“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Alex Reid on Learning a New Idea

Over at Digital Digs Alex has a characteristically insightful post about how hard it is to learn a new idea. In particular, referencing my talk at Rutgers yesterday, he discusses the rather pervasive culture of critique and “problematization” (yes I learned that one too) in the humanities, which actually inhibits the learning of new ideas.

In particular, this inhibition means that digital humanities and OOO have a bit of a rough time of it, and for related reasons that reveal quite deep affinities between them. It's not what you might think. It has to do with the attitude shift, Alex argues. It has to do with learning how to make and understand objects—often one and the same thing. I suggested again at the roundtable yesterday that we start making objects and affiliating with scientists and engineers on a regular basis.

Of course this “new idea” thing is overdetermined by the fact that OOO does indeed require a shift in attitude towards what we do in the humanities. Away from being armed and ready to undermine the other's position, to put her or him in a box. Since there is no top object and no bottom object—since undermining and overmining are no longer cool—OOO seems to code for a more curious, friendly open-mindedness.

There's a certain power that comes with being armed to the teeth with critique, but it's a brittle power. It makes you feel like you're learning something—I know this is how it struck me when I first started to do it just before I started as an undergrad. You feel “philosophical.” But there's a difference between feeling philosophical and doing philosophy.

Instead of being ready for the other—idea, thinker, object—to be wrong, you are ready to be wrong.

I'm not saying that there's no room for irony—far from it, I think (see Eileen Joy's recent comment here) that there is more room for irony when it doesn't harden into cynicism.

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