A Conversation about Conversation1
We are painters on a glass canvas, visible to our subject and our peers.
--Thomas T. Barker
I believe the question you posed in the EnText call for papers is "why aren't
we talking: across hallways, departments, disciplines, across divisions of
race, gender, sexual orientation, age, culture, and identity." My answer to
you is succinct: because we can't. We can't, or don't, because we're suffering
from the postmodern condition. Post post-structuralism, our
culture has moved
increasingly towards one of two poles: either a nihilistic pole around which
rally those who believe that values, ethics, and morals are matters of personal
taste and opinion, that words can't really mean anything at all (so why bother
talking), or a fundamentalist, totalitarian pole around which dance those who
deny the validity of any value orientation other than their own.2 I think that
in the academy, the former holds sway over the latter.
I'm excited, though, by the potential of electronic communication to allow us
to move beyond or between these poles and begin really talking again. I think
cyberspace is the ethical forum of our time. Granted, it's still a postmodern
forum. After all, the ethic is merely an illusion.
Do you think we should talk more -- both about cyberspace as well as the
question posed by your call for papers?
Yes, I think we should talk about the EnText question and about technology.
Talk, conversations -- these are what I like about school. And what began to
drive me crazy as I approached th[is] grand project ... was the
imperative to endure isolation and alienation. It seems as if we in the
academy give great lip service to ideas about the social construction of
reality and then insist that students engage asocially in their studies.
Writing about the social construction of reality is okay, but just don't
go on about actually constructing a socially meaningful network or society.
I think it's a shame we don't do more towards fostering social networks,
conversations, and working together.
This is interesting to me, particularly in relation to e-mail since it is
such a (perhaps deceptively) non-threatening form of writing; I marveled at
the extent to which the fear of writing is somehow mitigated by the electronic
medium. I supposed, finally, it's not really writing any more than a conversation
about personal topics over a cup of coffee (or over a clothesline) is really
Again, we're talking about the role of illusion in electronic conversation.
You say that it's not "really writing" and although I might disagree, let's at
least say that there's the illusion that it's really writing. It's the same
thing I was talking about when I said that the medium creates the "illusion"
of ethics and ethical space. I recently read an essay that explained how the
psychotherapy environment creates a "moral space" in which one cultivates ways
of seeing, meeting, and respecting "the being of each unique other, in treating
his or her subjectivity as of equal value with one's own." To me, this is the
environment, the illusion, of cyberspace. The machine creates for us (the
illusion of) moral space where we offer to one another "free attention" or
what this writer called the skill "of being able to be close to another with
a kind of caring objectivity, in which those distortions of
critical judgments, projections and distractions that so often get in the
way of real meeting are minimized."3 Cyberspace,
in functioning in just this way, is the postmodern site for ethical meeting and
When I said that electronic conversation was not real writing, I think what I
was trying to say was that it would not be real for academic establishmentarians
(which I consider myself not to be). For me, talking over a cup of coffee or
over a clothesline is exactly what I mean by the social construction of reality.
And this is exactly what our academic training would have us devalue. I take
the `construction' part of `social construction' seriously, being an avowed
constructivist. All this means is that dichotomies are out; reality/illusion,
inside/outside, etc. are all problematized in a constructivist orientation in
the sense that there is recognition that we ourselves have constructed the
dichotomies. Sort of like this: we humans invent writing, and then writing
invents us, changes us and so forth. Everything is interactive and co-creative;
creating the world is not something we do by ourselves, nor is the world
something we `find' already created -- it is something that is constructed
in between, in constant interactivity. So in a way constructivism implies
indeterminism and also implies that everything is real (real meaning
constructed). My question might be under what conditions do constructions
get named illusions?
I now recall how odd an experience it is to sit in a class with people from
many different academic disciplines. We all use jargon that sounds alike,
but it has different meanings depending upon your area of scholarship.
It may pose a problem for us since you're speaking School of Education
jargon and I'm speaking English Rhetoric and Composition jargon. It's
hard for me to understand, for example, how one can be a constructivist
and an indeterminist at the same time. Normally, I think of the two as
mutually exclusive. But, I see what you're saying; if we're being
constructive in terms of mutually engaging in meaning-making, indeterminism
might follow. Maybe then, I'm a constructivist-indeterminist, too. I just
don't want to follow indeterminacy to an extreme, to the point where we
can't engage in conversation, in meaning-making at all, the point that
there is no point after all because nothing can mean anything. Why bother?
And about illusion -- don't get me wrong; I'm not glorifying illusion
vs. reality. Cyberspace is real, in the sense that it exists independently
of anything we may think about it. What I'm saying is that what happens
in cyberspace is illusion. Just think about how easy it is to construct
an ethos. And it's not just the absence of corporeality. Although I may
be fat/skinny, black/white, male/female, old/young, abled/disabled and
you wouldn't know it if I didn't tell you, ethos involves much more. I
may choose to construct an ethos that leads you to believe that I'm a
very reasonable, listening, caring, considerate, turn-taking person,
when really I'm an over-bearing jerk (just for argument's sake, of
course). Because the illusion of free attention is so high, you buy
it; you want to buy it, so you do. We extend ourselves in willing
openness to do democratic kinds of things, to carry on a conversation,
but what we see when we read the text on the screen is really our own
desire for a perfect interlocutor. We seduce ourselves, so to speak.
Electronic conversation, especially e-mail, one-on-one, provides a mirror
surface for us so that what we see is our own self/desire.4
Rhetorically speaking, you are seduced by the medium. You think we are
having a conversation. This conversation feels really great because
there's the illusion that I'm waiting right here on the other side of
the screen, hanging on every word. I'm attentive. I don't interrupt you.
Is this conversation to you because it's conversation in reality, or is it
conversation because conversation is what you desire?
From the constructivist perspective, we'd have to be doing the conversation
on a mutual basis. We'd have to be socially constructing meaning. But I
wonder if we really are. Is it mutual? Perhaps we are each constructing
in isolation. I am constructing you. You are constructing me. I, your
ideal interlocutor, am your creation, so not Other. Illusion! This is
an illusion of conversation. We are disembodied voices!
But great things can happen here, despite the illusion. It has potential for
democratic praxis and consensual discourse. That's why I want to go on-line
with my composition classes.
We are disembodied only if we construct ourselves with dichotomies. Rather
than illusion, let's talk about illusionists, the magic show kind. The key
to illusionism is for the illusionist to get the audience to buy into a
dichotomy; a situation is framed such that there are only two interpretative
choices. Once this is done, all the illusionist has to do is make sure that
whatever needs to be hidden (the interpretation which would reveal the actual
circumstances) falls somewhere outside of the dichotomous frame because if it
does it will automatically be invisible.
For the audience, the key to not being tricked is not to see the sleight of hand,
but rather to not buy into the dichotomous framing. By the time the sleight of
hand comes around the trick has already been done in effect, going through the
motions is all that remains. In this way Descartes can be seen as a great
illusionist: he frames situations dichotomously, and then strange things start
to happen: bodies disappear; people even begin to report feeling disembodied.
In other words, I would say you have been tricked. Seduced! There is no
illusion here or anywhere else; there are only constructions, dichotomous or
otherwise, that we either buy into or not. Once we buy in, the show begins
and we take the ride, trick or treat, ready or not. I tend to think the
postmodern is grounded in science, which is unfortunately usually left out
of the discussion. Humanists and such, coming from time-worn constructs,
tend to produce and reproduce Cartesian illusionistics, and hence we get
these funny effects.
I'd like to remind you that science is, after all, grounded in the humanities,
historically speaking. Obviously, one has to keep grounding one's ground.
Since I got my undergraduate degree in biology, I guess you could say that
I'm personally grounded in science. Sure, it made its contributions to
postmodernism, but it wasn't the sole contributor. I think of Saussure
who did his part vis-ˆ-vis linguistics.5 Then the
army of French theorists.6
Yes, I agree that I myself am seduced by the illusionist's trick. I participate
willingly and actively. When I read a text like Baudrillard's it is in many
ways a mirror game. But isn't that what reader-response theory is all about?
Inserting ourselves into the gaps in the text that fall outside of the literal
frame? And post structuralism, there are nothing but gaps.
You're right about having to continually ground your grounding. Thinking about
it again, I would say that I have found the language that science has recently
generated to be more usefully descriptive of postmodernism, more helpful in
terms of making a home in it, than the language generated by humanities
theorists has been. Probably just a bias, but I seem to be able to do
more with scientific concepts, maybe in part because the rhetorical posture
seems stilted to me. The other thing I would say is that science seems also
to possess the mantle of truth, and that may also be why I associate it with
grounding. Notions such as "nothing but gaps," endless deferral of meaning,
etc., make me feel dizzy. In contrast, substituting scientific pattern for
nothing but gaps makes me feel better. I guess I just need handles,
particularly if a hand-hold is all that's available to me in my
That brings me back to conversation again. Why do we spend so much time
developing academic languages that hardly anyone can understand? It seems
that the answer I usually get is "that's what academics do." Another answer
suggests itself to me though -- arcane languages are useful for things like
job protection, making emperors' clothes, etc.7
I just read an essay in Faigley's new book in which a student writer talks
about letter writing. I immediately made her comments analogous to electronic
conversation, since electronic conversation is a peculiar blend of epistolary
and conversational styles. Anyway, this student had been away from home for a
while and communicated with family and friends a great deal through the exchange
of letters. When she comes back home again, she compares communicating by letter
with communicating face to face. She notes "letters were unselfconscious and
utterly honest, for the time and space lag between the letters made intimacy
easier. . . . [Now that I can talk to friends and family face-to-face] the
barriers are back up. We're careful again, wary of the reckless revelations
we once shared. The physical distances between us are less now; cautiously,
we distance ourselves in spirit."8 Just like this
student who has noticed
that letter writing casts a distance in time and space that paradoxically
decreases spiritual distance, I have noticed that the electronic medium
creates a similar chronotopic situation. Perhaps this enables us to
overcome our postmodern spiritual distance?9
Although we are separated
by space and time in reality, we have the illusion of closeness, spiritual
intimacy? And interestingly, Faigley notes that, in the essay itself, the
student writer creates the illusion of a unified and knowing self. Seems
like there's illusion-casting on many levels. I'm thinking out loud. Am
I making sense?
Yes, you're making fantastic sense. It's just that darned word "illusion."
Try this rewrite: the writer creates a unified and knowing self. Deleting
"the illusion of" solves a host of modernist problems. First, it does not
specify the number of selves which might otherwise be created. Second, it
acknowledges the power of language; worlds, not illusionary worlds, are
created. My quibble is that "the illusion of" as a locution is a machine
for reinscribing modernism, including modernism's unified and knowing self.
But the observations about letters and intimacy, in relation to e-conversation
and postmodern spiritual distance is beginning to make sense to me. I can
see that e-conversation is linked to a particular construction of intimacy -- what
I would call the romantic-pornographic construction. Playing into the
visibility/voyeurism in the lighted screen which can function as a kind of
one-way mirror, seeing oneself all lit up so to speak, but somehow this is for
the Other who is absent but being written to. And I may want to say "fantasy"
or "masturbatory fantasy" but not "illusion."
When I am the constructed self, or cyborg, Bob + automobile, I am a decidedly
different person (the modernist locution). I tend to sing more, feel more
powerful rushes of anger at small perturbances, etc. Seeing writing as a
technology, when I am the cyborg Bob + pen and paper I am again a different
construction, and so on. So yes, I can now see that the cyborg now sitting
here, Bob + e-conversation, is a particular configuration, but not an illusory
one. A particularly complex cyborg construction, I admit.
There may be good reasons for the apparent intimacy-through-distance and
technological mediations. By "good," I mean evolutionary. Devising such
tools may be the only way our species might continue to proliferate under
advanced industrial conditions if, for example, AIDS is an indicator of our
future under conditions of corporeal, unmediated-by-technology intimacy.
So I think we should dump all "illusion" language -- we have work to do,
construction work, blue-collar stuff, no illusion twaddle. Constructing
ourselves as cyborgs may be a possible future.
I've begun to wonder whether or not we're trying to ex-terminate one another.
I think we think the same things, but that we speak from different positions
in language. Perhaps it will dome down to only this: I have a very sardonic
world view -- that is, I'm a cynic with a sense of humor. Perhaps you are
much more a positivist than I am. Our basic world views are so deeply
psychologically and experientially constructed that they cannot be undone.
For me, the idea of illusion is quite comfortable. It can work well within
my theoretical understanding of the world. And, to boot, when things go awry,
I'm not as crushed as I might have been had I let myself believe in concrete
creations. I'm working against seduction in a way.
But you'll have to explain more about the romantic-pornographic construction
of intimacy in e-conversation. I think I understand romanticism quite well,
the individual creating his own meaning, the self as knowing subject. But
how do you mean "pornographic"? Baudrillard say that the pornographic is
the hyper-real, the obscenity of something seen up close, so close that
there is no longer any distance between the subject and the
Is e-conversation romantic-pornographic then by virtue of the fact/illusion
that we create closeness and intimacy where there is nothing but time and
How redemptive or evolutionary is this new technology? You brought up the issue
of AIDS. Is the implication that we can now do away with corporeal sex and have
cyborg (virtual) sex instead? Perhaps redemptive for the individual, but just
how far will humanity evolve with disembodied reproduction?11
Won't we suffer
a fate similar to that of the Shakers? Our supply of converts to celibacy isn't
Positivism? It is in the grain of my (gendered) flesh. Your raising the issue
of attitude, the process of arriving at personal meaning is important -- not so
much what is thought, but how. This must surely be argument's, reason's shadow,
the idea that if we could just get our story straight, get it right, everything
would be fine. Radical indeterminacy, it has been determined, is the correct
answer! This is how spiraled and vortexed the problem of knowledge is (as
something to be solved and done with). Caught in this language net, looking
for a way out, does seem to ensure the net's closure. Answers and ex-terminations
dovetail; but if we frame this as a problem, as the modern problem, arguing about
it and so forth, then I think you get reinscription.
The rhetorical form or discursive practice we call argument is gendered male.
I've just read Carol Gilligan who cites studies of gendered game-playing in
which male gaming features argument as much as the game itself, and in which
female gaming is usually called "game over" if argument develops. As male,
I sometimes feel totally out of water. I'm no essentialist, but I do think
it's more than coincidence that feminism and postmodernism sort of go together;
at least it seems to me that postmodernism as potentially more than reinscription
of modernism is tied to feminism. Is there a way to exchange words in some frame
other than argument?
My desire to cleanse the language net of illusion talk is not something which I
can cleanse myself of. What are my options? To speak with a measure of irony?
The fascination with sex and porno on the part of academics seems curious and
self-deceptive but also it does seem that the modern-to-postmodern move is a sex
change. The popularity of male-to-female sex changes is somehow a cultural
phenomenon to reckon with. Experience like one of those reputed chemical washes
that occur in utero is translated into cultural terms. Some few take it very
literally and in so doing become emblems -- of disfigurement and a whole host
of other things.
So illusion bashing is one thing; bashing illusion bashing is another. The
kinds of change that might make conversation of a different sort possible are
what? Dewey would say that nothing but doing will do, and I guess I agree with
that. It is one of the many reasons I am heartened and excited by our work.
There is the option of saying "how about instead of arguing, I tell you how it
is for me, and you tell me how it is for you."
Before I listened to you, I had a quite passive acceptance of the givenness of
the screen I now sit before; I thought of it as a typewriter and had no other
thoughts about typewriters. I have now entered into different terms, which in
their analytic character are, I would say, positivistic. It is possible to say
in my framework that the unified self which is created is an illusion; there is
no reason for insisting that we have limits on what we can create. But then
illusion is a creation; how do we know one when we see one? We have named a
certain sort of thing illusion; how did we do that? Creation is also a creation;
how did we do that? Finally, we did it like the old Taoist masters said, "along
the river" (or together in e-conversation). The real mystery is that we seem to
need to continue trying to figure things out!
About pornography, I was mainly thinking about pornography in terms of the play
of visibility/invisibility, of one-way mirrors. I like Baudrillard's comments
on pornography, the too-muchness of it all close-up. And yet, I would still
want to say that invisibility is just as important as hyper-visibility. The
electronic screen is lit up just like the one-way mirror in a peep-show; behind
it is a person acting out the "too much" which is necessary to bridge the
mediation of the one-way screen and balance the "not enough" on the other
side such that a masturbatory "just right" can occur. Perhaps we're just
prematurely ejaculating the future of the current Little Bo-Peep illusion
of e-conversation, pointing towards the eventuality of, as you say, virtual
But this is to be seduced into thinking that things have destinies apart from us.
This may be why the cyborg figure may be strangely redemptive; it is a representation
of a person in a machine more than it is a representation of a machine in a person.
If we are forced to see ourselves as part of the machinery in an industrialized
destiny, this might be a sign of hope, a novel sign in a culture used to regarding
the horror of machines invading us.
About argument -- game vs. game over, masculine vs. feminine playing
styles -- I think Gilligan is concerned about just that: argument as
style. Masculine style deliberation is argument; that includes being
loud, shaking your fists, interrupting, name-calling, and a whole host
of aggressive features to which the feminine style responds by saying
"game over." Silence.
But argument, as deliberation in general, as rhetoric, I would say is
feminine. After all, Rhetorica is a goddess, not a god. It's the use
of language to the ends of seduction.12 And
rhetoric can either seduce
using truth or by using illusion, by simulating or by dissimulating, evil
or good. In any case, it's feminine. So, as far as postmodernism relates
to simulation and seduction, the I agree that it's related to the feminine.
But remember, I said there were two poles to postmodernism; the totalitarian
pole I regard as masculine; and in very strange ways feminine, seductive
openness, can itself become a totalitarian position, always resisting closure.
I too am excited about the work we're doing, but I don't get the sense that
we're arguing, at least not in the masculine sense. I think we're socially
constructing meaning, which may or may not require narrative strategies. I
have no objection to narrative. As I said, this is how it is for me: I'm
the cynic with a sense of humor; you're the positivist (in the grain of your
gendered flesh). If nothing else we can balance one another.
I like Baudrillard's slant on pornography. From the perspective of the object,
pornography is hyper-visible, hyperreal, and obscene. I have not before given
much consideration to the invisible subject. But I think the moment that
invisibility becomes part of the object game, what you have is a move toward
seduction, not pornography. Seduction requires the secret, the dissimulation
that pretends that something is not what it really is -- or conversely, the
simulation that pretends that something is what it really is not. So while
you suggest that we may be prematurely ejaculating the future of the current
Little Bo-Peep illusion of e-conversation, pointing towards the eventuality
of virtual sex, I see any interpretation of e-conversation as pornography
permanently precluding ejaculation because the Other is absent.
I don't want to theorize and retheorize pornography, though. One always ends up
talking in sexual terms. But I am more in agreement with Baudrillard -- there's
no element of invisibility in pornography, hence no seduction. What I do want to
hold on to is the theory of seduction itself.
By the way, perhaps we should talk in concrete terms about collaborating our
teaching this fall. I think we could use the medium to put social construction
of meaning into pedagogical practice. What do you think?
Getting down to concrete talk about a collaborative course may be a matter of
comparing visions. To some extent I have a greater need to focus on education.
Somewhere in a muddle of reader reception, complexity, and the democratic theories
is where I am situated. I'm also interested in visions of education's future.
I have had the idea of collecting articles about bio-tech, AIDS, Prozac, etc.,
as runes to sift through to conjure up futures. How do you see the disembodied
exchange as pedagogy? That is the part I'm not sure of, except again, this idea
that the electronic teacher is already in existence; distance learning is likely
to become more common in the future. Do you mainly see it as producing a different
discourse of school? Or do you see a possibility for other sorts of things as well?
Do you see academia as a disembodied space in any case?
I know that you have to focus on education in your class; I have to focus on
rhetoric in mine. The nice thing about rhetoric, though, is that anything
can serve as content. I'm interested in working on values deliberation,
ethics, morals, etc. This feeds back to the EnText call for papers and my
concern about the impossibility of conversation in postmodern times. It's
not that I think people don't have ideas, or ethical/moral orientations, or
opinions. I just don't think they express them. The lid's on the pressure
cooker, screwed-down tightly over anything that might be a question of values.
The thing I find hopeful about an interdisciplinary course is that our classes
can engage in disembodied conversation with one another. They'll never have to
see one another, and they'll know that. Perhaps the medium will create a moral
space in which free expression can take place.
What could our students learn from one another? Yours may learn from mine
better deliberative skills and mine could learn from yours a deeper
understanding of the institution of education. Certainly, they'll
all learn something about the real world through their interaction
with one another.
[Between this message and the next, Bob and I ran into one another by chance
at the library. Heretofore, our conversation had been completely electronic,
disembodied. The experience of meeting face to face was disconcerting and
occasioned further reflection on the nature of electronic conversation.]
Wow! What did you think about the experience of running into one another today?
I feel scattered in the flesh. Dis-associated.
Re-iteration: the text creates a unified self! Scattered in the flesh is sure
to follow. Feedback loop: the real becomes pornographic; it becomes the "too
much" itself. At least that's how it felt to me to see you in the flesh. It
makes me think about what it would be like to see my father who died when I was
eight years old. I have had so much time to construct him and reconstruct him
that it would be very much too much to actually encounter him.
Just what to make of it I haven't the murkiest. The temptation of the flesh
becomes the temptation of the text instead. I'll try this for now: since most
corporeal events, particularly like ours, are about chit-chat, our e-conversation
has revealed the masked nature of social intercourse.
So, is it safe to assume that you see some kind of illusion powerfully at play
here in cyberspace? Confronted by absence, you are constructing a me; I am
constructing a you? This constructing process is then amplified or intensified
by the medium. And you also construct an amplified you to interact with the
amplified me (are you beginning to see this as sliding towards the point where
the Other disappears? Mirror mirror!). I think this is what the medium, in
its passive glory, aggressively invites.
Here, the disembodied exchange lets us splay ourselves open so that we can show
to each other only what we want to; we can also see in others only what we want
to see. But then, we have to re-husk the flesh for the corporeal event. The
gaze plays a major role in the way we react to one another, disembodied vs.
Yes, no denying that something goes on here. Are all of our attempts to
explain it, to get a handle on it, just part of a modernist/patriarchal
imperative to deny the mystery and power of experience? Or maybe a creature
thing -- needing to establish equilibration after disequilibrating circumstances
render the familiar interpretive means inoperative? Perhaps an attitude of
"basking" (just being) would be far more fruitful that one of interpretation.
This feeds back to your earlier comments about argument and attitude -- transformation
needs to reach the basking level. And this is much more difficult than just banning
As a writer, this must be more familiar to you. For me, this e-conversation,
Bob-cyborg's penchant for creating characters more believable than any characters
that exist in the flesh is something which has only given me an inkling of what
the place of fiction might be like. Our experiences are "just like fiction,"
labyrinthine. And what is the point of a labyrinth? It must be about getting
into the details, not about getting out, not about seeing it all at once
(pornography's counter figure).
So, something's going on here, but are we then proposing to enter into our
interdisciplinary course knowing there are risks without necessarily knowing
what those risks are? I know, I know . . . bask.
Yes Bob, I propose that we jump right into those risky waters in the company of
our students even though there's no way to assess the risk before doing so. I
guess we can only keep in mind, before we jump, that they are indeed risky. If
cyberspace is a space of simulation, it defies rational analysis, it is beyond
the true and false. We'd be wasting our time to do more than bask.
But you asked if all our attempts to interpret might not be part of a
modernist/patriarchal imperative to deny the mystery and power of experience,
or maybe a creature thing, to establish equilibration after disequilibrating
circumstances. Can we answer that "yes" to both? Actually, what's the
difference between the two choices other than the modernist/patriarchal
being wants to deny being a creature? The mystery and power of experience
is always decentering and we humans just can't abide that. There are those
who believe that there is no experience outside of language at all -- I've
been through this issue in several seminar classes. I believe (and it can
be no more than belief) that there is experience outside of language and that
the purpose of language is to communicate the experience -- to circumscribe
rather than to describe. Must this mean I'm a mystic?
Mystical experiences, or at least experiences which fit my image of what
such an experience would be, have landed somewhat outside of my range.
Maybe they land when I'm sleeping. And since I gather that mysticism is,
or is not, mainly on the basis of testimonials (belief), I suppose I could
still qualify as a mystic. I don't know how to try mysticism, but I do have
some angst about not having these experiences of knowing or what have you.
The closest thing I've had to an otherworldly or qualitatively different
sort of thing was once after reading Jung talk about mysticism in a way
that was connected somehow to organic evolution. I remember this feeling
of being embodied, of the intense physicality of history and all such things.
This was not an insensate kind of experience, obviously. It was a kind of
terror, maybe akin to our thankfully much milder, though still striking,
e-conversation. I suppose that since disequilibration is a relative thing,
if we experience corporeality as disequilibrating it means that we are used
to spending time incorporeally. The amplification of e-conversation only
makes the general and pervasive muting of corporeality so obvious that it
Other than that, I have always had two bones to pick with those that maintain
an "it's all in the language" position. One is that it seems so entirely
self-serving for such an idea to be so prized in academia where we live
lives in language. It kind of states the obvious to say that in academia
there is no experience outside of language. It's as if the notion of
sociology of language has fallen into the blind spot, the aporia of
academia in order to preserve the higher truth of jobs and cultural
preservation. The other bone is the one which has to do with figuring
out what is happening exactly with children who are pre-language. I
suppose they are doing body language; but once you grant that language
is more than just these words, you open onto a different world.
"Oh Lord, show me things as they truly are." That is the mystic's plea.
In a way it expresses the desire of my life. School, work, friends, play,
religion . . . I look to all insofar as they will show me things as they
truly are. While I do believe that there is experience outside of language
(otherwise language serves no purpose), I will concede that there is no
knowledge outside of language -- at least in terms of how we normally
think of knowledge as something formal, inscribed, a kind of artifact
that we can pass around to one another. The mystic's plea is one for
seeing or feeling, an immersion in experience beyond language. I look
to language to guide me to experience.
Perhaps this is a kind thrill-seeking behavior; I don't know. Baudrillard,
for example, has observed that our culture is moving from a competitive/expressive
orientation to one of vertiginous risk. The only passion we have anymore is a
passion for intensification, an escalation of the stakes, a passion for
ecstasy.13 Escalation, ecstasy, and vertigo
are all elements that play powerful roles in electronic addiction.
Especially for people like me who are suckers for mental risk and vertigo.
I'm beginning to feel like I'm caught in the gravitational field of a black
hole: on the one hand loathing postmodern nihilism, longing for reasoned
romanticism (whatever that may be), and on the other, disappearing into
the vertiginous ecstasy of the realer-than-real. I'm lost.
The trajectory of our conversation seems to be moving towards the bottom.
Bottoming-out in the language of addiction. The point in an addict's
trajectory when even she cannot deny that there is something wrong and
that she should seek help. And the concept of recovery does carry
with it those associations with conformity, of making people who will
henceforth be able to fit in, though (getting to things as they truly
are) the choice between fitting in and feeling awful most of the time
is a choice I gather an addicted person at some point is willing to
This is what sometimes concerns me about theorizing: as it truly is,
vertigo is not fun. As it truly is, psychotic states are not fun;
depression is not fun; being ex-terminated is not fun. So I would
say that for people who are addicted to thought, especially for
postmodernists, recovery might just be "getting to things as they
truly are." Bottoming out might be getting to the point where you
discover you can no longer talk to colleagues or friends, the point
at which one mentally says "that hurts."
Body talk is, I suppose, my version of mysticism. The problem with
education, which aspires to get at things as they truly are, is that
the body is constantly under surveillance and assault ranging from
the imperative to "sit still" to the more sophisticated panopticon.
Recovery in higher education may mean turning the institution into a
kind of health farm where people can learn to bask. After all, people
often say that higher education at its best is an attempt to undo the
damage done in lower education. If you're really a cynic, though, you
see that higher education really doesn't heal much of anything because
it still insists on excluding mysticism through unabated language addiction.
The mystical body can't be recognized in academic culture because that culture
has been defined historically and formed an identity in relation to the denial
of that body.
I'm going to send you a copy of the generic, departmental syllabus for the
class I teach, one that is supposed to serve as a guideline. Being a radical
democrat, I myself regard syllabi as acts of hostility, a poison in the form
of a cordial, the swallowing of which by students serves as proof that
authoritarianism has been internalized and rendered acceptable. The best
experience I've had of teaching ELC381 -- the Institution of Education --
was when students never saw the syllabus or any form thereof, and wherein
I began class by taking a vote on means of governance. I can say that a
qualitatively different kind of order emerged.
As we embark on a collaborative teaching experience, I'm not sure what
it is I want to preserve from my prior experience. Maybe it parallels
the notion of getting to things as they truly are. While I realize that
the idea of democracy is riddled with contradictions when it's done in
school, it is nonetheless an idea that people understand and which seems
capable of producing difference. So even though the idea of empowering
students through democracy is somewhat shopworn, it still seems to engage.
And conversation is a huge issue for me; I am for the most part convinced
that conversation/negotiation skills are the skills of the future that go
along with thinking on your feet and managing messes. So the elements I
include in my definition of democracy, the ideas I want to preserve, would
be conversation, negotiation, participation, and as much empowerment as
possible. In a way, this is my syllabus.
In regards to addiction, or cyber-addiction, I don't think I'll be sleeping in the
gutter anytime soon, or losing my job, or getting arrested for driving under the
influence of cyberspace. Still, I may be addicted to thought. Yes, it could lead
to depression and feeling awful; but it could also lead to ecstasy and feeling
terrific. Vertigo may be experienced differently for positivists and sardonic
romanticists, no? I like thinking/theorizing because it makes me feel
intellectually alive; but I do need to have theory connect to practice.
I think my feelings about the academic institution and its possibilities don't
square with yours once we get down to the practical level of conducting a class.
I no longer assume ideal students who can handle a truly democratic class without
having it turn into a non-class. I have more non-negotiables.
Perhaps my last message was more about the shadow side of my addiction because,
like you, there are some parts of addiction I enjoy too. This may speak to the
inherent postmodernism of this medium; I think what happens is that a keyword,
like "seduction," gets established and, in holographic fashion, a whole world
is constructed in our conversation. The another keyword or phrase, like "things
as they truly are," is introduced and, once again, that bit contains all the
information necessary to construct another whole world. It strains my positivism
to make each world coherent with the next. In the world of seduction, I would only
ask you what text you constructed from my text. In the world of "things as they
truly are," I might try to construct my own meaning more clearly.
I suggest that we exit the world of seduction as well as the world of "things as
they truly are." In either case, we could enter into a very postmodern exchange,
interpreting each other's interpretations to infinity and never getting to anything
more than vertigo.
Leaving these worlds is okay by me, too. Is this the meaning of postmodernism
after all: consciously making one's bed and then sleeping in it? I am still
intrigued by introducing the concept of holography into our conversation. Since
it doesn't take much in the way of material to invent whole worlds, people ought
to be careful about the materials they select (academic valuation). Why education?
Are we in education in the business of supplying really good building materials
and/or perspectival differences through social interactions? We play on two things:
the plain fun of meaning-making and the desire for unity -- chaos and control.
Consciousness is suspended now between a desire for determinacy and a desire for
indeterminacy. Which fits at the pole of meaning-making and which at the pole
My first response would be to say that determination (self) and unity are
somehow paradoxically dependent. Maybe we bask best in the tension between
Why education, you ask? Do we have anything more authoritative than our own
personal narratives to answer that? Life can be whole without education, of
course -- edenically, innocently -- but education can make it more whole. For
example, I could appreciate the beauty of flowers even if I didn't know anything
about botany and plant physiology, but now I can appreciate with an added dimension,
knowing for example that there's a very specific relationship between the anatomy
of the fig and the one species of wasp that pollinates it.
Why education? When I read Lyotard's work, his narratives of the grand narratives,
I found myself drawn to Hegel -- more evidence that I'm not a postmodernist.
Research and the spread of learning are not justified by invoking a principle of
usefulness. . . . The humanist principle that humanity rises up in dignity and
freedom through knowledge is left by the wayside. German idealism has recourse
to a metaprinciple that simultaneously grounds the development of learning, of
society, and of the State in the realization of the "life" of a Subject,
called . . . "Life of the spirit" by Hegel. In this perspective, knowledge
first finds legitimacy within itself, and it is knowledge that is entitled to
say what the State and what Society are. But it can only play this role by
changing levels, by ceasing to be simply the positive knowledge of its referent
(nature, society, the State, etc.), becoming in addition to that the knowledge
of the knowledge of the referent -- that is, by becoming speculative. In the
names "Life" and "Spirit" knowledge names itself.14
Is this perhaps the view that the universe rises to self-contemplation?
To me, the idea that knowledge does not have to refer to usefulness
(idealism) is much the same as saying that the distinction between
knowledge and the world is an indebted distinction (postmodernism).
The distinction for me is that a true idealist would be positivistic about
the idea that knowledge is knit into the world while a true postmodernist
would attempt to be in a state of indeterminate basking about the idea.
There is also compatibility in that adapting an idealist stance may be an
important strategy or tactic in a postmodern framework; the key question is
"what does the world look like and how is it experienced for the better if
we take an idealist stance?" I have never had the impression that postmodernism
is nihilistic, but that it leaves us at the doorstep of speculative/aesthetic/moral
philosophy. If we participate in the invention and creation of the world, what
kind of world is it that we would like to create? This is for me the connection
with democratic deliberation as a quintessential
postmodern imperative.15 Postmodernism opens
the door to ethical deliberation, but we have to walk through it, enact it
in our daily lives and not just in hypothetical situations like abortion and
capital punishment, but in lived ones like grading practices and attendance
Sometimes I feel like I must be crazy because I can't find a position, a label,
with which I am comfortable for once and for all. I often liken myself to a
diner in a Chinese restaurant: I'd like one from column A and one from
column B. For a positivist, knowledge is knit into the world; for a
postmodernist, there's a state of indeterminacy in regards to knowledge.
Are the two mutually exclusive? If one thinks they're not, does this amount
to admitting that one is a mystic?
The problem with postmodernism, as I see it, is that while it indeed does
take us to the door of speculative/aesthetic/moral philosophy, it abandons
us there. Postmodern discourse bars entry, even conditional entry. In this
way I can't see democratic deliberation as its quintessential imperative.
Postmodernism quintessentially forecloses the possibility of deliberation.
This includes real-life practices like grading and attendance policies as well
as those things you call hypothetical like abortion and capital punishment (which
I might point out are not in the least bit hypothetical to some folks).
I think you're right about having to avow mysticism if the aim is to avoid
positivism(s). The state of basking in indeterminacy = the state of mysticism.
A reformulation might be two kinds of positivism -- (1) knowledge is knit
into the world; I'm certain of it, and (2) knowledge is separate from the
world; I'm certain of it -- and one form of mysticism, the position from
which to decide amongst various positivisms does not exist, therefore the
positivist consciousness needs to be called into question and kept there.
One of the connections I make with democracy is the open avowal of indeterminacy.
I think it has taken this long, 200 years or more, for the rest of our ideological
formations to catch up to democracy. With the advent of chaos science, religious
activism, and academic challenges to static conceptions of knowledge, the moment
seems propitious for dusting off the democratic idea. It's a truly radical concept,
obviously not as it is practiced as a system of representation, but as a system that
claims no transcendent signifier. It is profoundly social, admitting in fact only a
concept of sharing and social intelligence. It openly acknowledges the reality that
really tough deliberations such as those on abortion and capital punishment will
never be positivistically settled. Its purest form is native American council:
people gather, listen, talk; nothing is decided, but something is done because
in the world things have to be done. There is no claim that the right thing has
The reason postmodernism would appear as barring entry to moral deliberation is
that what we mean by deliberation is a process by which we get to something like
a right answer. It's true that postmodernism abandons us if we want an ideology
that will reinstate a positivism. If we want de-liberation, postmodernism can
only go so far, being about liberation or about play. The strange thing is that
play is feared as irresponsible, but it is nothing of the sort.
Postmodernism as abandonment works in the sense of abandonment by the Father(s).
But this is not the Fathers that are abandoning us; it is us abandoning the Fathers.
The question "whose postmodernism connotes abandonment" gets the answer "patriarchal
postmodernism." Among the patriarchs are many academics and religious figures.
Science has invited postmodernism in a long time ago, at least as far back as
Heisenberg. Academics and religion, perhaps because they share so much history
in the textual prerogative and anti-mystical reason for being, seem bound and
determined to bar the door.
You know, the experience of writing a [book] is emotionally as well as
intellectually taxing for me because I feel that I must take a position. I
must be willing to accept a label and refute all others. This doesn't settle
well with my person, the person it seems I really am. I have a tremendous
aesthetic appreciation for so many things: living, breathing, being in the sun,
walking in the woods, digging in the dirt, reading a text, watching a movie,
talking with students and colleagues. I even appreciate the not so positive
things like addiction, suffering, and dying. I appreciate experience, and
everything is an experience. A text is a big part because through a text I
can experience thoughts I might not have discovered on my own; I can live
other experiences, live vicariously. So, I tend to always find something
good/useful in texts, including theory texts. I want to be a positivist about
conflicting positions, if you will. Maybe an analogy: think of all the "stuff"
of life as legos in a box. I dump out these legos and build a lego-ladder to
get me from one place to another. Then, I take down the legos and start again.
No matter what shaped ladder I build, I can always get from one place to another.
Well, legos are language (words), and the way we choose to assemble our legos
varies. You maintain that issues, because of indeterminacy, cannot be settled
once and for all. Can we agree at least, since we work with words in straining
for consensus, to think of this project in temporal terms? While we cannot
settle issues diachronically, we can settle them synchronically?
I just don't see the postmodern project as one that helps the democratic,
consensual process. Post-structuralism and some feminist thought are helpful
insofar as they call our attention to alternative ways of doing things; they
at least show us that differences exist and that we might just as well build
lego ladders with spiraled shapes as with strict linear shapes. But, with
postmodernism, the language games are so pervasive that they bar us from
making the transition from considering alternatives to praxis. We can't
make even synchronic decisions. It's the very act of discussion or
conversation that's barred.
It's not a matter, for postmodernists, of having been abandoned by the Father,
but of postmodernism abandoning the Mother in a race for the psycho-anthropological
transgression of patricide -- killing the father in order to become him. If we
build our ladder with psycho-anthropological legos, I would have to say that the
phallus, as transcendental signifier, is very much alive and well, and will
continue to thrive as long as there are human beings. If we metaphorize the
phallus, interpret it as the power to make meaning, "penis envy" is a condition
suffered universally . Postmodernism is just the same struggle for the same
signifier, but in the absence of civilizing rules; rules have been abandoned
and the barbarians are at the gate. I'm reminded of wolf packs and the social
order, the play-fighting and posturing in lieu of real fighting hat determines
a synchronic pecking order (I say synchronic because the order is subject to
challenge). Postmodernism is like a wolf clan that's suddenly abandoned the
rules; play fighting becomes real fighting, a bloody warfare that no individual
survives unless he runs away, at which point there's no "social" at all. Again,
to answer the Entext question, we aren't talking because we can't. To risk
talking is to risk ex-termination.
Postmodern wolves? I like the image. My thoughts are filled with nuance,
though. There's something I would want to develop around the issue of
procedural rules vs. prescriptive rules. Game rules provide consensus on
procedures but do not prescribe consensus on outcome. Play which is held
in place and regulated by prescription may degenerate into serious and
bloody fighting in the absence of any developed sense of process or procedure
(such as democratic rules provide). Our risk in America is not that of being
thrown to the wolves of postmodernism because we do have some support for
democratic procedural rules, but in not being willing to take risks of
further procedural empowerment. Our problem is that the lack of continued
expansion of democratic play has resulted in a kind of corporatized, clean,
desert-stormy, but nonetheless serious and bloody fighting that's become an
accepted part of the landscape. In other words, I would want to check out
with you whether your description of struggling for the signifier in the
absence of civilizing rules again assumes that the car of civilization and
the ethics and prescriptive rules it supposes can be put before the horse of
democratic procedural rules already in place in America and the ethics of
dialogue that it supposes. Hasn't postmodernism enabled a semiotics of war?
Strong democracy needs open conversation, and my assessment is that
postmodernism has opened conversation, including this one, onto areas
formerly closed for lack of tools.
I like the idea of defining boundaries, though, I wouldn't want to march blindly
along with postmodernists who want to kill the Father only in order to become him.
This would be a mistake. This is where I would say that we could register our
indebtedness to them for opening conversations, and then begin to follow these
conversations into other areas (like feminism) where rules give way to
relationships and where the talk is not so invested in the winning of
Lately I've been trying to understand what's referred to as neo-pragmatism,
trying to give it a place in our conversation. I've pretty much always thought
of myself as pragmatic, insofar as that means something like practical. But, I
don't think that's quite capturing pragmatism as a philosophical position.
People like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish have valuable insights, especially
in terms of socially constructed meaning, on consensus, but I have some
fundamental misgivings. There seems to be in neo-pragmatism a deep underlying
metaphysical lack, a nothing at the center of this philosophy that implies the
impossibility of either goodness or of evil.
Sartre talks about consciousness as a lack in the center of being, making a case
that when philosophers talk about metaphysics, they are in effect talking about
consciousness, which is always a lack. Metaphysicians in this way protest too
much, get too excited because they are trying to fill the lack that will never
be filled, trying to solve the riddle of consciousness which must remain a
riddle if it is to remain consciousness. In order for anything to change,
everything must change. We need new notions of validity, certainty, etc.,
if we are to entertain new notions such as neo-pragmatism.
It seems like whatever we do, we have to deal with metaphysical questions.
It would be great if foundationalism/antifoundationalism was pragmatically
irrelevant, but it's not. At some point we have to consider whether or not
people are innately good. Can we rely on goodness?
I can see the argument for consciousness as lack, especially from the perspective
of humanity being a part of the universe rising to self-contemplation. That lack
is desire, desire for truth, self-knowledge, always beyond reach of our poorly
evolved brain capacities and the fragmented consciousness of the universe in all
I think it's a worthy venture to reflect on the nature of desire, lack, seduction,
and the state of our poorly evolved being in relationship to the big questions such
as the nature of good and evil or the meaning of life. Why is there something
instead of nothing. Language may be like the convict's spoon, and we are all
convicts trying to dig mile long tunnels to freedom through solid rock. Our
tools, our spoons, are woefully inadequate to the task. In many ways, ways
related to pragmatism and democracy, our struggling separate selves must connect
in collective consciousness and effort to pursue the ever elusive, shape-shifting
answer. We must de-liberate.
I am suddenly reminded of Rainer Rilke's "A Tale of Death and a Strange Postscript
Thereto" in which a grave-digger tells the following story to the narrator:
"You know . . . in olden times people prayed like this --" and I spread my
arms out wide, involuntarily feeling my breast expand at the gesture. "In
those days God would cast himself into all these human abysses, full of
despair and darkness, and only reluctantly did he return into his heavens,
which, unnoticed he drew down ever closer over the earth. But a new faith
began. As it could not make men understand wherein its new God differed from
their old one (for as soon as they began to praise him, men promptly recognized
the one old God here too), the promulgator of the new commandment changed the
manner of praying. He taught the folding of hands and declared: `See, thus
does our God wish to be implored, so he must be another God from the one
whom heretofore you have thought to receive in your arms.' The people say
this, and the gesture of open arms became a despicable and dreadful one,
and later it was fastened to the cross that all might see in it a symbol
of agony and death.
Now when God next looked down upon the earth, he was frightened. Besides the
many folded hands, many Gothic cathedrals had been built, and so the hands and
the roofs, alike steep and sharp, stretched pointing towards him like the
weapons of an enemy. With God there is a different bravery. He turned back
into his heavens, and when he saw that the steeples and the new prayers were
growing in pursuit of him, he departed out of his domain at the other side
and thus eluded the chase. He was himself astonished to find, out beyond
his radiant home, a growing darkness that received him silently, and with
a curious feeling he went on and on in this dusk that reminded him of the
hearts of men. Then for the first time it occurred to him that the heads
of men are lucid, but their hearts full of a similar darkness; and a longing
came over him to dwell in the hearts of men and no longer to move through the
clear, cold wakefulness of their thinking. Well, God has continued on his
way. Ever denser grows the darkness around him, and the night through which
he presses on has something of the fragrant warmth of fecund clods of earth.
And in a little while the roots will reach out towards him with the old
beautiful gesture of wide prayer. There is nothing wiser than the circle.
The God who has fled form us out of the heavens, out of the earth will he come
to us again. And, who knows, perhaps you yourself will some day dig free the
door. . . ."16
Rilke's wonderful story dovetails with the notion that he God-human
cyborg may be the best model available to us. What it seems most
postmodernists have yet to realize is that God has indeed come around
again, this time as an option on the postmodern menu. Where there is
no ground, anything is possible, and the criteria for action (the
unavoidable selecting-out) become profoundly moral/aesthetic. Truth's
loss in status brings other concerns into greater prominence.
In terms of education, this means that if the truth question is over, then
we can stop trying to dig with inadequate tools. Those tools -- intense
cognitive apparati that nonetheless work about as well as a spoon -- are
part and parcel of what is questioned in the post-truth era. If the project
changes, so must the tools. If anything changes, everything changes.
So in school, we have learned, as your metaphor suggests, to be inmates. We
are the proverbial spoon-fed who get so big in management training school
(a.k.a. Ph.D.) that we grab the spoon and begin tunneling for all we're worth.
Not only benighted, but impertinent, we unshackle ourselves and commence digging
while the merely benighted await the return of the philosopher-king like good
students (but not like management-caliber students). Eventually we return,
having learned yet another lesson, never minding that maybe we got thrown
into the wrong metaphor.
This is exactly the reason that we need to repeat as our mantra "tell me something
I don't already know" when contemplating what we do pedagogically. People, by the
time we get them, know the spoon game. It is a fun and good game, but nobody teaches
anyone anything about basking, for example; and basking may be a much more important
survival skill in the post-truth era than spooning. This is why, if we take
education as our subject matter in our interdisciplinary course, we can also
get to things like God's return and the variety of proper greetings, etc. We
will be operating in the post-postmodern.
There's one drawback to our musings about spoons -- if we don't have to do the
spoon game anymore, if what we need is basking instead . . . you and I are
unemployed! There's no longer a need for neo-pragmatism, democracy,
postmodernism, modernism, romanticism, or anything else. We can all
just open up our arms and receive the Answer, which is, of course,
that we all need one another to be One, to be coherent.
Wait a minute; certainly you have heard of contemplative literature. I'm
talking about expanding the reading list and/or gradually substituting one
kind of reading for another. We can still sell ourselves (thank God for
that) with postmodernism, neo-pragmatism, modernism, romanticism, etc.,
then make a move on the inside to bring in the concept of basking. At
the other end of the historical tin can and string sits Galileo, similarly
contemplating unemployment (or worse . . . but not really worse since
unemployment in our society does equal death, just a slower kind of death)
for making moves that would shake the academy as it was then known. It's a
fluid medium. We live in Galileo's utopia, except that the reign of truth
has recently been seen to have run its course.
I think a usable metaphor for getting out of the holes we get into is
"coming out." You seem to have this sense, that if you scratch the surface
just a bit, you might find that many others are waiting for a sign that it's
all right to come out, too. Sighs of relief are heard.
So, first we have to sell ourselves, make changes from the inside. I just
hope that instead of staying in the hole, or coming out, we don't just spoon
ourselves a bigger hole. To revise the metaphor just a bit -- we settle back
in self-congratulation to lick the spoon that stirred the pot.