Practical Philosophy, Practical Documentary

The materialist philosophies that I am looking at with honours students to describe themselves as ‘practical philosophy’. Happy to admit I always wondered what that meant, partly because I couldn’t quite get what a practical philosophy would be (after all it all seemed to be about ideas), and also it seemed if it was ‘practical’ in the sense of ‘doing something’ then was it no longer philosophy.

Our three weeks and my current third reading of Alien Phenomenology combined with other things (see the list below) has helped me clarify this a lot. Practical philosophy in this context is a philosophy that is about doing things, not just thinking about them. Sort of obvious. It might involve primarily ideas, but they are ideas as instruments or tools that are valued for how they can be applied in ways outside of just thinking within or about themselves to other things. So, without this sounding fey or naive, a lot of critical theory expends a lot of energy demonstrating what it is, and then proving that it works. Along they way they sometimes provide a (constrained and often overwhelmingly narrow) account for the way of the world. This account arises from, returns to, revolves around the ideational. The world here risks (and often becomes), little more than abstract proof of the legitimacy of the theory, and so the world is returned to the theory, unchanged, and of course there is then little ability, or recourse, to affect the world. Such work may change my understanding, which is of profound importance (after all what else is education?) but everything remains situated within my use of a theory to account for my understanding of the world, now differently. Here world is subject to thought, thought is primary and it is thought that confers all sorts of things upon the world (sense, meaning, structure).

Much like the way some people consider children, and certainly how we once thought of indigenous Australians, animals, ‘nature’, and in ancient Greece those non citizens called slaves. In these cases we are a centre that grants ourselves the autonomy and authority to confer whatever significance we deem matters to these other things. It is regal, solar, and, as we now see, anthropomorphic. The world = what we as humans make of it, and that is what the world is. That’s just an idealised form of cognitive, perceptual and intellectual colonialism.

This is also a way to think about how the ‘new materialism’ and the ‘post humanities’ approach the linguistic turn. The linguistic turn is based on the rise of semiotics, and then structuralism and subsequently post structuralism, as a dominant theoretical model (narratology, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and so a lot of feminist theory, post colonial studies, queer theory, and so on). Meaning trumps materiality, and meaning is treated as a) human, so b) constructed by us, and c) since constructed subjected to external other ‘meanings’ (forces, powers, which have been given various titles such as hegemony, ideology, patriarchy, colonialism and so on). The new materialism is not wishing to discount these, though it does seem to suggest that most have reached an impasse as they can’t account for the material (and today the material has come to matter, if for no other reason than our physical environment is now understood to matter in fundamentally different ways than before), but it does very forcefully want to return to the things that language and meaning can’t do, as well as recognise and explore the nature of things as things quite a part from the point of view provided by linguistic meaning.

Hence, in Bogost, this interest in theories and ideas that do, and the fascination with things as actants (to use Latour’s term), where things are any thing (ideas, objects, forces, of whatever scale and order) and they do stuff, quite independently of what we think they’re for, and what we think they might mean.

Now, the nub of this for our research is quite simple. Most humanities research looks at what things mean, and leaves it at that. This means it struggles to look at anything that falls outside of this quite small sense of ‘meaning’, and more significantly it means we tend to produce work that reports on what things mean, but we are not well versed or skilled in making things that do. If I want people to rethink what video is and could be, I can write about it theoretically (as I do), and I can make things that do things in and with video (as I have done). If I start from theory and then make I run the risk of domesticating what things do within the umbrella of already given meanings. So the task, and it seems rather large, is to make things that do in a way that embraces their ability to do. And to then see what happens. Or what it is.

Perhaps, and this remains a very open question, if I want to make work that changes how people think about something then the way to do this is not to show what things mean, and suggest they should mean something else, or if we change the thing then it might mean something different, but to begin from what things do rather than what they mean. If I’m a cinematographer and I decide that what a camera does is draw with light (Astruc perhaps) then that offers a very different set of practises and possibilities than if I decide that what a camera does is re-present what I can see, or if I decide it is a machine looking (Vertov) which is special because it sees what I cannot, then that too offers and creates quite a different practice.

Here lies one of the things I’m finally working through in relation to digital practice and theory, particularly in the context of interactive documentary. When we make digitally we are engaged with what things can do, in this post humanities sense (anyone who makes stuff gets the very real and deep materiality of what we work with, even digital code, and it’s a significant critique of the academy that a sentence like that even needs to be written). When the academy comes along we try to see what it means. So we corral, define, shove and poke, fitting it largely into already existing linguistically policed boundary objects. But the first step, the properly critical moment, is to first learn what it can do, and from there, whatever it might be, worry about meaning. And to be clear, ‘interactivity’ (a term wheeled out with all appropriate reverence and tautological completeness, though rarely if ever, in itself engaged with – just what sort of thing is interactivity in itself?) is not what these things can do.

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