This Academic Life
In previous entries I have written about the sort of worlding that emerges from (s)wordplay and argument. But this is by no means the only type. I am aware of this, but recently I was reminded of another type: the kind of communal presence-ing that derives from communal endeavor, in which a (small) group alternates between performing and debriefing about their performance. That is what I always loved best about participation in choirs: working through rehearsals, discussing the performance beforehand, performing, and then reflexively reviewing and critiquing the performance afterwards. It's a very specific form of worlding, of a somewhat different flavor than the (s)wordplay kind; where the latter is borne on mutual exhaustion and a momentary stand-still, a kind of divine stalemate that abruptly produces stillness at the heart of the conflagration, the former involves communal effort towards a single goal, a shared endeavor within which everyone participating can become embedded -- at least for the duration. I know you and you know me through the work, rather than by taking one another's measure and working towards a mutual respect ushered in through noble combat.

[I think that these two can be combined, at least in principle: "we" work together to produce a response to "them," and vice versa. If it works properly, the moment of mutual respect dissolves both groups, at least temporarily. But I suspect that it rarely works like this, and that what happens in practice involves a continued clash until one side wins at least a temporary victory. But that's a different issue entirely.]

One of the odder things about academia is that most of what one does for a living does not involve this kind of worlding. Classroom teaching, except in rare circumstances, is a solo act; there are no collaborators and coconspirators to share the experience with. Publishing? The contours of the modern academic market work against co-authored work in most circumstances; I know several stories of such collaborations being actively discouraged by Rank&Tenure committees. Even the arrangement of panels for a conference is often just a series of solo performances: people meet, say their piece, and leave after a few pleasantries. Edited volumes? I have been in several where I have not even met many of the other authors. And the one edited volume I was involved in which grew out of a workshop didn't breed much of a sense of common endeavor. Search committees? Don't get me started on those. Ditto departmental decisions about designing programs and the like; a few committee meetings and a vote to approve doesn't quite cut it.

Indeed, I think it's problematic to regularly expect that kind of commonality among academics. Academia was, after all, designed for and by monks, and each of us is constitutively sealed in our little cells wrapped up in our own research and our own teaching. The exceptions to this are few and far between, and greatly to be prized:

1) co-authorship. Collaborating with someone to produce a piece of writing can produce that kind of connexion, although it need not -- I know of occasions where it has not. But when one can get away with it, and where one can take it seriously, there is a good deal of communal worlding to be explored there.

2) group projects. Throwing a workshop can produce the worlding of common endeavor between the coordinators, I think, as can the planning and execution of a conference or even a panel. but those dynamics can be odd: I once put together a roundtable (parenthetically, I think it may be easier to do this kind of thing with a roundtable than with a panel, given that panels demand papers whereas roundtables only call for memos or thoughts -- but this may also be a function of the kinds of papers involved) with six participants, and by the time it reached print we only had four left because of internal tensions and the like. Plus, the post-roundtable discussion was mostly about the substance of the arguments, and not so much about the communal endeavor itself.

Indeed, this is the problem: academics talk about their work. They don't talk much about the circumstances that produce it, or the formal and stylistic aspects of it -- it's not like musicians after a concert discussing their performance and that of others. It can be, but in my experience only is so rarely.

3) co-teaching, or, since that is not as common as I would like for it to be, the kind of co-teaching that involves one's TAs. TAs who are there in the classroom get to watch and assist; they occupy a unique position, in that they get to participate in something that is otherwise a very solitary performance. So one can debrief with them afterwards, and plan future activities, and engage in the kind of reflexive critique that results in better performances. Or at least results in that common endeavor sensibility.

At the conference this past weekend I (re-)discovered that conferences can be like performances, and can be like communal performances. I go say my piece at a panel, someone else says theirs, and later on we can compare notes, see what the effect was as observed by other people, talk about whether the resulting atmosphere was desirable…

Conferences can be performances in that way. I and my colleagues running around and working to interject points and shift the conversation(s), looking for people saying interesting things, even identifying morons who need to be publicly opposed: there's a pleasant commonality throughout that is missing in large portions of the academic life as I have experienced it to date. During the debrief sessions (generally in the bar, as usual) I did feel like I was, for a few moments, a part of some larger common enterprise. It's different than bitch sessions or gossip sessions, both of which are important parts of what goes on at conferences; where those involve huddling in the wings and comparing notes, this is more like playing. And the difference, I think, is two-fold:

1) this kind of worlding is produced by treating the conference as a game that we're all playing together, a game with rules and conventions and implicitly some way to keep score. I can envision -- and I have indeed played -- conference games with teams of (s)wordfighters, but this need not always be the case; there can also be more pedagogical games, or things like that game in the stands during sports events where you need to keep the beachball bounding between people and not let it touch the ground…

2) there is explicit and reflexive attention played to the context itself, to the conference and to the way it is organized and playing out. Talking about the field, or about the substance of the papers presented, or about politics, is good and helpful and fulfilling, but the special distinctiveness of this sort of worlding is that the subject-matter is the performative endeavor itself.

I wonder if the reason that this doesn't happen more often has to do with people not taking the conference seriously enough as performance. I often see people looking through it to the content of the arguments presented, or missing it entirely to focus on particular individuals (conferences as giant reunions) or on other, ancillary activities. And while at a conference I certainly do all of these from time to time. But there is also the rare distinctiveness of the activity itself, which is one of the very few moments of communal activity that this strange academic life seems to afford us. [Yes, teaching is communal between students and professor. But it's hard to debrief afterwards and run the class as a collaboration, given the authority relations involved. With my TAs some of that authority is displaced because of the common relation of each of us to the class members proper, and the same happens between senior and junior colleagues at a conference when both are playing together. The kind of worlding I'm after here involves relations between more or less equals, so that everyone is involved together in producing the outcome. Also, most students still think of classes as a technique for getting to matters of content, so they look through the class itself instead of focusing on the performance in the way that the professor and TAs do or can.]

We are often too concerned with tangible results in this business; we don't spend enough time on the process. And we don't spend anywhere near enough time reflexively monitoring that process in the way that generates that marvelous sense of being backstage with others, working together to generate a moving performance.

[Posted with ecto]
Glad I got to run this morning for the first time in over a week -- this flu/cold thing really knocked me for a loop, and I was craving the peculiar opening that I seem to get most easily while doing some kind of repetitive physical task. Especially running. Hence I was able to think through a few things.

Another November, another conference -- the annual Northeast event, a conference I've been attending regularly since 1996. It was my first professional conference, back when I was in grad school. It was also my escape from the rather destructive environment of grad school, where almost no one had the slightest clue what I was doing and really didn't seem to care all that much -- an escape into an environment where I found like-minded scholars and kindred spirits and good conversations. And I've also just completed a year as President of the organization; I plan to stay involved with preserving and sustaining this fragile space in the hopes that it can play the same kind of vital role in the development of other young "critical IR broadly understood" scholars as it did for me.

Total conference cost for me: about $550, including plane fare, hotel, and food. Not too bad for three reasonably intense days of discussions and explorations -- plus a chance to hang out with comrades whom I don't see all that often, trade professional gossip, and practice being in (scholarly) form in a way that I sometimes find it difficult to do in my home institution.

I tried an experiment this time, an experiment stemming from my ongoing discussions with Magic and others about the purposes of conferences: I deliberately attempted to alter my tone during panels. I like and crave a good sparring match, of course, but I was trying to see whether I could accept the fact that other people do not seem to have the same inclinations and work with what they were expecting instead of trying to induce them into another mode of interaction by simply attacking and waiting for them to defend. Taking some advice from a number of people I tried to explicitly qualify what I was saying, signaling tentativeness and hesitation; I dropped a lot of hedge terms into what I was saying and explicitly invited people to critique me. Call it a more vulnerable kind of self-presentation, or a weaker style in the sense of Stephen White's notion of "weak ontology": -- less forceful, less self-assured, less final. Or, at any rate, signaling such a provisional status more explicitly.

See, I tend to think that these things are obvious and implied. It surprises me a lot when I am reminded -- as my friends and colleagues sometimes, thankfully, do -- that there are still people floating around our field who hold fast to notions like "objective truth" (in the non-perspectival, non-constructionist, non-Weberian sense -- a.k.a. Truth-with-a-capital-T) and "definitive conclusions" and "final readings" and that sort of thing. So whenever I offer any claim, it is to my mind only a provisional statement, serving largely as an invitation to critique and further conversation. The best thing one can do, the thing I am always interested in, is having someone come back at my claim and wrestle with it; then I can defend, we can tussle, and eventually produce the moment of connexion that can come from mutually proficient (s)wordplay. But apparently (and this is news to me, and yet another example of how tacit social rules remain mysterious to me -- unless I can spell them out and, in effect, write them down for future reference, I am rather oblivious to them. No social antenna, so to speak -- welcome to the wonderful world of Aspergia) when I simply advance a claim or a criticism or a comment, most people -- even in an academic environment where I'd think that people, having been exposed to the methodological issues generated by the collapse of the Enlightenment project, would realize and act on the realization that there is no self-evident connection between reason and Truth -- take offense, refuse to engage, and dismiss whatever I am saying. Apparently this has some connection to my failure a) to explicitly signal the tentative character of the claim and b) to say something supportive about the person's argument before offering the critique.

The second of these issues strikes me as deeply problematic in contexts in which I am facing off against professional colleagues, which is the case with many if not most panels at the larger conferences. It is problematic because a) I do not see much of anything of value in the arguments that many of my colleagues advance about things; b) when there is anything of value it requires such a drastic re-coding and re-writing of what they are saying that I might as well be making the argument myself; c) I do not understand why someone would be advancing an argument or a claim that they were not prepared to defend, even though I see many of my colleagues doing this all the time; and d) most people in my field do not seem to even understand their own arguments -- either the underpinnings of their arguments or the implications of their arguments -- and so almost anything I would say positive about them would require the kind of reconstruction of their points that I do not really feel is appropriate for the setting of a panel or similar public forum. In other words: saying something supportive simply for the sake of saying something supportive seems highly artificial to me to me in that kind of environment. My professional colleagues do not need my support; they are professionals and should -- should, but apparently often do not -- simply be capable of offering their arguments and then engaging in (s)wordplay over and around them.

Two exceptions to this rule: the sort of presentation where people explicitly say that they are just tossing something out that is half-formed and embryonic (often the case in a roundtable, but I have seen panels in which this takes place as well); and presentations by graduate students who are just entering the profession and who are almost by definition still finding their way. When I discuss graduate student papers, or ask questions of graduate students in public settings, I try to be more deliberately "constructive" (i.e. gentler, and a little more affirming) than I often am to professional colleagues who should know better. There, I said it: they ought to know better. Graduate students can't and shouldn't be expected to be operating at the same level of competence, but established professional academics? Especially those with "important" publications and a certain level of prestige in the field? Please. I do not feel it appropriate for me to be playing "educator" to them -- it's not a classroom, they aren't students, I'm not their teacher. I have students of my own; them I'll teach. And I'll extend that same courtesy to other people's students, and instead of blasting the incoherence of their position I'll invite them to think through that incoherence and give them an opportunity to flesh out how these things go together in their own minds…I'll try to create the same kind of space I try to create when advising one of my own students. But that takes a kind of authority that I do not feel empowered to claim when confronting a colleague's inconsistencies and incoherence -- unless they explicitly ask me for that, which sometimes some of them do.

I digress. I do that.

Anyway, what I did at this conference is try to modify my usual style of presentation and engagement during public session in three ways:

1) at a roundtable on a colleague's book -- a fantastic book that is about to be published, and a book that I can't wait to start assigning to my students left and right -- I began by pointing out that there was a dearth of books in our field that repay close and careful reading and re-reading, but that this book was a happy exception, and one of my favorite recent books period. Longish period of public praise before launching into my detailed critical engagement with the argument, an engagement that largely revolved around my usual hobby-horse about the conflict between a strong specification of subjective motivations and the preservation of agency. And scattering notes of praise throughout the criticism, plus ending on a high note about the kind of debate that I think this book invites us to have, a debate I think sorely needed in the field. Success? Well, the author appreciated it, and I got some feedback that I didn't come across as quite as obnoxious as I might have otherwise.

2) as a roundtable on "ethics and IR,"a subject about which I know little and which does not occupy the center (or much of anywhere near the center) or my work, I introduced the proper graphic representation of the fractal dichotomies I wrote about in previous entries, noted that this was just something I was playing with as a way of making sense of my frustrations teaching in a policy-oriented school, and then speculated on ways that this might help to make sense of our discussions about ethics (and what 'ethics' might mean to different groups of us). Success? Immense. People took the disgrams to heart and began to utilize them during the subsequent discussion, and several people told me later that the diagrams also helped them to make sense out of other experiences in their professional lives. So that worked pretty well, even as I used the conversation on and the participants in the panel to flesh out my points; people didn't mind being used as examples for some reason, and I think it went back to the way that I introduced the concepts.

3) when asking questions at a panel, I used a couple of formulaic signals suggested to me by others in the past: "help me think through this…"; "I think what you're saying is this, and I wonder about this implication…"; "Your reading of Nietzsche is interesting, since in my reading blah blah blah, and I'm curious about what you'd do with a passage like this one…"; and "I'm not sure what I think about this, but it's something I've been pondering and I'd be curious to hear what the panelists have to say about X." All of these, especially the last one, feel somewhat disingenuous; I do have a take on the issues I raised, even if it is by definition (see above) provisional and tentative, and the reading of Nietzsche I was skeptical about was, in my opinion, flat-out unsustainable, since the author was arguing that Nietzsche was making definitive knowledge claims rather than tactical interventions of dislocation. But I deliberately held back, used alternate formulas, and bided my time. [On another panel I held myself in check while a panelist went on and on in a wildly incoherent way; even though I was formulating a sharp rebuke that started with "but that makes no sense," I didn't voice it aloud. Instead I asked a question asking for a clarification of the difference between several of the terms that he had tossed out. Granted, this happened after one of my former students said precisely what I had been formulating, thus relieving me of the necessity of saying it myself, but still.] Success? Somewhat. The more "vulnerable" questioning style did promote a better discussion, I think, than might have been the case otherwise. And several people wanted to continue discussing the issue(s) with me afterwards, which was (I think) a good sign. Now, granted, the discussion was somewhat loose and woolly; what was "better" about it was that people were talking and responding, not necessarily that they were being particularly precise about what they were saying. But some conversation is better than no conversation.

So I altered my tone, and there was some improvement. But at what cost? I feel a little disappointed that there was only one really good argument in which I was involved at the conference. I am greedy; I always want more of those. Then again, one good argument (which was really the latest round of an ongoing argument) is certainly a positive thing, and I don't know how many really good arguments per conference should be realistically expected. And the other public conversations were nice, if not particularly earth-shattering. Plus, I know that I did a little bit to help alter the reputation that I apparently have in some quarters of being an obnoxious asshole; I know this from private conversations, which continue to constitute the real reason I go to conferences anyway. (More on those in a subsequent entry.) Also, Northeast is a smaller gathering, without so many prestige players in attendance; beating up on children and old people doesn't make for good sport. Northeast is a more nurturing environment, or at least it should be, and maybe my altered tone helped in some small way to make it so.

[Posted with ecto]
  The status quo
An issue that I continue to wrestle with in the general area of "science and politics" concerns the charge often leveled at me and some of my students that we are not "political" enough. At first I thought that they simply meant that we were not letting our politics drive our scholarly conclusions, and so I simply took it as a compliment -- even though this is almost certainly not how our accusers intended it. Then I though that it might be exhausted by the fractalization of the contemplating-enacting dichotomy; while I think that this gets us part of the way there, it does not suffice to get at all of the relevant complexities of the issue -- largely because there are divisions inside each of the four categories produced by that fractalization that do not seem to involve contemplating-enacting at all, but seem implicated whenever "science and politics" is discussed. And I have colleagues and students who have no doubts about their Cc scholar status, but who are still very concerned about the lack of "politics" displayed by other Cc scholars.

So here's where my thinking about this puzzle is at the moment: what is going on here involves the basic insight that the social and political status quo does not appear to be "political" by virtue of its being the status quo. So if my analytical assumptions about the world mirror more or less closely the arrangement of forces and factors in the world, and if I further proceed with this analytic without taking pains to distance myself from it or to criticize it, this apparently appears "unpolitical" to those who are much more opposed to the status quo than I am -- and perhaps to me, too, inasmuch as I appear to simply be reflecting the world as it is and not making a "political" claim about the world at all. Silence equals consent -- taking the world the way it appears to be and not overtly critiquing it slips easily over into a a signal of support for that world and its arrangements.

"Political," then, seems to mean opposing the status quo, while "unpolitical" means defending it, or at least not condemning it in toto. This is a curious usage, inasmuch as a good Nietzschean would be the first to admit that all knowledge was power-laden and in that sense "political." But I can see how a refusal to overtly condemn the status quo might be taken to be "unpolitical" if what one was interested in was a more or less explicit attempt to change that status quo, or at least to distance oneself from it.

Once again, the content of the terms seems to depend on one's position in a set of local debates. Fractalizing the dichotomy as before, we arrive at the following breakdown:

proPp: defendersAp: critics
antiPa: reformersAa: radicals

It is important to note that pro- and anti-status quo stances are potentially much more fluid and transient than the orientations towards politics that appear in my first chart. As the status quo, or one's conception of it, changes, a particular person may find themselves going from Pp to Aa without changing the substance of their claims one bit. If I think that world politics is divided up into sovereign territorial state units, and I am researching global social movements, I am most likely an Ap or an Aa: my work directly goes against what I think of as the status quo, by introducing other elements into consideration. But suppose I then alter my sense of the status quo, perhaps through doing more research, so that I now think of world politics as consisting of broader flows and networks; my concern with global social movements becomes Pa or even Pp. Similarly, if I am working to get human rights on the agenda when it is not, I am anti-status quo; if keep working on human rights after conventions are signed and standards are implemented, I am now pro-status quo, even though I may still be dissatisfied with precisely how human rights are being deployed (I'd be a Pa, whereas I might have been an Ap or an Aa before).

This fluidity is not characteristic of the orientations to politics arranged around a fractalization of the contemplating-enacting dichotomy. If my attitudes towards politics are such that I really want to pursue particular goals, I am not likely to be happy with contemplation; likewise, if I am after comprehension, the daily business of enacting will probably not suffice for me. While it is always possible that someone who begins on a contemplative path will end up forsaking the academy for a more consistently activist life, and vice versa, I'd wager that this is less likely than someone finding themselves at various times in their lives and careers occupying all four of the stances generated by the fractalization of the pro-status quo-anti-status quo division. And while I think that one might well simultaneously occupy multiple positions on this chart, depending on the status quo in question, I do not think that occupying more than one position on the first chart is sustainable for long. More likely is that (for example) someone with enacting inclinations but an overall contemplative disposition [and I am deliberately avoiding the question of whether such dispositions are innate or contingently constructed; my inclination is for the latter, but that's neither here nor there] will end up as an expert trying to speak truth to power in defense of her or his specific causes and issues. But trying to be both a scholar and a practitioner at the same time strikes me as quite difficult, perhaps even impossible, to pull off.

(Can there be people who are temperamentally anti-status quo? Sure. Ditto the opposite. I don't think this changes my analysis much, though, since the possibility of changing positions in the chart remains more open than it does, IMHO, in terms of the contemplating-enacting dichotomy.)

Thinking of the issues like this should, in the first place, put to rest the silly notion that there is any such thing as "non-political" thinking or behaving. Every action has a politics, inasmuch as it is always oriented towards or against the status quo, and is so oriented in more or less extreme ways. But now that we have that out of the way, notice that the change of being "unpolitical" is most likely to arise in one specific debate -- between Aa radical and Ap critics -- because of the usual habit in fractalized debates of conflating local opposition with a more global issue, and thus collapsing Ap critics into Pp defenders of the status quo. No such option is available to Pa reformers, although they are quite likely to be conflated with Aa radicals by their Pp defender opponents -- a dynamic that we see in political debate all the time, for instance in the patently absurd notion that any tampering with the operations of the free market is the same as state socialism, or that allowing moments of silent prayer in schools is the same as theocratic dominion. So being called "unpolitical" most likely means that you are debating with an Aa radical, and there's a good chance that what has offended their sensibilities is that you are an Ap critic instead of a proponent of their Cause -- whatever it is.

Notice also that this dichotomy also parallels the distinction, first brilliantly sketched by E. H. Carr, between "realist" and "utopian" views of social order. Realists are by definition pro-status quo, because they think that this is the way that the world is and that a failure to take this into account would be disastrous. And anti-status quo orientations have something of a utopian tenor to them, inasmuch as they rest on a vision of the world that is at variance with how the world appears at present. Pa reformers are utopian with respect to Pp defenders, and both are "realists" when compared to Ap critics and Aa radicals. The debate between critics and radicals that can easily lead to the deployment of a charge like "non-political" is, in this sense, a debate about realism vs. utopia, albeit one in a specific local context of people generally opposed to the status quo.

[Notice also that the way I have set this dichotomy up -- like the contemplating-enacting dichotomy -- deliberately abstracts from the specific content of particular positions. A debate about what the status quo is is, I think, a different matter from the issues I am trying to highlight here. By doing this, I have also left open the possibility that people of different orientations might nonetheless come to agree on what the status quo consists of -- optimistic, perhaps, and maybe even a little utopian. But I would still like to think that people's general moral-practical orientations do not completely determine the "facts" that they apprehend; I'd prefer to reserve that for the analytical apparatuses that they produce out of their substantive commitments. But I digress…]

Now, the real action starts when we combine the two dichotomies, generating sixteen ideal-typical combinations of positions that people might adopt. Combine this with the basic observation that the most intense fights are between those who share the most in common (the "family" rule, so to speak), and we have a rather dynamic way to account for and appreciate the struggles that we see inside and outside of the academy. A group of scholars who disagree on their orientation to the status quo will engage in vitriolic debates about one another's "politics," in part because they share the same basic orientation to politics. A group of radicals might almost come to blows over the question of whether "theory" was or was not an important component of the revolutionary struggle that they all agree is necessary, and what theory's precise role should be. And in all cases, the local meanings of the terms deployed would be specific to the situation at hand, while bearing enough of a Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" to the way that those terms are deployed in other local contexts to enable interlocutors to drag in other statements in support of their claims -- hence characterizing their opponents as occupying more extreme positions in the fractalized field than they actually do occupy…

Also, consider that in present circumstances (and for the moment I am deliberately leaving underspecified what those "present conditions" entail) opposing the status quo is somewhat intuitively easier to do from a position of actively intervening in politics, while the institutional and organizational constraints of the academic life make it quite tempting to simply engage in disinterested or detached analysis rather than explicitly opposing the social and political status quo under investigation; there is thus something of an "elective affinity" between contemplating and affirming the status quo, and between enacting and objecting to the status quo. This means that it is in many ways easier to be an "unpolitical academic" than it is to be an academic opposing the status quo, and that it is easier to be a "political activist" than it is to campaign and to mobilize around the notion of a defense of the status quo. [Here part of the genius of mobilizing fundamentalist Christians during the last election, since their narrative always places them in opposition to what they conceive of as a sinful, secularized status quo…even as they make concrete inroads and enact policies that increase the overtly Christian character of the public sphere in much of the United States.]

What this means, ultimately, is that the people who have the hardest time will be those who occupy the most "counter-intuitive" positions, such as (for example, since this is where I'd locate myself :-) scholars with a critique -- but not a radical one -- of the social and political status quo. Such CcAp folks are likely to get accused of being "too political" by their Pp and Pa scholarly brethren, and too "unpolitical" by CcAa radical scholars; they may also (shifting the kaleidoscope slightly) be accused of being hopelessly out of touch with practical reality by Ec and Ee critics, and dismissed as too impractically conceptual by ApCe "critical experts." CcPp scholarly defenders, like EeAa practitioning radicals, have the power of socially sustainable consistency to draw on in support of their stances. "Scholarly radicals" -- CcAa -- and "practicing defenders" -- EePp -- have the consistency of their positions (always more radical or more status quo oriented, or always more contemplative or more enacting oriented, than others in their local group) to draw on for support. [This is much clearer when fractal dichotomies are drawn in a different graphical format, such that a secondary division is below the first and is connected to the initial split with lines forming an inverted "v" -- I really need to find the html for doing that.]

But as for the rest of us, muddling through -- and differentiating ourselves from one another in myriad ways -- is perhaps the best we can do.

[Posted with ecto]
  The Ee electorate
Call me crazy, but I think that the analysis I presented a couple of days ago concerning tensions between orientations towards politics also can help to shed some light on the recently-completed U.S. presidential election. The sociology of knowledge: it's not just for academics anymore.

First, let's review:

contemplatingCc: scholarsEc: scholar-activists
enactingCe: expertsEe: practitioners

These four orientations to politics, generated through a "fractalization" of the the basic choice between contemplating how politics works and enacting specific political programs, produce different sets of expectations with regard to such matters as knowledge, theory, "success," and the like. Scholars have their internal debates about epistemology and methodology, and in an ordinary academic context generally have some experts around with which to contend; experts seek "value-added" in the form of policy recommendations that are grounded in some sort of theoretical rigor but targeted at overcoming the "ivory tower" habits of their scholarly brethren -- even at the expense of a measure of intellectual coherence. Practitioners focus on geting things done, and have little use for more abstract conceptualizations; scholar-activists remain grounded in the world of practice, but step back to reflect on that practice according to standards that they share, more or less, with scholars -- even as they, like experts, aim to produce specific recommendations for policy practice.

Because of "positional solidarity," experts and practitioners find themselves weakly allied against scholars and scholar-activists when it comes to a choice between abstract theoretical rigor and more concrete plans of action. Scholar-activists are the contemplators of the enacting community even as experts are the enactors of the contemplating community. As a result, the issues open for debate between scholars and experts on the one hand, and scholar-activists and practitioners on the other, are effectively the same issues translated into different local contexts. Just as scholars criticize experts for oversimplifying, minimizing complexity, and glossing over methodological subtleties, scholar-activists critique practitioners who do not have a broader grasp of the meaning of their activities, or a solid intellectual defense of why certain actions are performed in preference to others. "Theory," or "rigor," or sometimes "methodological sophistication," serves as a specific move in a language-game of debate between the two ideal-typical poles within each community. And the reverse move is also possible, and prevalent: experts and practitioners throw the charge of "sophistication" back in the faces of their opponents, charging them with being completely out of touch with political reality.

[Parenthetically, such conflicts are also fueled by the striking fact that scholar-activists look like ivory-tower scholars to practitioners, even as experts look like a-theoretical practitioners to scholars…typical fractal distortion, in which a group occupying a similar position within the broader universe of positions is substituted for the group with which one is actually arguing. Experts are hopelessly "abstract" by comparison with either scholar-activists or practitioners, but from the content of the charges leveled during the debate, you wouldn't know it. Hang on to that point; it will be useful in a moment.]

A final thing to note is that Ee practitioners are not impressed with academic rigor or sophisticated logic; they are much more likely to respect results, even as they (from a scholarly perspective -- I can't completely detach myself from my own position in this typology, even while trying to envision how things appear from other positions) lack the critical argumentative habits of thought needed to evaluate claims about results. This accounts for the habit of expert-seeking I often see among my MA students, who shop around for an expert whose arguments support them and then deploy that expert as part of a debate with other Ee practitioners. This kind of move presumes a certain positive valence to contemplation, though, such that a practitioner with experts on her or his side is to be taken more seriously than a practitioner without them, or that policies founded in systematic contemplation about how the world is structured are superior to policies that are not so founded. Ec scholar-activists are better able to separate sound from unsound arguments by thinking critically about them, but are probably less likely to simply accept the pronouncement of one or another expert in their debates with Ee practitioners -- which is why we see Ec scholar-activists critiquing the methodology of the experts on which Ee practitioners draw, and drawing on Cc scholarly arguments in order to do so.

Now, assume for a moment that we are dealing with a situation in which contemplation has been devalued. [Set aside for a moment the intriguing question of precisely how this has happened.] In such a situation, one can effectively attack an opponent by deriding their intellectual proclivities and portraying them as an aloof thinker -- lumping reflective enactors in with the most ivory-tower of intellectuals. Given that Ec scholar-activists -- or, perhaps, "thoughtful politicians" -- tend to have more nuanced positions on issues, given their increased familiarity with the nuances of scholarly debate and the complexity of the issues under investigation, one could easily take such a candidate to task for "waffling" on the issues, while touting one's own "fortitude" and "resolution" -- and occasionally trotting out a expert or two to assuage the objections of those remaining few who give a little credence to the idea that thinking matters to political decisions. Behold, the Bush campaign strategy, with the Heritage Foundation and AEI playing the occasional (very occasional -- the Bush campaign, indeed the whole Bush administration, prides itself on not consulting experts for advice, and they rarely base their public claims on expert testimony) "expert" role, and the major substance of the charges against Kerry amounting to something like "he thinks too much, and he surrounds himself with thinkers."

Yes, the Bush campaign also deployed the "moral values" card -- which, as my friends over at The Republic of Heaven wisely point out, means "homophobia" -- and this got them quite a bit of (rural) turnout in swing states, and thus sealed the election. But the condition of possibility for such a deployment to work is that contemplation and thinking be devalued; if it weren't, then we'd be having a much more intricate debate about sexuality, instead of the naked fearmongering characteristic of current public rhetoric on the issue. [Note that I am not saying that the more intricate debate would necessarily be more rational or anything like that, just that it would be more intricate -- with experts weighing in on all sides, and discussion rather than categorical pronouncements that shut down further debate.] In the absence of any public discussion of values, and in the presence of a culture that devalues contemplation, we are left with bare assertions of what "value" entails -- and a lack of public rhetorical space in which to effectively challenge those pronouncements without being accused of, in effect, "thinking too much."

Not too surprising, coming from a group that prides themselves on not being a part of the"reality-based community":

The [Bush] aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

We are now living in a country run by people who not only don't value contemplation, but actively de-values it. And this resonates with their base of supporters.

The solution? We have to restore the value of contemplation, somehow, so that we can get the positive valence back for "thinking a problem through." FDR's brain trust followed the Great Depression; maybe we need another crisis of that magnitude to frighten people into esteeming something other than their "gut" sense of right and wrong?

[Posted with ecto]
Oh, fuck this rhetoric too. The country doesn't need "healing," which is a none-too-subtle way of telling the blue states to knuckle under and shut up, having lost a closely contested election. Particularly an election where the major issues on voters' minds seems to have been "moral" issues, involving "gay marriage" and the like. (Yes, yes, materialist pundits are going to say that it's the economy, stupid. But it wasn't. The economy is not doing too well, particularly in many of the red states, so poof, there goes that hypothesis. People do not simply vote their pocketbooks, although they may vote their moral conception of what should happen to their pocketbooks…which is a different matter altogether.)

The War On Terrorism? What is that if not a "moral issue" too? It can't be some kind of "material reality," since on basically any defensible measure we are not "winning" that war, and the chances of a terrorist attack in Iowa or Ohio are so slim as to make winning the Powerball jackpot look like a sure thing. (The Gateway Arch in St. Louis -- now there's a media-worthy terrorist target. But Ohio? Iowa? What would they blow up?) "We have to get those bastards" sounds like a moral claim to me, one straight out of a bad, de-contextualized reading of the Christian Old Testament: an eye for an eye. Sound analysis? Virtually every professional IR scholar and analyst not directly in the pay of the emergent neoconservative establishment signed this open letter condemning how the Administration has elected to pursue the War On Terrorism. People apparently aren't thinking about these issues in anything like a defensible, logical fashion, they are -- as usual -- reacting to a compelling configuration of rhetorical commonplaces that is supported by a long-term effort by religious conservatives to re-engineer the social environment of the country. The War On Terrorism is nothing but the completion of Reagan's public recasting of the Cold War as a manichean struggle between Good and Evil.

Values, people, VALUES. It's what Republicans know about American politics that Democrats have forgotten. I like my values. I'm happy to debate them any time. So why is the Democratic party so afraid to do so?

The "healing" rhetoric -- which we now hear coming out of both camps -- is the biggest bunch of bullshit I can imagine. It's worse than the "mandate" crap I was ranting about earlier. Why? Because it reflects this fundamentally a-political, anti-agonistic approach to social life where consensus (almost any consensus) is good, dissent is traitorous, and conflict exists as a problem that needs to be solved. As though perfect utopia would exist if everyone agreed on everything -- as thought that wouldn't be precisely the Orwellian nightmare that all of us fear. Well, maybe not all of us. Apparently some people buy the sanctity of their values enough that they're fine imposing them on others by force. I wonder what it's like to have that much certainty about anything, so that you know that you're right, right, RIGHT -- and that anyone who disagrees with you is utterly, implacably, irredeemably evil, and deserving of whatever cruel fate befalls them at the hands of the righteous.

We don't need healing. We need ongoing contestation, because that's the only thing that stops us from falling into the gross conceit that we have figured it all out, that God Himself (only a male God does things like this, usually) is on our side and we can do no wrong as long as He is with us. And the U.S. constitution is designed for this: when one has an issue that is so contentious that the country as a whole cannot agree, and cannot agree in the supramajoritarian way that is (wisely!) required to make Constitutional modifications, then we let individual states make their own decisions and fight the constitutional issues out in court. It's the American (federalist, or "negarchic") way. [And yes, I am quite aware that sometimes the system breaks down, chokes on issues that cannot be handled that way -- issues like "slavery." But I do not think that we are dealing with anything quite that fundamental here. I could be wrong, of course; only time will tell. My point is that we have to try.]

I want states to enact "gay marriage" legislation, and then get into principled struggles with other states about whether it should be permitted -- and whether there are any Constitutional grounds for one state's refusal to recognize the legal enactments of another (which is a very tough argument to make and sustain). I want states to pass educational programs that try all kinds of crazy things to solve the problems with our public school systems all across the country, and not be beholden to the absurd timelines of the No Every Child Left Behind act. The Patriot Act scares the shit out of me; I want some state to mount a legal challenge on the basis that civil rights have been compromised, so that we can debate the issue instead of being presented with a fait accompli which is then unquestionably valid for the whole country.

Unlike what both parties are now saying, we most certainly do not need "healing," IMHO. We need a good honest and fair contestation on Constitutional principles -- something that can't be resolved with one rather close electoral victory by the champions of one conception. Conflict is good. I do not fear conflict; I fear imposed consensus, especially the kind backed up by force of various kinds.

A prayer: "God, please help us all to stop USING YOUR NAME IN VAIN to justify our particular conceptions of what is right and just. And please do not send us 'healing'; please send us much, much more conflict. Amen."

[No, this is not the entry I planned to write today either. Maybe that one will make its way into print after I grade some more and need a break.]

[Posted with ecto]
  "Mandate," my ass
This is not what I was originally going to blog about this morning -- I'll do that a bit later, got to get it out while the inspiration lasts -- but this article and its quotation from Dick "there's no way I can run for President in 2008 so I'd better do what I can now while I still have an elected position" Cheney:

Mr. Cheney, in introducing the president at the rally at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center less than a half-mile from the White House, left little doubt about how this White House saw the election, and what it intended to do with it. He said the president had run "forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate."

Please. For one thing, the Republican victory in the election was very close, coming down to a few votes in a few swing states. Had Kerry won, calling his victory a "mandate" would have been just as absurd. The country remains deeply divided, and to pretend otherwise is fanciful mythmaking. (Not that the Republicans are the only ones guilty of this. Arguably, the emergence of red states in the first place has something to do with the Democrats' tendency to assume that the rest of the country agreed with them and their values, and almost completely missing the demographic and ideological shifts of the last two decades. The Republicans retooled their base a lot during the 70s and 80s, setting the stage for their electoral victories in the 90s; the Democrats better do likewise if they don't want to miss the boat here. In particular, I think that the lesson is that you can't run as a thoughtful patrician intellectual and hope to succeed in the long run -- no more FDRs and JFKs. Who will emerge as the next great Democratic populist candidate?)

But more fundamentally -- pardon my ivory-tower, scholarly tendencies for just a moment -- the very notion of a "mandate" makes no sense in the American constitutional system. The U.S. Constitution is set up to minimize the dangers of the momentary will of the masses taking over and steering the country down a disastrous course; hence the Electoral College, the indirect election of Senators originally specified in the document, the life tenure of the judges in the Supreme Court, and so on. The central danger (and The Federalist Papers are so abundantly clear on this that it is impossible to miss unless you either don't read them or take great pains to pull words and phrases out of context) is governmental tyranny, which the authors of the document thought about in terms of any one branch of government -- or its natural constituency -- gaining the upper hand for a long period of time. Executive tyranny is minimized through the need for "advice and consent," the fact that President's veto can be overridden, and his inability to dissolve the Congress (among other things); a tyranny of the Court is prevented by the need for judges to go through an approval process; and legislative tyranny is prevented through bicameralism, federalism, and the need for country-wide supermajorities to override the Constitution.

The system is not designed to do anything efficiently. It is designed to present obstacles to effective action, in the hopes that only those courses of action that are obviously right [which, for a bunch of sober enlightenment intellectuals, meant "reasonable" in that reason-is-the-voice-of-God-whsipering-in-your-mind kind of way] would survive the process and be enacted. And in partuclar -- something that we like to forget in our more populist age -- the tyranny that the framers most feared was a tyranny of the majority. The "factions" that Madison rails against in Federalist #10 are not lobbying groups; they are political parties. And the danger is that such factions present their special and specific interest as though it were a more general interest. Think "Rousseau" here, not "Locke"; the argument is that a special interest represents the will of a part, not the (general?) will of the whole. The U.S. Constitution is a machine designed to prevent this, by making it so immensely difficult to win a decisive victory that the difference between the interest of a few (even the interest of the majority) and the interest of others (even a small minority) cannot be mistaken for the difference between the general will (which cannot err: who could oppose the Voice Of All The People, Of Which You Yourself Are A Part?) and a small holdout that has to be "forced to be free."

The notion of a mandate is antithetical to this whole setup. It commits the central error -- flagged both by Rousseau and by Kant -- of falling into democratic tyranny, conflating the "will of all" (in this case, not the "will of all," but the "will of a rather slim majority") and the general will, and removing the possibility of opposition from the rhetorical topography. Who among us can oppose the will of God as revealed through a "mandate" from God's Chosen Electorate? Rhetorically, discursively, politically, this is a much trickier proposition than simply opposing a specific policy or set of policies preferred by a set of elected officials. So it makes political sense that Cheney would invoke such a notion, regardless of how far it deviates from the design of our institutions and our very governmental structure and philosophy, as it affords possibilities that might not otherwise be available. It's always good to have the General Will (a.k.a. the Voice Of God/Reason) on your side as you try to push through controversial legislation like drilling for oil in Alaska and outlawing abortion and "gay marriage."

"Mandates" scare me. The language of a "mandate" scares me. How can one feasibly stand against such a thing?

[Posted with ecto]
It may be a failure of understanding on my part, but I cannot for the life of me wrap my brain around the concept of a terminal MA degree in international relations. This despite the fact that I teach in a program where the MA program is the center of gravity, both in terms of population and in terms of our intellectual life; we hire faculty to teach MA students, get speakers who are largely practitioners and government officials rather than scholars, and generally devote more resources to the MA program than we devote to either the undergrad or the PhD program. In fact, both of those other programs are often folded into the MA program in various ways: many of our undergrads are basically doing pre-MA work, with a not insignificant proportion of them deciding after three years to enter the five-year BA/MA program and this end up with an MA anyway, while about half of our PhD students in any given year are actually doing MA work -- policy analysis, advocacy, etc. -- instead of PhD work (academic research, negotiating theoretical debates within the discipline, and so on). So I find myself in the rather odd and sometimes uncomfortable position of teaching in a program that I do not really understand, and teaching students who I understand even less.

This is a constant feature of my daily life and work, but sometimes it is sharper than others -- such as around registration time, when students are choosing classes for next semester and seek my advice. I seem to have had the following conversation three or four times in the last week with MA students:

Student: I don't feel like my classes are really teaching me anything useful for my career.
Me: In what way?
Student: We read IR theory, but that doesn't seem relevant to what I do at my job/internship.
Me: Theory doesn't really tell you what you should do in your job/internship; nor does it instruct you how to get ahead in your career. it's at a higher level of generality.
Student: And we do academic research. But at my job/internship, we do policy analysis according to a whole different set of standards. No one wants to hear about academic work.
Me: There are different standards for knowledge-construction in the two domains.
Student: Is knowing how to engage in debates about IR theory, or how to do academic research, going to help me in my job?
Me: No.
Student: So what am I doing here?

This is a classic case of something that has a meaning for one group and in one context having a very different meaning for a different group in a different context. It is exacerbated by the fact that the two groups have to keep interacting. The whole notion of a "professional MA degree in International Relations" is an odd fit with IR as an academic discipline, and as long as the differences are not made clear, this kind of conversation is probably going to keep happening. And I cannot shake the feeling that our MA students are being hoodwinked, inasmuch as they come in expecting to gain something that I am not at all convinced that we can provide to them.

Now, part of this has to do with particular subfields. We have programs in "international development" and "conflict resolution" which are basically practitioner programs through and through; students in those programs take courses which are oriented more directly towards their careers, as the content of the courses involves a set of skills and rules of thumb that they will need to master and command in order to make their way in the worlds of development and conflict resolution. In that way, those programs are more like JD or MBA programs: the boundaries between contemplation and execution are much more porous, and it is not unusual for faculty members to be practitioners at the same time as they are academics. Indeed, the best instructors in programs like that are practitioners, since they can give the students a sense of "how things work" in the professional world and make sure that they get both the skills and the network connections that will improve their career prospects.

Those MA programs I understand, sort of. I understand them in the sense that I can see how they might actually help someone who was aiming for a career in that respective subfield. What I don't understand is what such programs are doing in a university setting. I mean, I understand it historically; I understand how universities got into the business of professional certification, and why they stay there (the term "cash cow" comes to mind). I don't understand it intellectually. As an IR theorist I am not convinced that I have much of anything to offer professional practitioners; my work is devoted to trying to understanding what goes on in the world, not necessarily to doing anything in particular in the world, and I am baffled as to why a practitioner would benefit from being exposed to my particular construction of knowledge about the world -- given that it is largely influenced by disciplinary debates and practical-moral value-commitments in a way that undermines any claim to definitiveness.

If I thought that my work produced definitive results, I could offer those results to the MA students as parametric constraints within which they should be working in their careers; but I don't, so I can't. Some of my colleagues have no such hang-ups, and are perfectly happy to do precisely this. Indeed, they would be happy with the label "experts," since they consider speaking truth to power to be some if not most of their jobs. It surprises me not a bit that many of our MA students gravitate to those members of our faculty, as long as they agree with what those "experts" are saying, because this allows them to deploy the label of "more knowledgeable" within their particular debates with other practitioners. The "experts" give them ammunition to use when trying to get the upper hand in their local context. And this is their interest. Knowledge is a means to an end, rather than the ground from which their action proceeds. And having an MA degree serves the same function: it allows the practitioner to claim to be operating from a position that needs to be taken more seriously. [Now, granted, this has been routinized in the usual manner, so that I doubt that most MA students are aware that this is what they are doing by getting an MA; to them, it seems to appear to them simply as a card that they need to have punched in order to advance in their careers.]

So, let me clarify: I think that the clash of understanding between myself and many (not all -- there are MA students with whom I get along very well, but they are generally either those students who are of a more scholarly inclination, or those students who are willing to play the scholarly game for a time) of our MA students is both epistemic and practical-moral: epistemic in that it involves the status and purpose of knowledge, and practical-moral in that it involves rather fundamental life choices and orientations towards the world. Indeed, this second aspect is probably more important than the first, since the meaning of the terms of the epistemic debate -- terms like "theory" and "knowledge" and "practice" -- changes depending on where one stands with respect to the broader question of whether one is primarily interested in contemplating the world or enacting programs and agendas within it. But as Andrew Abbott has argued, a major distinction like this one has a tendency to "fractalize," which is to say, to repeat itself within subdivisions. Thus we get the contemplating-enacting debate repeating itself within the group of contemplators (who basically all go into academia) and the group of enactors (some of whom end up in academia as "scholar-activists," others of whom do not, but simply stay in the field of daily practice).

I can't yet figure out how to draw this and make it display properly in html :-( But here's a table that captures a little bit of what I mean:

contemplatingCc: scholarsEc: scholar-activists
enactingCe: expertsEe: practitioners

MA students are Ee. They come into the academy seeking certification, and find themselves in the company of contemplators. Frustration ensues on both ends. But looking at that table also reveals alliances and points of overlap; Ee practitioners can learn from the expertise of the Ce faculty, and can learn from the practical experience of the Ec faculty. But the major conflicts of interpretation would be along the diagonals, especially between (say) Cc and Ee. (The Ec-Ce conflict is another matter, I think, because of certain kinds of positional similarity that show up better in different kinds of diagrams: both Ec and Ce represent a way that the initially opposite positions come closer together. I need to research how to draw this in html so my readers can see what I mean.) And that's the situation I find myself in with most of the MA students.

Of course, as a Cc, explaining the conflict is an important way that I process it. Not sure how helpful this exercise will be for Ee MA students, or for my Ce and Ec colleagues. But at least it helps me make sense of the dialogue of the deaf that often seems to take place when I talk to MA students -- and also to make sense of my unease with the certification function that the MA degree plays in an Enacting context (or at least with my own role in that function).

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



Powered by Blogger