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Academia vs Practice

Author: joe

Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 - 22:28

A thought experiment around practice-led research in academia.

A practice-led PhD is normally assessed on a body of evidence which consists of an artefact - the product of the 'practice' in question - accompanied by an extended piece of writing in which the questions, world-views, investigative approaches and methods, disciplinary concerns and interim self-diagnoses are made explicit. So for example we might see paired materials such as: a piece of sculpture, accompanied by an articulation of the traditions within and against which the process of making the object has worked; a film, along with an essay exploring the disciplinary innovations and concessions that were revealed in its making; a networked set of documents, and some accompanying long-form text drawing attention to the conventions of mediation and aesthetics which are either challenged and rejected or accepted and extended in the pursuit of innovation in the production of such works.

So I wonder aloud what would such a submission look like if my practice were poetry? I write some words (in the form of poetry) and I write another set of words (in the form of academic explication). On the surface, it might seem that an assessment of the value of either of these sets of words is dependent upon the other. So, it is not enough to write poetry: in order to be judged expert enough for doctoral status you must translate the importance of your poetic output into academic language - the purpose of which is of course to ensure that you can articulate in a suitably neutral language what your non-neutral, poetic language has achieved. But note that the reverse is not the case: one may be recognised as doctorally qualified, wholly on the basis of an academically articulated thesis. Thus the primacy of academic language is established.

This primacy is predicated upon a number of assumptions:

I hope that the logical sequence as I have described it here demonstrates well enough the shortcomings in such assumptions. Certainly, if, like me, you are persuaded by the Latourian and/or Deleuzian notion that translation is transformation and production, then you will quickly concede that neutral articulations which permit mediation between two discrete fields of practice without distortion, problematisation and transmogrification are impossible and illusory. If you are not persuaded, then at least consider the possibility that academic language, rather like the poetic language produced by practice, has no claim to being anything other than a genre of writing, any more than other accepted genres such as journalism, prose fiction or drama. Academic writing is a non-neutral genre of language, constituted by a set of arbitrary conventions, no less than drama is convened through dialogue and performance, prose fiction is enacted through narratorially organised text, and journalism is constructed through the signs of format, voice and a reference to some convenient form of accepted reality.

All of which is to say that the requirements of the practice-led researcher are currently that they must make explicit in academic language what is implicit in their practice; and yet those who are not educated or indoctrinated into the conventions of academia are no more able to comprehend what is supposed to have been made explicit in that academic account, any more than competent academics with no expertise or experience in poetry might be expected to uncover the implicit value in poetic discourse. Another way of stating this is to say that if it is necessary to translate the implicit innovation and disciplinary excellence in poetry into academic language in order for it to be made explicit to a wider community of interest, there is no less need for the excellence implicit in academic language to be made explicit in yet another (meta-generic?) language for the benefit of a wider community of lay people. Indeed the irony here is perhaps that a wide community of lay audiences might be equally competent to grasp and appreciate the practical outputs and artefacts of practice-led research (if not more adequately equipped by virtue of the disinterested yet loving enthusiasm of the amateur) as is the proponent of academic discourse. This becomes especially true when one considers that the academic's livelihood increasingly depends upon a specialisation which moves ever further away from easy access by a lay audience, and further into obscurity and jargon.

At the risk of repetition I'll restate this once again: the notion that innovation and discovery in practice must be re-articulated in academic language, as though that academic language is an adequate meta-language for the communication of such innovations and discoveries, is no more or less true than the notion that academic language must be re-articulated in a third language, accessible to lay (or other) audiences who are not academics. The constant striving to establish the academic norms of language and writing over other forms is simply the will to power of the academic institution as a necessity in the social order. Excellence and sensitivity in the domains of practices can be achieved without recourse to academia.

Academic experience is not a necessity for excellence in the practices I pursue. There. I said it. It is a watershed for me, personally. I rather wish I had discovered this (in hindsight, rather obvious) truism a good deal earlier.

Categories: academia, practice, research, language, genre, translation, learning,
Comments: 3

Systems and Units, Trees and Rhizomes

Author: joe

Thursday, 05 February, 2009 - 21:56

So I'm writing up the final lecture on narratives which revolves around the post-structuralist 'decentring' - the advocation, that is, of thinking of rhizomatic rather than arborescent structures.

A couple of weeks ago I was using the idea with some first years, and thinking of the idea in terms of genre: genre is not a 'container' into which you place texts which then 'become' vampire road movies or rom-coms. As soon as you think in terms of genre being a particular instantiation of intertextuality, you've seen the contingent, mutable, anti-foundational, endlessly defered nature of the post-structuralist vision, and the impoverished kind of simplistic absolutism it dismissed in systems-level, structuralist thinking.

Today I found another useful way of thinking about the subject (perhaps because I'm currently seeing it everywhere!) in Ian Bogost's book, Unit Operations, in which he explores Badiou's articulation of 'count as one' and 'the situation', analogous in some ways to 'extensional' and 'intensional' sets; the latter, intensional, from Frege and Russell's top-down, analytic philosophy in which objects are collected by definition (like the container model of the genre); the former, extensional, is instead a conception of a 'multiplicity' whose collection together is a bottom-up operation (like the formation of generic convention through intertextual echoes): the properties of the collection are observed and articulated, rather than defined and imposed. Properties and behaviours observed through induction, rather than calculated through deduction.

Of course, this idea of the 'extensional' set is convenient for me precisely because it emphasises the emergent nature of spontaneous assemblage (a word I will certainly be exploring more very soon, a la Latour, Graham Harman, etc), rather than the authoritarian nature of systematic organisation. Think of it, in cinema terms, as the difference between coming up with an 'outlier' indie box office hit which is ground-breaking and innovative, and the follow-up derivatives that a corporate industry will produce in order to capitalise on the newly defined market. Or think of it as an autonomously organised grouping of common-interest bloggers who speak to each other in ways that outsiders can understand and join in with, and launching a peer-reviewed journal on the same common-interest which renders the intellectual endeavour exclusive and impenetrable.

On a sideways-related note, I mean to take Graham Harman's advice and write more in order to write more. Actually, I already have, in terms of writing a good fifteen thousand words last week producing the lecture notes for lectures three, four and five of the first year undergraduate Narratives strand which I've just finished teaching. Hence the final, rhizomatic essay I have to squeeze out as soon as it'll pass through my constricted ability to talk about Bocaccio, Icarus and digital Messiahs in the same piece of long-form writing.

My colleague Kip Jones also sent me a copy of a recent conversation between himself and Mary Gergen about communicating social science research through performative and artistic forms, which in turn, represents an undermining of the authoritative, arborescent academic expert who deals in objective knowledge, and the collaborative, rhizomatic, ambiguous nature of dialogue and interpretation. It's interesting, and, more importantly, NOT hidden behind a paywall, an Athens-only login, or a institutional-subscription model journal. Find it here, thanks Kip.

Categories: system, structure, structuralism, post-structuralism, rhizome, genre, intertextuality, intensional, extensional, set, Badiou, Harman, Frege, Russell, Bogost, Latour,
Comments: 1