Always Never Sometimes Generalize

In the discussion of my previous entry about Mark Edmundson’s essay, Alonzo raises a pretty fair challenge to the intensity of my reaction to that essay. I’ve been thinking about this issue a bit this morning.

This is a discussion that I’ve gotten into before at this blog, because I tend to have strong reactions to what strike me as unfair generalizations. The strength of my (over?)reaction produces two immediate problems.

First, I like to make generalizations myself. You can’t avoid doing so, and you shouldn’t want to avoid doing so. Generalizing well is a basic part of critical thought. I’m finding the truth of this proposition in yet another form this semester in doing some observational drawing. If you try to draw a room, a person, an object in every possible detail, you’re on a fool’s errand. It isn’t even how we actually physiologically see the world. There will always be another detail or nuance excluded at the end of your work.

I’m presently trying to finish the introduction to a manuscript I’ve been working on for an unseemly length of time, and in it, I’m aggressively generalizing about some of the atmospheric, pervasive claims I see as habitual features of scholarly writing within African studies in the Anglo-American academy. There’s a problem with that characterization, and I acknowledge it in the introduction: if you look for chapter and verse quotations to document the tendencies I’m describing, if you try to draw that feeling straight out of published work, it’s actually rather difficult. Either you have to magnify the importance of a relatively marginal work that is written in a more polemical or vivid style than ordinary professionalized scholarship in the field, or you have to really dig in hard on the exegesis of much more canonical works to show where the tendencies you’re describing can be found. What I’m trying to describe in the introduction is really the paratextual context that surrounds Africanist scholarship. Not what we say in our carefully groomed publications, but the conversations we have at meetings, the introductions we make to our papers on panels, the verbal characterizations we make of what is good and bad in our field, the mustering of institutional resources to endorse some research and condemn other research. I’m trying to capture gestures, winks, nods, scowls, all of which I think are more powerful in constructing the norms of practice in a disciplinary field than the formal publications that we put forward to be cited and dissected. I can’t help but describe those kinds of underlying forces in terms not far off from the way Edmundson builds his complaint. At some point, you’ll have to trust me.

Second, being overly fastidious about generalization is a quick road to shitty writing. Specifically the kind of shitty writing that academics frequently exhibit, writing full of qualifying statements, cover-your-ass mock concessions, muddled and passive-voice constructions that permit the author a measure of plausible deniability about an argument. This is one of the points that Alonzo quite rightly raises in his comment, that the end result of my complaint is the constriction of Edmundson’s (or any author’s) ability to write a short, descriptive, provocative essay.

To return to the analogy I’m getting from observational drawing, if I’m making a drawing, it is at least as much for others to view as it is for my own satisfaction. If I make a drawing that has so much detail in it that nothing draws the viewer’s eye or says anything about what I saw, what’s the point? All I’m really doing then is grabbing you, sitting you down in the same chair that I sat in and saying, “See?”

On the other hand, it’s all about the details you choose to put in that picture. Generalizations work best when they’re vivid in the few specifics they do offer, when the telling detail or sharply observed narrative draws you in. A good generalizer is willing to be surprised by the world around them, to see something they’ve never seen before, or sees a detail that feels drawn from life as we ourselves know it. A good generalizer is a good storyteller, often working from personal experience. Bad generalizers grab generic reports from the newspapers, snatch course titles out of online catalogues, retell thrice-told tales, tell you about something that happened to a friend of a friend who knows someone.


So what does rub me the wrong way sometimes about generalizations?

Part of my reaction is simple. I’m most annoyed when I feel included in a hostile generalization that I don’t find to be a truthful description of my practice or my life. When I read David Lodge, even when it makes me wince a bit at the resemblance to my own life, it feels more or less correct. Reading Edmundson’s essay, on the other hand, I don’t see what he sees in several respects, even given that I share some of his underlying dissatisfaction with the state of the academic humanities. I teach and read cultural studies, I teach and read about popular culture. That’s not all I do, but it’s some of it. I don’t use computers or gadgets in every or even most class sessions, but when it’s appropriate to do so, I do.

As a result, there really isn’t any room in Edmundson’s essay for me to be a good teacher, to care deeply about what I do, to believe I’m calling students to the “alternatives”. He hasn’t left any rhetorical escape hatches for me to crawl out of. I have colleagues here and elsewhere who I think are fantastic teachers and scholars of the kind that Edmundson claims to admire, and they too are left penned in by his characterization. So at that point, I really am left with only two possibilities: I’m wrong or he’s wrong. Option B, please.

Second, I react strongly because I have a countermanding generalization in mind. I’ve known scholars who imagine themselves as Edmundson seems to: lonely sentinels standing on the rampart of a neglected outpost as the barbarians crest over the hill. Sometimes, they’re completely entitled to that self-image. I’ve been taught by professors and worked with professors who absolutely strike me that way, who really do stand alone in some exemplary manner, and whose contrarianism is both prodigiously talented and fiercely charismatic. I love these folks, I admire them, I desperately want to be surrounded by them. I’d often like for them to succeed in transforming academic practice so that more of us teach or think as they do. Judging from what Alonzo says, that’s how Edmundson comes off to his students. I could certainly read him in that spirit, and maybe I should.

However, I’ve also been taught by professors and worked with professors for whom this kind of self-image is armor against the unfortunate fact that they stink as teachers or that their scholarly interests pace restlessly inside a teeny-tiny intellectual prison cell of their own making.

If I had to come up with a rule of thumb about how I sort the former from the latter on first acquaintance, it’s that the charismatic contrarians are more playful, more self-aware, more entertainingly performative and often surprisingly knowledgeable about the objects of their derision. You can drop them into almost any context and they’ll be able to play along, prod and poke, conceal the eventual ferocity of their critique until the emotional and intellectual moment is right. The people who are really just flattering themselves while developing a comprehensive alibi for their own professional weaknesses are humorless, repetitive, dully tendentious, unresponsive to context, one-trick ponies.

Third, I’m domesticated enough to the norms of professional life that I think that fellow professionals are owed a generic kind of courtesy simply by the fact that they are fellow professionals. I’m all for calling a demonstrated scoundrel out (Margaret Soltan is the supreme mistress of this art). But I intuitively recoil from characterizations which either make someone out to be a scoundrel from what strike me as minor foibles or mistakes, or which sweepingly indict vast acres of professional real estate as populated by worthless hacks.

One of the things I ended up deciding I didn’t like about graduate school some years after I’d finished graduate school was a culture of invidious (and self-complimentary) disdain for most other scholars and most other scholarly work. It took me a long time to cleanse that kind of sneering out of my system, and I sometimes lapse back. I didn’t like the meanness of this affect towards others, and I didn’t like the implied egocentrism of it either.

I think most of us publish too much stuff, and that scholarly work taken as a whole is weakly written, overly specialized, and pedantic. Paradoxically, though, my basic opinion of any given individual scholarly work is positive until I’m convinced otherwise by reading it and engaging it. Writing a whole monograph or even an article is hard work, and anyone who gets to the finish line deserves a slap on the back and a hug. Most of the time, even if I disagree with a specific work, I try to respect the work and craft that went into it.

I think a lot of what is taught in the scholarly humanities, especially at R1 universities and selective liberal arts colleges, isn’t really what most 18-22 year olds would most benefit from learning. But my default assumption about any individual course taught by any specific professor is a positive one until I have really specific reason to think otherwise.

That’s what I think I owe people as a fellow professional. It’s also how I want to live my life as a person: to work towards preemptive charity and mutual respect until I’m given a specific reason to feel otherwise. There are exceptions, sure. Sometimes big ones. It’s an ideal, that’s all.

My problem with some hostile characterizations of academia is consistently that they jump these two registers of judgment in appallingly casual and mean-spirited ways. Edmundson’s essay is nowhere near as bad as some of the stupid reports and mindless surveys I’ve criticized here in the past, but it has a similarly uncharitable sense about it.

There are problems with this kind of professionalism, I know. It’s why doctors are sometimes very slow to deal with a fellow doctor that they know is screwing up or incompetent, or why law firms sometimes stick a weak senior partner in an office, lock the door, and hope he’ll just stay out of the way. Seen cynically, this kind of professional courtesy is a reciprocal pact: I won’t attack you, and you won’t attack me.

But one of the oldest and noblest ideas about the scholarly enterprise is that it is about the progressive construction of knowledge, that we not only know differently in each succeeding generation but that we know better, know more, that we build upon previous insight and leave something new for the next generation. If you take that at all seriously, it requires a basic measure of intellectual and professional generosity. It means that you read what you don’t like, observe what you criticize, try what you’re disinclined to do. It means you impose a tough test if you want to argue that a particular argument, a particular kind of work, a particular way of teaching and studying, should be superceded or demolished.

You want to rebuild the canon? Tell me how and why, and don’t just wave off a generation of smart and less-smart attacks on the canon as universally worthless. You’re tired of postcolonial theory? Fine, I have a lot of problems with it too. But it is a body of knowledge made by fellow professionals largely in good faith. If you want to do something else, you have to build the next stage on top of what they did, as a succession.

You don’t like what other academics around you are doing? Try to at least ask, “Why are they doing it?” in a way that does not presume you already know the answer. This is when generalization is most likely to make me restless, and why I complain at what I perceive to be a lack of curiosity.

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17 Responses to Always Never Sometimes Generalize

  1. AndrewSshi says:

    On the whole disdain and respect thing…

    I would like to always be familiar with things that I disagree with. But if, for example, someone whose judgment about philosophy of language says that a lot of post-structuralism and Theory in general is badly digested Continental Philosophy, I may need to trust their judgment since I have a somewhat light on theory (well, except for some brief references to Annalistes and they’re not really Theory) dissertation to get done by this coming August.

    Likewise, if a friend of mine who’s studying psychology says that Lacan is probably not going to tell me very much about the workings of the human mind, I’m probably going to trust him (at least until the dissertation is done).

    So to some extent, that there’s a physical limit to how quickly someone can take and process information from the printed page/computer screen is going to cause us to decide to avoid engaging with something. Of course, that limit can be an excuse for willful small-mindedness (I’m often guilty as charged in that respect), but sometimes it is a genuine reason.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure. But that’s when I get most provisional if I’m trying to make a public statement. Yes, privately, I’m probably overly derisive towards all sorts of things that I don’t know, but there’s a big difference between grousing over a coffee with a friend about stuff that seems wacky and writing a public statement about it.

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    Yeah, fair enough.

    Oh, and “whose judgment about philosophy of language says” should read “whose judgment about philosophy of language I trust says.”

  4. alonzo says:

    Thank you for your consideration of my comments. I am just an amateur observer, but I find your general views on the academic humanities almost entirely congenial. And I agree with you about the haters out there, and would be glad to stand virtual shoulder to virtual shoulder with you, in the trenches, against them. But Edmundson is not one of them. You have read him badly. You are wrong. You seem to have come to his essay with a fixed frame in mind, a preconceived idea of what sort of debate he was engaged in, while his actual meaning, his own frame of reference, the debate he was interested in, all of this eluded you. You made him a player in the game in your own mind, instead of inquiring into the one he was playing (and then making him a player in the game in your own mind).

    Sure, Edmundson steps on your toes. But he doesn’t give you a punch in the face. He ignores your concerns, and you are free to raise them in response. But don’t say he spits in your face.

    Really the irony seems too perfectly classical. You have become the thing you hate out of your very hatred of it. While you rail against the uncharitable, the egocentric, and the incurious you embody those very traits. You sneer against sneerers, and suspected sneerers.

    So it seems to me.

    I read ‘Geek Lessons’ as an Emersonian exhortation. The teacher is to help students unleash their vital energies and achieve themselves by breaking through their mental constraints, the dead patterns that have captured their minds, their conformity. There is a necessary spirit of opposition here. “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Note the “whatever.” “If it’s TV and cultural studies, I’m against it.” Note the “If”. (That is Edmundson’s only mention of cultural studies, the whole of his attack on it, which is to say, there is no attack at all.) If X is something that encourages conformity, that saps the spirit, that has fallen into lifelessness, shackles the mind, then Edmundson is against X — but only to that extent! Only if! — and wants his teacher to offer opposition and alternatives to X. What is X? Anything can be X. Anything. Edmundson’s main suggestion for a possible X today is the desire to be cool, to be hip. That suggestion hasn’t gotten much attention on this blog, though it is his main point. But then mentions computers as an example of a cool trend in education. One of Tim Burke’s little toes! TV. Another toe! Cultural Studies. Will the pain never end?

    Let us consider the Emersonian perspective. What matters is the constraint, the conformity, soulsuck. X can be anything. X can be different things for different people. X changes. How seriously are we supposed to take these few casually, unpersuasively tossed out examples? Not very, I think. Are we supposed to take them as normative? God no. Not that Edmundson isn’t really suspicious of computers in education. But if a teacher came along who used a lot of technology to achieve Edmundson’s Emersonian goals then of course he would be thrilled. Lester Goes Electric! Who would of thunk it? But of course the creative mind is always unexpected.

    By the way, the secret heart of the essay is that high-school teacher with the lines. That is Edmundson’s own teacher, described in his memoir, “Teacher,” who he credits with completely changing his life, the key impetus for his transformation from dumb jock to English professor. Edmundson’s pedagogy comes straight from his experience as a student. He wants everyone to have at least one teacher like that.

    Obviously, this essay is not about all teaching or all aspects of teaching. Not about the curriculum, the canon, or scholarship. Not essentially about higher education, not about academia (though it comes from there and shows the traces), as it could be applied quite well to teaching at other levels and in other contexts. This should be obvious. Teachers do many different things for many different reasons. Edmundson’s focus is narrow. Obviously. I guess that would be a problem if he were God or POTUS or the Secretary of Education or a college president or a high school principal and this essay was his complete education plan, but he is none of those and this is not that. His basic inclination is to invite everybody into his Cool Club of the Uncool but if you feel left out okay I don’t see why you’d care to cry about it. Why not shrug or look away?

    I think “Geek Lessons” is a pretty lightweight piece, fit for the Sunday paper, a bit goofy, with a certain charm, thought-provoking if you let it be. That’s all. But some are a’fire with the thirst for grievance, and will find it where they will.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    All I can say is you’re reading that piece with a knowledge of the man that I don’t have: I don’t see the open mind and open agenda that you find in the actual words on the page.

  6. The struggle with the problematic necessity of generalizations is a very familiar one, and I appreciate Timothy thinking out loud about it here. Some of the most interesting generalizations flirt heavily with cliche. Cross-cultural musical comparisons, for example–those can be little mine fields.

    I know all about those verbose and contorted constructs that go with being overly fastidious while generalizing–I often find myself wallowing in them. But I don’t agree with Alonzo that backing off the generalizations would have compromised Edmondson’s ability to “put [his] points strongly and clearly.” The essay isn’t about “teaching”, it’s about a particular kind of teaching of particular material, and it could be framed that way without littering it with qualifiers.

    If it’s a magical, transformative kind of teaching, that’s fantastic, I’m all for it. But it’s not a magical, transformative NYT Magazine essay. It’s up to Edmondson to make himself clear–the reader shouldn’t have to read his book or track down a former student who’s hip to the Emersonianisms.

    It’s funny, Alonzo, to see you writing about what happens to “Tim Burke’s little toes.” Timothy may have overreacted and/or put other people’s complaints into Edmondson’s mouth, but the person reacting as if his toes are throbbing is you. No surprise there–as a former student who was deeply effected by Edmondson’s teaching, your toes are most exposed. But there’s no justification for treating Timothy’s post as a personal attack, unless you expect him to weaken and unclarify his points with a lot of qualifiers, to make it clear that every time he mentions Edmondson what he means is “what Edmondson seems to believe or want based on this essay he wrote.” Even if you’re convinced that it’s an unjustified and ignorant personal attack on someone you admire, the sneering (“One of Tim Burke’s little toes! TV. Another toe! Cultural Studies. Will the pain never end?”) doesn’t help your case.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Look, the basic problem here is that there is almost no way for me to talk about what rubbed me the wrong way in the essay without suggesting that Edmundson should write about teaching the way I would write about teaching, which is exactly the wrong thing for me to ask of him. (As Alonzo suggests, that cancels out my own point.) I’m willing to trust that I’ve misunderstood his intentions, but then I don’t think those intentions come through very clearly in what he writes in “Geek Lessons” (or in “Why Read?”; I haven’t read Teacher).

    So with that caveat in mind, if I were setting out to write about transformative teaching, I guess my first point would be my consistent surprise and delight at the diversity of ways that transformative teachers I’ve known accomplish their art. I’ve been taught by or observed people who do it through technology, and people who do it without any props or tools at all. I’ve seen people with elaborate performances and people who are unshorn of any artifice at all. I’ve seen teachers who have an enormous impact on their students teaching about seemingly hip or “cool” subjects, and those who do it with exaggeratedly stodgy topics. If the point is to write a love poem to great teaching, I guess I have found more kinds of things to fall in love with. Edmundson reads to me more miserly in his affections, or as a person whose fetishes keep him from seeing all the beauty there is to be seen.

    If the point is to write about bad teaching, much the same applies: I see it in more places, more ways, more moments than I read him as seeing it. And I think every good teacher is troubled by the moments that went badly (that’s a sign of being conscientious about teaching). When I write here about teaching that doesn’t work, I often start from something I did that didn’t go well.

  8. Carl says:

    This is a wonderful discussion and since everything I’d say has been said, I’m going to go back and pick tangentially at the contingent premise about the zeitgeist of African Studies. Just above, TB, you said:

    “but there???? a big difference between grousing over a coffee with a friend about stuff that seems wacky and writing a public statement about it.”

    I’d agree with that. Even as a Gramsci scholar steeped in the deep hegemony paranoia of cultural studies I’d agree with that. What I’m wondering is if to you this seems consistent with your decentering of the macrotexts of African Studies in favor of gestures, winks, nods, and scowls that you take to be “more powerful in constructing the norms of practice in a disciplinary field.”

    Goffman distinguished the performances of self that occur onstage from those that occur backstage. Your project seems to be about the construction of a general disciplinary self, but the ambiguity is whether you’re talking about frontstage or backstage. It may not be right to make points about the frontstage based on observations about the back. And who’s the audience for these performances?

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Ooo, that’s a nice point, Carl. It probably explains why I have a reaction to Edmundson that leads me to lump him in with a number of other critics of the academic humanities, which Alonzo argues is a huge mistake on my part. It’s partly because I think a species of complaint about cultural criticism or humanistic writing ought to be just “grousing over coffee” which is meant as nothing more than catharsis. Instead, I think it’s become both a way to move disciplinary practices around from the backstage (and sometimes not the backstage of academia itself, but the backstage of public discourse or political power) AND a mistaken conversion of backstage arguments into frontstage claims.

    But as you observe, that gets me into trouble, too. I’m arguing that the frontstage of Africanist writing is affected very much by its backstage, or that its texts are very strongly shaped by its paratexts. If I was having a coffee beer discussion, many of my Africanist colleagues would agree with much of the characterization, I think. But when it moves one step closer to the onstage context of formal publication, that consensus becomes more of a hungover memory of the night before. In fact, it does so in part, I’d argue, because we know the backstage is powerful. We don’t want to become its target rather than its operator. In a more high-minded way, maybe it’s also because we really believe there are rules for evidence at one level that don’t carry over to the next. Some of this is also very Foucauldian: we discipline ourselves, no one will ever really do it to us.

    So how do you talk in the front about the power of the back? And if you’re going to do that yourself, how can you complain if someone else does it?

  10. db says:

    “So how do you talk in the front about the power of the back? And if you????e going to do that yourself, how can you complain if someone else does it?”

    The simplest way for me has been, accept that feminist work has put an incredible amount of effort into making this problematic thinkable; and then to accept that this is where many useful answers are going to be found to these eminently practical problems of academic practice.

  11. Carl says:

    Yeah, these are the binds. And I agree with db that feminist work is chock-full of strategies for frontstaging the backstage (or publishing the ‘hidden transcript’, to use a different weapons-of-the-weak metaphor).

    I agree that there are rules of evidence, and conceptual rigor, that don’t carry over. I think maybe they should; again feminism is a guide in asking us to be more careful about the bad thinking and speaking we’ll tolerate in informal settings. But feminist writing (and this is the “relatively marginal work that is written in a more polemical or vivid style”) is not immune to moving informal/tendentious evidentiary and discursive standards up front in order to stage show trials.

    I also think that if what we want to do is show how the paratexts shape the text, the text had better be discoverably shaped. No escape from the need to “really dig in hard on the exegesis of much more canonical works to show where the tendencies you????e describing can be found.” Maybe the best thing to use the backstage for is insight into why and how to reread the frontstage. Or maybe what’s needed first is good old thick description, in Geertz’ sense.

  12. jpool says:

    Tim, I really appreciate your expanding on these issues here (and look forard to the book when it comes). This is one of those areas where I often feel, if not in outright diagreement with you, then at least that some of your criticisms of the field feel exagerated. I think at least some of this is likely generational. I feel like I come from a generation of Africanists for whom Cooper’s “Conflict and Connection” was a foundational text; who started out post-Resistance, post-nationalist. So I’ve likely been exposed to a slightly different set of back/offstage conversations. But even your critique/characterization feels exagerated, it’s still usual worth engaging with, especially since you’re taking the extra step of trying to offer an example of how it can be done otherwise.

    Carl, I agree with you about the need to engage with actual texts and paratexts and participant observational whatzits, but the problem is that, as you know, especially with historians, thick description is just as easy to dismiss as annecdote as actual isolated incidents are. I struggle with an onstage version of this in my own work, part of which is criticizing a certain teleology to accounts of the nationalist period. Now, no one would defend teleology, and it’s very easy for this to seem like a strawman, but
    it’s also incredibly easy for historians who officially know better to slip into an account of the nationalist period that presumes the final outcome. I need to engage with some actual texts to show this tendency, as well as acknowledging the work (ie, Berman and Lonsdale) that has pushed against it. I’ve just yet to write this in a way that I’d find convincing if I were coming upon it cold. Sigh.

  13. jpool says:

    Sorry, that should read “But even if your critique/characterizationfeels exagerated, it???? still worth your making and our engaging with, especially since …”

  14. Carl says:

    jpool you’re right, and I didn’t mean to be flip (or too flip). The difference between thick and thin description is supposed to be precisely the density of contextualization that opens out anecdote into something more rigorous and illuminating. But as you say, that may not fly with historians whose sense of authority is informed by a documentary bias.

    I also don’t mean to be flip about show trials, but to point out that in relation to the Charybdis of a dogmatically exclusionary disciplinary frontstage, the Scylla is a murderously loose-canon backstage. Freire warns us that the oppressed will tend to oppress in turn when they come to power (get published).

    But I actually doubt (but don’t know) that Africanists are some kind of coherent lump in the backstage; I’d assume the kind of generational distinctions you mention, along with regional, political, and institutional ones just for a start. The critique of anecdote and uncareful thick description starts with observational selectivity and interpretive bias. TB will have to be careful to specify exactly which cock fights he’s attending, and with whom.

    To maybe seem flip again, as for final outcomes, we know them. That’s the wonderful thing about being historians rather than political scientists. So there’s nothing wrong with showing how known outcomes happened, which is quite different than assuming they were inevitable. Contingencies close into determinacies in the flow of real events. I’ve seen too many wishful counterfactuals in the subjunctive mood to be entirely on board with the critique of teleology; however convenient it would be to my own identity mything for Harold to have won at Hastings. Perhaps you’ve touched a nerve and this is what you are saying.

  15. jpool says:

    I’m not so much concerned with teleology in terms of counterfactuals, as in terms of how they retroactively influence our understanding of what was important at the time and how people experienced it. Some of this is just the old “condescension of posterity” thing. But, (because part of what I’m concerned with is culture and consciousness) the problems with teleology can also cause us to miss some of the heterogeneous ways that people thought about the changes that they were going through because we only recognize the categories of knowledge that became dominant later on. So that, in African history, we often default to an understanding of nationalism as something reasonably coherent and primarily anti-colonial, and miss out on earlier stages in which it contained a much larger range of debates.

    Of course, even as I type this I can think of all of the fine counter examples and get my best weary voice ready to claim that we don’t really do this anymore. And soon I need some sort of phase shifting device so that I can endless perform the cycles of critique and dismisal with myself.

  16. Carl says:

    Yup. This is the point in the conversation where we look at each other and silently share the forty-leven ways we’ve both learned to paralyze practice with analysis. Which brings us back to TB’s point, I think.

    Circling back to db’s remark about feminism, a lot of the trouble comes from clinging to the patriarchal god-based absolute objectivity standard, the ‘view from nowhere’ that Sandra Harding called weak objectivity. Maybe we’re not quite over the idea that macrotexts in the frontstage are supposed to be stripped of their contexts, intertexts and countertexts; when we find those there, it seems like a big deal each time – a betrayal or at least a lapse. These are impossible standards to hold others and ourselves to. Backstage the standards are more relaxed for an openly dialogic construction of common senses, which are always bricolages.

    We figure this stuff out by talking with each other, and having a bit of generosity about the range of perspectives and agendas from which ‘right’ answers can be generated. If there’s important heterogeneity in history, that’s no less true now. I think it’s important to say our piece in good faith and trust the process. The defaults you’re talking about look different if they’re positioned as definitive truth-accounts or turns in a conversation.

    The anthropology blogs I read are having an interesting series of conversations about the spectrum of formality, informality and authority that internet publication enables. Questions like whether a layer of peer-reviewed blogs and/or open-source journals might make sense. The authorizing of voices is a thorny issue that can be (and is) resolved in a variety of ways on the net.

  17. hestal says:

    I don’t know exactly how to ask this question. I am working on a project that includes collecting different views of slavery in America. So far, I have been reading only American authors’ views. I wonder if someone can tell me of a book I can get that would provide the views of people from other places, especially anything from Africa.


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