Walking Theory

My interest in “walking theory” initially came from an education in art and humanities, which taught us that art was an intimate activity of the artist-genius who creates directly from his guts, while theory was an abstract speculation, which, if you let it come closer, can castrate artistic freedom.1 Paradoxically, all this was promoted in Belgrade in the 1990s, in the context of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, the international sanctions, the regime of Slobodan Milošević, and the transition from socialism to capitalism.

Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 2, 2016.
Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 2, 2016.

Probably that striking paradox between devastating and demanding social processes and a romantic vision of art as a transcendental creation made it obvious to me that the mainstream ideology of art was merely to maintain the social status quo by cultivating artists and theorists disinterested in the social-political implications of their work as well as in the social-political background already integrated in it. As a revolt against that, and as a counterstroke, together with several other colleagues from the University of Art in Belgrade in 2001, I initiated the theoretical-artistic collective called Teorija koja hoda: TkH [Waking Theory].2 However, the notion of walking theory is not limited to TkH. And now, when theory is a regular segment of art education and art-making and we are about to close down our initiative, I would like to ponder the practice of walking theory in a wider perspective.

When we look at the contemporary international art world, we see that theory is greatly expanding, from the academy to independent scenes. Curricula, bookstores, artists’ websites, booklets, festivals’ brochures, as well as conversations among scholars, artists, and curators all reverberate with theoretical references. Yet, it does not mean that walking theory is a widespread phenomenon. Despite all the curricula, bookstores, websites, and talks, it is a peculiar, even somewhat elusive practice, located in-between philosophy and social practice, concepts and social stakes, vita contemplativa and vita activa.

Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 1, 2016.
Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 1, 2016.

To grasp it better, I would firstly differentiate between walking theory and the traditional conception of theory, and then contextualize it by the current developments of theory in art and humanities. A predominant traditional conception of theory says that it is an abstract speculative construction in the spheres of science and philosophy, which is consistent and coherent and, as such, it is based on a small number of non-contradictory higher hypotheses. This perspective maintains that theory is an autonomous conceptual model, which may well be self-referential; that is, referring more to the history of concepts in a certain tradition of thought rather than to the—social, cultural, political, etc.—context in which it is developed. When it comes to its external relations, traditional theory could be described as an epistemic instrument based on principles of truthfulness (in science) and ontological legitimacy (in philosophy), by which given objects, facts, phenomena—reality that surrounds us—are explained, understood, and used.

Walking theory is something else. First of all, it is a theory that has a body, an actual and physical body, and as such, it cannot be an autonomous cognitive realm in relation to society. To say that it has a body means that it is determined by the real-existing subject of speech—her gender, class, age, skin color, etc. To exemplify that, I would mention the theoretical activities of feminist women authors such as, among others, Judith Butler, Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous, or Paul B. Preciado, and in the ex-Yugoslav context, Svetlana Slapšek, Nadežda Čačinović, or Žarana Papić. They have all broken the universal discourse of philosophy and social sciences from the position of a singular social perspective and the physical experience of living as a woman. Apart from this legacy of cultural studies, identity politics, and related activism of the 1980s and 1990s, to say that walking theory has a body also means that it is a discursive social practice, the activity of a theorist in her or his existing social circumstances. When thinking about theorists practicing theory in that sense I must mention Yugoslav Praxis philosophers (Gajo Petrović, Milan Kangrga, Mihailo Marković, etc.), or later thinkers coming from Italian Post-Operaismo (Maurizio Lazzarato or Paolo Virno), the black radical tradition (Cedric Robinson, Fred Moten) or the decolonial movement (Walter Mignolo), as well as many of the “non-aligned,” for whom their social context is more referential than any disciplinary tradition of thinking. In that sense, walking theory, to a greater or lesser degree, is practiced by Katerina Kolozova; Renata Salecl; Bojana Kunst, Bojana Cvejić, myself, or Goran Sergej Pristaš of the performing arts magazines Maska (Mask), Frakcija (Fraction), and TkH: Teorija koja Hoda (Walking Theory); the artist group Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?); the web portal and magazine pARTisan; the web portal Mašina (Machine); Gerald Raunig; Isabell Lorey; Boris Buden; Mårten Spångberg; Nina Power; or in the 1970-1980s, Slavoj Žižek, Mladen Dolar, and the editors of the journal Problemi / Razprave (Problems/Researches), along with those whose theoretical work was firmly associated with the social movements as well as the students’ and workers’ protests of the late 1960s.3

Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 3, 2016.
Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 3, 2016.

Speaking in epistemological categories, whereas traditional theory is defined by the negation of its social determination,4 walking theory, on the other hand, is motivated by various concerns, and it even expresses passion about them. Since it walks, speaks, dances, makes love, eats; in one word, it lives in the society it speaks about,5 it comes as no surprise that it is deeply concerned about it. Concomitantly, walking theory is never about certain objects, which would indicate that it is independent from and neutral in relation to it. When theory starts walking, it finds itself in the same material world in which the objects it tries to speak about exist. Walking between the objects also means that mutual interferences and influences are unavoidable. Walking theory therefore does not presuppose an authoritarian gesture of objective explanation that an abstract theoretical voice would (like to) do. Once it gets the body, theory becomes mortal, mundane, and practical. The voice of walking theory is thus a non-universal, singular voice of this and that of the theorist standing before you, exposed to others, in public. That is where the affinity of walking theory to the performance as artistic, cultural, or political category lies as well.6

All that makes walking theory close to the conception of contemporary theory in general, but there are still some distinctions to be made here. Let me look back into the recent history of contemporary theory in humanities and social sciences, or what is today simply called “theory,” which appeared mostly in Western Europe in the 1960s. According to Terry Eagleton, it was motivated by the need for a break with traditional discourses of philosophy and science that could not address the burning social issues of that time and therefore could not satisfy the critical actors of those societies.7 As opposed to this, theory has started to be seen as “what changes people’s views, makes them think differently about their objects of study and their activities of studying them.”8 Hence, the concept of “theoretical practice” plays a significant role here. That term is directly linked to Althusser,9 but it has a broader meaning and a longer history in 20th-century leftist thought. As early as the Frankfurt School of critical theory, the demand was raised for a unity of theory and practice against the traditional division between our theoretical work and our citizenship activity in society. Critical theory, in line with the Marxist tradition, strove toward a unity of cognition and action, which was grounded on a firm connection of theory to its time.10 Later on, continental theory made one more shift in the 1960s and ‘70s: it did not define itself in its relation to practice, but as practice itself. Apart from Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice that emphasizes a transformative conceptual work of theory through the epistemological break, the concepts of discursive practice (of Foucault) and signifying practice (of Barthes, Kristeva, and Derrida) are of great importance as well. Although divergent, all of them have implied the notion of praxis as the public activity that results in interventions in actual social relations and in our lives as social beings from the start.

Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 4, 2016.
Siniša Ilić, Interpretations 4, 2016.

Today, however, we can hardly speak about contemporary theory with that vocabulary. Many theorists and cultural workers—such as Maja and Reuben Fowkes or Alexey Penzin and Dmitry Vilensky of Chto delat?11—registered that in the context of cognitive capitalism and immaterial production, theory is often just one more cognitive commodity: a book on a bookstore shelf, an academic lecture as a product of the educational industry, a title or a name that legitimizes an artwork as knowledge production, a round table that represents critical thinking by repeating the same references rather than enacting it by thinking together here-and-now. This is where walking theory brings a rupture, or rather—although ambiguously—maintains a rupture by practicing it. Namely, the recent trend of commodification and serial production seems to be a result of the decontextualization of theory on a large scale, whereby it becomes distant from practice and thus easily commodifiable by the cognitive production machine.

Walking theory, defined by its physical-social reality, can certainly be sold and one can earn some money with it, but as a life practice, it can hardly be serially produced as it is contextually-based12 and its bodies are indispensable. That said, it cannot be unlaced—for good or bad—from the social life of singular theorists practicing it and living its consequences. The moment you abstract, canonize, and start reproducing it, it stops walking. You cannot expect walking theory at Goldsmiths. For good or bad, once again. It does not mean that walking theory is always extra-academic, but it does tend to spend time in the streets, among people, on blogs, in the commons of “social dramas” or even the undercommons, rather than at the academy. The problem is that in order to practice walking theory, you need to look around… and think… and then, after a while…—since it is an ongoing process—think again. And when you think again, you might need to abandon your previous concerns, you might have to contest your hypotheses, you might want to get rid of your beloved references. It is too complicated to be serially produced, and that is how walking theory remains in a grey zone of cognitive production, together with other complications and misfits. For good—since it keeps the practice of thinking alive and alerts us about current moments and their crises and problems; for bad—since its scope is modest and it remains limited within the boundaries of particular contextual circumstances, and cannot gain wider significance without a long and considerate process of translation.

My own interest in walking theory is associated with my wish to practice an undisciplined, bastard parrhesia, which sincerely and responsibly thinks about the world we live in, which does not respect the traditions of thinking that are usually hegemonized by big western paradigms, and which, within its modest terrain, shake the super-superficial and equally welcomed canon of theory in art and humanities. Rather than leaving the field of theory seen in these dark shades, I, maybe naively, believe that it is possible to democratize it by a plurality of non-disciplinary and non-disciplinal voices. Only a few decades ago, contemporary theory resisted traditional philosophy and social science and was thus unwanted in academic circles. It is a shame, I often think that soon after its emergence, contemporary theory had entered the academy and the art world, and it simply joined the “immaterial civil war” going on there.13 Walking theory is one way of resisting it and offering a less authoritarian and competitive discursive practice as an alternative.

I must mention at the end that interestingly, in comparison with serially produced contemporary theory, walking theory may look sexy when observed from a distance. Many curators, scholars, and functionaries in culture make that mistake. What do they expect? They expect “new formats,” like vivid public sessions of book editing—which often turn out as long and fruitless talking and misunderstanding. Or they expect “new voices,” like a peculiar former Yugoslav theorist of art who would promote hot communist ideas—but she or he is more often a well-educated and doubtful nerd passionate about creating problems. These failed expectations, at least partly, come from the discrepancy between the often fresh and thought-provoking results of walking theory and its processes that take a lot of time, energy, creativity, and totally unspectacular labor. The problem becomes bigger when one faces the fact that walking theory is, to a great extent, processual. That is why even when one tries to temporarily frame it by a method or choreography, walking theory fidgets. It cannot get rid of its alliances with a variety of arts, theories, and social movements that care about how we live together and imagine future horizons of the social, in whatever chaotic, queer, outdated, zombie, and messy way they do it.

 

About the author

Ana Vujanović is a freelance cultural worker in the fields of contemporary performing arts and culture. She holds Ph.D. in Theatre Studies. She is a member of the editorial collective TkH [Walking Theory], a Belgrade-based theoretical-artistic platform, and editor-in-chief of the TkH Journal for Performing Arts Theory. A particular commitment of hers has been to empower independent scenes in Belgrade and the former Yugoslavia. She has lectured at various universities and educational programs throughout Europe. She participates in art projects in the fields of performance, theatre, dance, and video/film, as a dramaturge and co-author. She has published a number of articles in journals and collections, and authored four books, most recently Public Sphere by Performance, with Bojana Cvejić (Berlin: b_books, 2012 / 2015). Currently she is working on an independent research project Performing the Self in the 21st Century, with Bojana Cvejic and Marta Popivoda of the TkH.

 

A contribution to issue #2: Inside the Mozosfera edited by Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács

 

Notes

  1. I studied at the Faculty of Drama Arts in Belgrade, but the problem I single out here was not specific for that educational context.
  2. Walking Theory is a Belgrade-based theoretical-artistic platform. See more at: http://www.tkh-generator.net/about-tkh/ (accessed  September 15, 2016).
  3. My list is far from being exhaustive; I just try to give the bodies to walking theory by mentioning some of those who are familiar to me, influence, or inspire me, and create the theoretical context in which I work.
  4. Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell et al. (1968/1972; New York: Continuum, 2002), 188–243.
  5. The name of TkH platform came from the self-educational program in art and theory “Theory that walks, dances, sings… performs,” which I initiated together with professor of aesthetics Miško Šuvaković in 2000-01. Around a series of his lectures, the program gathered several students from the University of Arts and soon after we formalized our work as the TkH project, later an organization and a platform.
  6. It is worth noting here that this affinity was recognized already in the early 1990s when Martin Jay, in an ambivalent way, referred to a few theorists working at universities in the US—such as Judith Butler, Jane Gallop, Avital Ronell, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—whose theoretical activity was intertwined with their feminist and LBGTQ activism as “the academic woman as performance artist.” Martin Jay, “The Academic Woman as Performance Artist.” Salmagundi 98-99, (1993): 28–34.
  7. Borislav Knežević, “Izazov intelektualca” (A Challenge of the Intellectual). Interview with Terry Eagleton, Arkzin 1 94-5, (1997): 18-22; Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2004).
  8. Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.
  9. Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Étienne, Reading Capital (Brooklyn-London: New Left Books, 1970); Louis Althusser, “Theory, Theoretical Practice and Theoretical Formation, “ in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, ed. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 1990).
  10. Horkheimer “Traditional and Critical Theory.”
  11. See: Maja Fowkes and Reuben Fowkes, “Kako filozofi dobijaju kustoski tretman” (How Philosophers Got Curated). TkH 16 (2008): 28-31; Alexey Penzin and Dmitry Vilensky, “What’s the Use? Art, Philosophy, and Subject Formation. A Chto Delat Dialogue”, Chto Delat? 01-25 (What Is the Use of Art) (March 2009) https://chtodelat.org/b8-newspapers/12-48-1/alexei-penzin-dmitry-vilensky/.
  12. The working group Terms (Deschooling Classroom), Bojan Đorđev, “Contextual Art in the Countries of Eastern Europe: Approaches, Diagnoses, and Treatments of the Problems,” 2010, www.antijargon.tkh-generator.net/2010/06/09/contextualart/
  13. Matteo Pasquinelli, “Immaterial Civil War: Prototypes of Conflict within Cognitive Capitalism,” eipcp – European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies 2006, http://eipcp.net/policies/cci/pasquinelli/en.

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