FIELD Issue 5 Editorial

Editorial | Fall 2016

Grant Kester


Lenin arrives at Finland Station, Petrograd (April 16, 1917)

If the current election cycle teaches us nothing else, it demonstrates the process by which people can be brought to vote against their own economic interests. Our political identities and investments are determined by fantasy, projection and self-delusion as much as they are by rational calculation. The Republican party, which has spent the past half century (since Nixon’s infamous Southern Strategy) trying to recruit working class white voters by convincing them that their suffering is caused by poor people of color, rather than the corporate interests on behalf of which their party acts, have finally learned that the dog whistle can be replaced by a fire alarm (albeit not without a certain cost). [1] There are, of course, numerous historical precedents for this situation. In fact, the perceived ignorance of the disempowered is one of the central pillars of the traditions of both the modernist avant-garde and the political vanguard. It provides the rationale for a kind of revolutionary Taylorism whereby the creative cognitive work necessary to envision and advance organized political resistance is sequestered in the intelligence of the professional revolutionary. As Marx and Engel’s wrote in The Holy Family:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. [2]

The knowledge of this ontological destiny has been entrusted to the “theoretical communist,” an alienated bourgeois subject able to transform the tools of scientific thinking to revolutionary ends. The workers, for their part, are merely “practical” communists whose conscious agency possesses no significant generative power. [3] This is a tendency that began with the earliest stages of modernity. Two centuries ago Hegel, in The Philosophy of Right, lamented the ignorance of the German public through an antithesis between the “people . . . a formless mass whose commotion and activity could therefore only be elementary, irrational, barbarous and frightful,” and the philosopher, who was uniquely capable of a “profound apprehension” of the absolute within which the people’s destiny would, unknowingly, be acted out. Closely related to this was Hegel’s insistence that the philosopher, in order to cultivate this quasi-divine insight, must remain aloof from direct involvement with the mechanisms of social transformation, forming an isolated “priesthood of truth,” which ought not to consort with the world. [4]

The Marxist version of this schema is based on the division between the working class, understood as a kind of physical resource (defined by a set of insurrectional capacities) and a cadre of revolutionary intellectuals. This division is evident in Karl Kautsky’s famous claim that “socialist consciousness” must be “introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without” (after first being incubated in the “mind of the bourgeois intelligentsia”). [5] In this view authentic political insight is always already displaced from the consciousness of the agents whose destiny it is to act it out, and from the practice of political resistance itself. [6] This perception is evident in the more recent claim that the key to Lenin’s revolutionary insight didn’t lie in his ability to participate in, and learn from, the complex, unfolding political currents of St. Petersburg, but rather, came with his decision to retreat to Zurich to engage in a close reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic prior to his return to Russia in the mythical “sealed” passenger car (“he withdrew to a lonely place in Switzerland where he learned and learned and learned,” as Slavoj Žižek writes). [7] This experience of solitary theoretical reflection was the crucible in which Lenin refined his revolutionary vision, allowing him to discern the potential for a radical overturning in the chaos following the fall of the Tsar. While this is no doubt an appealing belief for someone whose professional life is centered on the reading of philosophical texts it can also diminish the crucial epistemological power of political resistance itself.

Although we encounter numerous efforts today to more fully theorize the nature of contemporary capitalism (via concepts of “financialization,” “accelerationism,” “cognitive capitalism,” and so on) what is often left unquestioned is the broader architectonic system within and through which this theoretical “content” is produced and disseminated. What subject position does the theorist occupy? How do they understand their relationship to the social actors whose behavior, norms or values they hope to question, transform or inspire? How is theory mobilized in a specific context or site of practice? What criteria do we employ in determining its relevance or efficacy? What forms of symbolic capital does theory aggregate around itself, and how does this accumulation (of authority, prestige, etc.) effect the social consumption of theory itself? And finally, what, if any, dialogical relationship exists between critical theory and resistant practice? These are questions which we’ve been asking about the artistic personality for three decades or more (On whose behalf do they speak? What is the relationship between their creative production and social or political change? What forms of privilege inform their practice?). While these issues were widely discussed in the 1980s as they pertained to the role of the theorist, intellectual or critic (in Foucault’s concept of the “specific intellectual,” in Edward Said’s work, and many other contexts) they have been largely neglected in the past two decades, even as “theory” has emerged as a kind of placeholder term for critical thinking in general, and become institutionally normalized (witness the rapidity with which the professional identity of “artist-theorist,” “curator-theorist” or critic-theorist” has proliferated in the art world during this same period).

In this sense, theory remains perhaps the last bastion of our residual faith in immanent truth, intellectual sovereignty and subjective transcendence. To explain precisely why this might be the case would require far more space than I have available here. I simply want to note that theory today (the delivery systems, the rhetorical tropes, the liturgical authority which it enjoys, the modes of self-identification and many of the preconscious horizons) has remained remarkably unchanged over the past half century. Of particular importance in the context of the current issue of FIELD, is theory as a performative genre. Here critical theory typically operates through a compensatory rhetorical hardening that relies on an often-reductive opposition between those practices that are merely accommodationist or reformist and those (perhaps as yet only hypothetical) practices that are authentically revolutionary (a distinction that the theorist alone feels qualified to make). This discursive system depends, in turn, on a hyperbolic account of the recuperative powers of various normative discourses (“rights,” “democracy,” etc.) over the particularistic and tactical uses that are made of them by social actors (naively) engaged in political resistance (Hegel’s irrational public; Marx’s unselfconscious masses). The result is a familiar recursive loop as the critical enterprise is reduced to endlessly “exposing” the scandalous truth that political action here and now must make use of discursive forms (concepts of democracy, rights, solidarity or participation) that are inevitably compromised and impure, with little attention to the particular negotiations that occur in the use of these concepts at specific sites of political praxis. Here it is worth returning to Žižek and his 2007 critique of Wendy Brown. As Žižek argues, “It is not enough to make the old Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it”.

One can read this gap between the “appearance” of equality-freedom and the social reality of economic, cultural, etc. differences either in the standard “symptomatic” way (the form of universal rights, equality, freedom and democracy is just a necessary, but illusory form of expression of its concrete social content, the universe of exploitation and class domination), or in the much more subversive sense of a tension in which the “appearance” of egaliberte, precisely, is not a “mere appearance,” but evinces an effectivity of its own, which allows it to set in motion the process of the rearticulation of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive “politicization” (Why shouldn’t women also vote? Why shouldn’t conditions at the working place also be of public political concern? etc.). [8]

These questions, of purity and impurity and reform and revolution, of the relationship of theoretical reflection and political practice, and of the theorist him or herself to those social actors who are engaged in challenging the status quo, are central to several of the essays in this issue of FIELD. Our issue begins with Susan Buck-Morss’s “A Commonist Ethic”. This essay was originally written for the conference “Communism: A New Beginning,” organized by Žižek and Alain Badiou at Cooper Union in New York City in October 2011. In her essay Buck-Morss argues for a shift from the language of “communism” to “commonism” in order to move beyond the conceptual reification that has come to be associated with the institutional history of Communism. As she states, “Never, in my lifetime has the Marxist critique of capital and its global dynamics seemed more accurate. And never has it seemed more wrong to go back to Marxism in its historical forms.” Buck-Morss’s particular focus here is the impact of recent efforts to develop a new “ontology” of Leftist political thought. This tendency emerged in reaction to the specter of relativism produced by the de-essentializing drive of post-structuralist theory (which challenged, among other things, the ontological primacy of the proletariat as the singular agent of human emancipation). This led to numerous efforts to discover some new normative principle or a priori human capacity that could be used to ground, and orient, contemporary Left theory (candidates include Badiou’s mathematical set theory, Hardt and Negri’s biopower, Laclau’s concept of antagonism, and Agamben’s bare life, among many other examples). The result has been a body of theoretical writing that tends towards a level of quasi-metaphysical abstraction and often fails to engage directly with existing political struggles. Buck-Morss recommends instead a kind of revolutionary pragmatism. This is not a pragmatism that simply accepts existing reality or refuses to challenge the systematic forces that produce it, but a pragmatism in which the theorist is willing to learn from, and be surprised by, the exigencies of political praxis here and now.

As a companion to “A Commonist Ethics” we are also pleased to publish an interview with Buck-Morss in which she reflects on the questions raised in the essay, and the political transformations that have occurred since it was originally written. This interview also returns to some themes that we explored in a previous interview in 1997. [9] From the perspective of FIELD we are interested in the implications that Buck-Morss’s writing has for our understanding of theory and criticism as they relate to new forms of socially engaged art. Walter Benjamin, in his influential 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” wrote of the shifts occurring in the nature of artistic practice in the interwar period in Europe, epitomized by the genre-crossing work of Sergey Tretyakov in the U.S.S.R. For Benjamin this new approach to cultural production (implicit in Tretyakov’s concept of the “operative writer”) reflected a “vast melting down process” which “destroys the conventional separation between genres, between writer and poet, scholar and popularizer . . . [and] that . . . questions even the separation between author and reader.” [10] To what extent does our current moment also mark a period of crisis and transformation, during which existing modes of aesthetic autonomy are being tested, transformed and re-negotiated? Buck-Morss associates this potential with the concept of “emergency,” drawing here on the word’s original meaning as signaling the emergence of “a new situation, a possibility that subjectivity itself can be transformed.”

Our third contribution consists of a series of letters exchanged between Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, not long before Adorno’s death, which directly address the relationship between theory and practice. The letters document the breach that occurred between the two Frankfurt School luminaries during the late 1960s, when Marcuse was teaching at the University of California, San Diego (where FIELD is based) and Adorno was directing the post-WWII-era Institute for Social Research (ISR) in West Germany. Marcuse, learning of Adorno’s decision to call the police to break up an occupation of the ISR offices by student activists associated with the Außerparlamentarische Opposition or APO, wrote to express his disagreement with Adorno, and his support of the students. Adorno, for his part, dismissed the protestors as opportunistic and politically naïve. The decisive exchange circulates around the relationship between theory and practice. Marcuse writes:

I would have left them [the protestors] sitting there and left it to somebody else to call the police. I still believe that our cause . . . is better taken up by the rebellious students than by the police and, here in California, that is demonstrated to me almost daily . . . You know me well enough to know that I reject the unmediated translation of theory into praxis just as emphatically as you do. But I do believe that there are situations, moments, in which theory is pushed on further by praxis—situations and moments in which theory that is kept separate from praxis becomes untrue to itself.

Adorno’s response is emblematic:

You think that praxis . . . is not blocked today; I think differently. I would have to deny everything that I think and know about the objective tendency if I wanted to believe that the student protest movement in Germany had even the tiniest prospect of effecting a social intervention . . . I would . . . concede to you that there are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow.

What does a legitimate “social intervention” look like? Who determines which intervention is “objectively” authentic and which is delusional, and on what basis? And how do we understand the relationship between theoretical intelligence and practical action? Adorno and Marcuse’s exchange, from almost fifty years ago, provides insights into questions that have only become more pertinent with time. We are grateful to New Left Review for giving us permission to reproduce these letters, translated by Esther Leslie, which originally appeared in New Left Review I: 233 (January-February 1999).

FIELD #5 also features an interview with Michelada Think Tank (MTT), a collective of African American artists who formed following the 2014 Open Engagement conference. Open Engagement, along with the Creative Time Summit, has emerged in the past several years as one of the primary forums for practitioners associated with socially engaged art in the U.S. to congregate and present their work. Both events are symptomatic of the remarkable rapidity with which socially engaged art has become both institutionalized and monetized in the U.S., as evidenced by the launching of several new MFA programs dedicated to various forms of socially engaged art practice, the emergence of new funding sources such as A Blade of Grass in New York City, and new museum-based fellowship programs (such as the Guggenheim “Social Practice Art” initiative discussed in our last editorial). The “mainstreaming” of this work in the American media reached its apotheosis in the widespread and almost uniformly affirmative coverage of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument project three years ago (discussed in the editorial for our second issue). In their interview here the members of MTT discuss the often-overlooked racial politics of socially engaged art in the U.S. and their concern about the ways in which the emerging institutions associated with this work can reinforce, rather than challenge, the often racialized divisions between art and the broader spectrum of activist cultural production today.

One of the byproducts of MTT’s research was the realization that it was essential for artist of color working in the area of socially engaged art to develop their own spaces and networks for the dissemination and exchange of their work. A similar question of situational autonomy informs the work of the artist Carmen Papalia, who is interviewed here by critic Jacqueline Bell. Papalia has played a key role in the development of new forms of engaged art associated with issues of disability over the past decade. In his Blind Field Shuttle performances Papalia, who is himself blind, leads groups of participants on long walks through various urban spaces. The participants are required to keep their eyes closed and are only guided by their physical connection to the person ahead of them in a long line of walkers that follows behind Papalia. Here the embodied experience of blindness, and the complex relationship between forms of what Papalia terms “visual” and “non-visual” learning is literally performed. In this interview Bell focuses on Papalia’s recent “Open Access” audit project, which entailed an institutional critique of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) attitudes towards issues of access and inclusion. The project was developed entirely outside the authority of the VAG, in Gallery Gachet, a community-based art space in the working class Downtown Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver.


1. Trump has exploited a long-standing fault-line in the Republican party between a base of white, working class (and predominately male) voters (the foundation of the Tea Party) and the party leadership and donor class, which remains entirely devoted to a conventional program of neo-liberal retrenchment (associated with figures such as Grover Norquist and Paul Ryan, and the Club for Growth), involving the reduction of taxes for the wealthy, the elimination of government regulations on corporate conduct, the privatization of public and social services and the facilitation of free trade. The whole point of Republican party appeals to racism was to keep the working class from recognizing that the real source of its disempowerment was the capitalist system. Trump’s populist success rests on his ability to combine the familiar Republican mobilization of racism, re-coded from immigrant workers stealing your jobs to immigrant terrorists destroying your way of life, with a critique of neo-liberal capitalism (evident in his attack on NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership) which directly contradicts the corporate interests of the Republican party.

2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family (1844),

3. Marx develops this concept in The German Ideology (1846/1932). For a more detailed discussion see Shlomo Avineri, Karl Marx: Social and Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p.95.

4. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, translated by T.M. Knox (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p.198. Joseph Chytry discusses Hegel’s idea of a “priesthood of truth” in The Aesthetic State: A Quest in Modern German Thought (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), p.217.

5. The Kautsky quote is cited by Lenin in What is to be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement (New York: International Publishers, 1981), p.48.

“Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously.”

6. This belief demonstrates a kind of ontic reiteration of the historical determinism of classical Marxism, which imagines the teleological progression of society from feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism, reaching its ultimate realization in the historically inevitable emergence of communism. Here the Marxist intellectual, in his capacity for “scientific” thought, bears the historical destiny of bourgeois capitalist society. He will serve as the intellectual midwife uniquely equipped by the forces of historical development to facilitate the proletariat’s coming to consciousness.

7.  This is a repeated theme in Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). The Žižek quote is from Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London: Macmillan, 2008), p.30.

8. Slavoj Žižek, “Tolerance as an Ideological Category,” Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2007), pp.667-668.

9. Grant Kester, “Aesthetics after the End of Art: An Interview with Susan Buck-Morss” (Art Journal, Spring 1997). Available at:

10. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Understanding Brecht, translated by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998), p.90.