[iDC] Theory Thread

Grant Kester gkester at ucsd.edu
Mon Jul 10 15:59:29 EDT 2006

Dear All,

First, thanks to all the posters who offered descriptions of actual
projects. I think this is one way to work through the  "politically
transgressive vs. hopelessly compromised" impasse in discussions of
net-based or other work and I¹ve found them very interesting to read. One
suggestion would be to post a detailed description of a given project or
practice for follow-up discussion, and even critique (especially if some of
the list members have a substantive knowledge of the project). This is
probably too formal for a list-serve format, but it might generate some
valuable insights. 
I¹m hesitant to pursue the ³theory² issue much further, since it seems
pretty far afield of the list¹s primary focus, so I¹m starting this under a
new thread (to save those who are bored to tears by this discussion any
further pain). I assumed most list members would realize the ³plumpes
denken² reference was tongue-in-cheek (it¹s a well-known quote from Brecht
and I mentioned it in part because the Brecht/Lukacs debates open up some
interesting questions relative to the relation between theory and practice).
So, my intention wasn't intended to trigger the old "theory" vs. "practice"
canard. I'm also assuming on this list that we can take it as axiomatic that
all practices depend on certain more general (and often unacknowledged)
assumptions, of which "theory" is only one possible form. It's not the
unfamiliarity of the theory that I find troublesome, but rather the
opposite. A particular theoretical paradigm drawn from a melding of Deleuze
and Italian autonomist thought has emerged over the past decade or so as a
new doxa (clearly this is not the only ³theory² that list members are
interested in or influenced by). Like any paradigm it can be enabling
(opening up new trajectories of thought, etc.) as well as constraining. And
let me say at the outset there is much that I find useful and applicable in
both of these traditions.
One of the things that people found most liberating about Hardt and Negri
was their willingness to postulate grand political narratives (after the
unforgiving epistemic modesty of the Derridean tradition, and the disfavor
into which terms like "class² and other grand recits had fallen). The
solution devised by the post-war generation of French thinkers who have set
the agenda for so much contemporary theory (Foucault, Deleuze, etc.) was to
reinvent concepts that had been tainted by their association with history
and telos (class oppression, revolution, etc.) through a quasi-biological
language of ³power,² ³force,² ³desire,² and so on. This seemed to neatly
solve the problem of historical specificity and change, but in fact it only
deferred it, while at the same time promulgating a bio-essentialist
formalism of de-historicized ³bodies² and ³desires² that would have been
intolerable to an earlier generation of thinkers. Along with Hardt and
Negri¹s willingness to engage in the kind of ambitious, globalizing
political speculation that had fallen out of favor came the gesture of
naming (³multitudes²). This is either audacious or arrogant depending on
your perspective (it always seemed problematic to me to project a singular
identity on such a vast swathe of the world's population).
At any rate, one can hardly turn around in the current art and media theory
world without bumping into a veritable sea of ³rhizomes,² ³multitudes,²
³immaterial² or ³precarious² workers, ³nomads,² and Spinoza and Leibniz
references without end. This new canonical formation has lent itself, in
application, to a certain style of thinking (nominative, grandiose,
generalizing, speculative, taken from a quasi-global distance), which
parallels the tendency already evident in continental theory to universalize
specific modes and moments of historical change (May '68 being the most
typical, but also Turin in the Œ70s) as a kind of ethical and methodological
template for all subsequent political transformation. Any residual guilt
about this sort of a-historical and generalizing abstraction at the level of
theoretical discourse is relieved by 1) an ostensible re-investment in the
particular and the specific at the level of the body (³intensities,² etc.)
and 2) a persistent discursive privileging of dislocation and discontinuity.
Leaving aside the implications of endowing discontinuity with an intrinsic
or necessary ethical content, the broader effect has been a movement away
from close, historically situated readings of events or conditions. Instead,
ala Deleuze, a given historical event (the tactics of seventh century
Bedouin warriors, the novels of Kafka) simply functions as a brief,
epiphenomenal illustration of an overarching bio-political system.
The very success of this paradigm (as evidenced by the remarkable popularity
of Hardt & Negri¹s Empire) has led, perhaps inevitably, to a formulaic
application of it. Rather than beginning the analysis of a given project,
historical event, etc. with a close analysis of it¹s context, it¹s
contradictory and multivalent actualities, we search for illustrations of
rhizomatic power, nomadic displacement, ³swarming² behavior, and so on). As
a result it can be harder for us to grasp what is genuinely new or different
in a particular moment of practice. I much prefer readings in which the
theory itself is complicated, tested, and even challenged, through it¹s
proximity to practice, even as the practice is illuminated by a given
theoretical paradigm. Too often the works of Deleuze, Negri, Nancy, Badiou,
Ranciere, Virno, etc. are used in a quasi-theological manner, rather than
being interrogated and complicated in their own right. Theory is, or should
be, a tool, not a liturgy. This is not intended as an attack on theory
(which plays a central role in my own research) but simply a request to
think about the ways in which we use theory or the ways in which theory
functions for us as a form of practice. I guess what I'm calling for is a
bit more self-reflection and honesty about the motivations and investments
of those of us who traffic in "theory" (as subcontractors for the master¹s
voice): the attractions and ontic payoffs, the pleasurable sense of mastery
provided by a given mode of thought or expression, and the ways in which
theory-as-doxa both enables and constrains our thought. I apologize for the
somewhat rant-like quality of this post; and I should stress that it¹s
directed as much at myself (I¹ve been guilty of everything I¹ve described
above!) at anyone else.
Best wishes,

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