Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: November 2005

Humbuggery in Action

Frank H. Strauss – an evidently frustrated reader of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project – posted the following in Amazon’s reader reviews:

This book is a nihilistic, incoherent work, and I dare anyone who reads this review to argue to the contrary. Admiration for this book is humbuggery in action. The emperor has no clothes.

There is, of course, a veritable cottage industry commenting on the quality of the Arcades’ vestments. It doesn’t hurt that the fragmentary nature of the work can function as a kind of theoretical rorschach, such that the resulting interpretations tell you a great deal about the commentators, but possibly not so much about what Benjamin was seeking to accomplish.

Since I am not personally a Benjamin scholar, this rorschach quality doesn’t worry me unduly – as I’ve previously commented on my occasional use of Marx, while I do my best to interpret the work accurately, my main concern is identifying interesting questions, and perhaps uncovering better conceptual tools for answering them. It is in this spirit that I approach Benjamin, who provides, I believe, excellent source material for both questions and conceptual tools.

In most sections of the Arcades Project, those questions remain very tacit, implied in the grouping of material. So, Convolute B, relating to fashion, seems fascinated with the question of historical cycles of consumption – with the turnover rate of taste, and also with the tendency for particular fashions to recur after set intervals. Convolute C, relating to the Paris catacombs, demolition, and concepts of decline, seems drawn to the emergence of a historical sensibility that is attuned to the long sweep of history, from whose perspective we can readily imagine a time when everything around us will, in its turn, be destroyed. Convolute D, on boredom and eternal return, again draws attention to perceptions of historical time – in this case, time that moves on and on without a substantive endpoint. In many convolutes, Benjamin therefore seems to be operating on a parallel track to Weber’s famous diagnosis of modern society:

Now, do they have any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical? You will find this question raised in the most principled form in the works of Leo Tolstoi. He came to raise the question in a peculiar way. All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized person death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no person who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness.(“Science as a Vocation”, pp. 14-15)

At the same time, Benjamin does not descend fully into Weberian pessimism. Instead, Benjamin holds out the potential for emancipatory alternatives. In this vein, Convolute E, on Haussmann and the barricades, tacitly contrasts two different forms of action oriented to bringing about a better future – town planning (conscious in its aims, but not necessarily oriented to emancipation) and revolutionary uprising (oriented to emancipation, but not necessarily fully conscious of its aims). Further convolutes – particularly the most explicitly theoretical material in convolute N – work and rework the concept of the “dreamtime” of modernity, holding out the possibility that it might somehow be possible to awaken potentials for emancipation.

In my own personal rorschach, therefore, what I see everywhere in Benjamin’s images are tacit questions about why we experience and perceive history the way we do, and how those experiences and perceptions relate to the historical emergence of emancipatory ideals – and, possibly, to our ability to achieve greater freedom in practice. I see Benjamin, then, as quintessentially concerned with questions of epistemology – how do we know what we claim to know? why do we perceive the world in a certain way? – and with the relationship between epistemology and critique – why do we believe (at least in some ways, in some times) that more freedom is possible? This is, of course, not a bad diagnosis of the central goals of my own work – which may mean that I have merely taken a “tiger’s leap” into Benjamin’s writings, scenting only what is relevant to my own interests. If so, I believe it has been a productive hunt. I’ll try in future installments to flesh out more fully what I have captured from Benjamin’s work.

Pedestrian Access to the 19th Century City

Planning theorists often criticise the negative impact of designing urban spaces around the needs of automobiles. Theorists lament the resultant unsafe conditions for pedestrians, and the associated loss of vibrant street cultures. They cite our increasing dependence on automobiles for even brief travel, and draw attention to the way that we shuttle from our homes into the private, homogenised, commercial spaces of shopping malls, thus impoverishing the public arena. Against this critical backdrop, the following snippet from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project caught my eye – this from Convolute A, p. 32:

“The narrow streets surrounding the Opera and the hazards to which pedestrians were exposed on emerging from this theater, which is always beseiged by carriages, gave a group of speculators in 1821 the idea of using some of the structures separating the new theater from the boulevard. / This enterprise, a source of riches for its originators, was at the same time of great benefit to the public. / By way of a small, narrow covered arcade built of wood, one had, in fact, direct access, with all the security of the Opera vestibule, to these galleries, and from there to the bouolevard…. Above the entablature of Doric pilasters dividing the shops rise two floors of apartments, and above the apartments – running the length of the galleries – reigns an enormous glass-paned roof.” J.A. Dulaure, Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris depuis 1821 jusqu’a nos jours (Paris, 1835), vol. 2, pp. 28-29. [A1, 6]

Until 1987, the carriage ruled the streets. On the narrow sidewalks the pedestrian was extremely cramped, and so strolling took place principally in the arcades, which offered protection from bad weather and from the traffic. “Our larger streets and our wider sidewalks are suited to the sweet flanerie that for our fathers was impossible except in the arcades.” []Flaneur[] Edmond Beaurepaire, Paris d’hier et d’aujourd’hui: La Chronique des rues (Paris, 1900), p. 67. [A1a, I]

There is a certain amusement value in wondering whether critical urban theorists – had they existed in the early 19th century – would have generated “tyranny of the carriage!” articles, in the same way they currently generate “tyranny of the automobile” articles. More substantively, though, this passage interests me as a model for highlighting the ambivalent potentials of historical change. Benjamin here takes several steps that are sometimes missing from critical analyses of urban form:

(1) He does not judge the consequence by the cause – he highlights that it was base profit motive and speculation that led to the creation of the arcades, but does not assume that this observation, by itself, carries critical impact;

(2) He does not assume that the impact of change was intentional – speculators were focussed on immediate personal profits, and were not explicitly intending to create an exemplary or novel form of social experience, which would then come to take on a life of its own; and

(3) He recognises the ambivalent character of change – the arcades made money for speculators, but this does not prevent them from also making positive contributions in a broader sense.

These insights – expressed, in typical Benjamin form, through the selective appropriation and reorganisation of the insights of others – are all very useful tools for understanding and critically evaluating historical innovations.

Early 20th Century Blogging

I remember when I first heard of blogging, my immediate thought was that Walter Benjamin would have enjoyed the medium. I’m currently reading Benjamin’s Arcades Project – a vast, dense constellation of quotations, commentary and notes, associatively mobilised around the central metaphor of the Paris arcades as quintessential symbol of 19th century capitalism.

Although Benjamin never seems to have intended to construct a conventional linear narrative for the Arcades Project, nevertheless, the version of the work that has come down to us is not a finished product – Benjamin may have been carrying that completed draft with him when, believing he would be unable to avoid capture by the Nazis, he committed suicide. After his suicide, the heavy briefcase he had carried with him during his flight was lost, along with whatever manuscript it might have contained.

What we have, instead, is a draft on which Benjamin worked for years – organising and reorganising, adding and subtracting, ordering and deconstructing, constantly exploring new relationships and connections among his vast array of source materials and commentaries. The draft has a very bloglike form: Benjamin often begins with a quotation – or a series of quotations – from other materials, inviting his readers to react, to leap to a meaningful gestalt by engaging with these references. He intersperses commentaries in his own words, written in a brief, dense, incisive style that problematises the connections among his cited material. If hypertext links had existed when Benjamin was writing, one imagines that he would have been an enthusiastic proponent.

At the same time, I don’t want to overstate Benjamin’s status as a proto-blogger. Benjamin worked very privately – systematically collecting and struggling over the proper organisation of his materials, publishing very little relating to what he intended as his magnum opus. I feel fairly comfortable asserting that the blogosphere would have attracted Benjamin, appealing to his liking for the ephemeral, for cultural detritus, even for kitch. At the same time, I believe that Benjamin embraced fragments strategically, as a mode of communication, rather than as a means of opening his own provisional thoughts to his readers. Benjamin’s attraction to fragments (like Adorno’s, following him) related to his sense that a contradictory whole could be communicated more effectively when presented in the form of fragmentary parts, with the task of constructing the conceptual unity then falling to the active conceptual work of the reader.

I’m currently collecting my own small collection of fragments from the Arcades Project, some of which I’ll reproduce here as I move through the work over the next several days.

The Relationship of Blogging to Academic Work

In July, the US Chronicle of Higher Education’s Career section featured an article about the impact of job applicant blogging on the deliberations of academic hiring committees. Titled Bloggers Need Not Apply, (and attributed to the pseudonymous “Ivan Tribble”), this article questions the wisdom of academic job applicants’ posting sometimes deeply personal information about themselves on the web, in full potential view of any hiring committee member who can google. The article draws particular attention to blogs that contain

what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger’s tormented soul; in other cases, the far limits of techno-geekdom; and in one case, a cat better off left in the bag.

The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one’s unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world?

The article goes on to note that blogs give hiring committees access to applicants’ views on potentially controversial topics – politics, religion, fashion, etc. – that might never have been broached in an actual job interview, but that could affect a hiring committee’s perception of the “fit” between an applicant and a job. Blogs also potentially expose the hiring committee to the applicant at their worst (intellectually and/or emotionally), particularly if the blog hosts complaints about an applicant’s workplace or a detailed account of petty grievances and gripes. Even at their best, blogs contain unpolished samples of applicants’ writing and thought-process, which may not represent the best possible image to a hiring committee. The article therefore warns:

More often that not, however, the blog was a negative, and job seekers need to eliminate as many negatives as possible.

We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It’s in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?

We’ve seen the hapless job seekers who destroy the good thing they’ve got going on paper by being so irritating in person that we can’t wait to put them back on a plane. Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know “the real them” — better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more.

The impact of this article was accentuated by the near-contemporaneous decision by the University of Chicago not to tenure two prominent academic bloggers – Sean Carroll and Daniel Drezner. The University of Chicago’s actions prompted a burst of blogosphere speculation on whether the tenure decision related in any way to blogging, speculation which ultimately bled into the mainstream print news. While both Drezner and Carroll appear agnostic over the relationship between their blogging and their tenure decisions, their fates, combined with the very public castigation of jobseeking bloggers in the Chronicle, sparked a cascade of reflections on the wisdom of blogging by untenured academics.

For some, the issue of academic blogging touches on broader themes of generational cultural change within the academy. Some commentators asked whether received systems such as tenure need to be reviewed. Others questioned whether the current model of peer-reviewed academic publications needs to be modified to allow for freer distribution and access to peer-reviewed works and/or to recognise different levels of validity for academic work, on a continuum from draft-like blog or public access productions, through to the traditional “gold standard” of peer reviewed publications. Others asked whether universities better need to acknowledge the value of academics’ serving as “public intellectuals” and writing for the non-academic community, as well as for their academic peers.

For others, the concern was more pragmatic: must I blog anonymously, at least until I secure tenure?

In terms of my personal perspective on the relationship of blogging to my academic work: I understand this site as part of my academic production. The materials I post here are drafts – I would hope that anything I submit for publication is more clearly (and concisely!) written, provides a more thorough “apparatus” of citations, etc. Yet the material I post here, while rough, is not intended to be “first draft” quality – I view blog entries as intermediate-level academic writing, somewhere between the “gold standard” of full publication, and the various kinds of field notes, sketches, dot point outlines, and other material that I produce during my research. This is one of the reasons I will sometimes have long gaps between posts: I don’t always have the time to write something of sufficient quality to post on a public forum.

I have also made a very conscious decision to focus on theoretical or historical materials in the blog, rather than more contemporary ethnographic or oral history materials – at least until I am much further along in my research. Analysing interview material on the blog is, I feel, a more fraught enterprise – both practically, and ethically. Practically, many of the people I’m interviewing know of the existence of this site, and I don’t want to them to worry that their words might end up here and self-censor as a result. Ethically, because I am committed to maintaining the confidentiality of the people to whom I am speaking, and posting quotations or reflections on interviews here too soon after the interviews have actually taken place might make it easier to deduce the identity of the speaker. In various ways, this limitation does “flatten” the material presented here, in that it skews the blog away from analysis of empirical material. Then again, I knew this would be the case when I started the blog – hence the choice of the name “rough theory”…

Initially, I also intended to keep the blog loosely anonymous – meaning that I did not post my name anywhere on the site, but provided enough information about my project to allow someone to figure out who I am, if they were particularly curious. I changed this approach when I realised I was being quoted on other blogs, and felt silly being quoted as “NP”. As a result, I’ve now added my actual last name to my posts, although I’ve still hedged my bets a bit by not including my full first name – I suppose I’m still reluctant for my life to be easily googled…

This strategy is not, though, intended to keep hiring committees away from the site. I have shared the site link quite freely, and have never intended to keep the blog a professional secret. As a consequence, however, I limit my discussion here to the sorts of things I might say in an informal, but still professional, context. I view the site, ideally, like one of my university’s research conferences – as a place to air considered, but not quite finalised, reflections so that I can receive feedback and arrive at better ideas and better means of expressing them.

How I personally view the site is not the only issue, of course. As the Chronicle’s follow-up article on the blogging issue notes, there is a distinct cultural divide between a generation of younger academics who are very comfortable with the internet as a means of professional communication, and a generation of tenured academics who worry about a potential decline in intellectual standards associated with internet communication:

As my original column made clear (and many amid the outcry reiterated) when it comes to blogging, I just don’t “get it.” That’s right, I don’t. Many in the tenured generation don’t, and they’ll be sitting on hiring committees for years to come.

In my personal experience, this cultural divide can result in a reluctance to read material posted to the blog – due, I suspect, to the assumption that the material can’t be worth someone’s serious attention and comment, because I’ve just dashed it off to an online forum (I get the impression that some people must be visualising that I’m posting to a chat room – as if my thoughts on social theory will go scrolling past, interspersed with 13-year-olds asking “rU hot?”). I’ve had a couple of experiences where, unable to convince someone to take a look at a blog entry, I’ve pasted the same material into a Word file, emailed it off, and gotten quite positive and considered comments…

Even those who are willing to take the plunge and read a blog entry are markedly reluctant to post their responses – I get replies in person, or via email, but (as you can tell from the comments fields here) rarely on the blog itself. I find this more understandable, as it takes time to write a considered reply posted to a forum where other people might see it – and time is always going to be a limited commodity. Personally, I’d rather people worry less about this, and just post messier, draftlike comments under a pseudonym – I would benefit from their more informal comments (and get the opportunity to reply online myself, if I choose), and they would not have to worry so much about creating a public record of their informal comments. But feedback in any form is valuable and, when people are busy, it’s simply more efficient for them to provide feedback in the most comfortable form. And, for many academics, the most comfortable form is still not unstructured discussion in an online forum.

Timeless Truths, Ancient Identities

I’ve occasionally written here about the problematic way in which some theorists invoke notions of timeless truths or perennial questions – often picking and choosing their historical material quite selectively (albeit usually unintentionally) to reinforce the impression that a particular question, problem, or approach is intrinsic to the human condition, rather than deriving from a specific historical configuration. I plan to write more on this in coming weeks – I have a long overdue post I’ve been planning on Walter Benjamin, and another on Ian Hacking, which will explore this issue in greater detail. In the interim, an interesting, closely-related issue is being discussed at the Savage Minds blog. While this blog is always interesting, I wanted to draw readers’ attention specifically to Kerim’s discussion of problems with the concept of an “ancient people”.