Building on ‘Notes on Social Practice’:
On the Theoretical Unconscious of Social Practice

Hammam Aldouri
“[Pragmatism] thinks of praxis not as something concealing a complexity of movements, but as a cold, naked concept of the real, with the density of a stone.”

Henri Lefebvre((Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (London and New York: Verso, 2014), 528. ))

In the first issue of Detroit Research, Michael Stone-Richards correctly identifies the distinct, constitutive dimension of recent theoretical conceptions of “social practice”: they have “not yet settled on a self-understanding.” The following critical reflections attempt to participate in the on-going discourse of the possibilities of such a “self-understanding.” As this discourse is, I believe, very much at the initial stages of its development, my contribution will provide some preliminary reflections on Stone-Richards’ underscoring of a crucial aspect of social practice, namely, what he refers to as the “ethic of care.” I would like to propose a critical reconstruction of the socio-political unconscious that mobilizes the polyvalent nature of social practice. I want to suggest that instead of signalling an ethic of care, recent social art practices can be understood more precisely as being fully committed to what we could call a post-philosophical pragmatism of change. In order to begin to make sense of this, a recent formulation of the meaning and significance of social practice is worth quoting:

[S]ocial practice can loosely be described as art that involves more people than objects, whose horizon is social and political change – some would even claim that it is about making another world possible. Social practice concerns works with multiple faces turned in different directions – towards specific groups of people, political questions, policy problems, or artistic concerns; there is an aesthetic to organization, a composition to meetings, and choreography to events, as well as a lot of hands-on work with people. At the core of social practice is the urge to reformulate the traditional relationship between the work and the viewer, between production and consumption, sender and receiver. Furthermore, social practice tends to feel more at home outside traditional art institutions, though is not entirely foreign to them.((Maria Lind, “Returning on Bikes: Notes on Social Practice,” in Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, ed. Nato Thompson (New York: Creative Time Books, 2012), 49.))

As Stone-Richards obliquely implies in his “Notes on Social Practice,” such “loose” definitions are, in some sense, symptomatic of the emergence of an uncritical discourse of “self-understanding.” Notwithstanding the more fluid and open description of social practice, the central orientation seems to be absolutely unequivocal: changing the world. Social practice is orientated by the attempt to change society and political reality in such a way as to give way to “another world.” It does not, however, want to produce “representations” or “illusions” of changes, which simply reflect the image of another possible reality. Rather, it tries to bring about changes in reality itself.((The following observations take recourse to Boris Groys, ‘On Art Activism,’ e-flux, Accessed 04-25-16.)) When art is mobilized by the necessity to bring about direct change in social reality itself, it performs nothing less that the radical suspension of critique as a constitutive feature of contemporary art practice, that is, a suspension of reflection on the conditions of art and the reality in which it exists.

Social practice art is a distinctively post-critical artistic standpoint in that it demands an overthrow of the impotent practice of endlessly disclosing the limits of forms of social reality; a critical standpoint, as is well known, requires the requisite amount of distance to observe.((From the standpoint of socially engaged art, what is putatively understood as “institutional critique” is nothing but, to use one of Jacques Rancière’s most oft used expressions, a “discourse of impotence.”)) Such an analytical distancing and politically problematic withdrawal from social reality is an effect of the renewed energy for a direct engagement with reality as it actually is, that is, in the here and now. Art must, above all else, resist resignation to a self-enclosed position of endless reflection, counter-reflection and self-reflection, completely oblivious to the dynamic transformations of social and political life. It needs to roll its sleeves up (“hands-on work”) and immerse itself in the concrete realities that affect specific social groups (often dispossessed and disenfranchised) at specific times and in specific places.((I will discuss the notion of a “given site” in the accompanying essay “Building on ‘Notes on Social Practice’ (2): Critical Reflections on the Construction of a Concept,” forthcoming, Detroit Research, vol. 3 (Spring 2017).)) The corollary to this is, I believe, unequivocal: art practice must not become philosophical.((Critique is understood here as a pre-eminently philosophical concept and method, finding its most accomplished articulation in Kant’s transcendental philosophy and the legacy of German Idealism.))

Before we consider the withdrawal of art practice from philosophy, let us attend to art’s relation to “direct engagement.” The rhetoric of “change by direct engagement” is, within the context of art, nothing new. More precisely, it is the shift in concern from art as an articulation of the “aesthetics of eternal beauty” to a strategy of socio-political engagement mediated by specific places and during specific times in which the very notion of “art” is radically contested that is in no way novel. Recall, for example, thesis 49 of Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s presentation of the “real split” at the heart of the Situationist International during the early 1970s: “The SI never presented itself as a model of revolutionary organisation, but as a specific organisation that devoted itself in a particular period to specific tasks.”((Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti, The Real Split in the International (London: Pluto Press, 2003), 64.)) The sense of the SI’s engagement to “a particular period” gives the appearance that it foregrounds and anticipates recent conceptions of social practice. And yet, a decisive distinction between Debord’s formulation in the early 1970s and the recent formulations of social practice is that the SI was self-reflexively developed in conjunction with the historical emergence, maturation, and deflation of particular historical events, especially the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence and May 1968.((Significantly, Kester suggests that the emergence of socially engaged art is in part a reflection of the September 11 attacks in 2001. It must be stressed, however, that Kester only suggests this, which is to say, he does provide a coherent historical and conceptual analysis of the relation. Cf. Grant H Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2004), 1.))

Debord’s formulation in the 1970s is, accordingly, retrospective. Contemporary social practice, however, does not sustain its identity with recourse to a particular historical moment in that it is unfolding in relation to a reality that it does not need to historicize (due to dominant cultural practices that presume that life is properly post-historical).((If anything, as Stone-Richards alludes, social practice lacks historical sense (this is why it is yet to understand itself). The problem is: what are the conditions of possibility of constructing a historical narrativity under the reality conditions of a life that is increasingly bombarded with the radical destruction of historical narrativity?)) This withdrawal from history brings into sharp relief the important distinction between art practices of the last twenty years and the historical avant-garde: the adumbrated “self-understanding” of contemporary social practice, as a “network” of strategies of the transformation of culturally received notions (such as “work,” “audience,” “production,” “consumption,” etc.), is a belated symptomatic effect of the de-regulated conditions of advanced, post-industrial capitalism. This is not the real problem though. The problem is that socially engaged practice does not recognize itself as “a belated symptomatic effect.” Conceptions of social practice are not looking back. They are not constructing their own historical narrative (this is no doubt why “movement” as a descriptive term is strategically avoided – “movement” is, in some sense, a periodizing category).

This lack of self-recognition is devastating: the “politics of change” at the core of social practice is fully mediated by the realities of – in the UK – increasingly abdicating governmental policies focused on public care, public investment and social responsibility; and – in the US – within a context of the clear division of government responsibilities (protecting the inviolable “natural rights” of the individual) and independence from governmental mediation (protecting the “civil rights” of the individual’s needs). In both contexts, the alignment of contemporary art practices with “do-it-yourself” increasingly dominates cultural production: in the British context, individuals need to do-it-themselves as the government will no longer provide support (do-it-yourself transforms into fend-for-yourself); and in the American context, individuals must continue to “realize themselves” (by “doing-it-themselves”) under conditions and effects of increasingly hostile and unstable, market-led competition (all in the name of a ‘pursuit of happiness’ that presupposes as its most fundamental basis the actuality of equality).((A note about the immediate distinction between the UK and the US: The politics of “independence” in the UK is troubling, to say the least, since it is mobilized within a context of a dissolution and privatization of institutes of social welfare, the liquidation of the National Health Service being the most immediately recognized example (note also the recent dissolution of the Independent Living Fund, which was mandated to support the UK’s 18,000 most heavily disabled individuals to live independently). In the US, the dominant “antinomy” of discourse around notions of social care and welfare concerns to what extent it should be implemented (we all remember the Federal government shutdown of 2013). From the standpoint of conservative politics, the argument usually goes back to the distinction made by the acolytes of the “founding fathers” between what is “man’s nature” and what are his “needs.” In that the founding fathers tried to establish a clear articulation of the essential separation between the individual’s “natural rights” and his “political rights” (which require some defending precisely because they are not natural), social welfare is summarily dispatched as something that does not concern the government’s necessity to uphold “natural” rights. For a burlesque defence of the founding fathers on this point of the division of “nature” and “need,” see Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Fathers: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).))

A post-critical art practice then constitutes an art practice that no longer reflects on the reality conditions of its own possibility. It fails, consequently, to reflect on the reproduction of the very conditions of its form and logic of production. In our case here, the basic reflection of the politics of, one could say, “self-care,” is the hegemonic cultural practice of “entrepreneurship” and “DIY culture” at the level of the determination of social reality itself. In lieu of the dissolution of ‘critique’ as a theoretical orientation, social art practice reactively turns to post-philosophical pragmatism in its journey of self-understanding.((Claire Bishop completely overlooks the pragmatist core of socially engaged practice even though she polemically draws attention to it (at least minimally by the invocation of the term). Bishop’s lack of a sustained conceptual development of pragmatism is a symptom of her focus on the problem of the supposed ‘ethical turn’ of socially engaged art. Cf. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London and New York: Verso, 2012), 26.))

To state that “post-philosophical pragmatics” is the theoretical unconscious of dominant, contemporary Anglo-American cultural practices is, I believe, not without some justification.((I stress the geopolitical restriction of pragmatism for two reasons: first, a substantial part of recent positive conceptions of social practice emerge in North America; second, the theoretical shift of philosophical thought from being centred on the problem of the “end of metaphysics” to a “post-metaphysical” theoretical practice plays out as a geopolitical migration of ideas from continental Europe to the trans-Atlantic Anglo-American world.)) The centrality of pragmatism is, in part, mobilized by a cultural politics distinctively oppositional to what is putatively identified as “continental philosophy.” The decisive orientation of continental philosophy finds its most general co-ordinates in a philosophical tradition committed to the articulation of metaphysical truth, which is to say, a commitment to thinking the eternal, immutable, objective, absolute idea, or the fundamental reason and essence of reality as such. From out of the quagmire of metaphysical discourses of “ends” (of man, history, thought etc.), pragmatism rises as a real alternative to negotiating the concrete crises and problems that punctuate contemporary life. It does this by first elaborating the impasse of philosophy via identification of its “literary” character, and second by challenging its pretention as a discourse on some mystical “absolute truth.” Philosophy is, consequently, organized by two underlying assumptions: (1) the “urge to escape the finitude of time and space” and (2) “the search for some final vocabulary, which can be somehow known in advance to be the common core, the truth of, all the other vocabularies which might be advanced in its place.”((Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972-1980) (Brighton: The Harvest Press, 1982), xix and xlii. Consider also: “Pragmatists hold that there are no metaphysical guarantees to be had that even our most firmly-held beliefs will never need revision.” Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 21.))

The consequence of this reduction of philosophy is clear: it is nothing but a fanciful discourse that narcissistically indulges itself in the “problem” of its own self-legitimation as a self-sufficient discipline, totally in blind of the fact that socio-historical reality has moved on and philosophy as a discourse on truth is no longer needed (science gives us the truths we need). For the pragmatist, philosophy is a thing of the past. This of course means that it no longer has any direct effect or import on our daily existence.((Most of us in advanced capitalist society do not talk about the “truth” of things within the context of culture. Rather, we speak in terms of plural, subjective perspectives and infinite subjective opinions (the classical opposition of truth and doxa does not mean anything for us anymore). Society, at the level of its dominant cultural formation, largely exhibits a post-philosophical orientation.))

In place of this eradication of philosophy’s pretences, pragmatic action performs a kind of revivified “return” to finite and actual reality, that is, to the concrete, immediate present (the here and now). This has allowed pragmatism to become a one-dimensional ‘crisis management’ tool offered by the sector of the professionalization of post-philosophical theory; bureaucratic institutions such as municipal governments increasingly take recourse to such tools whenever real, complex social problems arise. Pragmatism boils social problems down to their most elementary units, thus covering over the complex network of inter-related issues that constitute a problem. This distillation allows bodies such as the above-mentioned municipal governments to act “swiftly” and “efficiently” (which often simply means the rapid pacification of a tense situation).

As I have suggested above, this post-philosophical pragmatism has permeated the cultural arena of art theory and practices. The most accomplished articulation of a post-philosophical pragmatist conception of social practice can perhaps be found in the work of Grant H. Kester. Most notably, it is the notion of “dialogical practice” that expresses Kester’s pragmatism. According to Kester, dialogical practice can be comprehended in the following way:

In dialogical practice the artist, whose perceptions are informed by his or her own training, past projects, and lived experience, comes into a given site or community characterized by its own unique constellation of social and economic forces, personalities, and traditions. In the exchange that follows, both the artist and his or her collaborators will have their existing perceptions challenged; the artist may well recognize relationships or connections that the community members have become incurred to, while the collaborators will also challenge the artist’s preconceptions about the community itself and about his or her own function as an artist. What emerges is a new set of insights, generated at the intersection of both perspectives and catalysed through the collaborative production of a given project.((Kester, Conversation Pieces, 95.))

Taken in isolation, this overly schematic and abstract definition of dialogical practice is, considering the artistic legacies Kester attends to, striking for a number of reasons, the first of which being that it is configured as a specifically meta-art practice in which both artist and collaborator are subject to its mechanism and logic of production. Another striking characteristic of Kester’s definition is its focus on “the change in the perception” of culturally received notions central to art discourse, and not the “change of society” (as noted above). The corollary to this is worth underscoring: Kester’s discourse on dialogical practice is one in which the social relations (between artist and collaborator) that render it meaningful are stripped of their sociality in so far as what counts, and what is most significant, is the transformation of perception, and not the social relations themselves. This definition of dialogical practice elides the deeper orientation Kester wants to draw out, namely that dialogical practice is more precisely the diffuse “set of positive practices directed toward the world beyond gallery walls, linking new forms of intersubjective experience with social or political activism.”((Kester, Conversation Pieces, 9.))

Without this connection to the social practice of “activism,” Kester’s conception of dialogical practice is in fear of falling too readily into the history of avant-garde art practices, which, according to Kester, amounts to falling into a mode of practice that is too instrumentally mobilized by notions of aesthetic “shock” and “defamiliarization.”((Kester’s conception of dialogical practice can be understood in terms of representing a para-avant-gardist approach. That is, the practice shares the socio-political orientations of the historical avant-garde but it diverges from the central methodologies of avant-garde practices. Interestingly, Shannon Jackson’s recent notion of “cross-disciplinary practice,” which recognizes itself in fidelity to Kester’s orientation, is structured precisely around the notion of “defamiliarization” (a symptom of her post-Brechtian position). See Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).)) The practice of aesthetic “shock” is too negative of a procedure in so far as it maintains a certain division between artist and viewer (the “shocker” and the “shocked” if you will). In avant-garde practices, the “negotiation of difference” between these subjectivities remains suspended in such a way that the difference is not reconciled and sublated.((I am referring here to Kester’s description of “The ROUTES Project” (2002) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in terms of producing a space in which “difference [between Republican Catholics and Loyalist Protestants] were reconciled.” Kester, Conversation Pieces, 8.)) From this standpoint, avant-garde practices are seen as deepening the experience of alienation in modern existence, whereas dialogical practices are orientated by the belief that, within specific spaces and times, alienation can be negotiated and overcome. Put more simply, dialogical practices are orientated by the belief that, in the face of a radically depoliticized and cynical cultural politics of social inertia, art can change the world in reality itself.((The relation between dialogical practice and avant-garde practices is developed, via the notion of collaborative practice, in “Building on ‘Notes on Social Practice’ (2).”))

The important point to underscore here is the notion of the substitution of “politics” by “art” under conditions in which political engagement no longer functions as a dominant cultural practice (the “depoliticizing” effect of living in advanced capitalist society). The supposed “politicization” of art, in light of the fundamental lack of a concrete social subject of historical change, is revivified by the commitment to directly engage the immediately apprehended socio-political realities of the here and now.((All of Kester’s artistic examples reflect this basic level connection (of art and the ‘immediate present’): WochenKlausur’s “Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women”; Suzanne Lacy’s “The Roof is on Fire”; Littoral Arts, “The ROUTES Project”; The Art of Change, “West Meets East”; Stephen Willats’ “From One Generation to Another” and “Brentford Towers”; and Jay Koh “E.T. (Exchanging Thoughts).”)) The pragmatic “re-politicization” of art is grounded on what one could call it’s “presentism,” namely, the positivist, pre-critical assumption of art’s connection with the cultural present as an undifferentiated and self-contained temporal phenomenon that can simply be grasped in its totality at any given moment.(( For an excellent critical assessment of pragmatism’s “presentism,” see Peter Osborne, Philosophy in Cultural Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 10-13.)) What is crucial in Kester’s examples of dialogical practices is that the “change of the world in reality itself” is demonstrated empirically (WochenKlausur set up a safe-house for sex-workers with drug-addiction). This rehabilitation of art’s “empirical demonstrability” is, finally, what reveals the pragmatist orientation of social practice (since an art that remains caught within the constraints of merely speculative conceptions of a future world to come fail to take proper notice to the exigency of activist change). With its empirical reflection, pragmatist art practice rings the final death knell on critique.

The constitutive gesture of recent socially engaged art practices is their affirmation, immediate and non-critical confrontation and engagement with the reality of the present. Consequently, any critique of the reality conditions of the social phenomena of the present (art being one such phenomenon) is completely dissimulated. The affirmation of the immediacy of the present results in tacitly ratifying and idealizing the reality conditions that determine the subjectivities that dialogical practices underscore and attempt to negotiate and reconfigure. To put this another way: a pragmatic transformation of the present amounts to the reproduction of what allows us to immediately identify a temporal entity called the “present” in which we subsequently “recognize” certain issues and problems that need our “urgent care.”(( I would like to make a note here on my fidelity to thinking through the question of the ethics of practice as a “practice of freedom” (as Michel Foucault once put it). My reflections are mobilized by the attempt to render more precise the theoretical orientation of some conceptions of socially engaged practices. I think that the category of “care,” if played out in (1) an ossified antinomical relation to judgments of “(avant-gardist) art” and (2) without the necessary critique of its ideological misrepresentation, obfuscates this step toward a more precise identification. ))