political discourse itself (the violent exclusions implicit in democratic consensus, for example) from the quasi-detached perspective of the artist. In this view, artists who choose to work in alliance with specific collectives, social movements, or political struggles will inevitably be consigned to decorating floats for the annual May Day parade. Without the detachment and autonomy of conventional art to insulate them, they are doomed to “represent,” in the most naive and facile manner possible, a given political issue or constituency. This detachment is necessary because art is constantly in danger of being subsumed to the condition of consumer culture or “entertainment” (cultural forms predicated on immersion rather than on a recondite critical distance). Instead of seducing viewers, the artist’s task is to hold them at arm’s length, inculcating a skeptical distance that parallels the insight provided by critical theory into the contingency of social and political meaning.
What Bishop seeks is an art practice that will continually reaffirm and flatter her self- perception as an acute critic, “decoding” or unraveling a given video installation, performance, or film, playing at hermeneutic self-discovery like Freud’s infant grandson in a game of “fort” and “da.” In addition to naturalizing deconstructive interpretation as the only appropriate metric for aesthetic experience, this approach places the artist in a position of ethical oversight, unveiling or revealing the contingency of systems of meaning that the viewer would otherwise submit to without thinking. The viewer, in short, can’t be trusted. Bishop’s deep suspicion of art practices that surrender some autonomy to collaborators and that involve the artist directly in the (always already compromised) machinations of political struggles. In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy and Performativity (Duke Univeristy Press, 2003), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick offers a useful interpretation of the rhetoric of exposure in her analysis of the “paranoid consensus” that has come to dominate contemporary critical theory informed by structuralism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. Based in part on the historical identification of critical theory with the act of revealing the (structural) determinants that pattern our perception of reality, the paranoid approach obsessively repeats the gesture of “unveiling hidden violence” to a benumbed or disbelieving world. As enabling and necessary as it is to probe beneath the surface of appearance and to identify unacknowledged forms of power, the paranoid approach, in Sedgwick’s view, attributes an almost mystical agency to the act of revelation in and of itself. As she writes:
The paranoid trust in exposure seemingly depends … on an infinite reservoir of naivete in those who make up the audience for these unveilings. What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic or even violent?
As Sedgwick notes, the normalization of paranoid knowing as a model for creative and intellectual practice has entailed “a certain disarticulation, disavowal, and misrecognition of other ways of knowing, ways less oriented around suspicion.” Sedgwick juxtaposes paranoid knowing (in which “exposure in and of itself is assigned a crucial operative power”) with reparative knowing, which is driven by the desire to ameliorate or give pleasure. As she argues, this reparative attitude is intolerable to the paranoid, who views any attempt to work productively within a given system of meaning as unforgivably naive and complicit; a belief authorized by the paranoid’s “contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness, sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable.”
As delightful as it is to hear yet another disquisition on the glories of The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, or Dogville (2003), a more complete account of collaborative art must begin with some measured reflection on the diversity of practices encompassed by that term. And it must include a more substantive analysis of precisely the concepts that Bishop abandons to ad hominem cliche: “activism,” “political engagement,” and the aesthetic itself. On one level Bishop’s discomfort with activist art is typical of post-cold war intellectuals embarrassed by work that evokes leftist ideals. At the same time, I think there’s something more at stake in her