Creative Theory, Radical Example by Justice Koolhaas

There are many books that are, like this one, available for free on sites like Smashwords and iBooks. Few of them are of a useful standard like this one, but that standard is going up. What will this mean for books in general?

I came across this book while browsing free books on Smashwords. The site is sterile when compared to wandering around a library or a secondhand bookshop. None of those nice pagey smells. But hey, when there’s free books involved …

This one caught my eye because it reminds me of another book, one by H J Paton. I can see you’re impressed already. I bought his (incredibly famous) book, The Moral Law, for good reason: a philosophy assignment. I found the book at the point where I knew I’d seriously underestimated the Kant option I’d (foolishly) elected to take. I’d no idea where to start. And Paton’s book saved my skin. The first half is his section-by-section interpretation of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. The second half is Kant’s full text. Paton’s interpretations meant I could map out my assignment and get it finished over a (very stressful) weekend. I always wondered since why academic texts are hardly ever organised like this? What’s so wrong about a 50 / 50ish split between primary and secondary texts? So getting back to the book on Smashwords …

Creative Theory, Radical Example got my attention straight away because it’s similarly divided. There’s a very readable introduction, and then there’s a second one with interpretive material for each of the essays that make up the last two thirds of the book. These short essays remind me of Kant. Some passages make sense to me but most of them highlight how much you need to be immersed in this stuff to be advanced enough to understand it. Oh how the wheels of my brain have rusted off over the years! The most accessible material is, however, the explanations behind the ‘regrounding’ methodology used by Koolhaas. Actually, it reminds me of those quickly written ‘morning pages’ suggested in Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer. Except here there’s theoretical gravitas on supply from Kristiva and Heidegger. It’s therefore bizarre that it’s not mentioned that students on creative writing courses might be interested, non? Regrounding theory would make for a great book in its own right.

Naturally, what any book on or by a new theorist can’t offer is tried-and-tested bread-and-butter like Kant. But it will be current. This means brownie points for research. And Creative Theory offers scope too. It covers so many uses of ‘theory’ such as literature, art, ‘posthumanism’, and the Internet, that it’s probably got a quote or two for a range of occasions.

I do have two complaints. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to iBooks, but I found the table of contents too detailed. It’s only when you click a page on from Acknowledgements that you can see the chapters in bold. My second complaint is more serious though. What worries me is the ease. Back in the day when I was a student, you had to look up books on the library catalogue. You had to retrieve them from shelves. You had to pile them up at a desk where you sat down and avoided distractions. You had to scour through indexes and cross-reference your finds by memory and notes. Is all this being replaced by a search bar? If so, then what exactly is ‘study’? Do free and searchable source materials therefore mean that the pass-marks should be set higher?

Creative Theory will attract complaint as much as it will agreement because it’s crammed denser than plutonium with seeds for questions like these. Take the controversial proposals for universities. I mean, the eventual abolition of reading and writing! The idea! I’ve no space left here now: come on, any takers on this one?

So to finish, I should add that I interrupted writing another review to write about Creative Theory. This was more to highlight Smashwords as a source of free books. Amazon has a minimum price. Smashwords offers both free and ‘you set the price’ books, so I shall return there because cheap is my territory. But I do worry that giving away perfectly decent new books is a threat. Sure, to get to them you have to wade through screen after screen of short, autobiographical, pseudo-self-helpy, diluted claptrap. The thing is, how long before this changes? And what paid jobs will there be in publishing when readers expect books to cost nothing or next-to-nothing?

Extract from the section titled Glitch and Poetics in Writing (following on from a complicated quotation from the philosopher, Hegel):

It is anti-intellectual to approach philosophy like this with a prejudiced mind. It is intellectually lazy to reproduce it out of its original geo-historico-political context in order to discredit its validity. Both of these acts avoid engaging with the text with care. To do this with Koolhaas, I recommend the reading advice offered by Nietzsche:

‘to practice reading as an art … requires one thing above all, and it is something which today more than ever has been thoroughly unlearnt–a fact which explains why it will be some time before my writings are ‘readable’–it is something for which one must be practically bovine and certainly not a ‘modern man’: that is to say, rumination’ (Nietzsche 1996: 10)

What, you might ask at this point, has all this text got to do with readers of this book? Writing commentaries on culture seems remote from everyday life, they might object. What is the point in being a Theory Celebrity? Surely texts have little or no influence over the way the world is?

These are valid questions. But before you throw your hands in the air, I shall relate an event in Koolhaas’s life that illustrates how the power relations in language are endemic to everyday practices. It happened in a hotel where she was staying in Spain. A group of English tourists had grown disgruntled at a group of German tourists who were getting up early, occupying the sunbeds, and then hogging them for most of the day. After a few days of this, the Germans pulled their blinds one morning, and then looked down from their balconies to discover that the sunbeds had been re-arranged into swastikas.

In this one incident you can see how many issues there are in this symbolic act. There is the humour and offence experienced by the two respective groups. There is the reproduction of national stereotyping (the efficient, territorial Germans; the plucky, ingenious Brits). Then there is the history – remember that this happened in a country formerly divided and ruled by fascists. Not to be ignored either is how national and military history relate to gender (the tourists were all men). You can probably think of some more aspects.

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10 Responses to Creative Theory, Radical Example by Justice Koolhaas

  1. Stefanie says:

    Sounds like work but interesting work. I wonder of the book was free because a professor wrote it for students? Or is it an actual professionally published book Smashwords is just offering for free in order to reel people in and hopefully convince them to buy other books while they are at it?


    • Jeff says:

      Probably both. I dare say they could charge good prices too. But for how long? I just looked and found that the FAO publishes on Smashwords. The standard of free books is going up. I suppose what worries me is that blogging about cheap or free books, as I do, could pressurize the supply in some way. For example, academics, FAO officials and the obscure public figures who seem to now publish their memoirs have already been paid. What have they got to lose in putting out what they’ve already done? It seems to me that there might be more original voices out there who could be drowned out simply because they don’t have the resources to be heard. Just some thoughts, but couldn’t the liberalization of text eventually get usurped by the very establishment it promises to usurp? My reading and reviewing what seems the best on offer would seem to play into this.


  2. Eric Wayne says:

    Don’t drink the Koolhaus!

    It could very succinctly sum up my impression of this body of essays thusly: “Shithaus”. I do admit that I didn’t read it straight through – I defy anyone to attempt to do so – but dabbled here and there looking for anything substantive enough to sink my teeth into.

    I don’t know whether to attribute what follows to genes, or to free choice, but my nephew is a physicist who recently wrote an article in which he stated that if he can’t explain something to his little sister, than he doesn’t understand it clearly enough himself. I agree. Invert that and a web of obtuse rhetoric masks an inability to say something directly, and clearly, that matters in the world.

    Koolhaus is undoubtedly clever, and there are some wonderful turns of phrase, but if something glitters like gilded bullshit, I’m not that tempted to turn it over in my hand and scrape the underside for savory tidbits. I suppose I should give some specific objections at this point.

    But first a pet peeve. I’ve come to detest the word “radical”, unless it is applied to the political philosophy of Pol Pot and Brother Number Two, in which case it seems appropriate. Radical in 2015 strikes me as about as appetizing as radical new porn. I shudder to think of what could be even more shocking, and less erotic. Call me conservative but I’ll take integrating, and learning from the past over declaring oneself a revolutionary, and others necessary casualties in an awesome and flawless plan, any day. Koolaid-haus’s text is filled with the word “radical” to lend her “theory” importance implicitly because it is a break with the past, and a great leap forward.

    We learn that Koolhaas’ theory ‘sets a radical example’. Her methodology is “radical”. Even her architecture for education is “radical”. Her discovery of a Zizek quote was her motivation to encourage students to write “radical” essays. There’s even the self-contradiction that her “critique” is “located within radical traditions”. I love traditional-radicality because it’s so fashionably newly retro.

    My single biggest objection to Koolhaus’s theory is that I can’t nail anything she says down in order to grapple with it one way or another. The slime coating is impenetrable. In the section on Baudrillard and sci-fi, Koolhaus is quoted, “there is no truth, none in texts because [they are] plastic, open to interpretation; none in fact because facticity is a dependent, a plastic one, as just open.”

    It seems to say that there is no truth because there is only text, and even “facts” are ultimately just more text. But what does the “as just open” part mean at the end? Is this even a grammatically correct sentence? I can’t figure out what “as just open” applies to. Instead of trying to write clearly, she creates as sort of poetry of impressive sounding gibberish, that makes one feel smart while reading it, but leaves one a bit damaged for having done so, like doing multiple sets of a weightlifting exercise incorrectly.

    Because I can’t really understand the elusive, self-indulgent, “theory”, I mostly take exception to the posturing, such as adding “icity” or “ivity” onto shit, which is a kind of shiticity. I quoted “facticity” above, and then there is the ever-popular “narrativity”, and let us never forget “radicality”. The vomitivity of the stenchicity of it is overpowering.

    I did get one profound insight from reading this material, though. I remembered being in grad school and the way we would reverently talk about “theory”. It’s only in the last few months that I was able to unravel “theory” from the pedestal it was elevated on like a religious text, to realize that it really just means what it says: it’s just a “theory”. It’s not proven, and doesn’t feel it has to be, because all text is plastic, and even facticity is contained within the plasticity of narrativity! My art cadres and comrades in revolutionary arms, fighting with racial new art against the hegemony of the imperialist, misogynist, patriarchy understood “theory” to mean something more than even “philosophy”. Theory was to us what the Quran is to radical strains of Muslims. And Koolhaus-of-cards made it eminently clear to me that “theory” is just a story (which tries to elevate itself by denying anything else the ability of being more than a story). Theory is often just highfalutin bullshit.

    Koolmaus subscribes hook-line-and-sinker to ultra-conventional, knee-jerk, anti-science rhetoric, which may in fact be a kind of “radical” untherered-ivity. She substantiates her anti-science stance with a quote by Donna Haraway: “science as a subject and the people who are subject to it are both intertextually situated within narrativity and ideology.” Oh the breadth of the wide-sweeping web of narrativity that engulfs all in its gaping maw. My ass on fire. Does she so flatter herself that with a few rhetorical flourishes and a grab bag of extra syllables tacked on the end of perfectly good words that she outthinks and is more intellectually courageous than Galileo when he faced the Inquisition for extolling the heliocentric model of the universe, displacing God and humankind from the center of creation, because he saw that it was objectively true independent of any fucking narrative or “intertextuality”? Does she think sipping at her coffee radically encompasses Socrates’ drinking the hemlock for his very real convictions in truth?

    She doubtlessly has some good things to say that I’d agree with, but I have no faith in her in the same way I have no faith in Hilary Clinton for supporting the invasion of Iraq. Hopefully young students won’t fall victim to thinking that because they can’t fully grasp Koolhaus’s “theory” it must be brilliant and beyond them. Sometimes you can’t get a solid grip on something because it’s drivel.

    Thumbs down with Koolhaus’ spittle dripping off of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff says:

      Whoa, cool it Eric! Anyone would think this book’s going to corrupt its readership! Practically nobody’s going to read it! There’s a lot of harsh points there, but I will take some of them on. It’s a good job this is a searchable e-book that you’ve pole-axed at so much length!
      First off, I sort of agree about the science. I’m not sure you can give alternative explanations for repeatable experiments that prove a thesis. Saying that knowledge gained by the scientific method is suspect because it;s a – what was it Christian Salvation Narrative? – is like saying that the experiment deceives your eyes. But at the same time, we have to remember there’s nothing politically neutral about hydrogen bombs or gas chambers. These uses of science were hardly ‘objective’. Science is no more exempt from narratives than anything else, whether these are about the cold war or race theories.
      what does the “as just open” part mean
      Maybe it’s a typo? Should it be ‘just as open’? Or maybe she’s trying to keep readers on their toes!
      >adding “icity” or “ivity” onto shit
      I don’t think the ‘ity’ at the end of words can be entirely laid at the door of theory. My partner has just completed an arts funding application that required evidence of ‘inclusivity’. Presumably this word offers shades of meaning that ‘inclusion’ can’t? Or maybe it’s another invasion of business-speak? Language can be a captor as much as a tool. In my last job I had to refer to ‘feelgood moments’. Everyone had to speak the jargon to be understood. Incidentally, business-speak isn’t in my old 1996 Oxford Reference Dictionary. Did people once roll their eyes at the term and protest that there’s no such thing?
      >I didn’t read it straight through – I defy anyone to attempt to do so
      I have to admit that I haven’t read the whole book either. I usually do for reviews. But Radical Theory was too specialized for me. Even so, some parts will make sense, while others won’t unless you’re studying theory. So when she says of Damien Hirst:
      “His painting is a piece of technological media to define, package and transpose the historicisation of modernist avant-garde movements into an aristocracy with a self-absorbed approach that has no shared manifesto.”
      I understand this as meaning something like ‘Hirst’s art captures a modernist tradition for a social group that is high-status and highly individual.’
      But, equally, I’m lost when I read that:
      “What we know from the experience of the movements of rhetoric employed in the Tate Modern is that what is normally excluded from Weber and a certain line of Hegelian thinking is a missed connection between charisma and celebrity.”
      I don’t know what Weber or Hegel wrote that relates to charisma and celebrity. Actually, I like ‘Zizek and the sex between Emin and Hirst’. Some bits were quite elegant. Like this:
      “The failed symbolisation in her sexuality is a struggle in the instability of objects and the problems of knowing that structure methods and conventional aesthetic values.”
      It looks like this means that her public displays of sexual failure are in the objects she makes as well as what we come to ‘know’ about art. It’s a bit roundabout. But hasn’t it taken roundabout writing to get to the thought, ja?
      > I can’t really understand the elusive, self-indulgent, “theory”, I mostly take exception to the posturing
      Maybe it is all a bit self-indulgent, slippery, and posturesa bit. But maybe that’s how elusiveness comes across? Maybe the elusiveness and difficulty is a deliberate ploy to evade easy understanding? Maybe easy understanding can lead to cosy assumptions? One can rest so easy that the impression can form that nothing needs thinking about.
      I’m not trying to defend or excuse her. It just seems to me that her work isn’t in a blaze of publicity. So who would any ‘posturing’ be for? It wasn’t hard to find this book. There’s bugger-all that’s free under ‘Essay’ in Smashwords. The book’s probably still near the top of the list right now. So I kind-of get the idea that it’s like a piece of educational subterfuge. Release it as an e-book. Say nothing more until the next book (if that’s what’s happening – just a guess). Very hands-off. To do the opposite of academic textbooks by not publicizing or charging money – isn’t that pretty radical?!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Hi Jeff:

        Why should I put on the breaks? If a book presents itself as a “radical challenge”, than one can not take it seriously and lightly at the same time. If I take it at all seriously, then I’m going to take up arms and join its revolutionary cause, or else I’m going to reject it as just another “little red book” for art and culture, which serves to eradicate far more than it offers.

        You wrote, “we have to remember there’s nothing politically neutral about hydrogen bombs or gas chambers. These uses of science were hardly ‘objective’.”

        Precisely, those are “uses of science” and not science. The scientists who developed the atom bomb did not support using it on a civilian population, but rather in an unpopulated area as a show of power. Creating bombs is an application of science, which is not necessarily objective at all, but the underlying science the technology is based on has to be objective in order to work. The use to which people in power put applications of science is most likely not objective at all from my standpoint, but rather a form of corruption.

        You wrote, ” I don’t think the ‘ity’ at the end of words can be entirely laid at the door of theory. My partner has just completed an arts funding application that required evidence of ‘inclusivity’. Presumably this word offers shades of meaning that ‘inclusion’ can’t?”

        Artspeak comes from theory. I think “inclusivity” originates with the more feminist, marginalization branch of theory. All the “ivities” were bandied about when I was in graduate art school. Artists don’t talk like that unless they are first subjected to contemporary “theory”, or just get it second hand from teachers and other artists steeped in PoMo, 70’s feminism, and marginalization theory.

        I can’t make any sense out of those quotes about Hirst or Emin. His paintings are not “technological media”, but rather traditional commodifiable art objects hand painted by workers in a very standard and plebian way. I don’t even associate him with technology. I can’t field an extrapolation on a false premise.

        And that quote about Emin? What is the “failed symbolism in her sexuality”? I’d have to know what that was before I could attempt to understand how it is “a struggle in the instability of objects”. What is the “instability of objects”? What are the “problems of knowing” that structure methods? There are three foregone conclusions packed into one assertion, and no explanation what any of it means.

        You wrote: “Maybe the elusiveness and difficulty is a deliberate ploy to evade easy understanding? Maybe easy understanding can lead to cosy assumptions? One can rest so easy that the impression can form that nothing needs thinking about.”

        Au contraire. A clearly stated and understood concept causes one to stop and ponder; to try to integrate it; to apply it. But your comment reminds me of when I was in the crucible of graduate art school, and the dean of the school told us in a seminar that she enjoyed not fully understanding what she was reading. I wouldn’t remember that over 20 years later if it hadn’t struck me as an odd conclusion. Does one not understand it because it’s too deep, or is it because it can’t actually be made sense of because it’s not tethered to reality? If I can’t understand something I’ll read it again. If I can’t understand it after a few attempts, AND I can find problems with the grammar or logic, than it just might be amorphous bullshit plopped on a pedestal.

        Right, it’s a free book and not Koolhaas hasn’t got a lot of publicity. Perhaps she could learn from the success of Emin’s failed symbolism underlying her sexuality, and brandish a set of cosmetically enhanced blouse bunnies in her publicity photos. I just don’t think this kind of “theory” is what the art world needs any more of. We’re already steeped in meaningless “radicality” while being crushed to the verge of annihilation by the ultra conservative oligarchic class that invests millions a pop for the radical art born of, and justified by, this kind of “theory”.

        Should one give Koolhaas a chance. I’m reminded of my favorite slogan in the run-up to the war on Iraq. It was a T-shirt that said, “Give War a Chance!”

        Nice of you to give her “theory” a chance, but, I find it somewhere between worthless and pernicious. There’s got to be better shit out there.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff says:

          Before I reply, I’d like to say that though you’re raising critical points about the book, a) their relentlessness makes for a harsh tone, and b) I won’t take this personally because I know you’re passionate about your views. I’d add that this illustrates Koolhaas’ point about how text can’t be seen simply as a rational, reasoned piece of information, and that its context is troublesome to its claims to truth. Not that I’d necessarily agree with her that truth can’t be got at. To take this up with your point about science, I think it was Richard Dawkins who said ‘show me a relativist at 40,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.’ My guess is that Koolhaas is being mischievous. I suspect that this is because she wants readers to be forensic and vigilant, even with her stuff (as you were), taking nothing for granted.
          I agree with what you say about artspeak coming from theory. There’s something often maddening and laughable about the notices that sit beside artworks. A lot of them read like psychobabble, cod spiritualism, and psuedo-anything-ology. Its condensed form does indeed suggest something half-read and quarter-understood.
          The real problem behind this though is that theoretical subjects aren’t taught until university level so they haven’t entered common parlance (the exception perhaps being Freudian terminology). This is the fault of the humanities in the academy. I find it amazing that I can hold a conversation with neighbour about geology despite neither of us having studied it. This is simply because the geologist, Iain Stewart, makes BBC4 documentaries that relate the subject in terms that have everyday relevance. By contrast, it seems to me that theorists revel in keeping their jargon restricted to their tiny circle. As a result, even the few terms I can remember from uni, such as hegemony and even ‘subjects and objects’, are terms I can use in conversation with practically no-one.
          I could hazard guesses at the meaning of any number of quotes from the Koolhaas book, but without being on a course, they’d just be guesses. And that’s my point. It’s all a bit inward.
          On the positive side, if making course-level books free is a step towards broadening the reach of ‘theory’, I can’t see how it can do any harm. The alternative would seem to be censorship. And being realistic, few undergraduates are likely to delve any further than the introduction, which is, as they usually are, the usable part. This and our comments here could be applied to pretty much any book on theory subjects / writers etc. As I say above, the problem is with the theorist community (if that’s what it’s called) failing to bring its wares to the public.
          I’ve just seen someone else who’s blogged about this book. The responses were also mostly about understandability. I’m surprised really. I thought that if anything would create a furore it’d be the stuff about reforming universities around social media, phasing out reading and writing, and stuff like that. That certainly seems ‘radical’. Unless of course a lot of people agree with such moves.
          Thanks for your comments btw. It’s good to have a long and intelligent discussion on WP! See what you make of the latest post on Karen Love’s book. It’s free too. A lot shorter though.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Eric Wayne says:

            Good points, Jeff. I especially like the one about discussing geology intelligently because of documentaries which explain it clearly without obfuscation. Was I being harsh? Apparently I need to reel in my hyperbole a bit. I tend to counter extreme/radical views (Koolhaas’s, not yours) with their opposite in order to force the pivot of orientation into the broader center. Ex., if someone says painting is dead, I counter that the notion that painting is dead was stillborn. Once the extremes are dissolved, there can be a slow movement into the deeper waters. I don’t really put radical art theory in the same compartment as Mao’s little red book or Pol Pot’s attempt to destroy culture by starting over at “the year zero”. yeah, thanks for the discussion, and I begrudgingly admit Koolhaas’s theories forced me to think about the issues at hand and at least attempt to respond to them, which is useful in itself.


  3. Ste J says:

    Although not as eloquent or disectory (and yes I use that as a real word after reading this book new vocabulary offerings) as the previous comment poster I will put in my views anyway.

    The ease with which the source material is accessed these days is almost obscene especially when going back to the wonderful days of slogging it out at a library, it is probably a case of either setting the pass mark higher or perhaps finding an alternative style of test something so untraditional that it will explode the letters page of The Daily Mail.

    Society is dumbed down these days but this book does seem the antithesis of that and I have never met a student who used such terms so I wonder how relevant they actually are beyond a private club way. I think when it comes to it, books like this are exclusive to just students who will probably skim read to find what they want.

    Does anybody read Koolhaas for fun? I tried and was lost so ultimately what does the book prove apart from to help out students. It does raise a few interesting questions, were all the ‘specialist’ words already in existence or coined by Koolhaas? Why isn’t the translator universally worshipped for doing such an excellent job? And most importantly why do the Germans get up early to get the sunbeds?


    • Jeff says:

      > finding an alternative style of test something so untraditional that it will explode the letters page of The Daily Mail.

      Maybe this could be added to the list of reforms?! Given the general drift of the book, perhaps the pass-marks could be high-scores in a video game that replaces the reading list?

      >I have never met a student who used such terms

      I did some philosophy (mostly Sartre, but I think he counts) and have to say that it’s pointless ever using philosophical terms when practically nobody knows them. When you tell someone you took philosophy modules, they often ask ‘what use is philosophy?’ to which I answer that there’s no philosophy-free zone. ‘What do you mean?’ they ask (or scoff). I then point out that their question is itself a philosophical position. This can go on for some time. I usually escape the no-use-value loop by saying that my humanities course also covered history and literature. Suddenly there’s an attitude that these are ‘proper’ subjects. The idea that history and literature may be no more or less ‘useful’ than philosophy never arises.
      I wonder if something similar happens to students who have to use ‘theory’ – i.e. Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Communications etc. I think the term ‘Mickey Mouse’ gets used for these subjects, especially media. I wonder why it’s improper to study the very phenomenon that fills up most of people’s spare time? Should we just accept ‘media’ on face-value without ever examining it?

      > I wonder how relevant they actually are beyond a private club way.

      I agree. The trouble with theoretical teaching is that there’s no public facing aspect. No BBC4 documentaries about ‘hegemony’ or ‘rhetoric’. I don’t doubt that many tutors of theory subjects like to obfuscate. The net result though could be that it’s hard for educators who hold the budgets to understand what they’re paying for.


      • Ste J says:

        People seem to think philosophy as something which other people do and which they can never really conceive of in my experience, it is strange that it seems like something that is a waste of time compared to literature and history as you say. I think that is why I prefer books to most people. We are in a culture where we don’t tend to examine things unless we need to…


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