Addendum as manifesto: “All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice syllabus” Part II

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/11/2016

Robert L. Thayer’s LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice should get all the credit (or blame) for this, especially his chapter “Learning” where many of the following quotes and paraphrases are lifted from.

In a a post from several years ago, I lamented the state of social practice education – a placeless, homogeneous, view from nowhere. In short, social practice education is like most so-called education in the United States an empty embrace of the values of abstraction and global capitalism.

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

In the ensuing years, things have continued to devolve with students mostly being trained to join not a specific community rooted in a specific bioregion, but rather to join a global capitalist network – “the art world.” Ironically, the overwhelming emphasis in graduate art education is the inculcation of a fetish for criticality. Of course, it is a highly selective form of criticality, one that does not turn its gaze on the notion of criticality itself, but more importantly, does not turn its attention to the abstracted space and values of the educational apparatus. Well, it certainly does in terms of a liberal concern for identity politics and student debt, but does not seem to connect the dots to understand how debt is as disembodied as the structure of education – a purely fungible relationship of data points where course credit equals monetary credit…

So universities, banks and art schools continue to act as centripetal forces – pulling resources into vast global flows while the animate earth on which the entire edifice is built, continues to be ignored, or is itself only considered through the lens of a global climate crisis. And despite the congratulatory backslapping of an activist class that brings all of its intellectual and critical faculties to bear on the matter, they are blind to the fact that they have been trained by institutions mired in a fundamental category mistake which they themselves emulate.

To paraphrase David Orr, there are some debilitating myths at play – that ignorance is a solvable problem rather than a fundamental feature of being human; that knowledge (and technology) are, alone, enough to solve problems; that the increase in knowledge (rather than wisdom) is an inherent good; and that the education of students is primarily concerned with knowledge (or in the arts, with learning to be critical consumers of knowledge). But maybe it would be better to quote Orr:

All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded, students are taught they are part or apart from the natural world. To teach economics [or social practice], for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. It just happens to be dead wrong.

So, in the intellectual parlor games of e-flux and other smarty pants organs of the academic-art-financial nexus we don’t find the cultivation of (via Thayer) spiritual sensitivity, gentleness, caring, compassion, or generosity. Some may bristle at the suggestion of a spiritual role in the crisis we face equating it with some sort of magical thinking, but in the downward spiral of an accelerationist embrace of an intellectual homeopathy, we find a truly absurd form of wizardry. As Orr notes, the earth has been degraded on a massive scale by the educated, by the products of a system of displacement that trains even its supposed avant garde to search for solutions in the very intellectual tools that are the cause of the problem.

An education must be rooted to be radical. As Wes Jackson has said, there is only one serious major on offer at colleges – upward mobility (be it in terms of financial, social, or cultural capital). But as generations leave their homes to become citizens of a discipline rather than citizens of a watershed, or biotic community, fundamental questions are cast aside – “who am I?” and “what should I do?” often remain, but the answer to those end up being distortions in which membership in a professional class becomes the enduring identity – I am an artist. I should make art (build a vitae).

But another question, one that provides an interlocking context for the other two – “where am I?” gets cast aside. In today’s refugee crisis we see the heartbreak of an uprooted people. Academics decry this, all the while being seemingly oblivious to their own displacement, having no home (that truly deserves such a name) of their own. They are adrift in the gig economy, in the cosmopolitan nomadism of academia, replicating “monocultures of the mind” as Vandana Shiva would put it. And like technological approaches to agriculture that apply a specialized, highly trained, expert perspective to solving an urgent issue, we are left with an illusion, not only of mastery, but of plenty. Meanwhile more and more communities are being poisoned or starved. We must abandon the rootless sky, settle upon the earth and build practices of permanence, regeneration, and love – or, you can’t have social practice without soil practice.

See also: Toward a #soilpractice + #socialpractice manifesto: ending the art system and restoring aesthetic ecology

My snark is a political act – Wishing intellectuals would talk more and write less – why I never read papers at conferences – Academic culture is dominated by “a flash in human history”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/01/2015

Why Twitter’s Oral Culture Irritates Bill Keller (and why this is an important issue) – Zeynep Tufekci

First Keller talks about how we no longer need to remember everything and how his father used to use a slide rule and now there are calculators and who knows their multiplication table anymore… This is a familiar argument from cognitive replacement and I believe it is worth discussing not necessarily because there is something inherently wrong with machines making certain cognitive tasks easier, but I do deeply worry about what this means for valuing humans. Cheaper computers increasingly capable of taking over human tasks means that we face a profound human problem: how will we deal with the billions of people who will be potentially redundant if the only way of measuring a human’s worth is their price on the labor market? For me, this is an important political question rather than a technological lament. It’s not about what machines can do, it’s about the criteria by which we judge the worth of our fellow human beings, and how advances information technology increasingly leads us to devalue each other.

But this comparison between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg makes little sense unless you realize that Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material it did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed from a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we *acquired* these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society. (As I will argue, there are reasons to be concerned but it is important to separate these issues). Also, television, too, is secondary literacy in that television acts in a way which assumes and implies writing. (I am not going to go into this at length here but there is a lot of work on this topic, starting with Ong).

However, Twitter and other such tools also present a great opportunity to bring into the public sphere, and into important conversations, greater number of people who would otherwise be excluded. Rather than seeing this as a turf war in which the literate classes must defend their turf against the barbarians at the gate, the questions should be how we can preserve the better aspects of the ideal of the reasoned, complex and rational public sphere without descending into elitism. (I say the ideal because, as Dave Parry often points out, usually on Twitter, the Habermassian ideal of the public sphere, well, never really was).

This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Chapter 3 – Chapter 5)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/26/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

“Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts – Charles S. Peirce

In an illuminating metaphor, social scientist Otto Neurath compares humans as knowers to “sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” We acquire our capacity for critical reflection against the backdrop of a complex network of beliefs and claims to knowledge. Some elements of the network were acquired from our families, others from church, neighborhood, school, books, televisions, and so on; still others have their origins in personal experience. This network of knowledge and belief is our ship, the vessel on which we navigate the occasionally hazardous, ever-changing, only partially charted sea of life. The “ship of knowledge” is not, however, as seaworthy as we would like it to be…It needs repair and rebuilding, but we can’t do it all at once and from the bottom up. We are, after all, on the open sea…As the mariner must use and stand on some parts of the ship while examining, repairing, and improving others, we must rely on some (fallible) parts of our network of knowledge and belief while doubting, testing, and revising other parts

…As Wittgenstein also puts it, “the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.”

…the locus of certainty is the *actions* of embodied social agents, *not the intellect* of a (possibly) lone, disembodied spectator. Certainty turns out to be practical or pragmatic rather than propositional or intellectual…

…you know from experience there’s a big difference between the world and your ideas of it. To anyone but a certain kind of academic philosopher, it goes without saying.

…What should be puzzling here [in radical epistemological skepticism] is not the lack of proof, but the *request* for one…

…We employ a wide variety of different language games or vocabularies in making our way in the world and there is…nothing to be gained and much to be lost by choosing *once and for all* between them.

…”[quoting Richard Gregory] The question need not be whether reality is material or spiritual; it can be, what follows from talking about reality one way or the other? What do we gain, and what price do we pay, for adopting one vocabulary and giving up the other?

…We keep away from fire, raise the thermostat on the furnace, lower the volume on the stereo, comfort a frightened child, commiserate with the bereaved, condemn torture, and so on. As *pragmatic* certainties, these anticipations of and responses to subjective experience are not part of a fallible theory or system of knowledge. Our certainty that we and others experience pain is not propositional – not the outcome of a conclusive chain of reasoning…that we and others can experience pain *goes without saying.* We cannot really doubt whether we and practically all other human beings are capable of certain mental states because these and related states are among the *hinges* on which language – and hence doubt and inquiry – turn.

…We should drink deeply of science, but not to the point of intoxication…*Leading* a life requires the personal perspective of an agent – tempered and informed, to be sure, by the scientific or impersonal standpoint – but not fully replaced by it…If, however, you think of yourself as *one of us* – an embodied social agent *in* the world as well as a spectator *of* it – you will see the implausibility of such replacement.

If there were a contest for the best one-sentence definition of philosophy, it would be hard to beat Wilfrid Sellars’s characterization of philosophy as an attempt to “understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term.”

…If forced to choose between a practically incapacitating, but simple and intellectually satisfying extreme, on the one hand, and a practically empowering, but complex and intellectually disconcerting accommodation, on the other, the pragmatic temperament favors the latter.

Søren Kierkegaard, in a passage paraphrased by [William] James, writes, “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it mus be lived forwards.”

Instead of a single, abstract, theoretical free will problem to be solved in one fell swoop, we are faced with a large number of free will problems – problems requiring complex, context-dependent, ambivalent choice between the vocabularies of freedom and determinism.

[quoting Mary Midgley] Getting right outside morality would be rather like getting outside the atmosphere. It would mean losing the basic social network within which we live and communicate with others, including all those others in the past who have formed our culture. If we can imagine this deprived state at all, it would be a solitary condition close to that of autism or extreme depression – a state where, although intelligence can still function, there is no sense of community with others, no shared wishes, principles, aspirations or ideals, no mutual trust or fellowship with those outside, no preferred set of concepts, nothing agreed on as important.

[quoting Kai Nielsen] Instead we weave and unweave the fabric of our beliefs until we get, for a time, though only for a time, the most consistent and coherent package which best squares with everything we reasonably believe we know and to which we, on reflection, are most firmly committed. There are some extensively fixed points, points which we *may* always in fact obtain anywhere, anywhen, but they are still, logically speaking, provisional fixed points which are not, in theory at least, beyond question, if they turn out not to fit with the web of our beliefs and reflective commitments, commitments which will not be extinguished when we take them to heart under conditions of undistorted discourse.

[quoting William James] There is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance…In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man [sic] has had his say.”…The method also responds to what [John] Dewey characterized as the “deepest problem of modern life,” namely, “restoring integration and cooperation between man’s [sic] beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct. It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life.

This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Preface – Chapter 2)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/20/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

In 1907 William James spoke of the “seriously inquiring amateur in philosophy” who turns to philosophy professors but finds them wanting. The problem is not with the serious amateur, James explained, but the professors. Philosophy should do more than exercise our “powers of intellectual abstraction.” It should also “make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives.”

*Embodied social action* is at least as important to philosophical inquiry and understanding, James and Wittgenstein each insist, as *abstract thought or contemplation.*

At one point James put it this way: “The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting on an order that he comes upon and simply finds existing. The knower is an *actor*, and coefficient of the truth which he helps to create. Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for *human action – action* which to a great extent transforms the world – help make the truth.” Nearly seventy years later Wittgenstein wrote, ” Giving grounds, however justifying the evidence, comes to and end; – but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true; i.e. it is not a kind of *seeing* on our part; it is our *acting*, which lies at the bottom of the language game.” …[James and Wittgenstein share a]*pragmatic temperament* – one that speaks to the whole person, embodied social agent as well as intellect.

For too long academic philosophers have ignored the questions of serious, intelligent, well-educated men and women from all walks of life who do not have time for concentrated study in philosophy.

…Peirce criticized radical skepticism and the idea that we acquire knowledge of the world as individuals rather than as members of communities.

…A pragmatic temperament, however, acknowledges that *genuine* philosophical questions are not a matter of intellect alone. They are raised by the whole person and involve both the street…and the classroom. Action without thought, to adapt a phrase from Kant, is *blind*; thought without action is *empty*. If our minds cannot simultaneously occupy the worlds of the street and the classroom when we’re doing philosophy, they must at least enact a dialogue between them. Philosophical questions worth asking must be responsive to the demands of both, as must our answers of them.

…we who raise genuine questions about knowledge, reality, mind, will, and ethics are not, first and foremost, isolated, disembodied Cartesian observers *of* the world, but rather embodied social agents *in* it.

Pragmatic considerations are inseparable from certain social *practices* – and practices are themselves constituted by patterns of (embodied) human action…correct language use…presupposes membership in a community of embodied, language-using agents.

One reason “so few human beings truly care for philosophy,” William James observed, is its “monstrous abridgment of things, which like all abridgments is got by the absolute loss and casting out of real matter.” The “real matter” to which James refers includes the wide variety of rich and concrete realities that comprise our daily lives. Abstract ethical theories, for example, cannot capture the various complexities of everyday moral decision making. “The entire man [or woman], who feels needs by turns,” James points out, “will take nothing as an equivalent for life but the fullness of living itself.”

…Successful navigation in life, as on the sea, requires knowing when and how to tack between viewpoints. Those who remain utterly blind to a more objective or detached picture of their betrothed or lovers are ill-advised to make long-standing personal commitments to them;

“That is well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”…

To cultivate a garden is not to accept everything that happens as for the best. Weeds, disease, and drought are part of nature, but to a gardener these things are things to be reduced or eliminated. What Candide *does* in cultivating his garden (where cultivating a garden is a metaphor for doing our best to improve the conditions of our earthly lives) is in some respects a more powerful and eloquent “refutation” of Pangloss’s doctrine than anything he could at this point *say*. Deeds, not words, are the most fitting response. Pangloss’s abstract generalizations are simply beside the point; they don’t matter, do any work, or make any “connexion to this actual world of finite human lives.” For Candide it is no longer worth trying to refute Pangloss on his own terms; he has better things to *do*.

After a point, it seems to me, our response to radical skeptics ought to resemble Candide’s response to Pangloss. Even if we cannot refute them to *their* satisfaction, the fact that their doctrine makes “no positive connexion to this actual world of finite human lives” may be sufficient to relegate it to the margins of contemporary philosophy (though *not* to the margins of the *history* of philosophy, where it remains of the greatest importance). As embodied social agents we have a number of more interesting and important philosophical questions to address than those posed by the radical skeptic. Like Candide, then, let’s not worry too much about matters that make no difference to the way we (must) lead our lives. There are more fertile fields that need cultivating. And we’ll never get to them unless we can turn our backs on radical skepticism.

Wittgenstein devised “language game” to emphasize the connection between saying, doing, and rule-following…Language is “woven” into (we might better say “interwoven with”) the nonlinguistic actions of language users rather than superimposed on them…thinking and saying are not only inseparable from doing, but they are also kinds of doing. “Words.” as Wittgenstein puts it, “are also deeds.”

The moral of the story then, is that we do not have to identify the essence or specify necessary and sufficient conditions for words…[that notion] is based on a mistaken preconception about language – one that fails to take account of how language is actually used by embodied social agents like ourselves.

…Meaning cannot, therefore, generally be abstracted from the social practices or rule-governed patterns of behavior into which the use of words is woven…

To reject the possibility of a “master theory” of truth – one that provides a method for systematically distinguishing any and all true beliefs from those that are false – does not, however, mean we cannot distinguish truth from falsity…there is no super-duper method, prior to and independent of, these linguistic activities, that will allow one to magisterially pronounce on the truth of various claims made within them. It is the different language games themselves – their more or less complex and interrelated rules, practices, conventions, purposes, standards of judgment, and so on – that provide the ground rules or criteria we use in determining truth or falsity within them.

…The main point, for present purposes, is that (1) questions of truth and falsity cannot be separated from our language games (or vocabularies); (2) our language games (or vocabularies) cannot be separated from our actions; (3) our actions cannot be separated from our various aims and interests; and (4) these aims and interests are those of embodied social agents.

…Language use in not something in addition to (or superimposed on) most distinctly human activities, including complex thought; rather it is constitutive of them. Meaning is not a product of private ostensive definition or linguistic essences; rather it is a function of the way words are used fro certain purposes in certain language games. And truth is not determined by *directly* comparing what we say about the world with what the world is like itself; rather it is a property of either (a) individual beliefs or sentences that together with certain events or states of the world satisfy the rules internal to a particular (useful or justifiable) language game or vocabulary or (b) entire language games that, given their purposes and their comparative advantages over competing language games, are more useful or justifiable than any practical alternative.

The politics of spectatorship

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/18/2014


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)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/24/2013

The Ph.D. Problem – Louis Menand

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.

[from the LeisureArts archive] – Gambling in Reno, Some Notes on a Social Practices “Field Trip”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/20/2013

Gambling in Reno, Some Notes on a Social Practices “Field Trip” – Published in Revelry and Risk: Approaches to Social Practice, or Something Like That (2007)

“After the conference papers are over, we go slumming in their bars.”

Like many things in my life, this essay begins somewhat obliquely. The above quote is from Richard Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. He’s writing about what comes to count as legitimate experience in the professional world of philosophy and literary theory. For an experience to count in these domains it has to take an institutionally recognizable form as a conference, a paper, or a book. This same question of legitimacy plagues the professional art world – roughly analogous substitutions might be exhibitions, works, and projects. Shusterman writes that we are impoverished by academic practices “…[which fail] to recognize the value of non-professional responses which seek neither interpretive truth nor publishable novelty but simply enriched experience [emphasis mine], experience which may perhaps be communicated in writing but does not need to be to count as legitimate and meaningful.” When one engages in such non-professional practices, when one goes “slumming” in Reno, you run the risk of academic oblivion.

How does “enriched experience” find articulation? Does this essay enhance or undermine the experience of our field trip? How do you provide enough of a structure for something to become legible without allowing the structure to be the only thing that’s experienced? Perhaps these considerations are central to social practices, or maybe this is merely my conceit. My interest has always led me to teeter as far on the edge of evanescence as possible – allowing, for example, the trip to Reno to live or die in the memories of my fellow travelers rather than making a video, or taking photos, or creating a Jeremy Deller like travel guide.

This essay may undermine this anti-ambition, but it can at least specify that no guide book is possible for the trip. It was a singularity comprised of a specific set of people at a specific moment in time. This is not to say that fruitful discussion/interpretation cannot take place, but if the trip was “successful,” discussion, documentation, and exhibition, would never adequately capture its complexity. This is dangerous territory. I’m sounding awfully “arty.”

Perhaps there’s little else you need to know about the trip other than the fact that it was bookended by free appetizers when we arrived in Reno, and sage cheddar cheese on crackers on our way home in the white mini-van. Perhaps that is all you can know unless you were there. It was never a “project,” but it was something more than spontaneous revelry, although that happened too. Above all, it was a gamble.

I’ve gambled with others in Reno before, in more and less serious ways. Neil Young has indirectly asked – Tell Me Why Only Love Breaks Your Heart? To this I can only offer the corniest of replies – love is a gamble, and that gamble, if it is to have any meaning at all, must have failure as one of its real possibilities. Without the risk of losing everything, gambling/love is just another game, one hardly worth playing. Maybe my deepest ambition for social practices and the art/life tension it embodies for me, is that it too is a game worth playing, something more than a profession, something more than a series of projects, a game with something tragic at stake – something that could break your heart…

“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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/13/2013

[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.]

Wonders to Behold and Skillful Seeing: Art History and the Mission Statement – Joanna E. Ziegler

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.

The fig leaf for mediocrity known as “theory.” – Literature vs. The Academy

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/30/2013

Who Ruined the Humanities? – Lee Siegel

The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist’s chair. In their numbing hands, the term “humanities” became code for “and you don’t even have to show up to get an A.”

The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

…In that moment, teaching literature as an investigation of life’s enigmas struck a deep collective chord. Majoring in English hit its zenith, yet it was this very popularity of literature in the university that spelled its doom, as tendentious pedants of various stripes accelerated the academicization of literary art.

In contrast to the effects of World War II, the purposeless bloodshed of the Vietnam War made all authority suspect. That was when teaching literature acquired an especially intense ideological fervor, when university radicals started their long (and fruitless) march through academic institutions armed with that fig leaf for mediocrity known as “theory.” And that was when majoring in English began its slow decline. The rest is today’s news.

Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.

Trilling was exasperated by the absurdity of teaching morally subversive modernist works in the morally conventional precincts of a university, to the point where he somewhat hysterically exaggerated what he called the “force and terror” of modernist literature (there is terror in Syria, not in Gide). But he was, after all, a college teacher, and he was not able to see that the classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. ****They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.****

Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.

In “Moby-Dick,” Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, declares that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Soon, if all goes well and literature at last disappears from the undergraduate curriculum—my fingers are crossed—increasing numbers of people will be able to say that reading the literary masterworks of the past outside the college classroom, simply in the course of living, was, in fact, their college classroom.

Verlyn Klinkenborg – rational grace and energy – the endless coastline of human experience

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/24/2013

The Decline and Fall of the English Major – Verlyn Klinkenborg

In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

A technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum. That narrowness sometimes reflects the tight focus of a professor’s research, but it can also reflect a persistent doubt about the humanistic enterprise. It often leaves undergraduates wondering, as I know from my conversations with them, just what they’ve been studying and why.

Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

Phd in Blog Studies – How long before some “savvy” academic tries to bless blogging with “legitimacy?”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/08/2013

Why grad schools should require students to blog – Maria Konnikova

If I just stay in a narrowly-defined academic niche, my writing will be confined to papers for scholarly publication and grants. Those take time and, at least in areas like psychology, research results. You can’t just run one off every few days. Absent those specific outlets, there’s no regular mechanism for developing your thoughts, working out new ideas, thinking about interesting questions that may not be directly related to your field of research, taking the time to wonder about other areas, or having the flexibility to pursue other interests just because they stimulate your imagination. It’s papers for publication, grants for submission, or bust.

If, on the other hand, I turn to blogging or other forms of popular writing, not only must I write quickly, coherently, and—and this is really the kicker—consistently, but the way in which I do it forces me to learn to work faster, come up with new ideas more frequently, be less afraid of “foreign” fields, and be comfortable asking constant questions about everything I read. I’m more aware of other disciplines and other literatures than I ever have been. I’m able to digest the academia-speak of disciplines that are not my own far more effectively. Over and over, I use these skills to help me tell a better story—the end game of both a piece of popular writing and an academic one. And because I am forced to write (and think) often, I improve. Constantly.

Academia as a whole is still quite skeptical of popular writing and anything that takes time from serious academic pursuits. These include reading articles in your discipline, reading publications and books by your field leaders and co-workers, working on writing up your own studies for publication (the more and the faster, the better), and networking and presenting your work at academic conferences. Having a blog? Freelancing on the side? Working on pieces for the non-academic, a.k.a, popular, press? Not very high on the list. In fact, in direct opposition to the list, as each of these pursuits takes time away from what you should be doing.

It’s a shame—and it’s counterproductive. Instead of frowning upon blogging, popular writing, any intellectual pursuits that don’t seem immediately and narrowly academic, wouldn’t it make sense for academia to embrace it all – and embrace it enthusiastically?

For (A Broad) Social Practice – A Reply to Daniel Tucker – Bring on the Arty Party

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/03/2012

The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest recently launched a blog and this piece caught my eye: Against Social Practice – Daniel Tucker

The title is somewhat misleading as Tucker is not arguing against social practice per se, but the way it is being institutionalized. I also have reservations about the professionalization of social practice, but for very different reasons. He opens with a troubling assertion about the rise of social practice programs and the connection to neoliberalism:

Education in an era of the neoliberalization of capitalism has placed a premium on choice. The opening up of new markets is key to this expanded choice, exemplified in charter school expansion at the primary and secondary level, the growth in distance and online higher education, and newly specialized affective fields like social practice art, social justice, social entrepreneurship and community partnerships in higher education. Realistically, all of these examples produce new choices at the expense of old choices.

What I would note here is that there needs to be a healthy skepticism towards this zero sum assertion. Some new choices may well come at “the expense” of others, but it isn’t necessarily so. More importantly, we need to asses the qualitative dimensions of those choices. It may well be that social practice programs siphon students from say (sympathetic) sculpture programs, but this might also entail opening access to those sculpture programs for students that are a better fit. It may also be that social practice will turn out to be better suited to ask certain types of questions or explore certain types of experience and thus the “expense” incurred by older forms could be justified.

Tucker then worries, “Far from a conservative cry to preserve the past, I am concerned that our educational choices have already been made for us by forces more human and corrupt than any mythical market could concoct.” This begs the question – Have the previous educational choices somehow been exempt from this corrupting influence? If so, how? And if not, Why are we holding social practice programs to a higher standard?

He then moves on to a series of questions and issues that he feels social practice programs need address before winning his support. He acknowledges that these programs might be uniquely situated to foster “specific conversations that deal with the ethics, logistics and aesthetics of organizing people,” yet cautions, “the traditions of art have a lot to teach social practice, as they have mastered the translation of the social into material resolutions that provide necessary and different points of entry into complex ideas.” Maybe. But it is curious that there are so many who feel dissatisfied with this alleged “mastery.” Perhaps he is right that this new academic “market” is merely a neoliberal consumer choice, but that seems implausible. It certainly is cynical to dismiss the apparent desire of these students to find a better home for their curiosity than what the traditional art disciplines offer – are all of them chasing an art world trend? most of them? Or could it be that the arts are not the masters of translation Tucker imagines?

My foremost concern though is with the limitations he sets out for the field of social practice. Obviously we all bring competing agendas into this discussion around such a burgeoning field. But I feel Tucker’s questions, as interesting as they may be, are symptomatic of a deep desire to prescribe an intellectualist and activist agenda for social practice:

Can it retain the gains of the past movements for educational representation while moving beyond representation to a politics of redistribution? Can it respect truly complex social world from which it borrows and in which it intervenes without relegating the social to an image—a fixed commodified version of the everyday? Can it experiment with social relations in a way that builds new insights into what we can do together that acknowledge the inherently political nature of that act, while also proposing (socially or materially) ways to work through inadequate politics of the past?

I have argued again and again that there may well be incredible opportunities to address these sorts of questions in social practice programs, but it would be a mistake to desire to limit ourselves to them. There certainly are, and will continue to be, people who have no interest in such questions. They may not have any interest in antagonism as a social form, maybe they want to make people happy- gasp! I hope we can reserve a place for fun, sweetness, and love amid all the smashing of capitalists. I don’t like the idea of a litmus test or the obligation to make every walk a dérive. The “the old academy” Tucker invokes certainly has its strengths, but one of its biggest shortcomings is the narrow band of  human experience it has focused on – the intellectual. There is more to being human than being book/theory “smart.” And rather than settle for the truly “false choices” of exploring the world from different positions along that narrow band, I argue for a social practice filled with activists and intellectuals, but also party people, hippies, malcontents, and maybe even a few capitalists. In short, I argue for the social practice program that many in the academy and the critical establishment fear.

Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” – One side of of a facebook conversation on art and culture

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/12/2012

An addendum to this post is now here.

[The following is my end of a multi-participant and mutli-themed conversation. I did not include the names or comments of others (save for a few unattributed quotations) as I did not ask for their permission. The content is essentially unedited.]

*** – The language I prefer to use in describing what you call “antiquated infrastructure” is more in line with Sholette (and Baudrillard). Perhaps art is an exploded star (maybe in the 60s) and like astronomical ones, what we are seeing now is just the last light to reach us from that “long gone” event…

“the madness of making things matter” is a really lovely phrase although I wonder a bit about who you see engaged in such a thing. As you probably know I am quite skeptical about folks that utilize the label “cultural producers” being engaged much in making things matter. Or rather to whom and for whom does it matter?

I feel like despite your half-hearted attempt to leave art behind (at least as you hint at in the comments here), you still want to reserve a place for some sort of special individual (or collective). Someone who stands out as a “meaning maker” or “cultural producer,” thus merely shifting the dynastic reigns to a newly labelled vanguard.

Oh ***, I know you don’t care one whit what my “point” is, but I appreciate you pretending to. It is true that a certain kind of skepticism is my disposition, and that skepticism generally finds its manifestation at (perceived) claims of specialness, elitism, etc. I support radically democratic culture making (pretty sure you do too) and thus find the term ‘cultural producers’ a bit weird. Who is *not* a cultural producer? Who *doesn’t* “make meaning?” I guess radical inclusivity is my point and thus the idea that critics (radical or otherwise) should be writing about activist art true enough, but why do we keep limiting ourselves to the most obvious forms of meaning making, and while obvious, also the least accessible to vast segments of the population?

So again when you say:
“That is why I use the phrase “cultural producers” only as a way to imply forms of culture making outside the tight constraints of an art infrastructure.”

I have to wonder why, given your curatorial history, it seems you want to look outside the art *infrastructure*, but not outside *art* (or activism when you stretch a bit). It gives the distinct impression that “cultural producer” is just a euphemism for smart art/activist types, but does not appear to include car customizers, church knitting circles and the like. I mean if we’re really looking at culture, not *intellectual* culture, not *urban* culture, not *activist* culture, etc. Why does everything done in the name of cultural production feel so constrained?

There is indeed an “entire other universe” being ignored (but not necessarily the one you speak of) and my “point” is to be vigilant in calling that out.

I am certainly not against being interested in one thing over another either. The reason I spout off (aside from having no life) on these issues periodically is that there is a HUGE disconnect in the art world between what people say they support and what they *actually* support. I mean your **** show didn’t cast a wide net (at least from where I sit). It explored a well worn groove, an interesting one, but very few surprises (of course I’m also guilty of considering the title too literally – wanting something beyond its aim, hoping to have seen an exhibition of people living creatively, whose lives explore the art of living more than the art of living (as art)). Time and again, curators claim to be interested in everyday life, the ordinary, cultural production, etc. – yet whenever they put an event together art/activist types are almost all they include (unless one of the artist/activist types brings in some non-art person). So if the statement were everyday life – as interpreted by artist intellectuals, or cultural production as generated by artist intellectuals or others they deem interesting, or *** – as practiced by art/activist types, then it would at least be honest…

So, what *do* I want?

…more grandmothers, more South Dakotans, more gearheads, more fan fiction writers, more karaoke queens, more street performers, more Sunday painters, more NASCAR fans, more tailgating, more collectors (of barf bags, not art), more gardeners (not “radical” ones), more lipdub dreamers, more Civil War re-enactors, more whirlygig makers, more surfers, more conservatives, more stand-up comics, more DJs (not Spooky!!!!), more roadside Americana, more people who have never been to college, more fiddlers, more people who have never left their hometown, more taxidermists, more people who don’t give a shit about art aside from liking pretty pictures, more of all the crazy, delightful people making (and doing things) that mean something, more folks engaged in, as you put it, “the madness of making things matter.”

Not only would critics of art from other disciplines be interesting so too would artists. One of the reasons I gave up on undergraduate art education was that everybody was busy making stuff without any foundation to drive it – except art. They were all living in an art school bubble (not unlike a Fox News bubble). Making art completely within the framework of art and only questioning it within its own terms.

Sure there were other courses than studio ones, but they were those dumbed down “math for artists” sorts of classes. I would love an art world in which there was no such thing as an undergraduate art degree. Art created from a vantage point of something in the world other than art would be so much healthier and relevant than the inbred mess we have now.

And don’t bother telling me how art education has changed, how people read from urban planning, architecture, etc. The professionalization of art, the specialization, still has a very tight grip. Look at how successful Claire Bishop has been at having people take seriously her efforts to reign in social practice, to bring it back to the fold, to let all the old ideas and frameworks be the starting point – criticality being the greatest bugaboo. Oh how the art world LOVES its criticality! Looking to other academic disiciplines, is fine (as **** suggests) but let’s not confine ourselves to academia.

Surely we can hope for a more interesting and diverse art world than one dependent on academic experts, one that includes pleasure (not “jouissance”), one that thrives in places like Galveston, TX, or Butte, MT, one that thrives outside cities, one that ordinary people (ordinary people are the sort of people that wouldn’t ask “what is an *ordinary* person?”) want to see, one that doesn’t always have to interrogate, deconstruct, critique, or examine, one that is radically inclusive, democratic, local, and in which critics are one, very small part.

Against University Uniformity And For The Provincial Institution – Localization – Place Based Education – Intra-diversity vs. Inter-diversity

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/04/2012

This may rub my progressive friends the wrong way, but there is much to think about here. There is a powerful critique of universality to be made, and this piece does so, showing how the notion is related to the abstraction of (economic) exchange. There is something Baudrillardian about that line of thinking, although I’m sure Wilson would not embrace the comparison. The localization of education at the university level is not something progressives/liberals talk enough about (if at all).

Universal Uniformity in the University – James Matthew Wilson

If contemporary diversity leads all departments, all schools, and the character of all graduates to look roughly alike, it would seem reasonable to propose an alternative account of diversity that takes the word more seriously and makes it conducive to a substantive good that cannot be measured with a calculator…what if an institution were to commit itself not to attracting students and faculty from every possible state and a smattering of foreign lands, but to building up a faculty composed whenever possible of persons from a specific region and committed to educating the youth of that region?  This used to be quite common, but in the impossible chase of the Ivies, even schools that stand no realistic chance of attracting a “world class” elite faculty nonetheless burn their local bridges in the attempt to do so.  This reduces the cultural capital otherwise available to universities through nurturing and retaining their native population, and makes it difficult for an institution to manifest the particularities that naturally arise in a settled culture.  Mobility and geographical cherry-picking homogenize more than civilize.

So, I ask, what if universities began hiring according to specific, exclusive, and perhaps even ungeneralizable criteria about what kind of knowledge is valuable?  Currently, most scholars are more loyal to their profession and the standards and interests of their field of expertise than they are to their institution.  They have to be, because the institution offers little of substance to which they might feel profound intellectual fidelity.  Rather than seeking to have the best-available scholar in every field, schools might specialize more, and coordinate that specialization across departments and disciplines, reaching a provisionally local but robust consensus on the attributes proper to the life of learning.

…building upon a less widely “imported” faculty, and a newly circumscribed curriculum that makes substantive choices about what constitutes the essential knowledge of the liberally educated person of a particular institution, we may entertain the prospect of universities’ provisionally abandoning the attempt to establish a global, banal, and diluted consensus regarding the attributes of a good graduate’s character.

…yet schools restrict this celebration of “difference” to admissions criteria and superficial demographic festoons on an otherwise homogenous institutional coat rack.

We would then realize real diversity between institutions, rather than a uniform diversity within them.  That this would result in inferior and superior character formation at different schools would be an obvious consequence, but I am not sure why we would shy away from ambitious experiments in character and virtue, in an age where nearly everyone is convinced—for often opposed reasons—that universities are failing their students both intellectually and morally.

[All bold emphases mine.]


Anne Waldman – Field Poet – Outrider – Archeologist Of Morning

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/16/2012

VIDA Interview with Anne Waldman: “From the Larynx”

I am interested in the magical properties of language  — its sound and image, its logopoeia . I consider myself a field poet, an investigative poet, “an archeologist of morning” (Olson’s term). And to see the world, its exigencies, tragedies in a “new light” or a refreshed light through a heightened perception of language is what I try to do.  Spiritual perhaps, but also a down-to-earth practice.  A way into my own consciousness, into body, dreamscapes, other considerations of space, time, neuralinguistics, astronomy and so on – back and forth, up and down the spiral. And “lalita”- the “play”, delight in the particulars. And maybe we will leave a trace- who knows – poetry archives on the moon or Mars? I appreciate the fragments of Sappho!

“Outrider” is not “outsider”, but rides alongside the mainstream, intervenes upon it, but keeps her autonomy…Outrider is another rhizome, another complexity, not static, but in constant motion. Many experimental women have evolved new writing strategies and performances beyond the left-hand margin look and content-driven epiphany of the poem. Ambitious projects that eschew the master scriptures of shape and form which have been male gendered for centuries. There’s also reclamation back to older less theistic forms of practice.  The outrider also seems socially, culturally engaged, involved with creating alternative infra-structures, aside the academic mainstream. Less careerist, if you will [emphasis mine].

Dana Gioia – Professionalization – The Urgency of Poetry

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/03/2012

“Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia is as relevant for art as poetry and as urgent today as it was in 1991. A must read. Really.

American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.

…Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture.

Public Intellectual

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/24/2012

via Academic Evolution:

What stands in the way of scholars respecting the public enough to address it and to contribute their best thinking to the broader world? Well, scholars do. So long as institutions of higher education sustain the system that punishes those who aim their work to broader audiences and rewards intellectuals only when they speak in the private code of a subdiscipline, then what are you going to get? You get scholars who speak in code to the brotherhood, instead of public intellectuals.

I’d rather be a public intellectual. It seems more honest, more ethical, more true to the life of the mind than does adding another line to my CV for an article that will only be distributed to a few hundred places and read by even fewer.

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Francis Bacon – Book Learning

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/02/2012

“This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the Schoolmen: who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors…as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges…did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books…as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit. ” – Francis Bacon on book learning

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Gregory Sholette – Curator’s Disease – Edward Tiryakian – Existential Phenomenology

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/02/2012

On one level, I love Sholette’s book Dark Matter, but at a much deeper level I find it infuriating. While it does hint at a profound re-evaluation of art/politics and at shedding light on “dark matter” it ultimately treats dark matter with curator’s disease…that is it serves as a vague intellectual theme used to illustrate a preordained vision- in this case the rather conventional celebration of the heroic artistic avant garde – rather than as a radical foil to academic triumphalism. Stephen Wright and Alexander Koch are doing much less conventional work addressing so called “dark matter.” Having said that, I’m still thankful the book exists and talks intelligently about some great folks.

Coincidentally, while revisiting Sholette, I discovered this quote from Edward Tiryakian describing existential phenomenology in Stanford Lyman’s A Sociology of the Absurd (1970):

“…[it] seeks to elucidate the existential nature of social structures by uncovering the surface institutional phenomena of the everyday, accepted world; by probing the subterranean, non-institutional social depths concealed from public gaze, by interpreting the dialectic between the institutional and non-institutional.”

Draft of a manifesto written in defense of a group of people that did not ask for my defense, using words they would not use and engaging people they ignore.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/19/2010

[descending into Mobile, AL – turbulence – warming sunlight a pale stripe against a cloud tundra]

The resistance to being theorized, examined, abstracted…isn’t this a basic sort of dignity?

We are not your intellectual playthings. Perhaps you see something publishable, a critical opportunity, but we reject your representation and demand our autonomy. We might not have read your recent darlings (Rancière, Agamben, etc.), but you have not lived our lives either. We refuse to meet on your terms within your own idioms – prejudged by your theoretical dogmas.

While you wring hands over what it all means, we are trying to change the world, build relationships and communities. Are we naive? Possibly. We prefer a world of naive dreamers to cynical observers. Keep your beloved “criticality.” Hold it close to your heart and tell us what you feel. We are friends, not “colleagues” and we choose to embrace humane values and each other. We offer a different vision. Against the professional hegemony of academic intellectualism we offer – trust, love, sentiment, passion, egalitarianism and sincerity.

We won’t live our lives in “quotes” and think being thought silly is preferable to the safety (and cowardice) of the knowing wink. In short, we reject the antiseptic posturing of the theoretical class. We welcome the messiness of lived human experience – all the stuff that resists intellectual appropriation and is routinely dismissed as petty, mundane, insignificant.

We are gamblers, believing in the value of risking everything for the sake of our “foolish” dreams and schemes.

Feel free to stand aside and critique yourself into a corner, into passivity, but save your elitist judgments for your fellow bibliographic temple builders…your heartless (and gutless) intellectual fundamentalism is not welcome here.

Benjamin Barber – Academic Specialization – Aristocracy of Everyone

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/25/2009

From An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America by Benjamin Barber:

“…academic specialization has turned the study of culture into the study of the study of culture – self-conscious preoccupation with method, technique, and scholarship displacing a broad humanistic concern for culture itself.”

“Souls are deep in many different ways, and reading is hardly the only road to virtue.”

“[university teaching has become]…all questions and no answers, all doubt and no provisional resting places.”

“Deconstruction may rid us of all our illusions and thus seem a clever way to think, but it is no way to live.”

“[the object of public schools]…is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed.”

“[democracy as]…an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination.”

Qualities of Thinking – Scholarly Virtues

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/28/2009

“At present research focuses on the scholarly virtues: accuracy of reference and care in drawing conclusions. These are valuable because they counteract our normal sloppy thinking. However, there are many more qualities of thinking: grace, charisma, intimacy, spontaneity, wit, depth, simplicity, grandeur, warmth, openness, drama, intensity and generosity. [emphasis mine] These vital and passionate qualities are linked to the power of ideas, the ways in which ideas get inside our lives and come to matter in everyday existence.” – John Armstrong as quoted here.