Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

On Not Hearing Myself Think

I’ve declared defeat on the draft conference paper posted below – one intended for the upcoming Melbourne Centre for Public Policy/OECD conference with the ambitious title: Governments and Communities in Partnership: from Theory to Practice. I think it’s safe to say I dove head first into the theory-practice chasm on this one – over progressive drafts, the original “practice” elements of this paper have gotten slimmer and slimmer, until now they’ve finally been completely effaced, and I’m left with an exclusively theoretical piece on Habermas, Rorty, Marx and… wait for it… Aristotle…

Some weeks ago, when the paper needed to go in for review prior to acceptance for the conference, I got to the point that I completely couldn’t hear my “voice” in the paper any more. I knew what was wrong with the paper, but I could no longer hear the cadence of the language from sentence to sentence – which usually doesn’t bode well for revising. I figured the paper was at a sufficient state for reader review, and so I sent it off, hoping that a few weeks’ break and some incisive critical commentary from the review process would drive me to make the necessary changes. Unfortunately, the main interaction I had with the reviewers was over the title (lest you get the wrong idea, the title currently on the piece is the one they finally accepted – so my original proposals were actually worse than the present rather awful title). And I’m still not hearing my voice in the paper… So I’ve given up and submitted it in its present state, hoping that I’ll get an opportunity to revise again before conference proceedings are formally published…

My current critical sense of the paper is that it suffers from three main problems:

(1) I drive full speed off a cliff at the end. Not much I can say to redeem this – it is what it is. Basically, I needed about thirty books to adequately express what I wanted to say at the conclusion to this paper, and I had only a few hundred words at my disposal. I knew this limitation going in, so the resulting moments of terror I’ll feel about this at the conference will have been well and truly earned.

(2) I suspect that my vocabulary is a bit scattershot and inconsistent across sections of the paper. Ideally, you want a kind of “object oriented” writing in a piece like this, where each section does its specific job, and passes a clear concept along to the next. I don’t think I’m quite there yet with this piece – but am having trouble revising around it because I need more distance from the paper to be able to “hear” the inconsistencies across sections.

(3) I misrepresent Rorty in the first few paragraphs of his section – focussing on the objectivism/relativism distinction, rather than mind/body dualism, which I think would be a better way “in”. Ironically, I don’t think this mistake has any implications for the critique I make of Rorty’s work – I think the critique still applies. I just make myself look a bit silly with how I describe the philosophical motivations for his work.

There are plenty of other problems: I gesture to heaps of literature, particularly literature critical of Habermas and Rorty – without nailing down specific citations for examples of the kinds of critique I’ve referenced; I gesture to broad swathes of Habermas and Rorty’s work in the citations, rather than narrowing in on specific quotations or easily-identifiable sections of their arguments (some of this is intrinsic, given the level of abstraction with which I’m discussing hundreds of pages of philosophical work, but I’d still like to have done a better job with this); I don’t gesture to the works of other authors who might offer useful takes on these same issues… These sorts of problems, at least, I can hopefully clean up before final publication.

And then there’s the problem of practice… I’m beginning to resign myself to the notion that, when I’m given twenty-odd pages to work with, I’ll write either a theoretical or an empirical piece – it’s just not enough room to combine the two in the peculiar way I want to combine them, for an audience not already somewhat familiar with how I think… This means that I recurrently alternate between writing empirical pieces (like the one I presented to the HDR conference), and having people express confusion about how this relates to my theoretical concepts, or writing theoretical pieces, and having people express confusion over how I’ll ever tie this to empirical work… Maybe I’ll eventually have a eureka moment that reveals to me how to overcome this problem. For the moment, though, if I worry too much about it, I won’t get anything written or presented – I figure it’s best just to accept it…

For anyone who wants to read the current problematic draft, the link is: Grounding the Potential for Transformative Practice


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