Craig Saper: Something more intimate to what is called thinking
When we at the Writers House brought Craig Saper back to Penn in 2001 to give a talk about Fluxus, some of us attended because we are fascinated by Fluxus and really admire Craig's way of discussing such art. A few Writers House regulars came in spite of not having experienced Saper's brilliance at first hand, but because it was known around the House that he had praised KWH as a learning community (see below). Others came because they still by then lamented the loss of Craig from the Penn faculty (by denial of tenure). On that occasion Joshua Schuster — he was by then a grad student but he'd known Saper from his days as an undergrad too — gave a fine introduction. Here is that introduction, in its entirety:
I have this vision stuck in my head of Craig Saper, at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1996, pulling up an essay by Walter Benjamin and reading: "I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." It was a storybook beginning to a storybook class. We were confronted from the outset that there was a crises in criticism and that we were going to have to invent our way out of it. At stake was a way both in and out of criticism itself. Benjamin was a model; that the act of unpacking one's library could be the very model for a form of scholarship and knowledge. Where else could we find models? With adrenaline and a hallucinatory focus, and perhaps anything could serve as the conceptual apparatus from which to generate new ways of thinking. How can an event be a model of thought? How do you think a handshake or a barricade or a letter being passed through a postal system? All that is solid melts into air-there, capital in its own act of disguise was exposed as a model for new ways of thinking. Or a telephone call, that brings one to the question of what is called thinking? Or to take tonight's topic Fluxus, the art movement, could it secretly be the code by which a university could be built anew?
This search for models itself repeated the structure of avant-garde art, which by fiat never distinguished between material and event as the substances for creative thinking. Using materiality and event as the basis for thinking was nothing new in philosophy either: who could not say that the Greeks used the model of the sun to begin the adventure into philosophy, or the model of the philosopher falling into the well as the model of skepticism? But the key to creativity here was not to use the avant-garde as an object of criticism, but as a process of thinking itself. The false prison of the code of professionalized knowledge in the university was sundered. The breakdown in power became a power generator itself. You became your idea, it possessed you and took you into places you weren't sure could be real. At one point I found myself defending the logic of flypaper by waving the sticky, slimy paper during a lecture. One felt what it might be like not simply to think about knowledge, but to be inside the very force of knowledge when it breaks off from knowledge itself.
The university did not take this irreverent challenge standing still. As the story goes, the university asserted itself in its own model of thought, professional, tame, middle class, coherent with all the techniques of capital. And Craig Saper was not permitted to remain (although thankfully he did find another post at another university, so this fortunately complicates my demonizing of academia). Still, this moment was the most true lesson of my entire undergraduate experience: that knowledge, as a form of discourse, does not take lightly any challenge to its operational status. That knowledge is a field that must be respected, monitered and maintained, and the critic must tend this field, making sure that its fertility is properly harnessed and controlled.
From out of this field Craig Saper comes to us. He is the storyteller that Walter Benjamin warned us about. But he won't just tell us stories that will sooth us and rid us of our fears that grow in the all-too-triumphant field of academia. Not now, not in this world, which is at war, which is constantly in the mode of coming to terms with its own crises. All one can hope for is that somehow the world is becoming more open to such a story teller, a person like Craig Saper who will engage and possibly dazzle his audience, not simply with knowledge, but with something far more intimate to what is called thinking.
For the record, I also want to note that in April of 1997, just before the Writers House closed for four months of renovation (after which it opened again as “the Kelly Writers House”), Craig was with us to present as one of the earliest sessions of a series still going today - "Theorizing." That day Craig presented with Dick Higgins, one of the most important Fluxus artists. And: see this earlier post about Craig's "Readies."