2020-2021 seminar Rachel O'Reilly: from month to month

Seminar 5 (April) online

The whole relentless theorisation of writing which we saw in the 1960s was doubtless only a swan song. Foucault (1977)

In this session we return to thinking the “limits of the writerly” through planetary materialities and philosophical infrastructures of artistic and political autonomy. We will continue our reading of The Swan Book by Alexis Wright, and re-consider Foucault’s abandonment of the study of avant garde literature in the context of his broader pursuit of the study of power. For Foucault, as O’Leary summarises, and as we read in “What is An Author?” (Foucault’s response to Barthes’ “Death of the Author” thesis), literature is not a homogenous field “open to a once and for all definition,” but a form of language which is subject to “discontinuities and transformations.”

The Swan Book is about situated and incommensurable ancestral relationships that relate to the reproduction of the entire earth. In a parallel to previous years’ engagements with Edward Said’s work on the non-universality of “travelling theory” Wright shows how stories have unpredictably powerful material-symbolic consequences wherever they land. We want to consider how Foucault’s repeating thematic interest in anti-psychologism, the undermining of the autonomous subject, “the being of language” and “the larger politics of subjectivity” appear interrogated and non-abolished in Wright’s para-ontological experiment of The Swan Book, which situates itself in a post-invaded landscape and frames the peculiarly Western approach to textuality and “universal values” as contaminating, religious, capitalistic, patriarchal, and intractably present. We will consider literature (and art practice) as possible means of escaping/reframing hegemonic philosophies of culture and value, beyond a focus on Foucauldian “transgression” and sentimental progressivism in the all too (humanist) bipolar scene of “life and death.” What’s possible, and what's left? 


Timothy O’Leary, “Foucault’s Turn From Literature,” Cont Philos Rev 41 (2008): 89–110.

Alexis Wright. The Swan Book. Sidney: Giramondo Publishing, 2013.

Further reading:

Michael Brull, “A Decade On: The Fraud Of The NT Intervention Is Exposed,” NewMathilda, June 28, 2017 https://newmatilda.com/2017/06/28/a-decade-on-the-fraud-of-the-nt-intervention-is-exposed/.


Seminar 4 (March) online

This seminar works backwards and forward through the (European) Marxist tradition of materialist thought to consider how contemporary governance problems (of planetarity, for Spivak remember “socialism at its best”) were elided in the revolutionary industrial thought assumed inherited as globally salient radical humanist politics from the nineteenth century. Marx only considered the material and cultural specificity (suggest even ‘value’) of non-European and peasant peoples ‘defective for capitalism’ towards the end of his life, which massively revised his thinking. These revisions were hardly accessed by most of his readers. 

Moore’s texts argue for the centrality of historical thinking in coming to grips with capitalism’s planetary crises of the twenty-first century. Against the Anthropocene’s shallow historicisation, he argues for the Capitalocene, understood as a 500 year system of power, profit and re/production in the web of life. In Part 1 he situates the Anthropocene discourse within Green Thought’s uneasy relationship to the Human/Nature binary (a product of European philosophy), and its reluctance to consider people and culture as part of nature. He considers developments well prior to the Industrial Revolution as the origin of ecological crisis c.f. the transformations wrought by industrialisation from 1850 onwards, and especially after 1945. Part 2 elaborates on how labor-power (a fixation for orthodox European Marxisms) depends on a more expansive appropriation of unpaid work/energy delivered by ‘women, nature, and colonies’ (Mies). Second, he explains how accumulation by appropriation turns on the capacity of state–capital–science complexes to make nature legible. Historically, successive state–capital– science complexes co-produce Cheap Natures that are located, or reproduce themselves, largely outside the cash nexus. (Thus, resistance or the figuration of lifeworlds ‘defective for capitalism’ moves beyond the body of the paid worker.) A radical politics of sustainability must recognise – and seek to mobilise through – a tripartite division of work under capitalism: labor-power, unpaid human work and the work of nature as a whole. 

Consider the need to decouple concepts of energy today from the dignity of industrial work, and how this might relate to the justice claims of Indigenous peoples that have been articulated since well before Western scientific and environmental movement realisations of eco-systemic crises. 

Through these texts, I want you to consider how histories of art and capital that deny / reveal "planetarity" show up 1) provincial specificity in Euro-american understandings of "Art" and revolutionary politics (esp. 'artistic autonomy' and its relation to the social and the earth) and 2) Euro-settler desires to be governed otherwise with a mind towards other civilizational forms (this desire both symptomatically and ‘productively’ increasing when crises in capitalism hit the ground of privileged lifeworlds). 


Franklin Rosemont , Karl Marx and the Iroquois, Libcom library 

Jason W. Moore (2017) The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:3, 594-630.

Jason W. Moore (2018) The Capitalocene Part II: accumulation by appropriation and the centrality of unpaid work/energy, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:2, 237-279


Seminar 3 (February) online

This seminar zooms back to the question of literary (and also political) and artistic production (and the autonomy of such) in an anthropocene/capitalocene register, which has been pointed to sometimes only obliquely by the previous seminars and theorists. Foucault’s 1969 essay ‘What is An Author’ was written just two years after Barthes’ well known text ‘The Death of the Author’. According to Foucault (who doesn’t mention Barthes’ being associated with the provocation he aims at: ‘What Matter Who is Speaking?) his primary concern is less to analyse the concept or travail of ‘The Author’ through history, so much as theorise relationships of such figures with their own texts and texts that come before and after theirs. A text points out to a figure who is outside and proceeds with it, according to Foucault, and he develops the idea of "author function" to explain the figure’s availability for generative/generating discourse. Foucault then isolates particular figures - Marx, Freud, (we could add Darwin, Copernicus) - that changed orders of discourse altogether through their rearrangements of textual discipline, (making possible whole new ways of, essentially, ‘doing things with theory’). We considered the highly gendered modernist orientation of the author 'towards death’ read mostly through the notion of oeuvre, over other kinds of extimate responsibilities discussed in previous seminars

We moved to consider current work by Heather Davis on plastic in ‘the anthropocene’ to consider how the above masculinist ideal of ’being towards death’ (to wrest a distinctly meaningful life and ethics from existentialism/finitude) is conceptually (because materially, spatially, temporally) challenged by late stage capitalist entanglements that have ended worlds for many creative cultural peoples already. Davis’ article seems to argue that relationships between modern art legacies and industrial capital were only ‘productive’ so long as separations of (particular) humans, earth, toxicity, waste, life, museum, were not unfeasible in reality? Working with a familiar materialist aesthetic research genre of ‘following the commodity’ (that has its roots in critical modernism, see for example the essay films of Farocki etc after Eisenstein) Davis’s text figures industrial capitalism also an a non-human ‘author’ of novel, autonomous materials - given plastic is an unprecedented thing that got birthed into the world with material-symbolic consequences in a long duree - it has a non-human oeuvre. (Consider also in Davis how the metaphors of plastic’s flexible performativity in philosophy and neuroscience run quite counter to how plastic actually behaves and lasts). Thus, reading materialism and the commodity in a queer register, plastic as “bastard child’, interpenetrates us all with complex ir/responsibilities through a long duree of democratised consumption that has been barely negatively felt and seen, let alone mass critiqued, until recent decades. Since its presence is impossible to avoid, Davis uses this example, within the extinction orientations of the modern world, to challenge the kinship registers of reproductive realism (Vishmidt). In other words she highlights how queer feminist politics move beyond sex/gender when staying with trouble at the scale of the non-human. But what else is made possible by this discursive generativity, and is there more we can think beyond its pointing to (conceptual limits of) Kantian art-life arrangements? 


Michel Foucault. "What is an Author?" In Josue V. Harari, Textual Strategies. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell, 1979. 141-160. 

Heather Davis, “Life & Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic”, in Art in the Anthropocene, Open Humanities Press, 2015.


Seminar 2 (January) online

This seminar we continue with Spivak, reading to the end of the Introduction of Aesthetic Education - and add the extra chapter 'On the Imperative to Re-Imagine the Planet’. This chapter potentially introduces ‘the limits to the writerly’ as, among other things, an uncoupling of the globalised relationship of imperialism and ethics, imagination and control. Here, radical alterity takes on various names and protagonisms “Mother, Nation, God, Nature”. As the additional interpretive essay by Butt points out, Spivak notes that some of these names are actually more radical than others. Rather than articulating a politics of generalised immanence (perhaps a kind of vague planetary Rancierean sensibility), there is nothing especially mystical about Spivak’s version of planetarity, or radical alterity, except that planetarity is difficult to _think_ but _must_ be thought (consider some parallels in the struggle to ‘think’ dramatized in The Swan Book).  Spivak’s take on planetarity is more like the effort to constantly rebuild the ground of thinking, “mysterious and discontinuous (in terms of) an experience of the impossible” (p. 341). Alterity is thus simultaneously difficult to mobilise while also a check on capital’s reproduction of the same. (Cue the thematic exhibition of a generic Indigeneity that might save the European spectator, but how?) 

As Butt points out, Enlightened Western secularism is far from immune from what Spivak calls “grounding errors” of thought, since it figures responsibility through a Christian-heritage, come “science”, which eliminates and annihilates respect for othered forms of reason, relationality and kinship. Consider Spivak’s articulation of planetarity towards the non-human, in her relating of it to the Muslim concept-metaphor of the haq, “the birthright of being able to take care of other people”. Without such groundings, valuing extimate responsibility, we have no instituting culture for the political, only a governmental order of lawful performance, regulation and punishment (Foucault). If for Spivak, ‘the subaltern other remains buried under the “repetitive negotiations” of neocolonial benevolence’, we might argue that Wright’s work refused such aesthetic governance, precisely through what she has called ‘Aboriginal realism’. 

Our second text this seminar considers the ways in which these theory agendas impact post-war Art discourse only recently, and as just one example we will speak briefly about the instituting agenda of the Documenta exhibition. We read ‘Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame, By Gene Ray’ published for Documenta14, as a non-Indigenous lamentation regarding the belated uptake of Indigenous thought by Critical Theory or Theorists (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/). We situated our reading of this text as useful for thinking through Contemporary Art’s current heightened interest in Indigeneity, but consider also what remains ‘symptomatic’ about the text, in its relationship to a global art economy, as well as what appears propositional and important in the arguments it makes. 

The post-1945 Documenta exhibition articulated a renewed European internationalism in the aftermath of National Socialism and Nazism, as/for a cosmopolitan humanist peace becoming global. As a kind of exemplary infrastructure of post-war aesthetic ideals (inseparable from European ideals of governance), its situated positioning of humanist prohibitions on an unrepeatable genocide, we can understand from reading Ray, remained quite disconnected - because of liberal legal forms - from resource grounds, thus continuing to separate ecocide from genocides in histories of the South. This point has been long made by First Nations peoples’ - regarding the civilizational injustice of land dispossession. Ray implores, assumedly, non-Indigenous readers of theory and agents of International art to 1) be undone by key First Nations authors (Winona LaDuke, Sandy Grande, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, proximate theorists like Val Plumwood, and scholars of capitalist modernity’s relationship to planetary crisis) 2) do the ontological, ethical and political thinking of re-connecting to an expanded material concept of care for ‘place' where one is, valuing and seeing ‘what is there’ ecosystemically, and (depending on where one is) as articulated in First Nations governance systems (and/or by land itself), and 3) refusing to disappear the ongoing crimes of colonisation and settler colonialism, in relation to (any)where we live, in and under the global. 


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, Chapter 17.

Ray, G. Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame

Butt, D. Double-bound: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Review essay, RUPC Working Papers series, 2015.


Seminar 1 (November) Oldebroek

We begin with story as a virus, here in one take on ‘the limits of the writerly’, as interpreted by the esteemed Indigenous novelist and critic Alexis Wright, whose ancestral country is the Gulf of Carpenteria in Australia’s north, an area recently subjected to a faked sex scandal*, in order to pathologize and wrest away First Nations’ control of homelands. That is an historical fact of 2007, which the class will read more about in a later seminar. In The Swan Book, Wright moves the time of this governance crisis into a fictional future in which the laws of “the intervention” still hold sway, while an increasingly fragmented and toxic settler-colonial situation deals with the material and thought-effects of climate change and patriarchal land dispossession. 

The Swan Book is about wrangling changing situated and ancestral relationships to the entire earth. Wright suggests that never-global but always planetary First Nation stories, their dissemination and cross-pollination, bear upon the ability of Indigenous peoples to reproduce material belief – and that this has implications for the future of all. In a parallel to previous years’ engagements with Edward Said’s work, here, ‘travelling theory’ and narrative are less torn from the space of their radical invention (and so, less inherently embourgifying in their transnational uptake), than changing the earth with unpredictably powerful material-symbolic consequences wherever they land. The novel draws on the long cultural history of white swans, from European literature and Indigenous cosmology, and captures remarkably the free-styled attention required from First Nations for increasingly unpredictable ecosystem ‘management’ projects, through inherited orders - via song and story. In the relations the novel sets up between a white European woman climate refugee and Wright’s Aboriginal girl protagonist, distorting powers of fossil capitalists, Christian imagination, Western academia and the uneven banality of ruin and reproduction, different cultural futures appear through the dynamism of the novelists’ play, instructive for reading current crises anew. 

An ongoing key theorist of the ‘limits of the writerly’ seminar is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Her work is important for dealing with legacies of projective imagination for thinking the Enlightenment and its impacts from below. As observed in Wright’s The Swan Book, the ‘below’ is not simple, but in the very first line of Aesthetic Education in an Era of Globalization we are given the standpoint for the text that follows: “Only capital and data globalize. All the rest is damage control.” (We know the truth of this axiom inherently from artistic and political practice, but are asked by the dictates of Contemporary Art sometimes to perform denial of it as a marker of a speculatively global, secular professionalism.) Spivak’s project to intentionally misinterpret Kant through Schiller (on the way adapting Gregory Bateson’s work now dated but salient work on habit in Steps towards an Ecology of Mind) prioritises to push Enlightenment dictates on into active crisis, such that the “freedom, justice, reason, and liberty” so valued for some subjects and not others, at the heart of the privileges of a distanciating education, might be redistributed ideally (this is her wager on romanticism).

She says her aim here is that we might re-write the aesthetic “to suit us, from the toughest definition of politics to the most mysterious confines of literary [or art] theory.” The difficulty of the text gets easier once we get a handle on this dominating concept of the double bind as non-neutralizable tension ‘in the work’ for practice, that must be dramatised, rather than put to rest, to acknowledge real political contradictions and schizoid conditions of the capitalist contemporary that we have no option but to navigate.

Centralizing practice through double binds, and ethics’ only in materialization, in habit re-scripting (a productive limit of the writerly), you may want to keep returning to this text, and additional select chapters of it, throughout the two years at DAI. 


*  https://newmatilda.com/2017/06/28/a-decade-on-the-fraud-of-the-nt-intervention-is-exposed/

Alexis Wright. The Swan Book. Sidney: Giramondo Publishing, 2013.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, Chapter 1.