Thuistezien 219 — 29.03.2021

Jack Segbars
Sami Khatib

For the exhibition ‘Author, Platform and Spectator’, Jack Segbars interviews different people who approach the relationship between the artist, curator and viewer in original ways. In this interview he talks to Sami Khatib about the divisions of labour and investments of the political economy within knowledge production, and how this can be questioned through a creative exercise of scholarship.

Khatib is a scholar in media studies and political theory (Walter Benjamin), and is concerned with notions of how art and academia can be brought together as a form of political organisation. An example of such a transdisciplinary project is the 2015 ‘Benjamin in Palestine Conference’, held in Ramallah Palestine, of which Khatib was one of the initiators. The interview delves into how the structure of this week-long conference served to facilitate communication between the different participants (artists, theorists and activists) by employing theory — most notably that of Benjamin — as a form of politics.

For Khatib, an artist is necessarily an activist. He developed this observation through his expertise in philosopher Walter Benjamin and the methodology of Critical Theory. The aim of critical theories is to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep human beings from a full and true understanding of how the world works. This implies that we can’t examine philosophy without taking into account the context from which it is read. Walter Benjamin, then, offers a ‘performative’ reading of his texts; lending itself to the current neoliberal climate with all its issues in an intriguing manner through his transdisciplinary oeuvre.

Khatib explains the approach of thinking through language, rather than by using language. A text doesn’t speak in a vacuum, but needs a certain circumstance, a ‘dangerous moment of reading’, to gain significance. The element of site specificity is one which is often overlooked in academia and art practices. For Khatib, however, these are obvious insights. He is against an excess of curation, theorising or prescribing in order to transfer or produce knowledge, in whatever format. Therefore, for the conference was chosen a seminar-style format where through close reading the participants would think with or through Benjamin, instead of present about him. Usually, conferences are set up to showcase the status of scholarship or research, where philosophical text is used for a preformulated agenda or to test a hypothesis. However, there could be another way of gathering around scholarship - by continually finding openings to our situation, where text is the gateway. This might be an actual productive and progressive way of enacting philosophy. It is better than either instrumentalising philosophy to apply it to other fields irresponsibly (or rather arrogantly), or keeping it in the ivory tower of specialists.

It then only came natural to Khatib to hold the conference in Palestine, where a truly diverse audience attended to relate to the canon of knowledge, be transformed through it and by it, and as such transform any possible anticipation of the event. Using Benjamin as a method of thinking rather than a field of study, where reading becomes a practice or a performance, forces the reader to relate to philosophy beyond the text and subsequently to explore other ways of relating to the world.

Text: Yael Keijzer