Dinner with the Burgmayers:
July 13, 2004
Anne began the story:
So: one evening in July a group of three first generation intellectuals got together, over gin-and-tonics, to talk about...
whatever arose. And what arose was some rich discussion about what community is and what role change plays in making it. What eventually arose was a clear refusal, shared among us, to pose "community" against "change," and a claim that the former really only exists if the latter is operating. What arose, for me, was two new things. (Maybe Paul and Sharon will add what they got from the conversation....? There must be a forum around here somewhere for doing this....?)
Anyhow: a definition to start. A "first generation intellectual" is someone who, like me, is the first person in her family to be educated and to work as an academic, someone who was not raised in a family where people read and talked about what they read, someone whose family didn't value the sort of give-and-take that constitutes academic debate, who found it to be a sort of insular posturing that affected no change...
Such people (and Sharon, Paul and I are all such people) come "belated" to the table of academia, feel that we do not deserve to be here, and that our entree into the conversation has continuously to be earned--by always, ALWAYS doing our homework. We are afraid to speak without knowing what we are talking about; we are afraid, given how shallow our layer of learning is, that it (=we) will be exposed if we are not very, very careful. (Richard Rodriguez talks compellingly in Hunger of Memory about how "the scholarship boy" copes with this phenomenon: "vacumming" up books, reading compulsively, because he's realized how very little he knows.)
What this adds (for me) to the current conversation about Writing Descartes is two things. One has to do w/ the nature of web conversations: the easy way in which one can "join in," claim the authority of speaking w/out conventional credentials, and be listened to...
the second is the question of what it actually means to be listened to (and what that has to do w/ community, to which I'll return in a moment).
Paul said that he only knows he has been listened to if he has evidence that his listener is changed by what he has said. If the response he gets to his offering is simply, "Thanks for writing. This helps me to clarify my point...." then he feels used by his listener to hone his own sword, and will decide it's not worth his time. He won't feel invited into a project of trying to make some new instrument together, won't feel like he's a real contributor to some larger conversation. And community, he postulated, can only exist when each member the group is willing to be changed. And any member of the group who comes into the conversation without that openness (however warm their invitation to dialogue) is assuming the posture of authority.
Now, if we accept this claim, it has, of course, lots of implications. It has implications for family therapy: is our willingness not just to "hear," but to change in response to what we hear from other members of our family, the index we want to use for how successful therapy can be? It has lots of iimplications for teaching: how much is the teacher willing to be changed by what happens in the classroom? Is her position of authority directly proportional to her willingness not to be changed? And of course it has implications for intellectual exchange more generally, and (here's really where I'm heading, so please stick around for one more minute....) it has implications for intellectual exchange on the web more particularly. On the internet, the dimensions of possible change are fewer than they are (for instance) in a face-to-face family dynamic: the only place we can actually SEE change is in what others report of what they are thinking, in the ways in which they re-arrange their ideas.
So now I think the "real" (and really, really important) question is: is that the standard we want to use for our web-based intellectual work? That we need to know that what we say has changed the ideas of those with whom we are in conversation? Maybe that's too limited....? Maybe what we are doing is changing the culture, making the conversation larger, inviting into it folks (like those first-generation, hopefully also the zero-generation intellectuals) who have never participated in such a conversation before....? And if we insist that, in any particular exchange, there needs be a particular CHANGE....well, then...
conversation stops. And the community gets stuck. Static.
Sharon, who already done two very striking paintings as one of her contributions to this current forum, added, last night, this commentary to Paul's formulation about the importance of process: "THAT'S what 'being' is. It's the moment when everything connects, when you see the whole." Being, in Sharon's more recent formulation, then, is not in opposition to becoming (as she first posed the two concepts: in panels which lie alongside one another--and see Lucy Kerman here on the total boringness of binaries in general). They exist rather in intersection. It's as if one took a microscope and honed in on one "slice" of "becoming": "being" represents that one moment, the moment of clarity, in the ever-on-going process of "becoming."
(Tease: why, then, Sharon, is that moment of clarity, that moment of "being" so, um...
smeary-looking in your painting?)
"...everything connects, when you see the whole," is not what I meant (who knows what I said). I did not mean that you "see" the connections (perhaps that can happen, too) or "see" the emergence of the whole. I meant something really sub-conscious. My mental image is that "being" is when two, probably remote, nodes of the neural network find each other and a new connection is made. For me (and this is all based on a "feeling" sense of things), the kind of being I'm talking about has to occur largely in the unconscious. The pleasure/thrill of "being" is the unexpected, pre-conscious connections between nodes...metonomic spaces...which is sensed as pure connection but not consciously understood. I attempted to create this in the "being" painting with the blurring and merging of hues and spaces and also with a couple of sinew-y paths that join a hue in one place with that hue in another place. So to answer your "tease": it was NOT my intent/concept that there is a moment of conscious clarity in being. Unconscious clarity: is that, can that, does that happen? An intriguing thought. I don't think of being and becoming in opposition...they are different. Paul Grobstein suggested it was a difference of time: being is a small sliver of time; becoming is necessarily a longer process, especially in humans. That has a role too. It does fit that being can be a part of becoming: the initially pre-conscious connections I'm imaging can eventually emerge in the conscious and then they will contribute to the process which is becoming.
A friend, Cassandra Fraser, listening in from UVA, added:
Paul picked up another thread in the conversation...
I read the dinner conversation. Interesting. Yes, it does speak to a need to stay in the game and not be moved. ....This kind of conversational approach to learning is very threatening to people, isn't it, that everyone has something to bring to the table, and the teacher and student are both changed in the process. Of course, I'm with you on this one, that this is the most rewarding and respectful way to go. Stamping monoculture on people, a monoculture defined in one's own likeness is so unsatisfactory, given the rich and beautiful diversity of talents and insights and kinds of intelligence that are out there, and here in our midst. So let's keep up the fight. I am resisting this monoculture approach to science, discovery, education, national identity, you name it, all the way.
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Paul picked up another thread in the conversation...