Lebenskünstler

“I really despise the strip mall/corporate chain mentality that says – in every city a Project Row Houses, in every syllabus a Grant Kester, in every program a critique…” – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/11/2013

The material below stemmed from this (January 2013):

Morning rant:

So, yesterday I saw a status update soliciting ideas for a social practice syllabus and it continues to blow my mind how unbelievably predictable the suggestions were. Foucault, Bishop, de Certeau, Nancy, Mouffe, Jackson, Habermas, Rosler, yadda yadda yadda…

What does it say about the state of education that there is such homogeneity? Sure, we can agree on some common/core texts,but isn’t *anyone* else suspicious about this? Can we really believe that the same laundry list of thinkers passed around from grad school syllabus to grad school syllabus enriches our understanding of social practice? Is everyone so (ahem) lazy? And how can academics otherwise inclined to be critical of universal narratives so readily agree on one for social practice? The global sameness of suburbanization is problematic, but reading (always *reading*) name brand theorists from school to school is essential?

I meet person after person in the field that have a really narrow point of reference clearly gleaned from “syllabus syndrome.” And why is it almost always readings? Or activist and art projects? Why not parents, neighbors, bakers, mechanics, baristas, programmers, bar tenders, clergy, restaurateurs? Do non-academics (that are not activists) have *anything* to offer social practice (other than as a grist mill for “collaboration”)? Should we tell folks to just read through AAAARG.org, check out the Creative Time Summit videos and call it a day?

And ultimately resulted in this: All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice syllabus – Or, an idiosyncratic “arty party” field guide to Vermont.

…being versed *academics* is part of the problem I’m trying to describe and I’m not sure I buy that social practice is not a “medium”, or conceived as such, or at least desired to be so by said academics.

“A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant, and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality and the pretence of finality in truth.” – William James on philosophy

Kaprow and Dewey (but Jane Addams would be even more instructive than Dewey)are near and dear to me (I’ve written about them incessantly), but mostly for the orientation they offer – Dewey pointing away from *school* and toward education as a way of life and away from *government* and toward democracy as a way of life. Kaprow for constantly pointing away from art and also for saying don’t look at my pointing finger!

not suggesting either/or…I very much believe in the value of theory, but only inasmuch as it *actually* clarifies practice. Too often it is regarded as an end in itself, and always threatens this when it becomes “essential” reading. And amen to looking at other cultures – I might offer that a visit to two week visit to Thailand would be as (and yes I admit my bias, I really think *more*) valuable as 15 weeks of readings and critique.

AMEN sister. Discourse is *one* thing, but often presented as the *only* thing. Starting with texts muddies those waters immediately and, I think, sends another message – the (extremely narrow) verbal-intellectual slice of human experience is all that is acceptable in the arts these days. Mystical experience? Nonsense. Emotions? Well, we can sneak those in by calling them “affect.” Love? Compassion? Humor? Cloak them in irony or make them “revolutionary” and we will abide.

Sticking with my James (I’m re-reading), social practice needs to widen the search for God [pardon in advance his gendered language] :

“In short, she widens the field of search for God. Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact – if that should seem a likely place to find him.”

I have no idea whether anything has “backfired” or not. On one hand I want say there is nothing wrong with being “comfortable” and that tying growth to discomfort is an old saw of the avant garde, but then again students *can* be outright lazy, and worse, completely ungenerous with their attention…never talking about the term social practice is probably a wise choice (and one I wish I was better at)…

I might agree ***** if I knew how to tell ahead of time whether such uncertainty was exquisite or not. Sometimes students find only fear/alienation…I have been thinking about social practice (the field) today as a building without an architect, vernacular architecture…and I see academia resisting that, wanting to bring in the professionals and make sure everything is built to code, properly licensed. I’d like to stick closer to the approaches of Freire’s and Horton’s “We Make the Road by Walking” or “Mercogliano’s Making It Up As We Go Along”…

And yes let’s not get stuck with the same old examples either. Being a hardcore localist (and anti-globalist), I am puzzled by people that appear to understand the value of such a perspective when it comes to food or retail/small business, but abandon it in the name of “cosmopolitan” education. This isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t learn from outside perspectives – but shouldn’t a San Francisco (social practice) education be distinct from a Chicago one or a NYC one? Not just in terms of faculty, but in terms of who is read and what projects are considered? I really despise the strip mall/corporate chain mentality that says – in every city a Project Row Houses, in every syllabus a Grant Kester, in every program a critique…I thought people took diversity seriously!

*Some* rural areas are conservative, and what exactly is wrong about being conservative? You seem to equate conservative with “racist, bigoted, sexist and homophobic” and that, of course is a highly contentious characterization. And if homogeneity is a problem, one would think my criticism would resonate. Obviously, we disagree about how heterogeneous the suggestions were. This would stem from my academic “privilege,” I suppose, given that there was almost nothing suggested I hadn’t seen dozens of time before. The funny thing about “privilege” though is that almost *anyone* is privileged from one perspective or another. And I find it as a rather lazy (ahem) way to try to negate someone’s point of view. You are “privileged” to have internet access so, let’s just ignore? Funnily though, my rant was directed not so much at privilege, but at a variant – exclusivity. I am in the middle of putting together a “syllabus” called “All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice” and the first part of that title sums things up nicely. The idea that we need academic gatekeepers, curators, artists, academics, activists, etc. to understand social practice is troubling. Or rather what your criticism (thank you) and some comments above remind me of is that I need to be clearer about my “either/or” tone – I am not proposing an end to those suggestions that you find value in, but want very much to supplement it with the stuff right in front of us, beneath our feet, right where we are, by non-academics and non-artists. I want a broad, messy social practice, not just the tidy intellectual/political baubles of academe (oops fell back into that tone again – I’m working on it. I swear.).

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  1. Nathan said, on 12/13/2013 at 14:31

    Randall, thanks for all your blogging. I’ve been reading you for years but this is the first time I’ve commented. (I’ve resisted the impulse to comment for a long time, so forgive me for losing control today.)

    One idea that comes to mind is that part of what you’re advocating is more diverse information seeking behavior on the part of teachers and students. The Wikipedia article on information seeking behavior (this version) summarizes the relevant ethnographic research of Elfreda Chatman (specifically her 1999 article “A theory of life in the round”): “Chatman examined this principle within a small world: a world which imposes on its participants similar concerns and awareness of who is important; which ideas are relevant and whom to trust. Participants in this world are considered insiders. Chatman focused her study on women at a maximum security prison. She learned that over time, prisoner’s private views were assimilated to a communal acceptance of life in the round: a small world perceived in accordance with agreed upon standards and communal perspective. Members who live in the round will not cross the boundaries of their world to seek information unless it is critical; there is a collective expectation that information is relevant; or life lived in the round no longer functions. The world outside prison has secondary importance to inmates who are absent from this reality which is changing with time.”

    I’ll let you make your own connections between this ethnography of information seeking in prison and your own experiences of information seeking in academia. Megan Comfort poignantly explores these connections in her recent prison ethnography, “‘It was basically college to us’: poverty, prison, and emerging adulthood”; she shows how prison is the mirror image of academia for many young people.

    I think one of the best ways to help people expand their information seeking behavior is to educate them about how their information seeking behavior could be improved. I occasionally hear that the Internet has made libraries and librarians irrelevant. As I see it, nothing could be further from the truth: local libraries and librarians are among the few advocates and educators for truly diverse information seeking in local places, as opposed to the “life in the round” effect that Chatman found in her prison study and that also seems to occur in the specialized academic disciplines. Libraries are local places (as opposed to a massive global corporation like Google) where people who don’t have any money or Internet access can go to get information and to learn how to get information. And librarians have developed ingenious information seeking tools like mapFAST, which allows you to use Google Maps to browse worldwide place-based library catalog subject headings to find books, archival materials, and other media about a specific place.

    Regarding the importance of libraries for information seeking in a democracy, I don’t know if anyone has said it better than François Matarasso did a decade ago in an article titled “The meaning of leadership in a cultural democracy: rethinking public library values”: “The public library is the most optimistic cultural institution to have been forged in the Victorian era. On the face of it, it is an extraordinary idea: a building in which the best, and much of the rest, that has been written over the centuries is made freely available to anyone who wants it–freely not just in the sense of not having to pay for it but, just as important, through the freedom of personal exploration offered by open shelves. Unlike its great twin, the town museum, the primary purpose of the public library was not to express a detailed narrative of human progress and social order through cultural value. There are simply too many books and too many conflicting voices in libraries to permit such a didactic mission…. This is not cultural relativism but cultural democracy. Few people really believe that all cultural products have equal worth, any more than they think all human behaviour is equal. But we are coming to see that cultural values, in a democratic society, can only be secured through negotiation, not by diktat, and that cultural leadership in the new century will have to be much more subtle, honest and responsive than in the past. Societies depend on shared values; they have common beliefs articulated through law, social convention and culture. Without any such commonality we are no more than a collection of individuals. The real question we have to answer is how we forge our values: will we continue to get them handed down by our rulers, or have we matured enough to take responsibility for negotiating them ourselves through democratic processes?”


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