RK: I hate visual culture.
SR: You hate visual culture?
RK: In fact, October magazine, which I coedit and cofounded in 1976, recently did a special issue that was an attack on the visual culture project. Like cultural studies, visual culture is aimed at what we could call pejoratively, abusively, deskilling. Part of that project is to attack the very idea of disciplines which are bound to knowing how to do something, certain skills. Obviously, in French literature you would to be able to read French very well, not just modern French but Medieval French. In art history there are also skills, like connoiseurship, and at least some slight knowledge of conservation.
Once you decide, as does cultural studies, that these disciplines themselves are retrograde, you are bound to attack them in the name of a kind of super discipline for which the original model was comparative literature. When complit started, it required more rather than fewer skills. But when it began to be the center of what now is called theory, it increasingly became an enterprise in which all works are read in English (including the theoretical texts themselves), and it is now a very different project from the original one. And out of that project of comparative literature has come cultural studies which is involved in an attack one disciplines and therefore what I believe to be a massive deskilling of student. I think ultimately (and this is the really paranoid part of it) that many university administrations would like to get rid of the departments. The separate faculties in universities have a great deal of power which the administration would like to usurp.
SR: Well, I understand that a university might want to undermine the power of individual departments to better control them, but I don't really see how that works. It seems to me that most of these changes are being driven by faculty, not the administration.
RK: Although I'm certainly not talking about Harvard, administrations are often very happy to form "programs," like a program in cultural studies, or women's studies. Now you generally think those programs come from the left of the spectrum of possibilities, but they're not always from the left; they're also, as in Medieval studies, from the right. Such programs are not part of the faculty structure, and when the administration pushes to have faculty members head these study programs, those appointments often fall between the faculty or even outside it completely. Then those budgets and those people become directly beholden to the administration. We tend to think of it as a good thing, that it's about a radicalization of the disciplines, that it's been about getting rid of the apparatus that has been the intellectual support for various authoritarian projects. I think that is a self-defeating fiction and I think that it's dangerous.
SR: It really surprises me to hear you say this, because when I think of your writing and the writing in October, it seems that your work may have fostered and supported many of these changes both in art history and even more broadly. This is why I was puzzled by your distaste for the "paranoid scenarios," which I had always thought you were instrumental in bringing to the discipline.
RK: I certainly have been involved in critiquing certain controlling ideas that have been the ways of forming objects of study. For example, the work I've done on Jackson Pollock has been involved in trying to show that to continue to think of Pollock as a biographically contained subject who is a volitional agent is a benighted idea. For me, the only way to think about Pollock is through the sort of force field that was warring over his interpretation. That's an example of a sort of "death of the author" theory, and that's not a "paranoid scenario."
When I say "paranoid scenario," I have certainly participated and even formented various ways of attacking what Michel Foucault called the unities of an epistemological field that work in terms of a set of unified objects. I believe that some of those unified objects dissolve as you begin to look at them. So it's not as though I'm resisting new departures in art historical method, but I suppose I feel very strongly that that kind of critique is powerful and productive when it's conducted within a discipline, when a discipline renews itself. So what I have against "visual studies" is the project of getting rid of the disciplines. People say "film studies, what's that?" or "art history, jene connais pas." That's just forgetting about the fact that there are certain skills involved in both the fabrications of certain objects and the unpacking of those objects.
SR: Well, I think it's important that you clarified the distinction between carrying out your critical project, or any critical project, within a discipline, as opposed to dismantling all the disciplines and regrouping them under a different rubric, like women's studies.
RK: I think a lot of first generation feminists are deeply disturbed that while they had certain skills and commitments to literary texts, they realize that their students and certainly the students of their students don't have the same knowledge or skills. And then these feminists are wondering what the point of the critique is anymore. So, this unease that I'm expressing is not unique to me or to a few people; I think it's fairly wide spread.
SR: I would contend that feeling is shared by students, too.
RK: I think that students are particularly bored by the "paranoid scenarios." I suppose Harvard students are really voracious for learning and the problem with "paranoid scenarios" is that once you've said it, it's very hard to develop very much. It just gets repetitive. I mean once you expose patriarchy then what? Any way, I know this is all very shocking stuff, but...
SR: Actually I don't think that it is very shocking, because the comment you just made about first generation feminists worrying that their students wouldn't have the tools or the commitment, but a feminist scenario, comes across a lot in your work. In terms of feminism, I'm thinking of your book on the photographer Cindy Sherman, because you not only identify the feminist scenario, what is being signified, but you ask how it's being signified...