, artistically, religiously. Dance and singing, theater and narrative, articulate the enigma that we are creatures who in fact agonize over these questions (Why do we bother? What’s the evolutionary advantage? What’s the practical advantage?). And perhaps it’s our essence as humans to be self-reflective this way. We agonize even as answers continue to elude us, and even as we know they will always elude us.
I see lyrical philosophy as approaching poetry and great narrative, myth and song—say in Schopenhauer or Thoreau or parts of Plato—at exactly those moments when these wild questions obtrude. They strike at an angle that tells us that logic and morals and standard arguments fall short. These fail to address them in their depth. And we know just as certainly that we will falter in giving lasting or satisfying answers. But we can’t leave the questions, in all their intensity and passion, unvoiced, suppressed, abandoned by the road. We dance without practical or logical rationale to express what seems to elude our everyday philosophical capacities. We write a hybrid philosophy that melds with the poetic, musical and dance-like.
The philosophical bearing of lyrical philosophy is to express those heartfelt, nagging, inescapably wild questions that surely ought not to be buried or avoided. Are we not, as persons, drenched in love and love-lost, envy and eloquence, new life and old age, iniquity and pain of every sort—and also drenched in great moments of unspeakable serenity and joy? Aren’t these worth philosophical memorialization, praise, and lament?
I shouldn’t forget the quieter hurts that could use quieter healings. There are sufferings that don’t appear in the daily news or in hospital statistics. My student with a blank look on her face; or the other one who drops out, preferring dorm drinking to whatever a poem might offer. There’s the other guy, who freaks at the idea of putting a thought in a sentence; there’s the one whose parents exert devastating pressure to succeed on their kid, now a senior (translation: “make enough money that our investment in your education won’t have been in vain”); then, the one who has become a smart-aleck cynic. Often the hurt comes from a sense of disconnection from anything that matters—a lost intimacy with others and our shared world.
I think sometimes it’s only when we come across writing that speaks to soul-ache that we can “discover” how much we hurt. We’re given a measure of articulation and depth. We unexpectedly feel recognition of our own pains and joys that we had not yet found words to equal. The discovery of expressiveness is a discovery of what we have to express. At the moment it arrives to us, we become vulnerable and then capable of returning expressiveness in kind. We can find ourselves hurting or singing or carried away in exaltation just as a sentence we’ve encountered bespeaks hurt or song or exaltation.
What I’ve called “lost intimacy” is the loss, I suppose, of participating in occasions of such expressive mutuality. It’s the loss of lyricism in philosophy, or the feel of the poetic in universities and much of cultural life, and the hegemony of an ideal of professional distance and suspicion of what I’ve called the soul. It’s related to the fact that we don’t have companions or mentors with whom we can speak about the joys that course through our lives, or about the emptiness that can cloud our days, or make nightmares of sleep. We have professionals who in therapy “hear our story,” and we sometimes have Rabbis or Gurus, Pastors or Coaches or Priests. But we also need to share intimate matters as equals, not just as client to an expert responder, or priest to parishioner. Attentive aunts, parents, siblings, or lovers might fill the bill. I think complaints about unchecked globalization and technology bespeak a fear that fragile enclaves of intimacy (if they exist) are increasingly at risk.
The artist without works pursues the assertion of an ideology rather than the building of a career – Undeeds, unart, and the undone.
An artwork does not necessarily need an author, an author does not necessarily need an artwork. Since her student days, Dora Garcia has been fascinated by the figure of the artist without works. An absurd figure, often tragic, it started to gain weight and prestige when it crossed with the figure of the dandy. A dandy is an artist who considers the production of things (books, music, or art) to be the dullest of things. Needless to say, to think of a career as a producer of “things” would add vulgarity to dullness. The dandy artist without works evolved later to the conceptual artist, on the one hand, and the counterculture hipster, on the other. The difference is mainly one of cultural environment. But the core is the same: an artist who tries to have an ideology rather than a body of work. The very word would produce a leer on the face of the artist who stays as far from the institution as possible, who flees from the idea of the “guild” or “profession” as if it were the bubonic plague (Guy Debord, Gil Wolman, Tristan Tzara). Because the artist without works nevertheless enjoys seeing and reading and listening to good artistic products, they will try to either have them made by someone else, or to have them made by nobody: a music that composes itself (Cage), a painting made by a machine (Duchamp), a book that has been found (Borges), a text written by other texts (Burroughs). The artist without works despises the petit bourgeois idea of the “genius” as a virtuoso who excels in their field and is ready to be served as entertainment in the bourgeois salons. The artist without works has nothing to offer to the mainstream public, and fame would make them think that something is definitely wrong.
An Artwork Does Not Necessarily Need An Author; An Author Does Not Necessarily Need An Artwork
As soon as artists start being shaped in art schools, a yearning is imprinted upon them, setting up the source of a lifetime of uneasiness, longing, and want. The yearning for fame and recognition, which must be achieved by an unstoppable production of things. However, and paraphrasing Francis Picabia, by fleeing the atrocious destiny of being unknown, artists necessarily land on that other atrocious destiny: the failure. Francis Picabia: “Men can be divided in two categories: failed and unknown.”
What follows wants to be a personal homage to those artists who have not produced things, who have produced things but have tried to hide it, or who have directed the steps of others to produce things they wanted to see but did not want to make; and in NOT doing have exerted a vigorous influence in other artists. The artists without works.
We could imagine the artist without works as a tragic figure, paralyzed by the fear of not meeting his own expectations, or not deserving to be in the same room as those he admires most. Or, we could imagine the artist without works as well as a defeatist figure, the type of artist who puts into question the sense of doing anything if it will be however misunderstood, misused or even worse, forgotten.
These figures exist; but they are not what I am talking about. The artist without works I want to pay homage to is not tragic, but joyful. Is the artist that, intersecting with the figure of the dandy, even intersecting with the figure of the hipster and the countercultural hero, prefers NOT WANTING. Note that it is not the elimination of will power but on the contrary the glorification of the will of nothing. The artist without works pursues the assertion of an ideology rather than the building of a career, an ideology that would not rest on objects but on deeds, or rather, un-deeds. The artist without works seeks the beauty of the not doing, not wanting, not leaving something behind. He chooses the radicalism of the refusal: I am not there, I’d rather not to.
Refusal of many things. One, refusal to make sense.
The killing of the author brings to the artist an exhilarating freedom. Freedom, as when we free ourselves by pretending to be someone else.
Two: Refusal of quantity.
No need to write them in full, just write an entry in that imaginary encyclopedia. Going back again to the depiction of the artist producer as merchant, another typical vendor viciousness is the will to produce much, so as to keep their clientele fulfilled and contented. But Pessoa, another expert in disappearance, says: “Each of us has a little amount of things to say, but there is not much to say about that, and posterity wants us to be brief and precise. Faguet (author of Petite histoire de la littérature française, 1913) says clearly that posterity only loves brief authors.”
When one just has to write novels of three lines, what does one do with the rest of his time? Pierre Cabana says: “Our best artwork is the use of our time”. Seas of time open for the creator of micro-narratives, becoming therefore the dandy, the amateur, the dilettante. But not only.
First, the artist without works disappoints the audience with his indolence, by not doing any productive work whatsoever. “Nothing can offend them more” as Guy Débord said. Second, he infuriates them by insulting them, and third, he terrorizes them with his criminal behaviour.
Félix Féneon, the inventor of “Nouvelles en trois lignes” was said to be an anarchist who deposited bombs (1894, restaurant Foyot, Paris). The surplus of time makes of the artist without works a hobo, a walker, a demonstrator, a subversive, a striker, a drug-dealer, an outsider, a sexual degenerate, a surrealist, a banalyst, a situationist. The iconoclastia of conceptualism was not so much a sign of linguistic Puritanism as a refusal to produce, a political stance, a sabotage.
It is obvious that if there is an audience the artists without works couldn’t care less about, are the critics. It is important that those un-made artworks are beyond good and bad, they are, in fact, indifferent to the idea of criticism. As Robert Filliou established with his principle of equivalence: well done = badly done = undone.
Last refusal: Refusal of being here at all.
“Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either?”
[There are a host of problems with this piece –
A sloppy conflation of work, labor, and effort which leads to an incomplete analysis (isn’t the representation of work as work that Molesworth describes generating from Taylorism part of what she herself engages in with regard to so called domestic labor/maintenance work? Isn’t she ceding too much to the object of her critique (by accepting the very basis of its representation)?
A little more fleshing out of laziness, leisure, and idleness would be nice and perhaps adding in slacking which has, to my mind, even more relevance with regard to a cultural point of view.
Duchamp, of course, serves her ends a little too neatly with regard to the impossibility of doing nothing. In order to validate Barthes she preordains failure at a “complete cessation of artistic activity,” but this might have been true for Duchamp, it needn’t be true for everyone (this could simply be a misreading of what she is claiming of course). There are less tidy examples of quitting art if Molesworth cared to look…
And why is being “romantic” so terrible?
Despite some of these problems, this piece is still “useful.” Nice “work,”]
These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work. Adding to this confusion is yet another smudged edge, because work (making art in the studio) and leisure (not working, which takes place at home, or art making as a form of leisure) are brought into extreme proximity. The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional. Duchamp’s ambivalence toward work did not only relate to artistic production, but he resisted the labor of housework as well.
In his critique of the everyday, Lefebvre sought not simply “entertainment” or “relaxation” but the articulation of different forms of knowledge, knowledge that could aid in the potential and/or intermittent process of “disalienation.” It is not in leisure as such where a critique of capitalism is to be found. Rather, a critique may emerge in those moments when the relations between elements of the everyday are made evident or challenged. Duchamp’s presentation and arrangement of the readymades exhibit a desire to foil the functionality of these objects, whose usefulness resides in their ability to aid domestic and maintenance labor. Yet in foiling work, the readymades do not offer leisure as work’s simple antithesis (nor do they offer art as pure leisure). Instead, their placement in the home/studio tangles the categories of both work and leisure. This presentation of nonwork and leisure has a social and historical context larger than Duchamp’s studio, for Duchamp’s refusal of work (both maintenance and traditional means of artistic labor) happened alongside one of the most profound shifts in twentieth-century conceptions of work: Taylorism. Just as the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio have not been adequately theorized, the sociohistorical conditions within which the readymades came into being in New York are absent from much Duchamp literature.8 As Duchamp’s work of this period appears concerned with the terms of work, an examination of the contemporaneous shift in the practice, conception, and representation of work seems necessary.9
In Bodies and Machines, the literary critic Mark Seltzer argues that Taylorism not only altered the work process (by making it more “efficient”) but also invented new forms of work. He contends that “the real innovation of Taylorization becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation of the work process into the work process itself–or, better, the incorporation of the representation of the work process as the work process itself.”20 The representation of labor–graphs, flow charts–became a form of labor in and of itself, with manual laborers represented by their newly established managers. We can see clearly the irony of a Taylorized household, as women were asked to represent, manage, and alter their own manual labor.
… By stymieing the “work” of looking at art, Duchamp transformed the gallery into a version of his mazelike studio, a place where humor and play were encouraged-work discouraged. In both instances Duchamp represented forms of labor (or alternately leisure), be they making or looking at art, but he did so by disallowing such labors and/or leisures to take place.
We have already seen the confusion between the spaces of work and leisure in the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio. We can also see that the arrangements of the readymades interject an element of play among a set of otherwise fairly banal functional objects. Additionally, the objects blur the boundaries between home and work (typewriter cover, comb, shovel) in that their functions are all bound to the labor of maintenance, a stratum of labor structural both to the space of the home and more traditionally conceived work spaces. Not only has Duchamp blurred the traditional boundaries of work and leisure in the studio, but the readymades are functional objects rendered playful through their humorous appeal to slapstick.
While Marxism offers us the most sophisticated theoretical account of labor, it has also concerned itself with work’s dialectical other, play or leisure. For many Marxist thinkers play has an idealistic, almost utopian dimension, in that it is posited to exist outside the rules and regulations of everyday life. Herbert Marcuse has focused more of his philosophical energies on play than his Marxist contemporaries. He writes that play is a dimension of freedom, a “self-distraction, relaxing oneself, forgetting oneself and recuperating oneself.”27 If for Marcuse play is a dimension of freedom, then he enables play to serve as a critique of society, because of its position outside the conventions of the everyday. One hesitates to instrumentalize play in this way, turning it into a philosophical lever in the service of some utopian vision, but in Duchamp’s slapstick-infused readymades, the idea and the actuality of play offer possibilities for examining the tangled knot of work and leisure in everyday life.
In 1913 Duchamp jotted a note to himself: “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either? In such a formulation, art and play exist in an analogously tenuous realm of (im)possibility. Marcuse states it thus: “On the whole play is necessarily related to an Other which is its source and goal, and this Other is already preconceived as labor.”28 But, if play can only be seen in relation to work, and it is seen as the lesser component of this dialectic in that play is enabled or made possible by work (“its source and goal”), then play, in its officially sanctioned role as nonwork, becomes a form of work. (One need only think of the regimentation of “the weekend” or each summer’s obligatory Disney movie.) Lefebvre argues that one ramification of this interdependence between labor and play is that “there can be alienation in leisure just as in work.”29 Duchamp attempted to use play, in the form of slapstick, not as a reprieve from work but as a means to stop work. This is where play’s potential utopian or critical dimension (a utopia free from labor and a critique of capitalism’s dependence on alienated labor for profit) can be seen most fully.
Lefebvre observes that “there is a certain obscurity in the very concept of everyday life.” He asks, “Where is it to be found? In work or in leisure? In family life and in moments ‘lived’ outside of culture?”35 He suggests that family life has become separate from productive life and that leisure has become as fragmented as labor. Ultimately, he concludes that the three constitutive elements of the everyday-work, private life, and leisure-have become discrete, alienated from one another. Yet Duchamp attempts, through humor and slapstick, to hold these three elements together. The readymades show that these categories are not discrete in experience but rather in ideology, for Duchamp’s practice presents domestic or private life as neither outside nor separate from the category of work. He uses leisure, in the form of slapstick and play, to expose domestic space as filled with work (be it maintenance work or art work) and in turn transforms that work into leisure or play. In the end, the readymades propose a space filled with neither work nor leisure; instead, they offer a kind of laziness. Characteristic of the readymades’ complex relation to both work and leisure, laziness operates as a third term, triangulating work and leisure, offering a criticism of both.
Duchamp’s laziness was the subject of many of his contemporaries’ responses to visiting his studio. Robert Lebel described Duchamp’s studio as “a large room with a bathtub in the center which Duchamp used for his frequent ablutions, and a rope an arm’s length away which allowed him to open the door without getting up.”36 Georgia O’Keeffe, reminiscing about meeting Duchamp in his New York studio, recalled one of his domestic work stoppages: “it seems there was a lot of something else in the middle of the room and the dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe. I was so upset over the dusty place that the next day I wanted to go over and clean it up.”37 This refusal to clean was memorialized in Dust Breeding (1920), a section of the Large Glass photographed by Man Ray after it had accumulated several months’ worth of dust. But nowhere is Duchamp’s laziness more evident than in the readymades, where he produced art with the least effort possible–buying it already made. For Taylor, Duchamp’s dabblings with play and laziness- his experiments with not working-had a name: Duchamp was soldiering.
Taylor described soldiering as “under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.”38 For Taylor soldiering had two causes: first, the “natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy”; and second (considered to be more dangerous), “intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men.” Taylor called this “systematic soldiering.”39 Workers have two modes of foiling the factory: laziness exhibited in the form of individual soldiering and organized resistance in the form of strikes. Taylorism proposed to eliminate both. Striking and soldiering are extremely different critiques of work, one organized, systematic, and social; the other a private rebellion (refusing to dust). But in maintenance work in the home there can be no strike. Duchamp’s readymades operate more closely to the second form of soldiering; they are not a strike per se, so much as they are a work slowdown. They temporarily stop or stall activities such as cleaning and tidying by turning housework into slapstick. Likewise, the studio as a place where art is made is suffused with a kind of laziness.
Laziness is mostly figured as a parasitical form of work avoidance. It runs the risk of being aristocratic (not working because others work for you) or primitivist (native peoples as unfettered by the work ethic). There are two theoretical accounts of laziness as a philosophical position, and both maintain a similar utopian dimension to the previous discussion of the function or structure of play. Paul Lafargue and Roland Barthes argue that laziness is an attempt to completely escape the logic of work. They do not offer leisure as the antidote to work, but laziness as the refusal of work.
Lafargue, a Cuban-born ex-medical student, wrote the radical pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in i88o-a tirade against work that infuriated his father-in law, Karl Marx.40 Originally printed in French, the tract was translated into English and published in the United States in 1917 (the same year Duchamp purchased the urinal that would become Fountain). Lafargue’s polemic against “progress” belongs to the primitivist side of laziness, extolling unindustrialized native peoples who do not toil for a capitalist exploiter. Lafargue writes: “It [the proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and sacred than the anemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.”41 Lafargue sees the advent of industrial production as enabling time for leisure, as opposed to the increased profits envisioned by Taylorism. But he never posits that “free time” should be used for “productive” or “creative” forms of leisure. Instead, he insists on feasting and sleeping as the “Rights of Man.”42 The most indelible image from the tract remains a quotation that perversely describes Duchamp’s infamous decision to give up art for chess, his relinquishing of a working life as an artist for the life of a game player: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for eternity.”43
In fact, Duchamp never stopped making art. He designed magazine covers, made the Boîte-en-valise, and, ultimately, worked for twenty years on Étant Donnés (1946-66). The problem exposed by the “untruth” of the abandonment is how terribly difficult it is not to work. Roland Barthes addresses this point in a short interview entitled “Dare to Be Lazy.” Barthes describes two forms of laziness, one born of the struggle to get something done, laziness as procrastination from work, or “marinating” in order to work. Barthes says: “Obviously, this shameful laziness doesn’t take the form of ‘not doing anything,’ which is the glorious and philosophical form of laziness.”44 The philosophical form is precisely what is at issue. Barthes asks, “Have you ever noticed that everyone always talks about the right to leisure activities but never about a right to idleness? I even wonder if there is such a thing as doing nothing in the modern Western world.”45 Yet Barthes realized the potential nihilism in the concept of doing nothing. For laziness, he notes, is a problem for the subject: “In a situation of idleness the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject. He is decentered, unable even to say ‘I.’ That would be true idleness. To be able, at certain moments, to no longer have to say ‘I.'”46
Duchamp came closer to doing nothing than most artists. But he was lucky. Generously supported by his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, who paid his rent and living expenses in exchange for artworks, and hired by the wealthy Stettheimer sisters as their French tutor-although since they had been raised in France, all three sisters were completely fluent and obviously needed no tutor-Duchamp largely managed to avoid working.47 He lived an aristocratic leisurely life, his idleness made possible through the wealth of others and a frugal life-style. Yet while Duchamp may have courted laziness, and let laziness infuse his art practice, ultimately the complete cessation of artistic activity was impossible. Impossible, as Barthes suggests, for it would mean an abandonment of the first person pronoun.
Duchamp’s readymades are an attempt to think outside the logic of work, a logic in which “the goal of labor is the full reality of human existence.”48 Not to work-to be lazy-is then to deny the full reality of human existence, to deny the category of “I,” at least the form familiar to bourgeois capitalism. Duchamp experimented with this idea by evoking the involuntary laughter within which the “I” is no longer central, and by transforming his studio, a place of work, into a site of play. The studio became a place where he could be, in Bergson’s term, “absentminded” or, in Marcuse’s, “self-distracted.” This questioning of the “I” runs throughout Duchamp’s work. After all, this is an oeuvre marked by a proliferation of aliases; a deliberate use of linguistic shifters; an emphasis on language and the self as both shared and constructed49), and a dismantling of perspectival vision (with its creation of a fixed subject), all concerns that point toward a consistent questioning of the category of “I.” Duchamp toyed and played with the possibility of nonwork-the right to laziness-the ability not to say “I.” That this position is impossible (or worse yet, romantic) should not deter serious thinking about laziness. Duchamp, by saying that he abandoned art making without really doing so, was perhaps pretending to be lazy, acting at not working. Lefebvre suggests that when “acting explores what is possible” it adds “something real: the knowledge of a situation, an action, a result to be obtained.”50 If what is to be obtained through such play is knowledge (and disalienation), then what knowledge is potentially garnered through laziness? Is it the suggestion that there can be no alienation in laziness, for there is no “I” to separate from or be identical with?51 Or is laziness a conduit to bring us back to the most fundamental of Marx’s demands, a demand designed to alter the terms of alienated life under capital: “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”52
Duchamp’s challenge to the primacy of the category of work largely took the form of a protest against maintenance labor, pointing toward the changing historical conditions of housewifery, domestic space, and work in the early twentieth century.53 Duchamp used the readymades to foil maintenance labor, which resulted in a limited artistic production, for maintenance labor permits all other work. The readymades stymie a subject whose identity would be bound up with, and structured by, the phenomenon of work. Instead, they offer humor and laziness, slapstick and play, modes of experience that gesture toward a different set of possibilities for how we might conceive of the everyday and how we might inhabit it.
Creating art by doing nothing – Félicien Marboeuf and rejecting the productivist approach to culture – “My art is that of living”
More than 20 artists will pay homage to Félicien Marboeuf in an eclectic exhibition opening in Paris next week. Although he’s hardly a household name, Marboeuf (1852-1924) inspired both Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Having been the model for Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education), he resolved to become an author lest he should remain a character all his life. But he went on to write virtually nothing: his correspondence with Proust is all that was ever published – and posthumously at that. Marboeuf, you see, had such a lofty conception of literature that any novels he may have perpetrated would have been pale reflections of an unattainable ideal. In the event, every single page he failed to write achieved perfection, and he became known as the “greatest writer never to have written”. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, wrote John Keats.
…The artists he brings together all reject the productivist approach to art, and do not feel compelled to churn out works simply to reaffirm their status as creators. They prefer life to the dead hand of museums and libraries, and are generally more concerned with being (or not being) than doing. Life is their art as much as art is their life – perhaps even more so.
…Jouannais celebrates the skivers of the artistic world, those who can’t be arsed. “If I did anything less it would cease to be art,” Albert M Fine admitted cheekily on one occasion. Duchamp also prided himself on doing as little as possible: should a work of art start taking shape he would let it mature – sometimes for several decades – like a fine wine.
With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.
Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’ exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.
Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or inflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”
It may be ironic that a professor of “language studies” uses the term “amateur” as an insult, since he no doubt knows that for most of its life it meant someone who did something for love (Latin amo) rather than for money, and only acquired its dismissive sneer during the bureaucratic twentieth century. George Orwell, of course, was an “amateur” in the field of analysing political language, and even recommended that more of his regular work, book-reviewing, be done by “amateurs”:
Incidentally, it would be a good thing if more novel reviewing were done by amateurs. A man who is not a practised writer but has just read a book which has deeply impressed him is more likely to tell you what it is about than a competent but bored professional. That is why American reviews, for all their stupidity, are better than English ones; they are more amateurish, that is to say, more serious.
Of course, “amateurs” are not everywhere to be celebrated. I would not like to have root-canal surgery performed on me by an amateur dentist. Not everyone has a valid opinion on medicine. On the other hand, we are all language-users. Very many of the “amateurs” who have attended my talks on Unspeak think in careful and sophisticated ways about language, and their opinions are not to be dismissed simply because they haven’t had the right sort of academic training. My view, indeed, is that the analysis of language in politics is too important to be left to “professionals” who murmur among themselves in the diagrammatic glades of “discourse analysis” and other subdisciplines. Professor Salkie surely knows, to be blunt, that nowadays, “amateur” is most often the kneejerk insult of the salaryman who desires to protect his own turf.
“the nebula of “offroad conceptualists” who have withdrawn from the artworld attention economy into the shadows, never performing what they do as art.” – Stephen Wright on “art without qualities”
[Stephen Wright is one of the last truly vibrant theorists left in the art world. Although maybe that is because he spends so much time outside the art world. And maybe his early years in the Pacific Northwest gifted him with the temerity of a cryptozoologist (escapologist). He is relentlessly innovative with turns of phrase and new memes, not in some pointlessly entrepreneurial attention seeking way, but as a matter of necessity – because the things he is trying to describe are outside “accepted formal parameters of art” (as he quotes Raivo Puusemp saying in this post). Wright, if not a member himself of the “offroad conceptualists,” is surely their greatest chronicler.]
…Upon resigning as mayor, Puusemp left Rosendale forever, moving to somewhere in Utah, and thereby joining the nebula of “offroad conceptualists” who have withdrawn from the artworld attention economy into the shadows, never performing what they do as art.
Of course plenty of things are not performed as art (in many cases because they just aren’t) although their coefficient of art — in terms of their form, contextual engagement and the competence they epitomize — would be largely adequate for them to successfully lay claim to artistic status. And it is precisely this issue which makes Raivo Puusemp’s short preface to Beyond Art so compelling. From it can be deduced an entirely original and under-theorized line of institutional critique as the background of his project to instantiate a plausible new artworld in Rosendale, A public work.
But before considering the underpinnings of the project laid out in the document’s preface, let’s pause for a moment to consider just exactly what “not performing art” means in the case of Raivo Puusemp. Since his stint as mayor of Rosendale, Puusemp has ceased making art; he hasn’t even done art. But he’s thought it. Meaning that he’s not so much a former concept artist, as that he remains an artiste sans oeuvre. Not in the affected sense of a dandy, but with the infectious humility of concept art. As he put it in a recent public conversation with curator Krist Gruijthuijsen at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (one of the venues to recently host a retrospective of the artist’s work, up to and including his stint as mayor) Puusemp acknowledged as much, at least implicitly, describing how his relationship to art had itself become conceptual. “I’ve always thought about art, I just haven’t done it. I would see something, and think someone should do that. But I would never do it myself.”
…He’s sees conceptual-artistic potential in any number of situations, relations and things, contemplates making it art, but leaves the doing, the making, the “performing” (or not) to others.
Of course, this principled imperformativity only makes sense against Puusemp’s background as an active artist in the 1970s. This is the paradox of the imperformative: not-doing only has traction against a horizon of reasonable expectation of an ability-to-do and the deed itself. Countless things don’t get done, but the imperformative implies that something actually eludes performative capture — that it is done quietly, and not necessarily materially (who knows?) in the shadows. And the shadow of the deed is the idea. But the very fact that Puusemp would be inclined to contemplate people performing (or not) ideas he had thought of also stems directly from his previous artistic practice.
Several things happened that would lead Puusemp to choose to move into the shadows. For one thing, he became involved with an underground group in New York City called “Museum” which allowed him to understand art as an essentially collective endeavor and to gain insight into group dynamics and process. But above all, he writes, “it became apparent that art was a continuum of predictable steps each built upon the last. It seemed that by being familiar with the then accepted formal parameters of art, and by doing work within those parameters, there was a great likelihood of art community acceptance of that work. Creative leaps were reduced to inevitable innovations and predictable steps. I became fascinated with the process of conception to completion rather than the product. From that point, I found it difficult to continue making art within the standard context.”
–Did you still think of yourself as an artist?
–It’s hard to say. I just kind of walked away from it, or from the object stuff anyway. I was thinking about things a lot. I mean, the other thing is, I started looking at this Rosendale thing more and more as a piece of art. It was a strange thing to do, like living a dual life. On the one hand, I was doing this thing, but I couldn’t tell people I was doing it because they would think I was using them or kind of manipulating the whole thing.
–But was it always intentional for you that running for mayor would be an artwork?
–I think it evolved. I was intrigued by the possibility…
Raivo Puusemp, a possibilitarian? That was the term (Möglichkeitsmensch) that Robert Musil coined to describe Ulrich, his Man Without Qualities. Not because his protagonist was without quality — his insights were of exceeding quality — but because he possessed none that determined the others and locked him down into a particular ontology. We tend to think of artworks as characterized by a deep singularity — and as the documents on Rosendale’s dissolution show, it was a project so steeped in nitty-gritty singularity as to conceal its self-understanding as art. But as a morphing pursuit of intriguing possibilities, and in light of Puusemp’s decision to further withdraw from exercising artistic agency, Rosendale, A Public Work may be seen as paving the way toward an art without qualities.
“School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.” – The culture of “achievement” agreed upon by do-gooder liberal bureaucrats and conservative economic zealots
When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.
The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.
Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.
Hunter-gatherers have nothing akin to school. Adults believe that children learn by observing, exploring, and playing, and so they afford them unlimited time to do that. In response to my survey question, ‘How much time did children in the culture you observed have for play?’, the anthropologists unanimously said that the children were free to play nearly all of their waking hours, from the age of about four (when they were deemed responsible enough to go off, away from adults, with an age-mixed group of children) into their mid- or even late-teenage years (when they would begin, on their own initiatives, to take on some adult responsibilities). For example, Karen Endicott, who studied the Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia, reported: ‘Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.’
This is very much in line with Groos’s theory about play as practice. The boys played endlessly at tracking and hunting, and both boys and girls played at finding and digging up edible roots. They played at tree climbing, cooking, building huts, and building other artefacts crucial to their culture, such as dugout canoes. They played at arguing and debating, sometimes mimicking their elders or trying to see if they could reason things out better than the adults had the night before around the fire. They playfully danced the traditional dances of their culture and sang the traditional songs, but they also made up new ones. They made and played musical instruments similar to those that adults in their group made. Even little children played with dangerous things, such as knives and fire, and the adults let them do it, because ‘How else will they learn to use these things?’ They did all this, and more, not because any adult required or even encouraged them to, but because they wanted to. They did it because it was fun and because something deep inside them, the result of aeons of natural selection, urged them to play at culturally appropriate activities so they would become skilled and knowledgeable adults.
In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, not far from my home in Massachusetts. It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.
To most people, this sounds crazy. How can they learn anything? Yet, the school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted. And, in line with Groos’s theory, what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.
Even more important than specific skills are the attitudes that they learn. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and they learn that life is fun, even (maybe especially) when it involves doing things that are difficult. I should add that this is not an expensive school; it operates on less than half as much, per student, as the local state schools and far less than most private schools.
President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, along with other campaigners for more conventional schooling and more tests, want children to be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world. But what preparation is needed? Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked? Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it. Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam? I bet Obama and Duncan would agree that all children need these skills today more than in the past. But schools are terrible at teaching these skills.
You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’. A great deal of research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun. As the psychologist Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her book Creativity in Context (1996) and in many experiments, the attempt to increase creativity by rewarding people for it or by putting them into contests to see who is most creative has the opposite effect. It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.
None of these people would have discovered their passions in a standard school, where extensive, free play does not occur. In a standard school, everyone has to do the same things as everyone else. Even those who do develop an interest in something taught in school learn to tame it because, when the bell rings, they have to move on to something else. The curriculum and timetable constrain them from pursuing any interest in a creative and personally meaningful way. Years ago, children had time outside of school to pursue interests, but today they are so busy with schoolwork and other adult-directed activities that they rarely have time and opportunity to discover and immerse themselves deeply in activities they truly enjoy.
To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. In hunter-gatherer bands, at Sudbury Valley School, and everywhere that children have regular access to other children, most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.
The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.
The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.
In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.
” When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.” – Destroying art in order to save human creativity
[I tend to think of Ben Davis as a useful idiot and this critique of his work spells out some of the reasons for that.]
Artists’ self-important claims for their work makes them worse than useless for political activism
Can you call yourself an artist and an activist at the same time? Or is the artists’ personal brand always in the way? 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis’s new collection of essays, addresses these questions and other similar ones with an admirable clarity that invites debate. In these pieces, Davis, a Marxist art critic and executive editor of Artinfo.com, shows little overt interest in policing the boundaries of art—there are virtually no assessments of the aesthetic value of particular artworks. Yet he ends up preserving a nebulous view of “great” art’s supposedly objective appeal that undermines his apparent political concerns. Art accrues meaning via its audience, which is inevitably structured by social relations. To imagine that its value can come from anywhere else is to obfuscate the centrality of class that Davis is otherwise eager to bring to light.
This makes artists inescapably individualistic, concerned chiefly about differentiating their product. As Davis notes, “an overemphasis on the creation of individual, signature forms—a professional requirement—can as often make it a distraction from the needs of an actual movement, which are after all collective, welding together tastes of all kinds.” Artists must produce their reputation as a singular commodity on the market, which makes their chief obstacle other would-be artists rather than capitalism as a system, regardless of whatever critical content might inhere in their work. When artists patronize the working class with declarations of solidarity, their vows are motivated less by a desire for social change than by the imperative that they enhance the distinctive value of their personal brand.
According to Davis, the artists’ class interest “involves defining creativity as professional self-expression, which therefore restricts it to creative experts”—the artists. Contemporary visual art, then, is a “a specific creative discipline that arrogates to itself the status of representing ‘creativity’ in general.” Rather than being a common property developed by the “general intellect” of workers in collaboration and social interaction, creativity becomes the intellectual property of certified artists alone, who, for their livelihood, administer it for the rest of society. That is, “real” creativity becomes the preserve of a specially trained elite rather than the evolutionary inheritance of the entire human species.
Whether or not it correlates to distinctions in talent, this distinction between the fake creativity of ordinary people working in common and the certified creativity of appointed artists working alone or atop a hierarchy allows those artists to make “artworks” with a value on the market. The point is to give only artists a true property stake in their creative activity—only their creative work has inherent value. Everyone else’s creative effort is just plain old “labor,” which is worthless until purchased by capital. Limiting authentic creativity to proven professional artists makes creativity both aspirational (it models how nonartists should structure their leisure) and vicariously accessible (nonartists can absorb creativity through awed exposure to properly certified art objects). It is thus that artists “represent creativity tailored to capitalist specifications.” Artists become the designated exemplars of the form liberty can take under an economic system that prizes innovation and glorifies ideologically the dignity of the small proprietor. Though Davis recognizes this, he also tries to give it a dialectical spin, arguing that the artists’ model of freedom demonstrates what autonomy looks like and why it might be worth struggling for.
…The structure of the entire art milieu is meant to forestall the broader appreciation of art and protect its capability to signify status. It is meant to allow rich people to recognize the fruits of their wealth in their exclusive access to the world’s finest things. The glory of the view lies primarily in its being private-access. Ordinary people’s appreciation of art attaches to works like so many barnacles, ruining their meaning for collectors. As with any luxury brand, the wrong sort of audience for an artist can sully their market value completely.
This is why so much of the discourse that surrounds contemporary art is so nauseating. It deliberately aims to destroy the confidence of nonelite audiences in their own judgment; it wants to make their potential pleasure in art depend on a recognition of their exclusion from the realm of art-making. We get the joy of knowing there’s some consumption experience beyond us that can remain forever aspirational, which gives us cause to cherish whatever brief peeks we get over the wall.
The same could be said of the world of literary journals, creative writing, and the “intellectual milieu” in general; each serves as a catch basin for those eager to transcend the ordinary economic relations that largely determine the lives of ordinary people. Often fueled by inherited privilege and a nurtured sense of entitlement, the up-and-coming cadres of the “creative class” seek ways to transform their yearning to be extraordinary into a career, and if that fails, into a politics based mainly on the demand for lucrative self-expression. All the while they imagine themselves exemplars of unsullied, disinterested aesthetic aspiration.
But it’s impossible to say artworks are “great” without also implying that those who can see that objective greatness are in a superior aesthetic position to those preoccupied with consumer junk. In wanting to preserve the traditional transcendental quality of art, Davis is arguing for the very same rarefied aura that critics and collectors and museums and art schools and all the other art-world institutions have always counted on and used as an alibi.
Far from working arm-in-arm with workers to liberate them from the forces that restrict their expression, artists are more likely to work to protect that aura and intensify the qualms ordinary people might have about thinking of their activities as art. Creativity must be held apart from consumerism, protected in the hands of a particular elite with the appropriate training to keep expression “authentically meaningful” rather than commercial. At the same time, authentic art production must be left in the hands of the professionals, who have been endowed with unique talent and have made a series of special sacrifices to develop their artistic gift. Ordinary people are endowed only with the ability to consume, and while they may think that’s creative, they’re kidding themselves.
…But that justification hinges on the idea that culturally recognized opportunities to be creative are scarce. It’s not that too many people are labeled artists then expected to work for less, as Davis suggests, but that not enough people recognize the artistry in what they are already doing and live with a sense of social inferiority and self-doubt. If they are to protect their own cultural capital, professional artists (and curators and critics) must endorse the standards that pronounce some people as uncreative.
Who cares about the sanctity of the “official culture,” which has a class-based interest in restricting that endorsement to a select few? The opportunities it provides and the self-realization that might stem from them are already poisoned from a political point of view. Davis won’t surrender the idea that “official approval matters” and that there is an objective basis for determining “legitimate self-expression.” Such official approval may matter to professional artists, because it is the source of their livelihood, and Davis seems eager to defend the right of a select few to make a living through art. To the rest of us, it is the stifling source of delegitimization. It is a reminder of the concrete reality of that solipsistic, insidery “art world” that Davis is otherwise so eager to see dismantled. Shouldn’t those excluded from the official art world create their own opportunities, according to their own communal standards, pitting their values against those of the official culture, and the social order that supports it, if necessary? Shouldn’t they destroy art to save it?
Similarly, in a postscript to his essay “White Walls, Glass Ceilings,” Davis urges we fight for “a world where art’s value escapes the deformities imposed upon it by an unequal society.” Davis wants there to be generalized social practices that can certify art’s value without somehow stratifying a society in which art has economic value. Yet if artistic ability is unequally distributed by nature, that fact alone will generate an unequal society as long as art is singled out for special cultural significance. Art is so complicit in structuring cultural hierarchies, it makes more sense to argue that art’s value never precedes the existence of those deformities and to agitate for a world where art is granted no alienable “value” at all.
In the collection’s last paragraph, Davis comes around to something like this position, that from the perspective of a future communist society, the idea that “great art was something rare and precious, a triumph that had to be scratched out against all odds, a privilege that needed to be defended with boundless righteousness and walled off in its own specific professional sphere will likely seem strange.” There is no reason to regard it as less than strange now. We can start by rejecting the need to identify “great” art and the class victors it nominates. When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.
to the degree that art embraces its status as a “profession” is the degree to which it acquiesces to instrumental rationality – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed
When does a favor become “labor?” And as I’ve asked a thousand times before, who is *not* a “cultural producer?” That is, isn’t *everyone* making culture all the time? Therefore, why should the state subsidize only artist/curator errr…cultural producers that “count,” and not everyone else? Because the immeasurable impact/enrichment argument applies equally well to backyard gardeners and attentive parents doesn’t it?
You mentioned not helping friends…exploitation is a social relationship…something *experienced* not merely witnessed, or observed by an “expert.”
So, to you an internship is no “favor,” but to someone else it just might be.
And it sounds to me like your reserving some “specialness” for artists which is very convenient, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in my opinion
You ever see parents at a playground? Or see gardening clubs, email lists etc?
Ok. Drop the word internship. Use favor. If I’m preparing a meal for a big party and I need an “intern” to help me set the table, make drinks etc. I will hire a server. Get where I’m going?
Of course it is a fabrication, one that artists (self-interestedly) often accept. There is historical privilege that comes with being an artist and now that it is being diminished they are getting agitated. Not unlike men, whites, etc.
“I just don’t understand why certain people deserve compensation and others don’t for whatever kind of work is deemed important” – this is EXACTLY *my* question right? Why should artists be subsidized and not gardeners? Why should Gallery 400 get a grant and not a parent run play group?
If a friend of mine asks me to take care of their kid for the day, should I reject it unless I get paid?
You see, if art is merely a business relationship, not an endeavor among friends, then that is an “art” I have little time for. It might as well be data entry no? Because it seem to me artists often want it both ways – to be compensated based on some market model (wages, benefits), but not be obligated to perform under such a model….
I do hope you see how weird this is – like the most capitalist mind of all, every human sphere is to be monetized under your model. The only expression of gratitude is $$$. The only reward for a favor…errr….labor is $$$.
So, unpaid internships are undermining your wages and you (along with many others) are proposing a strike or boycott which is understandable, but live by the market, die by the market. What if, no one cares? I mean I haven’t been making art for like 20 years, haven’t been curating, haven’t been writing (in the “professional” sense). It has been a “protest” of a certain kind – and one that brings you face to face with a certain determination of “value.” If I’ve learned anything it is how useless the entire enterprise is – but it is liberating. Because having given up the notion that what I was doing was special allowed me to see the value in what everyone else is doing – the fly fishers,the role players, the whittlers, the bird watchers, the pick up basketball players, the fantasy football commissioners, etc. But maybe that was a lesson unique to me and my own hang ups…
But you haven’t done anything to clear up my confusion! I still don’t get why art folks want the govt. to support their hobby and not hot rod builders? Everyone for themselves?
Oh and art is no “personal choice?” You sound like a true liberal (as opposed to a communitarian) with your public/private compartmentalization. Smoking is also a choice but has deep social consequences. I would argue having children and raising them poorly has far deeper social consequences than making a shitty painting.
Furthermore, what is “provocative” for me is to see a group of folks who have lost their historical privilege griping about getting it back rather than wanting a more egalitarian distribution of “prestige” and or resources. The breakdown of high and low is celebrated in some corners of the art world until it translates into *actual* effects then the wagons get circled….
Parenting was only one example of “cultural production.”
It isn’t the zygote, it is the cascade of social effects.
And to the degree that art embraces its status as a “profession” is the degree to which it acquiesces to instrumental rationality.
And yeah I like my culture like my politics to be broad and inclusive….
You keep focusing on *one* example of mine. And it is not children that are culture/cultural production, but *parenting.* And “affective labor” is another silly term – Pardon me while I “work” at crying during this rom-com. And man I’m getting all upset by your comments, who will pay me for this uncompensated emotional “labor?”
I do appreciate you providing a normative definition of art, one that falls neatly into the subject of my forthcoming book. Privileging “critique” while certainly fashionable in the late 20th and 21st centuries reeks of grad school syllabus syndrome. It is dogma, but that doesn’t make it definitive.
But back to the notion of art as a “profession.” Why then if it is such, should it alone be exempt from the market?
Also, what is the benefit of your narrow definition of culture? Who benefits from the exclusion of non-“professionals” of so-called “cultural production” other than alleged experts?
Re: professional cultural producers
Let’s do the same with politics. We’ll leave everything in the hands of professional politicians. Let those who are properly trained tend to that stuff and let all the plebes do what they do best – acquiesce to those in the know.
“too little time spent on word and theory” – Art history as mere profession vs. contemplative practice – Let us stop building bibliographic tombs and instead cultivate an affinity for present experience
[Reading through my notes today on Practicing Mortality: Art, Philosophy and Contemplative Seeing. I discovered that one of the authors Joanna E. Ziegler died five years after its publication (at age 60). I read through various tributes and obituaries and this quote exemplifies the scope of her ambition, “The point is not just to teach them to design buildings, but to design their lives.” Her influence was clearly deep, if not broad and although I never knew her personally and her death was three years ago, the news still hurt – so passionate and beautiful was her life/pedagogical/spiritual/art/philosophical practice. If you can’t find time for the book I mentioned, the following essay concerning the Mission Statement of the College of the Holy Cross provides a glimpse of her holistic approach to the art of living.]
For me, that experience epitomized the nature of what this essay is about — ‘Living the Mission’ — especially as it continues to reshape my pedagogy and my professional identity. I wish the story I am about to unfold were seamless and easy, and that the wonderful insights gained at Collegium had been brought home to Holy Cross, yielding the bounty and sustaining the fervor they promised. The reality, however, is that for all my enthusiasm and commitment to ‘live the Mission,’ it remains, three years later, hard and sometimes confusing work. Confidence and optimism mingle with doubt, as the project of linking art to contemporary issues of living spiritually is alternately embraced and marginalized by the academic community.
‘Living the Mission’ affects professional practices and identity, as well, beyond the College’s gates and in the field of disciplinary inquiry. Art history is currently defined as a project to locate history — to locate subjectivity in the past — in quantifiable evidence and hard data, whose footings lie deep in sociology. Thus, any sort of personal, contemporary experience of historical form — the very thrust of my courses regarding art and contemplation — is looked upon skeptically, even censoriously as something better left to personal rather than professional journals. (2)
Part of this story, then, is about the taxing demands of persevering in a relationship of art conjoined to spirituality as a serious academic pursuit — that is, as a matter of genuine and significant intellectual content such as befits an academic discipline. For now, art history (as serious ‘scientific’ study) and spirituality (as religious non-academic experience — as a matter of faith) compete for ultimate authority in their absolutely separate domains. My attempt to ‘live the Mission’ is, in a very real sense, an effort to bridge that separation.
Conceived as something akin to a skill, the art of looking (or spectatorship) can occasion contemplation and mindfulness — inner states that are recognized nearly universally as the true paths toward spiritual awareness. Eastern meditation practices, Zen Buddhism, Benedictine spirituality, Western mysticism, Emersonian pragmatism, and stress reduction exercises, to name but a few, all seek to attain ‘wisdom’ through attention and awareness. Concentration is the cornerstone. As I envision it, then, the study of art — outside the studio — might appropriately take its place alongside other contemplative practices. It shapes contemplative consciousness by insisting on routine physical discipline, which enables readiness, and, in so doing, shows students the spiritual and intellectual depth of artistic creativity — for them as beholders, no less than for the creators.
Faith and creativity share a paradox, as I see it: fidelity and stability, gained through practice, prepare the way to true freedom. Only with readiness can one hope to transcend the constraints of practice (therein lies the paradox) and enter that place which is so mysterious, so immeasurable. The experience is so unlike the routine activity that gave rise to it, that all the names given that experience through time — transcendence, divinity, creativity, performance, ecstasy — cannot begin to capture its true nature.
Perhaps more disconcerting than its supposed similarity with Formalism, is the emphasis I place on the training or practice involved in looking. I emphasize the word training, for what happens in my classroom — and by extension the museum — seems understood as being more in line with studio or fine art, rather than art history per se. Colleagues who paint, sing, or dance embrace the sort of training I offer. Yet for art historians, it can smack of art appreciation and, worse, appear to offer insufficient servings of quantifiable, documentable, ‘hard’ evidence — the currently favored material for serious intellectual content. Too much emphasis on sensory and practical information, too much prominence of the present, and too little time spent on word and theory, is how my approach is seen as differing from current standards in teaching art history.
The joining of faith and spirituality with art — an important element in my approach — is a legitimate and long-standing aspect of art history, to be sure, but only when firmly lodged in period styles, such as Gothic or Renaissance. Professional groups have priorities and, at the moment, for works of art to have religious or spiritual significance, they must be of explicitly religious subject matter or have clearly devotional applications. In this view, the emphasis I place on developing a personal, present-day relationship with a work of art belongs, somehow, in the realm of New Age therapy rather than hewing to the ‘exacting’ professional standards of contemporary art history, which tend to see and contain works of art firmly within the time frame of their production.
For me, therefore, the message of the Mission poses a dilemma. It asks me to heed its call, when to do so I must step beyond the boundary — to put it bluntly, to write myself out of the norms of publishable scholarship — of the very discipline that brought me to the College in the first place. True, the Mission Statement has inspired and enriched my thinking on creativity immeasurably, but I have had to leave the collegial setting of my discipline to pursue that thinking and to nurture thought into action.
On sabbatical this year, for example, I reflected long upon the contemplative lessons of great art and on the future of putting down scholarly roots among those lessons. I read a broad range of contemplative literature, which led, in part, to this essay and others like it. Meanwhile, my colleagues in art history were off to the archives and conferences in Europe, or reading vast amounts of post-Structuralist and deconstructionist theory. It may seem to them, therefore, that in my current activities I am abandoning the rigors of on-site research and voluminous bibliography-hunting for an apparently more relaxed, home-based form of intellectual pursuit. Such is by no means the case; reflection and contemplation are time-honored pillars of academic inquiry and pursuit. Nor do I want for challenges.
Where are the signposts of the Mission, so visible in campus conversation, as I thrash my way in isolation through the underbrush of this dilemma? The Mission Statement is a demanding document, more so than might appear on the surface. It presents a test of commitment to a purpose that diverges from the one that led me to Fenwick Hall some years ago. When I took my place among the other faculty of my Department, I vowed to be a loyal member of the field by bringing the best and most recent of its scholarly developments to our students. The evolution of the Mission Statement threw this vow into question, asking in a very tangible sense that I reassess and perhaps reorient my understanding of what I do and how that relates to the Mission. This I have done — but now, where am I ‘current’ as an art historian? What is my bibliographic base? Who, really, are my peers? And to what field do I or will I belong? ‘Living the Mission’ has been, in a word, costly.
Oh art “workers,” affective and cognitive “laborers,” and cultural “producers,” it would be great if you did some reading “work” on this article.
Usually the accused is given the benefit of doubt, but here the burden of proof is shifted. Should the ostracised not want to live on air and Christian charity for their further lives, they have to accept whatsoever dirty and slave work, or any other absurd “occupational therapy” cooked up by job creation schemes, just to demonstrate their unconditional readiness for labour. Whether such job has rhyme or reason, not to mention any meaning, or is simply the realisation of pure absurdity, does not matter at all. The main point is that the jobless are kept moving to remind them incessantly of the one and only law governing their existence on earth.
In the old days people worked to earn money. Nowadays the government spares no expenses to simulate the labour-”paradise” lost for some hundred thousand people by launching bizarre “job training schemes” or setting up “training companies” in order to make them fit for “regular” jobs they will never get. Ever newer and sillier steps are taken to keep up the appearance that the idle running social treadmills can be kept in full swing to the end of time. The more absurd the social constraint of “labour” becomes, the more brutally it is hammered into the peoples’ head that they cannot even get a piece of bread for free.
The new fanaticism for labour with which this society reacts to the death of its idol is the logical continuation and final stage of a long history. Since the days of the Reformation, all the powers of Western modernisation have preached the sacredness of work. Over the last 150 years, all social theories and political schools were possessed by the idea of labour. Socialists and conservatives, democrats and fascists fought each other to the death, but despite all deadly hatred, they always paid homage to the labour idol together. “Push the idler aside”, is a line from the German lyrics of the international working (labouring) class anthem; “labour makes free” it resounds eerily from the inscription above the gate in Auschwitz. The pluralist post-war democracies all the more swore by the everlasting dictatorship of labour. Even the constitution of the ultra-catholic state of Bavaria lectures its citizens in the Lutheran tradition: “Labour is the source of a people’s prosperity and is subject to the special protective custody of the state”. At the end of the 20th century, all ideological differences have vanished into thin air. What remains is the common ground of a merciless dogma: Labour is the natural destiny of human beings.
Today the reality of the labour society itself denies that dogma. The disciples of the labour religion have always preached that a human being, according to its supposed nature, is an “animal laborans” (working creature/animal). Such an “animal” actually only assumes the quality of being a human by subjecting matter to his will and in realising himself in his products, as once did Prometheus. The modern production process has always made a mockery of this myth of a world conqueror and a demigod, but might have had a real substratum in the era of inventor capitalists like Siemens or Edison and their skilled workforce. Meanwhile, however, such airs and graces became completely absurd.
Whoever asks about the content, meaning, and goal of his or her job, will go crazy or becomes a disruptive element in the social machinery designed to function as an end-in-itself. “Homo faber”, once full of conceit as to his craft and trade, a type of human who took seriously what he did in a parochial way, has become as old-fashioned as a mechanical typewriter. The treadmill has to run at all cost, and “that’s all there is to it”. Advertising departments and armies of entertainers, company psychologists, image advisors and drug dealers are responsible for creating meaning. Where there is continual babble about motivation and creativity, there is not a trace left of either of them – save self-deception. This is why talents such as autosuggestion, self-projection and competence simulation rank among the most important virtues of managers and skilled workers, media stars and accountants, teachers and parking lot guards.
The crisis of the labour society has completely ridiculed the claim that labour is an eternal necessity imposed on humanity by nature. For centuries it was preached that homage has to be paid to the labour idol just for the simple reason that needs can not be satisfied without humans sweating blood: To satisfy needs, that is the whole point of the human labour camp existence. If that were true, a critique of labour would be as rational as a critique of gravity. So how can a true “law of nature” enter into a state of crisis or even disappear? The floor leaders of the society’s labour camp factions, from neo-liberal gluttons for caviar to labour unionist beer bellies, find themselves running out of arguments to prove the pseudo-nature of labour. Or how can they explain that three-quarters of humanity are sinking in misery and poverty only because the labour system no longer needs their labour?
It is not the curse of the Old Testament “In the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread” that is to burden the ostracised any longer, but a new and inexorable condemnation: “You shall not eat because your sweat is superfluous and unmarketable”. That is supposed to be a law of nature? This condemnation is nothing but an irrational social principle, which assumes the appearance of a natural compulsion because it has destroyed or subjugated any other form of social relations over the past centuries and has declared itself to be absolute. It is the “natural law” of a society that regards itself as very “rational”, but in truth only follows the instrumental rationality of its labour idol for whose “factual inevitabilities” (Sachzwänge) it is ready to sacrifice the last remnant of its humanity.
Labour is in no way identical with humans transforming nature (matter) and interacting with each other. As long as mankind exist, they will build houses, produce clothing, food and many other things. They will raise children, write books, discuss, cultivate gardens, and make music and much more. This is banal and self-evident. However, the raising of human activity as such, the pure “expenditure of labour power”, to an abstract principle governing social relations without regard to its content and independent of the needs and will of the participants, is not self-evident.
In ancient agrarian societies, there were all sorts of domination and personal dependencies, but not a dictatorship of the abstraction labour. Activities in the transformation of nature and in social relations were in no way self-determined, but were hardly subject to an abstract “expenditure of labour power”. Rather, they were embedded in complex rules of religious prescriptions and in social and cultural traditions with mutual obligations. Every activity had its own time and scene; simply there was no abstract general form of activity.
It fell to the modern commodity producing system as an end-in-itself with its ceaseless transformation of human energy into money to bring about a separated sphere of so-called labour “alienated” from all other social relations and abstracted from all content. It is a sphere demanding of its inmates unconditional surrender, life-to-rule, dependent robotic activity severed from any other social context, and obedience to an abstract “economic” instrumental rationality beyond human needs. In this sphere detached from life, time ceases to be lived and experienced time; rather time becomes a mere raw material to be exploited optimally: “time is money”. Any second of life is charged to a time account, every trip to the loo is an offence, and every gossip is a crime against the production goal that has made itself independent. Where labour is going on, only abstract energy may be spent. Life takes place elsewhere – or nowhere, because labour beats the time round the clock. Even children are drilled to obey Newtonian time to become “effective” members of the workforce in their future life. Leave of absence is granted merely to restore an individual’s “labour power”. When having a meal, celebrating or making love, the second hand is ticking at the back of one’s mind.
The political left has always eagerly venerated labour. It has stylised labour to be the true nature of a human being and mystified it into the supposed counter-principle of capital. Not labour was regarded as a scandal, but its exploitation by capital. As a result, the programme of all “working class parties” was always the “liberation of labour” and not “liberation from labour”. Yet the social opposition of capital and labour is only the opposition of different (albeit unequally powerful) interests within the capitalist end-in-itself. Class struggle was the form of battling out opposite interests on the common social ground and reference system of the commodity-producing system. It was germane to the inner dynamics of capital accumulation. Whether the struggle was for higher wages, civil rights, better working conditions or more jobs, the all-embracing social treadmill with its irrational principles was always its implied presupposition.
…No ruling caste in history has led such a wretched life as a “bondman” as the harassed managers of Microsoft, Daimler-Chrysler or Sony. Any medieval baron would have deeply despised these people. While he was devoted to leisure and squandered wealth orgiastically, the elite of the labour society does not allow itself any pause. Outside the treadmills, they don’t know anything else but to become childish. Leisure, delight in cognition, realisation and discovery, as well as sensual pleasures, are as foreign to them as to their human “resource”. They are only the slaves of the labour idol, mere functional executives of the irrational social end-in-itself.
Thus “labour”, according to its root, is not a synonym for self-determined human activity, but refers to an unfortunate social fate. It is the activity of those who have lost their freedom. The imposition of labour on all members of society is nothing but the generalisation of a life in bondage; and the modern worship of labour is merely the quasi-religious transfiguration of the actual social conditions.
The workers’ movement itself became the pacemaker of the capitalist labour society, enforcing the last stages of reification within the labour system’s development process and prevailing against the narrow-minded bourgeois officials of the 19th and early 20th century. It was a process quite similar to what had happened only 100 years before when the bourgeoisie stepped into the shoes of absolutism. This was only possible because the workers’ parties and trade unions, due to their deification of labour, relied on the state machinery and its institutions of repressive labour management in an affirmative way. That’s why it never occurred to them to abolish the state-run administration of human material and simultaneously the state itself. Instead of that, they were eager to seize the systemic power by means of what they called “the march through the institutions” (in Germany). Thereby, like the bourgeoisie had done earlier, the workers’ movement adopted the bureaucratic tradition of labour management and storekeeping of human resources, once conjured up by absolutism.
After centuries of domestication, the modern human being can not even imagine a life without labour. As a social imperative, labour not only dominates the sphere of the economy in the narrow sense, but also pervades social existence as a whole, creeping into everyday life and deep under the skin of everybody. “Free time”, a prison term in its literal meaning, is spent to consume commodities in order to increase (future) sales.
On the contrary, our contemporaries quite generally only ascribe meaning, validity and social significance to an activity if they can square it with the indifference of the world of commodities. His labour’s subjects don’t know what to make of a feeling like grief; the transformation of grief into grieving-work, however, makes the emotional alien element a known quantity one is able to gossip about with people of one’s own kind. This way dreaming turns into dreaming-work, to concern oneself with a beloved one turns into relationship-work, and care for children into child raising work past caring. Whenever the modern human being insists on the seriousness of his activities, he pays homage to the idol by using the word “work” (labour).
The imperialism of labour then is reflected not only in colloquial language. We are not only accustomed to using the term “work/labour” inflationary, but also mix up two essentially different meanings of the word. “Labour” no longer, as it would be correct, stands for the capitalist form of activity carried out in the end-in-itself treadmills, but became a synonym for any goal-directed human effort in general, thereby covering up its historical tracks.
This lack of conceptual clarity paves the way for the widespread “common-sense” critique of labour society, which argues just the wrong way around by affirming the imperialism of labour in a positivist way. As if labour would not control life through and through, the labour society is accused of conceptualising “labour” too narrowly by only validating marketable gainful employment as “true” labour in disregard of morally decent do-it-yourself work or unpaid self-help (housework, neighbourly help, etc.). An upgrading and broadening of the concept labour shall eliminate the one-sided fixation along with the hierarchy involved.
Such thinking is not at all aimed at emancipation from the prevailing compulsions, but is only semantic patchwork. The apparent crisis of the labour society shall be resolved by manipulation of social awareness in elevating services, which are extrinsic to the capitalist sphere of production and deemed to be inferior so far, to the nobility of “true” labour. Yet the inferiority of these services is not merely the result of a certain ideological view, but inherent in the very fabric of the commodity-producing system and cannot be abolished by means of a nice moral re-definition.
This way the attempt to use opposing interests inherent in the system as a leverage for social emancipation is irreversibly exhausted. The traditional left has finally reached a dead end. A rebirth of radical critique of capitalism depends on the categorical break with labour. Only if the new aim of social emancipation is set beyond labour and its derivatives (value, commodity, money, state, law as a social form, nation, democracy, etc.), a high level of solidarity becomes possible for society as a whole. Resistance against the logic of lobbyism and individualisation then could point beyond the present social formation, but only if the prevailing categories are referred to in a non-positivist way.
You will argue that superseding private property and abolishing the social constraint of earning money will result in inactivity and that laziness will spread. So you confess that your entire “natural” system is based on nothing but coercive force? Is this the reason why you dread laziness as a mortal sin committed against the spirit of the labour idol? Frankly, the opponents of labour are not against laziness. We will give priority to the restoration of a culture of leisure, which was once the hallmark of any society but was exterminated to enforce restless production divested of any sense and meaning. That’s why the opponents of labour will lose no time in shutting down all those branches of production which only exist to let keep running the maniac end-in-itself machinery of the commodity producing system, regardless of the consequences.
According to this spirit, the opponents of labour want to create new forms of social movement and want to occupy bridgeheads for a reproduction of life beyond labour. It is now a question of combining a counter-social practice with the offensive refusal of labour.
May the ruling powers call us fools because we risk the break with their irrational compulsory system! We have nothing to lose but the prospect of a catastrophe that humanity is currently heading for with the executives of the prevailing order at the helm. We can win a world beyond labour.
Workers of all countries, call it a day!
“the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry” – Keith Ansell-Pearson on Peter Sloterdijk
The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.
…He wishes to give a new truth to the insight developed by Marx and the Young Hegelians in the 1840s that contends that “man produces man”: in short, the human being is never given to itself or to anything else, but produces and reproduces its own conditions of existence and as a project of personal development, even an adventure. Sloterdijk, however, differs from Marx and the Hegelians in not wanting to place the stress on labor or work as the key category by which to understand this self-forming process of man. He proposes that the language of work be transfigured into that of “self-forming and self-enhancing behaviour.” We need, then, to go beyond both the myth of homo faber and of homo religiosus and to understand the human being as a creature that results from repetition. As he notes, humans live in habits, not in territories. If the 19th century can be viewed as standing under the sign of production, and the 20th century under the sign of reflexivity, then we need to grasp the future under the sign of the exercise. None of this refining and purifying work is without significance for our understanding of the human animal, since it holds the potential for unlocking anew the secrets of the human animal, including a reinvigoration of the key words by which we understand our so-called spiritual life, words such as “piety,” “morality,” “ethics,” and “asceticism.”
…For Sloterdijk the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry, the “human in training” as he puts it, or which we could call shaping and self-shaping. Not only is the earth the ascetic planet par excellence, as Nietzsche contended, it’s also the acrobatic planet par excellence.
Sloterdijk contends that human beings are always subject to “vertical tensions” in all periods and in all cultural areas: “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” I take Sloterdijk to be referring in general terms to the self-surpassing tendencies of the human animal, or its perfectionist aspirations. Thus, he recalls at the outset the Platonic Socrates, saying that man is the being who is potentially superior to himself. He takes this to indicate that all cultures and subcultures rely on distinctions by which the field of human possibilities gets subdivided into polarized classes: religious cultures are founded on the distinction between the sacred and the profane; aristocratic cultures base themselves on the distinction between the noble and the common; military cultures establish a distinction between the heroic and the cowardly; athletic cultures have the distinction between excellence and mediocrity; cognitive cultures rely on and cultivate a distinction between knowledge and ignorance; and so on. There is thus in humans an upward-tending trait, and this means for Sloterdijk that when one encounters humans, one will always find acrobats. One great modern “myth” of our time that captures this, and the idea of verticality in general, is that of Nietzsche’s tale in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of the being that is fastened on a rope between animal and superhuman. What model of vertical perfection and “progress” is encapsulated in this idea?
This is where matters get controversial in Sloterdijk’s study since he is dealing with matters such as training in the sense of “breeding” that have a highly dubious history. However, here he endeavors to be dexterous in his appreciation of projects that aim to fashion new human beings. On the one hand, he takes seriously Nietzsche’s seemingly fantastical ideas about the ?bermensch; on the other, he is severely critical of the “Soviet” attempt to create a new human and a new society by means of large-scale social and technological engineering. In reading Nietzsche, Sloterdijk does not find a biological or eugenics program (in spite of all the talk about “breeding” in Nietzsche), but an artistic and acrobatic discourse in which the emphasis is on training, discipline, education, and self-design. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, one builds over and beyond oneself — but to do this well one needs to be built first “four-square in body and soul.” The human subject needs to be seen as a carrier of “exercises,” made up of, on the passive side, an aggregate of individuated effects of habitus, and, on the active side, a center of competencies that allow for some minimal sense of self-direction and self-mastery. Should we thus not calmly agree with Nietzsche that egotism is but “merely the despicable pseudonym of the best human possibilities”?
Why art critics need to be DTF – Or why it is fine if reading e-flux is more like Ok! Magazine or facebook and less like The Book of Mormon
Get Off – Nick Faust
[I think there are plenty of artists that are guilty of the same things he accuses critics of, but he has the spirit right.]
Art criticism, like an upset parent, often passes moral judgment on this promiscuity, scolding, judging indiscretions. There are attempts at keeping art pure, delineating what is what, and who is who, and where the boundaries are. Or in the attempt to redefine the boundaries, there is a tendency to violently sabotage what came before if it doesn’t smoothly fit into the new regime.
But it’s crucial to encourage brief brushes, longed-for encounters, and magical moments that pass into the night to be brokenly remembered in the hungover daze of the next morning. Flings, one night stands, and vacation hook-ups are just as ripe. For artists who tie the knot—explosive divorces, whimpered muttering and weepy withdrawals, quiet bitter unspoken tension.
Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.
I think of people getting made up and fabulous, ready for a night on the town, scoffing at such prudes who advise a more “natural” and “authentic” way of representing themselves—their elaborate play and fluidity as they cycle from situation to situation, conversation to conversation, adjusting on the fly and letting themselves take in the experience while also manipulating it.
Instead, the proliferation of work on the Internet makes it easily digestible and citable. New practices, in Sanchez’s view, instantly devour themselves. I think it is necessary to flip the destructive, gluttonous connotations of devouring and focus on the more positive connotations of the word, that emphasis on avid enjoyment. What is so appealing about such fast distribution is how the institutionalized approaches that once suffocated, purified, cleansed, and straightened up the circulation of art are now infused with the chitchat and gossip of social life, and the work is tossed out onto the dance floor, knocked down from the balcony overlooking the frenzy. It isn’t, “Oh my, check out that stoic hottie—that removed, super-distant installation at Kunsthalle Wien. Man, I wish I could ask him if he wants to dance, but I’m so nervous, and he’s so up there.” Instead, in both the quick-feed call and response and riffing and sharing, it is shooting a flirty raise of the eyebrow, adjusting your posture accordingly, and striking up a conversation and making the advance. The stilting and privileging, the attempts to put one group up above another, are falling apart. Everybody is fucking everybody.
Artists don’t have to sign a mortgage with the things they work with, and it is perfectly normal to kind of hate the people you’re attracted to. Gosh, she’s so wonderful and smart and well-read and funny, but she’s a horrible drunk and she farts in her sleep. Or: he’s such a belittling and abusive asshole, but I kind of need that deprecation in my life right now, it is hot, I can’t help myself, I know it isn’t “normal” but it is working so well right now. Please keep the stories coming, and the encounters memorable.
Music hasn’t traditionally been as reliant on proximity to or participation in certifying institutions in the way visual art has. A producer from the middle of nowhere can throw up a track on Soundcloud after being inspired by some other, more-well-connected artist and quickly enter into the dialogue.
Visual art should be jealous of this fluid accessibility, these leveling maneuvers. Kids far from the art capitals can give themselves a playful legibility that is constantly up to be teased out and undermined. It isn’t realistic for young would-be gallerists to acquire a space like the De Vleeshal, but with a little paint and lighting know-how, they can transform their crappy garage, bombed-out basement, or parent’s attic into their own gallery space that is gonna look great all done up and out there.
Why privilege one level of the art speech act over another? Sure, some work might be underwhelming in person, in comparison to the space that looked so big onscreen, but the work is just as true in the studio as it is in the gallery, as it is on a website, as it is in a book, as it is on a phone, as it is during pedicure and manicure parties, as it is when barely remembered and floating as an example to be used in a conversation that never quite makes it out, as it is in a minuscule press clipping that some art historian will dig up a hundred years from now while writing a dissertation. Each new iteration allows for an unlimited amount of possibilities for artists to use, to extend and pause and speed up and burrow in and rewind and cut and paste and reverse and queer and undo and build upon, and as such, none should be shut down.