Beyond the Logic of Representation

I think Jonathon Kneeland’s “rejection of academia” is worth taking seriously. After all, he is not an academic but is, as he points out, one of its benefactors. His taxes support the work of academics; he wants to hold them accountable just as he would his politicians and police officers. “He has never been to university,” his author bio tells us, “and has no formal training in writing.” He appears to have acquired his writing skills by reading extensively and, I’m going to assume, writing a great deal. He writes well and appears to have informed himself about the issues he’s writing about. It would be completely wrong to dismiss him as simply “unqualified”.

Also, his concerns are entirely reasonable. Indeed, he isn’t making arguments that we haven’t heard from academics themselves. Like many scholars, Kneeland is dismayed by the sort of thing that is considered a contribution to scholarly discourse these days. He offers a specific example, an article by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah Truman in Body and Society . It’s a perfectly respectable journal that has been operating since 1995 and is published by SAGE, a perfectly respectable academic publisher. The lead author is an associate professor, presumably tenured, at a public university. Kneeland isn’t tilting at windmills here or slaughtering straw men. He’s taking aim at something that can be held to a certain standard.

I was struck by a particular phrase in the abstract because I think it goes a long way towards explaining the clash of expectations that motivate Kneeland’s rejection of academia:

…scholars have examined vital, sensory, material, and ephemeral intensities beyond the logics of representation.

Though Kneeland himself doesn’t emphasize it, his underlying objection might well be to this idea of working “beyond” representation. After all, suppose our elected “representatives” boldly announced their intention to work “beyond” their mandates.  In that light, laypeople like Kneeland can be forgiven for being taken aback by the idea of a methodology that does not commit itself to a logic of representation. Of course, we might remind him that politicians do in fact often state their personal convictions and, sometimes, cast their vote according to their conscience rather than the majority opinion among the people they represent. Politicians sometimes openly oppose themselves to the will of their constituents, hoping to persuade them of the rightness of their views before the next election. So the analogy does offer us something like a space “beyond representation”, a legitimate space for experimental work.

But I think two questions can be reasonably asked: How many resources should be devoted to such experimentation? And how should the existing representational space constrain the pursuit of such experiments? If everyone in a given a discipline (like pedagogy) is always working beyond the confines of representation–beyond the presumption that there are facts in the world and some of them are known–then how can we ever know anything at all? Who can we call on to tell us what the facts are? Worse still, we sometimes get the impression that academics want us to believe that there simply are no relevant facts of the matter, that there is no truth at all, because “representation” simply doesn’t work. Again, I would encourage people who find themselves saying such things to imagine an elected official eschewing “representative democracy” as a illusion.

We want there to be an institution in society whose main purpose is to represent the knowable facts. We sometimes call that institution the University.

On the other hand, we can certainly come up with good reasons to allow exploratory and experimental research to exist as well, no matter how odd it sounds. As long as we are offered assurances that the majority of the research funding in pedagogy is going to produce stable, orderly, (indeed, “logical”) representations of pedagogical practice, there is no harm, and indeed some benefit to letting some researchers explore “vital, sensory, material, and ephemeral intensities beyond the logics of representation“. I think  it must come with an obligation to engage with those who are puzzled by it. Or, at the very least, there should be an expectation that the editors who decide to publish such work are able to defend these decisions, in part by pointing to the world of represented facts that are not at risk, at least immediately, of being overturned by one or another experiment. Meeting that obligation, I believe, is what it will take to regain Kneeland’s trust. Like I say, I think we should try. I think scholars do well to express themselves in ways that make sense to obviously intelligent but unabashedly “uneducated” laypeople like him.

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