Begin by Degree

Jana Branch
Sep 18, 2016 · 7 min read

Notes to a previous self that embarked on a CalArts master’s program in Aesthetics & Politics


To start, everything is foreground. Where is? When is? Who is? Who does? How does? Posturing. Little proclamations of self.

Some people cast looks that become small openings. Most are ignored. A few are picked up and begin to spin a thread. Acquaintances, yes. Friendships, maybe.

Other invitations are misheard or misunderstood. Orientation happens by half measures.

Step back. Few things work out the first time. And if they do, what have you really learned?

On our own, one on one, we’re not quite like this. In groups, always some version of junior high. Inclusions. Exclusions. Most of it unintended. This is just what happens when people congregate and jostle for sense.

Introduce yourself and keep introducing yourself — a dozen times in the first weeks. Listen to how the story changes. Never quite the same. Let it move, like smoke curling off a cigarette.

If we’re lucky, something will take shape and surpass the transaction of credit hours, tuition payments and diplomas. If we’re lucky, we’ll find people who might become fellow travelers.


How will you account for yourself? What are you getting for what you are spending? (Having gotten and being spent our typical proof of life.) Will your investment in time and money — though, to be clear, time is not money — pay off?

In other words, will this investment in yourself appreciate? Will you appreciate? What and how will you appreciate? Will the debts you walk away with be the kind you can bear?

Languages of value — money and meaning — will be thrown together. The money stands as measure of an incommensurable bank of knowledge you are in the process of extracting or discovering or making or inventing. It’s related to the cost of the service. We are consumers of education, and we know how to get what we pay for. How then to account for the lessons that seem to come from the realm of gift?

Tuition is the price of entry but not the stakes. What are the stakes? No one will ask, but it’s good to put the question on the table anyway.

You may be in for debt, the direct kind that mortgages the future before you even have a clue what the future might be. Other debts — the best kind, the kind you came here for — can be paid only indirectly, forward. An economy of influences and generosities.

Debts are multiple, as are costs. Cost in dollars. Cost in time. Cost in sleep. Cost in rubber worn from tires revolving up and down the 5, the 405, the 14, the 101.


After weeks, something happens. Among all those who attend, some appear. Something new moves the room.

Not everyone appears. Not everyone wants to appear.

After enough foreground becomes background and individuals become constellations of you and you and you among us, it becomes clear: We are each in the business of making ourselves our own way, by degrees.


When do strangers become a group? Adversity helps. Troubleshooting the way things aren’t working forces personality to the surface. Will you step in? Will you step aside? Will you work the channels? Will you go behind the back, divide to conquer, duck to defend, get up in the face or simply exit the scene? Will you help other people find their feet? Will you need others to help you find yours?

You will look for elbow room. Speak where you think it might count. Less in the hallways. More in class. Begin to think, as David Graeber writes, of “human beings as projects of mutual creation … and the worlds we inhabit as emerging from those projects rather than the other way around.”

And it occurs to you that these flickering intensities of self and group embody aesthetics and politics. Thoughts become flesh.


Weeks go by. In the drive and push, everyone hangs on by their fingernails to blinking ideas that get gobbled up and tossed aside through so many syllabi. The crush of thought will not be optimized. It is not a factory.

Meanwhile, what you care about most is not even on the agenda. You drag it into the agenda.

Rosi Braidotti warns that unless you activate your own questions through the thinkers you study, you will end up traumatized by them, become a parrot of thought not your own. To know your own thoughts, you will have to begin with your own questions: What brought you here? What makes you speak?

It’s possible to do an entire academic career from the neck up, but you already know that the brain is a lonely organ. Mind is everywhere. Braidotti sweeps the air with an emphatic hand: knowledge and pleasure are made in every corner of the body. And I think, even the body that slumps and fidgets in chairs with stained upholstery. Everything and everyone brings history and a world.

Before the year slips by, find the pool. Find the pool at night. Swim in the dark. In the summer, watch out for basking rattlesnakes.


If you’re lucky, you’ll hit your limit at least once. (It won’t feel like luck at the time.) Call it what you like. Breakdown. Failure. Mental block. Mindfuck. Time to delaminate. Disarticulate. I am beside myself. Aside from my Self.

Reserve the right to change your mind. Reserve the doubt that any is the last word. Forge a thru-line, spine, red thread, snaking tunnel of your thought. Respectful and durable, doubtful and kind.

Strategic silence may be necessary. Pull the grasping hand of certainty back from the world, ball it up in a fist and rest your heavy head on it for awhile. Turn over what’s possible in the absence of action where agency nevertheless murmurs.


Converse. Reverse. Try again. Say again. Begin in the middle, everything already in progress, a past leaping ahead and future dragging behind. Or the other way around. Impossibly deep genealogies. Planned spontaneity meeting up in the hallways. Unthinkable futures that must be thought anyway. Any. Way. Go in circles. Be a line. Make a point. Be air.

Trajectories. Tendencies. Registers. Calibrating by degrees. Thinkers you love. Thinkers you hate. Coaxing coherence out of fog. Conversations that keep mumbling in the dark, waking you at 2:00 a.m. Thoughts burrowing in between your ears, behind your eyes, changing sweet to bitter, sour to savory. In a nutshell, down a rabbit hole, so many shells and holes in the middle of becoming something else altogether. On the far side: The sheer possibility of some sort of life that might also be a living.


Equating politics with elections is a convenient way to believe that politics is something that happens to other people and only in some years. Politics as the everyday exercise of power and influence is right here, overtly and covertly. Reality distortions and small bureaucratic dramas abound.

Between waking and sleeping, expect a thousand petty moves to nudge you in the ribs. The noble directive will be driven, at one or more places along the supply chain of meaning and motivation, by perverse desire and the comforts of control.

How will you be influenced? How will you influence others? Can you inscribe your social world with gestures both generous and secure? Is it possible to be kind without being dubbed a loser?


“Art” and its multiple meanings will hijack the aesthetic conversation if you let it. It’s only natural at an art school, but it’s a missed opportunity. Whether art as Art or as object or as market or as practice or as academic discipline, art is a privileged zone. But in the end, art can be avoided, and plenty of people do.

Meanwhile, there is no escape from the atmospheric influence of the sensory and sensible. Attention has become a transactional currency, with sensory appeal its Trojan horse. We are bodies in space, affected by the bodies near us (and the bodies conspicuous by their absence). Color and texture, aroma and stench, shrieks and cooing — we think with our tongues, organs and fingertips, feeding subtle thought with hard realities, digesting experience into opinions and ideas that lead to action and influence that shape (or fail in the effort to shape) the worlds we share.

Consumer ideology prizes the individual, but aesthetic awareness constantly reminds us of the company we keep. Given that we live in a landscape furnished with other people’s ambitions, the role of aesthetics is everybody’s concern, and that conversation has a place in every discipline.

At some point, something on the horizon will intrude: Is that an oncoming collision? Or the glint of a shining future? Reason alone can’t tell. Light wave-particles reach your eyes and skin first, piercing thick smoke from a fire that hazes the low sun into appearing like a maraschino cherry. A helicopter thwacks overhead. You lean against a car, hand on the sloping fender. That image. That sound. That smell. It’s frightening. It’s fascinating. Pet the curve. It will pet you back.

~ ~ ~

With particular gratitude to Martín Plot, founder of the CalArts Aesthetics & Politics program and wise guide through the thesis process.