Cultural Techniques for an Aesthetic Intervention Involving Domestic Surveillance Technologies

Below are the remarks I made, slightly altered, during the “Aesthetics of Surveillance” conference hosted by the German Studies Department at Vanderbilt University.

I presented with my collaborator and friend, Justin Joque, on a panel with Kierstin Brehm from UC–Irvine. Justin and I have been collaborating on a project we call the “NSA Bodhisattva Project,” to which we invite your participation.

Justin spoke before I did, so what follows is only half of what we discussed (Justin spent a good amount of time discussing Marx’s thinking about “reification” and object relations).

0.0 Preamble
When we first became aware of this conference we thought about the opportunity to attend and develop our thinking about our humble NSA project with you, the participants. But our project isn’t concerned with Germany’s history of surveillance, and the title of our project includes the word “bodhisattva” in it, and the core of our project is a sincere application of Tibetan Buddhist ritual technology. And yet we knew that, despite these significant cultural differences, something about our project could likely stick with this conference. We’re excited to be here with you. Justin will provide an introduction to the project and we will share with you some of our reflections on the project.

0.1 Introducing
Justin just said, the prayers don’t have to be read on one register these objects are doing the work on their own. However it is important that some person do that work of setting these out. That they are crafted. The key term is craft. Buddhism often employs boat imagery, that the Bodhisattva be a raft that carries sentients across stormy seas. In English “craft” refers to both an activity of one’s hands and also a vehicle for traversing a medium, like an aircraft. This dual use is a central aim of deploying cultural techniques when analyzing media.

Through the lens of cultural techniques (Kulturtechniken) we understand that the servers that the NSA use for their surveillance are “material considerations,” they have the capacity to transform a subjective promise into an objective obligation. In addition we see that these spinning disks provide dual uses: they monitor electronic messages as well as provide a medium for machines to participate in the liberation of all sentient beings. Briefly here I will discuss three items: what are cultural techniques and why have we found it fruitful to think about our project from this perspective, what is a material consideration and how does this concept inform our project, and to ground my discussion I will rely on Thomas Kasulis’ intimacy and integrity model of cultural difference.

Manjuvajramandala with 43 deities, from Tibet. Tempera on cotton. Measures 71 by 85 centimetres (28 in × 33 in). Held at the Museo d’Arte Orientale.

1.1 How is translation possible?
At the heart of the matter is the question, how is translation possible? There are, at a minimum, two positions one can take when doing the work of translation: that there is common ground between all people of different cultures and those differences that do appear can be overcome by deploying abstract principles and analogies, this is a universalist position; on the other side of the spectrum there is the differentialist position which sees attempts to assert universalism as a degradation of the meaning-full particularities that present in specific cultures. The extreme differentialist can argue that “they” are not like “us” and because “they” are from outside of “our” lived experience “they” cannot speak to, and certainly not for, “us.” Of course this insistence that “they” cannot understand “us” relies on an assumption that “we” know “them” well enough to assert this claim, this essentialist position relies on a universalization. Obviously cultural differences exist, there are different languages and within these languages there are terms and phrases that have no one-to-one corresponding translation. And yet translation is possible.

Yes, cultural differences do exist, but what is culture? Most simply, culture is the result of how one learns to do things with the world around them. It is a recursive patterning of behavior. Because cultures have these reiterative patterns it is possible to anticipate how people within those cultural milieux will act. I land at an airport in a country where I don’t speak the language, I walk to the counter of a souvenir shop with a toy for my son, I present the souvenir to the person standing at the register, they push some buttons on a machine I cannot see, a number flashes on a screen before me, I give them my money, they return some different money to me; I now feel confident that when I walk out of the shop with this souvenir the police will not detain me. This is possible because commerce like this tends to operate in a fairly uniform way across human societies. There are definitely differences between cultures, as I have experienced in my years working in a variety of countries. For translation, understanding how and why cultures differ is the crucial task.

Thomas Kasulis, in his excellent Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, argues that cultures tend to favor one of two modes of relating. Relation is the fundamental unit of culture: self to others, self to the world, self to self, etc. In following one of these two modes of relating there are profound consequences for how members of those communities will identify themselves, how they explain the world, and how they value each other. As Kasulis states,

“The real disparity lies […] in what aspect of our humanness a cultural tradition tends to emphasize, enhance, and preserve as central. What is foreground in one culture may be background in another. Therefore, it is not so much that the Japanese think differently from Westerners. Rather, to put it simply, they tend to think about different things—to pick out different aspects of a phenomenon as the part most worthy of attention.”(1)

Kasulis argues that East Asian cultures, such as among the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, are exemplary of an intimacy relating system. Drawing from the Latin intimus (“what is innermost,” or “close friend”) as well as the verb intimare (“to make known”) the intimacy orientation is characterized by an emphasis on senses of inseparability, that we may speak in many contexts but only our intimates understand what it is we are trying to intimate. Against the intimacy orientation let us juxtapose the integrity orientation that Kasulis finds to be typically dominant in Western cultures. Our word integer comes from the Latin, integritas which refers to an indivisible whole, we designate whole numbers as integers because they are not fractionalized. The integrity orientation evokes the wholeness of a ship’s hull, if it has integrity then no water will pass through. The integer from which we derive integrity, Kasulis suggests, is “probably related to ‘in’ + ‘tegere’ or ‘in’ + ‘tangere,’ that is, ‘not’ + ‘touch.’ That which has integrity is untouched, uncorrupted, pure [….] the etymological meaning of integrity suggests ‘being whole, indivisible, and inviolable.’”(2) No culture or subculture is going to present a perfect demonstration of either of these orientations, but the utility of this technique for examining cultural difference lies in its ability to identify previously unconsidered connections and patterns of sense-making.

For the purpose of our project, which seeks a means of reducing the paranoia and egoistic disquiet that frequently manifests in our society, Kasulis’ intimacy and integrity modeling of cultural difference enables us to reimagine how we might relate to one another by drawing our attention to the habitual patterning of our thinking and behaving. A key disparity between the bodhisattva and the typical American can be visualized in how each of these actors visualize themselves and their relationships to others. To illustrate this point I will now briefly discuss the concept of a “material consideration.”

2.1 What is a material consideration?
A material consideration is an obscure social object that has played a pivotal role in the development of the Anglo-American legal system since its inception in the late sixteenth century. William Pietz defines a material consideration as, “a factual reality, usually a thing of some economic value, that enacts a crucial form of social power: the power to transform a subjective promise into an objective obligation. More specifically, a material consideration is the factual cause of contractual liability.”(3) In the Anglo-American legal tradition it is not enough that a verbal exchange between people transpire, for the issue to become a public matter the person receiving the promise must part with something of value under their control. The person who receives the promise gives something of material value to the person making the promise and it is the material value being sent that induces the promise of the promisor. In the early modern period the phrase “God’s penny” or denarius Dei came to be a common practice among merchants. This earnest money was paid not to cover the actual purchase of the goods in question, but to ensure that the merchant did not sell the goods to someone else. The money was sometimes used to purchase candles for the town’s patron saint and thereby securing divine protection for the contract.(4) The concept of the material consideration, this object that makes private promises a public concern developed in a period of cultural flux.

3.1 What are cultural techniques?
We are using the phrase “cultural techniques” to discuss in English the German term Kulturtechniken and follow Geoffrey Winthrop-Young in doing so and with his caveats. Although not an ideal translation, because “Kulturtechniken encompasses drills, routines, skills, habituations, and techniques as well as tools, gadgets, artifacts, and technologies, cultural techniques remains the most appropriate term.”(5) The term originates in nineteenth century agricultural science and lay fallow until the late twentieth century when the term was activated by the so-called German Media Theorists. We find the term useful as an extension of Marcel Mauss’ famous essay on techniques du corps in which he argues that “body is mankind’s first and most natural tool.”(6) These Körpertechniken are not a given but are mounted, like a disk image onto a hard drive, or installed (montées) through the pressures exerted by being enculturated. So foundational to the modern imagining of how homo sapiens came to be differentiated from all other hominids these techniques without tools are often overlooked. But, as André Leroi-Gourhan argues, “Technique is both gesture and tool, organized in chain form by a veritable syntax that gives to operational sequences both fixity and flexibility. Operational syntax is proposed by memory and is born between the brain and the material milieu.”(7) Following from these perspectives has developed a body of media theory that recognizes that technologies are both determining for humans and determined by humans.

Our project is the result of illiteracy. The Tibetan prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels, we are told, are techniques for enabling those who cannot read and speak aloud the printed sutras. It is strongly desirable, we are told, for these prayers to be read aloud because through these speech acts will materialize the beneficent force promised by these prayer technologies. Contemporary media studies frequently resists only deploying textual analyses of media culture and instead engage in a Foucauldian archaeological methodology. The media archaeologist must go “under the hood of software as well as hardware,” as Jussi Parikka states.(8) So we find ourselves in a certain state of awareness: we know that there are people at the NSA who want to clandestinely intercept and assess our communications, to do this they are running machines that operate within our communication relay systems, these machines have been trained to perform a kind of reading, this mode of reading generates a mode of writing for the purpose of communicating back to the eavesdropping humans.

Perhaps the eavesdropping itself could be pardoned as the unintentional result of living in public space. Indeed, this is often how the NSA discusses their data collection when “unintended targets” are received. It appears that the NSA is now in the position to argue that going forward all communications will be capable of being seen just as anyone interacting in public, potentially, will be seen and what needs to be developed are techniques of civic etiquette. Something akin to the kind of polite denial one would practice if they accidentally intruded on a room mate using the bathroom. Social conventions are notable because they function even though we, as a socius, do not convene to establish these conventions.(9) Social conventions are, of course, cultural techniques.


1) Thomas Kasulis, Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2002): 20.

2) Ibid. 25.

3) William Pietz, “Material Considerations: On the Historical Forensics of Contract,” Theory, Culture, & Society 19 (5/6), 2002: 36.

4) Ibid. 43.

5) Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Translator’s Note,” in Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015): xv.

6) Marcel Mauss, “Les Techniques du Corps,” in Sociologie et Anthropologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950): 372. Translation from Haun Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016): 163.

7) André Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la Parole, I: Technique et Langage, (Paris: Albin Michel, 1964): 164. Translation from Haun Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016): 164.

8) Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012), 89.

9) A point once made by Henry Rosemont, Jr. during his keynote address at the Midsouth Philosophy Conference at the University of Memphis circa 2005.

Thinking about Shenkui

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group for folks who are interested in discussing Ruist 儒學 philosophy and it’s been very stimulating. I’m glad to be among that group because there are so many very knowledgable and thoughtful folks there that I am sure I will become a better scholar and person from their influence and counsel.

Today I added some thoughts to a group discussion of Bryan Van Norden’s article “Confucius on Gay Marriage.” My contribution does not directly address the matters that Bryan puts forward, but rather addresses a comment made by a member of the group. The essence of their argument is that homosexual behavior goes againse too many fundamental Ruist principles to be consonant with the Ru Dao. The person presents several reasons why they think this is the case (to which many of the group members have provided useful counterpoints) but the point that I will address is their contention that homosexual sex practices are incongruent with the cosmic patterning (li 理) of sexual activity, and contradicts the operations of the world (tiandi 天地) and the ultimate principle governing the transactions of the cosmos (taiji 太極). The person to whom I am responding below argues that both the oral and anal modes of sexual intercourse are irrational (I assume they mean from the Confucian perspective) because these modes do not “fulfill the dao (道, the path or way, among other translations) of the body.”

Most of what I wrote in response is taken from my dissertation, which I am in the process of revising for publication.

I am not so sure that the anal and oral modes of sexual activity are understood to be irrational to the dao of the body as you characterize it.

We see a variety of body techniques developed throughout Chinese history with the goal of yangsheng 養生, prolonging one’s life. Perhaps the Daoist tradition is more typically understood as pioneering these techniques (because an emphasis on translating works that demonstrated to a Western audience that the Chinese were also scientifically-inclined, but that is a whole other thread), but I believe there is evidence within the Ruist tradition of this concern as well.

The dao of the body is what?

The Neijing Tu 內經圖, an “inner-landscape” diagram

From approximately the third century BCE, the Huangdi Neijing 黃帝內經 (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon of Medicine) advanced a model of the human body as a dynamic system sustained by qi 氣. The interactions of the blood, saliva, pulses, breath, and seminal fluids that circulate within the body, churn and transduce qi 氣, thereby nourishing the body. All expressions of the human organism, physical form, mental life and emotional states, are manifestations of the workings of qi 氣. Having been born with a finite amount of qi 氣 which animates our organs and the cosmos at large, each person must take steps to ensure that the qi 氣 accumulated within us is able to circulate properly.

We see this concern in Bryan’s translation of the Mengzi:

Mengzi replied [to Gongsun Chou], “I understand doctrines. I am good at cultivating my flood-like qi 氣.
Gongsun Chou continued, “May I ask what is meant by ‘flood-like qi 氣’?”
Mengzi replied, “It is difficult to explain. It is a qi 氣 that is supremely great and supremely unyielding. If one cultivates it with uprightness and does not harm it, it will fill up the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a qi 氣 that harmonizes with righteousness and the Way. Without these, it starves. It is produced by accumulated righteousness. It cannot be obtained by a seizure of righteousness. If some of one’s actions leave one’s heart unsatisfied, it will starve.”

From Zhongyong 中庸 27 (Ames and Hall translation) we gather a sense of the cosmic implications of pursuing the Ruist path:

“Great indeed is the sage’s proper path (shengren zhi dao 聖人之道). So vast and expansive, it propagates and nurtures all things; so towering, it reaches up to the skies. So great indeed!”

Let’s consider Zhongyong 1:

When joy and anger, sorrow and happiness have not yet arisen is called “nascent equilibrium;” when they have arisen and are brought into the proper focus, call it harmony. Activating this focus and equilibrium is the great root of the world; harmony is the advancing of the proper way in the world.

With it’s focus on psychosomatic training and regulation we can understand the Zhongyong as a technical manual for the prolongation of life by avoiding xulao 虛勞 which results from experiencing too strongly our emotions or otherwise being overly stimulated.

Unlike the Occidental tradition’s council toward moderation as a prophylaxis against immoral accumulation, the Chinese tradition councils moderation as a means of avoiding depletion (xulao 虛勞). Whereas the brain came to be the privileged human organ in the Occident—seat of the soul, housing the faculties that distinguished the human animal from all other animals—in the Chinese medical tradition the brain was a relatively minor organ whose primary function was to act as a sort of catalytic converter for qi 氣. As a minor organ, the brain has since ancient times held an important role in Chinese pharmacological, religious practices, and sexological texts. Each of these bodies of knowledge seek to harmonize the functioning of the human body with the cosmos so as to prolong life (yangsheng 養生). Key to this project is the cultivation of habits that ensure the optimal circulation of qi 氣. Qi 氣 is concentrated in one’s seminal fluids (jing 精), and is stored within one’s shen 腎 (kidneys), by far the most important of the central organs in the human body.

In the Chinese medical tradition if one needs increased vitality, this is possible by circulating one’s seminal fluid through the shen 腎 circuit, filtering through the marrow and brain (the process is called huanjing bunao 還精補腦). By engaging in sexual commerce but refraining from ejaculation, the skillful practitioner accumulates an energized seminal fluid that transforms into qi 氣. This process acquired the more poetic name “making the Yellow River flow backwards” (huanghe niliu 黃河逆流), wherein this energized qi 氣 ascends up to the brain and expands one’s spirit (shen 神), reducing the deleterious effects of long life, understood as the depletion of one’s qi 氣 over time.

From at least the Han, if not the Zhou period, sexual union between man and woman has been understood as an arena for potential mutual benefit, promoting longevity among the participants and the practices of the bedchamber were said to be the climax of the human emotional life, “touching on the hem of dao 道 itself.”

During coitus a man should not only prevent ejaculation because it contains their essential yangqi 陽氣 fluid, and in addition to the pleasure of the sexual act, but the man should be attempting to induce an orgasm in his female partner so that he can absorb her yinqi 陰氣. Producing this he can thereby fortify the circulation of his own shen 腎 circuit. In this way we can understand why the seventeenth century medical and sexological authority, Zhang Jingyue’s opus Jingyue Quanshu 景岳全書 has a section on the techniques for enhancing sexual activity with the title Gufang Bazhen 古方八陣 (Strengthening the Battle Array) obviously opening us to the question of how the practitioners understood who or what the combatants were, their partners or themselves. There is a robust tradition extolling the mutual benefit of what Needham calls coitus thesauratus: where men “hosted” women seeking to replenish their qi 氣.

When excessive qi 氣 is lost, the person becomes lethargic, weak, infertile, their hairs won’t grow properly, and so on. They are wasting away (xulao 虛勞). The presence of these symptoms suggests that the person’s kidneys (shen 腎) are not functioning properly, and it is understood that the kidneys are not functioning properly because they are not full of jing 精. The resulting condition is called shenkui 腎虧 (literally, kidney depletion), and is attested to from the sixteenth century. Today the phrase is commonly understood to mean impotence.

Discussing Rancière’s “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am teaching a couple of sections of a Critical Thinking through Writing (CTW) course called, “Critical Issues in Contemporary Art.”

I have been using the edited volume from Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, and find it excellent. I am slightly embarrassed to admit I chose this book because I was hired and immediately had to place my book order for the upcoming semester and since I had studied with a number of the contributors in this volume, I figured it would be good enough. Of course, it is an excellent volume. It comprises a diverse roster of authors and provides the students with “coin of the realm” theories and writings that have tracked the development of what is called contemporary art.

What follows below are my responses to some of the writings my students provided after reading an essay, “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics” by my former teacher, Jacques Rancière.

I think Rancière is here relying on the reader to keep all senses of the word “aesthetic” in their mind when they read the term. Aesthetics is a mode of philosophy that is concerned with sense making, how beauty is revealed, and how the world is ordered to generate meaning. It’s a heavy word.

A student asked, “how can something that is said to be free and expressive be categorized,” I think we have to reexamine how we understand what a category is.

A category is a class or division of people or things that share a common characteristic. Notice two words here: division and common.

Rancière discusses art as a partition (which is a synonym for division) of the sensible.

Said another way, art making is a practice that creates a sense of community among a group of people that can make sense of the objects created through art making practices.

That is to say, that this community of art practitioners share in common this characteristic: making art objects.

How is it possible that something that is expressive can be categorized? I hope we can see from the above, that a group of people that are practitioners of expressiveness can be categorized as artists. They can be placed in that category.

So, how can they be free and categorized? What does it mean to be free is a big question, but I think I can give a quick orientation to how Rancière (with whom I studied) might be thinking about freedom.

Let’s consider the working artist. They are free to make whatever they like because they are an artist, we expect an artist to generate art objects that are novel on some register. This working artist might insist that they cannot be constrained if they are to make their best art objects. To this we as a society generally agree: artists and parents and any-ol’-body is supposed to be free to do whatever they like in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. We like to think we live in a free country and so our decisions are autonomous ones because we are supposedly not being coerced or manipulated into acting on the decisions we arrive at.

Because we have that first sense of freedom, we are free to sell our labor (as artists, as baristas, as shoe salesmen, etc.) in the free market.

But in the “free market” we have to recognize that the laborer’s freedom has an unexpected limit: the laborer is free to labor, but they are free from being able to determine the value of their labor. The value of an artist’s works are more often than not beyond their ability to determine and must instead rely on the gallerist or the benefactor to demonstrate the exchange value of the art object the artist has created. I might think that my 3.5 year son’s drawings are priceless treasures, but my neighbor my agree that there is no price worth paying for them, they are simply junk drawings.

Here we return to the definition and note that a category is a class or a division of people or things that share a common characteristic.

Laborers, whether artists, or unskilled folks form a class in modern and contemporary societies. Unlike the managers of or the owners of the means of production, laborers share a mode of being free to work but being free from all the profit of their laboring.

I hope that we can see how it is possible to be free and expressive and also be of a category.

Another student asked if it’s necessary for artists to work against consensus, another term Rancière uses in a particular way for a particular effect.

Rancière has written about the shortcomings of consensus in the context of what an emancipatory democracy could look like. The problem with consensus is a problem of either representation or repression.

In the second sense, consensus looks like mob rule: might makes right. If we on this side of an issue have more people than the other side, then we get to do whatever we like because we’ve got a majority of people on our side and we’ve formed this alliance in a manner that we call consensus. But I don’t think that it’s really consensual, is it? It’s not that both sides of the issue are consenting to a decision, so much as they are agreeing to let the other side have their way because the minority is afraid of how the majority might abuse them.

In the other sense of consensus we have the familiar problem of representative democracy: the people are told they are free to pursue their life, liberty, and happiness, but to maintain order those same free people must sacrifice their freedom of decision making to elected representatives. This isn’t really consensual either is it? We, very frequently, elect people to serve us as representatives, but then those people do whatever they feel is the best for the most people that elected them. At best, these representatives would show a plurality of compromised responses to problems that we would have strong opinions about.

So, against consensus, Rancière posits “dissensus.” Dissensus is not about masking over differences of opinions, say, but instead insisting that those differences be privileged. Think of that old chestnut that school children in the US are taught: that America is a melting pot. The melting pot theory holds that over time the differences between people will breakdown, just like in a beef stew in which everything starts to taste like beef and potatoes and everything loses its texture. That would be the consensus model. The dissensus model would be more like a stirfry dish in which a variety of very different tastes and textures are brought together (sweet, salty, sour, etc.) to create a unique dish that wouldn’t be possible without all those differences being maintained.

Another student asked about the utility of the phrase “contemporary art.”

I think part of the reason for generating these categories is so that we have some way of typifying and making sense of the ways in which artists and the art world are operating today. The way that artists and the art world operate today is different, in significant ways, from how artists and the art world operated 50, 100, and 200 years ago.

If we don’t create some rubrics for measuring that difference, then we run the risk of not being able to speak specifically about those differences.

In this regard, Alberro’s “Periodising Contemporary Art” and Rancière’s essays are interesting for us as we try to make sense of why people talk about “Contemporary Art” but what we mean by “Contemporary Art” is still being decided.

For Rancière aesthetics and politics are two objects of social life that are often discussed but not well understood.

Aesthetics is an activity that is concerned with meaning making, a way of rearranging the world such that other meanings are possible.

Politics is an activity that is concerned with order making, a way of maintaining the world such that other ways of being in the world are excluded.

For Rancière politics, in the sense that we typically mean it—like being a political activist—rarely ever happens. Instead, most of the time what we see is only the maintenance of the status quo, which is what police do: they maintain order.

Politics, when combined with aesthetics, can produce new social orders, like what SNCC and the Movement accomplished here during the 1950s and through the 70s.

What I Love about Teaching Critical Thinking through Writing

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate course on critical issues in contemporary art. This class is the first course of a two-course sequence of “Critical Thinking through Writing” (CTW) classes that all majors at our R1 Research University have to develop for their students.

I love teaching these CTW courses because this course is often the first theory-intensive curriculum these students have undertaken. Although that means that many of the students I work with are frustrated with the materials we engage with, it’s also a course that generates a lot of self-reflection and critical conversations.

This course is also deeply satisfying for me because of the students I work with. The majority of the students I work with are nonwhite, and many are from working class families, and are first-generation families. Our university has improved its graduation rate by twenty-two percent over the last decade through the implementation of a variety of advising programs. Not only has the overall graduation rate improved, but our university now graduates more black students each year than any other U.S. college.

That I get to introduce a range of philosophical perspectives and theories to a group of students who are not theory-oriented is a challenge I relish. Not only are they often not theory-oriented, but because they are artists, they are also often not inclined to express their thinking through text, preferring other media as their primary mode of expression. I welcome this challenge because this is my opportunity to make what is assumed to be an abstract and strictly academic affair into something applicable to a student’s lived experience and directly contributing to their aspirations.

That I am also in the position to encourage people of color and from working class homes to “do theory” is a rare opportunity as well because these students are often absent from philosophy programs in graduate school and then in professorial roles. It is in our class that we find more robust vocabularies for describing our lived experiences, for articulating our aspirations, and in this class we often see for the first time how the work we do in our city interacts with a global system of exchange. And it is in this context that I am able to “tarry, to linger with the ways in which [I] perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which [I am] racist,” as my fellow Atlantan, George Yancy has recently counseled.

This is not to say that I lead a struggle session (批鬥會) with my students. Rather, I am presented, daily, with the opportunity to expand myself beyond the habitual practices of sociality that have historically enabled a host of iniquities to persists among us. Core to my Confucian (or Ruist 儒學) practice is the application of what I have studied and moral self-cultivation through wholehearted engagement with my community. Cultivating critical writing skills with students has been an exceptional mode of self-exploration and -expansion for me in this regard.

As a longtime resident of Atlanta and someone with great affection for the area, I feel a special obligation to be true to the work of the people who fought for equality in my country because this is the home of SNCC, of Dr. King, and it is from here that so much of the Civil Rights Movement radiates.

In our Critical Thinking through Writing course we learn about audiences, we learn about and discuss the limits of representation, we grapple with the differences between democracy and republic, and we find ways to connect our interior lives to the world-out-there in a manner that only writing can. Writing operates in a way that neither speaking, nor painting, nor manipulating other materials simply cannot. In writing we find ourselves as someone greater than we had anticipated.


Artists Wandering the Confucian Way

My friend wrote me to ask me to think about an upcoming event with the evocative theme “artist as migrant.”

When I worked at Art Papers we commissioned Nat Slaughter to make a map of the migrations of artists and curators featured in the Whitney Biennials between 2006–2014. Perhaps expected, what we see is that over the lifetime of the participants’ lives there is a movement toward one or two cities in the U.S.

Screenshot from Nat Slaughter’s “Biennial Migrations: Geographical Data from the Whitney and the World” Art Papers 38 no. 2 (2014)

We are indebted to Chin-Tao WU for her “Biennials without Borders?” essay in which she compiled and visualized data on the movements of artists who are selected to participate in the large international biennials that mark the contemporary era. As Wu illustrates so well—despite the typical claims made by the organizers of these massive exhibitions to being more democratic and embracing an ethos of decolonialization—if an artist from a country like Taiwan wants to be shown in the Taipei Biennial, then it’s best that the artist be born in Taiwan and then resettle in North America or Europe so that they may be included in the biennial being organized in their country of birth.

If it is useful to mark an era by its dominant mode of production, then it seems profitable to characterize the contemporary art era as that period in which artists and curators are required to be nomadic in the manner that globalization has made possible.

That phrase, “artist as migrant” reminds me that the first thing that Confucius talks about in the Analects is the relationship between traveling, practice, and moral cultivation:

1.1 子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」

The Master said: “Having studied, to then repeatedly apply what you have learned—is this not a source of pleasure? To have friends come from distant quarters—is this not a source of enjoyment? To go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration—is this not the mark of an exemplary person?” (Ames & Rosemont, Jr. translation)

The application (the character he used is 習, xi ) of one’s learning that Confucius is encouraging is both moral and musical. The character 習 (xi), as we read from Brooks & Brooks, means “rehearse” or “practice,” a rote practice that leads to virtuosity. Indeed, virtuosity is the key concern for Confucius and much of the Confucian project is about elucidating and clarifying the relationship between habitual learning and moral cultivation. To become a virtuoso one not only can perform with excellent technical precision, one also imbues into their performance of that rote material the full spectrum of their human experience and it is this subterranean humanity communicated through the virtuosic performance that moves audiences. The music of Beethoven or Bach has changed very little in hundreds of years and yet the consummate performances of their works reveal a great degree of differences: Daniel Barenboim reveals a Beethoven that differs from a Glenn Gould Beethoven, and yet they’re each consummate performances of the same unchanged music.

We are moved by the virtuosity of artists who make good on the promise of cultural practices. Confucius saw a real power in moral cultivation, that there is a moral force (德 de) that the exemplary person comes to radiate over years of practice. As Confucius tells us:

12.19「[….] 君子之德風,小人之德草。草上之風,必偃。」

The excellence (德 de) of the exemplary person is the wind, while that of the petty person is the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend. (Ames & Rosemont, Jr. trans.)