Learning from Weirdos

Gayle Rogers reviews Jonathan P. Eburne's history of unorthodox ideas.

Learning from Weirdos

Outsider Theory by Jonathan P. Eburne. University of Minnesota Press. 424 pages.

OUTSIDERS HOLD a paradoxically privileged position in aesthetic histories. What Jean Dubuffet famously termed art brut fetches millions at auction and rests securely on college syllabi. Writers who have no formal training and whose style seems the furthest from an MFA program become the darlings of literary worlds. Countless independent and low-budget films are now enshrined by critical praise, cult followings, or both. But if aesthetic pasts are filled with such figures — from virtuoso autodidacts and non-native speakers to pranksters and sheer lunatics — and if the Salon des Refusés, Entartete Kunst, or banned-book status eventually become badges of honor and prestige, then what exactly do these putative boundaries of inside and outside signify? Does the “inside” exist only to provide the necessary crenellations for outsider artist-heroes to surmount?

More pointedly, what happens if we follow the lead of Jonathan Eburne’s stimulating and highly original new book, Outsider Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas, and “adopt this art historical provocation [of art brut] as a heuristic for the study of modern intellectual history”? In “taking up a detailed investigation of the ways in which marginal or otherwise underground, hermetic, or far-fetched ideas circulate,” Eburne answers this question by placing matters of epistemology front and center. The fundamental questions of outsidership, that is, are questions of how we know what we know; in this observation, Eburne’s capacious title and ambitious scope become a real provocation.

This book, therefore, is not a story of boundary-creation, or of the sanitization of outlandish ideas. It is an attempt to understand what the inside looks like from the outside and how texts move around various borders, especially when outsider cases become touchstones of widespread cultural debate, from academic journals to History Channel specials to Reddit threads. Outsider Theory thereby charts, in fine-grained detail and wide-ranging archival research, a course through the overlapping intellectual and reception histories of a dizzying array of texts, ideas, and movements. Like its relative, Kevin Young’s Bunk, Eburne’s book traverses high and low cultures, from the Gnostics to The Da Vinci Code, in considering works and figures who were forced outside (by racial difference, for example), and those who remain outside (by neglect, however banal), as kin. Their polythetic relations and “illegitimate knowledges” must be reconstructed, he argues. Unlike most scholars, Eburne is equally at home when making innovative arguments about the ontological implications of digitized Gnostic gospels and when arranging Marcus Garvey and the Marquis de Sade into argumentative juxtaposition.

Eburne has no overarching or punchy claim — that would feel like a betrayal of his method — and he is able to make a remarkably heterogeneous set of materials cohere, all while resisting the urge to plot connections with post-it notes, thumbtacks, and yarn, as his subjects often did. He looks instead, like a cultural anthropologist, for stories of provenance and media ecology: he recounts, in exquisite and engaging detail, everything from the rescue after partial burning of the Nag Hammadi scrolls (due to their imagined danger) to Immanuel Velikovsky’s pseudo-research into Freud’s comparative theories of civilizations. This purview and its embedded narratives are valuable because, by definition, most outsider works and outsider theories never do make it into museums or monographs, so in many cases, their transmission and custodial chains tell us a great deal about what the objects purport to be. The stories of provenance and of pseudo-research themselves turn out to be quite compelling, and they illuminate the stakes of now-normalized events that were wholly radical in their day, such as modern French theory’s improbable recuperation of Sade as a philosopher.

This book is a truly weird read — there are protracted explorations of very odd and esoteric topics, motifs, and people — and I mean that as a serious compliment. It does not read like a typical academic monograph, and it is not really even interested in the question of what makes an “outsider.” Those concerns would be incongruous with focus and its methodology. Still, Eburne’s line of inquiry is identifiable to those familiar with the work of Kuhn, Popper, Latour, and others who have asked how knowledge is produced and revised. But rather than working from the premises of such theorists — who do remain important to him — Eburne continually grounds himself in the outcast cases themselves, giving the reader a full sense of why recognition, neglect, and connectivity in and of themselves matter so much to outsiders of all stripes.

In this way, and in his excavation of how outsider and underground theories have functioned historically, he actually comes closer to the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s reading of the systems of codes, secrets, rumors, whispers, winks, and symbolic scaffolds that queer communities employed and employ to create alternative knowledge. Eburne’s stunning and robust study of the reception and debates of Riane Eisler’s controversial study The Chalice and the Blade (1987), for instance, reveals this dynamic quite well. Indeed, most all of the figures that Eburne treats claim that systems of knowledge-custody disguise a Big Explanation. For the critic, then, it is only by working through “questionable” and “unfashionable” ideas as texts, like Sedgwick did, that we can start to reassemble modes of thought — even if the goal is never to create a full portrait of something like Knowledge itself.

What holds together a book that treats texts from the fringes of thousands of years of human history? In short, the powerful, real, yet always fictive “inside.” We know that many great revolutions in aesthetic history and the history of ideas came through radical upheavals. Establishments, academies, and centers of power, the logic goes, are corrupted by their unshakable faith in mystical notions of greatness and sublimity, by crass commercial concerns like profit margins, or by walls of jargon that keep out laypersons. We celebrate those who challenge mainstream norms like we celebrate the ubiquitous “disruptors” of the tech economy. And the list of figures from antiquity to present who used madness — whether genuine, performative, or some ambiguous combination of the two — to shift aesthetics and thought is imposing, to say the least. The elevation of putatively mad outsiders and their crazed thoughts is indeed a defining feature of any number of 20th-century movements.

And so, as madness is continually pushed to peripheries, the way that outsider texts and ideas travel around the presumed inside ends up defining not just their media history, but — as Eburne convincingly demonstrates — their very epistemologies. Outsider works don’t care about truth (to paraphrase the central claim of Harry Frankfurt’s recent book On Bullshit), nor are they bothered by contradiction or rejection. They don’t need established wisdom except as a counterpoint, just like they don’t need norms of aesthetic quality or value. Indeed, they thrive on being dismissed because it opens up new circuits of reception for them (think of how each new elite university-based proof of the reality of climate change only adds more skeptics to the pool). And so, when they reach the mainstream, Eburne writes, “such works confront us […] with a demand to read, and to think, in more than one dimension, beyond the static contemplation of individual works or theories, and beyond the phenomenological self-improvement of our current methods.” We don’t want to dismiss them out of hand — again — for ethical reasons: “in a period of global political upheaval and insurgence,” Eburne reminds us, when “1960s and 1970s movements in New Age spirituality, psychedelia, anticolonial and Black Arts collectivism, and countercultural epistemologies […] mined the history of magic, witchcraft, hermeticism, Eastern mysticism, and ancient religions for alternative forms of knowledge and belief,” they were staging exactly such a confrontation.

To recover this confrontation — which we now value immensely — in any form requires an ethical commitment. Eburne gives us a profound, stable, ethical path across these diverse fields that, as he shows, one can only traverse with extreme caution. Why? For one, because outsider artists tend to experience higher rates of mental illness and/or disability, and many come from backgrounds of exploitation and abuse. In too many cases — as with Chicago musician Wesley Willis — there’s a certain element of romantic and even neo-primitivist fetishism, or maybe appropriative slumming, in their reception by fans. The easy hatred of establishments can also transmute into visions of the outsider artist as a kind of noble savage, as the valences of the French “brut” itself indicate. And many outsiders are crackpot extremists that we could likely agree belong outside (Alex Jones), away from consideration by mainstream media or academics alike. Of this final group, need we explore their theories or aesthetics with much sympathy, especially given how their all-absorbing language attempts to make detached, impartial critique impossible? How does one write about fringe conspiracy theorists without giving implicit voice to what are often virulently racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic agendas?

The answer, Eburne suggests, is that such agendas are already present in mainstream thought, in academic knowledge, and in circuits of cultural prestige: they always have been. Establishments — especially in their modern formations — have been constituted by rather capricious boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, all while assimilating, often silently, wildly variant oddities. It’s not just that, as Foucault hilariously pointed out years ago, we have no good explanatory logic for why we don’t care about Nietzsche’s laundry bills. Rather, we must recognize that it took sustained, deliberate efforts to reconcile the aberrant, discarded ideas in Einstein’s notebooks with his status as a genius, or to excise the fascination with harebrained cosmological and astrological treatises in the work of Francis Bacon from modern science’s narratives of progress. The inside needs outsider thought as much as outsiders need the circuits of cultural legitimation, access, commerce, patronage, publicity, and prizes that they can never access. To say that is less a Derridean observation and more a guide to what Eburne constructs as an innovative methodology in which neither inside nor outside have de facto claims to legitimacy.

The bulk of Outsider Theory is composed of capacious and well-plotted discussions of a wealth of pseudo-academic, quasi-official, or parasitic genres and texts. The reader must be prepared for long, dark stretches of weirdness — like watching an early Surrealist film at times — that do not produce a fresh, innovative understanding of, say, poststructuralism. Recalibrate, read patiently, and watch texts and ideas move, and one will find this book as captivating as many of the peculiar objects it treats have proven themselves to be over time. There is no romanticism, moralism, or nostalgia about Eburne’s book, even as it is sometimes personal — it includes images of his own “secondhand library of popular esoterica.” “Theory,” Eburne points out, lost something of its sources when it moved from the social unrest of the midcentury to the abstruse discussions of graduate seminars a few decades later: but even that is not some lost Arcadia to recover, he insists. Nor does he pretend that he could provide the reader with a new set of glasses that would either see through the great gimmicks or frauds of modern art or give a foundationalist grounding that would universally and visibly discern frauds.

There is much more detail here than I could convey, and the chapters are hard to encapsulate — but that speaks to the success of Eburne’s own heterodoxy on this reader. Surely this is the only book out there in which one finds Sun Ra, Lacan, and Hans Jonas discussed more than in passing. Rare is the book that can make Charles Baudelaire and UFO theorists make sense together in a productive juxtaposition. The reader comes away thinking critically about figures like Banksy — an internal outsider in the art world — and likewise about Mexico City’s graffiti artists as outsiders whose work feeds respected academic scholarship. The force of this book’s topical and timely intervention comes as much through such provocations as through its carefully sustained epistemological balancing act. Perhaps, then, I’ll use an old double entendre to capture this book. We do the same thing to great works of art and to lunatics: we institutionalize them.


Gayle Rogers is professor and associate chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (Columbia, 2016), Modernism and the New Spain (Oxford, 2012), and co-author, with Sean Latham, of Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Gayle Rogers is professor and associate chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (Columbia, 2016), Modernism and the New Spain (Oxford, 2012), and co-author, with Sean Latham, of Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). He is currently working on a history of the concept of speculation from the medieval era to the present. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!