This Academic Life
  Anger, aggression, and the DAG
Pretty much every self-respecting sci-fi geek (such as myself; say it loud, say it proud) has committed Master Yoda's admonition to memory: "anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they." Of course, there is some ambiguity in the advice, inasmuch as sometimes these emotions are the Dark Side all on their own, and sometimes they merely lead to the Dark Side, but the point is that there is supposed to be something negative about them. In a slightly (!) clearer formulation, Yoda comments once in The Empire Strikes Back that "A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack." Aggression, then, seems to be a definite no-no, and anger seems to go along with it in most instances. [Fear -- well, let me leave that to one side for the moment.]

Magic sent me some comments on my pro-connexion pedagogical position and the way that I have chosen to treat formal panel situations at conferences, and these seem to me to overlap nicely with a series of other ongoing discussions I have been having with people about aggressive questioning, whether of students or of colleagues (or of "ordinary people" outside of the academy, but that raises special issues involving the fact that the demand for rigor is usually understood by non-academics as a vicious dismissal instead of an invitation to a fencing match…but I am getting ahead of myself).

I) Magic suggests that my commitment to connexion represents what Marx would have called reaction to "alienation": the division of the world from itself, and the division of each of us from ourselves and from each other. He further suggests that I am thereby a little less concerned with the other part of Marx's project, which involves "exploitation."


"Exploitation" seems to me to be a somewhat epiphenomenal manifestation of the more fundamental problem, which is the absence of connexion generated in the present context largely by the all-pervading notion of liberal individualism: I am a world unto myself, and can only have narrowly instrumental interactions with others, but this situation is more than merely okay since God Himself speaks through my exercise of Reason. I recoil at calling this self-narrative mere "false consciousness" or delusion, since that downplays its constitutive character, and I am not (yet?) convinced of the value of trying to root this narrative -- which is the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves -- in "material" or "structural" factors (or even, and perhaps especially, in the "relations of production," which seems to me to be just as dangerous in its own way as the Enlightenment-era poppycock that it is trying to replace).

Is there a political project that arises from this commitment? In Marx, the diagnosis of alienation leads quite seamlessly into a project designed to address it. It is this seamless character that bothers me, as though "getting it right" were both a necessary and a sufficient condition of political action. The equation, as many marxists (perhaps not Marx himself -- the great thinkers generally don't say what they are supposed to have said, or at least don't say it as clearly and concisely as their disciples think, and I will be the first to admit that I have not spent sufficient time with Marx to really weigh in on this issue as it pertains to his writings; but I have spent a fair amount of time with marxists, and I think I have a pretty good grasp on how they operate while deploying Marx's name) seem to have it, is: see the world aright; use this right seeing to critique actually existing arrangements; get closer to paradise. It's a world-redeeming project rooted in the very same commitment to Certainty and Truth that is characteristic of the liberal individualism that I think is the more significant manifestation of the Dark Side of the Force these days.

I think that there is a personal quest that arises from my commitment to connexion: pursue it wherever possible, try to increase it and enhance it when I can. And when this personal quest (which may be entirely hedonistic; my former minister defined a "calling" as the place where your deep need meets the world's deep need, and I am prepared to let the jury remain out on precisely whether this is a "deep need" of the world's -- next time you talk to "the world," ask her for me, and tell me what she says) runs into obstacles, I am more than prepared to engage in a political campaign to defuse those obstacles.

II) Magic characterizes the reliance on logic and the demand for consistency when engaged in the production and evaluation of research to be a use of the Dark Arts of Germany, or DAG. And he takes me to task (gently, of course -- this remains a very civil exchange :-) for relying on the DAG in my work and in my conference practices. To quote: "You know full well, for example, that theoretics and empirics overlap as categories even as you know that their momentary separation is useful and necessary. The trick however is to temper the usefulness of the separating moment with the knowledge of their overlap. This I don’t see you doing as often as might be possible. Instead you use linear logic as a weapon, or as a surgical tool."

Again, guilty.

But this time, even happier to accept the charge, since he has hit the nail on the head here. I am indeed wielding linear logic as a weapon or tool (and as Ani DiFranco reminds us, "every tool is a weapon if you hold it right"), and am not particularly interested in promoting a situation in which people temper their use of binary categories with an awareness of the overlap that remains between them. The result of doing that, I think, is likely to be a somewhat flabby and hesitant writing and speaking, a kind of public angsting that I cannot for the life of me see the point of. I'd much, much rather have crisp arguments with which one could engage, instead of slippery statements that catch themselves up in knots and slink away before you can get a grip on them. Why? Two reasons: I think that there is a value to rigor all on its own, and I also enjoy a good fencing match. Sparring can enhance consistency; indeed, I spar precisely in order to enhance both the consistency of my own position and that of others. There is almost a meditative quality to such sparring, I think; when participants take it seriously it can be both rewarding and fulfilling.

If we do not have a commitment to consistency and rigor, we may be engaging in political activism or perhaps in artistic expression, but we sure aren't doing social science. Why am I insisting on this distinction -- and in particular why am I insisting on it when it has often been used to marginalize my kind of work in the past? I think it's because of the disciplinary-political project that seems to arise from my commitment to connexion, which proceeds as follows.

1) The dominant self-understanding of the social sciences involves the (to me completely absurd) claim that the right "method" can get us to Truth, a secure place from which we can legislate without fear that we are somehow exercising arbitrary power or choice.

2) This claim is part and parcel of the Enlightenment project of liberal individualism, or what Habermas calls "subject-centered reason," inasmuch as I-am-a-world-unto-myself is intimately interconnected with there-is-a-real-and-knowable-world-outside-of-myself and there-is-one-best-way-to-know-that-world.

3) The heart of this position needs to be defeated in order to open space for the connexion that is brought about by spiritually engaged conversation that risks souls; you can't have those conversations in the presence or even in the shadow of something like a One True Way That The World Is. Once you abandon that foolish pretension, the demand for consistency becomes a move in a connexion-enhancing transaction, an invitation or a call to one's interlocutor to pour more and more of themselves into their argument, to risk more and more and more until the spirit starts spinning wildly out of control and everybody starts worlding together. Or, as one might express it more concisely: BANG.

Not all transactions after the demise of Truth have to take the form of a lightsaber duel, though. I suspect -- and I have some experience with this -- that many of them won't. Although because I enjoy that kind of conversation, more of mine probably will than might otherwise be the case. There is also another problem: namely, that I am pretty effective with my (s)word(s) and can generally decimate interlocutors without quite realizing it. It is not necessary to do this in all contexts and situations. Arguments are (s)word(s) that can be wielded to destroy pretensions and deflate ambitions, but in order to do so one must evaluate the likely consequences of doing so. In pedagogical or transactive contexts, I try to temper my inclinations a bit, so as to better encourage a flow of spirit. On panels? Well, that's a different story.

4) Defeating the Enlightenment position (and this is a tactical judgment; feel free to question me on it) can best be accomplished by separating science and politics -- logic and the form of life that surrounds it -- in order to demonstrate in a concrete way how little logic can accomplish. So I engage in a two-step procedure: first, question so as to isolate the application of the value-commitment from the value-commitment itself, and get people to at least try to make those line up logically; second, ask what insight is generated by the systematic application of their value-commitment.

This opens up space for a third line of attack as well, namely the question "isn't your value-commitment inherently evil?" At this point they can't fall back on the "insights" that their perspective generates (yes, I am thinking of rational choice theory here, but I'd also include a lot of other anti-agentic determinisms in this charge), since those have been separated from the moral issue. So now they have to actually confront the moral status of their assumptions.

In panels, and when evaluating the arguments of other scholars -- I exempt graduate students from this for the most part, because they're still learning and can't be expected to be as adept yet -- I feel justified in being somewhat merciless. If you're going to toss out a position, then for the love of God be prepared to defend it -- even if you are not completely committed to it. Panels are experimental situations in which you can get people to attack your claims, which helps you to sharpen them up and work on your form. Other conversations can come later, perhaps after the panel in which you are able to link up with people who made interesting comments during the exchange. But now we're no longer on stage, and the rules are different.

5) my Weberian resolution of the science/values problem opens up, I think, room for a number of conversations that wouldn't go on otherwise. Conversations about the technical application or enactment of a position are common; what I am trying to get more space for are conversations about the value of empirical insights and the value of the values embedded in the perspective itself. Nether of these conversations are likely to follow the same kinds of logical conventions as the technical application conversations: given that a minimal consensus on parameters and fundamentals (some kind of weakly shared common horizon) seems to be an inescapable component of having a conversation in the first place, and given that conversations about values are generally conversations across such horizons, they are likely to be somewhat different. "Ethics and aesthetics are one," Wittgenstein once declared; among other things, this admonition cautions us against trying to resolve issues involving the parameters of the world by applying techniques that are only effective within a world -- namely, logic and rationality.

Contrast my approach with that of, say, Frodo, who proposes a new common horizon for everyone to fit within. I am far more agonistic than that about knowledge.

According to the novelization of Return of the Jedi (which Lucas says is canonical, even though he also says that Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which contradicts many things that happen in other parts of the Star Wars timeline, is canonical, so maybe he's not the best judge of this), there is an old Jedi rule of thumb: "when outnumbered, attack. This drives the force of the enemy in toward himself." I am certainly outnumbered here, and my inclination in such a situation is to attack. Why? Someone has to do it; I'm pretty good with (s)word(s); I do derive some pleasure from doing so; and I think that if I succeed even a little bit, I can help to make the discipline safe(r) for others.

The irony here is that if I do succeed more conversations will be about values, and fewer will be about technical application. At some point I will have to lay aside my (s)word(s) and engage in something very different. I have absolutely no problem putting myself out of a job in this manner. First we clear the field of political rants masquerading as scholarship, and then we defeat those who are packaging their particular perspective as Truth; then at long last we can have other kinds of conversations in the public spaces of the discipline.

Never gonna happen, though. I do foresee a time when I will get tired of (s)wordplay, and move into the Obi-Wan Kenobi role of training Jedi Knights instead of being out there on the front lines all the time. But I am not optimistic about winning this battle ever. Along the way, though, thinking space will hopefully be created and connexion will be enhanced. and that's enough for the time being.

III) Magic also raised a further point: "Yes, it is true, we are in the business of evaluating the worth of arguments. But if we leave it there then we become analytic philosophers, and Marx’s thesis on Feurbach comes to haunt us. As you know from your commitment to connexion, the point is to change the world, or at least to act as if that is what is important to us." I don't accept Marx's thesis on Feuerbach; I think that the academic vocation is about interpreting the world rather than changing it in any direct and partisan sense. Now, interpretation of the world can alter the world in a global sense, by changing the very conditions under which the world worlds, but this is not the same as opposing something specific within the world. My opposition to the Enlightenment project, and the liberal individualism that is its chief product, is just such a cause. Call it "political" if you want, but the fact remains that it is engaged with the world in a very different way than, say, an opposition to global poverty or to the absence of adequate protection for human rights.

My project informs my pedagogical and theoretical practice, naturally. But it does so by emphasizing that we are in fact in the business of evaluating arguments and producing defensible knowledge about the world (defensible from disparate value-commitments, of course, but defensible all the same). Magic comments that "if we are in the business of evaluating arguments, we are also in the business of being moved by “arguments.”" I disagree. We are not in the business of being moved by "arguments"; we are in the business of trying to harness the value-commitments expressed in such "arguments" so as to generate knowledge, and we are in the business of debating and discussing those value-commitments in their own right. But "being moved" is not, in my opinion, our business, and we certainly shouldn't be getting tenure and promotion and other such job perks because of it.

This applies in particular to pedagogical situations, I think; I have to evaluate what is there on the page or in the comment, not what I think I can hear lurking behind it. Now, in the discrepancy between how I heard/read something and what the student thinks that she or he was trying to express there comes an opportunity for the student to clarify, to try again to express whatever inexpressible thing it is that is driving them -- to pour more of their soul out into the transaction, and risk more and more and more.

Could a panel be like that? Maybe. But it would either have to be a stacked audience or something akin to a pedagogical situation. Me in the audience, people talking in loose and vague terms about things at the front of the room? That's not an opportunity for pedagogy, but an opportunity to strike some blows. People who are possessed by the Dark Side of the Force first need to be softened up and beaten to a standstill; that way, even if they don't listen, the audience might have some doubts about the rectitude of their claims in the future. Albeit ambiguously, that looks like "progress" to me.

[Posted with ecto]

<< Home
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



Powered by Blogger