In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
Back in my feminist theory days -- yes, I had feminist theory days -- I remember learning that strict body/mind distinctions were suspect. In the halcyon days of postmodernism, we learned that clear fact/value distinctions were mystifications, that public/private splits were far more problematic than usually supposed, and that subject/object distinctions were almost entirely perspectival.
I was reminded of that this week in a discussion about a proposed program. When I raised a series of questions about the practicality of it, I was hit with the concept/implementation distinction. And I realized that from the perspective of someone responsible for budgeting and staffing, the distinction is false. A concept that can’t be implemented is a flawed concept.
That cuts against the grain of a certain kind of idealism. (Postmodernism did the same thing.) It suggests that the popular move of attacking from a position of presumed perfection is inherently suspect. The “critique from imagined perfection” erases the embodied reality of an institution and wishes away the messy realities of resource constraints, other perspectives, and hard-won laws and habits. At base, the critique from perfection is narcissistic; it presumes that the perspective of the critic is the only one free of contingency, or messy particulars. Or, what amounts to the same thing, that other people’s needs just don’t count.
That’s a difficult point to convey to the idealist, who thinks he’s being selfless. He thinks that the shining truth of the idea transcends any individual perspective, and that he’s just being clearsighted about it. The lefty version of that perspective assumes that justice involves approaching the ideal asymptotically; the conservative version assumes a falling away from it, and only hopes to slow the decline. But either way, the truth of the idea is presumed to exist independent of the people holding it.
But the presumption of an entitlement to bulldoze messy reality to fit a personally held idea is nothing if not selfish. Ideas are embodied, and bodies exist in contingent networks of power, resource, flaw, and need. Nobody is above that.
As anyone who spent time in the weeds of postmodernism knows, it’s possible to get lost and paralyzed in an infinite regression of what’s already implicated in what. But that, too, strikes me as a form of selfishness. It takes for granted the work of social construction, and attacks those constructs parasitically.
And here’s where I fled postmodernism for its American cousin, pragmatism. At some point, you have to make a decision if you actually want to get anything done. That doesn’t mean either denying contingencies or surrendering to them; it means accepting the reality of them and owning the decision to move anyway. It means rejecting both the “critique from perfection” and fatalism, and, not incidentally, noticing that the former is often just a dressed-up version of the latter.
From this perspective, the way to attack an existing practice or idea is to propose -- or, preferably, to develop -- a better one. An idea that relies on people to be superhuman is bound to fail, and therefore of little interest; I’d much rather hear about something that could actually work. That means doing the hard work of tending to the details. Do we really have that many classrooms available at 3:00? Would that class actually transfer? What are the financial aid implications? What about staffing? How would we sustain it when the grant runs out? How does this fit with students’ plans? Who would run it? How would it fit in the curriculum? What would we have to displace to make room for it?
Those aren’t technicalities to be waved away by the heroic leader. They’re the guts of the organization, each with its own history and reasons, and they matter. The folks who win my respect are the ones who come to grips with those issues and continue to move forward anyway. I’ve seen it done. Done well, it makes a tremendous difference. It’s harder than just opining from on high and passing dismissive judgment on mere mortals, but it carries the prospect of real, sustainable, positive results.
Pure, unadulterated certainty can be intoxicating and addictive. In small doses, in the right moments, it can provide some motivation. But the high comes at a cost, and the addict is every bit as selfish as any other addict. The feminist theorists had a great point when they noted that we’re all embodied, and flawed, and, in some sense, blinkered. The lesson I drew from that was a need for humility in the face of complicated, messy realities. But the humility isn’t in the service of fatalism or a flight to innocence and virtue. It’s in the service of making changes that aren’t doomed from the outset. The “beautiful loser” may be romantic, but I prefer wins we can actually implement.
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