This Academic Life
  Further ruminations
Apparently my knee wasn't as healthy as I had thought that it was; a couple of days ago it started hurting again while walking, so I skipped my morning run on Friday and tried to be more diligent about my strengthening exercises in the intervening period. Went out this morning in the 55-degree weather, and things felt okay; still doing a lot more walking and slow jogging than I'd really like to. I am beginning to realize that "healing" is a bit of an impossible dream, and that I will never be fully over this -- because that would require me not to have my knee anymore. The teleology of "healing" bothers me a bit in general, since it assumes an end state of perfect rest and health. I am much more processual, I suppose: I am not going to wait around for my knee to "heal" as much as I am going to try my damnedest to incorporate the odd way that it reacts to use and stress into my daily routines. It's that Augustinian memory thing again: by treating the present as the future of the past, one can generate a narrative that reshapes the past into a vector pointing through the present towards a still-open-ended future which is, nonetheless, a little more precisely delimited than it was before. Repeat ad infinitum.

[Is this what some folks get excited about "dialectics" for? Certainly any specific narrative generated in this manner fails to exhaust either past or future, a situation that manifests itself in the slippery character of a present that can always continue to be the subject of debate and discussion. But calling this a "dialectical" process strikes me as too mechanical, as though the bits left out of a given narrative were somehow a thing or a clearly defined position that could subsequently engage with the narrative that left them out in the first place. I'm much more comfortable thinking in processual or dialogical terms about this: the "outside" is part of the "inside," the necessary surplus produced by any attempt to narrate or to "lock down" a present situation. But if that surplus is subsequently utilized to critique or extend the initial narrative, we're not necessarily still having the same conversation; instead, we're in another round of trying to lock things down via narrative and conversation. "The surplus generated by a narrative" is an analytical construct, not a "real thing" (whatever that might mean), and as such depends on an additional narrative process. And so it goes. "Dialectic" seems to me to oversimplify this overmuch.]

Two things that occurred [I like the German word for this: "einfallen," which literally means that the thought fell into my head -- displacing authorship in this way seems to me to capture the experience of inspiration much better than alternative formulations] to me this morning, as a sort of combination of some of the reactions to my Amsterdam conference ruminations and to several other conversations that I've been having lately. The backdrop here involves the Weberian claim that there are two valid ways to evaluate a (social-)scientific argument: one can morally evaluate the value-commitment on which the argument rests, and one can technically evaluate the application of that value-commitment to some specific set of empirical data. Both are forms of engaged criticism, and both serve the same end: to evaluate the worth of a particular argument. But by doing so in a committed way, both also end up serving a different purpose (and here I think that I am departing from Weber to some extent, although maybe not -- I'd need to know more about how he treated conversations in general), which is to promote the most important thing in the world, which is connexion: that kind of spiritual flow that generates the intermingling of souls and collective intersubjective worlding. To quote Ben Kenobi, it's that energy field that "surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together," and we get to be apertures -- clearings -- through which it can come to consciousness and do its work.

[Not completely happy with that formulation, since it sounds a bit too pantheistic still. I feel rather like Valentine Michael Smith in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, who comes up with a formulation -- "thou art God" -- that seems to capture some of his (Martian) intuition about things, and then ends up spending the rest of the book trying to figure out how to put that intuition across in terms that people won't be completely horrified by. The language of connexion and the intermingling of souls, plus the notion of "contingency" (see below), seem to get me part of the way there. but it's not a done deal yet by any circumstances.]

1) the first thing that fell into my head this morning concerned an ongoing debate between myself and Boromir (who is probably more a combination of Boromir and Faramir, truth be told) about the purpose of panels at conferences, and how one should deal with them. He argues that the central issue ought to be learning, and the promotion of learning in every aspect of life; hence even panels should be approached as moments from which I/we can learn something. He goes further: "Neither of these are so different from my claim that it does us good to treat every moment of life as a learning opportunity – even if it is not."

Hmm. Part of me wishes that I was that patient and that generous. I can and do enact this attitude in the classroom -- teaching as letting learn, and the one with the most to learn being the teacher, as Heidegger would and did put it -- but panel presentations at major professional conferences seem to me to be something quite different. I see panels and professional conferences, at least the "on-stage" parts of them (the less public gatherings in the wings of the conference, in the bar, at restaurants, and so forth are different issues entirely: those are opportunities to build and strengthen connexions), as realms of largely disembedded instrumentality. Like other such realms in liberal societies -- the putatively self-regulating market and the putatively "free marketplace of ideas" leap readily to mind -- the logic of the exercise is to engage in mere interaction (not transaction, and certainly not connexion) for the sake of gaining something. Interaction in such realms is a means to an end. The end in the case of panels and conferences involves disciplinary prestige, being noticed by various power-brokers in the disciplinary hierarchy, making a name for oneself. This end gets one certain things, such as gainful employment, invitations to participate in other panels and roundtables, publication opportunities, and perhaps the opportunity to have people engage with your work because they have some clue who you are. You can get on their radar screen, so to speak. And this does not just mean getting on the radar screen of disciplinary gatekeepers and powerhouses, but also on the radar screen of graduate students and younger scholars.

Hence: participation in the ritual of panels and conference roundtables is, for me, largely a means to an end. That end is both the sort of conversations that can go on outside of the panel and the "on-stage" part of the conference, and the set of institutional resources that enable one to keep doing what one is doing -- i.e. a job, tenure, publications, etc. The game is not valuable in itself, but only instrumentally.

There's a second level to this, though: the public "on-stage" conversations at conferences also embody and (re)produce a certain kind of disciplinary common sense. Intervening in those conversations can be an effort to disrupt that common sense to as to open up "thinking space" for other conversations to make their way into print and onto the stage. And this, in turn, increases the possibility that people will see them and choose to participate, thus widening the circle and enhancing the opportunity to forge more connexions around a weakly shared commitment to various novel commonplaces that were not on the agenda before. In so doing, I think that it is perfectly acceptable to run smash-and-grab operations on great thinkers from other fields or from one's own; the point is not to get it right, but to open space for conversation. if a skewed reading of Anthony Giddens, or Max Weber, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or whomever, accomplishes this task, I am inclined to treat it more charitably.

But only as a disciplinary intervention, and only in certain contexts. There's a difference between "let's have a serious discussion of Nietzsche's approach to knowledge" and "let's use Nietzsche as a way to deflate certain pretensions and open space to have that conversation later on." The problem is that academic discourse blends these two modes together and wraps them up in an Enlightenment package, so that we can easily slip into thinking that subtle, nuanced readings will create thinking space and that arguments creating thinking space need to be subtle and nuanced. "That's not what Nietzsche said/meant" has two possible valences, depending on the context. In a serious discussion arising from and strengthening connexions, it means "I'm going to offer a different reading for you/us to chew on." In an on-stage disciplinary context, it means "I'm going to contest your reading by invoking the authority of the text and myself as a reader/interpreter of it, so that I can try to undercut the conclusions that you are drawing from your reading." Which is why if I understand something to be a disciplinary intervention I try not to go on record as critiquing its intellectual content, because doing so in that context might undermine the potential thinking space that it can create.

Panels are performances. Engaging with a panel is a performance. Neither are opportunities for forging or strengthening connexions, unless you are cooperating with others to subvert the performance…which can be loads of fun if done artfully :-)

2) the second thing that fell into my head this morning involves an issue that I have been struggling with for a while now: the role of "political commitment" in scholarship. I and some of my graduate students sometimes get criticized for not being "politically engaged" -- sometimes this criticism comes out as a charge of "positivism" -- because we persist in regarding the application or enactment of an analytical framework as something logically divorced from the moral acceptability of that framework in the first place. The value-commitments that we have are encoded into ideal-typical analytical stances, and those stances are then applied to a mass of data (or "stuff") to generate insights. As a result, my work doesn't tend to engage in a lot of "unmasking" of claims on the basis that they don't accord with my initial value-commitments, since that would be tautological. And I don't tend to engage in a lot of explicit efforts to change the world based on the putative "results" (in a lot of "politically committed" scholarship I think that these so-called "results" are nothing but value-expectorations and a lot of banging one's fist on the table about human rights or sweatshop labor or global racism -- worthy causes all, but causes rather than rigorously derived conclusions about the world) of my intellectual labors.

As Wittgenstein (whom such critics also think of as a "positivist") put it: philosophy leaves the world just as it is. One can't solve the problems of living in the world simply by engaging in scholarly research, and to the extent that people try they end up being both bad activists (suffering from bad conscience about their lack of positive contribution to The Struggle, which often comes out in a seriously misguided effort to convert their students to The Cause) and bad scholars (whose conclusions are tautological restatements of their premises, generating no novel insight into anything). I am deeply impressed by those scholar-activists who can move in both worlds, but they do so IMHO by keeping the worlds separate; blending bad.

Boromir (he doesn't like this label for himself, so maybe I'll have to look for another; given his basketball past and Sufi-like demeanor, I could perhaps call him "Magic" :-) always asks people where their anger is, and why they are doing what they are doing in their scholarly work. This question comes up a lot in "politically committed" scholarship: what pisses you off enough that you feel compelled to write? Where is the project underpinning your scholarship? And the implication, it seems to me, is that lacking a project makes one a "positivist," since the work produced then becomes something of a detached intellectual exercise instead of a concrete intervention into the world. This strikes me as a problematic stance, though, inasmuch as positivism is itself a project: an effort to get away from unquestionable transcendental claims and focus on things that we can actually talk about without getting inextricably mired in contradictions and inconsistencies. "The world is all that is the case," Wittgenstein declared; hence, stop trying to talk about things that lie outside of the world as though you could talk about those things in the same way that you talk about things in the world. The sense of the world lies outside of the world, so you can only talk about it in oblique and poetic ways; this is not the case for things that lie within the world (pun intended).

Maybe this will help to clarify. Scholarship, I think, has two subdivisions. The first is the articulation of a value-commitment and its transformation into an ideal-typical analytic. The second is the application of that analytic to some stuff to generate insight: this is called empirical research. These are obviously related activities, but they are not collapsable into one another. Value-commitments disclose the world in specific ways, and hence can never be validated or proven by the empirical research that they generate. By the same token, empirical research shouldn't be evaluated solely in terms of the acceptability of the value-premises on which it rests. This is the politics/science distinction on which Weber insisted so forcefully: agreeing with someone politically (or, more generally, morally-practically) does not mean that you agree with the way that they enact that commitment or with the conclusions that they draw from it, and agreeing with someone's scientific/empirical conclusions or insights does not commit you to agreeing with the value-premises that generated those conclusions.

Two things follow from this for me. First, I understand a little better my frustration with "constructivist" scholarship in my field. And second, I understand a bit better why dwelling on a scholar's "anger" or "project" bothers me to some extent.

"Constructivism" in my field bothers me for two reasons: many if not most constructivists are not very clear about their value-commitments and how those translate into ideal-typical analytics, and to make matters worse they are wildly inconsistent in their application/enactment of those commitments. A commitment to "social construction," to me, follows what Ian Hacking articulated in The Social Construction of What?: constructionism is the claim that whatever is in the social world did not need to be the way that it is, that the social world is not a realm of transcendent or parametric necessity. It follows from this commitment that apparent stabilities need to be explained, since they cannot be presumptively stable in the analysis without running into major inconsistencies. (This is why I think of social constructionism as a post-structuralism: structuralism is an effort to import something like natural necessity and parametric constraint back into the social world, and post-structuralism is the position -- the moral position -- that there ain't no such animal.) But in my field, people try to define "constructivism" as a commitment to researching the role of ideas and norms and other intersubjective factors, which strikes me as a rather absurd way to define an approach -- especially since one can research such empirical phenomena in wildly divergent ways. So I get annoyed that they don't spell out their value-commitments explicitly, in such a way that would make clear the world-creating character of their methodology.

As if that weren't enough, I get further annoyed that "constructivists" then conflate politics and scholarship in ways that I find unacceptable, grabbing all kinds of wildly inconsistent approaches and techniques in an effort to reach their pre-determined conclusion: norms and ideas matter. To which I reply: of course they do, to you, since you already assumed that in your analytic. Big shock that you reach that conclusion. What novel insight are you generating by doing so? Talk to me more about that, especially since we already agree on the basic value-commitment issue (even if I don't think that they are articulating it clearly enough). So when I start taking constructivists to task, there are two discrete elements that bother me. And in a way I am more bothered by constructivists because I share the overall value-orientation; intra-family disputes are always the worst, after all.

Second, the "project" issue. Knowing where a scholar is coming from helps me to understand them better, but it doesn't really affect my judgment about their work. I find it fascinating to engage in the "what are you angry about" conversation with people, because their anger is usually important to them and by talking about it they can generate a motion of the spirit that may not happen when discussing things that they don't care as deeply about. But simply being angry, or even simply being angry about the same things that I am angry about, does not suffice to make a piece of scholarship "good" in my estimation. I am not inclined to evaluate someone's work on the purity of their conviction or on the strength of the fire that burns within their breast about some issue. Will I try to get to know them on that basis? Of course. That's the really good stuff -- the connexion -- that comes about in intimate conversations and the like. But "I know where you're coming from" and "your analysis makes me see things differently" are two different claims, and the latter is the one proper to an evaluation of someone's scholarship. The former? Well, that's just politics, plain and simple.

Coda: there can be two kinds of scholarship, I think, or two modes of scholarship that are sometimes combined into one work. The first articulates a value-commitment and transforms it into an ideal-typical analytic; this is what we usually (in the social sciences, at least) call "theoretical" or "conceptual" work. The second takes an ideal-typical analytic and enacts it; that's empirical research. Both are scholarship, but they need to be evaluated and engaged with in different ways. The latter needs to be critiqued on both technical and moral grounds, but the former can and should only be engaged with morally. Both end up working on the same basic issue -- the world as a whole, the world as it worlds -- but they do so differently: the former intervenes directly in the conceptual apparatus that we use to world, while the latter does so but also provides something like a concrete demonstration of what it would be like to world that way. But in neither case is the purity or strength of the scholar's commitment at issue. "I like your project" probably means "I agree with your value-commitment," and critiquing a scholar for not being "political" probably means either "I don't see your value-commitment" or "you don't have an explicit value-commitment, which means by default that you are supporting the status quo, with which I vehemently disagree."

I am very much in favor of clear articulations of value-commitments, but largely so that we can have better conversations about them. Maybe that's a-political too. But my commitment is to connexion, not to any particular cause.

[Posted with ecto]

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"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 :-)



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