This Academic Life
  Metaphysical speculations
The other morning I went running, as I try somewhat obsessively to do every other day come hell or high water. I normally like to be alone with my thoughts and my music when running; it's an almost sacred time when I can reconnect and prepare for the day ahead. Sometimes I run on a trail near my house where many others run, so I pass people on the pathway; the social norms of of the situation seem to mandate a brief acknowledgment as you pass, a nod of the head or a brief "hey." Something that both says that you have seen the other person, and that you recognize that you are engaged in the same activity, part of the bizarre fraternity/sorority of People Out And Exercising At 6:30 AM. Social, but also not so much; two people meet, exchange a brief greeting, and keep on moving in their own separate threads.

But this morning was a bit different. As I ran along I passed an older gentleman, who subsequently accelerated and ran next to me for a minute. Nothing too odd there; sometimes people run at similar speeds for a time. But then he spoke to me, despite the headphones I was wearing -- actually, he asked whether I found that music helped during a run. I said yes, because you could concentrate on the music instead of on whatever aches and pains you might be feeling. This was apparently the cue for him to launch into a longish description of running injuries that he'd had in his 20+ years of doing this. Before I knew it, we were involved in a conversation. I did try to break it off once, pointing out that I needed to walk for a bit because of my sore knee and expecting that he'd keep on running, but he slowed to keep on talking. So I gave in, and the conversation kept going, and somehow shifted from running and injuries to careers to American history and the importance of contingency in a good historical account. Not quite sure how we got there. But we kept talking until I got into my car to drive home about half an hour later.

What I found fascinating about this encounter -- after getting over the initial annoyance that this guy was depriving me of my morning meditative exercise -- was how easy it was. Striking up a conversation was quite effortless, and didn't take much of a commonality at all; just two guys out for a morning run. It was as though being-in-conversation were the natural state, and instead of making an effort to reach out we simply had to stop trying so hard to prevent the interaction from happening. And even though I was trying (headphones, efforts to change speeds, etc.), the conversation took on a life of its own -- and even though I will probably never see that guy again, I couldn't just turn away or tell him to get lost. In a sense I was somewhat compelled by the conversational context.

So here's the metaphysical bit: what if the conversation, or at least the relatedness that it embodied, was somehow primary? What if there is a primal relationality to our lives, such that being-with-others is in a way more fundamental than being-by-oneself? And what if most of our social conventions and codes of conduct were actually about restricting that primal relatedness and channelling it in various ways, instead of the image presented to us by modern social theory with its autonomous individuals that somehow have to be brought into cooperative relations with one another? Almost everyone's an individualist these days in social theory, starting from the putative primary reality of the individual human being and expanding out into the social realm; alternatively, we have the inversion of that position, in which structural context determines all -- but, importantly, does so by getting inside of people's heads. The key site is still the heads of individual people, no matter how conceptualized.

Imagine, however, that we actually start with relations, or with primal relating and "connexion" (the "x" there is significant -- it feels, to me, like a more intimate term), that is the aggregated and manifested in social ties and relations. Then what is puzzling is the notion of "the individual," and what takes concrete effort is the maintenance of a center -- or, better, of the effect of a center. Such a "relational turn" changes everything, I think -- especially since making it consistently also means acknowledging that we observers are also shaping that primal flow as we conduct our researches, and hence cannot in any meaningful sense be merely reflecting reality as we do so. Instead, we are "worlding" as we go.

Think about teaching in this respect. If there is (in some sense -- not the dualist sense where "is"-claims can and should be evaluated as an accurate picture of the "real" world) primal relatedness in the classroom, then pedagogy is about releasing it and letting it flow. And that, in turn, means getting students to stop the practices in which they are engaged that keep that basic connexion in check. Lots of techniques for doing that, ranging from small group exercises to journaling/blogging to drawing out disagreements in a discussion so that people can start engaging and relating as opponents. That's what teaching with the spirit -- or, as professor b commented on that entry below, intimate teaching -- is all about.

Is all of this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo true? Not sure that I understand the question. Not sure that the question makes sense. Is it useful? I find it so. Am I claiming that there really is primal relatedness between people? Again, not sure what that might mean. All I know is that when I operate as though there were I get acceptable results. And sometimes interesting conversations while running.

[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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