Praxis at Carnegie Mellon: Yet Another Blogged “Talk”

April 5, 2010

This is most of my talk for an upcoming Symposium, New Media: Theory, Practice, Power for Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for the Arts and Society focusing on creating fuller interaction across the arts and humanities (the pages I will show at the talk from my YouTube publication, currently under review so also under wraps, are not included in this blog entry). To be clear, I post these talks on my blog, and make use of YouTube as well, as ways to experiment with moving academic discourse from its home turf ever expanding access, all the while self-reflexively noting and demonstrating the violations and translations of vernacular and protocol that must occur when an invited scholarly talk becomes something else, say, a public blog or a YouTube video. In case it’s not clear here, I always use these academic talk-blogs to actually begin my “real” talks, forcing my in-the-room audience to read/see me on-line even as I am also there with them in the room, reversing again my reflexive project to focus upon presence/absence among other things.

The talk:

Today, I will focus upon praxis, reflecting upon how I wrangled with this idea, method, and orientation in my most recent “publication,” a significant on-line effort, currently under review at a scholarly press, that brings together my abundant writings about a course I taught about and on YouTube in 2007 and 08. I will engage in a full description of this project, and its praxis, after setting up some defining terms.

For me, praxis is the difficult but necessary work of bridging ideas—particularly history and theory—with the production of things—particularly media objects like videos, films, or websites—under the intention of change. Change, encompassing as it does material goals and their associated actions, is what truly initiates and confirms praxis. One really need not engage in praxis, the difficult and usually unsupported work of unmaking and re-linking disciplines and protocols, unless one begins from the commitment to amend. Alternatively, if one starts a project with world or self-changing in mind—what do I want to accomplish with this work in the world and why—I find it hard to believe that one would not engage in praxis, as the objects most activists need to complete their specific goals are refined or even made viable through a formulating and polishing with the wax and wane of history and theory.

Now, of course, I’m talking here specifically about praxis in the academy, and clearly its paralyzing grip of disciplinary specificity, professional training, and institutional evaluation function quite effectively to keep most of us from praxis. We are easily convinced that we not authorized to or even capable of asking world-changing questions from this berth, and even when we do, we are best supported to either think and then write about the activist things other people make, or make things that others will think and write about politically. We go on to teach our students these segregated practices in different buildings, under different histories, using varied vocabularies, and focusing upon distinct methods.

Yet, in some scholarly places we can be supported to work differently, and in another forum we might list what these supports include. At Pitzer, I actually have been so supported and from there, my praxis begins with a world-bound goal: I want to contribute to conversations about ending the war by looking at how debates within the left are foreshortening our abilities to better engage the right; reflection about this limitation might lead to new oppositional strategies. This goal begs the next significant questions along the praxis chain: who, in particular, do I want to converse together, and even more specifically, how, where, when and towards what end? Unlike when I engage in a more typical academic or art project (not praxis), where I raise and then answer for an audience much like me a unique and small variation upon a question with which we are all already familiar, in my praxis work, the question of audience itself—and then those immediately following, about form and method—must be modified, even tailor-made, to best suit the very particular goals I began with. The very conditions that make our disciplines our disciplines, make them comfortable to work within, allow them to work effectively—prescribed and known audience, method, form, vernacular, and rationale—must be self-consciously structured anew for every work of praxis, and thus both ideas (theory and history) and reflexivity become central. Praxis is self-aware of its own forms and functions, just as so much academic and artistic effort is streamlined through accepted disciplinary rubrics, histories, and qualities of expertise, training, and evaluation.

Now, I could certainly address my stated world-changing goal—altering the conversation about leftist interpretation of the Iraq War so as to change our activism—by writing a theoretical piece about the representation of the Iraq War for a Media Studies journal. But clearly, this is neither the best form nor the best suited audience for my goals, although it would undoubtedly not hurt the cause if I responded in such a limited fashion. However, I want to reach educated leftists (and most live outside the academy, or even Media Studies for that matter), and I don’t want to be either pigeon-holed or confined by my expert’s, Cinema Studies discourse. Thus, I chose to make a documentary (SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age) about and with my activist sister, Antonia Juhasz, that I hoped would go to international film festivals, college classrooms and activist working-groups, play on the internet, and be part of an organized effort to situate these questions into a larger fabric of organizations and conversations.

Many of our efforts within academia, then, can or cannot be praxis, depending upon these two key, interrelated features: their political intention and reflexive structure. For instance, scholarly writing, documentary, painting, teaching, and even administration, can become praxis if and when the needs of our ends force us to re-think and then re-tool standard forms and operating procedures. And, interestingly, many of us first perhaps tentatively began to do this, or are doing this newly again, as we find ourselves moving our practices on-line because there we are suddenly given leeway and even license over audience and form often denied us in the more regulated and ossified forms of our various disciplines. Which gets me to YouTube.

To organize this talk on how praxis works within my forthcoming on-line YouTube work, I looked at everything I had so tagged, and asked what were the distinct if related ideas about praxis that were displayed across this varied body of texts. It seems I tagged with the term praxis if one of six things occurred on any page, it:

1) makes political and theoretical arguments through YouTube videos;

2) integrates theory, practice, and politics;

3) documents and thus furthers teaching as a form of praxis;

4) engages in theorizing from the making of something in the name of changing something else;

5) attempts to create praxis communities to better hold informed discourse about social issues;

6) or displays praxis manifestos.

At this point in the talk, when live at Carnegie Melon, I go to my draft YouTube work which includes some of the following videos (in conversation with my own writing).


2 Responses to “Praxis at Carnegie Mellon: Yet Another Blogged “Talk””

  1. Alex,
    I really appreciate how you explain what ‘praxis’ means to you and your commitment to that meaning. You, more than anyone I know, integrate that praxis beautifully in your entire approach to teaching and making media. Before coming to Pitzer (and now CGU), “praxis” was foreign word, let alone concept, to me. Now I’m happy to say, I not only understand it, but am attempting to engage thoughtfully in developing my own meaning of it.
    Thank you!

  2. […] However, I’ve been thinking more about writing these days (here) because of my in-the-wings all-digital scholarly YouTube publication (three positive reviews from the Press, Yes!, awaiting a contract…) and the questions it raises about moving scholarly projects to other forums and the tough connected issues of vernacular, audience, translation, form (discussed in my previous blog on Praxis.) […]

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