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.