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September 8, 2011

Everything We Think Can in Principle Be Thought By Someone Else: A Plea for Open, Collective Scholarship

by Eileen Joy

At the end of my working day, I am almost always depressed. Mine is not a straight path like an engineer’s, it’s not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials. . . . Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else. The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative.–
Theo Jansen, creator of the Strandbeests

Although it often feels otherwise, we do not think alone. We never have. Every second of every day, there is a virtual crowd inside of our head, multiple voices, all vying for attention, and even as babies we come into this world carrying the histories of previous generations and their experiences inside intricate chains of nucleic acids that inhabit every cell of our bodies. I’ve long ago given up on the idea of a unified, autonomous “self” [thank you, Derrida, Foucault, Francesco VarelaAndy Clark, and also Katherine Hayles], but every day, our particular and unique minds touch reality and become real, to paraphrase the political philosopher George Kateb [“The Idea of Individual Infinitude,” The Hedgehog Review 7.2 (2005): 42–54, at 49], while at the same time that “reality” represents, to cadge from Timothy Morton, an inescapable “mesh”: “a complex situation or series of events in which a person is entangled; a concatenation of constraining or restricting forces or circumstances; a snare” [Oxford English Dictionary]. I agree with Morton that “everything is interconnected” and therefore “there is no definite background and . . . no definite foreground” [The Ecological Thought, p. 28]. But as Morton also asks,

If there is no background and therefore no foreground, then where are we? We orient ourselves according to backgrounds against which we stand out. There is a word for a state without a foreground-background distinction: madness. [The Ecological Thought, p. 30]

The fact of the matter is, in order to guard against this “madness,” we imagine all sorts of background-foreground distinctions all of the time: we need them, and they are necessary, even consoling, fictions. A life has to be livable, after all. I feel the same way about love: I know I’m making this up as I go along with a lot of props from others in history who have also been making things up as they go along. The trick is not to stop believing in individual lives, or in love, or even persons, but rather, to generously expand our conceptions of what counts as a life, what counts as loveable, what counts as a person. The ultimate aim is to work toward increasing, as much as is in our power, the general well-being of as many inhabitants [animate, inanimate, whathaveyou] of this world as possible. Or as Pablo Neruda once put it, much more eloquently than I ever could, “I don’t know who you are. I love you. I don’t give away thorns, and I don’t sell them” [Love Sonnet LXXVIII].

Take the Dutch artist Theo Jansen who makes, or engineers, kinetic sculptures called “strandbeesten”: the term “beest” is important here because, for Jansen, these are living creatures or “animals.” Jansen is the subject of an article in this week’s New Yorker, “The March of the Strandbeests” [5 Sep. 2011: 54-61], and for over 21 years now, Jansen, 63 years old, has devoted himself to making these “beests,” primarily out of PVC tubing and other materials, such as recycled plastic bottles and nylon zip strips. The beests are wind-powered, enabling them to walk, for example, along the beach [go HERE for videos of Jansen’s sculptures in motion; I find myself watching these videos over and over again, they are so beautiful and mesmerizing]. According to the author of the New Yorker piece, Ian Frazier, Jansen is “secretly a landscape artist” and his strandbeests are just “decoys to get us to notice the dunes, sea, and sky” [p. 61], and it’s true that when Jansen first started making these “machines” — “skeletons,” as Jansen puts it, that are “able to walk on the wind” — that he engineered them to push the sand around and thereby help bolster the threatened, eroding dunes of the Holland coastline.

But this description of Jansen’s “creatures” also belies so much of what Jansen himself says about his work that is not included in the New Yorker article — that as it progressed, he realized he was making a “new kind of life” [some might call it “passive robotics”] and that his work also represented “research into the roots of life.” Of his first prototypes, now decrepit and stowed away in a barn, he refers to them as being in their “catacombs,” and he has also invented creative titles for the “eras” of evolutionary development his beests have gone through: the Gluton Period (1990-91) for the earliest period when his beests were held together with tape, the Chorda Epoch (1991-93), and so on. Of his ongoing work in making the creatures, he says, “they give me . . . a place in the world and a way of living, and I give them life, so we both need each other. In fact, I couldn’t live without them anymore. I think that’s what you call symbiosis.” Jansen also hopes that the beesten will outlive him: “What I’m doing now is training these animals to survive on their own. . . . It’s a thought which makes me quiet — when I die, I will be living for some time on. Of course this is a utopian thought. It’s a fairy tale, something to look forward to, [but] with a lot of roots in reality as well, because some things, um, succeed” [quoted in the documentary Strandbeesten, dir. Alexander Schlichter, 2008].

Why dwell here on Jansen and his strandbeesten? Other than to point to him and his work as having gorgeously expanded the store of the world’s beautiful “creatures,” and even having rescued the lowly-yet-ubiquitous PVC pipe from its status as a supposedly inanimate object and transformed it into a protein-like building block of new life forms [note to Jane Bennett: “thing-power” never had it so good!]? While trying to think my way through how I might compose this piece on the value of open and collective forms of scholarship, enabled especially by blogging and social media such as Facebook and Google+, Theo Jansen and his creatures were much on my mind, and for very divergent reasons, all of which I think are worth describing here.

First, Jansen is a great example of what we think of as a kind of solitary genius, even an heroic artist, who clearly likes to work alone [his website indicates he is not interested in taking on any interns] and who has dedicated over a third of his life to creating what he appears to believe [with some hedging] is a sort of new “species,” but he doesn’t really work alone, actually. He works with very particular materials — materials, moreover, that Jansen explains “dictate to me what to do” and “[m]aybe that is why the Strandbeests appear to be alive, and charm us. The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them” [Frazier, “The March of the Strandbeests,” p. 58]. Whether engineer-sculptors working with PVC pipes or medievalists working with manuscripts and other artifacts from the past, as well as with texts and language, and even when we are supposedly alone in our studies, we are always connected to and even acted upon by intricately-networked assemblages of actors and actants, persons [virtually enclosed in texts, but also our supervisors, mentors, peers, colleague friends, imaginary interlocutors, etc.], objects, locations and even atmospheres, and our agency as “authors” is much more distributed [and even passive] than we might like to believe. Control is an illusion, as is objectivity, or even clear-sightedness. And creativity may even depend on this state of affairs, since it may be that the world brings ideas to us more so than that we bring ideas to the world. In this sense, scholarship would partly be about preparing ourselves, not to generate ideas, but to receive them.

This is just to say that if we think keeping our scholarly work primarily out of public sight [except for the occasional conference presentation] until its penultimate moment of publication in a conventional venue such as the academic journal or book, at which point quite a few years of our lives [mainly spent in the solitude of studies and libraries or other semi-private spaces where we could manage a foothold] may have been devoted to that work whose “arrival” in print may even occur long after we have moved on to other projects, then we risk working too much in the dark, apart from the world which has bequeathed to us our objects and methods of study and reflection [I might also add here that this traditional way of doing things also keeps our work sequestered within the academy, and does not allow us to reach a more broadly public audience, which, in my mind, is a real perversion of the term “humanities”]. We also do our work largely apart from the very peers whom we hope will welcome and even love it when it is “finished.” Yes, for the kind of work we do, quiet is required, even long stretches of solitude [because this is when ideas often arrive to us that could never have arrived any other way and also because it’s hard to translate medieval Latin when people are milling all around you], but you’ve got to get outside every now then. And maybe also reflect on the fact that even the supposed inside/outside divide is primarily an illusion.

Take Jansen [again], for example. He claims he likes to work alone, but he works primarily outside–his “workshop” is on a hill in the suburb of Ypenburg, near Delft, and he conducts most of his tests on the beach where strangers and friends, some of whom jump in as assistants, can watch Jansen experiment with his creatures. Jansen also allowed a documentary filmmaker, Alexander Schlichter, to follow him around, filming him at his work, for over ten years [you can see the film itself HERE]. In addition, Jansen maintains a website [www.strandbeest.com] detailing the history of his work and engineering schemes and also including a live webcam that allows you to watch him in his “studio.” Although a highly idiosyncratic character, and by his own definition, an obsessive, his work is completely open in the sense that all of its phases, even including the missteps and mistakes he makes along the way, is shared with the public: those close at home and also those far away, the accidental passer-by as well as the friend, family member, journalist, filmmaker, and those he has never met nor knows anything about [like me]. In a very real sense, a sort of community has developed around Jansen’s work and in various, small ways, likely impinges upon that work while also broadening its scope of impact.

What, in the final analysis, might be the ultimate value of Jansen’s work, I ask myself: that he succeeds in releasing what he calls “herds” of beests upon the Dutch coastline who will outlive him [and us], or that he has bequeathed to us the visible products of a certain stretch of “working time” — 21 years as of this writing — in which he has labored, in the open [both in the sense of working outside but also by sharing his work-in-progress online], on his creatures? For me, the ultimate value is something enabled through both of these things: neither just the creatures themselves [product] nor only the windows upon Jansen’s labors over time [process], but rather, an entrance through both of these things entangled with each other to a more ecological vision of the world and our work in it, one in which, well, frankly, everything matters, every last little thing, even the mistakes and the trash [indeed, Jensen speaks as lovingly of the individual PVC tubes as he does about the creatures that emerge from them]. World and work are not separate, just as our articles and books could never really be separated from all of the forces [persons, objects, writings, places, etc.] that give rise to them, yet one of the most enduring images of the scholar is the Nietzschean overman who emerges from the solitude of his study with the monograph triumphantly held aloft in one hand, as if it had just sprung from his forehead. And there are rewards for that, of course. It’s just that . . . it’s such a terrible lie, not to mention a waste of missed opportunities for a more capacious intellectual fraternity.

Which isn’t to say our work is not unique, or not individual. Like Jansen, we, too, must be a bit singularly and even peculiarly obsessive or we likely wouldn’t do the sort of work we do. Just to be a writer and a humanities scholar, in my mind, requires some obsession, which literally means to lay siege to a place: what I’m saying is, we often go “all out,” and beyond the point of necessity; we dig deep holes. After all, the actual compensation for being a scholar in the humanities today is not even remotely equivalent to the compensation offered a doctor, a scientist, a banker, a lawyer, and so on, so we work on our scholarship, I would argue, primarily because we desire to do so and because we wish for some sort of permanence in this place we call the humanities, and the university. Yes, we have some carrots, like securing a tenure-track job and then gaining tenure and promotion, and the longer-term benefits that come with that, but much of our production as scholars is often way above and beyond what is required for those professional benchmarks and compensations. Plus, unlike a heart surgeon, who has to direct her attention and labor primarily to, um, heart surgery, we have more freedom in choosing the objects and methods of our labors: in other words, our work is deeply personal and even idiosyncratic in direct relation to our individual quirks and desires [which is not to say there are not quirky and highly idiosyncratic heart surgeons–someone had to invent the electric heart, for example–it’s just that, in the humanities, choosing one’s particular and supposedly heretofore uncharted niche is almost an obligation]. In this way, we really are all alone, or rather, we’re singular, even while we remain attached to so much else.

I suppose this is all a somewhat digressive way of making a plea, as my title indicates, for more open forms of scholarship, in which we retain the practical and liveable notion [if even largely fictive] that there is such a thing as an individual and individual work [which might, on certain dull and frustrating days, sustain us with the idea that we have something unique to contribute to larger, important conversations], but also recognize, and maybe perform better, the ways in which our work is always enmeshed with others [human, inhuman, etc.] who enable, in some degree, our every thought. Blogging has become, in my mind, an excellent venue for doing just that and for making more visible the ways in which we always think, not in opposition to, but with and for each other.

It has been said more than once, and in various places, that while writing on academic blogs may serve the purpose of airing certain nascent and half-baked ideas and having more casual conversations about our profession and work [and occasionally about the ways in which our professional and personal lives impinge upon each other], that it is not, nevertheless, the place to do “real” or “serious” scholarship, which is supposedly better reserved for venues that incorporate “strong” forms of anonymous critique and peer review and the oversight of more formal interlocutors, such as dissertation supervisors, experts within your more narrowly circumscribed ambit of research, departmental colleagues, and so on and so forth. But all scholarship, whether articulated as a a still barely digested idea on a blog or presented in tentative digest form at a conference or represented as a more fully fleshed-out argument in a scholarly journal, is real scholarship–if, by scholarship, we mean the continual practice of the craft of intellectual research, reflection and writing in the company of like-minded artisans, in order to communicate our work to both specialist and non-specialist audiences, and with the hope that a life devoted to reading, reflection, and writing might have some effect on what I call, the way things turn out. At the very least, if nothing ever changes because of a scholar’s work, something of beauty has been added to the world, some jewel-like artifact of a mind seeking a path through the thicket of books and history, a remainder for a future archive.

But because I also don’t ever personally bank on the future [or that dreaded thing some call “posterity,” and in which print culture is, to a certain extent, heavily invested], I think that academic blogs have played a critical function in creating scholarly communities that would not otherwise exist in a profession in which, traditionally, travel to conferences has afforded the only real opportunities for sharing work with like-minded scholars in one’s field. And how many conferences can most of us go to in a year? Typically, one or two. It can feel excruciatingly lonely working on one’s dissertation or one’s first article or one’s first book and the advice that is sometimes received, to show the work more publicly only when it is beyond reproach, in my mind, creates a climate of anxiety and dread that is unnecessary. It also seems to fly in the face of one of the purposes of a university: to air and discuss and debate ideas in a free, open-air agora, unencumbered by capitalist and other special or proprietary interests, where experimentation, even when it leads to failure, should be encouraged and prized. I’m not saying this is reality; I’m saying this is the ideal we should try not to lose sight of.

I am also trying to say: we need to learn better how to live in the scholarly NOW, and blogs have certainly increased the opportunities for doing that. It takes some extra work, of course, to spend part of each day reading and commenting on blogs and maybe also contributing substantive posts to a weblog now and again, but the payoff is that the small burst of conversation that might occur in the last thirty minutes of a conference session has now been extended beyond the conference itself, maybe even for months on end. With traditional academic publishing, one might wait years, from the conception of a work to its completion and then publication in a traditional print venue, before one “hears” or “sees” any kind of reaction to one’s work, and there might be no reaction at all, at least, not one that is palpably articulated, whether in a review or an email. Every field has its superstars, of course, whose impact is fairly measurable and whose work visibly shakes up the contours of a field, but if everyone measured their success by this standard, we’d have one hell of a disgruntled professoriate [and let’s face it, even the so-called superstars did not necessarily sit down one day and say to themselves, “I am aiming for stardom!” — more likely, like all of us, they wanted to do smart, original work]. Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, edited by me, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007, received zero reviews. Zero. In the four years since it was published in 2007, I have never once received one comment from anyone in the field, either by email or in person, regarding whether or not the book had any sort of impact. I’ve seen citations of it in a few books here and there. The fact of the matter is, I know people have read the book and likely been affected by it, in any number of ways, and I don’t and never have dwelled on its “reception,” but my larger point is: in our profession, you could sit around forever waiting to hear what the impact of your article or book might be, or you could engage in a different sort of professional life altogether: one where the process of thinking and writing alongside others in the “open” — Outside, where anyone might wander by and offer a provocation or new path to further thought, and where you can also count on your closest colleagues and peers to drop in and lend a hand — might lead to a thickening of the possibilities of our intellectual affiliations as well as to our general well-being.

I guess what I’m also saying here is that there may be more value in thinking and “working through” our scholarship online, in an environment that promotes and invites democratic, catholic, and convivial support, as well as the accidental tourist and silent voyuer, than there is in the traditional “finished product”: the article, the book, whathaveyou, that may land with a thud and nothing else [nothing that can be visibly measured, anyway, which is why teachers and scholars often content themselves with the adage that their real success always lies in a future out of their reach]. At the very least, blogs provide a space for the sustenance of those of us who spend many hours alone in our studies and who may wish for a greater “company” during these times–“company,” moreover, that also often serves as an important aid in the critical review of our work. And for what it’s worth, academic blogs also often provide voluble appreciation of “finished products” that otherwise would go unnoticed, since the communities invested in blogs are typically invested as well in assessing and celebrating their affiliates’ individual “products,” whatever they might be. I would also add here that academic blogs aid in the quicker, more open dissemination of ideas to a broader range of people and also allow everyone a rare glimpse of intellectuals “at work,” which means that blogs serve an important mentorship function in the field as well, while also demystifying scholarly study.

Similar to Theo Jansen, there’s a bit of magical realism at play in our work. We labor most of our lives at a form of writing that isn’t likely to live much beyond our time and which may not even serve a distinct practical purpose, but is beautiful and intricate and thought-provoking, nevertheless. We make things, and we hope that others will appreciate them, be moved and affected by them, perhaps even think differently as a result, and we also believe that what we make is somehow “alive”: words last, we tell ourselves, and keep “talking” long after we’re gone. But thanks to global warming, giant asteroid belts, the threat of viral pandemics, the continued production of nuclear arms, terrorism, and the like, I gave up on the “hereafter” a long time ago. Jansen may find some hope in imagining his creatures living on after him, but consider this: when he first decided to build them as a means for dealing with the dune erosion problem on the Holland coast, he decided he would devote one year to the project, and that was 21 years ago. Thanks to the generosity of Dutch government subsidies for artists, among other benefactors, Jansen has been with his creatures every day since 1990, indicating to me that this is one hell of a grand love affair, one in which Jansen seeks a more immediate relation than could be served by posterity. In relation to Jansen and his beests, but also to the ways in which some of us are invested in sharing our work, in all of it stages, on blogs and other online social media, I am reminded of something Cary Howie wrote in his book Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure:

Our dealings with the world . . . are ultimately fumblings, necessary and beautiful, toward an immediacy that is im-mediate, in the strongest sense: not beyond mediation but inside it. [p. 9]

We can only get so close to each other [there is always mediation], but what plying our scholarship more publicly on blogs can do for us, at the very least, is to get us deeper into the relations –scholarly and otherwise — that always already inhere between us and our work, and between each other [even when those relations might not be so comfortable]. It can help us to see better that when we say we belong to a “field” — like medieval studies — that we share that field with others who work, not necessarily behind closed doors, but out in the open alongside us. In this scenario, intellectual property is communal, and I can’t tell where your ideas end and mine begin. To paraphrase Jansen, that’s what I call a beautiful symbiosis.

*special note: the black-and-white photos duplicated here were taken by Lena Herzog, and you can see more of them HERE.

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