I spent much of the recent Accelerated Academy talking about the limitations of the fast/slow dichotomy and my concern that the framing of our series entrenches it. To talk of the ‘accelerated academy’ implies there was once a slow(er) academy and hints that the pathologies we currently face could be overcome by reclaiming what has been lost. It is an account which invites us towards nostalgia, imagining a past which we seek to recover rather than analysing the potential for change we can find latent within our present circumstances. In fact, between myself and Filip, it seemed the fast/slow dichotomy was trashed so much that a few people seemed apologetic when they mentioned it with anything other than condemnation.

So should we dispense with them entirely? Barbara Adam offered a qualified defence of dichotomies, recognising their limitations but insisting on their value as tools to think with. This resonated with me a lot, as someone prone to finding dichotomies in my own thinking yet continually struggling against them. Dichotomies anchor a terrain, laying out a space in a way which help us locate ourselves within it. But they only provide a rough sketch of that space, leaving us disorientated if we retain them as our sole reference points rather than elucidating the territory and exploring its topography.

The problem with dichotomies is not so much their appearance as their persistence, their tendency to prove sticky and our ensuing difficulty in dispensing with them once they have served their original purpose. We shouldn’t banish dichotomies, as much as refuse to take them seriously past a certain point. They can be useful conversation starters and sharpening blocks for our conceptual tools. But if we mistakenly take them as a primary focus then they can fatally undermine our capacity to make sense of a world inevitably more complex than a simplistic opposition can possibly capture.

The Concept Lab would meet on a weekly basis, usually for an hour unless there was logistical business to be undertaken concerning the future of the lab. Each meeting would revolve around a presentation from one member, detailing either:

  • A practical problem they have faced in their research, as well as a singular concept they have turned to in order to resolve or at least better understand the problem in question. The focus would be on the actual or hoped for application of the concept in the research process.
  • A new concept which they have encountered, to be introduced and placed in an intellectual context. If there is no immediate practical application for this concept, the onus would be on accounting for the enthusiasm the concept provokes in them. Why is this felt to be important? What might it bring to research practice at a later stage?
  • A new concept which they have developed, which would be introduced and contextualised in a similar manner to above. The focus would be on the claimed novelty of the concept, the circumstances in which it was developed and the potential uses to which it could be put.

The purpose of the Concept Lab would be to provide a forum in which participants account for their work with concepts, as well as facilitating the generation of a language within which to describe and analyse this work across intellectual and disciplinary boundaries. For this reason, it would be important for the pool of participants to be intellectual diversity and stable in their constitution. While allowing for the inevitable exigencies of working life, it would be expected that participants where possible attend all sessions for an agreed period of time. If the format was successful, participants would benefit as much from presentations by others as from the opportunity to present themselves.

I’ve always tended to write in a fragmented way. This post is incredibly rare in that I’ve started writing it at what seems, at least for now, to be the beginning. I’ll usually jump in with an idea, elaborate it until I get stuck and then move onto another. If I know what I’m trying to say but am struggling to say it, I’ll usually leave a note in the text e.g. “[explain why this is a bad idea]”. Eventually an order starts to emerge between the fragments. The endless notes to self, always in square brackets and always highlighted in yellow, gradually become more connective. Substantive purposes become structural and stylistic e.g. “[finish off this paragraph and link neatly to the next]”. I’ve often thought this is a strange way to write and occasionally worried that it represented some difficulty with producing novelty. Perhaps I just regurgitate other people’s ideas, stitching them together in new forms, rather than producing any of my own? The recognition of my tendency (being the sort of person who always writes in this way) has been a focal point for anxiety. Anxiety I pretty much immediately dismiss (“that’s impostor syndrome!”) which largely dissipates upon command but recurrent anxiety nonetheless.

I recently reread Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. I’m sure I read this early in my PhD (I’ve definitely owned it for years) and it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I suspect I was too early in the PhD process. Whereas this time I was struck by what a wonderful book it is. One particular thing stood out for me though: he writes in the same way that I do. He advocates it as an approach to writing which works to dispel anxieties, overcoming the common tendency to get ‘stuck’ on difficult bits by simply moving on to the next one. Whereas for me it was a behavioural tendency which provoked anxiety, given it didn’t feel like the ‘proper’ way to write. Suddenly, his view led to a transformation in my own – what’s going on here? What’s going on when I introspectively label something as ‘impostor syndrome’ and this works to dispel anxiety? What’s going on when someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction encounters the idea of asexuality for the first time and realizes “oh, I’m not so weird after all, there are other people just like me”?

These are all examples of the causal power of ideas. Take my mildly self-pathologizing interpretation of my approach to writing. I have a recurrent behaviour, self-recognition of its recurrence and an evaluation in light of this. When encountering Becker’s advocacy of this approach, I recognize my own behaviour in his description and re-evaluate it in light of this. This isn’t a volitional process: I don’t think “oh that’s interesting, should I reconsider my view on my own writing”, deliberate about it and then change my opinion. There’s an immediacy to the process which such a voluntaristic and cognitive reading fails to capture. I don’t choose to re-evaluate X in light of this alternative way of looking at X (though clearly this does happen in many other circumstances) but rather am changed by this encounter with the idea itself.

This is what I’d like to understand more than I do. The notion of ‘idea’ I’m using here is problematically fuzzy but I’m not sure what to replace it with. I guess my claim is fundamentally one about propositional content. I have a reflexive relation to my own behaviour which I can represent syllogistically:

  1. I recurrently find myself writing in a fragmented way
  2. Recurrently writing in a fragmented way suggests numerous personal characteristics (e.g. over reliance on other sources, inability to apply structure etc)
  3. Those personal characteristics are undesirable (e.g. I believe it is important to develop my own ideas etc)
  4. Therefore writing in a fragmented way is undesirable

The approach to writing found in Becker’s book can also be represented syllogistically. My point is not to suggest that I reason syllogistically when encountering the advocacy of fragmented writing found in Becker’s book – in fact this is exactly the opposite of the argument I’m making. But I do think cashing out the propositional content of what I’ve been haphazardly referring to as ‘ideas’ can help make the underlying process at work here much clearer than it otherwise is. For instance consider the intra-personal speech act of saying “that’s imposter syndrome” to myself if, as has sometimes happened, I start dwelling on this tendency I’ve identified in my writing. If considered in terms of the syllogism above, this speech act relates to (2) – rather than recognising undesirable personal traits on the basis of how I’m tending to write, I instead recognise my own act of recognition as an instance of a broader socio-cultural tendency (higher education provokes ‘imposter syndrome’ in people).

One instance of this process has been a particular fascination of mine for years. I’ve argued at length that the process of coming to identify as asexual involves substituting a normalising evaluation in relation to one’s own lack of sexual attraction (“there are other people just like me! there’s nothing wrong with being this way”) for a pathologizing evaluative self-relation (“everyone else is interested in sex. why am I different? there must be something wrong with me”). I would contend that the causal power at work here is fundamentally ideational, resting on an encounter with a proposition (asexuals are people who do not experience sexual attraction) with an implicit normative valance (it’s ok to be this way) that has a profound effect on how people who have tended to self-pathologise subsequently evaluate themselves.

This is one of those frustrating instances where I’ve not only failed to answer my question, I’m still not exactly sure what the question is. I guess my intuition is that those processes relating to identity and identification (with asexuality being an exemplar of a kind of process which I think is more widespread) are a particular instance of a broader modality through which social causation operates. Or in other words: something happens here which often gets overlooked. But I’m back at the question I started with: what is an ‘idea’ and how can it exercise causal power?