The Time of Social Theory
It seems apropos to begin the end of a class with Madonna. In her fabulous portrayal of Eva Peron in Evita she sings...”Where do we go from here? This isn’t where we intended to be. We had it all. You believed in me. I believed in you. Certainties disappear. What do we do for our dream to survive? How do we keep all our passions alive?”
Of course, the context of the song is rather different than ours has been these last 15 weeks, but the sentiment I think perhaps gets at one way to think about not only the pedagogical scene we’ve been in but also what it means to “do” social theory or theorize the social.
So, here at the end of a class we are left asking “where do we go from here”? And before you do, in fact, go from here and our time in this space has ended, I want to take time to re-view our time together as I see it. So, I ask for you to give me your time, for one last time.
We began what seems to be rather long ago when the temperature was warm and all of us unsure what was intended to occur in this space and time of a class on social theory. Charles LeMert started us off asking us to think of social theory as, in many ways, an attempt to put language to our social experiences and learn how to survive and I would add thrive in this perhaps beautifully cruel world we live in. John Berger also helped us frame one way to think about social theory via art history by reminding us or perhaps teaching us that seeing matters and how we see is related to and impacted by what languages, images, and stories we have access to. So, as I mentioned last week...we might think about this course as an adventure in different languages that might allow us to “do” social theory...so let’s review...
Jacques Ranciere started us down what might have felt like a confusing rabbit hole proposing that we ponder what happens if we presume an equality of intelligences. What happens if we “frame” the world in a way that actually presumes equality and how does this alter how we look at children who are often seen as “unformed” “immature” and “innocent”? In proposing we presume equality, his most compelling lesson is “I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you” and that is I hope what you have realized here at the end...that I have nothing to teach you...I can only take part in this adventure and create opportunities where you and I can muck around in knowledge, play with words, and try to make sense of our worlds and our contexts together. At times this was frustrating. At times it was confusing. At times it was hilarious. At times is was boring...but no matter the affective state hopefully we might be able to salvage the failures, the boredom to realize that even those states allow us to “do” something.
Along with Ranciere LeMert wrote:
One must never assume that those without a public voice are inarticulate. The arrogance of intellectuals lies in the assumption that they alone know and speak the truth (11).
As a professor I am rather concerned that I might come off as arrogant and knowing the truth and if that occurred....my sincerest apologies. What LeMert reminds us, however, is that part of the task is to think about who can Speak. Gayatri Spivak in one of those “oft” cited sayings once asked “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and we learned in our engagement with Spivak, Fanon, and Anzaldua different ways in which the “subaltern” has been able to speak and the challenges that exist when trying to speak from the “outside”. And, of course, last week Grosz explicitly engaged what it means to be on the outside and how outsider status while often seen as “negative” can offer insight and a space/time to ask different questions. The “outside” is not always positive though as it has its own pitfalls. Wendy Brown in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty proposed that we think about the emergence of “walls” - walls that create an inside and outside - and the curious emergence of such walls at a time of “waning sovereignty”.
Walls and Sovereignty merge if we allow them with Grosz ideas about architecture from the outside. How does architecture ask questions about the body - not simply about the structures it puts in place but the ways such structures impact the different bodies. What does it mean to be on the “outside” of the wall between states and by definition on the “inside” of a different state? What are the powers that impact what it means to be either “inside” or “outside” such walls - what might be called architectural scars dividing space?
We might also go a different direction and think about the outside - as Grosz allowed us - and the reality that fashion is about the outside...and if we buy Svendsen’s argument, that fashion is, in a sense, what allows us to develop our identity or the “inside” of how we see ourselves. While Roland Barthes book on The Language of Fashion might have been a challenge...what Barthes here at the end might allow us to think about is the outside and how the emergence of fashion over time has allowed us to adorn the outside, the body in different ways. How does the detail of the dandy relate now to things weeks ago we might not have thought about? What is the time of education and how does the “process” of working through texts over time allow us as “outsiders” to different fields begin to ask questions?
Going back to the issue of “speaking”, we might also think about how the Southern Hemisphere has been left outside of Social Theory which caused Connell to ask and for us to explore
“Can we have a social theory that does not claim universality for a metropolitan point of view, does not read from only one direction, does not exclude the experience and social thought of most of humanity and is not constructed on ‘terra nullis’ [land belonging to nobody]” (47)
Perhaps it is Connell that illuminates the adventure we have been on...which is an adventure in disrupting social theory to think about the particular, the contextual, the space and time of difference to counter the dominance within the history of social theory (or academic thought broadly) as universalizing. This could be, following Spivak, an attempt in “education in the humanities” that “attempts to be an uncoercive rearrangement of desires” (17). And this type of education is one that Spivak argues “teaches us to learn from the singular and the unverifiable” because that is what a human is - a singular subject that by being singular is not “verifiable” (228).
Spivak brings us back to Foucault whose entire body of work was an exploration in subjugated knowledges. In his History of Sexuality paired with Christopher Reed’s art history of Art and Homosexuality, we were able to begin thinking about how we might read the social through sexuality - similar to how Anzaldua allowed us to think about the social through the mestiza or Fanon through the colonized. Foucault, however, allowed us to think about history in a different way - a way that is not linear and determined but one that is well, quite messy and complex. Reed illustrates this idea in how he read art history by looking at the different ways in which “sex”, “sexuality”, “eroticism” and “intimacy” are represented and taken up in different time periods - providing if you return to these two texts a rather nice “illustrated” way to read Foucault’s own history.
But, I feel like this review is getting rather time-consuming...so I must wrap up. I will do so with Latour whom the vast majority of us were not quite able to engage. This makes sense because Latour is challenging and in the oft-cited binary between “art” and “science” we here at an “art school” might feel some animosity to “science” since it gets all the money these days. But, it might also be because as Latour argues Science has become something we cannot question or that “science has been used to silence”. If Science has silenced, then those of us who are not experts in “science” might feel rather shy or inhibited with talking about science...because we feel like Outsiders.
What I think is perhaps most compelling about Latour in relation to our time together is that in challenging the “epistemology police” and its emphasis on “matters of fact” he wants us to think about I would argue ethics and “matters of concern” and in doing so shifting us from seeking “certainty” to engaging “uncertainty. He re-frames the questions to ask
1 - How many are there of us?
2 - Can we live together?In asking these questions he does not allow us to get out of reality. Rather, he re-looks at reality to do something else....namely to radically argue for democracy and the necessity to not allow “knowledge” or “facts” to trump how humans relate and live together. He does not negate knowledge - he asks that people “knock at the door” - those who are “aptly outside” to seek entry and provide an argument that might or might not compel for changes.
And perhaps this is where I leave you and end our time together...pondering about the relationship between knowledge and relating to the other. How knowledge can oppress and emancipate? How different languages, different disciplines, might allow us to “do” different things...hopefully they allow us as educators and journalists to think through the ethics of living in the world and to end with Ranciere “one need only to learn how to be equal in an unequal society. This is what being emancipated mean” (133). So, I hope you learn how to be equal, how to “do” things in the world and that “such emancipation will begin when the student [you] decide it will begin” (24).
My many thanks to you for this adventure in insight.