Act So That There Is No Use: Discomfortably Playing School in/at/of (or Holding Place for) the Decentralized Middle

by Mahshid Rafiei and Bethany Ides


How many versions of being-together do we nix before knowing them because we’re not sure how our stomachs will stand the commotion? We might initiate a version of sovereignty of our own design, outfitted specifically for our own proclivities and take diligent measures to avoid pre-affirming its fixity. We do so because we know we can make efforts to support one another via a supportive structure we believe will support us in turn and still end up with an institution characterized by constraint. But how much can we leave undone and still know we’re doing something? How do we dismantle even as we design?  

We want a decentralized discourse, inhospitable to disciplinary structures of authority and in being accountable for what we are able to contribute, we want to learn something, something new. That newness we imagine would be composed of our being new to each other and to it (the coming conversation-as-community), tending and attending to each other and to it, moment by moment. So, where do we begin?

The classroom is a rent garage for a curriculum. A curriculum is a carriage, a formation of running, the framework for coursing, both in the sense that the vehicle is fit for it and that what trail might well have been forged by meandering, is now, retroactively, a path for following. Safe and timely carriage along the course established as a course would seem to require schedules, solid managerial tools and tactics. To keep us on track. To make sure expectations do not dangerously inflate from too much enthusiasm.  That’s what the teacher does. Terms like “deliverables” begin to seem duly reasonable, a carriage carries things after all.  

Call the classroom a host. A host expects an occasion, carefully and thoughtfully prepares for it, for its progression. A host is necessitated by an occasion. She ordains it or she offers to be accountable for its pleasant performance. The word affords us images of nurture, but also something of the Bacchic. Holly Golightly was an excellent host, or Andy Warhol, both as adept at being noticed as not. A good host appears and disappears, like heavenly hosts, like revelations. On late-night TV or in a picture of heaven, there are co-hosts, too. They’re there to show that arrangements of power are constellational and they maintain their configuration even as they follow their flickering course across the night sky.

But what if hosting were like nesting? What if a host could embed in her co-host, like measuring bowls still capable of holding their full ingredients? If we could move like that and if we could shift positions mid-movement.

We can begin as teacher and student. (We did.) We can work, study, and exchange together under those auspices for a while, in combination with a class, meeting in a classroom, following a syllabus as though it were a contract. (It is.) From there, we might propose an “independent study” whereby we forgo the expectation of predictability to a certain degree.  With more intuitive regularity, we meet at a coffee shop or by the water or in a loud, crowded hotel lobby; sometimes for two hours, sometimes for five. We decide together what to read and what to write. The teacher writes too. We write for each other. (We did.)  Even while the influence of credit has been convincingly shrunk to the size of a dime (i.e. “Pass / Fail”) and the criteria for what would pass for failure is unfathomably obscure, the grade is still entered at the end of it. For having agreed to participate under these auspices, we both advance by predictable measures; one gets a paycheck while the other graduates to the next level.  

We may have designed our own criteria.  But how do we tell?

Bethany Ides: There reached a point when I realized that me grading you felt already outmoded. Our independent study (conducted along with Rachel Jackson) had become something more of an interdependent study. We were operating as colleagues. I remember reading what you both had written in response to the other’s writing one day and crying because I couldn’t believe my luck at being afforded such a position of profound witness. (I’m not kidding.) When I broached the subject with you and Rachel the next time we met, you both agreed. Actually, my sense of it was that the two of you had already long since come to that conclusion and maybe you had been letting me take the time and space to figure it out for myself. Anyway, after that, the air felt clearer.

Mahshid Rafiei: Essentially, it was a way of setting our own terms, of undermining standard measures of accreditation via a kind of individuated, or collective, criteria. And beyond that, writing through each other’s work offered a prismatic reading and thinking that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

BI: I was wondering, what if we reintroduced grading into our communications now, now that our relating has long since outlasted what positions of reference or purposeful boundary drawing grading might offer us?  Not that we ever needed it, but now that it has no use for us, now that our relating neither requires it nor is arbitrated by it. Could we invoke it like a devotee summons a trickster spirit, mounting it as it mounts her? Is there something we could do, or effect, so that saying this would not just be cuteness, not just “Look–I–see-the-sky-in-my-sandwich?” Not that I doubt the efficacy of anyone’s claim to see the sky this way, but that a claim like that is what D.W. Winnicott might call “uninterpretable.” All you can do is shrug, laugh, claim, or hope for the same, and probably kiss and maybe also fuck, but war is not so whimsical, I don’t think, if only because it is so, so much more mundane, so much more micro-governed than that.

MR: I think what you’re referring to is different from a criteria that sets its own terms because an individuated criteria still acts as and in the name of directive, legible grades (i.e., pass or fail). Whereas what you’re describing is a grade that is illegible but nevertheless marks its subject, calling for an expanded sensorial readerly engagement.

BI: I’m wondering about grading acted in the name of a trickster.

MR: It may entail breaking down and making new criteria such that every criterion is inevitable and inseparably particular to its circumstantial context. Though perhaps ‘in the name of’ would render it questionable…

Would that suggest a grading performative that foregrounds the arbitrariness of grades?

BI: Maybe it’s a very pernicious misnomer to be likening these disciplinary structures, which are eminently predictable in their manner and method of discipline, to a figure who represents resistance to discipline. Inasmuch As the Trickster (capital “T”) is an icon, an -ism, it’s true that it is liable to be co-opted as or by some mechanistic component of discipline. It’s usable, applicable, it can thresh the chaff from the wheat by shaking it, only so the grain is rendered more pliable for further processing. That is Trickster as literary form. Lewis Hyde reflects on this internal (infernal?) module that can function, in effect, as an authority’s probate, lending the authority greater power via its built-in supposed opposition. “If dirt is ‘matter out of place,’ if it is what we exclude when we are creating order, then [stories] about tricksters and dirt must also speak to the sterility that hides in most all human systems and design.” These same models which would seem so transparent that they explain themselves, reveal their dullness when confronted with the complexity of wills and actions. They “end up deadened by their own exclusions.”

But the trickster (lowercase “t”) that is transient, not embodied, or only ever assuming form, too transitional to be subject to identification, is more like “an intermedia area of experiencing,” to adapt another term from Winnicott. This is the Dionysian element as well, reft with such unruly unrest, it can hardly recognize itself.  

MR: This element also makes for malleable structures to draw or displace delimitations but, as you said, what flexibilities or freedoms are we forgoing? Or, to turn this question inside out, what can we redeem in the transient, restless host when “confronted with the complexity of wills and actions”?

BI: We (you, Rachel, and I) used to talk a lot about “as”-ing. That was our way of imagining an intermingled, intra-nested co-performative in or by which each is both vessel and sieve, currency and nodal. Each as itself and otherwise, simultaneously.  

To trickster (as verb) grading is maybe to “act so that there is no use in a center,” per Stein and in the Steinian sense, both. I say “the Steinian sense” to invoke a decentralized poetic praxis, active readerly attention that, in turn, activates more expansive readership which the reader herself is implicated within. That kind of play, I mean.

MR: A couple of weeks ago I became eerily aware that I was consuming quite a few stories about misrepresentation – and I have been thinking about the relationship between a representation and the thing it represents for a while. I was quite struck by the outrage that the act of misrepresentation elicits. Aside from being illegal, it burrows as more of a moral transgression. It’s quite amazing how too often a direct and stable relationship is assumed between representation and fact. What is a tricky mark?

Or, the question that keeps coming back to me is: how to think about value and non-value at the same time?

I don’t think either collective knowledge production or institutional knowledge production are sovereign to begin with. They are always subject to a variety of pressure points that give it its particular structure. This may not be accurate, but I imagine subjectivity and non-sovereignty to be quite distinct from one another, despite the fact that they both sit opposite to sovereignty. I wonder if non-sovereignty robs a figure of being a subject. This figure then looks somewhat like the criteria you were alluding to, that “reveals more about what’s around it than what ‘it’ is.”

BI: A set of criteria so free-floating, with no skeleton, no axes, no orientation, or a kind of criteria that actively obfuscates subjectivity? I am imagining a camera scanning a landscape, how a camouflaged thing scrambles the predictability of its surroundings just by being part of it. Is a host a “tricky mark,” an impossible target?

MR: Well, I was thinking about grading as the shadowy trickster figure who gives tricky marks or a host that makes tricky marks. I mean, what makes a mark tricky? What does a tricky mark look like? But, yes, maybe that’s the most unreasonable aspect of this scenario; the host is ever elusive.

Generally, for instance, it’s considered that an ‘alien’ person is hosted by the place which has received him or her. However, the alien too hosts the culture of that place in a quite stretchy capacity (i.e., assimilation, or ‘camouflage’). Both are hosting, but once either of them begins to fix territories (of belonging), it becomes dubious who is playing host precisely because one claims absolute hostfulness. That is to say, the host is not only a pluralistic and dialectic role, but, above all, it is an entangled and contested one. And perhaps if these aspects are activated – after all, conflict seeps through all of it – if there is resistance and no inhibition all at once, then it may subvert the presumed sovereignty of a host, a classroom, or a curriculum.

As in a bout of laughter, what is unreasonable is not knowing one’s place. The kind of laughter that jolts you out of your place, like when you laugh at something but you’re not sure why and maybe even feel a little wrong.

BI: Georges Bataille has this bit in Guilty on “The Divinity of Laughter.”  It’s written in/as fragments, asides, urges at odds with urgency. The whole text is staccato, but drawing a longer, deeper breath, he outlines a set of causal dynamics that seem borne of a similar aporia:

A basic difficulty.  At present, my state of lucidity (which anguish brings to the fore at the times I’m strongest) excludes relaxation, without which I’d stop being able to laugh. Action governs my present-day lucidity. Hence the impossibility of a state of loss. I could only recover my ability to laugh by rediscovering relaxation. And for now I’m not considering that.

The host is so totalizing that it destabilizes itself, is that something close to what you’re saying? Like Bataille’s own lucidity that would restlessly long for laughter if only it had anything to compare it to?

MR: No, I think the host is not totalizing but imagines itself so. So yes, like Bataille’s lucidity that would restlessly long for laughter if only it had anything to compare it to. I mean, don’t you feel like his lucidity is tinged with the fictional, the imaginary even?

BI: Bataille is the friend I meet in a bar, perhaps perpetually. Perpetually the seducer. I’m hooked by those glints of recognition. “Do you see me, Bataille? Could you love me?” Then he holds those too deep stares, the kind that betray that he believes he is playing the long con. He wants me to play along, to entertain his “I love the idea that my moods and licentiousness are pointless!” faux cast-offs. He loves that I roll my eyes even, it means I’m endeared to him, I’m already acting as though I know him. But I never go home with him. I go home by myself, where all his books already are.




Mahshid Rafiei and Bethany Ides have worked together for six years – first at the School of Visual Arts where Ides taught and Rafiei graduated from. They collaborated in the formation of VISITATION, a roving vessel for ante-institutional resilient resourcefulness, which later became and continues to become DOORS UNLIMITED. Recent DOORS UNLIMITED projects include the Deathbeds Symposium in Montréal, QC, Dump Camp at the Cooper Union in NYC, and Intramodal Extracise Trail currently under construction at Habitable Spaces in Kingsbury, TX.  

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