Heather Jones: Could you begin by saying a little bit about your background and your relationship to philosophy in general, as well as any specific research interests or specializations?
Philipp Kleinmichel: I spent a large amount of the 1990s on the streets, subway train tracks and techno-clubs in Berlin; I was an active graffiti writer, a convinced shoplifter and boxer until I began to become more interested in the broader cultural implications of so-called subcultures and their seemingly subversive and aesthetic strategies. In retrospect, I think, I was mostly interested in the irreducible codependency between the promise of an ecstatic outlaw life on the one hand and the norms and values of dominant culture and its bureaucratic reality on the other. Thus, I began to read everything that one reads, if one is interested in understanding these kind of problems—late 19th century realism, romantics and dandy literature, be it surrealist and existential literature or Marxist theory. Astonishingly enough, I experienced the consume of such literature in even more ecstatic terms than the seemingly vital “outlaw life” itself, why I began to work on the one hand in the context of theater and film and decided on the other hand to enroll myself as a student of philosophy and literature.
HJ: I want to break in right here. You quickly mentioned the codependency of the so-called outlaw life on the norms and routines of the dominant society. Can you describe this a little bit more? Any concrete examples that could help illustrate this idea?
PK: I think it is a simple idea. Really any culture and society is based on certain norms and rules, on rituals and routines. Thus, the mere existence of such hegemonic norms implies the possibility to break with them. In most countries it is common to speak, dress, and behave in a certain manner and it is, for example, rather uncommon to take things from someone without any exchange or to sleep with one’s own father or mother. If one transgresses such norms, rules and routines, one is automatically understood as an outsider or outlaw. However, the possibility to transgress such rules and norms, the possibility to become outlaw presupposes such rules and laws in the first place.
Yet, I was pointing also to the concrete characteristic of modern and bourgeois cultures. Different to other traditional, more conservative cultures, the cultural taboos have been reduced to a certain minimum. In the context of the modern Western societies, being an outsider and outlaw is quite attractive and has a high value within the general bourgeois consciousness. The whole corpus of bourgeois literature, for example, is full of “negative” and dissident outlaw heroes. One of the reasons is of course, that the ability to think and act differently has cultural, symbolic, and most of all economic value. It really has objective economic value, because the possibility to not go for the norm enables you to be creative, innovative, and is in this sense productive—if successful and culturally recognized, it is productive not only in economic terms, but also symbolically and culturally. However, being and thinking differently, instead of following the established norms, also has a subjective value for the individual citizen in a modern bourgeois culture. Subjectively, the seemingly outlaw experiences its own distinguished being in liberating terms as a kind of freedom from the hegemonic norm.
It is this subjective value for the individual that points to an interesting, maybe to the essential paradox of bourgeois cultures. For the possibility to experience the break with the norm as liberation has to do with the extreme bureaucratization of all aspects of life in a complex modern society. In order to function, everything has to be perfectly organized—the traffic and supply of goods, people and information. If the Internet user surfs through the internet, electricity and information has to run; if the patient goes to the hospital with the wish to change his or her sex, the surgeon has to be there awake, focused, skilled and always on time; if the artists travel in order to open their exhibitions, the pilot and plane must function on point. While this bureaucratization of life allows us to maintain the material infrastructures of our lives, careers, and transgressions of established hegemonic norms, our lives and careers are, at the same time integrated functions within the bureaucratic apparatus. Thus, the bureaucratic apparatus and infrastructure of bourgeois society reduces really any life of their individuals to such a one-dimensional function. It is the price the citizens of bourgeois cultures must pay for their comfort. On a closer look, however, such a reduction is only a fiction, because it is impossible to maintain since the human desires, abilities and fantasies naturally transgress such limitations. And if the modern bourgeois societies seem to steal the creativity and freedom from their citizens through such functional reductions, they only increase the desires, fantasies and wishes to transgress the hegemonic limitations of such bureaucratic organization and regulation further. And each successful transgression of such limits and norms is, at least subjectively, experienced as a return to an original creativity, to a real and authentic pleasure and playful joy. Obviously this is also one of the more important reasons for the great attraction of the art world, since the art world, at least on the first glance, seems to be the place that allows bourgeois individuals to design a societal life beyond functional bureaucratic reductions.
Of course, the whole problem is well known and has been repeatedly described by thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche or Freud and Mauss. Yet, different to recent commentators like David Graeber, I am not sure, if the possibility of a society beyond bureaucratic infrastructures with certain norms and rules really exists. Indeed, it is one of the fascinating achievements of late bourgeois capitalism that it was able to construct such an alternative space—the space of subcultures, which is not so much the space of mere entertainment and consumption, but the space of creative self-expression as cultural production. It is the space where the mass consumer becomes active as a producer of experimental music and images, of videos, texts or sophisticated software. Yet, the music scenes give us good examples at hand to experience and study their cultural function. As many people who grew up in the 1990s, I have experienced how scenes like Hip Hop, Grunge, and Techno that attempted to break open new spaces were immediately commercialized. The commercial success that happened mostly through the representation in mass media ruined the subcultural space, rendered them as simulations and made them unattractive. And yet, they always have been simulation, since one should not forget that the majority of people who enter the game and liberating experience of being part of a certain “outlaw culture” do that only in a moment when it is already commercialized and already part of mass culture—it already has become part of the spectacle, as Debord would have put it. This is really not only an empirical experience of the 1990. It is an inherent principle of the modern bourgeois social totality. I believe that Adorno’s analysis, who made similar, often criticized observations in regard to Jazz, was absolutely correct in this regard and remains true. This co-dependency unleashes a quite particular cultural dynamic of ever faster, ever new attempts to be and think different and to distinguish oneself from mass culture. It is very innovative, of course, but it is driven by the law of fashion. The principle of fashion is precisely this—the exploitation of the bourgeois desire to experience subjectively freedom and liberation from an existing societal structure and its norms and rules without ever really leaving that structure. For in the end, it is relatively clear that the complex infrastructures of modern bourgeois societies mean and promises comfort—including the comfort of living a seemingly outlaw life, and for good reasons, most people are neither ready nor willing to sacrifice such a comfortable life.
I think this points also towards my general relationship to philosophy. On the first glance philosophy, understood as the large sum of all philosophical ideas, concepts, and questions, of philosophical explanations and narratives that are accessible to us is a very profane and bureaucratic endeavor. It is a part of our dominant culture and as other parts of our society, philosophy as a social field is characterized by the same principle of fashion and thus, by symbolic struggles for recognition and positions. In its core, however, it is a very useless and utterly aristocratic phenomenon. From its beginning on in the Western civilization, it presupposed a certain aristocratic access to time, a certain freedom from labor as a useful time consuming activity. Today, this seems only different on the first glance, since philosophers still don’t need to belong to the new global money aristocracy—the universities, the art world, and the remnants of the European welfare state do, at least to a certain minimum, still allow individuals to become philosophers without the inheritance of monetary and symbolic capital. But this becomes not only increasingly more difficult as we speak, even and maybe especially already under social democratic conditions, academic philosophy is rendered useless. One of the reason for philosophies uselessness, of course, has to do with the fact that most useful and practical philosophical outcomes have been outsourced over time to the so-called exact sciences like mathematics, physics, biology, sociology, political science and so on. It is in this regard that philosophy seems only useful for its own sake. Philosophy has become literature and has theoretical use-value, if at all, only for other artists, with whom philosophers remained always an interesting relationship. And at least in regard to this extreme uselessness, one can argue that philosophy is still aristocratic.
HJ: Touching on this idea of philosophy as, in some ways, inherently aristocratic, do you mean to say because the act of thinking philosophically takes time, it can only be done by the upper-classes who are not required to spend the majority of their time working in “useful” jobs for survival?
PK: The question of who has enough time is of course relative and open to be changed through the course of history in time. Hence, I mean two separate things. First of all, I mean the historical fact that the philosopher, at least in the professional academic sense, belonged originally to an aristocracy in social terms of an upper class that really was a ruling class. Only for this reason the philosopher would have the time to gain the knowledge that would set him (professionalized philosophers really were mostly males in ancient times) apart from other people. But the philosophical knowledge had also still a practical and productive purpose—astrology, mathematics, political and even aesthetical calculations were practiced in the name of power.
Today, it is clear that the situation for philosophers is quite different. We experience the last remnants of ever further decreasing social democratic conditions, in which a social welfare state allowed its citizens a certain freedom from the constraints of the labor market. The historical period after WW II in the West was the period not of the petit bourgeois, as many believed, but of the bourgeois petit aristocrat. At least under such historical conditions, one did not and still does not necessarily belong to the monetary upper classes to be a philosopher. However, to whatever class you belong socially it is apparent that the outcome and productivity of any philosophical practice today has no real practical purpose anymore and is thus rendered “unrpoductive” or “useless”. Independently from your belonging to a certain social class, philosophers produce relatively useless knowledge and opinions, because a philosopher’s specializations have, with the small exception of the art world, no real use value outside the esoteric field of philosophy itself.
In the context of our time, this is, of course, also socially relevant. The more the middle classes erode due to the liberal counterrevolutionary reconstruction of our societies, the more we return to old social positions, habits, and reactions. In the context of streamlined neo-liberal societies, philosophers, who depend on the social common wealth by working in academia, do, from the perspective of the shrinking middle classes increasingly appear as asocial parasites that exploit the rare common wealth of a society for their own goods. As such exploitative parasites they really appear as aristocrats of the worst kind and hence, one cannot be surprised about the general democratic reaction of the shrinking middle classes, who, through their electoral voting, participate actively in shutting down philosophy departments all over the world. It will be only a question of time until the activity of philosophy will become the activity for real aristocrats again.
Indeed, many philosophers also try to overcome this uselessness of their practice, most often by attempting to be ethical or political. But especially in such cases, in which philosophers are successful in introducing their ideas and concepts to a larger audience—one may think, for example, about Zizek or Badiou—the philosophical speeches are often not so much understood as expressions of a higher truth, but as entertaining, and yet often esoteric minority opinions that seem to be not more or less true or convincing than other opinions. Thus even if philosophers try to become useful, even if they begin to talk in a very serious way about art, for example, or about politics, their ideas appear always a little too esoteric and dense, too idealistic, too utopian, or, as it is most often the case, as pure private opinions, which are structurally indistinguishable from other private opinions.
I think this is not a contemporary problem, but points essentially to the core of the philosophical practice as such. If one looks, for example, at the most common philosophical strategies to think and to systemize everything that is the case, one can argue that philosophy has always been driven by an inherent resistance against established social values and norms, which, as absolute values and norms, declare further what is commonly understood as right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly or as useful and useless. All those values and norms have been and are constantly questioned by philosophers and their performance of questioning is not only an interesting intellectual enterprise, but translates sooner or later into a life style and becomes thus embodied in the real person of a philosopher, who, from a social perspective appears as the useless person who always asks ridiculous and obnoxious questions that are often very difficult to understand. This is one of the reasons why it is not astonishingly that philosophers have been often met either with laughter or with contempt. In some cases one can only laugh about such useless idiots, but insofar as their existence implies a resistance against the general maintenance and reproduction of society, insofar as their existence is rendered essentially a-social they are also met with resentful contempt and hatred.
However, my concrete relation to philosophy is not really effected by this. As an academic I have to teach, to publish and to write proposals. I have to repeat a certain canon and have to keep up with the ongoing development of the contemporary discourse. Like most theorists you can find within the context of contemporary art, my academic research draws from the development of modern and postmodern philosophy, mostly German Idealism and Marxism, Critical Theory and Post-Structuralism. My studies of these texts remain always ambivalent, partially driven by an interest in understanding canonic authors, their subjects and promises as well as their relationship with the development of modern art, partially by the riddle why people see value in certain ideas and concepts, why they belief and in which way they are seduced. For my dissertation and first book, for example, I was interested in understanding the attraction of the very relationship between art and politics. I analyzed the writings on aesthetics of such authors like Schiller, Hegel, Wagner, and Nietzsche from a contemporary perspective and developed something like a genealogy of the logic of the avant-garde, which allows us to understand the typical modern and contemporary belief in art, and hence a general logic that forces us to repeatedly speak and think about art and aesthetics not so much in aesthetical, but in critical and political terms. In contrast to Rancière’s aesthetic-political theory, I do not think that art needs to be necessarily understood in such aesthetic notions that we owe to Schiller and Kant. Quite on the contrary I would say that Rancière’s attempt to seduce his readers that this would be the only political option for contemporary art, proves, as many other contributions to the discourse, that we are forced to think about contemporary art not so much in aesthetical, but in very specific political terms. And from a political perspective it is clear that an aesthetic art practice in an utterly aestheticized world is not necessarily the right answer. One will understand the historical development of modern art and its political possibilities and limitations better, as I show in my book, if one recognizes that many real existing “anti-aesthetic” practices that have become canonic arrived precisely from such an observation. Thus, the principle of modern and contemporary art is not aesthetics, but that we cannot stop to repeat that old logic of the avant-garde even if the time of the historical Avant-gardes and Neo-Avant-gardes seems to have long passed.
HJ: Can you say a bit more about the interesting relationships, as you called them, between philosophers and artists?
PK: I think this relation is essential. Not much unlike artists, philosophers have to come up with a certain rhetoric and thus with aesthetic strategies of how to speak, to write and represent a set of thoughts as innovative and compelling that have been thought thousand of times before. Moreover, any philosophy necessarily needs to be concerned with an understanding of aesthetics. It needs to question our sensual apparatus as the condition of the possibility that we are able to feel, to see, to hear, or in other words, that we have a relation to something that we call world or reality. And even and especially if one wants to speculate about the realm beyond such a relation, one is forced to think that relation in order to attempt to overcome it. Accordingly, philosophers need to differentiate between pure sensual appearance and the real, between the ideal and material and in this way, it is always interesting for the philosopher to look at the artist, who traditionally experiments with the senses and manipulates the difference between the appearances and the real.
The same is true if you look at the relationship from the other side. Artists do obviously share a mutual interest for the philosopher’s understanding of such problems, because it allows the artist to conceptualize its own aesthetic and artistic experiments in different, logical and ontological, but also in social, cultural and political terms. In the best and most fascinating cases, the difference between artists and philosophers disappears, insofar as artists often develop their own philosophical practice in systematic ways as philosophers develop their own artistic and rhetoric design.
HJ: Were you working towards any specific research or project during your stay here in Stavanger?
PK: I worked on my new project that focuses on the relation of art and technology within aesthetic and media theory. I am interested to understand not only of how aesthetic and media theories have reflected and depicted this relationship, but in which way contemporary theory has also changed through that depiction. Generally, I would say we live in technophile times with a general fear of or contempt for cultural pessimism. Theorists, artists, scientists want to be progressive, but they want to be progressive in a seemingly radically new way that even progresses beyond the human boundaries. I am interested to define the metaphysical values of such a belief in technological progress that can be equally expressed in terms of hope and fear. What’s the attraction and political promise of technological progress?
HJ: This is a fascinating concept, particularly as many would say this drive for progress and innovation has led to neglectful and destructive behaviors. Do you yet have an end-goal for this new research – publication, conference, etc. – or is it ongoing?
PK: Ideally the research will go into my next book. But it is still in a very early stage, so both, it has an end-goal, but is also ongoing.
HJ: Geir also mentioned that you will be involved in an upcoming exhibition at Rogaland Kunstsenter with Anna-Sophie Berger, Halvor Rønning, Martyn Alexander Reynolds, and Christophe Hamaide Pierson. Can you tell us a little bit about that? As a philosopher, what is your role in the exhibition process?
PK: The artists Geir invited all collaborate or have collaborated with other artists and some of them have produced work outside the art world or are referring to significant materials and aesthetics outside the art world. Thus, the role of collaboration and the transgression of individual authorship is common to them. I think what is fascinating about this small group is that they work at a time when such questions of authorship, of collaborations or of working with fashion, design or other crafts within the realm of “high art” really have become utterly normal and profane. There is no longer any myth to deconstruct about the artistic practice and the authorization of work. All that has left is the profane struggle about ownership and copyrights in economical terms and that is much less attractive in artistic terms. But what is interesting, of course, is to understand in which way the repetition of the idea of collaboration differs in a context, in which it has become normal like a second nature.
Geir asked me to fly around, in order to meet and have discussions with the artists, but he did not pre-define a clear role, function or outcome. It is a very open process without telos. At the moment I am also working on a catalogue essay that will accompany the show.
Philipp Kleinmichel is a philosopher and cultural theorist. He was a research fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Akademie Schloss Solitude. He has lectured at HfG Karlsruhe/ZKM, at Institute for Applied Theater Studies Giessen and at University Hamburg amongst others. His monograph Im Namen der Kunst. Eine Genealogie der politischen Ästhetik appeared 2014 at Passagen Verlag.