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Productive Impurity: Theory and Practice as Comparative Relationship

Julia Prager »

Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways,
the point is to change it.

(Marx; translation of the original 1845 note) [1]

Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways;
the point, however, is to change it.

(Marx; as edited and published by Engels, 1888)

Sometimes it happens that a single sentence becomes as famous as this eleventh thesis against Feuerbach. Rarer, perhaps, is its paradoxical fate precisely to lie behind what its pluralistic existence is challenging, namely its universal significance. As such, this being in a simultaneousness with time has even resulted in a whole series of contradictory parenthoods of its meaning for scientific examinations on the relationship between theory and practice, but also for the claim of totalitarian rule: thus the “the point is to” has served as pars pro toto for a series of texts on the theory of political practice in the Turia+Kant publishing house; as a quotation the thesis put forward in 1953 by the SED leadership still admonishes (in self-exclusive ways) all those who enter the main foyer of the Humboldt University in Berlin to ascend the mighty central stairway that branches off precisely underneath this wording and finally opens the way to humanistic education. Ceal Floyers’ art project, in the course of which she mounted small brass plates on each of these staircases with the warning “Mind the Step” certainly does not facilitate this path – as the project description reveals, the sentence becomes a “listed provocation” (Humboldt University press information). But who is provoking whom in this context?

After all, the thesis offers defiant opposition to the assumption that theory and practice are two clearly differentiable fields: because one single sentence, which is so fatefully connected with the knowledge production of the Humboldt University and tells us here that interpretation is not everything, is simply interpretation itself. In fact, the gold-lettered quotation under which the central staircase of the main Humboldt foyer branches off in such an ambivalent way is not the thesis noted down by Karl Marx, but the very result of Friedrich Engels’ interpretation: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (See note 1.) As Ernst Bloch stated, the semicolon introduced by Engels as well as the added “however” have ensured that interpretation and change have become an alternative (cf. Gerhardt 1996, 14). For the Humboldt-University-based philosopher Volker Gerhardt from this intervention the notion of change seems to be a “deliberate implication of a certain interpretation” (ibid., 20), which further means that the political basic truth of the thesis or its dual existence can be conceived in the following way: “Thus anyone who acts politically changes their world of their own accord” (ibid. 27). Gerhardt then briefly formulates his own interpretation of the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The point is to be effective.” (ibid. 21)

At this point and in the context of deconstructive knowledge politics we have to ask how the “deliberate” change can be differentiated from the one that permanently “occurs” or better, to what extent agency installs itself in a border zone. Because, if we cannot assume that speech acts or actions can be realised autonomously and intentionally, but are always embedded in a larger power structure that always prestructures the space of realisation of our action, then it is important to realise (in particular in the context of knowledge production) that this very awareness always eludes us to a certain degree. On the one hand this means that we have to assume that any (scientific) work with cultural, literary, artistic “texts” and their interpretation – however they may be designed – are never innocent, since they always ‟do” something, thus transforming their object by transposing it into a new context of meaning. On the other hand we have to ask ourselves how actual agency might be thought if the “efficacy” of our actions is always precarious. Or else, if the given order of knowledge does not allow us to conceive alternatives to the dominating power relationship within their logics, since such alternatives simply fall within the scope of the unthinkable, the non-knowing.

In order to obtain a possible answer to this question it seems to be helpful to highlight the critical theme of this issue: the feared assimilation of art by science, or, to formulate it differently, its dependence on theoretical interpretation. We have already stated that a separation of theory and practice is not possible in this way. What has remained unsaid so far is the artistic aspect of this action – its creative and imaginative dimension. In the proper sense, art cannot be imaged without knowledge production, since creative, rhetorical assignments are always in play, exerting a considerable influence on the positioning of meaning of what is being interpreted. Yet above all what is artful in the theory cannot be neglected if it comes to criticising, to questioning the norms and bringing something that has so far been impossible within striking distance.

Yet this second aspect of the certainly mutual relationship between (theoretical) science and (practical) art all too often disappears from sight. This may also be due to the fact that it is mostly the philosophical disciplines in which the nature of criticism is questioned. Because of their tendency to form a judgement and the associated mechanisms, philosophy has difficulty – as Judith Butler also critically notes – in operating at its borders. However, Butler sees the value of these border-crossings in the very fact that the mechanisms of one’s judgement formation are regarded critically and that one goes beyond the possibilities of the given order. In fact, Butler believes that she recognises such a critical philosophical working method outside of the discipline, so-to-say in its “other”. This other cannot simply be described as something opposite to philosophy, but rather designates that which emerges as a “second” philosophy beyond its set and defended limits in the various (cultural) scientific disciplines and “infests” institutionalised philosophy as completed discipline. For Butler, the value of the other of philosophy rests in its very “impurity”, defying philosophical judgement and rather questioning the mechanisms of questioning themselves, which have resulted in this judgement.

In order to expose the requirement of art in critical theory, Butler refers to Foucault, who is only able to perform this very questioning for the limits of questioning through staging an artful action. In concrete terms, what is at stake here is the examination of the nature of criticism as such. With the question “What is critique?” (Qu’est-ce que la critique? 1978) Foucault establishes it as a practice; as the critical enterprise that does not ask for its meaning but begins to ask for the way and the conditions of the process of questioning that introduce critique. The contingency of questioning is due to the established power constellations, which are only directed at reproducing existing ideas through mechanisms of judgement and their fetishisation of isolated categories. Judgements that subsume something “special” under an already constituted category presuppose that questioning the field in which these categories emerge can ultimately no longer be part of the question. (Cf. Butler 2000)

But how to pose this question about the limits of questioning if we are ourselves part of these restrictions; if our self is decisively influenced by them? Indeed, we can face this dilemma especially because we embody the involved nominations and because they only come into being through our performance. Because as performative subjects we not only perform norms but we also transform them in numerous acts of repetition and reinterpretation – consciously and unconsciously. Understanding criticism as practice thus means thinking about how the notion of “freedom of action” can be developed in a post-sovereign context. Foucault finds a way by mobilising what he designates as the “art” of desiring not to be governed in this way, which he connects with the following question: “how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them?” (Foucault 1997, 44)

To be “governed” does not only mean that our existence is forced into a form, it also means that the conditions are imposed on us that make existence possible or impossible. Critique becomes a claim to presume a right, namely the right to a freedom that is not thinkable as such and that can only be imagined as non-knowing. Yet it also means that the self must risk a movement to take its transformation into its own hands, so-to-say in a moment to expropriate oneself to the discourse that is as art of the “self-allocation” – in a space between fiction and reality (cf. ibid.)

It does indeed make a decisive difference to designate freedom or the thus staged possibility of critique as art instead of as a self-generated movement in a “real” space, split from its fictive dimension. Insofar as we perceive structures of perception as hegemonic articulations, i.e. as historically sedimented narratives, any origin appears as fiction. In consequence, no ultimate ground can be discerned in terms of an essence or an inner truth, rather that which is staged as such, is ultimately the product of a creative work. The performative generation of identity is after all connected with what was previously asserted as an opportunity of our discursive contingency. Because, if we are fashioned in that measure in which we also fashion ourselves, thus embodying the norm, preserving it and changing it, then it will always be possible to claim a knowledge, to position it, of which no previous knowledge exists. (Even if there are no guarantees for its continuation.) In this very sense Foucault establishes the will for freedom as performative positing. Thus – as Butler can be paraphrased – Foucault finds a way to evade discursive constraints by working up the courage to express something of which he does not yet know how it can be anchored and so sets a critical practice of insubordination in motion:

As for Foucault’s mention of “originary freedom”, he offers and withdraws it at once. “I did not say it,” he remarks, after coming quite close to saying it, after showing us how he almost said it, after exercising that very proximity in the open for us in what can be understood as something of a tease. What discourse nearly seduces him here, subjugating him to its terms? And how does he draw from the very terms that he refuses? What art form is this in which a nearly collapsible critical distance is performed for us? And is this the same distance that informs the practice of wondering, of questioning? What limits of knowing does he dare to broach as he wonders out loud for us? The inaugural scene of critique involves “the art of voluntary insubordination” and the voluntary or, indeed, “originary freedom” is given here, but in the form of a conjecture, in a form of art that suspends ontology and brings us into the suspension of disbelief. (Butler 2000)

So there are very good reasons to read the relationship between art and theory not only as one of subordination, but to open the critical sciences for just the productive impurity that Butler perceives at the borders of philosophy. And there is an equally good reason to establish the comparative discipline as privileged place of such a critical practice. Because it is a scientific discipline that has always operated at and with the limits, in whose uncertainty art and categorisation, practice and theory enter into a relationship – and this is not only especially provocative but also productive in the sense of a pluralisation of what is possible.


Butler, Judith (2000): “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”. In: Salih, Sara (ed.), The Judith Butler Reader. Oxford, Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 304–22 [online: (03.10.2013)].
Foucault, Michel (1978): “Qu’est-ce-que la critique?” In: Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 84/2, 35–63 [English translation: “What is Critique?” In The Politics of Truth, eds Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), transcript by Monique Emery, revised by Suzanne Delorme, et al., translated into English by Lysa Hochroth].
Gerhardt, Volker (1996): “Eine politische These, kein philosophischer Satz”. In: the same (ed.), Eine angeschlagene These: die 11. Feuerbachthese im Foyer der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 13–33.
Humboldt-Universität: online services [online: /pdf/feuerbach_de (03.10.2013)].
Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (1956): (in German) Werke. Berlin: Dietz 1958.

Translated into English by Dörte Eliass


[1] Translator’s note: the English translation of Marx’s original note was first published in 1938 and uses a semi-colon rather than a comma (Marx & Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, p.3). In order to illustrate the point of this essay, the translation given here retains the comma of Marx’s original German. The Engels version (Marx & Engels Collected Works vol. 5, p. 6–8) was published in 1888 as an appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy; both available online at

Short bio

Julia Prager (born 1982) currently lives in Berlin. She studied comparative literature in Innsbruck, completed a research term at the Peter Szondi Institute and works among other things as a research assistant, project collaborator and managing coordinator of gender studies at the LFU Innsbruck. She dedicated her dissertation to literary-studies practices of social critique. The book ‟Frames of Critique” was published by Nomos Verlag in 2013 as part of the series ‟Zeitgenössische Diskurse des Politischen” (Contemporary Discourses of the Political). Her research and scientific publication activity continues to be focused on the nexus of literature theory and social theory. At the moment she is working as a lecturer and on a project to connect intermediality research and ethics.

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