What counts as success

by CarlD

Reading final papers and course journals now, this smacked me between the eyeballs. For better or worse, this is what counts as a major success to me (from an introductory world history journal, so don’t sweat the typos). Our topic this semester has been ‘conditions of work’:

The last couple weeks, in class, we have investigated the research process and our second papers. I am learning that no matter what time period we are individually studying or what country, most of the same rules apply. There will always be a certain “group” within a population that is getting miss treated because they can be. In most cases, victims are not victimized because of some racial intention or ill-will, it’s because of necessity. I think that when something needs to be done that no one else wants to do, society “volunteers” people to do it. If that group doesn’t have the power or will to object, they fill the void. Once this precedence is set, the negative connotations follow.

Is that the end of the story? No, of course not. But to me, at least, this cleans out the hero/villain juvenilia and the ideological just-so stories and gets the line of investigation pointed toward increasingly better understanding. Yay you, unnamed student.

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13 Comments to “What counts as success”

  1. Nice insight. It also moves toward a “systemic cause” understanding and away from the “simple cause” understanding that leads people to think in terms of individual agents’ actions and conspiracies in which individuals and small groups are intentionally trying to change society in a particular way.

  2. Yup, and you can see feedbacks starting to be integrated in this analysis as well.

    Speaking of feedbacks, from a different student, not as accomplished and more directly knocked off from what I said, but still tracking a learning process that in my view gets to good places:

    “Before people were humanized, everyone was a person based on their social standing which comes back to the hierarchy system; also known by their name which represented from where they came from. Slaves were not dehumanized but instead they were displaced within the system. This caused a loss of identity within the system thus making them “nameless” overall.”

  3. Archiving here a comment (on a paper about the horrors of slavery) where I think I nailed a point I often have to make:

    “You’re treating your source as a simple report of facts, rather than a selection and ordering of facts driven by an agenda. It’s easy to miss this because we agree with the agenda, but that’s not actually a good reason to take sources at face value. All that does is confirm and deepen our biases.”

  4. I feel like there’s a conceptual threshold you’re inviting them to pass through, involving a counter-intuitive view of “power” as it operates within or among “systems” rather than owned or wielded by individuals or small groups. It feels a little like Foucault, in the moments when he is not dissociating himself from Marx. Is my summary correct? I’m not so thrilled by phrases like, “there will always be” or “necessity,” but I also see the student discovering the indeterminacy of the process that selects “who gets volunteered” (Irony!) for undesirable but necessary work.

    I think the “learning” or “higher order thinking” on view here come from the fact the student no longer sees roles or identities as assigned by others, or assigns them herself, but is beginning to recognize how a historical process guides and directs language and behavior in particular ways, to produce a particular set of social hierarchies and divides.Would you agree?

  5. Nice comments, Dave. I’ll bet that Carl doesn’t like “there will always be” and “necessity” any more than you or I do. But teaching is part charity work; and steps forward can’t be stepped on. I’m not sure I like “indeterminacy.” Structural inertia isn’t so much indeterminate (it can be ruthlessly determinate) as much as it’s anonymous. It impinges from the unsigned letters of social reflex, so, as Carl says, you can’t identify the villain, but you sure can identify the message.

  6. Yes Dave, thank you! I always do have that Foucault in mind, and Gramsci, and Goffman. And I’ve been stressing the idea of assemblages lately, that hierarchies and divides, societies and individuals, emerge and evolve from situated materials and interactions rather than being either permanent alienated structures or arbitrary artifacts of sovereign will or malice. The idea is very much to invite them to complex systems thinking, without at this stage getting too fussy about the formal bibliography of the theoretical canon. Or, as DtE rightly says, the stubbornly persistent conceptual rubbish of our theological heritage, as old habits die hard.

    I find the essential move is to bracket the leap to judgment. If I can get them to pause on choosing up sides and just focus on describing and understanding, their agency defaults and moralizing gestures don’t get their usual chance to displace quality analysis. Then how things actually work has a chance to be properly intriguing.

  7. Eh, I admit that the “indeterminacy” term was shorthand for something I’m still struggling to formulate: the extent to which a discourse or an institution processes “cases,” not individuals, by taking them up within the discourse’s own terms and definitions. This reflects the Foucauldean insight that the individuals do not possess a kind of originary sex-identity, but that these identities constitute effects of the discourse of “sexuality.” E.g., “So we must not refer a history of sexuality to the agency of sex; but rather show how “sex” is historically subordinate to sexuality.” (History of Sexuality, pt i, 157).

    My point was simply that the system or discourse is indifferent to most of the initial features or histories of the individuals it processes, even when it is producing “individuals” in its own terms. To use DtE’s term, the subjects of the process are indeed anonymous. But I think even being marked or marking oneself as “anonymous” represents certain kinds of relations to discourses of power: this seemed to be the point of F’s discussion of populations in the HoS. So yes, anonymous is a better term than indeterminate to describe this.

  8. Turns out I’m kind of archiving some stuff here, which I should then reconfigure as an Attention Surplus post. Here’s another student both noticing and exemplifying the same dynamic:

    “Today’s discussion involved other factors surrounding conditions of work. Congo in the 1500s was the continued example used in class. I think the biggest thing I took away from this class, and the semester so far in general is that history is more than just dates and events to memorize. There are conditions and circumstances that lead to the great events in history and understanding those is much more important that just knowing when things happened. The mobile we used in class a few days back was a great representation of this. The mobile represented a system and showed how many moving pieces affect the system and how hard it actually is to make a change. I came to the conclusion that there are probably a series of events that bring about a climate of change, and then if there is enough support and force a change can occur and possibly shift the way of the system.”

  9. “My point was simply that the system or discourse is indifferent to most of the initial features or histories of the individuals it processes, even when it is producing “individuals” in its own terms.”

    Yes. But I think there are common metaphysical traps we fall into in this kind of analysis. One is supposing that there are ‘individuals’ and then there are ‘processes’, with individuals as pre-existing essences to which processes then happen. When Foucault’s point is that it’s discourse all the way down and critique is to denormalize that. So as soon as the common project becomes to show how sex is historically subordinate to sexuality, he’d be back to tell us that we really need to be thinking about the history of sexuality and the agency of sex.

    The second is therefore to reify matters in motion like system, discourse, histories, individuals, and processes. We can get leverage from moment to moment by solidifying one or another of these relational complexes, but it’s important never to mistake that tactic for the discovery of a persistent prime mover. Power is microphysical.

  10. I’m glad you brought in “microphysics .” for I was going to say yesterday but forgot, that one of the points of the microphsics of power is that the determinacy, hence the identifications, are located at the point (or person) at which power acts, not at the “source” of the power. You know, for example, that you’re grudgingly conforming to the puritan default (students always want to call it “society”) but the sources are fully smeared out in the discursive space. NOBODY MADE YOU DO IT. Or, to gloss Carl, the sources of power have ceased to be nominal, and have become relational. This isn’t to say that an icon of the nominal source can’t be trotted out when circumstances demand it to give a face to the anonymity for one reason or another. The eyes of the gaze have to be re-identified now and again; but, interestingly, they’re sometimes re-identified to contrast and discredit an extreme so that the anonymous can continue to do its work. The police are often used in this way, as is the Supreme Court. Who’s for a Foucaldian analysis of the Bill of Rights?

  11. Oh I agree. The non-social sciences are fortunate in that their subjects are not easily construed as narratives of sainthood and villainy.

  12. I dunno, those open-source folk can get pretty shun-the-unbelievery about Microsoft.

  13. “the stubbornly persistent conceptual rubbish of our theological heritage”

    That line is a keeper.

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