All posts by Thomas Basbøll

Beyond the Logic of Representation

I think Jonathon Kneeland’s “rejection of academia” is worth taking seriously. After all, he is not an academic but is, as he points out, one of its benefactors. His taxes support the work of academics; he wants to hold them accountable just as he would his politicians and police officers. “He has never been to university,” his author bio tells us, “and has no formal training in writing.” He appears to have acquired his writing skills by reading extensively and, I’m going to assume, writing a great deal. He writes well and appears to have informed himself about the issues he’s writing about. It would be completely wrong to dismiss him as simply “unqualified”.

Also, his concerns are entirely reasonable. Indeed, he isn’t making arguments that we haven’t heard from academics themselves. Like many scholars, Kneeland is dismayed by the sort of thing that is considered a contribution to scholarly discourse these days. He offers a specific example, an article by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah Truman in Body and Society . It’s a perfectly respectable journal that has been operating since 1995 and is published by SAGE, a perfectly respectable academic publisher. The lead author is an associate professor, presumably tenured, at a public university. Kneeland isn’t tilting at windmills here or slaughtering straw men. He’s taking aim at something that can be held to a certain standard.

I was struck by a particular phrase in the abstract because I think it goes a long way towards explaining the clash of expectations that motivate Kneeland’s rejection of academia:

…scholars have examined vital, sensory, material, and ephemeral intensities beyond the logics of representation.

Though Kneeland himself doesn’t emphasize it, his underlying objection might well be to this idea of working “beyond” representation. After all, suppose our elected “representatives” boldly announced their intention to work “beyond” their mandates.  In that light, laypeople like Kneeland can be forgiven for being taken aback by the idea of a methodology that does not commit itself to a logic of representation. Of course, we might remind him that politicians do in fact often state their personal convictions and, sometimes, cast their vote according to their conscience rather than the majority opinion among the people they represent. Politicians sometimes openly oppose themselves to the will of their constituents, hoping to persuade them of the rightness of their views before the next election. So the analogy does offer us something like a space “beyond representation”, a legitimate space for experimental work.

But I think two questions can be reasonably asked: How many resources should be devoted to such experimentation? And how should the existing representational space constrain the pursuit of such experiments? If everyone in a given a discipline (like pedagogy) is always working beyond the confines of representation–beyond the presumption that there are facts in the world and some of them are known–then how can we ever know anything at all? Who can we call on to tell us what the facts are? Worse still, we sometimes get the impression that academics want us to believe that there simply are no relevant facts of the matter, that there is no truth at all, because “representation” simply doesn’t work. Again, I would encourage people who find themselves saying such things to imagine an elected official eschewing “representative democracy” as a illusion.

We want there to be an institution in society whose main purpose is to represent the knowable facts. We sometimes call that institution the University.

On the other hand, we can certainly come up with good reasons to allow exploratory and experimental research to exist as well, no matter how odd it sounds. As long as we are offered assurances that the majority of the research funding in pedagogy is going to produce stable, orderly, (indeed, “logical”) representations of pedagogical practice, there is no harm, and indeed some benefit to letting some researchers explore “vital, sensory, material, and ephemeral intensities beyond the logics of representation“. I think  it must come with an obligation to engage with those who are puzzled by it. Or, at the very least, there should be an expectation that the editors who decide to publish such work are able to defend these decisions, in part by pointing to the world of represented facts that are not at risk, at least immediately, of being overturned by one or another experiment. Meeting that obligation, I believe, is what it will take to regain Kneeland’s trust. Like I say, I think we should try. I think scholars do well to express themselves in ways that make sense to obviously intelligent but unabashedly “uneducated” laypeople like him.

The Representation of Knowledge in Writing

I often compare writing to drawing. My own amateur sense of the difficulty of drawing objects (hands, trees, boats) is that you have to represent a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. I got this idea many years ago when I tried modelling heads in plasticine based on photographs. I found it surprisingly easy, and I assumed it had something to do with the extra dimension the plasticine gave me to represent the information in a two-dimensional picture. In the same way, it’s easier to reproduce a photograph in a drawing than it is to work with a live model. It’s the disparity between the amount of dimensions that the object has and the amount that the representational space has that determines the degree of difficulty. That’s the idea I got, anyway.

On this view, we can think of writing as a one-dimensional representational space. One word follows another in single file. Especially in prose, where there is no “line” (as in poetry) to work with. It’s just a series of words that form a sentence and series of sentences that form a paragraph–a series of paragraphs that form an essay. It’s one-dimensional and even uni-directional (you can’t read a sentence backwards). Prose is linear. It is a very impoverished representational situation. It lacks dimensional resources.

If we think about what our writing is “about” the situation gets even worse. Writing rarely confines itself to three-dimensional objects. Normally, what we write about will include a fourth dimension, namely, time. We are writing about facts that change over time, events that transpire in history. Moreover, we are normally trying to represent not just how they actually are, but what they could have been or what they might one day become. That is, we are representing the possibilities that are implicit in our object of study. Indeed, I would argue that an object of knowledge is “objective” precisely in so far as it determines the possible ways in which it can be combined with other objects. (Readers of the early Wittgenstein will perhaps recognize this point.) That is, our objects are located in logical space.

Lastly, we have to consider that, as scholars, we are as often representing “ideas” as we are representing “things”. When we are representing our knowledge, we are representing a rich set of competences, both individual and social, that imply both perceptual and communicative abilities. We are claiming to be able to see certain things and to talk about them with others. We are claiming to have collected and analysed data. We claim to understand the methodologies that we and our peers use to construct our facts. We claim even to uphold certain ethical standards and open ourselves to particular forms of critique.  (Here readers of Foucault will perhaps feel on familiar ground.) That is, the objects of our knowledge are located also in discursive space.

I don’t know how many dimensions all this implies. But it’s certainly more than the single dimension that the space of writing (the “page”) provides. (A piece of drawing paper has two dimensions to work with and the eye can scan it in all directions; but the written page of prose, like I say, has only a single line along which the reader’s attention passes in one direction.) I think this is the basis of the felt difficulty of writing. Indeed, it may indicate the real difficulty.

In Defense of Prose

The root meaning of “prose” is “straightforward or direct speech.” Today, however, it normally refers to a kind of writing. While it is often contrasted with poetry, the original meaning of prose, as a “plain” kind of writing “without ornament”, and in that sense distinct from poetry, doesn’t quite apply any longer. Much of the prose we can read, and often in academic journals, is highly ornate or “poetic”. There is even such a thing as “prose poetry”. The sixteeenth-century conception of prose as “plain” writing appears to have inspired, in the seventeenth century, the pejorative sense of prose as “dull”, so that, in the nineteenth century, the French word prosateur meant simply a “dull writer”. It is also from French that we get the derivative “prosaic”, meaning “ordinary”.

“Prosaic writing,” said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture.” Against this, he sets “a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others.” In fact, he distinguishes both “great prose” and poetry from ordinary prose writing, which writers resort to, he argues, when they are “no longer capable of … founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating.” While, this way of constructing the difference between prose and poetry appeals to me, there is a danger in interpreting it as an argument against prosaic writing. After all, given the choice between “limiting” yourself to “already accepted” meanings, on the one hand, and calling out to “each individual freedom”, on the other, it seems obvious what your ambition should be.

It is possible to read Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things as an argument for the contingency of this prosaic world. “Don Quixote is the negative of the Renaissance world,” he tells us; “writing has ceased to be the prose of the world.” (The title of Merleau-Pounty’s book was The Prose of the World.) And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty’s “new universalities” do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. Poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred.

Sometimes I get the sense that scholars think of themselves as poets–perhaps self-consciously minor poets, or even failed poets, but poets nonetheless. Many academics struggle with the language in the manner of Don Quixote, who “wanders off on his own,” as Foucault put it. We “no longer read nature and books alike as part of a single text,” in terms of their similitude, he tells us. We don’t acknowledge, I would add, the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose. We have become highly skeptical of this basic function of writing, and our students, too, have adopted this attitude. They learn to read even ostensibly factual prose as though it were the accounts of adventures of madmen, “without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness … no longer the marks of things … sleeping … covered in dust.”

It often seems to me that we have, like Foucault, come to see the representation of facts in prose as tantamount to a belief in magic. All writing has become fiction. We appreciate each other’s writing in the manner of literature rather than simply and straightforwardly “taking issue” with what is said on the assumption that the words we are using are meaningful in the ordinary prosaic way and may therefore be compared to, i.e., “read against”, the world of facts that make our utterances true or false.

It’s time to defend the virtues of prose, the value of ordinary usage, the power of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the “alliance” of “resemblances and signs”. Ironically (which is to say, appropriately), this little rant in favor of the representational function of language will be considered by many to be the ravings of a madman who has read, with a certain romance, too many books and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills? I would argue that academic prose should not be ashamed of its inability to “found a new universality”. Academic writing is very much an attempt to use the language within the limits of accepted usage. There is a whole world of prose: the universe of which it is always already possible to speak. It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims. Somebody has got to do it.

(This post is a reworked version of two posts from my retired blog.)

The Future of Objectivity (4)

The idea that objectivity is an attribute of “the male gaze” has been with us since the 1970s and has played an important part in the feminist critique of science. In her contribution to The Future of Scholarly WritingAnna Grimshaw briefly touches on this issue, mainly in a footnote on Judith Okely’s “The Self and Scientism” (from 1975, reprinted in the 1996 collection Own or Other Culture), which explored the place of personal experience, and therefore subjectivity, in anthropological fieldwork. “Okely argued against the perception among social scientists that subjectivity was a problem to be overcome in pursuit of objective research,” Grimshaw explains. “She called for the acknowledgement of the important role played by subjectivity in participant observation” (157, n3). Since Grimshaw doesn’t say more about objectivity as such, I had a look at the relevant pages in Okely’s essay for this installment in my series on the future of objectivity.

Okely rightly points out that subjectivity is seen mainly as a impediment to knowledge, as something that needs to be kept from undermining our efforts to know the world. She makes a good case for the idea that subjectivity is actually the “medium” through which we understand other people. In an important sense, we might say, the anthropologist’s subjective experience is our measuring instrument, so it does seem somewhat odd to think of it as something to be kept out of our study of other people. She cites Maquet as suggesting that fieldwork is actually only something we do out of necessity, when studying illiterate cultures, and Nadet for suggesting that anthropologists should work in teams in order to avoid dependence on a “single mind” for experience. I think she makes a compelling case for approaching subjectivity as a substantive virtue of participant observation rather than a necessary evil.

I’m less comfortable with the somewhat radical conclusion she draws from this, and with the gendering of the issue. These are brought together in a quote from Anaïs Nin’s diaries:

Now analysis is revealing how little objectivity there is in man’s thinking … Man generalizes from experience and denies the source of his generalizations. Woman individualizes and personalizes, but ultimately analysis will reveal that the rationalizations of man are a disguise to his personal bias, and that woman’s intuition was nothing more than a recognition of the influence of the personal in all thought. (Quoted by Okely, p. 29)

It is one thing to promote subjectivity and quite another to denigrate objectivity. The idea that it is somehow false, and perhaps even oppressive, doesn’t sit very comfortably with me. The quest for objectivity, as I understand it, has never tried to disguise the fact of personal biases; it has merely suggested that those biases can be countered and that a limited, but clear, view of the facts can be achieved. Finally, I really don’t think that subjectivity and objectivity are gendered traits. As Nin points out, men are ultimately as subjectively grounded as women, although in 1975 it may have been accurate to say the men were more conditioned to check their subjective biases and adopt an objective stance. Today, four decades later, women are raised with the same awareness of objective reality as men. Indeed, I would add that women are as capable of objectivity as men. I’m not going to get into the question of whether this capacity is equally distributed among men and women, though I hope it won’t be controversial to suggest that it’s not equally distributed among individuals. Moreover, the interest in being objective is itself a personal matter, a subjective attitude, if you will.

It’s not my place to propose feminist strategy, but I don’t think the rhetorical opposition of a genuine female subjectivity with a mere pretense of male objectivity gets the issue quite right. Subjectivity and objectivity alike can be authentic postures or superficial gestures. We can pursue them in earnest or merely pay lip service to them. Men are no more capable of pretending here than women are. And women, in my experience, are are no less capable than men of recognizing and overcoming subjective sources of error.