Arts and Communities syllabus

Below the reading list for the two “Arts and Communities” theory classes I taught for the Master of Arts and Community Practice at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships (CCP), Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne in 2016. These are not the final version presented to students, which were supplemented by a number of texts from the various participants in the courses. Histories and Sites was also taught before Values and Methods, though pedagogically it should have probably been the other way around. The topics were developed by CCP staff in a collaborative workshop session I facilitated in 2015, though the descriptions represent more my own interests. The bibliography largely represents my own best attempt at an archive, though input also came from CCP staff Lachlan MacDowall, Marnie Badham, James Oliver, Dean Merlino, Jen Rae, Margie Mackay, Amy Spiers, and also Tania Cañas and Léuli Eshraghi who co-taught the Values and Methods class. There are a few missing readings from the PDFs but hopefully both the list and readings are useful. If you have content in the PDFs which you would like not to be online please let me know danny at Please also let me know if this turns out to be useful for you in some way – hoping to continue to build on this archive in a more collaborative fashion. xx

Arts and Communities: Values and Methods Reader – PDF (93MB)

Arts and Communities: Histories and Sites Reader – PDF (58MB) –

CCDP90009 – 2016 Arts and Communities: Values and Methods

Week 1: Liberalism and its Discontents: Structural Inequality and Democracy

The democratic state that dominates Western political thought emerges from the liberal tradition, where each person is assumed to be freely in charge of their own actions, even though the distribution of such freedom is clearly unequal. A number of oppositional traditions have asked, what forces are required to construct an individual? These questions – emerging from marxist, feminist, indigenous and other positions – destabilise our idea of the citizen and open our sense of collectivity to new genres of action.

Required Reading:

Hannah Arendt, “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest, 1966), 290-302.

Land, Clare. 2015. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. London: Zed Books. Chapter 2: “A political genealogy for contemporary non-Indigenous activism in Australia”

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 2014.  Chapter 3

Recommended Reading:

Lauren Berlant, “Claudia Rankine” (Interview). BOMB 129. 2014.

Reckitt, Helena. “Forgotten Relations: Feminist Artists and Relational Aesthetics.” In Politics in a Glass: Case Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions. Edited by Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry. Value: Art: Politics. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, July, 2013.

Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces : Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Chapter Three “Dialogical Aesthetics”

Week 2: Human Rights and Human Development

The Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, marks a transition from natural law being managed through the church to a Christian nation-state, whose form became globalised through the processes of European colonisation. The concept of “human rights” remains one of the strongest discourses to be mobilised against oppression, yet this discourse has also been critiqued for its universalism. Similarly, the concept of human development flourished during the peak era of intergovernmentalism in the United Nations (1945- ~1990) but the mechanisms of development have more recently come in for critique as they are circumvented and infiltrated by private capital. How are these discourses still relevant and what work can they do in contemporary communities? As well as thinking of “human rights”, could we also think about “human wrongs”? Can the idea of developing communities co-exist with a self-determination framework?

Required Reading

Amartya Sen. 2005. “Human Rights and Capabilities.” Journal of Human Development 6 (2): 151–66.

Escobar, Arturo. 1992. “Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements.” Social Text, no. 31/32. 20–56.

Kester, Grant. 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Art Theory and Criticism. Duke University Press. Chapter Two (excerpt) 116-153

Recommended Reading

Cohen, Jean L. 2008. “Rethinking Human Rights, Democracy, and Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization.” Political Theory, 36(4): 578-606.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2004. “Righting Wrongs.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2-3): 523–81.

Week 3: Modernity / Postmodernity

Modernism was a consensus of Western-educated people about the structure of history, identity and core cultural values. In the logic of modernism, history has passed and contemporary activity will depart from that past into a progressive future. Postmodernity  is described from the 1970s as a collapse in that consensus – modernist ideals have not go away, but they can no longer claim to be the only true path – narratives and meta-narratives of history become conflicted.

Required Reading:

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, 217–51. New York: Random House.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge

Kapur, Geeta. 1990. “Contemporary Cultural Practice: Some Polemical Categories.” Third Text 4 (11): 109–18.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 1, “The Precession of Simulation.”

Week 4: Critical Approaches to Community

The double bind of community: communities are naturally occurring groups, that evolve with no set plan. Yet communities are identified by those wishing to change those plans, by definition departing from an organic approach to community and toward an intentional one. On what grounds can intentional communities be diagnosed or constructed?

Rimi Khan: “From Consensual to Open-Ended Communities”, in Art in Community: The Provisional Citizen (Palgrave 2015) pp. 14-36

Jackson, Shannon. “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.” Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. London: Routledge, 2011. 54-86.

Joseph, Miranda. “Introduction: Persistent Critique, Relentless Return.” Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Vii-xxxvi.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press. Chapter One.

Week 5: Qualitative Research, the Ethnographic Eye, and the Politics of Knowledge

The community artist is often sponsored by a state or corporation that has sought knowledge about a community for its own ends. What does it mean to understand a community ethnographically, to visit for a time and inductively form a structure? What is the relationship between those who visit and those who always remain? How do knowledge-making practices travel across such differences?

Required Reading

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities. Ed. Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2013. 223-248.

Rangan, Pooja. 2011. “Immaterial Child Labor: Media Advocacy, Autoethnography, and the Case of Born into Brothels.” Camera Obscura 25 (3 75): 143–77.

Janke, Terri. 2015. “Chapter 7: Avatar Dreaming: Indigenous Cultural Protocols and Making Films Using Indigenous Content.” In Indigenous Intellectual Property: A Handbook of Contemporary Research, edited by Matthew Rimmer, 177–99. Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property Series. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Recommended Reading

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (1991): 5-3

Week 6: Mythology, Story and Narrative

For the Native American writer Thomas King, “the truth about stories is that is all we are”. Some stories may be legitimated (governmental stories, scientific stories) and some not, but story is the process by which we give meaning to phenomena. Story and myth are often ritualised, told and received as much because of the conditions of their telling (such and such a person was here; at this time of the day we tell stories; we need a story to sell this product; I need to find a way to convey this information) as any actual content. How do we engage different genres of narrative and story, across different institutions?

Required Reading:

King, Thomas. 2003. The truth about stories: A Native narrative. Toronto, ON: Anansi Press.  Chapter 1. [CBC lectures: ].

Cybermohalla Ensemble. “On Writing.” Cybermohalla Hub. Ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Shveta Sarda. Delhi/ Berlin: Sarai-CSDS/Sternberg Press, 2012. 14-20

Recommended Reading:

Richardson, Laurel, and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. Ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks; London; New Delhi: Sage, 2007. 959-978.

Week 7: Art and Health – Readings and materials TBC

Week 8: Nation, Culture and Citizenship

For much of the 20th century, official discourses of culture related to the nation state, and thus to citizenship. However, in greater number since the 1980s, the state is seen as being able to embrace many cultures. What does this mean for citizenship as a mechanism of belonging? What is the relationship between multiculturalism and indigenous culture in settler societies? How does this state conjuncture relate to “private” “cultural” practices such as food, religion, etc?

Required Reading:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Culture Alive.” Theory, Culture & Society 23. 2-3 (May, 2006): 359-360.

Rickard, Jolene. 2011. “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 110 (2): 465–86.

Langton, Marcia. 1993. “ Well, I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television”: An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things. Australian Film Commission Sydney.

Recommended Reading:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture 2: 1–24.

Week 9: Ethics

The movement of artistic practices into the academy, and the emergence of claims to self-determination has brought with it an increased focus on ethics in community-engaged practices. Far from artistic interventions being seen as only positive, the ethical paradigm requires artists to consider more dialogical engagements with communities, and to critically assess their own power. Are these dynamics predictable in advance? Do they impose constraints on the value of artistic actions, which usually present their own autonomy? .

Required Reading:

Bolt, Barbara. “Beneficence and contemporary art: when aesthetic judgment meets ethical judgment.” Visual Methodologies,  v. 3, n. 2, p. 53-66, dec. 2015. ISSN 2040-5456. Available at: <>.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. “Ethical Research Protocols” in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press. 118-122.

Thornley, Jeni. “Island Home Country: Working with Aboriginal Protocols in a Documentary Film About Colonisation and Growing Up White in Tasmania.” in Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Ed. Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys, and John Docker. Acton, A.C.T.: ANU E Press, 2010. 247-280.

Recommended Reading:

Danny Butt and Local Time, 2016. “Colonial hospitality: rethinking curatorial and artistic responsibility”, Journal for Artistic Research 10 (2016)

Treloyn, S. & Charles, R. G. (2014). How do you feel about squeezing oranges?: Reflections and lessons on collaboration in ethnomusicological research in an Aboriginal Australian community. In K. Barney, (Ed.), Collaborative ethnomusicology: New approaches to music research between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. Melbourne, VIC: Lyrebird Press. 169-186.


Week 10: Affect, Aesthetics, Creativity

The term “aesthetic” is commonly used to discuss the “artistic” aspects of form, as opposed to the content. However, for Kant and other philosophers who have influenced our use of the term, the aesthetic is a much deeper force that describes a space where the human senses the free play of concepts in a form not dictated by the tight confines of reason, enabling the possibility of new modes of thinking and social ordering to emerge. In the late 20th century, influenced by psychological researchers such as Tomkins and philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the concept of “affect” gains traction as a mode of analysis that operates outside the residual logics of philosophical aesthetics and their propositional subject.

Required Reading:

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presse Du Reel, France. Chapter Three & 4: “Art of the 1990s” and “Space time exchange factors.” 24-48.

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “Introduction: Feel Your Way”, from The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge. 1-19.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Adam Frank. 1995. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry 21 (2). 496–522.

Recommended Reading:

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “1990: L.A., “The Gold Field”,” in Roni Horn. Earths Grow Thick (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts Publication, 1996), 68.

Najafi, Sina, David Serlin, and Lauren Berlant. 2014. “The Broken Circuit: An Interview with Lauren Berlant.” Cabinet 31.

Ball, Karyn. 2008. “Primal Revenge and Other Anthropomorphic Projections for Literary History.” New Literary History 39 (3). 533–63.

Week 11: Capital, Economy and the Market – social economies

According to the curator Charles Esche, all cultural funding in the former west can be linked to the Cold War and the desire for governments to demonstrate the cultural superiority of individualist freedom over socialist collectivity, and since 1989 this mandate for cultural support has declined. In the context of neoliberalism, the ability of nations to maintain their cultural and economic sovereignty has become ruptured, as global finance capital permeates territorial borders, while reinforcing different kinds of divides between firms, individuals and nation states. How are arts practitioners responding to these new flows of capital? What role to divestment and boycott campaigns have in contemporary cultural politics? How does the artist survive in a financialised community while avoiding exploitation and being exploited?

Required Reading:

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241-258.

Hopkins, Candice. “The Golden Potlatch
: Study in Mimesis and Capitalist Desire.” Fillip 13

Purves, Ted., and S. A. Selzer. 2014. What We Want Is Free, Second Edition: Critical Exchanges in Recent Art. State University of New York Press. (Chs 1 & 2)

Recommended Reading:

Colapinto, John. “The Real-Estate Artist.” [Theaster Gates] The New Yorker  January 29, 2015. <>

Week 12: Governance, Bureaucracy, Evaluation

Required Reading:

Gressel, Katherine. “Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation.” Createquity. January 7, 2012. Web. <>.

Belfiore, Eleonora, and Oliver Bennett. “Beyond the “Toolkit Approach”: Arts Impact Evaluation Research and the Realities of Cultural Policy‐Making.” Journal for Cultural Research 14.2 (March 24, 2010): 121-142.

Hope, Sophie. “Cultural measurement on whose terms? Critical friends as an experiment in participant-led evaluation.” In Making Culture Count, pp. 282-297. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015.

Norris, Niles. “The Politics of Evaluation and the Methodological Imagination.” American Journal of Evaluation 26.4 (December 1, 2005): 584-586.


CCDP90007 – 2016 Arts and Communities: Histories and Sites

Week 1: Arrival and welcome

Recommended Reading:

Birch, Tony “Nothing has changed: The Making and Unmaking of Koori Culture”,  in Grossman, Michèle. Blacklines : Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003), 97-103.

Edmonds, Fran, Lee Darroch, Maree Clarke, and Vicki Couzens. “Ancestral Memory Out of the Shadows.” Artlink 32.2 (2012): 56-61.

Anonymous. “The Art of the Question: Thinking Like a Public Artist.” The Practice of Public Art, eds. Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 219-230.

Week 2: Community art and social practice: navigating sites of power and representation

In recent years, the liveliness of debate over socially-engaged art has less to do with the aesthetics and ethics of practice itself and more to do with the terms of criticism and policy to define it. Employing a range of social strategies to amplify broader political concerns, the field is distinguished by its artistic sensibility while encompassing a range of creative collaborations between artists and communities of both place and interest. Histories stem from a number of competing artistic and institutional motivations rooted in the geopolitical. For instance, American narratives stem from identity politics of the Harlem Renaissance, Second Wave Feminism, postwar New Deal with a focus on regionalism and the artistic practices of the Situationists, Fluxus and social sculpture.  Australian histories, meanwhile, are usually associated with the community arts movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s of workers theatre and children’s festivals, indigenous self determination, disability arts, the multicultural agenda alongside cultural development in local neighbourhoods.

Required Reading:

Danielle Wyatt, Marnie Badham, and Lachlan MacDowall (2015) “Vexing History: The Problem of Telling the Story of Community Arts in Australia” draft discussion paper

Gay Hawkins, From Nimbin to Mardi Gras: Constructing Community Arts (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1993). Chapters 1 & 2, Chapter 6.

Lind, Maria. “Complications; On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art.” Public: New Communities 39 (2009): 53-73.

Recommended Reading:

Lacy, Suzanne. “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art.” Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy. (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995), 171-185.

Jackson, Shannon. “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.” Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. (London: Routledge. 2011), 54-86.

Week 3 – Histories of Help: Charity, settlement and missionary aesthetics

The 19th century settlement movement was an important precursor to the idea of community development in the British Empire. Shifting the model of charity from a distance, organisations like Toynbee Hall in the UK and Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago advocated for middle-class reformers to actually participate in the lives of migrants and the poor. Influenced by the ideas of culture as a civilising force espoused by Matthew Arnold, these activists played important roles in welfare reform and working class participation in democratic culture in the late 19th century, while sometimes maintaining paternalistic attitudes, dynamics of power that still circulate in art and community today.

Required Reading:

Jane Addams. “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892)

Diana Maltz, “Missionary Aestheticism as Emancipatory Aesthetics?” in British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870–1900.  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006),  206-217

Tania Cañas, “10 Things You Need To Consider If You Are An Artist – Not Of The Refugee And Asylum Seeker Community – Looking To Work With Our Community.”

Recommended Reading:

Grant Kester, “Aesthetic Evangelists: Conversion and Empowerment in Contemporary Art,” Afterimage 22:6 (January 1995), 5–11

Heather E. McLean,  “Cracks in the Creative City: The Contradictions of Community Arts Practice.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.6 (October 16, 2014): 2156-2173.

Week 4: Community as event: performance, action, happening

The technological developments of the industrial revolution reconfigured European communities through the abstraction of labour-power, loosening traditional values and establishing new systems of domination and affiliation, including the circulation of cultural goods. Some artists came to question the social values associated with art, seeing potential liberation to emerge from aesthetic experiences that focussed on the social effect of art rather than the object. Meanwhile, theatre developed a concern with the formal mechanics of the stage and the alienating effects of representation, to be either broken (Artaud) or ironically heightened (Brecht). These critical gestures open the dialectic of transgression characteristic of contemporary art, where non-art gestures in a community come to be understood within artistic frameworks, and art’s rituals bring affective significance to a secular society.

Required Reading:

Boal, Augusto. “A Theoretical Foundation.” The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. Trans. Adrian Jackson. (London; New York: Routledge, 2006). 11-43.

Recommended Reading:

Sell, Mike (1998) “The Avant-Garde of Absorption: Happenings, Fluxus, and the Performance Economies of the American Sixties”, Rethinking Marxism, 10.2 (1998): 1-26

Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso 2012. Chapter Two: “The Historic Avant Garde”

Week 5: The Art of Politics

Unions played a key role in the development of infrastructure for health, education and culture outside of the upper classes. In the 20th century, through strike and petition, social reformers called upon the social democratic nation-state to adopt responsibility for this infrastructure, including the management of culture and cultural development. During the neoliberal era, corporatisation has produced new, internationalised flows of power and resistance, with renewed attention to the political force of the artistic activity.

Required Reading:

Ellen Feiss, “What is Useful? The paradox of rights in Tania Bruguera’s ‘Useful Art’”

Kelly, Owen. (1984). Community, Art, and the State: storming the citadels. London; New York, Comedia Publishing Group in association with Marion Boyars. Excerpts TBC.

Recommended Reading:

Gregory Sholette, excerpt from Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, London: Pluto Press, 2011.

Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces.” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1 .2 (2007)

Patricia C. Phillips,  “Creating Democracy: A Dialogue with Krzysztof Wodiczko.” Art Journal 62.4 (Winter 2003): 32-47.

Wallis, Brian, ed. Democracy: A Project by Group Material. Bay Press/Dia Art Foundation, 1990.

Week 6: Globality and Locality

The double bind of non-indigenous community is that the term “community” is by definition is imposed from elsewhere, bringing with it assumptions about the need for local change. Therefore, changes in the local cultural environment imply changes in the world, and vice-versa. In the West, the era of cultural nationalism has viewed internationalism through the labour movement and intergovernmental agencies such as UNESCO. Moving into the neoliberal era, new configurations of global movements are becoming palpable, enabled by new globe-girding technologies and discourses of decolonisation.

Required Reading:

Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Contemp(t)orary: Eleven Theses”, e-flux journal #12.

Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997). excerpts.

Recommended Reading:

Butt, Danny. “Local Knowledge: Place and New Media Practice.” Leonardo, 39.4 (August 2006): 323-326.

Week 7: Racism, rights, and community (19th April)

Through the 20th century the Western concept of culture came to be seen as no longer a tool of benevolence, but a powerful disciplining force that relied on the exclusion of non-white practitioners. Influenced by broader dialogues of decolonisation and resistance, the Black Arts and Multicultural arts movements posited cultural autonomy as something belonging to communities against the colonial state rather than being developed by the state.

Required Reading:

Paul Gilroy “Art of darkness: Black art and the problem of belonging to England”, Third Text, 4.10 (1990): 45-52.

Audre Lorde – “Poetry is not a luxury” (1977) In Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Shaw, Susan M. and Janet Lee eds. 371-373.

Interview with Robin DiAngelo, “Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race” <>

Recommended Reading:

Walter Mignolo et. al, Decolonial Aesthetics <>

Week 8: Biopower: Art and institutional bodies

Michel Foucault saw an emergent politics in institutionalised technologies of human management: prison and clinic. These sites have also been sites of intervention by artists. How are bodies regulated, how does art ameliorate, support or challenge such regulation?

Required Reading:

Cheliotis, Leonidas “Decorative justice: deconstructing the relationship between the arts and imprisonment.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 3.1: (2014): 16-34.

Week 9: Engendering community: feminist histories

Feminist movements attempted to displace the patriarchal ordering of society as public-political-male vs the private-ethical-female; and many saw in art a powerful vehicle to transform the personal into the political. This also made these movements a vibrant ground for debates on the limits of subjective affinity and white dominance. The uneasy conjuncture between intimate practices and political goals structures community-based movements toward inclusive gender and sexuality today.

Required Reading:

Martha Rosler, “Feminist Art in California,” Artforum, September 1977.

Vivien Green Fryd, “Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May: Feminist Activist Performance Art as ‘Expanded Public Pedagogy’” NWSA Journal 19.1, Spring (2007) 23-38

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969 – Proposal for an exhibition “CARE”

Recommended Reading:

Sykes, Roberta. “Bobbi Sykes,” in Women who do and women who don’t join the women’s movement, ed. Robyn Rowland, (Melbourne: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 63-9. (Also, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, same volume)

Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, “Queer Nationality”  boundary 2, 19.1, (Spring, 1992), pp. 149-180

Week 10: The right to the city

Urbanisation is one of the dominant forces in society. In the west, artistic practices are almost always seen as emerging in an urban metropolis, given the task of humanising the abstract forces of capital-intensive infrastructure, and through gentrification contributing to its reformatting of human life. How has the city changed, what kinds of community have changed with it, and what is the role of the artist in reimagining the city?

Required Reading:

Tom Finklepearl. “Introduction: The City as Site.” Dialogues in Public Art. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

Josephine Berry, “Everyone is Not an Artist: Autonomous Art meets the Neoliberal City”

Recommended Reading:

Ivan Chtcheglov “Formulary for a New Urbanism” (1953)

Week 11: Environment and ecology

On the flipside of the conflation of the creative and the urban, a Romantic tradition has seen in nature the essence of beauty that could inform the production of art. Community arts has often worked to evade this dynamic, by seeking artistic outcomes in regional and rural environments that do not necessarily point back to the urban centre, or that engage environments for their intrinsic processes rather than simply as picturesque locations to be documented for an urban viewer. How have community-engaged arts tracked the discourses of the environmental movements?

Week 12: The Community and The Gallery: Critical Social Practices

In the 19th century it was assumed that art galleries could improve communities’ taste, and there were advocacy movements to make them open on Sundays when working class people could visit. Policies in the 1980s focused on a democratisation of the arts and to provide access to those experienced social or financial barriers to participating in the cultural life of their community; however, many of these policies overlooked how institutions maintain these cultural hierarchies. Today, the gallery is understood as both an economic sector and site of politics, and artistic attempts to bring other communities into the gallery are more likely to be understood as a critique.

Required Reading:

There is No Now Now reader. 2014. [Letters from Biennale of Sydney 19 Artists Working Group] January 29, 2014. <>. Chapter One.

Fraser, Andrea. “A Museum Is Not a Business. It Is Run in a Businesslike Fashion”.” Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations, ed. Nina Möntmann. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006), 86-98

Recommended Reading:

Marina Vishmidt – “Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated”: Social Practice as Business Model – e-flux 43 (2013)

Stimson, B. “What Was Institutional Critique?” In Institutional Critique: An anthology of artists’ writings. A. Alberro & B. Stimson. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 20-42

Platforms and Public Participation

Platforms and public participation
Danny Butt, Scott McQuire and Nikos Papastergiadis
The concept of the ‘platform’ has recently received extensive analysis in media studies and urban planning. This paper explores the platform’s contemporary emergence as an expression of a new archival logic that questions the possibility of a democratic politics of participation. ‘Public participation’ in the platform invokes the individual in the form of a consumer with a profile rather than as a citizen of a state. This paper returns to Claudio Ciborra’s 1996 work on the ‘platform organization’ to diagnose a ‘re-architecting’
capability which we argue is integral to platform politics. Since this capacity for re-architecting is generally reserved from participants, we highlight the potential of ‘de-participation’ toward the emergence of counter-platforms.

Colonial Hospitality: Rethinking Curatorial and Artistic Responsibility

This piece co-authored with Local Time: “Colonial Hospitality: Rethinking Curatorial and Artistic Responsibility”, published in the Journal for Artistic Research 10 2016. Read on the JAR Website here.

Abstract: The recent enthusiasm for gestures of hospitality in contemporary art promises relief from the individualising forces of neoliberal capitalism and the professionalised hierarchies of the art world. Yet, Jacques Derrida describes the gesture of hospitality as paradoxically asserting a kind of sovereignty that underwrites the ‘right to host’, returning hospitality to the conditionality of the authorising institution. In settler-colonial territories, these institutionally underwritten gestures always sit uneasily atop indigenous sovereignties that have not been ceded, requiring the positive gestures of hospitality to remain open to their structuring fissures. This paper considers figurations of hospitality and responsibility in works by Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Raqs Media Collective in reading the art collective Local Time’s research-driven practice that seeks to reconcile indigenous self-determination and settler gestures of hospitality.

New International Information Order (NIIO) Revisited: Global Algorithmic Governance and Neocolonialism

Published in Fibreculture Journal Issue 27 –  Read on the Fibreculture website here.

Abstract: The field of Internet governance has been dominated by Euro-American actors and has largely resisted consideration of a holistic and integrative rights-based agenda, confining itself to narrow discussions on the technical stability of Internet Protocol resources and debates about nation-state involvement in multistakeholder governance of those resources. In light of the work of Edward Snowden documenting the close relationship between government security agencies and dominant social media platforms, this paper revisits the relevance of the New International Information Order (NIIO), a conceptualisation of the global politics of information described at the 1973 Fourth Summit Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations in Algiers. This paper argues that critical analysis of the oligopolistic structure of “platforms” and their algorithmic forms of governance can build a more inclusive movement toward social justice by extending the NIIO framework’s emphasis on decolonisation, collective ownership of strategic information resources, and documentation of powerful transnational entities.

Research Methods in Community Cultural Development – Draft Reading List

Draft Reading list for course Research Methods in Community Cultural Development – Masters of Community Cultural Development, Victoria College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Semester One 2015.

28th Feb 2015.

75 MB PDF of readings (one or two still to be found) here:

Week 1 – What is Research?

Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006. Chapters 1, 3, 4.

Taylor, Dena, and Margaret Procter. “The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It.” Writing Support, University of Toronto. Retrieved 19 (2008). <>.

Knott, Deborah. Writing an Annotated Bibliography (2004). Writing Support, University of Toronto. <>.

MacDowall, Lachlan. “Art and Knowledge Systems: Teaching Research Methods.” TEXT 14 (October, 2012). <>.

Sartwell, Crispin. “Appendix: Riffing on Political Aesthetics: Suggestions for Case Studies and Research .” Political Aesthetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. 245-249.


Harding, Sandra. “Introduction: Is There a Feminist Method?” Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues. Ed. Sandra G. Harding. N.p.: Indiana University Press ; Open University Press, 1987. 8-14.

Colectivo Situaciones. “On the Researcher-Militant.” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (EIPCP). September, 2003.  <>

Bergold, Jarg & Thomas, StefanParticipatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion [Not in reader]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 13 (1). 2012. Art. 30,


Week 2 – Artistic Research: Knowledge in Practice

Nelson, Robert. The Jealousy of Ideas: Research Methods in the Creative Arts. London: Ellikon 2009. (Chapter Three: Critical investigative parameters)

Raqs Media Collective. “How to Be An Artist by Night.” Art School: (propositions for the 21st Century). Ed. Steven Henry Madoff. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009. 71-80.


Rogoff, Irit. “Practicing Research / Singularising Knowledge.” Agonistic Academies. Ed. Jan Cools and Henk Slager. Brussels: Sint-Lukas Books, 2011. 69-74.

Anonymous. “The Art of the Question: Thinking Like a Public Artist .” The Practice of Public Art. Ed. Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis. New York: Routledge, 2008. 219-230

Butt, Danny. “Whose knowledge? Practice-led research after colonial science.” On Making: Integrating Approaches to Practice-Led Research in Art and Design. Ed. Leora Farber. Johannesburg: Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design, Faculty of Art Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg, 2010. 13-21


Week 3 – Community

Chapple, Karen, and Shannon Jackson. “Commentary: Arts, Neighborhoods, and Social Practices: Towards An Integrated Epistemology of Community Arts.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 29.4 (April 2, 2010): 478-490.

McLean, Heather E. “Cracks in the Creative City: The Contradictions of Community Arts Practice.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.6 (October 16, 2014): 2156-2173.


Joseph, Miranda. “Introduction: Persistent Critique, Relentless Return.” Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. vii-xxxvi.

Edmonds, Fran; Lee Darroch, Maree Clarke, and Vicki Couzens. “Ancestral Memory Out of the Shadows.” Artlink 32.2 (2012): 56-61.

Nakata, Martin N. “Concluding Remarks.” Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008. 218-225

Khan, Rimi. “Case Study: Creating a Profile – Reworking ‘Community’ at Footscray Community Arts Centre.” Local-Global: Identity, Security, Community 7 (2010): 134-148.


Week 4 – Debating the Social / Cultural

Lind, Maria. “Complications; On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art.” Public: New Communities 39 (2009): 53-73.

Lacy, Suzanne. “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art.” Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995. 171-185.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Culture Alive.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (May, 2006): 359-360.


Jackson, Shannon. “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.” Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. London: Routledge, 2011. 54-86.


Week 5 – Ethics

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. “Ethical Research Protocols” in Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press. 118-122

Thornley, Jeni. “Island Home Country: Working with Aboriginal Protocols in a Documentary Film About Colonisation and Growing Up White in Tasmania.” Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Ed. Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys, and John Docker. Acton, A.C.T.: ANU E Press, 2010. 247-280.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities. Ed. Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2013. 223-248.


Bolt, Barbara. (under review) “Beneficience and contemporary art: when aesthetic Judgement meets ethical judgement” to be published in Exploring ethics and visual methodologies: Special issue of Visual Methodologies. Sept 2015. [reading to be distributed]

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.”Cultural Critique 20 (1991): 5-3

Edmonds, Frances. “Art Is Us: Aboriginal Art, Identity and Wellbeing in Southeast Australia.” PhD thesis. 2007. <>. Chapter 2: ‘Ways of Knowing’ [not in reader but available online]


Week 6 – Qualitative Research

Lincoln, Yvonna S. “On The Nature Of Qualitative Evidence.” Paper for the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Sacramento, California, November 21-24, 2002 “10 Theses on the Archive.” Web. <>.


Mattern, Shannon. “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure,” Places Journal, November 2013. <>

Lather, Patti. “Issues of Validity in Openly Ideological Research: Between a Rock and a Soft Place.” Interchange 17.4 (December, 1986): 63-84

Beach, Dennis. “From Fieldwork to Theory and Representation in Ethnography.” Methodological Issues and Practices in Ethnography.  2005. 1-17. Studies in Educational Ethnography Vol. 11.

Marshall, Catherine. & Rossman, Gretchen.  “The What of the study.” In  Designing qualitative research (4th ed. Chapter 2, pp. 55-88). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Week 7 – Critical Research

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. “Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communications Research.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941): 2-16

Butler, Judith. “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity.” Critical Inquiry 35.4 (2009): 773-795


Foucault, Michel. “What Is Critique?” The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2007 [1978]. 41-83.

Vishmidt, Marina. “The Cultural Logic of Criticality.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 7.3 (December, 2008): 253-269.


Week 8 – Writing and Performance

Richardson, Laurel, and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. Ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks; London; New Delhi: Sage, 2007. 959-978.

Cybermohalla Ensemble. “On Writing.” Cybermohalla Hub. Ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Shveta Sarda. Delhi/ Berlin: Sarai-CSDS/Sternberg Press, 2012. 14-20

Boal, Augusto. “A Theoretical Foundation.” The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London; New York: Routledge, 2006. 11-43


King, Thomas. .2003. The truth about stories: A Native narrative. Toronto, ON: Anansi Press.  Chapter 1. [CBC lectures: ].

Conquergood, Lorne Dwight. 2002. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” TDR: The Drama Review 46, no. 2: 145-56.

Sarda, Shveta. “‘Before Coming Here, Had You Thought of a Place Like This?’–Notes on Ambivalent Pedagogy From the Cybermohalla Experience.” Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization. Ed. Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter. University of Toronto Press Toronto, 2007.


Week 9 – Evaluation

Gressel, Katherine. “Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation.” Createquity. January 7, 2012. Web. <>.

Belfiore, Eleonora, and Oliver Bennett. “Beyond the “Toolkit Approach”: Arts Impact Evaluation Research and the Realities of Cultural Policy‐Making.” Journal for Cultural Research 14.2 (March 24, 2010): 121-142.


Norris, Niles. “The Politics of Evaluation and the Methodological Imagination.” American Journal of Evaluation 26.4 (December 1, 2005): 584-586.


Week 10 – Funding & the economy

There is No Now Now reader. 2014. [Letters from Biennale of Sydney 19 Artists Working Group] January 29, 2014. <>. Chapter One.

Colapinto, John. “The Real-Estate Artist.” [Theaster Gates] The New Yorker  January 29, 2015. <>


Mitropoulos, Angela. “xBorder Operational Matters: a Working Paper” <>

Slater, Josephine Berry, and Anthony Iles. No Room to Move: Radical Art and the Regenerate City | Mute (November 24, 2009). <>.

Fraser, Andrea. “A Museum Is Not a Business. It Is Run in a Businesslike Fashion”.” Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations. Ed. Nina Möntmann. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006. 86-98.

Double-bound: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization.

Review essay to appear in RUPC Working Papers series, 2015.

Danny Butt, Research Fellow, Research Unit in Public Cultures, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. 1st June 2014. Revised 9th July 2014.

[PDF version available on the RUPC website here]


Published in 2011, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization compiles and reconsiders two decades of her arguments about the political constitution of the aesthetic subject. This review essay traces arguments running through the book that reconcile the deconstructive politics of the subject with the resurgent interest in universalist theories that position themselves in relation to global technocapitalism. These arguments provide us with methodological tools for interrogating the “globalisability” of our academic work: the co-option of social movements and the need for epistemological care; Romantic techniques of self-othering toward new collectivities; Marx’s legacy of value as form; the powerful role of affect and habit in training the intellect; an expanded theory of reading; the limits of “culture” as a diagnostic; reproductive heteronormativity as a grounding principle; attention to intergenerational gendered structures of responsibility; and finally, a fully secularised understanding of radical alterity.



The university has always claimed to hold universal knowledge, but in the wake of postcolonial critique it is clearer to those who belong to university cultures that this knowledge been spatialised from Northwestern Europe onto the rest of the world. The rapid growth of the university in both scale and spread in the last half-century, its financialisation and reconfiguration as an education industry, and the networked information technologies that transport its knowledge have combined to provide new conditions for education’s “globalisability”, its potential synchronisation and distribution over the globe. How could we understand the situation of the “student” as a subject and object of this global circuit, in light of decreased public funding, massively increased participation, and chronic unemployment and underemployment among graduates? How is this linked to the aestheticisation of the economy, the growth of the art market and the art education market, and the valorisation of “creativity” by speculative capital? These questions formed part of a site-specific enquiry the artistic collective Local Time explored at St Paul Street, a university gallery in Auckland, New Zealand, through a 24-day reading group on Spivak’s imposing and exciting An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2011), which reconsiders two decades of Spivak’s arguments about the political constitution of the aesthetic subject.

Even after receiving the 2012 Kyoto prize for her decades of commitment to activism and teaching, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s name is still inevitably associated with her critique of Western theory’s effacement of its gendered others in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988). The most visible cultural intermediaries today view these politics of subjective difference as historically noteworthy but ultimately stultifying and immobilising. The debates have been branded “identity politics” and archived into the 1980s, while “feminism” has been reconfigured as “gender”, the calculus of a new “global” politics of inclusion and democratisation, aligned with a missionary-style civil-society discourse that Spivak has termed “moral entrepreneurship.” Since then, Spivak has continued to interrogate the critical methods of the humanities to renovate their role in the emergent dynamic of the “contemporary”.

Spivak’s essays collected in the book diagnose two important challenges to those of us trying to think the broad conditions of aesthetic “globalisability”. Firstly, there is a class-division in who appropriates globality and who is subject to globalisation. In the visual arts, to take an example from my own field, biennialism has emerged as a globalised international circuit of cultural display, incorporating the former non-West as a site to stage its canon, reterritorialising local production with more or less criticality (but rarely engaging curatorial or theoretical agendas from the periphery), while largely disclaiming any responsibility to the broader political economy of these massive circuits of exchange. These colliding scales of politics are visible in various protests against the sponsorship of large scale international exhibitions, such as refugee detention centre operator Transfield Services’ sponsorship of the Biennale of Sydney in 2014. Secondly, global dynamics are not only experienced differently by women, but to consider that difference changes our perspective on the whole terrain of the global. In Spivak’s work, gender is important not simply as a political concern of inclusion, but as “our first instrument of abstraction” (Spivak 2011, p.30 – all future references are to this volume unless otherwise specified), our original way of understanding differentiation in the human, and she demonstrates how feminist analysis provides a continuing ground for the re-evaluation of our critical practices.

Spivak’s overarching themes in this volume revisit her 1999 Critique of Postcolonial Reason, which as the title suggests diagnosed in Immanuel Kant the philosophical rationale for the Enlightenment ideals of universal reason as the highest goal of education, and the accompanying moral valorisation of the aesthetic as a kind of “tuning” or programming of the human. In this analysis Kant is not a guarantor of any kind of truth in the university or in art, but hovers as an unavoidable “discursive precursor” for these questions, for our understanding of critique is “too thoroughly determined by [him] to be able to reject [him]” and thus the need to seek “a constructive rather than disabling complicity between our position and [his]” (Spivak 1999, p. 5-6). Contrary to the default political economy of contemporary Western globalisation as technological destiny, Spivak traced the uneven development of what Echeverría called the telepolis through the colonial imagination, and showed that Kant’s aesthetic theory was our best guide to the persistence of uneven “globalisability”, even more than his political writings. Kant carefully described a generic public version of the innocent Enlightenment subject who could make sense of the entire globe in their imagination: a default, immunised male citizen whose aesthetic sensibility would come to be seen as objective. We can think of this as a secularised Christian culture of modernist rational subjectivity. The supposed objectivity of this culture has not only been subjected to rigorous critique for its exclusions, but the very “force” of its objectivity seems to lack the aesthetic power to reshape the imagination as its classical university form attempted to. The challenge of reinvigorating or renovating this power in today’s corporate university system — without simply retrieving cultural institutions’ historical role as the producer of great men in the Western tradition — is an intractable question whose dimensions Spivak’s critique illuminates.

The “aesthetic” in Kant’s account is not a simple thing, but “a sort of ambivalent refuge” between the creative flourishing of nature and the stern logic of philosophical reason that constitutes humanity (p.24). Spivak adopts Bateson’s description of the “double-bind” as a generalisable description of the type of tension between the vital and the institutional (or body and mind) that Kant tries to make sense of. Spivak’s title makes explicit reference to the work of one of Kant’s contemporaries, Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, which attempted to “revalorise” the aesthetic, proposing the drive for play as not so much a solution to Kant’s difficulties but as a force of power that should “naturally” overcome them. And who would not side with the positivity of creativity as a human capacity, after all, over the interminable and somewhat turgid prose of the philosopher? However, if we turn our attention to the use-value of creativity today, the operation of terms such as “creative city” or the “creative industries” demonstrates that even if one promotes “creativity for all”, not everyone’s creativity is equally valorised. Creativity and innovation become rationales for large-scale downsizing of firms, privatisation of public assets and the evacuation of the poor from gentrifying neighbourhoods.

Schiller had the right idea — an aesthetic education to educate the intuition of the public sphere — but he thought that to do this he must forget Kant’s injunction that the imagination cannot be accessed directly. In this suppressing the conceptual in favour of the pragmatic, Schiller falls prey to another kind of idealism. The Kantian figuring of the aesthetic as a double-bind between a creative natural force and a structuring social order could productively be read as a crisis in that logic. It allows the critical to jam the cogs of productivity that we internalise through neoliberal subjectivity, which lead to the habit of seeing other people as mere resources for our own creative expression. In an “ironic affirmation” of Schiller’s impulse [“Schiller was indeed wrong […] but who is exactly right?” (p.28)], Spivak’s goal here is to both theorise and demonstrate the possibility that an aesthetic education as the “training of the imagination for epistemological performance” allows us to think the double bind of the political and the ethical.

Without attempting the impossible task of addressing all that the book has to offer, I want to track a few issues running through it that reconcile the deconstructive politics of the subject with the resurgent interest in universalist theories that position themselves in relation to global techno-capital. I inhabit the exegetical mode in this paper altogether more than I would like, but few authors compress more into a sentence than Spivak. The intention, however, is less to explain than to sift out methodological tools for interrogating the “globalisability” of our own work: the co-option of social movements and the need for epistemological care; Romantic techniques of self-othering toward new collectivities; Marx’s legacy of value as form; the powerful role of affect and habit in training the intellect; an expanded theory of reading; the limits of “culture” as a diagnostic; reproductive heteronormativity as a grounding social principle; attention to intergenerational gendered structures of responsibility; and finally, a fully secularised understanding of radical alterity. I also hope, most of all, to encourage the new reader to take their own journey through the twenty five chapters themselves.

Spivak opens by stating that “Globalisation takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control” (p.1). Not only are we not ourselves global, the study of global movements cannot meet its object on the same scale, as we are always located in a perspective. In the broad terrain of the humanities, arts and social sciences, we must be able to think the double-bind that programs our access to the global in its specificity. No universality for the university, then, but this does not mean that the university is useless. Our ability to influence global forces relies upon our skill in reading the specificity of our situation and through writing and teaching in the academy and outside we present that possibility for others to share. But one does not play the political game by writing about it, claims Spivak, and she stages this distinction relentlessly, reminding us that the classroom is the truest test for theory’s “application”: theory is applied in the remaking of a self. Her well-known formula for the practice of humanities teaching is “the uncoercive rearrangement of desire”, and her commitment to this principle is evident in her invitation for us to follow her through her material, without seeking the shortest distance between two politically correct points. Spivak argues that it is by learning to learn how to read the specific idiom of another’s practice that one learns the possibility of un-coerced change, and therefore Spivak will not let us position her as the source of a critical method, but presents herself as an example. We should learn our methods from the world with no guarantees, learning to learn from the “singular and unverifiable” (p. 2). Spivak revisits Romanticism as the European tradition that opens this possibility.


Romanticism revisited

Spivak’s opening concern is the relation between education and habit. Bateson describes habit as the interconnection of feedback loops for solving classes of problems in the “hard programming” of the unconscious (p.5). Under capitalism, our desire to accrue profitable information habituates us into immunity to the desires of others, an ethical deficit that leads to the destruction of social infrastructure. To escape or transform these habits in either the other or the self is no easy task, as shifting the habit of thinking still does not reach the imagination’s will to shift habit directly. The aesthetic is a powerful tool here, as it “short-circuits the task of shaking up this habit of not examining [the premises of habit], perhaps” (p.6). Spivak looks to the literary canon to show that we too can still learn by the terms of the “noble failed experiment” of Romanticism, which was attempting to respond to a political-economic conjuncture somewhat like our own (p.112). She understands the texts of Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge as wanting a society where “the imagination, which is our inbuilt capacity to other ourselves, can lead perhaps to understanding other people from the inside, so that the project [of the Industrial Revolution] would not be a complete devastation of the polity and of society through a mania for self-enrichment” (p.111).” Interestingly, Spivak believes that this type of aesthetic pedagogy toward an ethical relationship to others is still being thought through the visual arts, whereas poetry itself has become a “sort of narcissism”:

I am constantly asked to help curators launch shows in museums where they invite the street in and make the barrio (or Brick Lane) into a show. It is exactly like the earlier attempt—except somewhat less well-theorized than Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s belief that you could with poetry exercise the imagination, train in ethics (“public taste”)—in the othering of the self and coming as close as possible to accessing the other as the self. (p. 113)

The Romantic project, in today’s gallery, remains accessible only to a certain class which habitually fails to judge the felicity of its own political-economic inheritance as the subject of history. This has always been the case in Romanticism: “William Wordsworth’s project is deeply class-marked, […] he does not judge habit. He is clear about being superior to others in being a poet, unusually gifted with a too-strong imagination, capable of organizing other people’s habits.” (p. 6) We know that the simple figuring of the democratic in the gallery might be an initial provocation to think of a future world, but will not bring that world about. To shift habit requires the institutionalisation and instrumentalisation of the artist/intellectual, or more accurately an ability to recognise how the intellectual is already institutionalised in our own political-economic conjuncture, as Gramsci has it. The importance of an aesthetic education lies in training of the imagination of the progressive bourgeoisie to understand this gap between formal figure and political structure, “to realize that ‘social movements’ are co-opted by state and elite, with different agendas, ceaselessly” (p. 519). Merely enacting the appearance of democracy or depicting its emergence or decline at a sociological level, in the manner of much “relational” art, not only fails to achieve its aims, but may even insulate artist and audience from engaging with the “real involvement in infrastructure” (p. 112-113) that would bring state democratisation about, particularly in the parts of the world which supply the cultural elite with labour and resources that underpin “creative practices”. Spivak here turns to Marx as a writer who has allowed us to think labour and infrastructure as a system.


Marx’s value as form

The blueprint for Spivak’s aspirations of an aesthetic education are found in Marx’s Capital, where he seeks to recode the factory worker from victim of capitalism to the “agent of production”; that is, to encourage the worker to see that their own labour can be conceived in the form capitalism calls “value”. Spivak is insistent that for Marx the value-form is a formal concept, something “contentless and simple” that cannot be arrived at through tallying such and such amount of exchange-value. As form, value asks for figuration and disfiguration rather than empirical documentation. It is an aesthetic question. For Marx the value-form of labour is a specific form of validation of labour by capital that could be levered by workers to organise production for social ends rather than toward capitalist accumulation.

In “Supplementing Marxism”, Spivak notes that there are two ideas of the social in Marx: firstly, the appropriation of capital for “social” productivity; and secondly, the public use of reason toward “social” good. Marx did not theorise the post-revolutionary subject who could enact this second kind of social, and for Spivak this is why transformation of economic management toward socialism has not inevitably resulted in freedom for the unprepared working class subject. Marx’s oversight also limits the kinds of revolutionary subjects that can be thought, as Marx and Engels’ empirical assumptions about the subject were based on the default of colonial Europe, resulting in frames such as the Asiatic Mode of Production as an inevitably Eurocentric account of pre-industrialism that has limited leverage in the very social formations it sought to describe. Social movements, following Marx and Engels in failing to theorise the possibility of subjective development through difference (i.e. lacking of a theory of learning), have thus at various points fallen into totalitarianism in the name of freedom.

Spivak reworks Marx’s “moral and psychological” efforts to think social freedom as “epistemological,” drawing on Gramsci’s detailed analysis of the relationship between class formation and subjectivation to show how these two forms of the social allow an aesthetic education to be thought in Marx’s framework. For Gramsci, intellectual production is situated not only within a political superstructure atop an economic base, but also within epistemological (meta-psychological) constraints on engaging across differences within society. Education toward freedom can only emerge when one can abstract one’s own experience in order to connect it with others, and thus to work together on a shared political struggle. For Gramsci, intellectuals are always “organic”, affectively connected to the part of the social body they seek to change. The “organic intellectual” has been valorised by cultural studies as a figure of moral approval, but for Gramsci and Spivak this organic connection was not something one could want, it simply is. What Spivak sees as necessary is not simply consciousness-raising, today led by the “corporate-funded feudality of the digitally confident alterglobalists” (p. 26), but “patient epistemological care” (p. 519 n57) that can train the imagination to reimagine a specific situation.


Reading in the expanded field

Spivak’s interest is in the textual nature of this “organic” connection, which can be figured in the literary terms metonymy and synecdoche (p. 436). Her basic principle for social action is the ability to see another’s position as potentially substitutable for one’s own in the script of life: metonymy. Then, through synecdoche, a part of oneself that can identify as a member of a collective supports collective action as if their full interests were represented by this collective (of citizens, workers, or women, or any group organising for political ends). Meanwhile, the subjective part of oneself which does not fit the category is privatised or de-prioritised in the interests of collective action. Political action thus involves a necessary fiction. An aesthetic education expands both the range of scripts one’s self can be metonymically inserted into, as well as multiplying the concepts one can use to self-synechdocise. However, the success of this alignment of self and collective context relies on skill in tracing the weave of forces that shape the public and private parts of political change. This skill is not generic information processing in any “natural” psuedo-biological cognitive sense, but a subtly textured cluster of aesthetic identifications and analysis practiced at the limits of one’s default subjective formation. It is a skill we can call “reading”, practised with the imagination.

Central to Spivak’s argument throughout the book is a theory of reading in the broad sense, literary reading in particular. In alignment with Derrida, Spivak views reading and writing as terms that can be used for the operation of sign and trace across all media, oral, alphabetic, audio-visual, biological: production and reproduction. For Spivak, the term ‘writing’ describes “a place where the absence of the weaver from the web is structurally necessary” (p. 58). Writing is a trace that is heterogeneous to the authorial self. Reading is the mode where we take up the anonymous written inscriptions left by others in that web and make them our own. Reading is where we make ourselves. In the aesthetic lineage from Kant that splits the writing and reading functions inside the individual, writers are also paradoxically their own first readers. Again, the argument holds across all forms of signification – including the visual, even though here, “in the visual, the lesson of reading is the toughest. There are no guarantees at all” (p.507). The artist does not simply “express” a vitalist force of creativity, but develops a never-achieved reflexive capacity to read one’s own traces as others see them, and to adjust their modes of trace-making in turn. It is a profoundly ethical relationship grounded in the social world.

Moving culture

The multicultural agenda in criticism is popularly understood as integrating and including people of colour in the canon. Spivak does not disavow the value of diversity but does not think that this is a sufficient goal. She teaches a precisely British heritage of criticism to channel her North American students into “thinking the other through idiomaticity”, because English is the only language in which they are “responsible”. Within this language they “cannot help believing that history happened in order to produce them”(p. 116). Their mindset of dominance will not be shaken simply by the benevolent appropriation of translated multicultural literatures into the canon, because the “legitimising codes” of nationalism, internationalism, secularism, and culturalism that underpin the literatures of decolonisation in English are class-divided (p. 57). That class division is inaccessible to the native English reader.

In the chapter “How to Read a ‘Culturally Different’ Book” Spivak is anxious to demonstrate that nothing in her argument prevents the metropolitan teacher from teaching a book across gender, ethnic, and class divisions. In the era of “globalisability”, this teaching across such intractable lines is even more imperative. An ability to read across these divides and thus to teach and learn is the best outcome of an aesthetic education. Under globalisation, a neoliberal political rationality tracks the flows of finance capital, graphing local genres of political agency into data, repackaging social action as tightly policed modes of productivity. This graphing must be undone to engage ethically with other humans, but, as Spivak cautions, one cannot undo the divisions by immediately reaching for the other side of cultural divides in the ethnographic mode, for “in order to do distant reading one must be an excellent close reader” (p. 443). One must enter the text of another’s world, and Spivak suggests that the intellectual can only provide tactical, rather than strategic support to subaltern movements without flattening the unseen differences that are the engine of these movements.

Differential subjectivity must then be attended to as an impossible task. The ethical relation of deconstruction is not a solution to the political-economic problem of subalternity, but a motor that can drive our imagination ever closer to the asymptotic figure of the other, as part of our preparation for political action. Through this training of the imagination, we can learn to perform within the episteme of another person. This is not just an anthropological exercise of language learning for data extraction to publish “back home” in the academy. Spivak cautions us that that one never reaches the subaltern other until one has an intimate understanding of the mother tongue of the subject/object of study, at which point they can no longer be treated as an object in quite the same way. One’s own ability to be transformed to accept and affect the structure of responsibility inhabited by the other remains the critical question: how can one approach responsibility to the other so that rather than pretending to be an innocent observer in the “research” mode, one’s productive capability can be made available to operate in a radically different context, where our own makeup must be provisionally set aside even as it is never rescinded? This is Marx’s question of social productivity through the imagination of the value-form thought in the ethical. Yet this otherness never resolves into “culture.” Spivak suggests we need to explore the cultural difference closer to home:

“We must investigate and imaginatively constitute our “own” unclaimed history with the same teleopoietic delicacy that we strive for in the case of the apparently distant. The most proximate is the most distant, as you will see if you try to grab it exactly, in words, or, better yet, to make someone else grab it.” (p. 406)

In the chapter “Culture: Situating Feminism”, Spivak gives a brilliant potted definition of the term culture, noting that this anthropological description for the collective human Other has become shorthand for the distinction between the sacred and the profane and the relationship between the sexes. But no equivalent term exists in non-European languages. Ironically, then, the European term culture allows us to remain aloof from the intra-cultural distinctions of sacredness and profanity, or relations between the sexes in different times and places, yet it is the ability to read these intra-cultural distinctions that is required to escape Eurocentrism in humanist thought in non-European settings. The problem with “culture” as explanation is not that it is too abstract a term, but that it emerges from a Eurocentric “culture of no culture”, which is unable to theorise its own distinctions as particular rather than universal. As Spivak has noted previously, this is “not so much a universalisation as seeing one history as the inevitable telos as well as the inevitable origin and past of all men and women everywhere” (Spivak and Sharpe 2002, p. 617). Therefore, for Spivak, it is imperative that the institutions of culture “precomprehend their instituting culture” (p.161) before producing cultural explanations that marginalise others. “Culture” for Spivak appears as a middle-class term, doing explanatory work only at a safe distance from the ethical relation of genuine engagement across difference, and the economic torque exerted by capital. Other people’s “cultural” defaults are viewed as external to one’s own tolerance, and the researcher of culture’s assumptions are unmodifiable by the answers.

For the benevolent Romantic seeking to save the world, the figure of the gendered subaltern (in, for example, the “global South”) remains inaccessible to political thought and action unless the heterogeneity of the subaltern’s context can be imagined across the gap separating the intellectual and the subaltern. Culture does not help us here. It is at the very basis of the human as a developmental social being that the structure of this imagination can be thought.


Reproductive heteronormativity and subjective development

Spivak’s most arresting move in the book is to situate Marx’s untheorised process of subjective social development in a default category of reproductive heteronormativity (RHN). Spivak believes this must be thought in order to convincingly theorise human action, and psychoanalysis and feminist work are the main fields that have undertaken that labour. Expressing suspicion of European psychoanalytic theory for its universalism, Spivak nevertheless sees in feminist psychoanalysis a technical process of subject formation that allows the development of responsibility to others to be understood.

Drawing on Melanie Klein, Spivak describes how the human is born into a structure of timing and spacing “written” by the mother. (Again, we must hold onto the broad sense of “writing” that exceeds the alphabetic). The development of subjective interiority proceeds through a grabbing “of an outside indistinguishable from an inside [which then] constitutes an inside, fit to negotiate with an outside, going back and forth and coding everything into a sign-system by the thing(s) grasped” (p. 241). This relation between interior and exterior worlds invented and expressed by the creative infant emerges through idiomatic forms of para-linguistic timing and spacing. Spivak suggests that this development of formal exteriority is then translated into the structural (patriarchal) language of the mother tongue by the parent (and media-substitutes), training the infant in appropriate speech, even as the child consistently exceeds identifiable structures of language or “culture.” “It is in this sense that the human infant, on the cusp of the natural and the cultural, is in translation, except the word “translation” loses its dictionary sense right there” (p. 243). The human is born into a para-psychological “structure of responsibility” which trains the imagination for epistemological performance (aesthetic education), yet also establishes both paternal and maternal “writing” of the child in distinction to each other, bringing the constant presence of otherness.

Spivak’s account of the grabbing impulse is particularly distinctive when compared to neo-vitalist philosophies of emergence. For Spivak, the grabbing impulse emerges from the fundamental gap between what we need and what we can make, a lack that we actively seek to close through the “creative”. This gap for Spivak is a byproduct of reproductive heteronormativity, which mandates that reproduction of oneself is impossible, and so “to be born human is to be born angled toward an other and others” (p.99) — she notes here that the antonym of hetero– is not homo– but auto-. The gap between what one needs (in a form handed down from the past) and what one can make is “filled by neither reason nor unreason yet seems irreducible” (p. 457). Because capital is a form of writing, it can fill the gap with its formulaic programming of commodities. However, literary training can diversify what occupies this gap, to escape the default scripts of capital that aim to make us want the information-rich commodity as the gap-filler nearest to hand.


Experiencing radical alterity

The poetic function, in principle, exceeds the individual, therefore it can contribute to the task of reminding us that our desires are not naturally beneficient. In Spivak’s view we must be able to imagine a singular other metonymically, with oneself in that particular place, in order to orientate oneself toward “others” in a larger public. This is where the ethical potential of Romanticism lies: in order to think the other one must be able to imagine oneself as other. The kind of alterity Spivak is thinking is not located in the individual or their culture, but is the opening to the ethical as such, and in the Romantic tradition the development of the capability to genuinely engage the other will start “at home” in the othering of the self. Once again the visual mode seems important to this opening: “radical alterity must be thought and must be thought through imaging” (p.97). In the chapter “Imperative to Re-Imagine the Planet” radical alterity takes on many names: “Mother, Nation, God, Nature” (p. 178) — Spivak notes that some of these names are more radical than others. There is nothing particularly mystical about Spivak’s version of radical alterity, except that one’s own versions of it are not easily thinkable, as they are a name for the ground of thinking as such: “mysterious and discontinuous — an experience of the impossible” (p. 341). However difficult to mobilise, alterity functions as a check on captial’s reproduction of the same. Without the aesthetic education that allows one to metonymise and synecdochise oneself, conflicting versions of radical alterity, such as religious conflicts, appear as irreconciliable differences between clans. By default, the different versions of alterity held by a person belonging to another clan are removed from one’s structure of responsibility, and inhuman acts are thus justified by the Other’s predetermined difference. Enlightened Western secularism is far from immune from this problematic, as it still figures this responsibility through a named Christian-heritage grounding, most commonly “science”, while Spivak is adamant that all such grounds must be dislodged in order to think other forms. Seeing other versions of radical alterity as potentially substitutable for one’s own through the shared logic of reproductive heteronormativity becomes a critical safeguard against both benevolent neocolonialism and culturalism.

Spivak seeks not to merely describe this possibility but to demonstrate it. She finds her most useful way to think radical alterity in the Muslim concept-metaphor of the haq, “the birthright of being able to take care of other people” (p. 294). Without the grounding of haq-like responsibility, and thus to the precomprehension of an instituting culture to the political, the subaltern other remains buried under the “repetitive negotiations” of neocolonial benevolence. “The subjunctive can move to an imperative only in terms of that responsibility-as-right fixed by a truth-in-alterity collective structure that happened to have been conceptualized as haq” (p. 345). Related structures of responsibility to the planet and people operate in many pre-capitalist high cultures, but Spivak appears to find the haq most useful precisely because it is not “native” to her subject position, yet is connected to the monotheistic tradition that came to structure many political forms of the contemporary world we in the West inherit.

Consistent with her earlier-described decision to teach British Romanticism rather than multicultural literatures in English-language translation, Spivak here seems to be trying to escape the benevolent leftist’s “decolonising” agenda of appropriating indigenous cultural forms as political models, when clearly the literary critic is not themselves subject to the responsibility to the “eco-biomes” or ecological worlds that maintain those models. Characteristically, it is in her discussion of responsibility that Spivak’s own critical responsibility is most performatively evident. For many years Spivak refused to discuss her teacher-training efforts in Bengal – in 2002 she noted that “if I talk about these places, first of all, I think I would get the kind of approval from your readership which I would much rather earn because of my theoretical work. You know, there is a certain kind of benevolent approval which I really resist” (Spivak and Sharpe 2002 p. 623). It is interesting that her recent willingness to talk through this work coincides with her adoption of the non-indigenous concept-metaphor of the haq to think radical alterity. Spivak has also commented that she started to talk about her Bengal schools once they were doing things by themselves, a conjuncture that links institutional and theoretical autonomy in realpolitik. The negotiation with one’s own ethics of representation will be poignant to anyone attempting to “learn from below” from subaltern worlds, where the gap between playing the game and writing about it is always vividly on display.


An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization is a big, unruly book — at a recent conference Spivak joked that as a classroom teacher, she has trouble saying anything in less than fourteen weeks. Although many pieces here are previously published, Spivak the responsible pedagogue repeatedly chastises her prior naiveté or notes a change in the structure of her thinking in acerbic annotations throughout. Spivak is “famously difficult”, not simply due to an attraction to the counter-intuitive, but because her work is constantly surfacing the supports of her theoretical platform. The key to reading Spivak in the face of this “over-readability”, as Bal (2000) explained, is tuning in to her teacherly voice. The theoretical moves in her books come directly from the experience of the classroom, the site where any academic project must find its ultimate effect. Like any class that transforms one’s thinking, it resists attempts to grasp it in advance, but asks us to submit to the text over time rather than to attempt to master it through pop summary. Such responsibility to the site of teaching is inconvenient for the writer rushing toward the more properly ‘urgent’ political manifestations of the global, but for Spivak all theoretical labor is “destined for errancy” (p.28) in the political realm.

Reading An Aesthetic Education for a month inside a gallery with a reading group of artists and critics, many were struck by Spivak’s feral indifference to professionalised forms of theoretical discourse. The questions of form in Spivak’s writing also came to the fore – her dazzling, compressed figures (key example: her discussion of “originary” identity claims in the negative, as “like the clutch disengaging to get a stick- shift car moving” (p. 426)) and her striking manipulation of the temporality of reading. Spivak’s resolute literality in the reading of texts brings to mind a characteristic mode of contemporary time-based art, that of diegesis, the experience of being held through narration of a particular time and place, suspending philosophical detachment while nevertheless remaining aware of the lineaments left by historical genres. “What if there is only a vulgar concept of time?” asks Derrida in a formulation Spivak has pointed to more than once. Forging a practice in the thickness of vulgar time would not come from a mastery of global time but through experience gained in a variety of local times. Spivak’s inspirational commitment to gaining fluency in these temporalities, documenting their resistance to synchronisation at the hands of capital and data, is perhaps an aesthetic education that any artist could endorse.


Acknowledgements: For their contribution to this article I’d like to acknowledge the participants in Local Time’s reading group on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. For comments on earlier drafts I thank Alex Monteith, Natalie Robertson, Jon Bywater, Ruth DeSouza and Nikos Papastergiadis – all errors are of course my own.



Bal, M. (2000). Three-Way Misreading. Diacritics, 30 (1), 2-24.

Spivak, G. C. (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward A History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spivak, G. C. (2011). An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spivak, G. C., & Sharpe, J. (2002). A conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Politics and the Imagination. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(2), 609-625.


Danny Butt <> is Research Fellow in the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. He is the editor of PLACE: Local Knowledge and New Media Practice (with Jon Bywater and Nova Paul) (Cambridge Scholars Press 2008) and Internet Governance: Asia Pacific Perspectives (Elsevier 2006).  He works with the art collective Local Time <>, most recently in the exhibitions Spectres of Evaluation (Footscray, 2014), If you were to live here… The 5th Auckland Triennial (Auckland, 2013) and Sarai Reader 09 (Delhi, 2013)


Undoing Urgency

Undoing Urgency
presented at Urgent Ecologies, Contemporary Arts + Social Transformation symposium, University of Wollongong 7th November 2014.
Danny Butt, Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne

“You just keep on doing what you’re doing”, said our friend and guide Graeme Atkins. With that he wrapped up our conversation after a day of mahi kai, finding and gathering food for our group. It had been about five years that we’d been summer camping on the far East Coast of New Zealand, on the ancestral lands of my Local Time colleague, the artist Natalie Robertson. It had been long enough for us, with the guidance of the Atkins whānau, to get to know some of the ecological challenges that face the area, including the effects of deforestation, climate change, overfishing and pollution.

As we discussed these challenges, I had expressed anxiety about the urgency of the problems, and in keeping with my whitefella heritage described a range of potential actions toward “being part of the solution”, aka “helping”. While Graeme’s statement was off-hand, the effect was disorienting, in a way that anyone who undertakes intercultural work would recognise. To “keep doing what I was doing” would require a withdrawal of urgency rather than its escalation. The statement didn’t suggest that our ideas for action were incompatible. But it implied that the sense of urgency I felt after a mere five years of visiting did not match that of Graeme, who traces about fifty generations of ancestry to that environment. I had not yet understood how feeling an “urgent” responsibility to the future as I did differs from holding responsibility for that future as he does.

I later read Graeme’s advice as an invitation to share responsibility rather than take responsibility. But how does one learn to share in responsibility, across such different levels of commitment and accountability? Not urgently. Local Time’s collective practice started around this time (2007), and our name reflects our continuing effort to grapple with this problematic. Through working together with others, both at our home base out the coast and in the places we are fortunate to visit, it has become clearer that to learn to sense the responsibility of a host requires the visitor to put aside any attempt to manage time through the expression of urgency.

Anthropology – and here I include the various kinds of “social practices” in contemporary art that adopt the fieldwork method implicitly – is predicated on these irreconcilable differences in risk and accountability between hosts and visitors. There is no way for those of us who are visitors to bypass or diminish this difference. Echoing Fanon’s diagnosis of how intractable this difference is, Hawai’ian leader Haunani Kay-Trask famously identified natives vs anthropologists as “the colonial struggle”. Anthropologists for their part, often found their anxieties about role and responsibility would lead them to a battered, cynical retreat to the comforts of home, an option that always and only exists for the visitor. The impossible delusion of “going native” segues into indigenous politics being “too difficult”, “you can’t win”. At the core it is a difference in the temporal commitment, the length of the “project” versus a time measured through generations.

Spivak points to J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, where the magistrate stages the difference between colonial and indigenous time in relation to the land, saying to his colonial colleague:

“They do not doubt that one of these days we will pack our carts and depart to wherever it was we came from, that our buildings will become homes for mice and lizards, that their beasts will graze on these rich fields we have planted. You smile? Shall I tell you something? Every year the lakewater grows a little more salty. There is a simple explanation—never mind what it is. The barbarians know this fact. At this very moment they are saying to themselves, ‘Be patient, one of these days their crops will start withering from the salt, they will not be able to feed themselves, they will go.’ That is what they are thinking. That they will outlast us.”

Clifford expresses a similar kind of temporal awe in his recounting of Alaskan Alutiq (Koniag) elder Barbara Shangin’s lack of urgency about U.S. occupation of their lands, as she claims “All the troubles since the Russians arrived are like one long stretch of bad weather. Like everything else, this storm will pass over some day.”

These are non-indigenous accounts of indigenous time, and in recounting them I do not mean to sideline indigenous modernities or to make claims about indigenous temporality other than note their intergenerational experience of resilience.

In her essay “Acting Bits/Identity Talk” Spivak describes the life among traditional maintainers of land as “eco-logical” , a logic or rationality that is hyphenated with the biosphere. In the eco-logical frame, the scale of life is not the object of scientific or critical knowledge, but rather the author of it, one is born into this environment and through this reproduction we are formed as subjects and agents, generation upon generation.

Eco-nomics, on the other hand, understands the eco through nomia, the calculated taxonomy of naming and managing, rather than a default intergenerational logic that is birthed by the ecological [1]. The calculative mindset seeks to master time through a graph that becomes a model. This monitoring of evidence and proposition of compensatory actions differs fundamentally from the eco-logical as an inheritance, where one is born into the script of a time. This modeling is the logic of the Anthropecene and the climate movement, which as Haraway describes as born out of a modern systems theory that produces a scale called “the global”. It finds justification in its propositional future-oriented activity, as the historical activity of capitalism that births anthropocenic thought is cast as negative and something to be departed from, rather than something to be maintained.

I am not saying that propositional economy is bad and the traditional ecology is good, just that they are truly opposed in their temporality. I am also not saying that these distinctions map onto ethnicities in a straightforward way: the indigenous worldview can and does appropriate the calculative rationality of the climate movement (see e.g. the recent Pacific action in Newcastle), just as the European ecological movement adopts indigenous knowledge. But these are different rationalities whose languages must be learned, and this requires an apprenticeship, not a solution. And it also must always be remembered that historically it was the European propositional economy as “improvement” that always  sought to annihilate indigenous eco-logical existence, using assimilation and extermination to prevent the intergenerational reproduction of the natural world in indigenous communities.

My concern with the rush to make our action commensurate with our modelled timescale is that in doing so we forget the time it takes to learn what we need to in order to share effectively in responsibility to a part of the planet across that division, which is not the same as a responsibility to a global process. As the theorist Marina Vishmidt recently noted, “an ecological perspective, while imbuing us with awareness of the sheer ungraspability and recalcitrance of environmental disaster and decline to local or technological solutions, can also become obfuscating when translated into social and political discourses…. it tends to occlude the conflicts of interest, the structural inequality, the contradictions that structure our reality and its crisis alike. Crisis for whom?”

The eco-logic, as I understand it, gives us weather, not climate. Local weather is unpredictable and not at all banal, it always leaves its trace – accreting and marking as it goes, drop by drop, layer upon layer, and season upon season, and those who attend to it develop their skill in reading it and their practices of resilience through it. Keep doing what you’re doing, with a guide who has seen more storms come and go than oneself. That is learning. And if we are not learning the right thing, doing what we are doing, perhaps we are not in the right place, or are yet to relinquish the modernist hope that salvation is in the future when we find the right solution, somewhere else just out of reach.

To become an old person who has not forgotten what the weather does in a place is not a state to be achieved with urgency. It simply happens, as we are slowly institutionalised into the place where we live each day, whether we choose to pay attention to those who know our land or not. If we in settler culture are to learn something of the practice of survival from our indigenous leaders, who have survived ecological transformation and destruction that frankly dwarfs the anthropocenic doomsday scenarios, the only urgency we can have is negative: an urgency to release ourselves from thinking solutions without responsibility, an urgency to stop forgetting the knowledge that exists where we already are.

“One must not make history in a deliberate way”, Spivak cautions. To learn the forbidding temporal lesson of inter generational resilience, Spivak points us to that sad, impossible story of survival against economic colonisation, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which, she says, “readily points at absolute contingency. Not the sequentiality of time, not even the cycle of seasons, but only weather. Listen to this incredible passage [… from Morrison]”

“By and by, all traces gone. And what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted-for; but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather.”

1. see Angela Mitropoulos’ excellent book Contract and Contagion for a full account of the oikos and reproductive heteronormativity.

Summary of Gayatri Spivak’s talk to the World Bank 1999

[This is not mine, but I thought it would be useful to make a stable link for this short summary that was both the impetus for my 15 years with Spivak’s work, and that has also served me well as a heuristic in my own brief forays into the international development arena. So here’s a readable version that still deserves a wide readership outside academia, the developmental attitude is perhaps only even more present now than then. I first saw this on the postcolonial list, and a quote ridden forward is the only surviving document I can find, I’d be happy to take this down and replace with a link to a better source if the Bank or the anonymous author would host it, please let me know! – db]


Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 12:50:13 -0400
Subject: [Gender-Law] Summary of Gayatri Spivak’s talk

Summary of the Talk to the Gender and Law Thematic Group by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, New York

On April 12, 1999, Professor Spivak gave an illuminating and challenging presentation regarding working in the field of gender. She opened by stating that she did not come with a prepared paper, but was, rather, more interested in learning how to speak to Bank staff and how to have the Bank respond to what she would say. She pointed out that her remarks were being offered seriously and expressed the aspiration that they would be so taken. She noted, too, that her speaking at the Bank was a challenge to herself, and she considered her time here to constitute important field work for her.

Professor Spivak summarised her background as being a literature teacher as well as an activist for the past 10 years. She stated that during the last ten years, she has gone below the NGO level in working with communities in India, Algeria, and Bangladesh in the field of education – training teachers. She noted that if the goal of development work is indeed people, then one of the hardest lessons to learn, is that some of virtues of human existence will be found at the very bottom of society, which is the target area for change for development organisations. A question which emerges then, is, How do we approach the bottom? How can we learn from below?

The professor stated that as workers in the field of development, we should not proceed from the conviction that where we are is inherently better. If one internalises and accepts this position, then, organisations such as the Bank cannot continue to do what it does in the development field because learning from the bottom has to take priority. She realised that this position may be impractical or inconvenient for the Bank, but it was a realistic one. She questioned the definition of gender, especially approaches previously used by the Bank, but did not go further into the issue as she was informed that the Bank is working on a new gender strategy.

Professor Spivak emphasised that her remarks were being made from her experience as an activist. She stated that in her work she teaches the dominant national language and the principles of a living democratic culture within the fabric already existent in that society. She noted that in these societies where the people have learnt to manipulate incredibly complicated life systems, given also the systematic destruction and stagnation of the fabric of their societies over many centuries, often, there is more possibility for empowerment than may be realised by external workers.

Professor Spivak noted that women are the power in tribal groups. She questioned the validity of the public/private or inside/outside dichotomy in analysing issues among such groups, arguing that while this may be applicable to the middle class, this analysis did not work well at the grassroots. She also said that conventional approaches that emphasise legal rights for women may address issues of middle class or better-off women but do not touch on the problems faced by those at the grassroots. Gender is a field that goes beyond reason, and can not be analysed within the paradigm of rational expectations.

However, she stressed that tradition is not necessarily good, and change is imperative. However, assistance for such change should not take away what people have and replace it with top down schemes. Professor Spivak urged the need to look and see if there is not already a starting point within the present in the society itself, from which one can begin one’s work. One must not approach the work with the “supremacist’s assumption” that anything that exists must be bettered. The idea is to enter into and learn the traditions from inside, see what traditions can be worked with to slowly make the situation better and accepted from the inside, and to ensure that new developments are initiated from the inside. The need was to do “invisible mending” of the native fabric by weaving the different positive threads existing in the fabric. She stated that if people and not economic growth, are the motivating factor for working in gender, then we have to also realise that the change will not happen fast. Patience, she said, was critical.

Professor Spivak stated that living culture is always ahead of us. One should not think one is learning or being sensitive to another culture, but rather, one should try to forget that there is difference in culture for the time, and in this way some of one’s convictions can be changed and oneself can be open to that change. Professor Spivak also made reference to the role of using one’s imagination, as is done in literature, to envision the avenues for creating sustainable change and underscored the importance of placing one self in the other person’s (the person who is being changed) shoes – the process of “othering” as she described it.

In conclusion, the practical lessons that Professor Spivak would have for the Bank are that:

– sustainable change must come from within;
– work in this area must be approached with humility and respect avoiding the tendency to “do good with contempt in your heart” and the belief that we are in all respects better than them;
– those who seek to change must be fully prepared to be changed themselves;
– the patient learning from below must replace impatient imposition of change from above and outside; and
– sustainable change takes time, like “drops of water changing a stone, drop by drop.

In her closing remarks, the professor stated that she was interested in engaging the Bank in dialogue and that with sufficient lead time to prepare, she would be willing to return to the Bank to dialogue on issues relating to structural adjustment and gender and development.


Geographies of Professionalisation – panel for AAANZ conference 2014

Should have placed this here earlier – below the panel description for the panel “Geographies of Professionalisation”, organised by Rachel O’Reilly and myself for the AAANZ conference GEOcritical, December 2014. See the Call for Papers, abstract submissions due 29th August but we can probably take late ones until the 31st. Please propose! Email danny at

Geographies of Professionalisation

A Session Proposal for GEOCritical, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, Launceston 5-8 December 2014


Danny Butt, Research Fellow, Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne* 

Rachel O’Reilly, independent writer and curator, Amsterdam/Berlin.

The expansion of the market for university qualifications (for artists, curators, and administrators) has combined with the rise of the international biennial/festival to produce expanded and geographically synchronised fields of professional art discourse. Professional practitioners travel in circles of international prestige, evaluated less by their development of an institutional archive and more by their relationships with contemporary producers and institutions.

The historical marker of professionalism was a certain autonomy and a disinterested, neutral, public character that distinguished itself from mere exchange-value. However, the expansion of mechanisms of professionalisation through privatised universities and cultural institutions questions this disinterest. As Samuel Weber notes, professionalism requires “a certain kind of place, or, more precisely, a certain kind of placement.” The professional is in a structural location, programmed by global forces, that formats particular places and sites in terms of their potential for profit.

The dynamics of this “placement” have been on display in actions against corporate sponsors of large-scale exhibitions funded from industries including oil and gas, mandatory detention, and speculative finance. Sponsoring corporations are actively profiting from the neoliberal and neocolonial transformation of territory, property and democratic governance. The political economy of the presenting institution supports a curatorial ideology of neutrality: a withdrawal from thinking the political as the means of holding institutional power. This neutrality is justified in an appropriation of art’s “autonomy”, yet the autonomy of the artist is never global. As Guattari describes it, “the task of the poetic function… is to recompose artificially rarefied, resingularized Universes of subjectification.”  In other words, the aesthetic work of resingularisation can be seen as moving in an opposite direction to globalising neutralisation.

This panel asks how artists, critics and curators orient themselves to the geographical imaginary of professionalisation, navigating local and global forces that produce contemporary artistic subjectivities.

Relation to conference theme (150 words)

The panel is a direct response to the question of the “geo”, asking about the planetary distribution of knowledge formations that produce contemporary art. We aim to solicit papers that engage the tension between international discourses and local sites, incorporating issues such as local and indigenous knowledges, reterritorialisation of national cultural institutions, and the rise of environmental and ecological issues in contemporary art.


Born in Flames: an Aesthetic Education

The grounding narrative of politicization for the people my teenage self wanted to become looked back to Paris, May 1968. Uncompromising refusal, collective action and the aesthetics of the street made the Situationist International a privileged model for political activity in experimental arts and punk rock circles. Zine culture brought the Situationists to the decidedly un-French environs of Newcastle, Australia, the steel and coal port where I was born, a city which also happens to be the birthplace of New York SI-scholar McKenzie Wark, who I later sought out for supervision of my masters degree. But rather than being a cosmopolitan capital of a European republic and progenitor of modern democracy like Paris, regional Australia was a barely-reformed penal colony whose potential liberation seemed somewhat less exciting or consequential. When Newcastle’s most famous riot at the Star Hotel made it to the French media in 1979, the reported headline captured it perfectly: “Australians riot when pub closes.” It’s true that the Star would have been a place I would have hung out if I were 18 rather than 8 years’ old at the time, but a historical clash between police and 4000 drunk youth in a working class city never gained artistic currency in my world, which did not hold Cold Chisel’s commemorative track dear, and it certainly held no promise of a political future.

Before the arrival of the web, my all-consuming activity was mail-ordering books, magazines, LPs and cassettes that could connect me to the artists and musicians I admired, most of whom were from New York or New Zealand. I remember the availability of NTSC VHS players in Australia finally making available videos of independent 80s bands and indie films, and among one of those packages a copy of Lizzie Bordern’s 1983 film Born in Flames made it to my collection. I’d been hanging out on the fringes of feminist politics on campus while dropping out of my sociology degree, attracted by the potential exit from the compulsory heterosexuality I’d grown up with, while intimidated by the intractability of what Gayatri Spivak describes as the “simple and forbidding” double-binds of gender. Born in Flames demonstrated a possibility of bonding in difference, not just in the theoretical manner I would come to understand later, but through aesthetic action that seemed to present itself immediately. The world that created the film seemed more inviting than the prospect of being excommunicated from the radical sects of manguardists who dominated the local political scene. I’d like to say I took the film to heart then, but lacking a community to process it with I only watched it once or twice before it sat in the archives, and it was only much later that I realized how deeply the film had perhaps touched my aspirations for the political.

For the uninitiated, Born in Flames is a neo-realist feminist “sci-fi” set in a future New York that looks a lot like 1983 but for one detail: it is a nominal ten years after a socialist revolution. In the film, mass media channels reframe the continuing oppression of women and black people as a lingering glitch in the system still promising “freedom for all.” Various groups of women, most prominently black and working-class lesbians, organize to demand economic, political and sexual justice through strikes and direct action. Male government figures graph the activity of the militant Women’s Army, but the intelligence-gathering is constantly rebuffed by the Army’s apparent lack of hierarchical leadership. The activist women, however, are not disaggregated merely as a strategy; they also negotiate very real fractures between their own groups along race and class lines. The white middle-class women who edit the Socialist Youth Review are initially disdainful of the black-led Army, which they perceive as a dangerous rupture of a united socialist front toward equality for women. Meanwhile, the white anarchist punk rockers represented by Isabel (played by Adele Bertei of The Contortions, possibly the connection that led me to first see the film) appear to be more simply not very good at fitting in with anyone else’s plans.

Things get serious when Women’s Army leader Adelaide Norris dies in custody after being abducted by government men upon her return from a training exercise with a revolutionary African women’s militia in the West Sahara. The resulting ferment produces an ethical irruption for the white newspaper editors, who finally loosen their attachment to institutional control and “class guilt” to join the black-led collective struggle. The white women realize that if they too refused to wait indefinitely for a future justice promised by the male leaders, they would also be on the receiving end of the same state violence. Their class position, theoretical orientation and professional location still determine their mode of political action: they do not adopt the black women’s praxis through the simplistic assumption of downward mobility. Exposed to critique, however, they learn to read Norris’ struggle as their own. Meanwhile, the white punks learn to understand the collective structure of their plight through more banal and proximate acts of violence: bombings of the rival pirate radio stations highlight the inadequacy of their aesthetic rebellion in the face of fascism.  These diverse women join to shakily bear arms and hi-jack a presidential television address, broadcasting a taped message from senior black leader Zella, condemning the oppression of women everywhere. They finally destroy the patriarchal media organ by bombing the television antenna atop the World Trade Centre in the film’s infamous and prescient ending.

The centrality of the film in my political imaginary became clearer while reading Spivak’s 2012 opus, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. While Spivak’s tone differs markedly from Bordern’s, she shares a goal to read the political through the ethical, to maintain the intuition of transcendental collectivity without suppressing the intractable boundaries of race, gender and class that govern our ability to join collective action. Spivak’s overarching concern in the book is with the possibility of the aesthetic to “short-circuit the task of shaking up our habit of not examining our habits, perhaps.” In this formulation we already have a classic Spivak speed-bump: it will not be as simple as learning to change our habits (through e.g. following new rules); the best we might politically achieve from the aesthetic is learning to stop forgetting we have habits.  “Theory brings practice to crisis [perhaps making practice more ready for the aesthetic ‘shake up’], and practice norms theory.” Following Gramsci, Spivak holds the institutional location of the specific intellectual as central to the political effects of their work: knowing the rules of the game is one thing, but being able to play all the roles in the game is another. Real collectivity is a patient process of learning to listen to those on the other side, but which other sides and where is each practitioner’s own political calculation.

Bordern has said that one of her motivations for making Born in Flames was to create “a process whereby I could release myself from my own bondage in terms of class and race”, exorcising “whatever discomfort I might have felt as a white filmmaker working with black women.” Bordern’s language of the “process” recognizes the double-bind of the political in the personal: in Spivak’s terms she must “learn how to learn” this release from race and class bondage. The impossible “release” Bordern sought could not be reached directly in the single-bind of expert attempts at “anti-racism” or class analysis. Instead, Bordern as artist-intellectual must discover the larger currents she can give herself over to that will carry her where she needs to go, a destination unknown at the outset. Bordern learns to form a cross-racial political alliance not through simply reading political currents, but reading them in preparation for doing them — a doing that is outside the script, in the broader institutional film-making milieu where Bordern locates herself in order to author her work. Similarly, within the narrative of the film, the process of political coming together for the white women is based not on logical or convergent arguments about political organization, but through an “othering of the self” that Spivak locates in the Romantic tradition, staged most strikingly by Isabel’s idiomatic experimentation with performing black music, wearing cornrows and wearing a kufyia. As always, appropriation is endemic to white “creativity”. But through this appropriation the white performer, by learning how to read and perform cultural differences in their idiomaticity, prepares herself in the film to understand how her own oppression connects to genres of life other than her default. The film seems to concur with Spivak that the impulse to “learn from below” across class and racial divides (or, in my case of writing on the film, gender divides) does not allow the certainty of political correctness. As with all aesthetic endeavours, the use-value of this engagement will only be evaluated after the fact, by the critical reader, rather than the producer, in the reader’s own scene of action.

The supplementation of political ends with ethical means that Bordern and Spivak explore is an endless and gendered task, and the film’s narrative reflects a utopian feminist narrative of interpersonal alliances that remain radically open to differently constituted subjects. Theresa de Lauretis diagnosed the audience of Born in Flames as womanhood multiplied and diffracted, where women are “addressed intermittently and only insofar as we are able to occupy the position of addressee.” In a key scene in the film, Phoenix Radio DJ Honey makes a stirring on-air call: “Black women, be ready. White women, get ready. Red women, stay ready, for this is our time and all must realize it.”  As de Lauretis asks, “which individual member of the audience, male or female, can feel singly interpellated as spectator-subject or, in other words, unequivocally addressed?” Bordern’s film asks the viewer to reflexively consider what de Lauretis describes as “the contradiction of my own history and the personal/political difference within myself.” This double-bind can only be escaped through the setting to work of the contradictions through collective action with others yet to come.

De Lauretis located a certain negativity at the heart of the enterprise of women’s cinema, working toward a “deaestheticization of the female body, the desexualization of violence, the deoedipalization of narrative, and so forth.” To mistake this as a simple gesture of refusal would be to forget the double-bind: it is more a specifically shaped negative space than an open horizon of nothingness. In Spivak’s book, mindfulness of the double-bind protects the ethical reflex from co-option as a universal program, reminding us that all moves to freedom have a place of departure. She captures this in her ingenious figuring of the “originary” move in identity claims as being “like the clutch disengaging to get a stick-shift car moving.” The adoption of a collective historical identity – essentialism strategic or otherwise – is here an attempt to to drop out of a specific contemporary gear (neoliberalism, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality, etc). This perhaps relates to Derrida’s suggestion that democracy opens public space by “granting the right to a change in tone.” In Born in Flames certain identifiable political “positions” are represented, but through the film they are escaped, folded onto themselves, interrupted and pulled apart so that genres yet to come reveal themselves in between the stances taken by the diverse cast. Bordern: “Everyone knows nothing will work. But even if the questions are old, they must be renewed to mean something different today.”

“Everyone knows nothing will work” – Guy Debord would have heard that as defeatist, these politics of subjective difference lacking the unitary theory that gave his narrative of May 1968 its broad appeal. But in contemporary intellectual and artistic communities, navigating the diversity of both means and ends is the norm, which vanguardists forget at their peril. As performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña put it in his reflections on collective action with Border Arts Workshop, “we were not able to erase the borders among ourselves, the very same borders we were attempting to erase in the larger society, so we succumbed to our own racism, our own sexism, our own cultural prejudice, our own fears and desires. […] We were devoured by our own chimeras and grandiose ideas. And as you know, this has happened to so many collectives…” Perhaps this is why thirty years ago Spivak considered Berkeley 1967 to “make more sense” than May 1968 as a grounding scene of action in the “more racially ethnically, historically, more heterogeneous” United States. Born in Flames adopts this fractured ground to think its utopia, showing that neither papering over the fissures nor postponing their repair until after the revolution will work. The film stands as an inspirational example of how the assumptions of white patriarchy in its capitalist and socialist forms must be escaped in preparation for subjugated practices to emerge, with no guarantees that they will. Craig Willse and Dean Spade, editors of a recent special issue of Women & Performance on the film’s 30th anniversary, capture it perfectly: “instead of providing a pat narrative of a unified movement advocating for a single clear demand, Born in Flames leaves us with the unexploded bomb.”

Thanks to participants in the 24-day reading group on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization that was part of the exhibition Local Time: Horotiu at St Paul Street Gallery, Auckland in April-May 2013.