Thursday, June 14, 2007

Galling Flexibility

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee just met in Washington D.C. for their annual convention. I had never been to an ADC meeting before and went through the cultural shock of realizing that I was in Washington D.C. and that the federal government is "there" and a major employer. More than just recognizing the difference between living in geographic proximity to the government I also recognized how much ADC's agenda depended on the idea that gaining access to the government by placing Arab Americans in it.

At the ADC Convention, there was a table at all awards dinners for Arab American Marines. This table was recognized by Mary Rose Okar, the President of ADC, at an awards dinner and luncheon. The FBI paid $10,000 to sponsor an event, an Axis of Evil comedy tour performance; this was the first time they tried to "reach out" to the Arab American community through sponsoring an event such as this. The National Guard and FBI were both recruiting at the convention; my students and I picked up many FBI pens. The PLO rep. called upon Arab Americans to gain positions as staffers in Congressional offices. He said that Dianne Feinstein had eighty staffers in her office and he thought Arab Americans deserved at least two of three of them. Then he noted, "think what a difference it would make if we had 80 Arab Americans who had been to "good" universities as Congressional staffers. I thought he was overstating the "difference" it would make to U.S. policy on Israel, but I think his joining his agenda to that of ADC's was obviously an important alliance building act. Also, ADC is a national civil rights organization, and has a greater impact on domestic issues than foreign relations.

ADC was founded by former Sen. James Abour, and Mary Okar is a former Congressional rep. from Ohio, so the organization emerged out of Arab Americans working in the federal government. Still I was continually struck by the number of calls at the convention for gaining positions in the federal government, the number of Arab Americans in the federal government who were called on to represent Arab America to itself at the convention, when it is this federal government that is targeting Arab and Muslim Americans domestically, has brought us the Iraq war, Israel's war in Lebanon last summer (conceived six months in advance in Washington D.C.) and has embarked on a policy of starving the Palestinians after they exercised the vote in 2006 and brought Hamas into legislative power. This federal government is alienating Arab Americans from their own citizenship, even though it employs Arab Americans.

The effort to me an example of one kind of galling flexibility--where a community targeted by the government, media, educational system, and popular culture, negotiates the U.S. political system by moving into places such as the Marine Corps where it is harder to target them as enemies of the nation-state. In addition, it does strike me as more hopeful to think of the federal government as not a monolith when it comes to Arab Americans, particularly Palestinian Americans.

Friday, January 19, 2007

I don't like the term derivative

It was never one of my key evaluative terms frankly. I've never been that into the sort of evaluation that ranks work on the basis of its proximity to origins, its trendiness (for or against), and most certainly not on the basis of its style.

What I care about is what work does it do, for whom, when and where. If this work matters then how original, current, or beautiful also it is may be interesting but only especially important in relation to this work. I am very interested in how prismatic the projects are (I want to know work in the plural), how different they look from varying perspectives, across communities, practices, worlds, histories, actors and agencies and so on.

A dear friend and I once went to the ground-breaking Berthe Morisot retrospective at the National Gallery of Art sometime near 1987. (If I remember correctly, this was only the second major exhibition of a woman artist at the Gallery, the first having been that of Georgia O'Keeffe).

The exhibition displayed her work in relation to that of a range of other impressionists, visually making the argument of how properly it belonged within the cohort of artists tagged with that term.

My (male) friend, an art connoisseur and a historian (but not an art historian), in an action intended to be playful and humorous went from each of Morisot's oils on display, naming the (male) artist of whose work he found that painting "derivative." Thus: "Monet, Degas..." and so on.

Far from finding this humorous or fun, I was literally struck dumb with rage, a kind of rage that made me shake all over and become sick to my stomach. I knew nothing about Morisot, had never even heard of her before, but I knew in every fiber of my being that something was very wrong with this "game."

Unable to say what, unknowledgeable about these cohorts, kinships and lines of influence, feeling a bit faint with anger, I sat down on the bench with the catalog, leafing through it as I tried to breathe and clear my head.

Lines of text jumped out at me, making it clear that each of the artists my friend had named as the originators of that type of landscape, that set of objects, that technique that marked the connection from which he declaimed her work was "derivative," had, rather, been developed together with, or even markedly before the artists whose names he chanted with such victorious flair.

When I showed the text to him – and this is why he is still a dear friend – he paused and blushed deeply. Not only did he immediately recognize and reorient to this very different version of influence, but he also immediately acknowledged that the game of derivation was quite wrong in itself. Of course he knew that art and ideas and important work is collective and material and situated and doesn't exist itself enough to stabilize fictions of "origin." Indeed, all his own work has labored to demonstrate this.

How did two scholars whose own scholarship never ever wanted to inhabit the politics of the evaluative universe of "derivation" get to this awful game? How much of it was some male/female bit of awfulness, or some high art headiness, or even a kind of excitement of recognition and drama?

I don't like the term derivative, and I don't like being asked to play this game.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

To audiences of the future?

Michael Warner points out that clarity sometimes exists for the future. Intelligibility is relative and relational. Normative? I'm very sketchy here. Leaving out lots of possible connections to keep them fluid and open.

What responsibilities do readers, audiences, markets, reception communities, political folks, feminists have to those writing for/to/about audiences of the future?

Is it possible to claim one's writing in that place? Is that something only to be done retrospectively by others? a kind of merit?

When would such a claim be unaccountable to intelligibility? Is intelligibility something to be accountable for? Are intelligibility and "accessibility" the same, similar, or in different registers of response?

Is being intelligible pragmatic and instrumental?

I believe that readers and audiences with progressive and feminist political intentions have to contemplate the possibility of writing for the future, have to be willing to engage the unintelligible, be willing to do the work of creating intelligibility in their very roles of readers and audiences when supporting speculations and experiments and even, yes, lack of skill, among writers who work among futures.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

What price citation?

I've been reading Ann Cvetkovich's amazing book An Archive of Feelings (Duke 2003). Her use of the term "trauma culture" I find very challenging, sometimes really liking it, sometimes feeling uncomfortable about it. But it has made me wonder about the aspects of academic life configured by and around trauma, and allegations of trauma. Not least, of course, are such legal reconfigurations over the last twenty years around sexual harassment and around procedures surrounding tenure and other professional performances. In a bit of a different register, some of our Ph.D. students have used terms like trauma to describe their experiences around professional hurdles such as their general exams -- those mandated elements in their professional initiations -- and urged that if these are traumatic they are somehow not feminist. I wonder what differences reading Cvetkovich would make to them even while I consider how we might reconfigure our exams.

However, what I have been drawn to thinking about the last few days concerning the possibility of academic culture as trauma culture has to do with citation, understood both narrowly and broadly. Two events, one recent, one not recent come to mind when I consider this possibility.

The not so recent one has to do with losing a friend, who explained their (singular they) not wanting to remain friends as the result of my having cited their work "sentimentally rather than professionally." An examination of the scholarship of each of us during that period would have shown that I had cited them (singular) both professionally and sentimentally, and that they had not cited me at all in publication, although I am under the impression that in talks and other performative events they did refer to my work often. I assume that this reason is a metonym for all the much more complicated reasons one ends a friendship, but not unimportant if incomplete and maybe oversimplified. I actually assume, perhaps quite wrongly, that in addition to all the most personal reasons, which I only guess at, that one if not the only reason citation can stand metonymically and truthfully as a valid reason to sever personal connections has to do with movement among social worlds instantiated by citation practice and objects.

In other words, we no longer inhabit the same intellectual communities of practice. I have ceased to cite this person's work because I no longer read it, mostly because it is, frankly, too painful to me to do so, not because it isn't pertinent to my work and even more to the work of many of my students, all of whom do read it with the relish and appreciation it deserves. We don't run into each other at conferences or other kinds of professional venues, because these too are no longer overlapping, only very occasionally perhaps a bit artificially.

When graduate students in my classes critique various texts for "leaving out" and/or not citing this or that central text or scholar in their own intellectual circles and sometimes disciplined communities, I try to get them to examine what citation means to them and to academic practices. They are very aware that power relations are part of the meaning of citation, as well as the seemingly more "rigorous" claims to covering proper scholarly literatures, intensively, extensively, representatively or even comprehensively, both with and without feminist political intentions.

I tend to think less of forms of authority conferred by such claims myself, and more about the traces of travel among communities that one has, has had, membership within, or has traveled among as peripheral but often legitimate participant, as well as other un-disciplined but serious uses of scholarship engaged in such travels. I don't "believe in" such seeming comprehensibility or even range except in the very most relative and relational fashion; rather I understand these forms of authority as misidentifications that foster and are produced from some center of particular communities. Strongly inhabiting and materializing these misrecognitions is a powerful enactment of membership.

Allegiances and alliances often are what stand out to me when footnote tracing, and I try to teach students to note these elements of citation as well. What in feminism we might call the coalitional politics instantiated in citation; however not just the successes, but the failures and contests and misunderstandings and misuses and appropriations and translations and multiple other complexities of knowledge/power relations. Then again, these are all part of what "forms of authority" mean, and what "disciplined" is about. In the academy gatekeeping and coalition politics can at times look and be related.

Which brings me to the other, more recent event. Over the summer I worked with a group of faculty on curriculum transformation, getting to read a lot of material I needed to read and wanted to read but hadn't been able to prioritize given other duties and requirements. I found this a wonderful orgy of literatures, exciting and even overstimulating. There were many passionate moments in the week we talked together and I both know and assume they looked different to different folks.

Different readings were more and less familiar to each and all of us, and many times one or another person claimed or was given authority to speak to issues others of us knew little about, both the contents of arguments and their forms, and also the intellectual and feminist politics and implications of various readings. Lots of room for misrecognition and misunderstanding as well as for new knowledge, with transmission, production, and uses all mixed up. There were tense moments as well as exhilarations and a lot of rather careful verbalization and occasional self- and group censorship, using that term with as much generous intention as possible.

We read an essay by a young-ish scholar whose work is taking off in various scholarly communities of practice today, perhaps with an occasional edge of notoriety, but mostly with much appreciation for path-breaking innovation, although this appreciation is unevenly distributed and for different agencies among intellectual communities of practice.

Until this work group I had known of this scholar's work, indeed had read stuff about it, including student writing, but had yet to read it myself. In this group I read only this one, quite pivotal, essay, but have later read a major book and more about this scholar and their (singular they) work. Indeed after this work group I thought perhaps it had been this scholar, among others, who had been singled out in critique in a recent conference I had attended, not named, just as I am not doing, but grouped together with others somewhat derisively. At that time I had thought I had understood the reference, but realized later that perhaps I had not completely.

I understood this scholar's work to be doing something generally that I deeply appreciate generally: that is, creating a framework for thinking about certain issues, especially sensitive to two issues I care about today: I use the terms "academic capitalism" and "interdisciplinarity" to describe them. This person uses somewhat different terminology and different referents, so for me to even claim that they are doing the work I am interested in is a stretch perhaps, maybe an appropriation, or maybe a helpful reading. Hard to say.

Anyway, this framework is animated by several sorts of histories, literatures and disciplinary assumptions, all of which I locate as contingent; that is, helpful to understanding the framework, but not at all the only such animation possible, indeed, the framework I consider useful to a range of possible animations, some disciplinarily pertinent, others more traveling among themes and objectives.

I value this framework making kind of work myself, indeed, it is one of the meanings I would give to a term like "interdisciplinary," but some scholarly and intellectual political locations are sometimes critical of it, perhaps mistaking it (or so I would say) for "totalizing theory," (I too am critical of "totalizing theory" but this isn't what I mean by that term), sometimes thus dismissive of it, sometimes just plain not interested in this, admittedly more abstract (but then I'm not against abstraction even if I am for materialism) sort of argument and scholarship.

In other words, I am not looking for "local knowledge" from this person's work. Not because it isn't there, but because I am not a member of the communities to which this contributes as local knowledge, nor do I use these locals at this moment in time, contingently. They are of interest to me however, I wish to know more about these local knowledges, but I am not in a position to evaluate their claims or objects.

For others, it was this local knowledge that mattered most in this person's work. Several different communities of practice, indeed disciplinary locations, hailed this work as part of their local knowledges, and they all, but differently, felt very much in a position to evaluate it, its arguments to some extent, but especially its objects in quite fine grained forms of analysis and critique. Some of this was literally inexplicable to me, this grain of analysis being utterly beyond my referents.

Nor was I aware of the political allegiances this work suggested to those who hailed it as local knowledge. I had already from students' work and from some commentary about this scholarship, thought I understood some of these sorts of political implications, most of which, as far as I understood them, I either shared (I thought) or was sympathetic to if in some disagreement. Again, even more fine grained analysis of these allegiances were implied (this sort of thing is rarely discussed directly) in this discussion and I was a bit lost among them.

One thing was clear though, this scholarship was part of a critique of a particular formation instantiated by a range of scholars I usually find pivotal in very different ways in my own work and my own local communities, but about which I had started to become unexpectedly dissatisfied, at times, for both personal-intellectual and other kinds of larger political-intellectual reasons. Yet to say so, in my communities of practice was, at this moment in time, a bit taboo. Not entirely so, but something one would be careful about, both because you might hurt the feelings of folks' you like and don't want to do that to, and because there exist, again contingently, new and old forms of power newly associated with this formation that one doesn't know exactly how to engage, dispute, ally with, or what. Things are up for grabs in several ways that are in re-formation, and this scholar's critique is part of shifting alliances, of generational and institutional formations, of other forms of power, some charismatic, some structural perhaps in new ways, although possibly locally, but it's hard to say in the midst of one's own communities.

Talking about anything like this – this way of discussing stuff that I am now engaging in – was irritating to most of the folks in the work group. This sort of "politics" I believe (I have some direct indications of this, but mostly I'm guessing) was considered at best tangential, perhaps even trivial, or deeply uninteresting, or even quite pernicious. To me, this kind of analysis is, frankly fascinating, absolutely not trivial but evidentiary for some kinds of analysis of knowledge making, and very much part of feminist theory (as I have argued in my own scholarly work), a form of denaturalizing the assumptions held by members in communities of practice. I think this denaturalization at best actually honors their work, but, I have to admit, it can also be quite uncomfortable, or sometimes critical or even disabling of their work.

But then such meta-analysis I locate myself as the very heart of women's studies, in its critique of official knowledge, using the word "official" in many layers of possibility. But for others "the heart" of women's studies is something quite different, or at least something other than my own practice here, even if they might use similar words.

Anyway, back to citation.

To me this all came to a head with discussion of this scholar's citation practice. This scholar had, I thought rather gingerly, referred to without naming, this intellectual formation I just alluded to myself. About half the folks appeared to me to be surprised by a critique of this generally named but not specifically cited (with individual names and actual works) formation. Those folks (or so I think about it now, they may disagree quite heartily) also seem to me now to have been the ones who most vigorously asserted that if one was to make such critiques, it is absolutely necessary to be forthright and name names (! -- my own, perhaps unfortunate, paraphrase). The implication was that this was a proper prescription for demonstrating one's integrity -- with some maybe moral implications -- as well as demonstrating one's authoritative rigor.

As I understood the group interaction, it appeared to me that those who had various local investments in this critique, although I don't THINK that anyone there thought of themselves as its target, were somewhat less prescriptively energetic. They appeared to me to be very aware of the sensitive nature of naming names, both for the sake of the scholar's perhaps vulnerability, and for the sake of the target formation's – the word I am using here is inadequate to what I mean, something not quite so individual or private – "feelings."

Cvetkovich comes again to mind here. She is so wonderful about demonstrating why affect matters, what "feelings" can and might mean, and I feel inadequate to match at this moment so off the cuff her extraordinary abilities to describe and analyze why this is important to feminists, to intellectual community, and to public culture.

I empathized, perhaps inappropriately, with this scholar's not naming names. To me it was already rather brave to make even these allusions, nor did it seem to me that naming names was necessary, either a reader knew who these folks were, in which case this act was brave and its implicit meanings were obvious for some kinds of local knowledge; or the reader did not, in which case perhaps they should actually seek out the work being perhaps critiqued, not first to critique it, but first to know it before critique. You would have to read it to figure out, as with a roman a clef, what was being critiqued. This might not be a secret indictment, but rather a way to not mobilize a kind of critique that meant "oh, I don't have to read THOSE folks now I know the critique"; but rather, perhaps an attempt to create a circumstance in which one could only perform the critique once one had a certain degree of knowledge.

Then again, maybe that's a generous reading.

Still, I think such possibilities matter. At the very least, one needs to acknowledge both the actual and, somewhat fantasmatic, vulnerabilities of this scholar in making the critique. While those identified with the intellectual formation might also be vulnerable in their own ways, relatively and relationally they must be understood to have more "power" institutionally than that of this scholar, who might have some power in some locations with, maybe, some structural implications, although one could dispute that too. Shifting micro-powers in changing institutions are not easy to trace or chart.

I tell these stories, at far more length than most people will probably want to read, and at such a level of abstraction as to make myself vulnerable to both not naming names, and to displaying a meta-ing analysis some may consider "just politics," trivial or not proper to discuss. Or to discuss in this form.

Be that as may be, for other reasons too, I have lately been wondering about the costs of citation. Especially for those doing work I once used the term "interdisciplinary" to describe, but am now leaning toward using the term "post-disciplinary" or perhaps sometimes "anti-disciplinary" instead.

I am aware that prescriptions for citation, either those of particular works or folks, or for whole literatures, presume memberships of various kinds, and presume the authority of such memberships, some authorities which the work using its own kinds of citation, may be disputing, or attempting to displace.

Then too, when I don't cite something it might mean I just don't know about it. If one is moving among many many literatures, I don't think not knowing something somewhere is actually a problem, a crime, even necessarily a "lack." Not knowing things explicitly and unproblematically may even be a celebration of all there is to know, of the positive plentitude of scholarship, and of the joyfulness of being properly not able to control knowledge sites, knowledge making, knowledge workers.

To not contribute to the illusions of mastery, of comprehensiveness or even representation, may be a much needed range of actions at times. It may signal new emergent formations, or shifting micro-powers reinstitutionalized.

It may chart vulnerabilities and forms of affect that matter, but cannot properly be verbalized entirely. It may work with and through that "trauma culture" that perhaps one can in one sort of cognitive map locate academic culture as or within.

Some bits and notes that would take too long and too much space to flesh out more now:

reasons to not engage certain literatures, self-consciously, unselfconsciously, unknowingly; reasons not to hold others to account within one's own literatures, or even literatures that seem like fruitful possible engagements

=it's okay to not know everything and all literatures
=it's good to chart unfamiliar and unexpected paths, deliberately or inadvertently
=remaining peripheral to communities of practice rather than entering into membership, inabilities are denaturalizing, and denaturalizing enlivens communities even in critique, in refusing to honor gatekeeping
=gatekeeping is worth problematizing
=absences are holes for you to fill in, not always only outrages to be denounced
=acknowledgements if indirectly made, of fields of power, deference, and danger, which one is attempting to avoid, if imperfectly
=conspicuous avoidance may be an implicit critique, made in the only way possible; articulation may not only be dangerous, but actually so difficult as to approach a horizon of possibility for that thinking in that moment, those moments
=note and index such non-engagements, rather than or in addition to denouncing them. What materialities are missing which are necessary for such engagements?

scientisms, rigor, logic, arguments
speculation, engagement, innovation, experimentation – what are its proper rhetorical forms?

traumatic absences: scholarship is a field of power: not published because of deliberately unfootnoted or unacknowledged citations. Always the unintended overlooking, but also the careful refusals of vulnerability, made vulnerable.

Refusal to make another discourse the center of your project even if only that makes it "legible."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

interdisciplines and the anti-disciplinary

Is it an interdiscipline yet?

Once upon a time I aspired to creating with others a collective field "feminism and writing technologies." This was before cyberculture studies or new media or humanities computing or digital culture. It was still in the world (if not the exact time) of the maverick radical pedagogies and the individual researches/teaching we called "interdisciplinary" in the 60s and 70s.

The formation "women's studies" (larger, much larger indeed than an "interdiscipline," I'm still not sure what it is actually. Interdisciplinary field is inadequate -- it's not a single field at all. Anyway, that thing) -- "women's studies" was in formation then, an emergent field in the proper sense of emergent: self-organizing, multi-institutionalized, its very many structures "learning" at a level not located with individual humans. That thing. Pedagogically driven but not service defined.

So I imagined "feminism and writing technologies" as another, maybe smaller, emergent field. All those energies that have gone into the other new media thingies I imagined, not wholly taken with feminism and writing technologies maybe, but at least hailing it.

And some of that has happened. Individually.

I never noticed then and only have over the last not-quite-a-decade, the birth of the "interdiscipline."

When I first became a professor in women's studies, a junior assistant professor, I was constantly asked what was my "field" -- a question for which "women's studies" was not the proper answer. Actually what folks wanted was the name of a discipline: history, sociology, anthropology, literature (more than English), that sort of thing. I said "feminism and writing technologies." Since this was before these other new media studies this was literally unintelligible to those asking such questions.

"No, REALLY, what did you get your PhD in?" "The History of Consciousness." This usually stopped the questions. I'm not sure how properly.

After a while folks started prompting me: "What is it? Cultural Studies?" That was the most acceptable "field" for me to reference. At first I repudiated it, but shortly came to feel allied with cultural studies (broadly conceived, perhaps many kinds of studies of "culture"), although not defined by it. I tried out at other times such phrases as "feminist theory." When I came up for tenure my chair was required to attend a campus committee reviewing my case to explain to them what "feminist theory" was. Apparently she was eloquently able to satisfy them, because I did get tenure in women's studies.

Over the course of almost a decade I was working on a book on feminism and writing technologies. It kept morphing into more and different things and still does I guess. But at one pivotal point I broke it into several smaller projects and offered one of them to a press. I was told up front, just looking at the title including "feminism and writing technologies," that the word "feminism" was no longer a title term that would be taken seriously. Presumably not sell, a negative flash point for publishers.

Quite a difference from the moment in which my first book was published. Feminism was apparently a new market then. And a woman editor perhaps wanted to open it. Wider?

At another point a reader, after saying many nice things about this particular project, indeed one might say enthusiastic about the connections made in it, gave it nonetheless the kiss of death. Despite its goodnesses of various sorts, the reader argued it wouldn't sell because it covered too many areas. No substantive constituency of readers existed for it already and folks would have to be interested in many more things than readerships actually are. The suggestion was to dramatically reshape it to be of interest to some particular interdiscipline, say "media studies."

I had started to perceive the makings of "interdisciplines" by now. These attempts to discipline me into them had continued, and I had come to see this as benign, maybe even something I aspired to myself, or at least, as a measure of a legitimation of interdisciplinary work in the academy. I thought of this as a friendly shift, as I thought of the institutionalization of women's studies, to the point of PhD programs and such.

So I was taken aback to be disadvantaged by such formation. I had thought it was an advantage for my work, and I had thought that making broad connections would be perceived as valuable. And I had assumed that "valuable" entailed "salable."

Even though I was writing about "niche marketing" then, I actually thought this work was both valuable within niches and also valuable within ideas of "broad interest." By which I understood, many readers would find "something" of interest which would cajole them into new interests and connections not yet cultivated. A matter of appealing to curiosity and the excitements of making unfamiliar connections. The unfamiliar being then a positive point of value, both intellectually and commercially.

I still wonder about this. I still aspire to make community with others who share an excitement in unfamiliar stuff newly connected across emerging abstractions of material importance in new literalizations. Who like new words, new thoughts, new syntheses.

I had thought that interdisciplines were evidences of such valuations and curiosities.

And are they?

Or are they more and more ways of managing and disciplining new knowledges. Bracketing them within older structures so they will not play out "emergently" -- ie. uncontrollably at the level of academic institutionalization.

I've loved Julie Thompson Klein's work on interdisciplinarity, but all along I was very uncomfortable with the overwhelming emphasis on collective evaluation that she forefronts. I put this down to her location as a policy person of sorts -- consulting with and creating academic units under economic and other restructurings.

I had thought she seemed oblivious to interdisciplinarity at the level of individual research projects which only sometimes combine with other collaborations. My own teachers I thought of as such models: doing both at various times, but very often those maverick types: Gregory Bateson, Norman O. Brown, Harry Berger, Jr.; maybe also Shelly Errington, Donna Haraway.

Only when I was pushed to revalue the "post-disciplinary," a term I'd disliked in favor of interdisciplinary on the model of an emergent "women's studies," did I come to rehistoricize what I was experiencing.

Lattuca's creating interdisciplinarity book was pivotal, as was Slaughter and Leslie on academic capitalism, and also new representations of women's studies I started to see around me.

When someone I respected publicly represented "the" history of women's studies as the history of disciplines self-consciously working in appreciative collaboration with their valued daughter, women's studies, to do both their work and more, the women's studies PhD, I started literally quaking with anxiety, disagreement, horror and rage. I lost it.

I incoherently and excitedly broke in, making a public scene, saying that another history of women's studies existed too: one in which women's studies was created from the critique of the disciplines, deliberately dismantling their foundations and creating something new out of the rubble. (I wasn't nearly as eloquent as this, however inadequate it still is.)

The anti-disciplinary.

I had never thought of myself as strictly anti-disciplinary. I've always loved to learn how disciplines see worlds and are worlds: figuring out how argument and things are made in disciplines (and interdisciplines), not in competition but in a kind of honoring appreciation that is also denaturalizing.

I assume that denaturalizing is not the same as deauthorizing or dishonoring. I kept trying to communicate this ethic to students, colleagues and, at times, myself.

But now I felt pushed, polarized, dis-allied, dis-identified, repudiated -- and my response was to do all back! And to reclaim the history of such polarizing reactions -- even though my own history was usually worked in all the inbetween places.

Now I have come to see the interdisciplinary as no longer friendly. As the essentialization of corporate academy -- emphasis on word "corporate" playing between the corporations of capital and the corporate of collective. Essentialization here being both my own "error" of such reactive polarization of a new set of institutionalizations, and also the coming-into-being of something I feel myself defining myself against.

Is this wise?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

On Honor of Donna Haraway, Primate Vision, Eating Fruits and Nectar, and Proximity to Sharp Eyed Species

Op-Ed Contributor
Snakes on the Brain

Published: September 3, 2006
Davis, Calif.

SNAKES hit a nerve in people. How else to explain why the movie “Snakes on a Plane” became an Internet sensation months before it was released in theaters? The very idea was all it took to rouse attention.

That humans have been afraid of snakes for a long time is not a fresh observation; that this fear may be entwined with our development as a species is. New anthropological evidence suggests that snakes, as predators, may have figured prominently in the evolution of primate vision — the ability, shared by humans, apes and monkeys, to see the world in crisp, three-dimensional living color.

The snake-detection hypothesis has grown, as scientific theories so often do, out of attempts to grapple with the flaws in earlier ideas about why primates have better vision than any other mammals. (Cats, dogs and horses can see objects well enough, but they lack the depth perception it takes to, say, perform brain surgery, or the visual acuity we humans use to read the fine print on a legal contract.)

Back in the early 1900’s, scientists thought that natural selection may have favored sharp eyes in ancestral primates because these animals were presumed to have lived in the canopies of tropical trees, and would have needed excellent vision to negotiate that environment without falling.

This “arboreal theory” held sway for 50 years until, in the early 70’s, scientists pointed out that plenty of mammals without such great vision live in trees — tree squirrels, for example. More likely, they said, primates developed their vision because they ate insects. It would have been important to see well, according to this “visual predation hypothesis,” in order to stalk and grab prey as primates do. But as one can see from observing insect-eating primates today, these animals are quite capable of finding their prey using their ears or noses alone.

Other ideas came along in the 1990’s, including one all-encompassing theory suggesting that primates needed good vision to eat insects, find fruit and spot the best branches to leap to. All the theories worked off the assumption that primates’ superior vision evolved as a strategy to help them get food. But natural selection can also work to improve an animal’s ability to protect itself.

Recently, comparative studies of primate brains have shown that the part of the primate visual system that has expanded most is not the part that’s used for visually guided grasping and reaching —it’s the part that’s given primates keen vision and forward-facing eyes, both useful for distinguishing nearby objects from their backgrounds and for finding camouflaged objects. Needless to say, these are good skills to have if one wants to avoid stepping on a snake.
How did this happen? About 90 million years ago, some mammals adopted diets that set them on an evolutionary path to becoming primates: They began to eat fruits and nectar.

This change from a wholly insectivorous diet to a sugary diet of very sweet-smelling foods made it possible for their brains to evolve in such a way as to give greater priority to vision and less to the sense of smell. (Animals that needed to sniff out faint scents — as hedgehogs find earthworms or rodents track down seeds — could not afford to let vision become more important than olfaction.) So the visual parts of primate brains were allowed to expand and become more complex.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that other creatures began eating fruit, too — tree shrews and neotropical fruit bats, for example — and that these animals did not develop great eyesight. It follows, then, that there had to be some further incentive for primates to develop their superior vision. My contention is that the push may have come from snakes. I base this on multiple observations, two of which I will mention here.

First, all animals have early-warning networks, neurological wiring that tells them they’re in danger. These networks, however, are more hard-wired to the visual system in primates than they are in other vertebrates. What’s more, there is evidence that, over time, the visual component of the primate warning system has grown more than it has in other creatures.
Second, the monkeys with the sharpest eyesight tend to be those who live in greatest proximity to venomous snakes. About 60 million years ago, primates had branched into two groups: the Old World monkeys and apes (including us) and the lemurs of Madagascar. Around the same time, venomous — as opposed to constricting — snakes appeared in Africa and Asia. (Of all the predators of modern primates, snakes were the first to appear, about 100 million years ago.)
The Old World monkeys then branched again about 35 million years ago, when some went to South America and became the New World monkeys. The Old World monkeys and apes were the ones most exposed to venomous snakes, and of the three major primate groups, the Old World monkeys and apes have the best vision.

You might chalk this up to coincidence, but what if you learned that the Malagasy lemurs have the least complex visual systems of the primates, and that venomous snakes have never lived in Madagascar? New World monkeys, in the meantime, have been exposed to venomous snakes on and off and on again for the past 60 million years, and the quality of their eyesight is better than that of lemurs but more variable than that of Old World monkeys and apes.

And so the idea that the need to detect and avoid snakes contributed to the evolution of our vision fits into a rather neat picture. The hypothesis draws further support from what we know about the evolution of raptors: Eagles that specialize in eating snakes have larger eyes — resulting in greater visual acuity — than eagles that don’t.

The snake detection hypothesis also explains why New World and Malagasy monkeys are not nearly as terrified of snakes as their Old World counterparts. Consider the observations made nearly 100 years ago by the British scientists P. Chalmers Mitchell and R. I. Pocock, when they carried writhing snakes into a roomful of caged monkeys and lemurs. The lemurs were unperturbed, and the South American monkeys showed some fear. But the Old World monkeys “bolted panic-stricken, chattering loudly and retreating to their boxes or as high up as possible in the larger cages.” The baboons jumped back, and the chimpanzees began to scream, “all keeping their eyes fixed on the snakes.”

No wonder “Snakes on a Plane” hit a nerve. (Not to mention the story of Eve and the Serpent.) There’s a deep connection between snakes and primates, one that may have shaped who we are — and how we see — today.

Lynne A. Isbell is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Details of implementing the token system

To do the token system, I give students small sheets of paper, where they they record their name, group number, assignment number, and then members's names other than their own. They write down how many tokens they want to give each member. Typically, I do this after the assignment is due at the end of class time.

I collect those papers from them, so I have a written record. This is a necessity, because I can make errors and input grades on blackboard, so they can see them. I try to do quick turn around time in posting their grades at blackboard. It has a spread sheet, so I can see the grades but they can only see their own, when they log in.

Typically, students distribute the tokens equally; the system provides an incentive for cooperation and a sense of fair play. Mostly, they know what they're getting and receiving from each other.