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Evolving Systems: July 2009 Core Group Meeting

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

July 7, 2009 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

Background (Paul's version):

In our first meeting, we began to develop some common ground for our future work in terms of shared dissatisfactions with academic discourse as it is commonly practiced in a wide variety of disciplines.  Dissatisfactions along these lines are neither unique to us, nor specific to this particular point in history.  In this meeting, we will continue a process of trying to evolve promising new directions of inquiry from existing dissatisfactions, adding to our own some expressions two older and one more recent published ones.

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.

Are there common patterns in the dissatisfactions and suggestions for ways to move beyond them, ones that might apply not only to particular disciplines but to inquiry in general?  to life in general?   

A meeting summary (by Hank Glassman; see forum below for additional stories):

[Disclaimer: This is a most personalistic and subjective gathering up of impressions and is not meant to be definitive or (even!) critical in any way.]

Today we met from 4:00 until 5:30 to inaugurate our discussions on “Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics” in an interdisciplinary setting in a warmish summer biology lounge that will be delightful in October. The conversation did not proceed according to anyone’s imagined course, I am sure, but was nevertheless productive in key ways. I will below describe the trajectory things took and then will add my personal ‘take’ and maybe some desiderata. At the same time, I certainly do not intend to express any dissatisfaction with the process as it is unfolding. It is still so early to tell and I, for one, found today quite stimulating and useful as a starting point.

So, now for my description. We began with an introduction to the group and to the website. It is the first time we have met as a group, and a couple of us had to be reminded to sign in when we post and so on. It seems that the website and postings there will be an important part of the group’s activities. However, the website also extends in many directions beyond this group through Serendip (and also through the through the whims of us the participants), so it will be unlikely that any one person will be able to read all associated posts. More on this below.

One of our leaders mentioned (off handedly, by way of introduction) that we had come together out of a shared feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction at the inadequacies of current models of academic practice and discourse. This quickly provoked several voices of dissent (an unexpected reaction, I’d say), and led into our discussion for the rest of the session. Some of us (about half?) are quite happy, thank you very much, with what we do and how we do it, even if we may be interested in an excursion or two.

This discussion was wide ranging, but to state the most basic moves as I see them . . . There was a statement that productive change is the fruit of dissatisfaction and that this feeling that things should be better or different is at the core of intellectual (and personal?) development. This was countered with the notion that opportunity could also act as a catalyst toward change – or curiosity could, if there was no special opportunity but no real dissatisfaction either – this led to a discussion of the idea of a motivating “gap” between a present, manifest, self or condition-of-being and a future more ideal (“less wrong”) situation, self, or state.

From there, some entertained the idea that this might be a question of cultural style or of underlying tendencies in philosophical/metaphysical/phenomenological orientation. (Fairly out of my depth here, and so possibly off.) This led to the positing of two kinds of culture or approaches to life – these were called “provisional” and “directed” and/or “immediate vs. deliberative.”  These sorts of distinctions, when applied in our imaginations to real people or actual situations usefully raised some eyebrows and hackles. Are there really different sorts of people in the world? Are some curved lines and some straight? Do some of us, as peoples, struggle with the future, while some live in the present and feel only situational, not existential, dissatisfaction? I think that I have this position somewhat wrong, but would be very open to exploring it more and clarifying my take on it. It brought up some interesting questions surrounding images of time, traditional cultures (read as “pre-axial age” or “caveman” or “intact” or “autochthonous”??) and/or eastern philosophies. [The former, I am intrigued by, if nervous about, the latter, I am more allergic to, for reasons I’d be happy to articulate further.] It was a stimulating conversation, for me at least, and bodes well for our future. Below, I will make some observations as to how I might like to see these sessions develop in the future, but that should not lead one to think that I was unhappy with the way things went today or that I see myself as our “decider.”

I think that the foregoing pretty-much covers the way things played out and developed. Others will no doubt have noticed other things. Please do share these. What follows is (again) based on my own perspective and should not be seen as prescriptive. So here goes.

I did notice some of the traits of an interdisciplinary foray that Bharath entertains here:
If this (“description” in the above page) did not totally happen today, it did certainly happen a little. Regardless of diagnosis, we may want to address this. After all, we did have three fascinating writings, from over a four decade swath, each with the provocative “against” brandished in each title. [Following Anne’s and Bharath’s suggestions, might not a discussion of the meaning and function of this odd word in academic titles be another good starting place? Maybe in August?) Today, we did not get to the articles at all, really. And still, we did some very good work, I think. Defining what we are doing seems essential, so today was a key part of that process. Our conversation may be fragmented if we pursue all the many leads presented as we develop the website and our live conversations, but this is not necessarily a negative. (For me personally, I think it might be useful to draw a tighter circle in restricting the topic – pace Feyerabend! At the same time, I would be interested to hear the opinions of others.)

So, I hope that I have done us justice and described the afternoon with reasonable accuracy. I enjoyed it and look forward to more of this fruitful exchange, both here in the blog-non-blog world and when we meet again in August.


bolshin's picture

More on Academia...

To the Group (and Other Interested Readers):

Sorry for my recent absence in writing here. As I noted to Paul, I had a broken hand (cycling accident), and typing with one hand is, well, a pain! It was very interesting to read the wide-ranging comments above. I have to say here, though, something, again, about academia. I am indeed one of those who feels -- how shall I say? -- malcontent with academia, at least in my experience with it. I just came back from Toronto (where I went to grad school), visiting a friend there. He got a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies, is a wonderful Latinist, a great teacher, smart, a good researcher -- and has never found an academic position. Just consider how many people out there are in this same situation; that, to me, indicates that something is wrong in academia. The "market" is not working. More to the point of our recent group discussions -- I still believe that it's not just that we don't have cross-disciplinarity, it's that we are not even thinking about what our university-age audience NEEDS, what the future NEEDS. WHAT should we be teaching? Is the entire structure of the university sensible? I again think that we need to think about the "META", really radical change. If we don't, who will? The administrators? Policy-makers?

More later...

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving systems: July to August (PG)

Rich conversations at our July meeting, and since.  See below as well as Reflections on openness and structure in education, Truth and power in education, The Taoist story teller and culture, Evolving Systems and Education, Reflections on openness and structure in education, From homes and perches to the cosmos, and back again, and Loopiness: conflict, humanness, and the universe.  Much of this draws from our July discussions of how to most effectively work together and, in turn, contributes to those discussions by considering similar issues in a different context, that of the classroom and educational practice.

Let me start with my own reflections with the meeting itself, and move forward/outward from there.  Anne says of the meeting and with reference to me, "we insistently refused him the role of group storyteller, and very quickly began to stand aside from his narrative of our sharing a "dissatisfaction with academic discourse."   Yep, I noticed that too.  And think both parts are interesting/worth glossing a bit.

Individual and group story telling

In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevksy suggests that "the whole work of [humans] seems to consist in nothing but proving to [themselves] that [they are humans] and not piano-key[s]."  One of the problems of "group stories" (whoever the teller) is that they frequently feel constraining to individuals.  People in general (and individuals in this group in particular?) are more comfortable being "authors of our own stories" as opposed to being "characters in others." 

On the flip side, group stories can serve useful functions.  In some contexts (such as disciplines) they facilitate joint work on a common problem, making it possible for groups to achieve things that individuals would find difficult or impossible to achieve alone.  In other contexts, they can serve productively as a "base story," a common take off point from which there can be created both new individual stories and new group stories.

There is no necessary conflict between this and the wish to avoid being a piano-key as long as one bears in mind the distinction between an individual story and a group story.  One need not think of either as a replacement for the other.  One can instead appreciate differences between them and use those differences as the grist for further evolution of both (see Group mentality and group stories).  That's not always easy to do (cf Wishes/thoughts/stories/needs for change) but its probably a skill worth cultivating.

With that said, there remains the question of whether I inappropriately claimed the mantle of "group story teller," and the more general questions of whether there is/should be a "group story teller" and, if so, who serves  that function and by what authority.  Barack Obama, in a recent press conference, said "In my choice of words I unfortunately gave an impression ..." and "I could have calibrated those words differently.".  Me too.  I didn't actually mean what many people heard, apologize for my contribution to any misunderstanding, will clarify a bit below,  and will be more careful about this in the future.  I do think though that for any effective group inquiry a "group story teller" function is necessary.  I've written about this elsewhere in the context of a comparison between brain architecture and social organization, where I argue that generative individual and social cohesion both depend on a "fuschia dot" (see Figure 1 of the paper).  An important difference between brain architecture and social organization is that in the latter case the fuschia dot or group story teller function needn't always be fulfilled by one particular fixed element in an interacting system of elements.  It can, and should, move freely among as many individuals as are willing to take on that role.  By the authority that derives from that satisfaction of individuals in continually shaping both individual and group stories.

"a dissatisfaction with academic discourse"?

I don't think I actually misread an emerging consensus from our starting points and our first meeting, however poorly (and perhaps prematurely) I might have described it.  Regardless, the suggested "group story" clearly served a useful "base story' function, opening up a whole series of questions and revisions for further consideration.  Let me try and be clearer about what I actually meant and see to what extent that and the conversation it opened up might move us toward a revised group story and in turn in promising directions for further revisions of both group and individual stories.

I don't have the negative associations with "dissatisfaction" that (I now understand) other people do (this may well be related to my also making less of a distinction than many other people between perch and home,  personal and public, and action and message).  For me, to be dissatisfied with something is not to feel "angst," nor to assert that such a thing has no value, nor to "reject" it.  It is rather to notice that there are ways it might be made "less wrong."  I work from the presumption that there is no such thing as "perfection" and so to be dissatisfied with something is not to mark it as distinctively unworthy but rather to notice things about it that one feels some inclination to change. 

In these terms, I regard my own "disatisfactions with academic discourse as it is currently practiced in a wide variety of disciplines" not as an expression of angst nor a blanket condemnation of academia but rather as a creative engagement with academia, a contribution, reflecting my individual story, to a group story that I presume is generally recognized to be continually revisable.  It was in this context that I heard/read peoples' starting positions and our first meeting discussions, and still do.  I wouldn't trade my life as an academic for any other life I know of, but yes, there are things about it that I would like to see changed and will try and contribute to changing.  Among them are many of the specifics that were described by others, including a wish to have an arena that isn't structured by the group stories of disciplines.  I am not opposed to disciplines.  I believe they serve a valuable function, but think the academy needs as well some structures that not only permit but encourage wider exchanges and perspectives as well (see Exploring Interdisciplinarity   and Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond).   Just as one can contribute to, and benefit from,  different individual and group stories, so can one contribute to, and benefit from, several different group stories.  I don't see my engagement in transdisciplinarity as oppositional to my disciplinary engagement but rather as a way of expanding both, and my own still different individual story as well.

And on ...

Does all of this bring us any closer to a shared group story? some of us, in different groups, to several different group stories?  Whether it does or not, it certainly opens some new terrain for exploration in connection with my own story, terrain I'd be happy to explore with any one else interested ....

Alice Lesnick's picture

dissatisfaction with or marking self

Paul writes (above):
"I work from the presumption that there is no such thing as "perfection" and so to be dissatisfied with something is not to mark it as distinctively unworthy but rather to notice things about it that one feels some inclination to change."

What about when to be dissatisfied with something is to mark myself as unworthy? Or when to note another person's dissatisfaction is to mark him as unworthy? I'm not sure if this is covered by the term "angst" in the text above, but I think it still needs bringing forward. In many symbolic economies and performances of power, to manifest dissatisfaction is to be one-down, not to belong in the center, or at the top. Ben's story of his talented, able friend not getting a job could be read in these terms. I don't want to read in this way, but there it is.

And: what about when, apart from power considerations, the dissatisfaction ought to turn inward, the things needing to be changed are within?

bolshin's picture

To the Group: Paul's Comments and Ideas for Discussion

To the Group:

In Paul’s posting (Evolving systems: July to August (PG), Monday, 08/10/2009 - 4:19pm), he ended with a series of bullet-points, summing up some recent questions in our group’s discussions.  Since I’ve been remiss in writing recently (again, largely due to broken hand), I will try to make up for that here with some comments on some of those bullet-points, just to add to the discussion...

1. Paul noted: * Does productive change always depend on dissatisfaction?  "What about opportunity? Harmonic association? Aspiration?"

As I recall, in our July group meeting, we looked at this question through the framework of academia. But what about art? Art would seem to support the idea that things like “harmonic association” (nice term!) drive productive change in human beings. Look at Kandinsky’s book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”... As for “aspiration”, well, that’s Plato’s whole bag, no? I think that Plato would, in fact, reject the idea of “productive change always depending on dissatisfaction”; the Greeks had a model more based on a “aspiration”, the term Paul uses above. I would further argue that the idea of “productive change always depending on dissatisfaction” is really an artifact of modernity. In Existentialism, it’s all about that dissatisfaction -- you can see it in Kafka, and then right on through Satre, etc. While probably the most dissatisfied and irritable member of our group (!), I would also argue that this model -- of dissatisfaction driving change -- is very corrosive. I teach Existentialism, and this is something I’ve noticed over the past several years. People like Paul Tillich try to paste over this corrosive quality in Existentialism, but it’s there...

2. Paul noted: * How useful is the distinction between "provisional/immediate" and "directed/deliberative"? For individuals?  For cultures?  Can it be made sense of in terms of the brain? 

As we noted to the group, Paul and I are working (I hope he’s working on it!) on a series of papers on this topic; perhaps we could post a passage or two from these papers on this for clarification? I’ll let Paul decide... Regardless, this is an interesting question. Since I am one of the co-writers of these papers, I have a (reasonably) set viewpoint on the question. But I am open to discussion... As I recall, in our last group meeting, my comments on this topic were a bit misunderstood, insofar as (as Paul knows) my views on this subject come less from academic investigation and more from on-the-ground experience with other cultures. I think the distinction between "provisional/immediate" and "directed/deliberative" is very useful for everything from geopolitics to marriage... in my experience, of course.

3. Paul noted: * "Can thinking and acting happen independently of commitments and power structures.  I think the answer is no."  

I would love to see this topic discussed in our next (August) meeting...

4. Paul noted: * Can all, or any, of this help to better understand (make less wrong stories about) physics, geology, biology, the brain, interpersonal relations, history, art, culture, philosophy  ... form, meaning, and aesthetics? Understanding itself? 

I also think this idea of “stories” is worth discussing. It’s a favorite idea of Paul’s, and I have been intrigued by it, but let’s either critique it or see if we can indeed answer question 4 above with the “stories” idea. From my perspective (and note that that very phrase implies that I have my own story-construction), the answer is “yes”. Of course, I also think that the story our society has written already is a deeply wrong one. I gave Paul some time ago a passage from a play called Robert Anton Wilson’s entertaining play, “Wilhelm Reich in Hell” -- we are using it in our paper, in fact. It presents the same idea -- that we need a healthier story. We need a “less wrong” story about interpersonal relations, etc., certainly, and that is a long and complex discussion we can have. To be on safer ground for now (I don’t want to talk about personal interests!), I will make a quick comment about physics, which Paul includes in his list above. Physics is written on the basis of a very particular story -- one which could be quite different. As I’ve argued to Paul, our “story” in physics, if one reflects, is entirely a spatio-temporal one, which means that it has an inherent bias. It is a story which uses hierarchies, both in space and time -- big and small, non-quantum and quantum, past and future, inner and outer. What kind of physics might we articulate if we rejected such a spatio-temporal story framework?

Anne Dalke's picture

differing differences..and indifference?

I am listening in on this conversation from New Brunswick, where I am (also)  vacationing, where today I visited the very striking natural sandstone formations known as the "Hopewell Flowerpots"--and learned something, Arlo! about the geological processes that continue to shape them: how the ocean floor once rose up, to create mountains, how the water and wind then sculpted those formations...continually overturning the divisions between land, water, air, as each element works to remake the other.


Looking out, it's actually sometimes hard for me to tell whether I am seeing land or water or air, a confusion that seems to me, today, to be less optical illusion than evocative representation of nature's ongoing erasure of distinction, an erasure that was very much on my mind and retinas when I came across  Mark's posting. So now I want to lay alongside his striking observation that we neglect "different differences" my current strongly-felt sense of nature's indifference...

to such differences. The natural forces @ work here, in the maritime provinces, are very powerful ones, and they seem in opposition to all the constructions that humans continually build, and as continually try to maintain. But of course they are not really "opposed" to us and not working "against" us...we are the ones who create those oppositions.

Betwixt and between trying to make sense of such sights, I am also reading local authors, and am deep now into Helen Nearing's Loving and Leaving the Good Life. She writes after the death of her husband, the radical economist and activist Scott Nearing, and makes it seem a very small stretch when she quotes Gandhi: "sorrow over separation is perhaps the greatest delusion. To realize that it is a delusion is to become free. We love friends for the substance we recognize in them and yet deplore the destruction of the insubstantial that covers the substance for the time being. There is no death, no separation for the substance."

Death as a human construction....put that one in your pipe and smoke it along w/ me, along with Nearing's sense of a universe "too magnificent" to "concern itself overmuch with personalities," her invitation to "live in the entirety rather than in our own puny selves."

More later, perhaps, on her attempts, and "mine"? to live life without the "I," with the ego muted...

Paul Grobstein's picture

An indifferent cosmos and its advantages

Thanks for this.  I too have been thinking recently about "nature's indifference" and the invitation to "live in the entirety rather than in our own puny selves."  A quick trip to Arizona for the Metanexus meeting contributed to this, but the incentive for my thinking was less an experience of the grandness of the non-human world and more one of trying to understand why humans seem to want find things there that reflect the human world.  For more along these lines, see The Scale of Humanness and the Thomas L. Friedman quote (and my comments on it) here.  "Death as a human construction" I am happy to put in my pipe and smoke along with you.  And perhaps Truth, Reality, and God (among other things) as well?  See The Taoist Story Teller and Culture.

The upshot of the story is not to demean humanity nor to trivialize human feelings but rather to suggest that a richer appreciation of our relation to a much larger cosmos largely indifferent to our concerns frees us to play a more creative role in that cosmos and in our own lives as well.  And perhaps that the "ego muted" is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing that the stories we create of the cosmos have tended to be largely stories of the cosmos in our own image.  Being more able to let the cosmos talk to us in its own terms helps free us from ourselves?  An interesting implication in the early stages of an exploration of the emergence of form, meaning, and esthetics?

alesnick's picture


When the cosmos talks to us in its own terms, what does it say? 

Mark Lord's picture

This is a great koan. But,

This is a great koan. But, like many koans, it's a seductive meditation because it's predicated on the impossible. Or so I think.

The cosmos is silent. Not silent the way that we can be, if we choose, that is, silent in relation to another (speaking) state. That which we call the cosmos, when we speak, has no language. We flatter ourselves by describing it and parsing it in our words, but it has no need of that game, no interest in it, no "understanding". We flatter ourselves (again) by pitying those without "understanding" and we can romanticize Nature and ascribe to her (her!) all kinds of reasons for her silence, characteristics, motives, traits...even a kind of knowing. Perhaps because, compared to us, she (she!) is so big where we are so small, so nurturing where we are cruel, and so cruel, it seems to us, where we are so "human".

All of this describing the natural world in words is a charlatan's game -- if we pretend that the koan has an *answer*. Whatever we want to name it, the cosmos, the world, Nature, the universe, reality, "it all", we need to recall that names themselves are merely for our convenience and for our (false) comfort. As Wittgenstein might have said, that which *is*, apart from our language, passes over us in silence.

There are, I think, rare and wondrous moments in which we can feel ourselves at one with this silence, and we are then, maybe, in the cosmos itself, unencumbered and unsupported by the language we use to separate ourselves from the silence.

Paul Grobstein's picture

humanity and the cosmos: silence and chatter

"Of that which we cannot speak we must remain silent" ... Wittgenstein

"The answer to the question 'What is the way the world is? What are the ways the world is?' is not a shush, but a chatter." ... Nelson Goodman

Yes, "rare and wondrous moments when we can feel ourselves at one with this silence" are to be valued as the closest we can get to "hearing" the cosmos at any given time.  But I wouldn't advise just waiting around for them.  They depend on hearing the chatter of art, science, day to day life, and on chattering onself.   See Reality: that of which we cannot speak? and  below ("If the cosmos could talk ...").

Paul Grobstein's picture

If the cosmos could talk ....

Notice that I am bigger and stranger than anything you have yet imagined based on your experiences to date.   And the more you experience and imagine, the bigger and stranger I will get.  

Anne Dalke's picture

"Knowledge is hot water on wool"

I'm lost right now in a wierd strange novel, Mark Danielewski's 2000 House of Leaves. The owners first realize that the inside dimensions of their house exceed the outside ones; then they begin discovering new closets, new rooms, new halls, new staircases...that @ first seem limitless, but later seem to be changing size unpredictably. Or perhaps predictably, in response to their expectations. 

 From meta-commentary on the action, pp. 165-167:
...some critics believe the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it...that the extraordinary absence of sensory information forces the individual to manufacture his or her own data...the house [is] 'a solipsistic heightener....the house, the halls, and the rooms all become the self-collapsing, expanding, tilting, closing, but always in perfect relation to the mental state of the individual'....The epistemology of the house remains entirely commensurate with its size...Knowledge of the terrain on a second visit dramatically contracts this sense of distance...knowledge is hot water on wool. It shrinks time and space. (Admittedly there is the matter where boredom, due to repetition, stretches time and space....)


So: the big strangeness of the universe might also be said to be responsive to our expectations of what it is/isn't. It may alter (certainly our perception of it alters) in response to what we want and fear. And it may actually shrink, in response to our experience.

It may also alter the way we write about our experiences, as Danielewski allows it to do (these are images of two of his pages )

--and as I keep suggesting we might: creating products less constrained by print conventions than academic essays have been in the past....

Bharath Vallabha's picture

content and form

I am for the modes of communication which Alice and Anne are suggesting in different ways. If the group wants to pursue these modes of being together (exploring disappointment, expressing ourselves more evocatively, etc.) and see where we go in just being like that together, I am ok with that.

If we do that, I think we should be aware that we are purposely not going down a content driven path. Here is what I mean.

The appeal of Sontag and Feyeraband, as I see it, is that they are not advocating a general way of being in the world. Rather, they are focused on very specific topics: art for Sontag and science for Feyeraband. The depth of their essays comes (as I see it) from the fact that they give us novel ways of going on in engaging with art or doing science. The focus on these particular topics gives depth and power to their vision.

Suppose one read Sontag and said, “well, I won’t use interpretation anymore at all in life”, that doesn’t make sense. For one wants to know: interpretation in what context? For what purpose? Without specifying these things, it is unclear what one is against. Similarly, if one read Feyeraband and give up on method altogether, that doesn’t make sense. I can agree completely with Feyeraband about science and still think that there is a best method or methods for learning the piano, cooking, raising children and so on. This is a real difference with the Stallybrass paper, which was all about form and not any particular topic.

So here are two options for proceeding:

  • the content approach (a la Sontag and Feyeraband): there is some topic or topics which we will consider, but we will not pursue it in a certain traditional way, but in a different way. So if someone asks us what we are doing, we would say, “well, we are considering X topic not in Y way but in Z way.”
  • the form approach (a la Stallybrass): we will not act in certain traditional ways, but will act in such and such a different way. So if someone asks us what we are doing, we would say, “well, instead of being C way which is the norm for academics, we are being D way and seeing what will happen.”

Whichever approach we decide to take in the group, it seems to me that we shouldn’t mix together the two approachs.

As I say, I am happy with either approach. Though I would like to give a short argument for the content approach. The form approach might be too much like what I have elsewhere called the infinite stories model. If we follow the form approach and just try to be open to each other without focusing on any particular topic, what will bring us together enough to think critically about where the conversation is going? A real possibility is that the form approach might lead to a brittleness or fragility in the group where any thing passes because no one wants to seem like they are doing the “traditional” way of thinking and not allowing new modes of expression to arise. One way to avoid this would be think together about some topic and think about what view is true; and “true” here is not a buzz word for just the traditional way of thinking and is compatible with being open to any perspective one might bring to the conversation.

If the content approach seems appealing, one way for the group to proceed is to think about what topics or questions we would like to focus on to begin with. I wonder if others think that to follow the content approach is to already be too traditional in a bad way. I think not, though I am open to understanding alternative views.

Anne Dalke's picture

dwelling in disappointment and possibility


Emily Dickinson wrote once that she dwelt "in Possibility--a fairer House than Prose." FOR YEARS (til quite recently, when Alice corrected me), I have been telling folks that, like Dickinson, "I dwell in Disappointment."

I think that I have just been hoisted on my own petard. The OED says that "disappoint," which comes to English from French, combines "dis-" with "appoint" (from  à point--to the point, to bring matters to a point; to agree, arrange, settle).  So to "dis"-appoint (or to be disappointed) is to refuse to come to the point, to go in different directions, "apart, abroad, away." To dwell in disappointment, then, might mean to be willing to go off point, to have an open mind. Not to be so goal-directed.

Not a bad goal for me....

an opening, as Alice says, into possibility, into the sort of joyfulness and playfulness that might come from being free of the fear of disappointment, from the confidence that disappointment won’t kill.

Okay, so I WAS a little disappointed that our first meeting didn't attend to the three texts we'd read, because I think all of them--Sontag in her refusal of interpretation, as shielding us from the full-frontal assault of art; Feyerabend, in his refusal of methodology, as limiting the scope of what science might see; and Stallybrass, in his rather different refusal of originality, as neglecting the cultural commons in which we all work--were offering us possibilities for how we--this rag-tag gathering of very different sorts of minds and hearts, investments and interests--might move collaboratively together toward...

who knows what?

Since we met, my own adjacent reading has led me from William James to those who learned from him. I've been spending some time this week w/ Gertrude Stein (who took seven courses from him @ Harvard), and I'm figuring out that--having studied w/ James how the mind makes associations (and can learn, with experience, to alter them)--she put his science into practice in her art, writing words and paragraphs that seem @ first to be "non-sense," or which make their sense through sound rather than through habitual meanings. She thereby unsettles our usual modes of using words, our unthinkingness about how we make meaning, and invites us into alternative interpretations (I wonder what Mark, who recently staged one of her plays, thinks of this idea?).

Anyhow, I have a sense that what we are doing, collectively, is something quite Stein-ian: trying to avoid reiterating old habits, trying to escape some closed systems (of method, of interpretation, of thought), trying to search for a way to enact a conversation that might be more interactive, and therefore inevitably more unpredictable, in its outcomes. Placing ourselves in conversation w/ representations made by others of who we are (as Stein, photographed here by Man Ray, adjacent to Picasso's portrait of who she was, seeming to call her flesh-and-blood self into account...)


Mark Lord's picture

Putting a toe in.

Having missed the meeting owing to prior obligation, I'm a little reluctant to dive in here. But Anne, I'm delighted to say that I do agree with your reading of the James-Stein connection, which you make much more subtly (and correctly) than folks who have published on it (alas). Those scholars see that Stein was engaged in "automatic writing" experiments with James and apply that same appellation ("automatic writing") to write off Stein's work as a parlor game of consciousness streaming. I think Anne has it right when she describes Stein learning from those experiments and applying techniques or strategies of writing and meaning creation to her (quite self-conscious) art.

I have spent time, too, in the castle of disappointment and want to mention that I think what we actually mean when we use the word is somewhat different than what the OED's notes on its origin suggest. (Surprise.) Where the OED describes a schematic "not coming to the point," which seems value neutral, what we mostly mean when we speak of being disappointed is not that a situation has not come to a "point," and end; rather we mean that the situation has come to a point and it has come to a bad end, in our judgements. Thus we may speak of being disappointed in the results of an election, or with a souflee, or with a movie we had hoped to enjoy.

Where we (and I use "we" in the grand style of the academy to pretend that I don't mean "i") run afoul of the OED, we speak of being "disappointed" by things that have *not* come to an end, which are, in fact, still dwelling in their own possibility, even if our own essentially sour outlook will not admit the possibility of a good outcome. Or even just an outcome that is different than the ones we project into the future. When we are disappointed in our children, marriages, bodies, governments, finances, professional lives, even in our swimming, we ought to (I ought to) ask ourselves, "Is it *really* over? Has that aspect of my life come to its *point*?" If we answer yes, then we should move on, expect no different, and accept the situation. If our answer is no, then we may still, if we dare, take up arms against a sea of troubles and etcetera.

In my middle age, I am feeling myself wanting to move out of the castle of disappointment, precisely because its thick walls give me permission to feel a peevish resentment for the way things are going instead of either mustering the actual (and difficult) courage to achieve *resignation* in the face of failure *or* to get going on achieving change. In cases where the jury is still out, the difference between our feeling of dwelling in disappointment and in possibility is simply a difference in attitude ( simple in a schematic way, not simple in terms of living).

Naturally, as Stein would say, there is a good deal always to be disappointed in, and I know that I feel in myself, simultaneously, dwelling in the possibility of Dickinson, the disappointment of real sorrow for the ends that some things have come to, *and* the peevish resentment of disappointment for the way things seem to be going in situations where I doubt that I will or can intercede to change them. I also feel in myself many other kinds of "dwelling" that do not fit into this simple distinction. And there are feelings that do not flow from the metaphor of "dwelling". *And* there are many things that cannot adequately or accurately be described as "feelings." I contain, as Whitman tells us, multitudes. But I am also, I tell him back, sometimes a container and sometimes not a container.

The big point (one of the big points) that I take from Stein is that there are not a limited number of kinds of difference. The distinctions that we make between two kinds of *anything* focus our attention on that separation as if there were not an infinite number of other ways of dividing the same thing. The danger is that one way of making a distinction begins to seem to us as if it is the whole game. We can play at form and content, or conservative and liberal, or directed/reacting and those distinctions may sometimes shine a little useful light on things. But the big light is that there is no single rubric which will organize things in a way that contains our experience. We get further (I do) when we admit that there are different differences from the ones that tend to guide our thinking. And by employing different differences from the ones we customarily use, we can both see more and more accurately, and we can see (better) what we can't see, what we aren't seeing.

I come to this work from the experience of feeling a tension between my own impulses for organizing inquiry and the ones that were in place for most of my formal education. I also come to these conversations from a deep pleasure in some of the processes that I learned because of or in spite of that education, and with a deep, warm feeling for the connections that I perceive (some rich and established, some incipient) between the things that interest me most and the things that seem to interest many of you. And I look forward to sitting and talking with you.


alesnick's picture

Challenge, Difficulty, Joy, Disappointment

I’m writing to share some questions I’ve been thinking about in relation to this thread and following our last meeting:

Is dissatisfaction the primary driver of change for humans?  What about opportunity?  Harmonic association?  Aspiration?  Why does it matter? 

What does it mean for gifts to circulate “freely?”   When Hyde writes about gift exchange, he focuses on “the labor of gratitude,” the idea that to acknowledge and receive a gift requires that the giftee become strong enough – in essence, change or grow in power -- to be able to take in and pass along the gift.  It’s not easy; it takes struggle and time, as well as risk and daring, in that to change is to brook loss and uncertainty.  Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”  I used to think that this song meant: Being born = good and dying = bad, but today I think both are dynamic and necessary. 

Publishing a good paper in an academic journal can be difficult in a way that publishing one to a web site is not, but the work of writing and of reading a good paper is challenging no matter where it is published.  The gifts of freely available materials are not easier to become eligible to receive and conjoin into circulation than rare and costly gifts. 

In relation to the evolving systems core group, I personally am comfortable waiting for a “base story,” to use Bharath’s term, to emerge.  My sense is that we can uncover such a story for our group, in dialogue with the times, people and places with which we are presently interacting.

To Bharath’s question whether power relations always condition thinking and acting, I am inclined at this moment to say no, although I usually say yes, because I am reading a book of educational philosophy by Sharon Todd, called Learning from the Other:  Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and the Ethical Possibilities of Education.  Along with Hyde and his book, The Gift, I would like to recommend parts of this book and perhaps Todd herself as visitors to us.  In the book, Todd argues that social justice education requires that people learn FROM, rather than ABOUT, others, and that we learn to listen in ways that do not dominate, exhaust, or seek to translate into comprehension other people’s languages (and those of our unconscious, or otherwise conscious, selves).  Learning ABOUT others involves us in relations of power, but learning FROM another doesn’t always do so. 

An example Todd gives is the film Jupiter’s Wife, by Michel Negroponte, a documentary about the filmmaker’s relationship with Maggie Cogan (not the last name she uses, but I am “giving her” it, because I don’t like representations of relatively powerless people as lacking family, and thus political, names).  Maggie when he meets her lives in Central Park with 4 dogs.  I just watched the film and I recommend it, as well, for our group.  Todd says that it’s an example of learning from another in that Negroponte doesn’t primary try to understand or to help Maggie in instrumental ways, although he does both along the way.  Instead, primarily he listens to her and invites her language, he follows her around, he looks up people and things from her past and listens to them (and gets us to), and he shows her “working on the complexities of her own life in her own way.”  Both modes of response/interaction (instrumental and receptive) are challenging and fragile.  He tries not to romanticize her homelessness but also does not portray it, or her “history of mental illness,” as a knowable problem needing or able to be solved in one particular way or the other.  He shows Maggie as vulnerable and strong, both physically and mentally -- in a lot of pain and confusion and also connected with joy, knowledge, and love.  And not determined by her mental or physical situation, or by her past.  The film ends with his voice-over saying that when he first met her (two and half years earler) she dreamed of living on a horse farm, and she still does.  I don’t think that his listening to this dream, this hope, and his making it the finale of the film, can best be understood in terms of power relations and I don’t think it’s romantic fluff, which it might have been had Negroponte not labored to receive Maggie’s language as a gift.  (Which is not to say I always believe in him apart from power issues  – for example,  I find his treatment of Maggie’s body in the film problematic because it seems male-gazy, even though in other ways it’s more open-ended.)

This is getting  long, so I will just say I’d also like to explore the idea of disappointment, appreciating Anne’s marking it.  In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, ChogyamTrungpa writes about a Buddhist response to disappointment, saying that disappointment is one of the central features of human life.  I had never thought about it as so central until I read this book.  But if it’s so, maybe we should focus on it more.  Maybe, to respond to Bharath’s query, joyfulness and playfulness come from a freedom from fear of disappointment  -- not freedom from disappointment itself, which is inevitable, but freedom accompanying a certain confidence and strength that disappointment won’t kill one or one’s dreams.






Anne Dalke's picture


I too enjoyed our first large-group conversation last week, and look forward to those we are planning for the future. Most intriguing to me--and perhaps a concrete demonstration of the useful distinction we developed between "provisional" and "directed/deliberative" ways of being--was our strong resistance to a group narrative: we were insisting thereby that we are now acting provisionally, without a common story to guide us. Although we seem to have come together because all of us (but Hank?) were friends of Paul, we insistently refused him the role of group storyteller, and very quickly began to stand aside from his narrative of our sharing a "dissatisfaction with academic discourse."

I was interested also in our debate about whether "opposition is GOOD," or whether change might be motivated instead by curiosity or imagination (in either case, there is a gap between what is and what might be...and it is in that direction that we move). I went for clarification (where else might one go? how do the rest of you resolve confusions?) to the Oxford English Dictionary, where I found that the whole notion of opposition is a construction, an opposition which etymologically we can recuperate. I found (for starters) that the Latin prefix "dis-" came from the Greek word meaning "twice"; its the primary meaning was "two-ways, in twain." I found that the etymological element "dis" implies "different directions, apart, abroad, away"; think "discern" and "discuss," as well as "dismiss, disrupt, dissent." Think (as you think about our writing on Serendip) of "distribution" and "distributed systems." The privitive senses of removal, aversion, negation, reversal all came later.

Our other keyword (the one we didn't get to!) was "against," the shared title of our three essays, and (as Hank notes) a commonly odd word in academic titles. Turns out that "against" was formed by adding the genitive ending "es" to "again," and its original meaning was positional: directly opposite, but also "facing, in front of, in full view of"; it indicated a motion TOWARDS. So? etymologically? towards and against were the same motion, and to "dis" something might mean simply to see it twice ("deliberatively"). The action of the carrot and the stick, in other words, is the same action. 

All this connects nicely with my (now concluded; whew!) reading of William James. James often cites--and praises--Walt Whitman, as an example of an optimistic, "once-born" personality, able to see only the good in the universe. He then describes the "twice-born," those who get depressed, see life's darkness...before eventually finding their way out of it to a place of happiness. The latter view, James argues, is a more "realistic" reaction to life-as-it-is, which always and inevitably disappoints. This notion of being "twice-born" probably relates to (and explains, in part?) the origins of pragmatism, to the practice of simply "trying things out" to see how well they work and calling them "true" if they do. So, I see-and-say that to "dis" is to be twice-born, to see things two-ways, to see "beyond."

I wonder if that's a common story?

Not that I'm searching for one. I am certainly "twice-born," having been through several deaths (of others close to me) and depressions (of my own) and come out on the other side. I would also call myself oppositional--not necessarily because of all those losses, but I think just temperamentally. Inevitably, hearing any story, I begin to think of alternatives: other ways of saying it, other dimensions missing. The point of telling stories, for me (and for a course I frequently co-taught) is not to revel in the old, but to generate new ones.

One of the new stories I'd like us to be generating (or that I'd like to generate myself through my work w/ this group) is that of telling academic stories in different forms: on the web and with images. I'd like to write less declaratively, more evocatively. Essays that are, in Alice's terms, not arguments but gifts, to circulate freely.

Bharath Vallabha's picture

The How and the What

I resonate with gift giving in Alice's sense and dissing in Anne's sense. These seem to me essential to an atmosphere of openness and growth, and togetherness. And what a wonderful atmosphere that is! Their posts bring up issues of "how" we should or might want to engage with each other and what the spirit of our interactions can be.

I have been thinking about "what" our interactions are about. It seems to me that we have been resisting or avoiding this issue of the content of our group (or is it only that it hasn't come up yet?).

Can a person or a group think or act without standing for something? Can thinking and acting happen independently of commitments and power structures? I think the answer is no. (It seems to me that this is one of the powerful lessons from feminism, queer theory and post-colonial studies... as well as Feyerabend, Foucault and Rorty … and of course others).

So when we gather in a room or talk on the web, which commitments and structures are we for and which against? What is the group for? What is it trying to achieve? Without addressing these issues, it seems to me like the group might drift rather than emerge (a valid distinction?).

“Against” can be taken as how or what. Taken as how (againsthow), it is angry, angst-ridden, disempowered, opponents as enemies. Taken as what (againstwhat), it is progress, clarity, empowerment and standing up for what one values.

Sontag and Feyerabend mix together againsthow and againstwhat. They are not only against something (interpretation, method), but they are against it in a dismissive, annoyed way. Stallybrass seems to have less of the againsthow.

Can we avoid altogether the againsthow while bringing more to the surface the againstwhat? That is, can we be joyful, playful, gleeful while standing resolutely for something beautiful, good, important and difficult to achieve?

In fact, I wonder if joyfulness and playfulness come from the ease of conscience from knowing that one is standing for the right things.

alesnick's picture

gifts into uncertainty and around

A book I would like to recommend our group read parts of is Lewis Hyde's The Gift:  Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (NY: Random House, 1983).  [Anne and I have done some work with this text and another by Hyde.  I also wonder whether he would be a useful visitor to our group.  He and his work framed a conference at Bard that I helped plan a while back and that Anne and I shared in.]

Our last meeting -- together with these helpful posts by Hank and Bharath, and an earlier one by Bharath in which he wonders about the value of clarifying our distinct commitments to this group – have got me thinking about what Hyde writes about how gifts circulate in and help create and sustain cultures.  He says that the gift of artistic inspiration (akin to Stallybrass’s conception of inspiration) has to be awaited, ripened-into, merited, and graced in a way sharply different from the relatively predicatable, rational way we (try to) earn a living and calculate return for input.  Hyde doesn’t knock making a living, and in fact explains the origin of the book in his struggles to make a living as a poet.  But he argues that the world of art doesn’t work the same way as it does. 

Hyde also says that when it comes to other kinds of gifts – whether of materials that signify embrace, threshold, or recognition, or of teaching/mentoring, such as by a sponsor to a recently recovering person in Alcoholics Anonymous – their potency depends on their going out into uncertainty – not tit for tat style, but in their being given opening a new channel, and challenge, for the recipient to transform into him/hherself a giver of the gift, and also, possibly, to transform what is given.  So there are questions of mystery here (as with the grapes of the wine Paul gave us), of risk and not-knowing, of time (more risk), and change (more risk).   There are also matters of yielding rather than plotting. To me, a good Web forum works like one of Hyde’s gift cultures, and so does a good group, or class. 


Bharath Vallabha's picture

Reflections on July Meeting

At the beginning of the meeting yesterday Paul said that everyone in the room is in some way dissatisfied with academia and are a seeking an alternate mode of inquiry. There are two ways in which this is misleading as far as it relates to me and one way in which it is on to something.

How it might be misleading

No angst. I am not, and am trying not to be, dissatisfied with academia. It seems to me that there is no one thing called academia. Instead there are layers of institutional practices which make possible different things: teaching, writing, personal growth, social interactions, making a living, education, etc. I think praising or dismissing academia as a whole leads mainly to confusion. Each person has to figure out which aspects of academia are working for them and which need improvement, and try to modify their life and the institutions they are a part of accordingly. So I am not for angst about academia or anything else. I very much enjoyed when people emphasized that one could be engaged in this conversation in a purely positive way.

No overall group narrative (yet). An assumption behind Paul’s statement seemed to be that there is an overall narrative about the group which each of us shares and which brought us together in the room; dissatisfaction about academia was meant to be one such narrative. But I think there is in fact no overall narrative yet. I am in the room because I made a commitment to come; I made a commitment because Paul mentioned the group and I trust his judgment, and because I am open to something exciting happening here. This sense of excitement and my trust in the people I have gotten to know have only increased with our first meetings. But this is still very far from a group narrative of any kind or on any topic. I am not sure if there is any topic or concern or ideal which unites me with others in the group. This is fine because seeing if such connections can or will be formed is one of exciting things I signed up to see and participate in.

How it might be onto something

Testing ground for positive changes. As I said, I don’t see the group as a space for rejecting academia (though if one did feel that way, the group I think is a place to talk about it). Still, this doesn’t mean that the group has to fit images of a group we are already familiar with: reading group, cross-disciplinary, etc. The freedom afforded to the group can be used to highlight features of academia which can be improved, and the group can be a space to try out how to envision and impliment such changes. So the group can be a testing ground for trying changes or questioning assumptions which are treated as unquestionable in the normal course of academic life.

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