Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Authority and Originality

Kierkegaard wrote "without authority", "proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio". He never held an academic post and produced one of the most original bodies of work in the philosophical canon. He is rightly celebrated as an outsider that had enormous influence, a "scoundrel", if you will, and he himself identified strongly with Socrates, who of course also worked without institutional authority. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is that Kierkegaard strongly resented his exclusion from academia.

In continuation of Monday's post, I want to talk about the relationship of Levi's ideas about authority to his ideas about originality, staying focused all along on the problem of writing. Levi rightly talks about his views here as "tics and phobias" and as "an impediment to writing", but he manages to reconstruct these "fractal like symptoms" as signs of deeper virtues. Such a reconstruction (of weakness as virtue) is, of course, a classic operation of ressentiment. Let's see how it works here.

"In my core," Levi says, "I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands." But he is not, of course, arguing that in order to become a more productive writer, a better writer than he, and a happier one, one should get over one's anti-authoritarianism. Rather, he is arguing that one should avoid writing in genres that are governed by authority. One should write blog posts and letters, and blog-posts-cum-letters. In a slogan, epistles not articles. (That, by the way, is what we're doing right now.) When one does write an article or a conference paper, i.e., when one does pretend to be an "author", one should "trick" oneself into thinking that one is really writing a long letter. If it is published, so be it, one still wrote it without authority.

(I am, of course, trying to draw the standard connection between "authority" and "authorship", which is also a running theme, if I recall, in Kierkegaard's The Point of View for My Work as an Author. )

The same insistence on not treating the disease beneath the symptoms of ressentiment can be seen in how Levi talks about originality. He begins with a clear sense of the weakness of his attitude (qua point of view for the work of writing):

[T]he biggest issue I struggle with when it comes to writing is originality. Am I saying something original? Do I have something original to say? The pursuit of originality, I believe, is one of the most paralyzing things for writers and among the greatest impediments to writing.

But after a digression on kudzu (a weed, whose growth he likens to writing), he reconstructs this impediment (namely, the pursuit of originality) as something altogether more productive:

[W]e suffer from a sort of transcendental illusion. We (or I) think to ourselves that if we have an idea it can’t possibly be original precisely because the idea is familiar to us. It is not new to us. But writing is not for us, but for others, whether those others be our own future selves or the self we are becoming in the act of writing (writing has the magical power to remake you) or for the others who might read our scratchings on bit of napkins. On the other hand, originality cannot be anticipated. If originality could be anticipated it wouldn’t be originality. Rather, originality follows the logic of Lacan’s tuche or chance encounter. Originality is something that occasionally takes place, but if it does take place it can only be known as having had taken place, it can never be experienced in the moment. We only ever know that originality has taken place retroactively. As a consequence, it’s important to surrender the desire to anticipate originality so as to clear a space in which the event or chance occurrence of originality might take place.

Don't worry, that is; you are probably more original than you think. In fact, don't think about it too much. Let it happen. If it does, it will happen "by chance". If people take your "scratchings on bits of napkin" as sure signs of genius, let them. But don't try to make that happen. Rather, trust that it will. I'll grant that that last bit of "faith" is not made explicit in Levi's post, but it is, I think, part of the attitude I'm trying to get at here.

There is another view of originality, of course. It ties the novelty of one's contribution directly and constructively to a respect for authority. In your field, especially as you enter it (note that Levi was unable to respect authority even in school), there are people who do the things you want to be able to do well, people who do those things much better than you. Your aim should be, first and foremost, to master the skills that they master, to learn what they know, to develop your talents in imitation of theirs. Why would you worry about, or even valorize, originality before you have attained basic competence? Indeed, the desire to be original, which, like I say, is transubstantiated by ressentiment into the presumption that you already are original ... or not, but the question is in any case out of your hands ... is too often simply an unwillingness to learn, to study, to pass through the humble (and, for some, humiliating) experience of apprenticeship.

Notice the problem with Levi's position: "originality" is relativized entirely to "the other" who reads your work. To be original, then, all you have to do is find a sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently incompetent audience. This may include your "future self", i.e., your own self once you have forgotten what book you just read your most recent brilliant idea in. The other view of originality holds you to a higher standard—the standard that is defined by the best work currently being done in your field. You should seek out those living masters, these authorities, and study, yes, under them, if only virtually, by reading them, and, importantly, by submitting your work humbly for review in the journals where their work is published. For most people at an early stage, enrolling in a middling university will do. The "trick" is to have some respect for those who already know what you are just beginning to understand. Do your assigned reading out of respect for this knowledge. Don't resent the accomplishments of those you aspire to become.

[Update: "The path to originality is to forget about originality, like Pierre Menard. Originality is tiresome if it is sought after, courted, forced.//Be derivative, like Robert Duncan" (Jonathan Mayhew).]


Mark said...

For me at least, I had the viewpoint you discuss until probably grad school. In undergrad, I respected authority, wished to become them, wished to be apprenticed. However, I later came to look on this as a mistake. In many cases, the views I had been taught as correct were in fact not even the dominant views in a field--- they were my professor's views, which turned out to be disputed by many other authorities in the field. In other cases, it's hard to tell which is the dominant view and which isn't, but there is definitely disagreement amongst the authorities. Sometimes I found that something I had once thought, and had had corrected by a professor in a class, and at the time thought I had learned from, was actually just a minority view, and my original viewpoint was valid after all, and had the support of other well-known scholars.

It's not true for every possible viewpoint, but my respect for authority was hugely weakened once I realized that, more or less, many of the things I thought I had learned were actually just opinions that some scholars hold, and others dispute. And the divisions between PhD-holders are quite large! Especially if you look at all past disciplinary boundaries: do I believe the philosophy PhDs who write on poststructuralism, or the philosophy PhDs who think poststructuralism is a bunch of charlatan crap?

Mark said...

Put somewhat differently, is there a way to take your advice without choosing factions? I can see how to do it if I somewhat arbitrarily decide: Okay, I'm going to become a physicalist analytic philosopher. I'm going to seek out Jaegwon Kim, and figure out how to do as good a job as he does. Or: I'm going to become a feminist post-structuralist philosopher. I'm going to seek out Judith Butler, and figure out how to do as good a job as she does.

But as a young aspiring scholar, one has no idea that these factions even exist! How does one choose between Jaegwon Kim and Judith Butler? Between Gilles Deleuze and Robert Nozick? Pick one at random? Believe whatever prof. you first run into? Decide on your own, despite admittedly not being an expert?

And is picking one of these factions really the best way to go at all? My view now is no: these factions are the problem, and by joining one of them and publishing in their journals, you'll just contribute to deepening the factionalization.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the comment, Mark. It gives the opportunity to make an important clarifying point.

There is a difference between believing what authorities say and admiring what they do. It's the latter sort of respect that is important. Your disillusionment stems, (if it's anything like mine was), from understanding those authorities "too quickly", as Gide put it.

If the master craftsman tells you "how" to join two pieces of wood together and you "do as he says" and then the table you're building wobbles etc. Do you blame the master or your own partial mastery.

The viewpoints you were exposed to in the classroom, like those you meet in journals, are never complete expositions of the authority's point of view or knowledge. They are an always partial demonstration of the authority's mastery. Learn from it. Never think you have to believe your understanding of what they say. Even if you're quite sure you've got it right.

An accomplished scholar does think he or she is always (or even largely) right. But they are good at taking a position and defending it.

As to the question of "factions", yes, you will have to work to master one style of taking and defending positions and then, if necessary, another (if you change your position). But once you have mastered one craft, you have a lot of transferable skills to use in your mastery of another.

A slogan: In the end, it's not your position that counts. It's your posture.

Mark said...

Hmm, I may have misread you (?) as endorsing the view I once had, which I'm now disillusioned with. Something like: the adults know what they're doing, mostly. Therefore, as a young scholar, you should get up to speed on what's known, and then use that as a basis on which to push the boundaries of knowledge even further.

I might even still buy that in a few areas; physics, say. My disillusionment comes from no longer really believing it in many other areas. In areas like philosophy, the "adults" disagree with each other so greatly, and change opinions so frequently, that I'm not sure there's that much of a real body of knowledge to pick up, as opposed to just transient factions. Why join the Deleuzians, or the analytic philosophers, or whoever else? How do I know these bodies of knowledge are any good, rather than wastes of everyone's time?

From a psychological perspective, how can I even convince myself otherwise? If I decide to become a political philosopher in the vein of Nozick, won't I always have in the back of my head taunts from Continental political philosophers accusing analytic philosophy of being our modern-day scholasticism, a waste of time to learn about and study? How do I know that they're wrong, and that studying these supposed masters is actually worth my time? Why not just ditch them and write whatever seems right to me? That might be wrong too, but same goes for being a Nozick acolyte.

Thomas said...

Again, I would counter with a distinction: the adults know what they are doing but not necessarily what they're talking about it. Do as they do, not as they say. It's age-old advice. (And I'm telling you it's true!)

Learn from Nozick a certain style of argument (which includes a particular way dismissing alternative traditions and styles). Don't learn a set of "truths". (And don't think that's what he's trying to teach you.)

Ironically, perhaps, it is precisely a certain "style of argument" that I'm opposing in Levi's post. A posture. A pose. I object to it. I don't think imitating it will do anyone much good.

What Levi believes is his own business.

In the end you will learn how to argue like an "analytic" or "Continental" philosopher, or some weird mixture (that is already being practiced by a living master of the mixture.) Keep practicing until you get good at it.

Don't try to know who is right. But make sure you are getting better at something that you respect someone else for being good at. And make sure it remains enjoyable.

Thomas said...

How do you know you're good at it? Because you get published after review by your peers.

Mark said...

Hmm, that's an interesting viewpoint. I can buy that it's good advice for aspiring scholars as well. I guess it somehow doesn't satisfy me, though. I've successfully published in a few different fields. If anything, successfully publishing really upped my disillusionment. Now, not only had I lost faith in whether the adults knew what they were doing, but I found myself as one of them, and I knew that I didn't know what I was doing!

I'm now a published author in well-respected publication venues in at least two fields, and I still don't know if those fields were worth publishing in in the first place. Am I advancing knowledge? Or am I wasting ink on the finer points of stamp collecting? In grad school I was so busy doing whatever was expected of me that I didn't even think about it much. I accumulated a respectable publication record, which got me a respectable academic job, in a sub-area I still don't necessarily even believe in. That means I'm good at playing a particular game, but does it mean anything else? Is this a good way of advancing knowledge?

I guess I like the idea of answering "no" to those, and looking for alternatives. Why not just publish a bunch of stuff on a blog? If you don't want to be writing letters purely for posterity, there's still a community/peer angle, since you have to convince people to read it. If you want more people to read it, you have to edit it into a book and get it published (as Levi is doing).

Thomas said...

But why didn't you just think of alternative fields (rather than alternative outlets)? Alternative scholarly communities? If you didn't respect any of your peers, why did you keep working in that area? Wouldn't it be much more fun & meaningful to work with, publish alongside, and, well, read, the work of (living) people you respect? Or am I missing something here?

Jonathan said...

It's likely we go through cycles of respect / disrespect for certain kinds of authority. I can definitely identity with both attitudes. As an undergraduate, I thought: "I can do that." I knew the difference between me and my professors was simply time and experience, but that I was essentially already a professor. As a grad student I was pretty intolerant of weaknesses in my own field, despite my own lack of experience. I've always made the distinction between what we ought to know and what we really know. In other words, respect for expertise is a constant, even if some of the experts don't know as much as they should.

Thomas said...

I think it is important to progress through authorities. You can respect your high school English teacher for his expertise on, say, Hamlet, even if you move well beyond that level even before you graduate from college. There are, of course, phonies out there, and they do sometimes man "gates" they're not really qualified to "keep". Systems of authority are imperfect that way.

I agree that the (natural) arrogance of graduate students can be a good source of energy. My advice is just always to be aware of someone in your field that you look up to. Someone in your field, I emphasize. If the only authority you respect is outside your field, change fields. If s/he is at another school, consider changing schools, but that's not always realistic. And there's where the journals in which s/he publishes become a great site of your apprenticeship.