“They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior.” – 40 years of Theory talking to itself
Tradition, history and art were subordinated to a collection of thinkers and arguments that went under the name of “theory”. They provided abstract rules and explanations for how human events unfolded and artistic creation happened. Theory had all the attractions of being conjecture-clean, clever, overarching – but it squeezed the vitality and unpredictability from human achievement like juice from a lemon. Instead of reading classic poems and novels, scholars mastered theories of literature. Instead of learning the details of a historical record, they acquired a theory of historical change. Forty years on, the results are in. Learning has declined and the humanities are an impoverished field. The outcome could have been foreseen, for what is the theory of history and art, or of love, gardening or health, for that matter, compared with present and past realities? But the enthusiasms of the moment were too strong.
It didn’t take long to realise that other idols ruled the graduate programmes. Yes, we read Shakespeare, Hume, Austen and Lovejoy, but what we did with them depended on an entirely different group: the theorists.
Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Adorno, Rorty, Paul de Man… they set a powerful agenda for humanistic study. Their work was complex and diverse, but what made all of them theorists was a focus on method. Instead of studying directly the contents of history and thought, they said we should examine the tools of study – terms, evidence, values and practices. Biographers, for instance, aim to record a human life; theorists step back and ponder the narrative structure of that life (or any life), the nature of historical evidence and so on. The sceptical tenor was spreading in schools from Aberdeen to Berkeley to Sydney, and those of us who enlisted out of inspiration had to change our attitude. Theory was hyper-analytical and against common sense, leaving no ordinary enjoyment untouched. The beauty of Keats’s verse, the truth of Nietzsche on herd morality, the heroism of Lincoln… well, you couldn’t esteem such things any more. By their own declaration, the theorists probed the basic elements of language, culture and ego, and to affirm something as conventional as beauty was to be pitiably square and naive.
Some were turned off, but many were intoxicated by the approach. Indeed, it is hard for non-academics to grasp how heady those conversations in the seminars and the student lounge could be. The classic writers were still essential, but the theorists were daring and radical, and the mention of them made the energy level in class discussions jump. If a fellow student spoke about Gulliver’s Travels by borrowing from Swift’s life, one could cite Derrida on how outside materials don’t reveal the meaning of a work but close off multiple meanings to “privilege” just one. Or one could steer the talk towards Lacan on aggression, then apply it to the world of the Houynhnms and Swift’s portrayal of mankind as yahoos. Or one could take a postcolonialist tack and recount Gulliver’s efforts to “go native” (ridiculous, to be sure, but one heard much worse). At that point, the colloquy would turn theoretical, with people taking sides.
Usually, the theorists would win. Traditional scholars fell back on custom and textual evidence, while theorists and their disciples enjoyed the thrill of roguish poses and weighty topics – Derrida on Western thought, Foucault on madness and civilisation, de Man on irony and death. They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior. Think, for instance, how Foucault flattered the student ego. In a series of books, he argued that the freedoms we cherish in bourgeois society, along with the liberal reforms of the Enlightenment, were in fact subtle forms of social control working through heightened surveillance and low-intensity coercions. The compliment this outlook paid to weary junior scholars struggling to find a place in the world was hard to withstand. While the rest of society accepted modern life and muddled through, the clear-eyed minds we fancied ourselves to be understood what was really going on.
When it was a minority endeavour, it functioned as a gadfly, obnoxious sometimes, but useful for testing assumptions. When theory became a dominant habit, it lost its rationale. With nobody around to defend untheoretical positions, it had nothing more to say, no more bunk to debunk. As the numbers of old-fashioned scholars dwindled, theoretical interventions became pointless and predictable. A recent book by another president of the MLA spent pages blaming the poor reading habits of students on the New Critics, figures whose influence waned back in the 1960s. The antiquated target shows how empty theory’s victory was. How many times could you “call into question” a basic assumption or “problematise” a term without sounding like a cliche?
The test of time was undeniable. The simple truth was that the accomplishments of theory mocked its claims. Derrida and the rest spoke in grandiose terms about the implications of theoretical acumen, and their votaries echoed the tone in portentous statements. When de Man declared that “the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations”, his followers repeated it as if it marked a leap in the course of human intelligence. But nobody appeared to benefit from the insight except its practitioners. Theory infiltrated the humanities, theorists found jobs and changed the curriculum, new journals and programmes were founded. But the effect beyond the campus was negligible. A few psychiatrists remained Lacanians, and some architects practised a version of deconstruction, but the influences were scattered. To proclaim theory’s social impact was nothing more than a pretence.
Still, theory’s influence in the university has been enormous. Even among people who’ve pulled away, certain axioms remain a matter of principle – for instance, the notion that sexual identity is a social construct with no biological determinants. In the absence of support from the outside world, theory has become an insider activity. And with the anti-theorists routed long since, all theory can do is rehearse the arguments made 40 years ago, the same interpretations and same conclusions. The pretexts change – Milton yesterday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer today – but the outlook doesn’t.
Professors have profited from theory for a long time, and they’re too comfortable and invested to have second thoughts.
The arrogance was self-defeating, of course. Theory couldn’t sustain the humanities by itself, and the exhilaration that brought us into the habit struck outsiders as a self-congratulatory joy carried out in an affected tongue. With the public estranged from our practice and with younger scholars not replenishing the reserves of knowledge, the humanities are a guild imploding. Theory is dead, but it has taken something much more valuable with it: higher learning.
Criticality as rearguard defense of capital – The “purity” of critique is the metaphysics of irrelevance
The Art – Architecture Complex is a book concerned with contemporary architecture and design, a subject I am vastly underqualified to critically pursue. How I could venture into this task without the requisite specialization is best explained by my conviction that marginality with respect to such specialization is sometimes preferable to expertise. And it may well be that both art and architecture are fields too important to be left to their professional defenders. And anyway, if Foster’s observations are accurate, architecture has itself been dissolved, our ways of building and dwelling transformed into cinematic encounters under consumer media’s management.
With this title, The Art – Architecture Complex, Foster invokes that sense of capitalist conspiracy first expressed in the 1960’s phrase, “military/industrial complex.” The book is massively informative but characterized by the author’s trademark polemic with regard to the pluralism that is post modernity in general. Foster has long made clear his preference for purity over plurality…
This metaphysics, the foundation for Foster’s criticism in general, is oppositional in form. He typically opposes resistance and transgression to complicity, outside to inside, the real to the illusory, and the virtual to the actual. This marks a limit to his analyses, and for some would render his conclusions helplessly conservative, even when his objections to “capital” might seem necessary. This is the crux of his situation; critical for his historical consciousness, conservative for the same, his oppositionality leaving him without traction with regard to a historicity of experience now re-composed by way of electronic “abstraction.” In this new situation, Foster refuses to acknowledge how antiquated his use of “the image” and “spectacle” has become, clinging as this does to some notion of an objective foundation, a reality that would offer an external standpoint from which critique proceeds. His fervent conviction that there is an “outside” from which criticism can orient itself and from which critical attacks may be mounted, that distance is definitive of criticality, fails to account for and integrate the pluralizing impact of electronic communications media with which the post modern is to be identified. Even a likely sympathizer such as Bruno Latour asks, “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?”
…Baudrillard, informed by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, developed a more “performative” vision of architecture’s relationship with new media. Although the literary character of his thought has often been anathema to traditionalists such as Foster, his observations are acute if expressed in apocalyptic language. His willingness to embrace the media as environment means he spends less time spinning his wheels on a positioning of critique now no longer available as it was in the nineteen eighties.
Perhaps what is needed, following Foster’s denunciations of design as mere consumerist manipulation in the service of greater efficiencies for capitalism, is recognition of a more general outline. That would be one that attributes the root of the problem more deeply in a description of the rationalist prejudices that dominate our thinking and being. For the style of critique demonstrated by Foster and his colleagues this would be bad news, leaving them revealed as a part of the problem in so far as their project is itself inextricably dedicated to the founding of criticality in a modernity already itself a practice of instrumental rationality. In this sense, the critique mounted from Foster’s “leftist” optimism has become a rearguard defence inevitably and finally supporting and requiring those elements of purification and linearity so essential to the drive of technics (including capital) for ever greater efficiency.
Theory, in other words, has outlived its own “death,” but its survival gives cold comfort to all the former converts who have irretrievably lost their faith. For those of us no longer charmed by the magic, by the myth, of the pursuit of signs-what other path remains if we want to be more than perpetually “post-“? What we need is nothing less than a paradigm shift: turning from the threadbare ideology of “the text,” we might start to explore an alternative so mundane that we have passed it over time after time in our scramble for sophistication and prestige. That alternative is ordinary sensuous life, which is not an “effect” of how we think but the ground of thought itself, or so I want to argue here. At this late hour, when theory’s successors can teach us nothing really new, what prevents us from returning to the idea of “the arts” by a long-forgotten path-the arts imagined as traditions of experience that intensify our sense of living in and with the world? If the humanities have, as I believe, very nearly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, then the future of English may well lie with those arts and the worlds they open up.
Yet there has been, I think, more to theory’s success than the lure of celebrity can explain-and this “more” has to do with the character of theory as a resource for preserving our profession’s prestige. Like every other form of information dignified with the name of “knowledge” today, theory gets produced by specialists. But theory differs from a piece in Harper’s or a report on the CBS Evening News, whose writers are no less specialized than we are, because theory is uniquely the discourse of privileged and declining institutions whose concerns have grown so distant from everyday life that a sense of crisis overtakes the specialists themselves. To justify the privileged status of their work, these specialists must show that their thinking is somehow superior to common sense – more inclusive, more penetrating, more rigorous. But theory wins the battle at the cost of the war, since the discourse that strays too far from the everyday world runs the risk of losing its lay clientele as well as the confidence of neophytes, who no longer see themselves figured in its ghostly narratives.
But think, if you will give yourself the freedom to, about the different kinds of pleasure people get from their most mundane involvements with the world – watching leaves shake in the hot summer wind, listening to the sound of rain, tracing the smooth, wet curve of a child’s spine with the palm of a soapy hand. And think, if you can stand it, about all the essays written ten or fifteen years ago that began with the claim to be writing “on the margin”; or of all the works today that call themselves “genealogies”; or of all the dissections of cinematic gaze that open with a summary of the mirror stage. The writers of these works are not simply sycophants or opportunists. To write in this way is to become Derrida, to become a second Foucault or a little Lacan. In the same way, Madonna’s fans dress like Madonna, walk and talk like her, and read books about her life.
For all our celebrations of resistance and revolt, no alternative is more revolutionary than our resistance to disembodiment and the pursuit of wholeness in our immediate experience. But how might such a wholeness lie within our reach, when theory and critique have unmistakably become the preeminent forms of knowledge in our time, as highly valued by Peter Drucker, the Wall Street savant, as they are by Marxists like Etienne Balibar? If theory and critique free us from nothing finally, but contribute to a routinizing of expression unparalleled in our history, then perhaps the way out lies in a domain that the “linguistic turn” has caused us to overlook: I mean the domain of “the arts,” understood not as the cunning lies told by an elite, nor as the property of specialists whose goal is technical virtuosity, but as traditions of attunement with the world, available to everyone everywhere but also now diligently suppressed.”
What our society needs most urgently is not another theoretical “advance” – toward a new discipline called grammatography, let’s say, or psycho-dialectical materialism – but a better understanding of the practices through which everyone might enter the open space where Cezanne felt himself at home. Yet, in order to discover and protect such practices, English studies needs to undergo a change more profound than many people might like. We will need to become ethnographers of experience: I do not mean armchair readers of the “social text,” but scholar/teachers who find out how people actually feel. And far from bringing English studies to a dismal close, the search for basic grammars of emotional life may give us the future that we have never had, a future beyond the university.
[I would obviously state some things differently and use some modified examples, but this post is still mostly on the mark and relevant to many ongoing conversations I’m currently having]
Baudrillard – “as art” relational art – Kaprow [September 2006]
In The Mirror of Production, Jean Baudrillard writes about the colonial intellectual impulses of the West. Concerning the criticality of Western culture he notes:
“…it [Western culture] reflected on itself in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It ‘estheticized’ them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation these ‘different’ cultures implied for it.”
“Without bias, they have attempted to ‘relocate’ these ‘works’ [so called primitive art] into their magical and religious ‘context.’ In the kindest yet most radical way the world has ever seen, they have placed these objects in a museum by implanting them in an esthetic category. But these objects are not art at all [Emphasis ours]. And, precisely their non-esthetic character could at last have been the starting point for a radical perspective on (and not an internal critical perspective leading to a broadened reproduction of) Western culture. ”
This critique can easily be applied to the critical appropriation of any number of new “art” practices, most notably relational art. We see quite clearly how a variety of activities and modes of research that began to stray from the flock were quickly recuperated under the banner of “relational aesthetics.” This needn’t apply necessarily to the stars of the movement (Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija are obvious) as their work was never really intended to offer a radical perspective on anything, but Oda Projesi (who are not nearly as gallery friendly, and don’t engage in the same sort of faux art institutional critique) has certainly become a bit of a flashpoint. The debate surrounding them provides an interesting model as Claire Bishop begs to read their activities “as art,” making sure they are safely inscribed within the known parameters of self-criticality that the museum Baudrillard describes above tolerates. Maria Lind, however, prefers to read their actions without preemptively applying critical classifications.
Allan Kaprow in his essay “The Real Experiment”describes the “as art” impulse as well:
“‘Look,’ I remember a critic exclaiming once as we walked by a vacant lot full of scattered rags and boxes, ‘how that extends the gestural painting of the fifties!’ He wanted to cart the whole mess to a museum. But life bracketed by the physical and cultural [emphasis ours] frames of art quickly becomes trivialized life at the service of high art’s presumed greater value. The critic wanted everyone to see the garbage as he did through art history, not as urban dirt, not as a playground for kids and home for rats, not as rags blowing about in the wind, boxes rotting in the rain.”
We see here the application of the art historical gaze, the “as art” gaze. And not unlike the “male gaze” (although obviously the parallel is in how it operates, not in its social effects) it becomes a way of subjugating the world to a particular critical regime and seeks to infiltrate the self-perception of others, so that they see themselves and their activities through the “as art” lens.
We return in closing to Baudrillard’s critique of Marxist anthropology which can be seen to possess the same impulse to universalize its history, its criticality:
“…because the system of political economy tends to project itself retrospectively as a model and subordinates everything else to the genealogy of this model…Thus in the strict sense, it analyzes only the conditions of the model’s reproduction, of its production as such: of the separation that establishes it…By presupposing the axiom of the economic, the Marxist critique perhaps deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as a model.”
It is evident that the “as art” perspective functions to accept as a given the art model, thus binding itself to merely reproducing the logic of art production rather than challenging it in any substantive way. It presupposes the axiom of the artistic, and shields itself from the messiness of rotting boxes, leaving us in the “internal critical” hall of mirrors, trapped in the “as art” aesthetic fun-house.
There seems little doubt that Lauper would be held in higher esteem if she spoke so directly not to girls and the women they become but to the men who dominate the critical establishment in pop and rock — or if she hung out with artists and writers like Robert Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs instead of the pro wrestlers Captain Lou Albano and Hulk Hogan, or if her music weren’t so catchy and pleasurable, or if she wore plain black clothes instead of the Day-Glo outfits she concocted from the racks of Screaming Mimi’s in the East Village. That is, if she acted more like a radical instead of being one, by exulting in the value of juvenile pleasure.
“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.” – R.R. Reno