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Featured image: La machine à méditer sur le sort des oiseaux migrateurs –  Device to contemplate migratory birds’ fate –Art Oriente Objet

By Beth Carruthers (Emily Carr University of Art and Design)

Scholar Mick Smith noted the difference between Poesis and Praxis as follows: “Poiesis is about acting upon, doing to: it is about working with objects. Praxis, however, is creative: it is other-seeking and dialogic .” He carries on to say that “…for Aristotle, Praxis is guided by a moral disposition to act truly and rightly.” (1999, 2001)

Of course, Mick Smith was concerned with inter-human relations. Yet we do not, we humans, live in this world alone, and if we broaden our perspective to consider the complex interrelations that comprise place and community, Praxis becomes an opportunity for conscious engagement beyond that permitted by a worldview, or ontology, that excludes the interests and agencies of all that is not human.

In this view, Poesis can be seen as acting on a world we perceive as external, or even alien to the subject human; a world where all else, in Heidegger’s terms, is understood as either a tool ready to hand, or a standing reserve. When it comes to other animals, special others such as “pets” may benefit from our granting an extension of human belonging and moral status. The other animals we eat and wear the skins of, those others who wouldn’t mind eating us, and radically different beings, such as insects and trees, remain firmly outside our preset borders of what, or who, matters. For the most part any disruption of this status quo is vigorously discouraged, and derided.

For decades philosophers have discussed both the necessity of transforming such a reductive and exclusionary worldview, or ontology, and the difficulties of doing so, immersed as we are in it. To paraphrase media theorist Marshall McLuhan, we don’t know who discovered water, but it sure wasn’t the fish. Moreover, our artefacts – arts, language, design, infrastructures, institutions – significantly embody and reaffirm our ontology.

Taking up Praxis is, I propose, radically unsettling to this worldview. Praxis, in being “other-seeking and dialogic” in nature, presupposes an other with whom or which one collaborates, or engages, and, hence some acknowledgement of presence and agency. Moreover, Praxis sets the terms of engagement. If Praxis is also inherently ethical, insofar as being “guided by a disposition to act truly and rightly”, then we have, I believe, a potential map through the desert of human exceptionalism and entitlement.

Folia Atropoïca – Art Orienté Objet

Smith also describes Praxis as “acts which shape and change the world”. (1994: 158)

Long ago Marshall McLuhan claimed the role of art being – “to create the means of perception by creating counterenvironments that open the door of perception to people otherwise numbed in a nonperceivable situation.” (McLuhan and Zingrone, 1995: 342)


Beuys’ Acorns – Ackroyd & Harvey

At the risk of being taken to task for proposing that art is both vital and useful – although not instrumental – I believe that artists can be, as Jeanette Winterson claimed, translators, navigating and negotiating relations among beings and agencies. Artists and writers, wakeful and attentive to the subterranean murmurings and rumblings that disturb the cultural sleep, can hear and seek to interpret and reveal the stories of land, self and place. Praxis involves acts which shape and change the world. Praxis shifts the gaze from human-self-regard to a wider field of relationship. Praxis acknowledges other agencies, and the inherently collaborative aspects of working, and being, in the world.

Further Reading

McLuhan, E. and Zingrone. F. (eds) (1995). Essential McLuhan. Toronto: House of Anansi

Smith, M. K. (1999, 2011). ‘What is praxis?’ in the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: October 15th 2014].

Smith, M. & Smith, A. (1994). Local Education: community, conversation, praxis. Maidenhead, Berks.: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill

Winterson, J. (1995) Art Objects – Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf

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a companion to the book