CLASS EIGHT (3/30/16)



A lot of the first part of seminar focused on a discussion of “The Best New Work” last Saturday at the Princeton Art Museum. It was an intense conversation, I thought — and one that pushed our thinking on our aims and means as we look to the final performance-project.  It is perhaps worth taking a moment to résumé what I took from that, before moving on to the readings themselves (which we really only focused on for the last hour).

I am pasting in here below the blackboard after the first half of the seminar (the image above is the blackboard at the end of class — I’ll come back to that):


The most important stuff for us to underline here, I think, runs down the middle of the board — it was our emergent “frame-commitments” for the performances of our sections from “Art and Objecthood.”  We all (I think) felt comfortable signing off on all of these as listed, even as we also increasingly felt it was important that everyone have some latitude as to individual ways of doing something with the text (in this setting and under these constraints):

  • we each agree to be “responsible” for our passage of the text for the duration of the performance;
  • our ways of being “responsible” need to have some sort of public “face” (that is, must be ready to engage/confront and/or be-engaged-by/be-confronted-by others);
  • even when we are not attended on (not being seen or not in the company of others) there needs to be something “going on” in whatever way we are enacting our “responsibility” for the text — something to look-at/see.

Beyond that, things feel pretty open.  Will there be a copy of the text to hand?  It feels like that could go either way.  Other props?  Maybe.  But a sine qua non of the whole thing is that everyone needs to have their bit of the text memorized.

This conversation definitely pushed on hard questions concerning the relationship between pedagogy and performance.  What do we actually want to make happen in that gallery?  What does it mean to be “responsible” to a text?  Does it mean something like “making an effort to ‘put the words/ideas into another person’s mind?'”  Some felt that this phrasing had about it the odor of brain-washing.  Too authoritarian.  But the opposite extreme (“just putting the text out there”) seemed not-wholly-satisfactory either.  Text feels weak, left to its own devices.  It either sits there on the page, or it flows by on the tongue — but in neither case can it quite be said to be “gifted” or “bodied forth” in the manner we associate with the best scenographies of teaching and learning.  Chiara said that text needs context and history — that is how it “lives” (and it is the teacher’s role to provide something like the “life-story” of the text, and thereby to give it its vitality). The language of mothering was invoked.  Of birthing. Not everyone would go there, I think.  But her proposition was impassioned, and I certainly felt the power of her formulation.  On a slightly different note, it was interesting that many of us felt that we needed to be able to engage in some form of dialogic encounter if we were going to be “responsible” to our texts.

At any rate, the whole discussion gave us all a lot to think about.  Or it gave me a lot to think about anyway.  One of the most interesting exchanges I think we have had to date.  I felt a very strong sense of mounting consensus (harmony?) as we contemplated a kind of simple dramaturgy for our performance:  all of us in one gallery, perhaps stationed in specific locations around the room (with individual works?  perhaps), and then something like each of us taking turns (coming to the middle of the room?) to “speak” or “present” our section of the text.  Something like that.  The idea of their being a cone on a stand in the middle of the room into which we each whisper (think of it as the opposite of a microphone/loudspeaker) was mooted.  I personally sort of loved this, in that it seemed to create a frame within which visitors to the gallery have a kind of choice — they need to make a commitment to listen, by walking up to the cone and putting their ear to it.  I feel this might well work as a nice technique/technology for “artificializing” the encounter — “artificing” it, placing it within a heuristic frame that may help manage the challenge of a more “naked” encounter.  (I think David will hate this idea, BTW, but that is OK; we can discuss on Friday!).


Coming back to the seminar-seminar, it should be said that the Shannon Jackson book dealt a lot with the swampy zone where pedagogy and performance inosculate.  The book was definitely impressive in a number of ways.  Learning the history of the relevant departments and disciplinary leaders in the field of performance studies was certainly valuable, and it was good to be reminded of how much history there actually is in this domain.  I was struck to see the process by which the study of the drama of drama was separated from the study of dramatic texts (in English departments). Perfect book?  No.  Some folks wished it had offered a little more — instead of ultimately seeming a little too close to (as the sinuous comment recorded on the blackboard at the top of this post notes) “criticism of criticism of criticism.”  The latter chapters were less satisfying.  But the upshot: definitely worth reading, and a very serious book.

Much of the rest of seminar time went to me and Chiara disagreeing about Beuys — she finds his vatic-prophetic routine a little tiresome.  And perhaps is made to feel uneasy (like a lot of other people) by a German who fought for Hitler using sort of nebulous mythopoetic language and a lot of personal charisma to try to conjure a new and collective spirit among the people.  She would not be alone, if this left a funny taste in her mouth.

Me, I am something of a sucker for the whole thing, and I tend to feel that everyone is basically a mystic — so the general question in that department is not if, but exactly how (and how honest one is about that).  So that part of him doesn’t bother me.  And I am also pretty sympathetic — even touched, frankly — by the “pedagogy as the highest art-form” rhetoric.  Between Duchamp’s mandarin silence and Beuys’ endless, hyper-didactic explaining-it-all-to-you, I’ll take the latter. Yes, there this is an instance of intensely self-absorbed universalism, but I spent most of the time I was reading Energy Plan for the Western Man thinking of another prophetic monomaniac of democratic narcissism who tried to push solipsism so far that it achieved warp-speed (a velocity at which it becomes cosmic-transcendent-omnidirectional-empathetic-mind/body meld), and did so while attempting to reconstitute a whole people in the wake of total war and civilizational collapse.

I am thinking, of course, of good old Walt Whitman.

They feel to me like kindred spirits.

(I just may have a little essay in me on this proposition…😉)

(DGB, postscript: I will admit that later, watching Beuys hold forth relentlessly [his eyes shaded by his severe fedora] in the Dead Hare thing that Lee posted below, my enthusiasm did cool a wee bit; he’s better on the page).


5 assorted comments and/or follow-ups on Graham’s class summary:

1. On the subject of putting or not putting words/ideas into another person’s mind, I mentioned a short essay by Gadamer that adds a little nuance to the binary between authoritarian force feeding and “just putting it out there.” It’s called “Authority and Critical Freedom.”

The text begins with some armchair philologizing about the semantic field of “authority.” Gadamer observes that the word “authoritarian” has become so predominant in late 20th century usage that its cognate – “authoritative” – is hardly heard at all anymore. He traces the roots of this shift to Hitler’s rise to power, when “authoritarian” first acquired its “ominous tone.”

Gadamer feels something is lost when a knee-jerk suspicion towards authority in all its guises becomes the de facto position. While acknowledging this line of thought “does not particularly recommend itself to current opinion, and for good reasons,” he goes on to point out that a certain kind of authority is “indispensable . . . to the whole practice of education.” He wants to restore the positive sense in which this can be so. 

For him, the positive sense of authority revolves around a kind of paradox: “We call someone authoritative if they do not need to invoke authority. . . The word ‘authoritative’ precisely does not refer to a power which is based on authority. It refers, rather, to a form of validity which is generally recognized, and not one which is merely asserted.” 

The essay closes with a meditation on the “deep interconnection” between what he views as the good kind of authority and “critical freedom.” By critical freedom, he means a Kantian respect for others as-end-in-themselves that is, crucially for Gadamer, bound up with the humbling of one’s self.

In the end, the ability to recognize one’s own limits turns out to the be the basis for all genuine authority. 

Apropos of this, I recently attended an event in which Mark Greif (founder of n+1 and a prof at the New School) was speaking about the art of the essay. He said he likes to use the collective pronoun “we” in his essays because it is more likely to incite a person to think for themselves. e.g. to ask “am I a part of that we? do I want to be?” By contrast, Mark suggested that the default pronoun of the personal essay – “I” – allows the reader to adopt a “you think what you think and I think what I think” attitude looks like healthy pluralism but amounts to little more than a collective shrug.

Chiara also made some comments about democracy and criticality and respect, but I can’t remember them well enough to summarize (maybe you can, Chiara?). I was vibing. 

CC: My pleasure Matthew ;). What I was saying is that the (only ?) possible way out from the despotic drift of the authority embodied in verbal human exchanges is the presumption that the other, your other then and there, has virtually the same power you are exercising to persuade him, to resist you. He can say no. He can also say “I would prefer not to”. Within democracy, in the realm of speech, the speaker has to presume that his interlocutor has the same oratorical efficacy. This presumption prevents violence and aggression and at the same time elicits charisma. Said that, some problem arises because  it does not imply nor produce equality, but on the contrary the permanent possibility of revolution (in fact, this is the reason why I like it). Of course, this presumption may not be translated in the realm of the pure body, where force makes the difference. You can say no, and still… As I said: “within democracy, in the realm of speech”. Performances push such a paradigm to its limits.

2. Speaking of vibing…and its PROFOUND DANGERS (that old sawhorse of mine), I recently saw this poster round town:


I submit that the mere fact of its existence is an undeniably powerful (dare I say authoritative) argument for the need to hold on to some old-school criticality in the face of collective projects of…er…uh…*ahem*…understanding.

This is all to say: if you can’t step outside the theater, how do you know Gwen Stefani isn’t running the show? What if she is running the show and it feels like truth?

3. I’m currently reading my way through Capital (no comments, please, I go to the New School, it’s what we do) and was pleasantly surprised to find Brecht’s predecessor invoking the metaphor of theater as a model of society:

“As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it is as the bearers of the economic relations that they come into contact with each other.”

The above, in relation to the metaphor of actor as ideal type for understanding, asks who is writing the script and where the roles are coming from. The question of the “outside” of the theater will no doubt be on the table again this week as we continue discussing Brecht. 

4. A propos of last week’s texts, it occurred to me that the stark dichotomy represented by the Jackson text (“criticism of criticism of criticism”) and the Beuy’s (vatic prophetic intoning) is precisely the dichotomy that Weber addresses in his famous essay Science as a Vocation Should we bring values into the classroom? Or simply equip students with the critical tools to make value judgments for themselves, doing our best to maintain a disembodied wissenschaftlich distance? Of course, it is ultimately a matter of value whether one thinks it is appropriate to teach values in a university. 

A brief excerpt:

“One can only demand of the teacher that he have the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts, to determine mathematical or logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture and its individual contents and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations. These are quite heterogeneous problems. If he asks further why he should not deal with both types of problems in the lecture-room, the answer is: because the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.”

5. If you’re still with me…I present you with…



This was an exhibit playing at the Jewish museum in Berlin a few years back. I found it to be a very interesting – and effective – model of a “dialogic” performance piece. We already broached this possibility with Nathaniel’s report about the children-whispering-through-cones art piece, which presents the viewer with an option to approach or not to approach. But I, for one, think it is worth discussing even more radical versions of viewer agency.

I believe the unpleasant experience of being arm-wrestled into viewer-participation can be entirely inverted when the viewer is no longer simply viewer (even a glorified viewer who can choose, say, to approach the cone or not to approach the cone) but co-performer.

Basically, what I’m proposing here: FRIED IN A BOX.



Lee Colon & Elaine Fitz Gibbon


On January 11, 1974, five days after arriving in New York, Beuys engages in a dialogue with 350 audience members at the New School. As transcribed in Energy Plan for the Western Manwhich compiles interviews, speeches, and lectures addressed to American audiences during a series of visits (p. 25-37)—Beuys has the audience issuing cries of approval and scorn toward a string of interlocutors called to the stage. Improving on the transcript, we can get the full sense of the crowd’s dynamic under the power of the performer in this video documentation of the event, available in EAI’s streaming archive:

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For those unfamiliar, links to clips of two of his best known works, and a description of one of his earliest:

“I Like America and America Likes Me,” 1974, New York, Galerie René Block

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“How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” 1965, Düsseldorf, Galerie Schmela

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“For Siberian Symphony,” 1962/1963, Düsseldorf Art Academy

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I was particularly captivated by Brecht’s text, “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theatre” and how enthusiastically Brecht embraced music and the emotional power of music when used for moralistic purposes. See, for instance, such passages as: “The tenderest and most moving love-song in the play [The Threepenny Opera] described the eternal, indestructible mutual attachment of a procurer and his girl. The lovers sang, not without nostalgia, of their little home, the brothel. In such was the music, just because it took up a purely emotional attitude and spurned none of the stock narcotic attractions, became an active collaborator in the stripping bare of the middleclass corpus of ideas” (85-86).
Here’s a recording of the song that he’s referring to:

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I’m curious about his seemingly naive happiness that the songs are sung by everyone, even in their own homes (note the affinity between Neue Sachlichkeit and Hausmusik particularly in the works of Paul Hindemith, the very same Neue Sachlichkeit that he disparages in the interview “Conversation with Bert Brecht”) — “A lot of poeple sang them to piano accompaniment or from the records, as they were used to doing with musical comedy hits”. Did he believe that this was proof of their revolutionary, “muck-raking” potential? How can we square this with Adorno’s (in)famous critique — written 19 years earlier! — of the fetishistic nature of modern musical listening and the fundamentally un-revolutionary result of this listening mode?

On another musical note: I found the composition and structure of Beuys’ “ja ja ja ne ne ne” — the transformation of tone and timing of the five ja’s and ne’s throughout the hour and four minutes of the piece, the antiphonal nature of their performance by the two voices, spaced in different places in the room, and the inclusion of the woman’s voice now and again — really fascinating. It reminded me a bit of the phasing techniques of the minimalist composers Steve Reich and Morton Feldman.
And for the German speakers out there, here’s a very useful (und knapp!) explanation of Brecht’s concept of epic theater (though apparently one’s adherance to the intentional fallacy must, in this case, be momentarily “aufgehoben”):

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PS: There’s a talk/public dialogue being given on April 6th that’s relevant to our class, and actually, to the text we’ll be reading for next week, Gregory Ulmer’s “Applied Grammatology”. Peter Goodrich, Sigrid Weigel and Niklaus Largier will be speaking and it promises to be very lively and really fascinating! Here’s the full poster.

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If you have trouble with Beuys’ prophetic attitude, as I have, you can detox reading Paul Chan’s last text   published now in October. It is about what cunning art is.

DGB (on the above):  Ah!  Really, Chiara?  Trouble with the prophetic? Hmmm. Me, I am like putty in his hands.  Beuys’ hands, that is…


DGB: The reading this week (more the Beuys than the Brecht) put me in mind of the work of Thomas Hirschorn — and particularly of his Gramsci Monument (see below) here in NYC a few years ago (Lex Brown, who ran a major chunk of the participatory project, is a former student of mine, who did an amazing final project in The Art of Deception back in 2011; she is a really interesting young artist):

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I also have a soft spot for Hirschorn’s chaotic and rubbish-strewn Flamme Éternelle at the Palais de Tokyo a few years ago.  Cannot resist a (basically gratuitous) snapshot of my daughters proudly making their contributions to the vast assemblage of well-graffittied old tires, cardboard, and packing tape:

Paris - Palais


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