How to Disagree, or Experiments in Social Construction

By Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

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[This piece by PWOL Network member Jeremy Bendik-Keymer is reposted from the APA Blog.]

Some time ago, I started to see a set of analogies between a species of socially engaged art called “social practice art,” philosophy as a way of life, and experimental learning of the sort found especially in the work of radical pedagogues such as Dewey, Friere and Rancière.  The main analogy was simple:  all understand social construction not as a theoretical position but as a practical and interpersonal task between people with a mind and a life of their own.  In the language of early childhood education, each tradition challenges us to “co-construct” the environment, the practice, and the relationships by which we might pursue something akin to wisdom, if not wisdom itself.

My seeing this analogy emerged from work I had been doing on the side in graduate school helping construct a book on the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education in the Chicago Commons Family Centers funded through Head Start and from dissatisfaction with the overly – sometimes exclusively – theoretical approach to philosophy found in our discipline and during my time at the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy.  When I encountered socially engaged, social practice artists experimenting with norms in collaborative, community-based contexts in such a way as to draw people out to reexamine the order of common sense and to re-engage with norms more autonomously, I thought that I was seeing a form of modern Cynicism in the best sense.  So, with time, I saw how I might learn first-hand how the analogies might fare.

In 2015, I invited the socially engaged artist Michael Rakowitz to give the third biennial Beamer-Schneider Lecture in Ethics, Morals & Civics.  I’d met Rakowitz while co-creating and co-hosting a talk show on Dubai Eye Radio while I was at American University of Sharjah experimenting with civic education in a Department of International Studies.  I asked Rakowitz if he might consider using the lecture to instead propose a participatory project for Cleveland.

Rakowitz listened into the Ethics Table discussions in 2014-2015 and responded with a project on the right to safetyA Color Removed, that is now being organized for the Cleveland Triennial with the support of the Tamir Rice Foundation.  Due to the lecture, I also met the social practice artist, Chloë Bass.  Being part of the process of A Color Removed led me initially, along with my own desire to bring the Ethics Table off campus and after work hours, to begin The Moral Inquiries. This was a simple extension of philosophy, experimental learning and – in a small way – socially engaged practice, although missing the aesthetic spectacle of contemporary art.

I wanted to learn more.  So in 2016, I put to work my bumbling sense of the analogies in two different contexts.  The first was the short-term residency Philosophy without Teachers – made possible especially by generous funding from Elon University.  The idea behind this residency was to bring social practice artists together with academically trained philosophy students or sympathetic colleagues from neighboring disciplines to explore how the idea of philosophical exercises – ascetics, technically – might be rethought with reference to social practice experiments from the social practice art tradition.  I also wondered whether the aestheticism of social practice art might be changed by keeping in view the ethical relation of philosophy as a way of life where the point of everything is, as Aristotle noted, to live well, not simply to know about living well.  My project for that residency was to reinterpret the Stoic kanōn, the rule of living by phūsis, by seeing what I could learn from the wind if I constructed it as a guide to living in my society of self-possession.

The second context was the two day program during the RNC in Cleveland, * civic * now * !, which brought together poets, cultural critics, and community organizers to work with the community to draft a book of manifestos during a “think-in” across the Detroit-Superior bridge from the Quicken Loans arena where the next President of the United States of America, unbeknownst to us, was making his way toward the office.  At the center of this two-day discussion, organized especially by Punctum Books, was the discussion of race and white privilege that leaped into national view for many liberals just months later.  I was guided in co-constructing this “think-in” by a set of studies I had recently done where each was a spiritual exercise (askēsis) focused by a different genre of reflection.  The tradition of philosophy as a way of life was prominent but we held our experimental workshop in SPACES Gallery, where Rakowitz’s project would eventually end up.

Both of the 2016 programs were learning experiences, painful and confusing, but filled with real lessons about organizing, learning, philosophy, social practice art and people.  The main problems I found were that the norms weren’t clear in these hybrid genre contexts, the expectations were much too high – as if the hybridization constructed by the analogies forced a utopian wish for real wisdom, autonomy and solidarity into view – and there was simply too much going on in each program.  Unlike good social practice art, each program was overdetermined in its time and by its moving parts and my direct style, at least, was ill-fit for an artistic and activist culture that is uncomfortable with norms in general.  I learned that it is important to simplify programs, keep communication open and straight-forward, and to take more time (always) with community-building so that even basic moral norms come to be seen as sincere.  I learned that social practice art, at bottom, depends on agreement.  And I learned that the core problem to face and to understand in it as in philosophy and in education is disagreement.


These realizations led me straight into the RNC where I had an experience observing protests as a legal observer on the side of civilians watching the police.  The police state around me was insane, most for its quiet presence seemingly acceptable in my city, but the way the police state had cordoned off protest was heart-breaking.  Five months later, I realized that it might be possible to use some of the lessons of socially engaged, social practice art and of radical pedagogy to reconceptualize protest in a more democratic manner.  What if conventional, spectacular protest began with undemocratic premises that played into cycles of abuse and of power over people?   What if, by contrast, we thought of protest as slow moving and as organized always around a democratic form of equality?  Social practice art might help, as might experimental learning in the egalitarian tradition.

Then came the Trump Presidency.  The police state focused on violent protest.  Antifa was at the heart of the media story lined up against, and so with, the view that Trump is a fascist.  Antifa and the focus on Trump as a fascist covered over an underlying similarity:  arbitrarianism.  Uneasiness with norms in general and strategic exceptionalism to basic moral norms were everywhere.  This was crystal clear with Trump, but it was also found in radical protest ideology, which began to seem eerily neo-liberal despite itself.

In arbitrarianism, the equality we all share under fair norms that we all share – a civic republican idea – is eschewed by strategic thinking that allows individuals or groups to take themselves as exceptions to basic moral rules.  Trump’s extreme arbitrarianism and the rise of protests as a calculus of forces that are exempt from moral rules applied to all seem locked into the same chaos.  My sense that social practice art had something political to offer through its co-constructive form deepened.

After all, socially engaged, social practice art presented some possibilities:  it is supposed to focus on relationships where disagreement and agreement can be worked out in slow time and in new ways.  It is supposed to develop interpersonal accountability, which is exactly what arbitrarianism eschews.  Interpersonal accountability, here, begins with acknowledging each other as moral equals, fellow people who have a life of our own in which our relationship is not possibly shared if we treat each other as obstacles or lord it over each other.  Rather, we have to construct the world together for it to be shared.  We have to see “eye to eye,” to echo my favorite civic republican metaphor.  The social construction of social practice art is very deliberate – and reminded me strongly of the Chicago Commons philosophy I had studied fifteen years prior.


Not surprisingly, the issues I saw erupting in the public sphere after the 2016 U.S.A. federal election came up in 2016 during the overpacked programs I mentioned.  At the heart of communication is accountability.  And at the heart of accountability is refusing to be arbitrary.  Although no one at the programs struck me as narcissistically arbitrary in the way that Trump is, the programs shook and faltered where we did not take the time to be able to work out agreements around norms we could all share, when some led without the consent of others, or when people encountering difficult interpersonal moments did not think that we should be genuinely accountable to each other.  Obligation flew out of the window.  I wondered whether at bottom there was fear involved, too, of our having to be accountable to ourselves when things become socially uncomfortable, of then seeing the ways our own lives have lost substantial dignity, freedom, and opportunities through the loss of moral relationships.  Without obligation, how do we stand with others, even when we disagree with them?

I found myself starting to pull on threads that interpreted the arbitrarianism, and the fears it provokes, more deeply within the history of my society.  The biennial lecture series that had brought Rakowitz to Cleveland had, two years before that, brought Susan Neiman from Germany.  She was working on the early stages of her forthcoming project on learning from the Germans about how to deal with historical crime.  In 2013, she had lectured on the question of what it would be to approach the history of slavery in the United States of America in ways similar to how the Nazi regime and Nazism were approached as a state project in Germany during the second half of the twentieth century.  Rakowitz’s project extended her line of thinking in so far as his participatory art project focused on the shadow of colonialism endangering Black populations in areas subject to red-lining (the 20thcentury practice of restricting African Americans from owning property in some areas of cities like Cleveland).  In areas where red-lining occurred, Black bodies were especially unsafe.  So in 2017, the next lecture extended the investigation of historical crime further, inviting Kyle Powys Whyte to address the question of decolonizing Cleveland, the city known for its racist baseball logo and “mascot.”

Whyte lectured and organized especially on and around the loss of moral relationships in settler colonialism and in capitalism.  I was struck by how his emphasis on relationships underlined the problems that had been appearing alongside what I had been learning through social practice art and heated debate around democratic protest.  From Whyte’s work, especially, I came to see the historical importance of emphasizing accountability in relationships, and with a visual artist, I began a practice – an askēsis – of considering how we come to see, and then to account for, the loss of moral relationships.

Social practice art had now made its way into philosophical practice for me, and also into the classroom.  I started giving students in my classes a simple goal and then let them design the class to meet it.  For instance, in a class on environmental politics this past Spring, I challenged students to construct a political movement for Cleveland that would link with the planetary challenge of “anthroponomy,” the collective self-regulation of humankind in the face of planetary-scaled, socially-caused, environmental change, whose major obstacle is the persistent shadow of the colonial world system.  Working collectively, and so working through disagreement, the class co-constructed the order of reading, the books we would focus on from a longer list, additional readings, and the assignment kinds and structure for the semester, meeting accreditation criteria too.  Their collectively determined project, without my prompting, ended up focusing on red-lining and the right to safety, as if the socially engaged art idea of Rakowitz’s A Color Removed were in the air, but the color were red, not orange.  The class made the problem environmental by showing how urban violence is best contextualized in a space of urban violation of human capabilities.

This was timely, because I was starting to feel ambivalent about A Color Removed.  From 2016-2018, I had become more involved in the gestation and initial design of it, seeing it through until the arts institution, SPACES, organized its realization.  I saw during this time that, not surprisingly in hindsight, arbitrarianism could just as easily come up with artists, artist communities, and in art processes all along their complexity from producers to marketers to donors to community partners.  The problems of arbitrarianism, where we do not think that we have to be accountable to each other or to fair and equal norms without making exceptions of ourselves, are basic problems in my society now, problems of the self, and they are in some ways better addressed by philosophy as it was meant to be practiced in antiquity than by art as it in institutionalized and marketed today.  Even worse, the cult of artistic genius and the structure of conceptual art rewards arbitrarianism and related failures of accountability to those who labor.

I found the tables turned between philosophy and social practice art.  Philosophy can illuminate social practice art’s potential: art’s plain art of living.  Yes, I had turned to socially engaged, social practice art because I had hoped it would illuminate the art of living.  But it did that only when people kept moral principles in view.  Ironically, philosophy as a way of life was aimed at just such a thing:  its point of practice is the participants’ actually living better and more autonomously.  I am thus happy that the environmental politics proposal I described – “V2V” (“From Violence to Violation”) – will be part of the program on the right to safety during A Color Removed, as will a session of the Moral Inquiries, Where Do We Go From Here, Today? – revisiting Dr. King’s last and untimely book.  Although uneasy about the possibility of a triennial and of star-artist culture selling out the community potential of a socially engaged art project, I am also hopeful that a publicly-minded arts organization like SPACES and the powerful meaning of the project will prevail.


As with many things in this reflection, “art” is equivocal.  It has a conventional sense that is vague and ill or un-defined, like pornography, but which is, I think, largely a matter of institutional endorsement.  I don’t think this “art” is really the art that concerns me or philosophy.  Art, I think, following Lauren Tillinghast’s The Thought of Art(dissertation, University of Chicago Department of Philosophy, 2000) is any kind of produced thing made so very well.  Social practice art aims to reveal how we might construct the world together so very well.  The art of living, by comparison, does not mistake doing for a product; rather, it takes our actual norms as we live with them as things we make together, things we co-construct, even if their reasons are things we discover, things we find.

As I look back on the full circle turned since 2016 between social practice art and philosophy as a way of life, I still see protest as being able to perform the experimental art of teaching wisdom, too.  When Emma González held silence while facing us at the March for our Lives she called on us to square up with the world and to absorb a truth, much like Diogenes the Cynic famously did, but also as Socrates did when he held his bizarre and comic silences prompted by his daimōn-conscience, his overnight vigil while in battle, or his serene suicide.

With her silence, González asked us to take in the implications of our society and its laws and beliefs around guns.  She held the silence and held us to account, just as she had come to terms with herself, with what she believed, and with her obligations in order to be there.  She asked all of us who listened and saw to think about a world we could construct together that would be safe for children, safe for teenagers, safe for everyone in a given society as a matter of basic right.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer works as the Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics at Case Western Reserve University. He is a Senior Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Network in Utrecht, NL, a member of the Mellon Philosophy as a Way of Life Network based at the University of Notre Dame, and a member of Philosophers for Sustainability.