Elegy for Theory

D. N. Rodowick

While university curriculums are being driven by scientism and market forces, Rodowick argues for the importance of the arts and humanities as transformative, self-renewing cultural legacies.

Elegy for Theory

Length: 304 pages
Author: D. N. Rodowick
Price: $39.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-01

While university curriculums are being driven by scientism and market forces, Rodowick argues for the importance of the arts and humanities as transformative, self-renewing cultural legacies.

Excerpted from Elegy for Theory by D. N. Rodowick, (footnotes omitted) published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

3. Theoria as Practical Philosophy

The best in us has perhaps been inherited from the feelings of former times, feelings which today can hardly be approached on direct paths; the sun has already set, but our life’s sky glows and shines with it still, although we no longer see it.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

Theory has, in the course of centuries, been a highly variable concept. One finds the noble origins of theory in the Greek sense of theoria as viewing, speculation, or the contemplative life. For Plato, it is the highest form of human activity; in Aristotle, the chief activity of the First Unmoved Mover and the only practice loved for its own sake. For Hellenic culture, theory was also an ethos that associated love of wisdom with a style of life or mode of existence based on practices of self-examination and self-transformation. A profound incommensurability thus separates our contemporary senses of theory from the Hellenic conception of philosophein as simultaneously a “theoretic” activity and an ethos, desirable above all others. Indeed, the association and disassociation of theory from ethics and from philosophy will be a recurrent theme in this book and its companion volume, Philosophy’s Artful Conversation.

Bringing together thea (sight) and theoros (spectator), theory has often been linked to vision and spectacle. Theorein meant to observe attentively, to survey or witness. With its etymological link to witnessing, theater, and spectatorship, no doubt it was inevitable that the young medium of film should call for theory. Nevertheless, the idea of theory as beholding has deep and varied roots. In pre-Socratic thought, the philosopher is the spectator par excellence. When Leon the tyrant of Phlius asked Pythagoras who he was, Pythagoras responded with a word nearly unknown at the time, “A philosopher.” In Diogenes Laertius’s account, Pythagoras continues by comparing life to the Great Games where some are present to compete in athletic or musical contests and others come to buy and sell at market. The best of all, however, are theoroi or spectators—those who neither serve nor seek fame and wealth, but rather observe and pursue wisdom. The ethical dimension of this parable is important. The Pythagorean concept of theoria as contemplative spectatorship promoted the active intellectual study of number theory, geometry, music, and astronomy as bringing understanding of the ordered movements of the kosmos and the structure of everything it contains, including human thought. But at the same time, these contemplative activities were meant to promote a change in the philosopher’s existence, for through theoria one attained active assimilation to the divine Intellect or nous present in all of us.

This little parable already embodies some fascinating historical paradoxes. The source of this story comes from Cicero’s summary of a fragment from Heraclides of Pontus (a member of Plato’s Academy). Andrea Wilson Nightingale argues that this is already a fourth-century retrojection of philosophy and theoretic wisdom onto pre-Socratic thought in order to produce a venerable genealogy for a later invention. The emergence of classical philosophy thus already evinces a contestation of theoria that dissembles its discontinuities and incommensurabilities with earlier conceptions. Later I will argue that retrojection seems to be a persistent feature of theory formation as all the various and discontinuous senses of theory displace one another in ways that impose forms of continuity that make present history the inevitable culmination of a past trajectory. One important task of a genealogy of theory, then, is to identify, in all their dissension and contradiction, the many lines of descent covered over by the historical force of retrojection.

Diogenes Laertius credits Pythagoras, no doubt apocryphally, with coining the term “philosopher” to characterize Pythagoras’s thought and way of life. Before the fourth century, theoria most often referred to the civic practice of sending delegates to witness oracles and religious festivals. Moreover, philosophein was used only rarely and in a vernacular sense as intellectual cultivation. Thus Plato’s setting out of philosophy as a specific kind of practice in The Republic shows that by the fourth century BCE theoria, in its various conceptual connotations, had become central to a Hellenic characterization of philosophein as a specific kind of activity—the ethical choice for a mode of existence devoted to a contemplation of the world that required, in equal measure, an active transformation of the self. This conception is most fully realized in Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where theoria is singled out as the highest good of humanity and the summit of happiness. Contemplation is perhaps not the best modern equivalent of the word, which in ancient Greek involved not only observation and activities of sight but also the sense of pursuing a theoretic life devoted to pure thought with no ulterior practical motive. For Aristotle, this is the ultimate virtue.

Aristotle encourages a theoretic life as more desirable and more enjoyable than either an apolaustic or a political existence. The life of the intellect, as it contemplates knowledge and seeks out more knowledge, fulfills all the criteria Aristotle thought necessary for happiness: it is the most independent activity, though not an asocial one; compared to practical action, it may be practiced for longer continuous periods; and containing its end within itself enjoys a greater schole or leisure. The activity of philosophic thought is thus commensurate with humanity’s best part—the intellect or nous—that is, “the naturally ruling element which understands things good and divine and is ‘either itself divine or the most divine thing in us,’ and its activity according to its own particular virtue is perfect happiness.” In this respect, “the human nous is a faculty or capacity (dynamis) activated, like everything else in the world, by the attraction of the First Unmoved Mover who, unlike mankind, is intellect pure, simple and tireless” (Aristotle 395). In this way, Greek reason was of a natural order wherein mind and nature were proportionate. To seek wisdom was to understand the eunomia of the world, its lawful and just order, by searching for landmarks or guidelines to ways of life in harmony with the divine ordering of nature. In contrast to the “practical sciences” (episteme praktike), then, through theoria the human mind was capable of deciphering the logos of things on its own; call this philosophy as noninstrumental reason. In this manner, ethics and epistemology were inseparably linked in classical philosophy with its axiological or value-oriented approach to the investigation of nature. Greek thought was governed by a holistic perception of world and mind emblematized by the interlocking meanings of physis as nature (both the physical world and the nature of the world as rationally ordered) and of physis as logos, an intelligible message written in nature. Reason and value defined a virtuous circle for Hellenic culture where one of the fundamental goals of the theoretic life was to discern a norm for the reasonable order of society in the rational order of nature. And as humanity is one with nature in this holistic perception, rational order could be sought for within oneself, noninstrumentally.

Another incommensurability confronts us here. The Hellenic sense of ethics does not completely correspond to our modern conception of a life guided by implicitly or explicitly stated deontological principles that model moral behavior as duty. Rather, as Pierre Hadot argues, the desire for a philosophical life is driven first by ethical dissatisfaction and existential dilemmas that encourage the quest for a new way of life or mode of existence. Only afterward does philosophy try to justify that choice and that existence through discursive argument. Since at least the time of Socrates, then, the choice of a theoretic mode of existence was not the final outcome or telos of philosophical activity. Indeed, the choice of or for philosophy begins in confrontation with other existential attitudes as a critical reaction seeking another vision of the world and another way of life. But this reaction and this choice are not guided by philosophical discourse; philosophical discourse finds its origins in a life choice and an existential option, and not the other way around.

Philosophical expression is not only discursive; it also finds itself crafted as a life, and this process is open-ended and unfinished. Philosophein asks of the novitiate a conversion of being driven by the desire to be and to live in a new way, in tune with a changed conception of the world. This decision—the choice of a new mode of existence—also implies the presence or formation of a community as the expression of an ethos. Only afterward, in Hadot’s account, will the task of philosophical discourse be “to reveal and rationally justify this existential option as well as this representation of the world... Philosophical discourse must be understood from the perspective of a way of life of which it is both the expression and the means. Consequently, philosophy is above all a way of life, but one which is intimately linked to philosophical discourse.” Philosophy is lived or presents itself in a life before it is spoken or written. Or rather, it cannot be spoken or written in the absence of a desire for change and the ongoing execution of an existential choice. There is always a separation between philosophy and wisdom, then, for philosophein is only a preparatory exercise toward wisdom. At the same time, philosophical expression can and must take place simultaneously on two reciprocal planes: that of discourse and that of a mode of existence that must continuously be examined and challenged or reaffirmed. Call this the perfectionist strain of philosophy, so important to Stanley Cavell’s later writings, which—as discourse and existential choice, both in a state of change fueled by dissatisfaction with one’s self and the world—reaches for a state of knowledge that can never be fully attained. Philosophein is a dynamic state to which one may aspire, and philosophia may fuel the desire to attain this state, but one never becomes, ultimately, a philosopher.

For these reasons, the two expressive planes of philosophy—as discourse and existential choice—do not correspond to a distinction between theory and practice. As Hadot insists, philosophic discourse already has a practical dimension—it is meant to transform or to produce a change in the practitioner, but in a noninstrumental way and with no other end than the unending pursuit of wisdom. At the same time, a philosophical life is not theoretical, but rather theoretic; contemplative, certainly, but a form of contemplation whose reach toward understanding the world is also aimed at self-transformation. Theoria as practical philosophy.

D. N. Rodowick is Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Virtual Life of Film and Elegy for Theory.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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