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Ghosts and autonomy

Author: joe

Friday, 20 September, 2013 - 08:16

Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal - from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (extract)

Mark Fisher summarises one of the reasons for a certain kind of malaise in contemporary society, in a recently published extract of his upcoming book, 'Ghosts of my Life'. Fisher calls on the supporting concepts of 'retromania' and 'dyschronia' (Reynolds) whereby popular music is dominated by reproductions of existing forms and styles and culture itself seems to endlessly recycle varieties of historical modes until they lose reference to their foundational context; the 'slow cancellation of the future' (Berardi) which captures the failing sense in which the passage of time is experienced as progress towards new social formations and possibilities; 'nostalgia mode' (Jameson) which is less a yearning for a lost past than a phenomenon established precisely because the past is constantly recreated in pastiche and parody; and 'polar inertia', concomitant with accerelating speeds of communication (Virilio), which describes the bloated immobility that seems to take hold when everything that we might wish to experience and consume is always instantly summonable: the mediated, home-delivery sensory and experiential universe available without effort.

There is little to disagree with here, in particular Fisher's diagnosis of Britain's sky-high property prices as an influence on how people who might otherwise spend some of their lives being temporarily autonomous are forced to become part of the economy which usurps any time they might devote to the sort of self-expressive creativity that fosters the production of music, art and writing, and the freedom for experimentation and discovery. There are two aspects of the argument Fisher makes that arouse if not disagreement then at least further thought, though: does creativity really need withdrawal from sociality and existing cultural forms in order to flourish and generate the newness that Fisher mourns in his piece? and is it is really true that contemporary society suffers a sort of anachronism and unrootedness that is genuinely different from the experience of previous generations?

I can distinguish between two kinds of withdrawal which might clarify the first question. If I do not withdraw from sociality, cultural noise, norms and practices then I am enmeshed in a world of endlessly intricate calls and demands, needs and responses. To withdraw from these things I must unarticulate myself from them, and allow them to lose purchase on me. I do not feel the need to honour every call made on me or to commit myself: I can be autonomous, because I can feel as though I choose my commitments - to people, subcultures, ways of life, social formations and cultural practices. In these circumstances - which are most commonly experienced when young, unemployed, feeling life as a threshold of possibilities as yet undetermined - I can try things out, be one person or another, iterate, fail, simulate, play, and pursue a form of self-discovery and self-invention. Those external pressures which seem to impinge on my ability to experience autonomy and self-determination in these ways, and which inhibit my withdrawal from a world of commitments which limit my freedom to experiment, all curtail and circumscribe the space available to me to move in directions of my own choosing. Whether they are the economic practicalities of the sheer cost of existence in a world of workfare, benefit caps and housing bubbles, or the social pressures associated with being accepted into subcultures and peer groups, from body-image to anti-intellectualism to class-distinction to misogyny, such external pressures are factors in the extent to which anyone might understand themselves as freely choosing who they want to become.

This is a different kind of withdrawal than one which limits exposure to cultural forms and ubiquitous media, which Fisher seems to suggest is also necessary for the production of new music or TV programming which might either be felt as genuinely new or satisfy a hunger for a certain kind of quality. All production is necessarily a form of reproduction: from Plato's allegory of the cave to DJ Spooky's analysis of sampling, the postmodern idea that there is nothing new is nothing new. The very act of communication is achieved because humans learn to speak with the same words rather than each inventing their own language; comedians make us laugh because they blend the familiar with the unexpected and absurd; musical styles, notwithstanding their wildly divergent surface qualities and genres, share structures and scales developed and maintained over millenia. The greek work 'poeisis' from which we derive our word 'poetry', and which we often translate as 'production' might well be better understood as 'transformation' - after Heidegger, the bursting of the blossom into bloom, the slow thaw of a frozen waterfall, the metamorphosis of the chrysalis. The creation of the new is the remaking of what already exists expressed in new forms and making new articulations possible. The use of a concept such as withdrawal here, is as a component of the autonomy necessary for someone to choose to be creative, iterative, experimental and productive: that autonomy then provides the opportunity to engage, rather than withdraw, from the world of influence and affinity that will provide the inspiration and raw materials for making music and art.

Our contemporary world certainly seems to offer dwindling opportunities for this kind of autonomy, despite the prevalent view that we are in a society that enjoys freedom on an unprecedented scale. The prevailing economic situation seeks to colonise every space of life with financial accountability. Idleness must be converted into leisure, the consumption of enjoyment; childhood must be supplemented with the right play products, activities and lessons; schoolyears are assessment bootcamps; gap years must result in transferable skills rather than the experience of being alive. Adolescence ought to be the threshold time of self-discovery, but increasingly it is either consumed by chasing employability criteria or blackened by the sense of unemployable uselessness. There is no corner of life in which the imperative to be an economic resource has not infiltrated. The hard-won gains of a post-war settlement which brought universal welfare, social security and free healthcare have been hollowed out and either marketised or demonised. It is hard not to see the 21st century not as merely dyschronic, but even as a world without time. Days counted in productivity and capital rather than living and being, the temporal counterpart to Auge's non-place, imposing contraints on where and when we can and cannot move, demanding we comply with the economic expectations placed on us.

Faced with this horror it is tempting to escape into nostalgia mode, and immerse ourselves in another, happier time: the good honest hard-working time of post-war Britain's austerity years, the courtly excesses of Tudor palaces, the buttoned-up passion of Georgian gentry in search of wives, or even the time-bending isolation of air-crash survivors or the travels of timelords. It is easy to project our phantasies onto earlier historical periods: times when we lived closer to nature, or had more opportunities for adventure, or could fulfil a pioneering spirit, or be masters of an empire. Even just a few decades ago, Berardi and Fisher seem to say, we could believe in the future in a way we no longer can: the spirit of the times has been crushed under the weight of neo-liberalism, and our reaction to the deluge of hypermassive catastrophe - financial meltdown, unending warfare, ecological devastation and global climate change - can only be paralysed apathy. After all what can we do but carry on watching, reduce the enormity of our calamity to a managed, prepackaged spectacle, narrated with the odd mixture of sincerity and utter alienation that news channels seem to have perfected?

It is therefore difficult to imagine that earlier generations whose circumstances were not like our own could understand us and our predicament, nor we theirs. To read a three thousand year old book is not only to read the stories of the time, but also to encounter the very social conditions in which it could exist: the commitments to which its authors chose to respond. The interpretation of that work entails a meeting of our own horizon with that of the world of the text. We might look to investigate the words historiographically and reconstruct what meanings they would have had to the readers of the time; we might search out the writers and their biographies, in order to better understand the contexts in which they wrote; and to understand those contexts we would have to get to grips with the social realities with which their existence is caught up. At each step we must cross the gap between their world and ours. As Gadamer puts it, we must read the 'great dark book' of the world in order to understand the works that are made within it. The body of culture past and present represents 'the collected work of the human spirit, written in languages of the past, whose texts it is our task to understand'.

Is it the case that our current economic situation and cultural inertia have pushed our own horizon of experience too far from the horizons of past generations? A particular way of thinking about how the self is caught in the structures of society suggests it is: the Foucauldian argument is that we suffer ruptures in history, Kuhn's paradigm shifts, which render the past unintelligible. Just as the death of a loved one marks a watershed boundary between their presence and their senseless absence, so such shifts make the worlds of the past not only foreign, but somehow halcyon - a lost world in which something authentic is left behind. When we encounter the traces of these lost worlds - the writing, the music, the historical records and the social attitudes so far as they can be scryed - we might as well be marvelling at alien civilisations, and any sense we have of familiarity or nostalgia for such times is a form of deception. In this view, the notion that we can ever recreate the felt meaning of their lives, or the texture of their experience, is an illusion: we have been caught up in an epstemic shift, in which the very conditions of our own knowledge have broken with the past.

The alternative to this view must rely on some sense of continuity with the past. Our horizon is constituted not only by our present conditions: our conditions were already there before we found ourselves within them. Certainly dramatic episodes can render it unimaginable that we could return to these worlds as they were, but every horizon we encounter, every world that is recreated for us by artefacts of the past is an ancestor, cousin or sibling to our own, and there is always the chance that we can work our way across to that consciousness. While languages evolve and words change their meaning, they are not unmoored from the world in the way the deconstructionists would have us believe. As Latour put it, only linguists could believe that words only associate with other words, rather than the complex boil of material, social and cultural practices that make up a person, a people and their world. Our cultural lives are haunted by the surviving echoes of the past, with some voices louder than others. Many stories of the past boom loudly, and others are fainter and force us to strain our ears or find ways to tune in. The very faintest might never be restored, but they are not lost: the voices of travellers on an ancient dirt road perturbed the air and left traces in the soil like the voice of Edison on a wax cylinder. Centuries of walkers, soil, stone, concrete and tarmac might have covered over those traces in ways that make it impossible for us to hear them again, but nevertheless they are there in the strata of the ground beneath our own feet and in the very fact that we walk the same routes today.

Reading the 'great dark book' of the past is a way to experience fellow-feeling with the people of worlds which seem to have disappeared - indeed the recycling of the past about which Fisher worries is a way of doing so, however shallowly. Future historians, if they are sufficiently attentive, perhaps to things which we ourselves may not be able to comprehend, will strain to grasp the texture of our world and divine something of our contemporary consciousness from our artefacts, the endless recycling of an immediate past, the re-imaginings of other times. I wonder whether they will detect that our malaise is not that our lack of musical adventure has made us empty, but that our sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling has dwindled as we are ever more persuaded that we are powerless against the tides of state surveillance, global capital, unending warfare and climatic disaster. We are failing to find fellow-feeling with one another as the shallow populism of our politicians and media corporations inculcate enmity for the disadvantaged, intolerance towards migrants, and a bruised entitlement that encourages us to begrudge anyone seen to be in more need than ourselves.

Mainstream entertainment has done everything it can to detach itself from any kind of political consciousness. But it is hard to believe that a generation of burgeoning minds is not confronting the world with 'diamonds in their mouths' and wondering how to make it their own in the face of such exclusion, coercion, financial temptation and artistic banality. A world in which a small group of wealthy power-brokers hoard and squander their riches, demonise the poor, engineer conflict, foster divisiveness and inculcate hopelessness is not a new one! However, to an opening mind I hope it is an offence worth resisting. Perhaps if it is difficult to imagine a musical movement producing a genuine edge of excitement and jeopardy into the establishment in the way that punk or the raves did, maybe that's because what we need is not new musical genres, but new diggers, Jarrow marchers and revolting peasants. We can't demand that young musicians or film-makers provide our glimmer of hope if we ourselves are mean-spirited and supine. How do you encourage people to nurture a strange blend of fellow-feeling, generosity and rage? What ghosts should we invite to haunt us to invoke such shared anger and kindness?

Categories: fisher, ghosts-of-my-life, ghosts, autonomy, creativity,
Comments: 0

Practice-based Research

Author: joe

Monday, 19 December, 2005 - 16:03

This entry is written to address and extend Cath's previous post about theory and practice, and also to reflect on a seminar I attended last week about Practice-based Research.

What are theory and practice?

What Cath has outlined is a common way of looking at what are considered to be two ontologically different activities: creativity and reflection. Creativity is often also called art, practice, production. Reflection is often called research, theory, analysis, criticism. The former is often aligned with imagination, emotion, and that part of human existence which is thought of as 'unrationisable'. The latter is often aligned with systematic thinking, reason, what is 'rationisable'.

There is a lot of merit in thinking of them as ontologically different activities. Artists often consider themselves to be drawing on ineffable, inscrutable, undescribable inspiration. Theorists, in contrast, consider themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of analysing and describing phenomena. You could go so far as to say that the practice of art is based on subjectivity, while theory is based on the pursuit of objectivity.

Since the two activities can be understood in such mutually exclusive terms, it is understandable that individuals see themselves as primarily interested in one or the other. Hence arise compromises in the academic environment: practitioners are goaded into engaging with theory, with the encouragement that a 'critical awareness' will support their practice. And we're all familiar with the reverse situation, where 'academics' are accused of being out of touch with 'the real world' because they deal with abstractions rather than 'production' or 'industry'.

Theory and practice are the same

In the middle of this dichotomy are academic departments like my own which are trying to 'unite' theory and practice in teaching and learning. Rather than having separate strands, some of which address theory issues, while others address production and practice, a new program of teaching has been designed to integrate both.

The discourse on this approach tends to run along the lines of 'diminishing the divide between theory and practice', 'demonstrating the relevance of theory to practice', or 'showing that theory and practice are parts of the same process'. (Interestingly, while there has been a lot of such discourse, there has been very little about how the teaching of theory and practice are integrated. This is left to the discretion of clumps of individual teachers to decide).

The strengths of this approach range over a number of areas: the learning experience for an undergraduate is improved because

The teaching experience can be better because:

However, there is a major weakness to this approach too. This is the danger that theory is taught merely as it serves the objectives of production - theory in effect becomes subservient to practice. This in itself is not the bad thing: any practitioner who engages with theory will tell you that it informs their work. The bad thing flows from this new emphasis.

Theory and practice are not the same

When theory is cherry-picked as it seems to be relevant to practice, it loses its own logic.

For example: I am currently involved in teaching a unit called 'Narratives', which follows on from a unit called 'Images', and which leads into a unit called 'Audiences'; the students are learning Interactive Media. Some of the key ideas that are associated with this 'Narratives' unit inlcude the idea that 'narrativisation' is something that we all do all the time - it's not something that only people we call story-tellers do; that narratives encode, reinforce and query the cultural values we live with; and that the idea that a magician-like author creates a narrative for a reader to correctly interpret is problematic. Key 'theorists' here include Barthes and Foucault, whose dialogic works in the 60s and 70s blew apart notions of what an author is, what a text is, and what a reader is.

Previously, critical thought in the literary tradition of F.R Leavis and others, saw the work of correctly interpreting a text by an author as an exercise in acquiring enough erudition in the field of the text, the author and their period. Such acquired learning then gave that reader the ability to hand down to the rest of us, with less erudition, what this author was really trying to do. AB&F (After Barthes and Foucault), the author and the reader become fused, and the text becomes a hot, creative space where creative, interpretative acts occur. The erudite reader no longer is entitled to a 'correct' reading: the erudite reader simply has a different reading. Every reader, regardless of education and erudition, creates the 'writerly' text as they engage in the creative, productive act of reading. This was revolutionary and profoundly anti-elitist.

In the necessity-driven context of short weekly seminars delivering theory and practice designed to demonstrate their relevance to each other, the revolutionary nature of these ideas is in danger of being lost, and the notions of readerly and writerly texts become simply parts of a vocabulary necessary for assessment. What is the point of talking about the writerly text if there is no understanding of the fact that the writerly text is above all a political idea, rather than a literary one?

Theory is pointless

There is a rather lovely irony in theory AB&F: interpretation is subjective, but no less valid for being so. One does not need to be educated to have valid interpretations of texts. You don't have to know the theory of the writerly text to be constantly producing it. The 'message' of theory today is that you don't need to learn theory. There has been a simultaneous development in critical writing of, on the one hand, work that is impenetrable to lay-people because of the accumulation of jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo, while on the other hand, a message that argues that it is not necessary to become better educated and more learned in order to have valid, productive responses to cultural artefacts. Theory in this reading has become a prank on those who pursue it, and it is therefore no suprise that theorists' writing has developed this shroud in order to conceal the vacuum within. It is admittedly a difficult problem: how, as a member of a segment of the population which has been lucky enough to attain such a brilliant level of learning, do you then preach that such learning is not necessary? When you want to argue that becoming erudite is just an elitist plot, how do you say so without seeming to pull up the ladder to education behind you? If there is no right or wrong, just a lot of discourse, what is the point of anything at all? Who cares whether someone's understanding of the writerly text is political or literary when either interpretation is equally valid?

Theory is not pointless

It may be inevitable that once-revolutionary ideas eventually become obvious and assumed. New generations grow up in cultures where what once seemed earth-shattering is now common sense; they in turn go on to produce new ground-breaking, earth-shattering ideas. The point of critical theory (as opposed to 'being to a theorist'), though, is not to believe the message of theory, but to examine and question obvious, common sense ideas and assumptions. There was an earth-shattering point when mankind began making marks on objects in order to communicate with absent people, yet today we can take it for granted. By engaging with the historicity of that moment, we can enter a place where it seems suddenly remarkable to be a human being, and that the world we live in becomes an amazing organic product of countless revolutionary things which seem now to have disappeared behind the everyday surface of life. On a smaller but more pressing level, questioning the assumptions about the way of the world is a necessary social act in a global culture which is marked by war, immoral economic inequity and cultural conflict on an unprecedented scale.

The pursuit of critical thinking and theory as an end in itself, then, has the strength of allowing all events, developments and works to be seen as political acts, precisely because theory tries to contextualise and historicise those acts, events, developments and works, and shed light on the social and political relations that combine to create that history. This is reason enough that theory should be considered separately to practice, since an artist trying to analyse and compensate for all of the cultural assumptions that may go into producing the work will end in a paralysis of self-censorship.

Theory kills practice

One thing which seemed to emerge from the seminar on Practice-based Research I attended last week was the idea that the creative act in practice, and the systematic thought in theory, are mutually incompatible. In romantic literary terms, we might say that the creative act is inspired by a muse - an unknowable goddess - who provokes, or even produces the creative drive in the artist. In modern language, we might say that art is the product of a creative act of the imagination, which is yet to be deciphered in evolutionary, biological or functional terms. Were the muse to be 'understood', or 'theorised', she would no longer be an inspiring goddess; were the imagination to be deterministically mapped, it would no longer be the magical source of our creativity.

I woud refute this idea for a number of reasons:

Theory is a practice

A tacit assumption that seemed to be at work in the Practice-based Research seminar was the idea that theory is a necessary but unpleasant activity. The seminar appeared to be a long apology for theory. Perhaps this is a reflection of the stereotyped view of theory as a Casaubon activity, dry, solitary, monotonous, incorporating 'bean-counting', dealing with abstractions and generally joyless. It's about spending too much time reading books and writing papers no-one reads.

I suppose that an artist, in the creation of an artefact, even if the motivation is pure self-expression, would acknowledge that at some point the work is destined to be recieved by an audience. And I also supppose that the artist would grant that when an audience enters into a relationship with the work, they too engage in a creative act of interpretation, empathy, outrage, emotion, revulsion, agreement, and reflection.

The act of reading requires the reader to enter into just such an act of creativity, with all the interpretative possibilities that offers. The practice of theory is about engaging in that creative act. And just as an artist would acknowledge that their output enters into a dialogue with other work and doesn't exist in isolation, so the practice of theory is about entering into a dialogue. Writing is a productive, transformational activity, regardless of whether it is conceived in advance as a piece of literary art or a piece of critical writing.

While I was writing this, my computer crashed and I had to start all over again. The content I rewrote was not the same as the first version. I could write this a hundred times, and every time it would be produced differently, precisely because the act of writing is creative and spontaneous.

Traditional Academia

The final thing I want to write about was the presentation of research in humanities as distinct from research in more traditionally academic subjects. Clearly there is a complex problem arising from the history of academia, and the perception that social science research is 'soft' science. There is also a reverse problem, where the humanities see traditional areas like scientific research as having an unwarranted dominance over the arts. Scientific methodologies get described as 'bean-counting' and are accused of being 'patriarchal'.

Partly this is because of the post-structuralist purgatory that has emerged in humanities, where the scientific method is simply seen as a discursive tool by which vast swathes of dead white males rule the world, and a technocratic hegemony reinforces its hold on cultural development. The scientific response certainly ought to be: show us where your theories predict reproducible phenomena, rather than haranguing us from the sidelines with philosophical contortionism.

More fundamentally, however, I think there is a misconception here that only creative arts engage in practice during research. I can't think of a single field of enquiry where the researchers in the field wouldn't argue that what they do is a creative practice. It's actually monumental arrogance to claim that the creative act is the domain of art, while other kinds of knowledge don't involve imagination and creativity. However, it is not so obvious that the arts education system is providing students with the same theoretical rigour provided by sciences.


One only has to look at the rise of creationism, intelligent design, fundamentalism, the increasing mistrust of science in issues of public health and the decline in uptake of science education to see that an anti-Enlightenment sentiment is gaining ground. What part do people (humanities graduates?) working in the creative industries today play in that?

Categories: research, humanities, practice, art, science, theory, creativity, elitism, writing, postmodernism, post-structuralism,
Comments: 1