Wanting it Now: Academic Composition and Returning to the Theory/Practice Question

Thursday, July 3, 2008

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Martha Webber, English and Writing Studies

On faculty this summer at the School of Criticism and Theory, Elizabeth Povinelli, professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia University, workshopped her current research through a series of events over last week. Her current project, an articulation of the "Economies of Abandonment,"* continues her longstanding interest in theorizing late liberalism and how recognition happens (or fails to) within it, but she presents a new concern with how the present is both figured and felt by publics and individuals, specifically those "bracketed" from consideration. In the smallest and simplest of nutshells: Povinelli argues that a fundamental division in liberal society produces an "economy of abandonment" in which the bracketed are left in a durative present where they are assured of both an imminent future where past injustices will be righted and a future where present unjust measures of social control will continue indefinitely. One of the questions she is striving to think through, then, is what a political language of the "now" could do and if it will counter a tradition of public policy justified through the tenses of the past and future.

I was happy to hear an earlier form of this research during her keynote lecture for Decolonizations and, if anything, over the past couple of months, Povinelli's articulation of her concern with "now" actions and "present" arguments has only seemed to intensify. But there is something to this temporal concern that strikes me, in large part because of my field, Writing Studies, which foregrounds questions of process and political participation to productively challenge our understanding of writers and their compositions as they unfold over time and space. At its base, the process of academic publication, at least in the humanities, neither easily accommodates urgency or encourages a "now" that isn't justified through these same tenses of past and future. And so, as Povinelli's drafts, talks, and various articles eventually lead to a monograph that will intervene somewhere in the imminent future, I know the monograph (as a medium) structurally can't communicate the kind of urgency or concern with the present I have seen manifest in Povinelli, amongst colleagues, and friends in various positions in higher education.

I return to a question that continues to raise anxieties for those who choose to situate themselves within the Academy. How does contemporary theory relate to present practice broadly and for an academic? What is it that we are doing when we disappear for hours at a time to write carefully situated critiques or when we experience a flash of anxiety that makes us plan to add Agamben to our interminable "To Read" list because everyone in the room seems to be talking about him.

This theory/practice conflict is by no means a new question - in fact, Annelise Riles, Professor of Law and Anthropology here at Cornell who introduced the talk last week, recounted that she had heard Povinelli over the years doubt her work as something capable of producing action. This sentiment reflects upon Povinelli's own decades-long fieldwork with Aborigine groups and I suspect the relationship between theory and practice has received special consideration in anthropology, sociology, and writing studies because fieldwork creates very urgent, tangible, and even amusing situations where you suddenly realize how very little of your theoretical training influences your actions. It is not merely a question for those working from the field, however, to consider. Povinelli's temporal framework provokes us to consider the tenses of our professional activities and theoretical engagements and the possibility of present actions.

* Unpublished paper; quoted with permission from author.


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Michael Rothberg said...

I really like the way Martha has re-framed the eternal problem of theory and practice in this post by referring to the temporality of academic work.

As anyone knows who has published or tried to publish in academic journals and books, there's an almost intolerable lag-time that insinuates itself between the moment of composition (which itself can stretch over years) and the moment of publication. This is often frustrating and certainly debilitating to certain kinds of work, but maybe it’s worth thinking of the productivity of the lag and not just its costs. I have several different thoughts about this problem.

First, I don’t think this lag is particular to theory—it’s potentially a problem for all forms of discourse (an ancient Derridean truism!). In fact, it may be that theory is less disabled by lag than some forms of criticism and field work since it attempts to offer generalizable axioms and not simply site-specific readings.

Second, I think most of us semi-consciously factor this lag into our academic writings. In other words, we are conscious of the radical lack of immediacy of published work and craft our arguments with this in mind. This may be exactly part of the problem that Povinelli is criticizing—or it could be in Martha’s extrapolation of it—but maybe that kind of crafting for the future is not all bad either. I’m not convinced we want to put all our money on the “now,” even though I am sympathetic to the point Povinelli is making in her new work on suffering in the “durative present.”

Third, the problem of the lag is one of the things that new genres—such as blogs—are meant to counter. I don’t think all of our problems are solved by such experiments (see point 4 below), but I do think the possibilities for quicker and more collective interventions made possible by new media are important and worth reflecting on (!).

Fourth, I think it might be a mistake to contrast in a binary way the lag of theory to the unproblematic immediacy and “now-ness” of practice/activism/the real world. For one, good practice requires reflection, trial and error, organization, etc. For another, the effects of practice, like the effects of theory, rarely happen in the “now”—which is not to say that we have to consider them indefinitely deferred. Effects of discourse and of action ripple outwards—or at least that’s what we hope.

Further references: Folks interested in the new Povinelli work should check out her essay in the most recent SAQ, which I referred to in the comments thread after Kevin’s last post. Also, Lauren Berlant just posted an interesting piece on “potentiality” theory over at her blog that intersects with Martha’s discussion (see the link in our mini-blog roll—and, hey, we could use more links there, so let us know of any ideas). Finally, I’d be interested in hearing about the relation between Martha’s/Povinelli’s “now” and Benjamin’s notion of the “now-time” [Jetztzeit]. They’re quite different, I think, but worth thinking about together, perhaps.

aljean said...

Your thoughts on temporality and theory raise, for me, the question of medium. If one writes in video, in academia, publishing can be immediate (via YouTube). Of course, video also can allow for communality in production, and it can sit in the real world, also the place of politics. All this is much harder to accomplish with the word, even on a blog.

Michael Rothberg said...

Aljean makes an interesting and important point about medium-specificity. I'm no expert on the new media, but I agree that the development of video (among other things) and its increased accessibility via YouTube and other sources, has to make a difference in how we think about theory, politics, the real, etc.

That said, I would still want to hold out for an understanding of all media as forms of mediation--even if not all mediation is alike. Media such as video produce immediacy-effects (à la Barthes's "reality-effect"), but those are effects that critics must again and again deconstruct. Or at least that's what I would argue!