The title of my version of the Critical Theory A survey course -- no doubt the single course I have taught the most often over the years here at the San Francisco Art Institute -- has usually been "The Point Is To Change It." The title is drawn, of course, from the last of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach": "The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it." Since I go on to read Marx on the fetishism of commodities as the recommendation of a kind of radical reading practice -- changing the world BY interpreting it, as it were -- things get sticky pretty quickly here. But I first read this quotation simply as marking a re-orientation of western philosophical thinking in critical theory, especially under the pressure of the technoscientific transformations of late modernity and neoliberal postmodernity, away from the otherworldly consolations of the contemplative life to the provocations and promises (and betrayals) of the active life of worldly concern.
On this understanding, critical theory is (or at any rate was definitively shaped by) a return to the classical rhetorical tradition, a return the terms of which set the scene for the postwar biopolitical turn and the present turns of planetarity. Although I do not imagine it is particularly surprising to hear that someone trained in rhetoric would bring a rhetoricized conception to the teaching of critical theory here, what I would emphasize is the possibly more surprising fact that it has been my teaching of critical theory to art students here at SFAI that has been by far the most definitive encounter shaping my understanding of my subject and my work. At the heart of a rhetorical elaboration of critical theory will be an insistence on the distinction of literal from figurative language and an emphasis on the constitutive and resignifying force of the latter. For me, an understanding of the work of figurative language in the ongoing reconstitution of persuasion and meaning connects all theoria to poiesis, that is to say all analysis to art-making.
This is an observation that sits very well with my sense that Nietzsche is as indispensable a figure for teaching critical theory as both Marx and Freud are, as it does also with congenial historical and intersectional critiques pitched from poststructural/ posthumanist/ queer precincts in the present. I would now go so far as to say that what Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud have in common as the three threshold figures who take us from philosophical orthodoxy into the post-philosophical discourses of critical theory is the proposal of (anti-)fetishistic models of reading to re-write the world and ourselves in the image of our contingent values -- where ressentiment, commodification, and sexuality offer up their fetishistic Keys to History -- and in which the fetish functions as a quasi-figure generating false-facts.
My understanding of the rhetorical constitution of society and figurative work of collectivity derives as much from my collaboration with students applying the theoretical language of textual criticism to their own life experience and art practice as from taking up Arendt's understanding of the political, Fanon's posthumanism, King's "revolution of conscience," Davis's abolition democracy, and Butler's performative theory of assembly.
Over the years, in teaching critical theory to art students the work of figurativity in the construction of collective agencies, resistances, meanings has loomed ever larger in my understanding and emancipatory hopes. I have been stunned by the formal experimentation students at SFAI will bring to my assignments for mapping conceptual spaces or crafting new definitions, introducing temporal, visual, tactile interventions into textual argumentation for example. In coming slowly to understand better how my students come to understand the place of critical theory in their own lives my sense of the work of critical theory and rhetoric in everyday life and in my own life has utterly expanded and transformed.
For me, education was never primarily a process of professionalization but of self-creation: It is through my years of education that I was politicized, came out and into my queerness, discovered my vocation for teaching -- and that work of self-creation and politicization and queer expressivity is ongoing. I teach my students that we are all of us incarnated poems -- and that our freedom requires both the legibility of literality before the "Eye of the Law" but also the provocation of a figurativity questioning that legibility to open up legibilities otherwise. As students testify to their hopes and to their histories in the classroom, critical theory becomes a site through which to connect reading practices, writing practices, artmaking practices, and worldbuilding practices more generally. In this work I am not only a guide but, gratefully, a collaborator with my students every term.