Archive for the ‘Theorizing’ Category

Kinds of Sources, Kinds of Reading

My last post on academic writing was a reflection on how to use quotes. I want to follow up on this, because referencing is an essential element in academic writing. When we work on a topic, we’ll usually have to read many authors who also treated it. In fact, we will usually start with literature research and reading, even before we decide how to organize our work.

There are two kinds of sources and related readings:

  1. exploratory reading where we only try to figure out if a source is relevant to our topic
  2. topic-related reading once we know a source is relevant

Some sources are so obviously relevant (or so highly recommended by our director) to our text that we can immediately start with stage 2.

Rule 1: Write as you read. Don’t just read.

This rule is simple: if you know it is relevant, don’t just read it, type it into a document where you know you’ll find it again.

We all feel tempted to only read and not write, but it is inefficient for any type 2 source. Don’t be lazy. Academic reading is not only reading for fun. It is reading for writing. Once you really go into “writing mode” and your deadline is coming closer, time is more and more precious.

Anything that doesn’t exist in the same form as the document you write will only become a part of your text at a cost.You don’t want to lose time looking for quotes that are still in book form a second time, you want to be able to just copy-paste them.

If relevant sources are not in documents on your computer (or online, e.g. on google documents)  where you can easily find them when you start writing your text, you did something wrong. You will then lose a lot of time searching and bringing it into your document. If you use books from the library you often will have returned them. It can take many days just to get to one passage (again). This is frustrating if you know that you already had it on your desk when time was not so pressing yet.

To start, create at least two folders for your reading on your computer :

1. Readings (where you’ll order reading notes according to authors)

2. Topics (where you’ll order reading notes according to subjects relevant to you)

Rule 2: Create simple documents.

As soon as you start to read a type 2 source or realize that a source really is type 2, create a new document and put the complete bibliographical information at the top. You can do this on word, OpenOffice or wherever you want – but it is best to do it on the same program as the one you are planning to write your text with, so you don’t have compatibility issues when you copy-paste to your thesis document. Name the document after the author, then save the document in the Readings folder. Do this not only when a document is in paper form, but also when it is in electronic form. Once you go into “writing mode” the excerpts of your sources should be as similar as possible to the text you are writing for easy integration.

When another text by the same author appears, reopen the author document and create a new heading with the bibliographic information for the new text. This is also a good moment to add the reference to your citation management software (like Endnote, Citavi, Mendeley, Zotero…).

As you read, re-type or copy-paste any passage that could become relevant – or when they are too long, sum them up – into the document. Please always write the page number under any quoted passage. If a passage runs over two or more pages, put “[end p. x]” whenever a page ends in the quote. You’ll find an example from my own Reading folder at the end of this post.

Rule 3: Duplicate quotes.

I told you to create two folders, one for readings, one for topics.

As you identify the themes for your text (e.g. your thesis), also create thematic documents. This is the place where quotes or paraphrases should go based on themes rather than author. When you read a lot, you will often remember that you read something but without remembering where you read it. If you don’t have thematic documents, it can be very hard to find the passage again. This is true even when you have a powerful search engine, because passages may treat a topic without ever mentioning it explicitly.

Based on what you already know to be relevant themes for your text, you can create a first series of documents when you first start with this system. But you should keep adding new thematic documents as you go on reading whenever a relevant theme reappears in different texts. Based on this process, you will sometimes discover themes you had not deemed relevant when you started the research project. In my thesis on narrative in pictures, for instance, I discovered that authors regularly  distinguished narrative from other modalities. But what they opposed it to, often varied. Some made the traditional distinction between narration and description. But others opposed narration to argumentation, or to iconicity, or to ambiance, etc. So I decided to create a document that was called “What narrative is not”.

It would of course have been impossible to find all the things narrative is not for different authors with the search function on my computer without remembering each single distinction, because “narrative” was a key term in all of my documents and for each author the key-term was different.

In the subject document, write at least the author, name of quoted document and page where you found the quote. The full bibliographical info should either be in the author document or a bibliographical software you use. If one quote is relevant to more than two subjects, put it into two than more documents.

Why not stick to thematic documents alone?

Students sometimes ask me why the thematic documents are not enough. There are at least three reasons for this: having author documents as well allows you not to make your excerpts too short, to roughly contextualize quotes/paraphrases in the original publication and, most importantly, it prepares you for expanding your research beyond the themes you first identified as being relevant.

Having an author document as well as subject documents allows you to find relevant passages that are not on the themes you first thought were the most important to you. It also gives you a place for passages where you feel that they are “somehow important” or just “great in themselves”, but do not yet know in what context you may possibly use them. Such passages go into the author document, where you can find them later, sometimes years later, when you work on a related subject.

How it helps your writing process to work this way
  1. it will allow you to stay focused on your own writing and not to get dragged back into the argument of another author once you work on your own text.
  2. if you do it reliably and keep on working on the same topic for a while, it allows you to eventually not have to go online or to the library (very often) any more, because everything you need to build your own texts will already be on your computer. This makes you much more independent and much faster. For me it has been like this since I finished my Ph.D 3 years ago – and I think I can still go a long way with the sources on my computer.
Example Excerpts

Last but not least, here’s the promised excerpt from my reading folder. It’s a quote from a text by Sholmith Rimmon-Kenan:

“The disposition of elements in the text, conventionally called text-time, is bound to be one-directional and irreversible, because language prescribes a linear figuration of signs and hence a linear [end p. 44] presentation of information about things. We read letter after letter, word after word, sentence after sentence, chapter after chapter, and so on. There are some modern attempts to liberate narrative fiction from these constraints, but the liberation is never complete because a complete one, if possible, will destroy intelligibility.” (Cortazar, Beckett…)” (pp. 46/47)

The document is called “Rimmon-Kenan”, the heading of the section of the document is: Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Routledge London/New York, 2nd edition, 2002.

What complete bibliographic information is differs from source to source, but for articles in journals it is, for instance, “Author, “Name of Article”, Name of Journal, Year, Volume, Issue, pages where the article is to be found”. For monographs it is at least “Author, Name of Book, Publisher, Place, Year”.

The same passage could appear in a thematic document called “Time of the told and time of the telling.” It would then simply end like this: “(Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction, p. 46/47).

If you found this helpful, do not hesitate to comment or share.

My other recent posts on academic writing are here:

On the use and risks of quotes and references

How to pick a topic for your thesis

And here are two older posts with related topics:

How philosophers get to publish their own thoughts

Why I stopped writing by hand


Ryan Gander, now one of the favourite schmusers of contemporary art institutions, currently has his second solo show in Paris this year at the FRAC Le Plateau. Given that he was only born in 1976 and graduated in 2000, Gander has had solo shows at an obscene number of high-level fancy art places.

Here’s a list from his gallery’s website: FRAC Île-de-France / Le Plateau (2013); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2012); Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich (2010); Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2008); the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam (2007 & 2003); MUMOK, Vienna (2007) and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2007). He has also shown in group exhibitions such as the Shanghai Biennale (2012); documenta 13, Kassel (2012); ILLUMInations, 54th Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2011); 55th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2008) and the Sydney Biennial (2008). Ryan Gander has been awarded numerous prestigious prizes, among others the Zürich Art Prize (2009), the ABN Amro Art Price (2006), the Baloise Art Statements of the Art Basel (2006) and the Dutch Prix de Rome for sculpture (2003).

Nobody should thus blame me for choosing some random semi-sucessful young artist to be complaining about.

I saw the show yesterday and was there for the curator’s show and tell. And frankly speaking: it upset me. I don’t want to dislike contemporary art and this is not a general post against Ryan Gander – I don’t know his work well enough – but this show is just, pardon my French, minimalist bullshit blown-up by discourse.

The first thing we see is a poster for “Imagineering”, a campaign to incentivize the English population to use their imagination more. It’s supposedly sponsored by the Ministry for Innovation and something. The truth is: Gander told an English ad agency to come up with a campaign, pretending that it was for the ministry – or so we are told. Probably he really told them that they should suggest a campaign as if it was for the ministry. In his gallery’s words: “Ryan Gander’s complex and unfettered conceptual practice is stimulated by queries, investigations or what-ifs”. “Queries, investigations or what-ifs”? Wow! What is that supposed to mean? That he just does whatever comes to his mind, inventing more or less – mostly less – interesting fictions. The fact is that contemporary artists who deal in fiction are usually less good at it than contemporary writers, film-makers or comic artists. I sometimes feel that it’s only because they are not good enough to create really engaging narratives – because it’s harder – that they pretend to be “deconstructing the concept of narrative” (or fiction or what-have-you). The concept of deconstruction comes in real handy. It’s like writers and curators had all gone through press-training where they were told: “Whenever a work is not really good at something, just say ‘The work deconstructs the concept something‘. It works every time.”

There are of course exceptions, artists interestingly working with the concepts of fiction, what-ifs and narrative, people like, ahm, Hubbard and Birchler,  or Matthew Buckingham and to some extent Cardiff and Miller. But most of them eventually fall prone to neo conceptual bs. Curators, gallery owners and collectors just don’t seem to be good at making the difference and you thus see fantastic exhibitions by quite deep artists followed by conceptual bullshit like this, or, much worse – oh yes, I’m not saying Gander is the worst among the young successful artists – the kind of stuff Stefan Brügemann produces.

Of course Gander has, like most artists, preferences that make him seem a little coherent. In his case (as in many artists’) these are things that are somehow linked to modern art (like the Bauhaus). What’s great about this preference is that those who know something about modern art – the art world basically – can feel smart when they get the reference. And if someone makes us feel smart, we like them. It’s as simple as that.

Sometimes he introduces some less well-know reference to someone that we – aka the artworld – all feel we ought to know about (like Ernö Goldfinger). And then we are even happier. The psychology behind this is somewhat more complex. I can’t really explain it, but in my earlier life, I did an internship with a priest (yup, it can be done). She told me: if you give a talk, make sure that every 30 minutes, there’s a something people don’t understand – they’ll respect you more. As it is, a lot of contemporary art (and philosophy I’m afraid) seems to be based on showing people their limitations. It also makes it clear why the artist got to do a show rather than ourselves. We like that. Maybe it’s a basis of learning. Maybe it’s masochism. But in any case, it’s another subject. Back to Gander. All his work is basically based on insider jokes and what I have sometimes called the “Oh-Yes-Effect”. “Oh yes! That’s what it’s about. That’s interesting.” Really? Is it?

The prototypical work of this kind is a comic kind face that reacts to the physical presence of visitors, moving eyebrows, eyelids and changing the direction of its look.
It’s about, well, the picture staring back (Got the fancy reference? Come on! You can do it!) rather than the opposite. Oh! Yes! That’s interesting! Or…well, look at what the face expresses just now:

Gander Face


It, of course, is no new theme. James Elkins wrote an influential book called The Object stares back in 1997 and Rémy Zaugg has extensively treated the topic of the picture staring – or not – in his work:

Zaugg-Blind Picture

What’s new with Gander is the application of  comics’ aesthetics to the topic of the work staring at us and introducing some not-too-fancy spectator detection technology. Now that’s an innovation! Imagineering – maybe.

Which brings us back to the beginning. After the poster, the FRAC show starts, with some kind of weird installation, that is, according to the catalogue, a “monolith”(get the reference? ;-). The monolith is, of course, one of the favorite references of contemporary neo-conceptualist bullshitters, the other being Devil’s Tower from Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) . What’s great about them is that they are a pop. But they are also smart at the same time. So when you use them you can both show that you don’t take yourself too seriously and – whatever. Gander’s monolith has mirrored walls and stands in the middle of a dark room. But while most artists, like Etienne Chambaud, do little more than display the form, Gander added some meaningful mechanism inside the structure. As you can see yourself in the polished surface, the work is supposedly about – guess what!…Bingo! Confronting the visitor with his own image. Yes! You are right. It seems to be a topic in Gander’s work. Something critics like me can detect and talk about to show that they not only read Derrida, but also Elkins and what have you.

The visitor then moves from this very very dark and deep first room to a room where the advertising campaign for “Imagineering” is shown. The naming – which combines engineering and imagination and makes one think of engineers of the imagination, which is of course a wonderful thing to be thinking of – is one of the best parts in the work. Too bad Gander didn’t come up with it. He just took the name from Disney. It’s, yes, a ready-made name. Disclosure: I so prefer good advertising to bad art.

But the reference can, of course, be explained. According to one of the persons explaining the exhibition to visitors, the reference to Disney is a reference to childhood which is important in the artist’s work. Oh, yes! Childhood – a theme… .

The whole exhibition scenography is such that we move from a room which is nearly entirely dark (the first room) to a room that is overly well lit in ugly neons (the last room). In between, there are different shades of gray. It gradually gets lighter. As the curator told us, this could be interpreted as a point about moving from the dark into the light. “Things become gradually clearer.” Don’t they? Yes. They do. A little too clear as far as I’m concerned…

And I found the idea better when Falko used it.

Oh! The curator also evoked the fact that the curtains of the first room are slightly moving as with some kind of breath (ventilators really). Ryan Gander showed the same kind of installation when he was invited to the Venice Biennale. He had been given a large room and just made the wind blow through it. Refusing to show stuff. Reminds me of something Tino Sehgal showed at another Biennale. But we shouldn’t make us think of Sehgal, but something much older – much older – the curator fortunately told us what it can make us think of: pneûma to which the Ancient Greeks attributed life-giving power… Oh! Yes! That’s interesting. Setting up a couple of ventilators brings us right back to the Old Greeks. Welcome to contemporary art, dear.

The problem with this kind of “X can make you think of Y” is that if an artist doesn’t really have a clear stance on anything anything can make you think of anything. But that’s just what their work is about! It’s about “imagination, thought-stuff”, as the curator pointed out – as if thinking and imagining were (kind of) the same. And that’s when I started understanding why curators aren’t good at making differences…

The fact is: the less the artist does, the better. Because the less he will limit what you can legitimately think of (or imagine, of course).

Do I really have to tell you about the lamps which Gander built with plastic containers and plastic tubes he got at the local BHV DIY market-section  – leaving the name stickers visible to make sure everyone gets just how low-key the installation – which probably sold for tens of thousands Euros by now – is? Do I really have to comment?

It’s okay that a work is really about an idea, you know. I’m just asking that the idea be good.

The one room that I found relatively interesting is the last one (you see it in the picture above). It holds three marble sculptures based on the outline of little cabins his 2 or 3-year old daughter built at their London home with chairs and an umbrella and stuff.

The little transparent disks on the wall are said to be portraits – the fact is: Gander used them to mix the colors for portraits he painted, portraits which stay in the artist’s archive (I suspect them to be really bad). Each portrait goes with a little story from Gander’s life. A girl kissing him. A friend drinking and telling him about art, an aunt giving him sweets… etc. It’s a nice exercise in storytelling. It looks neat. And there’s one good idea in it: It’s an inverted portrait. What’s considered to be remains becomes the portrait and we have to imagine the portrait based on the remains of colors. What counts is what we imagine… Now, I didn’t research this. But I’m quite sure some artists did the same thing in the 60ies or 70ies already. It just feels like that kind of stuff to me. Is this a problem? Well, not really. Originality isn’t a value in itself. But then, if the idea is the main element of something and someone already had the idea just as well as you – or better – it’s a bit of a problem, I think… But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe nobody did it before.

By the way: the sculptures in this last room also show that great minds meet: Guillaume Leblon, a French artist whose references to modernity include Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier (Oh! interesting! I’m pretty sure Leblon and Gander know and like each other) also showed us some boxes his little kid played with in an exhibition I saw a couple of years ago… .

Some people call this “Conceptual romanticism”, I suppose. As you got by now I’d like to submit a new concept for consideration: self-centered minimalist bullshit.

Exploding roses by Benjamin Hugard

(c) Benjamin Hugard

Je cherchais un autre texte de Barthes sur mon ordinateur, et je suis tombé sur des bribes que j’ai écrites il y plusieurs années sans penser à les publier un jour. But it struck me as being dirty theory, exactly  as I have defined it here: theory mixed up with accounts of experience. So here it goes…

Barthes : Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Tel Quel, 1977

Observation magnifiquement juste : le discours amoureux est fragmenté, manque de rationalité.
Mes sensations (présentes) :
J’ai besoin de dire d’abord mes sentiments et sensations, même si elles n’ont rien à voir avec le livre de Barthes. Me dégager de ce reflux dans mon cœur. Je prends plaisir à écrire sur un livre intelligent, même adorable, profondément sincère, semble-t-il, et qui pourtant tombe dans la facilité. Il en est de ce livre comme des Lettres à un Jeune Poète de Rilke. Lu à 15 ans, ce livre a eu une influence plus profonde sur moi que je ne le souhaiterais. Il fonctionne de la même façon: on y sent la sincérité, on y trouve sa vérité (l’auteur dit clairement des choses que nous avons pu sentir obscurément) et on est séduit. On veut croire ce qu’il dit, parce qu’on l’a déjà ressenti et on ne l’a pourtant jamais nommé aussi clairement. Mais il on court le danger d’y croire d’autant plus qu’on ne l’a jamais ressenti que de manière obscure, comme quelque chose d’enfoui en nous. Alors c’est comme si, finalement, quelqu’un mettait à jour (ce qui est vrai). Mais cela ne veut pas dire que ce qu’il met à jour est lui-même vrai. Je prends un plaisir immense d’écrire ainsi, sans objectif précis (je n’écris pas pour une publication ou évaluation future). Je pense à ce que Wittgenstein dit à propos de Freud: on le croit parce qu’on aime les choses enfouies.

Parfois, Barthes (comme Rilke) tombe dans une opposition facile, comme celle entre « complaisance mondaine », « hystérie de séduction » vs. « intimité sacrée », « vérité » (Fragments, p. 23). C’est, bien sûr, impossible. Certes, la complaisance mondaine existe, comme aussi l’intimité sacrée. Mais être dehors, dans un café n’implique pas être dans la complaisance. Il y a des rencontres fortes et importantes au dehors, des vernissages qui finissent avec une vraie rencontre, un vrai dialogue. Tout n’est pas noir et blanc, comme les sages tendent trop facilement à le peindre. Et la force de l’expression bien trouvée, comme « complaisance mondaine », risque alors de faire oublier la complexité, risque de faire oublier que d’autres cas de figure existent et que, par exemple, le mondain n’est pas toujours complaisant. Il y a toujours beaucoup de vanité dans la reconnaissance de sa propre faiblesse et vanité parce qu’on sait que beaucoup de gens se sont rarement demandés s’ils étaient complaisants dans telle ou telle situation, s’ils se laissaient trop facilement flatter, etc.
Je pense qu’il faut donc lire ces livres (Barthes, Rilke) avec l’admiration qui leur est due, mais ne pas en faire des sortes de révélations. Il faut y voir la part d’écriture et la part d’exagération (ce qui est souvent la même chose).

Belle observation : le discours amoureux brisé par une remarque commune, banale, de l’être aimé, notamment dans un environnement social, avec d’autres où il se fond parfaitement. Une facette qui apparaît qu’on n’aurait pas voulu connaître (l’exagération de la bien-aimée lorsqu’elle est avec sa meilleure amie, sa manière de parler…). Et effectivement, l’importance du registre du langage est énorme. (p.36)

« C’est l’originalité de la relation qu’il faut conquérir » (p. 44)
Belle idée encore : l’originalité de la relation mettrait à l’abri de la jalousie, parce que les autres ne seront jamais comme nous. Si j’arrive à ne plus vivre le stéréotype, je ne suis plus obligé de réagir selon les stéréotypes, être jaloux, blessé etc. comme les autres.
C’est ce qu’on aurait voulu : cette conquête. On n’a pas su s’échapper.

Le rapport assumé entre être aimé et mère. Le rapport à l’être aimé serait comme l’a été le rapport à la mère. Au lieu d’essayer de se révolter, Barthes le prend pour acquis. C’est comme ça. Comme Jocaste qui dit à Œdipe : « Qui n’a pas encore rêvé de faire l’amour avec sa mère. Qui prend pour chimères telles, etc. vit mieux la vie. » Mais, bien sûr, elle finit par se suicider quand elle découvre que ce n’est pas seulement un rêve, un présage doublement mauvais (en teneur et aussi en degré de vérité).
Observation : lorsque l’amour a cessé on attend encore l’autre, comme une douleur dans une jambe amputée, l’attente. C’est comme avec les êtres chers qui sont morts ou avec les vêtements qu’on a perdus ou qu’on nous a volés. Et la douleur pique à chaque fois que l’on se rend compte que pourtant on ne l’a plus…. (p. 49)

We can at least distinguish four species, and several sub-species of buyers. I’ll focus on the four main species: the common buyer, the nostalgic buyer, the expert buyer and the creative buyer. Although there are some individuals that exemplify all and only traits of their species, most of them display traits of different species and can shift from one to the other, even on the same visit. Different types of buyers can like the same item for different reasons, which implies that there are some objects that appeal to all categories. These should turn out to be the top-sellers at flea markets if my little theory is correct. A seller at a flea market will be much more successful if (s)he knows these categories of buyers and adapts his or her sales pitch.

Different species of buyers are naturally attracted to items of different kinds. As for characterizing items, there seem to be three main characteristics: age, originality, usefulness. We could ad beauty here, but this would get us right away into hell’s kitchen. But let’s say that the beauty (or aesthetic value) is mainly a value for the creative buyer and that for a decorative item, beauty will be part of what makes it useful.

Usefulness and originality are both relative (as is age, but to a much lesser degree). As for now, originality of an item can be defined in terms of the probability of finding a similar or identical object at the same or another flee-market. Originality is thus gradual.

To keep it simple, I define usefulness in terms of frequency of use once acquired. This definition has the virtue of relying on facts rather than value. But it cannot account for some objects that we would call tremendously useful in common speech, like a suction cup used in cleaning sinks, but that we don’t use frequently. Frequency of use is relative (to other objects) and objective, even though the decision for buying an item or not really depends on expected usefulness, which is subjective. This concept is tightly linked to the common buyer.

The common buyer just looks for a simple object to be used like another object of the same kind which (s)he could buy in a store, and the main value of getting it at a flea market will be that it’s cheaper than at the store. The common buyer will likely prefer an item that seems better suited to execute the task (s)he buys it for. Everything else being equal, (s)he will usually prefer a newer item.

There are some sellers who specialize on this species or aspect of buyer personalities. They sell cheap, out-of-the-factory items for everyday use, like toothbrushes, spoons, nails, clothing, etc.

The nostalgic as well as the creative buyers tend to ignore these sellers or even despise them (they usually also tend to display a very different habitus). The behavior of the nostalgic and the creative buyers are similar and they are often interested in the same items, but, again, for different reasons.

The nostalgic buyer can be either a collector or else a romantic. This definition is sketchy, because the nostalgic buyer is just as complex as nostalgia. (S)he finds those items most interesting which remind him or her of a preferred period of time. (S)he will thus be buy those (old) items which represent her favored period.

The expert buyer isn’t emotionally implicated in buying. (S)he buys the items whose price doesn’t reflect their market value. (S)he will either keep them and wait that their price further raises or resell them soon at another place, where (s)he gets the market value for it. (S)he is really a trader at the flea market who buys an object because (s)he thinks that it’s a good deal.

There are now specific high-brow flea markets, like Les Puces du Design in Paris, where expert buyers resell items they got at standard flea markets, often for triple the price they bought them for. People who buy there usually have more money and are willing to pay the premium for someone else having done the sorting at a more standard flea market, where most objects are without interest, and only few actually have high market and aesthetic values.

In many cases, the nostalgic buyer will be ashamed of his or her nostalgia and will pretend to buy for the same reason the expert buyer buys, especially when questioned about a specific item which appealed to him or her because of personal fancy. However, (s)he will only rarely resell an item and the people in his or her environment will end up understanding that (s)he really buys for emotional rather than commercial reasons. If they are nice, they’ll let them go on pretending that they are actually expert buyers.

The creative buyer is probably the most intriguing and complex species. A creative buyer can buy things that nearly nobody else even finds worth looking at. And (s)he’ll be all the happier if they don’t. What makes him or her feel good is that they see something nobody else does. The creative buyer will pull a half hidden item from below a heap of stuff and shout out: “This is fantastic!” or scroll through hundreds of pictures because there might be one (s)he likes.

There are at least two subspecies: the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and the artist.

The DIY likes to restore items, (s)he like the smell of glue, the sound of drilling, and the feeling of polished wood. (S)he will be happy to acquire an item, simply because (s)he likes to restore it, erasing the traces of its use, and making it look fresh. If (s)he is on the internet, (s)he’ll probably love etsy. (S)he doesn’t necessarily like the old to have the patina of the old. (S)he buys an object because of the potential (s)he sees in it.

The artist likes to feel that (s)he sees something in the item that most other people don’t see. (S)he might for example buy an old projector in cheap plastic that runs with old batteries or a host of family photos. It might neither be cheap, nor useful nor remind him or her of a favorite moment in history. It’s just that “(s)he somehow likes it”, finds it “weird” or original or that (s)he thinks: I might use this for a project some day (either as a ready-made or else to integrate it into a work). For him or her, buying an object is like for an artist to make a ready-made in the most basic sense: she or he declares it to have value – even if their museum is just their apartment.  To make things clear: (S)he doesn’t actually have to make a living on being an artist. (S)he may “only” be an artist in his or her way of looking at the world of things. (S)he will take things made for one purpose and assign them another.(S)he buys an object because of what she (s)he sees into it.

Here are a couple of things I bought at the flea market. I let you figure out for yourself who in me bought each of these items. Would be happy if you shared some thoughts (and pictures) of your favourite flea market acquisitions.


Posted: July 9, 2011 in Theorizing, Uncategorized


Dirty theory is theory mixed up with accounts of experiences or – at least – mixed up with real-life story-telling. Not every theory is rooted in experience. Many pieces of theorizing are theoretical inbreed. They are rooted in pieces of theorizing, in reading other theorists. inbreeding is what most philosophers do today. They write texts about texts about texts and lose touch with the reality that the first text originated in (and which the first writer had probably already eliminated). If philosophy has a poor reputation with the larger public, it’s exactly because of this tendency. If you haven’t read all the texts about which the text you are reading is, you don’t see why what the 13th theorist says is relevant. Maybe you don’t even understand. It’s not always your fault.

I’m thinking about renaming my blog.

The idea has been spinning around in my head for a few days. This usually precedes a blog post. I’ve got an idea I’d like to develop. I try not to forget about it. It then comes back to me all the time until I open my laptop and start writing (sometimes in online, sometimes in offline mode, this time in quick press).

Dirty vs. Pure Theory

Now, to get it out of my head: here’s the pitch of “Dirty Theory”. I love theory, that’s for sure. I think theorizing and reading theory are pleasures in themselves. And grasping conceptual differences makes your experience richer: where you saw one, you’ll see two if you found a new distinction.
For me theorizing is about creating, introducing or modifying concepts, but I think I mentioned that before.
I oppose Dirty Theory to Pure Theory.

I think I knew about this difference long before, I even wrote about it (all my quotes are excerpts I used in my Master Thesis about fragmented, Discontinuous Thinking and Writing, Aphorisms, Maximes). But it’s my last blog post that made me realize that Dirty Theory was really what I wanted to produce. In that post, I only slightly camouflaged the occasion of the distinction between memories as experience and as stories, ie. my having met an ex-girlfriend I was very much in love with 10 years ago for the first time after 8 years.

N.B. One of the reasons of doing theory of art and art-criticism where works and pictures play an essential role is that I wanted to get out of producing texts about texts about texts… . This is probably also one of the reasons why I co-founded a start-up.

So is pure theory always theory-based theory? No. You can write an original piece of pure theory that’s not dependent upon another piece of theory. It’s pure theory if you don’t account for the real-world experience from which it arouse. Pure theory is theory where the theorist only makes theoretical statements, sometimes complimenting them with invented examples.

Purity is gradual. Something can be more or less pure. If you use real examples remote from your own experience – like when you quote historical examples – is less pure than only using invented examples, like most analytical philosophers. If you don’t use any examples in theorizing, you practice totally pure theory. If you only talk about experiences and only hint at some concept, you are usually not doing theory at all. In fact, most of our stories (whoever the teller) include some theorizing, i.e. abstraction, conceptualization, generalization.


In terms of concision, the minimal form of pure theory is what the French call “La Maxime”. Something like the following is a typical Maxime:

« Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire. »

As it is proper of great minds to let you understand a lot with few words, small minds have the gift of talking a lot and to say very little. (La Rochefoucauld, François de : Maximes et Réflexions diverses, Gallimard Folio, 2002, Maxime 142)

N.B. This is a meta-maxime, a maxime about maximes.

Notice that La Rochefoucault – who made the expression and the genre popular – isn’t the only one to write Maximes, and that you’ll find Maximes with writers where you didn’t quite expect them, like here:

« On n’est jamais excusable d’être méchant, mais il y a quelque mérite à savoir qu’on l’est ; et le plus irréparable des vices est de faire le mal par bêtise. »

There’s no excuse for being evil, but there’s some merit in knowing that you are, the most uncorrectible vice is to hurt by sillyness.

This was written by Baudelaire (Baudelaire, Charles : « La fausse monnaie », Le spleen de Paris, XXVIII, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2000, 58), who is not usually a pure theorist in any sense. In most of his texts, the proportion of story-telling (accounts of personal experience) is extremely high.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, like Robert Musil, was critical of maxims (his “aphorism” is my “maxime”), but he himself wasn’t usually much better than the Karl Kraus he criticizes. Like most philosophers , he was somehow (strangely) trapped with the idea that his ideas had to be formulated in the most general and abstract form to be worth of reading.

He wrote some maxims like this one:

„Laß Dich nicht von dem Beispiel anderen führen, sondern von der Natur“ (Vermischte Bemerkungen, 53)

Don’t let yourself be guided by the example of others, but by nature. (Wittgenstein, Ludwig : Mixed Remarks/Vermischte Bemerkungen, 53, all translations are mine)

Now look how different the following remark ends:

“Es ist für unsere Betrachtung wichtig, daß es Menschen gibt, von denen jemand fühlt, er werde nie wissen, was in ihnen vorgeht. Er werde sie nie verstehen. (Engländerinnen für Europäer.)”

“It’s important for our investigations that there are people of whom someone feels that he’ll never know what’s happening in them. He will never understand them. (English women for Europeans).” (Wittgenstein, Ludwig : Mixed Remarks/Vermischte Bemerkungen, 88)

This (very touching remark) is a minimal example of dirty theory for me. But this is Wittgenstein writing for himself. The Mixed Remarks have been published after Wittgenstein’s death. Looking at the works he actually published or prepared for publication, I’m positive that Wittgenstein would have eliminated the parenthesis had he wanted to publish this maxime (which is, once more, a meta-maxime, where he gives himself indications about the mindset that should guide his writing). Why the parenthesis? Well, I think Wittgenstein wanted to make sure he’d be able to go back to the occasion of his thought to check if the general principle he had extracted had been correct or if there would be alternative principles, maybe also to be able to develop an ambivalent statement in the right direction. I use this kind of notes myself.

There are writers that tend to be dirty theorists, others that don’t. Botho Strauss and Baudelaire are very dirty theorists, Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust are rather dirty theorists (but not always), Karl Kraus is a pure theorist in his aphorisms, a dirty theorist in his essays… . Wittgenstein? Even though he criticizes the aphoristic form, he is as pure a theorist as you can get (in his published works). Most of the Tractatus could be called a caricature of Pure Theory.

Why write Dirty rather than Pure Theory?

Now, what’s the point of Dirty Theory? Well, I think one of the main points is the one Kant (rather a pure theorist most of the times, but not always) famously made: Concepts without observations are empty.

This is not what Kant meant it to be, but it could be a principle for writing. Use observation and not only concept. Why? Because it will clarify your concept. It will show where it can be applied. And what observation could be better than the observation which gave you the idea of the concept?

Well, actually it seems like a fictive one  – from which all the contingent aspects of reality and the private implications have been removed -could be better. This is how most theorists (implicitly) answer this question. But there is something hypocritical to making up examples instead of just using the experience where your thought originated, and something doubtful too. In Musil’s Man without Qualities, this is one of the topics. I also tend to think that there’s a richness in your initial experience which the concept doesn’t necessarily account for entirely.

Like Musil, I also feel like it was somehow unethical to pretend that theory adopts the point of view from nowhere. And it’s much less fun. Obviously, for theory inbreed the question doesn’t really arise. But theory inbreed is not what I’m interested in.

As what I want to practice is Dirty Theory, well, I believe that renaming this blog is quite appropriate.