Interview with Tristan Garcia

© Liam Jones and Figure/Ground
Tristan Garcia was interviewed by Liam Jones. September 28th, 2014
Translated by Andrew Iliadis

Tristan Garcia is a French writer and philosopher. His novels include La Meilleure Part des hommes (2008), Mémoires de la jungle (2010), En l’absence de classement final (2012), Les Cordelettes de Browser (2012), and Faber. Le Destructeur (2013). La Meilleure Part des hommes won France’s Prix de Flore and has been translated into English under the title Hate: A Romance (2010). Garcia’s philosophical works include L’Image (2007), Nous, Animaux et Humains. Actualité de Jeremy Bentham (2011), Forme et objet. Un Traité des choses (2011), and Six Feet Under. Nos vies sans destin (2012). Forme et objet was translated into English by  Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm under the title Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (2014) and is available from Edinburgh University Press.

How did you decide philosophy was something you wanted to pursue?

I was like this child described by Baudelaire: “The universe is equal to his vast appetite.” I wanted to know everything. I decided to do philosophy out of pure curiosity, to avoid specializing in one or the other disciplines of knowledge.

Unable to choose, I always considered philosophy as a science, not all sciences, but between all the sciences. It allows thought to practice an extreme degree of abstraction, and to look at what has no interest, then to challenge all interesting knowledge and their primitive concepts, hold accountable the cosmologist on their concept of universe, the historian on their concept of causality, the mathematician on their concept of element, the sociologist on their concept of individual, the biologist on the concept of life.

Very marked by Hegel and Marxism in my education, I kept a taste for all encyclopedic knowledge; but I have never been attracted by the promise of the Platonic philosopher-king or the Hegelian promise of absolute knowledge: the paternalistic authority given to the philosopher always makes me suspicious. I am therefore of a philosophy that thinks about everything, but everything that will not provide my thoughts a position of authority; I want a totalizing and non-hegemonic philosophy.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what are some of the most important lessons learned from them?

The teacher who made ​​me believe again in philosophy, who has taught me more than the history of philosophy at university, is Quentin Meillassoux. His lectures, which were beautiful, I have not only retained the content, but also a rhetorical lesson. Against “reactive critique,” he has always practiced an “active critique,” which is to grow the opponent, rather than humiliate, and build by thinking a stronger opponent than they actually are. Waiving any irony and derision, Quentin Meillassoux defended a noble, ethical form of philosophical battles: invent enemies more powerful, by reinforcing rather than weakening them.

At the time, I saw this as an aristocratic sublimation of dialectics, since these people, whom Roger Callois discusses, give new weapons to the enemy even before the battle. Thinking is enlarged by enlarging what is opposed to it, the better to triumph in the end. I was also influenced by the work and by the courses of Alain Badiou and Francis Wolff, who have ceased to embody in the theater of my mind a Platonic and Aristotelian character.

Finally, Sandra Laugier, who worked on Quine and Cavell, allowed me to feed my defiance in the idea of ​​a too authoritarian philosophy and be attentive to the subordinate, minor and non-heroic in thought; I discovered thanks to her pragmatism, the ethics of care, animal ethics or the realism of the ordinary.

As soon as I think, the inner voices of these teachers, and others, are between in a certain way in discussion with mine.

What advice would you give to students and aspiring academics and what are some texts do you feel young scholars should be reading today?

With the chance for us to be out of the twentieth century stands, I think, the possibility to read texts freely now opposing philosophical traditions, without being eclectic or relativistic. Today a student should read with interest the analytical metaphysics of Kripke, Lewis, Armstrong, of continental critical thinking, Badiou, Rancière, Agamben; it may be of interest to both phenomenology and analytic philosophy, because they know their common roots in the Austrian philosophy of the nineteenth century.

Above all, it must exclude nothing: cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, comparative anthropology (Ingold, Descola and Viveiros de Castro), poststructural human sciences, global history, postcolonial studies, gender studies…

From the moment one has built a perspective that assures them that their mind will resist any annexation by a single discipline, it can go anywhere thinking: nothing that can be thought should be foreign to them.

You have written both novels and philosophical works. I am wondering whether you see a relationship between the two? Are they complimentary or something you like to keep separate?

I’m trying to be two at once: sometimes, the one who writes fiction is in dialogue in myself with that that writes theory; they compete for my mind, and each envelope the other, but none has prevailed at the moment.

I’m not theoretical fiction, or fictional theory: I never liked the merger, I think we are doomed to lose on all fronts. I am attached to the distinction of speech; and in this I am not post-modern, but classic.

Already in the Anglophone world, even before the English language publication of Form and Object, your work is garnering a lot of attention from the likes of Steven Shaviro and Graham Harman. How do you feel about this? Also, do you feel your work is similar to Harman’s and/or Shaviro’s?

Before finishing the writing of Form and Object, I didn’t know the work or Graham Harman or Steven Shaviro.

By a strange coincidence, which sometimes is in the spirit of the times, my research and that of Graham Harman intersect: they have different origins and are pursuing distinct goals, but they are found on both topics (objects) and theses (irreducibility).

For this reason, I feel a close theoretical companionship with Graham Harman, which now requires me, in reading him, to look for the things I don’t agree with.

Thanks to him, I also realized that I was not alone: my book was written in absolute unconsciousness of the existence of a public interested in radical metaphysical objects. I was very surprised to discover that there were blogs, magazines around these issues.

Of course, intellectual history wants that the horizon of philosophical expectations change: twenty years ago, continental metaphysics was talking about its own death, and my book as well as those of Graham Harman would have probably encountered no echo. They would have been marginal, forgotten, collecting dust on the shelves of some libraries.

It is very difficult for a work to be faced with indifference; but thought must also fear the possibility of being fashionable. Success is as destructive to thought as oblivion, because it uses the idea, destroyed, empty of meaning. If speculative realism, object-oriented ontologies, the new continental metaphysics today arouses considerable attention, for good and bad reasons, it is an opportunity for those like me who belong to this field. But it was not always so, and it will not always be so.

We must take advantage of the current audience for our themes and our theses. But they must not think they are better, more real, more interesting, because fashion is on their side; they must be able to be as real and interesting on the day they no longer excite the same passion.

To think equally means that one manages to assess the truth and interest of certain ideas, whether or not they are majoritarian or minoritarian. It means that one confronts their failure or success with the same proportion of distrust or confidence.

To answer the other part of your question, I discovered more recently the work of Steven Shaviro: I feel I have a lot of aesthetic affinities with him (his taste for indie bands like Yo La Tengo, for the speculative fiction of Samuel Delany and J.G. Ballard, the psychedelic comics of Jim Wooding, for example). Theoretically, I’m sure we will not agree, because he is attached to connection, networking, and some Deleuzian concepts that I dispute. But it is with the people whom we share tastes and not ideas that there are the best discussions, in general, because we agree on what we like and we argue about what we think.

Your work proposes a flat ontology, taken from Manuel de Landa. This proposes that all thing are things equally. Can you elaborate what this equality would mean for an ontology of objects? Do you feel this is easily translated into a political ontology?

It turns out that I also did not know the work of Manuel DeLanda before finishing Form and Object! Discovering he spoke of “flat ontology” (when I was talking on my part of a “flat world”), I soon procured his work, so I could include it in the introduction.

I realized that the relationship between my use of the term and his was rather weak.

Intellectual space is constantly traversed by those chances of vocabulary. Because the “intensive science” of Manuel DeLanda is actually very far from my project: it reformulates a definition of the virtual in Deleuze. He opposes hierarchical ontologies (by gender, by species, class) with a flat ontology of purely singular entities of interacting parts and emergent wholes. For my part, I see ontology as the de-identification of all entities, resulting in one thing, and equally exclusive: the flat world is inconceivable to me that has one thing at a time. It is not only flat but a poor world. For this reason, Form and Object is divided into two parts: a formal part of ontology, which defines only things in the world, and an objective part of metaphysics, which redefines the determinations, the relationship of objects in the universe and extension intensities.

Only the first part is part of a flat ontology, and it is an ontology without relations and without intensity.

My flat ontology is the perfect non-Deleuzian perspective. In the world, nothing is more or less something, each entity is also to the exclusion of all others. My world does not know or change the connection, since it is the maximum disregard of any determination.

To answer the second part of your question, the articulation of ontology and politics is tricky: I’m wary of the idea that our political beliefs should be somehow confirmed by the same structure of being. If the worldview that I propose has a political significance, it is not as content, but perhaps as a gesture: it indicates that it is possible to find by speculative thought an end to the liberal wave in ontology, the condition in which we live. Emphasizing objectification rather than opposing it, by treating everything as also really something, I think we can think of a platitude, a non-ontological intensity that will serve as a gauge line to reconstruct identities and differences, intensities and ordered objects.

This is the aim of the second part of my book.

What kind of implications do you think a flat ontology has for notions of identity and difference? That is to say, the relations between things?

In my view, the ontology that I submit to the reader allows the design of entities without identity. So I advocate that the world is not made of substances identical to themselves or pure intensive differences, but that it is composed of things. In this case, it is composed of only one thing at a time, a de-determined maximum naked thing, which is the distinction between what is the right thing and what the thing is.

I defend that thing is not in us, and it is not in itself: it is out of itself in the world. And the world is common place things. I seek to reinstate things in the world: it is neither a construct of our cognition or entities based in themselves: they are the minimal components of the world. One thing is the lowest determination of being: it is indifferent to affirmation or negation, as something less, it is something more.

The thing, therefore, is lower, but it is not nothing, so far. And it is so low, that it is unrelated: when there’s one thing, there’s not anything else. Things have therefore no relationship between them – the reason why they have neither identity nor difference.

Why do you feel this ‘return to things’ as it were is so pertinent today?

There is a misunderstanding that persists: for things, many still want to hear the objects of common sense, the spatio-temporal objects opposed to the human subject (or goods). But I’m not interested in these things, more or less, than others. There is a famous collection of poems of Francis Ponge: The Parti Pris des Choses. These “mundane things” referred to by the poet (bread, an orange, a pebble, a candle) are many things, but there are many others that are beyond common sense! What interests me is the commodification of things as epidemic, and the impossibility there for thought to circumscribe what is one thing, and what is not: The human person? An insult? A dead dog? A snark? The color Cadmium yellow? An event like the fall of the Mongol dynasty? The start of an event? Two things at once? The spin of an atom? The person I was yesterday? The whole universe? Dust? Something impossible?

What I am interested in in things is the fact that anything could be. Therefore, I will not return to certain things that would be ordinary things, common things, as if they were a guarantee of authenticity, of virtue, truth.

The return to things is behind us: it was the watchword of Husserl (“Zur Sache selbst!”). What interests me is not to go back to the other things that might have been forgotten, but to see that nothing is immune to the fact of being one thing: me, you, the table, God, the beginning of an idea, whatever. No thing is nothing, no thing is everything: each is something. And it seems that this is the objectification we experience daily in liberal modernity.

What are you working on at the moment?

In no particular order: a history and theory of comics, a text on metaphysical intensity, a collection of fantasy stories, rewriting my thesis on theories of art. There are many things, then, that interest me equally but distinctly, and distinctly but equally…

© Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Liam Jones
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Jones, L. (2014). “Interview with Tristan Garcia,” Figure/Ground. September 28th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

“Punk Sociology Book Review” by Nuné Nikoghosyan

“Punk Sociology Book Review” by Nuné Nikoghosyan
© Nuné Nikoghosyan and Figure/GroundSeptember 22nd, 2014

indexHow to re-imagine sociology in the midst of crisis and uncertainty in the discipline due to changing social, cultural and economic conditions? In his latest work, Punk Sociology (2014), the sociologist David Beer strives to spark debate around the issue, by suggesting that for sociology to be more vibrant, creative and lively, sociologists need to turn to alternative ways of knowledge and working methods. For this, the author turns to cultural resources for inspiration and suggests bringing some punk ethos into sociology. Senior lecturer in sociology at the University of York, David Beer works mainly in the areas of culture and media in the everyday context, social and cultural theory, and methods and empiricism in social and cultural research.

Since the very beginnings of the discipline, sociologists have not ceased debating about the methods and approaches that sociology should direct itself towards. By leaning on works such as Charles Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1959), Steve Fuller’s The New Sociological Imagination (2006), and Howard S Becker’s Telling About Society (2007), David Beer’s contribution to the debate is the introduction of the notion of “punk sociology”. According to the author, in the midst of crisis and uncertainty, especially given the neoliberal trend in modern universities, sociologists have a tendency to want to “play it safe”: according to the rules and generally accepted norms and guidelines, less inclined to take risks. But Beer sees this approach dangerous, arguing that it will limit the scope of sociology and eventually lead it into a dead end. For new and engaging ideas to emerge, Beer’s “punk sociology” looks for alternatives, claiming to be “imaginative in re-imagining the craft of sociology”, having in mind Charles Wright Mills’ vision of sociology as a craft.

By describing the punk music ethos and then relating it to “punk sociology”, the author suggests that being a sociologist need not be complicated, as learning to play punk music is generally not: “This is a concept, this is another, this is a third, now be a sociologist.” (p.20) As a do-it-yourself movement, encouraging participants to create their own work, punk music attempted to break down barriers and hierarchies, defying categories and adopting a “deliberate unlearning” (p.25) in making music and communicating.

Often “raw, stripped-back and fearless”, the punk musician can be “bold and inventive”, following little or no cultural restrictions (p.28). “It is about the drive of the individual to make a contribution and to sometimes look to subvert restrictive or oppressive social categories, norms or conventions. This in turn leads punk to be open and eclectic. It is outward looking.” (p.28) Self-publication and alternative means of communication became common ground for punk music, and punks were more often than not unconventional, refusing “to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding.” (p.28). David Beer calls for a similar approach in sociology.

In three concise chapters, the author introduces the most prominent features of the punk ethos and how “punk sociology” may adopt and benefit from each. The chapters are “short, explicit and suggestive”, similar to “a 2- or 3-minute song” (p.18). The first of these concerns sociological knowledge itself, calling for it to be “relativistic, open and eclectic” (p.35). “For the punk, there is value to be found in the types of culture that are often belittled or underestimated” (p.36), recalls Beer. A punk sociologist, then, would embrace a broad range of different types of knowledge, claiming no authority over a social world or knowledge of it. What follows, first, is the need to “not be too nervous about accepting that we, as sociologists, are not the only people with something analytical to say about the social world” and, second, that as sociologists we should “coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it.” (p.38) As the notion of “public sociology” already implies, then, punk sociologists would break down barriers between the researcher, the researched and the audience, working “with” rather than “on” participants.

The next feature to be discussed is communication in sociology, to be more “raw, stripped back and fearless” (p.43), according to Beer. The author notices a trend of what he calls “progressive sociology”, as in “progressive rock”, that tends to put forward the technical skills and virtuosity of the researcher, making it difficult for the audience and other researchers to engage in an exchange of ideas. Punk sociology, on the contrary, strives to be more direct in its communication, fearless about the forms it takes and the legitimacy of these. This is already happening, as more and more “raw and stripped-back blog posts are circulating to significant and varied audiences in a way that more polished journal articles are unable to achieve.” (p.47) This also implies that sociologists have to be prepared for their “research taking on a life of its own” (p.49), although Beer does not see this type of communication completely replacing the current academic bedrock that are peer-reviewed journal articles and books.

The last feature of punk sociology refers to the sociological terrain, to be “bold and inventive” and following the “do-it-yourself ethic” (p.53). Certainly one of David Beer’s most daring suggestions in this book is that “the punk sociologist refuses to be held back by austerity, although of course in reality this might be hard, particularly if jobs are under threat. The punk sociologist uses the limitations of austerity to find creativity, to motivate their nothing-to-lose attitude, and to embed resistance and edginess in their outlook.” (p.57)

In conclusion, the author reminds his readers that for sociology not to be conservative, it must be made “as engaging, invigorating, and lively as possible” (p.62). And it is exactly punk sociology that “requires an active and lively sociologist who finds ways of making the most of the opportunities provided by the context and environment in which they are working.” (p.63) There are, however, some pitfalls to avoid in bringing the punk ethos into sociology. Beer’s answer to punk music’s self-destructive drive and short-lived outburst of triumph, for example, is that sociology should re-imagine itself constantly, perhaps moving on to look for inspiration in other musical genres and cultural resources, or perhaps resulting in post-punk sociology, new-wave sociology, etc. Beer also sees a need to protect “long-term, careful and meticulous work” such as editing, translation, longitudinal studies, reviews, etc. and warns that the “objective of punk sociology is not to undermine sociology itself, or to erode its legitimacy or credibility.” (p.67) Nevertheless, it may not be as clear to the reader as to how such erosion of credibility may be avoided. In this, we may even reproach the author for the lack of concrete examples in the arguments he presents.

According to David Beer, his main aim in this book is to be provocative and spark a debate about where sociology is going and how it can re-invent itself to avoid dead ends. Provocative as they are, some of the arguments can easily be interpreted as going over the edge, or may strike chords that go deeper than an intellectual debate about the future of a scientific discipline. An interesting read, but, ironically, in trying to save the discipline from its uncertainty at a time of crisis, some of Beer’s arguments may even lead sociologists, especially the younger ones, into more uncertainty: choosing to be an eclectic “punk sociologist” with a “nothing-to-lose attitude” rather than playing it safe at times of widespread social and economic crisis and employment insecurity may come to be a more profound dilemma than it first seems.

It appears that the punk sociologist will, overall, have more difficulties in working than the punk musician: embracing a punk ethos, being unconventional, breaking down barriers etc., but at the same time keeping up certain accepted norms and conventions in contemporary academia and research (the “meticulous” work, the need for funding, etc.), thus being only partially punk, or half-punk and half-classical.

© Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Nuné Nikoghosyan
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Nikoghosyan, N. (2014). “Punk Sociology Book Review,” Figure/Ground. September 22nd. >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with David Beer

© Nuné Nikoghosyan and Figure/Ground
Dr. Beer was interviewed by Nuné Nikoghosyan. September 22nd, 2014

David Beer is senior lecturer in Sociology, at the University of York. His research is mainly in the fields of culture and media in the everyday context, social and cultural theory, and methods and empiricism in social and cultural research. He has previously worked as ESRC “transnational” Research Fellow on the e-Society programme. He is a member of the editorial boards of Cultural Sociology, Big Data & SocietyJournal of Urban Cultural Studies, and the International Journal of Market Research. He is also co-editor of the Theory, Culture & Society open site and the author of the blog Thinking Culture. Author of Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation (2013) and co-author of New Media : The Key Concepts(2008), his latest publication is Punk Sociology (2014).

How did you decide to become an academic and researcher? Was it a conscious choice?

There wasn’t really a big plan. I finished school with some fairly poor results, and I was lucky enough to be offered a place at Bradford University. I had a great time there and I ended up getting a pretty good degree. After working in a couple of different places I decided to return to university to do a Masters degree and I ended up staying on to complete a PhD. When I finished my PhD I worked for a year as a researcher and then moved into a fulltime academic role. So, I don’t think it was a conscious choice. It seemed to happen as I went along. It was sometime during my MA when I thought about perhaps trying to get a job as an academic. It seemed like it might offer an opportunity to do something creative and autonomous, which was really appealing. I also really like the challenge of academic work, and the way that you can (sometimes) set your own agenda and come up with ideas to explore.

Who were your mentors at university and what do you retain most from them?

The first person who really sparked my interest in sociology was someone called Dr Cotton. I don’t actually know his first name, but he taught me sociology at school. I didn’t do very well, but it got me thinking and his teaching was really interesting. Then at Bradford, I had a great tutor called Ian Burkitt. He took a fairly interdisciplinary approach to sociology, which was inspiring. But Ian also showed how we might apply sociology to our everyday lives. This led me to start applying sociology to everyday forms of popular culture, which was the beginning of the work I ended up doing as an academic. During my PhD, my supervisor Barry Sandywell, was a great guide. He helped me to develop an interest in social theory, but he also took an unconventional approach towards sociological work and a focus upon ideas. Again, these shaped my approach and interest. Then, finally, I was fortunate to have two great mentors as I made the difficult transition from my PhD to being an academic – which is a hard transition to make. Roger Burrows and Nick Gane both took the time to write with me, to discuss ideas and to help me to develop my thoughts. This was a crucial time for me, and they helped me to build a career. Both Roger and Nick have the ability to see problems from alternative perspectives and to open-up new types of questions. I learnt a great deal from watching them work and from working with them.

In your experience, how has the role of academic research and teaching evolved recently, since you were a student yourself?

I’m not really sure. The reason I’m not sure is because I’m not clear about how accurate my view is of what it was like to be an academic. It is also hard to judge because your own role as an academic adapts across time, so you have a changing role in a potentially changing university sector. It would seem that a crucial change has been the rise of the higher education data assemblage and the implications of systems of measurement and the like. But I’m not sure exactly how these have altered the role. I wrote a little bit about this in my recent book on Punk Sociology, and in one or two articles. I’ve become interested in what the more general changes to media infrastructures might mean for being an academic, but I’m also interested in how this creates new possibilities for conducting and communicating sociological research differently.

What in your opinion is the status of disciplines today? What are the strengths and/or weaknesses of interdisciplinary studies?

Disciplines matter in some respects, they help us to define ourselves and to associate with other academics. They also help us to attract students and to organise our universities. But in terms of research, we need to be careful that disciplines don’t become too comfortable. Ideas should be free to roam across disciplinary boundaries. So, disciplines can be constraining and can produce silos. I really like Andrew Abbott’s work on the chaos of disciplines. In that work he talks about how disciplines themselves are also carved up by the distinctions we make. This is the real problem, that we become too specialised and that we then struggle to speak across our own discipline, never mind across disciplines. So, disciplines are important, they help us to organise, categorise and define. But, if left unattended, these helpful aspects of disciplines can become problematic in themselves. Being ensconced in a disciplinary space that is too safe is probably to be avoided.

In your recent publication, Punk Sociology (2014), you lay down the foundations of a “punk sociology” as a way of reflecting and acting in sociology, leaning on the punk music ethos: being eclectic, raw and do-it-yourself. Does this “punk sociology”, striving to break with boundaries and established working methods, not risk becoming more marginal(ized) as an approach than being fully embraced?

I suspect that it will be quite marginal. I’ve written it to appeal to anyone with an interest in sociology, but it will divide opinion. I can’t really imagine a punk ethos being fully embraced in sociology. But I still felt that it was an argument worth making. My aim in that book is really to help us to collectively reflect on what sociology is and what it might become. It is a call for sociologists to think about how they might respond to the contemporary context. I expect that people will disagree with my punk sociology approach. But I think that such disagreement will be a positive thing. I’m hoping that the book will be provocative and will spark debates about the future of sociology. But I don’t think we should have one vision for the discipline, the Punk Sociology approach encourages such diversity and eclecticism. So, yes, it does risk being marginal and it does risk not being fully embraced. But I hope that it will still speak to people who want to re-animate the sociological imagination or who want to use outside resources to inspire and spark sociological thinking.

While new ways of communicating (social media, blogging, etc.) bring wider and relatively facilitated exposure – as you also highlight in Punk Sociology – they remain far less credited in academia and scientific circles than peer-review publications, for example. Do you have suggestions on how to go about this dilemma and some academics’ reluctance towards such exposure and communication, for fear of receiving less credit for their work?

One of the arguments of Punk Sociology is that we should try out and use different types of communication. But, as I mention in the book, I still think that books and articles should be the bedrock of academic debate and writing. I just think that beyond this we might want to try out alternative ways of communicating our ideas. In some cases this might mean using social media forms to speak more directly to people, but it might also mean exploring different types of outlets. I’ve used my blog for the last two years, and that has given me a space to talk about and curate interesting materials about culture. The problem is that social media has its own ‘politics of circulation’ (as I’ve described it in a previous book), which means that it is not a neutral form of communication. Social media affords particular circulations of content and we should be aware of that. Being decentralised is not the same as being democratic. So, I think it is important that we maintain a diversity of communication, but that we also develop an understanding of the infrastructures through which our ideas are communicated. The Punk Sociology book suggests that we try out some different approaches and that we try, where possible, to broaden the patterns of communication. But this is not easy, and will take some careful work. A blog post will not carry the same weight as a peer-reviewed journal article, and that is fine. But a blog post has the potential to reach a greater audience, so the two might work alongside one another. My argument in the Punk Sociology book is that we need to be resourceful and think about the ways in which a transforming mediascape might allow different types of communication with different audiences.

In Punk Sociology, you argue that “[a]nyone can be a DIY sociologist. […] if we look at popular culture there are already lots of DIY sociologists out there […] – it does not undermine our position”. But if anyone can do it, does sociology as a whole not risk losing some of its status as a scientific field? It has taken decades for sociology to be recognized in academia, with specific skills to be acquired, giving its research and claims more weight. Do DIY sociologists not risk undermining the work of those who made Auguste Comte’s ideas, sometimes seen as pseudo-science, into an accepted form of science?

Yes, they do risk undermining sociology. But the risk is exacerbated if we don’t acknowledge that other people have things to say about the social world. The point is that contemporary culture is densely packed with commentaries and insights into the social world. In this context, we need to think carefully about what it is that sociology can offer. We can then develop an informed response that makes sociology’s value clear. This is really about trying to understand how sociology might adapt and respond to the context in which it is being produced. I would prefer that we engage with these broader accounts of the social world rather than be scared that they might undermine our scientific credentials. The punk sociology book talks about the risks of playing it safe, being too worried about our credibility is likely to lead us to play it safe – which I think will be counterproductive and detrimental to the discipline. We should aim for a discipline that speaks to people, that is vibrant and exciting, not something that is hampered by its own pursuit of acceptance. Plus, I think an inclusive discipline that people can associate with, and which they feel they can be part of, is much more likely to thrive in the current conditions we face.

Just to add a further point to this, we might be able to learn something from the forms of social analysis, commentary and insight that might be found in popular culture. They may tell us something we don’t know. They may also show us new ways of communicating sociological ideas. If we take the example of visualisations. There are lots of interesting and revealing visualisations to be found within web cultures. These may allow us to envision the social world in new and engaging ways. I recently found a visualisation of music genres on the data playground. This used the data from to show the connections between genres. For me, it helped to shed new light on contemporary music genres and helped to illustrate some problems in the way that cultural sociologists approach genre classifications. The other point here is that the social world is now already being visualised and analysed in cultural forms, if we don’t agree with these visions then we should respond. We should intervene and show why these forms of vernacular sociology are getting it wrong. So, there is plenty for sociology to do and it has plenty of scope for developing its unique values.

In your book, you mention having “shied away” from naming any “punk sociologists”, but perhaps you will accept to name some “daring voices” in sociology, classical or contemporary, that you encourage us (especially the younger generation of sociologists) to learn from?

Yes, I close the book by saying that I’ve avoided naming who I think are punk sociologists. I didn’t really want to be too prescriptive in that book, and I didn’t want to shape how the arguments were interpreted. So, I avoided naming people – although there are a few clues in the book. Also, there are lots of people who might be considered to be punk sociologists who are not cited or discussed in the book. I wanted to keep the book punchy, so I avoided long discussions of work that might fit with the topics I discuss. There is also lots of interesting material out there that isn’t punk sociology, but which should be read anyway. I’m afraid that I want to dodge this question again. I don’t want to name punk sociologists, and I don’t want to create a list, if that’s OK. The field should be left fairly open for people to read what they like. The books and articles that inspired me, may not inspire others. And I certainly think that reading outside of the discipline and outside of academia is probably a good idea. One of the aspects of the punk ethos I discuss in the book is eclecticism and openness, we should adopt this in our reading, at least that is what I’d suggest. But if people do want a single book to start with, I’d definitely read Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists (its sounds like a gentle book, but it isn’t).

What advice would you give to young aspiring researchers on the doorstep of academia?

Ideas come first. It is easy to get distracted from that. There have been all sorts of changes, which you alluded to in your earlier questions. One thing is unchanged. Ideas are the important thing. Taking the time to develop them, work with them, hone them and communicate them, that is what is needed. Academics appreciate ideas. They can apply them in their research and teach them to students. If you can cultivate ideas, then I think the possibilities will begin to open themselves up. It is a competitive and sometimes tough environment, what differentiates people are their ideas. It is good to read widely, to know theory, to understand method, to understand funding bodies, and so on, but it is the sociological imagination that really counts. It is the ability to find things that are revealing, to look across materials and to say something incisive and to create perspective that makes the difference. My advice, for what it is worth, would be to not lose sight of the importance of ideas.

What other projects are you currently working on?

The Punk Sociology was published very quickly, so I’m just in the process of moving on to the next project at the moment. I’m pausing a little. I have three or four ideas and I’m choosing which direction to take. I completed a project on recording engineers last year, which I may write up soon. I may also continue with some of the work I’ve done that uses cultural forms to try to think creatively about the social world. But I’m being drawn towards a project that looks back at old ideas in order to refresh the sociological imagination. I have the proposal written for this and I’ve been collecting materials together for the last few weeks. I’m planning to flesh that out a bit further over the coming weeks. And then, I’ll probably also write some shorter pieces that continue my work on the relations between culture and new media forms. I’m currently in a moment where the writing plan is just taking shape, I’ll commit to something in the next couple of weeks which will then become the primary focus.

© Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Nuné Nikoghosyan
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Nikoghosyan, N. (2014). “Interview with David Beer,” Figure/Ground. January 18th. >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

A Conversation with Sharon Butler

© Sharon Butler and Figure/Ground
 Sharon Butler was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. September 19th, 2014.

Sharon Butler exhibits regularly, including 2013-14 shows at NADA New York, George Lawson (San Francisco, CA), Islip Art Museum (East Islip, NY), Pocket Utopia (New York, NY), Lesley Heller (New York, NY), The Painting Center (New York, NY), Union College (Schenectady, NY), Parallel Art Space (Queens, NY), SUNY Westchester, and Norte Maar (Brooklyn, NY). Since 2007 Butler has published the influential art blog Two Coats of Paint, which was awarded a generous grant from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program in 2013. Other publications Butler has contributed to include Art21HyperallergicThe Huffington Post, and The Brooklyn Rail. In conjunction with each exhibition, Butler often publishes an artist’s book, available online at Two Coats of Paint Press.  She lives and works in New York City. She received her BFA at Massachusetts College of Art and and MFA at  University of Connecticut.  

Sharon Butler in her studio, photo by James Prez

Sharon Butler in her studio, photo by James Prez

Can you talk a little about your background and where you grew up? What about early experiences making art? 

I grew up down a dirt road in the woods, and I remember spending lots of time by myself. I used to do things like cut pictures out of the Sunday newspapers and organize them in folders, make sculptures out of melted candle wax, or make clay out of flour, salt, and water. In the winter, when the ice was thick enough, I skated for hours on the huge reservoir across the road from our house. My favorite book was called How to Make Something from Nothing. Authors Rubye Mae and Frank B. Griffith rescued things like detergent bottles, chicken bones, and toilet paper rolls from the trash and turned them into (not always useful) household objects. I never had all the right components for my projects but I would improvise. In art class we used to make ceramics and experimental films. I also liked writing and used to hide my journal under my mattress so my older sisters wouldn’t read it.

Sharon Butler drawings

Sharon Butler drawings

 That line “I never had all the right components for my projects but I would improvise” seems so you. 

One time I was making marbled paper and I didn’t have the right materials so I used olive oil! At the time I wanted desperately to live in a neighborhood with other kids, but in retrospect, the long hours spent by myself prepared me for life in the studio. I also loved using the typewriter (I never thought of it as writing) until I went to college and had to stay up all night typing term papers. I probably would have started writing sooner if I’d had a computer back then.

What about school- what was that like for you? Who were some of your mentors? inspirations? influences?

I had to find my own path, and I think that’s probably why it has taken me so long to develop my voice. As a senior in high school I took an art history survey and I loved it, but since I wasn’t then much of a drawer, it never occurred to me that I might become an artist. I studied art history at Tufts, then worked as a magazine designer for several years before returning to school to study painting and drawing at Massachusetts College of Art. Because I was an older student (late twenties) with a good background in art history, the professors tended to give me extra time and attention. From the beginning, I explored abstraction and the object-image situation—painting from life was always a chore for me and the faculty let me opt out of the intro classes. When I graduated, I moved to New York where my then-boyfriend was in film school at Columbia, and began working on a series of small painted-wood constructions. Sean Scully, Moira Dryer, Terry Winters, Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, Elizabeth Murray were all influences. For a period I was deeply engaged with the landscape, and in retrospect, I realized that the dark, pastoral images I was painting all essentially depicted the view from my childhood window. I stopped painting for a few years to work on some digital and installation projects, and when I returned, I fastened onto post-war easel-sized abstraction—particularly the earliest work of Ab Exers like Krasner, Motherwell, and Rothko.

What about current influences? Whom do you look at now or listen to?

In the 1980s, while I was at MassArt, Frank Stella gave a series of lectures at Harvard which were published in a book called Working Space. His ideas about paintings as objects, emerging into the viewer’s space rather than creating the illusion of 3-dimensionality within the picture plane, still resonate. I look at paintings primarily as objects rather than images. Other influences for my current work are the Supports/Surface artists who were working in the south of France in the 1970s. I discovered Claude Viallat’s work online a few years ago and have been drawn to the movement’s combination of abstraction, process, materials and politics ever since. The 1960s Italian movement Arte Povera has also informed my thinking, particularly the notion that the art we make should always reflect contemporary politics and society.   Work by Richard Tuttle, Robert Rauschenberg, Rachel Harrison, Gedi Sibony, Imi Knoebel, and Blinky Palermo, specifically their use of unorthodox materials, has also attracted my attention.

Sharon Butler_Stadium_2014 _2014_pencil.pigment.binder.canvas.tshirts_72x84inches

Sharon Butler_Stadium_2014 _2014_pencil.pigment.binder.canvas.tshirts_72x84inches

It’s interesting that you mention Support/Surfaces, because I meant to ask you about  that after reading your Two Coats post about the survey show at CANADA.

Yes, although I’d seen much of the S/S work as jpegs, the show at CANADA was my first experience of the paintings themselves. Fantastic show. I’d like to see more.

Sharon, one of the things we have talked about over time, exchanging studio visits, is the degree to which our studio environment and locale is essential to and is revealed in our work. You have worked in several studios and each one has had an impact on your work, and led to a new body of work.   I think of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series whenever I’m driving around that part of Santa Monica, and how his work in embedded in the environment, and the environment is embedded in the work; they are inseparable, interconnected for me at this point. 

When I first started painting I used to wrack my brain wondering what to paint. Granted, it was in the early nineties, a period in which many painters were asking the same question, but what I ultimately learned was that my best subjects are simply, and sometimes unconsciously, pulled from my immediate surroundings. Materials and processes as well often arise from everyday life. For instance, when I was working on W. 39th Street in the garment district, I first began thinking of canvas as fabric that could be folded, laundered, frayed. In DC, I made paintings that referenced public sculpture, primarily the Modernist pieces in the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden. At 117 Grattan Street in Bushwick, where I had an amazing view of the neighboring rooftops, structures like silencers, ducts, and ventwork found their way into the paintings. During Hurricane Sandy, I was up on the Connecticut shore, where several boats ran aground, sails were shredded, houses flooded, and propane tanks floated down the street – events that still have an effect on my images and use of materials today. Unlike many artists who stay in the same studio for twenty years, I prefer to move around. A new commute and a different view propel the work forward in unexpected ways.

One thing that is interesting to me is the importance of your materials as context, as establishing your environment, say the fabrics when you were working in the Garment District and so on. Structures seem to carry through though, no matter where you are… What is happening in your new space?

I spent the summer in DUMBO, in a space that had big white walls and a white floor. The size of the walls affected the work—I made a series of 72 x 84 inch paintings on unstretched canvas. Commuting to the studio on my bike has been important, too, because each day I ride from my apartment near 96th Street in Manhattan down the Hudson River bike path, past all the soccer fields, playgrounds and basketball courts, through SOHO, Chinatown, and over the Manhattan Bridge to DUMBO. Surrounded by the city at such an intimate level, I began painting more loosely and incorporating curving lines, floral prints, sports fields, bleachers, and colorful scraps (and text) from T-shirts I found on the rack at the Salvation Army store on 96th between Broadway and West End Avenue. After a couple years using a metal straight edge and masking tape, my new favorite tool is a set of French curves.

The image of you riding your bike around and making things, well that’s also very you in the present.

I hadn’t thought much about riding my bike around the city and how it informs the work until [now].

Sharon Butler, Invasives 2014_pencil,pigment, binder, canvas_72x84inches

Sharon Butler, Invasives 2014_pencil,pigment, binder, canvas_72x84inches

First off, you’re not kidding about the curves! I’m certainly familiar with your small works, but these are big. The color is so rich and the curves and floral drawing is really quite different from things I have seen over the years.

I was at the Salvation Army looking for Lilly Pulitzer or Pucci-type prints to add to that yellow painting, Invasives, but all I could find were stripes or small floral fabrics like calico prints. When I got back to the studio, I decided to try drawing the floral pattern right on the canvas using a flexible curve, and I fell in love with the organic shapes that grew out from the center. I went back and forth about using color—adding it, taking it out–but ultimately decided that I liked it as a pencil drawing.

In the past I’ve worked on smaller canvases, but for these new paintings, the larger scale seems right. I can use a wider variety of tools like paint rollers attached to mop handles or plastic spray bottles, and the collage elements don’t get too precious. I like putting the unstretched canvases on the floor so that I can walk around them as I work. If someone was watching me through the windows, I would look like a cleaning lady scrubbing the floor!

When you were talking about the impact of Sandy, it made me wonder about the ways you might have been affected emotionally, and how that enters the work, if it does.

Yes, it does. Process and choice of materials both carry emotional weight.

Sharon Butler Blow_2014_pencil.pigment.binder.canvas.tshirts_72x84inches

Sharon Butler Blow 2014, pencil pigment binder canvas t-shirts, 72x84inches

Do you prefer to leave that in the work rather than talk about it?

When I was growing up feelings were rarely discussed in my family, so I’m not naturally inclined to define or articulate emotional content. Nevertheless, it surfaces in the work.

I can appreciate that.

What about kinds of paint? Color? I remember sitting outside my studio and starting to have this conversation with you- about color.

I’m a fan of muted tertiaries and dirty pastels, even though, for viewers, they aren’t as immediately lovable as bright primaries and secondaries. When I was out in LA last year, painter Marie Thibeault, an amazing colorist, suggested during a studio visit that color is emotion, and I think she may be right, which could be why I’m not drawn to it. Vivid color isn’t as much of an emotional trigger for me as texture, structure, and line are, which is why, I think, color that calls attention to itself only plays a peripheral role in most of my work. Now that I’m thinking about color as emotion, I would say that awkward color choices carry meaning, too. And with oil paints, I like how the color changes over time.

This is so interesting. It makes me think about my messy palette and messy ugly colors, how I can never use pure simple colors; they just never stay simple!  I remember a conversation with George Lawson about color; I was musing aloud about my always grayed color and he said ‘it’s because you’re neurotic.’ (or something like that).

Funny. One of my early  painting teachers told me I think too much, as if that were a bad thing. Same with George’s comment about neurosis, right?

Yes, that’s great!

So, what is your routine like? In addition to your studio practice, your blog Two Coats of Paint is well known to artists. Does that take much time on a regular basis? What about teaching?  Family? How do you manage all these aspects of life and career/practice?

I’m not sure when life became so full and busy—maybe when I first started teaching in the late-1990s and I had to juggle the tenure-track commitment with time in the studio and raising my daughter. Several years after achieving the rank of full professor at a small state university in Connecticut, I realized my plate was too full, and I gave up the full-time teaching job to pursue other opportunities. I taught a course at Brown University for a few semesters, and now I’m teaching MFA seminars at the University of Connecticut and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Instead of teaching 3 full days, I only teach two days a week, which has been a wonderful change. I spend about 10-15 hours a week on the blog and related activities —several years ago I married a talented writer who helps out with editing–and the rest of the time I work in the studio. The key is that I consider all these activities integral to my art practice; each informs the others.

My daughter is 15 now, and although I have joint custody with her father (whom I divorced ten years ago), she spends most of her time with him in Connecticut. I don’t think anyone in the art world would tell a female artist that having kids will ruin her career anymore, but having a committed artist who prefers living in New York to suburban life in Connecticut as her mother has been difficult for my daughter. For better or worse, the upshot is that I have more time in the studio than most artists with kids.

Do you have any advice for other artists?

My advice for other artists is to work hard in the studio, be generous with other artists, and try to contribute to the larger art community. If you want kids, chose your partners wisely because, if you stay married, you’ll be spending more time with your in-laws than you ever thought you would. If you split up, you still have to deal with him/her/them forever. And don’t raise the kids outside the city unless you like attending sports events. Unfortunately, our culture is obsessed with organized sports, not art.

Excellent advice. And yikes on the second part; I doubt they teach that in art school! 

A few years ago I published an article called “Neo-maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood” in The Brooklyn Rail about artist mothers, and I’m thinking of writing a sequel that covers the exasperating teenage years.

That sounds like a gem; I’d love to contribute to it!

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m looking forward to a few upcoming shows. On the weekend of September 26-28, I’ll be participating in the DUMBO Arts Festival, a big neighborhood-wide extravaganza that features art in the streets, pop-up exhibitions, and an open studio event. In October two group shows in Bushwick are on the calendar: “Exchange Rate,” an exhibition organized by Seattle’s Robert Yoder/ SEASON that will be at Theodore:Art and “Abstraction and its Discontents” at Storefront Ten Eyck. I’ll also have work in a two-person show (with Theresa Hackett) at MAKEBISH in the West Village. In November, I’m heading up to Portland, Maine, where I’ll be a Visiting Artist at the Maine College of Art. That closes out 2014, which has been a very productive year.

Sharon Butler Jay St. studio

Sharon Butler Jay St. studio

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Sharon Butler and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J (2014). “A Conversation with Sharon Butler,” Figure/Ground. September 2014. < >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School

Philosophy of Praxis cover sml

The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School

by Andrew Feenberg

The origins of “Western Marxism”

The early Marx called for the “realization of philosophy” through revolution. Revolution thus became a critical concept for Marxism, a view elaborated in the later praxis perspectives of Lukács and the Frankfurt School. These thinkers argue that fundamental philosophical problems are, in reality, social problems abstractly conceived.

Originally published as Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory, The Philosophy of Praxis traces the evolution of this argument in the writings of Marx, Lukács, Adorno and Marcuse. This reinterpretation of the philosophy of praxis shows its continuing relevance to contemporary discussions in Marxist political theory, continental philosophy and science and technology studies.


Verso Books: