I’m not sure if last week’s Facebook post on Hal Foster and generationalism was wrong or I just have a lot of friends getting older but nevertheless it was unpopular so let me try the argument another way (again, those with knowledge please correct my inexpert cereal-box developmental psychoanalysis): As infants we learn to sense a world that is timed and spaced in specific ways, written by the mother/family as a language. We learn to translate our gestures in turn, developing repertoires of movement/grabbing that cohere in us as subjects and become our more or less individualised patterns of sensing and engaging the world as we enter the social order. Underwriting the shared languages of the clan are the technologies of reading/writing/speech that pre-exist birth and outlive death and are bound prosthetically to us and structure our mechanisms for sensing the world. Affect thus has a grammar, and particular technologies of inscription (“media”) spatialise specific repertoires of grammar and gesture across clans, via the historical motors of industry and the state, interrupting intergenerational transmission of a symbolic order.

For example – the emergence of Michael Jackson’s Thriller -> rap and late-night telecasts of NBA basketball on Australian television in the mid-1980s trained my sensorial world in productised African American gesture in a way far less accessible to a previous generation of my class and regional location [unfortunately we did not get Adrian Piper’s “Funk Lessons”]. [Though at the same time, I remember watching 5 days of test cricket on television – another language]. Similarly, I can use a touch-screen, but I will never live in my nephew’s world where a wide range of gestures of interaction with the screen are mastered at the age of two, even if I deliberately “learned” to get faster at using a tablet by spending hours a day on it. His world is both already here and yet to come, and I hope that he translates something of my grammar into it, but there are no guarantees.

All that is commonsensical (?) but professionally, the authoritative gestures of the critic encourage us to forget that our time is already gone, resulting in claustrophobic rituals of pronouncing on what the world is or isn’t as if it were able to be sensed with our legacy equipment (thus requiring punk or other forms of generational rebellion). For example, I grew up with the personal computer and became an adult at the birth of the Web 25 years ago – even as a “new media” practitioner and scholar I struggle to escape my default relation to the Internet as one of accessing archival documents, even though intellectually I know that the document metaphor is broken by the content streams of the social platform.

That sense of struggle should complicate the process of making cultural explanations, to open a gap between our world and the one-to-come-already-here, and thus to open the ethical relation to next generation. This was completely missing in Foster, who looked at the parts of a world he could recognise, felt fear, and thought it was his job to revise his own explanation of the times. And it is his “job” as the visiting professorial public lecture, and somewhat interesting for those of us who share something of his practice and trajectory, but also simply in the time-honoured tradition of patriarchal complaints about epochal decay that aren’t much use to anyone. Of course one should not grow old, and continue to participate in emergent forms and try and make sense of them  for our own sake, but I think the only way to do this without trampling on those who are becoming institutional adults in the contemporary world is to recognise that the emergent grammar and gestures that constitute new times are structured by differences that are unseen and unseeable by us. Yes, the legacies of our own times of emergence remain part of the contemporary – my knowledge of XML is perhaps a bit like knowing Latin in the 19th century, almost deprecated but still with explanatory power – but I think it is more useful to document the codes we know well rather than telling the young what their world is. As Gramsci has it, there are a lot of voices “organically” connected to that world that we should be listening to.

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

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

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

[PDF version available on the RUPC website here]


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Romanticism revisited

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

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

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


Marx’s value as form

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

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

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


Reading in the expanded field

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

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

Moving culture

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reproductive heteronormativity and subjective development

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

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

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


Experiencing radical alterity

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

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

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


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

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


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



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

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

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

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


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


Geographies of Professionalisation – panel for AAANZ conference 2014

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

Geographies of Professionalisation

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Relation to conference theme (150 words)

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


Contemporary Art History and Professionalisation

It’s interesting seeing art historians deal with artists who are their contemporaries or near-contemporaries, as this is not what the discipline was designed for and so the meeting highlights how different the professionalisation and subjectification of art historians and artists has been. While artists do gain a sort of structural validation due to their choice of material (ironically, increasingly including art history) the requirement to “do something” with that material (i.e. enable a kind of affective truth) is far higher than for the art historian, whose ultimate validation comes from a genre of truth as the avoidance of being proven false, quite a different enterprise. [This is all changing as contemporary art history becomes an archive that both artists and art historians mine to their advantage through the shared tools of computing, adopting referencing as a style, but still I think in different ways.]

Perhaps peer reviewing of contemporary art historians could occur more through the tools of art criticism, evaluating the work of art historians according to their formal strategies within specific institutional settings and within the context of an overall project that will be tied (always badly) to their creative “identity”. If that kind of evaluation were more prominent, the survival strategies of art historians would perhaps need to go through the kinds of critical pressure that those of artists have, to become less clearly institutionally predictable. Contests between art historians who were involved in various kinds of critique of their own institutional conditions and forming independent alliances to escape them versus those who benefit from business as usual might become more interesting to artists even as those contests made art history less useful.

The most enduring feature of the modernist legacy to me was not to think of disciplinarity as seeking purity but for every disciplinary form to court its own institutional decomposition. It’s now over 20 years since Bal and Bryson noted that “art history seems hard pressed to renounce its positivistic basis, as if it feared to lose its scholarly status altogether in the bargain.” If we consider that the humanities have now become a financialised enterprise subject to many of the same kinds of pressures as any other industry (gaining market share, impact, growth, profitability), perhaps this diagnosis still holds, but the location of the “positivity” has changed from academic declarations of fact to more behind-the-scenes structures of professionalisation. “Theory” and a critical community would then still be among the few available tools to open up these naturalised engines of professional force.

19th Biennale of Sydney’s places of work

I don’t have that much to say about the 19th Biennale of Sydney as a whole — like most shows of this scale there was work I liked and work I didn’t. But the framing of the 19th Biennale — “You Imagine What You Desire” — seemed very “European” and individualist, compared to the more anthropological/comparativist “All Our Relations” of 2012. This intuition, not unrelated to the distribution of unfreedom that led to the activism around major sponsor Transfield’s involvement in mandatory detention, required sociological exploration rather than close reading. So I ran some numbers on where the selected artists live and work, and the results are graphed below.

As an aside, I think “You Desire What You Can Imagine” is more technically accurate.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 9.36.37 PM

Country		Artists in	(Identifying as Indigenous)

Australia	19.50		3.00
New Zealand	1.00		1.00

Germany		10.83	
UK		10.50	
Norway		8.00	
Netherlands	7.50	
France		5.50	
Switzerland	5.00	
Poland		4.00	
Denmark		3.50	
Finland		3.00	
Belgium		2.83	
Sweden		2.00	
Hungary		2.00	
Ireland		1.00	
Austria		1.00
Turkey		0.33

United States	5.50	
Canada		2.00	

China		2.50	
Israel		1.33	

Egypt		1.00			
Republic of 
the Congo	0.33
* This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation of where artists in 19th Biennale of Sydney work, based on the attribution provided in the catalogue. Where an artist works in more than one place a fraction is applied – e.g. London and New York = 0.5 UK, 0.5 US. Artist duos and collaborations are treated as one unit unless a separate exhibition history is listed for each artist, in which case each artist is counted individually. Indigenous identification is listed where the artist has listed a non-nation-state affiliation. Mircea Cantor’s claim to work on “Earth” is not included as I see it as part of the problem. Fact-checking and improvements welcome.

Transfield, Biennale of Sydney, and artistic complicity

Over the past week there has been intense discussion of the major sponsorship of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (BOS19) by the Transfield Foundation, a joint partnership between investment company Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services, with Transfield Holdings also holding approximately 11% of the shareholding in Transfield Services. Transfield Services are an infrastructure provider recently awarded a contract to provide ‘social welfare’ services alongside its existing contracts with Australian Government immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, to bring a total of over $1 billion in earnings over the next 20 months. The Biennale was established by Transfield Holdings in 1973, and executive director of Transfield Holdings Luca Belgiorno-Netti is also Chairman of the Biennale’s Board of Directors.  Following a call for a boycott (aimed at no particular group) first raised by design educator Matthew Kiem, refugee & asylum seeker organisation RISE called specifically on participating artists to boycott the Biennale, which begins next month. The fullest documentation of the call and responses is available on the website Crossborder Operational Matters, although this website has a clear agenda to push the boycott and their posts should be read with that in mind.

Last Monday 17th February, a number of artists participating in the Biennale published an open letter to the board of the Biennale of Sydney, asking for the board to “withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.” Rather than a simple call to cut ties as the letter has been reported in the mainstream media, the letter extends past the question of financial sponsorship, asking the Board to join with the artists in “an opportunity to become aware of, and to acknowledge, responsibility for our own participation in a chain of connections that links to human suffering.” It was always unlikely that Biennale Chair Belgiorno-Netti would rescind sponsorship from a company in which he has an executive role. However, the artists’ invitation to consider the injustices at Nauru and Manus Island has also been ignored by the Biennale’s Board of Directors, who responded that withdrawing from the sponsorship agreement was impossible,  and that “the only certainty is that without our Founding Partner, the Biennale will no longer exist.” The board’s immunity to ethical responsibility is reflected in their language where they position the artists and themselves as “‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument”, though describing themselves as damaged in relation to the horrific plight of those detained by the Australian Government is quite obnoxious to say the least. This non-response leaves the artists with the decision of how to respond and whether or not to withdraw their work from the exhibition.

I do not write as someone with any expertise in the politics of asylum seekers and mandatory detention, but I have participated in large-scale exhibitions, and as an art school teacher of over 15 years have worked with a number of artists who have also participated in these exhibitions and been subject to their politics. What I think should be emphasised in this conjuncture is that the problematic for artists and artworkers extends past the particular issue of refugees and asylum seekers, as urgent and present as this issue is. It implicates the entire funding structure of large-scale exhibitions, which rely on corporate money of ethically and politically dubious provenance. In 2012, artist Van Thanh Rudd protested the 18th Biennale of Sydney against Transfield’s activities on Nauru. Also in 2012, activists protested the sponsorship of the Asia Pacific Triennial by coal seam gas and mining company Santos. The recent exhibition Melbourne Now’s principal partner is Mercedes-Benz, a part of the Daimler Group who are involved in missile production among other military activities. The overwhelming majority of the budgets for these large exhibitions are for services such as catering, insurance, promotion, and other logistics – a comparatively smaller amount makes it to actual artists and their projects (in some cases, artists participate without funding at all). To participate in these exhibitions is to be in an industrial-cultural machine that is largely immune to the specificity of artistic inputs, a machine that fulfils a diverse range of goals for capital and the state regardless of the quality of the work. It is also an issue that extends to universities and art schools, whose financialisation; growing investment from private capital and involvement in military technologies means those of us drawing salaries in that sector are in no privileged position to criticise the support artists receive. As Brynn O’Brien wrote in response to Kiem’s original call, “the value chains of detention… permeate our lives in unexpected ways – through our bank accounts, superannuation funds, investments, and workplaces and… their sponsorships of organisations and events we hold dear.”

Some commentators have questioned the boycott as a strategy, with Helen Razer characterising it as a tactic that “absolves the art world from responsibility”, allowing artists “to feel as though they have done something by doing nothing.”  Razer’s article headline suggested that artists were divided on the issue, however I’ve yet to find an artist who does not want the Transfield funding to be removed. How to respond to the fact that this funding exists brings a dilemma for the artists. In my view, RISE’s letter requesting a boycott is an accurate reading of the political situation from an outside observer: although the artists receive a tiny proportion of the Biennale’s total funds, they have the strongest position from which to effect change in the event, as their position in the Biennale is based on their ability to make a statement with their work. A withdrawal of these works would limit or hopefully have a negative impact on the reputation laundering that Transfield Services are looking for from the Transfield Foundation, and in turn from the Biennale. In general terms RISE’s call for a boycott must be affirmed. It is unfortunate that those commentating the potential of artistic contributions outside the boycott have sought to judge whether a boycott “would have any affect [sic] whatsoever”, as Helen Hughes does for Frieze in an otherwise helpful account. There is no neutral position from which a boycott’s outcome can be judged in advance, and to do so participates in the same kind of self-justifying calculation that allows the Biennale to take Transfield’s money, or for all of us to ignore our participation in an international culture of inhumane detention. The options as I see them for both artists and audiences are to 1) join the boycott and publicise one’s participation (i.e. make one’s withdrawal a contribution to the Biennale); 2) do something else to respond to the issue; or 3) take a position more like the Board’s own and wring one’s hands and hope that the problem goes away.

However, even affirming the boycott, joining it is not necessarily a straightforward decision for participating artists, because the political force of contemporary art production only takes shape within its institutional context of critical legitimation and audience engagement – coverage of a work’s ‘message’ through mass media channels, for example, usually does not amplify the force of art. The arrival of the Biennale’s economic involvement in a national news story has shifted dialogue around the exhibition into formats that involve many people with limited connection to the contemporary art world, and the polarised discussions are more like the marshaling of facts and opinion in the mass media and the house of elected representatives, rather than the art world’s more comfortable terrain of proliferating individualized experiments with form and tone. This may be appropriate, but it also seems to give the artists little room to articulate the politics of our complicity, which is ironic given the focus from all sides on the artists’ actions. Even for those few artists deeply interested in institutional and economic machinations as an object of study, one would not expect them to find their most effective contribution to democratic debate inside this version of parliament’s Question Time – they are more likely to seek to escape those constraints to propose other modes of engagement. It is notable that the most prominent artist to make an individual statement on the Biennale so far has been Richard Bell, the self-described ‘propagandist’ who is experienced in the Aboriginal Legal Service, and knows the hardest edges of political force first-hand. Bell says that he would solve the Transfield dilemma directly by making work about the issue, if he were invited. But few artists are prepared for this kind of linguistic argy-bargy the way that Bell is, whether by temperament, training, or content of their work.

Even if Bell were involved, the political problem for the Biennale artists is that their works are not collectively that meaningful: each work uniquely holds the possibility of force that comes from the artist’s ability to resist the imposition of default forms and to give their own form to their work. The reason curatorial statements in (and reviews of) large-scale exhibitions like the Biennale are so routinely weak is because artists’ works are so diverse, and en masse stand for not very much at all, as opposed to coordinated political actions that become more effective as they scale. An artist participating in the boycott as called from outside calculates that they will make the biggest impact on the politics of mandatory detention by rescinding the Biennale’s opportunity to reach a large-scale audience through their usual means of statement-making, and to instead join with a collective withdrawal proposed by others. While this would certainly be a simple calculation for any artist who did not explicitly foreground political issues in their work (that is, their withdrawal would create more impact than their work), the irony is that the artists most likely to join the boycott are those who do foreground political issues, and they would give up the most impact in the short term by rescinding their participation. [Note I am talking about giving up their political position, rather than talking about professional careers, though no doubt some artists will also be conscious of this]. It may be that, following Bell, not participating in the boycott and making another intervention instead would be a political calculation made by the most highly-politicised artists, rather than the least politicised.

Of course, in the wake of the call for a boycott that possibility of “another intervention” has a somewhat higher threshold to be considered adequate or successful than we might have thought before the call, and before the last weeks’ horrific events on Manus Island. The self-congratulatory statements by the Biennale and curator Engberg that they magnanimously provide a platform for debate are hard to take seriously: the public programme for this Biennale notably downplays political concerns, and without the call for a boycott the funding issues that go to the very core of artistic production and distribution would not have been on the table, any more than APT7 would have hosted a ‘dialogue’ on fracking undertaken by their major sponsor Santos. That said, I do not think it helps to say in advance that the exhibition is fatally co-opted as a site for discussion, any more than we might say that other financial entities like Facebook, Twitter or universities are fatally co-opted a site to critique those organisations’ practices.

If the artists are truly the best-placed to affect the role artistic works and institutions play in the politics of detention in which we are complicit – and I believe they are – then our first response should be to support their responsibility to give their own form to any action, whether that involves joining a boycott or doing something else. That is the way artists contribute to the aesthetic field where the political can be thought and felt. While Kiem says that his call for a boycott’s main aim is to “pressure [the] Biennale to fund this without resorting to profits made from mandatory detention”, it is notable that the most extensive media coverage and responses from the Board have emerged from the actions of artists themselves in their open letter, precisely because they are already engaged in the exhibition’s institutional production. This is in keeping with the history of political controversy in the contemporary art field – where artists, rather than curators or institutions, have been at the forefront of questioning art’s complicity with capitalist and state oppression. In teaching and supervision, I have long had the experience that applying external pressure to artists to conform to a political activity is one of the ways that art’s affective capacities are diminished and the political potential of artistic activity is suppressed.  Particularly if that pressure comes from salaried academics, if not so much from independent activists, with whom artists are often more comfortable talking with ‘on the level’.

This is not to justify the autonomy of art in a naive way, or to insulate artists from critique. Actually the opposite is true, it is the relative autonomy of artistic production and its lack of conformity to established political-economic modes of understanding that enable more robust critique. This lack of conformity expands the possibility for critical analysis of both the completed works and the artists’ positions in their full political and economic context. But it is also because of the institutionalisation of this critique (whether it is made in work or the withdrawal of work) that it has operationality and valence, it is not a finger-pointing exercise from outside. As Andrea Fraser describes it, it is “this very institutionalisation that allows institutional critique to judge the institution of art against the critical claims of its legitimising discourses, against its self-representation as a site of resistance and contestation, and against its mythologies of radicality and symbolic revolution.” For some artists the morally corrupt platform that constitutes the 19th Biennale of Sydney will fail to hold their work, and they will withdraw. For others, the presence of death and injustice that Transfield brings is now part of the site where their work is presented, and that work will inevitably be joined to Transfield, a pairing that will supplement the works in question and the Biennale as a whole for good or for ill. As critical viewers and supporters of the arts, I believe our most useful role is to affirm the responsibility artists take with their work; to learn to perceive their interventions in their singularity; and to apply rigorous scrutiny to their interventions within the protocols they adopt. Whether Biennale of Sydney artists withdraw or do not, I am looking forward to learning from them in how to respond to this political conjuncture and the ethical and moral deficits that constitute our cultural institutions more broadly.

Thanks to Bianca Hester, Deborah Kelly, Ruth DeSouza and others who offered comments on an early draft of this piece, all errors are my own.