requiem for certainty


with 6 comments

Late last week I attended a strategic reorientation meeting for ARC—the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory, a small group of philosophically-minded anthropologists to whom I was introduced by Paul Rabinow at UC Berkeley while on my UC Santa Cruz postdoc.  Those looking for reflections on ARC and related projects might take a look at Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, a refreshing little book recording conversations amongst Rabinow and some ARC and non-ARC collaborators.

Over the past few years of (somewhat sporadic) involvement I have found ARC a refreshing and invigorating venue for fashioning new forms of cross-disciplinary inquiry.  One primary objective of ARC, or so it seems to me, is experimenting with forms of academic research.  Two projects I was involved in are the ARC Collaboratory (collaboration + laboratory) and one of Rabinow’s Labinar (laboratory + seminar) graduate courses in Anthropology at UC Berkeley.  The recent meeting provides an occasion for now looking back at my involvement in these two experiments in order to discern what has worked well and what still needs more work.  This will be useful (for me at least) as some of us seek to re-energize ARC as a venue for shared work going forward.

What Worked Well.  ARC has provided me with ample inspiration for academic research and inquiry in at least three ways.

1. Counterdisciplinarity.  It might be thought by most collaborators that ARC is primarily a venue for anthropology.  Perhaps.  But to my mind it is also a venue for history and of course for philosophy.  ARC enables us to work across the familiar divides in refreshing ways.  Many philosophers over the past half-century have urged that we should “look rather than think” (e.g., Wittgenstein).  What anthropologists can help such philosophers come to recognize is that it takes quite a lot to see.  My hunch is that anthropologists, philosophers, and historians all work better when they avail themselves of tools of vision drawn from across the disciplines.  One way to think about this is to conduct one’s research around questions or problems that can be approached through a variety of disciplinary techniques.  This means that echt philosophical problems or pure anthropological problems recede into the background in favor of real problems that can be shared across the disciplines.

2. Collaborativity.  Academia today, at least in the humanities, relies too much upon the genius model of scholarly production.  We need more collaborative endeavors.  This is not easy.  The Labinar which I participated in during the Winter 2008 semester led to a co-authored research project on ‘open source’ and the broader ‘openness’ movement involving Mary Murrell, Tom Schilling, and myself.  We were an anthropologist, a materials engineer, and a philosopher respectively.  Collaborating across the disciplines proved easier than we had all anticipated.  We were constrained to a fifteen-week venue.  Our resulting paper (“A Diagnostic of Emerging Openness Equipment”) is by no means a complete project, but it was immensely valuable as a lesson in collaboration.  One primary lesson learned in that project is the seemingly simple one: collaboration is easier than you think and effectively facilitates new research modes that lead to surprising results.  Nobody thinks that collaborative work should fully replace individual work in the academic humanities.  But more of us ought to avail ourselves of both research orientations.

3. ‘Webbiness’.  Insofar as the humanities fail to find ways of leveraging the internet (especially the web) they will be left behind in an increasingly internetworked world.  Much of ARC collaboration takes place on the internet, in the form of group blogs as well as potentially new web-based venues to be unveiled as we move forward.  Nobody would claim that ARC has perfected Digital Humanities—but nobody would really claim that this is something we might aim for anyway.  The point is to make more effective use of web-based tools for collaborative and cross-disciplinary research.

What Needs More Work.  What has been problematic about my experiences with ARC Collaborations and Labinars?  What was frustrating?  What didn’t work?  Or, alternatively, what needs more work?  I have sometimes found it difficult to leverage my work in the context of ARC into forms of research that are easily recognizable by extant structures of academic legitimation.  Of course conversations in the context of ARC informed my book manuscripts on pragmatism (Pragmatism as Transition) and genealogy (Genealogy as Problematization).  These books would not be what they are without ARC and they would be much the poorer for it.  But it was often tough to directly leverage my ARC-related work.  This is obviously due in large part to idiosyncratic reasons: I was on the job market in the context of much of my time with ARC thus far and so obsessive (perhaps overly so) about keeping my c.v. in order.  Indeed the blockage I have found here speaks not so much to a failure with or in ARC as it does to those existing modes of academic legitimacy which ARC takes as one of its problems for inquiry.

How might we work differently in the context of academic?  How might we work better?  What would better work look like?  Part of the answer to these questions surely involves the three positive qualities of ARC I named above.  One question we in academia face today concerns how to leverage counterdisciplinarity, collaborativity, and ‘webbiness’ in ways that connect to prevailing modes of academic research so as to both enrich these extant modes in their better aspects and challenge them with respect to that in them which is stultifying.

Everyone knows that academia is bursting at the seams with lots of brilliant little minds.  I have met hundreds of incredibly intelligent people over the last four years since finishing up my doctorate.  But too often all this intellectual talent finds itself facing self-imposed restrictions.  Why?  How?  We in academia face today an enormously important  question concerning how we can leverage our talents and energies in ways to promote flourishing both inside and outside of the academy.  This question is so important just insofar as talent and energy, especially intellectual talent and energy, is neither self-leveraging nor self-actualizing.  Too many academics think it is: too many academics think that it is enough just to be smart.  What should we leverage our talents and energies for?  Justice?  Melioration?  Understanding?  All of these?  How do we achieve these goals in ways consistent with their form?  What new forms of collaborative research will enable us to meet these goals?  I have only the barest of hunches about how to answer these questions.  But I am pretty sure that the questions need asking.

After the meeting closed on Friday I took a gorgeous swim in the outdoor Hearst Pool.  As I lapped back and forth in the marble-bottomed and statue-flanked waters, the sun showered its natural inspirations down upon me.  The enlightening combined well with the invigoration afforded by our meetings.  I am, accordingly, looking forward to more.


Written by Colin Koopman

June 15, 2010 at 2:57 am

6 Responses

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  1. it seems clear to me that after Wittgenstein/Rorty/Foucualt and all there should have been an anthropological/ethnographic “practice” turn to follow up the “linguistic” turn but this would have called for actual changes in how research/teaching is done in the academy, instead of just the usual changes in vocabulary. and except for a few Rabinow/Latour type exceptions this has not happened.
    when I see people making changes in practices, in the daily organizations/politics of how academic work happens, I will find it easier to take talk of meliorism/trangression/etc more seriously, until then this kind of lip-service is pretty superficial and the market will trump all manners of empty posturing.


    June 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm

  2. i am a little less pessimistic than you, dirk. i see a good amount of this stuff going on in science studies. you mention latour and rabinow. there is also ian hacking’s work, which is widely influential. there’s also the edinburgh school stuff. and all the ethnomethodology stuff. i think there’s a good deal more of this going on than one might expect. bordieu is another example (whom i discuss in my book) and his work is widely influential.

    another aspect pointing in this direction, which i have discussed on this blog before, is experimental philosophy, though i think x-phi needs some reworking before it is actually engaging itself in the practice of looking.

    i don’t think one finds enough resources for that in wittgenstein or neopragmatism alone, though. wittgenstein says “don’t think but look”. this suggests the need for a “practice turn”. but one can’t just look. one has to learn how to see. wittgenstein, unfortunately, just kept on analyzing concepts as linguistic entities, rather than as elements in practices. hence the need to reach beyond wittgenstein and other various versions of the linguistic turn.

    so: yes, yes, yes, we need a “practice turn”. all i can say is: read my book. because that’s exactly what i’m arguing for there.

    colin koopman

    June 24, 2010 at 5:42 am

    • yes lots of good researchers in areas like the microsociologies of action/actor research, Annemarie Mol’s insightful and cutting/witty Body Multiple is one of my favorite books in years, and my old stomping grounds of neurophenomenology (my point about work after-Witt. was that I saw this as a possible turning point, Rorty also disappoints in his fetishizing of literature but he gestures to other more fruitful possibilities, for post-Witt work on practices see folks like Coulter, Sharrock, St.Cowley doing excellent studies/thinking) but very little in the way of systemic/institutional academic changes, which as I understood Rabinow in one of his videod-talks is exactly why he had to create his own quasi-independent research programs/groups. In my own experience our univerisites are being turned into service industries where the consumer is always right (St.Fish had a nice NYT editorial recently along these lines) and while there is some hand-wringing and theory being produced in response I don’t see much in terms of changes in management/organization by faculty, do you? i enjoyed your book but we need some collective action(s), and sooner than later.


      June 24, 2010 at 2:15 pm

      • point taken. i see what you mean now. i agree that it would be useful to implement changes in the way in which research is practiced, knowledge is developed, and education is forwarded. i am not sure collective action is in order but perhaps collective actions. i think that, for now at least, we need multiple experimentations. nobody really has a complete answer about what’s next. hence opportunists find it easy to exploit the situation, and all the more effectively since they are doing so with good intentions.

        colin koopman

        June 24, 2010 at 4:16 pm

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