Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pretense: the New Look

Along with the new "critical" focus of this blog, I'm rethinking its aesthetic. My aim is to become a legitimate peripheral irritation or a learnéd situationist ("in Lave and Wenger's sense") to organization studies. A gadfly. An occasion for critical reflection and the reflection of an occasional crisis. A pain in the ass. It's a Socratic project.

Like Socrates, I believe that critical thinking requires a sense of irony. It requires that we establish a working distance between our selves and our words, an understanding that we can't mean exactly what we say, or say exactly what we mean. Still, we have to speak as though we mean it. As my new epigraph on the sidebar says, we have to pretend to be exactly who we are.

The same goes for our reading. When reading an author we have to take the pretense of knowingness seriously for a time. Yes, at bottom, we're all in some sense faking it. But that assumption doesn't give us much of a platform for critique. The actual flesh and blood author is pretending to be exactly who the author is, namely, an author, a spectral being behind a concrete arrangement of words. When reading critically we are engaging with what Wayne Booth calls an "implicit author", a persona that we construct as the agency of the rhetorical decisions that are behind the text we see on the page. It is this author that we "get to know", that we "hold responsible", as our reading progresses. It is this author that wins our respect or earns our contempt. It is the implicit author that "knows what she is talking about", even as the real author may have her doubts.

Socrates, of course, tried to pretend he didn't know anything, and is now remembered as among the wisest people that ever lived. Irony is a tricky thing, however; perhaps Socrates only pretended that he was pretending not to know anything. Perhaps he really was an ignorant fool. Perhaps we all are. But in academic life it is okay to be an ignorant fool and yet pretend to be knowledgeable and wise. That pretense is the occasion for criticism, and it is criticism, not knowledge, that makes us who we are. I mean really are ... I'm not kidding ... Nevermind.

Socrates pretended not to be a scientist; that is, he claimed not to be among the professional "knowers", the professoriat of his day. My ironic trick has been to pretend that I am not an academic, that I am a mere "writing consultant", part of the "administration", not the "faculty". Nobody really buys it, of course. But I really am pretending to be exactly who I am.

By a similar token, many of my readers and viewers are pretending to be academics. And they also really are academics. That's a curious thing. Not to be taken lightly. But not to be taken too seriously either.


Presskorn said...

I don’t want too much of all this explicit pretence. Of all this I “really” “mean”… and stuff. I remain too much of a Wittgensteinian-Austinian conservative here: Pretence is a second-order use of mental vocabulary; it is parasitic on genuine use.

Nevertheless, your post made think of the Kierkegaard-Lacanian concept of irony: Irony is not something we say not meaning it; what we say ironically does not (just) sketch a position, we wish to poke fun at. No, what we say ironically sketches rather our effective position; the position which grounds our actions; if you like, our genuine position. As Lacan says: When I articulate my genuine desire I often do so ironically. That is, my desire is too intimately mine to be directly articulated as mine.

Pretence within this conception becomes even more “meta”: Pretence is not a distance that we mark out between us and our words. Rather, pretence is the very pretence that there is a distance at all.

I guess you're saying something along those lines too...

Thomas Basbøll said...

I wonder if academic writing is parasitic on genuine use.

I agree with you about irony: that it expresses our genuine position.

Academic writing depends on there being a difference between the grounds of our thinking and the grounds of our actions. (That's what can be so infuriating about it.) As academics, we have to think things through independent of our motives.

And yet, we can't think indepedent of our motives. So that's why we must pretend. Without out that pretense, all arguments would become ad hominems.