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