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Auditions for the Future

This volume represents an extraordinary record of an extraordinary achievement—the production of a space in which theorists/critics dilated or thought out loud before a "public." The "author" of this achievement is collective—Slought cultivated a public and permitted academics and theorists and critics to speak before an attentive, but unpredictable group of interlocutors. The public intellectual has become a highly sought after creature: and as desirable and elusive as the golden hind. Various parties are blamed for the lack of public figures who can speak with intellectual authority—it's the fault of the callow and crass media, it's the fault of insular and self-serving academics. Slought gave intellectuals a public that was not exclusively a professional or institutional audience—that is to say one disciplined by enforced collegiality or the threat of "evaluation and assessment." What does Slought promise to academics and theory-heads, but a way out of the echo chamber of the usual modes of exchange, the usual performances of academic credentialism, competence and mastery. Theory, which did present itself in the earliest days as a challenge to disciplinarity, was surrounded by the nimbus of an anti-institutionality. Its charisma had something to do with the radically disturbing lessons. Jean-Michel Rabaté demonstrated in his Future of Theory that there was something unbearable about "theory" as such —that unbearability I would argue has something to do with the way theory repeats and resonates with the languages and subterfuges of everyday life, with the way in which it undermines the "authority of experts" without ceding the ground of interpretation and synthesis. In short, theory drives, drove people crazy—it hystericizes its readers and its interlocutors who might expect something more reassuring, more in tune with the ambient platitudes. In fact, theory at its boldest, offers a rhetoric of mastery, but a negative theology if you like, that we are used to hearing only from the mouths of religious leaders.

Theory produced all sorts of symptomatic reactions as well as acts of devotion. It did provide some way of lifting the burdens of "specialization" and fragmentation that we had assumed, consciously or unconsciously as members of and aspirants to a profession. Even if "theory" resisted totalization, grand narratives, and even the dialectic—it does allow for an inventive and gratifying act of thinking that is truly intellectual because it re-creates its own ground heuristically at every step of the process, while in its very microscopic intensity, it produced whole new tiny worlds out of tropes, texts and invisible structures more complex than the most luxurious palaces or the most luscious coral reefs.

Slought exists in a tactical relationship with the spaces of academic authority, whose institutional shape was cast in an era when most contemporary institutions and American modernity itself was forged in the tumult of the Industrial Revolution. It was during the second half of the nineteenth century, the American University was wrested out of its somnolent seminarian mediocrity and cast in the shape of the modern institution for a modern world. It was at this time that the American University turned its back on the chaos and crisis of the modern city and saw itself as a refuge from the confusion and disorder of urban life, with the charlatans, amateurs and con-men who competed for attention of a public avid for excitement and entertainment. This public, as Lawrence Levine has demonstrated, was not at all indifferent to questions of culture. Far from it: in New York City, the Astor Place riots of 1848 broke because of the crowd's passionate condemnation of a British actor's interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth after all. (1) It was proposed that the University, like the Museum, the Park, the Theater and the Concert Hall become places that would have a civilizing influence on what was perceived to be the increasingly unruly urban masses. Cultural hierarchy was invented as a mode of crowd control. No wonder that the populist rebellion against economic oligarchy of 1893 could be so easily turned into the cultural resentments of 2004. In history, nothing is forgotten, everything displaced.

Henry P. Tappan proposed in 1851 that a great metropolitan University be established in New York City to be the center and the leader of the city's and the country's intellectual life. His vision was never realized: Tappan would go on to found the University of Michigan, far distant from the city's crowds which he had hoped to educate. If the original project of the University was intimately associated with demonstrating to the public what real scholarship was, the University would also be the site of the most advanced research. The latter function would triumph as plans for the great metropolitan University of the city dissolved into thin air. The American research University's particularly insular character took shape during these years, when almost every engaged thinker, writers, scholars and social workers defended and justified the nature of research in ways that while ostensibly different served to define the manner in which we unconsciously experience University life today. First, the University is removed from the tumult of the "world" —the Cultural Studies attempts to break down the wall between inside and outside merely proved how deeply we believed in the divide. Second, the University, despite its remove from the society, will serve it, if only by producing scholars whose very research would ennoble and dignify them with a higher standard of ethics than the businessman. G. Stanley Hall would describe the American scholar in positive terms as a combination of priest and soldier. The impressive research Universities established in the late nineteenth century would have something of both the monastery and barracks to them. It was not an accident of history that American cities were increasingly seen by the bourgeois intellectuals as inimical to "the life of the mind." There was a gradual abandonment of civic culture for professional culture that accompanied the rise of the "disciplines" and specialization within the organization of modern knowledge.

Intellectual life in eighteenth century America was an urban affair, and one shared by a homogenous group of cultivated gentlemen who participated in the advancement of civic life through a wide array of heterogeneous institutions—libraries, agricultural associations, historical societies as well as informal discussion groups. In fact, the learned world of Philadelphia was paradigmatic: Benjamin Franklin "best represents the activist, pragmatic, and institution founding character of early American civic humanism." (2) The small size and density of the eighteenth century city produced a diversity of spaces where serious discussion could be carried on. The gentleman was an amateur, and vice versa. This model, however, could hardly be sustained. The genteel Historical and Agricultural Societies were not homes to anything like passionate intellectual ferment. They were bound to fade into obsolescence as a new sense of egalitarianism and pragmatism swept through Jacksonian America.

The aura of the familiar eloquence of the eighteenth century was seriously frayed by the social and cultural changes of nineteenth century. American scholars from Charles Sanders Peirce to Charles W. Eliot, the reform-minded President of Harvard enthusiastically embraced the professionalization and specialization of research in order to defend the "disinterestedness" of scholarship against the venality and ignorance of the teeming masses of the new American city. Institution building became one of the most important activities within the American Academy at the end of the nineteenth century. The establishment of the disciplines and the policing of their boundaries also produced the city as an object of knowledge, whose problems only researchers could solve, not as residents, but as outsiders, or experts. This is not at all to say that we should be trying to engineer a return to the sociable exchange of ideas of the eighteenth century, even if it does occasionally seem to be an "alternative" to the suffocating professionalism of the present. But in contemporary academia and its discontents, we can see the traces of the past—the civic-minded gentleman, member of a homogeneous and urbane community of learners and the professionally driven, collegial and disciplinary figure of the expert compete for supremacy in the academic imaginary. The discourses of "transgressive non-normativity" evoke the heterogeneous figure of the queer in order to disrupt the space of the institution while academics must adopt the position of expert of the outside in order to gain a hearing and a job within the academy itself.

Slought's singular relationship to the city and the Academy is what I want to emphasize here, through this very roughly drawn historical sketch. What Slought has done is something civic-minded with theory—if that sounds terribly pedestrian, it is, in the most literal sense of the term. Its location does promise something to the flâneur of Walnut St., the curious person just out for a walk. Rather than wander a campus with map in hand looking for such and such a building, the potential audience member of Slought might have wandered in from off the street. This aleatory encounter with something anachronistic like a "society" or "academy" or a cult takes place in a white cube space meant for the display of contemporary art.

Theory has proven disappointing not because it has not necessarily led to great social, political or cultural change, but because it seems to have been fully institutionalized. If some of us felt called into academia because of theory's auratic power, it turned out that our jobs were – well, jobs, and not callings. But there is still the possibility that something happens within this way of thinking and talking that is both expansive and explosive when it addresses the instability and the historicity of the institutions in which it finds itself precariously at home. And in a very important sense, theory has become history, a powerful history, that is not reducible to any set of empirical facts. In a classic Weberian sense, theoretical texts are fully institutionalized, required reading for graduate students in the humanities, disseminated through the halls of academe in curricula, and on Ph.D. exams. This is where theory must encounter critical theory. If theory blew open what was "audible" or "recognizable" as scholarly, academic discourse, it risks now becoming a "refrain" or leitmotif on the MLA soundtrack. We all know that institutions tend to reproduce themselves: theory's institutionalization guarantees a certain amount of repetition and rationalization. We all know that we hear only what we have heard before—we've all been to conferences where ostensibly rational people start repeating "catchwords" like the best Stalin- or Mao-era propagandists. We all know that familiarity cuts deep grooves into our auditory capacities so that the authentically unfamiliar sounds vulgar, ugly, dissonant and unbearable. Sometimes, theory itself sounds outdated—like beloved tracks from some recently repressed past—greatest hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Slought's attempts to displace or dissociate theory from the Academy, to bring theory into active contact with other constituencies, other audiences, other media, other archives—call it a public if you will—puts into practice the de-professionalizing and de-authorizing power of theory's destructive and productive potential to address everything and nothing—all at the same time. The future of critical theory sounds like a mashup: it demands a hearing that exceeds the expansion of aesthetic receptivity. It restores us to a historico-political vigilance against that which would exterminate our capacity for thought itself.

Author

Catherine Liu

Publication

Rrrevolutionnaire: Conversations in Theory, Slought, 2006

Footnotes

1) Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow and Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

2) Thomas Bender, "The Erosion of Public Culture." The Authority of Experts. Ed. Thomas L. Haskell. ((Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1984), pp. 84-106: p. 86.