Thursday, April 20, 2006

Domestic v. Mental Critical Theory

The theoretical power of critical social theory, and in particular critical theory in education, seems to have lost its punch. Indeed its long standing emphasis on the critiques of the past and present, without a keen sense of the future of education, broadly defined, has apparently contributed both to a demise in the appeal of critical pedagogy and a sense of loss, if not nostalgia, of the roots of critical theory as a political intellectual movement. (For a notion of an educational future, see Michael Peters,

The apparent good news, however, is that there is a revival of sorts within strands of critical theory, namely feminists and critical scholars of color. For example Wendy Kohli has spoken about the need to make “domestic” certain macro discourses of critical theory so as to make relevant and accessible this intellectual project, especially to classroom teachers and to teacher educators. From what I understand of this work, the engagement with pedagogy strikes at the heart of domestic labor concerning social theory, despite the fact that this work is not as grand compared to its more “masculine” forms, such as ideological rails against capitalism and white supremacy. Now it is the relevance and accessibility of theory-philosophy, and who is academically entitled to perform this work, is what I want to argue may be limiting the utility of the Blog to recruit a broader profile of contributors.

Bluntly stated, scholars who embrace Kohi’s “domestic” (feminine labor) position not only may feel that they have less time to indulge (or self indulge, if you prefer), in more “mental” (my term following Willis) or masculine intellectual tasks. This mental work may in part consist of performing abstractions, though such theorizing has clear conceptual import. Although I do not personally subscribe to this perspective, I can understand it, because as a scholar “of color,” I am often asked to assist the university in efforts to “diversify.” It’s like the only scholars qualified—available to perform such labor—are minority scholars. That’s a problem.

It’s also a problem for users of blogs, in our case of the Wall. The ontological divide—who does the labor of diversity in the Academy and so on, and who is privileged to theorize in behalf of the Other-- is an issue. These dynamics are problematic and nuanced. I do not wish to take sides here, but merely to suggest that unless we find a way to inspire the domestically inclined workers in the Academy, I feel that the same old self-fulfilling prophecy will linger. We’re talking to ourselves.


A. G. Rud said...

Luis, thanks for the post. The issue is clouded because blogging is not seen as theorizing or publishing, per se, by many. Witness the hesitancy many had when Dan Drezner was denied tenure at the University of Chicago, and it was widely speculated that his blogging (aka not really publishing) was a factor. I think that our lack of diversity on this blog has other factors involved, but I do think that the use of the "domestic" trope has utility. I recall Dan Liston made good use of a discussion of teacher education as domestic labor in his essay, "Intellectual and Institutional Gaps in Teacher Education," in Garrison and Rud's The Educational Conversation: Closing the Gap, SUNY 1995.

Anonymous said...

I think there's something important in Luis's observations about blogging as mental work, and who feels able to enter the conversation or welcome. In some ways, academic blogging is in the borderland between the subjective and personal, on the one hand, and the analytical and professional, on the other. Bitch, Ph.D. exemplifies this netherworld better than almost any other blog I read, ranging from the purely personal stories about Pseudonymous Kid to the analytical to the viciously personally analytical.

I'm not sure this is necessarily a matter of privileging but playing and working out contexts. Bitch, Ph.D., is certainly comfortable in blogging, no matter what her real life is like. Others follow different paths. Twenty years ago, writer Ursula Le Guin spoke about the political gendering of language—not surprisingly, at Bryn Mawr College. Among the many pearls in that speech is something apropos here: "People crave objectivity because to be subjective is to be embodied, to be a body, vulnerable, violable." And so there is a bit of discomfort, or maybe risk, in blogging. (For those who read the entire transcript, there are a few typos sprinkled in the transcript, including my favorite, the wonderful paragraph on Leo Tolstoy. The essay also appears in Le Guin's collection Dancing at the Edge of the World.)

There is certainly the possibility of segmented conversations of identity politics and, in terms of the privileging of different conversations and who's enabled to contribute to them, I'm worried less about a global digital divide than the fragmentation of the internet into groups of like-minded and like-experienced people. After all, you can pick and choose what you read, especially if you use an RSS aggregator. With our busy lives, who can object to someone reading only the stuff that appeals to them? Except that's closer to an echo chamber than listening to a conversation.

So fragmentation is my fear. But I don't really have much evidence, and it's something so much in flux that I think I'll just have to watch this and other blogs develop with some mix of exhilaration and complete terror.

James Horn said...

With a number of the luminaries of critical theory no longer south of the Canadian border, some of the domestic (yet another variety of domestic) punch has been lost, indeed. But perhaps there are places on Earth where the world can be made safe for philosophy, so we might be hearing more from our expatriate friends as they get settled in to their new offices.

In the meantime, the forces aimed at rolling the social calendar back to 1906 (or 1896) will not stand by and wait as we re-group around another rhetorical totem. At this stage of the game, I find more inspiration in George Counts than Gilles Deleuze.

We can hope that there will be a time again to move forward with fresh thinking. At present, I am in a position to use what I know to try to preserve what we have yet lost. Jim