Monday, March 31, 2008

Open Secrets: Knowing and Unknowing

The conference this year focused on the theme of knowing, and it is no surprise that the resulting papers we received all either examined or themselves embodied allegories of epistemology. The projects this year all attempted to tackle issues of how knowledge is learned, how it is constructed, how it is retained, how it is mythologized, how it is kept away from people deemed undeserving, how it is kept secret even in open spaces? In our program for the event, we usually have a small blurb which tries in some way to add some sense of cohesion to the chaos of the conference. This year such a blurb was especially important since the topic encouraged papers from a variety of disciplines to wrestle with their own methodologies, their own theoretical assumptions, their own deployment of the knowledge they create. And, despite the disciplinary variety here (or perhaps because of it), our creative director Mica Hilson’s blurb (usually a shot in the dark that only hits some of the tone of the conference) really encapsulated many of the major ideas explored during that weekend:

The term “Open Secret” has always fascinated me – in part, because the meaning of the term is itself something of an “open secret.” An “open secret” could be the “elephant in the room” – an obvious piece of information which gets willfully ignored. Or an “open secret” could be more like Henry James’ “Figure in the Carpet” – something obviously coded, but frustratingly difficult to decode. The academic papers and creative presentations at this conference tangle with both meanings of the “open secret,” and many also raise provocative questions about the relationship between knowledge and power: How are some forms of knowledge (or some secrets) privileged over others? How is knowledge – and, for that matter, how is ignorance – disseminated and deployed? Who wants to know? Who doesn’t?

Written before the event itself, this does a remarkable job of capturing the main concerns of many of the papers and presentations. What he could not have predicted, perhaps, is how these concerns were often directed back at the kinds of knowledge produced by academic discourse. So many of the papers presented pointed out the kinds of impersonations and improvisations of power that we take on methodologically as we engender new knowledge’s or revise old ones.

Some of the standout papers in this regard – that spirit of methodological self-reflexivity – included, perhaps appropriately, an entire panel devoted to “History and Timelessness.” Andrew Fiss of IU’s Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, encapsulated all of the concerns of the entire conference in his examination of the term “situated knowledges”: those knowledges which are entirely situated in a particular space and time and to which we can never have access. In other words, it will eventually become something of a paradigm of how we see all knowledge, locked in sites which are privileged only to some. Maureen Hattrup offered a historical allegory of how (dis)avowal of knowledge’s situatedness becomes performed by historians. In her unpacking of Carlyle’s use of the “open secret” as a matrix through which all knowledge gets distributed with diminishing returns through different social classes, she provided an important example of the kind of powerful position we as critics place ourselves in, impersonating/performing knowledge in a way that actively produces further social stratification. Meanwhile, perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum of how these concerns operate, Laura Ivins-Hulley explored what could be described as the apotheosis of situated knowledge in her examination of the dreamwork and “inner speech” in the Quay Brothers’ short films.

Underlying all three of those papers was the will to question exactly how situated knowledges get performed as a kind of methodological impersonation by historians (like Carlyle as Hattrup examines him, or Judith Butler as Fiss describes) or performed by oneself and for oneself through dream or film. Clearly the performance of mysterious power that these folks analyze hasn’t disappeared from our academic discourse, and a panel on “Documentary Evidence and Activism” earlier that same day examine and embody this kind of performance within the disciplinary narratives that we form even more explicitly. Kyle Denison Martin of Michigan State offered a brilliant examination of the different narratives (epidemiological, illness, etc.) that characterizes the response to the historical trajectory of AIDS in Haiti and its effects on the phenomenological, social, and political bodies of the people involved. In his examination of the forms of evidence used to biographize Laurent Clerc, Pierre Schmidt (a visiting scholar at Purdue originally from Marc Bloch University) examined ho biography can transform into mythology in ways that are both productive and damaging for the people for whom this narrative purportedly speaks.

In other words, the panel attempted to grapple with the ways in which our methodology in constructing narratives of the culture around us have material ramifications for the bodies we tend to appropriate while “forging” them. Forgery is the appropriate word here, because I think it captures the obsession during this conference with the manner in which our non-fiction cultural narratives and analyses are still fictions to a large extent. Not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but both of the above panels demonstrate a new awareness of how our academic narratives (previously thought to be safe within the walls of the ivory tower) are actually having real effects as they permeate everyday social reality. As Martin noted, it was in fact university scientists and sociologists who constructed the narratives that have damaging effects on the social policy toward how we treat AIDS in Haiti.

It’s no surprise then that two papers (not in the same panel) actually performed this kind of narratological anxiety in complementary ways. Fredericka Schmadel of the IU Folklore department examined “The Six Publics of Hugo Chavez” by acting as a mediator who could speak from these six different perspectives “in their words.” The result was a literal impersonation of several different figures with different narrative vantage points of how they see Hugo Chavez from the realm of everyday life. From a vantage point traditionally diametrically opposed to such anthropological detail, Elizabeth Hoover, an MFA in the IU English Department, also recreated the perspectives of a cultural event through the voices of those who participated. In this case, the event was a lynching at the close of the nineteenth century, and her poetry captured the voices of those who performed the lynching. While the two methods of narrativization seem to be wholly opposed from one another, this conference revealed that they are in some ways inverse methods of performing exactly the same concerns. When asked why she chose to craft dramatic monologues from the voices of lynchers, Hoover responded that constructing the master narrative of the lynching from an “objective” perspective (the first poem in her series) was the easy part: it also engages in the spectatorial pleasures of the lynching without really critiquing it or revealing anything new. Schmadel had similar things to say about her own mediation of these “real” voices: the goal was to critique the very process of mediation which so easily crafts a master narrative while ignoring the voices that compose it in the first place.

Between the methodologies of knowledge production and the end narratives that have socio-political ramifications, the conference also obsessively examined how bodies either could or could not speak for themselves, how bodies are co-opted to stand in for some knowledge narrative or are rendered unspeakable. Thus, we had Courtney Wennerstrom and Jeff Sartain’s examination of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts”; Laura Bivona’s analysis of the Body Worlds exhibition; Elizabeth Melly’s examination of how Lavinia’s body stood in as poetic knowledge in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; Emily Houlik-Ritchey’s look at female dismemberment in Spanish sonnets; Chris Harvey’s look at the dismembered female bodies of Susanna Moore’s novel In the Cut; and Mica Hilson’s provocative look at depictions of straight men in gay porn.

(Incidentally, I haven’t had a chance to discuss how these issues get translated into projects on a grander scale, having unfortunately missed the panels devoted to national and global issues.)

This is just the work done by grad students: I haven’t mentioned the exciting work discussed by our keynote speaker, Melissa Littlefield of the University of Illinois. Her keynote lecture was titled, “Guilty Knowledge: Unlocking the Suspect Brain through fMRI and Brain Fingerprinting,” and it nicely mapped the trajectory of the entire conference that I’ve traced, from a critique of metholodologies of knowledge production to the narratives those methodologies produce, mediated in turn by a body thought to be readable by “experts” and “professionals.” Part of her larger project (a cultural history of lie detection), Littlefield sees the use of fMRI mapping and brain fingerprinting in a post-9/11 climate as yet another way of shifting an ideologically loaded understanding of “guilt” onto a biological entity (falsely) perceived to be beyond ideology. Scientists who develop this technology ignore that their methodology entails the construction of a “biological mind” and assumes the existence of a literal “nature of Truth” that can be decoded with the proper equipment. Nevertheless, such narratives constructed out of such seemingly academic assumptions have widespread ramifications on the politics of detainment and justice in this environment.

In some ways, her paper taps into what I feel is actually the dominant theme of the entire conference, in that her investigation into this scientific method reveals the desire to produce a kind of plausible deniability in how certain types of discursive and bodily knowledges are read and deployed on a larger social level. Plausible deniability seems to be a missing element in how we conceive of the power/knowledge nexus: not merely disavowal of particular knowledge, but the construction of an entire knowledge system to make such disavowal seem justified under public scrutiny. Certainly this is what Carlyle was constructing when he refused to reveal the open secret of history except to privileged audiences; certainly the kinds of situated knowledge that characterized the performative impersonations in much of the work here was trying to react against that plausible deniability. This conference was an invigorating attempt to allow us to peel away at our own disciplinary assumptions about how knowledge is deployed, and it hopefully bodes well for the future of these fields that we’re becoming ever more self-reflexive about how knowledge is kept secret even out in the open.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

.... about my absence of late ....

At the beginning of the semester, I had begun this blog as an effort to work on my writing. More precisely, I created this as a forum to make some occasionally complicated ideas about film, media, culture as a whole a bit more manageable for myself, to "do cultural theory" in more of a vernacular as culture "happens" around me. In order to meet this personal goal, I had intended to write two posts a week (at least).

Obviously, something has gone awry in my plan lately. I've become increasingly swamped in my reading list for exams and in my teaching obligations. More of the latter than the former, really. (Which is generally a good thing, because I feel that, as an academic, my role as a teacher is significantly more important socially than my role as a researcher into the minutiae of the everyday.) I've also been bogged down with an interdisciplinary grad student conference I was co-organizing here at IU. The whole conference seemed much more time-consuming this year than last, but I'm just making excuses at this point. The conference itself was a huge success, and it had the strange effect of renewing some of my lost faith in the profession, of allowing me to make some important connections in my own mind about how our teaching, our research, and our extra-curricular projects (such as this blog) can all move toward a similar exploratory purpose. It was enervating, but, more importantly, it was also energizing in all the right ways.

Point is: Now that I've had about a week to process everything, I'll be writing a couple of posts on the conference, because it raised for me some issues that have some relevance to the issues I've been exploring on this blog up to this point (it will also, hopefully, push me in new directions, to discuss professionalization and teaching in a more personal and open manner).

The first post will be an attempt to synthesize the ideas that circulated the conference across disciplines, some of the touchstone concepts for research in the humanities (and, as we'll see, in other disciplines as well) right now. In a sense, this will be an attempt to tap in to the current academic zeitgeist and to examine what new directions this offers. This will hopefully also be an attempt to chart some of the political implications of what we do as scholars.

Which leads nicely into the next post, about the profession and the weirdness of organizing conferences and watching other scholars read their work aloud. This post will touch on how scholarship "works" (or doesn't) across academic disciplines (and specifically across departments) and the ideal practices of conferences themselves.

Beyond the conference, I have a whole host of things to write about in relation to everything that I've been reading for my exam lists the past few months. In other words, there will be a lot of book reviews of classic texts from the Culture Wars about canon formation and about trans-media adaptation. There will also be some examination of the history of how scholars have conceived of "culture" as a concept, as a model for society, and as the basis for an academic discipline (it can't be called a methodology, really). Beyond reviewing individual books, I hope to synthesize a lot of this information in a forum which demands clarity and conciseness (two things that will make me a better scholar as I move into the dissertation). Truth be told, I should have been doing this all semester instead of using this blog as an excuse to troll through my RSS feeds. I think I've touched on some valuable ideas up to this point, but that will all have to be put on hold for a while as I cram a hundred books' worth of theory into a two-week-long exam next month......

In any case, keep on the lookout for new posts!