Quote: why consensus? Implications for research and knowledge

And why should there be consensus? Must consensus per se be the overriding goal? It is the price of progress that there never can be complete consensus. All creative advances are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things, and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is to legitimatize the further the hostility to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend.

William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, p. 59.

The Organization ManWhyte makes continued reference to there being a stark difference in the requirements imposed on the member of an organization qua member-of-an-organization (that is, a constituent of a group) and what might in fact best suit this individual as an individual. It brings home to me how fecund the hermeneutic interpretation of how meaning is created can be in this context.

Paul Ricoeur made it a central part of his analysis of language that meaning does not come from denotation, from pure description as a one-to-one identity of meaning (univocity, akin to the Hebrew YHWH), nor a vector of signifier to signified (equivocity), but as  through tension, through the torsion and bending of language out of its old form into a new one (i.e., analogy – more on this in an old post, Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”). That is new meaning comes from metaphor, analogy, critique, and other ‘figurative’ forms of language. This is the analysis of meaning within language. We can extend this, however, and make analogy with society and the production of knowledge, information.

What Whyte is discussing here is the notion that consensus can be an obstacle to the discovery of solutions to problems, that consensus effectively means doing what we have always done and hoping that we will end up doing something new. Via this reductio the illogic of such a concept becomes apparent. It draws out the quite formal contradiction at the centre of this mindset. It indicates that any form of consensus (including the now fashionable consensus of so-called ‘disruption’) stifles the discovery of alternatives, or possibilities.

Making matters concrete for a moment, we find the kernel of an argument to be made for ‘blue-sky’ or pure research. Parsing current discussions of research according to the distinctions made above, consensus research is that research which is directed, which must have measureable impact. Consensus research must take place within a research framework, a research project, a research group, a research pillar, a research funding call, etc. The alternative (I don’t give it a distinctive name as that goes against its elusive, un-pin-down-able characteristics – better to define it negatively, in opposition) is not beholden to the stifling qualities of consensus, namely bureaucracy, conformity, and fitting oneself into neat boxes a-ready for the ticking. Is this a pure dichotomy, a clean distinction? Of course not. Is directed research to be done away with? Of course not. Is pure, non-consensus research more productive than it’s counterpart? Who can say. What is necessary here (in the spirit of critique, mentioned above) is to note that directed research, consensus attempts at creating knowledge and meaning are not the only game in town.

Digital preservation as deletion and Paul Ricoeur

In a discussion about the importance of digital humanities at the “Realising the Opportunities of Digital Humanities” Conference today in Croke Park, William Kilbride of the Digital Preservation Coalition raised an interesting point that we have various ways of conceiving preservation.

According to this way of thinking, it is not the case that we fetishise preservation, as we don’t need some form of totalising memory, digital or otherwise. To attempt this would be tantamount to the shut-ins of urban mythology who hoard every newspaper from every day of their lives. That would be archivist qua bag lady. No, the fundamental, pragmatic point Kilbride appears to be making is that we simply don’t have the resources available to collect and maintain such an all-encompassing system of repositories and archives. Selection is necessary, editing is necessary, and thus knowing what not to hold on to is necessary. As such, then, preservation is ineluctably tied up with deletion. Continue reading

Reading through allegory and metaphor

Homeric allegoresis had come into existence as a defense of Homer against philosophy.

E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p.205

This is still true, for few modern students of literature allow themselves to be simply readers; there is the fear which I below called the unliterary, which leads us into the temptation to read literature as a key to something else. This can be sociology, politics, psychology, etc. via the poem or book or painting or film. Those who are literary readers can be either aesthetic or antiaesthetic. An old fashioned (indeed, regarded as antediluvian by most) example of the former would be Harold Bloom, and the boa-deconstructionists of Deconstruction and Criticism (Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller) are occasionally the latter. Most often they are allegorists manqué, and their allegory seeks to elucidate their god of the textual gaps.  Continue reading

Wolfgang Iser on literature as a lie

An issue that arises in reading Wolfgang Iser is the matter of fictiveness, the role of a fiction in literature itself. This concern goes back to the beginnings of all thought about art as essentially a lie, and it remains to be seen whether we can properly account for the centrality of this element to our criticism. Of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (which is undeniably attendant to such concerns) Iser writes that it remains “an ideal whose desirability is questionable. Would the role offered by the text function properly if it were totally accepted?” [Iser, The Act of Reading, 37] One response to this is to question any such notion of total acceptance. A suspension carries with it the intimation of provisionality, a qualification which we might expect Iser to be aware of, given his continual references to heuristics of application [39], or replacing”ontological arguments with functional arguments” [53].

Some valid approaches to a more consistent position are made when Iser begins to supplement Austin and Searle‘s speech acts and performative utterances with Stanley Cavell‘s stressing the importance of implication in all our utterances. Iser says that poetry is not merely “void” in the strict sense which Austin suggests to us, and indeed if it were then all languages would habe to be drawn in terms which would be a return to the univocity of the Scholastics, since “what is meant can never be totally translated into what is said” [59]. There need not be a one-to-one correspondence of our words with reality, this should help us to say. We might even hope that this would lead us to an emergent understanding of language and literature (with the most significant ground work done by other theorists of the metaphor, such as Johnson, Lakoff, and Turner), apart from the standard model which calls for a linear correspondence of word with semantic unit.

As an aside to this, while recognising the use of speech acts in working out a functional model of communication, I am not sure that finessing Austin and Searle via Cavell is necessary if we return to a notion of linguistic communication’s unit as being the sentence, as Paul Ricoeur suggests. The sentence allows for “implication” once we recognize the role played by metaphor. This is a different approach, however, and one which may not be available to Iser given the terms he has set out for himself. Indeed, this brings me to my next point, which is whether the invocation of the “pragmatic” truly serves us as well as Iser seems to hope.

We find the pragmatic convincingly overturned in his discussion of conventions, that hope of its rehabilitation seems distant. He notes that a convention as understood by Austin has a vertical (or hierarchical) structure, which suggests that it is an essentially utilitarian norm [61]. Literary language reorganizes these norms into an alternative arrangement, namely a horizontal model which serves to disrupt conventions as Austin would understand them:

…these conventions are taken out of their social contexts, deprived of their regulating function, and so become objects of scrutiny in themselves. And this is where fictional language begins to take effect: it depragmatizes the conventions it has selected, and herein lies its pragmatic function. We call upon a vertical convention when we want to act; but a horizontal combination of different conventions enables us to see precisely what it is that guides us when we do act. [Iser, 61]

Literary language, then, is an affront to notions of utility as have here before been invoked, and yet it remains indispensable. Why? Part of the answer to this may be found in a tentative rejection of the route Iser takes via analytic philosophy. Without attempting an excursus on empiricism in the British tradition of “common sense” understandings of the world, we must note that as far back as Hume this view was deeply problematic. Iser, in setting out systematically what his findings are, in a sense has made it rather easy for one to come along and begin to pick holes in his edifice (affirmation always being more difficult than rejection). He allows a critic to carefully choose his own battles, and to a great extent this is to be regarded as a testament to his achievement.

Sadly, such polite apologies will not serve us. For me, the only outline that remains valid of this problem is Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of agon, with suspicion and tradition forever orbiting each other, like wary vultures circling a carcass. This view begins with an axiomatic rejection of norms, whether they be norms of idealism, or utility, or pragmatic solution. Iser remains at an impasse which reveals itself in the almost nonsensical phrase above, namely the depragmatization which remains pragmatic. In a profound sense, Iser is correct, but for all the wrong reasons.

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