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.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Student Collaboration and the Token System of Grading

Collaboration and the Token System of Grading

For the past three years, I’ve altered my pedagogy in all my courses, trying to work my way out of a role that seems to be disappearing before my eyes anyway, that of the professor. I realized that lecturing was not good pedagogy, that it reinforced the passivity in my students I wanted to subvert, and that I was bored out of my mind with teaching. Simultaneously, a professor from Melbourne University had been hired to promote faculty teaching with colleagues and students overseas. He conceptualized this process as global learning with the expectation that students would come to understand their own and others cultural assumptions through working together and reflecting on that process. Online technologies such as our campus online learning environment, videoconferencing, email, are all means for enabling the process of what he calls “cage painting.”

While my colleague saw himself as the conceptualizer of global learning, I saw global learning as something that could be disassembled and reassembled. As his student, I engaged him with his own cultural assumptions including assumptions about what constituted “culture,” and whether “culture” could do the work of “unlearning” I wanted my students to do in relationship to their Palestinian counterparts, etc. I enthusiastically jumped in and started breaking his toy apart. One piece that I use is the token system of grading, which is a very powerful way of encouraging collaboration among students, because it requires students to assess each other. Their assessment modifies mine.

Example: 20 pt. assignment

My grade for group x, Assignment #2=17 out of 20
Number of tokens to distribute is determined by group size (i.e. 4 members=15; 5=20; 6=25):


Here’s the math for how I modify my grade by the tokens:
Name tokens rec/tokens poss frac % % x pts. instr. assigns group
Mary 20/20 1.0 or 100% 1.00x17=17
Sue 20/20 1.0 or 100% 1.00x17=17
Diana 15/20 .75 75% .75 x17=12.75
Kathy 24/20 1.0 100% 1.00x17=17
Linda 19/20 .95 95% .95x17=16.15

From the tokens, it seems that Diana’s participation was lacking, as reflected by the fact that she ended up with fewer tokens. Kathy seemed to have overcompensated for Sue and maybe Linda’s performance, but since no one can receive more than 100% of pts., Kathy got the full percentage of my grade but no more for maybe rescuing the group’s performance. Each group members total points earned on that assignment reflects that reality. The token system is designed to discourage both slacking and rescuing.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

when can we afford authors

It's not that the author is dead. The author is still only too alive.

Rather it's that authors are very expensive in the generation of knowledge.

Behind that standard idealization, author – text – reader, is a material range of industries and other assemblages of things, skills, people, kinds and venues of use. Every author costs that materiality something of its substance, value, recognition, and working.

At the same time, these industries and other assemblages include as part of their (partially) working systems, elements in which an author, the author, authors, and other makers are adjudicated, manufactured, brought into being, misrecognized, and even sometimes rewarded.

To make an author requires a lot of erasure, deflection, humility, and distain, and is possible only when many people collaborate to make it happen. Even the most independent zine maker or scribe depends on materialities that cannot be created individually.

Not that authoring isn't hard work for individuals, as well as these collectivities.

Bearing the burden of the social maker is extraordinary – in all its facets of action, thought, contemplation, imagination, connection, symbol, and hope.

It's not just that some people, skills and things don't get their share of recognition, but rather that we don't collectively understand how making works. We make it expensive to try to understand this. Sometimes the cost is being able to make something we need and don't have.

We think ideas are the important part. At the expense of all the work to communicate ideas. We think communication is the important part. At the expense of all the collective work in which ideas come into being, over time, and through communities and possibilities.

We make knowledge products, like books, which circulate. Sometimes the venues of circulation are hostile, sometimes friendly, sometimes so heterogeneous they can't be characterized, sometimes small, or large or unexpected or newly created through this very circulation itself. Sometimes circulation never happens, sometimes it happens in some other future or venue, unknowable in some moments.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

should writing be deceptively simple?

Recently I encountered a set of admonishments to better writing. Partly my presentation here has elements of a debunking exercise, but actually, I do also want to take this list seriously too. Anyway, debunking is itself an activity that is interestingly problematic. So I do want to take all this seriously enough to wonder which of these admonishments to take to heart, which ones to respond to in some form, I'm not sure what, which ones to dismiss as improper. I want to ask others to help to analyze them together with or maybe apart from the points Warner makes (previous post).

So, here are the instructions recreated as a list of ideological assumptions, for examination, possibly analysis, maybe debunking, or even embrace:

1. To be complex and interesting, writing actually needs to be clear and deceptively simple.
2. The laying out of concepts needs to be done only once. The vocabularies need to be set only once.
3. Do what you set out.
4. Quit delaying and displacing.
5. Get yourself out of there.
6. Be felt instead of seen.
7. Let the writing perform you instead of insisting on your presence by making yourself the subject of the text.
8. If you love your teachers’ work, take it further, don’t waste time telling us what your relation to them or it is.
9. Bring joy in ideas and connections instead of quotes.
10. Demonstrate instead of declaring.
11. Use instead of presenting.
12. Make the terms and concepts mean something by playing them out through analysis of the specimen texts.
13. Make the writing produce the emphasis instead of italics.
14. Quit coining terms.
15. Consider the ideological impasses of taxonomy.
16. Respect your readers.
17. Don’t worry about being a critic or an academic. Capitalist or not, there is still a place for intellectual activity and intervention.

style, membership, future publics and the burden of world-making

For about the last fifteen years I have been more and more concerned about ideologies of clarity and accessibility. Folks who know perfectly well that one way to describe ideology is as common sense assumptions about everyday practices seem to take the clear and accessible as unproblematic goods.

A few days ago I googled "critiques of clarity and accessibility" to see if others were working on what might be problematic about these and related terms and assumptions. But there were no critiques of these terms. Clarity and accessibility were over and over always the solutions to various other critiques, not subjects of analysis themselves.

The best discussion of this subject I've come across myself is Michael Warner's essay "Styles of intellectual publics" in the book Just Being Difficult? Academic writing in the public arena (Stanford 2003). Here are bits from this essay I find most helpful in beginning to consider histories and ideologies of clarity and accessibility.

"In extraordinary burden of world-making comes to be borne above all by style." (109)

"The possibility I would like to raise here is that those who write opaque left theory might very well feel that they are in a position analogous to Orwell's diarist--writing to a public that does not yet exist--and finding that their language can circulate only in channels hostile to it, they write in a manner designed to be a placeholder for a future public." (109)

Warner disputes readings of Orwell that espouse coming "as close as possible to an address to all persons," asking "Does Orwell really stand for the idea that accessible style leads to mass markets and therefore to effective politics?" (110)

He points to Adorno's distrust of "common canons of clairty" in which precision is devalued through mass culture and "an idealization of common sense that is based on commodity culture." "the expansiveness of mass circulation affects and distorts a desire for social membership on the part of readers.... The wide circulation of language in mass culture is perceived and treasured as a quality of style by those who misrecognize it as clarity and sense." (112)

"The false aesthetic of transparency, defining clarity as that which communicates widely, has a powerful social effect of normalization. One result is that it will naturally privilege the majority over less-familiar views.... The result is a kind of invisible power for dominant norms... alienated from the labor of judgment." (113)

"We begin to normalize intellectual work whenever we suppose a direct equation between value and numbers--imagining that a clear style results in a popular audience and therefore in effective political engagement. So deeply cherished is this way of thinking that to challenge it is to court derision, especially in journalistic contexts." (115)

"What kind of clarity is necessary in writing? Clarity for whom? ...different kinds of writing suit different purposes, that what is clear in one reading community will be unclear in another, that clarity depends upon shared conventions and common references, that one person's jargon is another person's clarity, that perceptions of jargon or unclarity change over time." (115)

"Should writing intended for academics in the humanities aspire to accessibility for everyone when we don't expect the same from writing in physics? Isn't such an expectation tantamount to a demand that there should be no such thing as intellectuals in the humanities, that the whole history of the humanistic disciplines should make no difference, and that someone starting from scratch to enter into a discussion--of, say, the theory of sexuality--should be at no disadvantage compared to someone who had read widely in previous discussions of the question? ....It allows people to think cumulatively, without starting at each moment from the zero point of maximum accessibility." (115-6)

"Instead of assuming a self-evident standard of clarity and a moral obligation to follow it, one could argue that the imperative to write clearly is not the same as the need to write accessibly, that the project of an academic discipline requires a rigor of definition, argument, and debate. What would count as clarity, in this view, might remain highly specialized and inaccessible to lay audiences or journalists. Indeed, to the extent that clarity might require conceptual precision of very unfamiliar kinds, it might compete with accessibility." (116)

"Style performs membership.... At stake in the dispute about style, then, are different contexts for writing, different ways of imagining a public." (118)

Friday, August 18, 2006

a Palestinian trickster

Redrawing the Map

under events, click on the eye

How the Hell Do I Get Out of the Field?

This is the last line of Donna Haraway's book, Primate Visions. It's a quote from Octavia Butler's book, Dawn and its heroine Lilith. I'm paraphrasing Haraway here--Lilith is a young African American woman rescued with people who have survived nuclear war and is chosen by an "alien" species the Oankali as a midwife for the refugees whom they've impregnated as part of an effort to become trading partners with "humanity's remnants." Primate Visions ends, "She laughed bitterly. 'I suppose I could think of this as fieldwork--but how the hell do I get out of the field?'" I'd like to use this ending to introduce my "world," as a feminist ethnographer. This is a world in which one doesn't ever leave the field, tearfully looking back. Fieldwork today is about a different kind of apprenticeship. Let's call it galling.

I wake up today and open up my local newspaper, the Wichita Eagle. As always, when the Israeli military goes into one of its many "operations," as Israel calls them, there are exchanges of letters. One Rabbi in town can be counted on to get drawn into defending Israeli actions, which come under scrutiny. That they come under scrutiny and are not just celebrated is an historical achievement involving many, including the principal actors, Palestinians residing in the O.P.T. (Occupied Palestinian Territories). The other Rabbi tends to stay away from the editorial page of the Eagle, but he made an appearance today in a letter responding to a Christian minister who said he went to the mosque to pray during the latest war on Lebanon. This minister wrote the letter, because when Israel's war on Lebanon began (see how words are part of war--I've said Israel's war "on" Lebanon, not "in" Lebanon--these distinctions matter) the other Rabbi who tends to always be out ahead of today's columnist organized a prayer meeting at his synagogue in which people prayed for Israel. The mayor went, no doubt because he was invited, sending a "message" to many that he was taking sides. Some would claim he was taking sides for "peace," but I don't buy it.

At any rate, some in town have felt like they needed to respond to the paper's coverage of the praying for Israel meeting. A friend and I went into action and organized a demonstration in which over 100 people showed up towndown on a Saturday evening. And a minister in town wrote to the Eagle to say he understood the prejudice that Muslims face in the U.S., etc etc etc.I'm going to link the Rabbi's letter.

Welcome to my neighborhood which is also part of "the field" from which I can't get out. I cannot leave untouched and pristine, his claim that Israel does not target civilians, while the terrorists do. This is the crux of Israeli propaganda, and is part of the "war on terror." I will revise and close by saying, "Israel has F-16s and F-18s, "goddesses," as Palestinian-Israeli, Azmi Bishara calls themwhich create public relations disasters on a regular basis for Israel. Then some members of the local Jewish community who identify with Israel’s way of accounting for dead Arabs, come to the rescue of these F-16s and military hardware as well as the Israeli soldiers who use them, and most importantly, the military generals who plan and implement Israel's wars on, yes on, her Arab neighbors.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Galling Flexibilities--A Response to Katie

I am a friend and colleague of Katie's. We both got our Ph.D.s from the History of Consciousness Program at U.C. Santa Cruz. I am also tenured in a "free standing" Women's Studies department. Like Katie, I was "his conned," then had to try and figure out what it meant to be in a field called Women's Studies, a local, national and global project. Like her, I often chafe against processes of disciplinization, while also having to cope with or negotiate them, since my background and training is all interdisciplinary. I came to His. Con. from American Studies.

I said to one of my departmental instructor's today, the next new course I teach is not having the word, women, in the title. I share Katie's sense from His. Con. that feminism is self-reflexive, asking about who or what counts as a woman for example, but also about what counts as feminism, but the word, feminism, doesn't do the work I want it to in my own research and writing, although I'm still hanging out with anthropologists talking and writing about "feminist ethnography." I was on a panel at the American Anthropological Association meeting this past December, "Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?" and was completely taken aback by the number of people who showed up. I was thrilled by the number of students and the kind of questions they asked.

So, I am interested in feminist ethnography, and I'm very interested in the interface of feminist ethnography and multi-site ethnography and how that has emerged from what George Marcus, a chronicler of cultural anthropology and trained anthropologists calls "second projects," or the kind of projects anthropologists form in reaction to graduate training.

I did fieldwork in the Palestinian Territories in 1998-1999 and have gone back for summers or winter break (sometimes both) every year since then until 2006. I don't know what post-fieldwork means, since I stay in touch with people I know there vis a vis email, and I go daily to internet sites to read news about the ever changing circumstances on the ground in Gaza, Ramallah, etc. I have also been reading about surrouding countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, as I teach a course on Women and the Middle East--it used to be called Arab Women and the Middle East Conflict. I changed the title to try and draw more students into the course, but also to signal some consideration of white U.S. women's relationship to the Middle East post 9/11.

I am interested in galling flexibilities, because Katie's conceptualization of flexible knowledges intrigues me, but I want to draw attention to the Arab-Israeli war zone as a site where "knowledges" are embattled in practices of warfare. "Galling" signals the kind of extreme political asymmetry between Palestinians and the state of Israel that I want to keep in the foreground. Galling is about the condition of living under a military occupation that has not been temporary, is not and cannot be permanent, but also keeps grinding on with increasing levels of unfreedom for Palestinians and their long search for justice.

I find a lot of the discussion of "borders" that has occured in the academy over the past twenty years to miss something I think is profound about what it means to live, think, work, write in the Occupied Territories. As one informant, an academic aware of a lot of the theoretical currents in the U.S., stressed to me, "our problem is that we have no borders." I'll explain more about that later.

revisions, generations, contexts of resistance

Hey, Debbie Gordon, I appreciate your comments from the perspective of a US academic trying to work with another national academy and set of politics. Does this itself necessitate a post-disciplinary perspective on the US side, if not on the Palestinian side? Or is that inadequate to a transnational mapping?

You've got my attention here bringing up underlying assumptions about constant revision. Your comment that in the Palestinian political constant revisions are not a choice is probably more true than not over more time periods and places than the idea that multiple revisions and particular kinds of polishing are possible, necessary or even desirable. I'm not sure how to bring your insight together with the ideologies of clarity and accessibility that some revision practices assume and attempt to fulfill.

When you comment on the aging of America, are you referring to some kind of consolidation of power in the hands of baby boomers? Does such power in the academy inflect generational politics within and among various disciplines, interdisciplines, and other knowledge formations? I think of the generational meanings that shift over the last 5 years that attract around the term Queer, for example.

Are transnational feminist scholar-activist knowledges of Palestinian struggle and academies generational in the US along the same lines of not delivering the goods you comment on in the Palestinian academic context?

How do the contexts of resistance operate to make some epistemological issues, say allegiances to disciplines, background or foreground differentially?

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

How does it feel to inhabit the post-disciplinary?

To belong to too many communities of practice all at once? And none of which speak to each other?

To belong to too few communities of practice that know they aren't the center of how it should be? Who fantasize that if they don't understand something it is not understandable, or if they do, that that is the standard of good practice?

To constantly be trying to explain mistakes and misrecognitions?
Mistaking new sensations for pain? mistaking honor for destruction? mistaking another's practice for your own done badly?

Belonging otherwise?

Building new vocabularies as ends in themselves?

Taxonomizing without someone else's telos of a real argument, a real interpretation, a real analysis, a real ethnography, a real history, a real discipline?

To be sloppy, speculative, too personal, without enough examples, or the right examples, or someone else's examples?

To have not included something pivotal from another community of practice that requires your participation?

To offensively violate rules for practice, consciously or not?

To be only too aware of how many rules and practices there are among your constituencies and to be unable to satisfy them all, indeed to even know what they all are?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

interdisciplinarities and flexible knowledges: where they intermix

I've just been rethinking the term post-disciplinary. Until recently I didn't really like this term. Instead, I have been concentrated on working to multiply the many kinds of interdisciplinarity in the academy. But I reread Lois Menand's essay "The Market Place of Ideas" not long ago, his historicization of pre- and postdisciplinarity, with disciplinization and scientistic rigor as cold war imperatives for the post WWII US academy. This made it possible for me to consider using the term "disciplinary" as a much more local term, one with historical specifics that make the term "post-disciplinary" also much more local and specific. This is shifting my thinking.

Now I want to contrast those imperatives for rigor with the ones for the knowledge environment today in which simulation, academic capitalism and the training of a different and more expanded set of sensory perceptions and venues are being enlisted to play new roles. This contrast sets up reenactments as a species of flexible knowledges and begins to chart some of these shifts across and beyond the academy.

What's happening now is not exactly new; rather one set of imperatives is being demoted as another newer set is both intentionally elaborated and also emergently self-organizing. This second newer pairing I am pointing to here is akin to, say, an online Britannica made to work with a CD (intentionally elaborated) now also coupled with the Wikipedia (sort of self-organizing). And similar to one set of differences and overlaps between interdisciplinarity and flexible knowledges.

Reenactments matter because they reframe a range of practices. Ethnography is one, for example. My argument is that what counts as an experience, what counts as participation, what counts as observation, what counts as the description of these, is up for grabs in some strange ways.

On the large scale one might think about new imperatives for intentional elaboration under academic capitalism of what "interdisciplinarity" is coming to mean, kinds of corporatized collaborations that result in products or services, organized on the level of individuals and units of individuals.

This is why the term interdisciplinary seems to have narrowed in the last few years, such that it is represented by "interdisciplines" and the stakes in evaluation and gatekeeping seem to have become more important. I think of Julie Thompson Klein's wonderful book Crossing Boundaries in this vein. It's full of extensive examples of many kinds of interdisciplinarity, but they tend to be collective in various ways. The idiosyncratic lone wolf scholars and alternative practices are not at the heart of this interdisciplinarity, but evaluated out. Since some of my own mentors were of this sort, I find this excision appalling.

In contrast to all that, though also intermixed, are emergent self-organizing practices in which individual or particular actions turn out to be part of larger organizing structures and forms only perceptible at these other levels, largely not intentional. These are the flexible knowledges I am interested in, often on the edge of validity, authority, membership, as they border communities of practice.

Especially I'm trying to get at the experience of being inside scales in which your practices are bits of larger self-organizing structures that are not self-organizing on the level of you. They are dynamically continually reorganizing in layers of locals and globals and you are part of this, differentially perceptive of various layers and agencies and your actions and effects, motivated to use new sensory mixes to take in and alter information.

On the one hand, the experience of being inside scales has always been true, just as globalization can be used to describe travels over a long historical range. On another hand, this is more and more an element of embodied experience and knowledge making. Reenactments are about this shift.

The sensoria accessed and trained within these experiences of scale in some contexts is the very pleasure of gaming, of entertainment new media, and so on. This is Johnson's point in Everything Bad. In other contexts this is overwhelming, uncomfortable or even excruciating, or terrifyingly unfamiliar. I am trying to build up a range of intellectual associations that make it possible to experience some of this within intellectual argument as pleasurable or curious or worth attending to.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

to people who don't like neologisms and who do like elegant language

It's always good to have to rethink and even justify one's fundamental suppositions, but it's rarely a wholehearted pleasure!

I am frustrated trying to communicate with folks who share some of your concerns and intellectual approaches. It is amazing how wide some of these intellectual gulfs are. The language one is so daunting. I have to laugh when I realize we are on opposite soap boxes there! You think English has plenty of good words and as a matter of principle don’t believe in neologisms, but I come from and value intellectual traditions that rejoice in a totally different vision of English!

I'm a junkie for English language histories and theories about the distinctive properties of English as a language. I've studied literature in Old, Middle, Modern (ie Shakespearean) and contemporary Englishs (and taught English as a foreign language and so on). (My UG thesis was on Beowulf in Old English.) Frankly, from my traditions refusing neologisms in English is not like putting your finger in the dyke, it's more like mistaking the dyke for the ocean!

English is one of the world languages with the largest vocabularies, much larger than the vocabularies of the Romance languages for example. One reason is because English is so good at and depends so much on neologisms and on borrowed words. The ability of English to do this is one of the reasons (though not the only one, power matters too) that English is now a global set of many Englishes, its words used all over the world, and why it is an increasing lingua franca (!) as well as its associations with the most colonizing power today! I taught English in Thailand, where people learn what one could only call "Thai English" from the time they enter school. When I was in Sweden everyone of a post war generation spoke English (before then it had been German).

People who speak English have never had the kinds of language regulation you get in, say, France (lingua franca), where they regulate new words, either coinage or borrowings, and which is why French isn't any longer a useful global language for technology, globalization, economics or even media today.

New words are Good! They are good to use, to think with, to share, to dream about, to love, to hate, to make communities inside and outside and so on. They matter in all these ways, and I love and appreciate new words, love to make them myself, love the work of folks who coin terms and phrases, and find their work among the most valuable in my own education, life, and aesthetics!

Voila! The gulf!

Nor do I believe that using neologisms, per se, creates work that folks won't read. Now I don't know which people will read MY work, but I don't believe for one minute that if they don't it will be because I use neologisms or try to come up with language for thinking new thoughts, for noting features of reality that we don't have good terms for, or for clunky language. I and many others read all kinds of stuff that does all these things, and my own teachers and others I admire and emulate do all those things and are read widely and even commercially. So I simply know one does not entail the other. I don't mean by saying this however to claim that I will be widely read or commercially successful however. I think other factors, some of them totally contingent, others perhaps to do with my own skills and value, figure in all this.

In fact, my own projects are at their very heart about coming up with language for thinking with, word-places or points that cry out for something English doesn't yet have. Feminism-and-writing-technologies is a term I want to make work in these ways and all of my writing is about doing that, all of it. That's the whole point.

I love, for example, science fiction like Suzette Hadin Elgin's (a linguist once from UC-Santa Barbara) Native Tongue, in which the women of that world create a new language Laadan, in order to change reality. The whole book is a wonderful teasing joke about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I especially love her description of "encodings," which are new morphological bits that make speakable elements of reality that are unnamable until they come into being. Or science studies like Bowker and Star's Sorting Things Out, which is all about classification and creating languages that reflect new classifications of the world.

I think it is a current problem that many folks seem to have somehow bought ideas about language generally and English in particular with what amount to anti-intellectualisms that glorify pretend immediacies: the misrecognitions of so-called "accessibility" for example. This is precisely one of the arguments I keep trying to work through: a refusal to take "accessibility" or "clarity" for granted as seeming unproblematic "Goods" instead of an ideology of contemporary capitalisms, with a history in, among other things, advertising.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

emergent ontologies: layers of multiple locals and globals

Francois Lachance, thank you for the suggestion to check out the term "local ontologies." A brief googling does suggest how useful this term is. I like one bit I found describing communication concerns in larger organizations that do not share a "global" ontology, but rather multiple local ones, noting that differing communities of practice within the organization can use the same terms with quite different meanings. This is indeed one phenomenon I am interested in, in women's studies in particular, my own local organization (my department), and more broadly, as a necessary condition of interdisciplinary practice. I wrote my first book on how the term "theory" travels among differing feminisms. (Theory in Its Feminist Travels) Or actually, how many different objects "theory" travel under this single term. This was before I read Bowker and Star (Sorting Things Out) on boundary objects, but that was the travel I was trying to describe.

One link I found quite fascinating suggests some possibilities: mapping multiple ontologies on to each other point to point, or creating "a global reference ontology." In women's studies Adrienne Rich wrote an amazing book of poetry called The Dream of a Common Language. I continually encounter feminists who appear to assume that the language they speak ought to be that "common language." Academic publishing today seems to consider that it promotes a common language for some common public to which all academic thought can be translated for a common reader, one beyond the academy. I think this is a fantasy, and my book on reenactments is one attempt to address this fantasy seriously, not rejecting it, but engaging with it. (my manuscript on Networked Reenactments: histories under globalization)

Mapping one to one could entail the kind of mutually learning practice I think is part of the interdisciplinarities I wish myself to practice with others. A global reference ontology is of course always relatively global: what works for one organization might be helpful but not actually global for another organization. This is why I like to think about "layers of locals and globals" and how they are relative and relational. I use locals and globals within many metaphors of "mapping" – from the materially geographical to the meta-languages to describe degrees and kinds of abstraction.

I heard the term "emergent ontologies" at a conference last year, where it was used to describe categories for databases generated by users manipulations of the data over some period of time, then becoming the template for new and shifting ontologies. I like this use as well, it captures the dynamics of use and flux I am also trying to think about and learn how to describe.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

relative universalizations

I began college at UCSC in 1970, within a formation Lattuca calls 60s interdisciplinary curricula. She talks about the University of Wisconsin's humans and environment curriculum, in which colleges were organized on environmental themes rather than academic disciplines. At UCSC in 1970 colleges were organized around interdisciplinary themes too. I was in Cowell College. I remember our college slogan, "the pursuit of truth in the company of friends," and I guess in some form I still find myself there. I'm not sure I remember the exact wording of our theme if this slogan was not it, but we did our college general education work in two years of "World Civilizations." Harry Berger, Jr. was one of the synthesizing figures in all this, and our work was a combination of literature, anthropology, art history, and cultural theory.

We were also willy-nilly in the midst of student movements too: the second year of World Civilizations was taken over and reorganized politically to focus on political movements. I took courses on revolutionary theory, in which we studied Paris May 68 for example, and my first women's studies course in Merrill College, with Ruth Needleman, on women and literature. This was also when Wally Andrews, Luita D. Spangler and I founded the Gay Students Union.

Lattuca also notes the year 1972 for a new kind of interdisciplinarity based in general systems theory and structuralism. When Gregory Bateson arrived at UCSC I started classes with him and learned about systems, cybernetics and structuralism. I had already been reading about the Bourbaki group and set theory and trying in my naive way to express cultural concepts in such terms as I understood. I guess reading Bourbaki stuff was the beginning of my current interests in category theories and cognitive sociology.

Lattuca notes that systems work attempted to unify theory from various areas without regard to disciplinary divisions. I've written a bit about this in relation to Bateson in my "Queerish Travels" essay. From Harry Berger and Shelly Errington I studied oral and written consciousness in Havelock's terms, out of the Toronto school's work engaging McLuhan, Ong and others. I continued these studies and more on cross-cultural poetics and structuralism in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, studying with Ramanujan, Redfield and others. It was there I also learned critiques of the Toronto school and the beginnings of poststructuralist thinking.

When I returned to UCSC and the History of Consciousness in the early 80s poststructuralism and postmodernism became the theoretical resources for my work in feminist theory. When I met Donna Haraway for the first time we connected across the work of our teachers, hers Evelyn Hutchinson and mine Bateson. Haraway's was the first critique of systems theory and organicism that I encountered too.

My BA was in Anthropology and Literature, my first graduate work in Social Thought, and my PhD in the History of Consciousness. I am an instantiation of a trajectory of entirely interdisciplinary training both undergrad and grad in a particular set of venues of interdisciplinarity. In the Committee on Social Thought we were told that it was founded to provide social scientists with a "classical education." The Committee and the University of Chicago come out of movements Lattuca describes as in the 20s promoting integration across social science disciplines, and applied social sciences adopted by academics, in the 30s support for area studies by the Ford Foundation, and in the 50s to 70s the National Defense Act. The Committee was a venue for nondisciplinary knowledge formations.

My undergraduate teachers were themselves examples of individuals whose work was interdisciplinary, whose general education teaching was team focused, but whose research was not. Berger, Norman O. Brown, Errington and others, produced examples of idiosyncratic individual studies and critiques of area studies, while women's studies I understood then as anti-disciplinary. Thus my early intellectual experiences mixed together theory, politics, epistemology, and critiques of disciplines, together as "interdisciplinarity." Far from gaining the impression that only projects were interdisciplinary, not individuals, or that polymaths were dilettantes, my role models were intellectually playful yet concerned with a variety of forms of rigor.

In the History of Consciousness I learned from Donna Haraway what she would eventually be calling feminist technoscience. I moved among peers studying with and took classes from Hayden White on meta-history and James Clifford on transnational intellectual travel, TAing for Vivian Sobchack on media technologies and discussing editing epistemologies with Michael Warren. Some of my graduate peers were Sharon Traweek, Bill Pietz, TV Reed and Noel Sturgeon, Caren Kaplan and Debbie Gordon, Lata Mani and Ruth Frankenberg, Chela Sandoval and Gloria Watkins.

While to some extent those early general ed courses on World Civilizations involved the collaborative tasks Lattuca discusses, planning, content integration, teaching and evaluation, I think what I actually if indirectly learned there and later were positive noncommensurabilities: contrast in worldviews, objects, evidence, argument, practices, membership, initiation, gatekeeping and boundaries. In other words, not a universal "integration" but a range of multiple mappings and paradigms, seeing how travel among them is achieved or not, how communication works or doesn't and so. Sometimes but not always a "critique of the disciplines."

My own history would corroborate Lattuca's generalizations connecting feminism and postmodernism as challenging conceptualizations of interdisciplinarity based on collaboration by individuals from different disciplines, challenging disciplinary knowledge as such rather than attempting to integrate disciplines, and highlighting epistemological reflection and theory in women's studies, ethnic studies, cultural and literary studies, as well as in anthropology, history and science studies. It would also corroborate her contention that this sort of interdisciplinarity is part of a project to redefine knowledge and that therefore reflection on epistemological assumptions is paramount. This indeed was what we called "feminist," thus entailing dismantling disciplinary perspectives, not maintaining and integrating them. Lattuca links feminism and postmodernism as viewing disciplines as power structures to be altered and in which the political and the epistemological are inseparable. In this view disciplinary approaches can only be partial, distorted, serving those in power, while interdisciplinary approaches are intended to be less distorted and to redistribute power, both a means to an end and an end in itself.

Today, however, I belong to feminist communities that do not necessarily share those commitments, and my own projects have shifted somewhat. Now I would like to be able to describe cycling through ranges of interdisciplinary practices – meta-movement among many cognitive mappings of interdisciplinary workings. Rather than whole-scale rejection of say, universals to be discovered, with Bruno Latour I am interested in relative universalizations – maybe universals to be created among knowledge producers at political moments of importance. Rather than working within a feminist postmodern interdisciplinarity that would exclude modern, positivist scholarship, with Latour I wonder about the amodern, in which meta-mapping acknowledges as simultaneous cognitive maps valorizing either purification or hybridization. Following Latour, Haraway and others I want to learn to describe interdisciplinarities that allow for disparate epistemologies, rather than prioritizing partisan alliances within them.

creating mappings of interdisciplinarities

I am using the term "flexible knowledges" as something that includes but is not limited to academies. I keep moving between this larger formation and academic knowledges understood among disciplines and interdisciplinarities.

I just began reading a book recommended to me by my friend TV Reed, Creating Interdisciplinarity by Lisa Lattuca (2001). For a while I have been trying to consider how to talk about a range of possible interdisciplinarities. I'd like to come up with some descriptions, maybe names for, a range of practices that could reasonably be called interdisciplinary. I'd like to do this in a mix: of things people I know do, together with schematizing their practices as possible types. I began doing this in a working paper I wrote "Theorizing Structures in Women's Studies". There I talked about "a project becomes a new field," and "disciplines as world views."

Lisa Lattuca refers to the work of Salter and Hearn 1996 on two types of interdisciplinarity that help me understand some differences important within my own women's studies department:

instrumental interdisciplinarity: a pragmatic approach which focuses on problem-solving without worrying about a synthesis of perspectives, or perhaps, which assumes a given synthesis as more important than a examination of it; and

conceptual interdisciplinarity: a more theoretical and epistemological enterprise developing new conceptual categories and methods.

Different degrees of mix among these poles on some continuum might be one way to map practices within my own department.

Salter and Hearne are also quoted: "interdisciplinarity as an integral part of the knowledge-production system: a normal part of the processes of fragmentation, synthesis, and recombination of knowledge." This is where "flexible knowledges" and "interdisciplinarity" overlap in my own interests here.

I trying to put together a personal mini-history of interdisciplinarities, charting where my own assumptions, preferences, biases and commitments come from. That will be the content of my next blog bit I think.

I'm inspired to consider a meta-mapping: that is to describe a range of conceptual maps that are in play currently in understanding interdisciplinarities, and to work out meta-movement among these mappings. I think of this as an other species of what Chela Sandoval calls "differential consciousness."

how to read and listen to the unfamiliar

I'm thinking of writing something on how to read and listen to stuff that you find unfamiliar. I guess I've been trying to do this all along, but I never seem to get the right tone. Cultivating curiosity, enjoying denaturalization of your own communities of practice, dealing with information overload via the pleasures of new sensoria, using questions to deterritorialize rather than reterriorialize, enjoying incommensurability of knowledge species and then arranging them in telescoping nested layers.

Maybe I should use new televisual techniques as examples of each of these -- if I can figure them out. One of my new favorite TV shows is the best thing the US history channel has begun to offer: Digging For the Truth. Recently they had a marathon of shows all taking apart bits of the objects used in the Di Vinci Code. Actually, the history channel did the Di Vinci code all week before it opened, debunking it with many shows. The ones I've seen are great.


Working with Flexible Knowledges: how to read and listen to the unfamiliar

1. enjoying denaturalization of your own communities of practice
2. dealing with information overload via the pleasures of new sensoria
3. enjoying incommensurabilities of knowledge species
4. arranging knowledge species in telescoping nested layers
5. using questions to deterritorialize rather than reterritorialize
6. cultivating curiosity

Johnson : probing and telescoping
Haraway : when species meet: zest for excess making room for acid indigestion and regurgitation rather than idealization and disillusion
Latour : fraternizing instead of denouncing, sorting out instead of debunking; iconoclash -– don't mistake new forms of respect for destruction