praxis and the unfinished conversation


[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — a letter addressed to the whole group and that comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I will share the letters here.]

1 June 2012

Dear friends,

As some of you know, the past few weeks have been a profound time for me. My father contracted pneumonia in mid-April. He rallied and transferred to a rehabilitation hospital early in May. Ultimately, his illness revealed deeper problems with his lungs and, sadly, he passed on the 27th. We buried him yesterday. He was 89.

I was able to sit with my father in his final hours and to learn with him as he reflected upon his mortality. It was both a sacred experience and disorienting. I am grateful for his trust in me and for allowing me to be present with him. Our final hours together have certainly shaped my grief and allowed me to be more present to my mother, and to others I love.  I am certain that I will be sorting through our shared experience, as well as my feelings and reflections, for some time. At the moment, I’m doing well, and balancing some sadness with a greater sense of gratitude.

As I planned the semester, I intended this preface letter to be focused on praxis. There’s something odd about the intersection of my father’s passing and this intention because any passing raises questions of how a person has lived – and this is at the conceptual core of praxis.

As I sat with my father it became clear that we had different languages for many of the things we needed and wanted to discuss. The things we needed to say to each other had a lot to do with articulating or clarifying the ways in which we’d lived and the choices we’d made. I think we both felt a need to make evident how we had lived according to our values – and to find those places where our values had consilience. Because we were aware of the shortness of our time, I felt an urgency to translate between our languages and to work hard to find a common language. This feels a little startling as I write it, but our communication process wasn’t so different from the way I experience teaching and art making. And it’s also not so different from our degree criterion about praxis, which I might define quickly as a process of embodying and enacting values, theories, or critically interrogated beliefs.

I’ve been startled at the past couple of residencies when I’ve heard graduating students talk about “my praxis.” I honestly don’t know if this is proper usage or not, but it seems strange to me to claim praxis as if it is a thing we can materially possess. Praxis seems to me to be more like becoming; a process worthy of regular and on-going attention, but never fully realized. In my own experience I’ve come to understand praxis, to use Maxine Greene’s phrase, as an unfinished conversation.

You may know that I worked with the faculty committee that revised the MFA-IA degree criteria a couple of years ago. We faced some of these questions in that work, too. Beginning with an establish set of degree criteria — that had been interpreted in many ways over time – we engaged in a process that tried to bring to common language experience and knowledge that’s been amassed through the process of teaching and learning over 16 years.  It was challenging work because advisors have come to understand the concepts embedded in the degree criteria through their disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective and have also learned from students how various creative practices can fully engage the degree criteria.  And yet, rightly, as a program we need to be accountable for there being an embodied and enacted dialectic between the degree criteria and the way we teach.

In the process of revising the degree criteria, we attempted to create some new resources in the MFA-IA handbook addendum that might conceptually clarify some ideas. I was charged with drafting something that might make praxis more broadly understandable. The passage below is draft of what I helped to develop (although the published version may have been slightly edited).

“Creative praxis: We can define creative praxis as the dialectic of theory and practice—the usual meaning of praxis—but we must add a particular spin: that the construction of new knowledge trumps all orthodoxies. That’s the creative addition.”  —Quoted from Goddard’s Third Century Plan. 

Praxis is one of two essential characteristics of Goddard’s educational vision. The College is committed to praxis because it believes that learning disconnected from the creation of knowledge always risks reproducing destructive and repressive ideas and practices.  Conversely, education that critically engages existing knowledge and that invites the creation and articulation of new knowledge is part of the long struggle to advance human freedom. Goddard believes that learners should not be mere consumers of ideas, but rather can enter into dialogue with them as co-authors.

Understood as a process, praxis is the way in which we enact, embody or realize ideas and theories in the world.  Several disciplines have adapted the notion of praxis, but within each lies the central concept of action that embodies theory and reflection.  Praxis works against the Cartesian division of mind and body; of knowing and doing which is at the root of Western thought and political structures.  Such a division makes it easy for people to choose contemplation over engagement or action over reflection, robbing us of the possibility that exists in the relationship between theory and practice. 

Paulo Frere, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, looks to the ways that theories of learning can enable greater political participation and catalyze social justice, and he defines praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” Similarly, in many spiritual traditions, practitioners are encourage to directly experience the nature of the Universe in unmediated ways, bringing the wisdom of the tradition into an embodied relationship with the world.  For political thinkers like Karl Marx, philosophy that only theorized or interpreted human experience was incomplete; the aim of philosophy, in his view, is to change the world. Christianity has a similar point of view.  The teaching of Jesus is not meant to be an abstraction for those who believe; it calls Christians to lives of radical empathy and action in service to social justice and human freedom. In American public life, the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fused these political and spiritual approaches to further the struggle to secure the civil rights of all people.

Praxis can be understood as an embodied form of critical thinking, as bell hooks invites us to consider:

“Thinking is an action. For all aspiring intellectuals, thoughts are the laboratory where one goes to pose questions and find answers, and the place where visions of theory and praxis come together. The heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know – to understand how life works.”

Extending this metaphor, for artists the making process – whether in a studio, performance space, as a process of writing, or in a community of co-creators – becomes a site of discovery and knowledge building.  Engaged and effective artists do not reproduce the forms, styles, concerns, or meaning of those who came before us.  Rather the making process, when critically engaged with the ideas of those in our creative lineage and those who share our concerns, becomes a means through which thinking can fully become action in the world.  The ideas that inspire us to undertake our making process enter into dialogue with the forms we choose to express our meaning. For interdisciplinary artists this is especially evident in the process of applying different methods and forms to different questions, and in their understanding that engaging with different discourses  — intellectual, political, social, creative — requires different strategies. 

For artists, praxis is often most evident in the process of sharing creative work. When artists bring their work into conversation with an audience, they are both closing the circle of their making process and opening up a new dialectical process. In bringing work to audience, artists return their learning, perspective, and ways of knowing — having gathered experience, developed that experience by critically engaging it with the experience and thinking of others, shaping it into forms that will express and relay meaning, — in an effort to advance human thinking and enliven the world. This process parallels John Dewey’s idea that learning is not complete until it is applied back to the world.

Unpacking this a bit more, there are actions and ways of knowing that can be held in our bodies, just as there are ways that knowledge can be contained in texts, or in stories.  Walking is an example of how knowledge is held by the body.  One can map our biology and explain the neurological phenomenon necessary for walking – toward the idea of creating a theory of walking – but that won’t necessarily help you walk better. No matter how detailed and accurate our map, the embodied experience of walking will always mean more to us, as walkers, than any language attempting to explain walking.

This may be true about artistic forms, too. What we can convey about human experience through dance, images, performance, music, and literary forms may ultimately be indescribable through an expository voice. Yet, we often need the expository voice – a common language – to make the invitation to artistic form and to make connections between our forms and other ways of knowing.   Through a common language we’re often able to establish a dialogue between intuitive, embodied, spiritual, and rational ways of knowing – helping us to advance our understanding.  As people who potentially will be teachers this set of skills is also critical to communicating with students who might be approaching a new language for the first time.  Indeed, we might think of our approach here as a kind of bi- or multi-lingualism.

Audre Lorde, speaks of the intuitive ways of knowing in terms of the “erotic.”  Her use of the word doesn’t mean sexual, but rather, “The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.  It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”  She goes on to say, “The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony.”  I understand this to mean that acts of creation are often most compelling because we feel them deeply within our body – and that they often operate at a non-verbal, but fully embodied and human, level.

In terms of translation, Lorde goes on to write, “Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, “It feels right to me,” acknowledges the strengths of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. ”And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born.  The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.”

As I consider these ideas, I see the arts as a critical tool in healing a breach in human experience.  The Cartesian Divide – based in Rene Descartes famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” which splits the mind and body in our way of understanding ourselves – sets the stage for a hierarchy of knowledge.  We understand this each time someone asks for the research that proves a point. Scientific, rational knowledge is valued more than ways of knowing that are based in the body’s intuition. The arts, when engaged with a process of translation to a common language, provide a potential antidote to the divide between thinking and feeling, language and action. My own efforts to engage with this mode of translation – not as an ultimate end, but as a tool – help me to see my art practice in more holistic ways and to convey my meaning to a wider audience.

When I make evident my preoccupations, themes and intentions as a painter – when I share the conversations in which I’m engaged with other painters across history – I am not diminishing the formal concerns within my work.  Instead I see it as a process of inviting the viewer to understand better how marks, color, light, space, rhythm, feeling, and, indeed, narrative content within an image can engage with, can connect to their experience.  In my view, without that effort on my part, I can expect no viewer to care about what I make – and I should expect that, because artists so often alienate potential audience, fewer and fewer people will care about my form or bother to learn its language.

So, to conclude this, I realize that in this letter I’m risking a schism of my own.  By creating a binary between the language in our forms and a common language, I’m making a separation.  I’m also risking that you interpret my use of “translation” as something that’s disembodied.  I intend neither thing and hope that you’ll see relationships and a dynamic process within and between these ways of knowing.  For me, that’s where Praxis lives.  We can be many things at once, we can engage multiple ways of knowing, and we can live in the relationship between them. It’s my sense that great power resides in this place.

I also realize that the ideas in this letter might not entirely cohere and would benefit from further refinement.  I think there’s a fuller essay implied by what I’ve written – and I hope to get to it in future days.  So, please receive this letter as an example of “thinking out loud,” or, at least, a work in progress!  In any case, I hope it is useful.

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