The Art of the Exegesis

At the end of the 18th century, Nazarene painter Eberhard Wachter rejected a position on the staff of the Stuttgart academy, noting that ‘there is too much misery in art already; I do not want to increase it.’ Wachter uttered his sullen epigram on art education well before the development of postgraduate programmes in studio art, but the weariness of his tone would have only increased if he had read the raft of ‘written components’ – usually in the form of an exegesis – that are now mandatory in art school submissions. Examiners do their best to maintain fresh eyes in front of works that groan under pointless descriptions of dull making processes, overblown and unconvincing attempts by artists to write their own work in an art historical tradition, or perhaps worst of all, interesting practices (de)formed into ‘research questions’ that the works are then supposed to answer. Duchamp did his best to dissuade such thinking, believing that ‘there is no solution, because there is no problem.’ Now the need to find problems to satisfy a demand for academic rigour seems to be the problem.

These crimes of writing committed in art schools are not the fault of artists, who know all too well that a written exegesis usually hinders great work. Students often evade supervision of these research reports – perhaps hoping that the requirement might slip away unnoticed. Not because they can’t write: visual artists can be formally gifted and inventive writers. But contemporary artists are reflexive critics of form in the most expanded sense, often unhappy with any institutional dictation of form or genre from above. As Dieter Lesage has argued, to require an artist to adopt a particular form of writing is precisely to fail to recognise their status as an artist….

Continue reading at Mute Magazine….

Back to Facebook

[To appear in Issue One of Magasine, “Memes”, 2012]

I closed my Facebook account for a couple of months, and the overwhelming feeling was relief. I wrote more, read random stuff on the web less, and generally enjoyed a less regulated life. My thoughts stretched further into the past and future than Facebook’s contemporaneity encourages. I missed people’s posts, for sure—oddly, perhaps especially my partner’s posts, even though she’d tell me about them over breakfast. But I also had some nice emails with people, and even enjoyed asking the previously defunct question “What have you been up to?”

I left Facebook because I was sick of it pushing my writing around. New technologies have always brought about novel ways of inscribing and archiving the material traces of life, and these can be described as writing in the broad sense. Spivak defines writing in this sense as “a position where the absence of the weaver from the web [of being] is structurally necessary.”  Platforms such as Facebook become mechanisms for condensation and distribution of experience, a hyper-connected version of the fanzine’s informality that launched my own writerly beginnings.

This shared platform for the inscription and distribution of material disrupts the historical relation between subjective interior and exterior worlds that writing held through the modern era, and messes with the concept of genre as we understand it. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler describes  this as an extension of “grammatisation” to the affects and behaviour through user profiling and modelling in the system. In order to achieve economies of scale for capital, a market must be created through the synchronisation of modes of attention. In Marx’s terminology, a process of proletarianization, the loss of know-how is extended to the loss of ‘know-how-to-live’.

In The Law of Genre, by way of an intriguing reading of Blanchot, Derrida places genre in the feminine principle, an ineffable multiplicity that both calls forth and grounds the singular “identity” of the masculine author-figure. [Remembering that the masculine/feminine will be enacted by all sexes, differentially.] In this psychoanalytic formulation, the writer is birthed by genre, seeks to escape it, and is inevitably drawn back to it. The writer of literature does not/cannot/must not think about genre at the time of writing: that will be reserved for the diagnostic mode of reading and editing, where one asks, “what am I actually doing here?” This back and forth process, of repression and differentiation in relation to genre, is how one learns to move to what Stiegler calls the “outside of the outside”, escaping the category of the default through the development of a writing practice, readable as a style. Each written work makes a call to an audience, but one voiced in the register of genre, a register that brings about the audience and structures the relationship with the reader. Historically, these works sequentially set out a named personal archive and perhaps modify the genre in whatever smaller or larger ways that are unknowable to the author, through the adoption of works by a community of readers. The cycle of life goes on.

Within this residual logic, a platform like Facebook intervenes in the technical structure of production in unhelpful ways, through a sped-up cycle of production and feedback, punctuated by transformations of the entire Facebook genre itself. These transformations (e.g. Timeline, the ticker) do not occur through the creation of individual works in the historical mode, but through Facebook’s aggregated (privatised) reading of the collective works of its users into the social graph, the database of “people and the connections they have to everything they care about”. Facebook then makes a calculated change in the interface for the purposes of network growth and monetisation. This can perhaps be staged as the intervention of the masculine principle of rationalisation and utility in the feminine “soft law” of genre.

[This reading may or may not take on greater potential due to the empirical dominance of women on Facebook. Remembering Cixous’ discussion of L’écriture féminine in The Laugh of the Medusa: “If the New Women, arriving now, dare to create outside the theoretical, they’re called in by the cops of the Signifier, fingerprinted, remonstrated, and brought into the line of order that they are supposed to know; assigned by force of trickery to a precise place in the chain that’s always formed for the benefit of a privileged ‘signifier.’” Ironically, this is perhaps most palpable in the genre of anti-Facebook rants among men in the comment sections of major news websites whenever some story about a Facebook-related event appears: “Facebook wrecking relationships as usual”, i.e. the economy of intimacy against patriarchal law.]

From this gendered reading, Facebook finally succeeded in producing of a format for sharing intimacy in a relatively de-composed fashion. The geeky social networks of the preceding eras were based on an identifiably masculine subject with an instrumental/intentional approach to sociality: “I want to contact this person/group of people with this material, what is the best way to do it? I will use that.” When I got sick of Facebook fucking my archive around, Google+ immediately appealed as a much better way to share annotated links, one of my previous activities on Facebook. Google+ is still technically better for that and almost everything else you’d want to do, perhaps even more so because no-one is there to get in the way. Google are the poster child for the internet as tool, which is perhaps why their various forays into media have always fallen flat. Back in my misspent youth consulting for the nascent online advertising sector, I remember being baffled at the lack of interest among agency types in what Google were doing with advertising in the 90s, given its rational “effectiveness”. In retrospect, it obviously smelt like geeky direct marketing, which in agency-land was a whole other world, housed on a different floor or preferably, in a different building.  Google are perhaps like a well-meaning sexual partner who has done too much research, who would do anything you wanted as long as you specified it exactly. There is nothing mysterious about them, in fact mystery itself is a threat to this order.

Facebook does emerge from a geek culture, but where Google’s founding principle was to “organise the world’s information”, Zuckerberg’s was to stalk hot chicks, and that happily turns out to also be a lucrative proposition for him. It also accounts for Facebook’s relative skill in the economy of intimacy: the voyeur, after all, never really wants the object of their vision, for then the vision is lost. From the user side, Facebook’s basic material is the paradox of identity, the principle of self-presentation that can be undone by others, the self as a product. It is as if they took to heart Marx’s analysis of the commodity, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties…”. Most other online platforms have not allowed these mysterious “subtleties and niceties” to circulate in an integrated way – thus I spent much of the late 1990s doing user experience design in an attempt to “humanise” these platforms through socially recognisable genres of interaction, to reduce the burden of “intentionality” for the user on commercial websites. For better and worse, Facebook could finally put you in a community that you didn’t have to keep re-deciding to join, therefore at some level they cracked the problem of capitalising on online sociality. What Myspace started within the subset of life called music fandom, Facebook took to life in general.

The double-bind of community is at the heart of my predicament with Facebook. On the one hand, I came to art to escape the banality of a real-life community organised around the values of secular-protestant capitalism. Genres of aesthetic and political production invited me to become someone else precisely due to their positioning just out of reach, their lack of determination by existing circumstances. On the other hand, within any given community of aesthetic aspiration, as feminist critique shows us, there is an inter-personal ethics of interaction that is primarily structured by the political dynamics it seeks to escape. For the last decade or so, I have oriented my thinking and writing toward these “ethics of politics”, building a community not simply out of those working toward the same professional or political goals, but with a network of individuals sharing some kind of compatible ethical spirit. This has involved a focus on the politics “behind the scenes”, reading and writing with people for sentimental reasons that relate to my own attempts to learn new ways of living, loving and learning; a practice that has been highly “unprofessional.” Facebook’s circulation of intimacy facilitates these relationships in ways that more public networks (Twitter, lists) do not. But Facebook has also confronted me with the commoditisation of that affective labour in an entirely new way, decomposing my utopian fantasies of communities of practice finding their own form.

During my break from Facebook,  I realised that while it is not the diary, archive or discussion platform I had been using it as, it can still keep me in ambient and relatively intimate colocation with many of the superb people around the world I love, in a way that no other platform really does. And if that most basic labour of human attachment is increasingly the interest of capital, it seems important for me to stick with it to find out exactly how that is happening, however irritating the constraints. But now, rather than inhabiting a Facebook practice by default as I did for the first five years, I hope to approach it more experimentally, to affirm and intensify the currents it sets in motion, rather than trying to bend it to my will in my usual old man style. Back to Facebook, then.

Neo-liberal and future universities

Written for “We are the University” zine, published to accompany Nationwide Day of Student Action, University of Auckland, 26th September 2011.

What is a university for? For the German tradition of research and specialist knowledge that underpins the U.S.-descended graduate school, it would be the production of Bildung, “to develop all possible capacities and to represent the universal in each individual” through the integration of research and learning toward a national culture (Ricken 489). For the French-English college model that underpins undergraduate education, the university is the cultivation of the intellect through Cardinal Newman’s liberal education, where the development of a life of the mind is “not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense”, but in a “true and high sense as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or treasure that will be shared with the world (88).” Both Humboldt and Newman’s ideas of the university appear naive and romantic as we approach the 50th anniversary of the publication of a third canonical statement on the modern university, University of California president Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University, which defined the contemporary higher educational institution as a “multiversity.” Rather than defending a single ideal and seeking social allies for its institutional expression; the multiple-mission multiversity would serve the many needs of techno-capitalist democracy, though they would not be served in the same way. For the historical “idea” of a university, Kerr substituted a “model” that reflected neo-liberal rationality. As Ashby describes it, where once the university was cultivated as a garden flower, of no more significance to the prince or bishop than the court musician; the modern university is expected to be a yield-bearing crop (8). For Readings, this productivity requires that the university no longer conforms to an idea of culture, but to an idea of excellence: “There is no ‘common reader’ in a regime of excellence, since everyone can be excellent in their own way (104).” The university is “dereferentialised” and contentless€”the key principle for Kerr was “internal differentiation” by sector, campus, department, programme, institute, laboratory, “in sum, a bewilderingly complex organization (Rothblatt 184).” Viewed through a political-economic lens, what is striking about the transformations of the last half-century is their conformance with the tenets of neo-liberal economic agendas.

Flew notes the unfortunate tendency for neo-liberalism to be used as a catch-all term for capitalism; and most critiques of neo-liberalism concentrate on globalisation, privatisation, trade, and international monetary policy (locally see e.g. Jane Kelsey). However, as important as such issues are in a university system that is increasingly integrated into international trade under the GATS agenda, Foucault’s historical analysis of neo-liberalism is perhaps more useful in analysing the subjective experience of university life on two levels, that McNay summarises as i) “regulatory or massification techniques” to manage populations, and ii) co-constituting “individualising, disciplinary mechanisms” that regulate behaviour (57). Foucault’s late 1970s lectures at the Collège de France situate the specific philosophy of the individual in 20th century German and U.S. neo-liberalism in relation to liberal European thought.

Classical European liberalism of the 18th century underpinning the development of the modern university conceived freedom as embodied in a civil society which sought to trade outside the control of the state. A Protestant logic of secularisation moves the structure of civic values from the public/religious into the private sphere, reflected in Adam Smith’s famous figure of the “invisible hand” of the market. For economic liberalism in Smith’s tradition, the idea that the state can or should attempt to achieve particular market outcomes would be as counter-productive as trying to understand God’s natural design. Instead, government should maintain a blindness and neutrality to the actual objectives of economic governing, and remove the roadblocks to the market economy that will “inevitably” lead to the most efficient distribution of resources. Ironically, such inevitability must be taken on faith (Foucault 16, 32). However, we see in neo-liberal theory the development of an entirely new rationale for government management of the economy and its goals for the post-1960s university. If the modern “liberal” version of the university brought about the “professional” academic who inhabited the university bureaucracy with expertise; neo-liberal ideology has shifted to what Olssen and Peters call a “consumer-managerial” model of accountability, based on quantifiable output measures for the university’s new task of human capital development (328).

For the German ordoliberals of the 1930s-50s and the neo-liberal theorists of the United States, liberalism left too much to chance. The experiences of the German state under National Socialism had shown that merely letting capitalism do its work would not necessarily result in an increasingly free market: the market game of exchange could come to wither under state control. Therefore, to these thinkers, the principles of competition underpinning effective markets should be advanced in a “positive” way, markets must be produced through active policy, rather than simply being allowed or facilitated. It would become the responsibility of government to produce the truth of the market, and at the same time the market will constitute “the general index in which one must place the rule for defining all governmental action (Foucault 121).” The formal rigour of competition should be supported by an appropriate regulatory framework: one which does not act on any direct economic facts or toward social outcomes (particularly not “equality”), but instead to support the “environmental factors” that allow competition to flourish. In neo-liberal doctrine, market logic itself must not be directly altered, but must be taken on faith in light of the many documented failings of state intervention (meanwhile, the documented failings of capitalism are merely opportunities for improvement). Most of all, interventions should work to “keep players in the market game,” a sentiment vividly reflected in the recent government bailouts of financial enterprises internationally. Neo-liberal interventions no longer see the economic world as a distinct zone of activity separate from social or religious activities: economics comes to be defined in the 1930s as “the science of human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have mutually exclusive uses (Foucault 222).” Foucault notes that economics is no longer the logic of these processes that are taken as given, but analysis of the “strategic programming of individuals’ activity” within this world-view.

There is an anthropology at work here, an identifiably Christian-heritage individualist view of the human that Foucault sees emerging in the behaviourism of psychologists such as Skinner, and which would be later reflected in the extension of economics by Becker to even non-rational or sub-rational activity. Economics would then become the über-social science; the sole means and measure of humanity. Neo-liberal homo œconomicus is not a partner in exchange with another individual when visiting a neutral public market. As Foucault notes, “the stake in all [neo]-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo œconomicusas partner of exchange with a homo œconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings (226).” He (and it is a “he” that is theorised) becomes ceaselessly productive, rather than consumptive: in consumption, according to Becker, he simply “produces his own satisfaction (Foucault 226).” It is a lonely life. With Becker comes the extension of market logic to all spheres of human activity: the market becomes a “grid of intelligibility”, decomposing the traditional governmental concepts of virtue, ethics, morality, or any kind of public benefit or public domain. Instead, the principle of maximum economy will require the development of human capital (biopower) for the “greater good” (Tribe 694). The enterprising self should “naturally” maximise its own production for its own purposes. But because the self responds to the environment, the participation of populations in the market game can and should be stimulated for maximum output. Yet conforming to this version of individuality will involve “adoption of a ‘a lifestyle’, a ‘way of being’, a moral choice, a ‘mode of relating to oneself, to time, to one’s environment, to the future, the group, the family (Lazzarato 121).” To achieve economies of scale, the market-based individual must be created through what Stiegler calls the synchronisation of modes of life (85), rather than these modes being allowed to develop in their own unproductive individualised difference. As Wendy Brown summarises the neo-liberal paradigm, individual freedom is thus produced as a mechanism of government rather than in resistance to it, and the consequences of this freedom are morally valorised.

In the 20th century the rationale for public investment in universities has moved from cultural development; through the redeployment of soldiers and production of an elite managerial class; to enhanced economic production and reduction in youth unemployment (Nybom 75). The social good becomes progressively individualised as access expands – in Perkin’s terms leading European countries upped the participation rate of the student age group dramatically from under 10% in 1960 to 50% or more by 2000 €”in the UK this went from 9% to 60% over the forty year period (192). In the wake of decreased public funding, massively increased participation, and chronic unemployment and underemployment among graduates, we could now describe the investment agenda of higher education as the profitable production of false hope, a cynical form of “credit baiting without infrastructural involvement (Spivak, Critique 220).” The aim is to produce the indebted student who will be inculcated with fear and inducted into “stress, worry and pressure” as the normative mode of life (Williams 96). As Harris describes the scam, “the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.” It should not come as any surprise that the growth in participation of women, people of colour and the working classes in the student body has occurred at a time when that participation has been turned from a publicly-funded asset to a mechanism of enslavement in debt; nor should it be surprising that the white males overwhelmingly in charge of this transformation siphon substantial salaries from this debt, owing to the qualifications they received on the public purse decades ago. No doubt any collapse in the higher education bubble will see the financialised university bailed out without affecting the kinds of executive compensation we witnessed for the financial services industry, and it goes without saying that bail-outs of student debt are unlikely to follow.

The heat of this bubble is why the contemporary university is described as being in crisis. The cynical managerialism of government is matched by a certain deligitimation of the university in the eyes of the public, augmented by the dissipation in the market value of university qualifications. While the useless nature of humanities scholarship has been critiqued for as long as the university has existed, the last two decades have seen substantial and widespread revolt against both the value of university teaching (Arum and Roksa being merely the latest in a long line) but also scientific knowledge, perhaps most remarkably on the issue of climate change. The specialist expertise of the scientist is no longer seen as the authoritative source of the inexorable advancement of knowledge; or perhaps it might be more truthful to say that once scientific enquiry no longer functioned with the rhetorical promise of limitless economic and technological advancement, many no longer sought its authority. Of course, there are many for whom it was never a convincing saviour in the first place. The circulation of information in the postcolonial era makes visible cracks in the inevitable telos of Western university knowledge’s superiority over “less advanced” others; and where such neocolonial dynamics are still in play they appear to be secured less by discursive moral force generated by experimental resolution of the secrets of the universe; rather, they are secured through the brute force of financialisation and capital accumulation, backed up with military and ideological support where necessary. While the European model of the university continues to spread, few new institutions outside Europe would give the ideals of a Cardinal Newman or Kant or Humboldt precedence over the development of human capital and intellectual property promised by neo-liberal technoscience. However, Mary Poovey points out that this entire logic can be subverted, and this logic appears to be the target of many global occupations of the university:

The means/ends logic of the market is tautological because, by measuring means solely by their ability to achieve the end the market defines in advance, it undermines the credibility of any alternative definition of value. The only argument that is theoretically robust enough to counter the self-confirming logic of this tautology is an argument that is also tautological. Instead of accepting the idea that the market defines value, we have to suspend the market model entirely in favor of an alternative system that defines value differently.(11)
The opening of this alternative value system may ironically be found in the heart of the university itself.


The university should thus also be the place in which nothing is beyond question, not even the current and determined figure of democracy, not even the traditional idea of critique, meaning theoretical critique, and not even the authority of the “question” form, of thinking as “questioning.” That is why I spoke without delay and without disguise of deconstruction.

€” Jacques Derrida, “The University without Condition”

Discussing Marx’s concept of crisis, Hay notes that “[C]risis is derived from the Greek, KrìnoKrìsis (to decide) and refers to a moment of decisive intervention, a moment of transformation, a moment of rupture, [… of] objective contradiction yet subjective intervention (Spivak, Critique 323).”  In light of the itinerary traced above it is no surprise that one of the most historically informed recent accounts of “the idea of the university” is also the most utopian. In 1998 Derrida delivered a lecture at Stanford eventually published asThe University Without Condition, an essay which reflects on what the University should be, and also makes suggestive asides on the role the visual arts may take. Derrida’s characteristic approach is to head straight to the central defining concepts of the university: the university as the space of universal freedom; the professor; the function of academic work and academic works. Under critical pressure, these central concepts prove themselves to provide openings to a future: rather than seeking adaptation to the various challenges to the university from without, Derrida seeks the future within, in a kind of “intellectual occupation.” He notes that if the university is to have a role in the questions of human truth, it must firstly be through “unconditional discussion”, in a space where research and re-elaboration can take place “without presupposition.” This is not in order for such discussion to “enclose itself” there, but “on the contrary, so as to find the best access to a new public space transformed by new techniques of communication, information, archivization, and knowledge production (Derrida “The University without Condition”, hereafter UC, 203).”  This thorough yet provisional embrace of utopia perhaps is perhaps reminiscent of Spivak’s well-known use of the term “strategic essentialism.” Derrida is not nostalgic for any actual university past, noting that “this unconditionality… the invincible force of the university… has never been in effect (206).” In another talk, Mochlos, Derrida establishes Kant as an architect of this space of freedom in the modern university, but notes that Kant’s price is high€”Kant achieves the space of freedom intellectually by removing the university from the corrupting public domain of the political. Such a non-politicised “public” space of “immunity” inside the university, Derrida is quick to note, has never existed or been tenable “in fact or by law (UC 219).” And in the transformation and permeation of institutional and disciplinary boundaries being brought about in a globalising academic economy, such a space seems “more archaic and imaginary than ever”, while also seeming to fail to engage the political as we might hope. “Hence the necessity to rethink the concepts of the possible and the impossible (210).”

Nevertheless, Derrida claims that “the idea of this space of the academic type has to be symbolically protected by a kind of absolute immunity, as if its interior were inviolable […] even if and especially if it must not prevent us from addressing ourselves to the university’s out­side without any utopic neutrality (219).” Derrida, the philosopher whose convoluted style is routinely mocked by Anglo-Saxon critics, becomes disarmingly direct and clear here, as he often does when discussing institutional imperatives:

 This freedom or immunity of the university and par excellence of its Humanities is something to which we must lay claim, while committing ourselves to it with all our might. Not only in a verbal and declarative fashion, but in work, in act, and in what we make happen with events (219).

For Derrida, this freedom is not dispensed by a benevolent state bureaucracy as Humboldt sought in the nineteenth century, but is instead claimed through acts that are and should be the hallmark of the professor. Derrida notes that the word “professor”, of Latin origin, had only a religious sense in English before the establishment of the university in the 13th and 14th centuries. [He also notes that the word “fable” also comes from this root, thus fiction is tied to the term]. To “profess” was to take public vows of a religious order. Derrida turns to Austin’s distinction between constative (“saying what is”) and performative (“making things happen”) speech acts, noting that to profess is not simply to commit to the craft of holding constative scientific-technical knowledge; but prior to taking up this craft to make a pledge, to commit one’s responsibility, even to fight for something in the future. “What matters here is this promise, this pledge of responsibility, which is reducible to neither theory nor practice (214).” If the professor has power in a world of generalised archivisation techniques and knowledge circulation, it is in this commitment: “Beyond and in addition to knowledge, know-how, and competence, a testimonial commitment, a freedom, a responsibility under oath, a sworn faith obligates [the professor] to render accounts to some tribunal yet to be defined (222).”  One must work for the university not in response to the contingencies of practical management, but in light of the judgement of those to come in the future.

Derrida then moves on to the question of the kind of work that is implied in this commitment. It is not simply work as labour, for “we know better than ever today that a gain in production can correspond to a diminishing of work (221).” Instead the professor must engage in the production of works (oeuvres) that carry this signature mark of responsibility in their profession, and which “remain after and beyond the time of the operation (216).” If such a work is to be critical in the performative sense, rather than merely talkingabout the critical, it cannot remain bound by traditional genres of critique, but must take up an “unconditional right to ask critical questions not only about the history of the concept of man, but about the history even of the notion of critique, about the form and the authority of the question, about the interrogative form of thought (204).” In short, in order for the professoriat to fully carry out their responsibility to the future of the profession, they must create works that allow new modes of thinking in that profession to become possible, just as innovative works of the past have allowed us to think today. Needless to say, in humanities disciplines where the student is initiated into the academy on arrival, this “professing” role is also available for the student, in the mode of humanities learning that Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of desire (“Ethics” 615).” In this sense Derrida introduces the modality of the “as if” in fiction, in fabulation, that is appropriate to all oeuvres,

not only singularly oeuvres d’art, the fine arts (painting, sculpture, cinema, music, poetry, literature, and so forth), but also… all the dis­cursive idealities, all the symbolic or cultural productions that define, in the general field of the university, the disciplines said to be in the Humanities€”and even the juridical disciplines and the production of laws, and even a certain structure of scientific objects in general (212).

Speaking of academic outputs, he claims that he will “not hasten for the moment to reduce these “objects” (of professorial activity) to fictions, simulacra, or works of art, while acting as if we already had at our disposal reliable concepts of fiction, of art, or of the work (212).” Even without such definitions, for Derrida the work of the professor ultimately cannot be simply the “competent exercise of some knowledge” in a constative or techno-scientific sense, but must be an imaginative exploration of the limits of the very field in a way which cannot be undertaken with pre-existing conditions.

Derrida’s account of the unconditional university speaks directly to the goals of many student-led occupations of universities in recent times. It addresses the autonomous and unlimited demands which have and should be made of the university, as the university can only be truly “universal” if it is a space without limit. From this perspective, the neo-liberal quantification of university inputs and outputs, indexed to credit hours, rankings, productivity, and€”most of all€”debt, becomes a regime that aims to bond students’ personal aspirations and growth to the demands of the market. But other types of value are possible, and they will not be available at some distant point of freedom granted to those with an excellent GPA or ranking in a research assessment exercise. They must instead be enacted immediately, in our relations with each other, so that new forms of collective value can be discovered outside the coercive principles of competition and productivity. As Judith Butler explains, the autonomy we seek as individuals can only be found together:

In this sense, we must be undone in order to do ourselves: we must be part of a larger social fabric of existence in order to create who we are. This is surely the paradox of autonomy […]  If the social world… must change in order for autonomy to become possible, then individual choice will prove to be dependent from the start on conditions that none of us author at will, and no individual will be able to choose outside the context of a radically altered social world. That alteration comes from an increment of acts, collective and diffuse, belonging to no single subject, and yet one effect of these alterations is to make acting like a subject possible(100).

Danny Butt [] teaches in the Critical Studies programme at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. He is currently writing a book on the future of the art school within the research university.


Works Cited

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift : Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Ashby, Eric. “The Future of the Nineteenth Century Idea of a University.” Minerva 6.1 (1967): 3-17.

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Derrida, Jacques. “Mochlos; or, the Conflict of the Faculties.” Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Ed. Rand, Richard. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. 1-34.

—. “The University without Condition.” Trans. Kamuf, Peggy. Without Alibi. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 202-37.

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Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège De France, 1978-79. Ed. Senellart, Michel. trans. Burchell, Graham. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

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Olssen, Mark, and Michael A. Peters. “Neoliberalism, Higher Education and the Knowledge Economy: From the Free Market to Knowledge Capitalism.” Journal of Education Policy 20.3 (2005): 313-45.

Perkin, Harold. “History of Universities.” International Handbook of Higher Education. Eds. Forest, James J. F. and Philip G. Altbach. Vol. 18. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2006. 159-205.

Poovey, Mary. “The Twenty-First-Century University and the Market: What Price Economic Viability?”Differences 12.1 (2001): 1-16.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Ricken, Norbert. “The Deliberate University: Remarks on the ‘Idea of the University’ from a Perspective of Knowledge.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 26  (2007): 481-98.

Rothblatt, Sheldon. “A Tale of Two Berkeleys.” Minerva 42 2 (2004): 173-89.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching.”Diacritics 32.3 (2002): 17-31.

Stiegler, Bernard. Acting Out.  Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Tribe, Keith. “The Political Economy of Modernity: Foucault’s Collège de France Lectures of 1978 and 1979.”Economy and Society 38.4 (2009): 679-98.

Williams, Jeffrey. “The Pedagogy of Debt.” Toward a Global Autonomous University. Ed. The Edu-factory Collective. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2009. 89-96.

Luke Willis Thompson – Yaw

[This text originally appeared at EyeContact.]

In his essay ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’ James Clifford explains how the classification of objects by collectors is doomed to be a temporary exercise, as objects do not remain in the value regimes of either artistic masterpiece or cultural artefact, but shift between them over time and space. For Foucault, the emergence and decline of stable discourses about objects is precisely the source of their aesthetic power: in the modern paradigm the most powerful artistic experience involves something we thought we knew slipping from our grasp, or something felt which is about to become knowable. Meanwhile, objects themselves hover ambivalently, resisting our attempts to put them in their place.

Luke Willis Thompson’s Yaw presents us with a remarkable, disturbing figure in such a transition. As we enter the gallery a life-sized sculpture of a hunched figure faces away, revealing himself to be a black man in an ill-fitting suit and hat, dressed in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. He is truly yawing, a ship who has strayed far off course here in Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau, where men of black African descent do not figure in a national story. Wherever this man is supposed to be headed, it is not this city. On closer inspection, his bent posture could be the sculpture frozen in the moment of an entertaining dance, but this possibility is suppressed by Thompson’s precarious balancing of an empty shallow bowl in the open hand. Not only is he a long way from home, but he is skint. He invites the usual distancing comment directed to beggars: “That poor bastard.”

Alone in the gallery with nothing else to look at, our distance cannot be maintained, so he has our attention and his story unfolds. Copied in France from a US sculpture, the figure arrived to an Auckland antique dealer in the early 1970s, entering New Zealand at the same time as a large number of Pacific migrants recruited for economic purposes. On arrival, the figure was placed outside the store to hustle for business on a street corner near the young artist’s then home. After suffering increasing physical abuse on the street, the figure has come to be kept indoors, now on display behind a caged front window. Yet even though he was now inside the store, he was not for sale, continuing to perform his role as the iconic identifying chattel of the antique dealer, a differentiating function for which no money can substitute. He is truly performing the labour of identity, indentured with a debt that cannot be repaid or bought out. The artist’s gesture begins with a three week rented holiday for the figure in RM gallery, where perhaps a certain amount of aesthetic care can be offered as respite from his usual labour. This additional displacement by the artist recalls the efforts among communities and museum workers for the repatriation of cultural artefacts and human remains: this body does not belong here, it should be sent home. But as a copy of a generic stereotype itself many centuries downstream of the founding of the European slave trade, and now on the other side of the world, the figure has no clear “home” to go to.

After a while, the man begins to reveal suffering from not only living rough on the streets, but in the brutality of his creation. In keeping with the tradition of blackface, everything about this man has been designed to caricature, subdue and dissipate the power of the black body in the guilty aftermath of slavery. The nameless, presumably white, sculptor haunts the work with unimaginable cruelty: bowing the black man down before the viewer; slowly kneading the man’s lips into an exaggerated pout; moulding his pants into a decrepit sag; and most disturbingly, leaving sunken hollows in the eyes where the irises should be. A sad political figure in his native habitat of the store, the white cube directs attention to the human singularity of his making and being: he becomes less a political symbol of racism and more a monstrous example of the impossibilities the history of racialisation leaves for an ideal interpersonal community we seek in the art world. There is simply no easy way to be with this man. The artist’s installation strategy engages political and social issues through the modality of the personal and ethical: the plate being offered by our figure bears a Nazi-era stamp on its base identifying it as being from porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal, whose Jewish founder was forced to leave the business and became exiled while the company was “Aryanised” (though retaining its Jewish name) in the 1930s. There is no interpretive text to help the viewer to “get” the connection, but gallery staff have been instructed by the artist to share with interested visitors a moving story about the artist’s father that shows this juxtaposition of figure and object in a new and painful light.

When the art historical brain catches up to this racialised figure in the gallery, one is immediately put in mind of Michael Parekowhai’s works Poorman, Beggarman, Thief (1996) (more easily remembered as the Māori figures wearing the badge “Hi, My name is Hori”); and the 2003 Kapa Haka series of Māori security guards, recently given a reworking in the 2011 Venice Biennale. Those works cunningly (and rightfully) asserted the presence of Māori in the public-commercial sphere through the Warholian strategy of the multiple, while retaining the European individualist authorial signature of the “hand-crafted.” This mark of authorship, further enhanced by the artist’s use of his immediate family as models, turns out to be essential for maintenance of the significant exchange value Parekowhai’s works carry today.  The aesthetic complications of this strategy are perhaps most palpable looking back to Parekowhai’s 1994 work Mimi, a series of carved replicas of Duchamp’s Fountain. At the time, the work seemed like an assertion of Māori (and thus New Zealand) relevance in the Euro-American history of contemporary art; while also a statement in favour of “crafted” sculpture that would “keep it real” in the no-bullshit Kiwi manner. From today’s vantage point, one can see how the art market has enthusiastically consumed Parekowhai’s interplay of cultural difference (differentiation) and individual authorship (property), with the finish and craftsmanship of the works securing the viewer in their position of financial and aesthetic appreciation.

In Yaw, Thompson seems to take the opposite strategy, restoring the power of Duchamp’s ready-made gesture. Thompson has not even been able to buy the figure at the centre of the exhibition for himself, let alone circulate it for financial gain – the trajectory of the figure is away from the market, and hopefully away from comfortable display. We are increasingly used to stories of such limits on circulation taking place in the world of indigenous cultural materials, among communities stereotyped in the West as non-cosmopolitan, pre-modern, and resistant to capital accumulation. This is why Parekowhai’s infiltration of a race- and class-bound artworld’s mode of circulation creates such useful openings. Thompson’s gesture, however, is much more radical, both in aesthetic and cultural terms. Thompson finds in this generic object of blackface minstrelsy an absolute singularity, one that potentially speaks to every instance of the commodification of race. Refusing the shelter a ‘cultural identity’ might provide in the Parekowhai/90s-Peter-Robinson fashion, or any explanatory narratives that justify the work, Thompson’s courageously bare presentation of this object leaves us decomposed by undigestibility of the figure for either cultural edification or capitalist consumption. We are ourselves “thrown off course”, yawing against the bitter squalls of power that punctuate the winds of the global multicultural economy.

Pūrākau: stories of future homelands

Catalogue Essay for Pūrākau project organised by Xavier Meade, 2010.

Mauriora-ki-te-Ao describe pūrākau as “a Māori term for stories which contain mythological perspectives concerning the nature of reality and the human condition. A pūrākau is a story within which is contained models, perspectives, ideas of consequence to the people who recite them”(1). More than just a compelling narrative, pūrākau are culturally specific vehicles for the retention and transmission of knowledge. As Cherokee writer Thomas King says, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (2)

All stories spring from a place, but trading and sharing stories is a natural instinct that has always had a role exemplified by the travelling minstrel or today’s artist. Contrary to the scientistic and capitalist models of “information transfer” that values an idea or expression for the universality of its appeal; the story only finds its value in a specific experience or moment. There is no external rationale for this project connecting Cuba, Mexico and Aotearoa New Zealand: it only works because of the specific connections that are mobilised by the project leader Xavier Meade and all those involved. That is a story in itself.

Can a poster tell a story? At first glance, the poster appears to have a more provocative than narrative quality. A poster is not so much studied, but seen as a whole in a flash, instantaneously. Traditionally, a poster makes an intervention in a story, more than it makes a story. Susan Sontag suggested that “a poster aims to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal” (3). But in order to do any of this, it must reference a genre or back-story that is already known to the viewer in their cultural environment. No time for weaving intricate tales.

So it would seem that to make posters about myths, legends and stories in an international exchange might be contrary to the nature of the poster itself, because the pre-existing languages and narratives that make the poster effective are not going to be located in all the local environments. A standard poster, on the other hand has an immediacy that stems from its dissemination in a public – and it is no surprise that political posters have such a strongly nationalist history. They almost require an urban public imagined in the European model. The way a poster desires energy and action is captured in a Venezuelan poster from the 1970s documented by Tschabrun:

“Don’t stick it up in your dining room or in your study, don’t keep it in your bedside table. Don’t misplace it. Don’t collect it, don’t archive it, don’t keep it in your library. Don’t give it away. Post it on the walls of the city.” (4)

But when the poster moves outside its intended community, it becomes something else, an artefact that may hold the talismanic force of a possible other future, such as the Che Guevara posters that held pride of place in Australian bedrooms of my teenage friends. Or, in a more aesthetic mode, it might become part of a collection referencing the very history of the poster itself.

The poster collector might be seen by the Venezuelan commentator as a counterrevolutionary force, but posters like those in the Pūrākau project become valuable precisely because they step back from the poster in its usual form. Like the previous Liberators project coordinated by Xavier, these posters require a a consideration of the connections and differences between cultures and environments. To borrow a formulation from William Kentridge , they start to reflect on the poster rather than to just be a poster (5). We can start to ask, what might this poster mean in its own place, and what could it mean in my place? Worlds meet in a place of the imagination, where many stories can be held together.

From my view as an outsider, the imagined world of the Pūrākau project seems connected to the legendary nation of Aztlán, where Aztecs resided many years ago in the North American southwest. Aztlán was also the title of classic silkscreened poster by Richard Duardo (1982) that would fit well in the current collection. Greeley says that Duardo’s Aztlán, with its linking of ancient forms to contemporary urban culture, “posits a ‘return’ to a Chicano homeland, a mythical, pre-Conquest Mexican past invoked in terms of a consciously marginal present that rejects dominant cultural patrimony of both Mexico and the United States” (6). The imagined future is born of the struggle for autonomy, a reaction against racism and oppression. The writer Cherrie Moraga explains her own awakening, saying that “Aztlán gave language to a nameless anhelo inside me.” Through struggle, “the Mexicana becomes a Chicano (or at least a Mechicana); that is, she becomes a citizen of this country [the US], not by virtue of a green card, but by virtue of the collective voice she assumes in staking her claim.” (7)

Since the 1980s, indigenous peoples have insistently asserted their collective voice in the international legal and cultural domain. For the non-indigenous activist, the stories of indigenous history have become less of a symbol that can be appropriated for our own invented mythologies, as they become more powerfully expressed by indigenous peoples themselves, from the Zapatistas to the Taino to the Tino Rangatiratanga movement in Aotearoa. Still, the effort to undo colonial oppression and regenerate indigenous sovereignty invites a future for all peoples. As Lilla Watson put it to her non-indigenous colleagues, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (8)

This mode of indigenous regeneration deconstructs Western assumptions about the relationship between the present and past, as the Māori whakatauki explains: “Ka haere whakamua me hoki whakamuri” – we must walk into the future facing the past. Ritual, story, legend, language, mythology – pūrākau – are maintained not simply for their own sake, but for the decolonisation of the imagination in the time to come. In this mindset, there is no tension between the immediacy of the European poster tradition as it migrates to the Spanish-speaking Americas; and the traditional tales of the natural world that are embedded in pūrākau. Unlike the flat spatial world created though global financial instruments and intergovernmental agreements, this new homeland of the imagination – a United First Nations perhaps – is as rich and diverse as the planet itself. These posters both speak to this new world and work toward bringing it into being.

Danny Butt, Auckland/Tāmaki Makau-rau 2010

2) King, Thomas. (2003). The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
3) Sontag, Susan. (1970). “Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity,” in Donald Stermer, ed., The Art of Revolution: 96 Posters from Castro’s Cuba, 1959-1970, New York: McGraw Hill.
4) Tschabrun, Susan. (2003). “Off the Wall and into a Drawer: Managing a Research Collection.” The American Archivist, 66: 303-324, p303.
5) Kentridge, William. (2007). “Director’s Note,” in Ubu and the Truth Commission, edited by J. Taylor. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007: viii-xv
6) Greeley, Robin Adèle. (1998). “Richard Duardo’s ‘Aztlán’ Poster: Interrogating Cultural Hegemony in Graphic Design.” Design Issues, 14(1), pp. 21-34, p34.
7) Moraga, Cherrie. (2004 [1992]). “Queer Aztlán; the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” in Carlin and DiGraza, eds., Queer Cultures. Pearson. p229-230
8) Watson, Lilla. 1992. ‘Untitled’. Health for Women. 3. p.1

The Opposite of Whiteness

“The Opposite of Whiteness”
Presentation to Whiteness/Whitemess : Creative Disorders and Hope
Wellington, May 15th 2010
Danny Butt – danny at

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak understands the colonial subject through the psychoanalytic notion of foreclosure. The colonised is not simply rejected, but a trace is registered the body as it is expelled. She quotes Freud: In foreclosure, “the ego rejects the incompatible idea together with the affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all”.

It is not just that the idea of the native is rejected, but the feeling that is generated by them is also rejected. So a psychological defense must be made against the idea and the affect returning. This explains why the question of indigeneity or the racial basis of colonisation is not simply a matter for logical discussion about rights. The actual well-being or relative socio-economic or legal status of oppressed peoples has no real bearing on the psychoanalytic functioning of the person that has been raised in racial dominance and expects dominance. The very presence of the discussion also raises in the settler-colonist the spectre of emotions (of fear, for example) that have been rejected, and the lengths to which a psyche will go to avoid bad feelings are profound.

Scholars of whiteness have correctly pointed out that the specificity of this response and rejection has more to do with white culture than indigenous culture or ethnic others; and that this is worthy of investigation. As Richard Dyer describes his project, it involves looking at:

the racial imagery of white people – not the images of other races in white cultural production, but the latter’s imagery of white people themselves. This is not done merely to fill a gap in the analytic literature, but because there is something at stake in looking at, or continuing to ignore, white racial imagery. As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.

We can perhaps look at this project as filling the gap of anthropology by turning anthropological methods on ourselves. In a way, it makes sense. But what if the problem is not in the gap, but in the method? I think this might explain why whiteness studies has not become a widespread solution in the role of decolonisation, In this paper, I outline three reasons – the privelege of whiteness studies, the appropriation of identity-based activist methods; and the divisive nature of the discourse among whites. Sara Ahmed points out that “the project of making whiteness visible only makes sense from the point of view of those for whom it is invisible.” For everyone else it is already obvious, in need of escape rather than creation and surfacing.

The fantasy of transcendence of the material situation which Dyer, to his credit, desperately wanted whiteness studies to avoid is unfortunately situated in the very terms he uses to bring whiteness studies into being: looking at ‘not the images of other races in white cultural production, but the latter’s imagery of white people themselves.’ But can or should whites learn from other white writing the imagery of other races about ourselves? In some respects this might seem to address the understandable expressions of tiredness among people of colour about the labour of having to “educate” whites who don’t get it. We should indeed take responsibility for ourselves. But the creation of a white learning cycle which excludes non-white others seems an unfortunate repetition, which perhaps misses the point that the most important transformation for white culture is to engage in the slow labour of learning to find one’s role in a language or world created by others.

For me, Ahmed’s intervention is decisive. While the aim of this gathering is certainly worthwhile, I am troubled when the conference info states, “We are asking how through our creative work, can we ‘see’ ourselves and our positionalities in order not to be ‘neutral’ or ‘passive participants’ in conversations around identity and power.” This seems a rather alarming affirmation of our capacity for self-knowledge, what Ahmed calls “express[ing] white privilege in the very presumption of the entitlement to learn or to self-consciousness…” She notes that “studying whiteness can involve the claiming of a privileged white identity as the subject who knows.” If anything, we have been engaged in the project of self-knowledge for too long, sequestering other people into what Fanon called our “spiritual adventure” of colonisation. As Ahmed puts it, “we cannot simply unlearn privilege when the cultures in which learning take place are shaped by privilege.”

Secondly, I think it is problematic for whites to appropriate the methods of ethnic identity-formation and self-knowledge that have been fought for and against by people of colour with very different accountabilities and consequences to our own. Especially not in the name of equality; and especially when all the (residual) structures and value systems in society are set up for us. Whatever our formation of white radicality is, it is not generated out of a reflexive understanding of the racial power structures in our society born out of our lived experience in the same way as people of colour.

Marx and Engels diagnosed processes of class-formation and class-consciousness among the working classes as having an objective character dictated by the structure of the economic system. The processes by which the downwardly-mobile bourgeois could become conscious of the structure of a capitalist economy is very different from the mechanisms that bring class-consciousness to the working classes. It is not that bourgeois political radicalisation can’t happen, it’s just that it’s different. Similarly, race means something different for us in a larger social structure and I believe that there is no point in attempting to find a shared movement with people of colour along racial lines.

This sensitises us to a third problem in whiteness studies, a more fundamental gap between white anti-racism and political movements founded by people of colour. Non-white struggles have often been to foster consciousness in a larger group about the possibility of collective political action. However, white anti-racist action is dissident in nature, attempting to draw a line between the good anti-racist whites and the racist white culture which is our inheritance. There is no “natural” alliance that can be appealed to or fostered here, as the process of identification must involve a dis-identification with a spontaneous white identity to accept the possibility of other identifications.

However the comfort level toward the presence of others (what we might call cosmopolitanism) is unevenly distributed along class lines in white culture. Cosmopolitanism is officially reserved for those with cultural capital; while patriotism (anti-cosmopolitanism) is consciously fostered by the ruling classes for everyone else. While my dis-identification with white culture can eventually be mobilised in, for example, a funded trip to a UN-meeting in Tehran, there is no benefit for the white working classes in giving up what they understand as the little privilege they have to learn to adapt to the ways of the Other. One of the notable things about the activists of colour I know is their commitment to taking their people with them. But on the white left it seems that our commitment to full engagement with our people has a fundamentally different character where we want to escape. The study of whiteness as a skill or field for self-knowledge is potentially a class wedge that paradoxically reduces the likelihood of widespread white support toward for anti-racist agendas.

I really don’t think there’s much language for this. I was struck when listening to Glenn Colquhoun’s excellent presentation yesterday that I had a more developed language for critiquing his privilege as a heterosexual male doctor than celebrating his leadership, when he’s someone who knows more about aspects of his whiteness that I do from my 20 years of studying identity politics, and I think he has a more viable model for framing the intercultural relationship than almost any Pākehā creative practitioner I know. This language imbalance seems characteristic of our predicament.


This is quite a negative account of a field of study that I feel like I should support. But it seems clear to me if the overwhelming characteristic of colonial dominance is that we have monopolised the mechanisms for judgement and ascribing value to all peoples, then developing greater self-knowledge is just going to make the problem worse. I’m not saying I don’t like you, I’m saying that you’re all fantastic in ways that are about your ability to be somewhere other than here.

I’m guessing that even many practitioners of whiteness theory would say that their sensitisation to race and accepting whiteness comes from somewhere else outside of the discourse of whiteness. Encouraging participation in this “somewhere else” seems to me to be the most important work that white people can do in our communities. It is about showing a way to live which can accept a relationship with others that is impure and riven with overarching processes of death and disposession among ourselves and our ancestors, and to engage in these relationships without fear. I believe this is only possible through the formation of genuine relationships of shared political and personal aspiration across difference. And I believe that this involves allowing a lack of control over the terms of that relationship.

There are many paths, and we are fortunate that in New Zealand we have in Te Ao Māori a world made generally accessible to us – an official language we can choose to learn which is not ours (and over which we have no authority) but which is uniquely of this place. And as we do the slow work of finding out who we are in another system, I believe that our whiteness becomes both incredibly obvious yet barely possible to discuss in frames that we are familiar with.

The identification of whiteness then is perhaps something like when one is asked to characterise one’s own family. It is a reflection on who one is, knowing that one could not be different, an understanding of the way we are a thread woven into a larger fabric of culture which we do not author. Ultimately, it is a residual, after the fact analysis that encourages reflection, rather than a prescriptive one that can or should guide action.

As we know from our own familial relationships, there can be time when taking the analyst mode to identify patterns can bring insight. But to talk to my parents or brothers about my relationship to them can also simply generate conflict out of the different conceptions of the relationship. More often, what works is moving the way of relating to territory where the relationship can flourish, a territory which may or may not relate to an existing pattern. The grounds for such a move are not knowable to us, but perhaps they lie in an impulse which is the opposite of self-knowledge, the opposite of whiteness.

I think about the relationship I have with my girlfriend – around her difference my boundaries soften. I am taken out of myself by her and returned to a refracted version of myself at the same time. [Aaron in his karakia kai yesterday helpfully asked the powers that be to keep us soft]. Even though I can talk about this feeling, I can’t actually explain it, and increasingly I believe that any attempts to explain it are counterproductive. The attempts at explanation are also attempts to gain possession of my own dispossession. I want to find the feeling rather than diagnose it, and this occurs through maintaining curiosity and lack of knowledge about what is happening. Or as Judith Butler puts it “We must be undone in order to do ourselves: we must be part of a larger social fabric of existence in order to create who we are.” In this dynamic we can see a relation to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ethic in Provincialising Europe when says that he wants “to write narratives and analyses that produce this difference – and not transparency in the relation between non-Western histories and European thought.”

If I have developed any comfort level with this difference I can only say that it comes from the feminist movement rather than whiteness studies or its ilk, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of this gathering for me is the grounding in feminist activism among so of our 80% female participants. What I observe here as the commitment to process and inclusivity (whether one wants to be included or not), our physical relationship, and the desire to share and register the experience of self and other are part of a genre of gathering that I associate with Western feminist movements.

Paradoxically, I feel close to home in this genre, and it brings to mind the clearest analogy I can see for a whiteness gathering: that of the men’s group. Men’s groups scare me. I’m not saying that there aren’t principled and well-intentioned men involved with them doing good work, but I have also seen so much appropriation of feminist practice coupled with misogyny result. Men need to support each other, but when our available language is phallocentric I think that we shouldn’t try and name and formalise that support if we don’t want to reinforce our dominance. Better to just do some other kind of activity together – play some basketball, build something, go to the pub. Allow the impossibility of our situation to remain unfixed, to see how the emergent feminist frame will recognise our behaviour. Once we try and describe what we are doing ourselves, dangerous silences are reinforced. A whiteness gathering, with the absence of people who are those who should benefit from the term, scares me for similar reasons, this fantasy of transcendence where we think we can know ourselves.

Manu Meyer quotes the Hawaiian leader Pua Kanahele:

[Knowledge] doesn’t only have to do with intelligence, it has to do with spirituality, it has to do with everything that has lined up before you, and all of the things that are lined up ahead of you. All sorts of coming together to make all of this happen. You, yourself, cannot make any of this happen.

And we, ourselves, can not make the undoing of whiteness happen.

Ahmed, Sara (2004). “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti- Racism”, Borderlands ejournal, Vol 3, No 2, 2004.
Butler, Judith (2004). Undoing Gender, New York: Routledge.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dyer, Richard (1997). White. London and New York: Routledge.
Meyer, Manu (2001). “Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology.” The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs 13(1): 124-148
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Alex Monteith: Red Session No.2

[This text initially appeared in the catalogue for The 4th Auckland Triennial – Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon. Documentation is on the artist’s website.]

Alex Monteith is not a body at rest. A phone call is likely to find her en route to Blacks, Graveyards, Bluehouse or Indicators, to name a few favourite breaks. The waves call, the search is on. For Monteith, the landscape is not a field for picture-taking but a scene of action. How many artists would jump into the ocean from a helicopter during a shoot, as Monteith did for Red Session No.2 (2009)? Her monumental screen works eschew traditional documentary points of view to highlight the ‘techniques of the observer’, and to confront us with cameras and agents in motion[1].

Visiting the famous Taranaki surf break Stent Road, the casual viewer might only notice dark wetsuits against the grey water and sky; the soft, Sugimoto-like tonal gradations having little correspondence with the adrenaline surfers experience out in the ‘lineup’. Monteith’s Red Session No.2 brings the human activity to the fore, as the artist wrapped local surfers in red lycra surf vests and captured the scene in a multi-camera panorama shot in a single synchronised take with diegetic sound. The performance and resulting projection explores the technics of relations between human surfers and the Taranaki coast; between perspectives from land and sea.

In 1969, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the coast of Little Bay, Sydney in 1 million square feet of fabric. Their subtle intervention dislocated our sense of ‘naturalness’ and displaced the economic eye which consumes that wave-swept coast as ‘landscape’. This activist mode of discovery aligns with Donna Haraway’s conception of scientific research: the researcher intervenes in waves of force, creating ‘diffraction’. When waves spread out after passing through a narrow gap or across an edge introduced by the researcher, interference between the constituent waveforms becomes perceptible. ‘A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather, where the effects of differences appear.’ [2] The physical intervention does not lead directly to an outcome, but is a way to discover the dynamics of a situation.

Similarly, Monteith’s use of the brightly-coloured surf-contest vest to experiment with aesthetic form would both lift and refract the performative dynamics of the freesurfing session at Stent Road in unforeseeable ways. The hegemony of the black wetsuit reflects the identifiably masculine, perhaps even Calvinist culture, which has historically dominated surfing [3]. The bleak New Zealand sky, cold summertime water and gruff stares from suspicious locals at the average ‘serious’ surf break hardly seem to reflect the sport’s Pacific heritage. While deconstructing the dress code was not the focus of Monteith’s project, a lightening of mood was palpable as the red vests diffused through the lineup.

Relational aesthetics in its canonical form attempts to evoke a better world through the construction of a defamiliarised, utopian space of engagement. Monteith’s collaborative works share a certain elegance of form with that tradition, but her role as an organic aesthetician brings to mind Suzanne Lacy et al’s New Genre Public Art, where ‘communities’ are not imagined but are materially located in specific places and patterns of being together. Where the globalised biennale circuit inaugurates the cowboy practitioner of social sculpture, Monteith seems more at ease working in collaboration with communities she knows well. Her last ride will always be a return.


1 Jonathan Crary, ‘Techniques of the Observer’, October, no 45, 1988, pp 3-35.

2 Donna Haraway, ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, in L. Grossberg C. Nelson and P.A. Treichler, Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1992, p 300.

3 Daniel T. Jenkins, ‘A Protestant Aesthetic? A Conversation with Donald Davie’, Journal of Literature and Theology, vol 2, no 2, 1988, pp 153-162.

Whose knowledge? Reflexivity and ‘knowledge transfer’ in postcolonial practice-based research.

Keynote address to symposium On Making: Integrating Approaches in Practice-Led Research in Art and Design. Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg, 15th October 2009

It’s a great privilege to be here, and my thanks to Leora Farber, the research centre and the University of Johannesburg for allowing me to come and visit. I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand about 16 years ago to play experimental music, and worked as a designer and new media arts worker before teaching in art schools and media consulting for the last decade. But my intellectual development happened largely outside the academy, with Donna Haraway’s feminist science studies being the political writing that to me seemed to ask the urgent questions about how information and knowledge was shaping our lives. So the study of scientific research and knowledge production has been a research interest of mine for a long time, and it is merely good fortune that the relationship between research and creative practices has become a popular field of enquiry. With Maarit, Ken, Anna and others who have published great work on these topics being present, those general questions will take a bit of a back seat in this presentation.

Over the last six years or so I have also been working with a range of indigenous and non-indigenous artists on what happens to what we call “culture” in the condition of the colonial nation-state. And once again, while these have turned out to be topics of interest to many others, they began less with a conscious desire to learn about these issues as a field and more just a way of making sense of the world I see around me and the community of practitioners I work in. This postcolonial condition, as you know, connects Australia, the country of my birth, to my adopted home in New Zealand, to the continent of Africa, which I am visiting for the first time.

However, Africa as a continent is not unknown to me. My partner, whose family are from Goa, was born in Tanzania and spent her initial years in Nairobi before coming to New Zealand. I have not picked up any Swahili or Marigoli from her. And my favourite rapper, Jean Grae, was born in Cape Town and is the daughter of Sathima Bea Benjamin, the singer born here in Johannesburg. Jacques Derrida’s visits to South Africa have also affected my work, as I try to understand what happens when the European certainty of what it is to be human falls apart under the weight of its reflexive discovery that we have denied so many others their humanity. And J.M. Coetzee’s criticism and fiction and have staged this problematic in its impossible form – a mode of fiction which is subject to some of the same constraints as visual work when it comes to defining the knowledge held in the creative artefact.

I outline all this because I want to indicate why I will use material I have learnt from African writers and practitioners in this talk. This is not because I think I have anything to tell you that you don’t know about your world. [I have in mind the title of Dennis Ekpo’s classic Third Text essay: “Any European around to help me talk about myself?”]. But if I talked about things from my home, I would more easily be able to generate authority, based on my”identity”, “knowledge” or “experience”. Instead, I hope to give a reading of work connected to here to benefit from the full weight of your evaluation over the next two days. Knowledge exists in a place, among people, and the most important knowledge is not what I “own” and give to you in a performance of knowledge transfer, but what this talk might illuminate within you and between us in where our ways of thinking connect and depart. I am here to learn about here, and more particularly to connect with others who might share a sense that the way I’m approaching these questions can be productive. There is a lot of work for us to do in the future on practice-led research in the postcolonial situation and none of us will be able to do it within the perspective of our own nation-states, so I am looking forward to our discussions over the next couple of days.

My argument as outlined in the abstract is too ambitious for a 30 minute paper – especially one with so many prefaces – and it will run into question time, but it is simple enough in its schematic form [think of it as a drawing for a larger work]: Much of the discussion about practice-led research turns on whether creative practices can contribute to a body of knowledge. The practice is interrogated for its systematicity and reflexivity, asked to prove its contribution. But in these discussions the same pressure is rarely applied to the concept of “knowledge” in all its grandiosity. I believe that there is a strong tradition of work in science studies that shows us that the University’s position as the default holder of all knowledge is the result of practices that are not at all “universal”, but highly specific to European culture and the institutions and archives that it has built to store and transmit that knowledge – ones that have held certain people and material practices outside the category of “knowledge”. Universities exist not because they happen to naturally hold human knowledge, but are enabled by nation states with specific policy aims to bolster their own growth and development. However, in the colonial situation we know that the state was not established for “the people” in any general sense, but against indigenous sovereignty, and the various archives which have been developed by the state and its cultural institutions – that material which we call knowledge – have ultimately been established to continue that suppression. While postcolonial critique has sometimes aimed for correctives to the colonial archive to allow it to include all peoples, this does nothing to overturn the aporia between the types of knowledge at stake: a universalising history of European modernism on the one hand, and the various resistances that assert local authority and ways of life. It is my view that these gaps are precisely where the most interesting questions arise in contemporary knowledge production. Therefore, our position here in the colonies gives us a tremendous opportunity to address these questions which affect all “human knowledge”, whether that in Europe or its Others. And creative practices can address these gaps in a specific and powerful way, sharing and provoking knowledge without necessarily reproducing the urge to tame and control every experience into a predetermined knowledge system.

So, what is research? When we discuss it as a verb, in what Raqs Media Collective would call “practices”, the term “research” is full of life, movement and discovery. In the old French, rechercher is to find out about something thoroughly. In this artisan mode, we can share or ways of searching, within and across disciplines. In my experience most people with a research practice, even of the most conventional positivist scientific kind, are interested in the practices of those of us working in the creative disciplines. It is these kinds of relationships and dialogues that are enabled when we describe creative practice as a form of research.

But this is not the conundrum that is driving practice-based research as a hot topic of study. The primary driver of the practice-based research question is an institutional one, stemming from the integration of art and design schools into the University sector and the development of higher degrees in these fields. Institutionally, we are asked to account for our research not as an artisanal practice but as a noun, as something which can be looked at from a distance by a spy. The institutions will seek evidence to piece together a case for the “value” of the research in terms of its meaningfulness to someone else. We are under evaluation. Niles Norris effectively describes the evaluation mindset:

To the governmental frame of mind, beset with accountability, other people’s autonomy is a problem. It is a source of contingency, ambiguity, and unpredictability and a potential for loose cannons. The increasing tendency of governments to prespecify the characteristics of good evaluation by providing guidelines and standards stems from an understandable desire for greater predictability and control over the content and process of evaluation. It is a kind of security blanket.

Immediately we are struck by the poor fit between the unbounded material autonomy of the arts on the one hand; and the forces of accountability that constrain science and research policy. There has even been a substantial amount of scientific research in social psychology “proving” that expected evaluation has a negative impact on creativity by wiring up artists with electrodes and measuring their brain function. As Borgdorf puts it, “art is thought, not theory. It actually seeks to postpone ‘theory’, to re-route judgments, opinions and conclusions, and even to delay or suspend them indefinitely.” Even more problematic is the need of institutional structures to authenticate the value of the work in advance. As Macleod and Holdridge note, the findings presented through art “are always a posteriori and thus, ill suited to the institution’s pursuit of truth and prescribed outcomes. Meanings are made after the event, through the act of viewing or contemplation and by the artist initially.” This is not to deny the importance of creative practices gaining recognition within the academic system of research evaluation. It is just to say that the desire for recognition must be a strategic one, marked by all the ruptures Fanon has discussed in his dynamics of racial and colonial recognition.

So what kind of research is this work which is more valuable to the public sphere than art practice, research whose worth can be measured, assessed, and funded? The dominant research paradigm is scientific, technological, engineering or medical knowledge. Its public utility is generally self-evident because the discourse of the public value of knowledge has become almost synonymous with science. Scientific knowledge is not just the production of data. It is, as Bensaude-Vincent puts it, “a normative activity that generates universal standards and strong values that in turn shape society at large”.

Sandra Harding notes that the claim to neutrality and its particular universalism is quite specific to Western culture. But the material facts belie a specific history rather than a universal one. Xavier Polanco suggests that “the epistemological claim of the ‘universality of science’ . . . covers what is an empirical fact, the material and intellectual construction of this ‘universal science’ and its ‘international character.’ The ‘universality of science’ does not appear to be the cause but the effect of a process that we cannot explain or understand merely by concentrating our attention on epistemological claims.” In this case, attention to the materiality of dominant claims to internationality or universality – soon leads us to the the specific spatialisation of the colonial history. This material history is usually suppressed by science due to the ruptures it introduces into scientific authority. Usually, Harding notes, “for conventional science theorists it is controversial to use the term “science” to refer to the sciences’ social institutions, technologies and applications, metaphors, language, and social meanings: they insist on restricting the term’s reference to sciences’ abstract cognitive core—the laws of nature—and/or the legendary scientific method, thereby excluding the other parts of sciences’ practices and culture.” This account of course makes it easier to control, if less true.

For those of us in the arts, the clearest way of understanding of the essential boundedness of human knowledge is through the study of its material incarnation, the archive. As Ann Laura Stoler notes from the landmark Refiguring the Archive seminars here in South Africa 11 years ago, “where the archive was once a source of knowledge, an unproblematic space for intellectual detachment, a means to an end, this is no longer the case.” Thomas Richards describes the Victorian archive as the “imperial equivalent of the bourgeois public sphere; it presupposed the neutrality and instrumentality of all communicative networks at the same time as it formed and channeled knowledge within epistemological networks specific to a class, a state, and a nation.” Knowledge in the archive was positive and comprehensive. But during the period 1870-1940 institutions like the British museum could not keep up with all the knowledge they were amassing through their colonial apparatus. Richards describes Victorian England as one of the first information societies, a period in history “when it was no longer possible to imagine one person or one institution knowing everything, when the task of collecting and classifying knowledge increasingly fell to civil servants operating under state supervision.”

In the British Empire, this meant that civil servants (rather than academics) in the colonies were routinely involved in information gathering as their key task. As Richards describes it,

The India Survey […] provides a clear example of the process by which an imagined epistemology could intervene to shape the political definition of actual territory. In the series of procedures that the state-organized survey devised to classify Tibet, the archive intervened both in imagining territory as representation and realizing it as social construction. What began as utopian fictions of knowledge, in other words, often ended as territory.

The knowledge that was seen to be important for humanity’s stock of knowledge would be in the first instance, that which would secure the colonial relationship. It is no surprise, then, that the archive would be the site where those subjugated by colonisation would seek to find redress. Arondekar believes that throughout South Asian scholarship in particular, the colonial archive has been recast as “the site of endless promise, where new records emerge daily and where accepted wisdom is both entrenched and challenged.” It seems that only if this archive could be expanded, there would be the potential for the colonised to be adequately represented and the tensions in the relationship could be overcome.

However, in a very useful reading of Derrida’s Archive Fever, Susan van Zyl outlines the fundamental aporia at the heart of the archive that prevents colonial and indigenous knowledge to meet. She says: “the archive does not consist simply in remembering, in living memory, in anamnesis; but in consigning, in inscribing a trace in some external location – there is no archive without some space outside.” For Foucault, the archive is not simply the “sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past.” It is the “system of discursivity” that determines what can be articulated. Appadurai outlines the political economy of this system, noting that “an earlier, more confident epoch in the history of social science – notably in the 1950s and 1960s during the zenith of modernization theory -€” […] was a period when there was a more secure sense of the social in the relationship between theory, method, and scholarly location. Theory and method were seen as naturally metropolitan, modern, and Western. The rest of the world was seen in the idiom of cases, events, examples, and test sites in relation to this stable location for the production or revision of theory” Thus, Achille Mbembe could describe how the archive “becomes a material trace which reinscribes the original violence of its creation even in its democratisation.”

[As an aside, I think there is a lot for practice-led researchers to explore about the availability of audio-visual archives in the networked world. Perhaps Youtube is humanity’s stock of knowledge? I can certainly find all kinds of rare Northern Soul singles that I couldn’t in a library, and indeed many lectures by South African scholars that I viewed in writing this paper.]

Māori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith bluntly notes that:

belief in the ideal that the primary outcome of scientific research benefits mankind is as much a reflection of ideology as it is of academic training. It becomes so taken for granted that many researchers simply assume that they as individuals embody this ideal and are natural representatives of it when they work with other communities. […] There was no difference, from [an indigenous] perspective, between ‘real’ or scientific research and any other visits by inquisitive and acquisitive strangers. At a common sense level research was talked about both in terms of its absolute worthlessness to us, the indigenous world, and its absolute usefulness to those who wielded it as an instrument.

Hawaiian activist Haunani Kay Trask demonstrates this gap through the material practices of knowledge collection, noting that “no anthropologist has ever dug up missionary bones, despite their plentiful presence. Nor any haole ‘expert’ ever argued that missionary skeletons should be subjected to osteological analysis, despite historical evidence that missionaries did bring certain diseases to Hawai’i.” The questions of who any knowledge benefits, as this discussion should point out, are deeply fraught and can sure no longer be given unproblematically as a rationale for our research. This brings to mind Joburg academic blogger Pumla Gqola’s related point, that the media only need to evoke the public interest in order for the public interest to quickly become assumed. We need to stage the who benefits question more clearly in our research undertaken in the public interest.

Knowledge in the European academic sense is a unique and paradoxical creature: it is supposed to be cumulative and universally available, yet it can only be acquired through disciplinary expertise and extreme forms of specialisation. The challenge in this environment, as Patti Lather notes, is to develop forms of translation between worlds and the linking of diverse methods. This is the well-rehearsed call for interdisciplinarity, but as the NZ-based artist Charles Koroneho says, one’s ability to be interdisciplinary is a function of the time spent at the limits of one’s discipline. As makers, we know this better than anyone: the time required to develop a practice, the time required to change it, do not occur simply at the level of conscious, instrumental thought or through funding a research programme seeks to “make things better.” Most of the greatest thinkers of modernity, from Kant through to Benjamin and Foucault, Derrida, Spivak and Butler to name a few, are not frightened by this as a limit, and unsurprisingly they have been the writers most attentive to the operations of the aesthetic. As van Zyl and Kistner note of Foucault, “it is only in paying careful attention to the threshold positions and the great aesthetic works that so often exemplify them most vividly, that it is possible to uncover both the emergence and the obsolescence of discourses. This is why, most noticeably in Foucault’s archaeological writings, references to works of art, and literature are never far off.”

As we seek to activate a material interdisciplinarity, we can see the opportunity for the creative artefact to act as what Susan Leigh Star calls a “boundary object”: “Boundary objects are both adaptable to different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them.” They are curious objects, both uniquely positioned between known paradigms and yet elusive in their operation, for their role is to sensitise us to gaps and slippages in knowledge, rather than to incorporate experience into the disciplinary realm of the known.

Coetzee has described fiction as being defined precisely by its lack of exact correlation to the world, to the tight discourses of critique and knowledge. Stories are defined their ultimate irresponsiblity, or better yet their “responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged.” Spivak points out that it is a mistake to treat art and literature as a blueprint for social policy – they are “figures awaiting disfiguration” in the meeting between creator and audience. There is an element of abstraction in required in this kind of reading. As William Kentridge puts it, “Our theatre is a reflection on the debate rather than the debate itself. It tries to make sense of the memory rather than be the memory.” Creating objects that bridge and breach boundaries in the imagination requires us to depart from the governmental mindset and the “impact factor”, to trust in the recipient and their ability to work with what we provide for the future.

The contemporary creative work requires not just an audacious producer but a willing receiver: it is characteristically incomplete, awaiting the viewer who will bring the meaning into the world. Writing on Coetzee, Spivak discusses the craft not only of writing, but of reading. As she puts it, “literary reading teaches us to learn from the singular and the unverifiable. It is not that literary reading does not generalize. It is just that those generalizations are not on evidentiary ground. In this area, what is known is proved by vyavahāya, or setting-to-work.” The knowledge is proven in practice. As the nursing theorist Gary Rolfe has argued, the kind of knowledge involved in a nursing research case can only be utilised by the skilled practitioner, and this skill in writing and reading, sensing and making takes time to develop.

So it is worth remembering that there is a reason why Humboldt’s initial Kantian conception of the German research university described both the freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and the freedom to learn (Lernfreiheit). The consumer of knowledge is not a passive object, but its creator in a social world of meaning. It is the shift in perception in the learner in their social world that is the true possibility of “knowledge transfer”, it is what Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of desire.” To believe in this possibility is to fundamentally to believe in freedom.

This dynamic of a work waiting for a viewer is captured by the late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, writing in the 1990s about seeing Roni Horn’s Gold Field for the first time:

L.A. 1990. Ross and I spent every Saturday afternoon visiting galleries, museums, thrift shops, and going on long, very long drives all around L.A., enjoying the “magic hour” when the light makes everything gold and magical in that city. It was the best and worst of times. Ross was dying right in front of my eyes. Leaving me. It was the first time in my life when I knew for sure where the money for rent was coming from. It was a time of desperation, yet of growth too.

1990, L.A. The Gold Field. How can I deal with the Gold Field? I don’t quite know. But the Gold Field was there. Ross and I entered the Museum of Contemporary Art, and without knowing the work of Roni Horn we were blown away by the heroic, gentle and horizontal presence of this gift. There it was, in a white room, all by itself, it didn’t need company, it didn’t need anything. Sitting on the floor, ever so lightly. A new landscape, a possible horizon, a place of rest and absolute beauty. Waiting for the right viewer willing and needing to be moved to a place of the imagination. This piece is nothing more than a thin layer of gold. It is everything a good poem by Wallace Stevens is: precise, with no baggage, nothing extra. A poem that feels secure and dares to unravel itself, to become naked, to be enjoyed in a tactile manner, but beyond that, in an intellectual way too. Ross and I were lifted. That gesture was all we needed to rest, to think about the possibility of change. This showed the innate ability of an artist proposing to make this place a better place. How truly revolutionary.

Review of “Thinking Through Practice: Art as Research in the Academy”

“Thinking Through Practice: Art as Research in the Academy”, edited by Lesley Duxbury, Elizabeth M.Grierson and Dianne Waite. RMIT Publishing 2007

Review by Danny Butt – preprint

To appear in Second Nature: International Journal of Creative Media, issue No.1, March 2009. p140-146

In their article “The Doctorate in Fine Art: The Importance of Exemplars to the Research Culture”, Katy Macleod and Lin Holdridge argue that doctoral submissions in the fine arts must be read and studied in depth in order for students and supervisors to understand how doctoral study operates in the field (p165).  However, they note, the developing literature on doctoral study remains curiously focused on research methods and protocols rather than on an elucidation of the culture through reference to what is being produced by doctoral students (156). Teachers and students in doctoral programmes know that scope and method are two of the most important questions a student faces, and that these always need to be fashioned in relation to the material of the research project. In the humanities and social sciences, the easiest way to develop an awareness of what scope and method “look like” comes from perusing other doctoral theses, but students in fine arts programmes often struggle to find appropriate documentation of other related projects. This publication of case studies directly addresses that need, featuring six artist-researchers who teach at RMIT and write about their own very diverse PhD projects. This book is one which I hope will be emulated by more teaching institutions who offer doctoral study in creative disciplines.

The general rationale for the book is most clearly articulated by David Thomas, who describes art practice as:

…a way of researching through the practice of making art. Such making is not just doing,  but is a complex informed physical, theoretical and intellectual activity where public and private worlds meet. Art practice is the outcome of intertwined objective, subjective, rational and intuitive processes. Considered in this way, art is a discipline, informed by the conceptual and linguistic conventions of its culture and history.(p.85)

However, the discipline of art after conceptualism is difficult to clearly delineate through description of specific outputs or methodologies as there are an enormous variety of approaches and materials that can exist as art. It remains easier, if not sufficient, to define art by social and institutional contexts rather than the procedures and practices themselves. The avant-garde tradition has always undermined clear statements about what art could or couldn’t be, this diversity and resistance to confinement has become characteristic of the field.

Accordingly, the book’s case studies document a wide range of different approaches to reflexive making in an academic context. If it creates an argument, it is through outlining potential directions rather than making a general argument about the possibility of thinking through practice. In this respect, despite the similarity in title, it can be sharply distinguished from the essays in Holdridge and Macleod’s landmark book Thinking through Art, and those seeking substantial theoretical justification for creative practice approaches to research will be disappointed.

The first case study by Lesley Duxbury emphasises the strengths and weaknesses of artistic practice as a form of investigation.  At first glance the chapter appears to be a somewhat ragtag collection of anecdotes about walking as it relates to her own practice and that of others. She also raises,a range of philosophical concerns which, however, are never addressed in detail. While the material outcomes are novel, the novelty is not defined in relation to an existing corpus of knowledge in the way that is standard for most non-art disciplines’ research. The links between the various strategies explored by Duxbury are not defined in advance, and the creation of the meaning is left with the reader. While this approach will undoubtedly baffle those with a background in other forms of research, it reflects the norms of artistic knowing by foregrounding the subjectivity of the knower when considering art practice as a form of “human knowledge” in the academy.

In this way, Duxbury’s project highlights a key challenge in considering artistic practice as research: the relationship between methodology and output is not always evident in studio art practice. This is why doctoral programmes in the creative sector tend to require an appropriate written component; a process many students find challenging. Text has always accompanied the visual in the arts, and some kind of record of the process is often critical for an effective dissemination of the results of a practice-based inquiry. There is also a degree to which the “backstory” of the work has always been important in the professional visual arts environment (we might think, for example, about the role of Hans Namuth’s photographs in diffusing the story of Jackson Pollock).

Throughout this book the different approaches and styles caused me to wonder what makes an exegesis or textual accompaniment a compelling read? Isn’t some of the truth in art precisely it’s capacity to arrest our imagination? The different case studies here variously emphasise methodology, method, or procedure. The implications of this are more than stylistic, they also point to disparate understandings of the purpose of the written document accompanying a practice-based project. These questions are not unique to art practice: while we often think that writing in scientific journals describes experiments and results, Sharon Traweek (1996) makes the point that it would be impossible to replicate a contemporary physics experiment based purely on the writing in journals – there is a high level of implied or tacit knowledge and convention. Scholarly writing in the sciences is less a set of instructions than a claim to significance.

The more interesting case studies in the book acknowledge this, while others remain in a procedural mode.  For Ruth Johnstone’s investigation of the 18th Century print room, the writing-up makes the project more banal than it seems that it might be in real life (or visual documentation alone) We move cautiously and rigorously through an extensive description of the procedures she undertakes in the production of her work. While this is an appropriate record that demonstrates reflexivity at one level, it also carries a curiously flat affect compared to much artwriting, and perhaps serves as a reminder why artists are not customarily the ones making the written claim to significance for their own work.

At the other end of the scale, Philip Samartzis gives concise accounts of his material outputs as a sound artist, but throughout addresses the underlying question of “What might this work mean?” rather than “What did I do?” This kind of reflective theorisation runs a different risk: it can lead to overstatement, or a potential lack of adequacy of the project in relation to the  huge questions of museological presentation strategies and states of listening being explored. In the end, though, it seems to more fully reflect the ambit of art practice as a way of seeing the world rather than simply as a set of physical procedures.

While both the above cases represent genres of project documentation that are becoming common in the artistic research literature, the most advanced and intriguing case study in the book is by Robert Baines, a goldsmith investigating issues of authenticity and the fake in jewelry production. Baines tests his questions through the production of new pieces that attempt to confound experienced assessors of archeological material. What distinguishes this project is his exploration and confrontation of an entire philosophy of material as held by curators of ancient jewelry. Here the value of creative practice as a research methodology is evident, bringing together material, sociological and philosophical investigations to provoke a new way of thinking about the historical artefact in a specific field of practice, questioning our professional and personal desires for the artefact to hold truth.

While at the beginning of the review I noted that the book is a series of case studies, it is ably introduced with an article from Grierson and Duxbury. They begin with an epigraph from Heidegger: “We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves are thinking.” (p.7) From this thesis about reflexivity and the embodiment of knowledge, the introduction quickly moves us through a range of issues relating to artistic practice as research — from the heterogeneity of the field, to the contributions of art to knowledge, the policy environment, the relationship between the work and the exegesis, and back via Heidegger to the question of ‘what is art?’

It moves through these significant questions in a couple of paragraphs each, and the feeling of important tensions being glossed over brings to mind Timothy Emlyn Jones’ lamentation on the lack of book-length engagement with the question of practice-based research. The implicit argument in Thinking Through Practice, ironically, is that there is a level of understanding that can only be activated at a particular depth of material engagement (craft, perhaps). The danger of potted summaries (whether of practice or philosophy) is in the easy links across disciplines and fields of practice that elide the significant work required to move between and create significant effects within these disciplines.

To give one example, the authors claim that:

“…thinking through practice interrupts the insistent means-end relations of the creative knowledge economy with its focus on fast capital -— financial, informational, social, et al. It is also a way of slowing down or exposing the pace of informational innovation and its demands in the so-called progressive economies and social complexities within which we live, work, and function on a daily basis.” (p.9)

Really? Such effects are certainly a potential function of reflective art and design practice, although we might also be struck by the degree to which artistic explorations may also be complicit with, or even emblematic of, the knowledge economy and its financial speculations. We also have to consider the sheer amount of work produced which fails to gain purchase in the art world, let alone the much broader social and economic structures this sentence suggests.

Such a gap between the scale of the claims made for work – philosophical, sociological, political – and the work’s measurable effectiveness in creating such changes is one of the more common issues faced in evaluating the writing of art students. These problems are not so much about the theories being incorrect, but the adequacy of the form of writing chosen to do justice to the issues raised. It is here that the book’s flaws are perhaps most evident: the gap between the ambitions to affect large conceptual frames espoused in the title/introduction and the effectiveness of the works presented in intervening in those frames.

This is less a complaint about the book than recognition that art as an academic field is still a nascent discourse and so a book like this is still working out its genre as it goes, so to speak. The gap between aspiration and delivery is symptomatic of the paucity of appropriate theoretical language to position creative practice.  Emlyn Jones suggests that “we have a great deal of knowledge about the knowledge basis of art and design, but much of our knowing about knowledge is anecdotal and undertheorised.” (2006, p237) The development of a shared language for such diverse practices will be a slow process, and it is only through the publication of books such as this that such a language has a chance of emerging.

Works Cited

Emlyn Jones, Timothy. 2006. A method of search for reality: research and research degrees in art and design. In Thinking through art : reflections on art as research, 226-240.  London ; New York: Routledge.

Macleod, Katy and Lin Holdridge. 2004. The Doctorate in Fine Art: The Importance of Exemplars to the Research Culture. The International Journal of Art & Design Education 23, no. 2: 155-168.

Traweek, Sharon. 1996. Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. Social Text 46/47: 129-139.

Local Knowledge and New Media Theory

This book chapter appears in the Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader.

Over the last four years, and with the support of numerous people including many in the Aotearoa Digital Arts network, I have been writing articles, giving talks, editing books, producing creative works and organising events that ask what it means for new media to consider the implications of indigenous knowledge, culture, and ways of being.[1] These have all been experimental activities: they have been undertaken to create change but without certainty about what the results would be. The methods have been relatively simple: to attempt to work collaboratively with (rather than on behalf of) indigenous artists and practitioners, and to take a lead from the work of indigenous commentators and researchers in what might be important questions to explore in this engagement at what Martin Nakata calls the “cultural interface.”[2]

Given my low level of previous experience in indigenous culture and communities, it is unsurprising that this engagement has sometimes turned out to be challenging to achieve in practice. The challenges also emerge from not just my own lack of experience, but from the deficit of resources that are available to indigenous arts and artists in comparison to non-indigenous artists. However, undertaking this work has also been a great source of learning for me about what the possibilities of something called ‘digital media’ might be, and my goal is to use this learning to increase the opportunities available for indigenous and non-indigenous artists alike.

What has led me to pursue these questions?

A fundamental factor is that Aotearoa New Zealand has a distinctive social and cultural environment where indigenous issues have a high level of visibility compared to other English-speaking nations. At one level these questions are just around us on a day-to-day basis, and the sensitivities that Aotearoa fosters have something to offer the consideration of culture in other former British colonies and possibly further afield.

Secondly, my initial political and academic development occurred within the context of the feminist movement, where the politics of difference has always been a central theme. From feminist work I learnt that experience is irreducible. While it is not possible to say how a person of a particular sex/gender will or should behave, it is also true that it is clearly not possible for someone who is not a woman to experience the world as a woman. Once women’s perspectives are taken as important within a particular discussion, it becomes clear exactly how male-focussed language and structures of power are. Or as Gayatri Spivak suggests, to introduce the question of woman changes everything. This is obviously the case in a male-dominated technological media environment, and it is no surprise that some of the most interesting works in new media’s history have foregrounded issues of gender. For me, the work of cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix; designer and writer Brenda Laurel; and net artists such as Melinda Rackham were all influential, in part due to an emphasis on the politics of desire, intersubjectivity, and embodiment. In the field of science and technology studies, the work of Donna Haraway has always made me aware of how the politics of technology always carries with it questions of gender.

The other thing I learnt from feminism is that it is possible and necessary, if not straightforward, for someone from a dominant subject position to work with those from non-dominant positions on changing structures of dominance. So it seems to me that identity-related (or, I would prefer to say, experience-centred) social movements ask deep, difficult and significant questions of the political and the aesthetic in both dominant and non-dominant cultures. Feminist work is specifically useful in this problematic because sex/gender is an originary binary within the Western philosophical tradition. Feminist thinkers have done the most significant interrogation of the political effects of such binaries and this work is directly relevant to the dichotomy of coloniser and colonised.

A third reason these questions are interesting to me is because the dominant understanding of ‘the user’ in new media discourse is limited by the subjective experience and imaginations of the creators of electronic interfaces, who have for too long been dominated by a narrow demographic (almost always white and male). But there are a whole lot of other ways of being in the world. From working as an interactive designer in the commercial sector I learnt time and again that whatever you might think the user might do when engaging with a website or program, what users actually do when they engage with new media is something different. New media theory, with its overwhelming focus on the formal aspects of networks and systems rather than the people who use them, has mostly neglected the very different subjectivities of people who engage with new media outside of the dominant cultural assumptions of Europe and North America.[3] Projects of cultural self-determination by indigenous peoples offer models for reading technology outside of the narrow and specific cultural imaginaries that are too often prerequisites for participation in the new media environment. A hint of the potential can be found in the suggestion by Cheryl L’hirondelle that “the current lack of attention being paid by programmers to Indigenous communities around the world represents a missed opportunity, because our languages are eloquent, concept and process-based, and fully capable of describing various complicated technological dynamics.”[4]

A fourth prompt for pursuing this work is the centrality of colonial myths in cyberspace. The language structuring the Internet has always involved spatial metaphors – domains, multihoming, namespaces. This terminology has developed from a distinctly frontier cultural imaginary described by Cameron and Barbrook as “The California Ideology.”[5] To take a well-known example, John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is an influential text in early web culture, which captures the epic mythology of the new online world. The text was critical in forging a collective sense of possibility in the English-speaking settler nations where web fever was catching hold. Barlow was a Wyoming cattle rancher, and for those of us working in the commercial new media industries the Californian Ideology was a Wired Magazine-sponsored rerun of the Wild West’s escape from the limits of government, and from politics.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. […]
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.[…]
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants.[…]
In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.[6]

From today’s vantage point, we can simply note that the anti-immigration provisions of Barlow’s declaration haven’t aged so well, and the cowboy’s identification as a ‘native’ seems all too resonant with the ‘Pakeha as a second indigenous culture’ trope promoted in New Zealand by some European commentators.

Virginia Eubanks highlights the problematic eloquently in her essay ‘Mythography of the New Frontier,’ which includes a discussion of historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s nineteenth century analysis of the frontier in the U.S., and Neal Stephenson’s ‘epic hacker travelogue’ Mother Earth Mother Board:

In much internet discourse, progress and conquest are suspiciously tightly coupled. When combined with the pioneer ideal of flexibility (translated for 20th century use as flexible accumulation of capital) and framed in terms of the ‘new frontier’ this mix becomes even more troubling. The concept of progress as social evolution is deeply embedded in the metaphors of the ‘new frontier.’ Turner masked the political and economic impetus and consequences of conquest in his pioneer ideal – the genocide of the Native American population, the exploitation of the natural environment, the aggression towards other nations with colonial holdings – by defining conquest as progress, discovery, the invention of new ways of life. The conquest of the frontier, for Turner, was about evolution, not aggression. This conceit is equally visible in Stephenson’s epic, and like Turner, Stephenson insists that this world-wide reach will have a naturally democratising and egalitarian effect.[7]

Deconstructing and reconstructing the binary

So, four impulses: a local context; the need to consider feminism and the politics of experience; the need for a culturally diversified theory of the user and the need for a decolonising of the cyberspace imaginary. Looking back at the itinerary of these interests, I can see them emerging from my experience of the cultural environment of Aotearoa New Zealand, with its unique mix of Pacific, Asian and European peoples. These cultures meet in a nation-state straining under the pressure of the two cultural systems joined in the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty’s bicameral approach to legal administration could give us a clue on how to rethink new media protocols in a more diverse way. The work of both feminist and postcolonial theorists testifies to the power of this binary in thinking freedom from dominant assumptions.

Internet culture often reflects a distinctly European history of social thought, which begins with the concept of the individual subject, and extrapolates to that larger collection of individuals which is the ‘public.’ We can draw an analogy here to how the singular identity promoted under cultural nationalism (that of the ‘New Zealander’) becomes the basis for the pluralism of the multicultural state (it is this singular culture which defines the acceptable relationships between ‘multi’ cultures). Multiculturalism or liberal pluralism is a different way of thinking than the host-visitor model (tangata whenua – manuhiri) which is common to Pacific cultures. Of course, a host-visitor model can admit many – but a visitor will always exist in relation to the host. There is a dyad.

Psychoanalytically-inflected feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray show that to think in terms of this ‘two’ is to raise a very different type of ethical relationship than to think either the individual or the many, which have been more common social structures in European thought.[8] This relation to an Other calls subjectivity into question in powerful ways, questions we cannot hide from as we can in either the singular concept of ‘identity’ (where we are self-determining) or broader notions of the ‘social’ (where we can disavow our subjectivity). Irigaray’s metaphor of two lips joined in one organ suggests this alternative, perhaps allowing us to attend to the flipside of the colonial history embedded in new media’s dominant discourses. The colonial moment is, as Frantz Fanon made clear, a dyad, a relationship between coloniser and colonised which has a binary logic. The binary relation of zeroes and ones, on and off, forms the very basis of the digital. Perhaps critical engagement with this binary, linked and mutually descriptive, offers potential to achieve the Internet’s original promise of an international, inclusive, and democratic environment?

It goes without saying that as a foundation for research, these questions do not lend themselves to simple solutions and settled theories. However, they have raised some new issues in my thinking about new media that I believe are worthy of further investigation, which I’d like to outline here in the hope of joining others who are also interested in pursuing such work.

1) Is new media a good thing, just because it happens to be good for us?

This first question is a formulation taken from Scott Lash: how do we live in a medium which enables not just the flow of goods, but the flow of bads?[9] New media theory has brought with it an ethic of circulation, exemplified by Stewart Brand’s famous comment that ‘information wants to be free’, emphasising the benefits of sharing knowledge and opposing restrictions on the free movement of information. However, the experience of indigenous peoples with respect to unauthorised circulation of customary knowledge has been one case among many that suggests the circulation of information does not always result in positive outcomes for all.[10] Saskia Sassen notes that informationalisation tends to bring about a centralisation of control activities and a dispersal of routine tasks.[11] The dream of millions of cottage industries engaged in telework has not quite eventuated, and instead we have a consolidation of capital in the urban environment and a removal of managerial and coordinating functions from non-urban areas. Geographical studies on the impact of communications on small towns offer a parallel example: building transportation and communication networks is an investment which allows resources to flow out of or through that place. The net effect may even be the extinguishing of an entire productive sector of the economy in that location as consolidation occurs.[12]

Can we push for the development of new media and the attendant focus on development of the digital economy as a necessity, when this medium might be responsible for the deepening inequalities that are well documented in heavily informational economies?

2) Can we think the network via the nodes?

Network theory, in its suppression of the human subject, tends to make a number of implicit assumptions about what kind of a person is on the end of a network. Vine Deloria noted that “Western European peoples have never learned to consider the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view.”[13] Instead of assuming that there is a neutral space from which we can view the network, perhaps we can instead highlight each specific experience and the kinds of network connections such a position allows and disallows. Here we do not to automatically think the connections others have to the networks are the same as ours.

Spivak points out the dangers of bureaucratic egalitarianism when not supplemented by other kinds of thinking:

Cultural difference is spoken of but, by enthusiasm or convenience, a common human essence is assumed which denies the procedural importance of the difference. There is a related assumption: that the history of a sharing of the public and the private is the same among all groups of men and women as the one that follows through in terms of northwestern Europe or sometimes even Britain. This is the problem it seems to me. It’s 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.[14]

3) How do we think what is not connected?

We can also begin to identify networks more accurately by observing not what they connect together but what they fail to connect. A positivist mindset assumes that an example can generally be replicated by other examples – in other words, a model of a process can be applied in every situation with appropriate customisation to the environment. This positivist mindset implies that global diffusion of the Internet and its models is inevitable. However, while Internet networks are theoretically ‘global’ there is never an actual globality, and the technocratic new media discourse is generally less eloquent on the reasons why theoretical globality fails to be achieved in practice. As Kerry Macnamara points out when talking about Information and Communication Technology for development:

Despite a proliferation of reports, initiatives, and pilot projects in the past several years, we still have little rigorous knowledge about ‘what works.’ There are abundant ‘success stories,’ but few of these have yet been subjected to detailed evaluation.[15]

Immanent methodologies are not sufficient to understand new media networks, we have to supplement them with experiences outside our networks to sensitise ourselves to their limits.

4) What systems are unknowable to us?

While the previous point might be seen to support anthropological or ethnographic methodologies (encountering the Other in order to understand our own issues), there are also genuine aporia or unbridgeable differences between our ways of being and those of others, which mean that any connection we seek is always deferred and never quite achieved. How does someone with experiences we cannot have (for example, those native to other language groups) think the network? Here is where the value of dialogue and intercultural conversation comes into play, where instead of smoothing over differences in the name of standardisation, we can foster multiple protocols for engaging with new media content. As poet and librarian Robert Sullivan suggests, such questions of protocol and holistic context are integral to indigenous cultural maintenance:

How do we send a message that strengthens the holistic context of each cultural item and collection? How do we ensure that both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples receive the message? How do we digitise material taking into account its metaphysical as well as its digital life?[16]

5) How will the philosophical underpinnings of new media theory be tested?

The construction of hardware and software packages requires a particular kind of test to be made of the developer’s capabilities – the result either works or it doesn’t. As we move into knowledge about the new media field and its social implications, we can no longer test our theoretical constructions so thoroughly, even though there is a tendency to analogise from the processes of software development to the social relationships that users engage in through new media tools. One of the best-known examples of this thinking is the Creative Commons, a form of intellectual property rights management for digital content drawing its inspiration from the GNU General Public License, a licence traditionally applied to software in the Open Source movement. The rigor of evaluation which operates in software development is however rarely present in the analogous social theories which spring from it.

This leads to the question of how we test a knowledge system. In the worlds of philosophy and social theory, the emphasis is usually placed on evaluating conceptual or descriptive work in relation to previous methods and concepts. In more applied forms (say the visual arts, or politics) we tend to look to circulation and effects to prove a concept. One of the questions that continues to haunt interdisciplinary work (not just in new media, but also in fields such as cultural studies) is that centering the community of knowledge around the object of study rather than the methods of inquiry tends to result in a lack of interest in or knowledge of precursors from times before that object came into being. To name one example, new media thinkers tend to valorise participatory models (such as ‘citizen journalism’) without reference to the investigations of the limits to citizenship and participation in pre-Internet media. This ethic reflects a particular instance of what Stephen Turner calls “settler futurism” and Barthes called “neomania”, a focus on “making over and moving on” that is incompatible with cultural systems based on a different sense of time.[17]

Where could these questions take new media and its future? There is no endpoint I can visualise – in fact, this approach to new media is oriented against a philosophy that takes development as a given. My questions are part of a search for an ethic of new media that can make the openness and diversity of Internet content manifest in its interactions and structure. The Internet has been described as a series of diverse monocultures, but our skills in working with other knowledge systems will have to improve as the demographic base of the Internet expands. Against tropes of speed, connection and movement that are so common in Internet discourse, this ethic could emerge from a focus on gaps, nodes, difference and incompatibility – spaces of unsettlement and possibility. Such a development of the imagination is surely the role of the arts – to imagine outside of the given, the instrumental and the immediately useful.

1 Examples include the Cultural Futures event co-organised with Jon Bywater and Nova Paul, and the edited collection PLACE: Local Knowledge and New Media Practice currently in press with Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Other works are available at
2 Nakata, “Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface,” 281-91.
3 Nakamura, Cybertypes.
4 L’Hirondelle, “Sub-rosa.”
5 Barbrook, and Cameron. The Californian Ideology.
6 Barlow, Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
7 Eubanks, “The Mythography of the ‘New’ Frontier,” edu/mit/articles/index_eubanks.html.
8 This point is based on Spivak’s reading of Irigaray in Spivak, “French Feminism Revisited,” 141-172.
9 Lash, Critique of Information.
10 Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art.
11 Sassen, The Global City.
12 Daniels, Service Industries.
13 Deloria, God Is Red, 63.
14 Spivak and Sharpe, “A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” 617.
15 McNamara, “Information and Communication Technologies.”
16 Sullivan, “Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights – A Digital Library Context.”
17 Turner, “Aotearoa/New Zealand: The Homeland of Make-over Culture.”