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Part I: Setting the Stage

Markus Miessen / 2010

In his memoir Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure,1 the American postmodern novelist Paul Auster clarifies his understanding of failure by stating that, in his late twenties and early thirties, he went through a period of several years when everything he touched turned to failure. As Colin MacCabe noted at a conference titled “The Value of Failure,” in June 2005,2 “Success has become one of the key terms by which people evaluate their own and others’ lives.” When MacCabe refers to failure, he posits it as a crucial component of both the development of knowledge in science and creative experimentation in the arts. He ends by asking to which degree contemporary society demands success and what happens when, in contemporary Britain (and indeed Europe), both public and private funding for projects in the cultural and educational sectors become increasingly success oriented.
Imagine one was to see the world through a pair of technocratic goggles of failure analysis. Backed up by the comforting environments of Structuralist certainty, this is actually pretty simple. One would start an analysis by determining both the mechanism and the root cause of failure in order to implement a corrective action. One can therefore proportionally raise the track record of “success” over time.
We always think of success as being good because it has become linked to prosperity. In MacCabe’s words, “Success dominates because of its part in the global evaluation of the good life in terms of money.” Hence, failure has become the unthinkable, the semantic confirmation of poverty. Looking at the current production of space, and indeed the art world, one contentedly realizes that creative production and failure come along as an inseparable couple. This, of course, may be true of almost any industry or economy, but it seems that, at least in current cultural discourse, the value of failure is being put forward as an alternative idea to success. Within such a regime of production, one might argue that the realization of “failure as the fundamental condition of surprise” is nothing new, but an interesting one to build upon. Today, the primary issue that needs to be stressed is the fact that we have moved away, at least in creative production, from the reference model of the final product; fortunately, such a notion is often replaced by cultural laboratories in which the proto-product – in other words, the process towards X – and its failure is valued as knowledge production, and embodies precisely the laboratory for experimentation that provides challenging work. If one were to understand experimentation as a vital ingredient that contributes to the cultural gravitas of spatial production, one has to coercively admit to the value of failure. Hence, the societal norm of success as the only way forward needs to be reviewed.
Thinking about failure and conflict from the point of view of process, the most infertile situation that can occur is to let the fear of failure can lead to inaction. It is the act of production that allows us to revise, tweak, rethink, and change. Along the lines of reinventing oneself, it also opens a space of uncertainty that often produces knowledge and content by surprise. If one’s priority is to resist failure at all costs, the potential of surprise is never played out. This is why the results of certain investigations and inventions in many fields and disciplines have become predictable, and the outcome of a vast majority of creative and artistic output is both conventional and mediocre. To take a risk means to be incapable of preempting the outcome of an investigation. By consciously allowing processing to fail, one will open up the window of surprise, the moment where conflictual involvement and non-loyal participation produce new knowledge and political politics.
In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said introduces the public role of the intellectual as outsider, as an amateur and disturber of the status quo. In his view, one task of the intellectual is the effort to break down stereotypes as well as the reductive categories that limit human thought and communication.3 Said speaks about intellectuals as figures whose public performance can neither be predicted nor reduced into a fixed dogma or party line. He clearly distinguishes between the notion of the intellectual and that of the insider: “Insiders promote special interests, but intellectuals should be the ones to question patriotic nationalism, corporate thinking, and a sense of class, racial or gender privilege.”4 For Said, an ideal intellectual works as an exile and marginal, as an amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power, rather than an expert who provides objective advice for pay. This disinterested notion of what one could call the “uninvited outsider” is, in the context of this book, the most relevant of Said’s writings. It puts forward the claim that universality always comes hand in hand with taking a risk. There are no rules. There are “no gods to be worshipped and looked to for unwavering guidance.”5 By questioning the default mode of operation, which is clearly that of the specialist, the insider, the one with an interested agenda, he writes of intellectuals as those who always speak to an audience, and by doing so, represent themselves to themselves. This mode of practice is based on the idea that one operates according to an idea that one has of one’s practice, which brings with it the intellectual duty for independence from external pressures. In underlining the role of the outsider, Said exposes the need to – at times – belong to a set and network of social authorities in order to directly effect change. This spirit of productive and targeted opposition, rather than accommodation, is the driving force for such a practice. To understand when to be part of something and when to be outside of it; to strategically align in order to make crucial decisions, which will otherwise be made by others (most likely with a less ethically developed horizon).
Said, however, also illustrates that the role of the outsider is a lonely condition, and that it involves what Foucault calls “a relentless erudition”: “There is something fundamentally unsettling about intellectuals who have neither offices to protect nor territory to consolidate and guard.”6 The uninvited outsider is someone who has a background within a particular (taught) discipline, but ventures out of his or her milieu and immediate professional context, using a set of soft skills required elsewhere, and then applying them to found situations and problematics. According to Said, this person (also as an individual) has a specific public role in society that cannot be reduced to a faceless professional; it is precisely the fact that one is operating without one’s own professional boundaries that one can start to articulate concerns, views, and attitudes that go beyond the benefit of the individual or particular. On the one hand, it feels that there is a benefit in professional boundaries, expertise, and specific knowledge. On the other hand, one could argue that specific sets of parasitic knowledge can most generatively, surprisingly, and productively apply to situations precisely when they are not based on disinterested principles. This is something that can particularly emerge when driven by “symbolic personages marked by their unyielding distance to practical concerns,”7 driven by a consciousness that is skeptical and engaged, and devoted to moral judgment: “The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications swamp us.”8 The intellectual should be neither understood as a mediator nor a consensus-builder, but “someone whose being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.”9
In this context, it is necessary to raise a basic but crucial question: What language does one speak and whom is one addressing? From which position does one talk? There is no truth, only specific situations. There are responses to situations. One’s talk or reaction should be modeled from these situations. Therefore, it is also a question of scale. It may be the case that a specific situation might lead to potential readings of larger bodies and relationships. Once the specifics are dealt with, one usually easily understands its larger ramifications. In terms of communicating one’s message, it is essential to break away from one’s milieu – otherwise, one willingly reduces his or her audience to that of the already existing, most often disciplinary crowd of one’s background: to produce new publics and audiences that would not convene without one’s practice. In the context of the uninvited outsider, exile can also be understood as a metaphorical condition, such as exile in other fields of expertise. Or as the saying goes: One cannot be a prophet in one’s own country. This also relates to one’s professional background.
Such exile can be understood as a nomadic practice, not one that is necessarily driven by territorial shifts, but one that sets a course that is never fully adjusted, “always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives.”10 According to Said, exile – as dissatisfaction – can become not only a style of thought, but also a new, if temporary, habitation. Said further makes a claim for a kind of amateurism, an “activity that is fueled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization.”11 As a result, today’s intellectual ought to be an amateur, “someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity.”12 Instead of simply doing what one is supposed to do, one can inquire about reasons and protocols. Practitioners in exile are individuals who represent not the consensus of the foreign practice, but doubts about it on rational, moral, and political grounds. Questioning long-established agreements and consent, these outsiders can represent and work toward a cause, which might otherwise be difficult for those entangled in the force fields, power relations, and political relations of the context that the pariah enters. What is important to realize here is that Said deliberately emphasizes the need to be in some form of contact and relationship with the audience in order to affect change: “The issue is whether that audience is there to be satisfied, and hence a client to be kept happy, or whether it is there to be challenged, and hence stirred into outright opposition or mobilized into greater democratic participation in the society. But in either case, there is no getting around the intellectual’s relationship to them.”13
What is at stake here is not an activation of dilettantism as the cultivation of quasi-expertise, but rather a notion of the outsider as an instrumentalized means of breaking out of the tautological box of professional practice. The outsider is not necessarily a polymath or generalist – the Renaissance image and description of the architect14 – but someone who can use a general sense of abstraction in order for his or her knowledge to fuel an alternative and necessary debate, and to decouple existing and deadlocked relationships and practices in a foreign context. In order to become active and productive as an instigator and initiator in the choreography of strategic conflicts, one can appropriate the strength and potential of weak ties. Such an understanding of surplus value through otherness is essentially antithetic to the notion of Gnostic knowledge; that is to say, the idea that the specialist is “good” and trustworthy, and that only specialist knowledge should be accepted in a specific and related environment or field of practice. It further entails that one accepts the status quo by not engaging with it if one is not an expert. The outsider does not -accept this. The venturing out of both the notion of expertise and discipline is crucial in order to remain sufficiently curious toward the specialized knowledges of others. Moreover, it is important that, once in exile, one builds up what architect Teddy Cruz calls a “critical proximity,”15 a space in which the role of the outsider is to tactically enter an institution or other construct in order to understand, shuffle, and mobilize its resources and organizational logic.
This then starts to translate into a discipline without profession, a discipline without a set of prescriptions or known knowledges, but a framework of criticality: a discipline from the outside, a parasitic and impartial form of consulting. Knowledge and the production of knowledge is not fueled by accumulation, but editing and -sampling. Or as Jorge Dávila argues about Foucault’s analytics of power: to cut is to start something new – knowledge itself is a cut, a moment of rupture, a moment of exception driven by the moment of decision.16 But like “participation,” “critique” itself can also become a form and force of normalization. Critique can be normalized and absorbed just as rebellion is being subsumed. For critical spatial practice to remain productive and unforeseen, one must avoid a situation in which criticality turns into yet another modality of commodification.

Dieser Text ist eine abgeänderte Version von:  Markus Miessen, „The Future Academy – An Institution in the Making“, in: Ders., The Nightmare of Participation, Berlin 2010, S. 203–218.

1.) Paul Auster, Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. New York 1997.
2.) Conference at Tate Modern’s Starr Auditorium, June 2005.
3.) Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (The 1993 Reith Lectures). New York 1996, p. xi.
4.) Op. cit., xiii.
5.) Op. cit., xiv.
6.) Op. cit., xviii.
7.) Op. cit., p. 7.
8.) C. Wright Mills, Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, ed. Irving Louis Horowitz. New York 1963, p. 299.
9.) Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, op. cit., p. 23.
10.) Op. cit., p. 53.
11.) Op. cit., p. 82.
12.) Ibid.
13.) Op. cit., p. 83.
14.) See also Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect. New Haven/London 1983.
15.) See also interview with Teddy Cruz by Sevin Yildiz, “With Teddy Cruz on ‘Power’ and ‘Powerlessness,’” on Archinect, http://archinect.com/features/article.php?id=93919_0_23_0_M
16.) See Jorge Dávila, “Foucault’s Interpretive Analytics of Power,” -Systemic Practice and Action Research, 6 (4), 1993.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 222.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

Markus Miessen

(*1978), Architekt und Autor. Er arbeitet zu Fragen kritischer Raumpraktiken, zum Aufbau von Institutionen und zur Raumpolitik. Studio Miessen arbeitet aktuell an Projekten für und mit EACC Castellon, Artsonje Seoul, Hamburger Kunstverein, Istanbul Biennale, Bergen Assembly, Witte de With, Kosovo National Gallery, und der Künstlerin Hito Steyerl. Zusammen mit Nikolaus Hirsch veröffentlicht er die Buchserie Critical Spatial Pratice (Sternberg Press). 2008 gründete er die Winter School Middle East. Er war Professor für Critical Spatial Practice an der Städelschule Frankfurt/Main und ist derzeit Gastprofessor an der HEAD Genf und der USC Los Angeles. Web: http://www.studiomiessen.com/


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Cruz, Eddy  ·  Dávila, Jorge  ·  Foucault, Michel  ·  MacCabe, Colin  ·  Miessen, Markus  ·  Said, Edward