How well does our form fit our discourse?

How well does our form fit our discourse?

Posted: Dec 20 | Author: | Filed under: News & Updates | Tagged: ,

In February of 2014, John answered the question, “How well does our form fit our discourse?” for Open Engagement’s 100 Questions project.

“If you please, Dolmancé. Let’s put some order into these proceedings.” —Marquise de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1795

[A] little formalism turns one away from History, but… a lot brings one back to it. —Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” 1957

“How well does our form fit our discourse?”  The question is clear enough. So are its presuppositions. First, I’ll lay out the latter and come back to the former.

Discourse and form: these are said to belong to us, to we who either organize, attend, care about, are impatient with, or take distance from but nonetheless remain close to Open Engagement, to the conference, to the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program that tends it, to Portland—now Queens—and to Jen Delos Reyes with whom it’s identified. Our discourse, our form. These should fit. Why? More on this question in moment. For now, a we wants a fit between discourse and form, between what we talk about and the way we talk about it, between, on the one hand, arguments, declarations, invitations, curiosities, conversations, stories, etc., and, on the other, the social architectures that distribute authority, seriousness, prestige, resources, time, space, and money to these. We consider form when we consider not what is said around the table but who speaks and who listens, who is in the room and who is not, the relative agency of the ones mentioned in the talk—“nothing about us without us!” goes the slogan. We consider form too when we consider the shape of the table, the physical distribution of bodies and voices, access and privilege, and whether the table should be dismantled, its pieces taken outside, set alight, an occasion for new enchantments, perhaps for mourning; we consider form when we consider the carbon footprint of said burning and all the fires that have ever been built, for better or worse, and whether and how to preserve the ashes. We consider form because we know that there’s something wrong (or hilarious) with declaring, “No more words! No more tables!” while employing words and tables.

So, back to the why. Because OE talks the talk of openness, engagement, transparency, collaboration, social justice, and empowerment, we want to walk the walk of form; we want to avoid obvious hypocrisies: open processes and open planning for a conference called Open Engagement.  Talk about conviviality and antagonism are made good with equal measures of pleasure and pain.  Without reviewing the evidence to support the claim, I’ll simply assert that OE has righteously modeled open and engaged forms: from planning to execution, from student and artist ownership over the shape and matters of events and topics to the very effort to bring questions such as the one I’m writing about into the open.

However, I left the last event of OE 2013, the final panel discussion, the event that generated this question and all the others, the event that disappointed a significant number of attendees because this last opportunity to express serious reservations, enthusiasms, etc. about both the discourse and the form had been reimagined as a suite of break-out groups to pose and gather questions about the conference and our work—which the aforementioned number experienced as a data mining operation and an effort to channel antagonism and problem-centered discussion into more content, a sign of “openness” rather than openness as such—I left this last formal event thinking, OE needs real debates with real stakes.  Factions, splinters, and more heat, more discomfort—the kind that stimulates and awakens.  In other words, more problems.

Why?  Three reasons.  Because there is no unified we that wants a form to fit the discourse: there isn’t and couldn’t be a single collective project, a universal subject of art and social practice, socially engaged art, community based art, arts education. Because there is no one discourse, no agreement as to means, ends, pleasures, dangers, values: there are conversations, there are silences, there are controversies, but fortunately no liturgy. Because some forms presuppose the trust they seek to inculcate and so feel like impositions, even betrayals: an ostensibly open, collaborative form may still colonize and appropriate, delivering participants to others’ ends, ends beyond anyone’s control. But of course the latter are permanent risks, even enabling ones; forms and discourses neither saturate their contexts nor secure uptake.  So much errancy, so much freedom.  If you refuse, become inert, fall silent, or interfere with the game at hand, no matter how fun or edifying it might be for others, then yes, you may spoil the sport, but you may also want different sports.  How to make a party then, even of dissension, even of confusion?

OE13, the final panel, the break-out sessions, the 100 questions, my being asked to answer this one, my answers, your attention—the drift from the floor plan to floor fight to a volatilized platform such as this one allegorizes the trouble.  Just what is the form of this discourse?  What versions and subsets of which collectives are being mobilized?  Does this form amplify or attenuate my and your attachment to a collective and that collective’s powers?  I hope that what happened, what we are, what we say, and what we do and will do with all of these problems and all these questions are still open for new uses and new disputes.  Accept them, ignore them, or burn them to the ground; make them harder, softer, weaker, stronger; just make them alluring or make them go away.

John Muse teaches at Haverford College.