Search results for "knowledge "

Knowledge and privilege

Author: joe

Friday, 08 July, 2011 - 23:28

When I went to university, we still used quills and we paid maids to compile our bibliographies. There were privileges which accompanied being an undergraduate, such as the right to never attend lectures, or to study German philosophy when you were supposed to be studying economics, or to drink absinthe at orgies, or to take free aviation lessons from suffragettes, or to attempt world-record breaking states of inebriation for months on end and completely forget you were enrolled on a course with the cleverest academics who were the leading contemporary thinkers in their field.

I remember with shame, (and an admixture of triumph), being bored to death when my tutor came to a lecture on Thomas Hardy and read aloud a paper he had written for a conference. I had the arrogant young indifference to his standing as an internationally recognised scholar on the subject, and preferred to scoff at his lack of charisma on the day, rather than appreciate the magnitude of the privilege I had in actually hearing him say his own groundbreaking words. It is right that the stupid young should scorn the elderly and be restive against their authority. It is good to kick against the pricks when you're young, because the destiny of everyone who doesn't die is to become a prick against whom the young will kick.

There is something from that ancient privileged world that I do still believe in though: there is a shape to scholarship, which is generalisable: you are responsible for learning stuff yourself. My antiquated mentors were exemplars, not service-providers; they generated expectations, but they did not relieve you of your responsibility to boot-strap yourself into consciousness; you were already privileged by your admission into a system that gave you 3 years of autonomy and independence: why should you be also nannied into making something of yourself? They didn't need to teach me everything they knew, they simply needed to let me know that I should find it out. Hence I'm proud that I was almost 39 before I finally learnt what an oxford comma actually is, and I'm confident that my university masters would be comfortable with the time it took me to find it out, since their job was to encourage me to have an enquiring attitude, rather than to know any one specific thing.

Today, however, that system has been diminished to the extent that it must be subservient to the most prurient, Moloch-worshipping profit-driven coercion, and the mechanism that has achieved this has been under the the mendacious logic of "access", as though access to education is comparable to access to capital. When, o when, o when, o when, will the ideological link between knowledge and privilege be broken? Only when the link between learning and servitude is broken. Learning means thinking for yourself! It takes at least 3 years! if not 21!

Categories: knowledge, university, privilege, learning,
Comments: 1

The Internet as a public arena for research: how do we balance the pursuit of knowledge with care for those we want to know?

Author: joe

Wednesday, 12 January, 2011 - 14:13

Today I presented a brief paper to Bournemouth University's Postgraduate Research Conference. Not trusting myself to say off-the-cuff what I wanted to say inside the 12 minute allocation, I read this pre-written piece. I have obfuscated the sources I critique, for reasons which will become clear.

My presentation is about the ethics of Internet research, especially with regard to vulnerable people, and the problems that arise from the models we use to conceptualise the environment in which we carry out our work.

It seems easy to grant that aside from some edge considerations, there is a sort of equivalence between face-to-face and online interactions, between physical and virtual spaces - particularly in academia, where our textual outputs are intended to be sufficient for the advancement of our work. The trade-offs seem to be marginal: some loss of informal face-to-face contact is off-set by the advantages of efficiency, speed, cost-saving, and maybe even innovation.

Indeed, the fact that we successfully import metaphors from the real world into the online world is what enables many different walks of life to achieve in digital environments what they would also normally manage in the real world. These are metaphors that aren't necessary properties of the web, but that we use to make it manageable: models from the material world such as pages and buttons, activities like surfing and networking, and concepts like sites and spaces. We call it cyberspace, and it can feel very like the other spaces we inhabit with our bodies.

I want to suggest that the easy equivalence we make between online and offline, and physical and virtual space, is much more problematic. This issue has arisen for me through considering some of the ethical problems that arise from using the ever-expanding wealth of raw material on the web as evidence in research.

I'm interested in how people use the online world when they are bereaved. As time goes by, more of us are exposed to death on the web - what to do with the Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles of loved ones who have died, online commemorative websites, and so on. How do people who are mourning loved ones use online spaces to express their grief, or seek out support from others? Photo-sharing sites have groups dedicated to expressing grief through images; fashion sites find themselves hosting users who repurpose the site tools to discuss their loss; and forums dedicated to supporting bereavement through both informal support and professionalised services proliferate.

These phenomena raise questions about how seeking out online support might be helpful, perhaps through the chance to memorialise loved ones, or perhaps because sometimes the ambiguity of anonymous strangers on the web makes disclosure easier. Mourning is often a difficult subject to deal with in day-to-day life - we expect the grief-stricken to absent themselves from the office or social occasions until they are competent to cope with them. Unwelcome expressions of grief can be embarrassing or even seen as pathological. Do these questions of etiquette and emotion prevail online much as they do offline? Do online spaces provide therapeutic opportunities which might be more scarce in the fleshy world? Does the availability and peculiar permanence of online talk make mourning problematic - perhaps by extending the grieving period, or by exposing people to the trolls?

My research therefore is partly an investigation into the differences and similarities between virtual and real spaces. There are many comparable studies which ask this question through the lens of some specific issue, and there are guidelines as to how to deal with the ethics of this kind of research. After some reflection on some of those other studies, I have taken a somewhat hardline approach, and placed rather more burdensome ethical constraints on my research project than I might otherwise have done.

To explain these constraints, I'm going to mention a study from 2009 of an online space which is dedicated to the subject of gynecomastia - or the 'moob-job'. Men who are considering the procedure, undergoing it, or who are post-operative, regularly contribute to the site, which was studied by a group of psychologists in 2007, using interpretive phenomenological analysis to understand the experiences of these men. I wish to show that the ethical approaches and arguments they used, quite legitimately, are flawed in ways that force me to rethink the priorities at work in this sort of academic exercise. Perhaps even more than the bereaved, men with concerns about body image are a group who should not lightly be objectified by an academic project.

The authors cite the guidelines drawn up by the British Psychological Society for conducting research online. One might summarise them by saying that participants in Internet Mediated Research (IMR)

"can be identifiable or anonymous; they can explicitly consent to participate, or they can be invisibly observed without their knowledge."

The guidelines go on to state that strong justifications should be provided for covert non-participant observation - what we might in this context call "lurking" - and that consent should be sought unless the environment is such that "people would 'reasonably expect to be observed by strangers'."

Exactly what criteria qualify public spaces as those in which people would reasonably expect to be observed is not specified in the BPS guidelines, but left to be established in the body of work which grows around the discipline.

The authors of the gynecomastia support group study note that it is the contributors' expectation of their messages being visible to other anonymous users of the web which brings their content into the public domain. Content accessible without registration or password barriers effectively passes into public ownership. They also cite an earlier paper reporting about a website supporting anorexia nervosa which argued that study of content in the public domain is akin to "naturalistic observation in a public space" and that the openness of the web therefore "does not raise concerns of invading privacy."

The gynecomastia study also notes the possible disruption that disclosing the investigators' presence might cause to the integrity of the environment that they are studying. It is evident that they are trying to ensure that their work is ethically sound and demonstrates a care towards their subjects, and I don't wish to imply otherwise. But I do want to suggest that this implementation of research guidelines is flawed because it wants to accept certain equivalences between the open internet and public space (such as a supposed ability to undertake naturalistic observation without disturbing the phenomenon being observed), but ignore non-equivalences (such as the fact that covert observation of such intimate communications is ordinarily impossible in public spaces, not least because open discussion of sensitive topics is very rare).

The study in question makes further trouble for itself where it creditably seeks to anonymise sources. Obfuscating quotes is generally thought to be a sound tactic in protecting the individuals who may have made their own efforts to conceal their 'real-world' identity in their online profiles, but may have done so inexpertly. They may, for example, have chosen an obscure 'handle' or login-name, but have nevertheless signed off posts with their actual forenames. To avoid these individuals being found via search engines, the authors state that they performed identifiability testing by searching for direct quotes from individual posts were in Google, which did not retrieve the site in question or the messages that had been appropriated.

This test sadly demonstrates a poor understanding of the operation of Google's index: that it does not find sources at any given moment does not preclude the index being updated to include them at a subsequent date. Indeed when I searched Google for the quotations presented in the article, direct links to the original sources were listed. Again, this error does not show unethical behaviour: merely that an ethical guideline has been followed in letter but not necessarily understood in practice.

These critiques of the ethical approach take just some of the more obvious problems with abstract guidelines as they are implemented; and doesn't even start to address other problems with lurking and appropriation, such as the hit counts, visible to site-admins, that researchers contribute to sites; or the eye-balls they bring which may in some cases contribute to advertising revenue; or the general tacit deceptions they must engage in simply to carry out observation.

I want to suggest that importing the metaphor of "public space" into an intimate online discussion is problematic because it buys the researcher the ethical justification they require, but largely ignores the epistemological and ethical non-equivalences. I'd argue that people simply don't go online and talk to each other as though their words are being recorded and broadcast, and the permanent visibility of online discourse is a side-effect, rather than a primary concern, when it comes to a user's motivation to participate in online discussions or contribute their creative work to a community. I'd prefer to argue that the actual space that the user occupies when contributing to an online forum plays a much more crucial role in determining the level of disclosure they are willing to engage in, not to mention the level of trust and intimacy that the visible community creates. This may often actually be the workplace, or bedroom, rather than a public space.

Even where forum users are in public spaces, there may be a huge mismatch between what they will willingly write in the context of a post from a mobile phone, and what they will say to the person sitting next to them. To discard these sorts of considerations is, I would argue, to make epistemological errors, as well as ethical mistakes, and ultimately is a consequence of prioritising the academic generation of knowledge over the well-being of subjects.

The consequence of these concerns for me is to adopt an alternative approach, which does not solve the problems raised, but swaps one set of challenges which I find ethically unjustifiable for another set which I am more willing to defend. So I will be making full disclosure in any online spaces I enter before I undertake any observation; I will not be using material without the full informed consent of the original contributor; and in the event that any community feels my presence as a researcher to be intrusive enough to ask me to leave, I will promise to do so. This strategy at least offers the hope that the research process will be a consensual collaboration with participants, rather than a deceptive objectification of them: when dealing with communities of people we might class as vulnerable, this must surely be the preferable option.

So the project is now such that it makes no claim to be objective in a positivist sense, but rather is a fully-blown form of participative and ethnographic phenomenology. This brings another set of epistemological challenges and ethical quandaries, but I'd also suggest that Internet research which does choose to use covert observation may need to find alternative justifications.


Categories: research, paper, grief, bereavement, academia, knowledge, epistemology, ethics, online, internet,
Comments: 0

Inextinguishable

Author: joe

Thursday, 02 December, 2010 - 23:52

- on lines from Rilke

Gouge out my eyes:
I still see you.
Burst my eardrums:
I still hear your voice.
Hack off my hands:
I still feel you.
Pluck out my tongue:
It still probes your mouth.
Chop off my genitals:
I still have carnal knowledge of you.
Bleed me to death:
I am still hot for you.
Cut out my heart:
It still beats for you.
Dash out my brains:
You are in my bones.
Cremate me:
You are in my ashes.
Scatter them:
You are in every particle.
 
Variations On A Theme Of Rilke by Patrick O'Shaughnessy

Patrick O'Shaughnessy is my grandfather. This poem has always been one of my favourites. I was reminded of it last night, while watching Graham Harman's fantastic lecture on Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology at the "Hello Everything" conference. He uses an analogy about cotton and fire to illustrate the withdrawn dimensions of reality that can never be accessed by any kind of relation. Knowledge can never exhaust the objects it encounters: even fire does not exhaust the cotton it encounters.

I imagine a sudden spark catch hold of the cotton, triggering a whooomff of flames engulfing the soft cotton. The fibres glow and crackle, but quickly start to blacken into sooty embers, and disintegrate. As they sliver and spread, there are specks and motes of pitchy, carbonised cellulose dispersing in the air, jetting upwards on the crest of fiery waves or drifting sideways and earthward. Somewhere in that conflagration the cotton is destroyed - the object that was some cotton is now a crowd of particles dispersing in the air, a de-condensing collection of new, smaller objects. Exactly where it is, in the process of that disassembling, that the cotton's destruction occurs - at which point the cotton is translated into its disaggregate particulate components - is ambiguous: is it the instant the fire first catches the flammable edges of the white plant fluff, or when each last part of coherent fibre is finally desiccated and splintered? Is there a gradient of dispersal, or a quantum jump - is "being" on a spectrum or is it a lump?

Michael at Archive Fire uses the example of a horse eating an apple:

An apple is partially 'withdrawn' from a horse who holds it in its teeth because the teeth of the horse are only in contact with the skin of the apple, leaving the inner non-skin parts of the apple "hidden" and temporarily in excess of the horses bite. So the horse can be said to be in direct contact with the real apple, however not in its entirety. There are aspects of the apple that are partially withdrawn. But when the horse bites into the apple a 'deeper' kind of access is granted, the apple's individuality has been compromised, and when the horse subsequently begins to digest the apple the very distinction between the apple and the horse begins to break down. In this example the interaction between apple and horse goes from partial contact and withdrawnness to deeper disclosure and eventually to absorption in such a manner that completely obviates the need to posit any sort of unbridgeable 'gap' between either the two objects in themselves', or between the horse's encounter with the apple and its experience of it. In an intimately enmeshed and complicated cosmos these things often touch, mix and mingle in ways that are specific to what they in fact are.
 
The Depth of Things - Part 1: Conjuring the Gap by michael of Archive Fire

Here's what I feel, even if I don't really know it - my intuition: my identity is not hermetically sealed from the world - rather my consciousness is ecologically entwined with the environment in which it moves; my body is not a finitely bounded unity, but a breathing, drinking, leaking density plugged into the material world. Perhaps less intuitively - my mind is not an encapsulated mirage hovering around my brain, nor a mere emergent epiphenomenon which is the effect of a billion grey cells, but something more difficult to understand, such that it feels more like magic. In any case it's just as hard for me to think of my individuality as absolute, as it would be for a believer to let go of the essential existence of the soul. Merleau-Ponty says:

I discover within myself a kind of internal weakness, standing in the way of my being totally individualised: a weakness which exposes me to the gaze of others as a man among men, or at least a consciousness among consciousnesses . . .

My grandfather's poem pictures an indestructible essence, in the guise of the obsessive lover. The subject who loves can never be exterminated by any action of his object; but at the same time the loved one can never extract themselves from the grasp of the lover. I know you, even though you emasculate me. But the essence does in fact de-individualise, and the lover is no longer himself alone - his object is absorbed into his bones and his blood; into every particle. Each last speck still remains the "I" of the lover, and yet completely mingles with "you" of the loved. You and I, inextricably intermixed.

Categories: Patrick Shaughnessy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, love, poetry, essence, knowledge, relation,
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Cracked actor

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 October, 2010 - 22:31

- on the pretence of being.

"... to the biologist the brain is not a thinking machine, it is an acting machine; it gets information and then does something about it" ... The cyberneticians then, conceived of the brain as an immediately embodied organ, intrinsically tied into bodily performances ... the cybernetic brain was not representational but performative ...
 
One might imagine the representational brain to be immediately available for inspection. Formal education largely amounts to acquiring, manipulating and being examined on representational knowledge. Such activities are very familiar to us. But the performative brain remains opaque and mysterious - who knows what a performative brain can do?
 
The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

Performing, not representing; acting, not thinking; opaque and mysterious, not immediately available. The being of things like brains, rather than the inward reflections of them. Pushing open the productive (and mournful) gap between language and reality, between thought and world.

I'm intrigued by the strange mirrors in these dissections of world and image. The hard stuff of the world is real, while the thoughts and words which grope towards representing it are shadowlike and ghostly; and yet faced with the shortcomings of the image, the figures that offer themselves are synonyms for artifice and pretending. It's as though we are unable to even build a language that can cope with the thinging of things without them requiring some sort of author, blueprint or script.

What is it to act? To be someone with two identities, split - the visible, performed, conjured, and the hidden, original, obscured. The performed need not be put on like a mask, but is perhaps revealed, found, uncovered from within. Far from being dead behind the eyes, the actor is in fact more authentic, being skilled in calling forth the facets of self that fulfil the needs of the performance.

Categories: cybernetics, Andrew Pickering, knowledge, representation, performance, acting, pretence,
Comments: 0

Making ghosts

Author: joe

Wednesday, 27 October, 2010 - 22:42

- on the abyss inside everything.

Ortega holds that the inwardness of things is a depth that can absolutely never be fathomed, insofar as it is not interchangeable with any sum of its attributes ... The growth of knowledge is a process of digging away at this inwardness of things and attempting the ultimately hopeless task of bringing it to light. "This," says Ortega, "is the task of language, but language merely alludes to inwardness - it never shows it." In more melancholic terms, "a narrative makes everything a ghost of itself, placing it a distance, pushing it beyond the horizon of the here and now." The fate of language, as of perception and ... of all relation, is forever to translate the dark and inward into the tangible and outward, a task at which it always comes up short given the infinite depth of things.
 
Guerilla Metaphysics by Graham Harman

Hopeless, melancholic, ghost. As Romanyshyn's mourning wells within the gap between saying and being, so Harman's lonely doom for the split object, sundered between the sensuous and the real - what is revealed and what always withdraws.

I like Ortega y Gasset's distinction between executant and image - the former grasping towards the fullness of being, the latter faltering short of adequacy. I'm reminded of Arnold's verdict on Shelley - "a beautiful but ineffectual angel". I especially enjoy the irony of the connection of execution to being - how close the ending of life is to the presence of life; how narrow is that gap. Are there no fleeting moments when it closes? When the inward representation of experience and the uncompromising nowness of being fuse? Harman says:

To observe something, no matter how closely, is not to be it; to look at a thing is not the same thing as to stand in its place and undergo its fate, even if what we are observing is our own psychic lives.

... so there is no closing the gap here. But still I wonder if there might be? Transcendental meditation? Praxis? Being 'in the moment'? Laughter? Thoughtlessness when lost in smiling eyes? Dialogue? In the sincerity of experience?

Categories: Graham Harman, split, object, Ortega y Gasset, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge,
Comments: 0

Being and Knowing: World as Diegesis

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009 - 22:52

Another conversation, this time with Shaun, and more thinking through, thinking aloud, thinking thought. Shaun attended all the first year media theory lectures over the last academic year, including the six part series I delivered on narrative. So, he got to hear me rework and reiterate impressionistically over the same endless themes of diegesis and artifice, story and plot, world and representation which I surreptitiously pretended was an overview of narrative theory.

So I was attempting to explain how that period of intense focus on ideas about narrative and, in particular, the phenomenon of diegesis, had since inflected my thought. The diegesis is the storyscape - the integrity of the imaginary theatre we accept when we give over to a narrator the suspension of our disbelief. The diegesis is the internally coherent world of the story - and 'world' is the key word here, since the idea of a 'world' is one of the ways in which I'm trying to muscle into an understanding of Heidegger which I think is going to be central to my PhD thesis. If you are going to read on here, put your Kafkaesque reading hat on and read it all as subjunctive: "I would, God-willing, understand in this way..."

Using a combination of Graham Harman's lucid writing on Heidegger, Timothy Clark's valiant exposition of Heidegger's thought, Hubert Dreyfus' concordance and commentary on 'Being and Time', and the dense source text itself, I've been trying to work towards an understanding Heidegger's concepts of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, theoria and praxis, not to mention Dasein, being there, and being a 'thing that things'. The concept of 'world' in this realm of thought seems helpful to me. Clark says that Heidegger's use of the term 'world',

"is close to the common meaning of the term when we talk about the 'world' of the Bible, or the 'world' of the modern Chinese or modern English - i.e.the fundamental understanding within which individual things, people, history, texts, buildings, projects cohere together within a shared horizon of significances, purposes and connotations. [...] the more fundamental shared disclosure of things within which [we] find [ourselves] in all [our] thoughts, practices and beliefs, providing the basis even of [our] self-conceptions and suppositions."


- all of which seems to be a perfect definition of diegesis if understood as pertaining not only to the fictional worlds we muster, but also the fields of meaning we conjure in every aspect of what we still call 'real life'. In the tool analysis, Heidegger's hammer [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of equipment, which [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of human action. These realms cohere diegetically - they belong to, define and co-constitute each other. In action, we grasp the hammer as a tool, we extend our limbs and 'be' our intentional 'being' in the praxis of carpentry, and by extension, the praxis of existence. We act, and as we do, we are attuned to the world of action and meaning we inhabit: we experience the world holistically - we cease to be figures, and recede into the ground of the diegesis. Praxis is the means whereby we live and dwell - believe - in the diegesis.

The hammer when it breaks, shatters the diegesis: we are no longer engaged in praxis, but in the comprehension of material objects divorced from their diegetic meaning: an extreme Brechtian 'Verfremdung', or alienation from the essence of the hammer. A broken hammer is no hammer: it is a residue, a fragment, a memory, a concept, an idea, an object, a construct, a prop, revealed and separated from its function in the diegesis: a corpse in the theatrical sense - a moment in which the illusion is shattered, the figure of artifice processes and emerges from the ground of the theatre, and we are appalled enough by the shattering of the illusion to be compelled to laugh uncontrollably in the face of the futility of pretence. The broken hammer is an object of our reflective thought, which we diagnose in its symptomatic failure; it is seen as though from above, outside, from nowhere, divorced as it is from the field of praxis. Our consciousness of the broken hammer is the kind of consciousness we simply relinquish in the midst of being. It is empty, shell-like, valueless, objective. It is the transcendental knowledge to which the academy, science, Western materialist thought aspires - and as in the perennial cliche, it pins the butterfly to a board in order to comprehend it even as it dies.

Following Harman, I understand the fate of the broken hammer not to be merely an event in the life of a lone doomed tool, but to be caught up in the being of all things that do their 'being' - the 'thinging' of things, people, starfish and coconuts - the dichotomy between Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) and Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand). All things which are capable of submitting to the gaze of other things and being translated into the intentional objects of contemplation are uncovered - as are figures processing and emerging from the ground of their diegetic existence - as lifted out of their being, their dwelling in the multiplicities of the interlacing diegeses to which they belong. The object of my reflection is a shadow of its being - the prehensile presence-at-hand of a thing, behind which all its indestructible being - the inexhaustibly rich readiness-to-hand of a thing - withdraws.

In this way, anything we care to articulate or speak of, any 'thing' to which we care to give edges through the process of signification, and by which we mediate a representation of that 'thing' to another, is reduced to a presence-at-hand - a mere one amongst its infinite resource of arbitrarily graspable facets - a reduction; a theory. Thus all representation, articulation and signification is work in the realm of artifice, mimesis - or presence-at-hand; a reductive distinguishing of a facet of an object from the ground of its diegesis - the world of its Romantic potential, its being, its participation in praxis. The insertion of the stethoscope between the healer and patient is no less than a conversion of the human subject into an object of instrumentation, a reduction of the being to one amongst its many facets: a mediated, rythmic, booming pulse stands in for the beating heart of a living being. The sound is a metonymic reduction of the living being of the beating heart.

***

A short recap then: praxis is the unification of human action and knowing - holistic. Theoria (and hence conceptual, reflective, objective knowledge) is the distantiation of the world from the experience of that world. This distanced, alienated knowledge, extracted from the diegesis of its being, is a projection, a paper-thin shell, a shadow - a presence-at-hand, available to our consciousness as no more than a facet of the fullness of being. Being itself never emerges from the ground of diegesis - the integral, coherent, self-consistent, co-constitutive storyscape of the world in which we un-self-consciously dwell.

From these thoughts flow other problematisations, to be dealt with another time, of impartial academic enterprises, traditional doctoral theses, and the very nature of the attempt to document the research process.

Categories: Martin-Heidegger, phenomenology, phd, working-through, Dasein, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge, objectivity, research, praxis, diegesis, narrative, world,
Comments: 0

Wounded research #2

Author: joe

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009 - 07:38

The scrawl on the paper is a residue of a thought, and the reading of it now no more retrieves that thought than water restores dried up remains to their original vitality. I'm looking at the few notes I wrote in the phenomenology / depth psychology masterclass, and wondering if the handwriting itself might give me a clue as to the quality and taste of the thoughts and reflections that provoked them. Still, in the distillery they might briefly miss the port that has left the barrel but soon enough they look ahead to the flavour of the whisky. One of the other participants asked me at the time if I was enjoying the class, and I replied that while it was wonderful to be able to dwell for a couple of days on the place of my self in my work, when it was over I'd still have to return to the pressures of the institution and objectify, alienate and commodify my work and pretend I'd somehow contributed value to a knowledge economy. Actually I didn't quite say that: but that's a fancy way of retrospectively reworking the meaning I think I remember trying to put into brief, friendly, conversational words.

"Objectivity as a performance" is the note on the paper. The discussion turned to the kind of knowledge you'd want a carer to have or use. A doctor needs to slip between different modes - from the caring, interpersonal, individual-focussed human being who talks to the patient about their unique embodied life; to the impersonal, efficient, distant expert who examines your intimate body without judgement. When you visit the doctor and ask him to check your prostrate, you don't want the subjective eye of the appreciative flaneur of the body to be cast over your rectum: you want what Robert refered to as 'the hand of knowledge' to be the hand that touches you; not the hands of aesthetics, culture, poetry. In this respect, the doctor's behaviour is a performance in the strong sense that Goffman would use the word. The embodied, co-presense of two human beings in a room, each of whom have a myriad techniques of the self with which to hold at arms length the blank face of the universe, must always find ways to mediate the event of their interaction: scripts and roles which they understand and which they have already frequently rehearsed. The doctor's role is a difficult one: as any stage actor knows, flicking the switch and moving from one role to another is challenging enough; that the doctor absolutely must play one role, 'dead behind the eyes', but absolutely must not play that way, must 'be there', for the other, only augments that difficulty.

But this legitimation of 'objective knowledge' comes with ambiguity for me: it neither affirms the naive realism that asserts the viability of objective truth, but neither does it deny it. The performance of objectivity by the doctor is comparable to the performance of objectivity by which the drama of science unfolds. Those engaged in the practices and pursuits of scientific knowledge are engaged in a continual enactment of the scripts and signs of objectivity, permitting the collective suspension of disbelief which we all assent to by participating in modern society, and which would crash around our ears should enough of us suddenly nudge our neighbours in the theatre and mention the fact that we're really just decorated monkeys with a knack for communal hallucinations. In either case - the one to one with the doctor, or the continual reproduction of the scientific-technological superstructure - we might ask to what extent is the performance of objectivity a historically contingent phenomenon, or to what extent is the appeal to universal truth a part of the furniture of the mind, or, indeed the furniture of the universe? Of course, we can imagine a world in which those of us in need of care can seek help from others without needing to negotiate our neuroses and thereby demand that our carers perform their schizophrenic roles, and instead meet us with the freedom to be holistic, whole-person healers. But one of the premises of this masterclass is a discipline of depth psychology which is grounded in an archetypal approach to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, itself a mode of understanding the architecture of the human mind as somehow fixed: the human psyche as a unity in diversity. It helps not at all to say that the structure of the human experience is contingent upon our evolutionary history, if as a species it is still an inescapable, eternal necessity.

Categories: subjectivity, objectivity, knowledge, phenomenology, depth psychology, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn, science, performance, memory,
Comments: 1

Wounded research #1

Author: joe

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 23:03

Last week I attended a two day masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, two days of incredibly intense thinking about the role of the researcher in the research: the work of research - or better, since the word 'research' comes with such a lot of alienating baggage, simply - the work - as a vocation which forms a part of the life of the researcher. I thought I'd write some notes here which emerged from the class for me. There was such a lot in it that it's taking time to disentangle the many ideas and responses, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional, that unlodged themselves from unnoticed peripheral places and swam into view briefly before yet other currents took hold and carried them away. I managed to write some of them on a piece of paper in front of me, but even then, the words are simply spidery shadows of thoughts that are now gone.

Firstly, it isn't possible to summarise the two-day masterclass without being utterly reductionist. In fact the nature of reductionism, as opposed to a generative approach to knowing, was a constant underlying thought for me as the days passed. I've written about this before: the misleadingly common-sensical idea that the formulation of knowledge is about finding patterns of truth that account for many things in the world - the unity in diversity that is so beguiling. This characterises a pattern-view of knowledge dominant in empiricist and positivist fields like science, in which heterogenous phenomena are worked, and worked on, until they can be 'unified'. The accounting-for of the weak, strong and electro-magnetic forces, and the sought-for incorporation of gravity into this one model, is an exemplar of such an endeavour. Against this is the constructivist notion that the production of knowledge is an adding to the world of discourse, rather than an encompassing of diversity into an ever-shrinking set of axioms. We make knowledge, rather than either stumble into it blindly, or discover it deliberately; and the constant striving for more knowledge inevitably makes yet more knowledge in a self-fulfilling wish. The great fear and exhilaration of a 'theory of everything' is the paradox that such a theory explicates everything, leaving a universe made out of one algorithmic axiom, even while a theory of everything is just another moment of talking in a century-long conversation, another blade added to the collection of knives, a metaphorical doubling which, in the collision of new discourses with old, not only augments the inventory of the world but also piles up yet more tantalising ambiguity as a remainder of its workings.

Such questions also go to the heart of questions of objectivity, that dream to which so much knowledge aspires. Robert's project is to explore the necessary subjectivity of the researcher who undertakes the work. Far from encountering the world dispassionately and investigating it with valueless eyes, identifying questions because they are there to be identified, and answering them through the antiseptic, sceptical techniques of empirical enquiry - actually workers engaged in the business of making knowledge are human beings who laugh and love and sweat and labour and hunch with sore tension in their shoulders over desks burdened with elbows and scrawled-on books and distracting thoughts of lovers and meals and farts and fears and hopes. And these workers, persons, identities, these foibled animals haunted by angelic consciousness, do the work for a expanding universe of reasons, of which they may not even be fully conscious - animated by a dialogue with not only the ever-unfolding edge of the present but also with the sum of the individual and collective past.

Categories: research, work, subjectivity, objectivity, phenomenology, depth psychology, knowledge, Jung, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn,
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Speculating about the real

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 February, 2009 - 14:29

The anti-scientistic bent which may have been over-emphasised in my narratives lecture series sits oddly with the humanist and rationalist streak that I know is also a fundamental aspect of my thinking.

It is a bit odd that I can call for Dawkins to be made a mullah even while I defend the Foucauldian or Nietzschean critique of knowledge practices and the will to power. Often, I know, I'm just arguing against the prevailing winds of any particular discussion: so maybe newcomers to academic discourse will often use the word 'scientific' as though it simply refers to a collection of precise knowledge we have which is metaphysically true, and so I'll take the critical line in order to problematise such understandings of what science might be. On the other hand, I'll find myself in a discussion with sociologists and phenomenologists and find it impossible to resist arguing that, in at least an important pragmatic (folk-knowledge?) sense if not in a metaphysical sense, we might often find scientists describing a universe in a way which would be true even if there were no humans around to construct (or be interpellated, structurated, socialised, or diagnosed by) such 'truths'.

So that's a dialect between undermining the uncritical acceptance of the feasibility of universal, scientific 'truth-finding' on the one hand, and on the other fighting the same 'absolutism' in Continental philosophy's 'linguistic turn' which denies the knowability of the world. In addition there is the historiographically fascinating journey of scientific knowledge, which brings discourses of progress and democratisation, as well as discourses of imperialism and technocratisation. All on a collision course with my considerable taste for evidence-based thinking, and my utter impatience with woolly credulism and religiosity.

I love the idea of 'science' as 'knowing', but hate it as 'reduction'; I admire it as a pure method, but mistrust it as a diagnosis of humanity; I like it as a myth-buster, but loathe it as mystifying jargon; I'm blown away by its sheer unafraid ambition for discovery, but can't bear its arrogant sense of infallibility and intolerance for critique.

Anyway, for all these reasons, I'm interested in science's own relationship with its history - the schizophrenic attitude it has to the pseudo-Lacanian submission to the laws of the father - rejecting dogma, but building on accepted bodies of knowledge; I'm very intrigued by the current debates being played out by the speculative realists who want to reconnect (what I see as) the phenomenological currents in philosophy with old-fashioned metaphysics; and, of course, I want to figure out this confliction in my own thinking because, frankly, my PhD is doing my nut.

For all these reasons, I thought, as part of my new campaign to write more on this blog, I'd start going through all the material I've circled and bookmarked, or shouted at and whooped over as I've read the lovely crinkly-wrapped New Scientist which arrives every week. I'm not sure exactly what will pop out, whether a specific method of critique will emerge (textual and discourse analysis, deductive reasoning, phenomenological responses, etc) or whether there'll be any trends as to criticism or advocation of what I find. Maybe I'll at least work out some of my conflicted angst about scientific practices. Maybe not. Either way, this post has been by way of introduction. My first go will appear on this blog some time very soon.

Categories: science, positivism, reductionism, phenomenology, philosophy, linguistic-turn, knowledge, dialectic,
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The Transitive Author

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 June, 2008 - 21:00

I've had (this isn't meant to sound as confessional as it does) Roland Barthes on my mind recently. Earlier in the year a student quoted some of him at me in an essay, and I'm afraid I don't think they really grappled with the sense of the text (note I'm not saying they 'interpreted it incorrectly'!) - it was more of a quote-shoe-in to tick the theory box. But the quote - a line I've often glanced over and left behind as I engage in the tmesis of excavating a Barthes text - has kept coming back to me in the form of the question I wrote on the student's paper - 'What do you think Barthes is getting at here?'

Barthes opens The Death of the Author with some introductory questions which help to frame his exercise - he wonders, when a writer writes, whose is the voice? A question that arises because, according to B., writing is 'the destruction of every voice [... writing ...] is the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the very body writing'. Fine. I love this, and the rest of the essay explores this counterintuitive insight so interestingly that it has made its way into every cultural studies curriculum that ever made a student's life misery. But I find myself returning to the start of the second paragraph - which our friend the student earlier quoted:

No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
 
[The Death of the Author]

Leaving aside the discussion of the historicity of the 'idea of the author', and the Foucault debate, and all that, I'm persistently drawn to, and dwell on, that word: intransitively.

To narrate a fact intransitively is to narrate a fact no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To narrate a fact transitively is to narrate a fact with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality.
Write with purpose, with an object.
A subject acting on an object.
To narrate a fact intransitively is to speak no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak intransitively is to speak without purpose, without object.
 
[Joe's head, a lot, recently]

Of course, I can understand that B. at this point heads off into his own particular intentional use of 'intransitively' - that is that 'the claim to decipher a text is ... quite futile'. Indeed, the entire business of dwelling on 'what Barthes is getting at' has a bottomless irony which peered into too long gets quite vertiginous. But I am a human being - indeed, I am an impure thinker - and when addressed by a speaker, even if it is across the sea of the 'starred text', the chasm of decades and the incommensurability of two different native tongues, I first reply: 'what do you mean?'

So the word 'intransitively' follows me around. The author speaks without intention in the way that the dead speak to the living - either through the reconstruction of the memories of the living, or in the cynical charlatanism of the medium/critic. But I read transitivity differently (as, I think Barthes would agree, is my right). To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality. To speak transitively is to not only want to change the world, but to attempt to do so. I saw a quote by Hunter S Thompson on, of all places, a Facebook profile, which captured that intention:

Although I don't feel that it is at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in the sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
 
[Apparently this comes from The Proud Highway]

But even when writing is not a valve for pent-up rage, who pretends to speak without the intention of changing the world? A dissertation I marked recently also indirectly stabbed at this idea: do documentaries effect social change? Of course it is an impossible question to answer, but it provokes the thought that the documentary form covers a spectrum of approaches - and the approach that pretends to 'reflect' reality, and offer an 'intransitive' factual window onto reality is only the most dishonest form.

A colleague of mine recently gave a seminar on his work. Trevor Hearing explores the documentary film form as a way of engaging in scholarly work - to use film-making both as a research tool, and as a way of communicating academic knowledge. It forces recognition of a dialectic between film and text - the practice of visual 'story-telling' versus the abstract, supposedly 'factual', textual form, and this reveals the hidden values of each. The very things that Trevor's films are made of are human actions and interactions and their interface with the documents, visual, textual, and filmic, that human beings by their very productive nature leave behind them.

But again, what Trevor's stimulating and fascinating work illuminates is the dishonesty of that peculiarly academic practice of writing papers in which the author 'disappears'. The stock comment to write on student essays is often 'try to write less subjectively - be more objective...' - or - 'try not to write in the first person...' what other perspective do we actually expect people to write from? Where is this mythical third person position whence the academic writes? In fact, the academic paper is a worked and reworked artefact, painstakingly laboured over by a human being, in a chair, with a tilting head, and a breathing, aching body. That disappearing 'I' is a fiction. If Trevor's film had so many edits as that supposedly free-standing, evidence-based, objective - intransitive - academic paper, the cuts would leap out of the screen and reek of manipulation. The emphasis on, not the disappearance of, the author is what makes Trevor's film so much more meaningful.

One of the strange ironies of knowledge is that the practices and the discourses are so often at odds with each other. Science stakes a claim to be a 'descriptive' practice - that is, its methods produce descriptions of the world - reflections if you will. This is at the heart of the scientific claim on truth - that language can be bent into a form that faithfully describes and corresponds to brute reality - that language can be made intransitive but faithful. Actually, the real products of sciences are the world-changing technologies that every minute break the human connection to the past. And these extensions of man are made precisely because that linguistic practice is so very transitive, so very laden with rhetorical, persuasive action, discursive power, intention. With our knowledge, constructed as it is from experience and language, we act irreversibly.

I seem to have used Barthes' Death of the Author to argue in favour of the reappearance of the author. Blimey. But then, he is dead.

Categories: barthes, author, post-structuralism, knowledge, transitive, intransitive, writing, truth, science,
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A History of Madness... ii

Author: joe

Monday, 21 May, 2007 - 22:27

The incommensurability of epistemes [a History of Madness... i] and some moot questions: is the past not only a foreign country, but the story of what might as well be another species? And in any case, how would we know?

The thesis is: as societies develop new ways of knowing the world - such as Enlightenment principles, rationalism and science - new epistemes arise which mark a profound break with the past. This throws into chaos the Whig theory of history, and any sense of teleological progress - whether Hegelian or Marxian. It also implicitly renders such rationalism and scienticity equally subject to future overhaul and justified revolt. It forces us to confront the rise of 'ways of knowing' as manifestations of the 'will to power', if not merely the 'will to will'. And it opens all humanities types who inherit this intellectual hinterland to the criticism that they are postmodern relativists and, therefore, cowards.

I don't quite understand this criticism myself. Today I heard Clive James offering up a precis of his latest book on Start the Week, Cultural Amnesia (the 'fate' of liberal democracies). He described Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the villain of the piece', saying that as an intellectual, his ideas offered comfort to extremists on both the right and the left, Nazis and Stalinists, in the middle of the 20th century; but he also offered the disclaimer that he picked on Sartre because, of all the relevant intellectuals, he hadn't been vilified as much as others. Quite apart from wondering why appropriations of Sartre's version of existentialism are necessarily to be laid at his door, it does imply the vilification is simply a case of it being 'his turn'.

James' book looks worth reading, but his off-the-cuff remarks point at a common tendency to ravage intellectuals of the last half of the 20th century for the flimsiest of reasons. In any case, no-one I've ever come across has persuaded me that any anti-foundationalist argument, whether based on Foucault, Sartre or Derrida, inevitably leads to the collapse of anything at all. Actually it seems to me that to rely on some 'universal principle' - whether God, morality or evolutionary imperative - is intellectually bankrupt, since it ultimately requires argument from authority - faith in something beyond comprehension.

The attacks on Foucault's ideas, however, are based this time on less flimsy reasons, and it requires some sophistry to argue the case for or against. The argument is that Foucault's historiography is flawed, lazy, incompetent and ultimately inaccurate. His example of the ship of fools, which was supposed to be a floating asylum, sailing up and down the rivers of central Europe, and which Foucault claimed was much more than a mere symbolic notion dreamed up in art and story, was in fact precisely an allegory rather than a fact, and no such loony vessel ever hove into any medieval port.

It is claimed, then, that such oversights, or incompetencies if you prefer, render the other claims Foucault makes redundant. If the man couldn't even manage the basic task of accurate historical research, why should we pay any mind to the conclusions which he bases on such inadequate foundations?

It is a very good question: if we want to understand the functions and mechanisms of history and of knowledge, surely we should at least start by getting the facts right? But then, if Foucault is right, then perhaps our demand for methodological coherence, evidence and facts is just another symptom of the episteme we found ourselves operating in. Perhaps the attack on Foucault is exemplary of the competition between kinds of knowledge, an expression of the will to power of those who come after.

And perhaps my distrust of argument from authority is just a symptom of my existence at a point in time? The question is, how could we tell? What is my method?

Categories: michel-foucault, knowledge, episteme, epistemology, history-of-madness, enlightenment, postmodernism, whig-interpretation-of-history,
Comments: 4

A History of Madness... i

Author: joe

Monday, 14 May, 2007 - 23:34

A new edition of Foucault's A History of Madness (previously translated as Madness and Civilisation) was published earlier in the year, and there has been some notable turbulence in its wake. Foucault, (along with Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Kristeva) seems often to be a lightning rod for the different sections of the left who were split in the culture wars in the US in the 90s, and more recently for the scientific disciplines' criticisms of contemporary humanities - the lack of rigour, and indeed, the lack of attention to 'reality' itself. Meanwhile those same critics are often referred to by Foucauldian sympathisers, rather disparagingly, as members of 'the reality based community', as though anchoring oneself in an objective world were naive and unintellectual, rather than an obvious choice.

I don't intend to attempt to resolve any of the antipathies here, or even to single out the likeliest candidate for 'correspondence to truth'. This piece of reflection is simply a working through. Much of my time is, besides, spent explaining the relevance of Foucault to undergraduate media students, a task which is itself not without some irony. More to the point, I'm currently embarking on a (currently nebulous) research project, which will involve attempting to unite various domains of knowledge which range from rhetoric, hermeneutics and creativity to health and physiology. As part of my search for and resolution of an appropriate research methodology, it seems a good idea to grasp what it is about Foucault that polarises scholars and their disciplines so much.

In order to complete my bachelor's degree in Eng Lit, I sat, amongst interminable others, an exam on medieval literature, for which I later discovered I scored a distinction. I remember distinctly one of the essays I wrote was a response to a question along the lines of: what is the relevance of medieval literature (I think it referred specifically to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls) to contemporary society?

I responded confidently with my assertion that the nature of human experience is no different today than it was in the 14th century. While the complexity and number of cultural 'things' may have increased, and there may be more 'units of meaning' in the world today than there were then, though many social values may have changed, though the way society is structured may have evolved - nevertheless, what it means to be a human being has not. We still are born into a world as humans, experience it as only humans can, and die a human death as an unavoidable symptom of living. While there may be worlds of nurture and convention between me, Chaucer, Plato and Ugh the caveman, if we all somehow came together in some timeless place, we would look at each other with recognition.

We are defined, I argued, by our species. The challenges, both philosophical and sociological, involved in living together as creatures with will and freedom, desires and sympathies, have not permuted. The compromises of rule and negotiation are constant; the paradoxes of society and the individual are immutable; the human instinct to compete, and our propsensity towards altruism, do not alter from one generation to the next. Humanity, while it may be a temporary phenomenon on the face of the earth, is in itself an eternal thing. Hence, (I argued with reference to some talking birds), the challenges of Chaucer's protagonists are the challenges of our own brothers and sisters, and therefore of ourselves.

At the time I imagined I got the distinction because my argument was sound. Now I think I got it because my argument was conservative, and met with approval. It was a British answer, sound in the face, back in the early nineties, of French post-structuralists. I remember it must have been 1992 when I got my first lecture on deconstruction, delivered by a young turk of a lecturer, rather than any of the old grandees who prefered to keep their fragrant noses in Shakespeare and Hardy.

It seemed to me that this view was unassailable; and of course, I will now problematise it, though I may still leave it unassailable: the question is not simply, what if I were wrong, but also, how would we know? And even if humanity at base were the same, if we say that social values have changed, how can we dissociate those changed values from measuring whether our nature were the same? What does it mean for two human beings to have a similar nature, but see the world in entirely different ways? Mightn't we just as well be members of different species? If our values and hence ways of apprehending the world metaphysically are incommensurably altered, what can we possibly share, except a physiology, which we're unlikely to bring together, unless by force, since we clearly have no common values through which to court?

In the other, Borges tells the story of how he, as an old man in his 70s, finds himself sitting on a bench with a young man who turns out to be himself, 50 years earlier. As we may think, the child is father to the man, but whether we consider the youth or the elder as the leading edge of a man moving into the transdimensionality of potential, it turns out that nowhere can they commune, or establish a point of common recognition - even with oneself there can be no intersubjectivity:

"Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike... Either to offer advice or to argue was pointless..." (Borges, 1979, p9)


Borges, J. L., 1979, 'the other' in The Book of Sand, (London: Penguin)

Categories: michel-foucault, epistemology, knowledge, human-nature, jorge-luis-borges, history-of-madness, working-through, endlessly self-similar universe,
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