Pragmatics and Problematics: Art and the Philosophy of Error

This document has been adapted from a paper given at the Art and Politics Conference, May 2012 at CONCEPT The Nottingham Centre for Normative Political Theory at the School of Politics and International Relations, The University of Nottingham

This paper outlines a creative framework for questioning the hierarchy of values that are associated with the cultural opposition, ‘expert’ and ‘amateur’. The creative framework is set up as a parameter for exploring how the work of art in alliance with the work of thought can appropriate what is problematic or contested in material and discursive practices, which give rise to a stable, coherent and rational individual; the embodiment of an expertise who desires to be right. This alliance will begin with Zepke’s question of how to extend Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘concept of sensation across the break with painting achieved by Minimalism and Conceptual Art’ (Zepke, 2009: 183), as part of a wider movement toward a critical-material pragmatics for everyday life. In Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical journey into ‘the force of things’ (Bennett, 2010: 1-19), art can produce the chance materialism of the critical encounter, its ‘cutting edge’ being the craft of indeterminacy and enterprise in events, as the artist becomes a differential agent in what is at once anomalous and contested in the ongoing re-production of our experience of the material world.

This line of enquiry will develop potentials in agency that draw upon rather than resist the flows of bureaucratic, scientific-technical, pedagogic and cultural energies, which find stability in the info-structures of contemporary life. In making connections between specific situations across various social domains, we will attempt to develop an open source pragmatics, shaped by an enquiry into what is problematic in the practices of instrumental rationality, a perspective informed by a paper given at the ICA in 1995 by the conceptual art group Art and Language, entitled We Aimed to be Amateurs. In their discussion, the artist emerges as one who specialises in contingency by rigorously making the mistake a positive condition of practice, not in terms of being right or wrong, but as variation and modulation, the difference occurring: where becoming amateur informs an alliance with life, in the sense that ‘life – and this is its radical feature – is that which is capable of error’ (Foucault, 1998: 476). And if the approach of conceptual art is contingent by design it may also be considered ‘radically incomplete’ (Art & Language in Alberro ed. 2000: 444) its techniques approximate to critical tools that operate in the ‘gaps and connections between the pictorial and the textual, spaces in which much cultural aggravation was and is possible’ (ibid: 445). Discontinuity and happen-chance provide the necessary break from ‘business as usual’ to allow for a type of non-expertise to flourish and counteract the closure of what is ‘known to work’ in a given situation.

In becoming amateur the contemporary artist follows new lines of enquiry, dipping into things, tinkering, inventing, trying things out, exploiting the chance encounter. This contingent, partial and non-linear tendency becomes an aleatory art of subjectivity, and to some degree aligns itself with Foucault’s ‘historian of rationalities’…who in practice becomes a ‘philosopher of error’ (1998: 477), insofar as error or anomaly provides the basis for posing philosophical problems, which enable us to explore the unknowns that could work better in a situation that is not yet given. In the cultural dynamic that establishes legitimacy between words and things, the problematic counteracts the polemic by asking after the conditions of possibility for opposing views; it is minor but profound as a ‘work of thought’ (Foucault, 1984: online). What is amateur in the non-expertise of the conceptual artist complements this critical position; it is a craft in materiality and discourse, a sensitivity to the flaws and fault lines in knowledge and practice, which in the process counteracts the authority of becoming expert, the right to exercise the objectivity of knowledge in very specific social situations. In its evolution from a critical and pragmatic work of thought, the work of art reverberates in the ‘Kantian Channel’ (Foucault in Raunig, 2008: online) of European Modernism, and asks after the contemporary possibility of a material critique, capable of making differences without recourse to institutional forms of expertise.

The tendency of the University to superimpose research models on what is already artistic method with a life of its own, reflects a wider social desire to professionalise and control innovation, when it should be acknowledged as a horizontal phenomenon that emerges unexpectedly from thousands of everyday practices. As Ranciere argues, art’s tendency toward indeterminacy, its capacity to open up an as yet unmade and unrealised world of things, is grounds to question its delimitation within an institutional pedagogy; ‘artworks can produce effects of dissensus precisely because they neither give lessons nor have any destination’ (2010, 140). Art can at least question the institutional limits of the experience of learning, in creative versions of the ‘agonism’ (Foucault in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982: 222), the ‘permanent provocation’ (ibid: 222) which questions the University’s established codes of conduct, especially when the learning experience sediments into knowledge hierarchies based on the degree to which a discipline qualifies as ‘objective’. The struggle for an independent creative method, based in material practice, is one that perpetually comes up against the ‘subject supposed to know’ (Lacan, 1998: 230-243) of the research hierarchy, whereby the figures of knowledge tend to assert their objectivity as a rational cover for making decisions that act as injunctions on creative expression.

In the struggle to restore method to art and sensation to learning, Walter Benjamin’s standalone technique in One Way Street (1928) provides a useful starting point that does not ‘expound any theory but its constellations of images, aphorisms and juxtapositions are intended to be a form of thinking in pictures (Bilddenken) from which understanding emerges’ (Macey, 2000: 38). Benjamin’s approach initiated a positive move towards a form of pragmatic expression, although the work of art (more as object than process) was tied to a point of critical reflection for making differences in understanding, which emerge from the artwork as the representation of a dialectical image.

The conventions of this critical position rely on a certain kind of expertise or authority, and the distance it maintains between art and the material relations of a given situation. In becoming amateur we may collapse this distance into the pragmatics of experience, as expressed in artworks such as Touch Sensitive (2002), which thinks materially through Pistoletto’s Vietnam (1962-5) in an effort to overcome the expert conventions of critical distance, and the viewer’s desire to get in touch with the materiality of the situation. The informational craft of Touch Sensitive is implicated in the material feedback of perception, where Merleau Ponty’s experience becomes a thing to be grasped, a creative attitude toward a possible task, a spatiality not of position but one of situation, where thought and vision are intertwined with a tactile history of experience (Connolly in Coole and Frost eds. 2010: 182).

How to grasp modernity in action becomes a ‘properly artistic problem’ in (McMahon, 2002: 5), whose critical refrain on the event of the beautiful in Kant, re-composes Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, to set up the possibility of a pragmatic and minor aesthetics, in the face of a scale and complexity in modernity that exceeds human comprehension (the sublime). The conventions of critical distance are breached by shifting from the reflective position of the ‘here and now’, to the event of the situation. This critical maneuver has potential for developing a productive register, because it situates the aesthetic as a third term between the organic and the technical, and embraces the creative indifference of mechanism, which in Kant, at the level of sensation alone, corresponds to the industrious art of manufacture. The work of art can take place at ‘any moment whatever’ (ibid: 7) in the expression of what McMahon qualifies as ‘machinic beauty’. A given state of affairs becomes a mobile situation of force amongst forces, with the potential to breakdown the recognisable and create new things; it is ‘the dynamism of the beautiful and its capacity to provoke thought’ (McMahon, 2002: 7), where understanding gives way to expression, and ‘mistakes’ become positive differences with unknown values.

Producing the Problematic

‘The dynamism of the ‘beautiful’ found traction in a creative process that emerged after a period of research at the Wellcome Trust into the scientific rationalisation of emotion, which became an object of enquiry due to the sheer quantity of competing definitions and explanations it yielded. This highly unstable object of knowledge is a contested space in the production of subjectivity, but is often seen as that which makes us human in our difference from machines. The drive to become an emotional expert, to get to know it by ‘counting the affects’ (Dror: 2001), to isolate its mechanisms, and predict its effects, opened up a path for a material critique of the scientist’s desire for objectivity in the specification of our emotional being. A form of constructive criticism became possible by situating ‘machinic beauty’ in the differential agency between experience and experiment. This critical assemblage consisted of three key components. First, from research into scientific histories of emotion, a machinic figure called ‘the mechanical Freud’ as one of many ‘affect gauging technologies’ (Dror, 2001: 367) developed since the 1920’s, which translate the contingency of affect into measurable data or information, normally in the visual form of a graph. Second, an artistic strategy of serial reproduction based around the pivot chord from music, which acts as a type of interference pattern when ‘modulation in the common chord is labelled with its function in the both the original and destination keys, as it can be seen either way’ (Persichetti, 1961: online). And third, a paragraph in What is Philosophy (1994), which hints at troublesome combinations of art, philosophy and science;

the interfering discipline must proceed with its own methods…these slidings are so subtle… that we find ourselves on complex planes that are difficult to qualify…[for example] partial observers introduce into science sensibilia that are sometimes close to aesthetic figures on a mixed plane. (ibid: 217)

The question emerged as to what is the difference between the ‘scientific image of emotion’ (Dror: 1999) and its becoming amateur in the ‘machinic vision’ of the artist? In the interfering discipline the artist goes critical, so to speak, by generating instabilities in an established regime of expertise, and in the process destabilises its object of knowledge. In the serial production of affects, a critical agent becomes a modulation of the mechanical Freud, and asks after the desire of the scientist to be ‘right’, as the ‘subject supposed to know’ of emotion. The desire to know something becomes entangled with the desire to create something, whereby ‘the conditions of a true critique and a true creation are the same: the destruction of an image of thought which presupposes itself and the genesis of the act of thinking in thought’ (Deleuze in Zepke, 2005: 19) In order to reveal new capacities in the material world we sometimes have to act without knowing in problematic spaces. Art is an intelligence key for unlocking new potential and deriving unknown values; it is not symmetrical with existing states of affairs, but connects their flaws and problematics by taking unexpected journeys across different domains of social practice.

A similar procedure was applied to the emotion diagrams of affective neuroscience, which provide an image of the process that encodes emotion in a type of informational flow. The brain becomes a neural exchange for translating between affect and cognition, where ‘feeling an emotion also includes the mapping of changes in the cognitive processing style, as well as the evocation of thoughts that are congruent with the feeling state’ (Damasio, 2004: 52). In terms of affect, ‘the dynamism of the beautiful’ is expressed in the emotion diagram at a pre-subjective level, but moving up one level to the physical world of people and things, it has creative potential as an ‘abstract machine’ or diagrammatic method for re-distributing the affects of materiality, technology and discourse on the social strata. As Marks comments on Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon;

The diagram is different from the structure in that it refers to a system in disequilibrium, rather than a closed system of equivalence and exchange… This image is best thought of as that of the problem or the problematisation (Marks, 1995: 75).

The diagram is more real than our received experience of the day to day because it leads us back to the creative dynamics that give rise to the relations that govern our perceived physical world, it originates, as a radical potential for forming new relations and ‘possible worlds’; as Zepke argues, Deleuze and Guattari’s materialism is “flush with the real”, and radical because it offers the possibility of creating ‘a realm of experimentation that opens up life to alternate modes of being, affirming new realities, new communities and new methods of self-organisation (Zepke, 2005: 9); and we might argue that these are the necessary conditions for experimenting with emergent forms of social enterprise.

Mainframe was a prototype artwork that evolved between 2004 and 2006 as one such method of self-organisation, which aimed to restore to art the possibility of an ‘open-source pragmatics’, a de-coded public space, indeterminate, open ended and creative in intent, something like a cultural diagram for the re-distribution of a Renaissance perspective, in experimental forms of networked materiality. It was originally set up as a collaborative agency or ‘shared drive’ for the expression of the ‘mechanical Freud’, to counteract the University’s injunctions on creative production, and its desire for ‘intellectual rigour’ in art. Mainframe developed through trial and error into a problematic, grass roots institution, a transformed creative bureaucracy with no rationale, other than to exist as a productive force. ‘Machinic beauty’ was expressed through Mainframe in a pragmatics of sensation, by combining an aesthetics of administration from conceptual art with the dynamism of the Dada machine, which ‘expresses in its content what it has already made clear by its form, a way of producing production, a willing of further machinic agencies. (Gaffney, 2006: 31). In a similar approach, we can develop the enterprise of enterprise creation, in techniques that allow us to harvest the value of anomaly and error across diverse business ecologies, which at first would have no specific rationale other than experimentation through connection.

In Mainframe, rationale is made subordinate to method by introducing the artisan’s sensitivity to the material flows of information or its thing-ness, as it emerges in practice. Semiotic energies are transformed and exchanged, viewers are activated as producers, and unknown capacities are released from the expressive trajectories of art. As contingent by design, Mainframe’s collective agency self-organised into a renegade institution, by plugging into the power of Otlet’s book machine,

The Book as an Instrument of Abstraction…a condensed intellectual force, that in the manner of steam, electricity and gunpowder, which, with a small material volume, after ignition and release, produces a considerable expansive force in the brain’ (Otlet in Day, 2001: 18).

The only difference being that in Mainframe, objects/images, or modulated sequences of objects/images were emphasised above combinations of words, in the reciprocal movement between the work of art and the work of thought.

There used to be such things as Art movements that were transversal (moved across domains) in a cultural sense: Dada, Fluxus, Situationist International, Arte Povera, and elements within Autonomia, whose expanded field of aesthetic practices held out the promise of social transformation through lived experience. Mainframe is part of the same tradition, which today takes place in networks of ‘creative ecologies’, which against all odds, continue to act as ‘path-breakers for subjective development, and as guidance in responsibly negotiating refrains’ (Guattari in Genosko, 2008: 110). One only need to look toward the EIPCP for a milieu of cultural techniques, whose ecology of praxis is approximate to the creative domain of this paper, or groundbreaking exhibitions such as Control Space at ZKM, which considered the ‘rhetorics of surveillance’ through the shifting relations between design and power, or more locally, Hinterland whose creative ecology emerged over a three year period from the chance proximity to the complex and shifting geographical mix along the banks of the River Trent and its tributaries. If art is to assume a fundamental role in transforming the social fabric, it must increase its potential for remaking practices such as these, a guide for ‘subjectivity in finding a position, a ‘node’ around which territory can be built’ (Genosko, 2009: 113), where ‘universes of meaning find affirmation’ (ibid: 113) and new lines of enterprise and existence become works in progress.


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