Let’s do it wrong together
Draft of 2016.11.25
(first of several parts)
Ed Vielmetti and I have a long-running in-joke. Whenever we meet for lunch or coffee or at some social event, we play-act like we’ve just been introduced to one another. “Nice to meet you,” and all. Finally, we always ask one another: Just what is it that you do?
See, it’s funny because it’s something people say to us, but neither of us really knows.
Many years back, I wrote an essay about this question, and what I said then still applies today: I do this. If you haven’t read that piece—if you’ve come here just now not knowing who the fuck Bill Tozier thinks he is, or just what it is he does—maybe you should go read that first.
This piece is, in complicated ways, a followup. I’m writing it because I just discovered the second part of my answer to “Just what it is that you do?”
I do this, and I hope I’m doing it wrong.
This all started last Thursday morning. Our Thanksgiving holiday, here in the antebellum United States. I started to make a list of academic scholars whose work I especially admire. I want to compose and share that list, because I realize how thankful I am for these people and their work. They inspire me to do things in response. Their work is evocative.
And you will get to see that list. Just not right away.
Something happened, half-way through draft two. A moment of introspective hesitation that I want to call “doubt”. Self-doubt, of course, of the normal type anyone gets who writes enough and often too much. But also a melancholy concern about the careers of the precarious young scholars and artists and historians and other academic workers who are on my list, all striving so hard to be Taken Seriously in their Tall Poppy world. I doubt they have room for any extra distractions like my weird off-script attention; if they noticed it at all, it would almost certainly be seen as problematic.
Because I will do it wrong.
I hesitate, because I think I know how they will feel, if they ever do stumble on my list. I’ve grown used to my own work being taken wrong, but these academics I admire—young and old, powerful in the hierarchy and mere novices, artists and historians and philosophers and scientists and engineers—don’t seem to have ever really developed the habit. Most imagine, after all, that they are on a quest for truth… and everybody knows you’re not supposed to do truth wrong.
So I hesitated, wondering whether what I want to do is important enough.
Fuck yeah. Absolutely. How else will we ever know?
And besides, this is what I do.
Shining stones and cow pies
I have another list to share today. It’s shorter than my list of scholars. Tiny, in fact.
To be honest, I can’t even claim to own this little list. It’s just some weird stuff I read somewhere, a long time ago.
Weird, but pretty. Six words long—though I think maybe the web of implicature that will tag along when I drag them out of their den and array them here on the page in a tiny list will make them seem bigger than my promised list of people.
Six wrong words of poetry on poetry.
Six fancy words, so Classical and esoteric and baroque and obscure and fraught with implications. Each one alone is high-falutin’ enough to make it obvious: Neither you nor I will ever really know what even one of them really means. Each one trails webbed connections back into the Life of the Mind™, and back into the history of Western Civilization and culture, even though it sits here plain on the page for now.
Clinamen, tessera, kenosis.
Daemonization, askesis, apophrades.
For now, let’s admire them for themselves. I enjoy just watching them, washed off a bit so they can seem for a moment individual and isolated, but still linked to the web of the world and bound by definitions and implications and the trailing decades of argumentative scholarly controversy and literal millenia of obscurity. Imagine them as being self-contained, rolling to a stop on the table like I’ve just dumped them out of a mysterious box I found in the belly of the world.
Treat them like little mysteries. Some of you may know these words already, but surely most do not. Please don’t bother looking them up right now.1
All you really need to know today is that these are six ways of doing it wrong.
Six words that are meant to be six mirrors. Or maybe lenses. Whatever—tools with which subtle light can be shifted, bent, thrown in new directions. Six lovely hammers, sculptor’s tools, measuring devices, stories about stories (about stories).
Six wavering lines drawn on a mimeographed tourist map in pencil by the old Rock Shop owner, because you walked into his shop and leaned across his glass display case with its bland geodes and imported fossils, and said quietly, “This is all nice… but do you happen to know where we could go to pick up some fire agates around here?”
Six marks like this: ⚒
Do you have a sense of how important they might be?
And yet… we need not all be poets, nor even rhyme.
There really was an old man in a Rock Shop. That much is true.
For some definition of “true”.
What really happened was this: He drew some little marks on a mimeographed map of the northwestern Chihuahuan Desert for me, when I asked him where to go for fire agates. Most of the marks showed us places we shouldn’t go.
He said to drive until we came to the Old Day Place—seriously, that was the name he gave it—and then go in and follow this branch and take that turn and count the cattle grates, and so on. Only when we were close would there would be any real signs.
Where we were supposed to go, he made a circle: “
O”. At places we were supposed to avoid because of risks, he made an “
Not an alluring little “⚒”. I added that just now, to make the story better.
X” meant bad ideas: the mine had started patrolling and fencing their tailings and stuff, or the road had washed out, or there was blasting, or the picking wasn’t very good last time his niece had gone by to check.
And then we did what he told us to do. We drove to “
O”, my wife and mother and I. We finally found the gate of the Old Day Place, having driven past twice at least because nobody labels their ranch with the name the locals call it by. The rental sedan pulled off at the side of a dirt path by a desert pasture where an official sign stands planted by the County in the middle of nothing. No object taller than our heads in any direction until the blue mountains far off, except the single pole with a brown metal sign they probably printed up over at the County Services building when young Sandra Day was still in school.
And for a half an hour, between snow showers (so we left the car running to keep my elderly Mom warm while she watched us crouch and squint and poke), my wife and I rooted around among the cowpats, and filled a little box with shining stones. Fire agates, like your fist some of them. A good haul.
If you don’t know already, a fire agate—of the sort you find out in the world, and not polished up already in a glass case in a Rock Shop—looks just like any other mundane rock, except it has a bit of little shining opalescent fire trapped inside it. Often the normal rock part—the matrix, to use the technical term—looks, when viewed sitting on the scrubby desert soil and dusted lightly with snow, almost identical to a knob of cowshit.
And yes: That’s true, and it is also a metaphor. But to be honest, it’s not the meaning I’m here to make today.
So having pawed around, we drove back towards our motel for lunch. Another time—just for completeness’ sake, I should tell you this one, too—we visited an “
X” on the same map. Scraped the sedan up a wash in early Spring, not really realizing that the flowers blooming in the desert around us meant there could be rain at any moment. We found other things where the “
X” was drawn… but that’s another story.2
Here’s the meaning I want to make: We didn’t discover those rocks accidentally in the Spring desert of 2004. Something mysterious and wonderful led us to that very spot.
I think in the case that “something mysterious” was named Frank. I do remember he was wearing suspenders. He had a little silver mustache.
Which is all to say: Stories arise from the people around us. They arise just as a matter of course, whenever we talk to human beings.
Usually I find that the best ones to talk to are living people, and it’s also better if they are close by. Close enough for you to hear one another: that’s a good rule of thumb. The dead ones, and the famous far-off ones, who have made dense books we think are “great”? They rarely answer. And when they do answer, it’s usually been so much extra effort and ritual and respectful obeisance before you get to ask your questions, that if they do answer, you are prone to read way too much into it.
The people around us are often more effective. In my experience, it’s when we ask them questions that we get actionable answers. When we read and misread their maps, we end up on new tracks.
Much more and better meaning comes from them.
I mean, listen: I had stopped at the old man’s shop specifically because it said “Rockhounds Welcome + Information!” right on the goddamned sign. Frank, or whatever his name really was, he was waiting there in his store at 11 o’clock in the morning on a weekday, waiting for anybody at all to walk in the door.
Come on: He had a stack of mimeographed maps.
Save the fire-agates-look-a-lot-like-cowshit parable for another day. The meaning we’re here to talk about is this: An adventure is just a better sort of conversation.
Wait. So what are those six fancy words, sitting there on the table as if found in the belly of the world?
They’re ways of doing it wrong, like I said.
Harold Bloom trotted out clinamen and its buddies in his (rightfully) respected critical monograph The Anxiety of Influence in the early 1970s. It’s a good book—and probably a Great Book—of the sort that gets you thinking and whose title people remember and invoke without really ever having to read it in detail. It’s a very dense and many-layered work of scholarship. It has generated arguments and schools of thought for decades. It made waves.
I do a disservice to its grandiosity and foresight when I say it’s pretty much about, well, you know… influence.
On the face of it, it’s about poetry. When a poet writes a work, she is responding to the works she has read before. As a result, there is an emergent sort of dialog that comes about, as poet inspires poet to respond in kind. Bloom observes that when one has read enough poems and poets, one starts to notice that there are typical ways in which some latter poet adapts and responds to an earlier poet’s works. The web of influence among poets (especially the great ones) is patterned.
Then—since this is the 1970s we’re talking about—up pops Freud like a pantomime devil and boom! the point suddenly becomes the dynamic unconscious tension which arises in the latter poet, centered around the simultaneous senses of reverence and resentment she feels towards the earlier poet who influences her new work. This tension leads her to adopt a certain stance in her works which (because reasons) is reminiscent of the same stance a religious person might take towards the mysterious and the divine. We revere the divine, but also resent its responsibility for the badness in the world. See?
Just a hop, skip and jump, and Bloom discovers sufficient warrant to using words from Gnostic religious traditions to describe poetic reference. Because the Gnostics saw the world itself as less than divine: a fall, a fail, a loss, a pile of shit with some jewels of glistening Pure Mind trapped within them.
And so those six words on my tiny list are from Gnostic religious traditions, by way of Harold Bloom. Six words from a long time ago, in both human scale (the 1970s) and Human scale (the 0070s). They are literally Gnostic, not just “gnostic” and obscure, and they are invoked in support of Bloom’s thesis, which is ironically enough literally Byzantine and not just “byzantine” and ornate. A few of the six words have changed meanings somewhat along the way, so as to better suit their new use in the modern literary critical armamentarium—clinamen! Some were resurrected whole—apophrades!
But really every one was picked up in a fallow pasture somewhere out in the obscure esoteric scholarly desert of history. In olden times, they all meant something else to somebody else. In The Anxiety of Influence they are reworked into tools, and used to chink the joints and fill the cracks of a whole new looming Bloomian framework.
The result is lovely. It’s a very good book. And I really do it such a disservice by summarizing it so glibly.
But then again, at least I finally got to write “looming Bloomian”. I’ve been saving that for fucking ever.
Anxiety of Influence is a dense and massive web of a work which contains a lot of ideas, and also carries along a passel more with its web of scholarship and history and religion and its origins in mid-Century American literary culture and Atlantic politics and the horrors of world war and the weight of layered and storied tradition.
But to be frank, while it contains a lot, and is connected to even more… it’s not about that much. It contains a potent argument that our most esteemed poets are not merely great, but in some real way heroic. It contains subtle allusions striking juxtapositions that make a thrilling case for the overlap of the ecstasies of religious experience and the ecstasies of poetic creation.
I guess it’s pretty much about the fact that when we create, we do so by taking our predecessors’ work as a starting point, and by turns we echo and refute it until something new emerges.
We do it wrong.
In the social spaces in which we toil for most of our days—businesses, governments, academies—there’s an invisible assumption that says we do it right whenever we learn by rote and preserve tradition and maintain the good things we’ve been given. There is a conservative thread in that: People imagine that to “do history” right you strive to clear the subjective mess of people’s inaccuracies, until you’re left with Big-T Truth of What Actually Happened. People imagine that to “do science” right you strive to gather data—facts, they call them—and from those facts derive hypotheses, or maybe with those facts disprove hypotheses? (sources differ), until you’re left with Big-T Truth of What Actually Happens. And also religion. And also public policy. And engineering. And don’t get me started on business. And so on.
Doing it right is an act of honest preservation. New meaning is not created, when you do it right. (I’m not dismissing it… I just don’t like it much right now.)
When I say doing it wrong, I mean making meaning.
Bloom acts as if he’s talking about Poets, but really? I think it’s not really poets, or at least not only poets. Unless we’re all poets, in which case: sure. Poets, then.
But the Anxiety of Influence and his six magical words are about how it feels to be somebody who takes what’s been seen and done and known before, and who bends it by great acts of will into a new tool and a new place to stand to move the world. That’s a pretty high bar.
I would rather it were about how meaning is created by doing. How doing makes new meaning by changing what we use. And that we use ourselves, and use those around us.
When I say we do it wrong, I don’t mean badly or incorrectly. All our work is impure. No work is truth, not for any definition of the word. Rather—whether we’re poets or not—we search and collaborate and fiddle and come up with something no longer identical with what our predecessors did. Each new thing is itself a new meaning.
It’s just that I want Bloom to be talking not about Great Works and Great Men and Great Ideas, but rather just work, and human beings, and mere ideas.
As a Romantic, perhaps Bloom gravitates towards a dialog with the dead in preference to the mundane folks around him. As a Gnostic, perhaps he seeks traces of the Divine Spark where it is trapped by matter in the world, instead of in a ketchup packet. And that by seeking the purest of the pure, and paring away the chaff of the profane world, maybe more Great Things can come about.
Though I could be reading too much into it. First to admit it.
But see, usually most people whose works we read and admire aren’t actually dead yet. Personally I follow a lot of mine on Twitter, and we exchange jokes. So for many of the rest of us, the dialog we can more productively seek in our lives and use to transform our worlds into bales of new meaning will probably end up being with people we can… you know… talk out loud with if we want.
Like the old man in the Rock Shop, some of them even hang signs: “Rockhounds Welcome + Information!”
I think—at least today—that Bloom wants there to be a kind of Sacred Influence, different from the boring old profane kind that happens all the time, the eddying influence of peers and family and friends and news in which we swim. I don’t know right now if Bloom would see the dynamics of reverence and resentment that comes up between people who meet on the street or at work or on the Internet as being on par with that of Whitman’s influence on Wallace Stevens.
Perhaps the Anxiety of Influence is filled with mystery and ecstasy because that’s how Sacred stuff works.
And yet… we need not all be poets, nor even rhyme.
Bloom’s six words—what he calls “revisionary ratios”—are six Design Patterns for misprision. “Creative misreading”. They’re very general… and as a result very common when you’re taught to look for them.
But there are as many things to make stuff new as there are things made anew. I imagine there are many more, if we tone down all the grandiose universality just a smidge, and leave a little slack for contingency and the heat of the moment and the breadth and span of all the little cowpats in the world.
Though I’ll grant there is at least one obligatory step: The things need to get made.
With no risk whatsoever of seeming to change the subject: Take Trickster.
A lot of the time, it seems that Trickster doesn’t like the way the moon is. But notice: Trickster doesn’t just sit and pule about the fucking moon. Blah blah blah why isn’t it shining what the hell good is it? I want it because it’s pretty &c &c
Well, OK… he does that. But eventually he also gets off his ass and goes and gets that fucker—grabs the moon and runs off with it, one way or another—and then of course he tries to hide it away, or maybe he eats it or something (sources differ), and then there’s an adventure I think, and he makes a wife out of straw or something? Also, it gets pretty dirty along the way, too. He’s a busy guy.
OK, more or less like that. But when it’s all done, there has been a series of amusing and scatalogical adventures but also! there is in the end a whole new moon in the world. Trickster doesn’t just complain—he does something. And by Jiminy he does it wrong. Meaning is made, of a universal and world-changing type, even from the most farcical and profane acts. This is a dude who loves to sprout extra dicks, and spy on the bathing beauties, and is basically Bugs Bunny with superpowers. Trickster doesn’t say, “OK” and fill out his TPS Reports every week.
What is done right is unremarkable.
The most amusing thing to me—today—is the way in which Bloom has made legendary heroic Gnostic observants out of workaday poets and actors, and how that pisses some folks off. They never asked for it—neither the poets and actors, nor the literary critics who defend them. Both crowds were Bloom’s predecessors and his raw material. He has simply done what he has seen done: Others’ work is his inspiration, and he made criticism into a poetry of its own, folding reverence and resentment into one another.
But he had to, didn’t he?
It’s an old horse-nut of a cliché to say “an artwork that was completely original would be uninterpretable, maybe even unrecognizable as art”. Reference is the basis of all our work… even when we create exotic shining jewels from esoteric Hellenistic–Judaic allusions. There’s a Goldilocks Point to it all: Too little different and it’s a copy, meh, thanks a lot we already have one. Too much different, and it’s a waste of our time.
I want to put that line here, for later, so it doesn’t get lost: “…a waste of our time”.
Trickster made all kinds of good stuff, they say. But in the moment, a lot of people around him seem to have found his productions falling more towards the “waste of our time” end of the Goldilocks axis, and very far indeed from the “thanks a lot we already have one” end.
Nobody talks to him any more, by the way. There isn’t a Casual Trickster Day at the office; no team-building Creativity Workshops where participants stuff giant talking salmon down their pants and stuff. Maybe around the holidays. A few people make-believe they’re him sometimes, when they’re trying to make a clean break from their workaday artistic influences (kenosis! tessera! expelliarmus!). But really he’s sort of fallen off the grid of the workaday world.
Somebody should send him a text. See how he’s doing.
I wonder what he’s up to these days?
Wrong for good
Nothing I’m about to say is original to me… but then I’m pretty sure nothing I’ve already said is original either. It’s important enough to echo, and it will influence what comes next.
There are social spaces and structures in the world which are composed of people who are almost always very busy. So busy, in fact, that of necessity their days are also very orderly. I’ve already mentioned the ones I’m thinking about, above: Many large corporations are like this. And government bureaucracies. And Universities.
There is an immense authority surrounding life in these particular social spaces. Not just the visible authority of rank, or the authority of the explicit rules, but also a kind of collective “authority” that determines what is and is not legitimate work. This authority is not centralized in any sense; it’s usually not surfaced at all in fact. It just emerges, invisibly but ubiquitously, from deep inside the community of human beings who make up that institution. Hell, maybe it is the community.
Perhaps because they’re so often tacit and invisible, these rules about what’s legitimate tend to ramify and strengthen over time. People in low-power positions in large, complex organizations tend to worry a lot about “stepping over the line”—you can tell there is a line, just not what it might be, exactly—and so they tend to err on the side of caution. So maybe they notice that
X happens every week for a while, and then they take it as a regularity in its own right, and as a result
X becomes a permanent fixture of their worklives. New “real” (though still tacit) rules are in other words inferred into existence out of random noise… and there are more reasons for people to worry about stepping over more invisible lines.
Of course I generalize, and I’m mixing a lot of other people’s work up in a blender to make a point. That point is: People who work in these institutions tend to become harried.
It’s a stereotype, but it’s a true stereotype. You may even know somebody who feels this way right now.
Many of my friends and colleagues these days are agile coaches.
You may not quite know what that phrase means, especially if you’re the sort of person who already knew what clinamen means.
For now, here’s all you really need to know: They try to help people be more mindful in their work, and specifically to become more able to create value with one another. “Value” is an interesting word, and you might be the sort of person who’s a bit cynical about it, but they really do mean contingent value: what’s important in the moment, for the people present.
A big part of their helpful efforts revolves around the terms spelled out in the movement’s founding document, the Agile Manifesto. These values arose among software developers, so the words you’ll see there tend to be about software development. But I tend to think that many of the values and principles and practices they’ve developed over the last decade generalize very well indeed.
I always like generalizations, see.
What an agile coach does: They go into those large, authoritarian social spaces I was just telling you about—mostly companies, sometimes governments, rarely (possibly never?) academic spaces—and they essentially help people notice the invisible rules and lines that interfere with their work. From listening to them talk about work, for agile coaches it seems as if that work involves a lot of variations on Yes, this is what you’re doing now… but there are also other ways. Could we try something for a little while that might be easier for you all?
“Just for a little while—let’s try for a week—how about if we do this planning in a slightly different way. One where we don’t try to finish everything all at once and all the time.”
“Let’s take this requirements document, and just page through it together, and see if maybe we could break it down into a bunch of little independent requirements.”
“So if we look at these two things, call them
B, which would you say—just you here in the room right now, since you’re the ones doing the work after all—which would you say we could get done first, if we put the other one off until later….”
“Why are we having this meeting every week? ‘Why’ in the sense of: What actual, visible value does it help us create?”
And so on.
Work is work, and people being coached this way still do that work. But—at least in terms of the invisible tendrils of tacit habits and institutional cruft that restrict the social space—by working with an agile coach, they can learn to do it wrong. And as I’ve established: meaning is made when you do it wrong.
The agile coaches’ practice is not composed of six gleaming Gnostic jewels. Their toolkit is far less monolithic or startling than Bloom’s apophrades or Trickster dressing up like Bugs Bunny in drag. Usually they look like little more than a finger pointed at the elephant in the room, and a quiet suggestion that maybe—slowly, and over a few weeks, when we have time—all of us might be able to nudge this elephant a little bit closer towards the door… just so we can have a bit more room in the middle, is all, not that there’s anything wrong with elephants or anything, or any problem with the Weekly Elephant Shit Cleaning Meeting that’s traditionally held every Friday afternoon at 3pm.
They don’t make people creative using Trickster’s Talking Salmon Down the Pants approach.3 Only rarely do they build a wife out of straw. Mainly they focus on variants of “one step at a time”. Mindfully. Small changes. Not to cause change because change is itself good, or because everybody hurts and maybe we can try something, anything to fix it a little.
Small changes because individual human beings and the interactions among them are really more important than the processes and tools in which they have embedded and tangled themselves.
They do good work. But they need to be invited in to help.
On Beyond Scholarship
Boy, this seems to be a convoluted case I’m building, doesn’t it?
Quick question, easy-peasy to answer: What is scholarship?
And what is the problem of scholarship?
As a reminder, I dragged us all this distance over here because I started to make a list of academic folks—not just scientists and engineers but also artists and social scientists and all those unnumbered other Humanities. Many of those folks are young, and as a result they live precarious worklives. Because everybody in the Academy these days lives a precarious worklife, especially the newcomers. And because shit rolls downhill.
And I hesitated. Why?
Because in the scholarly world, play is bad. Play is sin, an exposure and acknowledgment of the self—not just the body but the subjective contingent ephemeral self—and by exposing the self it pollutes the pure timelessness of objective scholarly truth.
Fancy-sounding, Tozier. Maybe even a bit true. But nobody really thinks those things, do they? Who has time to think? Oh shit, sorry gotta run, it’s time for the next committee meeting.
Play wastes time, and everybody knows there are rules against wasting time. Even if they’re invisible rules.
Ahh. Let me tell you about the invisible rules.
I’ve spent five years visiting colleagues’ academic and industrial labs and studios. Because of my personal history, most so far have been scientists and engineering professors. I look forward to visiting folks in the Humanities and Social Sciences and Arts as well (drop me a line)… though the Humanities and Social Sciences and Arts have even less time and attention for my sort of interruptions than the STEM fields do, these days.
It works like this: I come visit for a day or two. Sometimes my host makes me give a seminar or join lab meeting or something. You know, something “in character”, so it seems to count. But I go there not to practice my weirdly soporific public speaking skills, but so I can watch the careers and lives of the young academics unfold, as they roll blithely on towards the cliffs ahead.
I try hard not to tsk when I think about their prospects in the coming world. I’m there to watch. I chat, and observe. I take notes. I ask questions. So many steadfast, earnest, brilliant people, who have no other place to do their fascinating work.
Sometimes they ask me: Just what is it that you do? When I’m on these visits, I usually sidestep by asking them in turn: It will help me contextualize what I do if I hear about your work first. Tell me about that.
This is how I get them to tell me about their problems.
By “problems”, I don’t mean “struggles”. I see those all the time.
These are struggles: I used to be an academic, and I still live in a University Mill town. So I have a strong sense of the constant grinding struggle they go through. The Life of the Mind™ is an indefinite series of postponements. Put off the rest of your life so you can get… and then retain… and then justify… and then re-justify… and then “finally” defend (but then re-justify again and again, forever) your work and your reputation.
These are people who often arrive as teenagers. They saunter in, imagining their merit is enough to somehow guarantee them stable, life-long tenure-track careers as scholars. If they get near enough to winning one of those scarce careers—instead of being shunted into the Contingent Faculty Scheme—then they face a whole new layer of focused disdain and outright interference from superiors and “colleagues” and skeptical administrators and legislators and all the other people who hold positions of real power over them. Merit notwithstanding.
And—at least in the United States—there are actual active attacks and pressures increasing in every aspect of their lives. Not just in our new antebellum kleptocracy, but for the last few decades of Neoliberal ascendancy beforehand.
This is compounded by the fact that every American University I’ve visited—even the most well-endowed—is an Attention Desert. In a Food Desert, systemic forces make it nearly impossible for the inhabitants to find decent and healthy food. In an Attention Desert, systemic institutional forces conspire to make it nearly impossible for the inhabitants to find time and attention do their “real” work.
In brief, their struggles are only just beginning. They are all so incredibly fucked.
In a Food Desert, health is the first thing to go. In an Attention Desert, play is the first thing to go.
What’s the worst thing you can say about a scholar’s work? Not that it’s invalid. Not that it’s wrong. Not that it’s derivative or weird.
Seems to me like you’re just playing around.
Play is bad. Play is sin. There is no time for play.
I’ve been in the room when brilliant young friends were warned away from blogging by their bosses and advisors… “at least until they got a real job”. When I sold my Erdős Number on eBay, it was read by the “winning” bidder that I was just playing around with what should be an esteemed academic tradition of Mathematics… so he sabotaged my project intentionally, and with glee. Over the decades, disciplinary turf wars over the valid modes of technical work have shifted my old academic “field” of Complex Systems research away from its simple foundational models—which feel “too recreational”—towards more traditional aesthetics… with many more equations, and fewer color pictures. I’ve seen the unbelieving blank stares first hand, when members of an engineering culture accustomed to linear programming and AMPL solvers are shown results from genetic algorithms… and literally can’t believe they’re doing real work because they’re so obviously “toys”.4
“Work” ain’t “play”.
Just the other night I was reading Persi Diaconis’s foreword to Martin Gardner’s autobiography. In it is a simple little sentence that provoked me to write that first list of admired scholars, and also that second list of six ways of doing it wrong, and also this whole weird supplementary treatise. It will probably provoke the next dozen essays after.
Diaconis writes about resistance to Martin Gardner’s plans for a Mathematics curriculum based around his work: “Mathematicians weren’t the only ones who fought recreational math.”5
Even in the 1960s, that word “recreation” pissed them off.
And, having visited and watched a number of Universities over the course of five years… I totally forgive them for being defensive and mad. We joke about the fundamental conservatism of academic culture, but those jokes are low-hanging fruit: they don’t demand much exaggeration. There is no time. There is no space in the day for attention spent on your real work. It’s not only natural but necessary for academic scholars to be sensitive and protective about their work, and want to be sure it’s never called “play” in any context.
They have real problems.
This is why I hesitated to build my list last week: What I’m going to propose will feel—for anybody struggling within the Academy—as if it will only make more work for everybody. As though I’m really just trying to multiply problems without apparent need. To paraphrase another Bill: “Nobody needs more problems, asshole.”
But you know what, Other Bill? The world’s not always as simple as it seems.
My problem is big. Your problem is trivial.
So, finally: Let’s talk about problems.
I’m going to spend way too much time here on what I mean by “problem”, so I can move on to define its complement.
A problem is something a scholar has. Its complement is something I’ll call a recreation. I’m going to use bold type for these terms, almost certainly just to make it a pain in the ass to read the rest of this essay. Hey—it’s better than talking salmon approach.
Caveat lector: I’m using the perfectly normal words (“problem” and “recreation”) in a very specific but also subtly new way. Misprision, in other words… possibly clinamen? I can’t keep them straight, to be honest.
When you read what I’ve proposed below, if you’re a social scientist, you might think I’m saying that Academic culture is built from Communities of Practice. Good! Or, if you’ve read too many books in your life and you notice that I’m talking about the Academy as such, you might think I’m talking about Communities of Inquiry. In either case, yes.
But also: no. Not quite.
I want to start with a clean slate. I want to surface something about the awful seriousness of Academic work that the friendly, comforting word “community” doesn’t surface. I have changed the word because I want to make this work sound painful, troubled, threatened, and defensive. Problematic, in other words.
The problem of problems
Here’s the story I tell myself: All modern academic scholarly work is composed of problems.
A problem is like a community of practice, in that it has human members who share certain norms and cultural habits: aesthetics of work, familiar tools, and so forth. These people also share a common interest in what I’ll call the problem’s topic. Together, the topic and members (and of course the tools and aesthetics of those members) co-create a complex social whole.
There are problems on many scales. Highly specific, almost-personal6 problems, and also sprawling disciplines so big you may never run into their boundaries.
An example would be good about now. Think of these topics: Cryptography. The lateral transfer of genes between kingdoms via symbiosis. The role of Early Modern noble women in Western European scientific communities. Non-invasive detection of deep bone infections. Self-driving cars. Microphotography as a form of abstract art. Cadmium’s effect on potassium uptake from soils and its effect on rapeseed crop yield. The Origin of Life.
Now think of the people who have associated with one another around and because of that topic. The people, with the topic, form the problem.
Each problem also includes a suite of social norms, used by its members to gauge the legitimacy of its members’ and outsiders’ academic work. What kinds of work are valid? What tools can be used? What style of writing is preferred? Does one read one’s papers aloud at conferences, or ad lib them? Slides or overheads or nothing at all? What’s the best journal? Equations? Critical Theory terms? Can you use the word “I” in your work? And so on.
As with any community, a problem is never a static entity. Each is in some sense a claim made by a dynamic social collective—on some scale—for disciplinary turf, in Andrew Abbott’s sense of the word. This “turf” is defined and protected and acquired and fought over in terms of the problems that claim it. Alliances between problems can give rise to new disciplines. Schisms within a problem can lead to drastic shifts in turf. The gradual introduction of new technical approaches or philosophical models can shift the turf one problem claims.
The fundamental explanation of all academic work is problematic.
A problem is a social cluster of topics and people close enough for mutual citation, mutual sharing of resources—time, attention, grant money, page space—and mutual acceptance of its individual members’ tools and aesthetic standards.
By calling the scholarly work of the Academy “problematic”, I’m giving the rest of us a place to stand.
“I’m not sure I understand what this is”
I’ve never spent much professional time around people who pay attention to this sort of thing. I mean, I run into Organizational Behavior people and Workplace Sociologists on the street, as one does. But I wasn’t ever a social scientist myself.
This is all amateur bullshit, as a result.
I think I started to notice these co-created topic-and-community things one day when we were working on a doomed grant application, nearly 25 years ago. I was a graduate student, working in a lab with colleagues on the problem of the Origin of Life.7 And there happened to be a reference in our bibliography to a paper by Günter Wächterhäuser, whose name I didn’t know at the time. When I asked, he was described to me when I asked as “a patent lawyer with an interesting hypothesis”—more or less just the way Wikipedia describes him today.
His work is wonderful and fascinating and worth learning about. He’s unquestionably a member of the problem of the Origin of Life. But as a naive graduate student, barely 25 years old at the time, I’m embarrassed to say I was a little shocked. Who’s this dude, whose profession is not listed as “professor”? How does he deserve to be in our bibliography?
Social cues, see.
From the inside of any given problem, the boundaries are made of those invisible rules and lines I mentioned earlier… the tacit authority. People are either in or out, just as with the more familiar “discipline”. But on more scales at once.
“We” work on the problem of evolutionary computational methods as applied to artificial intelligence and self-organization; “other people” do that neural networks stuff, and we don’t bother citing their stuff (even if we read it). “We” work on the problem of exposing trends in cultural norms in Early Modern novels and epic poetry by close reading and Critical Theory; “other people” do that digital humanities stuff we don’t bother citing (though we work in the same Department, and sometimes go out drinking). “We” work on the problem of microbial ecology on the basis of natural history field notes; “other people” grind up dirt and sequence whatever’s left afterwards (though we wonder how the hell they do the math). And so on.
As I watched my colleagues back then, and as I watch my academic friends and neighbors now, I see this pattern all the time. Nobody ever thinks to walk you to the boundary, stand with you on the near side of it, and say, “This far, no further!”
I wonder sometimes: In the same way that random noise can create new tacit authoritarian norms, can a lack of explicit knowledge of the shared boundaries of a problem drive people towards a sort of “center”? Just to avoid accidentally stepping across a line?
There are inevitable missteps. Within the context of your problem, your legitimacy, and the legitimacy of your work, is constantly evaluated by tacit rules. You can cite the wrong people. You can use the wrong tools. You can make too small or large a leap from other people’s work. You can read your paper at a science conference or ad lib your paper at a humanities conference. Every one of those is a misstep.
There are missteps… and then there’s outright alienation. What can it mean, if your peers and advisors don’t recognize you as part of their problem? Not as an insult, like calling your work “play”, but rather a consistent failure to see you as part of their community at all?
I am reminded of my second graduate program, more than a quarter century ago. Spoiler: It didn’t turn out well.
Here’s what happened to me, and a bit of why.
Also: kenosis! daemonization!
There were two or three truly awful thesis committee meetings. A failed departmental seminar, filled with extraordinary interruptions from the audience. A half-dozen one-on-one chats, sitting on a park bench next to a concerned mentor, both of us shaking our heads—but for different reasons—at the many people he’d just advised me to compromise with. The pleasure of finding an excellent book about “my topic”… followed quickly by the realization that I’d had to request it by interlibrary loan because nobody on campus valued its contents enough to keep a local copy.
Like any academic life, mine was part of a tangled whole, and nowhere near as simple as it seems in hindsight. My father had died, my thesis advisor had moved away (and then been hit by a car), the department in which I was working was a hundred miles from my home, there were no other theoreticians doing work like mine in my department. It was a troubled time.
I remember it all as a sort of time-lapse of cloudy February afternoons, in which I repeatedly tried to defend not just my work, but the way I approached it. Discussions and outright arguments, where I was making the case for the validity of my Complex Systems-infused sort of theoretical biology, even in our Cell & Molecular Biology Department that felt so thoroughly empirical and industrial. Hell, they’d only ever begrudgingly included my absent car-struck advisor as an external faculty member.
To be honest they didn’t really see the point of using computers to “study” the Origin of Life. I was way over the boundary of their problem. Not only off-topic. Complex Systems was not (and still isn’t, I’m sure) “real” Biology. So I was using the wrong tools. I was connected by my collaborations and citations to the wrong people. I even invoked the wrong aesthetics.
Come on: I cited and alluded liberally to Borges in all my writing about in vivo selection of novel functional molecules from random-sequence combinatorial peptide expression libraries. As one should.
I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew the “right” ways to do it. So I resisted my well-intentioned mentors’ advice to compromise and shift and do something more traditional and biological-seeming. For several years I pushed forward with the help of on-campus academic and off-campus industrial patrons, who graciously gave me computer time and lab space. I wrote programs, I cloned libraries, I expressed synthetic proteins in yeast, I filled lab notebooks with photographs of agarose gels and printouts of badly-written simulation programs that enumerated multiobjective fitness landscapes.
It looked a hell of a lot like science to me: Materials, Methods, Results and Discussion, all in a tidy pile. But what was I doing, really? I think I imagined that by dint of volume, I could eventually demonstrate how important8 my problem was.
In some kind of universal, “objective” way.
Heaven help us all from “objectivity”. There’s no such thing, kids. That’s why I make that wry, sad smile whenever I run across a student these days who’s talking the way I used to. It’s why I tell them—because they make me forget the many ways I’m not qualified to hand out Academic career advice—that the most important thing of all is to find colleagues to whom you can deliver value reliably.
You should be reminded of my agile coach friends, and their subtle ways. Because that’s where I picked it up.
So what happened in the story?
Easy. The day came when my patient thesis committee finally said it outright: They had no basis on which to evaluate my work’s quality. I’d clearly done work… of some sort. Just not work they could recognize and approve and say was anything suitable for a degree in Cell & Molecular Biology.
It was probably the most thoughtful and face-saving move to make. It saved face both for them and for me. I could no longer think of myself as part of their problem. They were no longer part of mine.
They did their best, in hindsight, by trying many times to advise and steer me back into the fold. But I was never really part of their problem in the first place. In postmortem interviews, some of them asked again if that programming stuff had been some kind of “practice” maybe? Was it planning for the experimental work? There wasn’t a place in their problem for computational work, except as data analysis. And in 199X, even the lab stuff I did was pretty weird—why would anybody construct random-sequence DNA libraries?
Now, though, I see what happened. The papers I knew, the computational biology papers I used from the 1970s and early 1980s, weren’t part of the field any more. The old men who did that work were falling aside, and had been gone for two or three hiring cycles from the field. The turf claimed by the problem of Biology—the whole discipline, and not just Cell & Molecular Biology—had slid out from under me.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the best-known simple models of complex systems—the ones I was citing in my work—had been built by, and for, Biologists as such. Those modelers (Monod, Kauffman, Lindenmayer, Ray, Savageau, &c &c) and their topics and tools were well-centered in the problem of Biology… but only back then.
But by the day in the early 1990s when I swaggered in the door (full of merit), almost all of the computational chunks of Biology’s problem had been left behind. Population genetics still hung around, but it lost a lot of turf to the adjacent quickly-growing problem of Bioinformatics. The agent-based models and all of autopoiesis and hypercycle dynamics simply abandoned, or Returned To Sender—sent back half-used to the dwindling vestiges of the problems of Philosophical Computer Science and the Physics of Nonlinear Systems.
Because I was more centered in the problem Complex Systems world, not that of Biology, I still knew the people I was citing. They’d never disappeared from the active core of Complex Systems… just from that of Biology. So I never thought of them as “gone”—they were right there in the room with me, some days.
Years before, when I first started looking for a program to join for my degree, the two large-scale problems of Complex Systems and Biology still overlapped substantially. But by the time I matriculated, Cell & Molecular Biology had already entered a period of trial separation from its long-time co-problem, Ecology and Evolution. Along with them went a lot of my people.
Over and over in my postmortem chats, I was told how interesting it all seemed to be—but in the sense of something one reads in a general science magazine, not in the sense of being work. More like a collection of puzzles I had been working on. The steady stream of results, the references, the computational models, the documentation… none of that was really salient to the field. Where “field” means problem, in my nomenclature here today.
In a world of affinity chromatography, ultracentrifugation, continuous differential equations, tissue culture and plasmid preps, an argument made with multiobjective probability theory and random-sequence expression libraries could only ever be seen as a kind of preparatory “play”.
And there’s nothing worse it could have resembled. It probably would have turned out better if I’d stuffed the talking salmon down my pants.
I hope you’re thinking: Boy, it sure sounds like Tozier needed to get over himself. Jeez.
And also, maybe I should have realized sooner that my advisor was fucking awful as a manager, and frankly not really an asset for many other reasons.
Yes! Absolutely. No question. Totally. I agree. Yes! You’ll recall that’s exactly the same advice I give the kids who ask: The most important thing of all is to find colleagues to whom you can deliver value reliably.
For thirty years I’ve been listening to other people’s academic life stories.
Surprisingly often, the storyteller reports a sense of being “under attack”.
Back in my day, we weren’t really under attack. Even Ronald Reagan didn’t do too much damage—as far I can tell. Except, you know, in the broader scheme of ushering in the global Neoliberal hegemony.
But these last ten or twenty years, though? Wow. They are all so incredibly fucked. Scholars these days are literally under attack, from both outside and inside the Academy.
A common theme in these stories is: My coworkers don’t seem to value my work in its own right.
I watch students argue with their advisors, authors argue with their reviewers, Departmental Chairs argue with their Professors and Deans, theorists argue with practitioners, Digital Humanities scholars argue with Critical Theory scholars. When I look closely, these “arguments” are only rarely about the subject matter or the experimental results or the submission deadlines. They’re mostly arguments over whether certain work does or doesn’t “count”. Whether it is “important” or “trivial”.
Whether it’s “real work” or “mere play”.
“Change your job, or change your job”
When I say, over and over again, that academic scholars are all so incredibly fucked, it’s not because of their struggles as such. They are fucked because their problems constrain the ways they can adapt and conform to their coming struggles.
When they feel as if they are “under attack”, they’re right. But the strategies—as in any group—are to converge in one mass, or to split up into many. To huddle back into a single, specialized problem, or to spread out and make a worse target.
But when you “spread out” from your problem, your work becomes play. Stories of alienation like the one I’ve spun from truthy facts will become more common. And if you watch, as I have been doing… they are.
My friends, the agile coaches, arose among software developers and programmers in an industrial setting. They’re skilled professionals, and they coach other skilled professionals. And in that culture, there’s a maxim: Change your job, or change your job.
It’s advice that only works when there are places for you to go. In corporate life, it’s usually the case that there’s somewhere else you can go.
It’s a bit harder in government work. But it’s usually still feasible.
But they’re not problematic, are they? What about academic scholars? Can there even be “real scholarship” outside of a problem?
Not if you insist on doing it right.
Next: “Rockhounding on Misprision Ridge”
But I know you will. When you do, you will encounter a mysterious old man (who appears on my second list) who has spent years writing about them, and who has crafted far better and more opaque definitions for them than I could ever give you myself. And like all Arch-scholars, he is joined in his efforts (though perhaps against his will) by many companions, so as you journey you will tend along the way to run across mysterious French names, vaguely familiar from the covers of tomes you’ve been told to read, but have never really gotten around to finishing.
When you look them up, you will stumble into the Hellenized Middle East by way of Twentieth-Century New England. You will find two claimants at least to each individual word—some religious, and some secular scholars, and some both. And you’ll see many meanings for each. It’s words like turtles, all the way down.
It’s meaning being made. ↩
Don’t get too excited. What we found at the “
X” was also rocks. ↩
Possibly because it’s super hard to get even one talking salmon these days. They have to fly them in and stuff, and they’re labeled
$CALLin the catalogs, which you know means they’re expensive…. So it’s probably a cost-savings thing, too. ↩
I don’t know if I can explain the look on their faces. I think you would see it on the face of a country preacher who’s unwittingly walked into a leather bar to use the bathroom. A surprising fraction of Engineering Humanity has never considered that metaheuristics are a thing normal people ever do (except in stories), and certainly can’t understand why such a thing should ever be permitted in public. ↩
Turns out it was professional educators that hated it, too. ↩
I say “almost-personal”, because of the legitimation stuff I’ll mention below. Validity of one’s work arises from one’s membership in a problem. Otherwise, you’re probably just a crackpot. ↩
Yes, we capitalized “Origin of Life”. I still do, out of habit. ↩
It was interesting work, in hindsight. The people who, several years later and in numerous other institutions, actually did it—working in the context of a more appropriate problem community—all ended up being highly regarded, and from what I hear they have gone on to do other wonderful research since. I’m glad it got done. ↩