Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rortyan hacking

Cathy Davidson:

A “hack” is a reconfiguration or reprogramming of a system to function in a way different than that built into it but its owner, designer, or administrator. The term can run the gamut from a clever or quick fix to a messy (kludgy) temporary solution that no one’s happy with. It can refer to ingenuity and innovation — or sinister practices that border on the criminal. We hope to avoid the kludge and don’t plan on breaking any laws. But reprograming traditional learning institutions so they function in a different, more original, and more efficient way than is intended by current owners and administrators? Sign me up!

When David Theo Goldberg and I came up with our incendiary definition of “institution” as a “mobilizing network,” deconstructing the very solidity and uniformity of “institution” by emphasizing the potential for unruliness among its constituent members, we were hacking the institution.

Cathy Davidson has some good ideas at times, but heavens! — the self-regard is pretty thick. Saying that you’re going to define “institution” as a “mobilizing network” — not actually doing anything, but just choosing in your own conversations with people you already know to redefine a term — is “incendiary”? And is “hacking”?

I blame Richard Rorty, because it was Rorty who argued (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and elsewhere) that the chief task of philosophy is not to make iron-clad arguments but to redescribe the world. “The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior.”

Nice work if you can get it, because this “method” never asks you to change how you live one iota. all you have to do is talk, and leave “appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior” to the “rising generation.” So all Cathy Davidson and Theo Goldberg have to do is to say “an institution is a mobilizing network,” and Shazam! — the university is incendiarily hacked.

It’s always good in this context to note Umberto Eco’s account, in Kant and the Platypus, of a debate he had with Rorty on these matters:

Rorty also alluded to the right we would have to interpret a screwdriver as something useful to scratch our ears with. . . . A screwdriver can serve also to oen a parcel (given that it is an instrument with a cutting point, easy to use in order to exert force on something resistant); but it is inadvisable to use it for rummaging about in your ear, precisely because it is sharp and too long to allow the hand to control the action requires for such a delicate operation; and so it would be better to use not a screwdriver but a light stick with a wad of cotton at its tip.

Words may not be particularly resistant to redescription, especially if you’re among like-minded people; but screwdrivers and institutions (such as the university) and other things are much more recalcitrant. Genuinely hacking them is harder and riskier, which makes it tempting to follow the safer route of redescription. Leave the hard labor of tangible change for the “rising generation.”

As for me, I'm putting more trust in the alt-ac crew to actually, you know, do things differently.


  • Let's make a rule. Unless something is actually exploding and/or setting something else on fire, only guitar solos can be described (metaphorically) as "incendiary."

  • I think it was Alex Massie, who yesterday on twitter described "iconic" being useless because it had been captured by "PR agencies".

    It hadn't occurred to me that this was an (anti?) Rortian observation until reading your post, but it seems to me it was a wonderfully vivid metaphor for the (mis)appropriation to the point that it because useless.

    For years I've had similar thoughts about the word "adult", and just yesterday saw those thoughts echo'd in a Slate review of "The American"; which led me to wonder if the word "feminism" hadn't been captured by the the feminists.

    Once you start paying attention, what does and doesn't catch on in the word-appropriation game can only leave you scratching your head. The press repeats "female viagra" ad infinitium, but if you unpack it, it doesn't make any sense at all. In that case, I'm not sure who's captured what. :-/

  • I'd agree with you if we weren't also working very hard, on a a pretty grand scale, to change the institutions we are mobilizing to change. We have now a network of over 170 students, nominated by and supported with $300 scholarships, by over 70 institutions, all dedicated to the future of learning and learning the future together. It's a lot of personal, voluntary, unpaid labor by those of us who believe change is worth fighting for and a lot of hope in a future generation of educators and thinkers who need our support in their own visionary thinking.

  • Thanks for that information, Cathy. I tend to think that scholarships and investing one's time and energy with students and younger faculty are all much more powerful than redescription, and certainly worthy of commendation.

  • Grand Scale = 170 people and $54K?

    I don't in any way mean to belittle your efforts, but "grand scale" is not the phrase that comes that comes to mind when confronted with these numbers.

    Don't get me wrong! I am neck deep in the marketing and promotion game myself; and I didn't really start to have any success until I realized that anything worth stating is worth overstating.

    But the whole things ends up like John Madden's 110% schtick. Pretty good when he first uncorked it, but it's gotten us to the point where giving 110% just won't cut it anymore -- these days you've got to give 150% just to be a benchwarmer!

    And so instead of being a guy who makes some pretty charming, reasonably successful documentaries, I end up being a "maverick, visionary film director".

    And it sort of works, but the gambit comes at a price we all pay.

  • A note on how to define "institution:" as one delves deeper into what institutions are, it gets harder to say what exactly they are. Helco talks about this in On Thinking Institutionally, and he comes up with five main ways people define the institution -- some of which tend to be bounded by place, while others are more of an imaginary / cultural connection -- closer to what's given above.

    A note on philosophy, too: have your read Paul Graham's How to do Philosophy?

  • jseliger, I have read that piece by Graham, but why do you think of it in this context?

  • Mr. Seliger, thanks for the above link! A very enjoyable, and for me, affirming read.

  • Alan - this comment made me think of it: "I blame Richard Rorty, because it was Rorty who argued (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and elsewhere) that the chief task of philosophy is not to make iron-clad arguments but to redescribe the world."

    Although I don't endorse everything Graham says, one of his subsidiary points is that many if not all of the provable / demonstrable aspects of philosophy have been siphoned off into science. That argues for moving philosophy towards something other than... well, whatever it has been / was (one challenge of talking about philosophy is that first you have to define what you mean by philosophy). Now science makes "iron-clad arguments" about the world, quite effectively, and more effectively than philosophy, so if philosophy wants to do something useful, it should consider something else.

    In addition, not long after I read that essay I sent an e-mail to Graham asking if he'd reading Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (answer: no) and recommending that he give it a shot. I doubt he did, but some of Rorty's points are closer to the pragmatic tradition that Graham doesn't discuss but that is similar to what he's discussing.

    It's also possible that I'm just more susceptible to liking Rorty because I'm in grad school for English, and if you argue to me that novels are an effective means of getting at / understanding the inner world than many other modes, I'm predisposed to agree.

  • Thanks, jseliger, that makes sense. In this light I think you might be interested in a review I wrote long ago that considers some of these ideas. I keep meaning to go back and develop those thoughts further but haven’t found the time so far.

  • My wife and I have been rolling this around for a few days here at Casa Comstock. A couple of thoughts.

    I hope he'll correct me if I'm wrong, but but I took Alan's invocation of Rorty as a sardonic jab, not at Rorty, but at (borrowing from P. Suderman's observations about many of Taratino's imitators) folks who have only learn Rorty's easier lessons.

    I think Rorty may be right. Perhaps all the philosopher can do is re-describe, and hope that "future generation" are moved to take action. But that, it seems to me, puts the the philosopher firmly in my camp, along with painters, and sculptors, and yes -- novelist.

    But for me, the rabbit whole goes deeper. Not too long ago I wrote:

    I enjoyed and value my university art department education very much, one of my frustrations was that we spent an awful lot of time talking about “out of the frame information,” and it sometimes seemed to me as if the fine arts world was more concerned with everything outside of the frame than with the artwork itself, and perhaps it was because of this frustration that after graduation I gravitated toward commercial work.

    With the benefit of this post, the comments and the reflection they've inspired, I might sum up the above with "The thing I didn't like about school is that we spent to much time and energy on descriptions, and not enough on results." (I'll add that 20+ years ago, at least at my school there was more than a little hostility towards "results-based" artwork and artists, and my feeling is that was not unique to the U of O campus, or the time period.)

    Suderman's "only learned the easier lessons" is a keeper. Google says it's, if not a unique thought, a unique phrasing. Maybe Peter should be a philosopher!

  • I hope he'll correct me if I'm wrong, but but I took Alan's invocation of Rorty as a sardonic jab, not at Rorty, but at (borrowing from P. Suderman's observations about many of Taratino's imitators) folks who have only learn Rorty's easier lessons.

    That's fair to say, though I have to add there there are times when it seems to me that Rorty has only learned Rorty's easier lessons. Genuine redescription is really hard.

  • "Genuine redescription is really hard."

    And still a lot easier than genuine change. ;-)

  • Thanks, Alan. HASTAC has been around now since 2002 and we're up to about 5000 members in our network of networks dedicated to new forms of learning. It's entirely free, entirely voluntary, and a handful of us run it as a "hobby" (as a dean recently told me) because we want to do whatever little we can to improve what we see as an industrial model of education (designed to help people adjust to the industrial age) and reform it for a digital age which has different requirements, challenges, and opportunities. If anyone is interested, check out www.hastac.org and you can see what kinds of things community members talk about, as freely as they wish so long as they comply with our community rules for constructive, creative, and meaningful interchange. Thanks so much for all you do, Alan.

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