The Use of Theory

on 20 March 2011 at about 0:00

Hello There
Hello There

The use of theory - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]

Look at this picture of someone who is in the middle of something, in action, perfoming, practising, doing. We can see, hear, sense, taste, understand, and feel their authentic absorption in action. But are they also not thinking, not theorising, not contemplating, not rationalising and not intellectualising? Where is that mind in the midst of action?

Tanoura dance
Tanoura dance by askii, on Flickr


This lecture is about the ways in which theory may or may not relate to practice: how it hinders or helps it, precedes or follows, founds or erodes, supports or destroys it. As such it is a very personal perspective on the uses of theory. You may feel sympathy or hostility towards the ideas presented here, whether you are a theoretician, a scholar, a practitioner, an amateur, a professional, a dilettante, a researcher, an academic, a craftsman, a businessman, or a player. One of the purposes of this lecture is to encourage you to attend to those feelings of sympathy and hostility and explore how you might then think about your practical and theoretical work.

Hauntings 1

You were invited to write things on pieces of paper throughout the lecture. We dimmed the lights, watched evocative images of moonlight and figures in the dark, and listened to Richard Burton reading a poem by Thomas Hardy.

Morning Star
Morning Star by joeflintham, on Flickr

The Voice by Thomas Hardy, read by Richard Burton


Ruskin on Gothic architecture

John Ruskin was interested in thinking about the craftsmanship that belongs to a mason, employed in the building of a church. To force that craftsman to produce perfect stones for cathedral walls, Ruskin said you must make him into a machine, dehumanised. To be the kind of craftsman to produce fantastic unique carvings of artistic merit, you must allow him to think freely enough to make mistakes, to falter.

Gargoyles by indigo_jones, on Flickr

Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.
And observe, you are put to stem choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their aims strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul's force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last - a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity. On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him. And, whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.
(Ruskin, 1853)

Strange tensions in Ruskin's words: mechanism destroys humanity, yet thought destroys perfection; mechanism here is a mindless repetition - the mindlessness of a machine.

The motif of machines runs throughout this lecture: here, a machine is a repeater, an aper, a copier, a mechanism, a part. Ruskin saw the rise of machines in an industrial society and saw that they were not only replacing the work of human beings, the human beings themselves were being made into dull mechanics, forced to compete with the blind precision of a machine.

cogs by Leonard John Matthews, on Flickr

What is it that makes a craftsman into a cog?


Half and Half
Half and Half

Learn Rules
Learn Rules

Worthless to the Machine
Worthless to the Machine

In defence of machines

... but maybe machines are not all bad. Here's a picture made by an algorithm, running inside a computer. Blind instructions are able to produce aesthetic pleasure, even beauty. Is not life a blind instruction?

TECHNICOLOR POLIGONS - Generative Art by Paulo Colacino, on Flickr

Ruskin on ideosyncracy

Ruskin drove the point home on the craft of Venetian glass-blowers. Unlike the English, the glass was not perfect, the shapes not homogenous, the cut sometimes clumsy - but still, even though the Ventian craftsmen allowed themselves to sometimes fail for inaccuracy or uninvention, their best work was all the better for its freedom, loveliness, and utter uniqueness.

Venetian Glass
Venetian Glass by jamckay, on Flickr

Our modern glass is exquisitely clear in its substance, true in its form, accurate in its cutting. We are proud of this. We ought to be ashamed of it. The old Venice glass was muddy, inaccurate in all its forms, and clumsily cut, if at all. And the old Venetian was justly proud of it. For there is this difference between the English and Venetian workman, that the former thinks only of accurately matching his patterns, and getting his curves perfectly true and his edges perfectly sharp, and becomes a mere machine for rounding curves and sharpening edges, while the old Venetian cared not a whit whether his edges were sharp or not, but he invented a new design for every glass that he made, and never moulded a handle or a lip without a new fancy in it. And therefore, though some Venetian glass is ugly and clumsy enough when made by clumsy and uninventive workmen, other Venetian glass is so lovely in its forms that no price is too great for it ; and we never see the same form in it twice. Now you cannot have the finish and the varied form too. If the workman is thinking about his edges, he cannot be thinking of his design; if of his design, he cannot think of his edges. Choose whether you will pay for the lovely form or the perfect finish, and choose at the same moment whether you will make the worker a man or a grindstone.
(Ruskin, 1853)

Hauntings 2

Pausing for a haunting, the voice of a dead actor, the words of a dead poet, about a dead woman.

F¡inle³ga - Swallows (4)
F¡inle³ga - Swallows (4) by Fergal Claddagh, on Flickr

The Closer I Get
The Closer I Get

After a journey by Thomas Hardy, read by Richard Burton

Hard to Get
Hard to Get

Miss you Emma
Miss you Emma


Sennett on craftsmanship

Richard Sennett picks up Ruskin's themes in his 2008 book, The Craftsman. In the following passage, Sennett wants to think about how functions, purposes and contexts change skill. He compares open source programmers with employees making proprietary software: the former are in an 'open' system in which celebration of the work itself is the goal, the means are most important; the latter are in 'closed' systems, hitting artificial targets, aiming only at ends.

Craftsman ¢€“ Artesano, Santillana del Mar HDR
Craftsman ¢€“ Artesano, Santillana del Mar HDR by marcp_dmoz, on Flickr

Sennett, like Ruskin, explores the impact of the machine, though the position of the machine has changed. For Ruskin, the machine was dehumanised repetition, while craftsmanship lay in individual creativity. For Sennett, repetition is a necessity for skills to develop, for the learning of craft to be possible; the machine is something that comes between the craftsman and the work - a rupture between the muscles and flesh of the human, and the weft of the work itself.

When practice is organised as a means to a fixed end, then the problems of the closed system reappear; the person in training will meet a fixed target but won't progress further. The open relation between problem solving and problem finding, as in Linux work, builds and expends skills, but this can't be a one-off event. Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving and opening up occurs again and again.
These precepts about building skill through practice encounter a great obstacle in modern society. By this I refer to a way in which machines can be misused. The "mechanical" equates in ordinary language with repetition of a static sort. Thanks to the revolution in micro-computing, however, modern machinery is not static; through feed- back loops machines can learn from their experience. Yet machinery is misused when it deprives people themselves from learning through repetition. The smart machine can separate human mental understanding from repetitive, instructive, hands-on learning. When this occurs, conceptual human powers suffer.
The architect Renzo Piano explains his own working procedure thus: "You start by sketching, then you do a drawing, then you make a model, and then you go to reality - you go to the site - and then you go back to drawing. You build up a kind of circularity between drawing and making and then back again." About repetition and practice Piano observes, "This is very typical of the craftsman's approach. You think and you do at the same time. You draw and you make. Drawing . . . is revisited. You do it, you redo it, and you redo it again." This attaching, circular metamorphosis can be aborted by [machines].

Repeat: Life
Repeat: Life

Sennett continues:

Troubles with materiality have a long pedigree in architecture. Few large-scale building projects before the industrial era had detailed working drawings of the precise sort CAD can produce today; Pope Sixtus V remade the Piazza del Popolo in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century by describing in conversation the buildings and public space he envisioned, a verbal instruction that left much room for the mason, glazier, and engineer to work freely and adaptively on the ground. Blueprints - inked designs in which erasure is possible but messy - acquired legal force by the late nineteenth century, making these images on paper equivalent to a lawyer's contract. The blueprint signaled, moreover, one decisive disconnection between head and hand in design: the idea of a thing made complete in conception before it is constructed.
(Sennett, 2008)

The ever-increasing complex of instructions - away from which the craftsman has ever less freedom to deviate - are 'machine proxies'. They insert themselves between the artisan and the object, producing formalisation, rationalisation, massification, standardisation, homogenisation.

Heywood-Wakefield workers
Heywood-Wakefield workers by Lucius Beebe Memorial Library, on Flickr

We live in a world of mass-produced goods: Ikea furniture, smartphones, supermarket vegetables and international reality TV franchises. Do we work towards ends rather than means, distanced from any sense of craft by the machine proxies which perform our work for us?

How do you feel about the pressures of massification on your craft?

Cross the Line
Cross the Line

Everything I Hate
Everything I Hate

Like Fucking
Like Fucking

Limit Creativity
Limit Creativity

Limits and Opportunities
Limits and Opportunities

Social Structures
Social Structures

To Be An Individual Is Impossible
To Be An Individual Is Impossible

Ettore Sottsass on creativity and commerce

Ettore Sottsass designed beautiful objects. He wrote an essay reflecting on the difference between playful, childlike drawing (paidia?), and the stifled echoes of working in the industry machine.

Everything we did was entirely absorbed in the act of doing it, in wanting to do it, and everything we did stayed ultimately inside a single extraordinary sphere of life. The design was life itself, it was the day from dawn till dusk, it was the waiting during the night, it was an awareness of the world around us, of materials and lights, distances and weights, resistance, fragilities, use and consumption, birth and death...
Now that I'm old they let me design electronic machines and other machines in iron, with flashing phosphorescent lights and sounds and no one knows whether they are cynical or ironical: now they only let me design furniture that ought to be sold, furniture they say, that is useful to society, they say, and other things that are sold "at low prices" they say, and in this way they can sell more of them, for society they say, and now I design things of this kind. Now they pay me to design them. Not much, but they pay me. Now they look for me and wait for models from me, as they say, ideas and solutions which end up heaven knows where.
Now everything seems to have changed. The things I do (by myself or with my companions) seem to have changed and the way they are done also seems to have changed because, goodbye bright blue Planet, goodbye melodious seasons, goodbye stones, dust, leaves, ponds, and dragon flies, goodbye boiling-hot days, dead dogs by the roadside, shadows in the wood like prehistoric dragons, goodbye Planet, by now I feel as if I do the things I do sitting in a bunker of damp artificial light and conditioned air, sitting at this white laminate table, sitting in this silver plastic chair, captain of a spaceship traveling at thousands of miles an hour, squashed against this seat - immobile in the sky.
By now I have to think of things from an artificial space, with neither place nor time; a space only of words, phone-calls, meetings, timetables, politics, waiting, failures. By now I'm a professional acrobat, actor and tightrope walker, for an audience that I invent, that I describe to myself, a remote audience with whom I have no contact, stifled echoes of whose talking, clapping and disapproval reach me, whose wars, catastrophes, famines, suicides, escapes, poverty or anxious restings along crowded beaches or inside smoky stadiums I read about in papers; how can I know who are the ones expecting something from me?
(Sottsass, 1973)

Hauntings 3

Why are we haunted?

The Going by Thomas Hardy, read by Gary Watson

Forgot To Say
Forgot To Say

Heidegger on tools

Martin Heidegger was a hugely influential and notoriously difficult philosopher. He was a part of a movement called 'phenomenology' - a tradition which encouraged its practitioners to attend to what is given to experience (such as feelings, sensations, perceptions, thoughts) rather than to striving to impose rational, instrumental, pseudo-objective structures onto our understanding of the world.

Heidegger is rather contemptuous of these rational, theoretical ways of looking at the world - "theoria" - they give us a false illusion of truly grasping the world around us. He prefers "praxis" - action in the world - which brings us closer to the world in its 'authentic being'.

Broken Hammer Head
Broken Hammer Head by JJNalloor, on Flickr

We get closest to 'knowing', 'understanding' the hammer, in its authentic 'primordial' being, by putting it into action. The hammer is most a hammer when it is in our hands, being used, in embodied action; it is no more than a broken hammer when we look at it, stare at it, contemplate it, 'think about' it.

In dealings such as this, where something is put to use, our concern subordinates itself to the purpose which is constitutive for the equipment we are employing at the time; the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is.
If we look at Things just 'theoretically', we can get along without understanding "readiness-to-hand" [a Thing's authentic being]. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight...
When we concern ourselves [theoretically] with [things, they] may be met as unusable, not properly adapted for the use we have decided upon. The tool turns out to be damaged or the material unsuitable.
(Heidegger, 1927)

Theoria provides us only with broken useless things - our attempt to know things in abstract, objective ways breaks them; Heidegger goes on to outline that things stand in our way, are missing, not 'handy', are obtrusive; we become deficient, helpless, disturbed; the tool obstinate, 'takes its farewell'. But praxis has 'its own kind of sight': practice, action and doing are ways of understanding the world in their own right, not needing the kowtowing to theory which it so often demands.

How does it feel to be absorbed in a craft?

Nothing else matters
Nothing else matters

The Places We Haunt
The Places We Haunt

Think Without Thinking
Think Without Thinking

Dead theory

Turbo by BitKeeper82, on Flickr

Things look bleak for theory. It produces only detritus. It has become a machine - a set of blind rules, a rational treatise, a formula for thought. It removes us from authentic being, stands in the way of action, dictates to us and alienates us from our work. Why would we not turn our backs on it altogether?

generation gap
generation gap by darkmatter, on Flickr


The third element in the triad, the three modes of being which we derive from Aristotle, is "poiesis": production, making, creating, begetting. We shouldn't consider praxis and theoria alone. After all, the action of the hammer is towards the making of something. The musician need not know musical theory in order to play - indeed, a musical training can often be an impediment to improvisation and invention. But that theoretical knowledge may often enrich the musician's understanding, range and enjoyment of the making of music. And what about the instrument maker? Did that craftsman not need to know where to place the frets, how much tensile-strength to build into the strings, how long to carve the keys, what materials with which to build the body? How could any of this poiesis be possible without theoria alongside praxis?


Here I'm going to present some work I've done, and how I have used theoretical ideas in practice. Hauntology is a series of pieces I've developed in collaboration with other people. It involves creating objects which interface with digital media, to explore making interactive narratives.

Shaun listens
Shaun listens by joeflintham, on Flickr

A chest of draws is wired up with a variety of sensors, which detect when someone interacts with it. The user is invited to don headphones and start handling the objects. An infra-red sensor detects when a hand reaches in and picks up the picture frame.

Frozen Waterfall
Frozen Waterfall by John Mundy, on Flickr

Hauntology is the outcome of production, or as Aristotle and Heidegger refer to it, poiesis. Heidegger calls it "the bursting of a blossom into bloom", Halliburton calls it "the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt." (Halliburton, D. 1981. Poetic Thinking: An Approach to Heidegger, Chicago: UCP)

monarch butterfly, freshly hatched
monarch butterfly, freshly hatched by henna lion, on Flickr

The melting of snow, the hatching of a butterfly - these are transformational events - the metamorphosis of one thing into another. Is production then, not the magicking of something from nothing, but the reworking of things already existing into new compositions?


What about the idea of transformation? A transformation from one thing to another contains a threshold process: a point 'in-between', or a liminal moment.


Liminality turns out to be almost everywhere. Liminality appears in coming-of-age narratives like The Breakfast Club or The Catcher in the Rye, and in coming-of-age rituals throughout human cultures, from indulging in extreme inebriation on 18th birthdays to circumcision or going 'walkabout'. Liminal experiences are inherent in all fictions: that moment when one suspends one's disbelief and enters the storyscape of the imaginary world is a liminal moment, a doorway, a transformation.

open window
open window by glasseyes view, on Flickr


What is the world we enter via liminal experiences? The self-coherent, self-contained integral world, whole in itself, that appears through the window? This is the diegesis: the unfolding of the story, the holistic world inside which everything belongs. Hobbits belong in the diegesis of The Lord of the Rings, and Audi TTs do not. Note though that non-diegetic things and events can augment, rather than detract from the suspension of disbelief, the absorption in the storyworld. The film-score, the narrator's voiceover, or the soliloquy - they all heighten the engagement, rather than dissolve or fade out the vision.

Ozymandias, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Ozymandias, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Reflective practice

In Hauntology, I ask myself "how can I encourage my user, my listener, my object-handler, to believe my story?" In so doing, I ask how I can create liminal moments which usher my participant's mind into the diegesis of the haunted story. What things can I do that make that liminal movement from one reality to another as smooth and effortless as possible? What elements belong in the diegesis, and what do not - and if they do not, do they augment the imaginary world, or do they alienate us from it?

Shaun and casket
Shaun and casket by joeflintham, on Flickr

The donning of headphones is liminal - it closes off the audio environment of the real world and replaces it with a bubble of sound from elsewhere - makes that elsewhere present, here; just as dimming the lights, and falling into Richard Burton's voice, are both liminal experiences, opening our way into an alternative diegesis.

The drawer
The drawer by joeflintham, on Flickr

Picture frames, chests of drawers, little boxes - what are these like as alternative interfaces to a story - instead of buttons and remotes and keyboards and screens? Do these old familiar things seem more human and graspable than beige and black plastic peripherals? What do they evoke?

"When this light is on - you are being recorded" by joeflintham, on Flickr

And if we invite people to leave behind their own contributions to the story, what will they do? Clam up in fright, haunted? Or join in the spirit of the diegesis? Will they write Hardy-esque notes on pieces of paper, or will they indulge in carnivalesque parody? Will they be poetic, or will they quote Rebecca Black? What happens when we invite people to really enter into and participate in the construction of a narrative?

Grasping Reaching
Grasping Reaching by Lomo-Cam, on Flickr


One consequence of inviting your audience to not only pass the threshold into your story, but to open the world up to their own contributions, is that they must take on different roles. They may need to act in character, put themselves into someone else's shoes; they become performers in their own right. How should they know what script to follow? Which direction will they take the narrative in?

Blank Canvas
Blank Canvas

Performativity is what really happens - not what would, should, ought, could, might happen. Are there any wrong directions? Perhaps, like the products of Ruskin's Venetian glass blowers, there are sometimes clumsy outcomes, but sometimes there are great objects too.

So, when in the lecture, I drew random scraps of paper from those you can see on this page, and inserted their contents into my re-telling of Thomas Hardy's life, we were creating an inpredictable and unstable version of a biographical narrative, subject to invasion from foreign worlds, many thresholds opening up into strange spaces... and to me the surprising transformations and juxtapositions are what make interactive, participatory narratives so interesting: their ability to fail, but also their ability to succeed, to provoke in unexpected ways, and to put serious, playful, parodic, factual and fictive storyworlds into the same space.

Baxter, on-screen, The Purple Rose of Cairo Baxter, on-stage, The Purple Rose of Cairo
Baxter emerges from the screen,
The Purple Rose of Cairo

"Breaking the fourth wall" is often seen as an alienation effect, after Brecht, and, later, the theatre of the absurd. To draw attention to the threshold itself is to question its purpose - make it an object of contemplation, theoria... pointing up the artifice of art: what happens when we 'concern' ourselves with craft? If the performance breaks down, what happens? "I died out there..." "I corpsed." And yet what is a perfect performance, other than an "execution"? The machine performs, the programme executes, the author dies.

Execution à Verdun lors des mutineries
Execution Verdun lors des mutineries

Theory: tools and mangles

Poiesis, liminality, diegesis, performance - these are some theoretical ideas I use to help me in my work. You may find them useful, or you may not. The point is that, for me, they are tools for thinking, just as Heidegger's hammer was a tool for making things, Final Cut Pro is tool for non-linear video-editing, and a pen is tool for writing. If we stare at a theory too long, as Heidegger suggests, it gets in our way, it breaks, obtrudes; but if it does what we want to, we can absorb it like a muscle memory and put it to use; and if it becomes a cold dead hand on our work, we can abandon it and move on.

Mangle by James F Clay, on Flickr

Andrew Pickering has written of "the mangle of practice", an idea which appeals to me enormously. We have ideas and we smash them up in machines. We wring them through the material work of practice, and deal with the fall-out later. Pickering argues that this is how all human knowledge proceeds: knowledge is not an archive of truth lying in libraries and documents, it is something performed, executed, in the day to day actions and mangling practical procedures we all engage in: practice. Even writing those books and creating those archives, recording all the theory - that too is practice, forcing ideas through the mangle of writing.

LHC by AzureRadiation, on Flickr

Foucault on writing books

I never think quite the same thing, because for me my books are experiences, in a sense that I would like to be as full as possible. An experience is something that one comes out of transformed. If I had to write a book to communicate what I was already thinking, I would never have the courage to begin. I only write a book because I don't know exactly what to think about this thing that I so much want to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I finished the previous book. I am an experimenter, not a theorist.
(Foucault, 2000)

Huge thanks to the students of BATV, BAIMP and BASW for their contributions to this lecture!

Am I Real?
Am I real?

Hungry Hippo
Hungry Hippo

Yesterday Was Thursday
Yesterday Was Thursday


Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

    Long form: Menticulture

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