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Reviewed by:
  • Obstruction by Nick Salvato
  • Erin Hurley (bio)
Obstruction. By Nick Salvato. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016; 280pp.; illustrations. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper, e-book available.

Embarrassment, laziness, slowness, cynicism, and digressiveness. These are the five “obstructions” to “intellective work” undertaken by (indeed, required of) academics. They are also some impediments to production under capitalism that Nick Salvato sees transvalued in the aesthetics, strategies, and formal attributes of certain performing and media arts creators. However, the requirement I put in parentheses above is anything but parenthetical in Obstruction. Indeed, that obligation of productive intellectual labor informs Salvato’s search for modes of activity and affect that might achieve a kind of détente with such regimes. The indebtedness of his own thought to contemporary affect theories shows in his advocacy for relinquishing some control over the mind’s subtle workings and inevitable peregrinations, as well as in the laudable humility of his key critical gesture around pedagogy. Expanding on Lauren Berlant’s theory of the impasse and on J. Jack Halberstam’s on the queer art of failure, Salvato investigates the learning that may take place when confronted with a durable and durational blockage. Obstructions, he avers, offer opportunities for instruction in modes and movements of thought that are undervalued in the contemporary work-world. What if, he asks, instead of according one’s rhythms with the “dictatorship of speed” (193) (“publish or perish!”), one were to model the process of intellection on film-maker Kelly Reichart’s slowing of time: her cinematography’s simultaneous extension and concentration of duration through compositional elements such as repetition, stillness, and pause? Accepting her “invitation to be arrested,” he suggests, will enable us to “try to make a parallel sense of dilation obtain more regularly and in a more ‘concentrated’ way — so that the putative obstruction of slowness is galvanized to charge the experience of (thinking, writing) time as densely and intensely as possible” (99). In its excavation of the lessons or instructional modes of these common impediments to scholarly inquiry, the book offers broadly — and somewhat less humbly — to rethink thinking, advocating for less fraught experiences of intellectual labor in the formal workings and thematics of its case studies.

That said, this is no how-to manual. Rather, it points to the models one might translate into both disposition and practice in the academy, models offered by a range of artistic practices that foreground one of Salvato’s five obstructions. The obstructions at issue here share with affects and things “potential, often surprising energies” (3). As he outlines in his introduction, obstructions, like things, are impediments to use. Because they occasion noticing the obstruction/the thing’s physical properties, their phenomenal heaviness and singularity, obstructions “have an intellective use value, precisely in their blockage of ‘use’” whose reorientation of the subject’s perspective may yield to more “concrete constructions (for instance, a writing)” (9). The task of each chapter, then, is to take apart the particular qualities and pedagogies of each kind of blockage, which Salvato accomplishes through both close inspection of their exemplars and through more wide-ranging literature reviews on the same. Thus, “digressiveness” — “an obstruction that calls generatively into question our schemas of (e)valuation and forces us to recalibrate them” (160) — takes him from “distraction studies,” to Denis Diderot’s encyclopedism, to new media theory on the hyperlink before landing in his case study of Rich Juzwiak’s television show recap blog fourfour, all united by the rhetorical figure of the step. Thus: a digression is a step aside; his return to the Enlightenment to inform the contemporary is a step back; the medium and attendant epistemologies of the web are figured as stepchild to those of Diderot’s encyclopedism. The other chapters repeat this general structure of definition of an obstruction (e.g., laziness or, his preferred term, lazing — “a phenomenal cultivation of attention and rumination” [69]), [End Page 169] a tour through related critical literatures assembled into areas of study (studies of postwork and academic labor, “lounge studies”), the introduction of a guiding metaphor for understanding the critical and pedagogical movement of the obstruction (liquid/liquidity), and a close reading of an...


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pp. 169-170
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