This paper poses a relationship between pragmatist understandings of intersubjective communication and long-term “dialogical art” practices promoting social change. Art historian Grant Kester contends that two dialogical art projects by Suzanne Lacy and Austrian Art collective WochenKlausur reflect Habermas’ theory of communicative action through which the “better argument” is universally validated. Kester simultaneously acknowledges such projects inculcate non-competitive modes of intersubjective exchange that appear contrary to Habermas. I look at the “philosophical narrative” debates between Richard Rorty and Habermas to suggest that Rorty’s eschewal of Habermasian rationalization in favor of affective modes of contingent solidarity, taken with Nancy Fraser’s understanding of enmeshed public/private discourse in the context of feminist counterpublics, draws out the political-ethical orientation of activist dialogical art practices.
Making sense of changing discursive practices in the arts demands attention to art’s changing internal problems, however interventions ensuing from other areas of human inquiry also catalyze shifts in art’s discursive practices. Philosophy’s discursive ruptures and recalibrations can alter art discourse by catalyzing destabilizing and reforming critical interventions from outside the field of inquiry. It is also difficult to know just how much art changes as the result of a specific extra-disciplinary influence such as philosophy since many fields of inquiry are subject to the same broader paradigmatic shifts that rattle philosophical discourse. If conditions were in place for twentieth century philosophy to throw off centuries of epistemological and metaphysical assumptions, it follows that art would have simultaneously rejected to a large extend those same assumptions in the context of its own norms, even if its critical and art historical discourses did not explicitly attend to such philosophical problems in favor of discursive concerns more central to art. While paradigmatic shifts certainly change the values regarding widespread human inquiry including both art and philosophy, art discourse does at times draw directly on philosophy and wider theory to further contextualize art practices and the values that surround emerging problems in art.
In the case of one particular area of contemporary activist art practice in which artists convene creative conversations aimed at social change among groups of participants, philosophy is often deployed by art theorists in order to tease out the theoretical underpinnings of what in art circles is often referred to as dialogical or participatory art. Such art practices defy conventional aesthetic autonomy and the commodification of the artwork by bringing participants together in conversation. On this point, art historian Grant Kester has utilized Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action to understand how dialogical art catalyzes social change through the exchange of language claims. Deploying philosophy for this purpose comes with advantages and risks; it serves to foreground the political-ethical dimensions of convened conversations that aim to shape better democratic associations, yet the attempt to reveal art’s theoretical basis via philosophy can be limited by the fact that there may be significant gaps between art and philosophy’s discursive practices. Nuanced debates within philosophy, debates that get to the heart of the value of theory to a practice of intersubjective communication, can be abridged to the point that they are not only misrepresented, but fail to augment the problem they have been enlisted to illuminate.
While there are caveats to utilizing philosophy in the identification of art’s underpinnings, I aim to show that pragmatist views regarding post-epistemological and post-metaphysical understandings of language are useful in making more concrete the intentions and outcomes of recent activist art practices that promote dialogue as a medium for both art and for social change. As some directions in art have led to more dematerialized and conceptual art over the past half century ensuing from a rejection of art’s commodification and a turn toward the performative, philosophy’s penchant for posing ontological questions regarding the material artwork can overlook the fact that significant art today is not necessarily material in nature and is therefore difficult to judge on such terms, as the art I will refer to here attests. Consequently, both art and philosophy can at times misrepresent each other. That said, philosophy is still helpful in expanding problems in art discourse when art theorists avoid broad-brush generalizations by pushing art theory to consider the subtle yet crucial debates within philosophy. In the context of this paper, pragmatist views of language are deployed to draw out the political-ethical orientation of activist dialogical art practices.
Kester suggests that such dialogical art can best be understood as an embodiment of Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action. Dialogical art is thus a process by which the exchange of linguistic assertions catalyzes consensual perspectives in participants for the purpose of encouraging improved social configurations of one kind or another. The theory of communicative action may help articulate the way in which language claims lead to ethical and political action, however, Kester’s use of Habermas presents generalizations that must be made more rigorous by sorting through what Richard Shusterman calls the “philosophical narrative”1 debates between Habermas and Richard Rorty. As Kester’s argument goes, such dialogical art can best be understood as an embodiment of Habermas’ views because the exchange of linguistic assertions catalyzes consensual perspectives in participants. On this view, dialogical art’s significance rests on the assumption that a given dialogical art project succeeds because it brings about social change through the formation of a new discursive norm that promotes consensus, which in turn catalyzes political change on the level of public policy. Kester’s enlistment of Habermas perhaps captures the intent of many long-term participatory art projects in regard to fostering actionable social change, however, as I will show, this way of reading Habermas is complicated by the fact that such dialogical artworks generally eschew both the sort of normative discourse that Habermas sees as integral to successful communicative action as well as a desire to concretize or universalize new language claims.
While Kester does not directly address the incompatibility between Habermas’ views and the ethos of dialogical art, he does eventually integrate Habermas’ understanding of communicative action with his own observation of the affective underpinnings of dialogical art, a move I contend brings him closer to Rorty and Fraser’s claims regarding the role of conversation in a process of redescription. The impact of conversation to cohere local, affective solidarities that do not aim for the sort of normative universal validations that Habermas demands becomes more evident once Rorty’s particular anti-foundationalist view of communicative exchange – one that largely frees conversation from the restraints of normative discourse – is confronted by Fraser and wider feminist philosophy in the 1990s. Kester, himself, makes a similar move when he reconstructs Habermas in the direction of the feminist epistemological values he identifies in dialogical art. The alignments and divergences of Habermas, Rorty and Fraser can be understood in relation to Kester’s revisions of Habermas in order to show that dialogical art favoring contingent solidarity over consensus can potentially contribute to wider discussions of the manner in which principled conversation elicits productive democratic associations beyond the aesthetic frame of art.
2 Activist Dialogical Art
The art critical and art historical treatment of a particular iteration of activist participatory art practices in the 1990s is varied in its identification of the historical, art theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of conversations-as-artworks, however Marxist-inspired collectivism is generally understood to undergird what are now commonly referred to in the art world as contemporary art social practices, a genre of contemporary art within which the dialogical art of concern to Kester resides. Art critic Claire Bishop has suggested that the variety of participatory art practices in North America find their roots in Frankfurt School Critical Theory.2 Identifying North American social practices with the Frankfort School points to the alignment of avant-garde art practices and social critique. Kester’s interest in Habermas likely ensues from an assumption critics make regarding Marxist-oriented philosophy and socially engaged art, however such a genealogy for contemporary art social practices potentially misses the pragmatist underpinnings I see to be vital to activist dialogical art. While Habermas’ work draws on pragmatism in addition to Critical Theory in forming a theory of communicative action, art criticism tends to overlook the more pragmatist aspects of his thought. That said, Habermas’ pragmatism is complicated by transcendental aspirations that obscure the wider pragmatist underpinning I see in dialogical art, a point I will return to in detail.
Over the last half century, the visual artworld has seen the steady rise of activist practices in which socially engaged artists promote the development of long-term dialogues that coalesce around particular social problems. Rather than produce material artworks, activist artists have challenged the conventions of art discourse by leaving their studios in order to initiate long-term creative and critical conversations across and between project participants. But rather than view this move as a rejection of art in favor of social activism, the artists I will discuss shortly such as Suzanne Lacy and Austrian art collective WochenKlausur understand their practice as an expanded notion of art. If modernism championed both the aesthetic autonomy of material artworks and the associated autonomy of viewers who can receive such artwork without having to attend to other value systems such as politics, ethics and religion, recent social practice art turns Enlightenment values on their head by attempting to reintegrate art within broader, intersecting value systems such as politics and ethics; art is seen as instrumental to modifying social conditions. This of course is a sharp turn away from a culture of aesthetic autonomy that aimed to liberate art from the sort of utilitarianism that was seen to diminish its potential impact on the world. Collective art practices that center on dialogue not only reattach art to other value spheres, they also make art an unabashed tool for social change. Such a role for art runs counter to the culture of Enlightenment autonomy that spans the trajectory of aesthetic theory and its manifestation in the artworld from Kant to Greenberg, yet in the context of philosophy, pragmatism’s ameliorative aims suit a notion of art that attempts to put it to use for human betterment. Rather than center art’s vitality in its distance from ordinary life, as the edict of art for art’s sake long demanded, contemporary art practices follow a twentieth century turn toward a social-theoretical enlistment of art’s labor for the production of new social configurations.
Because they are activist in nature and thus aim for social amelioration, dialogical art projects employ time in a long-term process for catalyzing and synthesizing new intersubjective understandings among participants as a way in which to engage the social conditions that impact them. Participatory art, especially activist projects produced since the 1990s, have roots in the transgressive provocations of the early twentieth century historical avant-garde, and more recently, in the political and conceptual neo-avant-garde experiments in the visual arts of the 1950s–1970s. Neo-avant-garde art situated at the advent of postmodernity offered an expanded field for art centered in the action of human bodies rather than the production of physical artworks. Performance-oriented art since the 1950s and 1960s typically includes viewing audiences held at a distance from the action, whereas current activist social practice art either does away with traditional audiences or eliminates clear distinctions between audience and participant. Typically, an individual artist or arts collective aims to integrate life and art by convening a dialogical art project space with the intention of improving a social conflict or inequity; they bring into conversation individuals or groups with different understandings of particular social conditions. Such art may focus on the interpersonal realm by aiming for the development of better relations between groups, or projects may strive for the conceptualization and implementation of concrete proposals to solve entrenched social problems. Where the duration of more common audience-oriented performance art is limited to traditional timeframes that dictate performances attended by the public – generally speaking, for some part of an hour or hours – conversation-based social practice projects of the sort Kester interrogates often defy the durational norms of art by taking place over extended periods of time, sometimes convening discussions and other related actions for many months or longer before potentially culminating in a public event.3
The artworld of the 1980s–1990s would mark a growing desire to advance the recognition of emerging publics; the culture wars of the 1980s initiated counter-dominant artforms exploring group identity, artforms that would gain greater visibility in mainstream art institutions the 1990s. The particular time period in which activist participatory artworks would emerge in earnest coincides with political thought addressing the expansion of the recognition of marginalized groups in the context of democratic institutions. Therefore, when Kester looks back at two conversation-based art projects from the 1990s that use long-term engagement to foster new perspectives in those who have agreed to participate in the making of an artwork, he makes visible the vital commonalities between theories of democratic politics and related praxis in the arts. Key dialogical projects from the 1990s of interest to Kester include Lacy’s The Roof is on Fire, a project aimed at improving the relations between Oakland, California youth and the city’s police force, and WochenKlausur’s Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women, a collective artwork that centered on a series of “colloquies” held in boats on Lake Zurich intended to confront the marginalization of Zurich’s homeless and drug-addicted sex workers. Kester’s analysis of these projects offers an important contribution to an area of social practice art criticism by pushing, albeit subtly, beyond more common Marxist and Critical Theoretical frames for social practice art. By identifying where Habermas understands language exchanges to be freed from the confines of traditional metaphysics and epistemology in the service of forging public agreement, Kester illuminates where his thought integrates Critical Theory with perspectives that are more pragmatist in orientation. As a result, art criticism begins to take a deeper look at the manner in which conversation prompts political change.
An anti-foundationalist view of language as a forum for experiments in reconceptualizing value norms aligns to some degree with a desire in the arts to formulate new definitions for art outside traditional object-making and its associated traditional art discourse. New definitions for art aim to describe and empower the emergent identities of those subordinate to dominant discourse, including urban youth and sex workers. As Kester sees it, social connection, and the subsequent political change that such connections can garner, demands internal shifts taking place in the people who engage with each other in serial conversational encounters organized by artists. Kester calls this work “the creative orchestration of collaborative encounters and conversations well beyond the institutional boundaries of the gallery or museum.”4 Thus, the typical manufacture of an art object is replaced with a dynamic interpersonal process rather than a finished material product to be offered to the spectating public for contemplation within sanctioned artworld spaces such as galleries, museums and international art fairs.
Dialogical art identifies a desire to use conversation to move participants in ways that over time inculcate a process by which the array of perspectives are reordered regarding the particular problem that stands between the participants. Kester describes a certain variety of post-spectatorial artist drawn to conversation as a means to “catalyze surprisingly powerful transformations in the consciousness of their participants.”5 Importantly, this reordering can be seen as both active and reflective; it occurs because “[d]ialogical practices … unfold over weeks, months, and even years, and their spatial contours or boundaries typically fluctuate, expand and contract over time.”6 When discursive exchanges take place over an extended time period, new understandings occur as a result of the synthetic effects of active discussion and personal reflection, reflection that takes place in the time and space between conversations when participants are not actively in conversation. Because the conversations take place again and again over an extended time frame, dialogue retracts and expands as issues are put aside and picked back up. Participants come to know each other over time in a manner akin to developing relationships in ordinary life beyond the frame of “art.” The emerging artwork depends on the participants’ oscillating, evolving critical perceptions as participants actively engage and then retreat into reflection in order for discussion to build and lead to the integration of new perspectives.
3 WochenKlausur: Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women
I want to now turn to some dialogical projects that are strategically situated in settings apart from the “artworld” and designed to put conversations in close proximity (but not entirely within) to the everyday world of the social problems they confront. The artists Kester discusses tend to engage participants who do not have pre-established connections to the global artworld. By working with arts non-profits that aim to connect artists or collectives such as WochenKlausur to community groups, whereby avoiding sanctioned art spaces, artists can tether dialogical artworks to familiar sites of everyday experience. The choice to conduct projects outside of institutional art spaces both reorients the conversations away from the typical discursive habits of art while simultaneously (paradoxically) placing the conversations within an aesthetic milieu so that discussion can break with the typical political discourse that leads to contentious debates around changes to public policy; these projects are deliberately and simultaneously art and non-art.
As Kester discusses, WochenKlausur arranged the 1994–95 “intervention” in which nearly sixty participants including sex workers, the secretaries of the major political parties, city councilors, the police commissioner, activists and journalists set out on boats on Lake Zurich over a period of weeks for a series of conversations regarding the plight of highly stigmatized drug-addicted sex workers. This project, Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women, represents what founding member of WochenKlausur, Wolfgang Zinggl, describes as “concrete interventions” into the policy regarding social problems. As Kester understands it, participants did not want “their statements … taken out of context and used against them politically,”7 as such statements were typically distorted in the media sphere. Therefore, the use of a space far from the typical halls of policy-making was necessary if the conversations were to lead to “concrete” outcomes. Somewhat paradoxically, an ordinary touristic site in the context of the life of the city of Zurich proved to provide a way to create “interventions … nonetheless based on ideas from the discourse of art.”8 Kester understands the movement of ideas to have taken place because “the traditional art materials of marble, canvas or pigment were replaced by ‘sociopolitical relationships.’”9 “These ideas would include, first, the capacity to think critically and creatively across disciplinary boundaries” because, “‘art lets us think in uncommon ways.’ [A]ccording to one of WochenKlausur’s statements, this thinking takes place ‘outside of the narrow thinking of the culture of specialization and outside of the hierarchies we are pressed into when we are employed in institutions, a social organization, or political parties.’”10 Kester sees a level field and the eschewal of hierarchy to set up conditions in which “art does not need [the artist] as prophet or priest … Instead, it arises from intersubjective communication and reflection on the possibilities of taking part in a changing world.”11 Thus, intersubjective communication and the reflection it fosters realize together new forms of socio-political association convened and facilitated not by an artist who is revered for their elevated status at the margins of society. Rather, the artist is an animating factor among other agents who exchange views over a period of time. While the tourist boats on Lake Zurich used for the ongoing conversations in WochenKlausur’s Intervention may have been a familiar site for many of the participants, the “boat colloquies,” as they were called, served as “a discursive space that was somewhat insulated.”12 The delineated nature of these discussions aimed to break down distinctions one constituency held in regard to the other, a non-hierarchical intersubjective process that led to greater alignment in regard to policy around homelessness sex workers.
The project aimed to change the tone and direction of the deliberations already underway regarding the status of sex workers by continually engaging those closest to the issue over a period of weeks, engaging a variety of agents either with and without political power or media influence. The ongoing nature of the discussions conducted as part of Intervention also opened up the possibility that those same people would continue to dialogue once the formal boat trips were completed – when each participant returned to “the rhetorical demands of their official status,” which did in fact occur.
the ritualistic context of the art event, with their statements insulated from direct media scrutiny, they were able to communicate outside the rhetorical demands of their official status. Even more remarkably, they’re able to reach a consensus supporting a modest but concrete response to the problem: the creation of a pension, or boardinghouse, where drug-addicted sex workers could have a place to sleep, a safe haven, and access to services (eight years later it houses twenty women a day).14
Something vital for Kester seems to take place when conversations as dialogical art projects occur over a period of time beyond the official timeframe of the artwork, rather than being confined to a typical gallery encounter. As Kester notes, art in a dialogical mode uses duration to extend conversations in time, aiming to enmesh everyday subjectivities with institutional art practices by loosening the strictures of art’s autonomy through collaborative actions that set out to foster, over time, an improvement in the quality of human experience. The fact that the conversations on a tense topic took place in boats on Lake Zurich shows for Kester that the various constituencies involved where able to think differently about the issues due to the unfamiliar and disarming “frame” surrounding those discussions, a frame that arguably was, in fact, the idea that participants were performing art. This suggests that art, in the context of its durational dialogic mode, boils down to a heightening of experience that results from the establishment of psycho-physical space, a context in which theatricality, or the awareness of heightened affect, seems to drive topics beyond the discursive limitations or blind spots of both the art institution and traditional political deliberation. Perhaps such art draws out an important difference between a visual aesthetic found in object-based art and the kind of aesthetic that Kester’s idea of dialogical art puts value on: the quality and configuration of the plastic dialogue, along with a heightening of social experience, replace traditional artistic conventions such as form and beauty, all for the purpose of transforming a collective conversation.
4 The Roof is on Fire: Suzanne Lacy, with Annice Jacoby, Chris Johnson and t.e.a.m (Teens + Educators + Artists + Media)
A look at West Coast artist Suzanne Lacy’s work demonstrates why it is also representative of Kester’s model for dialogical art, with some distinctions in relation to WochenKlausur’s Intervention. The Roof is on Fire, from 1990–1992, a project that was conceived and executed in conjunction with Annice Jacoby and Chris Johnson who led t.e.a.m (Teens + Educators + Artists + Media) in creating dialogues between Oakland Latino youth, and later between Oakland youth and the Oakland Police. A rooftop parking garage was used as a site for unscripted performances by the youth targeting the “one-dimensional clichés promulgated by mainstream media,” stereotypes that rendered “young persons of color as sullen, inarticulate gang-bangers.”15 After a year-long process of dialogue between youth, and between youth and mentors, the media, which typically portrayed these students in a negative light, was (strategically) invited along with the general public to mill about and “overhear” the Oakland teens talk about their lives as they performed while sitting in rented convertible cars parked in an Oakland roof-top parking garage. These initial performances, which were the result of intensive workshop-style discussions over many months, led to a subsequent phase of the project titled, Code 33, in which ongoing conversations between fifteen youth and ten police officers in Oakland attempted to dispel stereotypes surrounding youth. This process then catalyzed a further iteration of the project in the form of a media workshop for youth that produced a video on effective practices for generating understanding between youth and police, a video that would be officially sanctioned by Oakland police in conjunction with its community policing training program.
While Intervention aimed to provide a sequestered, yet performative, space for deliberation, The Roof is on Fire collapsed public and private contexts for conversation by making the private (scripted) conversation between youth open to the public as a performance. These roof-top discussions “functioned as a rhetorical stand-in for a dominant culture that is far more comfortable telling young people of color what to think than it is with hearing what they have to say.”18 Thus, a “process of active, creative listening is evident in both Lacy’s extensive discussions with the students in developing the project and in the attitude of openness encouraged in the viewer/overhearer by the work itself.” Lacy saw her own understanding of the relationships between participants change over time: “[t]he changes in body language of the ten officers and fifteen youth who met weekly over two months marked a transition from stereotypes to two dimensional personalities. I found my own perceptions changing as I encountered passing cars and young people in baggy jeans. Were they one of my friends, someone I know?”19
look beyond their respective assumptions about each other. In the Lacy performance, the insular, sequestered dialogue of the WochenKlausur project was turned inside out and presented as a media event. At the same time, each performance was preceded by several weeks of intense discussions between smaller groups of young people (and police in the case of Code 33) with only a minimal media presence.17
Kester sees this long-term work to have “created empathic understanding between Lacy and young people from quite different cultural backgrounds (and among the young people themselves).”20 Ultimately, this notion of “empathic understanding” emerges as the central ethical-political force that drives the changing perspectives of participants, and perhaps, audience members who witness the discussions.
Intervention, and The Roof is on Fire share the possibility that participants can take on the moral obligation to know each other – and change their views of others – through such empathic understanding. As activist artists, WochenKlausur and Lacy aim to bring constituencies together in order to close intersubjective gaps in the service of tangible social change. Dialogue intends to change the direction of perceived differences between individuals and groups. If WochenKlausur aims for policy consensus derived in a spirit of generosity, then Lacy’s collaborations are perhaps less concerned with consensus and more concerned with a form of conversation that strives no less for generosity and concrete change, but does so by keeping conversations open-ended without anticipating their impact beyond the hope that people will, as she says, “transition from stereotypes to two dimensional personalities.”
Lacy’s many dialogical artworks conducted since the 1970s are shot through with the kind of dialogical thinking that requires a substantial period of time in order to bring people with different orientations into a space of common experience, resulting in empathic understandings among those formerly unassociated. As The Roof is on Fire continued to evolve over time, the project came to include a “‘basketball game as performance’ between Oakland Police and young people that combined video, interviews with players, dance and a sound track to explore ‘how differences and conflict can be explored without violence.’”21 Change occurred on the level of policy because the ongoing dialogues (including basketball games as a form of discourse) altered the way community policing was approached. Creating more empathic training for police officers that were encouraged to look at youth beyond stereotypes suggests that the general culture of conflict between police and youth stemmed from the assumptions each made of the other. Altering the manner in which police training occurs is highly significant, yet I contend that Lacy’s primary concern revolves around the development of a process of identification grounded in discursive exchanges producing an ethos of loose or contingent solidarity that, over time, obliged one group from rejecting the other. Lacy’s open-ended approach to participatory works reflects Kester’s understanding that participatory art can “locate ethical models for intersubjective experience … [and] bring these models into some strategic relationship with the quotidian practice of human interaction”22 in order to create empathic situations in which participants care enough about each other to identify with the other’s experience.
5 Jürgen Habermas and Communicative Action
Affective connection (sympathy; empathy) and moral obligation play into Lacy and WochenKlausur’s work, yet the manner in which this happens is not easily characterized in terms of consensus building. It is unclear if the move to take action in response to a social tension stems from a rational response to that problem or the affective impulse an individual or group feels in regard to expanding the boundaries of their community. When Kester looks to anti-foundationalist communications theory in order to articulate the ethos of activist dialogical art in bringing about new perspectives in those who are dialoguing around a pressing social problem, it becomes more clear why he perhaps settles too quickly on Habermas’ demand that objectivity and the consensus it produces drives the process by which discourse shapes public action. Habermas rejects metaphysical foundations for language assertions when he employs language-grounded social practices as the vehicle for context-transcending assertions designed to become unconditional. Richard Bernstein is helpful here in situating Habermas within the wider pragmatist move shared with Rorty and Gadamer, who together assert a “non-foundational pragmatic humanism.”23 However, as Bernstein sees it, “Habermas speaks with ‘two voices’ which might be called the ‘pragmatic’ and the ‘transcendental.’”24 Habermas is thus “the ‘last great rationalist’” who wants to show the “legacy of the philosophic tradition is redeemed in a new reconstructive science–a comprehensive theory of rationality that focuses on the centrality of communicative action and discourse.”25 The value of exchanged language claims thus rests in the speakers’ commitment to a rational process, “a reconstructive science” designed to universalize language by ferreting out contexts too personal, too local, or too “aesthetic” to be relevant to public problems and the institutions those problems proliferate.
While there is some alignment between the manner in which Habermas sees communicative action to lead to social agreement and the sort of outcome-based dialogical art Kester finds to be vital to a process of social change, a question arises in regard to whether Habermas’ theory of communicative action actually avoids transcendental, universally binding discursive claims as Kester suggests. Kester initially turns to Habermas as “an important resource for the development of a dialogical aesthetics”26 because he conceptualizes a discursive frame for understanding how consensus results from the success of what Habermas refers to as “the better arguments.” For Habermas, communication is subject to “special rules” following the “specifications of an ideal speech situation.” Within such an ideal situation, speech is “normatively regulated” for the purpose of “exclud[ing] all force … except for the force of the better argument.” On this view, the exchange of utterances demands a process by which “the structures of an ideal speech situation [are] immunized against repression and any inequality in a special way.” Rational argument then sets up the “structures of a ritualized competition for the better arguments”27 When arguments are normatively regulated and emerge unencumbered, “intersubjective recognition of a proponent’s hypothetically raised validity claim can be brought about and opinion thereby transformed into knowledge.”28 Kester understands Habermas to “preserve the Kantian subject’s ability to transcend self-interest while at the same time avoiding the tendency, also evident in Kant, of abstracting ethical judgment from the specific social and material context within which human interaction occurs.” Habermas is presented here in pragmatic terms that understand “time-consuming … forms of communication … not to result in universally binding decisions, but simply to create a provisional understanding … when normal social or political consensus breaks down.” The legitimacy of discursive acts is then grounded “not on the universality of knowledge” but rather “on the perceived universality of the process of human communication itself.”29 While Habermas may be firmly anti-foundationalist, in that knowledge claims and their validation are socially constructed, Bernstein makes it clear that his philosophical project does in fact hold transcendental aspirations that obscure what dialogue actually produces when speakers become empathically obliged to each other. Habermas finds that “[a]rgumentation … has as its aim to produce cogent arguments that are convincing in virtue of their intrinsic properties and with which validity claims can be redeemed or rejected.”30 Habermas speaks in his transcendental voice here, the voice that locates virtue in the intrinsic properties of language claims, although it is unclear how it is determined that certain claims embody intrinsic properties that determine their virtue. This impasse becomes more glaring when Habermas makes a connection between the force of a better argument and the so-called intrinsic value of claims; he seems to miss the essentialism in such a view while simultaneously saying that social practice dictates that arguments can’t be constrained by anything other than the emergence of a forceful and superior claim.
When Kester says that dialogical art projects do not necessarily serve to illustrate Habermas’ discourse theory, he brings recognition to the problems associated with suggesting that Habermas’ quasi-transcendental communicative action explains or directly zeros in on the manner in which conversation functions in the dialogical artwork; dialogical art projects more likely make room for a form of intersubjective exchange, or what Kester calls performative interaction, resembling to some degree Habermas’ understanding that dialogue should naturally drive toward consensus. Kester concurs Habermas’ claim that consensus comes forth by “compelling force,” because, as Habermas sees that, “rationally motivated agreement” stems from the interest in convincing a universal audience by way of the “structures of a ritualized competition for the better arguments.” Kester is drawn to Habermas as a source for understanding how dialogue under ideal conditions of discourse can lead to non-coercive, yet universally-validated claims that move the needle on social problems, but Kester identifies a contrary tendency in dialogical art when he recognizes that participants hold “a willingness to accept a position of dependence and intersubjective vulnerability relative to the viewer and collaborator.”31 Even if Kester claims that Habermas is aligned with “the Kantian subject” who avoids “abstracting ethical judgment from the specific social and material context within which human interaction occurs,” it becomes more evident that one of the most vexing problems with Kant, and in turn, with Habermas, is their common tendency to recognize that social practices are forged in a “specific social and material context.” Yet, as Bernstein puts it, the second voice of such a theorist also demands that such a social and material context be overruled by a socially-grounded process of universalization in the service of making claims normative. Kester pushes past Habermas because he recognizes that the vulnerable intersubjectivity of language transactions cannot easily settle out in a process of universalization.
On a rationalist view, persuasive claims must be propelled through “ritualized competition” toward universal principles designed to transcend their contexts should a given claim be worth universalizing. Doing so thus depends on a normative validation of discourse that, I contend, long-term dialogical art does not set out to validate because these projects encourages participants to value empathy over normativity in relation to those whose status has prevented them from benefiting from such normative assertions. Why, then, does communicative action demand that non-normative claims progress toward normative agreements by way of a competitive process? In Habermas’ words, “validity claims … aimed at intersubjective recognition of acceptance can at the same time overshoot local standards for taking yes/no positions.” If a superior argument can, according to Habermas, become a “transcendent moment … that distinguishes the practice of justification oriented to truth claims from other practices that are regulated merely by social convention,”32 then it is less clear why Kester is quick to say that Habermas plays down “universally binding decisions” when ideal validity claims intend to transcend local understanding and become binding as a result of the fact that local nuance and “intersubjective vulnerability” lose out to a purportedly stronger argument.
The demand that rational claims should “transcend self-interest” and “overshoot local standards” begins to appear opposed to the manner in which Kester himself says that dialogical art embraces relational ways of conducting intersubjective exchange. Bernstein, too, questions if Habermas’ claim for universal normative validity can be so certain that argumentation “is an ‘unavoidable’ or ‘necessary’ presupposition that is somehow grounded in the very nature of intersubjectivity.”33 The desire to frame language claims as a competitive process essential to the nature of intersubjectivity leads Bernstein to contend that Rorty sees “Habermas as a victim of the illusion which has haunted modern thinkers–that they must dignify the contingent social practices which have been hammered out in the course of history with something that pretends to be more solid and substantial.” Rorty thus sees, “the constant emphasis in Habermas on consensus and the expectation of the redemption of validity claims through argumentation [as] really retrogressive.”34 A crucial difference in the manner in which intersubjectivity is understood emerges here. Habermas is certain that discourse can only produce valid perspectives that guide public discourse if competition for the better argument yields universalizable statements. Kester and Rorty question if it is necessary to do so if those in conversation are moved to empathically identify with others as a means for changing the way agents understand a given situation. Kester eventually goes around Habermas’ dual claim for rejecting foundations and embracing the intrinsic and transcendent qualities of speech by foregrounding the tendency for dialogical projects to favor affective instability between conversing agents whose exchanges facilitate new perceptions of the other. Preserving the local contexts in which claims emerge then limits rational approaches to forging normative claims.
If dialogical art generates empathic understanding, as Kester claims, such a generative ethical grounding for dialogical art makes sense in regard to the fact that he situates dialogical art’s ethos in the context of “connected knowing,” issuing from what “Mary Field Belenky and her co-authors identify as a form of knowledge based not on counterpoised arguments, but on a conversational mode in which interlocutors work to identify with the perspective of the others.”35 Such a non-argumentative manner in which intersubjectivity is carried out understands speakers to, as Kester states, acknowledge the social imbeddedness that recognizes the “context within which others speak, judge and act.”36 Conversing in this manner subverts the possibility of entering into “communicative exchange with the goal of representing ‘self’ through the advancement of already formed opinions and judgments.” Instead, “connected knowledge is grounded in our capacity to identify with other people.”37 Kester’s revisions lead him to a notion of performative interaction that does not see the purpose of conversation to require a final winning argument, but to encourage the identification of the perspectives of each speaker. Mutual conversation is seen as more effective in changing speakers’ beliefs because the manner in which communication functions acknowledges the idea that speakers engaged within the dialogical artwork both respect the specific, subjective context of the claims of others, while also recognizing that knowledge is generated by each speaker’s capacity – and desire – to develop a grasp of the other person’s point of view while attempting to also identify with that perspective.
As will become more clear when I discuss Rorty in detail in relation to Habermas, the problem here rests on whether generative intersubjectivity must yield consensus among speakers derived from an almost algorithmic process by which purportedly objective views in exchange are weighed for their ability or inability to transcend the local experience of the speaker. In regard to dialogical art, Kester is willing to go along with Habermas on the general direction of communicative action, yet he, like Bernstein, questions whether a transcendent function for language is obligatory in order for participants to shift their perspectives on social issues to the point that institutional change can take place. This is a complex problem because such art projects do in fact appear to result in varying degrees of consensus among participants. The question is whether to follow Habermas in placing high value on an argumentative mode of exchange producing a winner-take-all argument, and thus demanding the ascendance of a forceful winning assertion around which other speakers gather in political consensus, or to understand dialogical art as a process that places value on empathic mutual conversation as an effective vehicle for changing speakers’ beliefs because affective connections between participants yield a sense of obligation that comes along with a shared sense of community.
6 Richard Rorty: Conversation, Solidarity and Democratic Association
Kester’s move beyond Habermas is relevant to both art discourse and philosophical problems. Art discourse can potentially enlist philosophical concepts more assiduously if its own observations (Kester’s recognition that Habermas doesn’t fully capture the ethos of dialogical art) are recognized for their kinship with debates within philosophy. And philosophical debates on the nature of language addressing social problems find application in contexts beyond words on the page. Kester’s views are further sharpened if his observations are brought into proximity with other thinkers who, like him, preserve the personal context of assertions and recognize the importance of placing value on the emotional connections between speakers and their assertions. Rorty’s contestation of Habermasian communicative action thus offers an anti-foundational, pragmatist understanding of linguistic innovation that reframes consensus as “‘unforced agreement’ through the discussion of wide-ranging ‘suggestions and argument’ … [forming] an ‘exemplary model of human solidarity.’”38 The dialogical art that Kester champions is shown to resonate a pragmatist take on social innovation through language and the solidarity it can garner – a pragmatist understanding of social practices freed from transcendental aspirations.
By looking at the differences between Habermas and Rorty, the efficacy of pragmatist notions of communication can be examined in the practical context of an emerging art genre that takes the idea of thoughtful communication and injects it with aesthetic intent; conversation is framed within a delineated space that is called “art” for the purpose of propagating a more intersubjective, small-scale political process. Ultimately, for Rorty, language exchanges, namely personal narratives, must remain local and subjective if they are to move the individual enough for them to care about the other people with whom they converse. On this view, and contrary to Habermas’ interest in rationalized consensus, Rorty finds it is often more important to stand in solidarity with others in order to keep the conversation going than it is to believe that a speaker can advance a singular “better” argument validated by others to the point that one persuasive claim acquires the normative status that consensus demands.
While Rorty rarely commented on the arts to any significant degree beyond literature, his connection to social practice art is evinced in Homi Bhabha’s essay in the catalogue associated with the 1996 participatory public art project in Atlanta, Conversations at the Castle, curated by Mary Jane Jacob in conjunction with the Olympic games. This public art program paired artists with local Atlanta community groups in order to realize responses to social inequities by exploring local social practices that were indubitably obscured by the fanfare of the Olympics, thus setting up a tension between the media portrayal of a city and the everyday experiences of its inhabitants as they exist far beyond the media’s eye. Bhabha’s thoughts on Rorty’s turn away from traditional epistemology and toward an aesthetic-political impulse for pluralistic democratic solidarity helps illuminate why Habermas is not necessarily the most relevant source for understanding the way in which communication functions in many dialogical artworks. Instead, Rorty can bring Lacy and WochenKlausur into closer proximity to Kester’s impulse for recognizing the philosophical underpinnings of dialogical art by connecting pragmatist post-epistemology with the sort of qualitative and contingent conversation associated with the community-focused public art that Bhabha’s essay speaks to.39 Bhabha finds Rorty useful in enmeshing philosophy with participatory public artworks that “shrink the distance [between artwork and audience] and shatter the silence”40 that constitutes that distance. Rorty is thus a philosopher positioned to show that the dialogical turn in philosophy supplants two millennia of Western thought grounded in a representationalist account of truth. For Rorty, pragmatist conversation cuts against metaphysical certainties by favoring “our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark,” in opposition to epistemology that rests on “our hope of getting things right.”41 Bhabha sees Rorty’s “somber image of ‘conversation,’” as a way to “actively engage in the ambivalences and ambiguities that emerge as contextual contingencies from the ironic and contradictory social forces that constitute social reality,”42 ironic and contradictory social forces that elude a Habermasian notion of rational communication.
Rorty’s more radically contingent position sees conversation as centered on a useful process of justificatory practices under vigilant, continual reassessment mediated by the identification with others that the “ambivalences and ambiguities” of discussion can inculcate.
only over-attention to fact-stating would make one think that a claim to universal validity is important for democratic politics … Habermas’ attempt to redescribe reason as ‘communicative’ through and through – is insufficiently radical. It is a half-way house between thinking in terms of validity claims and thinking in terms of justificatory practices.47
Habermas thus stops short for Rorty of the pragmatist hope that conversations can still lead to positions of solidarity among people with idiosyncratic, pluralistic views, and even lead to more aligned views, yet only when dialogue does not rest on unsupportable claims for universal validity, unconditionality or neutrality. This is because self-emancipation through the sharing of one’s personal story would be unattainable if that story was so idiosyncratic as to fly in the face of universal validation. Instead, for Rorty, a commitment to “communal self-creation” through “justificatory practices” in which people are “united not by knowledge of the same truths but by sharing the same generous, inclusivist, democratic hopes” has more possibilities than Habermas’ hope for “neutral principles”48 that are impossible to establish due to the fact that truth is more a matter of what works than it is a matter of what is objectively right. On this account, the hope for identifying with the other’s claims – that is, being generous and inclusivist – is worth more than searching for unattainable neutral principles.
Rorty and Habermas do in fact share a desire for the achievement of agreement, yet since the communicative process is “messy and contingent,” Rorty locates agreement in loyalty to a process that takes place solely in the context of the exchange of the stories or experiences of human agents. “[T]he purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends. Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behavior is not inquiry but wordplay.”49 Habermas would enthusiastically agree on this point, however more needs to be said about what Rorty intends by consensus. Here, consensus is clearly not a claim for truth standing behind history’s foibles, nor is it a Kantian imperative derived from competing claims. Instead, it retains a belief that human beings are strongly inclined to operate with a sense of solidarity. As Rorty puts it, the point of democratic politics is to bring about a “planet-wide inclusivist community,” rather than one in which all speakers arrive at the same belief. Rorty’s Deweyan naturalism leads him to the conclusion that human beings need to develop clear thoughts and beliefs in order to stave off the chaos of spatio-temporal uncertainty. Therefore, a desire for clear expression should be distinguished from a desire for the sort of universal validation that Habermas seeks. Being heard by others who use reason, that is, the sort of organized thinking that Rorty favors because he has “great respect for normal science’s language of consensus,”50 does not demand reason-driven context-transcendence, as Habermas believes, in order for one’s argument to strategically impact another’s view to the point that all speakers modify their views. That said, Rorty’s democratic tolerance for inclusivist views should not be confused with relativism since one speaker may, “wheedle [another] into greater tolerance by the usual indirect means: giving examples of present platitudes which were once paradoxes.”51 Not only does a speaker use stories to foreground former paradoxes, such as slavery or the oppression of women, in order to bring another speaker into a wider state of democratic inclusion, the first speaker is also trying to imaginatively identify with the life of the others with whom they may either agree or disagree. At the same time, a speaker imagines and reimagines a self-image that continually accumulates new views obtained in conversation with others in a spatio-temporally shifting world, views that often pertain to one speaker’s perception of the identity of another.
The difference between Rorty and Habermas centers on a dispute around whether claims can truly transcend their local context and extend beyond the human desire to engage other people’s emotions for the purpose of convincing them to develop new views. Rorty cannot abide by this purported difference because “the distinction between strategic and non-strategic uses of language is just the distinction between cases in which all we care about is convincing others and cases in which we hope to learn something.”52 For Rorty, the liberal ironist not only experiments with personal redescriptions, they also enter into “imaginative identification with the details of other’s lives.”53 While Rorty believes we must identify with people we view as different, he also shows concern that this kind of open-mindedness to the idiosyncrasies of others can threaten politics in a larger sense. Therefore, imaginative identification is meant to take place in the context of “something smaller and more local than the [entire] human race.”54 For Rorty, the use of conversation to bring about consensus is often achieved on a local level because it is within the context of local knowledge that imaginative identification takes place. The possibility of such identification fades in the context of grand, universal abstractions.
Such a view privileges language as a medium of rational consensus, that is, when the sort of utterances communicated in “works of art” favoring heightened rhetorical affect (aesthetic forms of expression) are sidelined to make room for forms of communication that allow for the theoretical, legalistic or moral formation of new knowledge.
the dramaturgical model of action presupposes language as a medium of self-presentation; the cognitive significance of the propositional components and the interpersonal significance of the illocutionary components are thereby played down in favor of the expressive functions of speech acts. Language is assimilated to stylistic and aesthetic forms of expression.56
The problem here rests on whether Habermas is justified in his suspicion regarding dramaturgical “actions [that] embody a knowledge of the agents own subjectivity.” Such actions “can be criticized as untruthful, that is, rejected as deceptions or self-deceptions. Self-deceptions can be dissolved in therapeutic dialogue by argumentative means.”57 Rorty would agree that expressive discourse can embody a therapeutic purpose, however he would disagree that a theatricalization of sentiment – heightened or exaggerated for the purpose of driving rhetoric, that is, in the context of private aesthetic experimentation, is problematic. Instead it is the way one speaker delivers a narrative of their circumstances to others. It is also how the listener responses affectively to that speaker. Habermas sees this form of communication as one-sided; it defies the intersubjectivity of more rational forms because the “expression of subjective experiences” constitutes the “presentation of the self in relation to an audience.” This is problematic for Habermas because “[o]nly the communicative model of action presupposes language as a medium of uncurtailed communication whereby speakers and hearers, out of the context of their pre-interpreted life world, refer simultaneously to things in the objective, social, and subjective worlds in order to negotiate common definitions of the situation.”58 For Habermas, a speech claim aimed in one direction at an audience (like the autonomous modern work of art held apart from an equally autonomous viewer) may have value assigned to it, but it cannot be validated through a process of synthesis. Rorty may find aesthetic speech claims idiosyncratic, yet he recognizes that one generation’s idiosyncrasy can become the next generations truth, in the same way a speaker can convince another that their personal view is not abnormal. Rorty may agree such statements come from one side, yet there is no reason to assume one speaker cannot assimilate the (expressive) views of another. Speech is strategic in this way, rather than “objective” or universally “social.” Therefore, it is fruitless to aim for the universal character of a claim because “it is hard to see why I should ask myself ‘is my claim context-dependent or universal?’ No difference to practice is made by coming down in favor of one alternative rather than the other.”59 For Rorty, the ideal situation for communication embraces both a desire to convince others and a desire to listen and learn from others. Believing that conversation can exceed our interest in persuading others or our interest in being open to new views amounts to a privileging of abstraction that does not bear out in practice.
The differences I have elucidated between Habermas and Rorty potentially impacts Kester’s reading of dialogical art because Kester understands Habermas to see communicative action as “creat[ing] … provisional understanding”60 and “empathic understanding” that depends on “a willingness to accept a position of dependence and intersubjective vulnerability relative to the viewer and collaborator.”61 Provisional understanding precedes universal validation for Habermas, who altogether eschews thorny vulnerabilities (subjectivities) in order for a proclamation to stand the chance of being strong enough to anchor itself in public discourse. In the end, Kester makes Habermas look more like Rorty. This is important for an inquiry into the kind of dialogical art projects discussed here because Rorty’s notion of solidarity better reflects both the imaginative identification he identifies in a democratic inclusivist ethos, as does Kester’s notion of empathic identification. Intersubjective communication grounded in the exchange of heightened subjectivities that are in fact responded to, and perhaps identified with, drive WochenKlausur’s and Lacy’s projects rather than an unsupportable notion of unconditional consensus that Rorty understands to be concealed in a Habermasian notion of communicative action.
7 Nancy Fraser’s Critique of Habermas and Rorty’s Public and Private
Rorty’s public/private split came about, as Fraser notes, when he “mapped his earlier distinction … between normal discourse and abnormal discourse onto a new distinction between public and private life.”62 For Rorty, private idiosyncratic, aesthetic experimentation in the public sphere would “endanger the practical business of social reform and social-problem solving.” Instead, private irony needs to be contained in an “aesthetic sphere in which poetic invention could be allowed free reign.”63 Fraser understands the early Rorty to see “[t]he public sphere [as] a space for normal discourse, where all the logical space needed for moral deliberation was already available and mapped out. Politics became overly communitarian and solidary, a matter of everyone pulling together in a shared discourse to solve a common set of problems.”64
This does not sound like the Rorty I previously presented as an alternative to Habermas. Instead, Rorty appears as set on normative, consensus-making public practices as Habermas. Considering Habermas’ defense of modernity’s use of reason in universalizing moral-political discourse, and considering what Rorty calls the “semantic authority” of normative public discourses, the difference between Habermas’ anti-foundational account of “philosophical narrative” and Rorty’s own may seem less glaring than Rorty’s dismissal of Habermas may suggest. Defending delineated private and public spaces in which different sorts of language are deemed appropriate also reveals the common thread of what Bernstein calls their “non-foundational pragmatic humanism.”65 Rorty understands experimental, non-normative discursive acts to be an integral component of an ethos grounded in more imaginative ways of being in the world, yet his view often limits experiments in non-normativity to the private, aesthetic self-creation that modern artists engaged because subversive, creative acts potentially jeopardize public discourse. On this point, “Habermas criticizes Rorty for ‘aestheticizing’ language by privileging metaphor and rhetoric as semantically more central than truth or argument.”66 Yet Rorty would contend that Habermas is falling prey to the illusion of achieving truth through argumentation. While their similarities and differences set up a complex tension in their understanding of philosophical narrative, Rorty would distinguish himself from their shared “moral-political intentions” by qualifying the public/private distinction in cases where we identify “some private obsession we can find use for.” In those cases, “we speak of genius rather than eccentricity” because “[t]he difference between genius and fantasy … is the difference between idiosyncrasies which happen to catch on with other people.”67 Associating the sort of idiosyncratic personal narratives Rorty values as part of a process of forging democratic association with Kester’s understanding of empathic dialogical art would be untenable if the distinction Rorty makes between normative public discourse and private self-fashioning was seen to transcend the experience of marginalized groups. Those with “idiosyncratic” views are thus not understood to be part of normative discourse largely because their experience is not acknowledged when discourse is shaped through messy and contingent intersubjective transactions. However, Rorty’s position on such a distinction would evolve around 1990 when he presented the Tanner Lecture on Human Values on the topic of the relation between pragmatism and feminism.
This evolution, which came in response to the growing body of feminist philosophy Rorty was encountering, is important to a discussion of the underpinnings of dialogical art practices and their significance in regard to thinking about pragmatist discursive practices in contexts wider than the arts; Rorty’s move speaks directly to the problem that the discourse of marginalized groups fluctuates between private self-descriptions and imagined redescriptions as each context impacts, or is impacted, by public discourse. Normative discourse then either accepts or rejects those descriptions in the form of ideologies and policies that either work for, or against, a group’s interests. Therefore, the feminist impulse to render untenable the distinction of public and private space in the context of the creation of new political identities closely mirrors the alternating process that a dialogical artwork engages in regard to collapsing the distinction between reason-justified and emotion-derived statements, normative/non-normative, rational and strategic, and non-art/art contexts for language claims over the course of a project.
the oppositions between public and private, the community and the individual, the political and the aesthetic are exploded. In feminism, in his account, we meet a discursive practice that involves far-reaching redescriptions of social life and thus has all the markings of the sublime, the abnormal, the poetic, yet is simultaneously tied to the collective political enterprise of overcoming oppression and restructuring society … the enterprise of remaking oneself through redescription is not opposed to political transformation but is rather part and parcel of it.68
Nancy Fraser’s observations on the shortcomings of both Habermas and Rorty further elucidate the connection between loosening the private/public distinction and the ethos surrounding dialogical art. Interpreting the philosophical underpinnings of dialogical art from a more decidedly Rortian point of view suggests that the dialogical artwork that Kester champions does not as much catalyze change as the result of participants arriving at the better argument as much as it draws on each speaker’s stories to garner identification between speakers. Participants enter into a counterpublic space in which often-marginalized speakers come to know, and care about – sympathetically or empathically – each other’s personal experiences. While Rorty claimed that conversation must capture the personal, idiosyncratic experiences of speakers, he (like Habermas) made a distinction between public and private contexts for communication that he would eventually come to see as incompatible with the lived experience of marginalized groups – namely women.
With regard to Rorty’s realization that public and private contexts for developing new social norms do not necessarily hold for those who have not benefitted from existing discursive norms, Fraser emerges as pivotal in my understanding that the tenets of dialogical art cannot be traced wholesale to Habermasian ideals. Fraser understands the nature of deliberation to exist for the marginalized in the context of a counterpublic sphere where private and public life are inextricably dependent. Therefore, she rejects Habermas’ distinction between private, familial contexts for language, and public, institutional forms for consensus making. However, Fraser stands in agreement with Rorty that linguistic redescriptive practices help facilitate more visible political identities – that is, once Rorty gives up public/private contexts for discursive practices in the context of women’s experiences as they are understood through feminist thought. Taken together, Fraser and Rorty offer a better view of the underpinnings of dialogical art than Habermas because such projects avoid the sort of legalistic authority that shoots for universally validated yes/no proclamations. To a large degree, the sort of counterpublic deliberation that Fraser sees in relation to feminist solidarity reflects the nature of the deliberative spaces created by the dialogical artwork. Once he takes what he can from Habermas, Kester goes on to connect the intersubjective currents of dialogical art with a feminist ethos. Rorty begins to point to such an ethos, while Fraser maps it out more succinctly as a network of dialogical spaces in which reciprocating private and public claims work to bring greater visibility to marginalized groups, the sort of groups that are often included in the dialogical artwork.
Fraser’s incisive critique of the public/private split in both Habermas and Rorty’s work serves to formulate a pragmatist understanding of continually redescriptive discursive practices that allow for the expression of personal hopes for recognition and emancipation. Dialogical art seen in this light becomes an arena for conversations over time in which private contexts for semantic experimentation are difficult to distinguish from, and are necessarily interwoven with, attempts to bring institutional recognition to a marginalized group’s discourse. Fraser takes issue with Habermas’ tendency to distinguish symbolic and material practices, practices that Habermas’ lifeworld/system distinction elaborates as either “socially-integrative actions” or “system-integrated actions.” As Fraser puts it, the former “are those in which agents coordinate their actions with one another by reference to some form of explicit or implicit intersubjective consensus about norms.” In contrast to this symbolic realm, system-integrated actions “are coordinated with one another by functional interlacing of unintended consequences, while each individual action is determined by self-interested, utility-maximizing calculations … in the ‘media’ of money and power.”69 On this binary view, the nuclear family is thus representative of the symbolic, socially coordinated realm of discursive exchange, while capitalist economics and their attendant political systems function as a system-integrated series of non-consensual actions.
For Fraser, this “gendered” distinction grounded in a domestic world/outside world binary doesn’t reflect the fact that purportedly institutional systems cannot be successfully dispassionate when managers and workers together coordinate along consensually arrived upon norms. In turn, families are subject to self-interested calculations “enacted in the medium of power.”70 On this view, the capitalist economic system has a “moral-cultural dimension,” while the family as a functioning body is “individual [and] self-interested” and embodies a “strategic, economic dimension.”71 What for Habermas are separate realms forged in distinctly different communication processes, Fraser understands both affective and purportedly dispassionate assertions to be interwoven practices that determine their effectiveness in establishing guiding normative practices. Where Habermas understands private symbolic practices and public material practices to be highly distinct to the context in which they take place, Fraser sees “every human action as embodying some degree of both. The example of the complex interplay between interpersonal communication in the context of the family and institutional language in the context of the (economic) system speaks to the fact that the status of marginal groups is determined by personal and extra-personal discursive practices that collapse subjective and objective purposes for speech. In his own words, Rorty asserts that feminists ‘talk about the need to modify [their] practices so as to take account of new descriptions of what’s been going on.’72 It isn’t clear here if he locates this ‘talk’ in a private space of aesthetic experimentation or a public space designed to reform social norms. Most likely, this is unclear because Rorty begins to realize that the emergence of a public requires such redescription to take place in reciprocal public/private contexts since, as Fraser puts it, ‘radical democratic social movements [are] broad, informally organized, collective formations where politics and poetry form an unbroken continuum …’73 For Rorty, the subjugation of women is ‘rejected on the basis of the greater good that feminism is presently making imaginable.’74 Fraser understands this process to have public and private dimensions – integrating both calculating and moral-cultural dimensions that elude Habermas. With regard to Rorty, Fraser contends the ‘the remaking of language is central to this enterprise’ because ‘feminists are engaged in creating new moral identities and sensibilities …’75 yet, doing so is ‘less … individual self-fashioning or poeticizing than that of the collective practice of consciousness–raising …’ This remaking of language represents a major linguistic innovation not only at the level of the meanings it has generated, but also at the level of the invention and institutionalization of a new language game or discursive practice … [because] consciousness-raising helped transform the nature of private life, public life, and their relation to one another.”76 A space of shared experience thus embodies strategic hope for making non-normative experience shared, acknowledged, recognized, and eventually institutionalized.
Fraser observes that the distinct public and private contexts for deliberation found in Habermas, and in Rorty prior to his exposure to feminism, elude the processes by which marginalized voices gain wider recognition in association with others. This makes sense in regard to Lacy and WochenKlausur’s work. Fraser pushes Rortian redescription by questioning whether politics can be a “matter of everyone pulling together” because such a view anticipates that there are “no deep social cleavages, no pervasive axes of dominance and exploitation.”77 Thus, Fraser believes that “remaking oneself through redescription is not opposed to political transformation.”78 Where Habermas understands symbolic practices and material practices to be highly distinct to the context in which they take place, and where Rorty prior to his “Feminism and Pragmatism” essay had asserted that elevating private, non-normative aesthetic experience posed a danger to public life, Fraser sees public/private contexts as a “dual-aspect” activity because “every human action context involves some form of both of them.”79 Not only is the private context of the home a site for “language teaching and initiation into social mores,” it also both “reinforces and disrupts economic systems.” This “mélange of (normatively secured) consensuality, normativity and strategicality”80 sounds as if it does not uphold the difference Habermas sees between a norm-governed private sphere and a communication-governed public sphere.
Kester comes close to Fraser’s view when he says in regard to Lacy and her contemporaries in the 1960s: “[t]hese artists combined techniques developed in the feminist movement (consciousness–raising groups, the analysis of self-other relationships) … to create … a ‘new aesthetic’ informed by the collective experience of the feminist education process.”81 Rorty, too, gives credence to the importance of consciousness-raising techniques when he notes that, “individuals of great courage and imagination … cannot achieve semantic authority, even semantic authority over themselves, on their own. To get such authority, you have to hear your own statements as part of a shared practice.”82 This of course is a departure from his earlier insistence that poets try out such semantic experiments in private while social reformers maintain normative discursivity even when they aim to improve upon those norms in a shared public sphere. The importance of making statement as a part of a shared practice in order to establish identity also contradicts Habermas’ eschewal of dramaturgical action, types of speech claims that rest on the assumption that statements utilizing heightened expression are prohibited from gaining semantic authority. Instead, Rorty provides a broader context for sharing private, self-expressive statements of the sort Habermas finds too irrational for validating norms. Rorty himself recognizes that widely held beliefs are often first the private fantasies of individuals; it is our collective experience of weaving a certain private fantasy into our own views, idiosyncratic fantasies that are contemplated and tested by other individuals in relation to their own experiences, in a process that then deems that fantasy as either important or insignificant to public questions. Therefore, the subjugated have no recourse than to test imaginative propositions as “part of a shared practice,” or as Fraser states, in “a feminist counterpublic sphere, a network of bookstores, journals, film and video distribution networks, conferences, festivals, local meeting places, and the like”83 with the hope that, as Rorty notes, “the new language spoken by the separatist group may gradually get woven into the language taught in schools.”84 Fraser demands that such groups are not separatist, but rather function to critically and democratically construct new versions of ‘semantic authority.’
8 Rorty and Fraser as Sources for Dialogical Art
Rorty and Fraser’s opposition to the universal validation of language claims clarifies why the assumption of a forceful argument does not necessarily explain the way in which new perspectives of a social problem lead to change. That said, Lacy and WochenKlausur’s projects achieved degrees of consensus, considering that The Roof is on Fire and Intervention both led to the adoption of new policies intended to bring greater dignity to their respective marginalized populations. It is therefore tempting to assume, as Kester initially does, that such outcomes must indicate that competing points of view were proposed until a position most agents could agree upon emerged to the point of its validation. In the case of the implementation of housing and human services for drug-addicted sex workers or better police training processes in regard to police/youth tensions arising from entrenched stereotypes of urban youth, Habermas’ analysis of public deliberation appears useful because policy outcomes suggest a valid perspective of the problem under discussion in each project had been identified and used as the basis for new policy. Yet, Habermas’ notion that a better claim emerges to the point of widespread adoption belies the importance of the sense of obligation that ensued among participants – an ethic of care as opposed to a competitive argument operating despite (or perhaps, because) complex unresolved intersubjective exchanges of both private and public concern were likely interwoven through an intersubjective process.
Consciousness-raising emerges as a primary function of dialogical art, a process that does not anticipate finality because its purpose is to spell out a complex problem from numerous points of view in order to elicit support for addressing that problem. If resolution emerges, it perhaps does so because speakers have agreed to share a sense of loyalty that functions as a flexible solidarity more so than an ascendant right or truthful way to respond to a problem. Habermas does not account for the possibility that agents with different views share the recognition that new perspectives emerge not because one view comes to dominate others, but because speakers come to see themselves as interpenetrated and therefore bound to each other in recognition of their differences. Even if one speaker does not agree with another, together they are seen to form a community of association in which members are ethically impelled to identify with, and take responsibility for, the wellbeing of the others. Rather than the police and Oakland youth seeing each other in hostile terms, each came to know enough about the others’ experiences to feel affiliated and thus intersubjectively responsible to those they formerly knew superficially through stereotypes. The decision to develop a police training video specific to the issues of cultural understanding between youth and police is as much a matter of ethical responsibility as it is a process of institutionalization – a matter of seeing “one of your own” on the street as much it is a process of young people sharing their own idiosyncratic narratives – one-sided (dramaturgical) statements emanating from cars and overheard by the public – in order to encourage police, media and the public to integrate new conceptions of youth so that institutional practices toward youth would potentially change.
Long-term dialogical art spaces do not have to inculcate a final, singular view to effectively move conversation in the direction of novel, useful discursive propositions. The fact that feminist counterpublic spaces in the 1960s and 70s hardly resulted in a monolithic conception of all women and their universal interests is testament to the sort of connected knowing that interweaves the conceptions of others into one’s own perceptions and viewpoints in non-finite or non-objective ways. Kester sees this as a key value in dialogical projects, sidelining a strong conception of a self in favor of a social self grounded in empathic identification with the experiences and perspectives of others. In a sense, the dialogical project space is a micro-level analogue to the counterpublic space that Fraser identifies with feminism, and by extension, with the multifaceted contexts for deliberation that were also operative in association with the other social movements of the 1960s–1970s, spaces that disrupted social norms through the interplay of both politics and poetry for the purpose of establishing new social practices – while concomitantly integrating newly visible identities and experiences into the development of public policies and laws.
In the end, Kester highlights the efficacy for a long-term dialogical art project to foster intersubjective exchanges that speak to the manner in which a person’s disenfranchisement from normative discursive practices is challenged by a process that allows for conversation to intersect directly with the institutional practices that determine that status. The private, idiosyncratic capacities of individuals (youth, sex workers) and representatives of institutional authority (Oakland police, the Zurich commissioner of Police, local politicians, the media) mutually engage each other’s limits and possibilities by posing different sorts of narratives that can strategically establish authoritative positions or engage more open-ended dialogical exchanges aimed at learning more about the positions of others. Rorty understands speakers to decide that conversation can center on either argumentation or listening and learning -- that is, on competitively convincing others or drawing them into a community because the individual is willing to genuinely learn about the personal experiences of those with whom that individual was formerly unassociated. The dialogical process aims at better ways to form mutual human associations that preserve human differences (local subjectivities) while garnering a sense of shared responsibility.
Sorting through Habermas, Rorty and Fraser with regard to Kester’s recognition that Habermasian communicative action provides a context for understanding why conversations-as-artworks produce new social configurations. Reconstructing the pragmatist “philosophical narrative” debates in such a way that draws out the human capacity to identify with the positions of others suggests that artful conversation can help shape the responsibility people feel toward each other if democratically grounded associations are developed empathically over periods of time. The pragmatist dimensions of dialogical art conceive intersubjective exchange in terms that favor lateral relationality rather than the hierarchical, argumentative “winner-takes-all” approach that rationalize consensus. Projects such as The Roof is on Fire and Intervention come to value empathy over authority in order to, as Kester claims, “locate ethical models for intersubjective experience.”85 The emerging ethos for activist art in the vein of dialogical artworks emphasizes dramatic and sharpened intersubjective perception in participants regarding each other’s contingent and subjective views. Activist art projects proffer the idea that imaginative modes of forging understanding potentially change the way conversation can function within a facilitated “dual-aspect” art/non-art context for dialogical art projects within which private sentiments and fantasies are interwoven with public claims and the policies those claims produce. A pragmatist understanding of dialogical art looks beyond narrow conceptions of consensus and solidarity by asking if a more generative approach to fostering intersubjective perceptions can be applied to everyday contexts for democratic association beyond the enmeshed public/private space of activist art.
Bernstein Richard J. “What Is the Difference That Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty.” psa: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1982 (1982): 331–59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/192429.
Fraser Nancy . “From Irony to Prophesy to Politics: A Response to Richard Rorty.” Michigan Quarterly Review 30, no. 2 (1991): 259–66. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0030.002:02.
Fraser Nancy . “Solidarity or Singularity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technocracy.” In Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Fraser Nancy . “What’s Critical About Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender.” New German Critique 35 (Spring-Summer 1985): 97–131. Accessed February 22, 2016. doi:10.2307/488202.
Habermas Jürgen . Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 1998.
Habermas Jürgen . “Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Turn.” In Rorty and His Critics, edited by Brandom Robert . Malden, ma: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Kester Grant . “The Device Laid Bare: Some Limitations in Recent Art Criticism.” 2013. Accessed November 8, 2014. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-device-laid-bare-on-some-limitations-in-current-art-criticism/.
Rorty Richard . “Feminism and Pragmatism.” In The Rorty Reader, edited by Voparil Christopher J. and Bernstein Richard J. . Malden, ma: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Rorty Richard . “Response to Jürgen Habermas.” In Rorty and His Critics, 56–63. Edited by Brandom Robert . Malden, ma: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Rorty Richard . “Science as Solidarity.” In Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers i . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 35–45.
Rorty Richard . “Universality and Truth.” In Rorty and His Critics, edited by Brandom Robert , 1–30. Malden, ma: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Shusterman Richard . “Reason and Aesthetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity.” In Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life, 113–29. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Richard Shusterman, “Reason and Aesthetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity,” in Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (New York: Routledge, 1997), pg. 114.
Claire Bishop argues that collective art practices draw on Marxist criticism, however she traces North American practices to the importation of Critical Theory with the World War Two émigrés and their influence rather than with European Marxism per say. As I note, this view potentially misses the influence of pragmatism as a pervasive social critique in North America, especially with Dewey and Addams. See Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. (London: Verso Books, 2012), pg. 200.
As Kester’s discussion of Suzanne Lacy’s work attests, some dialogical art projects include a culminating performance that invites viewers while others, such as WochenKlausur’s project, do not. In the case of final performances, the audience tends to interact more directly with the project participants than they would in a more conventional performance art context. In a sense, they become enmeshed with the participants since the traditional theatrical “fourth wall” is broken down.
Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pg. 1.
Ibid., pg. 72.
Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: Some Limitations in Recent Art Criticism.” December 2013. Accessed November 8, 2014. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-device-laid-bare-on-some-limitations-in-current-art-criticism/.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 99.
Zinggl quoted in Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 99.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 3.
Ibid., pg. 101.
Zinggl quoted in Conversation Pieces, pg. 101.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 99.
Ibid., pg. 2.
Ibid., pg. 4–5.
Ibid., pg. 5.
Ibid., pg. 116.
Lacy quoted in Kester, Ibid.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 116.
Ibid., pg. 122.
Richard J. Bernstein, “What Is the Difference That Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty.” psa: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1982 (1982), pg. 353.
Ibid., pg. 341.
Ibid., pg. 333.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 108.
Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), pg. 26.
Ibid., pg. 25.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 109.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, pg. 25.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 110.
Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 1998), pg. 15.
Bernstein, “What Is the Difference That Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty.” 343.
Ibid., pg. 346.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 113. (emphasis, mine).
Ibid., pg. 114.
Richard Rorty, “Science as Solidarity,” in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers i, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 38–39.
Jacob’s inclusion of Bhabha’s essay on pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, suggests that she identifies developments in dialogical art with pragmatism’s embrace of the socially-constituted self. She includes another essay in the Conversations at the Castle catalog by art critic, Michael Brenson, who speaks of the “longing for an alternative to the politics of accusation and demonization that have made election campaigns, as well as exchanges about almost every major national issue, demoralizing.” Brenson goes on to say of Rorty’s most important pragmatist forbearer: “[f]or John Dewey, belief in the ‘possibility of conducting disputes, controversies, and conflicts as co-operative undertaking in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other’ was essential to the democratic faith.” See, Mary Jane. Jacob, Michael Brenson, Homi Bhabha, et al., Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art (Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 1998).
Homi Bhabha, “Conversational Art,” in Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art, pg. 39.
Rorty quoted in Bhaba, “Conversational Art,” pg. 42.
Bhabha, “Conversational Art,” pg. 42.
Shusterman, “Reason and Aesthetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity,” pg. 120.
Rorty, “Response to Jürgen Habermas,” pg. 56.
Shusterman, “Reason and Aesthetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity,” pg. 114.
Rorty, “Response to Jürgen Habermas,” pg. 62.
Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” pg. 3.
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), pg. xxv.
Shusterman, “Reason and Aesthetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity,” pg. 125.
Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” in Rorty and His Critics, pg. 8.
Ibid., Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” pg. 6. (emphasis, mine).
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 190. For Rorty, the ironist is one whose values and evaluative vocabularies are always contingent because better ones may arise. Such contingency is coupled with a deep commitment to actions that eschew human cruelty toward others. On this view, argument gives way to a continual process of redescription by which the acquisition of new vocabularies lead to more novel and useful truth claims which, in the long run, do more to bring about change than the winning argument.
Ibid., pg. 191.
Rorty, “Response to Jürgen Habermas,” in Rorty and His Critics, pg. 59.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, pg. 95.
Ibid., pg. 334.
Ibid., pg. 95.
Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” pg. 6.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 109.
Ibid., pg. 110.
Nancy Fraser, “From Irony to Prophesy to Politics: A Response to Richard Rorty,” Michigan Quarterly Review 30, no. 2 (1991): pg. 261.
Ibid., pp. 261–262.
Bernstein, “What Is the Difference That Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty.” pg. 343.
Shusterman, “Reason and Aesthetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity,” pg. 114.
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pg. 37.
Fraser, “From Irony to Prophesy to Politics: A Response to Richard Rorty.” pg. 262.
Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical About Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender,” New German Critique 35 (Spring 1985), 102.
Ibid., pg. 104.
Ibid., pg. 105.
Richard Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” in The Rorty Reader, ed. Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein (Malden, ma: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pg. 333.
Nancy Fraser, “Solidarity or Singularity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technocracy,” in Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pg. 107.
Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” pg. 334.
Fraser, “From Irony to Prophesy,” pg. 262.
Ibid., pp. 261–262.
Ibid. pg. 262.
Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical About Critical Theory?” pg. 104.
Ibid., pg. 110.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 125.
Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” pg. 347.
Fraser, “From Irony to Prophesy,” pg. 266.
Rorty, “Feminism and Pragmatism,” pg. 347.
Kester, Conversation Pieces, pg. 122.