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The Strategic Mobilisation of Incompetence

There are two fields, broadly speaking, in which I work – or to which I contribute – both of which involve different logics, protocols and, indeed, competences. It is partly through working with two distinct practices that I able to bring the competences of one to bear on the other. On the one hand this can sometimes work to ‘double’ any given competence, but on the other, perhaps more importantly, it can also work to undermine a given competence – or, at least, show up its limits.


The first field, broadly speaking, is contemporary art practice. I’m part of a performance art group called Plastique Fantastique. We understand this collaboration as a kind of collective fiction: it has its own life as it were and, in some senses, tells us where it needs to go. Our perfomances tend to be messy and chaotic affairs, comic and amateurish in execution. In terms of the production of fictions we see elsewhere (I’m thinking of the mass-media) they are very definitely incompetent or awkward and shonky. Which is to say they undermine any seamless ‘reality effect’ or smooth appearance of another world – and, perhaps, of those worlds presented and promised to us as options. Here incompetence (in terms of not meeting certain standards and expectations) works so as to contribute towards a particular kind of critical competence.


The other field I work in is art theory, or, more broadly, contemporary continental philosophy. Here incompetence is less easy to play with insofar as that kind of work requires both a competence in conceptual work (and a familiarity with a certain archive) and a competence in actually writing (so as to produce clarity). What I can say, however, is that my original attraction to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari – who I tend to write on - and especially A Thousand Plateaus had to do with how they offered a way out from a stifling disciplinary competence. Their ‘wild style’ of thinking and writing was seen by some of my colleagues at the time - I first encountered Deleuze and Guattari in the mid 1990s - as very much an incompetence (they didn’t ‘fit’ with a certain idea of theoretical and critical work being carried out in the institution at the time). However, for me, this kind of perceived incompetence, as I remember it, meant they were competent in another area: basically life – my life - as I was actually living it. There is a question here of how a certain kind of ‘Deleuzianism’ has now become part of a new orthodoxy – a new set of institutional competences (even an industry) - but I leave discussion of that for another time.


So, now to return to my earlier remarks: it’s also the way in which Plastique Fantastique operates as a kind of laboratory to test some of the theoretical ideas that makes it, for me, important. It doesn’t do this in a competent manner, indeed when Plastique Fantastique takes on ideas it tends to do this incompetently, again awkwardly – comically – and certainly not in any way that would be satisfying to a philosopher. But in so doing it gives this conceptual material a different kind of life. And then this also works the other way around: in my writing, Plastique Fantastique operates to correct the often grand pronouncements theory can make about art. There the practice is, at my shoulder, grinning, sometimes staring mutely at my supposed competence in writing art theory.

All of this can be said more simply: there are transversal connections between these two fields that are also interferences. Competence and incompetence are relative terms here and, it seems to me, need be deployed differently and for different effects at different times and in different places. Indeed, I think it’s the ability to shift – or shuttle between – perspectives which both undermines given competences but also, in the terms of this panel, operates as a weaponisation of competence when this also names, precisely, the strategic mobilisation of incompetence.



Simon O’Sullivan

Goldsmiths College


Photo details: Plastique Fantastique: Protocols for the Society for Cutting Up Mun-kneesnakers (S.C.U.M.): I-Valerie-Solaris AKA-@32ACP-Amazon.co.uk-recommends-‘Pacific-Rim’ shootb1t-c0in-f@iry,2016 , Venue: CGP London, Photographer unknown
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