Practice: Now Published by MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery of Art

The book on practice that Gabriel Levine and I edited has now been published by MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery of Art. We think it looks good — a photograph of Francis Alÿs from his famous “Paradox of Praxis” series is on the cover.

We’ll be launching the book at the Whitechapel Gallery of Art in London on April 26, in a conversation with visual artist Kader Attia (whose amazing work on repair is featured at the end of the book) and philosopher Nina Power. There will also be a Berlin launch on April 28 at Hopscotch Books, and a Toronto launch on May 31 at the University of Toronto Art Center, featuring a panel that includes artists Sameer Farooq, Rea McNamara, Su-Feh Lee and Diane Borsato.

MIT has a good description of the book. You can view the table of contents here.  And listen to an hour long conversation about practice that we had with Erik Davis on his excellent Expanding Mind radio show.  Our goal was to open up new ways of thinking about practice and its relationship to art, and even to ask the question whether we were moving into a world where practice is becoming autonomous from art.  We received some sublime responses to the book:

“Boon and Levine have assembled an engaging collection of short essays, manifestos, interviews, impressions and expressions, which together explore the rich density of “practice”. It is about art, and will fascinate anyone who experiences politics, philosophy and everyday life as forms of artistry — as artistic “practices” that repeat, hustle, experiment with, fly free from, and play with established subjectivities, cruelties, virtues. A bracing and marvellous book.” Jane Bennett, Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

“To move from competency to fluency to freedom takes some practice, but just what that entails — as this volume makes clear — is more than technique. Personal desires comingle with social questions, to that whether working solo or in coalitions of the like-minded, having a practice is always a dynamic process of situating oneself in the world. And as writers from across a wide spectrum offer here, when embodied consciousness and impassioned commitment take hold, practice as a way of working becomes a way of being. Mary Jane Jacob, Director, Institute of Curatorial Research and Practice, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

“Political, philosophical, poetic, aesthetic and critical, Practice will be of great use to anyone working with and thinking about this most dominant (but obscure) of terms. The texts collected here are fresh and provocative. From magic to high art theory, structuralism to anarchism, Boon and Levine have collected the most vital words on the “practical turn” in art, and many other ways of thinking about practice besides.” Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton

Practice: A New Volume in the MIT/Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art Series

Gabriel Levine and I are in the process of editing a new volume in the excellent MIT/Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art book series on the topic of Practice.  The book should be out in early 2018. The book collects writings about practice by philosophers, artists and other kinds of practitioners. There will likely be about 80 selections in the book, including texts by Karl Marx, Paul B. Preciado, the Dalai Lama, Lygia Clark, Group Material and many more.

To quote from an introduction written by Gabe and I: “In the early twenty-first century, no single word crops up in so many contexts – from art to science to theory to politics to everyday life – as “practice.” A central term in the social sciences, from science studies to sociology to media studies, “practice” is often taken for granted and only occasionally explicitly theorized. Artists and non-artists write statements describing “my practice,” while art critics speak of “social practice” or “contemporary practice.” In politics, practice a.k.a. “praxis” is in crisis – caught between old forms of mass struggle and new social movements anchored in the collective practice of daily life. And all of this is occurring on a global scale. Yet in all of these contexts, the layers and histories of “practice” are rarely addressed. What do people talk about when they talk about practice? Is everything a practice – and what are we (diverse humans and nonhumans around the planet) practicing for?

Once used philosophically to designate “doing,” (praxis) in a triad with “thinking” (theoria) and “making,” (poiesis) practice has soaked up other connotations: from political action (revolutionary praxis), to professional activity (the practice of law or medicine), to discipline, rehearsal or training (zen practice, basketball practice). The discourse of practice in contemporary art tends to blend all of these meanings, with “practice” also standing in for the shift away from the artwork or medium, and toward open-ended actions, series, processes and projects. While the turn to “practice” might promise a freedom from finality or eventfulness, it also reflects the neoliberal pressures to train oneself, to perform, and to rehearse a marketable set of skills. On this “planet of the practicing,” as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls it, there are winners and losers, and perhaps those who fail should just have practiced a little harder. Indeed, practice and “praxeology” were central to the work of Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises, who clearly saw the discipline of economics as a whole as the study of modes of organizing “purposeful action” (Human Action).”

My own work has been focused on the problem of practice for many years. In the 2000s I explored the idea of “sadhana”, the Sanskrit word for practice, and the relation of Asian religions to contemporary literature. I tried to show the varied attempts to reformulate an idea of practice by writers from Europe and America encountering Buddhism and yoga, and how their worldviews were destabilized by a new thought of practice. This work formed the basis of my contribution to Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (U. Chicago, 2015) as well as various essays on Buddhist topics. It also informed my attempt to develop a Buddhist theory of intellectual property in In Praise of Copying (Harvard, 2010), and my contribution to the shift in studies of IP from legal debates to the study of “practices of copying”. My more recent work on “sound and popular discipline” uses the latter term as a synonym for practice – or praxis, in the sense of collective action. In The Politics of Vibration and other essays and talks, I argue for a rethinking of sound studies that take into account popular practices of sonic production and consumption. The Book of Methods, the co-edited collection of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s unpublished writings on the cut up and other radical aesthetic practices, that I’m working on with Davis Schneiderman is also a kind of experimental manual of practices. I might even claim that my work on drugs and literature, notably in The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, addressed the problem of what it might mean to speak of a literary practice, notably insofar as literary drug use has involved formal protocols of experimentation, as in the work of Benjamin, Burroughs and more recently, Preciado.

Moroccan “Trance” Music: A Primer

I wrote a primer on Moroccan “trance” music for the March 2017 issue of The Wire.  The piece is built around the recently issued Dust to Digital set of Paul Bowles’ 1960 recordings made in Morocco, and covers (briefly!) the history of 78 recordings in Morocco, other ethnographic recordings such as those made by Ocora and by Philip Schuyler for Lyrichord in the 1970s and 1980s, the folk revival led by groups like Nass El Ghiwane, Jil Jilala and Lemchaheb in the 1970s, the history of recordings made at Jajouka and of the Gnawa brotherhoods, the long history of collaborations between jazz musicians and Moroccan traditional musicians, from Randy Weston through Peter Brotzmann and Ornette Coleman, the amazing career of Hassan Hakmoun and the more recent metal/noise sounds of Abu Lahab.  I meditate on “trance” as a word and phenomenon that spans both traditional and avant garde musics, secular and sacred sounds, and one that changes historically and geographically in meaning.  Bowles himself preferred the word “hypnotic” because it sounded more secular.  “Psychedelic” might work too.

The essay begins with this amazing quote from Bowles, from his essay “The Rif, To Music”:

“Few of them are as frank about their convictions as the official in Fez who told me: “I detest all folk music, and particularly ours here in Morocco. It sounds like the noises made by savages. Why should I help you to export a thing which we are trying to destroy? You are looking for tribal music. There are no more tribes. We have dissolved them. So the word means nothing. And there never was any tribal music anyway – only noise. Non, monsieur, I am not in accord with your project.”   In reality, the present government’s policy is far less extreme than this man’s opinion. The music itself has not been much tampered with – only the lyrics, which are now indoctrinated with patriotic sentiments. Practically all large official celebrations are attended by groups of folk musicians from all over the country; their travel and living expenses are paid by the government, and they perform before large audiences. As a result the performing style is becoming slick, and the extended forms are disappearing in favour of truncated versions which are devoid of musical sense.”

 

On the Bowerbird, The Difunta Correa and Some Architectures of Sense, An Interview with Alphonso Lingis

I interviewed American phenomenologist Alphonso Lingis for the EROS issue of landscape/architecture/political economy journal Scapegoat, that was co-edited by Christie Pearson and Nasrin Himada.  Lingis’ work has been of interest to me since the mid-1990s when I heard him speak at a Virtual Futures conference at Warwick in the UK.  Much of my current work on “the politics of vibration” involves a rethinking of Eros and its relation to subcultures in particular.

Lingis’ work consists largely in presenting a cross-species, even cosmopolitical phenomenology of what it means to seek to bind and be bound to other entities, in full awareness of our vulnerability and capacity for exploitation. In a series of books that begins with Excesses: Eros and Culture (1984) and Libido: The French Existential Theories (1986), continuing with the remarkable Abuses (1994) and Dangerous Emotions (2000), through to the recent Violence and Splendor (2011), Lingis documents the varieties of erotic experience, building on Plato’s “love of knowledge” (“philo-sophia”) and Freud’s meditations on the erotic drives and how they form “civilization and its discontents.” But Lingis goes much further, proposing, for example, the possibility of a civilization built around an unsublimated eros. He gives as historical evidence of this possibility the temples at Khajuraho in India. Yet his argument also relies on an intimate but rigorous analysis of his own erotic experiences.

Nothing Has Been Published

12038313_10153327443802568_1748218722531305016_nThe University of Chicago Press has just published Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism, co-authored by myself, Eric Cazdyn and Timothy Morton.  I wrote up my own thoughts on the book here a while ago.  It was a tough book to write: despite everything that’s said about Buddhism, we felt like we were entering a no-man’s land as we worked on it.  Exciting and unnerving at the same time.  I think it’s come out well though!  Here are the amazing blurbs from the back of the book:

“I have contemplated and endured NOTHING for so long that it did not seem right to break my practice or offer other readers something like insight, possibly a moment of sense-making and affirmation. But I break out of my trance to assert the emphatic necessity of this book, so erudite without loading us down, relentless in its ability to resignify. Sassy, brilliant, a genuine engagement with and of thought, this work tunes us to a thrilling, endorphinating way of thinking: my drug of choice.”—Avital Ronell, New York University

“The reader will delight in two important aspects of Nothing: a multitude of contemporary Buddhist responses to the great political and social changes that have affected Asian countries—imperialism, colonialism, communism, corporate capitalism—and rigorous elaboration of Lacanian psychoanalysis with Buddhist psychology. This book is exceptional.”—Alphonso Lingis, Pennsylvania State University

Two New Essays on Rethinking Intellectual Property

I have essays in two new collections of work on intellectual property.  The first, “From the Right to Copy to Practices of Copying”, in the Rosemarie Coombe, Darren Wershler and Martin Zeilinger edited volume Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (University of Toronto Press, 2014) is an expansion on the conclusion of In Praise of Copying, which advocates a rethinking of intellectual property. We are living through fundamental shifts in the way in which human societies produce and share copies of things, such that we need to rethink intellectual property in a way that reflects the actual practices of copying that prevail today, rather than merely relying on legal definitions. I also advocate for certain legal reforms. Thinking about practices allows us to affirm that contemporary cultures of sharing are built around collective intentional acts, rather than simply being random transgressions of a self-evident law. The second essay, “Structures of Sharing: Depropriation and Intellectual Property Law”, in Intellectual Property Law for the 21st Century: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Irwin Law, 2014) develops a specific aspect of the argument above, namely the problem of appropriation as it relates to intellectual property law.  I argue that current practices of copying force us to try to think beyond ideas of originals and copies as private property, and to imagine new ways of thinking about copies outside of discourses of ownership.  I elaborate the idea of depropriation, objects that have no owners or are collectively owned, through an analysis of the work of French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, and think through how depropriation could be integrated into legal models of IP, beyond traditional models of fair use or fair dealing.

In Praise of Copying Translated into Korean and Indonesian

In Praise of Copying was translated and published in Korean and Indonesian editions this year.

The Korean edition was published by Hong C Communication, and translated with great diligence and care by Seungyoung Noh, who often seemed to know more about my book than I did.

The Indonesian edition was produced by the KUNCI Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta, making use of the Creative Commons license that the book was issued with in an interesting and to me exemplary way, producing an edition that is principally available as a free PDF via their website (much like the free PDF available from the Harvard website), as well as a print edition that is being distributed to community libraries across Indonesia.  Ferdi Thajib of the group described the project as follows:

“We are a collective who since 1999 have been engaging in popular education approaches aimed at widening public criticality  With this rather broad aim, our activities have revolved around the promotion of local knowledge production practices and functioning ourselves as a hub that connects academia, social activists, cultural producers and the public at large in meaningful encounters
Around one and a half years ago, we received funding from Ford Foundation Indonesia to initiate a project looking at issues of Media and Technology convergence, which includes a component of publication of translated books on cultures of sharing within the digital environment. That is how we became acquainted with Mr. Boon’s work. The whole project allows us to work on three books, namely: Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (which was published last year), the second one (if permission granted of course) would be In Praise of Copying, and the third installment would be Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.
Our first reason for translating the three books is that they all provide key insights to explain what is going on in other parts of the world in regarding to issues such as copyright, copy culture, sharing culture, file-sharing, creative commons etc. –  issues that are not new for us in Indonesia, but which have not received adequate critical discussion. This is not so much because of the lack of criticality per se, but more a matter if language barriers. We feel that the rapid development of vocabularies related to internet architecture and the radical changes it has brought to the cultural facets of everyday life has not progressed hand in hand with its better understanding in local settings; not only in daily situations, but also in legal/governmental/ policy making environments.
The second reason is related to the respective content of each book. The selection of In Praise of Copying is prompted by some of the ideas that Mr. Boon has brought up, especially in how he shed light on the entanglement of copying with various forms of cultural production and understanding across the globe. I personally believe that the philosophical take of Mr Boon on copying that crisscrosses the East and West binary may speak a lot to our potential readers here.
And another reason is the practical consideration of the licensing system used in circulating the  work. As one of our goals is to educate people about the importance of sharing, most of the texts that we have produced and published are distributed under Creative Commons A-NC-SA, including the last publication of Free Culture in Indonesian.”

You can read Thajib’s analysis (with Australian media researcher Alexandra Crosby) of copyright, the commons and sharing networks in Indonesia here, and a more detailed analysis of these issues in relation to video activism in Indonesia in the media studies journal Platform.  Thajib and Crosby’s work resonates in intriguing ways with the studies presented in the excellent Media Piracy in Emerging Economies report — and suggests an important set of emerging practices of open source sharing/distribution that utilize Creative Commons licensing — in emerging economies.

Cursing in Hip-Hop Essay in The Wire

I have an essay on obscene language in hip-hop in the latest issue of The Wire. It’s called “Dirty Talk”.  A lot of my recent favorites are referenced: various Odd Future acts, Azealia Banks, Zebra Katz, Danny Brown, Le1f.  The argument of the essay is about abjection, and the way that obscene language produces a kind of intimacy with something that can’t be talked about — and the way that music, as a form of vibration, is — that thing that can’t be talked about.  Having spent the last week listening a lot to the Kevin Gates record, I think I could have said a lot more about obscenity and violence, and the way that obscene language injects an almost physical force into language.  Well, to be continued …

This issue of The Wire has a lot going on: reflections on song by Rob Young, on improvisation by David Toop, Nina Power on digitized female voices and public address systems. Great to see the breadth of thinking there ….

NPR show on copies

Wisconsin’s NPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge  just broadcast an impressively wide ranging show about copies and copying including discussions with a variety of people about  architectural mimicry in China; identical twins; apocalypse memes; biotech dilemmas … and my own take on the topic.  My own thoughts turn increasingly to the issue of 3-D printers, which especially when linked to a 3D scanner, really radicalize what kinds of objects ordinary people can now copy in their home.  With nanotechnology slowly moving from hypothesis to reality, and the possibility of making copies that are accurate at the atomic level, the kinds of confusion of original and copy that we see happening today are going to increase exponentially.  Which again raises the question: why do we copy? What do we really want? And how does copying fit or not fit into the broader political-economic framework that we live in?

On the Copies in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

A number of people have asked me what I thought of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, which is about an English writer, James Miller, who’s just published a book arguing that the distinction between original and copy is meaningless, and his meeting with a charming art dealer, identified only as “Elle”, who may or may not be his wife, in Tuscany during a book tour.  The movie is set up so didactically – it more or less begins with a ten minute lecture setting out the thesis of the writer’s book – that one is forced to assume that what follows – a more or less standard European art movie scene of romantic hijinx played out in a picturesque location – is also about copying.  I felt fairly indifferent to the movie while watching it, but it’s growing on me as I think about it.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

If the movie is indeed a copy of a generic European art house movie narrative, then it’s such a correct copy that it’s hard to see where the intervention, or the creativity in the act of making the copy is.  True, Duchamp’s “Fontaine” is also just another urinal, but it achieved it’s power through the shock of being relocated from the bathroom to the art  gallery.  But isn’t this kind of film and role exactly what we expect of Juliet Binoche (playing “Elle”), if not Kiarostami himself?

Perhaps something is lost in translation.   Certainly the film abounds with translation problems: the shifts from English to Italian to French; between lovers and genders; between generations; between those with traditional commitments and those who believe themselves without them.  In every case, something like a copy appears when there’s an expectation as to how things are supposed to be, an expectation which is let down.  Which incidentally describes prevalent critical reaction to the film.

Is anything gained in translation too?  An “Iranian” director making a “European” art house film?  Certainly it’d be worth looking at the way in which non European film-makers are invited to participate in art house cinema only through adopting and reiterating certain kinds of cinematic discourse. But that’s old news at this point, isn’t it? A dysfunctional couple forced to roleplay traditional gender and marital parts in order to revive their relationship? Ditto.  Perhaps translation is the wrong word for what’s happening.

Most reviewers of the film feel compelled to make a decision about who the two main characters in the film are, while the film itself goes to great lengths to resist this.  In fact, the weakness of the film, if it is one, consists in the apparently artificial lengths that Kiarostami is compelled to go to in order to maintain the ambiguity about whether or not Elle and Miller are a long time married couple now meeting up again and acting as if they don’t know each other, or a couple meeting for the first time who find themselves playing the roles of people in a long term relationship.  In other words, a drama of original and copy.

Is the point then that the same claim that Miller makes in his book turns out to be true in real life, that the distinction between original and copy is not so important and that sometimes the copy may be more relevant or powerful than the original?  Just in terms of the narrative arc of the movie this doesn’t sound entirely right.  The movie ends with Elle remembering a moment of happiness and satisfaction on her wedding night, while Miller looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and has a moment presumably of self recognition, marked by the somewhat crude device of the church bells outside ringing.  Is the point then conversely that behind the superficial play of original and copy there is the mark of an original trauma which somehow is revealed by the tracking and repeating of symptoms, which are in a sense copies that disavow the original that is in fact their source.  That would explain the unpleasantly uptight and reactive character of Miller, and equally clueless sentimentality of Elle.

But that also sounds too crude.  After all, there’s no clear explanation or resolution given at the end of the movie.  Even the mirror that one assumes Miller is looking into is not actually seen on screen.  It’s a camera that the actor faces onto, imitating the expression he might have in front of a mirror.  A camera is not exactly a mirror.  So the movie floats in a strange way towards recent films such as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the scaffolding of the film set is itself visible and constitutive of what goes on in the film.  Kiarostami goes a step further than Kaufman or von Trier by exposing the “Real” of the Tuscan town in the movie as a kind of mimetic installation as much as the warehouses and stages of those other films.  The point is driven home by the presentation of the Tuscan towns as tourist destinations, frozen in some image of their own past and cultural heritage, yet still full of people finally just trying to live their lives.

What is disturbing or confusing or even disappointing in the film is the lack of clear directions as to what we are to do with this mimetic impasse.  Is it an invitation to the unleashing of drives as in von Trier’s movies? Or to the multiple personalities or aphasiacs that populate Kaufman’s films?  Perhaps there’s a simpler response: that one of the core principles animating mimetic phenomena is erotic.  Put crudely, the film tracks an amorous encounter through various stages of deflection and displacement to the very moment where the two lovers are finally in a hotel room, about to make love.  Or not.  In other words, copying in the movie is mostly an expression of erotic ambivalence.  The young couples who are getting married in the church are disavowed by Miller because of their supposed naivete about what the future actually holds in store for them, but what’s provocative mimetically of course is that the religious and state rituals around marriage structure the obscenity of sexual reproduction.  The couples are not so much naïve as committed to the mimetic rites that they are going through.  Miller is incapable of this commitment.  As my colleague Ian Carr-Harris said to me in a recent discussion, he’s “afraid of originals”!  And therefore obfuscates the difference between original and copy in his work.

Am I guilty of the same kind of obfuscation?  For me, an original is a kind of copy, since there is no original without an act of labeling or designation that says “this is an original” (at the same time obscuring the processes of imitation and appropriation that make up an object).  But both originals and copies can expose one to the nonconceptual Real, and it’s this exposure to the Real that we are afraid of.  Certified Copy is a film about this fear, about the ways in which cinema can or can’t address it, and in particular about the way Kiarostami thinks it can be addressed, in 2011, in a film funded by European backers.