This Academic Life
Running in form
Jeff Galloway, a well-known running expert whom my local running guru recommended, has a section in his classic Book on Running
devoted to "form." Form is about muscle efficiency, posture, and the like, and (so he says) "will make anyone's running smoother and more enjoyable." And he's right, as I have discovered over the past few days while out running in the morning; if I pay a little attention to the angle of my arms and the straightness of my back, the whole experience works better, and I have fewer odd aches afterwards. (My knee is another story, but that's less a "form" issue and more about the perversity of my arches -- and a place where technical supplements like inserts and braces have come in really handy.)
Form isn't the right
way to run. You can run any way you want to. But the experience of numerous runners over the years, supplemented -- or maybe just legitimated -- by medical research, indicates that a little form work (Galloway recommends doing "form work," i.e. deliberately focusing on form, every three days or so, so that you can make corrections and help good form become more of an automatic procedure) can make a big difference. Think of this as a type of pragmatics: certain practices work in certain contexts, and by experimenting a bit, and by incorporating phronetic wisdom from other runners, you can enhance your experience.
What this means, I think, is that form is principally a way of enhancing efficiency: making sure that the workout that one's muscles get is as effective as it can be, so that benefits are maximized and undue pain and soreness is minimized. But this also means that form is defensive
: it protects you from harmful exertion and lasting damage. And form is thereby productive of the wonderfully freeing openness
that gets people like me addicted to their morning runs -- the body goes on autopilot, so the spirit can swirl and melt [I'm thinking of Isaac Asimov's description in The Gods Themselves
of how the para-men come together in a kind of unification that results in a complete loss of individuality for the sake of and for the actual constitution of something transcendent] and the soul can be exposed. The body is exercised; the spirit flows; and the soul is dissolved into the world as a whole (which, as Wittgenstein reminds us, is a strictly meaningless
concept -- although an important one).
Readers of my previous postings will have grasped where am going with this, because I often start with running and the body and move into social interaction, especially as it relates to pedagogy. And this time is no exception. I think that "form" in social interaction, and in particular, "form" in argument and discussion -- a particular kind of aggressive
form -- can serve the same three functions. As a teacher and as an interlocutor more generally, whether inside or outside of the classroom, I am meticulous about form precisely because it seems to me the best way of achieving connexion
-- but only if it's done right. It's not the only way, of course, but it works for me and I offer my reflections as a bit of phronetic wisdom for people to take or leave as they please.
What I mean by "form" here is well-captured by Oswald Spengler in his discussion of "nobility":
"There are streams of being which are "in form" in the same sense in which the term is used in sports. A field of steeplechasers is "in form" when the legs swing surely over the fences, and the hooves beat firmly and rhythmically on the flat. When wrestlers, fencers, and ball-players are "in form," the riskiest acts and moves come off easily and naturally. An art-period is in form when its tradition is second nature…Practically everything that has been achieved in world-history, in war and in that continuation of war by intellectual means that we call politics; in all successful diplomacy, tactics, strategy; in the competition of states or social classes or parties; has been the product of living unities that found themselves "in form."" (Decline of the West
, volume II, pp. 330-331 in the standard Knopf edition of the Atkinson translation)
Lots to chew on here, especially Spengler's use of competitive and combative examples to make his point. A well-turned double play in baseball illustrates a team "in form" just as a well-handled volley in tennis does, and argumentative dynamics are no different; one can seize on the weak spot in a chain of reasoning and press it masterfully, perhaps causing the whole edifice to fall apart -- or perhaps provoking an equally well-formed response, in which the cycle continues. And I'd submit that this is inherently competitive, even if one is not directly engaging an opponent; running "in form" is implicitly a competition with one's own past practices and with such forces as gravity and the terrain. [A well-defined competitive situation is one in which being "in form" gets you closer to victory; too much bloody randomness, as in American football -- a situation brought on by a) the insignificantly small number of games that constitute the "season" and b) the fact that no one knows all of the rules, so how a call is adjudicated is largely arbitrary from situation to situation -- makes a mockery of actual
competition. But I digress; the merits of American football versus American baseball
, an elegant game in which player performance statistics are actually meaningful
, is fodder for another post entirely.]
The point I want to extract here is that being "in form" is inextricably linked with a dynamic of competition, and also has its own special kind of nobility
. Performing at a high level of competence, whatever the activity, means nailing something squarely on the head, executing a move with grace and dignity and command, better than others have done…even if the move is something that appears wholly spasmodic to the uninitiated. There is a nobility -- a being "in form" -- to the writhing, elemental kind of dancing popular with the kids at the clubs these days, and practitioners can and do distinguish between competent and virtuoso performances. The absurdity comes when one tries to formalize the criteria on which one makes such a determination; then we get the judging of gymnastics and figure skating, which devolves into pure silliness almost immediately. Practical judgments are more than sufficient.
Argument is part of a subclass of activities that can be "in form" in that it is interpersonally
competitive in addition to being merely intrinsically
competitive the way that all of these practices are. A well-played argument is a dynamic contest. But the thing to keep in mind here is that there is a difference between being "in form" and "winning"; one can win an argument through sloppy reasoning and misdirection, which is what usually happens in (say) public political debates. (And the commentators know this, since they "score" the debate largely on moves that have zippo to do with the form or content of the argument.) The same happens in professional sports; there can be sloppy games won by one's team that are denigrated by connoisseurs, while a well-played contest that one's team loses (say, most of the games of the 2001 World Series) can be appreciated for its (so to speak) technical
So: competition is, as it were, an excuse
to practice being "in form" about the activity in question. And in argument, the activity in question is interpersonal social interaction itself. Which means that argument must be connected to connexion
somehow…and I think that it is.
Let me be more specific. Logical (s)wordplay serves three functions:
. Just like running "in form," arguing "in form" keeps the (mental) muscles tuned up and sharp, and prevents mishaps. To avoid straining something, I can stick with logical derivations, and not exceed the conclusions that are warranted by the material that I am able to muster. In particular, this would mean not speaking in the kind of metaphysical nonsense-talk that characterizes so much of everyday speech, and not as it were exceeding the authority of language
by making categorical claims about the essences of things. That doesn't mean that I don't have
such claims in mind, but they are part of my (illogical, ultimately non-sensical: ethics and aesthetics are one) value-presupposition instead of part of my argument narrowly construed.
In engaging in an argument, you have to
point out when people make these kinds of mistakes, when they fall completely off of the bus and find themselves in the land of I Can Say Whatever I Want To Because It Makes Me Feel Better (Probably Because It Conforms To My Strongly-Held Political Positions). If you don't, you're complicit in their mistake -- and you have given up an opportunity to help them improve their form, and/or to help you improve yours by coming back at you with a defense or rebuttal. This is aggressive, sure. But it's also the way that the game is played. Jamie Lee Curtis' character telling Kevin Kline's character that "Aristotle is not Belgian" in A Fish Called Wanda
is just par for the course; calling someone on a claim is mainly an opportunity for and an invitation to further sparring. I don't know what the opposite would be…yes, one could go into an argument hoping to simply smile a lot. But then it wouldn't be an argument. A baseball game in which one team came to play and the other was more interested in posing for the cameras would not
make for a very exciting game of baseball, IMHO. And it wouldn't tune up anyone's capabilities, or exercise anyone's (mental) muscles.
2) exercise is not the only benefit of a good argument, though. A good argument also provides defense
for the parties involved. Adhering to logical conventions (and they are conventions
, mind you, not transcendental absolutes) provides some measure of protection for the players, as there are rules about what kinds of moves are legal and permissible and what is out of bounds. This protects everyone involved in two ways:
a) sensitive issues can be discussed without necessarily inflaming irrational passions, because some kinds of displays are simply ruled out from the beginning. "I think that's racist!" Okay, sure; now demonstrate that, articulate some criteria, explain why it ought to matter, etc. Everything is up for grabs inasmuch as everything has to be submitted to the same procedures of examination, but the parties involved know that the examination will not proceed haphazardly.
b) adhering to rules and such provides some measure of distance and insulation from the issues involved. I am making an argument about something, which means that I am translating the inchoate mess
in my head into something approximating rational language (and language is either rational or poetic; guess which one is appropriate to an argument?). Hence I always have an out: at the end of the day this is just an argument
, just a part of the intersubjective social world -- certainly something produced by me, and something that I am committed to during the specific exchange in question
(and perhaps afterwards, if the argumentative sequence seemed to be a useful tool to get me where I wanted to go). In other words: something I can step away from.
I think that the defensive aspects of argument are in this way akin to the defensive aspect of formal dancing (or dancing with any rules at all, as opposed to people just kind of moving in the same general space). To prevent things from getting way out of control, we have rules. So someone can enter what would otherwise be a very threatening situation -- lots of physical contact, invasions of personal space, etc. -- and feel safer than they would in the absence of those rules. But at the same time, they are in fact in that situation of exposure and potential connexion
, buoyed (as it were) by the presence of conventional rules that enable them to focus on their performance instead of on how unsettled they feel.
[Magic commented to me at one point that he didn't think that arguments persuaded via logic. I agree. I don't think that arguments persuade
at all, and I am not interested in using logical argumentation to persuade -- which seems quite absurd to me in any event. But there is something important about the argumentative dance itself, and that's
what I am trying to get at here.]
3) the third benefit of argument is, not surprisingly, connexion
. But not because logic produces a connexion
, or because you can somehow logically maneuver someone into a relationship. Instead, argument sustains people getting into risky situations, situations wherein they risk their soul without really knowing it…situations in which they suddenly find themselves completely out and exposed and vulnerable. And it happens by accident: engage, engage, engage, bang
. But everyone has to be "in form" for it to work; otherwise, the mind takes over and shuts the connexion
down because it isn't making sense. A particularly important moment for such a connexion
comes when you score a point, or someone scores a point against you: touché. Which is when that of God in me embraces that of God in you across the divide over which we have been sparring, and my soul acknowledges your soul as somehow kindred
. And then we spin off again, continuing the dance -- but our souls, perhaps, remain tied together.
"Oddly enough, our arguments and battles unify us because they reinforce the fundamental moral symbols with which we all function." -- Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines
, p. 202.
Convinced? :-)[Posted with ecto]
As often happens, after
posting some thoughts I figured out a more concise way to say what I was trying to say. This often happens to me while running; go figure. But in any event, here's another crack at what I was trying to get at yesterday:
I am quite taken with George Bataille's notion of a "general economy," which is to say an arrangement of social relations that is and should be evaluated not in terms of the distribution of scarce resources that it encourages, but instead in terms of the surplus that it produces. [Obviously, this is an analytic; anything
can be evaluated as a general economy, which simply means that we focus in the specific instance on the production of surplus instead of focusing on the distribution of scarce resources.] According to this conception, the most important social decision involves the use of the leftover product and the spending of excess in a way that necessarily escapes the bounds of the rational system that produced the surplus in the first place.
By definition, the use of a surplus is an irrational act, even if the decision is made to try to rationalize the decision and re-appropriate the surplus into the system; such a re-appropriation is inherently unstable, since there is no logical reason why we should continue to use our surplus in this manner. Think of the reinvestment of profit in the expansion of a capitalist enterprise, or the use of time away from work to get trained in ways that will make you a more effective worker. One need not do this in any sort of classically objective or transcendental sense, which partially explains why we keep admonishing ourselves to do it -- as though we would be betraying some kind of universal principle by being unproductive.
[Classical political economists grasped this point very well; Smith had to introduce a moral duty to spend wisely in order to keep the market system functioning, and Weber noted that the "Protestant ethic" fulfilled this function in many settings. Polanyi understood well the role played by the quasi-naturalistic narratives of Townsend's "goats and dogs" and Mandaville's "fable of the bees" in aiding this effective closure of the system. And Marx understood that ideological consciousness could do something very similar, and keep the system on track by continually pressing the surplus back into rational circulation. From the perspective of the restricted economy of a closed system, the greatest sin is waste
; surpluses have to be re-incorporated, lest they undermine the whole process by exposing it for a giant tautology.]
Here's the rub: agency is surplus. Action is never exhausted by the rational rules of a situation; even a decision to reinvest stems from surplus, from a capacity to act that is never fully captured by any set of rules and procedures. [Wittgenstein knew this well, which is why he distinguished between a language-game and the form of life within which it was embedded; social relations are never fully logical, since inference is a social activity rather than a purely logical one.] So in this sense there can be no rules for action that have anything like a transcendental status, as the moment of action itself always escapes the system and stands outside of it. Agency is contingency.
And the exercise
of agency means embracing this contingency and this surplus, irrational character.
Why does this relate to what I was on about yesterday? Because the academy, as I understand it, is a surplus institution
. Think about the immense social wealth and privilege associated with the creation of organizations devoted to thinking about things
: this is only possible if one's society is already rich enough to handle basic necessities for most people, or if the organizations in question are supported by resource infusions from outside of the immediate social environment. Otherwise, how would such a thing be supported? Everyone would be too busy with the daily business of living to step back and reflect on things (or if they did, they would do so in an exclusively religious context; Nietzsche's observation that the ascetic priest was the cocoon in which the scholar developed seems entirely appropriate here). So the university, the academy, is social surplus. And I would argue that it -- and the academics who are called to live and work within it -- should embrace
this status, and not continually strive to shed it or submerge it in other functional imperatives.
My opposition to "politically engaged scholarship," by which I mean scholarship that strives to push a particular partisan agenda in a present political context, is in this sense eminently similar to my opposition to and genuine fear of the creeping "culture of assessment" that seems to be colonizing higher education the way that has pretty effectively colonized primary and secondary education in the United States. Both imperatives reduce the academy, the university, to a functional tool for keeping the system running
. Assessment forces people to evaluate their time at the university in terms of the practical skills that they have acquired; politicized scholarship forces people to evaluate thinking and pedagogy in terms of its contribution to some reform agenda. Both keep the Empire running, since the Empire in this sense is the general reduction of everything to means-ends rationality and calculations of efficiency -- the deliberate forgetting of the surplus character of surplus and the denial of agency-as-contingency. The result: the completion of the Enlightenment project of getting oneself out of the way in favor of one or another Absolute Truth that justifies one's actions.
[And, parenthetically - this is of course the necessary surplus that makes my
argument issue from me, even though it is not reducible to anything within the logical structure of the argument itself -- this also eliminates the notion of faith
from action. If I know
, I need not have faith, I need not go beyond the comfortable bounds of reason. I need not risk
anything, and if I am not risking anything I cannot participate in connexion
So what is one to do with the Empire, which in my usage at the moment largely represents the habit of action ( = behavior + meaningful interpretation thereof) that mandates that everything be subordinated to the logic of efficiency? I am not convinced that it makes much sense to either ignore it and go on one's merry way, or to simply stand there being inefficient and wait for it to run you down (which is what usually happens: people are martyred for such things all the time, and our present system is mercilessly good at doing so in any number of ways). Evil -- and I do think that this stuff is evil in the precise and technical sense (both because of its humanistic hubris that forgets or tries to eliminate the divine, and because the world that it envisions is one in which the most logical course of action is to stab one's intimate friends in the back at the moment of greatest personal advantage) -- needs to be resisted. And resisting evil means, ironically, using the very means of strategic calculation that the Empire pushes, but using them to do something very different: using them to create spaces in which the logic of efficiency is (efficiently) denied entry.
It's the paradox of the "intentional community," wherein a group of people undertake to deliberately create a space for openness
, even though the effort to do so is very calculated and efficient. Like the Amish, who put a lot of forethought into their communal decisions about the use of technology and the like. Only this kind of deliberate exercise of power can hope to stand a chance against the Empire.
I think about it very much like the conclusion of Return of the Jedi
-- no, not the bit with the Ewoks. Luke is fighting Vader in the Emperor's throne room on the Death Star; he manages to fight him to a standstill by using the same techniques of (s)wordplay that Vader is using. But he is hesitant, because he doesn't want to succumb to the Dark Side, so he stays content with a stalemate. Until Vader threatens the people whom he loves…and then bang
, Luke comes out swinging and actually defeats
Vader in combat (standing there with one's (s)word(s) and the neck of the opponent looks like victory in combat to me). And then the Emperor invites Luke to use that surplus and complete the system of the Empire, to kill Vader and take Vader's place, thus completely crushing the rebellion and ensuring that the Dark Side will be forever triumphant -- and Luke does something completely irrational
, throws away his (s)word(s) and makes an identity-claim: "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." And then the miracle happens: the universe (or the scriptwriter :-) conspires to bring about a better end, as Vader
destroys the Emperor, and the Empire falls.
The point? Luke at that moment acts in faith, not reason. He has escaped the system, escaped the parallel agendas (Ben and Yoda want him to defeat the Emperor, presumably by killing Vader; the Emperor wants him to join the Empire and complete it), and moved into a irrational realm where he ends up doing something very much like the farmer in one of my favorite, and often overlooked, biblical passages: "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seen on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4: 26-29). This is the great ambiguity here: we do what we can, we use our skills and (s)word(s), and then we stop and wait
. Vader would simply have killed Luke had he stood there defenseless earlier on; he needed to defeat
Vader with his (s)wordplay first. But Luke stopped there, which is the other important point: having created space, he did not rush to fill it. He simply let it be
: fallow, irrational, unproductive.
I am tired of being useful all the time. I am tired of being told that I should be useful as an academic. I want to be useless; I want to have and protect space for being useless. Undergrads need to spend more time being useless and want to help to create space for that. Graduate students need to be trained in the art of efficiently producing inefficiency and usefully generating space for uselessness; there's the great and glorious performative contradiction in which I strive to live as a mentor to graduate students (the Obi-Wan Kenobi role). And colleagues need to be beaten about the head if they persist in subordinating the academy to the agendas of the Empire, whether those are technical-efficient or partisan-political. This
is, I believe, how one creates space for openness
-- which remains my central project and agenda as an academic.
[Posted with ecto]
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."
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]
I need to reply to Magic's latest round of responses to my thoughts on conferences, but that takes more time than I have right at the moment. Instead, here is a brief summary of two discussions I had today, both of which illustrate the centrality of organizational identity to our work as academics.
1) my department is engaging in a job search this year; it's actually a continuation of a search that didn't conclude successfully last year (don't get me started on that
issue). In any event, there was some controversy about how many people could or should be on the search committee. Initially I was not asked to be on it, but I made the argument that this was not just another service obligation, but something much more important: an opportunity to help to shape the character of the department in a relatively profound way. Who one has in a department is much, much
more important than formal organizational attributes of the department, and probably more important than things like degree requirements and the like. A search raises the question of what kind of department we want to be
, and the very future tense of it means that there is an opportunity to exercise the kind of agency that doesn't come up all that often. And who one has around affects the kind of education that the students are getting -- and who one can use as second readers for theses, and who else one can send students to for additional instruction, and the general atmosphere of the place.
So of course I want to be on the committee, regardless of the fact that it will take quite a bit of time.
2) I attended a meeting today in which the university was contracting with an outside firm to audit the admissions website and see whether it needed to be redesigned. (I think it does; it's clunky, somewhat dated, and hard to navigate. But that's not my decision.) We hadn't gone more than five minutes before we got into a wide-ranging discussion of the identity of the university, what kinds of achievements we wanted to stress, and how different offices on campus understood that identity (the president's office, for instance, apparently has a set of five major goal points that they have not bothered to share with any of the faculty; since one of them is "practical education" (!) one would think that the faculty might want/need to have some input here at some point…also, significantly, none of these five goal points have any mention of academic or scholarly excellence, and the faculty as a body
are almost completely absent from the list). Again, this becomes especially important because the admissions website attracts students, and thus plays a major role in shaping the character of the university in the future.All
organizational discussions are probably about identity. I get really annoyed when someone says during a committee meeting "let's just make a policy decision without getting into a big discussion about the overall identity of the program." News flash: policy decisions constitute
"the identity of the program." So by not discussing it, one simply enacts a bounding of the organization's identity without being aware of what one is doing and why. This does not strike me as a good plan under any circumstances.[Posted with ecto]
Cleaning out the roll-y bag
This morning I am finishing the process of taking all of the accumulated stuff
out of the wheeled laptop case I have been using for the past couple of years. Some of my students refer to it as my dog, because I usually walk around campus between classes wheeling it behind me. But I have made a decision to switch bags, so I am emptying the old one (which will probably just be thrown out, since it is rather worn by now) of all of the little things that have gotten lodged in it over the past couple of years: a lot
of loose change, receipts for God-knows-what, several pairs of headphones, miscellaneous electrical adapters, business cards, a radio attachment for my iPod [I was wondering where that had gotten to!], etc. And then transferring everything into my new blue-and-silver Timbuk2 bag
, which fits my laptop like a glove and still allows space for a book or two to squeeze into the main compartment.
Why am I switching? I have discovered that I carry around as much stuff as my bag can hold. So I was lugging around a lot of crap that I never really used in my old bag, simply because it fit. Once placed in the bag, it never seemed to make its way back out. So the alternative is to get a smaller bag, but not one that is so small that it can only
fit the laptop (although that is certainly the most important thing that I carry around with me on a daily basis). I do need some other things, including books and cables for attaching the laptop to various things (external monitors, for example). And my reading glasses have to go someplace. So the search for a bag that was a little bigger than just a laptop sleeve but not as big as my existing wheeled bag went on. I think I've found something good now.
Actually, I already found one: an Ogio laptop backpack
that I bought and used all summer in Europe, and still take in on days when I'm not teaching. It's big enough for everything I need to put in it, and I really like having my hands free when walking, so a backpack is a good choice. But I can't use it on teaching days, because it would rumple my suit even more. Plus, walking around with a backpack makes one look somewhat more like a student, which is problematic when one is actually the professor. Wearing a suit to teach is part of that same concern for me: visual differentiation seems to me to be very important to my position. Regardless of whether it makes the students feel that there is some distance between myself and them, it makes me feel that way -- and thus makes it easier for me to exercise some measure of authority inside and outside of the classroom. At least at first. Later in the semester, after the pattern has been set, it feels less important to maintain so rigorously.
Appearance is a crutch. A tool. A means to an end, where the end in this case is some measure of internal differentiation even as I am engaged with my students in producing intimate, soul-baring conversations. It's something of a way to avoid being completely consumed in the ensuing conflagration, which is an ever-present danger associated with my pedagogy. And that was also a consideration with the new bag purchase: does it look too student-y? Does it collapse the distinction that I am trying in other ways to maintain?
Of course, I do not maintain the appearance of an Adult Authority perfectly in any case. I frequently wear ties that, well, wouldn't pass muster in a law office (Star Wars
, Winnie the Pooh
, New York Yankees), and I tend to sit on tables and then leap up while facilitating a discussion. I have been known to stand on desks and the like, too, and my language veers between precisely formal and affected informal (which is an ironic doubleness that I quite like: here's the professor using some youthful slang term, but doing it awkwardly as though to emphasize the artificiality of his usage -- but then again, he's using the slang, so he apparently knows it). And some days I walk into the the room listening to my iPod, finish the song, and then
start class. [And I am not a still listener; I have a tendency to conduct while listening, and I'd dance if I didn't look like such a completely uncoordinated white boy while doing so.]
So I suppose that the effect I'm going for here is some kind of alloy
: authority figure yet not perfectly, in charge but also not, adult but not completely out of touch with the kids, etc. It takes some deliberate forethought to keep that particular balance going. Hence, choosing a bag is a rather complicated endeavor. Hopefully this one will work out -- and hopefully it will solve the other problem too, and prevent me from lugging around too much useless junk.[Posted with ecto]
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
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
) 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]
The Sociology of the Discipline
I was at a conference in Amsterdam most of last week, staying in a house at the beach with five other members of the Fellowship (a loose grouping of "critical" scholars interested in social theory and pedagogy -- big round of applause for Elven Archer #37 for organizing this). Busy week for me: two paper presentations (one co-authored piece that I took the lead in presenting, the other a single-authored and unfortunately incomplete paper on Weber and the methodology of the social sciences), one discussant gig on the absolute last panel session of the conference, and in between several "working" dinners and lunches featuring intense discussion of a number of weighty issues. (And yes, we did have some fun too; the trip to Utrecht on the last day was largely recreational, although the discussion on the drive back to Amsterdam was most illuminating.)
If I had to pick one issue that dominated all of our reflections and discussions and arguments, I would have to say that it was the sociology of the discipline
. "Critical" scholars in any scientific discipline, I'd wager, are always more interested in this topic than those more centrally located in the social apparatus of knowledge production; the overarching narrative of "science" is that the succession of findings and positions represents some measure of progress
, and hence those on top of the prestige hierarchy require no special analysis of how they got their positions: their work has made progress on older work, and this justifies their centrality to the discipline as a whole. But to more critical scholars, the hierarchy of the discipline (and let's not kid ourselves here: every discipline, even those that do not constitute themselves as "scientific" in the same way as mine does, has a hierarchy of journals, presses, universities, and individual scholars, even if that hierarchy is more or less malleable over time) is anything but the result of some kind of classically objective process of neutrally sifting through arguments to eliminate the weaker ones and permit the strongest to survive. Instead, disciplinary hierarchies are constructed in inescapably power-laden ways, ranging from the "gatekeeping" function performed by journal editors and peer reviewers to the outright coercive tactics of unsolicited letters trying to torpedo someone's tenure review process or to prevent them from getting a particular job.
Yes, this stuff happens. We all know it, but we don't usually talk much about it -- at least not in public and while sober. But it was almost the entirety of the hallway and mealtime conversation that was generated by the conference; indeed, it is almost the entirety of the hallway and mealtime conversation generated by virtually every conference I have ever been to. (I suspect that even those in the center of the discipline engage in such discussions from time to time -- not about themselves, of course, but about insurgent movements and how best to contain them. But I am not now, nor are particularly likely to be in the foreseeable future, privy to any of those discussions, so I can only speculate.) In this sense, a conference is largely an opportunity for disciplinary self-reflection, with the manifest content
of papers presented standing in a very unclear relationship to the business of the conference (except, of course, for papers and panels directly on
the sociology of the discipline.)
So what did I learn from these discussions at this particular conference?
1) "the discipline" is a very ambiguous notion, and how you understand it depends a great deal on local context. I knew this before, but having it presented rather dramatically in the form of wildly divergent evaluations of particular authors and works and occurrences drives the point home in a more profound way. Two specific stories. One night at dinner we were discussing a particular scholar (let's call him Frodo, because much of the Fellowship is convinced that he is on a mission to destroy the One Ring -- which in this instance represents classical objectivity and absolute certainty -- but may or may not have succumbed to the seduction of the power represented by the One Ring as he goes about his dangerous quest) and his impact on the discipline. The Americans involved in the conversation were by and large grateful to Frodo for his efforts to open discursive space for our arguments, and for directly or indirectly helping to support our careers. The Europeans, by contrast, were by and large more interested in criticizing the intellectual coherence of Frodo's work, and were not impressed by the American argument that Frodo's work needs to be understood as a disciplinary intervention rather than as a piece of decontextualized theory. And this divergence, I think, stems ultimately from the fact that Frodo's intervention was not
as important to European scholars' careers
as it has arguably been for American scholars. So "the discipline" is more localized than we might think at first.
Second story. The co-authored paper that I presented is a remapping exercise, an effort to reorganize axes of debate so as to open space for different kinds of conversations than those that are currently going on. Our sense of what kinds of conversations are going on, of course, is American-centric, having to do with American journals and the issues that make their way into the American academy understood more broadly. Surprise, surprise: non-American scholars, or those based outside of the United States and hence not as directly dependent on the American disciplinary structure for their professional success, see other conversations as the important ones and thus tend to perceive more space for different kinds of work. They thus understand our intervention as unnecessary, by and large, since the relevant movement to the conversations that we would like to see has already happened -- it is just happening in journals and other locations that are far removed from the American scene.
Hence: the intervention might indeed be necessary in one context, but not in another. This gets complicated by the fact that the American context tends to dominate the others, so I'd suggest that even the Europeans would benefit from our intervention in particular ways. But I can see how it might not be seen as anything like an urgent priority.
2) this differential sense of "the discipline" also extends to individuals, even those based within the same national context. Again, not a new revelation, but one made much more concrete by agonizing conversations about Frodo, and about job searches, and horror stories about "blind" peer review processes, etc. A senior figure who acts as a patron for one of us (for Boromir, in this case -- yes, we pretty much all have LotR names too, because we're all big fantasy/SF geeks, and proud of it too) is regarded by others of us as incoherent and unproductive. When one entered the discipline also plays a role; Frodo's intervention was important for scholars who tried to get jobs in the late 1990s, but maybe not so important for those who were established earlier. And how one evaluates Frodo has a lot
to do with one's view of the discipline, and one's view of what would have happened in the discipline absent
Simply referring to "the discipline," as we all do, does not
mean that we are referring to the same thing. There are some family resemblances between my view of the discipline and, say, Boromir's (who somewhat disingenuously claims not be concerned with the discipline, but when you engage him in conversation you discover that he has obviously spent a lot of time thinking deeply about these issues). I would submit that it takes real effort
not to operate with a view of the discipline, and not to spend time thinking about the sociology of knowledge in one's discipline; I know people who try to go on pretending that knowledge is produced in a decontextual manner, and that they can simply think their own thoughts in the privacy of their own office or their own classroom or in their own little circle of intimates, and ignore the way that the discipline shapes even the most private of reflections. Not in a totalizing way, of course, but in a rather profound way all the same.
Let me be a little more specific here. By "the discipline" I mean a particular configuration of social relations and network connections between scholars, journals, and universities/institutes/think tanks (there are a few that are important to my discipline). Such a configuration is composed, as all such configurations are according to my relational analytic, of the ongoing practices by which cultural resources are deployed, (re)imagined, and utilized. The content of those resources is the intellectual content of the papers and articles and books that we produce, together with the standards for evaluating scholarship which sometimes don't show up in our work explicitly. So to speak of "the discipline" at any one point in time is to take a snapshot of those social arrangements, emphasizing certain connections rather than others, in standard ideal-typical fashion; when we do this as practitioners we are arresting social processes in order to achieve some goal, and when we do it as analysts we are tracing that arrestation in a grounded empirical manner.
What follows? Well, for one thing, it makes no sense to say that "the discipline" causes anything or generates any outcomes. One could
make the "structural selectivity" argument, and claim that the structure of the discipline at any one point in time affects the knowledge that can be legitimately produced (i.e. find its way into print in one of the major journals, and start to shape the general debate), but this reification of the patterns of social relations in question ignores the ongoing
(re)production of those social relations in practice, and thus eliminates the possibility that the discipline might be reconfigured by any particular intervention into it. (This is the same argument as the claim that capitalism generates capitalist policies, or that the anarchic structure of the international system generates policies that sustain anarchy, and it's just as tautological if pressed to extremes.) "Structures" don't do
anything, but practices do.
Case in point: at this conference a colleague offered her discussant comments on two sociology-of-the-discipline papers, and commented that the narrowing of theoretical discourse in the field had a lot to do with the narrow-minded people running a particular, top-ranked journal that often sets the standard for "good" work. A member of that journal's editorial advisory board, who was sitting in the audience, berated my colleague, calling her professionally unethical and generally presenting a more decontextualized view of knowledge production -- i.e. the dominant self-legitimating narrative of those in the discipline's center at this point in time. This policing
-- or what a senior colleague who has been a great inspiration for the Fellowship (is he Elrond? Gandalf? I forget) calls "the disciplining of the discipline" -- is the thing that has effects, and does so in particular situations rather than in general.
The point here is that to speak of "the discipline" is to engage in an active process of construction, by which particular aspects of the mass of stuff that we all experience in our daily lives as academics gets separated out and held up as important. And the sort of work that one produces depends, I think, in large measure on how one's own conception of "the discipline" and one's role within it interacts with the conceptions held and promulgated by others. This is not an "ideational" claim; I am not saying that simply thinking about the discipline in a certain way can change the fate of one's article at a major "gatekeeping" journal. Social relations are intersubjective rather than subjective or classically objective, so they can be discovered by individuals as though
they were simply part of the environment, even though we remain internal to those relations and may in fact be contributing to their (re)production without being aware of this. And there is no possible final account of "the discipline" or even of particular parts of it; there is only local consensus formed either through conversation about the issue or through more or less authoritative deployments (for instance, in intro field survey courses in graduate school -- even though these typically leave the sociology
of the discipline by the wayside).
But even in the absence of consensus, discussions about the discipline help us to locate ourselves, and also help us to target our interventions at some part of the overall patterns of social relations that surrounds us -- and out of which knowledge is produced. This is important, IMHO, because the dominant discussions in the discipline -- the ones that show up in the pages of major journals, and dominate the intellectual/substantive component of major conferences -- are, whether we like it or not, the primary orientation for our thinking. We are in our particular disciplines for a reason, and that discipline has a specific history and a set of contexts into and out of which one can legitimately speak. In order to publish, or to appear on conference programs, one needs to work through some of those spaces. And if the dominant conversations shift too far away from your work, you run the risk of no longer having any way to reach an audience -- and also the risk that space for your work will be all but eliminated, leaving you a forgotten relic unable to have conversations with anyone else in the discipline, because they no longer have the conceptual and analytical tools to understand what you are saying
. There's the fate worse than death: complete isolation.
This is why talk about the discipline, and the sociology of the discipline, strikes me as an important product of conferences. Perhaps the most important part. If one ignores the discipline, one gets passed by, or maybe directly policed.
3) at this conference I also discovered that not everyone thinks about panel presentations as part of a status game, or as something that could in principle be scored competitively. I have always understood panels as opportunities to score points, make a name for oneself, cut a figure in the room and maybe leave a lasting impression, and I have always thought that one did this largely by engaging and arguing with the arguments offered by others on the panel or in the audience. At no time have I really considered a panel an opportunity to have a conversation with anyone -- it's configured in a way that makes this very problematic as long as "the panel" is ongoing. (One can also use a panel as an opportunity to locate people with whom one would like to have a longer, more leisurely conversation afterwards, but this seems to me a strangely inefficient way of connecting people. Why not skip the panel and go straight to the discussion?) Panels as instruments for producing prestige makes sense to me; I grasp those rules and can generally play that game. Panels as point-scoring? Same logic. And the distance between point-scoring and offering arguments that engage the other's work is very little, I think; engagement does
involve scoring points, finding salient agreements and disagreements, and so forth. Such an engagement might be started in a panel setting, but in my experience that happens rarely.
[Perhaps relevant aside: part of our discussion about this issue involved the fact that Strider and I, in particular, are very demanding in our rules of engagement. Neither of us tends to suffer fools gladly, so to speak, and we tend not to be very charitable when offering a question or comment to an established figure in the discipline -- if they're established, they ought to a) be able
to defend their arguments and b) want
to do so in a relatively sophisticated way. If they are so little invested in their arguments that they don't care to defend them, why did they articulate them in the first place? Not that I am suggesting that authors have some kind of privileged relationship to their arguments, or that they ought to feel personally attacked when someone criticizes the argument; rather, it's the opposite: one offers arguments so that
one can be critiqued and engaged. Substance -- whether empirical or theoretical -- is a vehicle for the really important stuff
, which is the kind of spiritual connexion that engenders intersubjective worlding and the contingent blending of souls. The prerequisite is that the substance has to be of high enough quality that the interlocutors don't get hung up on the technical details of the argument, since that stops the flow and terminates the connexion. That's how it works for me, at any rate: interlocutors have to be coherent enough
that the process can flow on unimpeded. I can't get past that, and I see no reason to try, unless one is talking to one's students
. More on that below.]
But some members of the Fellowship made the argument last night (and well into the morning) that panels were instead opportunities to connect to what a speaker is trying
to say, and then to help her or him to clarify that and make the argument tighter. Panel as pedagogy, essentially: treat one's interlocutors in the panel setting as generously as one would treat one's students. I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, especially if one is addressing the work of younger scholars while occupying the discussant role. But as an audience-member confronted with an utterly incoherent combination of claims, this demands an extraordinary amount of patience and charity. (Boromir argued that it was actually self-serving too, inasmuch as there is always something worth hearing -- something that you
need to hear -- in every argument. I am not convinced of this, having sat through many panels where the approximate level of interesting content was quite near absolute zero, either because of total incoherence or because of the conflation of science and politics to the point where a rant becomes a piece of scholarship. Call me crazy, but I do not see the value in either incoherent mishmashes or political screeds. I see neither scholarly value nor moral value there, and hence I see little or nothing to engage with productively.)
I am not that patient in a panel setting unless I'm discussing a younger scholar's work, and virtually never as an audience member asking a question, although I can be and usually am that patient in the classroom. But that has to do, IMHO, with a certain pattern of authority relations that are implicated in the classroom setting; I can dismantle aspects of my professorial authority only inasmuch as I can never escape that subject-position fully
because I keep re-occupying it at the conclusion of every class session. I think that there are significant differences between the classroom and a panel, or between a mentor-mentee relationship and the reader-author relationship that is mediated by a piece of writing. Panels, I think, aren't for pedagogy. Neither are articles. Books, maybe -- some books. But written work is largely about research, which I understand as the systematic application of value-premises, and panels are about status, performance, and argument between putative equals
. So why do I need to be patient and charitable? You made your claim; here's my criticism; now respond in kind, or go home.
For me, at any rate, a conference should
be organized around the intellectual content of the papers presented. Engaging with that content, and having meaningful exchanges about it, is the point of the conference. But this rarely, if ever, happens during a panel session, because of the posturing and status-generation. A second aspect of a conference is to throw people together in close proximity to the center of the discipline, thus more or less engendering or encouraging conversations about the sociology of the discipline. (Not that any of this is deliberate, I think, except in the case of a really well-organized conference in which research communities have threads of panels to follow through the program, and ample opportunity to eat and drink and snack together between sessions.) And a third function is to, in effect, find students and interlocutors in places other than one's home institution: grad students in other programs, colleagues going down the same pathway, and so forth.
So this all comes back to engagement with one another
, and to the formation and strengthening and modification of the social contexts out of which knowledge is produced. The sociology of the discipline is a useful tool for advancing this goal, I think, but it's a means rather than an end. Done well, it can remove obstacles to connexion, and promote the kind of self-reflection that loosens things up and gets spirit flowing again. But ultimately, we social scientists generate connexions by engaging in conversations about stuff
, whether that stuff
be empirical or conceptual/theoretical. Privileging the sociology of the discipline, or at least giving it increased prominence, might further these kinds of conversations, but I'd hate for it to become all
that we ever talked about. That strikes me as its own kind of trap, and its own kind of dead end. Without conceptual and empirical work, what would we have to be self-reflexive about?
Also, we had a decent talk about what "postcolonial anger" was. I still don't think it's important to an evaluation of po-co work, but that's a different entry altogether.[Posted with ecto]
Life After Theory
A colleague forwarded me the link to this article
, which describes the decline of "theory" in the American academy. I must admit mixed feelings about the author's diagnosis, which berates left-leaning academics for adopting a theoretical language wildly divorced from the language of everyday people, and argues that this created "a power vacuum in the kind of holistic intellect that unites political commitments and practical goals with a whole vision of the good life."
On the one hand, he's correct about a lot of the garbage that goes on under the name of "Theory" (the capitalization is important, methinks), which largely involves re-coding things under the rubric of one or another set of putatively objective categories of analysis. The turn in the social sciences and humanities that regarded a redescription of a text using the categories of race or class or gender to masquerade as a reputable analysis
of that same text was deeply problematic, I think. And in some quarters, notably in "post-colonial theory" and in some parts of the study of globalization [I am limiting myself to things I know better, which are in the social sciences], not to mention the upsurge in "rational choice theory" and other formal modeling exercises, we get this conflation and confusion still: as though recoding were scholarship. It isn't, especially when the recoding is called "political" to the extent that the author has a clear agenda that she or he is pursing against the work or situation being analyzed. There is a name for this exercise: knowledge politics, i.e. political struggle by other means. What it is not is scholarship
[Clarification: not all academics operating with categories like race, class, gender, rationality, etc. are engaged in this sort of thing. Teasing out the gendered practices embedded in some social policy can be very revealing and insightful, and an analysis of the rational calculations at play in some delimited social setting can also generate some helpful insight. However, there is a thin but vital line between using one's assumptions to generate insights, and using one's analysis to convince the audience that one's initial assumptions were somehow transcendentally correct. There are gendered gestures and deployments in Huckleberry Finn
and contemporary welfare policy, to be sure. And calling attention to them can help to improve our understanding of the phenomenon by generating novel insights. But I fail to see how the continual demonstration of the gendered, or racist, or post-colonial nature of things counts as a finding
. It's an assumption of the analysis
, and pretending that it's a conclusion makes your "scholarship" into a giant tautology. Lots of work in "Theory" did this and still does this, largely because it conflates theory-as-analytical-tool with Theory -As-The-Truth-Of-Things-Revealed-To-The-Elect.]
On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the idea that academics should be trying to remain too close to everyday discourse, or that left-leaning academics should be producing scholarship that somehow advances a leftist political agenda. I know that the right does this, and it's just as bad when they do it; I for one am not willing to adopt that particular tactic in order to resist them. "Left-wing scholarship," like "right-wing scholarship," strikes me as a contradiction in terms, and I am not interested in producing scholarship that serves merely to advance a narrow political agenda. When operating as a public intellectual -- or what the author of the piece calls a "linking intellectual" -- it might be okay to draw on one's scholarship in order to support a position. But that drawing-on is not itself "scholarship"; it is politics
. Noble, perhaps, and praiseworthy, but not scholarship, and not what academics should (IMHO) be primarily concerned with.
The author of the piece seems to agree, and I can give hesitant approval to his conclusion: "The problem of theory was never the philosophy it drew on but the absence of a public forum to criticize it, expand it for intelligent adults, and correct it. The return of the linking intellectuals -- adept in philosophical thought but not beholden to the academy -- could restore a heritage of speaking to the public about the professors, and, more importantly, could get the professors speaking honestly and intelligibly to us." Two caveats. First, linking intellectuals have to be based outside of the academy (political journalists, perhaps) and shouldn't be given (for instance) named chairs in the study of particular regions or religions, and shouldn't be teaching classes! Second, I am skeptical that this kind of activity can "get the professors speaking honestly and intelligibly to us." Thinking follows its own course, and those of us with academia as a vocation simply have to follow the path of thinking wherever it leads us. There's nothing dishonest about theory (although there is something disquieting
about its transformation into Theory and its subsequent use as a gospel to preach from in the classroom), and "intelligibly" is over-rated as a virtue when and if the audience is, well, uneducated. Just because someone outside of my field or outside of the academy can understand something that I write does not
, in my opinion, mean that the piece is any more or less valuable as scholarship
. Different criteria apply.
A third caveat: linking intellectuals, or the activity of linking theoretical thinking and scholarship with ordinary everyday discourse, is a form of pedagogy
. That kind of writing is, or should be, more akin to what goes on in the classroom than it is to "scholarship" narrowly construed. Pedagogy-at-a-distance, perhaps, because it is mediated by textual presentation and the like, but it is or should be pedagogy nonetheless, inasmuch as it aims to challenge assumptions and provoke thinking
instead of simply reporting findings.
Best line in the piece: "Gilles Deleuze loved surfing." Loved that.[Posted with ecto]