Pierre Macherey’s essay ‘Philosophy as operation’ gave me ideas for Art in the making. (For Art in the making see the Circa discussion board and my Facebook. More soon). Specially the section ‘Remarks on practice’ is a kind of manifesto which can be adapted to our needs. Macherey: “Every practice is philosophical." Well, well, well, that includes art. I invite you to comment below. The background for his ideas I explain as best I can in the second section, chipping in here and there.

We are usually interested in the end product and for this reason miss opportunities to do things differently, if we don’t notice more about what is going on while we are making. Now this ties in with Art in the making because we are also interested in the fluid dynamic of making as it flows or dams up, and when I realised this, I read Macherey with great excitement and just had to change my plans to spend the afternoon watching a movie.

On art practice

1. You can’t think art practice outside, from the outside (of art practice). To think practice is not to think of practice from outside, from an external point of view. You have to take part in art practice too.

2. So, you have to think art practice within practice. But that means starting with practice, it means that to think art practice means to practise.

3. Practice leads to more practice, other practices without definite results. To begin, practice, to end, still practice.

4. If it is instructive, this is because it consists in “a permanent reconsideration of its own effects." There’s always something new to learn from practice.

5. There is no practice as such; that means, no abstraction called practice. Practice is always materially, historically, socially determined.

6. If there is no such thing as pure practice, practice develops with contradictions; impossible to think practice without.

7. Follow up. Action is the starting point, the beginning. But you have to go past that beginning, leave it behind.

8. The first action of a practice will be followed by other actions. Inevitably, the development will be through contradictions between competing subsequent actions.

9. Ideas come from practice. Where the contradictions show up, that’s where ideas develop, articulating the practice from within.

10. To act is to intervene, become a go-between with your practice and others.

11. The practice is earned. You can’t proceed without commitment to it. You have to take part, expose yourself to it, to the risk of criticism. But that’s a good thing as it will lead to a readjustment or retrenchment. Maybe it’s like this. Perhaps she is right.

12. Even if you are committed to practice, getting involved in it is not enough. You need also to reflect on it, put its lessons back into further practice.

13. To be engaged is to be engaged with or in something, from a point of view which is likely to change through practice. But also to be engaged is to adjust to conditions and act on them, transform them.

14. A practice is a position, beyond what is said. At the outset it is not free, but conditioned. Through learning and adapting that can change. Reflective practice can result in something new, a discovery.

15. You invent your practice, realise its limitations through reflecting on it as it develops and modifying or even reversing the direction you take.

16. Its limitations are its roots. If you don’t question them, how can you transform them?

The background

Pierre Macherey, a French philosopher and part of Louis Althusser’s original circle of students in the Paris of the 1960s, was one of the contributors to Althusser’s Reading Capital. He went on to write the important A Theory of literary production which influenced people like Terry Eagleton (as Eagleton says himself).

The essay ‘Philosophy as operation’ (first published in French in 1987) appears in: In a materialist way, an English collection of essays on Marx, Spinoza, Canguilhem, Foucault and Lacan. The essays were written in the 1980s and 1990s, years after the Althusserian phase of the 1960s. I originally read the essays quickly, as I tend to do with philosophy, on the lookout to discover if I am interested in the problem and get a sense of how the writer tackles it. Then I tend to forget what I have read, usually, or unknowingly, either end up rejecting or assimilating it into my ideas, until I go back to the same points and stop to think again and decide if it belongs or not. So that’s what I did.

Many think of philosophy as pure speculation; I can cite Wittgenstein’s word games Derrida’s endless slippage of meaning, Heidegger’s poetic writing about Being, the wonders of ancient art, the woes of modernity and its dehumanising technological impact, Deleuze’s refusal to generalise. But philosophy can be thought in terms of operation, as action close the real world in which we live. That’s Macherey’s point. To do so, you need to detach it from pure speculation and affirm instead its practical operation. This goes against the clichés of common sense which suggest that theory and practice are opposites. That you cannot have real thought unless it is pure thought and pure thought by definition cannot be applied to anything. Operation is Aristotle’s poiesis, from the Greek poiein, to do, make; poiesis as production of work. So, philosophy as an activity of making. Building a house is poietic, a finite activity. It is not the built house, it is a house in the process of being built. Crucially, for Classical Greek philosophy, practice and theory are not opposites. So there’s an idea of practice which is theoretical. For Socrates, the questions, not the answers are the point. The questions belong to the process of questioning, the practice of philosophy for him was this. The answers are the end product. So, in student terms, questions are better than definitions, but have a go at thinking through their consequences.

Kant distinguishes between pragmatic and practical reason. One has ends which justify its means, like Machiavelli. The other not. Adorno and Horkheimer also distinguished between reason and instrumental reason, adding that this latter is characteristic of Capitalism. Too right. Then Althusser, in his writings about the state, divides its manifestation of power into different ideological state apparatuses, following Gramsci, as he is willing to acknowledge. So school, university, church, police, government administration and so on, are apparatuses of the state, serve its interests which coincide with the inequality of the capitalist organisation of society.

In this view, the philosopher is an operative intellectual whose work involves interrogating, asking questions. But to produce works then means having a stand, making a stand, adopting a position. To operate is to take part, make a commitment which requires the limitation of speculation to a point of view. To operate is to take risks, including the risk of making a mistake. Producing a work means taking a risk through exposure to criticism. One’s starting point, the premises of action may surprise us if we are willing to question it too. Practice is the highway and the byway, a detour may turn out to be more important than we initially thought.

To be an intellectual is anyone whose works have a meaning that is not limited to their immediate justification and context (the reason why I made this or did that).

Being an intellectual is not limited to a class of media or education or applied reason in public administration. There are no holders of true knowledge; in all areas of activity there are intellectuals, beyond the borders of instrumental reason and reification for the purposes of the spectacle. So in theory everyone can be a philosopher. Philosophy itself serves to question and put into question even the acceptable limits of its own discipline; the consequence of this is that “every practice is philosophical."

Going past limits means going beyond the idea of a theory of theories, a totality, a Grand Theory, a universality that could include everything. So, this is demystification of given or prevailing ideas, presented to us as the truth, the evidence of fact (for example, that, in the current economic situation in Ireland there is no alternative to severe cuts to the public service).

Pierre Macherey, ‘Philosophy as operation’, in: In a materialist way, London and New York: Verso, 1998, pp 29 – 41