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  • Mark 5:43 pm on January 14, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills, , craftsmanship, , ,   

    On intellectual craft  

    I’m currently reading On Intellectual Craftsmanship, in preparation for a talk I’m doing in Berlin next week. This famous appendix to The Sociological Imagination is something I’ve long been inspired by, finding in it a way of organising my own life that belies the text’s apparently humble ambition to merely guide the novice scholar through the daily minutiae of scholarship. It might be the case that, as Mills puts it in his introduction, “Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student”. However it is in such conversations that we also renew our connection to what matters to us, finding energy and affirmation in the curiosity and concern we share for the social world we inhabit. If we dispense with the masculine language that marks the time in which it was written, there is a deeply powerful vision of scholarship as a vocation offered here by Mills. It is one which is all the more powerful for being grounded so precisely in a realistic sense of the “actual ways of working” which are the substance of our professional lives yet often fade from view when we describe what we do in terms of the lofty abstractions of theory and methodology:

    It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention among men in general, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work which men in general now do. But you will have recognized that as a scholar you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship. Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman.

    It is a subtle vision, which I suspect I’ll return to in future posts over the next week as I reacquaint myself with it. It isn’t just an individualised matter, in spite of the vivid sense of interiority which Mills conveys in his urgent reminder that we should work to ‘keep our inner world awake’. It is in such awareness that Mills sees the possibility of methodological renewal, as a community can flourish when its members can converse about their foremost concerns rather than the dead formalities which their organisational lives demand of them:

    informal interchange of such reviews of ‘the state of my problems’ among working social scientists is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of ‘the leading problems of social science.’ It is unlikely that in any free intellectual community there would be and certainly there ought not to be any ‘monolithic’ array of problems. In such a community, were it flourishing in a vigorous way, there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work. Three kinds of interludes—on problems, methods, theory—ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being. And for them too your own file is needed.

    It is a powerful vision, worth returning to as our “actual ways of working” are undergoing a profound transformation. It should be treated carefully, because the notion of the ‘craft’ can obfuscate as easily as it can ground. But it provides an ethos which can guide our trajectory through the space of opportunities opened up by digital platforms, helping ensure that we use these platforms for our own ends rather than being used by them.

     
    • landzek 6:53 pm on January 14, 2018 Permalink

      I feel like I read that years ago. I always liked that idea that our work lives are not separate from the life we live or whatever he puts it so great.

      I mean because isn’t that the modern way? Segregate activities into bubbles of knowledge that a person actively segregates and avoids conflation?

      It’s kind of funny because I’ve never understood that but I find it in so many of my neighbours and people around me. Lol it’s almost like a skill set that I developed because I have noticed for so long people is resistance to having a life where information from all areas flows in and out depending on the circumstance; I had to develop a certain kind of skill set in order to deal with these people in a manner so they wouldn’t think that I’m annoying or something. Lol.

  • Mark 9:27 am on March 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills, , , , scholarly craft, , ,   

    The Technology of Intellectual Work 

    In 1988 Pierre Bourdieu chaired a commission reviewing the curriculum at the behest of the minister of national education. The scope of the review was broad, encompassing a revision of subjects taught in order to strengthen the coherence and unity of the curriculum as a whole. In order to inform this work, the commission early on formulated principles to guide their endeavour, each of which were then expanded into more substantive observations concerning their implications.

    One of these stood out to me as of great contemporary relevance for the social sciences in the digital university. Their principle considers those “ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”. In other words, what are the elements of educational practice which are integral to it and how can we assure their succesful transmission in training? These include “fundamental ways of thinking” such as “deduction, experiment, and the historical approach, as well as reflective and critical thinking which should always be combined with the foregoing” and “the specific character of the experimental way of thinking”, “a resolute valuation of qualitative reasoning”, a clear recognition of the provisional nature of explanatory models” and “ongoing training in the practical work of research”. It extends this discussion to the technologies used in practice:

    Finally, care must be taken to give major place to a whole series of techniques that, despite being tacitly required by all teaching, are rarely the object of methodical transmission: use of dictionaries and abbreviations, rhetoric of communication, establishment of files, creation of an index, use of records and data banks, preparation of a manuscript, documentary research, use of computerised instruments, interpretation of tables and graphs, etc.

    Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 175

    This concern for the “technology of intellectual work” is one from which we could learn a lot, as well as the importance placed upon “rational working methods (such as how to choose between tasks imposed, or to distribute them in time)”. It maps nicely onto what C. Wright Mills described as intellectual craftsmanship. When we consider the technologies of scholarly production – things like notebooks, word processors, index cards, post it notes, print outs, diagrams and marginalia – our interest is in their use-in-intellectual-work. The technologies become something quite specific when bound up in intellectual activity:

    But how is this file – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of ‘literary’ journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file *is* intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished.

    The Sociological Imagination, pg 199-200

    If we recognise this, we overcome the distinction between theory and practice. The distinction between ‘rational working methods’, ‘technology of intellectual work’ and ‘fundamental ways of thinking’ is overcome in scholarly craft. The role of the technology is crucial here: if we suppress or forget the technological, transmission of these practices is abstracted from their application, leaving their practical unfolding to be something which has to be discovered individually and privately (“ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”). But places for discussion of craft in this substantive sense have been the exception rather than the rule within the academy.

    Perhaps social media is changing this. It is facilitating a recovery of technology, now finding itself as one of the first things social scientists discuss when they enter into dialogues through social networks and blogs. But it also facilitates what Pat Thompson has described as a feral doctoral pedagogy:

    Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQ, PhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis Whisperer, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.

    https://patthomson.net/2014/06/16/are-we-heading-for-a-diy-phd/Doctoral researchers 

    There can be problematic aspects to this. But when it’s valuable, it’s at the level of precisely the unity of thinking, technology and activity which the commission advocated. Social media is helping us recover the technology of intellectual work and it’s an extremely positive development for the social sciences.

     
  • Mark 8:23 am on April 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills, edward said, , ,   

    The Avoidance of the Intellectual 

    Wonderful quote by Edward Said featured on Corey Robin’s blog:

    Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

    For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.

    http://coreyrobin.com/2015/04/20/the-avoidance-of-the-intellectual/

    It reminds me of C Wright Mills on the responsibility of the intellectual:

    As a type of social man, the intellectual does not have any one political direction, but the work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article, does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, are the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. In so far as he is politically adroit, the main tenet of this politics is to find out as much of the truth as he can, and to tell it to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. Or, stated negatively: to deny publicly what he knows to be false, whenever it appears in the assertions of no matter whom … The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society at least with reference to the value of truth, for in the defining instance, that is his politics. And he ought also to be a man absorbed in the attempt to know what is real and unreal.

     
  • Mark 8:36 am on April 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: art of listening, , c wright mills, , , , ,   

    Academic scribes, their writing and their unsociability 

    The paradox is that we academic scribes are not always very sociable. We cling to the library like bookish limpets that, like Kierkegaard, find real human beings too heavy to embrace. We speak a lot about society but all too often listen to the world within limited frequencies. I am proposing an approach to listening that goes beyond this, where listening is not assumed to be a self-evident faculty that needs no training. Somehow the grey books written on sociological method do not help much with this kind of fine tuning. The lacklustre prose of methodological textbooks often turns the life in the research encounter into a corpse fit only for autopsy.

    Les Back, The Art of Listening, Pg 163

    I think there’s more to this than can be fairly ascribed to the limitations of ‘traditional’ scholarly communication. But I think these nonetheless play a significant role in contributing to the ‘unsociability’ of sociology. In part, it’s a matter of audience, with marginality arising from a turning inwards towards others like ourselves. If we’re communicating with a technical audience, it creates a tendency to drift towards ever more technical language. In doing so, norms surrounding ‘proper’ communication will themselves tend towards the obtuse and, with this, the starting point from which we drift becomes ever more mired in professionalised marginality.

    When I say ‘technical language’ I mean specialised vocabulary in the broadest sense, those networks of terms and concepts which emerge in relation to specialised practices, deriving their meaning and purpose from connection to such skilled activity. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with technical language in this sense. It shouldn’t be avoided entirely nor could it be. But to use Les Back’s lovely expression, “we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write”. We should be relentlessly critical of our tendency to slide into jargon while nonetheless recognising the role that jargon can serve. Rather than seeing clarity and complexity as antipathetic, such that we struggle to distinguish between the accessibly simplified and the simplistically accessible, we should focus on the ways that technical vocabulary (complex) can be used to express precise claims succinctly (clarity) in a way which would otherwise be impossible.

    What role does it serve beyond this? I can’t see that it serves any intellectual role and, as prone as I am to slipping into it myself, I’m determined to train myself out of the habits that 7 years of postgraduate education have inculcated in me*. It clearly serves a personal role though, as C Wright Mills makes clear in one of my favourite passages from his work**:

    In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

    C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

    In this sense I think we can see ‘academic writing’ as a dispositional complex which has been reinforced in three ways: status anxiety at the level of the person, restrictive norms about ‘proper’ writing at the level of academic culture and a narrow range of available media** at the level of academic institutions. These constraining factors will act in different ways and at different times but their emergent power over time mitigates against the possibility of forms of writing which aim “to document and understand social life without assassinating it”. This is on page 164 of the Art of Listening. There’s an even nicer formulation of this in an interview with Les Back here: “ways of writing about the social world that don’t assassinate the life that’s in it”. I think this expression is an example of precisely the virtues it advocates. It’s a phrase I’m simply not going to forget and it conveys its main claim with an immediacy which would be difficult to accomplish with a less literary mode of expression. 

    In my paper about online writing I’m trying to think through the possibilities offered by blogging in terms of this diagnosis. I think there’s a real risk of academic blogging being ‘captured’ by professionalisation in a way which undermines the potentially transformative role it can play in relation to personal practice. But the possibilities for experimentation are hugely significant nonetheless. In an important sense, it’s a uniquely malleable medium, at least compared to monographs, edited books and journal articles etc. I need to figure out more precisely what I mean by ‘malleability’ here. I’m also including ‘micro-blogging’ within this scope, despite it being a term I’ve always hated. Partly to expand the scope of what I’ve been invited to write but also because considering Twitter could help flesh out my overarching argument. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of Nein Quarterly as an example of the innovative modes of expression that the radical brevity of Twitter can help give rise to.

    *Including the habit of writing sentences, such as this one and many in the main body of the text, which I believe are called compound-complex sentences. Quite why I feel so compelled to do this, with the strangely undulating character it entails for my prose, continues to elude me but I’d like to know nonetheless.

    **I don’t think this can be straight-forwardly applied to our present situation but the main thrust of the argument is still valid.

    ***Which are themselves narrow in terms of the expression they permit.

     
    • BeingQuest 9:18 pm on April 13, 2014 Permalink

      Compounded thoughts require equal clarity, hard to come by until scanning, abstracting a general terrain (the role of flora/fauna in one’s daily experience of Nurture and Nature, for instance) of personal orientation, some punctuated events sometimes, as Surprise unleashing cognitive frame-setting momentum that scatters or focuses attention via interest/s in/of the EF; defensive/offensive strategies, fight/flight or masquerade, curiosity, play or indifference among acquaintance, friend or stranger, effectively proving some Integrity of Agency withal, as in any striving, writing as in living, as in loving or loss. Complex? Perhaps not too.

  • Mark 9:36 am on March 6, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills, ,   

    Public Sociology and Sociological Writing 

    One of my favourite passages by C Wright Mills concerns the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”. An “elaborate vocabulary” and “involved manner of speaking and writing” become props for a professional self-image which defines itself, in part, through the inaccessibility of the work being produced:

    In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

    C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

    This was written at a very particular point in time. Yet this trend has seemingly persisted, perhaps intensified, even though the particular circumstances of mid twentieth century american academia have passed. The confusion between what is simplified and simplistic persists, with new modes of intellectual expression leading many to conflate the two with a renewed vigour. It’s important to avoid overstating this case. Some readable things are superficial. Some simplified things are simplistic. Would anyone deny this? The point is to sensitise ourselves to where these boundaries fall. At what point does the pursuit of the former risk engendering the latter? Unless we’re clear about this, any activity tending in this direction will be left as a site of unbridled professional neurosis. So while I agree with Arlene Stein here, I think it’s only part of the picture:

    I know from my work with Contexts that there are lots of sociologists who have very interesting things to say about the world. And in fact, they yearn to share their work with audiences beyond the academy, but they don’t know how to do so. That’s because they don’t know how to translate their work for different publics.

    In recent years, more and more sociologists are making a case for the importance of doing “public sociology.” This discussion, while certainly important, has taken place largely at the level of theory, via the work of past American Sociological Association President Michael Burawoy and others.  Some of it is taking place among those who are engaging in digital sociology, if posts I’ve been seeing on such blogs as The Sociological Imagination are any indication.

    Yet few, it seems, are focusing their sights on making sociological writing more engaging, and fewer still see this as central to the public sociology project.

    We need to do all of these things simultaneously: reflect upon the work we do and the uses to which it is put; use new technologies as tools for research and communication; and value good writing–and teach others how to do it.

    http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2014/02/c-wright-mills-public-sociologist.html

    There’s a deficit of skills. There’s a corrosive culture, particularly in graduate school, which socialises trainee academics into unintelligibility. But there’s also something personal and biographical here which needs to be understood. The sacrifices people make to pursue this course of life. The efforts and energies they put into it and the things they forego as a consequence. These engender an investment in a self-presentation of specialisation which has enormous practical implications for their willingness to contort a communicative impulse into the alienated form impelled by the structures of the academy.

     
    • BeingQuest 10:34 pm on March 6, 2014 Permalink

      Wow. A stinging critique of the specialized parlance of often incommunicable academic culture! An historical perspective of ‘science’, I think, would argue that what is derived (suppositions/theory) is also contrived (imposition/practice); that assertions of veracity (academic disciplines) being essentially verbal constructs with conceptual baggage outweighing claims to empirical conviction or credibility, systems of assertion from top to bottom and symptoms of cognition in quest of laws governing their speculation, hardly more.

      It’s almost certain that a through deconstruction of historical evidence (verbal edifice of culture), on any issue of academic discipline, will yield points of departure from the exigencies of cognition (as distinct from the interests of the same), lending emergence to apparent meaning, relations, distinctions, definitions, terms contested and falsification, problematic conclusions and ultimately, confusion. Something about the Tower of Babel.

      But for the happy fool who lives in the hour, unmindful of what folly clever men invent, a novice on the scope of being or believing, stalled to wrack the moments anxious or faithful tending expanse, enduring in the true relation, face to face, Who would build a castle in the air in which no one lives, after all? Yet to build the bridges of material or affected importance, necessitating whether defensive strategies and cooperative endeavors or fortified bunkers among tribal distinctions, a nice proposition withal.

      Their are no histories but in the making, and no science except plausible distinctions; wherefore is Speculation and Theory not a specialty of discipline, but an acid-test of Perception, however oriented in Paradigms (objective/subjective/synthetic/absolute). And if Nothing be the Absolute but in the making, half-writ or better intending Story, then Memory gives birth to the Graces, Aesthetics to Wisdom, danced around by Beauty in consummate Creation. Conclusion?

      There is no science, but Art. I do believe that such is at the heart of Existentialism as a kind of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in practice, lending alternatives in abundance, unconfined to do service in quest of others, no mere badge-wearing lieutenant of bathroom stalls, waiting parlors, dinner conventions or lecture halls, more clap-trap magistrates of conceit than clown cars to go around. Comic/Tragic at once, with scarce relief of Farce between. Better, says the jester, a fools’ calumny in the presence of the naked king for Wit than droll desperation concluding voice among the wise, as all must come to confusion, an April’s day turnabout of roles, upending Odin for one-eyed wonder, wild perhaps of seeming and ruin upon the waters (history)

      So sweet at first the telling page, though in the end a bitter slake.

    • Morgan Gist MacDonald 1:44 am on March 7, 2014 Permalink

      Thanks for your thoughts on intelligible sociology, Mark. I think you hit it right when you pointed out that graduate students invest in a self-presentation that is the entirely based on specialized language. What begins as a very superficial presentation of self seems to slowly become an embraced academic identity. Even as the jargon feels so foreign to the first-year grad student, the fifth-year can hardly even talk about her discipline without using jargon – possibly because she’s never tried to explain concepts any other way.

      I remember a seminar when I was a first-year. One of the older students threw out some ridiculously loaded point, mostly a series of jargon-filled phrases that may or may not have contained both a subject and a verb. One of the other students asked him to rephrase his point (or question? we weren’t sure). The older student said, “I can’t. That’s the only way I know how to express the point.” We all stared at each other blankly before the professor changed the subject.

      That moment has stayed with me and illustrates, I think, exactly what you’re talking about – academics seem unable, unwilling, or not well practiced at simplifying concepts. I do agree that there’s a movement of sociologists that want to engage in public sociology but perhaps don’t even have the capacity to do so. Maybe we can change that, one blog at a time.

    • BeingQuest 8:22 am on March 9, 2014 Permalink

      No capacity to do so?…then comes Art. We are all minstrels now.

    • Mark 8:51 am on March 9, 2014 Permalink

      I do think the flip side to this is the utility of technical terms. There are some things that ‘jargon’ makes it possible to say in one word that would otherwise takes sentences. I guess I think it’s the capacity to translate that’s important, as well as perhaps the clarity that comes from being critical about jargon i.e. the terms may be useful but it’s possible to kid yourself you’re saying something concrete whereas you’re actually saying something fuzzy. The first interview I ever did with a journalist about my research involved me talking about ontological stratification and emergence when presented with the question ‘is asexuality nature or nurture’. I soon learned from that experience to just say ‘probably both’ when presented with this question in future when outside of a research context.

  • Mark 1:49 pm on August 11, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: c wright mills, , sociology of faddishness, ,   

    The (un)intelligibility of academics and being ‘a mere journalist’ 

    In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

    C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

     
    • azumahcarol 6:16 pm on August 11, 2013 Permalink

      I read this, and listened to the video of Chomsky. The discussion reminded me of an essay written by Patti Lather which I read some years ago.

      As a writer she has been criticised for the obscurity of her language and responds to some of her critics. One critic notes, “It is not that there is nothing worthy here . . . the difficulty is that one doesn’t so much read this text as wrestle with it.” (Weiner 1994).

      The trouble is I sometimes enjoy wrestling with text. And for those who were not born in the academy, the use of a particular style of language can also imply that they are not content to leave “high theory” to others, but on the contrary, want to take it over for their own feminist and anti-imperialist purposes.

      She goes on to suggest that truth is what cannot be said, what can be only half said: “truth is what our speech seeks beyond meaning” (71). […] What is speakable is coded and overcoded. As disruptive excess, the unspeakable cannot be reduced to the easily understood. To speak so as to be understood immediately is to speak through the production of the transparent signifier, that which maps easily onto taken-for-granted regimes of meaning. This runs a risk that it endorses, legitimates, and reinforces the very structure of symbolic value that must be overthrown. For Lacan, not being understood is an ethical imperative.

      This is not to deny that the mystifying effects of academic language support the illusion that those institutionally situated as “in the know” are, and that “those who cannot understand have been legitimately excluded from understanding” (McGee 1992, 121).

      But neither is the transparent use of language innocent. Clear speech is part of a discursive system, a network of power that has material effects.

      Patti Lather, RESPONSIBLE PRACTICES OF ACADEMIC WRITING, Troubling Clarity II in Peter Pericles Trifonas, EDITOR (2000) REVOLUTIONARY PEDAGOGIES Cultural Politics, Instituting Education, and the Discourse of Theory

    • Mark 10:36 am on August 13, 2013 Permalink

      I’ll definitely have a read of that as some point – in general I’m pretty sceptical though: this sort of argument (which I think Adorno made as well) always seems to presuppose that clarity necessitates simplification and it seems strikingly obvious to me that this isn’t the case – I mean the passage itself is an example of the point Mills is making:

      “To speak so as to be understood immediately is to speak through the production of the transparent signifier, that which maps easily onto taken-for-granted regimes of meaning. This runs a risk that it endorses, legitimates, and reinforces the very structure of symbolic value that must be overthrown.”

      Or in other words: if you speak too straight forwardly you risk reinforcing the common sense views which you are politically opposed to. The jargon (‘transparent signifier, ‘regimes of meaning’, ‘structure of symbolic value’) in that sentence serves real function other than to marginalise the politics contained within it. I use jargon all the time, I’m not for a second saying I’m innocent of doing the same thing, but I can completely see the force of the critique Mills is offering.

    • Philip Roddis (@zerohoursuni) 7:00 pm on November 11, 2013 Permalink

      There are many reasons for bad academic writing. Postmodernism took insecure con artistry to new depths, frequently dressing up nonsense and banality in writings of pretentious opacity. Pressure of tenure is another,hence the fact much academic writing resembles a first draft which, in a more leisured climate, would be honed and simplified in subsequent edits. Simplicity does not come cheap, and a vital distinction should be made – see Mark’s.comment, above – between simple and simplistic.

      The tendency to forget the outside world altogether, and lapse into the mores of tiny communities trading cliquish jargon is yet another reason. Then of course there’s the possibility one might be great at zoology, sociology, astrophysics, whatever – and just not much cop at writing!

      Finally, some ideas are just, well, difficult. This might not be completely intrinsic; simply that they are so counter intuitive – so contrary to dominant paradigms – that they defy easy comprehension. The first chapter of Capital One is a case in point, as is The Selfish Gene (at least to this layman). In other writings, Marx and Dawkins show themselves excellent and even exhilarating communicators so the ‘difficulty’ of those works is of a different kind to that of neurotic scribblings poured out by academic wannabees desperate to impress.

      If that last sentence sounds harsh, by the way, it isn’t intended. Moreoften than not, I blame the culture..

  • Mark 7:16 pm on May 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills, , ,   

    Digital scholarship and the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility” 

    For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a ‘serious crisis in literacy’ in which sociologists are ‘very much involved’ (1959:239). Mills’ position here is an extension of his earlier attack on Parsons and Lazarsfeld, and is just as fierce in tone. He observes that ‘a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences’ (Mills, 1959:239), and adds that this style of writing has nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter. Mills explains the prevalence of this style, instead, in terms of a quest for status. He declares: ‘Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire’ (Mills, 1959:240). This thirst for status is said to be driven by an underlying desire for the sociologist to achieve recognition as a ‘scientist’; something, he argues, that led to sociology written in clear and accessible prose (including, presumably, his own work) to be dismissed by many as mere journalism.

    C. Wright Mills 50 Years On: The Promise and Craft of Sociology Revisited

    What implications does social media have for this ‘serious crisis in literacy’? I’m thinking about this question for a book chapter I’m working on about para-academics and social media. I’m trying to argue that calls for digital scholarship to be ‘recognised’ should be treated cautiously because of the risk that the incorporation of digital outputs into the evaluative frameworks of contemporary higher education would risk distorting many of the aspects of digital scholarship which are most refreshing. I think academic bloggers enjoy a degree of freedom from the sorts of pressures which concerned Mills and, with sufficient ‘mainstreaming’, perhaps this could be threatened.

    However I don’t want to overstate the case here, not least of all because I’m aware that unless I’m consciously ‘writing an article’ I tend to be rather lazy when I blog. So I’m not for a second suggesting that online communication represents an absolute avoidance of this tendency to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’. However when this does happen, I’d argue it is for entirely different reasons e.g. time pressure, seeing the medium as informal, seeing blog posts as provisional. Furthermore I think it confers an important freedom to experiment intellectually, reinforced by the concomitant liberation from any prior formatting constraints i.e. the freedom to write 20 words or 2000 as the situation demands helps with the iterative development of ideas.

    This has made me think about how I approach my own writing though. I tend to see stylistic editing as a form of polishing, sometimes necessary but not something I particularly value or enjoy. However I’m increasingly uncomfortable with what I now see as an instrumental understanding of the value of improving my writing because, now I’ve thought about it, it seems obvious that  blogging could constitute an extremely rewarding forum in which to deliberately and reflectively work on your own writing. This is one of many things I think Mills would have approved of about blogging.

     
  • Mark 9:10 pm on September 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: c wright mills, edward,   

    An early review of the Sociological Imagination (“Imagine a burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University”) 

    Imagine a burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along. Imagine that among the books are some novels of Kafka, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and essays of Max Weber. Imagine the style and imagery that would result from the interaction of the cowboy- student and his studies. Imagine also that en route he passes through Madison, Wisconsin, that seat of a decaying populism and that, on arriving at his destination in New York, he encounters Madison Avenue, that street full of reeking phantasies of the manipulation of the human will and of what is painful to America’s well-wishers and enjoyable to its detractors. Imagine the first Madison disclosing to the learned cowpuncher his subsequent political mode, the second an object of his hatred…The end result of such an imaginary grand tour would be a work like The Sociological Imagination

    By Edward Shils. The fact I’m only dimly aware of who he is makes me chuckle on behalf of C. Wright Mills.

     
  • Mark 2:14 pm on April 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: britsoc 2012, , c wright mills, , , , sociology's moments,   

    John Holmwood on “Sociology’s ‘moments’: C. Wright Mills and the critique of professionalism” 

    John Holmwood’s talk “Sociology’s ‘moments’: C. Wright Mills and the critique of professionalism” from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.

     
  • Mark 1:07 pm on April 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills, , radical ambition, , ,   

    Les Back on Sociology’s Promise 

    Les Back’s talk ‘sociology’s promise’ from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.

    There are two books Les mentions in the talk which are fantastic. I’ve been meaning to write reviews of them for quite a while actually:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Z4yNnGJLHU8C&lpg=PP1&dq=radical%20ambition&pg=PR4&output=embed

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1ik9ZUywjcQC&lpg=PP1&dq=pamela%20mills&pg=PP1&output=embed

    (edit to add: for some reason the embedding isn’t working. that’s a bit irritating)

     
  • Mark 5:58 pm on October 12, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , c wright mills,   

    C. Wright Mills: Legacies and Prospects – 50 Years On
 

    The initial details for the panel I’m organising at the British Sociological Association annual conference next year, as part of the Theory stream, are starting to take shape: 

    In March 2012 it will have been 50 years since the death of C. Wright Mills. In that time the world has changed beyond recognition: the Cold War ended, the Keynesian consensus broke down, a globalizing neoliberalism rose to the ascendancy and the internet began to transform human communication and culture. In recent years, with 9/11 and then the financial crisis, it seems that history has returned with a vengeance.

    This panel will explore the relevance of C. Wright Mills’ ideas 50 years on, considering the value of his legacy and the resources his work offers to understand the rapidly changing social world of the 21st century.

    • Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick – ‘There’s no money left in the kitty’: austerity politics and the deficit of sociological imagination 
    • John Holmwood, University of Nottingham – TBC
    • Mike O’Donnell, University of Westminster – Charles Wright Mills and the (Continuing) Problem of Radical Agency
    • Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh – TBC
     
  • Mark 8:49 am on October 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: c wright mills, politics of austerity, ,   

    “There’s no money left in the kitty”: austerity politics and the deficit of sociological imagination 

    In this presentation I will explore the unfolding of austerity politics in the UK in terms of longstanding tendencies towards the narrowing of political and cultural horizons in political life. I argue that this trend can, at root, be understood in terms of a ‘deficit of sociological imagination’ in mainstream political discourse. While Wright-Mills felt able to write in 1959 that ‘the sociological imagination is becoming, I believe, the major common denominator of of our cultural life and its signal feature’, there has been a precipitous decline in its prominence and significance since he made this (perhaps overly optimistic) claim. I suggest that without sociological imagination ‘private troubles’ become connected to ‘public issues’ in ideological and one-dimensional modes which, in denying the possibility of alternatives, so too undercuts the feasibility of political agency for large swathes of the populace. I frame my arguments in terms of what I take to be the most egregious and radical manifestation of this tendency: the contemporary politics of austerity.

    Abstract for panel on C Wright Mills at BSA Conference 2012

     
  • Mark 12:08 pm on August 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: c wright mills, , , ,   

    #UKRiots and Sociological Imagination 

    Tottenham Riots

    So with London in flames for the third night in a row and, for the first time, disturbances spreading outside of the capital, the British population are asking the natural question – what the fuck is going on? The most frequent, as well as understandable, response to this question has been moral condemnation.

    Yet calling these riots ‘lawless looting’ or ‘pure criminality’ isn’t explanation, it’s description. In the last 48 hours of being obsessively glued to coverage of events (on social media and traditional media) one of the things that’s stood out most to me is antipathy to the former response in favor of the latter. Many people seem to assume that attempts to explain the riots are tantamount to moral justification, as if recognizing causal factors beyond the proclivities of particular individuals involved – or a purported culture they share – erases responsibility for their actions.

    In extreme cases this manifests itself in outright racism and classism but, in more moderate forms, it merely stands as a refusal to seriously engage with the severity of events. Rather than trying to understand how and why these riots are happening, it’s implied that they’re an inevitable consequence of the characteristics of those involved: given sufficient opportunity criminals will pursue criminal acts. Yet it would be a mistake to jump to the opposite extreme and argue that ‘austerity has caused these riots’, as if that’s all that needs to be said to explain the pretty much unprecedented scenes we’re all watching.

    At root, this can almost be construed as a methodological dispute about the central sociological question of structure and agency: should an event like this be explained in terms of the action of people involved or in terms of wider social forces shaping that action? The obvious excluded middle is that it’s both: public policy at both a metropolitan and national level, as well as the wider political and economic environment within which that policy is enacted, has shaped the life circumstances which different groups within cities encounter on a day-to-day basis. A plethora of cultural changes, some driven by these policies and others relatively independent, have shaped how different groups experience, interpret and respond to these circumstances (not least of all the spread of social media and smarts phones, which have been central to the organization, coverage and clean up of the riots).

    This might seem an overly abstract way of looking at such extreme events but these questions aren’t going to go away. Over the coming days, weeks and months we’re going to hear many suggested explanations of these events: breakdown of authority, youth unemployment, gang culture, failing educational systems, declining family structures, failures of multiculturalism, local government cuts, police cuts, declining educational opportunities, entrenched poverty etc. The right will invoke micro factors (some entirely accurate, others with a kernel of truth, many which are offensive nonsense) while the left will invoke macro factors (austerity, unemployment and disenfranchisement) and be condemned by the great and the good of the right-wing press for ‘point-scoring’ and ‘political opportunism’. Meanwhile, conspicuous by its absence, will be what C Wright Mills called the Sociological Imagination, the capacity to knit together the macro and the micro – the personal and the historical – through the recognition that:

    “The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a person is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a person takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesperson becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar operator; a wife or husband lives alone; a child grows up without a parent. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

     
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