Book Plug: Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics by Gabriel Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill’s recent book, Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics, was written over the course of nearly a decade and consists of three major divisions—History, Politics, and Aesthetics—each of which contain three chapters addressing particular concerns and written in specific contexts. (Click here to view the table of contents.) As a result, the chapters, which discuss figures such as Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Castoriadis and topics such as aesthetic revolution and modern democracy, the tradition of radical critique, architecture as the forgotten political art, and whether difference is a value in itself, can be read independently with great benefit.

Central to the book is what Rockhill describes as a “heuristic distinction between two types of theoretical practice” (1). On the one hand, we have interpretation, which adheres to the norms of an established discourse and operates within “the praxeological and epistemological framework of an institutionalized set of activities” (1). On the other, we have the activity of intervention, which is agonistic and “seeks to contest these operative norms and guiding parameters in order to introduce alternative forms of intellectual practice” (1). Although there are varying degrees of interpretation and intervention, what distinguishes the two is that the former stays within the boundaries of particular theoretical practices and related socialized norms, whereas the later challenges such boundaries and seeks to reconfigure the present strictures of intellectual activity (2). In short, an intervention is not simply a more radical or highly innovative way of engaging a text, performing or interpreting an artwork, or revamping political practices. Intervention operates, so to speak, at a deeper level: it seeks to change the historical conditions of possibility and in doing so to change the activity of thought itself and, presumably, what can show up as a viable option or way of acting and being in a particular context. “In other words, interventions are never purely intellectual endeavors or thought experiments. They are practical incursions into the social rites and rituals of theoretical work” (3).

Although one might at first get the impression that Rockhill views interpretation as passé and something to move beyond, he himself counters such a conclusion. For example, he says that interpretation is “an important practice for developing theoretical possibilities within particular parameters” (3). Yet it is clear that Rockhill wants to foreground and draw our attention to the need for alternative engagements, or as he puts it “anchored struggles” that might reconfigure current norms of intellectual, social, and political practices (3). In addition, Rockhill issues a timely critique of continental philosophy. Although the continental tradition is typically considered historically minded or attuned, nevertheless it often employs “impoverished models of historical analysis and explanation, which is at times directly linked to a haughty refusal to engage with the human and social sciences” (11). As a result, what we frequently get are overly simplistic narratives, disembodied models or ideals of doing “true” philosophy, and Eurocentric accounts that privilege the works of great males of a certain socio-economic class, which is set over against the unthinking, lowly masses—all of which is often supported by a rigidly fixed canon interpreted in a way that further entrenches the established discourses and practices of particular institutions. Exegetical reason, the main focus of Rockhill’s critique, it seems, incarnates itself in the commentary tradition and thus functions as the life-giving soul of established canonical traditions, whose practices end up reducing philosophical activity to the production of secondary literature analyzing and commenting upon the canonical texts.

Rockhill’s critique of Eurocentrism is refreshingly nuanced and resists falling into an overly facile binary of oppositions—geographic or otherwise—which then demonizes Europe and seems to assume that “Europe” has a stable, unchanging center. Rather, as he explains in an important footnote (n. 45): “The decolonization of theoretical practice requires the development of a complex cultural topography based on a multidimensional conceptualization of space” (31). The radical geography that Rockhill proposes seeks to “denaturalize space and to chart a multiplicity of different and overlapping spaces while being attentive to the stratification and distributions operating within each of these heuristically delimited fields” (31). While such radical geography continues within the domain of critique discourses of Eurocentrism, it is attuned to the unfixed, center-less character of “Europe,” which it unearths as the “site of striated, overlapping and contested spaces” (31).

Given that most of Rockhill’s chapters are by and large devoted to well known male philosophers in the European intellectual tradition, one might tempted to turn aspects of Rockhill’s critique against him. However, this would miss the point of his thematization and advocacy for intervention. In other words, while foregrounding female or non-European figures would have been beneficial on multiple counts, what is important from the standpoint of intervention is what is done with, to, through, and beyond the particular figures engaged. Stated otherwise, an interventionist approach seeks neither to glorify prominent thinkers via hagiography nor damn them through a form of intellectual parricide; rather, as Rockhill explains (and here it’s worth quoting him at length):

this book proposes a critique of exegetical reason by rigorously engaging with prominent philosophic positions precisely in order to develop a deep methodological intervention into contemporary theoretical practice, as well as propose an expansive and potentially innovative thematic analysis. The metaphilosophical critique of continental scholasticism needs to mine this tradition and cull from it its major strengths, one of which is historico-hermeneutic rigour and precision. We need to move, however, from imprisonment to empowerment, from incarceration within the interstices of a socially constituted canon to an empowering historical elevation of thought that carefully works through—in order to think with and potentially beyond—some of the most prominent intellectual projects of a certain philosophic tradition (15–16).