|Title:||In Defense of Ambivalence|
|Publication Info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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In Defense of Ambivalence
vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
In Defense of Ambivalence
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz
I appreciate having an opportunity to respond, yet again, to Eli Thorkelson’s provocative essay on Systems. When I first read this essay, I was, to put it bluntly, as mad as a wet hen. Defensive? You bet. But not without reason. I had offered a critique of Systems not unlike Eli’s on the very first day of class in 2005. Eli is no dummy; graduate school pedagogy is his dissertation topic; if he couldn’t tell what I was up to that fall, then who could? I took some comfort in the fact that some of his classmates seemed to understand my approach. But this observation led me to darker thoughts. Did Eli’s selective attention to what was happening in Haskell 315 that fall betray his own seduction by the Chicago myth? Eli had heard the stories; he knew what he was getting into and he knew what he would make of it; there was no way to flip his script. He had it in for me as the most proximate representative of departmental authority. My failure properly to embody this authority only made matters worst. I’m not “some famous (male) professor,” and I try to be “nice.” This made me an easy target for Eli to attack.
But these dark thoughts were unfair ones, I realize now. Any objections that I still have to Eli’s argument are more measured. I touch upon them here mainly to complement Eli’s essay by offering a different perspective on Systems. This perspective is different as a result not only of our differing roles in the course, but also, begging your pardon, of our different analytic tastes.
Eli turns to Bourdieu for inspiration for understandable reasons. Bourdieu wrote on the reproduction of hierarchy within French academia; he provided a model that Eli could scarcely ignore. What’s more, Bourdieu’s writing is seductively compelling; the unmasking of mystification usually is. Yet I’ve always found that when I ask myself what fuels the pursuit of distinction, as described by Bourdieu, I am left with a curiously impoverished image of social action. I have found that I have to posit a kind of subterranean urge to dominate to make sense of how Bourdieu’s model could work. Diagnosing domination in scholarly practice is a risky business; it’s easy to use the same tools used to critique the system to critique the critique, with the same urge to dominate holding sway. (My initial reaction to Eli’s essay shows how easy it is to succumb to this temptation: I viewed his critique as the product of the same kind of intellectual one-upmanship that troubled him in others – and one-upped him by pointing this out to him!) However necessary, the tools of criticism call for careful handling. The risks can range from getting pulled into a mimetic power struggle of the sort I just described to reducing people’s behavior to the expression of a single motivating force. As I see it, there is no domination without ambivalence. Critics, like those they criticize, think, write, and speak in the midst of a myriad of internal and external interlocutors, whose actions and reactions, recalled and anticipated, shape how they feel and what they do. People only behave in the company of others. This otherness not only creates a setting for action; it is also a constitutive component of every act.
This problem vaguely bothered me in earlier versions of this essay, and I think it may have bothered Eli as well. In the final version of his essay, Eli reflects on the “interpersonal” dimensions of his project, adding nuance to the “sociocentric” analysis he initially attempted of the course. This helps, but I would be tempted to go further. I gained a certain clarity on this question of ambivalence and domination while reading a recent translation of the seminar Derrida held on “The Beast and the Sovereign” between 2001 and 2003 (2010). Quoting from La Fontaine’s fable, “The Wolf and the Lamb,” Derrida noted that he was claiming sovereignty the moment that he uttered “as we shall shortly show” within a lecture. This utterance was a performative, Derrida pointed out — it did what it said by saying what it did. Derrida’s words retroactively produced their own truth in a tautological fashion shored up by Derrida’s status as a professor institutionally authorized to speak in this way. Derrida was critical of sovereignty, at least as something held by an undivided, self-same subject who knowingly wields “supreme and absolute power.” Yet he was also aware that sovereignty bears a complicated relationship to the ethical. Both sovereignty and justice entail the making of decisions — which, for Derrida, to be true decisions, must entail more than simply the application of a program. One knows the rules and their limits; one is open to differences that exceed them; one knows that one cannot decide and yet one must — if indeed one is just “one” in such moments. If justice exists, it is in this impossible gesture of responsibility towards another that cannot be captured in any categories ready to hand. To dismiss out of hand every apparent exercise of authority—every decision-making act—is as ethically problematic as unthinkingly to defend the status quo.
All this is a convoluted way of sketching out how my take on Systems differs from Eli’s. What looked like domination to Eli was for me the outcome of decisions — decisions painfully taken under the influence of multiple factors, from the voices of students and colleagues to the ghosts of my own teachers past. Eli takes issue with how I presented my ethical program — as a program, rather than as a proposal for the group to discuss. I cringe when I read these passages in the essay, partly out of embarrassment, but also partly because I wonder what it would have taken to avoid this trap. Looming over every discussion of process is the question of who decides upon the process by which a group decides upon a process. Such decisions are never made in a vacuum. Decisions occur in history. They intervene in a history of utterances and other kinds of acts. They bring together participants whose trajectories through the world have left them marked and expectant in varied ways.
When I agreed to teach Systems at the end of Spring Quarter 2005, I did so with an awareness that whatever I did would be in dialogue with what came before and serve as an incitement for further changes. What I understood would hold constant was that as the professor I would bear the burden of giving grades. (I didn’t think I could singlehandedly change this dimension of the course; in fact, as Eli shows very clearly, it was a mistake to think I could singlehandedly change anything about the course!) Given all this, it seemed less an imposition than a kindness to explain to the students how I would shoulder this burden. In making the speech that Eli excerpts here, I may have caused some anxiety. But had I said nothing, I may well have caused more. As far as the content of that speech goes, I stand by what I said that afternoon. I’m not sure where the speech came from, but it pretty much describes the kind of intellectual community I would like to belong to within anthropology and beyond.
Moving to other decisions that I had to make to teach the course, I also stand by the overall outline of the course. Eli describes Systems as an exercise in practical idealism, and I certainly see how the course could leave that impression. But, again, my experience of the course casts the syllabus in a different light. During the planning sessions I held over the summer with my first teaching assistant, Kelly Gillespie, we had to make some tough choices. Again, I was not operating in a vacuum; I knew that whatever I did would register, at least among those familiar with the department, as a response to what others had done before. I couldn’t do everything, and I couldn’t do just anything. I had to do what I was capable of doing, knowing well that everyone involved in this enterprise had limited time and energy and gaps in our knowledge that would make some feats harder than others to accomplish in the allotted time.
In recent years, I had had some exciting conversations with one of the students in the program, Gretchen Pfeil, who had encouraged me to reflect on the debts that secular social science might owe to older debates within Christianity. (Gretchen was particularly interested in theological resonances within the semiotic approaches that inform her own work.) I was fascinated by the question of the relationship between theology and social theory although—indeed because—I did not have a clear schtick on the matter. I decided to make this question into the theme of the course. This theme provided me with an overarching framework as I chose the readings we could cover. My lectures explored problems of authority, signification, and temporality within the works we were reading, which registered an emergent, if muddy, division between religious and secular spheres. I viewed the question of the relationship between theology and social theory as implicitly historical; it drew its significance from the texts’ location within a long-term history of changes in the relationship between religious and “earthly” institutions and discourses.
Alas, this aspect of the course did not make a strong impression on Eli. This may have been my fault. When I lectured, I presented my ideas in a hypothetical spirit, which may have made them easy to ignore. What’s more, when I introduced the course, I pointed out that the course’s theme varied from year to year, implying that Systems somehow transcended whatever it is “about.” If I had renamed the course to fit my theme, Systems might not have stood out so starkly from other seminars in which a professor and some students read and discuss a range of works with an eye to a particular problematic. But would it still have been Systems? Perhaps not. In any event, the course’s theme looms large in my own memory of Systems. This theme may be why I had so much fun teaching the course. I was often fascinated by our conversations, as difficult as engaging twenty-three participants in a discussion often turned out to be. The decision to focus on this theme came about for all sorts of accidental reasons; I was surprised and pleased by how much I enjoyed pursuing this lead.
There are undoubtedly scholars better equipped than I am to teach Systems in the more rigorous, explicitly historical fashion that Eli recommends. I would love to take that class. But I would take it with a grain of salt. I had reasons to treat history in the manner that I did, beyond just the need to get by. There are always multiple ways to contextualize a work; a text is never reducible to a body of “ideas.” Histories of texts are non-linear. Texts result from and initiate historically specific trajectories of citation and circulation; by its very nature, writing anticipates what is to come. I have a strong aversion to analyses that close off discussion by reading a text as a reflection of an author’s life and times. Still, I didn’t want to give the students the impression that historical context was unimportant. My solution was to have the students begin the course by reading works by Ian Hacking and Rachel Fulton that demonstrated two compelling ways of approaching this problem. Eli did not seem to grasp how forcefully I was endorsing these works; nor did he grasp how forcefully I was endorsing other contemporary readings that we covered in our Wednesday meetings, which I imagined might fulfill a similar function. As I envisioned the course, short essays like Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” would bear an importance that far exceeded the space that they took up on the syllabus. This recent work demonstrated that old obsessions continue to haunt us. Dead doesn’t necessarily mean gone.
Such are my quibbles with Eli’s representation of Systems. These pale in comparison from what I have learned from Eli’s essay — uncomfortable things about graduate pedagogy and the part in it that I’ve played. Eli writes a bit about his personal situation when he launched into Systems. It seems worth saying a few words about mine. “There are two things that happen when people get tenure,” I explained on that first day. “They get authoritative or they get perverse.” Tenure had something to do with my decision to teach the course in the way that I did: it gave me the liberating sensation that I was no longer under surveillance. I could begin to think more adventurously now that my job was no longer on the line. Other things had happened on my way to tenure: coming to terms with my daughter’s severe disability and the sudden loss of my partner of twenty-two years. The light of eternity was shining brightly on me when I agreed to teach Systems: things that had loomed larger earlier in my career no longer seemed as important as the sheer pleasure of venturing into parts unknown. “What’s in it for me?” I asked myself. A little kerosene to splash on the mental pilot light, I concluded, from all this new stuff that I would have an excuse to read. What could be in it for the other participants became clear when I started consulting students who were further along in the program. They told me about their favorite books and articles from the course. They gave me tips on how to ensure that the students took me seriously. (They made me promise not to have the students play games in class.) They talked about power relations in the classroom and the anxiety that these caused. I had faced some scary things, and I had survived. I was no longer anxious about my standing in the discipline. I thought I could lead by example. Maybe if I confronted the issues raised by the course directly, I could encourage everyone to relax a little, to have a little more fun.
This plan backfired, in large part because it was premised on the utopian notion that I could in some sense whistle away hierarchy. From a certain perspective, my enthusiasm for the ordeal was a sign of privilege; for students unsure of whether they had a future in anthropology, my dwelling upon how much fun the course could be may have been an exercise in bad taste. I knew, but somehow neglected to take as seriously as I needed to, the fact that I was just one person among many in that room and that presuppositions and affective stances can easily survive a frontal attack. The mythology of Systems was a powerful force in shaping students’ experience of the course. My efforts were in dialogue with this myth and in a backhanded way kept it alive. “Ignore the monsters under the bed,” I told the students, thus confirming their suspicion that monsters exist. My effort to reform Systems could not but reproduce the original in all its glory. Sadly, the same might be said of Eli’s essay and this response.
Eli would like to lessen ambivalence, and this is a laudable goal. But I have learned a great deal from my mixed reactions to Eli’s essay. I loved teaching Systems. But I can see why some students hated taking it. I don’t regret teaching Systems in the way that I did. But I also don’t regret coming under Eli’s scrutiny, as painful as this experience has sometimes been. Above all, I don’t regret having my pedagogical sovereignty challenged in a way that made me feel in practice what I know to be true: that there is no unified place from which we act. It seems like a small prize to pay in exchange for admission to this conversation.
Derrida, Jacques. 2010. The Beast and the Sovereign: The Seminars of Jacques Derrida. Geoffrey Bennington and Peggy Kamuf, eds. Geoffrey Bennington, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.