Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: September 2006

What Am I Trying to Do?

I received an email query about my conference paper which, among other things, asked:

can I ask what problem did you think you were addressing. is it the problem foundationalists worry about ie., how do we reliably/certainly ground our critique and/or our transformative practice??

I thought it was worth reproducing the question and part of my answer here (I’ll leave aside for the moment that it’s probably not a fantastic sign if my paper didn’t communicate what problem I was addressing… ;-P This isn’t the reader’s fault, but mine…). I took the question – perhaps incorrectly – as a question not solely about what I was trying to do in this specific paper, but about what I am trying to do overall – how this and other bits of work fit into a broader intellectual framework. I don’t think the answer I gave was complete, and I’m not going to expand it further here at the present time, but I thought it was still worth posting my response:

I’ve sort of shoe-horned the piece into the conference framework, which means that the introduction doesn’t provide the best way “in” to the topics I’m discussing. To step back from the paper in a life-project sort of way:

(1) I do have an interest in the issue of how we “ground” knowledge, but my intuition – if I can figure out a good language for discussing this, which is what I’m trying to play with a bit in the paper – is that this doesn’t require a move to foundationalism. My sense is that, if we think a bit more seriously about certain dimensions of recent historical experience, we’ll find that – at least at the Kantian/Habermasian level of very abstract categories of perception and experience – we can identify widely-shared historical experiences that handily explain why certain forms of perception and thought are so widespread now – even when the historical record suggests to us that earlier societies did not perceive the world in the same way.

Some historical theories, of course, try to do this sort of thing – but my sense is that they tend simultaneously to be too concrete – focussing on kinds of practices that empirically just do vary more widely than the forms of perception and thought the theories are trying to explain – and, at the same time, try to explain far more than can be explained through this kind of theory. I do think we have a level of quite broadly distributed historical experience that exerts a noticeable influence over what we do, and that getting a handle on this level of historical experience might be useful in a Habermasian/understanding-why-certain-political-ideals-resonate-widely kind of way – but theorising this (although I think it’s an important thing to do, and will cast light on specific dimensions of contemporary experience) also leaves an enormous amount unexplained – and this limitation needs to be explicitly acknowledged within the theory…

(2) I also have an interest in intellectual and social “fads” – these historical moments where certain topics suddenly become very exciting, and where the flaws of earlier forms of thought suddenly become very visible and easy to perceive. Again, my intuition – and here, too, I’m searching for a good vocabulary to describe what I’m after – is that these fads often have something to do with very tacit shifts in social practice which, since we don’t “think” with part of ourselves and “do” with another part, also involve small shifts in our concepts and perceptions. Concepts and perceptions, though, are portable – once we stumble across them, we tend to have a go at applying them to a whole range of other practices and experiences – and the more we do this sort of thing, the more plausible the new concepts and forms of perception become – because we’re effectively terraforming our social environment in their image…

(3) I have an interest in the way in which these sorts of issues make it easier for us to make certain kinds of fundamental mistakes (the sorts of mistakes we find so easy to perceive in the works of previous generations – missing obvious empirical and analytical objections to particular bodies of thought).

(4) Finally, I have an interest – which I’m currently trying to explore through a piece on Adorno – in the psychological consequences of the tension between potentials suggested by a very abstract level of historical experience, and more concrete restrictions on practice…

Overheard at the Conference: Words and Things

At least one person seems to share my confusion about theory-as-classification:

Person One: So how was your session?

Person Two: Well, the title didn’t really reflect what it was about. It was really just a semantic discussion trying to home in on what is the definition of community engagement vs. community consultation vs… I mean – how bloody useless! The words aren’t the important thing…

Latte Politics

The other day, I stopped in to a cafe I visit occasionally, looking for a quick coffee. I placed my order, but background noise kept me from making out some additional bit of information that had never been required before. The conversation went something like:

Barista: “So, would you like WHZZZRRRRvroom? Or regular?”

Me: “I’m sorry?”

Barista: “WVZZZZZZ? Or regular?”

Me: “I’m sorry?”

Barista: “FrZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ? Or regular?”

Conscious of the growing queue behind me, and guessing that we were having some kind of conversation about the size of my coffee, I opted for what I thought was the safe, neutral option: “Uh… I’ll have a regular.”

My safe, neutral answer, however, earned me a startled dirty look from the barista. I then had to suffer through the scorn of the next two people in line, who both decided it was appropriate to look directly at me while saying, “Well… I’ll have the fair trade coffee, thanks…”

I returned to the same coffee shop this morning, to find that my autonomous decision-making skills are no longer trusted at this establishment: I placed my order, only to have the barista inform me: “You’ll have fair trade coffee.”

Yes sir. And like it.

Acknowledgement Website

I just wanted to put in quick plug for the Acknowledgement project – a joint endeavour between the University of Melbourne and Monash University to develop plagiarism and academic integrity materials designed for academics, rather than for students. I attended a brief presentation about the project yesterday, and have just been playing around with the Acknowledgement website this morning (note that the current website is still in demo form, but will apparently continue to be available to the general public even after the website has been finalised; also note that the link above goes to the University of Melbourne, but the resource is apparently also available via the Monash University website).

Aside from providing the standard assistance with, e.g., developing student assessments to minimise opportunities for plagiarism, or managing cases of plagiarism once they occur, the site also provides resources on the thornier academic integrity issues confronting established academics – asking us to explore how we feel about “self” plagiarism; investigating the academic integrity responsibilities of an academic reviewer or editor; wondering how we should acknowledge more intangible forms of intellectual influence over our own work; etc.

The website provides quite clear and well-organised materials, including extensive references to further resources. It also includes a series of videos – under the “academic stories” sections within individual topics – that are based on interview material conducted as part of the research for this project, gathered into narratives that, to preserve anonymity and confidentiality, attempt to pull together and express the major points from a range of interviews. These stories generally attempt to provide a sense of the range of views present within the mainstream academic community on specific issues. Occasionally, the videos (which star actors apparently normally used to act out specific medical complaints for real-time medical simulations at one of the partner universities) veer a bit into camp: I particularly enjoyed this video on the virtual university, for example, which begins with a man ranting:

I know that in the 21st century we are supposed to be all about the virtual university and so on. But I have opted to use the Internet as little as possible; I am not a fan of email or Google; in fact, I don’t watch television; I avoid “news” in all its forms.

Why? Because I believe that the mass media erode the kind of originality that I am bound to strive for as an intellectual. Academic freedom to me means, in part, freedom from constant superficial chatter, and from overloading with what passes for “information” these days.

The humor-value, I should note, is mainly in the delivery: I have known people who espouse very similar views, so I can’t argue that the content doesn’t represent a certain approach to academic work. I’ll pass over, for present purposes, what I think about this approach… ;-P

The website also includes some very interesting self-tests – like, for example, the self-test on how to “proof” assignments against plagiarism – that enable you to measure your own thoughts about academic integrity, against findings from the broader research literature. The site also works hard to provide sic et non links to conflicting opinions in the literature on various topics.

My brief look suggests there is some very good material here – for students as well as academic staff. The website is open access, so anyone can have a browse around.

The Order of Things

Just wanted to post a few quick thoughts about my reactions to the Governments and Communities in Partnership conference thus far. The conference is divided between refereed academic papers and practitioner presentations (often combined in the same panel, but still distinct presentation types) and, because I’m using the conference to learn about regional issues that reflect trends at my own field site, I’m generally choosing workshop sessions that tilt heavily toward the practitioner side. I have therefore managed to miss many academic papers that would have interested me – but that I can also easily track down post-conference, when the papers are published… I may comment on some of these papers at a later point…

Still, I’m finding myself reacting to the academic dimensions in the practitioner presentations (which isn’t completely surprising, since many of the practitioners also have a substantial academic background, or are working in tandem with research academics). One striking thing, to me, is how many papers view “theory” as a synonym for a sort of classificatory device – so your “theory” is something that allows you make definitions that then make it possible to draw grids, or sketch points along continua, in order to classify and organise various empirical observations. So, for example, a presentation might offer definitions of a “network” and of a “bureaucracy”, and then report back on which dimensions of particular organisations fit into the “network” box, and which fit into the “bureaucracy” box…

When I say that this is striking, I don’t mean that it’s surprising – theory-as-classification-system is, I suspect, a far more common understanding of sociological theory than, say, the kind of theory that I do. I find it striking, I think, because I often find myself personally confused about what these gridlike classifications systems illuminate, that thick description wouldn’t illuminate more effectively… I have a very similar reaction to social scientific work that takes what are essentially everyday observations and writes them in an “algebraic” style, when there is no actual math taking place: I’m happy for people to use equations to model human behaviour, but I’m not sold on the value of taking something that could just as easily be described in ordinary language, and translating that language into something that “looks mathematical”, but can’t actually be manipulated mathematically. To me, this has all the disadvantages of mathematical modelling (that someone has to learn your specific symbolic system to understand what you’re talking about), with none of the power…

And yet, gridlike classification systems (and, to some audiences at least, “mathlike” renderings of essentially non-mathematical observational data) do have a visible power when they’re presented: people do empirically – you can watch the effect cascade through the room – seem to find it clarifying to be told that government agency x falls closer to the “network” side of the continuum, while private company y falls more toward the “bureaucratic” side… I suspect the power has something to do with the “collective effervescence” of the experience – with the shock of recognition that something that you might have noticed about your own organisation, or other organisations, but had regarded as an essentially private and idiosyncratic interpretation, in actuality connects up with experiences that resonate far more broadly.

This recognition of shared experiences is valuable – although, by itself, I’m not sure it helps us orient ourselves better, so that we can choose better actions… Among other things, I’m concerned that the widespread recognition that, e.g., lots of people are thinking about networks – lots of people share an aesthetic that experiences networks as energetic and flexible and creative and marvelous in all dimensions – without an analysis that helps us understand why this experience is so common now, can contribute to the juggernaut of unreflexive transformation… But, of course, I would think that… ;-P

I am genuinely curious, though, about the “cash value” of this classificatory approach to social science research – which I acknowledge is far more common than the kind of theory I like to do. (I also recognise, of course, that refining definitions and abstraction from thick description is also important for the kind of theory that I do – I’m not trying to claim that my approach to theoretical work shares nothing with more conventional approaches.) I understand the value from a corporate or management perspective: once you’ve decided, for example, that you want to decentralise decision-making, it can be handy to know where decision-making remains highly centralised. But from an academic analytical perspective – from the perspective of grasping a phenomenon, understanding it, making sense of it: are we actually any closer to achieving these goals, when we’ve decided how we want to classify a phenomenon?

But this question is probably asked from a fairly idiosyncratic viewpoint – it could equally be asked whether we’ve really understood something when, as in the kind of theory I prefer, we’ve understood its contingency: how it came into being, and how it is currently being sustained. To me, of course, a knowledge of historical contingency provides a means of orienting ourselves to action – a means of knowing something about the possibilities and constraints open to us at a particular point in time. On the field of historical action, however, grids and definitions – as articulations that help to ossify interpretations of our historical moment – have dramatic practical effect by channeling perceptions of the current moment into deeper and more precisely defined grooves… So maybe the question is more what the “cash value” is of a form of theory that constantly tries to swim upstream against this kind of historical current…

Talking the Talk

I won’t blog today about the other papers at the Governments and Communities in Partnership conference – I’ve sketched some notes on some interesting convergent themes, but I’ll try to sum those up in a post tomorrow. I did want to post a copy of the talk I delivered below the fold – the talk is significantly shorter than the paper, but also significantly longer than a standard blog post, so be warned…

Some funny things from the session where I delivered my paper: first, the members of my reading group, evidently put out that my paper prevented our regular Monday lunchtime meeting, invaded the session (if by “invaded” you understand “slipped into the back and sat in the most shadowy corner of the conference room, from which they promptly slipped back out once I had finished speaking”).

A technical glitch meant that the session began ten minutes late, which ordinarily wouldn’t have had much of an effect. This conference has been designed, though, to allow people to swap and change between concurrent sessions – so people could, for example, attend paper 1 from one session, and leave when that paper was done, being reasonably sure that paper 2 from another session would begin promptly on time. This meant that the entirety of the ten-minute delay had to come out of the first presentation, which, as luck would have it, was mine.

This had two impacts on my presentation: first, there was no time for questions afterward (this was likely a good thing, as my piece was so abstract, compared to the other papers I saw at the conference, that I’m reasonably certain no one would have had any questions to ask…) – instead, people were directed by the facilitator to my blog. The facilitator had evidently followed a footnote in the paper back here, and found it very striking that I would post work online – particularly work that I have specifically posted because I believe it needs additional revision. Before, during and after the panel session, she made a point of telling me how surprised she was at the “openness” of it all.

The second impact was that, contrary to my normal practice, I actually had to read the talk I had written, to make sure that I kept strictly to an allocated time substantially shorter than what I had expected. I hate reading talks, and I generally feel strongest and most comfortable giving ad-lib presentations. But, given the complexity of what I was trying to cover, the fundamental strangeness of my talk for this venue, and the time constraints, it seemed the best thing to do at the time…

The side effect is that the talk below is reasonably close to what I actually said, and provides a decent simplified and potted version of the full-length paper. I’ll give advance warning that this talk contains no footnotes or literature references, as the talk was not distributed at the conference, and I would expect readers to consult the published version of the paper for this purpose. Read more of this post

Governments and Communities Conference

For the next few days, I’ll be at a Melbourne University Centre for Public Policy conference, ambitiously titled Governments and Communities in Partnership: From Theory to Practice. I’ve mentioned previously that the paper I’ll be delivering there doesn’t exactly meet the ambitious “from theory to practice” goal posed in the conference title. Looking back over my paper to try to figure out how to speak to it at the conference, I notice with some amusement that the introduction to the paper follows the form: “Have you heard about this really interesting and important question? Yeah – that one – the one this conference is supposed to be about? Yeah – I agree – that question is just absolutely fascinating… But I’m not going to discuss that question here.” I then spend my allocated 8000 words, not even answering a different question, but instead just trying to figure out a good question to ask…

For any local readers who might be at the conference, my panel is on Monday afternoon at 1:45 – PM Workshop 8: Perspectives on Communities. I approach this panel presentation with some trepidation, as I appear to be the first paper off the rank and, strangely, don’t seem to say anything about communities… I’m not even completely sure I offer something that could properly be called a perspective… We’ll hope those in attendance don’t have high expectations that the first paper in their panel will actually have what one might call a… connection to the ostensible topic…

My intention is to blog a bit over the next few days about things I hear and read from the conference (best laid plans and all of that…).

The conference program is available online.

Holy Moses!

I’ve been intending to point readers to this BBC article on Amanda McKittrick Ros. I was too busy to put a post together in a timely fashion, though, and I now notice that many other bloggers have fun posts up on Ros and other creators of almost demonically inspired bad writing. The BBC article promotes a Belfast literary festival that has issued a challenge for “lovers of awful literature”: the festival will hold a competition to see who can read the longest passage from Ros’ work without laughing. Sound easy? See how well you go with these selections:

Visiting Westminster Abbey

Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’
Undergoes the same as you. (via Wikipedia)

Or this piece on the death of a lawyer:

Beneath me here in stinking clumps
Lies Lawyer Largebones, all in lumps;
A rotten mass of clockholed clay,
Which grown more honeycombed each day.
See how the rats have scratched his face?
Now so unlike the human race;
I very much regret I can’t
Assist them in their eager ‘bent.’ (via fastlad)

Or perhaps you prefer more of a prose selection:

Every sentence the able and beautiful girl uttered caused Sir John to shift his apparently uncomfortable person nearer and nearer, watching at the same time minutely the divine picture of innocence, until at last, when her reply was ended, he found himself, altogether unconsciously, clasping her to his bosom, whilst the ruby rims which so recently proclaimed accusations and innocence met with unearthly sweetness, chasing every fault over the hills of doubt, until hidden in the hollow of immediate hate. (from Irene Iddesleigh via Oddbooks)

Oddbooks has an online shrine devoted to Ros’ work, for those who would like to learn more. You may also want to read the historical precedent for the Belfast Literary Festival event – attempting to read Ros without laughing was apparently a leisure activity for the Inklings.

Want to See Something Really Scary?

Scott Eric Kaufman over at Acephalous is blogging about dissertation fears again (for the record, he and I have had this conversation before).

Scott started things off with four of his fears; others have added theirs – as of this posting, the list is up to 16 (with two different contenders for #15). My main fear has remained constant now across several research degrees: that I am working on something that is completely obvious to everyone else, and that, when I finish, everyone will look at me and say, “You’ve spent three years on this?! Everyone knows this!”

From the Acephalous thread, I particularly enjoyed #8: “If you re-read your own work, you will discover you haven’t been writing in complete sentences.”

A warning, though, before you hop over and have a look: one recent commenter has complained, “Ya’ll certainly know how to dampen the (apparently naive) enthusiasm of a first year grad student.”


Site problems again… You may see some odd issues over the next several days, as we play around in the back end…