Open Field is a place for all kinds of ideas, including the exploration of how knowledge is created and disseminated in contemporary intellectual life. A series of seminar-like conversations that starts this week does just this. The Public Intellectual: Guru, Gadfly & Cultural Gunrunner will look at six critically influential thinkers from the 1960s over the course of three meetings to investigate the role of the public intellectual and the transmission of ideas outside of the academy. It will take place outside, under an umbrella, with a beer (certainly an intellectual tradition).
I invited the instigator of the series, local poet Charisse Gendron, to be a guest blogger over the course of the summer to share her thoughts on the project and her impressions of Open Field as a space for these kind of discussions. As a way of introduction, here is a brief Q & A.
You’ve been attending Walker programs for years, ranging from the defunct Artist’s Bookshelf book club to film screenings and Performing Arts events. What draws you to this place? What interests of yours do you see reflected here?
The Walker was one of the reasons I chose Minneapolis when I was looking for a new city. I had been teaching literature and film in Tennessee, and the possibility of strolling over to the Walker to see screenings of Derek Jarman’s Blue or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman thrilled me. The Walker represents opportunity—to see, hear, talk with Sadie Benning, Todd Haynes, Kelly Reichardt, Lorna Simpson, Haegue Yang. To witness the cross currents between artists I love; to discover that Lorna Simpson was influenced by Chantal Akerman!
What inspired you to organize this series of discussions?
In a previous incarnation I was an academic. At a university, people are trained to think, but their research is so specialized that they lose the ability to talk with people outside their discipline. Few can afford to be polymaths, culture vultures, running out to encounter the next new thing.
Once I was free of my career, I had the energy and flexibility to write poetry, to look at art, to read for pleasure, and to find others who shared these passions. The problem is, outside of universities, people often don’t share the theoretical ground for conversations to develop efficiently.
I’m always hunting for that overlap between making culture and theorizing it, and the people who negotiate that overlap, the “public intellectuals”—the curious ones, the critical ones, the ones with something to say and the ambition and preparation to say it. When I find some of these folks, I make the sign of the cross.
Certain questions, though, I haven’t found in circulation locally: about the role of public intellectuals, the conditions that foster them, the media they have used historically and use today. So I needed to pose these questions and to root out others who might care about them, might even identify as public intellectuals in a producing or a consuming capacity, as thinkers, not necessarily professional scholars, who are blogging, publishing, attending salons, in reality or just in their heads.
Having such a conversation takes a little structure and a little preparation, some shared readings, a meeting space, an intention, an interstice where people need to exercise some mental rigor but not a special vocabulary. This is the space that I love to be in, so I have some responsibility to make it happen.
One more thing—why the 1960s? Public intellectuals flourished then because thinking wasn’t so specialized and because readers and writers (from T. S. Eliot and George Orwell to Clement Greenberg and Susan Sontag) used journals such as The New York Review of Books and The Partisan Review to engage in sustained conversations. Minds were aflame with social and artistic movements—the French New Wave, the emergence of photography as an art form alongside painting and sculpture, the student revolts, the sexual revolution. I was a teenager and that cultural climate set the bar. We are living in a similar time now in terms of media and visual culture and I hope people who come to the sessions will educate me more about it. The point is, yes, to give serious consideration to the writing of Angela Davis and Timothy Leary, but also to use ‘60s case studies as a launch for talking about how we transmit ideas now.
Why conduct these conversations at Open Field? What connections do you see between the public intellectual and the commons, if any?
The public intellectual is someone who wants to be part of the current cultural conversation in a more integrated way than is often possible in academia; someone who wants to make connections not only with scholars but with artists, journalists, activists—thinkers throughout the community. The Open Field, both the concept and the physical space, is an attempt to democratize resources, relocate a measure of authority from institutions to individuals, and provide a context for new affiliations and syntheses. My little project fits snugly within the Walker’s big project in an almost fractal way.
You were part of Haegue Yang’s artist-in-residence project this past year which involved a series of seminars with a small group of learners. Does that experience have any relationship to your series on public intellectuals?
Participating in that residency was an incredible privilege—to be thrown into Haegue’s synthesis of French philosophy, the work of Marguerite Duras, the example of people who have resisted political oppression, the theory and practice of abstraction as a visual means to refract received ideas. To be exposed to her unique personhood, work ethic, changeableness. I don’t know how useful the residency was to her—I hope somewhat. If nothing else, it demonstrated the arduousness/ardor of building community, of a group of people finding their own stake in being together, both voluntarily and somewhat arbitrarily, making the effort to communicate by folding paper, knitting, playing “statues,” watching videos, talking in a range of registers—with the option at any time of disengaging.
After the last seminar, we sprang apart. This is as it should be for a communion not to become a burden, a search for consensus, an obligation to compromise. Haegue’s residency helped me to understand the serial nature of cultural participation. The whole process must happen over and over to maintain a local balance of tolerance and conviction, the climate for art and ideas that builds public support for libraries and museums. Open Field presents a huge opportunity for dozens of exchanges such as Haegue’s residency to occur—they won’t be as intense, but there will be more of them. Each transmission brings us closer to a cultural economy in which we don’t need to reinvent the language in order to converse. For it is no longer true that language, “a” symbolic order, precedes us.
The discussion series The Public Intellectual: Guru, Gadfly & Cultural Gunrunner starts this Thursday, June 24 at 7 pm in the Open Lounge.