‘After’ academic knowledge: towards other understandings?

Three academic observations to start with, all taken from Poul Holm et al’s Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action (Humanities 2015, 4, 977–992). They note that: “while empires may collapse, [including, in this context, those of academic institutions] humans do not, and have managed successfully to reorganize themselves in extremely adverse times” (p. 984). The second draws on Helga Nowotny’s view that the current move to: “socially robust knowledge includes employing multiple, even contradictory, perspectives” (ibid. 985). Finally, the article’s authors observe: “We want to emphasize the capacity of the humanities to move beyond models of research that locate the formation of knowledge exclusively within the academy” (p. 986). These three indicative observations will serve to frame the context for what follows here.

Some of the people I most admire, people who struggle to do the real work of tertiary education (rather than passively conforming to the priorities of Academia plc), recognise that the dominant disciplinary realpolitik that covers the economics of education has long been an anachronism. These people are working hard to find ways to teach what now needs teaching; in particularly an ecosophically inclusive thinking that listens and is critically solicitous towards other understandings and towards the world at large.

One way in which they have done this is by moving away from the presuppositions and assumptions of the disciplinarity mentalité, creating enlarged fields of multi-disciplinary study oriented by collectively substantive and common concerns. So, we now have, for example, Memory Studies, Landscape Studies, Geo-Humanities, Digital Humanities, and Eco-Humanities. Given the recuperative ‘neo-colonialist’ practices of disciplinary empire-building, and the concomitant proliferation of ‘inter-‘, ‘trans-‘, ‘post-‘, and other neo-disciplinary formulations, I remain agnostic about many of the claims made on behalf of these expanded fields by those who head them up. What I am convinced of, however, is that a growing number of people who work for universities are using these new categories as portals through which to enter conversations that go beyond the academic and, in doing so, contest the assumption that academic disciplines are the prime locus of knowledge production and understanding. People who now act on the assumption that it is the openness, the skills, goodwill, knowledge and understanding embodied by individuals, not the authority bestowed by the official categories that institutions use to divide and rule, that are now central to creating knowledges and educational experience that’s fit for purpose.

This does not mean, of course, that the work such people do as academics is somehow secondary to their individual characteristics. Rather it means that we need to see their academic work as just one part of the wider polyverse that constellates them as both an individual and a semi-porous cluster of psycho-social relationships. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the same can be said of those who work as artists.

I want to suggest that the struggle for us all, now, is to resist the normative conditions that flow from the internalisation of a monolithic notion of ‘life-as’ some form of professional specialist, for example ‘Academic’ or ‘Artist’. That is, a unitary belief in a ‘life-as’ as authorized by a disciplinary education, one taken as the means to a job organising, legislating for, administering, and generally intervening in, the intellectual, cultural, or practical conditions of others’ understandings and/or lifeworlds. A ‘life-as’ underwritten by the administrative mindscape of the dominant culture of management, whether in relation to business, public services, the media, the creative industries, or the academy.

If we accept that socially robust knowledge requires that we employ “multiple, even contradictory, perspectives”, then we need to begin by acknowledging that we are each a polyverse, and then acting accordingly. This means acting not as a monolithic entity categorised as ‘Academic’ or ‘Artist’, but as a plural and dynamic constellated self that works as, for example: a teacher, an academic researcher, a writer, an activist, an artist – not to mention all those forms of work that flow from being one’s parents’ child, a partner, a citizen, a parent, a neighbour, a family member, and so on.

We badly need to recognise that we are all, in reality, just such constellated selves.

Some years ago, when I had a residency at NUI Galway, I had the good fortune to meet Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin,  an Irish ethnomusicologist, author, musician and historian who is hugely knowledge about Irish music, diaspora, cultural and memory. The inaugural holder of The Johnson Chair in Québec and Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University, Montréal, Quebec, Gearóid is a fourth generation Clare concertina player, a former member of The Kilfenora Céilí Band, and a five-time All Ireland Champion musician, someone who has performed and recorded with both many noted Irish fiddlers and the French Canadian fiddle master Pierre Schryer. Equally important, however, is that he is an open, intellectually enquiring, enthusiastic and generous conversationalist, someone who was happy to talk to, offer advice to, and practically help, a chance-met English teacher / artist / researcher with an interest in Irish socially-engaged arts practices but almost no knowledge of Gearóid’s own many areas of expertise.

The approach to our work I’m arguing for here, as I have done in more detail elsewhere (see my ‘“Incorrigibly plural”? Rural Lifeworlds Between Concept and Experience’ Canadian Journal of Irish Studies Vol. 38, Nos. 1+2 (2014).
Special issue, “Text and Beyond Text: New Visual, Material, and Spatial Perspectives in Irish Studies” pp. 260-275), is informed by a sociological argument that differentiate between two distinct ways of experiencing lifeworlds. In the first, lifeworlds are experienced as given, framed by prior understandings of roles, expectations and rewards that produce a ‘life-as’ an academic, an artist, a farmer, a housewife, a postmaster, and so on. In the second case, they are experienced as a (relatively) open project: multi-stranded, dynamic, as ‘being-as-becoming’ in which skills and understandings flow from productive tensions between different embodied perspectives .” This distinction is, of course, never absolute, but might be seen as approximating one made by the philosopher of place Edward S. Casey. Casey differentiates between a position, taken as “as posit of an established culture,” and our experiencing of place which, notwithstanding its normally settled appearance, he characterizes as “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture.” These parallel understandings can indicate a spectrum across which lifeworlds are experienced, from the given or positioned — whether assumed as such by individuals themselves or imposed upon them by powerful others— which constitutes a ‘life-as’, through to a becoming that requires continual negotiation as to how we are placed in relation to a world always in process. Our experience will, in fact, show us that we fluctuate back and forth between these two poles. If the first position is best described as a given and unitary position, the second is dynamic, experimental, and plural: as located in a “polyverse”—a term borrowed from the late theologian Roger Corless, both a Benedictine oblate and a Gelugpa Buddhist, who uses it to articulate his experience of the richness of both these spiritual lifeworlds without denying the irreconcilable differences between them. Which returns us once again to Helga Nowotny and the view that the current move to socially robust knowledge requires the ability to include multiple, even contradictory, perspectives.

The ebb and flow of our lived experience back and forth across a fluidly constellated lifeworld or polyverse is rarely acknowledged because it raises a host of questions that cut across the normative assumptions our culture has inherited from the monotheistic traditions of the Religions of the Book; difficult questions about identity and self-consistency that open us to increased levels of paradox and cognitive dissonance. However, if we deny the lifeworld as polyverse, with its corresponding sense of plurality and internal difference, we will have to live with the negative social consequences that follow from that denial. These include substantive restrictions on our capacity to deal with change, with the complex, even wicked, problems typical of our age and, centrally, on our ability to accept the plurality and difference of others – in particular, others whose skills and forms of lived understanding do not sit well with particular conceptions of a unitary ‘life-as’. Nevertheless, as I began by observing, many people increasingly experience their lifeworld as a polyverse—whether they do so tacitly or explicitly—and are both managing the resulting cognitive dissonances and welcoming the new understandings that result from abandoning the unitary world of the professional ‘life-as’ Artist, Academic, or whatever.