Political Dimensions of Cultural Praxis and Knowledge Production

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11:29, 14 октября 2020
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Portal and Syg.ma would like to introduce hereby the publication series Political Dimensions of Cultural Praxis and Knowledge Production, containing contributions from activists and theorists from Germany and the post-Soviet area. The series will focus particularly on methods for the production of political scopes of action within a transfer between theory and praxis and will therefore look at different disciplines and economic/political environments. Alternating between West- and East European authors, the contributions will be released in a two-weeks rhythm, in both English and Russian.

Текст на русском можно найти по ссылке — https://syg.ma/@sygma/politichieskiie-izmierieniia-kulturnoi-praktiki-i-proizvodstva-znanii

Today, within increasingly exclusive and professionalised fields and disciplines, we are witnessing an ongoing subsumption of political matter in cultural praxis and theory and in different spheres of knowledge production — from performative arts to philosophy of science [1]. Limited through the mechanisms of capitalism, these often struggle to transcend their disciplinary boundaries despite their aspiration to develop a practical agency and presence in political and public life. Instead, the dynamics within the mentioned fields often fall into a perpetual production of trends, proliferation of ever new theories and events, more often benefitting personal or institutional capital and remaining as “radical” as keywords in curatorial texts and funding applications.

This phenomenon does not only take away the radical force of these disciplines, but also creates new hierarchies and hegemonies, thus reproducing the logics of the existing — flawed — order. As cultural workers in- and outside academia or the arts who participate and live in and from these structures, we are not exempt from this. For this reason, this publication is conceived as a confrontation with our own practice within our respective fields of knowledge production, aiming to find or offer an approach towards this problematic. Confronting ourselves, but also confronting the established flow of things and events.

Certainly, nothing is new in this questioning of theory and praxis or even of the political value of cultural work. What is changing constantly, however, is the people — today it might be us — as actors in time within our respective environments and circumstances, standing before the question of what responsibilities we as individuals or groups have and what actions we might take. “Every great idea may already have been thought seven times”, wrote Ernst Bloch of Medieval Islamic philosophers and their ancient Greek counterparts, 'but when it is thought again, in other times and places, it is never the same. Not only those who think great things but also the thought itself has meanwhile changed. The great idea has to prove itself again both in its own right and as something new [2].’ As this question has not lost any of its validity, we believe that exchanging insights and strategies contributes to gaining new perspectives. Whith this publication we would like to focus on different approaches, strategies and insights of people working in either one of the spheres, the cultural or the political, or on the edge of both.

Translation as Praxis and Theory

In its way, the series is one of translations –– from and to different languages, but equally from and to the different fields of knowledge and practice: from praxis to theoria, from theoria to poiesis; from the post-Soviet to the West and vice versa. In short, we want to translate knowledge across disciplines and borders within our given and unfortunately limited framework, loosely defined as cultural work. Given our experience as professional dilettante translators, these translations will aim to faithfully reflect the essence of the original text, but, due to linguistic and cultural differences, in some places will necessarily be, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, “essential translations [3].” Sometimes they might add to the original, sometimes miss specific characteristics or peculiarities. Our assumption here echoes Michel Serres’ observation that “translation is both a praxis and a theory” and as such, it both frames existing knowledge and produces new [4]. Equally, the fields within which we choose to translate — facets of capitalism, performative practices, cultural labour, precarity, the right turn, political activism, gender and feminist activism, self-organisation — are themselves only parts of a much more diverse structure, and cannot represent a complete picture. Neither should the term “cultural work” imply other labour or work to be less “cultural”.

With this series we want to also contribute to the recent effort by anthropologists and scholars of colonial studies of challenging “the one-world world” — a place where different cultures are seen as to be “no more than interpretations of that world [5].” We are inspired by their efforts in drawing our attention to different strategies of survival “in capitalist ruins” as well as how knowledge about science, nature and sociopolitical order is shaped through translations, always dependant on the historical and socio-cultural context [6]. Ours is nevertheless a different task within a much narrower geo- and ethnographic scope — looking not at cultures, but at a possibility of cultural work within the now predominant neoliberal and capitalist cultural regimes. We hope that the multiplicity of approaches that do not reproduce but rather challenge these regimes should expose a multiplicity of ways this activity can be pursued outside of 'the one world mentality.’

By way of introduction to the series, the following historical translation of a 16th century example of knowledge production into a contemporary perspective might serve as a starting point.

From Knowing to Acting

In 16th century Rome, there appeared a lavishly illustrated manual “on how to bleed, attach leeches and cups, perform massages and blistering to the human body [7].” Beyond these medical instructions to his peers, their author, the barber-surgeon Pietro Paolo Magni offers us an opportunity to observe how specialist knowledge of a certain discipline was illustrated, constituted and socially distributed. In her recent book, historian of print Evelyn Lincoln exposes how the text of this manual, in its reliance on images, reproduces and then produces social hierarchies across gender and knowledge, of which the single following plate can serve as its manifestation [8].

Pietro Paolo Magni, Discorsi di Pietro Paolo Magni Piacentino intorno al sanguinar i corpi humani, il modo di ataccare le

Pietro Paolo Magni, Discorsi di Pietro Paolo Magni Piacentino intorno al sanguinar i corpi humani, il modo di ataccare le sanguisughe e le ventose è far frittioni è vesicatorii: con buoni et utili avertimenti. Rome 1584.

On the left side we encounter a bearded physician who, with his gloved hand, gives instructions to two barbers — one is a master and the other is an apprentice in whom the reader would have recognised themselves — performing the procedure of blood-letting. The figures’ physical positions mirror their social standings and also reflect the relationship between theoretical and performative knowledge in 16th century Rome. In the background, we encounter an academically educated physician, who, as an author of the 17th century put it, “treats the body by using his intellect, not his body” while the illiterate surgeon draws on empiric knowledge and “cures the body with the body” [9]. On the other side of the illustration, we see two female figures depicted in the passive roles of a patient and a companion consoling her. As Lincoln writes, it was one of the purposes of this treatise to undermine the authority and ability of women to perform medical treatments. Women, who often performed these tasks in domestic environments were, among other things, suspected to know how to cut certain veins in order to cause miscarriages –– something men demanded to have control over and, in doing so, aimed to take away this knowledge from women. Lincoln adds that in later editions of this highly influential manual book illustrations were modified in such a way that women would not even be depicted in consoling roles but merely as patients.

In another chapter, Lincoln turns our attention to Camillo Agrippa, a self-taught engineer, who in his influential fencing manual presents himself as a “disseminator of practical knowledge [10].” In the frontispiece, he stages himself in a dispute opposing scholars of philosophy. Those, on the left side, are backed by books, while he, on the right side, operates with technical instruments symbolising practical knowledge[11].

Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di scientia d’arme, con un diaologo di filosofia di Camillo Agrippa Milanese, Rome 1553.

Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di scientia d’arme, con un diaologo di filosofia di Camillo Agrippa Milanese, Rome 1553.

Both examples mark a moment of Western intellectual history when theoria still outweighs praxis. Yet, beginning with these books, praxis starts its ascension within epistemological hierarchy, reaching its height in the works of Karl Marx, as rightfully observed by Hannah Arendt [12].

It is only on first glance that the issues raised in those 16th century Roman manuals seem irrelevant today. Unlike their respective medical or fencing advice, the meticulously illustrated controversy of the relation between practical and theoretical knowledge (as well as poetical) is far from being over [13]. If anything, it has become more complicated in view of the multiplicity of contemporary forms of knowledge production and diverse social and economic standings of its agents, as well as of what we today are ready to accept as knowledge worthy of history and study [14].

The question is not only what produces knowledge but also how it relies on political action. It is true that the works of Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault and, more recently, Giorgio Agamben shed light on historical and contemporary interrelations between modes of knowledge production and social and political order. When narrowing down the scope of the question above from a broad historical perspective to our own contemporary practice of knowledge production, however, their analysis is helpful but does not reach far enough. Therefore, we want to ask and confront in our theoretical or poetic practices –– what are the instruments we are holding in our hands? Upon which knowledge are we relying? Are we only pointing our fingers at wounds or are we equipped to perform the surgery?

Among the questions we want to ask ourselves together with our contributions are: how can cultural theories and practices contribute to help produce scopes of action in respond to political problematics? What can be a place, a role, a meaning for cultural work capable of contributing to social and political change? Which methods, approaches and formats in art, science and culture are necessary? The contributors to this series come from different theoretical and practical fields and give insight to problems they encounter as well as to strategies for facing them.

Johanna Klingler and Amir Saifullin

Contributors in alphabetical order

Alla Mitrofanova
Anastasia Dmitrievskaya
Andrei Shental
Anthony Davies, Jakob Jakobsen & Stefan Dillemuth
Café-Ice cream (Anastasia Dmitrievskaya & Darya Iuriichuk) in conversation with Maria Chehonadskih
Clara Laila Abid Alsstar & Johanna Gonschorek
Justin Lieberman
Kerem Schamberger
Lisa Jeschke & Lucy Beynon
Marina Israilova
Pavel Arsenev
Philipp Gufler

Organisation and editing of the series

Johanna Klingler
Kirill Rozhentsov
Amir Saifullin

Russian texts, copy-editing

Kirill Rozhentsov

English texts, copy-editing

Daniel Gottlieb

Translations from German to English

Johanna Klingler

Translations from English and German to Russian, from Russian to English

Amir Saifullin

About the editors and editorial platforms

syg.ma is a community-run media outlet and an open platform for publishing texts about the human condition, cultural phenomena and society. The project focuses on experimenting with the ways knowledge is produced and people are self-organized and initially relied almost exclusively on crowdfunding and voluntary text contributions by cultural institutions and individual researchers and scholars. Not long ago syg.ma started its own monthly grant program in order to support new research and studies, not bound by an academic format or specific theme.

Portal is an exchange project between Russian and German art and culture workers, which Johanna and Amir are facilitating collectively. The project focuses on strategies aimed at building emancipatory structures within the respective political and economic situations of both countries as well as of ourselves and the participants. The project grows step by step, taking the development of needs and conditions/possibilities into consideration. Portal does not aim at developing an exclusive, distinct program, but to provide organisational support by creating spaces and possibilities for action and sustainable networks/structures.

Amir is a PhD candidate at the University of Zurich, based in Berlin and Rome. His main research interest lies in the archeology of vision: the relationship between visual knowledge and the social and political order in its history and theory. Currently working on projectionism as a mode of organisation of vision in early Soviet Union.

Johanna is an artist and a PhD candidate at the RCA London based in Munich and Berlin, writing a thesis on the concept of ‘Emotional-Infrastructural Labour’.

Kirill is the editor-in-chief of syg.ma and an independent curator, based in Saint-Petersburg, interested in the ways institutions and self-organised collectives operate in the cultural sphere.

We very much thank the Department of Arts and Culture Munich for its support!



[1] The distinction between theoria (contemplation), praxis (action) and, occasionally, poiesis (production) made here is derived from their Aristotelean interpretation.

[2] Ernst Bloch, Avicenna and the Aristotelean Left, transl. by Loren Goldman and Peter Thomson, New York 2019, 1.

[3] Walter Benjamin, “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” in: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. R. Tiedemann, H. Schweppenhäuser, IV/1, Frankfurt am Main 1972, p. 9-21.

[4] Michel Serres, The Parasite, transl. by Lawrence R. Schehr, Baltimore and London 1982, 71.

[5] Law, John. 2015. “What’s Wrong with a One-World World?,” in: Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 16 (1), 126-139, cited in Keiichi Omura, Grant Jun Otsuki, Shiho Satsuka, Atsuro Morita (eds.), The World Multiple, The Quotidian Politics of Knowing and Generating Entangled Worlds, London and New York 2019, 2.

[6] See amongst others: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton 2015. Shiho Satsuka, Nature in translation: Japanese tourism encounters the Canadian Rockies, Durham 2015.

[7] Pietro Paolo Magni, Discorsi di Pietro Paolo Magni Piacentino intorno al sanguinar i corpi humani, il modo di ataccare le sanguisughe e le ventose è far frittioni è vesicatorii: con buoni et utili avertimenti. Rome 1584.

[8] In the following, we are relying upon Lincoln’s chapter. Evelyn Lincoln, “The Care of the Body in Pietro Paolo Magni’s Manual for Barber-Surgeons,” in: Brilliant Discourse: Pictures and Readers in Early Modern Rome. Yale 2014, 115-63.

[9] Ibid, 128, f.35.

[10] Evelyn Lincoln, “Camillo Agrippa’s Cosmology of Knowledge” in: Ibid, 61.

[11] Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di scientia d’arme, con un diaologo di filosofia di Camillo Agrippa Milanese, Rome 1553.

[12] See chapter 13 “Labor and Life” in Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago 1958.

[13] See for example, a recent discussion on the topic among Scandinavian authors: Anna Nilsson Hammar, “Theoria, praxis, and poiesis: Theoretical considerations on the circulation of knowledge in everyday life” in Circulation of Knowledge, ed. David Larsson Heidenblad, Kari Nordberg, Johan Östling, Erling Sandmo. Lund 2018.

[14] See the debate on what forms of knowledge are or should be accepted as object of study within the disciplines of history of knowledge and history of science: Lorraine Daston, “The history of science and the history of knowledge.” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 1, no. 1, 2017, 131-154. Kärin Nickelsen, Christian Joas. Fabian Krämer, Fabian, Introduction: 'History of Science or History of Knowledge?’ in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 42, 2019, 117-25.

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