Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Some thoughts on theory

Some of the Facebook discussions on #rhizo14 have taken a theoretical turn, mostly focused on Deleuze and Guattari as you would expect. In and amongst the folks trying to make sense of it I'm coming across the odd comment that D&G's writing (and specifically we're talking about the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus) is difficult. Some people are blaming the translators and some people are blaming D&G. Some folks have suggested that if a reader finds critical theory difficult that it's not their fault. Others are suggesting that this is because all critical theory is unnecessarily and therefore deliberately obfuscatory. Others are suggesting that they can be certain of this because the concepts that are being explained in the theory seem to be quite simple and to be things that they already 'get' intuitively.

I'm afraid there's no kind or easy way to say this but theory is hard. It's not the readers' fault, it's not the translators' fault and it's certainly not the theorists' fault. It just is. This statement is true of all theory not just critical theory.

For example, if I were to try reading some theoretical physics (given I've not studied any physics beyond a four week 'taster' in Grade 10) I doubt I would understand much, if any, of it. Frankly, every time I arrived at a formula I would be completely stumped: I don't know how to read formulae and I don't understand what any of the symbols mean. If I needed or wanted to understand that theoretical physics, I fully appreciate that it is my responsibility to learn what all the individual symbols in the formula mean and how to read the formula. I would never expect the theoretical physicist to have to explain every formula from scratch for me. The physicist is writing for a learned audience who already knows this stuff; she is writing in jargon.

This leads me on to my next point: jargon is useful. All of us who work in a scholarly field carry some kind of disciplinary specialism and goodness knows we do tend to love wallowing in jargon. But we do so because it is useful to us. Jargon helps folks who share common knowledges to efficiently import rich meaning into conversations.

To return to my example of trying to understand theoretical physics: some of the things (but by no means all) these theoretical physicists are explaining are things I get intuitively, like gravity and inertia. Just because I get these things intuitively does not mean that their explaining it (in the detail that is useful for theoretical physics) is pointless or deliberately obfuscatory. Furthermore, much of what they're explaining (such as Van der Waals force) is not intuitive to me and I would be arrogant to suggest that everything in the realm of theoretical physics is stuff that I do or could get intuitively.

The same goes for critical theory. The value of critical theory (from my point of view) is that it exposes things that the vast majority of us believe to be 'true' and 'factual' to actually be constructed and mythic. In other words, it's useful precisely because it is counterintuitive. This is especially true of D&G which returns me to my favourite quotation: 'We are tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees... They have made us suffer too much' (p.15). The point they are making here which is so counterintuitive is that lots of things that we believe to be arborescent are not, but we believe that they are because we have been taught that they are.

I've been reading and teaching critical theory for two decades now. With that experience and prior knowledge under my belt, I can approach most critical theory for the first time and get a pretty good grasp of it after a first reading. After a few more goes, I understand more of it and misunderstand less of it. Even though I can do this, it still requires work on my part. I appreciate that for folks who are new to critical theory this is going to be appreciably harder. But - and this is my first key point - that does not absolve anyone from having to do that work if they want or need to understand it.

This leads me to my next key point: there are very real dangers if we don't do that work. We can't just have a bit of a stab at what theory means and hope for the best. Worse still, we can't rely on someone else's take on theory and presume it is accurate. We also can't just defend our take on theory to be correct because that's what we take it to mean. This runs the risk of us deciding that we are in the business of just making things up.

This gets me back to the discussions on #rhizo14. There are lots of people trying to get their heads around what rhizomatic learning actually is. This is understandable, after all, it's why we're all in this course. But there are also folks who are trying to do this without even having read the theoretical material upon which all of this is based. I really want to encourage everyone who is in this boat to give the theory a go.

So - here's my advice on how to do that. Download it or borrow it from your library. (You only need to read the 25 page introduction not the whole book). Get hold of a good dictionary of critical theory (not just a regular dictionary which will actually be unhelpful): Ian Buchanan's is a good 'un. Give yourself two hours. Go somewhere quiet and comfortable where you're not going to be disturbed. Give it a go. Annotate it as you go. Write yourself questions about bits you don't understand. Celebrate the bits you do understand. Put it down. Walk away. Give yourself a break (24 hours or more). Then pick it up and read it again. Repeat. Repeat again. You cannot expect to understand much of it on a first, second or even third reading. Finally, be kind to yourself: you cannot expect to ever really understand all of it.


39 comments:

  1. Thanks Cath. This is very useful and I agree with you about the need to get to grips with a theory (before during and after applying it). It's a pity I didn't know about this pdf before I ordered the book yesterday ;) but it will be good to hold it in my hands. I have also ordered a reader linked in this post http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/the-perils-of-rhizomatic-learning/ . I would love your comments on the perils I have identified for us in this MOOC - we are at a critical point I think.

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  2. Thanks Cath. I liked your advice about giving theory a go... On the other hand, I think also that those who don' t want don' t need to do that. There are many paths to explore.

    In this avalanche of information nowadays, I feel more and more the usefulness of having people with some skills and background translating knowledge and making it accessible to others with different skills and background.

    This applies to science & technology as well as to critical theory.

    Thanks again!

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  3. Learning requires effort and vocabulary. Here's a nice Deleuze beginner's guide. http://htmlgiant.com/random/the-beginners-guide-to-deleuze/

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  4. Let's hear it for rigourous thinking rather than hearsay!

    I really enjoyed your post.

    I am not on Facebook - but I see sloppy thinking in a great many places online and on paper. I teach masters students - and part of that is teaching that simply scanning a paper does not entitle one to a view :)

    I will keep your post as an example of depth in blogging (rare) and its content as a clear explanation of what it means to learn in a disciplined way and avoiding getting 'in the business of just making things up.' Thank you, Cath. #rhizo14MF

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  5. Hi Cath, I came across your post earlier in the week from G+ and thought at the time what amazing insight it presented into what it actually takes to understand hard core academic theory. I'm only just starting to delve into academia now with some Masters research and can definitely say that I have been guilty of relying on citations of theory (i.e. relying on someone else's take on the theory...). Your post has certainly opened my eyes to the need for a more rigorous approach, and what is required / involved to do this.

    I'm vaguely aware that your post may have created some ripples in the rhizo community. I just wanted to say thanks for writing it anyway; the diversity is actually something I'm loving in rhizo14, and I think it's great to have voices from the academic community in the mix.

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  6. here! here! I second your comment Tanya :-) ripples are part of life and I for one would hate the ripples to put you off saying what you think and contributing to #rhizo14. I just wrote a long comment on the Sandra's blog to that effect. Pushing away what we disagree with is a normal human response. Some of us are more aware than others as to the hard work it takes to sit with the tension of opposites. Keep writing and challenging - to function well all groups need both support and challenge. I too thank you for your post and do come into the G+ space more ask anything that is not clear. it is a little confusing at the start but I really enjoy the platform.

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  7. Thanks both. I'm adding a few more belated posts in the next few days.

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  8. Cathy, thanks for the post. I'm one of those people who likes theory and can follow some of it, including some of D&G, but I also have great empathy for those who favor the practical, applied side of a discipline. Sometimes I think they have the harder part: applying all those ideas that the theorists think up. Speaking of physics, I think society is still struggling 100 years later to weave into common practice the insights of Einstein, Bohr, and others. It's hard work.

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  9. I have been wondering my relationship toward rhizo learning, I have a sense of knowing it without reading. Perhaps it depends on my knowledge base: I know
    "the whole range of critical theory, including the Frankfurt school, cultural materialism, gender studies, literary theory, hermeneutics, historical materialism, and sociopolitical critical theory. - even the most complex of theoretical discourses, such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism."
    Thanks, I continue without reading D&G

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