The Power of Postpositive Thinking

The Power of Postpositive Thinking
August 2, 2006

Last week, a scholarly group known as the Future of Minority Studies held a colloquium at Stanford University, drawing something in the neighborhood of a hundred participants. And the term "neighborhood" seems very fitting. The spirit of the gathering was unusual, even though the schedule and format were, in many ways, very typical of academic conferences. (Audio of my interviews with Satya P. Mohanty and Paula Moya, organizers of the conference, is available here .)

There was a keynote address, and a series of panels during which papers were read. Everybody wore nametags, of course, establishing one's right to be there as a member of some (more or less prominent) institution. Yet the event never had that stressful, desperate quality you come to expect at academic get-togethers. The cultural politics of prestige seemed out of commission.

That famous modality of ego-maintenance known as "the nametag glance" did not have the furtive and worried edge it normally does. The discussions following the papers and in the aisles afterward seemed remarkably open and devoid of theoretical one-upmanshup. In the course of two whole days, I never saw anybody grovel.

The gathering was drawn from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and also included people with varying degrees of ability or disability, and a balanced array of gender identities and sexual orientations. Social diversity was only part of it. Participants also hailed from regions of the humanities and social sciences that otherwise tend not to stay in touch: literary critics, historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and probably a few more fields besides.

The impressive thing is not just that communication proved possible (friendly, even) but the prevailing intellectual attitude: a belief that collaboration is possible across the usual barriers, disciplinary and otherwise. It is easy enough to affirm this in principle. Only when you see it in being translated into demeanor and face-to-face conversation does it seem meaningful.

There is a theory behind the Future of Minority Studies project –- one with a name, in fact, though not a very catchy one. It is called "postpositivist realism." Henceforth let it be abbreviated as PPR,  given the brevity of life. Some discussion of PPR has taken place in New Literary History and Diacritics -- journals prominent in literary studies. But PPR is not a dominant or even particularly well-known force within that field (as yet anyway). Its influence has grown quietly, in a somewhat roundabout way, through disciplinary exchanges and multicultural alliances.

Strictly speaking, the first work on PPR was done by philosophers of science (as discussed here). Its implications for cultural analysis were first discussed by Mohanty, a professor of English at Cornell University, in a series of papers he began publishing in the early 1990s. In a conversation earlier this summer, he recalled having been very strongly drawn to structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers at the start of his career, only to find that the critical perspectives they offered were hardening into an orthodoxy.

In particular, a dominant trend in critical theory was the rejection of the concept of objectivity as something that rests on a more or less naive epistemology: a simple belief that "facts" exist in some pristine state untouched by "theory." To avoid being naive, the dutiful student learned to insist that, after all, all facts come to us embedded in various assumptions about the world. Hence (ta da!) "objectivity" exists only within an agreed-upon framework. It is relative to that framework. So it isn’t really objective....

What Mohanty found in his readings of the philosophy of science were much less naïve, and more robust, conceptions of objectivity than the straw men being thrashed by young Foucauldians at the time. We are not all prisoners of our paradigms. Some theoretical frameworks permit the discovery of new facts and the testing of interpretations or hypotheses. Others do not. In short, objectivity is a possibility and a goal -- not just in the natural sciences, but for social inquiry and humanistic research as well.

Mohanty’s major theoretical statement on PPR arrived in 1997 with Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Cornell University Press). Because poststructurally inspired notions of cultural relativism are usually understood to be left wing in intention, there is often a tendency to assume that hard-edged notions of objectivity must have conservative implications. But Mohanty’s work went very much against the current.

"Since the lowest common principle of evaluation is all that I can invoke," wrote Mohanty, complaining about certain strains of multicultural relativism, "I cannot -- and consequently need not -- think about how your space impinges on mine or how my history is defined together with yours. If that is the case, I may have started by declaring a pious political wish, but I end up denying that I need to take you seriously."

PPR did not require throwing out the multicultural baby with the relativist bathwater, however. It meant developing ways to think about cultural identity and its discontents. A number of Mohanty's students and scholarly colleagues have pursued the implications of postpositive identity politics. I've written elsewhere about Moya, an associate professor of English at Stanford University who has played an important role in developing PPR ideas about identity. And one academic critic has written an interesting review essay on early postpositive scholarship -- highly recommended for anyone with a hankering for more cultural theory right about now.

Not everybody with a sophisticated epistemological critique manages to turn it into a functioning think tank -- which is what started to happen when people in the postpositive circle started organizing the first Future of Minority Studies meetings at Cornell and Stanford in 2000. Others followed at the University of Michigan and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Two years ago FMS applied for a grant from Mellon Foundation, receiving $350,000 to create a series of programs for graduate students and junior faculty interested in minority studies, and for scholars from minority backgrounds who work in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences.

The FMS Summer Institute, first held in 2005, is a two-week seminar with about a dozen participants -- most of them ABD or just starting their first tenure-track jobs. The institute is followed by a much larger colloquium (the part I got to attend last week). As schools of thought in the humanities go, the postpositivists are remarkably light on the in-group jargon. Someone emerging from the Institute does not, it seems, need a translator to be understood by the uninitated. Nor was there a dominant theme at the various panels I heard.

Rather, the distinctive quality of FMS discourse seems to derive from a certain very clear, but largely unstated, assumption: It can be useful for scholars concerned with issues particular to one group to listen to the research being done on problems pertaining to other groups.

That sounds pretty simple. But there is rather more behind it than the belief that we should all just try to get along. Diversity (of background, of experience, of disciplinary formation) is not something that exists alongside or in addition to whatever happens in the "real world." It is an inescapable and enabling condition of life in a more or less democratic society. And anyone who wants it to become more democratic, rather than less, has an interest in learning to understand both its inequities and how other people are affected by them.

A case in point might be the findings discussed by Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, in a panel on Friday. His paper reviewed some of the research on "identity contingencies," meaning "things you have to deal with because of your social identity." One such contingency is what he called "stereotype threat" -- a situation in which an individual becomes aware of the risk that what you are doing will confirm some established negative quality associated with your group. And in keeping with the threat, there is a tendency to become vigilant and defensive.

Steele did not just have a string of concepts to put up on PowerPoint. He had research findings on how stereotype threat can affect education. The most striking involved results from a puzzle-solving test given to groups of white and black students. When the test was described as a game, the scores for the black students were excellent -- conspicuously higher, in fact, than the scores of white students. But in experiments where the very same puzzle was described as an intelligence test, the results were reversed. The black kids scores dropped by about half, while the graph for their white peers spiked.

The only variable? How the puzzle was framed -- with distracting thoughts about African-American performance on IQ tests creating "stereotype threat" in a way that game-playing did not.

Steele also cited an experiment in which white engineering students were given a mathematics test. Just beforehand, some groups were told that Asian students usually did really well on this particular test. Others were simply handed the test without comment. Students who heard about their Asian competitors tended to get much lower scores than the control group.

Extrapolate from the social psychologist’s experiments with the effect of a few innocent-sounding remarks -- and imagine the cumulative effect of more overt forms of domination. The picture is one of a culture that is profoundly wasteful, even destructive, of the best abilities of many of its members.

"It’s not easy for minority folks to discuss these things," Satya Mohanty told me on the final day of the colloquium. "But I don't think we can afford to wait until it becomes comfortable to start thinking about them. Our future depends on it. By ‘our’ I mean everyone’s future. How we enrich and deepen our democratic society and institutions depends on the answers we come up with now."

Portions of the Colloquium will be made available online. For updates, and more information on the Future of Minority Studies project, check the FMS Web site.

A version of the keynote speech from this year’s Colloquium, “Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the 21st Century Academy,” by Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, will appear soon at Inside Higher Ed.

Earlier this year, Oxford University Press published a major new work on postpositivist theory, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self,by Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor of philosophy at Syracuse University. Several essays from the book are available at the author’s Web site.



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