Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: November 2006

Power for the People

Sinthome has posted a brief response and promissory note to my last round of comments. I’m conscious that Sinthome will take up the issue in greater detail at a later point, but am also conscious of the nightmare schedule I have looming just around the corner – I’ll hope Sinthome will excuse me for tossing a few more questions into the discussion at this point, while I know I still have a bit of clear time.

One of the recurring themes in our conversation to date has been whether critique – understood as the theorisation of the potential for political action oriented to social transformation – needs the concept of an “outside”. Sinthome’s most recent response clarifies the strategic significance of wanting to identify an “outside”:

when advancing the thesis that no form of domination ever completely subsumes the dominated, I am specifically thinking of historicism and Foucaultian power structures. With regard to historicism, I am objecting to the common thesis that everything is determined by its historical context, such that nothing new can appear that isn’t already saturated by this context. With regard to Foucault (perhaps one could add Butler), I have in mind the thesis that all social relations are determined by structures of power. Foucault, of course, complicates this with his thesis that all structures of power produce their own resistence; yet these structures of resistance are nonetheless part and parcel of the field of power. Consequently I suppose I am asking whether an outside is possible.

This is what I would have suspected: the conviction that critique must be founded on something “outside” social context generally does derive from the perceptions that:

(1) the social context is essentially “one dimensional” – that it generates solely those forms of practice and subjectivity reproduce the current form of social life in some kind of static loop or linear pattern; and

(2) socialisation should be conceptualised in terms of “power” – a concept which, in spite of Foucault’s best efforts – tends to be wielded as an essentially “negative” concept, flattening the notion of socialisation into the notion of constraint, prohibition or domination, and therefore orienting the concept of socialisation to the reproduction of the existing social order.

I think that Sinthome is correct both in pointing to Foucault’s efforts to turn the concept of “power” into something more potentially productive and creative, and in concluding that, even in Foucault’s own work, this concept in practice functions rather similarly to Weber’s notion of the “iron cage”. If Foucault had wanted to take seriously the notion of power as a productive, as well as a constraining, force in socialisation, you would have expected him to wed his analysis of qualitative transformations in kinds of power, with an analysis of how these qualitative shifts are also associated with the emergence of historically specific practices and subjectivities driving toward specific kinds of freedom. Such an analytical strategy could have made it possible for Foucault then to explain his own critical standpoint immanently, by indicating how it reflects the potentials of a given historical moment.

Instead, in practice, Foucault’s analyses of power often fall back into something like an unmasking and debunking form of critique. The standpoint from which Foucault makes these unmasking and debunking moves is generally not clarified. Instead, when Foucault does speak explicitly about his critical standpoint, he often does something rather similar to what Sinthome has also been doing in recent posts: he talks about how moving “outside” our current time, and examining the alternative potentials expressed in different historical moments, equips us to think differently about the present. Foucault’s own practice therefore reinforces the sense that he has not successfully conceptualised power as more than a negative constraint. (Note: I am far from an expert in Foucault’s work, so I am happy to be persuaded that he uses more sophisticated strategies in specific writings – from my point of view, this would simply mean that Foucault at some point more fully expresses the potentials I believe do lurk in some of his concepts, but which he often doesn’t seem to follow to their critical conclusions.)

I am sympathetic with Sinthome’s reaction to this closed, static, reproduction-oriented notion of socialisation: I think it is extremely difficult, within such a framework, to make sense of the possibility for political action aimed at transformation, and therefore to render “rational” the theorist’s critical voice. My question is more about whether Sinthome’s rejection of this notion is fundamental enough: to me, it seems as though searches for the “outside” essentially accept the underlying vision of socialisation promoted by historicist theories, and then go hunting about for some way to account for the fact that critical sentiments still do become manifest in social and intellectual movements – that, as Galileo is purported to have said, “still, it moves”… My sense is that a more fundamental critique is likely possible: that the problem may lie at a more basic level, in the essential poverty of thinking about our social context as a one-dimensional entity, and in restricting our notion of socialisation to a process mediated by “power”, which in turn is understood as an essentially negative, prohibitive force that drives solely toward social reproduction.

I suspect we can do more than this – that we can reconceptualise the nature of our social context – taking into account our empirical experience of the existence of specific kinds of critical sensibilities, and of the emergence of particular types of social movements – and ask ourselves what kind of understanding of socialisation would be required to make sense of what experientially appears to be a contradictory whole, a form of social life that does tend to reproduce certain patterns of social practice, but that also tends to generate recurrent political pressures for specific kinds of freedom.

I should note that this is separate from, as it were, the empirical question of whether there might be an “outside” – whether there might be aspects of human behaviour that can be understood to be untouched by socialisation. I don’t actually have a dog in this fight – it may in fact be the case that such a thing exists. My quarrel is only with the perception that this question is more than empirical – that it is freighted with some kind of deep political significance, such that if we can’t find the “outside”, we will be condemned to the deepest, dankest corner of Weber’s iron cage for the rest of eternity. I don’t think this is a necessary fear.

I feel very similarly about positions that try to locate political potentials in human nature. We may very well be able to explain very interesting things with reference to the concept of human nature, but I don’t think we need to do this, to explain the potential for critique and for political action in our present moment in time. I’d rather explore the question of what might be intrinsic to human nature without freighting the investigation with the belief that the possibility for political action hinges on the outcome. I think this makes for questionable science, and very vulnerable political theory, and that the causes of science and of politics are better served by recognising that these are not intrinsically and necessarily related issues…

Argument as End and Means

Note: this post started as a comment to Joseph Kugelmass’ post on “The Love of Argument: A Response to Michael Berube” (cross-posted to The Valve). Since the reply has grown a bit cancerous, I’ll post it here instead, with the caveat that the post still has the character of a comment, in the sense that it refers directly to the post without making an attempt to summarise comprehensively the post content. I’d suggest that readers look at the post first, and then read this response…


My reaction to your post is a bit complicated. On the one hand, I tend to agree with this position:

Argumentation is a regrettable means, not an end; believing otherwise leads one to fetishize intelligence, misinterpret opponents, maintain incompatible ideas, and worse.

I’m not sure, though, that my reasons for agreeing reflect your reasons for writing the statement. The fetishisation of argument bothers me because I think, as academics, as intellectuals, we ought to be engaged at least in principle in a truth game – that we ought to care sufficiently about truth, that assessing truth claims matters more than “winning” or the aesthetic gratification of constructing an elegant argument. And I tend to become deeply uncomfortable with situations where I feel that opponents are being misinterpreted, or where some sort of self-reinforcing in-group consensus abridges analysis at the level of “well, of course we all know what’s wrong with [x]”, when one gets the sinking feeling that very few people would be able to articulate what, precisely, is wrong with [x]. I say this with full cognisance of the epistemological issues involved – my concern is with our willingness to engage in a discursive process that is more than purely agonistic, where the parties in the exchange are each in principle committed to the same goal of testing, refining, improving – and, if necessary, abandoning – their starting positions, with the goal of arriving at better positions.

I agree with your concern about aestheticising the perpetuation of debate, of conflict, of opposing positions – as though these were substantive ends in their own right, above and beyond other substantive endpoints. At the same time, I do think it’s very important to remain aware that not all debates have definitive conclusions that can be rationally determined at any given point in time – I may even personally lean toward the notion that most important debates at a given historical moment in fact do not have such conclusions, although I won’t assert this as a strong position – and I actually think that recognising when this might be the case can be a very important dimension of positioning argument as “a regrettable means”. Behaving as though all reasonable people would reach our personally preferred conclusion, when this is not in fact the case, undermines the orientation to truth just as strongly as aestheticising argument for its own sake. (As a side point – and I know we’ve had this discussion before – the insight I would personally draw from Habermas is not that consensus – understood as some sort of achievable static endpoint – is our goal, but that our awareness of the possibility for consensus represents a kind of counterfactual ideal: this counterfactual ideal is then useful for practice because, as long as we keep firmly in mind that we’ll never reach something like TRUTH as a static endpoint, it still lifts our game if we all behave in ways that are compatible with seeking this unattainable endpoint…)

I have not yet read Berube’s book (yes, yes, I know… I should get to it… it’s been a hectic period…), but I understand the concerns you express in your analysis of the miscommunication that persists through Berube’s “teachable moment” discussion of his interaction with a conservative student. You argue that Berube has aligned the student with an intellectual tradition not actually expressed in the student’s own statements, and thus empowered the student (in your account, at the evident expense of the other students in the room), without actually enlightening the student any further about the rational bases (or lack thereof) for their own position. I understand your concern – without reading Berube myself, it’s difficult to know whether I would agree with your reading of the situation. But I did at least want to indicate that something like the strategy you describe – where Berube addresses himself to the broad intellectual tradition of which the student’s views are a “symptom”, so to speak – is something that I’ve found, in practice, can actually be a very good way of getting students from various political backgrounds to step back and gain some critical distance on their own positions – to recognise that more than just “common sense” is involved in constructing their views.

In postgraduate courses, for example, my preferred teaching style (not appropriate to all subjects, of course) is to begin by essentially scribing the student discussion: ideally, I say only as much as I have to say to get discussion started – preferably via questions, rather than positive statements – and then let the students run with the day’s topic. The scribing is not random, however: as students speak, I’m mapping what they say according to where the points sit in intellectual and social history, drawing lines between connected points, sketching trees to show the relationship between points that have unexpected common ancestors, etc. When the discussion begins to repeat, or students run out of things to say, I then use this sketch as the basis for an impromptu lecture about the intellectual traditions with which their positions are affiliated – and then I open the discussion back up, on the basis of the broader questions this new background allows us to discuss. (Note that I’m not necessarily promoting this technique, or my own skills in deploying it – among other things, as one of my students this past term commented with some dismay, “I’ve never really seen anything like this: we come up with these ideas, and we’re thinking we’re being really original and creative, and then you come along and tell us that everything we think has already been thought, in much greater detail, by someone three hundred years ago – and that dozens of people are experts on the topic now… My other courses don’t do this…” ;-P) This technique sounds, at least superficially, somewhat like what you describe Berube to be doing – and I would suggest that it’s at least possible to use this sort of technique, as I attempt to do, to help students achieve some level of critical distance on their received concepts – as well as some critical empathy for other people’s received concepts…

The notion of critical empathy brings me to your other major point:

I have no interest whatsoever in seeing right-wing positions (say, for example, the “flat-rate” income tax, or the privatization of social services) preserved out of respect for their long and distinguished histories. I am only willing, as a private citizen, to continue to participate civilly in debates over taxes, social services, abortion, etc., because it is my hope that these debates will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare….

I see definitive limits on the amount of “intelligence” one can muster in defense of right-wing arguments, since they always reason from false premises. I write this with a wincing awareness that it shows some disrespect to conservatives. I apologize for that, because this isn’t the forum for arguing the specifics of the issues.

I realise I’m responding to a blog post, and so this may not be the phrasing you would choose in a more considered medium. And I’ll confess that I’m coming off a term where I’ve probably spent a bit too much time arguing with people who hold very similar views, so I’ll apologise in advance if I take some of my long-term frustration out on you. I understand your anger at prominent public figures who seem themselves to have little concern for truth or rationality in putting forward their positions – and I have no problem with the decision to dismiss out of hand opponents who have placed themselves outside the parameters of rational discourse. If this is all you mean, I don’t disagree.

But your statement seems more far-reaching than this – and I do tend to think that, if we seriously cannot perceive how a relatively mainstream position could conceivably be defended intellectually, or why such a position might appeal socially or psychologically, this should probably be taken as a sign that we need to do more homework. Note that achieving greater insight into how someone could reasonably embrace or defend a position does not entail agreeing with the position: something can be plausible, and still completely wrong. As a matter both of intellectual integrity and of practical politics, however, I don’t believe that wholesale dismissal of the potential rationality of an opposing position is a good starting place. If our goal is critique, I also tend to feel that we are better off reconstructing what opposing positions would be at their best – at their clearest and most rational – and then aiming our critique at this highest possible expression of an opposing position. This approach produces, in my opinion, a more fundamental critique – and is also generally most productive as we try to refine our alternative concepts – but it does require a bit of dancing with the devil: a serious attempt to place yourself in what can sometimes be a very alien thought-space, so that you can seriously test your ideas against opposing claims… I do understand that this process may not be reciprocated. But the point isn’t to gain the respect of intellectual or political opponents – the point is to test ourselves, and to practice commitment to a particular standard of intellectual engagement. I think both of these goals are extremely important – and that both are actually related to the desire for discussion oriented to truth claims, rather than discussion centred on the fetishisation of argument…

Demotivational Products

So many interesting, useful, productive things to do – and instead, I find myself browsing the catalogue at – a site that produces demotivational posters and products. Just what every PhD student needs. I’ve enjoyed the posters for mediocrity, irresponsibility, idiocy, humiliation, and doubt, but the one I really want for my office door is the poster on meetings. People who know me in person know that I’ve been on something like a year-long tirade about the number of meetings I’m expected to attend. This poster pretty much manages to distill my objections down into one concise phrase:

Meetings: Because None of Us Is as Dumb as All of Us

[Note: image @2006 Despair, Inc. URL:

In the Name of Science…

The things I do for Scott Eric Kaufman… As some of you already know, Scott has been conducting various kinds of research for his MLA panel on academic blogging. Now’s your very own opportunity to participate in a bit of science in the making. Or something like that. In what looks something like an attempt to give scientific respectability to an internet chain letter, Scott has asked his readers:

1. Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment. (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)

2. Ask your readers to do the same. Beg them. Relate sob stories about poor graduate students in desperate circumstances. Imply I’m one of them. (Do whatever you have to. If that fails, try whatever it takes.)

3. Ping Techorati.

Scott will then attempt to track the speed, at ten-minute intervals, by which this little experiment sprawls across that corner of the net that has some six-degree-of-separation connectedness to his site…

So: go forth and multiply!

Crouching Tiger

I’ve been meaning for some days to pick up a few of the threads from Sinthome’s recent posts on identity and critique. Picking up these threads now, of course, is fraught with danger, as I might trigger the Lacan-filter my fellow reading group members have threatened to install. {As I wrote this sentence, a fire alarm went off in my building, dislodging me not only from my office, but from the coffee shop to which I often retreat to write… Can one think critical thoughts in an alien coffee shop? We’ll see… Is the reading group behind this dislocation? I have my suspicions…}

I’ll focus most of my attention here on Sinthome’s haunting and brilliant discussion of the psychological consequences (causes?) of engaging with the potential for fundamental transformation, as sketched in the post titled “Enlightenment and Opening Possibilities”. Before I move to this topic, though, I’ll say just a few things on the more recent post on “The Diacritical Production of Identity” – if only to explain why I focus my commentary on the earlier of what, I gather, were written as two interrelated posts on the concept of the diacritical construction of identity.

In the post on “The Diacritical Production of Identity”, Sinthome tackles several elements of Lacan’s thought that are often cited as particularly controversial – the use of mathematical metaphors, the concept of the woman as the symptom of the man, etc. Sinthome traverses these elements of Lacan’s thought lightly, bracketing problematic readings, while teasing out a reading productive for critique. My question – and the reason I won’t write at length on this topic here – is whether these elements of Lacan’s thought, even read for their highest critical potential, ever move beyond being a very elaborate theoretical justification for what, at base, I suspect is a fairly noncontroversial ontological claim: that no form of domination (or, for that matter, freedom) ever fully succeeds in subsuming all aspects of consciousness or practice.

I’ve never found this claim controversial and – I confess this may be a fundamental conceptual failure on my part – I haven’t yet understood how any of the various theoretical elaborations of this claim contribute more to critical practice than the simple empirical experience of nonsubsumption ever could? I’m not so much critical of the theoretical framework, as I am uncertain whether this is really a battle that needs to be fought… Does theoretical reflection on this kind of abstract contingency give us any greater insight into the potentials for specific kinds of political action, in the particular contexts in which we must now act?

For this specific question, Sinthome’s earlier post seems much more productive. The motivating question for this post comes at the end:

What, then, today would it mean to repeat the Enlightenment, in an age following Freud and Marx?

Sinthome prepares the reader for this question with a discussion of the ways in which various Enlightenment thinkers used the inspiration provided by their reading of classical antiquity to leap outside of their time – to gain critical distance that then allowed them to react back upon and transform their own historical moment. Sinthome treats this appropriation of history with critical empathy – acknowledging that the Enlightenment interpretation of classical antiquity was probably “wrong” in its various factual particulars, but also arguing that this creative misinterpretation was enormously productive for specifically revolutionary thought. In Sinthome’s account, the myth of antiquity constructed by the Enlightenment thinkers allowed them to produce their own ground – a ground from the standpoint of which they could then reach out and tranform their own historical moment. Sinthome challenges us: can we do something similar now – perhaps by negotiating our own creative historical relationship with our idealised vision of the Enlightenment itself?

There are too many similarities not to note the parallels between Sinthome’s comments, and Benjamin’s analysis of the relationship of revolutionary movements to the continuum of history. Benjamin offers, I think, a more critically-inflected perspective on the tendency of revolutionary movements to cloak their goals in the mantle of the past:

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class give the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.

Benjamin’s vision is in some respects the inverse of Sinthome’s: where Sinthome sees the creative appropriation of the past as a means for breaking fundamentally with the present – for achieving critical distance in relation to our current moment in time – Benjamin suggests that our elective affinity for particular moments of history may, in fact, be very much motivated (if unconsciously) by present-day concerns. Sinthome and Benjamin both hold that we are not seeing the past for what it really is, but where Sinthome sees an opportunity for achieving critical distance, Benjamin worries about how contemporary fashions undermine and distort even our relationship to history: “even the dead” Benjamin warns, “will not be safe from the enemy if he wins”.

At the same time, though, Benjamin collapses his notion of the social structuration of perception into the concept of class domination – his main concern is how our perceptions of the past are distorted by the way in which they take “place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands”. He then holds out as an alternative, more revolutionary, relationship to history something that sounds rather like a concept that Sinthome canvassed – and that caused me to balk – in an earlier round of this discussion: Sinthome suggested a concept of critique as an event that “comes to pierce a hole in the totalizing, static structure of knowledge”; Benjamin speaks of a “leap in the open air of history”. These tacitly antinomic visions of critique always cause me to wonder: Do we have no alternatives, other than thinking of lockstep social determination, or some form of very abstract anti-determination? Can we not think of concepts that might help us express how Benjamin’s tiger might have scented – and gone hunting for – potentials for transformation? Can we not think of ourselves as fully social creatures, socialised into a context that shouts to us that more is possible – that we are holding ourselves back?

I think it is possible to develop theoretical concepts that would allow us to begin thinking about our socialisation in this way – and that therefore move beyond the theoretical articulation of something like abstract contingency, and into the theoretical articulation of the qualitatively specific ways in which we are socialised to long for more than we permit ourselves to have. I also suspect that concepts like class domination, marginality, and similar terms related to divisions between social groups might not be the easiest route into this alternative concept of critical standpoint – that at least some critical concepts may be more generally socialised within our historical moment than these categories allow us easily to capture.

But these are preliminary thoughts: the question, the project, the concept of critical theory are the more important things. We need to ask ourselves: Do we believe the principal aim of critical theory should be to ground the possibility for an abstractly contingent rupture with our historical moment? Or do we believe that, as creatures of our time, we can use critical theory to equip ourselves to demand our birthrights – to ask for the fuller realisation of the potentials that, unawares, we have constituted in alienated form? Returning to Benjamin, perhaps it is our own, contemporary history that we need to make “citable in all its moments” – perhaps we need to take more seriously the notion that the “kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed”. Perhaps we need to ask what a critical theory might look like, if this were its concept, if these were its grounds.

I’ve left aside in this response what was perhaps the most poignant dimension of Sinthome’s post: a reading of Hume, to draw out the psychological consequences of experiencing oneself achieving critical distance on one’s own time. It’s a beautiful reading – better for people to look at the original, than for me to try to distill it into some pale synopsis. It’s an open question whether it might induce less vertigo, if someone were to understand critical distance as a possibility made available within one’s own moment in time – or perhaps the sense of fundamental isolation would be more intense, because the goal of communicating critical insights might seem tantalisingly close? I’m not prepared even to speculate… Sinthome would be more skilled at this line of interpretation than I am, in any event… I’ll leave the issue of the psychology of critique aside, then, for a future discussion…

Reading Group Sing-Along:

Back in October, when I originally posted the forward projections on the reading group’s upcoming choices, I had left the exact selections for the coming week a bit on the vague side, just referring to the Language Log archives on the general theme we would be discussing, which relates to an ongoing debate between Pinker, Jackendoff and Chomsky. L. Magee did, though, piece together a specific list of recommendations for the group, which I thought I’d post in case anyone is curious exactly what we’ll be discussing next Monday.

L. Magee’s suggestions are:

Perhaps start here:

Mark Liberman’s outline of the Pinker, Jackendoff, Chomsky discussion at Language Log


Chomsky et al: The Faculty of Language

Pinker et al: The Faculty of Language: What’s Special About It?

Chomsky et al: The Evolution of the Language Faculty

and Pinker & Jackendoff’s Reply

Also of interest:

We workshopped a number of suggestions for where to go next – with the general idea of staying with the linguistics theme for a while longer. We’ll have an email round to solidify these suggestions, and then I’ll post another forecast list…

Reading Group Reunited

So the reading group held its first in-person meeting in a month today. We caught up on one another’s US adventures (and the slightly less adventurous things that occured in Australia), and we discussed academic politics, the popularity of certain theoretical traditions within specific academic fields, barriers to interdisciplinary work, our fears about whether anyone is now reading, or ever will read, our work and, occasionally, even Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct. I’ll leave Pinker aside for the moment, as *nudge* G. Gollings intends to introduce the online discussion of this work. I’m also simply too exhausted to summarise the rest of our substantive discussion, though I feel a bit guilty about this, as we really did manage to cover a lot of ground in interesting and productive ways – I feel like I should have brought a tape recorder. Then again…

While we wait on the official Pinker thread (no pressure, of course… ;-P), I’ll content myself here with a few conversational snippets taken out of context:

The travel tales began with an appropriately poetic introduction: “America is of course one of the world’s great works of fiction…”

The end of the trip, however, was not as poetic as the beginning, with the story moving through a detailed description of the labyrinthine and cryptic baggage handling procedures required to depart from LAX, leading to the observation: “It was like a big ‘Fuck you!’ on your way out of the country.”

In spite of the many temptations and distractions during their trip, the reading group members had remained in occasional touch with the blog, and had noticed from afar – very far afar, from the sounds of it – the recent influx of Lacanian themes. The reading group members expressed their concern, and have offered technical assistance: “You know, that’s the second-worst problem on the web right now, after spam – we’re developing software to take care of that.”

In the end, our catch-up chat was quite protracted, and the wait staff were impressed – if not by the breadth or depth, then at least by the duration – of our conversation, and commented when we surrendered our table: “Well, that was a long discussion.”

Revolt from the Margins

I’ve been re-reading Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom recently – a dog-eared copy from the library, filled with underlines, highlights and an extended argument against the book scattered through the margins of the text. The marginal commentary has one dominant voice – a voice very, very unhappy with Friedman – and, for some reason, fixated on the notion that the existence of stagflation disproves Friedman’s points. I’ve been following the evolution of this marginal critique through the book – watching substantive points alternate with angry outbursts of “No!”. As the book progresses, the angry outbursts become more frequent – the handwriting more tense. I found myself skipping ahead of the text to see how this marginal conflict would end. I wasn’t disappointed. There on the last page of the book, underneath another burst of irritation at how Friedman should pay more attention to stagflation, is the final verdict:

I’m right. Jerk – bugger you!”

Itinerant Conversations on Dissertation Writing

I seem to find myself having stray conversations about dissertation writing around and about the blogosphere.

Over at Sarapen, we’ve been having a conversation that started with Benjamin – specifically Benjamin’s comment that “The work is the death mask of its conception” – a particularly depressing observation that, unfortunately, tends to capture perfectly how I feel about the final stages of any writing process… We’ve now moved on to the topic of procrastination, with Sarapen wanting to know:

You know, everyone I know who’s in academia claims to be a procrastinator. Statistically, you’d think at least one person would be on top of things, but no, whenever the subject of procrastination comes up there inevitably follows anecdotes of oneupmanship: “You played video games all weekend even though the paper you haven’t started is due on Monday? Well I broke into my professor’s house and slipped my paper into his marking pile even though it was two days late.”

Surely somehow, somewhere, there has existed at least one academic who has never felt the guilt of procrastination?

Anyone want to step forward???

And over at Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman explains his recent blogging strategies:

Because minutiae oppress me, words fail me and with every day the odds of my future career in real estate increase ever so slightly.

In another post, he worries about the quantity of work required to finish, and I respond:

On the one hand, I’m writing a lot. On the other, I’m not completely sure what it is that I’m writing, exactly… Since much of it relates to my field material, it bears a striking similarity to primary school presentations on ‘What I Did Last Summer’… Do they actually award doctorates for stories about what I did last summer? It doesn’t take a terribly dark moment for me to suspect that the answer will be no…

Noblesse Oblige

I not infrequently run across articles, like this recent one from The Age, promoting the concept that some particular premodern society had a more humane relationship to nature than modern/western society does. The Age article, for example, cites professor of archaeology John Parkington, who notes the prevalence of representations of particular animal forms in rock art dating back 200 to 10,000 years, and argues that the representations:

reflect the way the hunter-gatherers saw nature and their place in it, and include elements of shamanism.

With the domestication of plants and animals, humans started “moving ourselves out of the ecosystem … that was the beginning of the process that took us to the position of being outsiders”, he said.

“That’s why we unbelievably and inexplicably are failing to recognise the threat of global warming, because we’re outside it,” he said. “We’re going to carry on manipulating it, as apparent owners of it, until it’s too late.”

Parkington says the hunter-gatherers placed themselves inside the ecosystem, rather than outside looking in. “So they see animals as other beings who know the world in a different way … and sometimes in a very valuable way, and sometimes they want to take on that knowledge.”

The animal that occurs most often in Cederberg rock paintings is the eland, a large antelope that Parkington said was revered by the Bushmen as “a beautiful sentient being”. He said they developed rules for hunting, “a guiding ethos”, as a way of justifying their pursuit of eland and of behaving “sustainably and responsibly in the world … as a species that actually shares the landscape and vegetation with other beings”.

I remain agnostic on the particular human community whose history Parkington studies – their culture may, in fact, have expressed a highly developed sense of sustainability, and their practices may indeed hold lessons for the contemporary period. I would sound one small note of caution, in that it sounds from the passage above that the eland are a primary object of the hunt and, in that context, it would at least be possible to suggest that there might be different psychological motivations – aside from, or in addition to, some deep commitment to sustainability – that might underlie repeated ritual proclamations about how beautiful and sentient these creatures are. But Parkington is the expert on the culture he studies, so I won’t second guess.

If Parkington has been quoted correctly, however, he is making far grander, and more mystical, claims than would apply to one culture alone: he argues (again assuming the news account is an accurate representation – and I do understand that nuance is not the strength of the journalistic medium…) that what accounts for the cultural emphasis on sustainable values and practice is the fact that nomadic forms of existence in general are more “inside” nature – involve a less mediated relationship to nature – than settled existence. Settled agricultural societies, by contrast, have apparently removed themselves from this embeddedness in nature – and their cultural values therefore adopt a more instrumental, less sustainable, orientation to nature.

I find this notion empirically and theoretically questionable – and am also a bit unnerved by its normative implications: is the claim that sustainable management requires a regression to nomadic existence? If this isn’t the normative claim, then shouldn’t this cause us to reflect critically back on the original relationship posited between cultural values and living “inside” nature???

If this were an isolated position, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Unfortunately, I don’t find it that unusual for people – including academics – to valorise pre-modern peoples (sometimes understood, as in this example, as nomadic, sometimes encompassing earlier agrarian societies, sometimes extended to modern indigenous societies, as well) on the grounds that, in a very general way, such people held more sustainable values than are expressed in modern societies. I’m happy for this issue to be explored as an empirical question – as an investigation of how particular premodern societies actually lived, and as an exploration of how they articulated their practices culturally. What worries me is when these sorts of claims start to be made in an undifferentiated and apparently universal way – as though all human societies before a certain historical era, or all contemporary societies that have been materially disenfranchised to a certain degree, have certain moral qualities in common.

Politically, I worry because this position seems at best essentialising – in the guise of offering deep respect, it “others” people by rendering them magical and mysterious and beyond our normal ken – a position that, I suspect, serves to flatten and channel mainstream receptiveness to indigenous political claims in particular ways… (I’ve discussed this issue previously <a href="here and at Savage Minds.)

Analytically, I worry because I suspect that, at least in some cases, this position involves drawing an invalid deduction from objective limitations to cultural beliefs: premodern societies were more likely to live in some kind of “balance” with nature for “material” reasons, quite independently of cultural norms, because they simply had fewer resources to mobilise against their environments – the long-term persistence of this kind of balance might well have come to be articulated in cultural norms, or cultural norms might well have made achieving balance with the environment a comparatively easy task; equally, though, cultural norms might have diverged strongly from anything we would regard as “sustainable”, and yet Malthusian forces might have held the population in balance with nature nevertheless…

Ethically, I worry because I feel that academics have the leisure and the training – and therefore the responsibility – to break away from a fixed orbit around our own cultural tropes (in this case, I can’t help but worry about the way in which this common valorisation of premodern cultures seems to channel the romantic vision of the Noble Savage) and examine the best evidence at their disposal, so that we can actually be prepared for the sober decisions we may need to make, if we wish to confront a complex problem like global warming.