Chair Interview

Robert Hullot-Kentor interviewed by Breixo Viejo

The Spanish-born film scholar, Breixo Viejo, visited Robert Hullot-Kentor—the chair of the recently founded program in Critical Theory and the Arts—to discuss the rigorous three-semester course of study. The program, Hullot-Kentor says, “is meant for students who have a lot on their minds and who very much want to have a whole lot more on their minds.” … “The year focuses on the contemporary situation of art in a way that involves the entire history of art and society and the most urgent concerns we have about our lives.”

BREIXO VIEJO (BV): Bob, we’ve known each other for some years already, back from when I was a graduate student making a video on Hanns Eisler’s and Adorno’s book on film music…

HULLOT-KENTOR (HK): Sure, you don’t need to remind me, Breixo. You wanted to interview me about the book on film music that Adorno wrote with the composer, Hanns Eisler…

BV: …and instead you hypnotized my video equipment!

HK: That’s what you get; you didn’t want to be hypnotized…

BV: …and you didn’t want to be photographed…

HK: So, I took it out on the machinery.

BV: The camera was still hypnotized when I got back to Spain! How did you do that?

HK: That’s not the important part.

What matters is that you never figured out that, while I pretended to hypnotize the camera, you were watching with a very special sort of attention.

BV: You mean it?

HK: Obviously. You can’t hypnotize a camera; think about it. Anyway, I didn’t mean any harm. Wasn’t it a lot of fun?

BV: We got nothing done.

HK: No. True. Nothing. Still, Breixo, it was for the greater good. Did anything get broken?

BV: What’s past is past, I guess… HK: …oh, I doubt that…

BV: …It’s a figure of speech; I doubt it too. But, now I’m interviewing you, instead, about the graduate program in Critical Theory and the Arts that you’ve started at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. It’s a big undertaking, I know. Is this something you just got into in the last couple of years?

HK: No. I’ve had this on my mind at least since graduate school.

BV: That means you would have had plenty of time to think about it, because I know you spent a lot of years in graduate school. You went from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to clinical psychology, got some other degree in psychology, and ended up in Europe studying philosophy and literature in Germany and France before you finished a doctorate in Comparative Literature.

HK: It’s true. I’ve rattled around a lot, studying. There’s more to it than that, but in the ’80s when I could have been finishing my degree there weren’t any jobs for anyone, and definitely not in the universities, and I figured I’d be better off staying in school.

BV: How did you manage?

HK: I’m not sure I did. I had a theory back then, for my amusement, the “Stay-at-Home Theory of Surplus Value.” It had one thesis: “Capitalism needs us more than we need it, so if we stay home, they’ll send checks.”

BV: Did it work?

HK: No. What do you think? No. No checks arrived. But there were a lot of credit cards, and, along with there being no worthwhile jobs around, I had decided that youth was most of all for debt and travel, and altogether the moment to get the education that I was sure I would never get later on if I ended up selling shoes.

BV: And you wanted to get an education in everything?

HK: Not at all. I’m not an omnivore; and even if I wanted to be, I don’t have that cast of mind. I enjoy hearing someone put on the show, but that’s not me. I’ve always had the sense of being interested in one thing.

BV: And what’s that?

HK: It’s one thing that is very hard to say. And it’s because it is so hard to say what that is, that I went from one graduate program to the next, trying to find the right place to study. I couldn’t help thinking a lot about the kind of graduate program I’d put together if it were up to me.

BV: Now it is up to you to make what you just called, “the right place to study.” The program started in the Fall, 2012. What is it turning out to be? It must be hard to put in a couple of sentences.

HK: It is hard to put in a few sentences, but there are things I like to say about the program.

BV: For instance?

HK: I like saying that the year is meant for students who have a lot on their minds and who very much want to have a whole lot more on their minds.

BV: I’m a bit that way myself. But, that doesn’t say what the year is.

HK: No, it doesn’t; but it is a big clue.

BV: How about another big clue, then? From those things you like to say…

HK: That while most of the United States is busy doing remedial education, Critical Theory and the Arts is devoted to irremediable education. At the end of the year, a student in the program glancing in a mirror might look about the same as at the beginning of the year, but for those eyes looking, quite a lot will have changed.

BV: What you’re saying about education in the U.S.— that it has become largely remediation—is so concerning; that’s happening too in Spain and throughout the EU. In education everyone has noticed. It seems the words themselves are vanishing; literally vanishing. What Mallarmé called ‘the words of the tribe’ are going up in smoke. Most all education now is busy trying to shore up one side of the sand castle while the other side is washing away; and that’s supposed to be an education. I suspect we could all use some irremediable education, right about now. More clues…

HK: How about we try some clues by negation and say what the year is by stipulating what it isn’t? First of all, the year’s study is not a Grand March of the Cognoscenti….

BV: Cognoscenti?

HK: You know, “those in the know.”

BV: But, there are very interesting and distinguished people, artists and intellectuals, who visit the program during the year.

HK: That’s true. But, these are our colleagues; they are people we’ve known for many years and whose work the faculty has been interested in and studying for a long time; they are people we’re involved with; we don’t dole out charismatic visits from ‘famous artists and scholars’ to supposedly lucky onlookers. The people we invite join substantially in the year’s discussion.

BV: We’ve done clues; we’ve tried it by negation; say something substantive about the program.

HK: Wait — there’s lots more that I like to say about what the program isn’t. But, you want substance, you get substance: The year focuses on the contemporary situation of art in a way that involves the entire history of art and society and the most urgent concerns we have about our lives. And it is only possible to do this—to shape and discuss these most urgent concerns—because the program focuses on the contemporary situation of art. The problems and questions of making art today—what art has become, and is becoming—and understanding what is at stake in the relation of these questions to contemporary social conflict: that’s what defines the program. Incidentally, this isn’t a specialty program of some sort; it’s the heart of the matter.

BV: “The heart of the matter.”

HK: Honest, I’d rather you didn’t quote me.

BV: Honest injun, isn’t that what gringos like to say?

HK: Injun? I don’t know Breixo; that’s mostly a mid- Westernism. But, honest, Breixo, most anyone who has taught for a long time probably thinks about education in very serious, and perhaps even lofty terms that, when stated out loud while riding around on the back of one’s imaginary steed, may not carry all that well in public—especially in a country where educational reform is being self-evidently modeled, kindergarten through college, on testable prerequisites oriented to the ideal MBA. So I’ll heed my own advice here and keep those thoughts about education largely to myself except to say that I recognize that students today feel deprived of the truth, and even angry at that deprivation. Education needs to respond to this impulse in students, though without presuming that truth were something we might hold between our hands and dispense as from a jug.

BV: And you think of the program in Critical Theory and the Arts as responding to that impulse in students?

HK: It’s definitely not a one-year program in computer repair.

BV: Let me ask you more. You have a central faculty and several Graduate Associates; and, in addition, there are a number of participating visitors to the program. But what about those “Graduate Associates” ? I don’t know the phrase.

HK: It is special to this program. The Graduate Associates are advanced doctoral candidates. They are on the faculty—first of all—because they are terrifically intelligent, capable and engaged colleagues, and no less because they provide an historical depth of field in the generations participating in the program. The United States, by contrast, is otherwise strictly age segregated: you know, “I’m in fifth grade; I don’t talk to fourth graders.” That kind of thing.

BV: It’s true what you’re saying. In Europe, older and younger people are often together—here, you don’t see it.

HK: You really don’t; the ages and generations in the U.S. are quarantined off from each other in commercial bantustans of time, each with a marketing tag: Baby Boomers, GenX, Millennials, and so. We’re all aware of this; it’s one of the few things we all do know in a sort of absolute way. America hardly ever thinks about the
question of the possible reconciliation of the generations; the conflict is economically functional.

BV: But if the nation doesn’t thematize the question of the possible reconciliation of the generations, you have made the question part of the structure of the program in your faculty?

HK: Right. I might have fully staffed the program with colleagues from my own cohort, the old bears, from universities around the city; they would have come bounding out of the woods ready for September. But, with the Graduate Associates, we have faculty of several generations. This deepens the teaching and improves the advising of students, and makes the program more interesting for the faculty themselves. As the Occupy Movement made clear a few years ago, the generations have much to say to each other, and I’m sure we are only at the beginning of that.

BV: The curriculum couldn’t be more ambitious: aesthetics, art theory, political philosophy, social theory, social history, psychoanalysis, and art history.

HK: It is a lot, but the curriculum fits together coherently and dynamically in an education that, as I said earlier, involves one thing that happens to be very hard to say.

BV: Maybe you could say more about what this “one thing” is? But, in any case, the program is altogether interdisciplinary.

HK: You mean calling it “interdisciplinary” as a compliment, I know. I also know there’s no escaping it; but I’m not so content with the program being thought of as “interdisciplinary.”

BV: You’re against it?

HK: Not exactly; some good things have come of it. But interdisciplinary programs tend to be slack: “Invent your own MA; we teach everything; come to school, choose from hundreds of classes.” The critique of knowledge is more complex and more demanding than whatever the healing salts of interdisciplinarity might cure. Knowledge is not additive. And the argument for “breaking down the boundaries” between the disciplines is, however distantly, akin to those “get government off our back” impulses that have been all-but-unconsciously transposed from national ideology to education. It is not pleasant to consider, but interdisciplinary education seems to devolve from the same process of rationalization that gave us the free market ideology of neo-liberalism.

BV: Still, what are you saying? I can jump ahead to your point about interdisciplinary studies as, paradoxically, the instrumentalization of knowledge—as the subjectivization of knowledge; and maybe then it isn’t so different from education that has been drastically reduced to the business model and an open-market mentality. But, from the outside anyway, reading through the course descriptions of Critical Theory and the Arts, the program looks about as “interdisciplinary” as any education there ever was.

HK: That’s the point; it’s not. There is a distinction between “come invent your own education in our graduate interdisciplinary program,” and a program organized so that one moment, one course and each course is brought into a relation with other moments in such a way that each part of the program sheds light on the rest of the…

BV: …I see; I see…

HK: You do?

BV: Yes; it has to do with something I had wanted to discuss with you in our interview on Eisler and Adorno that never happened—it’s the question of constellations of concepts in Adorno’s work. And what you were just saying about the structure of the program in Critical Theory and the Arts made me realize that it is less designed as an interdisciplinary program that adds one field of inquiry to another, than as a program constructed exactly in terms of what Adorno called “constellations” of knowledge.

HK: It is that. The critique of knowledge is not in supposing that wiping out the distinctions between disciplines will do the trick. Those disciplines are as forcibly and objectively in conflict with each other as is the entire social division of labor with itself. Here, as elsewhere, thinking is motivated by the experience of these conflicts, not in avoiding them. On one hand, thought must have the conceptual capacity to tolerate the tension of reality; and, on the other, those concepts must be organized in such a fashion—Adorno called it ‘constellative’—as to potentially become conscious that reality is also something other than these concepts. Thought that thinks achieves something more than thought, as the fulfillment of knowledge, and not as its destruction or circumvention.

BV: So Critical Theory and the Arts isn’t an “art and philosophy program.”

HK: It’s really not. And the year’s study doesn’t involve writing mechanically trumped-up thirty-page papers that students barely care about and that no one will ever read anyway.

BV: But students do write in the program?

HK: They write a lot. By the end of the year, they’ve written quite a lot. But the students write and struggle to shape what they have to say—and to find that when they have succeeded, they have shaped it under the pressure of what needs to be said. That, and not the edifying posture of being a writer, is the source of whatever binding objectivity expression can achieve. The summer before I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I picked up a feisty hitchhiker in Belgium. I was a bit proud of my plans, I admit. But fate hadn’t sent this Diotima along to deliver encomia. That lady wanted to know—kind of right away, “What do you have to write about?” It did not feel good. But, it gave me a shake. I did not stay long in Iowa.

BV: So, the program in Critical Theory and the Arts is not art plus philosophy; and not art plus politics; and it’s not a writer’s program—though it intensely involves art, philosophy, politics and writing. We’re on a roll. What else isn’t the program?

HK: It’s also not a job preparation program. But it does lead somewhere, and in directions that are consider- ably more real than what those ominous “career paths”—with carefully inventoried “career skills”— claim to guarantee. An eye for reality is what education achieves when it is an education; if any, that’s the career path we provide. And that eye for reality is what is most of all needed in a nation that fears knowing itself for what it is, and, by that measure, fears knowing what it instead might be.

BV: “Paths” and “skills”—if you don’t mind my saying, America is full of all this Cub Scout stuff. But how can colleges and universities be built that way? Incidentally, did you see that article pass by some time ago about a group of young law school graduates who sued Brooklyn Law School because that “career path” turns out to be a dead end?

HK: I did. So on one hand, we are letting ourselves be crushed under a spuriously imposed pragmatism…

BV: What do you mean, ‘spuriously imposed pragmatism’?

HK: I mean, it is a delusional pragmatism; it is a trumped-up realism. It looks at you with a stern eye and tells you to buckle down. But very little of this stuff about going to school to study what you’ll do in your life is real. In the first place, most people—in the U.S., in any case—end up doing all kinds of things in a lifetime; historically people change jobs six to eight times. That’s the historical pattern. What’s happening now is something much more drastic: according to recent research, 40% of all current work will be done by computer by 2025…

BV: 40% of the jobs in the country are being computerized?

HK: That is the estimate. And, on the other hand, it has been estimated by the political economist, Gar Alperovitz, that if the national product were more equitably distributed, every family of four might have resources well in excess of $100,000 yearly. Why can’t the country know itself for what it is? How did we end up making life so hard for ourselves? And why can’t the nation comprehend its own possibilities?

BV: I gather that the possibility of finding any kind of answer to these questions concerns the problem of developing an eye for reality….

HK: Yes. That’s genuinely pragmatic; not buckling under a pseudo-rationality that confidently warns students away from pursuing what they most have a mind and talent to pursue; especially the legitimacy of serious study.

BV: In this regard, the motto you’ve chosen for Critical Theory and the Arts—that “Art knows us better than we know ourselves”—is intriguing. It comes from Adorno?

HK: From Current of Music. Adorno wrote several variations on the line, some published, some not. The epigram implies a series of questions. If we suppose that art knows us better than we know ourselves, how does art form this insight; how would we be able to know what that content is; and how would we be able to say it? That’s for starters.

BV: The answers to these questions would be very difficult to say.

HK: To my mind, it is one thing that is extremely hard to say.

BV: … …

HK: In any case, the motto is the middle point of the program; all of the year’s study—in aesthetics, social theory, art history, and the rest—is equidistant to that point. It is in thinking about art, and the contemporary situation of art, that the several courses bear on each other and become something more than interdisciplinary study.

BV: Is this a program for artists or for—it’s hard to find the right word— scholars?

HK: Both, for sure; there are those in the program each year who are most of all scholars—students who may or may not go on to get more advanced degrees. And there are artists who are taking a year away from the studio for more study. And then there are those who are both involved in making art and thinking about it. I meet that increasingly.

BV: Why is that?

HK: Again, that would be a lot to get into. But, the general point is that, as always, the artists who are emerging are those who can make what art now demands. And what it demands are artists who are intellectual to a considerable degree. How else could it be? There just isn’t any possibility for making art that matters in a straightforward way.

BV: Everything is up for grabs now, isn’t it.

HK: Yes, everything: what do you make art out of? What is painting, what is installation, what is dance, what is music?—which is which?—the arts no longer arrive one at a time, but keep turning up in a giant heap. Where does art belong, in a gallery or at the bottom of the ocean? Why are the materials at once so available and so recalcitrant? Why does every artwork, if it is going to succeed, need to throw something in front of itself to trip over? And as virtuosity has vanished as the sine qua non of art, the conception of the work has become overriding, and that conception tends to be intellectual or political in a way that runs contrary to what art historically has been.

BV: You’re picking up momentum.

HK: The point is, like it or not, the conceptual, reflective dimension that was once commonly held, self-evidently held, to be the opposite of art, now needs to be woven through art with every stitch—and artists who want to make anything must do an awful lot of thinking. I’m sure you’ve noticed: virtually all younger artists now also write about what they do and what they think art is and take part in what was once the rarified realm of social theory and aesthetics.

BV: So Critical Theory and the Arts is a program in contemporary studies?

HK: There you hit a nerve. Yes and no, in equal measure. It would like to be a program in contemporary studies in the sense that Joyce’s Ulysses is contemporary studies: one day in the life of a character that contains the whole of western history in its tensest reality. But while we have this insight into time, it has also slipped out of our understanding.

BV: What are you saying?

HK: I’m saying, in answer to your question whether this is a program in contemporary studies, that it is not at all clear what “contemporary” means. We have clues to it. We have some insights into a new idea of time that began to emerge in the early 20th century in which figures such as Joyce, El Lissitzsky, and Benjamin, understood something about the past as the origin within our own moment, not as a moment ‘back then.’ But what sense can a new idea of time have, if the idea of the new is itself palpably anathema? Try it out on your own lips. You can “rethink” all you want, “revisit,” and “reinvent” all you like. But don’t try anything new on us. The syllable won’t carry…

BV: Is it a program in contemporary studies, or not?

HK: The radical thoughts of modernism have lapsed. How can we have a sense of what “contemporary” means when, by any measure, the past is so broadly withheld from us as it now is? The thread of human history has snapped; the sense of imagination having gone slack measures this lapse. We talk about the past as if it occurred some forty-some miles from something called the present. Derrida didn’t help us out much at all with this by making “presence” a taboo and a madhouse, as if now everyone knows why that word bears a stigma.

BV: So, it is not a program in contemporary studies?

HK: What is there to be dogmatic about here? All we can do, is to consider the question of what it is to make art, and how to think about art in its vast history, as the unconscious transcription of the history of human suffering, when the thread of human history has snapped. We must look to grab a hold of these threads when there are really no threads at all to grab a hold of.

BV: Are you saying that there is nothing at all to take hold of, or that artworks are what we have when the thread of history has snapped?

HK: Now we really have something to talk about.*