Critical Practice for Alts


Beloved Alts,

We are subject to regimes of truth, which change over time (Foucault 1977: 30).  When we reflect on truth, or critique, we transform.  SO, let’s together try to understand what critique is in light of reading Uncle Michel and think of some simple strategies for practicing it.  Then, I would really appreciate it if you critiqued me, please, because without “you,” “I” isn’t.


You: Transform what?

U:  the one you are in now

You: Right now, right now?

U: right now

What you looking at, now?  Watch it. lolz :p    In this way, you become a subject.  When we are subjects, we may choose our subject.

Critique, as Uncle Michel suggests in “What is Critique,” begins with the simple act of questioning, “How am I being governed? How can I not be governed like that?”  It begins with interrogating what we habitually take for granted.  To these questions I would add “What is ‘x’?” and “Why, historically and politically?”

(WHAT IS THIS?! A world? WHY?! We are hurdling blindly through infinite space, pathetically clinging to a tiny, flaming rock.  AND, I have a hunch that it’s starting around 1946, when cameras on rockets captured the first images of Earth from space (Reichhardt, 2006), that it became easy to convince an unscientific population of the truth of this answer to the question, “What is the world?” (and by “convince” I mean persuade to adopt a representation of the proposition as true and behave as such).  The next questions I’m considering are: Whom does space-imaging empower and disempower? What does such a “truth” about what the world is reveal and conceal?  How does the apparatus or ‘dispositif’ (or in Deleuze’s approximation, “assemblage”) that produces this truth also govern and produce a certain kind of subjectivity (Ploger 2008: 54)?  How can I search within my own experience to understand how this apparatus governs me and perhaps make it more virtuous, i.e. critical?)

To give you another example of how my practice works, let me offer some of the questions that come to mind right now as I write this in my chair at my computer, drinking my coffee: Historically and politically, why do we sit in chairs? Why are chairs shaped like chairs? Why am I typing this on a computer in English while alone in my library cell? What is English and why? How do chairs, English, and computers empower some and disempower others?  Critique is essentially this interrogation of what we take for granted, just as children and nonconformists are wont to do, followed by the discovery of its historical changes, contradictions, and abuses. Only then are we able to perform an alternative that protects “the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth (47).”

My personal alt-governing practice, my lived experience of critical theory, is mundane, resistant, intentional (in the sense that it is a determined stretching inward- community in-reach- a ‘letting in), and largely consists of the questions, My critical practice, then, is a series of attempts to examine and deconstruct the habitat of habits that constitute and govern me.  It is a technique of observation, defamiliarization, and reflection, and the performance of an alternative subjectivity.  In practice, this means that I try to do at least one thing a day that feels awkward and weird (within just boundaries) and then try to reflect on why it felt weird or awkward.  The answer to this question is ALWAYS political and fruitfully reveals the hidden (hidden precisely because they are so obvious and familiar) mechanisms that structure daily life.  The ultimate hope for this practice is that it is grounded in and enables ethical relation, with ourselves and with each other.

Below, I have assembled two lists: one, the various ways Uncle Michel describes critique in “What is Critique” and the other, ideas for performing a critical subjectivity.  Please add to the list! I’m very eager to hear what your views of critique are as well as what we can do to change our embodied,  governmental practice.  My fear is that my exercises are merely the art of being a public nuisance. I’m also conscious of the fact that I take for granted the safety of white urban privilege, as in #1, 2, 4,  for example… To what extent is this true? How can I go deeper?

According to Uncle Michel, critique is:

1) asymptotic (42)

2) anti-ideological (42)

3) negative knowledge (42)

4) change of governmentalization (42)

5) replacement/transformation of philosophy (42)

6) a means for a future or a truth that it will not know nor happen to be (42)

7) akin to virtue (43)

8) the art of not being governed quite so much or being governed in that way (45)

9) biblical, historically (46)

10) putting forth universal and indefeasible rights to which every government… will have to submit (46)

11) made of the bundle of relationships that are tied to one another… power, truth, and the subject (47)

12) voluntary insubordination (47)

13) desubjugation of the subject(47)

14) the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth (47)

15) the true courage to know (49)

16) primordial responsibility to know knowledge (50)


Some Embodied Critical Practices or The Art of Being a Public Nuisance

1) Offer and maintain eye contact with someone for longer than feels comfortable.  Are there particular groups of people (especially based on gender, socio-economic status, or race) with whom you regularly avoid eye contact?

2) Sit, stand, or lie down in a place where it is inappropriate to do so, e.g. lie down in the path of foot traffic and observe your own reactions as well as those of the people around you.

3) Have a conversation with yourself in the mirror.  Try to see yourself as an object and a subject at the same time.  Even better if you can catch yourself off guard and see yourself as a stranger.  How do you feel about this stranger?  Do you want to talk to them, hug them, run away from them, etc.?

4) Sing out loud on a street corner.  Share your joy or pain.  Are your emotions welcome or unwelcome?  Why do think that is?

5) Wear an outrageous article of clothing, e.g. wear a horse-head mask to class.  Who becomes outraged?  How do they express their outrage?

6) Put on some music and move your body in the silliest, most bizarre ways possible, or however feels good.  If you do this in private, observe: Do you feel shame or embarrassment even when no one is watching?

7) Create your own lexicon. Re-define your world with a critical inflection.  e.g. “homeless” re-christened as “homefull”

8) Ask, “How is ‘x’ governing me? How can I not be governed like that?”

9) Disrupt the author function by giving authors a personal nickname (Foucault 1977).  Add a familial title to their name (grandpa, daddy, sister) as a way of mapping your own ideological genealogy.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

—“What is an Author?” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. 124-127.

—-“What is Critique?” In The Politics of Truth. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer. Translated by Lysa Hochroth and Catherine  Porter. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007. 41-81.

Ploger, John. “Foucault’s Dispositif and the City.” Planning Theory 7, no. 1 (March 2008): 51-70.

Reichhardt, Tony. “The First Photo From Space.” Air and Space Magazine, November, 2006.

Wallenstein, Sven-Olov. Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

Detroit: Movement City Conference

On October 25th (this Friday) will be a scholar/activist exchange on urban struggle and community building focused on Detroit.

It is called “Detroit: Movement City” and will be at the Rackham Amphitheatre from 12:00pm until 6:00 pm.

Notable speakers are Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, and also Kim Sherobbi who you all met at the Cass Commons during our Detroit trip.





Dear Michigan

I am very sorry for having caused such a disruption in our classrooms. I had absolutely no intent to insult or offend anyone and had mistakenly assumed that everyone was in on the joke. I had been under the impression that we had collectively agreed to integrating masks into our Skype format. I can’t speak for the others, but I personally misunderstood the resolution of that question, and I was surprised, confused and (extremely) embarrassed by your surprise, confusion and embarassment. I am still not entirely sure what the actual level of outrage here is, and how that fits into the events that occurred. Any additional information that you could provide is not necessary, but would be much appreciated. But regardless, there is no doubt that it was an ill-timed misunderstanding at a very crucial juncture of our working relationship.

As someone exterior to the architectural field, this seminar has been a great learning experience. I am extremely grateful to both classes for allowing me to sit in and contribute to the conversation. The amount of critical thought and rigor in the discussion is both admirable and intimidating. This also relates to my ongoing adjustment to the academic environment. This form of critical discussion is not something often encountered in an art critique, which at Syracuse, is constructed as a fluid and unstable mix of personal narratives, theoretical and cultural interpretation, technical analysis, and a running competition to disrupt any form of convention.

I was shocked by my first graduate art critique experience when my advisor spent two hours relating his personal experiences, including how he came to discover that tall toilets exist. Yesterday morning, he asked me to lead my class in a Tai Chi exercise, and it is not unheard of to respond to a piece with a guitar and a freestyle verse. This was especially jarring because I have been working with a group of hardcore marxist artists attempting to create heavily theoretical contextual practice art. We often run into the discursive problem of contextualizing the many cultural and historical threads running through our projects to the people that we’d like to have participate. Much of the rhetoric that we utilize parallels the ‘social good’ rhetoric emitted by the NGO’s we are studying. Due to the gap in rhetoric and how things often operate on the ground, and how it compromises our ideological positions, we have grown to become a very cynical, jaded and hypocritical bunch. We criticize both art that does not have enough ‘critical’ punch and art that is so hyper-theoretical that it is inaccessible to those who haven’t spent years absorbing theoretical texts.

So to arrive at Syracuse and hear my professor talk about his preference for toilets was initially very irritating. Yet in a seemingly incomprehensible contradiction, my current professor  is very strict on making sure that nobody is using their cell phone or reading a text, or generally not participating in class. He is harsh on those who do not produce and bring work to be critiqued. I was extremely confused initially, and thought he was abusing his power, but I realized that every narrative and joke he makes is strategically deployed to structure the environment. He employs these as disruptions to prompt self-reflexiveness or question the discursive expectations that often leads to a biased interpretation of meaning. Often they don’t and they come across as just an old man testing out his stand-up material. But the advantage of allowing for these derailments (from others also)  is that it encourages people to speak up who feel uncomfortable speaking in a situation where each word has to be rigorously precise. This is crucial in a classroom where half of the class had arrived from China last month and possess only a day-to-day understanding of the language, and even less understanding of the cultural customs.

For me, I’ve realized that it’s easier to speak up after a less well thought-out statement as opposed to one than one that seems unassailably sophisticated. The uncertainty of my art critique allows for the space for both nonsensical tangents and incredibly brilliant insights (mostly nonsense), but it requires a lot of time. There are also many tense arguments, hostilities, personal breakdowns, etc. which are sometimes and sometimes not reconciled. Although this is a fantastic and necessary way to critique art, where most are giftedly inarticulate, I realize now that this is not an efficient model that is appropriate to other environments, especially one as time constricted and precarious as a double-seminar Skype session. I hope you’ll understand and forgive me for so enthusiastically embracing a supposedly legitimate (and extremely rare) opportunity to wear a horse head and discuss theories of non-governmentality at the same time.

I wish we had spent more time together in person, maybe that would have more firmly clarified our expectations and mutual understanding. I believe the conversation between Michigan and Syracuse thus far has been extremely productive—at least for me. I would hate to see this relationship being terminated because of this incident. Again, this is something that needs to be decided as a group, but I hope to continue exploring questions of non-governmentality together.