Attending EGS in Switzerland


Attending the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland this past summer were second year RCID students Lauren Mitchell and Steven Holmes. They follow in the considerable footsteps of such international RCID-ers of mystery as Justin and Jason (2007), Amanda and Josh Abboud (2008), and Sergio and Anthony (2009). For 22 days, Lauren and Steven participated in one of the most intellectually demanding environments imaginable in the Western academic world.

If these hills were alive with the sound of music, they may not have noticed

Lauren and Steven arrived in the Zurich International Airport, and were able to make their way by train (3 hours to Visp) and then by bus (1 hour on a steady 45 degree incline), to the tiny village of Saas-Fee. The respective environments of Saas-Fee are diametrically opposed: a ski resort by winter and, as EGS faculty member Slavoj Zizek says, “summer camp for intellectuals” from June through August. The pastoral mountain scenery of the Alps initially greeted them with a misleading and breathtaking tranquility that was quickly unsettled by the challenge of attending six three-day seminars (three hours per seminar, two seminars per day plus an evening lecture) in the 2nd year Ph.D. track in Philosophy, Art, and Psychoanalysis.

Their first seminar was with renowned media and networks theorist Friedrich Kittler. His lectures did not fall short of his considerable reputation. Kittler moved effortlessly through 2,000 years of historiographies of electricity and communication, parsing logocentric interpretations of the evolution of technology from those more along the lines of its essence, spending the final seminar on the shift from the Gutenberg to the “Turing Galaxy” and the state(lessness) of the techno-political (dis)order to come. Expecting at least 100 Goethe and/or Heidegger references an hour, they were pleasantly surprised that Kittler devoted much time to drawing intricate circuit diagrams. Half of the seminar felt like an advanced electrical engineering lecture, and yet the complex material was tempered by the wealth of obscure historical and philosophical anecdotes and allegories that Kittler has collected throughout his decades of research (overall, the seminar provided an excellent materiality supplement of hardware-software-wetware genealogies that resonated with the logics of invention that RCIDers “do” with Gregory Ulmer’s electracy~SH). Evening lectures during the first session were given by MIT futurist engineer and environmental ecologist Joachim Miller and Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky on digital reproduction, copyright-left, and, of course, dj-ing and sampling.

Have you heard about his new Ipad DJ-ing app? Knowing-doing-‘sampling’ is more like it

They moved from media theory to potentially lethal dosages of deconstruction with the excellent Derridian scholar, rhetorician, and EGS Graduate Diane Davis from UT-Austin. Her task was HERculean: covering not only the fundamentals of Derrida’s thinking through such essential paracepts as iterability, signature, context, and his engagements with John Searle’s speech-act theory (whew!), but also fastidiously connecting these ideas to his work in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (which they read after “Signature, Event, Context”) and Of Hospitality. For those who ever suspected Derrida of being a thinker who can be ignored or downplayed in the apparatus shift from print literacy to networks, MMORPGs, multi- or intermedia, and digital technologies, Diane converted many unbelievers. She closed the seminar with arguments from her forthcoming book Inessential Solidarity (October, 2010).

Sylviere Lottringer, founder of Semiotext(e), celebrated translator and interpreter of past decades of Continental theory, delivered an engaging evening lecture on Immateriality through the work of Yves Klein and the International Situationists, and Joseph Beuys (the lecture, according to Sylviere, was light in contrast to his three days with the first-year students, however it filled a dozen pages in our notebooks~LM).

Although most wouldn’t think of Derrida and Lyotard’s projects as necessarily aligned, Diane Davis’s Jacques Derrida Seminar, in a strange way that those students who have survived RCID 801 and 802 will appreciate, ungrounded the EGS students in a way conducive to making (non)sense of  Victor Vitanza’s Jean-Francois Lyotard Seminar. If Diane deconstructed presence through the intralinguistic critique of phallogocentrism in Derrida, Victor introduced the intermedial (“third”) spaces of Discourse, Figure, Lyotard’s dissertation, from the first moments of seminar. After Just Gaming, Victor confounded many (in a productive way) with Lyotard’s idiosyncratic, performative, and singular gestures in Libidinal Economy, which we (speaking for the group of 10 or so who attended each class with us) read and discussed together on the second day.

For any who hold the misconception that EGS is only for theory wonks, please observe the following clip from Seminar:

Two (bonus!) day viewings were from Bang the Drum Slowly by John D. Hancock and Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream to show performaces of, respectively, the card game of “tegwar” (think “Calvinball” but with even fewer rules~SH) and the differend in relationship to aboriginal land dispossession.

By this point, if such a thing could be said, a running theme throughout the seminars emphasized by both Victor and Diane (as well as by Kittler) had emerged that, in our opinion, is of crucial importance for RCIDers to contemplate. All urged their EGS students to realize that these theoretical excurses and ways of thinking such as deconstruction, non-positive affirmation, and the libidinal economy do not necessarily result in moral-ethical-political passivity, relativism, or nihilism. As Diane convincingly demonstrated, the argument that without the Good and the True there can only be an “anything goes” mentality still presupposes the a priori validity and foundation of a known physis in which relativism could be posited as a ‘lack’ of some-thing that should be known and described. In other words, cries of relativism still inherently labor within a mimetic, epistemic, and negated ontology.

By contrast, from the Nietzschean position, as Jean-Luc Nancy reiterated in the fourth seminar (see, we were going somewhere with this line of thinking~LM &SH), it is only once ratio (pre-determined calculations of means and end), prescriptives derived from descriptives, and negation are abandoned, that ‘responsibility,’ judgment (in an unconditional and pure indetermination), and obligation from the other in his/her Otherness can actually come into singular existence (ec-stasis). The Other could even be found, as Davis suggested through a re-thinking of Kafka’s cockroach. Victor’s “third spaces” are well-known to the RCID community. Along these lines, Kittler closed his seminar with a caustic comment that the Other as machine – once prosthetics become less visible (say, in the eye, for instance) – may also challenge the human as an autonomous, self-contained center. Not only ‘cyber’-ethics will do it these days –

Thus Spoke EGS!!! Friedrich Kittler!

Ask not what ends you have for your technological means, but ask what ends your technological means may have for you!

We (LM&SH) feel as though these thoughts are worth mentioning because many in RCID may wonder (at times) whether these so-called “high theorists” really have any sense of political engagement or effectivity. The answer: they do, but only with an indeterminate disfiguration of the political through affect-ivity!

Where Friedrich Kittler employed networks, Davis utilized linguistic signification, and Victor explored figural singularities, Nancy mobilized the History of Art. The basic topos was this: a way to re-think the relationship among art and philosophy through of a quasi-Heideggerian ‘mystery’ that was simultaneously unveiled at the culimination (kairos) of an artistic process of invention and then veiled before re-cognition or essential description could occur. To put it crudely: the change from mimetic and representational realism to non-mimetic and non-representational forms. Nancy saw deep philosophical implications with a novel reading of Kantian aesthetics as an underexplored nexus of the interrelationship between theories of art and philosophy. Without a cosmic mythological center of theology in the age of mechanical reproduction, non-mimetic, non-representational artists such as Marcel Duchamp can be seen as products of precisely this cosmic vacuum.

One of the more exciting opportunities that EGS afforded was the ability to spend some personal time with legendary theorists such as Nancy. A compatriot and friend, our philosophy professor from Colombia, Mariluz Restrepo, managed to insist that both Jean-Luc Nancy and his close friend, famous French Film director Claire Denis, come up to Lauren’s room for a glass of wine, Swiss chocolate, and some engaging conversation. Speaking of Claire, Victor, Steven, Lauren, and Diane were honored to be in the audience for an advance screening of her forthcoming film White Materials, a difficult and demanding representation of a divorced (white) female coffee plantation owner attempting to negotiate a nationalist uprising in a small sub-Saharan African village. Claire provided us with live voice over for the film, which did not yet have English.

Philosopher of photography and new media scholar, Hubertus von Amelunxen, graced the fifth seminar with several accounts of the curatorial (rhetorical and artistic) process of constructing the art exhibitions. Notable was Hubertus’ lecture on the making of Notation: Calculation and Form in the Arts, which was held at ZKM – Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe in 2009. The exhibit showcased works demonstrating and capturing the process of making, each falling somewhere in between an idea/ feeling and final product. Based on the seminar lecture, this show must have been an example of visual rhetoric par excellence, which paved a compelling transition through the “Matrixial Borderspace” to the final seminar with Bracha Ettinger (above, on the couch), practicing psychoanalyst and renowned artist. Bracha’s thick seminars were both visually, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating. As our rigid identities were broken down (yet again!!!), we began to understand that the complex semi-permeable membrane that constructs our identities may actually extend to the womb itself as the pre-primoridal zone of existence. Bracha’s example exposed how useful stretching a discipline to it’s borders can be. Her theory is born out of art.

After a sensational and exhausting 22 days, Steven and Lauren are both overjoyed to back among the RCID community. They would be happy to answer any and all questions about either of their respective experiences at EGS.

Lauren Mitchell and Steven Holmes


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