Interview with Robert Pfaller
Nejc Lebar







NL You are a philosopher, but you teach at a university of art and industrial design. What is your role, or rather how do you see the role of a philosopher within a school of art and design?


RP As philosophers like Louis Althusser and Ludwig Wittgenstein have taught, philosophy is not per se beneficial to people. Rather, it can only help to cure those who already “suffer” from it. In analogy to Althusser’s title Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, I have therefore called my program Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Artists. The problems and chances are very similar in both fields: artists, like scientists, when producing innovative artwork, also produce an implicit new philosophy—a “philosophy at a practical state”, as Althusser calls it. Yet this philosophical innovation tends to be concealed—either by what the artists themselves declare as their explicit philosophy or, even worse, by the discourse of the curators. Curators today force artists to speak the curators’ language (which is very different from the first, heroic generation of curators like Harald Szeemann who, with the utmost respect, tried to follow artists into their often idiosyncratic worlds and languages). The danger that a new artistic-philosophical discovery gets buried under a “borrowed language” which inscribes it into the wide field of the already known is therefore extremely high.


This is the situation in which philosophers have to intervene: not in order to bring philosophy to artists, but rather in order to remove the borrowed philosophy, to help artists to better understand their own ideas, and to find out what is innovative about them. If this work is not done, if artistic innovation gets misrecognized due to a borrowed theoretical language, then theory plays a detrimental role to the arts, the role of an obstacle: the next artwork will be definitely poorer, it will lack the misrecognized dimension of the previous one.




NL It seems that we are currently witnessing a certain shift in the relation between academia and art practice, often described in terms of an increasing import of cultural theory into the art school department. With regard to your own experience in teaching at an academy, what effects would you say that this process has had or still has?


RP The model for importing theory or science into the arts since the 1990s was, unluckily, not science but bad science. Artists were told they were better artists if they knew—and could explain—in advance what they were doing. As if a good scientist could ever do that! As sociologist Niklas Luhmann once said, method is what allows the scientist to surprise himself. Since it was not this understanding of science but it’s caricature that was taken as a model for the arts, the arts of the 1990s became largely unable to surprise anybody. Instead, we got very predictable and boring results of “Foucault-art”, “Butler-art”, “Rancière-art” etc. In this sense, one can say that the dominance of theory was as detrimental to the arts as the dominance of bureaucracy was to the sciences: they ruined it by the requirement of predictability.


At the heyday of these developments, many people in the art academies even claimed that the old studios (such as the wood, metal, plaster, clay etc. workshops) should be removed and replaced by theory classes. Luckily, today this childhood disease is widely overcome. Somehow it is felt that the arts depend on their materiality. Yet we have, to my knowledge, not yet found a theoretical explanation for this. Following Sigmund Freud, I would say that the “art-work” (that leads to the production of artworks), just like the “joke-work” or the “dream-work”, needs a moment when the consciousness of the producer gets distracted and when the material is taken over by unconscious processing. This moment can, as Freud has described, only be achieved with the help of some distracting materiality. Only when there is something like a matter that has its own laws and takes on forms according to its own laws the artist becomes able to say more than he or she knew until then. Thus, they become able to produce more than just something already expected, or as Freud puts it, “to say what they do not know”.




NL It is perhaps a fairly recent phenomenon that artists and architects are writing doctoral theses. On the one hand, the artist is increasingly being called upon to be able to engage and argue for his or her work verbally or in writing, while on the other, many students seem to consider writing as a kind of punishment to be postponed only until the final deadline. Must artists write?


RP My position on this has always been radical and clear. If we are ready to acknowledge art as a university discipline (which is fine given the huge variety of already existing university disciplines), then we also have to grant it all the attributes that the other disciplines have got: all the certificates and titles such as “Master” or “PhD” or (in some countries) “habilitation”. Yet here we have to be consistent: no student of economics has to do theology in order to get a PhD. And no philosopher or art historian has to make a painting or shoot a video for their doctoral dissertation. Only artists are forced to change their discipline and write some scholarly work with footnotes if they want to get a higher academic degree in their own discipline. This is an epistemological scandal. If art is regarded as an academic discipline, then the doctoral work, of course, also has to be an artwork.


We also have to take into account the fact that for a long time even in many sciences it was not necessary to write in order to obtain a PhD: in many countries, doctors of law or medicine or mathematics for example did not have to write at all.


We must not forget on the other hand that many artists were writing for a long time: think of Duchamp, Picasso, Magritte, Judd, Polke, for example. Yet this writing stretched over many different forms and genres; and it was in most cases not a self-interpretation but rather a kind of prolongation of the artistic strategy in another medium. To subject all artistic writing to the rigid form of the academic treatise and to force it to be a “reflection” does not bring about any “gain of consciousness” (whatever that may be) but will instead extinguish the richness of “language games” of artistic writing.


The whole problem hinges on a widespread misunderstanding of the notion of “artistic research”: this is often understood as if the research part of some art were the theoretical research done by the artists—for example the moment when they read works by Butler or Rancière. Yet this is not artistic research but just some scientific occupation that may belong to the art production, just as maybe some mere craftsmanship activity like putting a canvas on a frame (which of course we would never call “artistic framing”). Here again we have to follow the analogy. In every other discipline the research part is precisely what leads to the specificity of the result. So research in physics is what leads to the fact that the result belongs to physics. Philosophical research is what makes occupation with any object lead to a work of philosophical relevance. And the same goes for art: artistic research is what makes any occupation whatsoever end up in something which is of artistic relevance. This occupation may be with theory or with ideology or with fat or fur, with childishness or even with trance or madness. Yet artistic research turns it into something completely different—into a work of art.


This is what Louis Althusser taught in his theory of the “3 generalities” within the theoretical practice: “generality II” (method or research) does to a “raw material” (the “generality I”) something which is completely external and foreign to it: even against its resistance it turns it into theoretical results (“generality III”). To describe this transformation with Rimbaud’s words: “It is not the fault of the metal if one day it wakes up as a trumpet.” If some scientific activity occurs within artistic practice (which has already been the case for a long time—just think of the renaissance artists’ occupation with optics or anatomy), then it has only the role of a raw material. Artistic research, on the contrary, is what transforms this raw material into art.


Searching for the research part of artistic practice within its scientific raw material is a crucial mistake that ignores the specificity of what we can call the language of art—or its epistemology. If artistic research represents only a small bit of scientific research within art practice, then there is no such thing as artistic research.




NL Your own writing draws extensively on popular culture but also sporadically engages with contemporary art. What is good criticism for you?


RP In a number of lucky cases I found myself able to understand the philosophical innovation at work in some works of art, for example the paradoxical dimension of interpassivity in works such as the famous performance by Martin Kerschbaumsteiner or an installation by Barbara Musil or a contribution to “Steirischer Herbst” by the hilarious art collective “EKW 14,90”. What these artists were dealing with were actually intriguing questions such as “Is it possible that we prefer to work than to enjoy?” or “Would we rather prefer others to enjoy in our place than to enjoy ourselves?”. It appeared worth the effort to give this “philosophy at a practical state” in these artworks an explicit formulation and my philosophical work has profited considerably from this. I am convinced that philosophy does not have a proper object. It therefore cannot proceed by itself. It can only work as the lucky parasite of some other practice: all philosophy that we know gained its innovative insights only due to some other practice that produced philosophy as an implicit by‑product on which philosophers could then base their work: thus we have, if I may say so, science‑philosophy, politics‑philosophy, religion‑philosophy, and art‑philosophy etc. My own way of proceeding could thus be called “critical” maybe in a Kantian sense: making explicit the philosophical presuppositions that were implicitly contained in another, in this case artistic, practice.






NL Compared with Dustin Hoffman’s Alfa Spider in The Graduate (1967), today’s cars are, according to you, both “overdesigned” and “dull”. Today we tend to categorize design either in terms of a wholesome transformation of the way we think about an object and its use or as “mere” aesthetic packaging. As someone who teaches at a design school but also as someone who would not disregard superficial phenomena all too quickly, what role do you think design plays in everyday life?


RP I am quite convinced that design can never be better than its time. The fact that our current car design is far from being as glamourous as it was in the 1960s and 70s testifies to the fact that our time has much less political aspirations and much less love for life than those decades. This is precisely what makes design very important for cultural theory. It is a very explicit indicator of the current state of mind. For a cultural theorist it might appear audacious to claim that our time does not have as much hope as other epochs. But when the whole car industry indulges in retro design and repeats patterns from other epochs, this is clearly evident since the hopeful epochs never repeated anything.




NL Public buildings are often invested with the moral task of improving society or educating the young, monuments are erected in order to remind us not to forget this or that. In a certain way this could mean that we want them to do these things for us or instead of us. Is there a limit as to what an object can or cannot do in our place?


RP The ability of objects to do things in our place is astounding. As Sigmund Freud remarked, the fetish believes in place of the fetishist in illusions that the fetishist himself has given up. From here starts the wide field of phenomena of interpassivity in culture: TV sitcoms can laugh about themselves in place of the observers; prayer wheels or prayer flags can pray in place of religious people; gambling machines can play in place of gamblers; certain TV programs can vicariously play with our dogs instead of us; sports shoes are sportive in our place; and certain SUVs, by giving us an “off-road” touch, allow us to stay in the city without having to go to the countryside etc. The uncanny point about this is that things cannot only do work for us (like the dishwasher) but that they can also take care of acts of enjoyment or consumption (such as laughter, amusement, play, recreation); and equally that we obviously have a need for that.




NL This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale has been emphatically put under the banner of architecture as being the “most political of all the arts”. How would you draw a line between what you call a self-supposing “enlightened” practice that demands instant social gratification and its presumed opposite, normally described as hedonist, spectacular etc.?


RP It appears to me that in the last decades, the most renowned achievements in architecture belonged to the field of the spectacular, such as the museums by Frank Gehry for example. Of course, this is not a‑political either. The spectacular is “overdetermined” by the political: it is a political decision to go for the seemingly “unpolitical” or spectacular.




NL The categories of “humor” or “comic” are more likely to be associated with film, theatre or literature than architecture. In fact, as a field so closely associated with economy, security and politics, architecture tends to slip into the tragic all the more naturally. In a supposedly serious architecture, is there a possibility of maintaining a space of (comic) play?


RP In my psychoanalytical approach, I have tried to account for comedy not in terms of “comical/serious” but in terms of following the question who is supposed to be the believer in the illusion at work. In tragedy, the illusion is placed on the shoulders of the observers: we as spectators are supposed to believe that the tragic hero’s failure is connected to a great cause. Yet in comedy, the illusion is always delegated to somebody else. The characters try to fool some other characters, whereas we spectators are kept in the know and see through the illusion by which those guys are comically fooled (just think of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be). Now it seems to me that this is precisely where a great amount of modern architecture’s light‑handedness stems from: modernity presented the building as a kind of machine and we were not supposed to believe in this illusion. With postmodernity, this has shifted. The irony at work got so very emphasized; every joke had to be declared as a joke so explicitly that it became obvious that our status of those in the know could no longer be seen as granted. As in many other fields, it was no longer self‑evident that we were adults and therefore able to get a joke. Postmodernity revoked the universal right to be treated as an adult; it became tragic—and reactionary.






NL If classical architecture effectively embodied and represented power, today there is a strong sense of discordance between authority and its public manifestation. Postmodernist courthouse buildings seem to be undermined and deflated by a general disbelief in the effective functioning of the law, whereas your boss seems to pose as your close friend, wears casual clothes etc. How is (public) appearance connected with the exercise of power today?


RP As theorists like Alain Ehrenberg and Byung-Chul Han have pointed out, power today is not so much based on authority and obedience but rather exploits the engagement, passion, creativity and joyful identification of the subjected with what they regard as their cause. Apart from the very low‑paid jobs it is difficult today to find a job where you do not have to give at least the blood of your heart. This makes it difficult for the employed to draw a distinction between work and non‑work, effort and recreation, obedience and rebellion, friend and foe. This is accompanied by a loss of distinction between public and private space—what Richard Sennett described as “tyranny of intimacy” as early as the 1970s. Today we can see clearly how right Sennett was and how much this loss of difference—which at the time was experienced by many people as a liberation from the injunctions of civilization—contributed to the neoliberal conditions of extended exploitation and loss of the political sphere.




NL “Urbanity” or “the urban” are categories that are today used in a manifold of ways. When architects, developers or authorities talk about it, it is usually tied to the rhetoric of making the city beautiful, while on the other hand this of course implies an ideology of gentrification. For others still, it is bound with statistics, density or size. What is urbanity? Where is its proper place or does it have a proper place at all?


RP “Urbanity” is a notion that was first used in the rhetoric of Cicero and Quintilianus. It referred to a cosmopolitan habitus and the ability to speak in a wittily refined way—qualities that, according to these authors, could only emerge in the city. Yet as the Austrian architecture theorist Friedrich Achleitner has pointed out, one has to account for the fact why there is so much more urbanity to be found even in a small city like Cividale than in some big ones like Stuttgart. Density seems to be more important here than size but maybe even the notion of density does not fully account for the phenomenon. The Italian city had a refined set of mechanisms for bringing about urbanity. They had promenades, central squares, and even “loggias”—spaces that could serve either as stages (for example for juridical courts) or as places for observation. In this sense, one could define urbanity psychoanalytically: as something that provides individuals with the feeling of being seen, even if they cannot tell by whom exactly. This can also be described as “triangulation”: you feel seen not only by the people you know or see but also by some anonymous third agency. This agency is, as I have pointed out, to be understood as a “naive observer” that only cares for appearances but not for intentions. This is why urbanity brought people to care for the appearance of their behavior, their costumes and their language. A lack of urbanity, on the contrary, occurs when this gaze is lacking: when people know each other too well and only care for intentions but not for politeness or for being civilized, like in small communities full of intimacy. When cities today, under neoliberal conditions, tend to become too beautiful or too proper or gentrified, then the “triangulation” gets lost. Then we are simply surrounded by similar folks and there is no need anymore to satisfy the anonymous third gaze that improved so much our appearance and our pride.




NL European cities seem to be turning into giant privately managed plots under permanent surveillance. The last undeveloped or unregulated areas within the city centers are torn between two extremes: on the one hand, they are being idealized as the abject, on the other, they are being redeveloped or revitalized into yet another cultural center. Is there a way out of these opposites?


RP It seems to me that in urban space there is a struggle coming up comparable to that concerning the time of employees: a fight for undefined areas in the city as well as times that do not have to be either intense work or intense recreation. If the overstressed can ever regain their strengththen they will fight against this double stress and for what architecture philosopher Georg Franck would call a reasonable “economy of attention”.



To conclude, during your last visit in Ljubljana, you spoke of an odd notion of Bambization? What is it?

RP In the last decades, we have seen many top‑down measures implemented in the name of some alleged powerless underdogs: healthcare bureaucracy gained power by creating the figure of a poor waiter in the bar who had to be protected from the customers’ smoke. In the universities, an administrative bureaucracy took power by referring to the alleged student from “uneducated” background in whose name curricula had to be transformed into the most boring and restrictive corsets. In other cases it was the woman, the migrant, the queer or other apparently matching candidates that were cast into this bureaucracy‑friendly figure. The assumption of an infinitely innocent, helpless being—what I call a “Bambi”–that calls for immediate action at any price is what helps to subject society to the most repressive, a‑political bureaucratic regime.

Under neoliberal conditions, when social support is not granted to everybody, the interpellation of people as Bambis has good chances to be successful. When, for example, migrants in a Scandinavian country only can get funding for a language class under the condition that they are diagnosed with ASD, it is understandable that some of them go for that. Thus the figure of the Bambi and what has been called the “competition of victims” are the symptoms of structural lacks in the social system and not, as they may appear, proofs of society’s increased sensitivity towards the excluded. They reveal the fact that society has stopped supporting people as a rule and has shifted to supporting only exceptions. Yet every sincere emancipatory politics has always emphasized not the addressees’ infinite helplessness but their agency and their ability to fight. Only in such a way can equality be achieved. What we have to care about today is the regular case of normal people who face increasing difficulties to make their lives and not only the exceptional cases of alleged total helplessness.



Robert Pfaller is Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Theory at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria. His many writings on philosophy, psychoanalysis and art include works such as Kurze Sätze über gutes Leben (2015), On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions without Owners (2014), Zweite Welten und andere Lebenselixiere (2012), Wofür es sich zu leben lohnt. Elemente materialistischer Philosophie (2011), Das schmutzige Heilige und die reine Vernunft (2008), Ästhetik der Interpassivität (2009) and Althusser – Das Schweigen im Text (1997). In one of his visits to Ljubljana this year, prof. Pfaller spoke at the international symposium To Think a Sin that took place on 26–27 June 2016 in the Atrium of ZRC SAZU. A tight schedule encompassing two full days of lectures left little time for a live interview, yet prof. Pfaller was nonetheless kind enough to respond in writing, for which I am once again grateful.