Reinventing Philosophy, Rethinking Art & Politics

By Gabriel Rockhill

Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics covers a variegated terrain and engages with a number of debates and thinkers. Two guiding threads nonetheless unite these forays into contemporary critical theory in the broad sense of the term. One is methodological or hermeneutic, and the other is thematic. Regarding the former, the book is concerned with the very practice of philosophy, meaning what it is that we are trained to do as philosophers and how it impacts—often implicitly and unconsciously—our ways of thinking. More specifically, it concentrates on a particular mode of philosophical reflection that consists in reading and interpreting an established canon of works (which is dominated by white, male, bourgeois, European thinkers). The book highlights the extreme limitations of what it calls exegetical thinking, meaning a form of philosophical thought that can only articulate itself in the interstices of a time-honored textual apparatus. It also proposes alternative modes of intellectual engagement, both hermeneutically and more generally. In this regard, it is explicitly dedicated to the reinvention of what is called, for better or worse, ‘continental philosophy.’ This includes, as will become clear below, a profound rethinking of its history (and an implicit reworking of its relation to so-called analytic philosophy).

The second guiding thread is thematic and has to do with rethinking the historical relation between art and politics. The central argument—which draws as much on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s insights in The Blue and Brown Books as on Michel Foucault’s ‘analytic of power’ and Jacques Rancière’s reworking thereof—is that there is no single and fixed relationship between art and politics precisely because these are not rigid entities definable in terms of common properties. The very categories of ‘art’ and ‘politics’ are thereby subjected to what I call radical historicism, or the position according to which everything that exists is the provisory result of a complex weave of historical forces (which is not equivalent to a reductive historicism that would lay claim to rigid historical determinism). Art and politics, like power relations in Foucault’s work from the mid to late 1970s, are understood as historically and socially variable phenomena with no fixed borders, as assemblages of relations that need to be thought in the plural even if there are strong centers of gravity in particular conjunctures. This does not imply in the least that everything becomes a relativist hodgepodge because it is irreducible to rationalist essentialism. On the contrary, it means that we need to develop new tools—this is one of the fundamental tasks of the book—for mapping the complex agential force fields at work in the constitution and sedimentation of operative conceptions of ‘art’ and ‘politics.’ The latter need to be understood as sociohistorical concepts-in-struggle rather than essentialized notions reducible to single philosophical definitions.

The book itself, after a long methodological introduction that develops the issues just discussed, unfolds in terms of a series of autonomous essays. These engage with issues ranging from the disciplinary battle between the social sciences and philosophy at work in the debate between Foucault and Jacques Derrida (or again in the controversy pitting Rancière against Alain Badiou) to the marginalization of Cornelius Castoriadis’ ‘tradition of radical critique’ in the now standard schematizations of contemporary Francophone thought. To briefly elucidate how these two guiding threads play themselves out in the individual studies, two illustrative chapters can serve as examples. In “Is Difference a Value in Itself? Critique of a Metaphilosophical Axiology,” I call into question one of the dominant tendencies in what is called French theory, which is known for its preoccupation with difference, alterity, heterogeneity, and other such concepts. The first step in this threefold analysis consists in demonstrating that the very logic of practice characteristic of the ‘philosophy of difference’ is rooted in an unquestionable value system: difference is preferable to sameness, multiplicity to unicity, and so forth. The second step is to meticulously unpack the extremely sophisticated theoretical strategies that have been deployed for obscuring—via complex and performatively consistent forms of differentiation—the relative simplicity and sameness of this value system (whose homogeneity and absoluteness obviously contradict the supposed insistence on difference). This praxeological critique of conceptual labor then leads, finally, to an examination of the political consequences of valorizing otherness. The overall conclusion is that difference—or any other fetichized concept for that matter—is not a value in itself, and that the sociopolitical and ethical world cannot be subsumed under privileged master concepts or transcendent values.

The final essay in the book addresses a fundamental blind spot in many of the Euro-American critical theoretical debates on art and politics: the status of architecture, design, building and the public arts. Highlighting the extent to which most of these debates have concentrated disproportionately on literature and the fine arts (with a few important exceptions), it also develops a praxeological critique. It foregrounds the extent to which the bourgeois cultural matrix of many prominent 20th-century thinkers tended to discreetly orient their research toward an analysis of how the high art of their social milieus could potentially have radical political consequences. They thereby generally overlooked low arts and crafts, like architecture and design, that are immersed in the broad sociopolitical world—rather than being sequestered in privileged venues like theaters and books—and often give direct material form to social and political bodies. This illustrates, moreover, the extent to which many of these theoretical debates have been plagued by what the book calls the social epoché and the talisman complex, meaning the undue bracketing of the social world in favor of an analysis of the talismanic political power purportedly inherent in isolated works of art. Drawing on the work that I developed in Radical History & the Politics of Art, this chapter thereby insists on the importance of thinking about the social politicity of aesthetic practices, or the intricate ways in which what is called ‘art’ is produced, circulated and appropriated in the sociopolitical world.

In both of these cases, as with the other chapters (although to varying degrees), there is an explicit attempt to develop what the book calls an intervention, or a foray into a particular set of practices that seeks to shift the tectonic plates undergirding and defining their field of possibility. Rather than simply playing a particular philosophic game and putting forth new moves or strategies, this book thereby aims at changing the nature of the game by contributing to the reinvention of the very practice of theory.


Gabriel Rockhill is a philosopher, cultural critic and political theorist. He is an Associate Professor at Villanova University and the Founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne. Among his numerous publications, he is the author of four single-author books: Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (forthcoming in 2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (2016), Radical History & the Politics of Art  (2014) and Logique de l’histoire: Pour une analytique des pratiques philosophiques (2010). Follow on Twitter: @GabrielRockhill.


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