Archive for ‘vulgarities’

February 7, 2011

Talking with fundamentalists

by Carl Dyke

Part of the seminar today was a work-in-progress workshop, which was really interesting and productive. One of the participants has just barely begun an investigation of environmentalists. He’s interested in why people become environmentalists, and how it might be possible to make more environmentalists. It’s a great project but I’m not going to talk about it, or the seminar, because they’re not mine to talk about. Instead I’m going to talk about my own thoughts as prompted by the seminar.

My anecdatal observation of environmentalists is that like other movement folk they come in a whole range of types and commitments, but that the ones who identify as environmentalists sometimes remind me of a cult. That is, they are possessors of a special knowledge that creates a privileged bond among them. By virtue of this knowledge and its associated practices they occupy a moral high ground about which they may be righteous and around which they create and share qualifying narratives. They are missionary to the masses about their special important truth, but because the mission is in tension with the valorizing exclusivity of their revelation, they may erect purity barriers to membership that guarantee limited success.

None of this, by the way, is meant to pronounce on the truth value of the revelation independent of these group shenanigans. I personally think attention and care for the environment are, on balance and subject to a variety of other priorities, good things. I see environmental degradation or destruction as inconvenient to a number of things I value. But saying it this way, in which the environment is one among a number of contingent values with no essentially-privileged moral content, disqualifies me as an environmentalist properly speaking, as does my failure to become an activist of the cause. Because at the identification threshold environmentalism tends to be a kind of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists are people who commit themselves to thinking about things only one way, the ‘right’ way. They treat as premises what otherwise might seem to be conclusions, and as ends what might otherwise look like means. They may or may not be able to speak coherently about their premises and ends, but what they cannot do is see their premises or ends as contingent and optional. Fundamentalists therefore have a tense relationship with education, which is about becoming able to think about things many ways. Strictly speaking, fundamentalists are not in favor of education; their native communicative mode is indoctrination. In terms of William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development, fundamentalists are firmly planted in A. 1., “Dualism/Received Knowledge,” characterized by belief that “there are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the sky, known to Authorities.”

Becoming a member of a fundamentalist cult like environmentalism generally involves indoctrination from youth, a conversion experience from another fundamentalism, or rescue from a wandering anomic wilderness. Otherwise the environment or the teachings of Jesus or the Pittsburgh Steelers are just one among many things one might value, albeit possibly uniquely compelling ones from time to time. Such a view would be consistent with Perry’s C. 6., “Pre-Commitment,” in which the necessity of exiting pure relativism and taking a stand is recognized, and D., “Commitment/Constructed Knowledge,” in which responsible stands are taken and then dynamically weighed against other possible stands. Of course a quite different kind of environmentalism is possible on this basis (please note that I’ve said this); and fundamentalists can make great allies for all one’s projects, as long as they don’t notice you have more than one, or go all Spanish Inquisition and piss off everyone in sight.

It’s either very difficult or very easy to talk with fundamentalists. Accepting their premises and ends makes for smooth but stereotyped conversation. The hard part is if you want to have a conversation that puts pressure on what they take for granted. This is because like anyone else, they have no way to make sense of statements outside their cognitive horizons; but unlike non-fundamentalists they are committed to keeping those cognitive horizons right where they are, rather than expanding them to take in unfamiliar or inimical conceptions. (Many of my students are similar to fundamentalists in their inability to think ‘outside their box’, but most differ from fundamentalists in being open to considering other options.) Under pressure from cognitive ‘otherness’ therefore fundamentalists tend to close into a self-referential reassertive loop and to ascribe disagreement of substance or emphasis to the ignorance, malevolence or cognitive deficiency of their interlocutors. Like friendly tourists in foreign lands, they may slow down, make careful eye contact and speak more loudly, but it never occurs to them to question the universal applicability of their own language.

Now, Cardinal Biggles, the rack!

This post is not meant to be particularly compelling or persuasive in itself; a certain general plausibility of the framing I do here would be a good outcome. Right now I’m seeing this as groundwork, later to be hidden, for an account of what a liberal arts general education core might be good for. Like Certeau, who I’ve been reading alongside this other stuff I’ve mentioned lately, I think a lot of the qualifying narratives for traditional liberal arts education have degenerated into dogma, themselves a fundamentalism of increasingly obscure values. I’m toying with the idea that what the liberal arts are actually good for is fundamentalism interception. They (we) work by putting what we and our students take for granted under the pressure of otherness. The payoff is not in some nebulous sense ‘breadth’ or ‘culture’, but a strategic flexibility, resilience and resourcefulness that make us less brittle in a world that often doesn’t share our sense of what matters. For this purpose one of the chief advantages of liberal arts content for our students is that it’s not interesting (it is not in their interest), but disinteresting. I’m still thinking this through, including Bourdieu’s cautionary observation that academics are people who have an interest in disinterest; let me know what you think.

December 13, 2010

The Iron Laws of Anarchism

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been reading reactions to a couple of James Scott’s latest books, Seeing Like a State (1999) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). I haven’t read the books themselves, which by all accounts are iterations of themes from earlier books I have read such as Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990). Scott has made an admirable career out of sticking up for plucky folk resisting domination by the powerful. He’s good at what he does.

I’ve read widely and sympathetically in this genre over the years, so for casual readers uninvested in exploring further I’ve boiled down some basic principles. I call them ‘the iron laws of anarchism’. They go like this:

*States are monolithic.

*States must not be claimed to be monolithic, because that would obviously be simplistic.

*States’ purposes are inherently nefarious, and must be resisted.

*Any act or non-act by ordinary people not rigorously consistent with monolithic State purposes must be interpreted as resistance, unless it turns out it was a sneaky (‘hegemonic’) way for the State to get what It wanted after all.

*States are both comprehensively effective and universally inept, depending on what makes them look worse in the analysis at hand.

*Ordinary people are both comprehensively defiant and universally downtrodden, depending on what makes them look better (and States worse) in the analysis at hand.

*For ‘State’, substitute Capitalism, Patriarchy, Colonialism, Imperialism, The Liberal Media, Fox News, The University Administration, My Older Brother, and/or The Devil at will. Modify ‘ordinary people’ accordingly.

Of course this is all pretty silly. Nobody actually thinks like this. Any relationship between such crude caricatures and real persons making real arguments is purely fortuitous. There are costs of not reading carefully. For much more careful and substantive thoughts on Scott’s recent work, check out the links below:

Kerim on The Art of Not Being Governed at Savage Minds

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber’s long review of that book and Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags at American Interest Online, The State of Statelessness

Eric Brandom on Seeing Like a State at Learning Curve

Kerim again on Seeing Like an Economist, with more great links, including

Economist J. Bradford DeLong on James Scott and Friedrich Hayek, arguing that the Austrian liberal economists in their rejection of socialist central planning were the natural allies of local knowledge systems

And, not on Scott but a great demo of how to do really good State/civil society analysis (in the Russian case), Greg Afinogenov on the trouble with cynicism. In which, incidentally, Greg makes amends for an earlier snarky piece of hackwork much like this one, only with better graphics.

December 9, 2010

14.5, to be exact

by Carl Dyke

One of my little missions as a teacher, as usual at least partly a selfish one, is to teach the kiddoes to intake information the first time it’s presented, whether it’s directed to them personally or not. I take this to be a dimension of responsible being in the world, and a minimal first step toward developing the sort of disciplined attention and monologue tolerance that enables participation in the abstractions favored by high culture; which in turn I take to be the substantive point of a liberal arts education. Of course the dispositions of class guarantee that this will not be a widely-distributed skill, which is what makes it so valuable, both in its actual achievement and in its pharmaceutical simulation. Although it is rare to find someone who cannot focus their attention at all when they find the situation ‘interesting’, suggesting that it’s not attention itself that is in deficit.

Anyhoo, yesterday a student I quite like personally came running into my office carrying its journal, and breathlessly announced that it was turning the thing in then as another student had told it it must. I smiled to myself and told it that this transaction was fine with me, although as I’d mentioned in both the syllabus and in class the previous day the standard journal turn-in protocol was to bundle it with the final paper, due next week.

My student friend then proudly announced that the journal contained exactly 14.5 entries. Now we’ll need a little background to see why I almost laughed out loud at this point. As again described in detail in the syllabus and discussed at length in class, the journal is intended to be ethnographic field notes from the semester, a reflective record of the social processes of teaching and learning, in our class and others. The number of entries is not specified, but at least one or two a week are recommended. Easy math gives us a figure of roughly 30 here, but counting is not the point. For the final tally to be manipulable to achieve a target of 14.5, there’s already probably been an epic fail with respect to the actual purpose and process of the assignment, although there are certainly ways to do a passing journal that could wind up around that number.

So, why exactly 14.5, you may ask? Well, because the day before, the final day of class, two separate students at separate moments in open class discussion asked me to personally tell them how many entries should be in the journal. For the first, I explained the above and reminded it of previous discussions in detail of the journal. By the time the second one asked I’d had enough of that conversation, so off the top of my head I invented a preposterous number (not preposterous enough, I’m afraid), 14.5, and stated it flatly as if it was a reasonable answer to a reasonable question. That particular student smelled a rat and asked if I was serious; I said no, I was teasing it, and referred it back to the syllabus for further guidance; knowing, however, that if it hadn’t been doing the journal all along as intended there was no help for it there except a possible glimmer of understanding that it might want to pay more attention next time.

It is from this information-rich context that my student friend plucked 14.5 as the correct number of entries for its journal. I can’t wait to read them.

November 25, 2010

Happy accidents

by Carl Dyke

I am a firm believer in the happy accident. I may have said this before. I don’t mean purely random serendipity. Any dipity-shit can get that sometimes, but mostly not. I mean the sort of emergent event where a loose collection of good elements collated in a loosely enabling process dynamically configure in an unexpectedly, even unexpectably delightful way.

I think it’s possible (by definition, see above) to arrange things so there are more happy accidents, and fewer. The single best way to minimize the possibility of happy accidents is to carefully control everything about the inputs and processes of a situation. In academe one regularly sees this in curriculum and syllabus design, where ponderous machineries of micromanagement are deployed to assure that an outcome better than bad and worse than good occurs. In contrast, a happy accident-friendly situation is characterized by a certain flexibility toward both input and processes. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” Shunryu Suzuki says (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Divergence from norms and ideals must be tolerated, even encouraged (selectively and not infinitely, to be sure) on the theory that it’s precisely norms and ideals that are inhibiting the happy accident. Just one of many reasons to be traitorous towards norms and ideals.

Although I pretty much run my life according to the happy-accidental principle of assembling good elements and letting them do their thing, two recent moments brought this into focus for me. The first, about which I’ll need to be vague to protect a personal and collective privacy, happened in one of my classes. As usual we’ve noodled around quite a bit and I’ve tolerated/encouraged all sorts of tangents to cultivate a spirit of investigation and to see where they might go. The other day it all came together in a moment where one of the students made a series of personal revelations that in context were so striking, and so helpful to our understanding of the world around us, that for a moment the class became more than it could possibly have been if I had strictly dictated content and process. Over the course of the semester we had all learned some things together, developed a group process, and established a trust without which this moment wouldn’t have been possible. But any given class meeting might well have seemed like a complete waste of time to a conventional observer.

The second moment was watching a movie Rachel and I quite like, “The Fall,” through the lens of the director’s commentary. Tarsem talks about a process of creation taking 17 years, in which he patiently assembled influences, techniques, collaborators, locations, and favors due. The catalyst was a young Romanian actress to play the lead. Tarsem and the other actors provided a stimulating immersive environment, then allowed her to improvise creatively within that loose structure and bring all the elements together into an imaginative whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

So many great things work like this: jazz, inspired oratory, the Iron Chef, Dutch soccer. As Picasso said, “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

May 24, 2010

Nightmares of dead generation

by Carl Dyke

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

What is this familiar nightmare (Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) doing here? Well, he’s a tool, of course, specifically ideological cover for a point I tried much too briefly to make at Giovanni’s post on the deselection (and destruction) of books including Gramsci’s Prison Letters at the Victoria University, Wellington Library. In what may be my favorite practical joke in a long while, that comment has itself since been deselected and destroyed, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive culling of all comments at the site. But since that move forecloses conversation there, I’ll move the thought here and see if it’s worth a chat. I’m interested in the forms the nightmares of dead generations take in our lives. [Note: Giovanni’s original post at his own blog, with excellent commentary, is here.]

Giovanni calls attention to the fascinating process his university library used to try to declutter its holdings to free up space for other purposes. Books that had not been checked out in ten years or longer received a red sticker on the spine indicating their peril. Users could veto the cull by drawing a black line through the sticker, a veritable Wikipedia moment in the stacks. Heroic scholarly defenders against this barbarism then crawled around the shelves black-lining every red sticker they could find. “Save one, save all.” I remember the same kind of culture wars at UCSD when I was a grad student there and little-used books were to be gulaged to UC’s off-site storage facility. And soon my own little university’s figleaf of a library will be faced with hard decisions as we work out how to implement consultants’ recommendations to devote a whole floor currently occupied by a big chunk of the meager collection to an integrated ‘Learning Commons’ offering academic services to our ‘Millenial’ students, many of whom read quite a bit but have never cracked an actual book in their lives.

I should admit that the solid, reliable feel of a real book in my hands, the mystery of shelves groaning under the weight of knowledge, the thrill of the unexpected shelf-read discovery, the crisp, definite sound of pages turning are all pleasures that have shaped my life leading up and into academe. Like many of my peers I think there’s nothing that decorates a living room quite so well as piles of loose books. It may be that this sensuous materiality is especially critical in the case of Gramsci’s prison letters. So, Giovanni

recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci’s Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe’s greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century – it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it.

Gramsci wrote the letters under confining conditions of prison censorship and oversight; his access to books, writing materials and headspace all fitfully but effectively restricted. Yet he was “almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.” How ironic, then, for the product of this effort to fall victim to an arbitrary mass purge?

Quite right. But is this book that product? Gramsci wrote his letters one by one, on a variety of papers, to a variety of recipients. Later they were collected, transcribed, edited and published in the handsome critical edition we now discuss. The materiality of this volume, I note, is already pretty distant from the materiality of the letters and their conditions of production. I take it from the shelf, a convenient, compact whole; I find a comfortable nook; I read the letters one after another on their crisp, neatly-printed pages with their erudite critical apparatus. Here I see the content of Gramsci’s writing, but what I do not see, or feel, is precisely the conditions of its production. My ease of access is exactly the opposite of Gramsci’s struggle, or the slow drip of Gramsci his recipients experienced for that matter. The library is not the prison; the book is not the letters. This book is a simulacrum. And although I can appreciate the reverence for the great man that imbues all his offshoots with a reflected charisma, it’s quite another thing to fetishize this object, this rendition, this product of a purely contingent technology of textual production and diffusion as the true representation of an authentic original.

(Interestingly, Gramsci himself had this “reverence for the book,” as Antonio Santucci once described it to me. I had asked him – this was when he directed the Gramsci archives – if the books Gramsci had owned contained any marginalia, knowing that any historian studying me would do well to track the conversations I was having with the books I was reading by the notes I’d left in them. Antonio said there were none, and hypothesized that Gramsci’s poor rural upbringing had instilled this sense of the book as a precious and inviolable object. I might speculate that a folk-Catholic biblical culture might also have had something to do with it. Writing in the margins is just about the only reason I prefer a physical book any more, by the way, and that’s just because I’m too lazy to learn the available digital markup systems.)

So the question is not whether Gramsci himself and his legacy are being attacked by the removal and destruction of this particular book. That’s all a red herring. No, as Giovanni gets around to saying, the more effective questions have to do with the process whereby books were deselected, and their individual suitability for other forms of availability. He also leaves hanging an intriguing thought about the identity-conferring functions of books as material objects. I’ll take these questions in turn.

As to the deselection process, it seems obvious that to clear physical space in a building previously devoted to book display someone’s ox is going to be gored no matter what. As Giovanni notes, this process is happening on a smaller scale all the time as new books come out and old ones obsolesce. The ten-year rule looks good to me as a rough cut of books that are not actively being used for their content. The strikethrough rule makes sense if we imagine that responsible constituencies will use the opportunity, as Giovanni says, to direct their

sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don’t always map well inside of a computer network.

This is not what happened; the culture warriors did none of this thinking, instead ‘saving one, saving all’. Apparently the mode of destruction encouraged not reflection and responsible participation, but a Luddite backlash. How might the process have been better coordinated, made more ’empowering’ to use a loathsome jargon? Perhaps by turning the mute verdict of the sticker and the mute veto of the strikethrough into real conversations somehow? Can we imagine a happy consensus on which books to cull, or at least a feeling that due process was done? For that matter, is it even possible to get rid of a single book if we devote due attention and care to all of the excellent objectives Giovanni lists?

As to availability, as soon as the Vicky-Welly library has interlibrary loan that’s sort of a non-issue. Libraries share books from both within and among collections; in terms of that function there’s no particular imperative to have any particular title on any particular shelf. Perhaps my perspective at a small library that can’t hope to afford or shelve even a decent fraction of the books I think it ‘should’ controls my thinking here. But further, as I’ve just pointed out the original materiality of the letters makes them particularly bad poster children for defense of the physical book, the thing itself. In the old days we’d be inclined to think that photostatic reproductions were the gold standard for autograph material; nowadays digital reproduction offers quick and easy access to this level of visual authenticity. As for the printed version, that is just as easily digitized as any other book, subject to the same stewardship and market conditions. As I noted in my original comment, Gramsci’s oeuvre has a particularly poor digital availability compared, say, to Marx’s (the above quote was instantly available from my sofa for search and retrieval in public domain from marxists.org). Going forward this, not shelf-to-shelf stocking, may be the more appalling scandal.

If digital media offer easier access to content we want easily accessible, what advantages do physical books offer? Are they just fossils of the dying “analogue humanities,” as Giovanni calls them? Do we need them in some way digital media can’t provide to preserve memory, Giovanni’s special interest? Or are they involved, as he further suggests, in the materialization of a kind of collective identity?

Save one, save all. I don’t care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

I can see why it wouldn’t be worth having an Italian department that couldn’t read Boccaccio (or Verga, or Pirandello, Moravia, Calvino). But if he hasn’t been checked out in ten years, are they reading him? Should they just check out the books that give them their identity every once in awhile to reset the clock, as Giovanni suggests? And what would an Italian department look like that read its Boccaccio online, that did not therefore ‘own’ Boccaccio or have his works available to display as a talisman? Why would that be an Italian department not worth having?

May 1, 2010

A postmodern Christianity?

by Carl Dyke

A guy I play tennis with shot me an email earlier this week asking for my thoughts on how to discuss postmodernity in relation to Christianity without getting into too much philosophy. He’s a smart, well-educated pharmaceutical rep who’s leading a Sunday school class of other educated, non-specialist professionals. They’re discussing “a book by Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian. The crux of the book is … the idea that the transition from medieval Catholicism to the Reformation created a new posture for Christians so different that if effectively created new Christians. Likewise, the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism should have created a new type of Christian – but it didn’t.”

I haven’t read the book and it’s not my field at all, but there’s some overlap. So I batted the question around with a couple of the guys from our Religion department and a guest speaker on science and religion we had this week, basically in the form of the question ‘What would a postmodern Christianity look like?’ What follows are the resulting unsystematic thoughts I sent to my friend.

*In terms of modernist discourse the zone of contention is between the tyranny of religious community and the narcissism of the individual conscience. Luther attacked the corporatist dogmatism of the Church and replaced it with personal faith. The Pope’s reply was basically ‘Look, if you assign worship to individual conscience eventually you’ll have as many churches as there are individuals boutiquing up their own religion, picking the best potlucks, and bailing as soon as anything inconvenient is demanded of them.’ As it turns out, he was right.

*This analysis breaks down a little with historical and anthropological analysis. As the record of the Inquisition shows, Catholicism itself was already a highly hybridized religion with all sorts of local and individual variants, many of them already consistent with one or another flavor of Reformation and many barely distinguishable from paganism. In a larger sense, religions never stably succeed in imposing a unitary dogma, although most of them try. As the Word passes through persons and situations it is changed by them even as it changes them. This point is consistent with Bruno Latour’s argument in We Have Never Been Modern that the modernist purities postmodernism supposedly broke down had never actually existed in practice. Objects like churches are always assemblages of this and that; the trick is therefore to figure out what the elements are in each situation. Although this point might look postmodern, Latour rejects the lazy corrosiveness of postmodernist discourse in which everything collapses into a big mishmash of difference. As an anthropologist he thinks we can be quite specific about the particular situated configurations that actually happen.

*Speaking of difference, if we take modernist Christianity to be about devolving the faith out from the institutional core to the periphery of individual conscience, an obvious postmodern move would be to push a step further and question the coherence of individual conscience. Self and social identity are themselves metanarratives, fictions that we tell ourselves to enable a sense of effective coherence. If in fact we’re each walking, talking dispersions of contradictory history and affiliation, it might make sense to ask who or what we are and who or what is actually having the personal relationship with Jesus, resulting in salvation for what part of our fictive array. If we further understand ourselves to be smeared into larger fields of dispersion including our dogs, accountants, refrigerators and so on, what it means to be ‘personally saved’ becomes pretty tricky. Interestingly Jesus himself prefigures this identity confusion, since he’s apparently human and divine, God and Son, terminal and eternal etc. all at once. (This may all get us to something like a Spinozan pantheism, but I can’t say much about that myself.)

*In a more materialist sense, postmodernism may just be the ideological corollary of advanced consumer society, which brings us back to potlucks. Once Burger King starts telling you you can have it your way and the idea that the customer is always right is embedded into the very structure of our material lives, religion’s power to compel is broken, a market is created for ‘personal spirituality’ in the mode of any other commodity, and stable revealed truth is reduced to a niche marketing slogan that may or may not inspire purchasing decisions.

So, what would a postmodern Christianity look like? Anything to add/subtract/correct/reject/subvert?

April 16, 2010

Yosemite Sam on the campaign trail

by Carl Dyke

I want to vote for a candidate with this kind of clarity and gumption. Rand Paul, a Republican running for Senate in Kentucky:

I’m clinging to my guns, my religion and my ammunition…. We were intended to be a constitutional Republic. Yet, we have devolved into some kind of mad democracy.

Pause a moment and imagine what the world must look like to this guy and the people this quote makes any sense to.

Ah'm the roughest, toughest he-man stuffest hombré that's ever crossed the Rio Grande!

January 30, 2010

Nostalgia, solastalgia, and some other pains

by Carl Dyke

Paul Mason has a terrific post up at Neuroanthropology on “Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of Our Changing Environment,” riffing on an article in The New York Times Magazine in which Daniel Smith (citing Glenn Albrecht, Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University) wonders if we have an ecological unconscious.

Paul hooks the question up with his experience of economic development in Pelourinho, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. In the process of restoring the neighborhood to pretty it up for tourism, the government forcibly relocated poor locals. A result, Paul says, was solastalgia, “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.” Paul is particularly interested in indifference as a psychological defense against solastalgia. He sees the marginalized locals acting badly toward others and themselves, and finds that they have stopped caring. Faced with change they cannot control, they go numb.

The debilitating effects of Nostalgia can occur when you are physically displaced from somewhere you call home. Solastalgia occurs when the environment you call home changes unrecognisably for reasons beyond your immediate control. Solastalgia can lead to distress, but I believe that this distress is felt by people who care. I am not concerned about the psychological effects of solastalgia as much as I am concerned about the psychological defense against solastalgia. The indifference and resignation that the sensitive observer can read on the faces of the poor in Pelourinho, the indifference that can lead a seven year old to hold a gun to a person’s head and demand money, the indifference that can allow a pregnant mother to abuse drugs are all, to my mind, a psychological defence to the debilitating emotion of ‘care’ in a world that has taken away even the most fundamental security of ‘home’ and removed all sense of place.

Not caring as a defense against helpless care seems plausible enough. Paul ponders, is this psychological dynamic behind the apparent failure of climate change warnings to gain traction with so many people?

From my earliest days at primary school in Australia, I can remember learning about pollution, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, global warming, climate change, the destruction of the rainforests, exploitation of marine life, overpopulation and poverty. And yet, today so many of my age group either seem numb to the topics or they simply have a jerk reflex whenever the issues are raised. Often the topic is changed all too easily.

I don’t doubt it. But I also wouldn’t want to discount some other dynamics that may complicate the analysis (and the prescription). For one thing, there’s the common tendency to value one’s own direct experience over others’ as a source of reliable knowledge. Global warming is not yet immediately evident for most people, and for a lot of them, that’s decisive. Since Paul likes neologisms and I do too we’ll call this syndrome autistalgia.

It’s also not self-evident that climate change, or any other kind of change, is a bad thing. The environment will be different, but difference may be assessed from many perspectives and according to many standards. More ocean and fewer humans would be great for fish, and for whatever new species evolved to replace us as the dominant life-form like we replaced the dinosaurs. Even in the shorter and more selfish term, some people find change exhilarating. I’m not one of them, but they’re out there and when they don’t get all pantybunchy about climate change it’s not necessarily because they’re erecting emotional firewalls to protect their embattled psyches. They’ll just take their chances. I would venture to say that evolution and experience have provided humans with a prudent mix of dispositional sensitivity to risk, homebodies and bungee-jumpers, so that as a species we might both avoid risks and seize their opportunities. We’ll call the inconvenience of this fact for any sort of straightforward climate politics polystochastalgia.

Of course, as a subset of the above some people are just making self-interested short-term cost-benefit calculations. Even if the environment is going kablooie, individual margins of impact are low and it might pay to let other people make all the sacrifices to fix it. It also may be that the real bad craziness doesn’t come down during our lifetime, in which case meh. We could call the subjective effects of such folk culalgia.

And then there’s a dynamic Paul himself evokes when he recalls his own upbringing filled with the insistent pedagogy of ecological degradation. We’ll call this one dejalgia, also known as phantasmalupalgia, or sometimes pullusparumalgia. It refers to the pain experienced when there is recognition that we have heard an apocalyptic scenario many times before, without it however coming true on anything like the forecast scale. It takes real strength of will and unflagging faith in the human spirit to keep running out onto the hillside over and over with spears ready when the mistaken cry of wolf goes up. Those not so equipped may be disproportionately demotivated when the same environmentalists who said nuclear power was going to doom us all before now embrace nuclear power as a great source of alternative energy. It’s not that chronic dejalgics don’t care, but that they’re waiting for a little more to go on. It’s not like there isn’t plenty else to do.

I’m being a little silly here, but this is no laughing matter. In the wolf story only the little boy gets eaten, but the black swan of environmental collapse could take us all out. Which I remind you will be a fine day for fish.

December 11, 2009

Does this theory make me look phat?

by Carl Dyke

Back when I was in grad school I had a subscription to Lingua Franca, the since-defunct gossip rag of academe. So at the local library book sale recently I was pleased to find for $.50 Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca (2002), a transparent cash-in bid that collects some of the real gems of pithy reportage, analysis, confession, revelation and snark for which LF was known.

At this point it’s all old news, twice warmed over and therefore hardly the material of cutting-edge bloggery, but still it’s great bathroom reading and I can’t help but reengage with it freshly. My topic today is Larissa MacFarquhar’s dry report (“Putting the Camp Back into Campus,” 1993) on the fanzine Judy!, in which “a University of Iowa undergraduate who calls herself Miss Spentyouth” rhapsodizes about the hotness of theory divas including ‘Kitty’ MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Eve Sedgwick, Geeta Patel and Diana Fuss. “These are the ladies who put the lay back in the MLA!” The central character of the burlesque is Judith Butler, then recently wooed by the “floundering” rhetoric department at UC Berkeley on the chance she’d like it better than her steady gig at Johns Hopkins’ Humanities Center (full disclosure: I applied twice and interviewed once for graduate study at the Center but was not accepted, for what I now see was ample reason).

MacFarquhar reports the parodic homoerotic excesses of the fanzine with admirable formulaic journalistic restraint, amplifying the camp in the funhouse of reflection. I’m sure I’m saying nothing new here and true to the ephemerality of this form I have no interest in backchecking. Miss Spentyouth is interviewed by phone from her bed at about 11am; Monique Wittig is “‘fabulous;'” it’s all “‘really a critique of the whole theory circus–I don’t know, don’t say that. You have to make me seem incredibly clever.'”

Of course Miss Spentyouth is a little shit. An awesomely droll little shit with a laser eye for the absurd. MacFarquhar captures both with efficient metadiscursive craft. Not so Judith Butler herself, apparently, who wrote in to LF (a reply brilliantly appended without comment to the original article in Quick Studies) to register her outrage at this “appalling and tasteless piece of journalism.” She deplores the “conjectured and debased speculations [sic]” of the fanzine and asserts that in publishing the story “Lingua Franca has effectively entered the homophobic reverie of the fanzine itself.” “If the fanzine signals the eclipse of serious intellectual engagement with theoretical works by a thoroughly hallucinated speculation [sic] on the theorist’s sexual practice, Lingua Franca reengages that anti-intellectual aggression whereby scholars are reduced to occasions for salacious conjecture … rather than as writers of texts to be read and seriously debated.” Those being the only two options. To top it all off Butler returns the ad feminem by righteously outing the undergrad’s real name. Twice.

Irony circuit overloads, brain locks, jaw drops, words fail.

Words fail. Rebooting operating system. Perhaps an image will help?

Well. In my experience there are three basic categories of people who get something done: people who have no choice; people who have made an existential commitment to press on in absurdity; and people convinced of their own importance. Arguably the latter two are subsets of the first. What seems clear is that Butler, whose work I often admire, is squarely in the third.

Seems…. We can hope that cultural über-theorist, professional rhetoritician and serious reader of texts Judith Butler has made a meta-clever double move here, inventing a humorless ‘Judith Butler’ sock-puppet to add another layer to the parody and reflexively redirect the readership to a contemplation of the ironies of the self-referential construction of theorized knowledge. Yes, there’s always hope. As God is my witness, tomorrow is another day.

November 26, 2009

Entropy in the cul-de-sac

by Carl Dyke

I noticed this morning [yesterday, now] that the bathroom floor had collected enough schmutz to pass my action threshold. Leaves blanket our lawn and laundry blankets a corner of our bedroom. There are dishes in the sink and a bagful of student papers to read. The fish need feeding, the dog needs walking and the State taxes on one of our cars are due. Recycling was last night, and again in two weeks.

At moments like this I feel the grip of entropy most keenly. The little orderly systems of my life require the regular application of energy to keep from sliding down into chaos. Each time it’s worth it – the modest pleasures of a clean floor, a tidy lawn and an empty bag add up to a satisfying little life. Nevertheless, as I contemplate each outlay of attention and energy on doing that’s just going to need doing again, and again and again, the happy Sisyphus remains a tantalizing ideal.

In the classic The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979), anthropologist Mary Douglas and economist Baron Isherwood argue that the periodicity of tasks is a primary marker of status. High-frequency, non-postponable entropic tasks describable as chores are the specialty of women, children, and servants. This is economically rational, they propose, in the way that any specialization is.

Thus, the division of labor between the sexes is set, the world over, by the best possible economic principles as follows: work frequencies tend to cluster into complementary role categories. These differentiate upward: the higher the status, the less periodicity constraints; the lower the status, the greater the periodicity constraints (86).

It follows that “[a]nyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility (86-7).”

No wonder I try to turn the entropic work in my life into rare and extraordinary events rather than daily habitual duties. The problem, I suppose, is that my sense of status does not match my class, as Weber might say. The classy thing to do would be to engage Central Americans to regulate my floor schmutz and tidy my lawn; start a grad program so there are intellectual strawberry-pickers around to grade my papers; and delegate the dishes and laundry to my wife. Too bad she’s an artist and has no more sense of vocation to keep the house up than I do. If only I had a real wife and not this impressive doer of awesome things! Maybe the two of us could marry someone else to do the chores for us? Or adopt a kid, an older one so someone else has already made the training investment. But, you know, kids these days….

October 28, 2009

The left intellectuals and the God trick

by Carl Dyke

I’ve had bits of a thought on some recent blog exchanges on intellectual activism and the role of the left intellectual stuck in my throat for the last little while, and since I’m now right up against my deadline for the Rethinking Marxism talk I have to prepare I’m just going to hack them up in a little pile. Pardon the mess.

Dysphoria is currently a theme for radical exploration – ‘a loss of symbolic attachments’ – really? How is this not just routine existential crises, anomie? In modern life someone who hasn’t had at least one existential crisis yet isn’t even in the game. That’s like an ante.

But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom.

As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly.

There’s trouble with the moralizing that animates the Left when it relies on Big Principles, so that the theoretical push tends toward the Big Problem, Big Enemy and Big Solution, a whole theology. There’s always the danger of producing and reproducing the Big Other to sustain our sense of the Big Us. This God trick may give revolutionaries the leverage to act (in part by creating what they fight against). Along the way it may generate Orthodoxy struggles – who’s on the side of the angels, who’s a dupe, a shill, a renegade, an enemy of the people.

Further, if the Other construct and the Us construct are mythologies, it’s a gamble whether the messier assemblages of real situations and processes can be horsed into a close enough approximation of the model to get it to work. More likely the projective everywhere of the Big Other and the functional nowhere of the Big Us are just paralyzing, leading to a spastic cycle of spectacular gesture and dysphoric despond. This is especially true if anything short of the Big Revolutionary Gesture is stigmatized as complicity with The Man.

I don’t find very productive the kind of analysis where ‘capitalism’ (or ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white supremacy’, or ‘Satan’) turns out just to be a name for everything that pisses us off. Nor do I think every malaise and dispepsia is potentially a little slice of revolution. How they might become so needs some work that isn’t just a smokescreen for self-validation. And therefore I agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals [based on 1)] for social, political and economic alternatives.”

Again, my apologies for the mess.

Tags: ,
October 6, 2009

Infinity and the ‘total institution’

by Carl Dyke

The reference was tickling the edge of my brain so I tracked it down. OK, cool – here’s what I meant:

Each official goal lets loose a doctrine, with its own inquisitors and its own martyrs, and within institutions there seems to be no natural check on the license of easy interpretation that results. Every institution must not only make some effort to realize its official aims but must also be protected, somehow, from the tyranny of a diffuse pursuit of them, lest the exercise of authority be turned into a witch hunt. — Erving Goffman, Asylums (1961)

The temptation is to look at this and say, Yeesh! Those dang institutions. Goffman’s more subtle point is always that these are things we do to ourselves.

September 14, 2009

Better the demon you know

by Carl Dyke

In a bit of amusing local news, conservative groups got together in Raleigh recently for workshops, strategic planning, demon-strations and inspirational speeches from such luminaries as former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean.

Also attending were some Durham progressives who thought it would be a good idea to understand the enemy, the better to combat them. As activist Lanya Shapiro explained, “it has illuminated why the extreme right-wing grass-roots are so cynical and hateful:… their leaders call the left evil and power-grabbing.”

Maybe being called cynical and hateful extremists by evil, power-grabbing lefties has something to do with it too.

August 28, 2009

A gramscian?

by Carl Dyke

Every once in awhile friends are kind enough to describe me as a gramscian, as when Levi wondered in relation to the commentary on the grey vampires post how a “Gramscian would participate in such ugly exchanges, much less make his blog a venue for such remarks.”

In response to this particular query I would say that I am never more gramscian than when I supply a venue for the free exchange of objectionable ideas. Of all the marxists Gramsci was perhaps the most open to the messy diversity of what I called in my dissertation ‘sociological consciousness’ and he called ‘common sense’, that is, all the junk that actual people actually think (as opposed to what they’re supposed to think for theoretical convenience). He thought you’ve got to work with what’s out there, not what you wish was out there, which is pretty much the main thing I like about him. For more on this you could start here (pdf).gramsci1

Even so, I would not say that I consider myself a gramscian exactly. He was a revolutionary and I’m not. And although I’m on the listserv I’m not part of that dedicated cadre of aficionados who labor assiduously to keep Gramsci’s work and memory alive. I’ve read just about every word he ever wrote and back when I was writing my dissertation I probably knew as much about him and his thought as anyone in the world. I think he was wicked smart, I learned a lot from him and he’s part of my conceptual toolbox. But when there’s something I want to understand or talk about I don’t go to Gramsci as my default source, or try to shoehorn every issue into something he said. It is possible to do that of course, but I’d rather go to someone who got at the issue directly than try to reconstruct what Gramsci might have thought about it. In short, I am not religious about Gramsci in the way that earns a disciple label.

Still, when it comes time to pony up some piece of ephemeral scholarship Gramsci is indeed my go-to guy, so when Mikhail suggested that the always-interesting Rethinking Marxism conference might be a good occasion to meet for some beverage and chat I shot out a proposal for a paper on Gramsci, ANT and the practice of bloggery. I think it might possibly be interesting (and very helpful to me) if I rero (release early, release often) stuff from that paper here as I work through it. So after this post has had a chance to settle I’ll start by sketching out what I think Gramsci, ANT and blogging might have to do with each other. Hint: it has something to do with the ‘journalistic’ mode of conceptual micropractice discussed in the comments on the Latour/Bloom post.

August 18, 2009

One more on 'grey vampires',

by Carl Dyke

trolls and insufferable scholars who, as we all know, infiltrate our thoughts and drain our precious energy. My recent perusal of old posts yielded a moment of clarity that came together for me in a dream last night. I’ll let Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, a real expert on these issues and a subtle observer of the human psyche, take it from here:

Now there’s a man with a project.

April 20, 2009

Strategic misunderstanding

by Carl Dyke

At Edge of the West commenter Michael complains that poster Dana has not read his remarks carefully before responding. At Perverse Egalitarianism, Frames/Sing, and Larval Subjects the battle over correlationism, ontology, naturalism and so on rage amid pervasive assertions of mutual incomprehension.

See a characteristic new installment at Now Times. Alexei, Mikhail and Shahar bond over the common hijackings of Kant and Husserl, who are so often criticized based on shortcut readings and caricatures of various kinds. Alexei hypothesizes an origin to this problem in the daunting scope of these thinkers:

But precisely because [Kant] covered all the bases he’s really — but really — hard to teach, and we always end up foreshortening lines of argument for our students, and then they get stuck with a really skewed understanding of him.

I’m inclined to agree with Alexei, but notice what happens when we take thinkers who have all the bases covered and require exhaustive, cross-referenced understanding of their entire projects as a condition of adequacy in claims about what they’re saying. In practice this is likely to produce little insular priesthoods attached to this or that master thinker, feverishly defending their prophets’ legacies against the heathen barbarian hordes, carrying their colors into each new battle with the glamour of righteousness upon them.

Another example that may resonate is Lenin’s claim that Marx’s Capital can’t be understood without reading Hegel’s Logic (which presumably itself requires prior reading to be understood). Again this is no doubt strictly true, but it would (and did) tend to cut most members of the working class out of any effective participation in the construction and adaptation of marxism as a theory of their liberation. I’m not saying that’s automatically a bad thing; it’s a dynamic to notice with consequences we may or may not like.

Thinkers who have all the bases covered are wonderful and terrible monsters. They require an enormous investment and don’t leave much space for you to think your own thoughts once you’ve made it. It may be strategically necessary to cut them down to size and stomp them out, by any means necessary, to get on with what you want to do. Of course for those of us who are not recognized master synthesists the stomping thresholds are going to come up that much more quickly with most readers.

April 7, 2009

Freedom squish

by Carl Dyke

I was recently involved (as a bit of a thread-jacker) in a conversation over at Edge of the West about drug policy. Dana’s original post expressed a sensible doubt about the value of anecdotal evidence in disproving the destructive effects of pot smoking, and noted that the success of the anecdoter in question “has less to do with the fact that pot isn’t dangerous and more to do with the fact that if one is well-educated and well-off one has to really screw up before anything affects one’s expected life outcomes. They have a safety net made of money.”

It seemed to me this good thought got pretty well covered in short order, so I went meta by suggesting that moving transgression thresholds here and there was more likely to squish unfreedom around than to actually make anyone more free (although I’ll accept ‘more choice’ in a supermarket sense as marginally preferable to ‘less choice’). Pot itself is not much of a point, nor are its specific properties and effects more than a distraction; it’s just where the line happens to be drawn in a disciplinary regime that works by drawing lines somewhere. I made this argument in some detail there and won’t reproduce it here – click through.

So if it’s not squishing unfreedom around, what would it mean to be more free? I don’t have a satisfying answer for that, but here’s my answer, in a couple of parts. Like Voltaire’s Brahmin I wouldn’t want to exchange paralyzing awareness for busy ignorance. And like Camus’ Sisyphus I think there are all sorts of things worth doing anyway (like teaching) not because they’ll actually work in some larger transformative sense but because this absurd fate belongs to us.

Would it be different if it was cheese?

Would it be different if it was cheese?

Freedom is the recognition of necessity, as Hegel said. When I was driving down to school this morning I chanced to be behind a couple of cars in a row that were pretty much ignoring the lines painted on the road. Their flirtation with those transgression thresholds may have seemed like freedom to them, but acceptable transgression is part of how the system’s built. Around here beat up old guys in beat up old pickup trucks drive real slow, right down the center of the lane. Freedom is in coming to grips with the lines, accepting their power to limit and compel, and releasing the desire for somewhere, something else they simultaneously create and frustrate. If there’s room to move and to play within the lines, so much the better.

March 29, 2009

More on teaching (social) theory

by Carl Dyke

Dad happened to catch the recent theory post and sent me some quick thoughts to fill in my own, and the larger, historical context; sketch an account of enabling and disabling dynamics for big critical theory; and incidentally supply more of the granularity missing from the 25 writers meme:

“Your own early trip through theory was guided by, among others, [Peter] Bachrach, [Kyriakos] Kontopoulos, and [Chuck] Dyke. That puts you two degrees of separation from, among others, Sorokin, Parsons, Marcuse, Coser, Kurt Wolfe, Hannah Arendt, and other assorted refugees from the Weimar Republic; three degrees of separation from Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky; four degrees of separation from Nikolai Ulyanov. And your graduate career was yet to come, adding to the pantheon of your close intellectual forebears….

Nowadays, if it ain’t routine changes rung on one of the two bells of liberalism, it ain’t theory. Occasionally, some fragment of Foucault gets a play. Are you surprised that Obama’s busily trying to recreate the welfare state fast enough so no one notices, or that we’re plopping down into what Marx would have identified as the worst of all possible systems?

Europe is a couple of generations closer than we are to a real left. The critical theorists are hopelessly wrapped around their own fannies confined to dealing with Habermas’ Kantianism, but they still occasionally remember what it’s all supposed to be about. The residual Marxists are wandering around forlornly trying to make sense of themselves in the world of Merkle, Sarcoszy, and Berlusconi, but they still retain a nostalgic sense of loss that some of them can still connect. Here in the US there are no such memories (oh, the odd blog) and no such nostalgia; and more important, not a clue about connection. Sociology was the most obvious academic victim of the cold war. At Brandeis (read “exile from New York”) I was the beneficiary of the death struggle – the end of ideology or the triumph of the will, depending who you talk to. As you said, theory decoupled from practice is meaningless, and by the end of the sixties the decoupling was essentially complete. In its place came the hodgepodge of single issue special interests you’ve talked about so many times.

Sociology, as a discipline, was enslaved to the entitlement system of welfare liberalism. There was no place for the theoretical traditions beyond the bounds of liberal orthodoxy. So the theorists died out, leaving a few semi-alienated misfits behind [including us]….”

Something for everyone here. For another current take on the fate of big critical theory, see Frames/Sing.

Meanwhile, I especially like the idea of a ‘degrees of separation’ analysis of our theoretical influences and trajectories. Anyone else want to join in with that?

March 15, 2009

Teaching (social) theory

by Carl Dyke

A series of posts at scatterplot about how to teach sociological theory have been helping me bring together a passle of observations collected lo these many years about the place of theory in sociological practice. Sociology is a richly theorized discipline, with great scope and diversity and some of the best achievements of the human mind over the last several hundred years at its disposal to make sense of our doins at various levels, from various perspectives, and with various agendas. But like historians with our similarly (and overlappingly) rich conceptual resources, sociologists are quite commonly functionally unfamiliar with the tools of their trade. In practice the craft of sociology, like history, is regularly done as if there was one clear and correct way of understanding the world. That so much good work is done in such an artificially impoverished conceptual environment is a definite testimony to the value of pragmatic closure and the efficacy of distributed networks.

In his post “how would (do) you teach theory,” Shakha smartly distinguishes theory as “a process that every project engages in” from “a ‘classic’ Marx, Weber, Durkheim course with a few moderns thrown in… [that] makes theory seem like a subfield of sociology (or intellectual history).” The disciplinary mischief is already embedded in the latter idea that theory can be cordoned off as a separate activity from practice.

I’m not in a position to do a rigorous metasociology, but I do have some anecdotal observations pointing at the general hypothesis that many sociologists would rather eat bark (this particular study might be difficult to get past my Research with Human Subjects committee) or hire an illegal alien than do theory themselves. When I was wandering in the academic wilderness I hooked up as an adjunct with the Sociology department at one of the Cal States. The chair was a pragmatist who had courses to plug faculty asses into and little use for field labels – he just wanted to know what I could cover and since the history of social theory was my bread and butter, I told him all the theory-laden stuff: stratification, gender, popular culture and of course, the theory course. So I taught all of those courses and each was equal parts how to do this and how to think about this, which was apparently an unusual mix. The department’s regular faculty were not lining up to teach these cool courses, which did surprise me a little. Oh well, more for me! as my mom used to say about asparagus when I turned my nose up at it as a kid.

The departmental theorist was in the process of retiring and so in due course, all having gone well, I was invited to teach the two-semester graduate theory sequence. Again there was no competition from the regular faculty. Why became a little clearer when a student from another Cal State an hour or so away showed up for the second seminar. It turned out her department’s regular theory seminar was so narrow, perfunctory and generally hated as a bitter pill that she’d asked around and been told to come up to our joint to check out the new guy who was doing all this cool stuff — like teaching a diverse and living theoretical tradition the students could become actively part of, thinking of theories as useful toolboxes rather than corpses to dissect and memorize, encouraging open inquiry rather than narrow indoctrination, enjoying theory and making it enjoyable. Craziness!

When the permanent theory position came open I was invited to apply and made it into the final three with two other candidates whose degrees in Sociology were obviously superior to mine in History, but who were generalists with little detectable record or vocation as theorists. I was selected by the committee and confirmed by a large majority of the faculty; then, in an intriguing imbroglio that made the CHE, the search was cancelled by the Dean and I bumped over full-time to the Human Development department where I had also been adjuncting (the theory search was joint with HD). While there I applied for several other positions seeking a theorist nationwide, and made a couple more short lists. If I’d kept at it I’d probably be in a Sociology department by now.

Well, I think I’m pretty schmart and at that time I was hot with current pertinent teaching experience and research plans. But still, for a guy out of field like me to be in play past the first cut says something about what kind of meat is on the hoof in Socioland. At scatterplot Andy Perrin notes that UNC, a major research and graduate program, has only recently and minimally populated its graduate theory offerings. Despite a fine faculty presumably with some theoretical savvy, one course covers everything – in contrast at UCSD I took standalone seminars on Durkheim and Weber – but this must hardly be unusual if the pickins are so slim on the job market.

Where all the theorists at? It may well be that a dedicated theorist and theory programme is a bit of a luxury, or perhaps even a privilege. This is true in History as well. Another related part of the problem is probably the dismissive association of Sociology’s classical theories with Dead White Men, which is true and understandable but shortsighted. Standpoint and postmodern successor theories are exciting but can seem to carve up the theoretical landscape into a confusing dispersion. Back in the workshops part of the problem is the predominance of plug-and-play microsociological research programmes and the easy availability of big datasets for conventional quantitative crunching. And part is the intuition, emphatically maintained by Pierre Bourdieu for one, that theory divorced from practice is a monstrosity. Finally, as a commenter notes at scatterplot, each sub-area of sociology has its own theoretical approaches, so the big syntheses are not always directly pertinent.

Ideally, then, theory would be taught not (only) as standalone classes but as tools or orientations within every single class in the curriculum, by whole departments of sociologists who have become sophisticated theorist-practitioners in the open quest for knowledge. Marx, Weber and Durkheim would come up in the flow because they help to understand how some stuff works and/or offer models of how to figure stuff out, not merely because they’re founding fathers.

But as you know, Bob, in practice this is not necessarily what happens, so we’re probably stuck with standalone theory seminars taught only exceptionally by someone with a vocation for theory, which dumps us right back into the situation my student at Cal State was in, which means another generation of theory-averse sociologists. But that’s a shame, because having a good theory means having some feel for why things happen as they do. In principle, people well-trained in Sociology and therefore well-practiced in the sociological imagination would be unusually difficult to surprise and baffle with the ordinary businesses of life in society. Even if emotional, moral and ideological responses remain strong, there would be a mediating buffer of understanding, or at least a swift and decisive ability to generate understanding on the fly in a range of robustness beyond folk mystifications, vulgar monocausals and crass ad hominems. How might theory be taught to support this even in the current regime, and to break the cycle of theory abuse?

As usual, I think the answer starts with thinking about what we actually want the class to accomplish and throwing out coverage as a priority. There’s no reason to think that knowing the contents of lotsa theories has much to do with being able to deploy them to answer questions or solve problems – it’s just a bunch of Trivial Pursuit answers. Do we really need people who can repeat Marx’s theory of surplus value or DuBois’ theory of double consciousness but default to ad hominems about greedy capitalists and white privilege when it comes time to explain the financial crisis?

Squack! Iron cage! Iron cage!

Squack! Iron cage! Iron cage!

Andy is right that some kind of snappy patter about the canonical theorists is good to have at the ASA and cocktail parties, but this can be acquired by a quick spin through Wikipedia or a couple of overview lectures. Otherwise, leave theories as (dead) bodies of ideas to the intellectual historians, as Shakha says. This takes the bitter pill version of the class out of play.

Beyond this silliness, the value of a quick tour is to get students oriented to what resources are available for various kinds of projects and to foreclose narrow cherrypicking. They don’t need to know specifically what Durkheim said about this or that; they need to know the general contours of his work so they know to go to him when durkheimy questions come up. Then, I think a good pedagogical trick to cement the connection is to get right down to cases and make durkheimy questions come up. Here Andy’s problems approach looks good: if we’re interested in the structure/agency problem for example, Durkheim has lots to offer throughout his oeuvre. So to get specific we might want to go to Durkheim on moral order, social solidarity and collective effervescence if we’re trying to make sense of group behavior and ritual at college basketball games or self-segregated cafeteria seating. But then the next trick would be to process the same case through, say, Marx, Goffman, Foucault, Butler, Weeks and hooks to show what resources each theory brings and what understandings it enables.

Because the students need to know how to do this once the class is over, it’s of course incredibly important for them to do it in the class. Doing is a different practice than absorbing and repeating. Demonstrations and lectures simply confirm that theory is something mysterious and alien, the segregated province of unfathomable geniuses or bizarre geeks. For this reason I find it helpful to start out with the notion of default theories (roughly, what Gramsci called ‘common sense’) as a way to recruit students to the idea that theorizing is something we all do, and that it might be better to do it more intentionally and reflectively. It can be especially valuable in this respect to do lots of brainstorming theory-construction in class, using guided discussion to dope out how theories are built and tested. Plugging in existing theories can then be a supplement to a more fundamental pedagogy of theory construction, and particular students can be delegated to do further reading and bring it back to the class for report and recursive elaboration.

Ultimately there’s no substitute for careful study and understanding of whole theory-complexes. Theories are more than tools or lenses; at their best they express comprehensive understandings of the world that can’t be disarticulated without violence or boiled down to their usefulness for this and that. This kind of understanding takes devoted study over many years. Attempting to simulate that in one or two short semesters is neither necessary nor productive.

February 6, 2009

When failure is an option

by Carl Dyke

At Now-Times Alexei has opened an interesting discussion by firing a shot across the bow of grading: he’s not sure it serves any good purpose, he sees that it’s prone to ideology, and he’s concerned that pedagogically useful failures will be discouraged by failing grades. In short, he thinks grades aren’t good for much. I mostly agree, but only because I think we tend to do it wrong. I’ve begun to comment there and I’ve also said a lot of relevant stuff here, here, here, here and here. But I’ve also had this conversation in other venues and wanted to use this opportunity to retrieve a point I made a while back at the excellent but now-dormant Paragraph City:

I don’t get complaints about grades, for the most part. Of course this might just be the luck of the draw, but I think it’s because I do explain, in great detail, exactly what I’m looking for in their work, why I’m looking for it, what’s in it for them, how to do it, and what consequences to expect if they don’t do it (including ‘failure’). All of that is explicitly open to negotiation by mindful students who can explain the equivalent value of a different set of tasks or criteria. If they learn nothing else from my classes, they learn how to connect desirable skills and knowledge to standards and standards to performances.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that for many of my colleagues the strategy seems to be to present themselves as authorities pronouncing mysterious olympian judgments, which is not very ‘human’ either; and students with even a smidge of critical thinking do well to question this authority. If we teach standards as reasons, not just rules or arbitrary commands, we get much farther into recruiting the students into the kind of thinking that we know how to do and wish they could too, by enabling them to make their own principled judgments.

It would be great if grading turned out to be the reason our students don’t learn and we could turn them into eager learners by not grading them. I believe actual experiments along these lines have been programmatically conducted with mixed results, e.g. at U.C. Santa Cruz. It’s worth talking about why the results were mixed. But in any event, as part of a mindful pedagogy grades can be useful. Given that they’re the industry standard anyway, I think we should figure out how.

Tags: