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Evolving Systems: August 2009 Core Group Meeting

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

August 18, 2009 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

Background (Paul's version):

Our second meeting revealed some dissatisfaction with the concept of dissatisfaction.  To explore that and its implications, we will look more deeply at the three texts originally suggested as background for the second meeting.  What is the significance of "against," as used by these three authors?  in their own contexts?  in general?  for our own work, individually and as a group? 

Susan Sontag. "Against Interpretation"  Against Interpretation and Other Essays.
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966: 4-14; rpted.

Paul Feyerabend,  Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
Verso, 1993; rpted.

Peter Stallybrass, Against Thinking. PMLA 2007: 1580-1587; rpted.

Both Sontag and Feyerabend wrote subsequent reflections on their original essays.  Excerpts that may be relevant to our discussion include

"had I understood better my time, that time ... would have made me more cautious ... We had entered, really entered the age of nihilism ... I suppose its not wrong that Against Interpretation is read now, or reread, as an influential pioneering document from a bygone era.  But that is not how I read it, or ... wish it to be read.  My hope is that its republication now ... could contribute to the quixotic task of shoring up the values out of which these essays and reviews were written.  The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed.  The values underlying those judgements did not." ... Susan Sontag, 1996, "Thirty Years Later," included in the Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux paperback edition of Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 2001.

"Many things have happened since I first published Against Method ... Freedom has increased but ... simple philosophies, whether of a dogmatic or a more liberal kind, have their limits ... I therefore again warn the reader that I don't have the intention of replacing "old and dogmatic principiles" by "new and more libertarian ones" ... I am neither a populist for whom an appeal to "the people" is the basis of all knowledge, nor a relativist for whom there are no "truths as such" but only truths" for this or that group and/or individual" ... Paul Feyerabend, 1992,  Preface to the Third Edition of Against Method, 1992 (Verso, 1993)

My main motive in writing the book was humanitarian, not intellectual.  I wanted to support people, not to "advance knowledge."  People all over the world have developed ways of surviving ... The stories they told and the activities they engaged in enriched their lives, protected them and gave them meaning.  The "progress of knowledge and civilization" ... destroyed these wonderful products of human ingenuity and compassion without a single glance in their direction.  Today, old traditions are being revived and people try again to adapt their lives to the ideas of their ancestors.  I have tried to show ... that science, properly understood, has no argument against such a procedure ... I am not against a science so understood.  Such a science is one of the most wonderful inventions of the human min.  But I am against ideologies that use the name of science for cultural murder." .... Paul Feyerabend, Introduction to the Chinese Edition, included in the Third Edition of Against Method

A meeting summary (Bharath's version)

We first talked about Feyeraband and what it was he was against. A distinction was made between the scientific method oppressing scientists whose work is not recognized and the method oppressing the general public because of a pervasive sense of the infallability of science. This lead to discussion of dichotomies and how they both help and hinder not being limited by method, interpretation and thought. They help it because the dichotomies provide pushing off points which generate creative tensions, and they hinder it when they suggest that the dichotomies are exhaustive and one has to just pick between them. This lead to thinking of how Daoism incorporates dichotomies and moves beyond them.

Next the issue came up of what it would be to practice “being against” in addition to thinking of it theoretically. An example was what if someone in the group did something out of the ordinary which he felt for some reason compelled to do, such as standing on the table and yelling profanities. What would happen to the group discussion then? Would the individual’s actions be incorporated into ongoing group interaction or seen as a move “outside of” and threatening to the group interaction? Could it be incorporated without courting chaos? Is not incorporating it equivalent to conceding to forces of normalization  or conformity?

These issues raised the topic of the extent to which academia normally thwarts explorations which cannot be easily categorized. Example: if at a colloquia, a person stood on the table and screamed, the person would be removed with no engagement with her. This led to the thought that perhaps it is like this in other domains as well: family, friends, sports, etc. In any group setting there are moves which members recognize as familiar and comforting, unfamiliar and comforting, familiar and uncomforting and unfamiliar and uncomforting. The idea was explored whether a group dynamic which becomes too focused on just the comforting becomes oppressive to some members and even to an individual’s own growth. This raised the questions: how can the familiar and the unfamiliar, the comforting and the uncomforting all be integrated into a group interaction? Do current academic patterns of discourse do a good job of such integration? Would new attempts at such integration constitute “a new erotics of conversation”? And would it constitute freedom in those conversations for all involved?

One example of such integration voiced by several people was juxtaposing the realm of academia with another realm normally kept separate from it, i.e. family, personal background, religion, etc. Each realm is a flux of tension and freedom, good and bad. Could each realm be challenged and strengthened by bringing it into creative conflict with another realm? Could standing for a third realm connected to both realms be both causing a rupture (creating trouble, being a nuance, being wayward) and creating new bonds (soothing old wounds, empathizing with the other, not restraining oneself)? And would the creation of a new realm mean the creation of new categories, questions and identities? What might such a process look like for the evolving systems group?


Continuing discussion (below)


Paul Grobstein's picture

againstnesses, external and internal

Lots of thoughts from our August meeting, and conversations below and elsewhere (cf recent relevant class conversations) that followed from it.  I'll try and synopsize some of what I've been thinking in our September meeting but a few ideas in anticipation of that ...

I'm very much intrigued by the movement from "against," in the sense of self versus other, to what seems to me an inquiry into the self and its potential againstnesses, as in family versus academic, religious/spiritual versus family versus academic, and so forth.  To put it differently, one can feel "torn" between alternatives both external and internal.  Importantly, the existence of internal and/or external differences does not by itself lead to the uncomfortable feeling of being "torn"; that requires as well an additional ingredient, a sense of a need to choose, to decide what to accept/reveal/embrace and hence what to deny/hide/destroy.

The parsing is important because my sense is that much of the discomfort over the idea of "againstness" itself derives from the presumption that it necessarily involves a choice between embracing and destroying.  An alternative is to treat differences, both internal and external, as generative opportunities, as the creative tensions from which emerge new possibilities.   One doesn't, in this case, choose between alternatives.  Instead one hybridizes them, generating new possibilities in the process, possibilities for which existing alternatives are the parents and so, in an importance sense, existing alternatives all live on in the progeny.  In these terms, "againstness" is not an invitation to destructive conflict but rather to .... an eros of creation?   Both internally and externally?

Several interesting things follow from this.  One is that inquiry should be directed simultaneously both internally and externally, and should treat difference as a virtue rather than a problem.  A second is that a reluctance to expose oneself to others may be as much a matter of mistrust of one's own internal againstnesses as it is of the potentially hostile responses of others.  And a third is that hostile responses (in oneself and others) may largely reflect, projected on others, one's discomfort with internal againstness.   To put it differently, "one-person liberation movements" may be an essential ingredient in any group liberation movement.    They can, of course, be either discouraged or encouraged by groups but, in the end, it is each person who has to decide how to deal with their own set of external and internal againstnesses, whether to value/share them or choose among/hide them.  There are all sorts of reasons to do the latter but my guess is that they are all arguments for limiting rather than expanding inquiry, for preserving one or another aspect of the status quo rather than evolving.

Perhaps an "eros of creation" requires an appreciation of "the lusciousness of other minds" and of our own as well? 


Anne Dalke's picture

against "one"

My Gender Studies students, who are working hard this semester on the limitations of language, have posed a relevant question: whether "a corporeal singularity should be what is reflected in our linguistic choices when **one’s** identity may not reflect that at all?"

Mark Lord's picture

representing identity

I find it is often more "accurate" to represent dramatic characters as a plurality of corporealities.

Mark Lord's picture

Against Opposition

(I started to work on this the day after we met. It's taken til now to draw to a --tentative -- close.)

At yesterday's meeting, I began to noodle in the direction of an articulation of the different manifestations of "against-ness" in the three essays we read. What struck me was that these three writers had markedly different ways of being "against" and I was interested in exploring their differing strategies rather than "boiling down" their "againstnesses" to the kinds of schematic templates we ended up considering. I want to try to do a little better here and be a little clearer (and more personal, for good or ill); what I want to do is to use my own intuition towards *opposing* what seemed to be a gathering consensus understanding of "againstness".

Beginning with a description of that intuitive process.

I want to share, at the launch of this, that the intuitive testing of oppositional impulses is a basic function of the way my mind encounters the world. No, not merely my mind. My being. (An anthropologist pal of mine claimed once that when creatures in the wild encounter something strange, the first two hypotheses they explore are "can I eat it?" and if the answer to that is no, they proceed to testing "Well then, can I mate with it?" In my world, when I encounter a new idea or even a new situation, my impulsive strategies run towards the ways in which I can test that thing by opposing it in a number of ways.

The first point I want to make is that my oppositional strategies are not monolithic. There are a wide range of "againstnesses" that I make use of. there are linguistic strategies, sensual strategies, politcal and spiritual resonances to be tested, etc. In our discussion, we settled on a diagram in which "against" was as subtle as an icepick through the forehead, but I want to argue that the diversity of againstnesses constitutes the essence (for me) of knowing.

If I can push against something and I can move it, then I know how strong it is. If I can tease it, and find the structure of a joke that I can make between it and me, then I can test out both its relative friendliness and the way (a way) that the New Thing reacts when it is caught up in the net of language. Through joking and teasing and pushing, I also begin to discover the place of the New Thing in relation to me. (I note in passing my childhood adoration of the character that Morey Amsterdam played on the Dick Van Dyke Show. There is a way of knowing through humor and the jokes that one can make about something can reveal much of it--and you.)

When we spoke of “againstness” in our meeting, I had the impression that, for some of you, the primary intuitive ways that you encounter new structures and new ideas are different. "Against" had the tenor, in our discussion, as risky, as only possible within a sacred trust-circle. And that the sorts of opposition I’m describing are perhaps foreign to some of you.

Perhaps I reveal too much of my own inner life if I say that the feeling of being “outside” a structure (whether it’s an academic structure, a civic structure, a domestic institution, or a cocktail party) comes quite naturally to me. There are some structures (Bryn Mawr College, for one) with which I have made my peace. But I never expect to feel fully embrace/enveloped/ contained/ at *one* with ANY structure.

Joseph Conrad wrote, “We live as we dream, alone” and I recall, when I was a junior in High School, inking that onto the toe of one of my sneakers so that it wouldn't slip my mind. I’ve grown out of the comfortable pose that my easy adolescent existentialism provided). And I’ve learned to live in relation to the structures that are necessary to facilitate the new (and relatively easier) easiness of my adult life.

But I still want to argue for againstness, and for the diversity of againstnesses, as a primary way (ways plural really) in which one can know oneself and a primary way (ways, again) to come to know the worlds around and within us.

When Sontag asks us to be “against” interpretation, she asks us to be “for” the primary sensual, psychic, spiritual and intellectual experiences that we can have when we experience a work of art DIRECTLY, as a thing in our field of engagement with the world. Apart from the preconceived, predigested, academic clap-trap with which a potentially potent object, text or experience, can be smothered. And I want to argue that the direct experience of the world is really not so dangerous after all, not (at least) for those of us dwelling in ivory towers. One of our roles as teachers, I hope, is to demonstrate to our students that it is possible to be exploring the world as we live and reporting an honest and complete accounting of our moments of living as we teach them and as we pursue our idiosyncratic philosophical inquiries.

Is there a real cost to us if we actually say what we think? If we politely disagree at faculty meetings? If we dress to teach in the same clothes we might wear to meet our friends for a drink? If we admit at gatherings of our professional associates that we have some questions about the basic assumptions that most of our peers make in their work? To me, having the freedom to do these things is what makes it worthwhile to be here, to be earning (as well you know) less than a lawyer. Or the manager of a McDonalds. Before you answer (for yourselves) consider what “real” means in “real cost” (for yourself).

Last crackpot observation of the morning (from me anyway): I wonder if we don’t make up groups for ourselves in order to comfort ourselves against the (authentic) experience of being alone. White. Straight. Man. We know that all of these categories are slippery. And my experience of each of these, even from the so-called comfortable side of the hegemony is fraught. I feel no strong social or spiritual bond with my fellow heterosexuals. None. Deep down, I think, we all recognize that we are our own personal sexual minorities, that we are necessarily one-person liberation movements that may or may not succeed in finding comfort and fulfillment in our lifetimes. Because no one else seeks comfort, connection, release, whatever it is that we find in our erotic lives, in quite the same way that we do.

That’s a terrifying and perhaps even a shaming thought.

But we can choose to live our loving lives, perhaps, in one of two ways. We can choose to associate ourselves with groups (who have worked out through their literature, their web sites, their rites, and their various “normalizing” procedures) which can institutionalize our desires. Or we can choose to explore the world, rather, as unlabeled entities, testing our perceived needs against a variety of pure experiences, through a diversity of againstnesses, caressing and groping our ways in the dark (or the light) towards the elusive, individuated, pleasure(s) that can we might find for ourselves, for our very own authentic selves, if we are willing to risk appearing to another as an individual.

Consider, for yourself, the variety of "againstnesses" that we experience, or might experience in our erotic lives in both the physical and psychic manifestations of our loving. In only this one manifestation of our being, there are so many ways in which we can perceive another, know the world, experience ourselves. In other, less private manifestations of our beings, in our faculty meetings and academic writing, there are as many ways to be "against", to test and to tease, to tickle and to provoke. (Etcetera.)

"Opposition" is neither frightening nor monolithic. "Against" is a category of knowing and being that contains multitudes. It can't be charted. Or not simply anyway.

Anne Dalke's picture


One of my students has just introduced me to a new language movement known as "e-prime," which aims to replace the English language verb form "to be" w/ phrases more descriptive of the fluidity of perception; see "Language is a Weapon" for an explanation of something we might check out collectively, in our search for words that might enable us to inhabit a variety of not-so-threatening againstnesses....

mlord's picture

"that depends on what the meaning of is is."

 This is interesting to me.

I am also reminded of Arthur Danto's suggestion, in THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE COMMONPLACE, that what defines a work of art is that we may speak of it using "is" in a special way, which he calls (I think) "the is of artistic identification." As philosophy, I think this is just a trick around the problem of defining. As an inquiry into language, it opens up the possibility that there are ways in which we use the verb "to be" that are not literal and not "boiling down".

A sentence like "I am a lesbian," as your student observes, is a choking, squashing categorizing, that tires to rob an individual of her particular complex experience. But a sentence like "I am a fountain" uses "is" in a different way, to propose a multitude of hypothetically literal (i.e, metaphoric) ways in which an individual might be a fountain; she might feel a flowing, a gushing forth, a nurturing, a connection to a metaphoric spring, etc.  When we use metaphors, we tease the literalizing impulse of language (we play *against* it) to force language to yield up insights other than the literal.

One of the aspects of Facebook that once appealed to me a great deal was that when I was prompted to say what I was "doing," the default text used to be "Mark Lord is ___" I took such pleasure in allowing myself to "be" so many things: the laundry, the first day of school, the anxieties of my children, the sensation of being in water. It was an invitation to consider myself as Danto says one can see (and discuss) art: on a plane that is different than the literal one. I could "be" so many things, things that would obviously be impossible, from the standpoint of the literal. But from the point of view of a playfully "against" use of language, "being" is an unstable state, it is provisional, and experimental. 


alesnick's picture

Does it have to be?

It's equally plausible that in using metaphor we echo/appreciate/make room for/extend the generative capacity/overflowingness of language.  I don't see that we have to be working against language to make it generative.  I wonder, too, if it's always or only the case that we dream alone -- aren't our dreams filled with images and soundings of other people, words, places, times, and things?  I don't think our choices are limited solely to group participation as the institutional legitimization of desire or independence. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

language and ambiguity

I very much agree we don't need to be "against language" to be generative.  What we do need to do is to resist the inclination to aspire to an ideal of language as "objective," intended to communicate as unambiguously as possible, and instead embrace language as a source of and pointer to the kind of ambiguity that opens new possibilities.   For more on "definition," see "classifying living things ... or anything else."


Paul Grobstein's picture

the multiplicy of isness

Intriguing intersection as well with a biology senior seminar course conversation on "classification".  A perhaps relevant thought of mine there

An electron is an electron is an electron.  But a rose ... differs from all other roses.  And a Montague or a human or an elephant or an E. coli differs from all other instantiations of those things.  Yes, there are similarities but in focusing on those we obscure the differences.  Maybe the most important thing to teach about biology is the importance not only of similarities but also of differences?

I like very much the notion of "being" as "an unstable state ... provisional, and experimental."   And would be happen to sign on to a program to give more emphasis to the "fluidity of perception" not only in language but in human cultural constructs generally.   

Paul Grobstein's picture

sharing againstnesses

I'm with Mark.  Or, perhaps more aptly, sharing againstness with Mark has always been/continues to be consistently one of the most generative and satisfying experiences of my life.  More on "one-person liberation movements" and their relation to communities (the Evolving Systems group among them) to come. 

Bharath Vallabha's picture

two senses of personal and academic

I too share a strong sense of keeping the personal and the academic separate. I think this separation is consistent with the third realm that came up in the meeting. This is because it seems to me that there are two senses of personal and two senses of academic at play:

  • intimate-personal: my family and friends, hobbies, vacations, biographical details, etc.
  • intellectual-personal: how intellectual ideas practically matter to me, how they excite, puzzle, challenge me, etc. in my life.


  • emotional-academic: academic ideas and interactions which are emotionally sensitive for me.
  • abstract-academic: academic ideas and habits which I feel at ease with and can engage without any emotional unclarity or confusion.

For me, I am happy to keep the intimate-personal and the abstract-academic completely separate. I don’t seek personal salvation and happiness through academia or my job, and there are aspects of academia I enjoy or try to enjoy just for its own sake without connecting it to me personally (following arguments, reading books, some forms of writing, etc.).

I also spend a great deal of my energies on the intellectual-personal and the emotional-academic. That is, I like thinking intellectually about my personal life, and I like being emotional about my academic life. And I like doing both even though they might not result in any practical products; that is, even if I can’t talk to most of my family about my reflections or if I can’t turn them into something academically useful like publications. Normally being too reflective with my family seems to undercut the relations which I value having with them, and likewise being too emotional in academia seems to undercut the relations with colleagues whom I value. So I keep my family reflections and my academic emotions mostly to myself. I used to resent this, but somehow now I don’t mind so much.

Perhaps the third realm involves the intellectual-personal and the emotional-academic. It wouldn’t involve the normal family or academic identities, but might involve the fuzzy identities we have which don’t fit into the traditional family or academic realms. In this way the third realm can reinforce the separation of family and academia because in it the traditional family and academic roles are not being merged; rather they are both being bracketed and set aside so that other identities which are normally submerged can surface and be more clearly articulated. Maybe this would be a kind of “thinking that feels and feeling that thinks” that can be shared over activites such as Chinese tea ceremonies.

alesnick's picture

differences or splittings?

Greetings --

I am intrigued by these recent posts, especially in relation to trying to prepare (literally and I'll say spiritually) for the coming semester.  I don't find it possible to separate my personal and professional lives very fully or very often . . . and it doesn't feel natural for me to think about doing things for their own sake. What am I missing?  Of course I understand issues of boundaries, discretion, degree, but I'm of the mind that everything living organisms do is both invested and open-ended, often unconsciously so, and thus I don't feel as if, as a living being who is unfinished, flawed (like all others), and both connected to and apart from all others, I know what it would mean to seek personal salvation in any one activity or relationship.  I guess I am saying that when it comes to integrating the personal, the political, and the professional, I don't think it's possible to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  To integrate them is to try to enlarge contexts of life so as to facilitate their integration/their learning from one another -- not to split, throw out, or divide one from another. 

bolshin's picture

"Personal vs. Public" + The Question of Indentity

I like Anne's comments on the the idea of "personal experience". I think this, and the question of identities (e.g., "Oakland" vs. "academic", etc.), is an interesting one that needs to be explored. This is an old philosophical puzzle, too: is the personality a peach or an onion? That is, is there a "core", or just layers with nothing once those layers are peeled away.

Also, not to steal Bharath's idea, but hadn't I suggested a bit of "jumping on the table" before, insofar as doing something less in discussion and more in action / field trip? I suggested to Paul after the last meeting a group Chinese dinner, for example.

I think the group is stumbling into some good stuff here: serious questions about identity, expectations, etc. I'd also like to re-examine Bharath's quasi-Venn diagram next time. Like Anne (?), perhaps, I got some issues with the public/private overlap. As Paul knows, I always keep those VERY separate, for a variety of reasons.

Anne Dalke's picture

"Against Personal Testimony"

I apologize for leaving the discussion yesterday, just as things were getting hot. The new expansion of my life involves the restriction of catching trains that (sometimes) leave on time. Anyhow, if I had stayed, I might have said something along these lines...

I appreciate the challenge that we had spent most of our time talking conventionally, as academics do, not taking the risk of actually
practicing "against." That, as per Sontag's critique, we were using interpretation to protect ourselves, refusing to engage in an "erotics of conversation."

I would add only that what feels like "outside" to some of us  feels like "inside" to @ least one of us (me).

I am very familiar with the convention of "turning to the text," when the conversation in a classroom gets too heated, or too personal; I've even been known to use that trick myself on occasion. But when I asked that we "focus on the texts" this time 'round, I really had something else in mind:  not an avoidance of our "real," "free" selves (I don't think I know what those terms mean*), but an invitation to explore, and re-shape, them together, via a shared text, a shared experience.

(*Is the self who grew up in Oakland more "real" or "free" than the one re-shaped by experiences @ Bryn Mawr? Is what is real-est what comes first? And freedom the expression of that first-ness? I don't think so, but I thought that's what I heard in the conversation....)

While we're doing personal testimony: I grew up in a rural area where the authority of personal testimony was often used, not to open up, but rather to halt conversation (Linda Kauffman has written about this, in yet another good essay w/ "against" in the title; hers is called, predictably, "Against Personal Testimony"). Given that background, for me a very important aspect of academia has been its insistence on a larger frame than that provided by personal experience, on testing the authority of what one knows experientially against what others have to say....

Which is to say, I see the inbetween space Bharath sketched out as one that draws on both the personal and the academic, on a kind of thinking that feels, a sort feeling that thinks...

but let's not throw out the baby w/ the bath water!

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