[-empyre-] some thoughts on complicity

Timothy Murray tcm1 at cornell.edu
Mon Jan 11 12:32:16 EST 2010

>Thank you for your intervention, Sally Jane.  Such critical 
>(theoretical?) activism has indeed been something we've all tried to 
>foster via -empyre-.  And the value of our polis is its theoretical 
>and critical diversity, based, as you put it, on the productivity of 
>difference rather than its flattening out.   A politics in itself?

I can certainly appreciate Johanna's wish for art to attain something 
akin to a neutral holy grail, but isn't the stuff of art itself-- its 
materials, its institutions, its operational contexts, its makers, 
and, indeed, even its theorists--inherently critically complex?  And 
doesn't "art" exist within the context of history and its 
intellectual and artistic discourses?  Certainly new media art is an 
event of the electronic interface in all of its institutinal 

As Renate mentioned last week, jjust last Novemeber and December, we 
reflected on the politics and institutionality of (h)activism as it 
intersects with the making and thinking of art in an age of design. 
And, in October, we reflected on the promise of networked writing on 
networked art, sensitive to the institutional conditions of 
Turbulence that teamed up with the Institute for the Future of the 

Perhaps these very sorts of institutional collaborations and 
conceptual hactivisims provide the complicitous fabric that drives 
the making of art and its discourse.



>it's odd but so much of what I'm reading in this forum makes sense 
>and I'd be inclined to call it some kind of collectively elaborated 
>/ negotiated critical theorising (not to say there's attainment of 
>consensual positions, but a mindfulness of difference which allows/ 
>predicates dialogue), so I'd be curious to know how you would 
>characterise it Gerry?  for me this (admittedly unusual) quality of 
>"critical theory" is largely what empyre at its best is about.
>I'm also uncomfortable with the blanket value statement re politics: 
>isn't it we people who somehow make up the polis?  I'd certainly 
>admit that we/ it are pretty sick, but that a sign of health is the 
>struggle Johanna's eloquently resumed below.
>still already ever struggling to understand
>From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au 
>[empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Gerry Coulter 
>[gcoulter at ubishops.ca]
>Sent: 10 January 2010 21:48
>To: soft_skinned_space
>Subject: Re: [-empyre-] some thoughts on complicity
>We are no longer in a place where critical theory makes sense.
>What we can do now is forge radical approaches. Theory as challenge.
>Art that operates as challenge participates in this.
>Re: "Politics is change..." Politics is sick. Art has to stay well 
>clear of it or it dies rapidly.
>As for Marx: Capitalism never had a better friend.
>best Gerry
>From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au 
>[empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Johanna 
>Drucker [drucker at gseis.ucla.edu]
>Sent: January 10, 2010 2:44 PM
>To: soft_skinned_space
>Subject: Re: [-empyre-] some thoughts on complicity
>Again, thanks all for all this rich discussion. Here's a few 
>thoughts in response to the various strains introduced in the last 
>days and across posts, which I've enjoyed and agreed with in many 
>My formulation of complicity was meant to focus full force on the 
>hypocrisy of critical approaches that presume moral superiority to 
>the objects under their examination. It was also meant as a call to 
>formulate aesthetics outside of the legacy of political theory. Why? 
>Because critical theory as currently practiced seems inadequate as a 
>description of either the world and its workings, or the workings 
>and force of artistic activity. Almost all aesthetic theory today is 
>premised on the idea that it is necessarily political theory. Why? 
>Separating aesthetics from politics is not meant to annihilate 
>either, but to demonstrate the distinction of the two domains.
>Politics is change, the transformation of the structures, 
>instruments, means, and relations of power.
>Aesthetics is the form of knowledge specific to perception.
>Metaphysics is the realm of ideas  beyond physics. Most quantum 
>physicists would not call themselves metaphysicans, but would have 
>been labelled so by earlier generations for whom "the mysterious 
>influence of objects at a distance" would have seemed like magic. 
>Metaphysics, I think, can be understood without the Cartesian 
>opposition between mind and body. All thought, expression, 
>experience are embodied, as per Ken Knoebel's wonderful formulation 
>of "continuous materiality." But there are orders of experience 
>outside of individual perception that have yet to become 
>apprehensible -- we don't see heat, and we also don't see 
>systems-based dynamics in our own lives. We see entities, not 
>events, we grasp objects, not their codependent emergence from 
>dynamic conditions. Metaphysics can be understood as the "beyond" of 
>classical (mechanical) physics, rather than as a spiritual 
>discipline, and thus a rubric under which to examine what we do not 
>yet know, pushing past habits of though
>  t and limits of perception and cognition. Is there a virtue to 
>this? A value? Should there be? Need there be?
>Of course. The world is broken and needs fixing. "The point is to 
>change it," Marx said, giving political philosophy a different 
>charge and responsibility than other philosophy. Secular salvation 
>is the legacy of marxism. Utopianisms are attempts to create 
>paradise on earth. A good goal. Why not? Imagine a world in which 
>standards of living and quality of life are just, fair, equitable, 
>and, today's buzz-meme, sustainable. Art activity would be the 
>ongoing hum of creative and imaginative life, interventions in and 
>creations of the symbolic, even as the happy bodies serving as 
>theater to such aesthetic events were content in the well-being of 
>their chop-wood-carry-water integration of physical and intellectual 
>labor. Art would be about pleasure, amusement, engagement, the joys 
>of individual and communal dialogue (recent research shows 
>conversation produces the same physiological effect as other 
>intimate pleasures). But we aren't there yet. So we struggle.
>  Artistic work gives form and expression to ideas, however ephemeral 
>that expression is (performance, utterance, trace, or monumental 
>work). The great gift of conceptualism was pointing out that these 
>two -- idea and expression -- can be conceived independently, as a 
>kind of thought experiment, though of course the very act of 
>thinking, speaking, describing is material. I like work that is both 
>well-thought and well-made (that is, where production values and 
>conception values have an interesting relation). Value judgments are 
>silly, in many ways, but as a dear friend and critic I know said, 
>life is short, and what you want from critics is to point you to the 
>things that are interesting because they are not always easy to find 
>in the mass of other stuff.
>These are somewhat random thoughts, but I wanted to clarify that for 
>me, at least, the exposure of complicity is not a call to 
>complacency, or to abandonment of ideals, activism, pacifism, 
>judgment, or indulgence--just a call to the end of careerism 
>masquerading as politics, smugness pretending to be critique, 
>opportunism acting in the of something else, etc. Can we be 
>subversive? Can artworks introduce ideas, social change, political 
>impulses, spiritual epiphany, etc. etc. Yes and no. The moving 
>target of awareness--individual, cultural, social--is another 
>well-recognized phenomenon. The Theory Death of the Avant-Garde, 
>Paul Mann (not to be confused with Paul de Man). As to elite critics 
>making their careers by annointing artists for supposedly 
>"subverting" the very system on which they depend for their own 
>success.... I remain silent, my tongue bitten hard between my teeth. 
>Somewhere between the Scylla of condemning mass culture for its 
>numbness and the Charybdis of condemn
>  ing esoteric thought for its elitism lies a path of aesthetic 
>innovation, imagination, and delightenment.
>empyre forum
>empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au

Timothy Murray
Director, Society for the Humanities
Curator, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell Library
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
A. D. White House
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

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