This conversation took place March 16, 2021. Full transcript is provided below.
Critical Conversations 8 presents some compelling topics addressed by Jonathan Fardy in his recent text, Althusser and Art (Zer0 Books, 2020). Far from simply being a book about Louis Althusser, the book addresses questions concerning theory in general, and traditional distinctions between theory and praxis.
Roger Green: Today’s conversation is on theory and action, or the art of doing theory with Jonathan Fardy, whose most recent book—I think that’s been published, anyway—is Althusser and Art. That’s not going to be the center of discussion, necessarily, today. It’s really about doing the art of doing theory, but it will probably come up it’s a very short book. If you haven’t read it, it’s very readable, which we’re thankful for.
And here’s a little bit about our presenters and I’ll let them get started. So, Jonathan Fardy is an assistant professor of art history and director of graduate studies in art at Idaho State University. His research examines the intersections between art theory and aesthetic practice he’s the author of Althusser and
Our next presenter is going to be Andrew Weiss, who is an editor, a philosopher, and a musician, is lead editor of Black & White Editing. He uses clarity and precision to empower academic writers in their work. He holds an MA in theory and criticism from Western University. His thesis, titled “Animal Justice Following Derrida and Other Animals” explores the intertwining of animality and justice, developing associated concepts to clarify and deepen these terms. Andrew’s philosophical work is now being developed as a project of music and writing called Animal Vegetable Mineral, using meditative music and philosophy to inspire awe and wonder for the universe and our place in it.
Our third presenter will be M. Curtis Allen, who is an interdisciplinary theorist with an arts background whose research draws together threads from philosophy of language and mind, aesthetics and art theory and political economy. He teaches aesthetics and art history at OCAD on NCAD universities in Canada—and I don’t know what those acronyms stand for, so you might tell us. And then, he’s currently completing doctoral work in the Center for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University, under the title “Sense and Genesis: The Metaphysics of Modernism and Aesthetics of Reason” elaborating the concept of sense in Wittgenstein and Deleuze as it connects with recent problems across the theoretical humanities. He is also interested in contemporary forms of rationalism and their relation to art and politics.
We’ll let Jonathan start, who’s also my friend from the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell, way back in 2011. So, I really appreciate having him here and being able to see your face again. So, thanks for being here, Jonathan.
Jonathan Fardy: Thank you so much, Roger and Carl, and thank you to the whole staff at The New Polis. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to do this. I want to say a special thank you to Curtis and Andrew, old friends and colleagues from theory center days.
I think that I want to keep this conversational, in the spirit of Critical Conversations and I also want to respond to the prompt, to really think about, not just Althusser, but to think about theory and what that might be. What its effects might be how might it constitute a kind of practice and what its aesthetic and political effects might be. And so, Althusser will be a sort of lens onto that larger set of questions.
I want to also think about this, in some measure, through a kind of biographical or autobiographical perspective. The question of what theory could be, or has been, has been as much a personal as a professional question for me. Roger mentioned the fact that we met in 2011 at a thing called the School of Criticism and Theory which was a summer camp for nerds, basically. But at the same time as I had the pleasure to do doing that, I was also enrolled as a Ph.D student at the Center for Theory and Criticism. So, one place was the School of Criticism and Theory, the other place was the Center for Theory and Criticism.
So, these terms theory and criticism have sort of haunted my personal and professional development, and so I want to sort of dial into that my encounter with this term and then expand out from that to touch on some of the questions and ideas in this book. And I also want to say that I’m really appreciative to The
New Polis and the work that they’re doing. I think that one of the things, also, theory always means, at least for me, is that it is collective it is, as Deleuze, would say a kind of collective assemblage of enunciation, bringing together voices and bodies and material processes. So, in my experience and in my understanding of theory, we owe as much credit to those who think those ideas as those who’ve translated them, published them, the book binding, the distribution, the whole apparatus of theory’s production is of interest to me.
Okay, when I entered the Center for the Study of Theory and Criticism back in 2009, I really wondered what I’d entered. What did it mean to be studying theory? And, there’s a sentence that sort of was on my mind way back then and has never really left me, and this is not from Althusser but from Homi Bhabha, and this is from his landmark essay “The Commitment to Theory” from The Location of Culture. This is just one sentence, I’m not going to read a ton to you, but I just want to read this one sentence.
Bhabha writes, “in what hybrid forms … may a politics of the theoretical statement emerge?” and this is, I think, what’s key, “what tensions and ambivalences mark this enigmatic place from which theory speaks?” (33). And so, for me, that was both a personal and professional prompt. What does it mean to practice theory? It seems to be so enigmatic at times, but it also seems to be an emergent practice, something that emerges out of the intersections a variety of disciplines and modes of practice.
So, for me, theory has always been a kind of interdisciplinary practice. It shows up in religious studies and English and philosophy and so forth. But I think the very idea theory is itself kind of ambivalent or in an interdisciplinary sense ambivalent. It arose out of itself, out of the intersection of things like philosophy and politics, ethics, and disinterested studies.
So, I’m kind of interested in the way that theory is a sort of ambivalent term and that might be both what makes it vexing and what makes it have a kind of political potential. Okay, when I was at the Theory Center one of the first books I picked up, mostly because I wanted to get a sense of why I had chosen to study this, was, I went to the library and a book jumped out at me, just because of the title of it, the title on the spine was The Detour of Theory. At that particular moment in my life I certainly felt like I had taken a detour into theory and the book is you might know is actually a book about Althusser. And so, that was really my introduction, in a deep sense, to Althusser through this book by Gregory Elliott, called The Detour of Theory.
And, in this book, what I was introduced to was Althusser but also introduced to something that was crucial for Althusser’s own work, which then I subsequently started to read. One of the things Althusser was consistently concerned with was precisely what theory is or was and, although Althusser’s work changed dramatically over the decades he wrote—with probably the most significant early work being in 1965 with the publication of the collected volume he wrote with students Reading Capital, and then his own set of essays, For Marx, 1965, a middle period that’s marked by texts like Lenin and Philosophy, in which he took a more openly political orientation within philosophy, and then the late work that was really not published until after his death, which deals with issues of contingency.
In each of these phases Althusser’s definition, or as he would put his theory of theoretical practice, changed dramatically but what’s interesting to me is that he was always concerned with what theory was, what its role might be, especially in relation to politics, in political practice. But his answer to what theory was in its relationship to political practice did change quite dramatically over that time. So, I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds of this, but I think it’s worth just sketching very quickly those three phases, those three answers he gave.
In the 1965 period Althusser effectively said that theory was the business of philosophers and the principal aim of it is to make a distinction between what he called science and ideology, by which he simply meant, to put it simply, something like the difference between truth and false ideas about the world—true ideas about the world and false ideas about the world. In the middle period in texts like Lenin and Philosophy he took again a much more openly politically committed orientation.
He said there, various formulations, but one quite important one was that philosophy was class struggle in theory. And in this period of work, in the late sixties into the seventies, he refuses to think that philosophy or theory is some disinterested space of reflection or decision-making but rather is an openly political form of engagement, that the duty of a philosopher is to combat ideologies that are inimical to, in his view, the emancipation of, for him the working class, but oppressed people more generally.
And then, the third period, his theory of theoretical practice, and I think it’s important to always bear in mind, for him, that formulation, theory of theoretical practice, you always believe that theory is a practice. In the third period, the theory of theoretical practice is a theory that tries to think through the relationship between something like structure and contingency. Now my interest, in this short little book I wrote that was published by Zero Books, is really focused on the first two periods, the period of the ‘65 Reading Capital and For Marx, and then the middle period, most especially the Collected Essays and Lenin and Philosophy.
One thing I want to stress, and this will, I think, help to open this question of theory up, is that for Althusser again, theory in all of these phases was always conceived as practice and even more, I guess, interestingly conceived as a productive practice. he insisted, and this was clear throughout his career, he always insisted that theory was not a form of reflection. He once put it, “it’s not about sifting gold from dross.” Theory for him isn’t about looking at the world and then picking out the truth of the world.
Philosophy or theory, for Althusser, is about production, it’s producing concepts that make the world thinkable and certain elements within it resistible. So, it’s not reflective but productive. What interested me in this book, however, was the way he distinguishes the productive quality of theory from the way he characterizes art. He wrote three major texts on art, one in For Marx in 1965 on the theater of the Italian playwright Carlos Bertolazzi and then he wrote a wonderful essay on the Italian painter Leonardo Cremonini and that’s in Lenin in Philosophy, and in that same volume there’s an essay simply called “A Letter on Art.”
And although these essays look at different aspects of art and its relationship to society and politics, it seemed to me that the thing that links them is this idea that whether it’s the theatrical arts or the visual arts or what have you, all art for Althusser has the power to reflect society and its problems, its ideologies, but he claims it cannot produce a knowledge of society of ideology. And so, here, I’ll just read one very brief quote from Althusser to make this point clear and this is from the letter on art published in Lenin and Philosophy. He writes that “art makes us see, and therefore gives to us in the form of ‘seeing’, ‘perceiving’ and ‘feeling’,” and then, in parentheses, he says, “which is not the form of knowing.”
So, art is something that can make us see in the broadest sense, that can make things visible for us, it can make us feel things, but that cannot be equated with knowing. And for him knowing is the process of the production of theory, theory produces knowledge. Art lets us see what’s already there, which is to say it reflects it. And it’s this specific distinction, theory is productive of knowledge, art is reflective of the world, that, in some measure, I tried to challenge in this book.
And I thought there was two ways to do this. One way was to say, well, art really is theoretical has critical and philosophical elements. But I thought a more interesting approach was actually to argue that within Althusser, but also maybe within theory more broadly, there is always, in my view, an aesthetic dimension. There’s always the problem of framing your thought, of staging your thought of constructing a rhetoric to house that thought and it seemed to me that that kind of work could also be described as the work of aesthetics.
So, last quote that I’ll read, this is from Reading Capital and this gives you a little bit of the flavor of what I mean. The two pages from Reading Capital that always have captivated me the most is pages 24 and 25 and they’re from Althusser’s introduction to the volume. In these pages Althusser makes this interesting claim that theory, he says, is a form of visibility, and I’ll just read part of this. He says, “what exists in the field defined by a theoretical problematic”—what exists in a field of theory, a field of inquiry—is a set of objects, he says this is a field of visibility “which sees.” That means the field of visibility, of theory itself sees itself in the objects or problems it defines.
And he continues throughout these two pages talking about theory as a form of visibility, that theory is a kind of frame that makes a set of problems or set of issues visible and, it seemed to me, that one could say precisely the same thing about aesthetic work. Precisely to take his own words from “A Letter on Art,” if art is what makes us see, how, in some formal sense, is that different than theory being the work of making things visible? And so, it was this challenge I wanted to sort of mount, to push back on his distinction that art merely reflects and makes us see where his theory gives us knowledge, if, in fact, as he claims in the introduction to reading capital, theory precisely is the production of the visible.
Okay, just a couple more things and then I’m going to turn it over to my respondents. I also want to talk about, I think, the lacuna in this book and the lacuna might be precisely the concept of the aesthetic itself. A friendly critic pointed out to me recently that this concept of the aesthetic seems to be a problematic one to apply to Althusser precisely because Althusser was famously an anti-humanist in theory. He did not want to countenance an idea that would reconstruct, will reinvigorate, a certain concept of man, the human which seems to be so much at the center of how we’ve understood aesthetics in the western tradition.
That for there to be a perceptible there has to be a perceiver etc. And so, is there then a way—and this is an open question to myself—is there a way to reconceive this aesthetic dimension in theory in anti-humanist terms? Can I think about or, can we, think about the aesthetic dimension of Althusser’s work, or by extension the aesthetic dimension of any theoretical orientation or theoretical frame, without by default re-invigorating concepts like man, subject, human? I want to somehow be faithful to that anti-humanist perspective in Althusser and yet push back against—I’ll conclude with this—what I see is the division of labor in Althusser, artists reflect the world, but theorists tell us what the world is about.
And I think that that division of labor is something I’d like to challenge with you here today. And with that I’ll turn it over to Andrew. Thank you.
Andrew Weiss: Thank you. I’m just going to pop over from my PowerPoint here really quick. Yeah thanks so much for inviting me to respond here. I’m actually quite compelled by your book and I really enjoy the fact that you’re looking to not only show the aesthetic dimension of theory but also credit aesthetics for both sides of that.
So, I’ve made a little PowerPoint, just because I’m going to quote you a few times and I find, as a visual person, I really like to see the words on the page and I hope that would sort of facilitate some engagement especially from, I’m assuming, a lot of folks maybe here haven’t had the chance to read your book just yet. So, while I am going to touch on some topics from your book, I want to see this very much as like a springboard to a discussion that you know kind of goes beyond just the book itself to include anything that anyone else might say.
So, yeah. I have two questions that I’ll sort of outline very briefly and then I’ll kind of unpack them a little bit. And the first question is sort of who is the “we” who is addressed in your book? And, I think this is a pretty interesting question that you make a sort of call that we need to return to Althusser. And I’ll show you show a little more of what you say there to bring everyone up to speed, but I thought that would be kind of an interesting question to ask here.
You know we can also ask, we in the zoom call let’s say, can ask who we are and what kind of assignments or forms we experience and sort of what does that mean and how can we dig into that and think a little bit more about how it operates? The second question I’m going to ask is sort of like, okay, theory has an aesthetic form, that’s an amazing insight, I think it’s an extremely important one. I think it’s almost never talked about in philosophy or theory and yet it shapes everything we do, the decisions that we make in writing, in and all sorts of things that I’ll try to get into. But, so now what? How can we think about theory’s aesthetic form in greater detail?
So, what I’m going to do is, I have a sort of list of some concepts I thought might be interesting to kind of spark a discussion or thinking, almost as like a packet of seeds, and I’m going to toss out a bunch of stuff and I’ll see what sprouts a little bit. And Jonathan if there’s any of these in particular that you think are interesting then I’d love to hear about them, same for Curtis, and same for anybody else in the discussion that follows later.
So, near the end of the book you have this comment that “we need to ‘return to Althusser’ as Althusser ‘returned to Marx” (68). Yeah, I’m sort of curious about how you envisioned that and to kind of keep pulling that thread in the book I’m going to read this. This is actually the last line of the book and you say, “we need to ‘return to Althusser’ as Althusser ‘returned to Marx,’ which is to say that we need to return to Althusser’s work and to its legacy to listen to what it says in its silence and what it stages and frames as absence, namely, the symptomatic question: what form must theory take that will not meta-critically reproduce the ideological division of labor against which all thought worthy of the name ‘Marxist’ must continue to struggle against.”
And so, you nicely just recapitulated this distinction that you find in Althusser which is the distinction between art on the one hand as reflection versus critical production or a knowing. And so, you’re saying, quite nicely here, at the end of the book, that we must envision a form of theory that would undermine this division. So, I think that’s very interesting to discuss as well. But I thought maybe this would be a nice point to hand it over to you and kind of invite you to think about who this we is and how you envision that—I’ll get into the second question after we’ve had the chance to bounce that around. Does that sound good?
Jonathan Fardy: Yeah. Just to clear with Roger, should I respond to Andrew and then go to Curtis? Okay, yeah. So, thank you so much, Andrew, for these thoughts. As always, they’re stimulating and interestingly difficult. I especially like this question about what forms, if we take seriously the aesthetic dimension of theory, of theoretical production, the construction of words or phrases, of slogans, etc., then what form can interestingly undermine that division of labor that I think that actually The New Polis really wants to do which is to undermine this division of labor.
Like, oh, if you don’t have a Ph.D. you can’t speak to this, if you’re not an academic you can’t speak to that. I think that that is an incredibly limiting, and theory, unfortunately, has often been presented as a very elite discourse, and if haven’t gone through the proper training you can’t speak to it. And, I think that what I hope is that we can at least begin to think about theory as an aesthetic practice which might then be open to anybody who’s interested in making things visible, in speaking, in the broadest sense about making sensible our political lives. And that if that, in some measure, means what it means to do theory, I’m all onboard.
Now the forms that it might take, that more democratic notion of theoretical production as open to … And I hear, I think, in the background Jacques Rancière and the idea of a kind of community of the sensible, which is unevenly distributed. Nonetheless the question is, can we then look to forms that would continue to open up theory in a much more democratic way that’s much more open to more people and more voices? And, I think, I don’t have a direct answer for what forms that might take.
I think what I want to say is that we, at least, should be open, that there might already be forms of knowledge production, right now, that are taking place in universities, but outside universities, in coffee shops, and concert halls, that might not get called theory but might actually be doing a kind of theoretical work. So, I think partly what I would say is we need to be open, listening carefully, that there might be theoretical resources being produced in sites and in ways and in forms that we’re not accustomed to calling theory. And, I would want to say, I don’t have any prescription for how we should do it but at least be attentive that it might be being done already and we’re not aware of it because our training has kind of blinded us from it.
Andrew Weiss: Yeah, I really like that. I think that’s excellent. I hadn’t considered that, how embracing this aesthetic dimension might give us some clues as to how to approach theory. This image came to mind of like an art gallery where anybody can walk in the door and they might not necessarily know what to make of certain works of art or what to do about them but anyone can stand in that white room and engage a work of art.
And nobody checks at the door to make sure your papers are in order at the AGO. You can just pay the admission and come in, unlike some of the gatekeeping practices that you nicely alluded to there, where people seem to say, oh, well, you’re not trained in this or you don’t have a Ph.D. in this field so we don’t want your opinion. But, yeah, I just sort of want to say, to help give permission to any of the audience members, I also don’t have a Ph.D. so, you know, I’m welcome to ask a question here and you’re just as welcome to ask a question.
So, thank you, Jonathan. Okay, I’m going to dip back into the PowerPoint here and try to unpack a little bit of this aesthetic form of theory or, as I imagine it to be. And I have this list. I’ll ask for a little bit of patience and restraint because I’m going to dig into some really fascinating stuff, but then kind of move very quickly through it. But I would really love it if anyone who has an idea that’s sparked by any of these brief components, aesthetic concepts, to write it down and bring it up at any time.
I really would love to dig into this stuff and part of what I had in mind, in throwing up some of these ideas was the hope that there will be people in the audience who maybe will find their thinking sparked by some of this stuff or they might have a kind of well-developed thought or kind of intense curiosity at one component or another and we can kind of try to dig into that stuff.
So, actually sorry. Before I get to that, though, I’m going to read a sort of lengthy bit from your book Jonathan, where I was really thrilled. I really found it electrifying where you touch on this topic and you start to kind of open up this area of inquiry, and I just got so excited that I thought, there’s got to be more ideas. So, just to bring everybody up to speed, here, I’m going to read this bit from page 54 of Althusser and Art:
What Althusser never seemed to consider—despite his interest in art—is that theoretical writing is a matter of writing and as such involves the aesthetics of writing; from the force of polemics to the patient tone of the philosopher working through a problematic.
Where is the line to be drawn between the manifesto and the critical essay if not through the contested space of the aesthetic? Aesthetics is a tradition for dividing types of writing, types of speech, types of signs, types of images, types of performance. It is the intellectual practice of making distinctions between practices so as to identify and single out those practices which culture is supposed to “appreciate.”
So, I really like this sort of “force of the polemics to the patient tone of the philosopher” and that was kind of one of the major things that got my wheels turned here. And so, I’m just going to give this list of some possible aspects of theory’s aesthetic form to see how people kind of think about that. So, I thought sometimes the thesis is operative. It could be a very declarative kind of aspect. It could be quite obscure and hidden. Similarly, we make arguments often in theory sometimes very directly, sometimes they’re more implied.
There’s an aspect that we might call textual evidence or citation and that can range from, on the one hand, quite brief quotations to very lengthy block quotes. We could sometimes write a monograph on a single philosopher or sometimes we consult very many sources. And it can also range, I think, from direct quotation to more implied influence or maybe a kind of borrowing of terms, things like that.
Which sort of brings me to this next one which is vocabulary. And we could think of this ranging on, the one hand, from conversational vocabulary to, on the other extreme, quite technical or specialized vocabulary—Alain de Botton, on the one hand, is a very conversational very accessible kind of thinker and, on the other extreme we might have someone like Heidegger who is almost like learning a whole new language to try to read him.
We also have something like tone, which you nicely mentioned in that block quote that I just read. And, on the one hand, we might think of something aggressive and polemical—maybe a Rancière or a Badiou—on the other hand maybe more curious or generous, I think, somebody like Heidegger, here, who once taught a whole seminar on Plato’s Allegory of the cave which is about a paragraph in length.
So, anyway, sentence structure is also an aspect that I think operates theoretically. We have on the one hand maybe something very straightforward like Nietzsche, he could be sharper and more declarative or provocative, and, on the other hand, you might have someone like a Derrida or Levinas who writes quite tangled sentences and there are these sort of self-interrupting dependent clauses, parenthetical statements, dashes, and so on that make the sentences very tightly interwoven and it’s very difficult to quote out of context, let’s say, and sometimes even to explain to somebody else. And so, I think that kind of affects the way we have conversations about some of these thinkers which, I think, is quite interesting.
there’s also textual structure, which if we think of maybe The Critique of Pure Reason by Kant, on the one hand, and A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari on the other. There’s a kind of orderliness to Kant and a kind of disorder or chaotic nature to Deleuze and Guattari where they even say in A Thousand Plateaus that they cut and paste sentences from sections and put them into other chapters and they is kind of this happenstance rearranging of the text which I think produces some interesting effects.
This one has a lot of stuff jammed into it. I was thinking printed form, maybe, as a category because we write essays sometimes or journal articles, this is a book we’re talking about. But it’s also a book of a certain length, it’s 68 pages, it’s quite short and that, I think, produces an interesting effect of inviting people to talk about it, maybe more easily.
There’s also the dissertation. So, there are elements of like length, structure, physical structure, chapters and so on—visual style. There’s a kind of range here, I think, maybe between like short and independent kinds of works, like an essay that stands on its own versus long and interdependent works that are maybe quite embedded in a tradition and require maybe a lot of background information or reading and so on.
So, I thought maybe on the one hand there’s Mao’s Little Red Book, which you treat really interestingly in your book, as something that’s short and could fit in a pocket and could be whipped at somebody’s head as an act of protest, and that kind of produces some interesting effects. And on the other hand, maybe something like Being and Time—I know I’m mentioning Heidegger a lot, I’m showing my cards a little bit here, but—you know it’s a huge tome. It kind of requires a certain comfort with dense prose and it’s not really the sort of thing that you bust out at an active protest.
Jonathan Fardy: I love these prompts, Andrew. And, I think that what you’re getting at is something I didn’t really think about but is these more specifics of the material of the aesthetic of theory, right?
Andrew Weiss: Yeah.
Jonathan Fardy: but only insofar as we understand also theory as taking the written form and that itself is, I think, to some extent a presupposition. That theory also is produced not in written form, it’s produced in political life, it can also be produced in music, I think. I’ve read recently at Adorno’s wonderful book, Philosophy of New Music and that’s, as I understand it, one of his major claims is actually that the music he loved, like Schoenberg, is a kind of philosophy and that the work he’s trying to do is to kind of translate tones into terms.
And so, I think there are resources to look both at the materiality of the written word, that aspect of theory, but also to challenge the presupposition that theory always takes the written form, as well. Which is, I think, a very kind of euro-orientation as well. But, thank you, that’s actually really wonderful.
Andrew Weiss: Great. Okay, I’m going to spit out a couple more, here. I think that’s a really excellent point that I hadn’t considered. And so, I just have a couple more, here. I thought the idea of periods or turns, which is maybe a little contested, which I’ll sort of dip into in a bit, but you have that great example which you outlined earlier today, actually, of Althusser, who seems to have these kind of three phases. Let’s say theoreticist in the early work, Leninist or political in the middle, and maybe you might call it aleatory materialism at the end.
And then we might consider tradition or genealogy, and that might range between like imitation. You know, there’s sort of this way where Derrida seems to have produced this like lineage of Derrideans who really enjoy writing like Derrida—I find myself guilty sometimes of falling into that—which is kind of interesting. But also there’s a kind of, let’s say, inventiveness that you can take in genealogy where maybe Althusser himself in Reading Marx has a quite inventive reading, which is maybe unusually creative and that’s also very interesting.
I’d also like us to consider maybe the sense of invented genealogy that you raise, which I think is really cool. I quite liked this a lot, so I’m going to read this brief quote, just in case this does anything for anybody. You say that you’ll “conclude by placing Althusserianism in an invented genealogy stretching from Korsch through Althusser and to students to Laruelle as the search for an aesthetic form capable of surpassing the theory-practice dialectic” (45).
So, I like that you kind of say that Korsch didn’t necessarily directly influence these thinkers that came afterwards, but you sort of trace this invented genealogy. You see that kind of progression of an idea towards this. So, yeah. Okay that’s all I really wanted to say in terms of the quotes, and so on. So, I’ll change my camera back here. But yeah, forgive me for getting a little excited and maybe bowling everyone over with a ton of stuff.
I’d love to hear about it if you have any other comments. I take your critical point that I very much presupposed that writing is like the form of theory, par excellence. And it’s interesting that that’s an oversight for me as an artist who’s trying to develop a kind of theoretical body of work that involves non-writing—things like music and video. So I’m going think a lot more about that. But yeah, if you have anything to say about any of those, I’d very much welcome it.
Jonathan Fardy: Let me allow that to percolate for a while, and let other people percolate with that, and turn to Curtis and we can have a larger discussion.
Andrew Weiss: Sure, sounds great.
M. Curtis Allen: Thanks, Andrew. I really liked a lot of the elements that you brought in there, as far as getting to the formal nitty-gritty of writing as a theoretical practice. It’s also something I think about a lot in terms of the kind of implicit legislation that happens in academia, for example, with regards to acceptable theoretical forms. And, you know, it’s a deep problem and one that’s deeply institutional as well as being aesthetic in the kind of ideal sense of the word. So, I think the tendrils of that of that problematic reach far and wide.
Also, of course thanks to Jonathan for inviting me to do this and thanks to everybody at The New Polis for giving us the space here to sort of hash out ideas about the relationship between theory and practice or what doing theory is. I have some sort of more technical questions with regard to Althusser and the relationships that Jonathan sort of brings out in his book. But before I get into the sort of fine grain, while we were speaking and thinking a quote from Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition came to mind in reference to how theory might be thought of other than as a kind of magisterium of thought, to quote Rancière’s term.
So, he says, at one point, something to the effect of, the time is coming when one will no longer be able to write books as one has done for so long. And it’s unclear exactly what he’s getting at there—whether he’s referring to the kind of mediatic environment that he sees encroaching with the relationship between the broadcast media, of television, and so on at the time—this is, of course, long before the internet, but nonetheless these things start to have their effects on the perceptual zeitgeist, for lack of a better term.
So, I’m just wondering, in line with this sort of grapho-centric understanding of theory—which I’m very much beholden to in some ways—what other forms of theory do we envision today as sort of live possibilities, perhaps? You know, not just inert possibilities, but things that are on the ground and happening, as it were? Whether it’s in terms of popular media that are emerging today, popular forms, popular genres. You mentioned the slogan in your book as a kind of particularly relevant political form of theoretical practice.
But I’m thinking of, maybe, in some way are memes a form of theory production or something? Other things as well. I think of a few like YouTube content people. Like ContraPoints is one person who does a lot of work in relation to theory as it’s understood in the academic context but being a sort of communicator to non-academic audiences in a way that isn’t just trying to fold them into the academic fold, as it were. I don’t know if there’s a question in all this that I’m saying here, but this is just what was going on in my head as we were talking.
Jonathan Fardy: Well, thank you, Curtis, for that. I’d really like to open this up, but I’ll just say that, again I do think, actually, what we’re doing right now, people gathering in virtual space to discuss ideas, is of course, for me another kind of manifestation of theory. So, also to just try to link this, for a moment, to an interest for both Carl and Roger, there’s an element of how do we decolonize theory? Particularly, this is important for me.
When I went to the Center for Theory a lot of what I learned, and this is no criticism of the teachers that were wonderful, was French theory, which is an entirely North American invention. If we had been in Paris, we would have been studying philosophy. So, we have to think about the genealogy of these terms. Why does it get called theory in North America? Because no philosophy department wanted what we do
Very interesting. And not, I would maintain, for reasons of the better argument—we disagree blah, blah, blah. A lot of it is politics, a lot of it is a lot of institutional dung that doesn’t really rise the level of intellectual respectability. But there is a function of that where theory gets turned from philosophy to theory so it can live in the humanities minus philosophy.
So, I’m also cognizant of that, but I also want to then challenge that what got called call theory in the 1980s and 1990s was really a very French import. So, we have to do the work now, I think, decolonizing it. And really, as much as I love the work of Jacques Rancière and Louis Althusser, they are deeply embedded in a very eurochristian orientation about what politics means, about what culture means, and so, I think that part of what I want to do is also say can we expand our ears and eyes to catch and think about other traditions, including other traditions of thought that come in forms that we have not been sort trained to read and to internalize as theory, as knowledge of the world.
So yeah, I think that within that sphere, certainly, we should look to other forms of aesthetic thinking and so forth. I was just reading—and then I want to turn this over, I don’t want to hog the mic—but I was just reading this classic essay by Ranajit Guha called “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency” which is an essay that looks at the constitution of the concept of insurgent within the Indian subcontinent during the anti-colonial struggle against the British, and what Guha shows is that insurgency as a concept was marshaled by colonial rule in India to label and dismiss as criminal the attempt to emancipate India.
And what I think Guha is so remarkable about is showing that these rather seemingly boring documents by colonial bureaucrats also are theoretical. They are productive. They are producing a concept, they’re producing the concept of the insurgent, to demonize, to criminalize a resistance to colonial rule. So, one of the things he does is to say he’s not looking at written records, that is, there are no written records for the insurgencies, the written records are all from the British standpoint.
So, he’s got to find, as it were, the theory of insurgency—not told from the British side—told from the side of the resistance. Where does he find those elements? He finds them in things like song, he finds them in poetry that was passed through networks of resistant fighters, and so forth. And so, that, to me, is interesting. That kind of work. Can you open your ears up? Let’s find the knowledge production that didn’t get written down because the control over writing was colonized. So, that’s a soapbox moment, but read Ranajit Guha, for one, is my answer to that. But opening up to saying there is theory out there and there are interesting reasons why it didn’t get made into books and statements and so forth. I’ll stop there.
Roger Green: just as the conversation keeps going here, I just want to invite people in the audience to start you know populating the chat with questions for any of the presenters. I think Andrew opened up a whole bunch of stuff that we haven’t quite gotten to yet, but just to let other people know to feel free to chime in.
The way that I generally go about doing this is that I’ll invite you to use your own words—unless you want me to read out your question in the chat—but the question should be read aloud because the chat doesn’t show up when we record the video and make the transcript, so it has to be sort of vocalized, which I actually appreciate about zoom. So, actually Amy Wuest has a question, so maybe we’ll start there, if that’s okay with you guys. Go ahead, Amy.
Amy Weiss: Yeah. Thank you, Roger. Thanks Jonathan, Andrew, and Curtis. It was a great presentation and I had written down some points, Jonathan, that were really similar to what you were just talking about. Getting at the idea of writing as privileging a certain kind of perspective, namely like the European perspective, I think we also really should pay attention to the way writing, as a medium of theoretical practice, reinforces class boundaries and gender boundaries through a variety of prescriptive norms.
We might all have like a really liberal interpretation of grammar, but we’re all prescriptivists when it comes to evaluating a journal article. And when we do that, we’re reinforcing a kind of cultural norm which is, even if you’re not from a middle-class, upper middle-class background you’d better write like you are, and even if you’re not a native English speaker you’d better write like you are. And that very much helps the academy to reinforce the current structure, which is like white male, seeming to be from a privileged background, and I think that’s really important to talk about.
And the same kind of practice also, I think, Jonathan, is exactly what happens in the colonial structures you were just referencing, when you go through and do an anthropological study of some of these texts, I think what we would find is a privileging of the European perspective through the kinds of documents that you’re talking about. And what ends up happening is we say well, you know, the more radical or revolutionary text which might be published as informal magazines or pamphlets handed out at bars or some other places of ill repute, are not counted as legitimate intellectual organizing forces until the moment at which power is taken. And that gets me to my main question which is, I think we were getting into a lot of interesting territory regarding media and the media of theory, but I would really like you to talk, Jonathan, about the idea of theory as a practice, because we were talking this weekend about Frantz Fanon and his role in Algeria, and I think that is essential to thinking about his work.
You can’t separate Fanon from the Algerian Revolution. Likewise, I know you’ve been doing some thinking about Walter Rodney and the Global South’s view of the Russian Revolution. And what’s essential there is, of course, the writing but also what was then done with the writing. So yeah, it’s really less of a question and more of a discussion prompt, but I’d really love to hear you talk about media in a more expansive way and specifically in terms of political action.
Jonathan Fardy: Thank you, Amy. Let me just respond to at least one part of that, which is that I’m by no means an expert in the Global South political/Marxist orientation, but I certainly have tried to learn what I can. I watched a lecture I think by Lewis Gordon, a wonderful philosopher and commentator on Fanon, where he said that Fanon is one of those figures who anybody in their mid 30s who’s trying to make theory is going to feel like they come up pretty short because Fanon wrote all of this major texts basically between ages of 25 and 35 and then said‑in so many words‑I have other things to do—like make the revolution.
But one of the things that I think is also interesting about Fanon’s case is the way he’s such an incredible writer—at least in my view—and the aesthetic charge of Fanon’s writing is part of its political impact. I think of the second chapter in Black Skin, White Masks where he’s going to throw you into the moment of being racialized, violently, in public and, he says—to paraphrase—the moment of being crushed into objecthood. And interestingly Black Skin, White Masks was Fanon’s doctoral dissertation, and it was rejected and, in fact, Fanon, because he was brilliant, just took two weeks and wrote another dissertation and said, screw you, now I’m going to publish Black Skin, White Masks.
But I think that one of the interesting things is also the story of the rejection of Black Skin, White Masks, as a doctoral dissertation in Psychiatry. It’s very interesting relationship with psychiatry and colonialism. But the interesting thing there is that, in part, what was rejected was that—for a variety of reasons, including just racism and colonialism—his examiners didn’t recognize that language as fulfilling the expected norms of legitimacy in academic publications.
So, it’s also an example of how, as you were pointing out, Amy, academies construct apparatuses of legitimation that also exclude and say, oh, you’re not speaking our language the right language. And so, just to touch on that, that’s a great point.
Roger Green: I’m not seeing another question there, but there was a comment that Carl said he wanted to ask Jonathan about some stuff. So, feel free to keep adding questions to the chat.
Carl Raschke: Jonathan, I wanted to bring up the whole question of art because I want to make sure that art is not just a trope for theory here, which very often it can be. As somebody who’s been very active and very frustrated over the last 15 years, getting involved—because my wife is an artist—in community art projects, the showing of art and what might be considered the commodification and incredible neoliberalization of art praxis, particularly as it’s taught in the academy with art schools. I mean, it’s not insignificant that most art schools that train art are not only very high priced, but they’re primarily aimed at plugging people into a very narrow world of art production that can be supported by very wealthy collectors and so forth.
Which of course you’ve always had collectors, you’ve always had that scene throughout the history of art, but it’s never been as bad as it is now when you have this explosion of art production, not only in what we would call the normal art world, you know with art groups, local exhibitions, and all the kind of stuff that goes on. But you have the presence of the global south increasingly in the global north where a lot of this is expressed as, you might say, a form of emancipation or liberation, but not in a formal theoretical sense, but it’s everywhere.
I’m just trying to say theory, in that sense is pretty much ubiquitous, in the contemporary era particularly. If we have, in a sense, a transformation of European cultures and Eurocentric cultures, as it slowly happened in the United States, which also creates political division, though that’s a whole other question. At the same time, in terms of the history of art, you have this whole movement in the 1960s and mid-1970s known as conceptual art, which is still around because my wife and I were, about five years ago, actually running a gallery in Dallas and we had a bunch of people show up and say, hey, I’m a conceptual artist.
Well, there’s always been a lot of latitude and what it means to call yourself a conceptual artist, if you’re a performance artist, somebody who’s just doing like Duchamp did in 1919 when he put up a urinal and called it “Fountain.” But there were very well-known figures back in that period, like Kosuth, Baldwin, Baldessari, et cetera, et cetera who did conceptual art, which as I understand it, was an effort to, in some ways, from the ground level to make visible what you’re talking about.
Now, of course, in some ways this predates the 1960s, it’s found in all cultures. One of the points I keep stressing is the fact that you have art on cathedrals—from gothic cathedrals in the middle ages—because there was no literacy and that’s basically how stories were told, that’s how communication took place. In other words, if you understand Christian theology as European theory of two millenniums ago then it is
conceptual exactly in the way you’re talking about it. But we don’t allow the visual or the visible, let alone the media.
Media is a lot more visual, it goes back to McLuhan, but yet the academic world won’t talk about it. Theory is about reading, about French theorists. I see a lot of decolonial theory—I’d put in a plug for our conference, which will be up on our website as soon as we get the program together, April 14th and 15th and possibly the 16th—and what you’re talking about really fits into this kind of analysis and discussion and it’s essentially challenging the very university itself, by which theory is legitimized.
So, that’s just a kind of comment, but I was wondering if there’s something you might want to talk about about how we really make theory more visible, not just in a token way but in a real way. How do we get the art world, which is struggling right now—there’s always people trying to capture it in the apparatus of capture we call neo-liberalism and commodification—how do we, in a sense, make that more a part of what we’re doing? You know, again, I speak in my behalf my wife who’s tried for a long time to be a professional artist. She rose within a short period of time, she started in life, and so forth, and there is just too much nonsense that’s going on.
But she’s a very visual person, very expressive in visual ways, in ways that I can’t and she’s just one of tens of thousands of people out there like that. But we don’t listen to them, or better yet we don’t look at them, and so I was wondering if you could talk about art not as a trope but art really as theory.
Jonathan Fardy: Okay, thank you so much, Carl. So, let me just try to pick up on a couple of threads, those are all very interesting to me. So firstly, I do think that art, as you’ve made very clear, taking your example from the gothic era of the paintings and cathedrals, if we understand, that we might call conceptual art what Joseph Kosuth did and Baldessari in the 1970s, which tends to look like text on a page pinned to a wall and anti-aesthetic and blah blah blah blah, but in the more broad or capacious sense of a conceptual art, I think you’re absolutely right that a mural on a cathedral wall was there to communicate and it communicates ideas and if theory is some measure about ideas and their communication then we have, I think with justice, to call that conceptual art. We might disagree with it, we might find the ideology offense, whatever, but it’s conceptual.
So, I think, personally, to kind of make the argument that Kosuth does in the 1970s in his essay “Art After Philosophy” which is his kind of manifesto of conceptual art in the 1970s, I love that, my only problem with it is the way it really constrains what philosophy is. When Kosuth says we’re going to make art that’s more like philosophy he has a very particular model of philosophy in mind, and the opening quotes in that essay are A.J. Ayer, Wittgenstein [editorial note: Kosuth quotes J.O. Urmson who refers to Wittgenstein]. I don’t have any problem with that, I just have a problem with the limit that he puts on what he means by an art of philosophy and I want to kind of open up that question.
Carl Raschke: I’m not using caught this as an example, just as another illustration.
Jonathan Fardy: Yeah, I know, and I totally get that but it’s a good illustration, I think. So, I think that artists are involved in that kind of production of ideas. I think that that’s certainly true and I don’t want to use it as a trope. So, in my larger project, that spans a couple of books now, I think it’s more interesting to get out of this division of labor problem.
I experience this very much as a teacher teaching art students. When I first tried to teach theory a lot of our students kind of rightly rebelled in various ways—the way that students do, they stop reading or whatever it is. But it’s as if to say, you guys make and I’m this guy called a teacher, teaching theory, and I’m going to come in here and I know you’re making these things and getting your hands dirty but let me tell you what it really means. At least, that’s how it was received by the students and at that point theory seems domineering, alienating, monopolizing.
And one way of solving that, of getting out of the division of labor is to say, well the artists themselves are producing ideas, but I think that also another interesting move—one I try to make—is to say I’m also engaged in a material aesthetic practice and let’s start talking—let’s say with my students—as material workers who have to deal with the problem of form. It goes to Andrew’s point—it’s to make questions about form, how we’re going to shape this, whether we’re shaping an argument or we’re shaping a sculpture.
And I try to kind of open that frame up so that we get out of that move where theorists explain, and artists make. Which I think is a very old division of labor basically between manual and mental labor—artists are manual workers, in some measure, and theorists are thinkers. And I think, for me, the important figure there is Rancière.
I don’t know if this helps at all, but I think that for me Rancière’s best work is actually when he reads the poetry of workers, when he goes and he does that kind of archival work to find the ideas that workers themselves had or gave voice to through poetry, rather than doing either the elite move of explaining what artists is or explaining with politics is so that artists and political subjects can do the work they’re supposed to be doing. So, to me it’s actually shifted into thinking about theory as a kind of aesthetic practice to then get us out of that division of labor between theorists who think and artists who make.
Carl Raschke: So, can I just add one more thing quickly? The notion of the community is sensibility, which I would really love to hear you elaborate a little bit on, because, again going back to you know the experiences I’ve had with those who actually belong to it, there are communities and sensibilities. Artists are not just artists, artists work in all sorts of other contexts, like churches. There’s a former master’s student of mine who’s also an art professor at a for-profit art college who’s organized a lot of kind of people in a church. It’s not necessarily Christian but it’s people who are doing art more in a kind of religious context and that kind of thing, who are expressing it in different ways. And, of course, I was involved with a group in Dallas for many years, before it kind of got neoliberalized, in which there was an effort to really take activists who were also doing art and do demonstrations and so forth.
Again, because of the gentrification of Denver and the high rents and everything, which is another issue in itself, this all got kind of thrown by the wayside, and so forth. So, there is a kind of emancipatory process going on here among the people who represent this broad community of sensibility that is totally being ignored. And it’s also, in a sense, created a Fanonian sort of double consciousness. I remember talking to some of these activists then who said, well, we’re you know the city and the universities don’t really consider us artists, we’re just activists who are doing art.
And, it seems to me, if we’re going to really take this notion of making the visible seriously there has to be a theoretical push on we, who as academics who control that discourse, to force people to think differently about this, including our own peers. And I’m wondering how practically—I’m thinking practically because this is especially important when we’re thinking about the decolonial project, because that’s how we’re going to make what has been hidden for so long, what has been lost, what has been stereotyped, what has been marginalized visible and make it recognized.
And if we don’t do that as theorists, along the lines you’re talking about, rather than just giving lip service it will continue to be colonized, which means commodified in some ways. Academic journals are the most—I don’t want to get off on academic journals. You know, when we started electronic publishing in the early 2000s, we were ahead of the time. What happened was the big international publishers moved in and took over a lot of the journals—that’s why you have these paywalls.
But what’s happened in the academic world is now it is paywall journals that are considered to be the most prestigious. And this is what you have to publish in to get tenure and so forth. Having been on the editorial boards of these journals, I can say that is absolute crap and garbage. They’re no better. It has created this perception, because of the control of the neoliberalized higher education system that prevents this kind of conversation, that if you’re not in a paywall journal you’re not really speaking with authority. And that’s what we have to force and push back against. That’s why we’ve created The New Polis.
Jonathan Fardy: Thank you, Carl. I think, just to answer to one point on that, and I think this was also true in what Amy said as well, which is that I think we have a responsibility as academics to really push back against the paywalling of our knowledge production. And I would say the knowledge production is collective. This is always a problem in capitalism.
I hold that the knowledge production is collective. I haven’t read a single academic paper worth its salt that doesn’t have citations from lots of other people. That means that its origin is collective. It should not be, in my view, monopolized, singularized, paywalled out but that’s unfortunately how capitalism works, right—collective labor is monopolized.
And so, I appreciate the work The New Polis does and other para-, outside/inside academic work publishing venues that are really trying to make a case for saying, what is the purpose of knowledge production if one person, maybe just the author, reads it? I think also, then, for example, I teach art history nominally, you know I have the set of courses I have to teach, but I was recently in conversation with somebody at another university and this interesting conversation came up where we started saying, what if—and it’s certainly being done so it’s not hypothetical—we begin to think about using all of the disciplinary resources that art history has, the analysis of imagery, cross-cultural comparative work, and so forth, to not only address the things that we find in museums but public art, murals, the art of the anonymous, posters, speeches, protest paraphernalia?
We can we can teach whole classes on those objects using all those rich resources we have in art history. We don’t have to say our subject matter is limited to the contents of the major museums. Okay, I want to go to Curtis’s question. “In relation to the relationship between art and theory, as I understand it, does this dislodge the pretensions to knowledge of theory? And if so, is the distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge an important one? If so, how do we understand this in a pluralistic decolonial project without resorting to background norms of a hegemonic culture?”
So, I like this idea of, if Althusser says that art can reflect society but doesn’t produce any knowledge of it and that’s the duty of theory, well, if the theory turns out to be in part the aesthetic work of the making visible, my claim in the book is that if in fact the beginning of critique is the making invisible of a problem that we perhaps didn’t know was a problem then we have to say that art does provide a kind of knowledge. So, I hope that that sort of challenges that pretension of theory to have the monopoly on the knowledge side of the equation.
I also think that this idea of knowledge/non-knowledge is interesting. Andrew had mentioned earlier about the sort of thought experiment, people go into a gallery, they go into a museum, hopefully they don’t ask if you are qualified to look at this this very difficult art, or whatever, and conceiving of viewership in that more democratic sense, I think is important. I also think that I’m actually interested in those moments—to get to your question—where people say, I don’t get it in the museum and they often feel bad about it. They feel like they’ve done something wrong, they didn’t do their homework, they suddenly feel cut off, alienated, and they say, this is why I don’t go to museums because I just don’t speak the language.
And I want to sort of hold on to saying that maybe, that moment of saying I don’t get it let’s sort of credit that a bit more, let’s open that up, and not say, well, unfortunately you didn’t take upper division art history classes, so sorry. Let’s credit that moment. And I can identify with that moment, that’s how I began with theory. I don’t get it, and the I don’t get it turned out to be a kind of pleasure.
So, i think we have to kind of open those questions up about what we mean by knowledge. Maybe the I don’t get it moment is also itself a kind of knowledge moment that doesn’t get marked as such. So, I don’t know if that helps but that’s an experience I have very much as a teacher. I don’t get it should be the beginning of something not well, you’ve admitting your idiocy so we’re not going to have a conversation.
Roger Green: Curtis, your hand is up. Did you want to comment more on that?
M. Curtis Allen: If other people have things to move on to, I’m happy to just move on, but otherwise, yeah, I had a few thoughts there. In hearing you’re hearing your response and that I don’t get it moment of one’s initiation into a certain kind of spectatorship in art, whether it’s visual art or any other kind, I would say also that that moment is also largely you know the aesthetic moment of initiation into theoretical practice, at least at a certain point, and that the not getting it becomes a kind of aesthetic fuel for understanding things more deeply, perhaps.
But it also reminded me of how Roger was talking about Schoenberg in California before we all started and there’s this quote from Schoenberg where he has a certain model of the avant-garde that like sort of acts implicitly in what he does in the sense that he sees the avant-garde as being avant-garde in the sort of strict sense of the term in which they’re sort of ahead of their time, and eventually ordinary normal culture, whatever that means, will catch up, or something to that effect. But I was watching an interview with Steve Reich, who I know you’re a big fan of john, where he says that Schoenberg is just wrong.
So, Schoenberg said that in 40 or 50 years they’ll be humming my tunes like they hum Beethoven and Mozart, or whatever and Steve Reich says that that’s just not right, no one is ever going to be humming a 12-tone composition and it’s not because it doesn’t have aesthetic value it’s just that’s not the function it plays in society, in a certain respect. So that’s also a big problem to me that I think about a lot, in the same way that no one’s ever going to be humming the theory of ideas in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition in the same way that they hum “I think therefore I am” in Descartes or something. Yeah, thoughts there. I don’t know where I’m going with that it’s just an interesting little something.
Roger Green: Andrew, you say you have a question when Curtis is done. Did you want to rap into that?
Andrew Weiss: I think if Jonathan or anyone wants to respond more directly to Curtis, they should. I’m not totally sure that what i’m saying loops in there, so I’d invite anyone else first.
Roger Green: I did just want to say that since Curtis brought up the idea of the avant-garde and the theory of the avant-garde that I think that there’s a violence, the metaphor of the avant-garde is always violent, and I was, probably because we were talking about Adorno before we started recording and I did earlier work on and I play, sometimes, jazz music I was thinking of my dear friend Ron Miles who has a really great—I’m not just plugging Ron because he’s my friend—album called Rainbow Sign, which is critically acclaimed right now, and we talk about this all the time.
But in “avant-garde” jazz of the sixties there’s a kind of theoretical apparatus that comes in and wants to claim that for Marxism. They call it the October Revolution in Jazz. And it just irritates the hell out of
Charles Mingus and he’s like writing up a storm in the jazz journals at the time. So there’s this debate going on at the beginning of the sixties, Charlie Parker has died, who’s going to be the next Charlie Parker—all of this sort of stuff.
And so Mingus gets together with Duke Ellington who’s from the older set and he’s like we’re going to make the most far out record ever and it’s going to be freer than free. And Duke Ellington’s response to Mingus is just like, well, let’s not go back that far, because he’s got this whole sophistication and what sophistication means in urban African American culture—the idea of sophisticated lady and all of this stuff that comes out of the twenties—the disruption that the kind of white jazz theorists—I’m thinking of Kofsky, Frank Kofsky in particular—want is this kind of forward thinking thing.
And Ellington has kind of a forward thinking thing but African American modernism is not the same thing as Duchamp and this other stuff. So, I just wanted to kind of throw that in there because it was rattling around in my mind. What is this question of the avant-garde? Obviously, Adorno misreads jazz and that becomes a part of this whole discussion as well. Maybe I’ll turn it back to Andrew because I know that you’re a musician to, Andrew and so that gives you a chance. But Andrew is frozen, Maybe. Oh, there you are.
M. Curtis Allen: I think he may not have heard you because maybe there’s a connection issue.
Andrew Weiss: Yeah, I lost the last like ten seconds.
Roger Green: I was making a connection between jazz but also music because I know you’re doing music, so I wanted to give you a lead in, there.
Andrew Weiss: Yeah, gosh, I have a whole bunch of things kind of rattling around my head and I’m not sure exactly where to start. I’m really fascinated by your point about Mingus sort of resisting this appropriation or interpretation by a school of thought. I think it’s really neat and I’m actually so shocked to hear that Mingus was writing up a storm in journals. I don’t know that I knew that Mingus had a body of written work and I find that really interesting.
Like, why is it that I’m familiar with like Adorno’s writing on jazz but I didn’t know that jazz musicians were writing at all. I think that’s like a really interesting question. I had a couple of questions or I had a question that I’m just kind of bandying about in my head that I don’t know how to answer and I thought I would just sort of toss it out and hope somebody else has some thoughts on it.
If we blow open theory in this radical way where maybe now music can be theoretical and political pamphlets are theoretical and poetry and so on, visual art is theoretical, I’m like both really energized by that, I’m really emboldened by that, I think it feels right and good, but at the same time I have this like weird spooky feeling that like is there a risk that we’re going to lose something important here. Is there now no such thing as non-theory? Is there’s like something we might want to hold on to in the word theory?
I’ll sort of throw out an example here to try to make this maybe more concrete. I wonder, Jonathan, if you’d be interested in speaking at all to the Little Red Book and May ‘68 in France and the protest culture that emerged there, which sometimes I’m like annoyed with Badiou for banging on that drum for so long. I sort of feel like, oh get over it, it was 50 years ago but, at the same time, I’m also kind of thrilled by moments like that. I do really want to think about it and get more into it. And I think about this moment of like the Little Red Book book being like wielded as a weapon of protest, being whipped at somebody’s head in a lecture hall.
And on the one hand I feel this sense that’s so thrilling, that to involve a book and a set of ideas and this concrete material practice and, I hope nobody actually got hurt, but—it’s a little book—it seems like a kind of symbolic gesture more than a violence. But at the same time, I also have this concern of like, wait can’t we just like talk about our ideas? What are we doing here? Is this really the road we want to go down?
And some of the polemical stuff that comes out of Badiou, and Badiouians frankly, I find really kind of repulsive sometimes. I don’t know that we’re enriched, even in grad school, by the presence of those kind of attitudes that sometimes emerge from that. So, I’m kind of wondering, is there non-theory or are there bad ways of doing theory that we’re losing the ability to gain critical purchase on if we blow open this concept in this way?
Jonathan Fardy: I think that question is great, Andrew, and that probably is a kind of lacuna in my larger project, which is that if everything seems like it’s becoming theory, then are we losing that specificity? But I think—and this might be a little bit of a trap door, get out clause, for me—that one of the things I find interesting about theory is precisely that part of the history of theory, as I have read it or inherited it, that has also been the struggle over what we mean by this.
And so, I guess one consequence is maybe everything is theory, but that is itself a kind of theory: theory is everything that. So, to me, I’m interested in this idea of theory as hopefully a kind of continually unsettling term that doesn’t live in particular departments, that its definition is contested, even in Althusser’s three major periods, three different theories of theoretical practice. So, there’s something about theory that gives rise to the crisis of what we mean by it. I find that actually a strategic moment, it’s interesting to me.
I was thinking as you were speaking, too a similar problem came up in class with students the other day. We read Judith Butler’s landmark essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” and she says something interesting about the concept or the term lesbian in that text. and she says something like, I’m willing to stand under the sign of lesbian in certain political contexts but I also want to keep it permanently unsettled precisely what it signifies. And I love that kind of move. she likes to keep opening it up, the trouble of it is probably what’s interesting about it.
So, there’s that. I also wanted to dial back into the Schoenberg/Mingus. One, I agree with Andrew, too. It’s interesting that we have to remember that musicians, artists themselves, have entered the theoretical terrain, they’ve made claims about music and counter claims against theorists.
The other thing I think is interesting, and here my model is Walter Benjamin, there’s often this move that theory speaks in this neutral scientific, philosophical language and explains what art is. The other move is to say, is there a philosophy as it were in jazz composition that itself could be adopted in philosophical or theoretical work. I look at something like Benjamin’s essays on surrealism and many other essays, “One-Way Street” for example, where rather than giving us a theory of surrealism he gives us a surrealist philosophy precisely because he thinks those techniques in surrealism enable him to think about interesting juxtapositions that are relevant for modern life.
So, it’s not for him to say, like an art historian, let me give you a theory of what surrealism, is explain it to you, but rather, let me use surrealism as a kind of method, actually to talk about things like politics and society. So, I like that move too—is there not only a philosophy of jazz but also like a jazz approach to composing philosophy, and that I think is an interesting project.
Roger Green: To jump back in on that, I think I’m very much interested in this conversation about theory itself, too, because even within the academy—for those of you who aren’t affiliated with universities—there’s a real allergy to theory, as Jonathan is alluding, in terms of interdepartmental stuff. And, in that allergy to theory, there’s this kind of language of elitism, as though it’s just elitists wanting to talk about French people. But that kind of position doesn’t allow us to consider some of what I think are the most critical theorists right now.
So, someone like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who’s Nishnaabeg, or Gerald Vizenor, indigenous theorists that are not rejecting the idea that theory is this elite thing but saying that Nishnaabeg people do theory better or that Glen Sean Coulthard, in Red Skin, White Masks, which is, of course, a reference to Fanonin the title,is rehabilitating Marx andhe’s not doing it in this way where youneed to like come in and give a 200-yeardiatribeon the Euro-western orEuro-christian genealogy of what Marx is.He’s just saying that he has this theory of primitiveaccumulation or prior accumulationthat’s usefulbut it’s flawed and this is what we needto dowith it.
But within the academy, because there’s this attitude that theory is only for graduate students, as Tink Tinker would say, now that we’ve had post-colonial studies, now that we’ve these people of color enter the university, we’ve had gender studies come in it’s really quite ironic that that’s the moment where everybody becomes allergic to theory, when these diverse voices do come in. Then we say, oh no, theory is just about white men and we got to get rid of white men, or something.
Jonathan Fardy: I totally resonate with that, Roger. I think that easy discourse of saying theory is elitist, we don’t need it, exactly—you’re right—at the moment in which all these voices are bringing to bear, saying, we have theory we’re in we’re involved in these kinds of questions, too. One thing it reminds me of is the interesting feminist critique of the death of the author thesis out of Barthes. At the very moment of second wave feminism, where feminist scholars are saying we need to start opening up the canon and reading the work of women, it’s at that moment that Barthes suddenly gets canonized as saying, well, we don’t need to talk about authors anymore.
That’s a similar kind of formal analogy to, I think, that problem you’re addressing, there. And another thing comes to mind, and Amy had mentioned this, too, figures like Walter Rodney. I’ve read a lot of Walter Rodney this past summer—and if you haven’t read him, I’d really encourage you to. Rodney’s perspective as oriented from a global self-position, but also wanting to engage. His lectures on the Russian Revolution, his book on the Russian Revolution is fascinating because he’s asking the question, I’m interested in the legacy of Leninism, too, I just want to understand that or frame that in light of what it’s meant for the Global South. What did the Russian Revolution mean from that perspective?
So, I’m all on board with saying, yeah, if theory is just French and elitist then yeah, we don’t need more of that, but if in getting rid of that we also silence all these other voices then that’s real that’s really a problem.
Roger Green: For those of you who don’t know, on The New Polis we do have Literary Conversations as well as critical conversations, I’ve just been buried in other work—so, I invite other people to contribute—but there was a conversation with Selah Saterstrom and Steven Dunn, two novelists last summer that we did on The New Polis and I was talking about the theory of tragedy and they were talking about how they work against that and this the whole anti-humanism thing comes out but. They’re contemporary small press writers who are doing this theoretical work in their writing but not being recognized for it in the university and not being recognized for it in the broader apparatus of big press literary production in the U.S. It goes for poetry, as well as prose, there’s one on there with poets as well, or contemporary jazz musicians who are doing all of this spiritual jazz stuff.
Even on the Kendrick Lamar’s records with reaching back to the avant-garde and re-imagining what that might be right now. That’s happening but I feel like because there’s been such a distaste or an allergy to theory it becomes really difficult to even have the conversations about the stuff that’s coming out.
Jonathan Fardy: I think, Roger, that also in regard to the allergy to theory, I have wonderful colleagues but, in my career, it’s a kind of lightning rod word, at times, in conversations and I think even in the heyday of high theory—we don’t use that term anymore, but that was sort of French theory in the seventies, eighties, and nineties—then, too, there were a lot of English literature departments who said we don’t want this.
And behind the kind of rhetoric of we just need to study history was really we don’t want that because it’s not American. It was a lot of anti-theoretical discourse that was really about this as a foreign import, and I think that that version of the anti-theoretical orientation is just intensified when it’s like indigenous theorists, people of color broadly, the global south. I think you still have a version of that idea that we don’t need those foreign imports into our North American discipline. So, I think that’s an important element of that
Roger Green: Other questions, or folks who haven’t talked? I can see Amy on my screen because she was nodding, so I don’t know if you want to jump back in here, Amy?
Amy Wuest: I would love to hear from some other women in the session, though, instead of just me. I see some names and I think there’s a lot we can contribute, so I will say that.
Carl Raschke: Can I play professor and call on somebody I know? Kieryn are you here?
Kieryn Wurts: Yes, but I came in late due to the time change. In Germany we haven’t changed our clocks and you have, so I missed the whole lecture. I’m just listening, and I’ll have to catch it on YouTube, later.
Carl Raschke: Okay, well we’re not talking about anybody specific. Amy, Kieryn has actually been one of our respondents in previous Critical Conversations and she’s a star theorist from her undergraduate days in our university, so she might have something interesting to say if you want to frame a question for her.
Roger Green: Well, Kieryn, you have been doing a lot of work with women in religion, I’ve noticed lately from our different stuff, so I think Amy’s question is broadly about women’s role in theory but also in a very contemporary moment of doing the work we call theory.
Kieryn Wurts: Just a short response, once again I’m speaking for no reason here but because I’m a woman, but as a response to this theory discussion, I think it’s quite interesting what you raised Roger and then someone else—was Jonathan Fardy who said it?—about this allergy to theory coincides with indigenous people, women, people of color finally entering the academy and I think I had never thought of it that way before. I don’t know if you can say that there’s some kind of mass conspiracy around that, but I think it is an interesting thing. Maybe I missed the first half of the discussion, so when we talk about theory, we can also, say, theorize about what theory is, but we’re getting so meta.
Is it philosophy, is it critical theory, what is it? But what in the academy would make the academy allergic to thought, right? It seems like kind of an absurd thing, because I think you can define theory probably as thought. And is it really a tool to silence people or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy that theory is for white men, because people just keep saying that it’s for rich white men, and so it propagates itself? I think it’s quite an anti-intellectualism that’s just fractured and directed at everybody and quite unhelpful, from what you’re describing. Yeah, those are just some initial thoughts.
Jonathan Fardy: Yeah, I would actually say that it’s a great point and I agree that the theory in the broader sense is thought. And, in that sense, I think it’s interesting—I don’t know how it is in Germany, but—in my experience in the U.S. there’s often privileging in pedagogical discourse of wanting students to do critical thinking. They privilege that, but theory as a troubling set of questions that raise political questions, social questions there can be often, in my experience, the kind of allergic reaction to.
So, there’s sort of like the institutionalization of like the 101 course in critical thinking but a kind of allergic reaction to talking about race, racism, colonialism, even in the last U.S. presidency—I won’t name that man—there was this this whole attack on the teaching of history that was part of the late period of his presidency. Part of his political platform was that we’ve got to stop teaching things like slavery, that we should teach like American greatness or whatever it was. But there was a concerted attack on anything that was critical, interrogative, that dealt with political catastrophe, white supremacy.
And so, all of that got linked up with the buzzword of like, we don’t need any more of this teaching of critical race theory. That was just all over that attack on the teaching of the history of things like slavery and colonialism.
Kieryn Wurts: Yeah, I think that allergy can come from different places. Of course, from the last president, that’s different than an academic thing and I think there might be something a bit, almost, banal about it. Like some people are just protecting their disciplines, like as you had spoken about in literary theory. I recently came across some debates around people asking if linguistic skills or multiple languages important to be familiar with in philosophy and I think that depends on what kind of language you do.
But I witnessed some scholars saying no—this is more like analytic philosophers—that you only need to be speak one language to do philosophy. Yeah, maybe in some cases but maybe that’s just like a bit of a way of protecting your career, too. So that’s a bit different than the Trump thing which was a very much a politically motivated thing. But maybe some people don’t want to talk about theory just because they don’t want to, because they want to defend their expertise, their realm of expertise.
Carl Raschke: Excuse me, this is a good conversation here, but I would like to have a conversation about something related, based on what we’ve said and I’d like everybody to stay but I want to stop the recording since it looks like, in terms of the actual flow of questions here, and we don’t want to put Kierryn totally on the spot just to keep the conversation going.
So, I’m going to stop the recording right now and if you could all stay on for about five more minutes, please, because I have something that I didn’t think of before we started this but now, I would really like to pose it. But it’s unrelated to the theoretical discussion we’re having right now, it’s more practical in follow-up. So, thanks.