A Note on Abstraction and Referents

I may eventually finish two more pieces that I had in mind for my “Grasping the Nettle” series, but I also understand very well the response that a few folks had that the whole series seems so disconnected from specifics that it’s hard to know how to apply it to anything.

I’m up against two problems that I see as pushing me in that direction. The first is I think much of online discourse has evolved towards a norm where referential links do not function as documentation of a critique or argument, but instead as the equivalent of walking in a saloon and telling another gunslinger to draw, as a form of picking a fight. I’ve never been that keen on that in my online writing, and I’m much less keen on it now.

Second is a problem that Frederik de Boer has written about, which is that you can write about your own experiences or observations from experience in general terms and find that readers who either have very different experiences find it difficult to credit your observations, and at the least believe those experiences are unusual or distinctive to you. In some cases, you see that readers who strongly disagree with what you are making out of those observations simply think you’re lying or exaggerating.

Often it’s impossible to provide further specifics without compromising other individuals or turning some aspect of your professional and personal life into a form of documentary evidence. It’s not ethical for me to say, “At a meeting on this date, a specific other colleague said the following really troubling thing to me or in my presence” in a blog entry. If it were one of a narrow class of really troubling things, I might be obliged to make a professional complaint through institutional channels, but never to talk about it here or anywhere else. That’s an important domain of “public privacy” to not breach casually, if ever. At the same time, many of us want to find a way to process what we hear and see and experience, to make it a legitimate part of how we think about life, work and politics. That’s why many early academic bloggers chose pseudonyms, and why even those of us who wrote under our own names chose to find ways to blur the specificity of our experiences in order to ethically think with and through those experiences.

That approach will always create a legitimate anxiety for readers: can you trust me? Even if you trust me, how can you evaluate the selectivity and sensitivity of the way I hear and see the world around me? How do you know when I’m describing something that happens only to me, or that only I’m primed to see, versus describing something that has yet to happen to you but might well be right around the corner in your own life?

I can only say that any observation rooted in intersubjectivity never reaches a point of final convergence on fixed truth. But I have learned in my life to credit a fairly broad range of experiences reported by other people, including some I never can have–and that doesn’t always mean having to believe that the person telling me their story saw everything that happened during that experience, either, or that I would have seen the same thing if I’d been there. People who are just outright making it all up are (in my experience) fairly rare. So make of my abstractions what you will–but just know that in many cases I’m keeping it general because I have to and I ought to.

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One Response to A Note on Abstraction and Referents

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Your “two problems” are found everywhere. I see many blogs wherein people can put forward ideas that trigger comments, positive and negative. Things can, and usually do, go downhill from there, and in almost every case (I am hedging here because I want to believe the contrary) nothing good results. So, many good ideas that could be developed by using the combined brainpower that the Internet accesses are ultimately squashed.

    In my experience, which i prefer to call “my working life” I encountered this situation constantly. I designed large scale computer systems for large enterprises and the design process had to consider and evaluate many ideas from many people who were keenly interested in the ultimate design of the system. It was impossible to make this system work without a process that I called the hypothesis evaluation system. This process evaluated all sides of the argument and then reported its findings to the ultimate authority–the man who ran the enterprise (it was always a man in my day.) He would be the decider.

    Obviously such a process does not exist in the blogosphere, and because of this the dream of the Internet as a mechanism for an explosion of useful ideas and changes to our outmoded systems is never to be realized.

    But such a system can be developed. In fact, the ancient Athenians had just such a system and it worked beautifully. But ancient Greece in the United States gets about the same respect that modern Greece gets in the EU.

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