Monthly Archives: June 2017

‘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.

Practicing the GeoHumanities: some thoughts.

I spent yesterday in London at the invitation of Professor Harriet Hawkins, a geographer and art historian, who works in The Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities. She had invited Jen Harvie (QMUL), Neal White (Westminster University) and myself to act as a panel for a GeoHumanities in practice event – Practicing the GeoHumanities: the practice-based thesis and beyond – intended for doctoral students, potential doctoral students, ‘early stage’ and other post-doctoral researchers. (The event was made possible through Harriet’s seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm and by support from The Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities, AHRC Creating Earth Futures project, and AHRC TECHNE doctoral Training Centre).

Harriet took the portmanteau term ‘GeoHumanities’ as naming an increasingly common intersection of the practice and scholarship of the arts and humanities with geographical scholarship and practice, focused around such topics as environment, landscape, place, identity, and mobility. As she rightly notes, a growing amount of such work is being done through practice-based or practice-led PhDs, a good proportion of which are based in Geography departments. The practices involved are various and include creative writing, poetry, visual and socially engaged arts practices, creative curation, and so on. The day workshop provided us, that is those working on practice-led or practice-based PhDs on geographical topics and those with congruent interests, with the opportunity to think and speak together around the various challenges and benefits of these ways of working.

My impression was that those who attended the day gained a good deal of useful support and information from the opportunity this event offered. However, rather than discuss the specifics of the day, difficult to do in brief, I want to draw attention to some general points that strike me as significant at this juncture. (That is, given what is now my almost eighteen years involved in the praxis of practice based/led research).

  • On the evidence of this event, supervisors and doctoral students now have a much more sophisticated understanding of the experimental possibilities – both formal and intellectual – of the practice-based or practice-led PhD. Also of the regulatory issues and disciplinary realpolitik that frame and, all-too-often, still limit those possibilities.
  • Closely aligned to this is a much greater involvement (and again I am largely going on the evidence of this event), in working in the ultimately political ‘spaces-between’ academic and professional knowledge production and ‘extra-academic’, ‘extra-professional’, ‘vernacular’, or ‘subaltern’ forms of understanding and practice. This might be characterized theoretically in terms of Guattari’s concern with transversality and an ethico-aesthetics, although I suspect that to do so would lead all too quickly to sterile debate on the slippery slopes of High Theory, rather than to the kinds of psycho-social and environmental engagements in evidence yesterday.
  • It still seems to me significant that, as I would have predicted, almost all those attending the event were women. I think this was also significant in relation to the day’s total absence of theory-based gamesmanship. There may be any number of reasons for this, of course, but I am increasingly inclined to see both facts as relating to the emergence of a new mentalité. (This is related, but not reducible to, the effects of Feminism. If I were to try and set out in detail my own reasoning about this, I’d need to go back to an old essay: The Conversational Weave (another place) – see, and to a recent book chapter – ‘Re-Visioning “North” as an ecosophical context for creative practices’ in Timo Jokela & Glen Coutts (eds) Relate North: Culture, Community, and Communication 2017, Rovaniemi, Lapland University Press – as starting points).
  • I am not sure whether the following observation may involve a degree of projection, but it seemed to me that, underlying the whole event, there was a commitment, mostly tacit but sometimes explicit, to radical pedagogy in the spirit of Paulo Freire. A spirit that was manifest in many of the projects themselves but also, perhaps less noticeably, in discussions around supervision. Within any academic context this is itself significant, since any concern with pedagogy is normally treated as, at best, marginal when research is the topic of academic conversation.
  • The issue of language and writing, present in many of the presentations and conversations in relation, for example, to questions of acknowledging polyvocality, the articulation of experience, and the limits of disciplinarity, needs further discussion. Those of us who have practices that don’t privilege the analytical over the narrative, imaginal or poetic, are haunted, and often harried, by the conventions and presuppositions of analytical academic discourse as the authoritative mode of thinking. This situation requires some very careful and radical work if we are to understand the problems it brings. I will simply indicate one aspect of those problem here.

In an article entitled Stepping from the wreckage: Geography, pragmatism and anti-representational theory – Geoforum 39 (2008) 1600–1612 – Owain Jones (Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University) offers a highly sophisticated philosophical account, based on non-representational theory in geography, which sets out to articulate:

The dissatisfaction … with the ongoing trajectories of enlightenment/modern aspirations of progress towards truth through the elimination of doubt and the application of reason, language and power in the dividing, sorting, representing and fixing of the world.

Jones’ aim here is to support and develop the move to “theory and research as creative action” in geography. But there is an inherent paradox. These theories set out to repudiate the epistemological error Jones identifies by, among other things, engaging “with the techniques and presentational forms of the creative arts”. However, their authority as geography theory remains almost wholly unrelated to the types of authoritative evocation manifest through arts practices. Instead it depends on using philosophy (the “queen of the sciences”) to re-conceptualize – that is finally to re-divide, re-sort, and re-represent – previous discursive positions within the ongoing competitive discourses of academic geography. Its exponents may quite properly write of ‘escaping the wreckage’ of the logocratic order but, in practice, they are simply perpetuating that order. Should they genuinely adopt forms of articulating understanding based on evocations that employ the techniques and presentational forms of the creative arts, their authority, status, and perhaps even their employment, as High Theorists of contemporary Geography would almost certainly be in jeopardy. They do not (and perhaps cannot risk) doing  in practice what they speak about philosophically.

This may seem an unfair criticism, given the inevitable location of “non-“, “anti-“ or “more than” representational Geographies within the necessary limits of academic discourse and the realpolitik that sustains it. Unfair unless, that is, we start to look at other models that offer genuine alternatives to this kind of writing. The title of Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene already indicates an important difference in language and orientation from Jones’ article. While Jones wants to step away from the wreckage – the standard academic move to gain the necessary distance on which analytical critique is dependent; Haraway wants to stay with, remain immersed in, the trouble. Jones cites philosophy, or the philosophically-underwritten position of other geographers, to authorize his thesis. By contrast, Haraway cites her direct engagement in or with an eclectic mix of science studies, anthropology, political theory, storytelling and specific arts practices, to authorize hers.

So in her book, we find a vibrant polyvocal exchange, a wild and inclusive conversation in which her own experience and involvement speaks with Isabelle Stingers’ thinking and Baila Goldenthal’s painting Cat’s Cradle/Sring Theory; where Ursula Le Guin’s notion of science fiction speaks with Hannah Arendt’s political vision; and The PigronBlog team’s project and a “Bee Orchid” cartoon by xkcd speak with Bruno Latour’s anthropology. Here there is no Art (capital A) and no Authoritative Academic Discourse (capitals A, A and D), assumed as exclusive positions, one set over or against another. In short, Haraway’s writing evokes a ‘walking in practice’ of what Jones can only identify in terms of a philosophical position within a conventional discourse; one that is authoritative only in so far as it remains firmly within a set of  presuppositions inseparable from the realpolitik of the academic status quo.

I would suggest, then, that if the new terminology of Geo- or Eco-Humanities is to mean anything, and if there are to be practice-led or practice-based doctoral projects by people who can develop that meaning into forms of lived praxis, then we need to continue to act on the conversations that Harriet initiated yesterday.