As is evident in the vastly interdisciplinary work of my colleagues that you will find in this collection, my gratitude for this unique inspiration is given to each of these fellows and to the IWM, which has graciously given us the opportunity to work closely together. Though these essays are each provocative in their own way, it is, of course, my own bias that I read our collected essays with a political concern. What is at stake in many of our projects is the very possibility of thinking and articulating the problem of the political, as such. But perhaps more importantly, whether it is the problem of modernity, the problem of violence, or, for all of us, the problem of reading a text (even treating photography as a text to decipher), we all have a curious relation to the problem itself, which stops us short of declaring a solution or explanation.
In a way, this method or concern may seem to be our own gesture or performance of the collection’s title, Indecent Exposures (a title we created collectively). As Lydia Mulvany said in the opening to the IWM Junior Fellows Conference of December 2006, where most of these papers were originally presented, “In English, the primary definition of ‘indecent exposure’ (without the ‘s’) is actually a crime. It is the act of publicly exposing parts of the body that must, by law, be covered.” And yet, as each of us finds in our own research, it is often even more dangerous if we simply cover over the problem (wholly concern ourselves in answering the problem) of the political rather than reveal and open the complexity of the problem as best as we can. Given all we know, all that we have constructed and tried in thought and practice – given history – it is probably safe to say that the political is essentially problematic. The task then is to learn how to engage with this problem.
What you will find (but not exclusively) in this collection of essays are various exposures – sometimes showing all the indecency of the chosen text, as is most clear when working with extreme feminist or terrorist manifestos. Let us, for the time being (if it is at all possible), suspend whatever judgment or emotion that surrounds these texts and try to see the problem inherent in them. What happens if we risk not merely dismissing or flat out rejecting such texts as irrational or crazy – or murderous? For they do, whatever the case may be, reveal the problem of the political in a unique way. And yet, how do such texts, even in their utter exposure, resist any possibility of thinking them – meaning, through them, past and, thereby, against their inherent, destructive logic? In other words, is it possible to think the problem the text gestures towards outside of itself, without also falling victim to the structure (the solution) of the text itself?
In this light, this is what I, myself, find fascinating and provocatively inspiring in our collection of essays: In Saskia Haag‘s article, how have we attempted to protect ourselves from the crisis of modernity in the very ordered and harmonious way we structure our house? On a larger scale, how is madness in Nietzsche’s work, as it is expounded upon in Lydia Mulvany‘s article, dangerous and yet, in one particular case, productive and creative precisely in its madness (i.e. democracy itself, as opposed to a fascist order of the state)? Each in their own way, both Astrid Peterle and Georg Maisser address not only the influence but also, perhaps more importantly, the limitations of various scholarly fields on a certain subject: respectively, what academic uses and abuses are revealed when we trace the unusual reception history of an originally private, unpublished set of “self”-portraits; what strategies and tactics has political philosophy used to think the concept of terrorism, grappling with the justifications of violence. Furthermore, in her work, Gudrun Ankele confronts a radical feminist manifesto that calls for the end of the human race as the only viable and practical way to end the brutality of men toward women. And yes, admittedly, the burning indecency of the writing of my own text is that it attempts to patiently, indirectly develop a literary sense of pacifism at a historical time when there exists no leisure to do so. Problems upon problems.
Even though our work struggles with distinctly different subjects through various, sometimes conflicting discourses, it is not by accident that they nevertheless intersect and are influenced by the others. Apparently, over the months we spent together at the IWM, the length of time we dedicated to our lunches downstairs became proportionately longer as we became more involved and interested in each other’s work. Without fail, not surprisingly, it seemed as if each day someone raised a specific block in their work and together we would brainstorm ways out of it. It is not that we could solve such questions; but because we each thought differently, we inevitably found a way to open up the problem such that the one could then engage with it, rather than fall prey to it. In a way, I consider myself blessed to be a part of this scholarly community. And I believe I speak for all of us in wholeheartedly thanking the IWM – everyone who makes the IWM function and come alive – for the incredible support and encouragement they gave us during this time. If “dissertational inspiration” really has more to do with complicating and determining the problem addressed in our work rather than answering it, it is the entire community at the IWM that protects us from becoming paralyzed before this ever growing and expanding problem.
These days I often find myself reading the challenging and beautiful short piece by Jean-Luc Nancy, “What is to be done?” There he succinctly outlines what is at stake in the political, that more often than not theory and praxis become destructively intertwined in the urgency of the present historical situation – knowing what to do intimately implies and assumes also knowing what is right to think, and vice versa. The danger of this union in its exigency becomes two-fold: either a circular paralysis forms, beginning with not know what to do and thereby doing nothing or acting irresponsibly, or, reversely, having a goal too utopian that it is impossible to act upon; or, even more maddening, such theory-praxis towards a solution threatens to trap us into a single-minded, straight path that only leads to justifying brutality – i.e. forcing upon others the way the world “should” be, having a vision that includes all others at whatever (whoever’s) expense.
But is there another way? Foucault gives this practical advice, one of several in expressing an “art of living counter to all forms of fascism”:
“Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.”
Learning together at the IWM how to open ourselves and our way of thinking toward the problem itself is the only effective way to also open a space to experiment – in both thought and action. Thereby we strive to create multiple ways to break out of the negative prescriptions in which history confines us. Well, yes, surely it is not so clean and formulaic, but this is the challenge I feel called in my work to verify in practice. In so saying, none of us are blind to the risks that such provocative inspiration takes on – I believe each of our articles are honestly careful in that respect. As Nancy writes in his reflection, “Invention is always without model and without warranty. But indeed that implies facing up to turmoil, anxiety, even disarray.” In facing up to the problem, in taking on these risks together, as a community we are also learning a practice of hope – for it is a practice that calls up the strength to deal with life in its complexity without seeking simple (disastrous) solutions.
The crucial difference is this: Instead of dismissing or limiting our relation to the problem by attempting to answer it, we strive to always rethink the problem anew, complicate and determine its variations and resonances, all in order to constantly engage with it. There is nothing indecent about that exposure. It is a practice driven as much by uncertainty as it is by a disenchanted hope; hence the constant need of provocative inspiration (community). As Nancy concludes his piece, “Where certainties come apart, there too gathers the strength that no certainties can match.”
Finally, because none of us pretends to give any answers or “conclusions” in our articles, these works are truly an invitation to continue the conversation. We hope that you, the reader, will also be inspired to do so.
1. I am following the work of Gilles Deleuze, especially elaborated upon in The Logic of Sense and Difference and Repetition, with regard to this orientation toward the problem, itself.
2. Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Retreating the Political. Ed. Simon Sparks. London: Routledge, 1997. pp. 157-8.
3. Michel Foucault. “Preface” in Anti-Oedipus, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. pg. xiii-xiv.
IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XXII
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Preferred citation: Walker, Vern. 2007. Indecent Exposures: A Personal
Introduction (As It Usually Is). In Indecent Exposures, ed. V. Walker, Vienna: IWM Junior
Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 22.