Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Dramaturgy of Wolves

Here is my first new post in seven years, clearly showing that this blog is not dead, only resting, and pining for the fjords.

I did not manage to finish Timothy Pachirat's (2018) "Among Wolves: Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power" in 2018--being reduced to reading the last few pages on New Year's Day. This is by no means an indictment of the book, though it is an indictment of my chronic lack of reading time.

"Among Wolves" is the most interesting book about ethnography I have read in quite a long time and, in presenting itself as a play in seven acts, ditches the traditional scholarly presentation of a methodological monograph. The play concerns, primarily, ten ethnographers gathering in a New York State lakeside barn to enact an ‘ethnographic trial’ of Alice Goffman, the author of a 2014 book “On the Run,” the publication of which caused a flurry of criticisms and denunciations of the book, the researcher, and ethnography as a valid scientific method. The bulk of Pachirat’s play (acts four and five, pages 22-131 in the 161 page text, excluding the reference list) depicts a detailed discussion of ethnographic research by its practitioners, with the trial itself and other plot points given much lesser eminence. The book is most certainly worth a read, and I will be heartily recommending it to my students. But it is also a glorious failure.

Writing the book in a format of a play invites the reader to judge it as such, and not just as a scholarly treatise. And in this regard, I am not convinced of its value. Some choices are simply eccentric: division into seven very unequal acts (each consisting of only one scene), quote epigraphs of uncertain status preceding each act (including nine different ones in act 7), one single explicitly theatrical direction ('Table 5.1 is projected onto the back of the stage', p. 123), the requirement for a speaking, walking, growling, howling, ear-cocking wolf-dog to be present on stage for most of the action. None of these preclude theatricality of the work, and that is even without getting into the argument of whether a play is primarily a performative or an inscriptional work of art. If Shakespeare could have Antigonus exit, pursued by a bear then four hundred years later Pachirat is certainly entitled to the wolfdog, particularly in a post-War Horse era of advanced puppetry and animatronics (and perhaps of actual thespian wolfdogs). But I hold that genres and forms of expression are important, and the content of the form (White, 1987/9) should be taken into consideration when examining any written work, be it a medieval chronicle or a contemporary methodological tract.

And it is here that we run into conundra that are not easily resolved and which, moreover, I do not find particularly productive. Dramatic mode allows for presentation of wildly divergent viewpoints, none of which need to be identified with those of the author. Even the resemblance of Timothy Pachirat the character to Timothy Pachirat the author remains conjectural. The problem of author’s embeddedness in the text is certainly not exclusive to drama: Umberto Eco’s (1992) “The Role of the Reader” remains my favourite resource in that regard. It is also taken up by Goffman’s critics and defendants, and by characters in the play. But it is particularly acute in dramatic mode, where obvious authorial voice is limited to a few simple stage directions. On the one hand, this can be assumed to allow the reader to make up her mind freely, without undue pressure from the other. But on the other, it exemplifies the very problem of Donna Haraway’s (1988) god’s eye view from nowhere (again, discussed by characters in the play) that presents authorial framing (found in even the most innocuous statements) as unproblematic and neutral. In staged productions, directorial choices allow a convenient entry point for the discussion of positional biases; in written plays, the reader is left with a relative paucity of resources enabling her to do so. Thus, the choice of the dramatic mode works against the ethnographers’ distaste with the third-person omniscient point of view (the three characters present in the conversation all share the same disdainful attitude towards its usefulness in ethnographic writing).

Then again, perhaps the lack of authorial positioning is not such an issue, because the characters spend most of the play agreeing with each other. While ostensibly based on actual researchers, and identifiable as individuals when presenting their fieldwork, they seem largely interchangeable when discussing general issues and difficulties found in ethnography: most such statements (particularly, all comments in act five) could be reattributed to another character and I, as a reader, would not notice any difference. And it’s not as if the positions expressed are uncontested, even among the ethnographic community. At one point Bronisław Malinowski is indicted for his collaboration with the colonialist project and opposed to Franz Boas’ much more courageous stance. Yet Malinowski’s status as an enemy alien (Austro-Hungarian citizen staying in British territory during World War I) is not raised as a possibly relevant factor. The erasure of the voice of black researchers and research participants is condemned alongside the unchallenged description of Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918) “The Polish Peasant” project as adequately described through Thomas’ agency and foresight. I understand that these two particular examples jumped out at me due to my own Polish background, yet I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that Pachirat’s book, for all its sensitivity to power relations, situates ethnography as a discipline practiced by researchers from American universities (there is one mention of the British context, noting the correspondence of Research Ethics Committees to Internal Review Boards). This is not to say that I expected the play to reflect the entire complexity of the global context, but for a book so concerned with the “immersive study of power” (the book’s subtitle), I would certainly welcome some acknowledgment of its characters’ firm placing within the global centre of (not only) academic power.

I found the characters not only largely indistinguishable, but also unnervingly superhuman. Their discussion of the research process revealed no mistakes: their reported research choices were difficult, but ultimately always right, gambles always paid off, serendipity appeared at the proper time (due to meticulous preparation). Alice Goffman, probably due to her position as a trial defendant, was the only present character acknowledged to have made mistakes (and that by other characters). Otherwise, only researchers not appearing as characters were criticized, like the aforementioned Malinowski, for their choices or stances. Since discussion among unaccompanied ethnographers constitutes such a large part of the play, some confessional tales (as John Van Maanen, 1988, named the warts-and-all accounts shared among researchers) might have been expected. None surface, and this, I believe, is the most serious obstacle to the book’s serving as a manual for budding scholars: dealing with mistakes, learning from them, and acknowledging them is central to building trustworthy ethnographic narratives.

Finally, there is the issue of dramatic construction of the plot. At the start of the book, numerous enticing (or preposterous, depending on the reading) McGuffins are presented to the reader: An one-eyed talking wolfdog of uncertain ontological/epistemological status; an invisibility potion developed by the American military; the issue of political empowerment of the ethnographer (as a judge, as a decider of the fate of research programmes). They slink into the background for an extended discussion of the discipline and its vicissitudes, and never manage to regain their promised narrative voice. Even the wolfdog, for all her growling and sneering, remains largely dormant and unexamined.

All the above demonstrate, I hope, why I think “Among Wolves” is a failure. But my claim is that is a glorious one, and that it should be recommended to research students. This is because in many ways it succeeds, and in others it opens up the possibility of further exploration and discussion. The ethnographic research process it presents, while largely idealized, does show many of the difficulties researchers grapple with when defining, conducting, and writing up their study. It presents many of the ways in which authors of acclaimed studies have successfully tackled serious problems, and what may be seen as particularly worthwhile about their studies. It also presents a vigorous defence of ethnography as a scientific mode of knowing, enabling contextualized insights not achievable (or, achievable only in a radically different form) through other research methods.

And it also tackles, head on, the problem of ossified representation of academic research. In a time where academic journals (and academic writing guides) increasingly channel its authors towards writing formulaic papers following a strict and unvaried structure, when new forms of expression are increasingly understood to mean tweets and youtube videos, it is important to see a good book presented differently. In a back-cover blurb, Shamus Khan asks “when is the last time you encountered a new scholastic format?,” implying Pachirat’s play does something unprecedented. There are two reasons why this is a slight overstatement. For one, academics continue to discuss the format of scholarly expression, and have done so for quite a long time. One of my favourite readings as a student was Margery Wolf’s (1992) A Thrice Told Tale: a book that shows how different modes of expression foreground and background different issues in the same ethnographic story. Myself an Monika Kostera (1999), in one of my earliest published texts, have tried our own hand at generic reframing of academic discussion. And, post-dating the publication of Pachirat’s book, an upcoming issue of Management Learning (edited by Sarah Gilmore, Nancy Harding, Jenny Helin, and Alison Pullen, and including, again, a text by myself and Monika Kostera, 2018) explores the possibility of Writing Differently. While one format of expression is currently dominant, others are certainly not dead yet. But “Among Wolves” most certainly forms a valuable exemplar for future work. It is, of course, not entirely novel and unprecedented: perhaps the closest generic counterpart to this book is not a standard play, but rather a rather distinguished academic format of a Platonic dialogue. Like Pachirat’s book, Plato’s dialogues lend themselves poorly to being presented on stage (as do Paul Feyerabend’s 1992 contemporary variations on the theme). Like “Among Wolves”, these texts are full of long blocks of speech likely to bore even the most steadfast viewer. Like “Among Wolves”, they carry enormous wealth of material ready for fruitful engagement by academic audience. Like “Among Wolves”, they need to be read thoughtfully, attentively, and critically.


Eco, Umberto (1979) The role of the reader: Explorations in the semiotics of texts (Lector in fabula). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Feyerabend, Paul (1992) Three dialogues on knowledge. Oxford: Blackwell.
Goffman, Alice (2014) On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Haraway, Donna (1988) “Situated knowledge: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy and Monika Kostera (1999) "Templates of ideas: The charm of storytelling in academic discourse," Knowledge Transfer 2/1: 49-69.
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy and Monika Kostera (2018) "The body in the library: An investigative celebration of deviation, hesitation, and lack of closure," Management Learning.
Pachirat, Timothy (2018) Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power. New York: Routledge.
Thomas, William I. and Florian Znaniecki (1918) The Polish peasant in Europe and America. Boston: The Gorham Press.
Van Maanen, John (1988) Tales of the field: On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
White, Hayden (1987/9) The content of the form: Narrative discourse and historical representation. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Wolf, Margery (1992) A thrice told tale: Feminism, postmodernism and ethnographic responsibility. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Collateral Damage

Zygmunt Bauman’s (2011) Collateral Damage has its origins in a number of his recent lectures, hence the issues raised in the book appear as a cross-section of his recent preoccupations: the overarching theme of the precariousness of the liquid modern condition, the rise of the underclass, i.e. large numbers (though, as Bauman insists, not groups) of people excluded from society and societal discourse, and the collapse of the modern beliefs in certainty (of pretty much anything). That is not to say that the book is a retread of earlier work: as almost always in his recent work, there are fresh insights and novel observations to be found on almost every page.

The discovery that a new Bauman book is thought-provoking and fun to read is hardly an astonishing finding, and as such does not really merit a post in a blog updated as infrequently as this one is. What prompts this post, then, is the realization that some of Bauman’s points might be more than usually relevant for org.theory musings, and some even to discussions of utopia that have been fascinating me for a while now.

The obvious link is Bauman’s discussion of the rise of managerialism (which he locates as stemming from the trend in 1930s when company owners started hiring managers to supervise line workers and machine operators. Bauman’s source on this is James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution which I, regrettably, have not yet read (though I plan to remedy this failing shortly). My sources suggest that the book was written in early 1940s rather than the late 1930s Bauman suggests, but that might be a difference between the dates of composition and publication. Of the accounts I am familiar with, Shenhav’s (1999) is particularly interesting (and strengthens Bauman’s musings about managerialism): the author suggests that early managers were recruited from among the engineers, and that managerial techniques often stem from the engineering techniques used to control machines the proto-managers were used to dealing with. This is a fairly minor point, as Bauman’s focus lies in the present world rather than in the 1930s: we are now witnessing the second managerial revolutions, wherein managers divest themselves from the last vestiges of responsibility: for employees as well as to shareholders. I am not entirely sure if I share Bauman’s appraisal of the inevitability of the process: in my ever-hopeful perspective I see this (and the surrounding social bewilderment and protests) as a possible sign of the managerial order overreaching itself, leading to the possibility of an actual revolution (rather than the “revolutionary” entrenchment Bauman discerns).

Also of note is the tone evident throughout the book: that of resigned exasperation combined with just a hint of optimism. For a long time now, Bauman has worked diligently to trace the roots of the outrages and suffering in the present world to the solutions of problems encountered in times past. Most of the time, this involves showing how liquid modern (postmodern, in earlier writings) fears and injustices can be linked to successful, in their own way, answers to problems encountered in the modern age; sometimes, Bauman ventures further into history to uncover the sources of modern anxieties. Thus, the all-pervading fear of strangers (of any kind) is presented as stemming from all-to-successful attempt at building (or, at the very least, fetishizing) a notion of community. For Bauman, our present circumstances are almost invariably the result of past successes rather than past failures, the problem being that all these successes cause involve the eponymous collateral damage as an inherent part of their implementation, usually unforeseen or at least unanticipated. The implication, even if Bauman is careful never to make actual predictions, is clear: we will solve the problems that plague us today. But there will be a steep price to pay, and we do not begin to imagine what it is. Whether to receive this as an optimistic or a resigned claim remains at the discretion of the reader, but some notes of optimism are unmistakeable: Bauman sees sociology (his lifelong vocation) as stemming from the desire to make the world a better place, and presents its future as “cultural politics in the service of human freedom” (Bauman 2011: 170).

Which brings me to the notion of utopia. Where Jameson (2005) seems to see utopia in every dream of a better future, Bauman emphatically insists on a hopeful future already burdened with sorrows and problems not yet imagined. Our present despairs will, he insists, be alleviated, but will not leave any vacuum behind: while we can only barely intimate the fears of the future, we can confidently bet on their presence. Is this a thoroughly anti-utopian vision? Or just a vision of utopia(s) imagined in human terms?

Bauman, Zygmunt (2011). Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Jameson, Frederic (2005). Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London, Verso.
Shenhav, Yehouda (1999). Manufacturing Rationality. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Parsing grammars of creation

George Steiner's (2001) Grammars of Creation is an incredibly erudite meditation on processes of creation, their meaning, and their embedding in art, life, philosophy, and science. He tackles religious overtones of the act of creation, differences and commonalities between creation and invention, freedom and constraints of creation, and much, much more. Coming from literary criticism, Steiner engages a staggering array of works and lives of writers, musicians, painters, philosophers, and mathematicians to shed light on the discussed topics--consequently, I know that leering gaps in my own education obscured many of the finer points of the arguments presented. And yet it is gaps and silences in the text that drew the most of my attention.

Having dazzled the reader (this reader, at least) with the breadth of his scholarship, Steiner nonchalantly throws in markers of his own limitations:
No essay on the grammars of creation should leave out Islam. My ignorance compels me to do so (p. 58).
I find nothing more frustrating, more humbling, than my incapacity, as a mathematical illiterate, to grasp this lucent realm of 'truth beauty' (p. 147).
Only mathematicians can assess the respective claims to creation, to invention and to discovery in the mathematical process.... I have no qualification to do so (p. 171).
Surprisingly, this is the only form of ignorance present in the essay. Even as he discusses invention as a form of recombination (and literature’s posited status as ars combinatoria), Steiner does not mention knowledge as a possible ingredient of creative activity. There are traces of it in the rather sceptical discussion of the establishment of new forms of thought (Darko Suvin’s proposition of the novum as a foundation of any science fiction would have, in all probability, met with much suspicion here), some more shadows of knowledge in the idea of science benefitting from, but not requiring singular geniuses for its relentless progress (actual shoulders of giants are not mentioned, though - cf. Merton 1965/85 for those), but no heads-on tackling of whether knowledge plays any part in invention or creation. The argument here is two-fold, of course: on the one hand the notion of knowledge economy (Rooney et al., 2005) comes together with ideas of the creative age (Earls, 2002) to engender business environment where creativity, knowledge, and innovation form the crucial characteristics of success or even continued existence, on the other the countless narratives of insights and breakthroughs born from ignorance: from the DIY, everybody’s-a-musician core of punk rock aesthetics to William Gibson’s (McCaffery, 1991) celebrated declaration of technological ignorance spurring him to create Neuromancer, the quintessential cyberpunk novel, to Richard Branson’s logo-ized proclamations of his own business virginity at the outset of the road to creating (sic!) his business empire.

All of my examples fall outside Steiner’s sphere of interest; while he acknowledges the existence everyday acts of creation or invention, in particular the multitude of literally unsung narratives of unspoken internal monologues, but his focus invariably returns to the great creative endeavours, from (theologically posited) cosmogony to famed works of art to establishment (creation? invention? discovery? Steiner wrestles with the issue at length) of mathematical laws. His discussion of art tends towards the classic if not classical, and never veers from what can safely be understood as high art. There are good reasons for such choices, but my own interest lies in more quotidian creation, and in the more popular art forms. Which is where we encounter another stumbling block in appropriating Steiner’s insights. He notes the collaborative practice of contemporary technoscience, the inherent sociality of a speech act, and numerous precedents of art workshops throughout history, and yet celebrates the individuality of a creative act:
In the arts, in music, in the philosophic moment, and in almost the whole of serious literature, solitude and singularity are of the essence. The creative motion is as individual, as entrenched in the citadel of the self, as is one’s own never interchangeable death (p. 181-182).
This would render the organizational experience of any kind either uncreative or, at least, unlike that of literary creativity. I am deeply suspicious of such a statement-not only from my own experience, where writing consists of bouts of solitude-seeking punctuated by moments of overwhelming need to talk about my pet projects (where conferences offer blessed opportunities for that and energize me to carry at least some of my writing projects to completion), but also from my fieldwork among computer programmers, who tended to profess the need for solitary coding, and yet huddle with co-workers upon encountering a particularly styming problem (Kociatkiewicz, 2004). Similarly, long history of literary groups and writer circles suggests at least some added value of organized attempts at creativity.

Earls, Mike (2002) Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, business and the death of marketing. London: John Wiley.
McCaffery, Larry (1991) “An interview with William Gibson” in: Larry McCaffery (ed.) Storming the Reality Studio. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 263-285
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy (2004) The Social Construction of Space in a Computerized Environment. PhD Thesis at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.
Merton, Robert K. (1965/85) On the shoulders of giants: A Shandean postscript. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Neef, Dale (ed., 1997) The Knowledge Economy. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Steiner, George (2001) Grammars of Creation. London: Faber and Faber.
Suvin, Darko (1976) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Epistemology in pursuit of meaning

The Management of Meaning in Organizations
(Magala, 2009) is a book that attempts to be quite a few things at a same time: It is a discussion of the possibility of constructing a viable epistemology for our contemporary society (tracing its history as well as its possible future[s]), an examination of a role of the university and public intellectuals in the contemporary world, an exploration of the rise of the hegemony of bureaucracy and some predictions about its possible downfall, as well as a sketch of the development of the critical strand of organization studies (stressing particularly the author's role in its conception and development). Incidentally, the topic of 'organizations' (as advertised in the title) denotes mostly a methodological meso-level approach to social phenomena rather than a focus on organizations as entities significant for the author's argument--this is an approach quite close to my own, and I'm always happy to see this interpretation of organization studies.
In general, it seems that Magala is most successful in tackling the second theme (university and the public intellectual), but my interest in the book centres around the first topic (sensemaking and methodology) and thus my following remarks, i.e. comments brought about by my reading the book, will not focus on the book's biggest strengths.
Upon embarking with great enthusiasm on investigating the phrase "management of meaning" (a journey which itself appears somewhat disingenious, with the author inventing the phrase beforehand), Magala suddenly adopts the notion of a "market of meaning" (p.39, p. 199) without pausing to consider the reasons for or effects of treating creation, dissemination, and changes of meaning as resembling (or even embodying) a market. Such a move stands out all the more for Magala's dedication to uncovering epistemological roots of meaning (Meaning, perhaps), but it would stretch imagination to envision any complex text eschewing premade metaphors and concepts altogether. This raises a question of whether the pursuit of clear definitions (or current negotiated interpretations, as Magala's more nuanced epistemological description would have it) is such a worthwhile pursuit, and whether we could avoid it while still preserving enough comprehensibility to make writing, reading, and publishing worthwhile.
Magala is well aware of the impossibility of stepping outside one's social and conceptual networks, and the necessary messiness of any "management of meaning." At the same times, he does not shy away from discussing grand patterns of sensemaking, their adoption and dismissal. The results are somewhat strange as when Kuhn's notions of paradigm change and incommensurability (Feyerabend also called dibs on that concept, but most people, Magala included, tend to link it with Kuhnian views) are shown as having grown popular due to the needs of the participants in the political/ideological struggles of the 1950s to 1980s (chapters 1 and 2, linked to the theme of the "past tense of meaning") , and later on the same notions are used as a perfectly valid explanatory framework for the contemporary world ("increasing dangers of incommensurability... as paradigms change and clash" [p. 94]). The issue of the possibility of internal critique of grand narratives is a fascinating stance, but I am unable to find any, even tentative, answers in Magala's book, which retorts rather to quickly switching between the insider and outsider perspectives depending on the particular (sub-)topic under discussion. Moreover, for an author discussing the social embedding of sensemaking processes, Magala shows surprisingly little of the sources of his examples ('cases') -- do they come from the author's (informed) recollection of events, memories of participants, or available records? That's hard to say, which is a problem as Magala's judgements tend to be authoritative even when not in sync with many other available descriptions of the same story (e.g. the very same Wikipedia which serves as the source for the only quote in Magala's reporting of the scandal surrounding the disposal of Shell's Brent Spar oil platform has a very different description of Cohn-Bendit's paedophilia controversy than the one offered by Magala).
In the same vein, while the author dilligently traces the historico-philosophical roots of the three different modes of sensemaking (religious, rational-scientific, and postmodern) he proposes, the social entities used to explain encountered social processes ("the media," "the liberal left," "the mainstream managerial sciences") are treated as empirical facts rather than as results of Magala's sensemaking reduction of the complex social landscape into discrete social actors.
Widespread lauding of creativity appears first as a symptom of the de-sociologized and over-psychologized view of the social landscape (p. 105), and yet, in the concluding chapter, Magala surmises that in the proposed, somewhat utopian future society "[c]reativity should be omnipresent through designed artifacts filling social spaces and providing cultural contents for the multimedia" (p. 218).
All in all, it's an epistemological mess, and not just because the author believes epistemology is both social and thoroughly messy (and a final aside: I wonder why Magala chose to discuss Fuller's [2000] Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times rather than seemingly much more relevant [1988] Social Epistemology? Perhaps the latter's style bored him as much as it did me).

Fuller, Steve (1988) Social Epistemology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fuller, Steve (2000) Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Magala, Sławomir (2009) The Management of Meaning in Organizations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Revenge of the Blob

Hanna Fenichel Pitkin (1998) is another title that promises to use popular culture to examine political theory. Entitled The Attack of the Blob, the book aims to analyse Hannah Arendt’s theoretical concepts, invoking monster movie imagery to propel the argument. The author explains:

Arendt’s remarkable way of depicting the social is, of course, the source of my title, The Attack of the Blob. Initially I employed the phrase in my teaching without giving it much thought, to capture the clichéd horror-fantasy quality of Arendt’s images, but the expression in fact derived from one of the rash of kitsch science-fiction films popular in the 1950s, the period in which Arendt wrote The Human Condition (and in which I reached adulthood). The particular film, which, it turns out, was called simply The Blob, concerned a monstrous, jellylike substance from outer space, which has a predilection for coating and then consuming human beings and grows with each meal (Pitkin, 1998: 4).

Pitkin also offers a footnote listing nineteen more 1950s monster movies (nicely alphabetized and offering director, producer, and distributor of each film) and two paragraphs suggesting that some respectable theorists (Susan Sontag, Naomi Goldenberg, and Michael Rogin) managed to pinpoint 1950s sf as “reflecting people’s sense of personal isolation, fragmentation, helplessness, and dehumanization” (p. 5) as well as “a widespread sense of collective life out of control, headed in disastrous directions in the age of Cold War nuclear confrontation.”

The quoted text is remarkable as it largely exhausts the attention Pitkin has to offer to the central metaphor of a 300-page book. It also illustrates the disdain she feels, and clearly expects the readers to share, towards the monster films (“rash of kitsch... films”). She distances herself from any knowledge of the genre: the film The Blob only “turns out” to bear its title.

The Blob itself continues to reappear throughout the book, but only as a derisive name for social theory concepts (mostly Hannah Arendt’s “the social,” but also totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Hegel’s “world spirit” and visions of society employed by both Marx and Tocqueville). It appears in chapter titles (“The Birth of the Blob,” “Excising the Blob,” and “Why the Blob?” and in scathing dismissals of conceptual abstractions which, apparently, presents society “as if these people had been swallowed by some Blob” (p. 252), and as a mass of selfish fools who “let loose the Blob” (p. 190). Not surprisingly, it exhibits very little agency on its own: it is described as “invented,” “conjured up,” “excised,” and “dismissed” by Arendt, always referred to as an object rather than a subject of action.

The question arises, then, of whether such superficial reading of The Blob, particularly in contrast to the thorough analysis of Arendt’s body of work, offers a useful interpretational tool for Pitkin’s examination of “the social.” I would argue that it does not and, indeed, that Pitkin’s unwillingness to explore her main metaphor hurt both the incisiveness and the effectiveness of her argument. The main charge against Arendt’s Blob is that “the social” is an artificial abstraction of actual society, presented as highly threatening and yet left conveniently amorphous and underdescribed. But Pitkin’s decision to describe Arendt’s writing as rooted in political discourse while at the same time separated from popular culture (as represented by the filmic Blob) allows for examination of Arendt’s theses in purely logical, rather than sociological terms.

Pitkin’s book was written in the 1990s, and she draws upon the body of social theory both preceding and following Arendt’s own time. The Blob, however, is left to linger in the 1950s, and neither the film’s 1972 sequel nor 1988 remake receive any attention in Pitkin’s argument. This is not to claim that any of the abovementioned films qualifies as good cinematography: they most certainly do not, but they are of strong interest to a cultural theorist, particularly one willing to devote a whole book to analysing the Blob.

When Pitkin’s describes the (social) Blob’s early history: “by the end of the book Arendt has begun hinting that it may not yet have reached its real or ultimate form” (p. 96), comparisons with shape-shifting alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing, (the 1982 film was ostensibly a remake of Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing from Another World, a film mentioned in Pitkin’s list of Blob-like movies) or the rapidly changing monster from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979, cf. Bukatman, 1999) would seem more appropriate than those with the amorphous Blob. The messiness of Hannah Arendt’s theories, described as “almost enough to make one yearn for a Blob to hide the theoretical chaos” (p. 225), invite comparisons to the dialectics of human/inhuman desire invoked in Alien 3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997). But Pitkin’s single-minded focus on philosophical (or political studies) underpinnings of Hannah Arendt’s concepts brackets out those references and any insights they might bring into the discussion.

These insights might be crucial for understanding the constitution of Arendt’s “the social,” which lends itself best to examination not on the grand level of political theory, but as an organizational phenomenon. Pitkin recognizes that to some extent, and devotes some attention to forms of institutional and organizational relations: bureaucracy, market, and flock. But, curiously, she does so in isolation to discussing the Blob, while I would see the understanding of organizational ties as crucial for analysing the concept of "the social."

Zygmunt Bauman (1989), absent from Pitkin’s argument, drew heavily upon Arendt in his interpretation of the Holocaust as played out largely on an organizational level: reduced to a managerial problem, with its Final Solution facilitated by rational workplace relations, functional division of labour, and the growing separation between decision making and its human consequences.
This line of argument is, interestingly, paralleled by the 1950s monster films, typically portraying struggle against outer space or radiation-fuelled menaces (i.e. the Blob) against the background of small, suburban communities: threatening middle-class America and W.H. Whyte’s (1959) Organization Man rather than any global socio-political system. Both social and filmic Blobs are constituted at the organizational level, and the failure to recognize that is largely caused by Pitkin’s reduction of the Blob to a caricatured insult.

In the end, it is with obvious relief that Pitkin reasserts, in a phrase repeated twice on the final page of the book that "the social is no Blob" (p. 284). I remain neither reassured nor convinced. But then, I do not believe the Blob to be as straightforward a figure as Pitkin makes it out to be.

Bukatman, Scott (1993) Terminal Identity: The virtual subject in postmodern science fiction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel (1998) The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s concept of the social. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Whyte, William Hollingsworth (1959) The Organization Man. New York: Doubleday.


Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon.
Alien 3 (1992) Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay by Joss Whedon.
The Blob (1958) Directed by Irvin Yeaworth. Screenplay by Kay Linaker and Theodore Simonson.
The Blob (1988) Directed by Chuck Russell. Screenplay by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont.
Beware! The Blob (1972) Directed by Larry Hagman. Screenplay by Anthony Harris and Jack Woods.
The Thing (1982) Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster.
The Thing from Another World (1951) Directed by Christian Nyby. Screenplay by Charles Lederer.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Distinguished Crime with a Classical Tint – Reading Ruggiero (2003)

Chancing upon the title Crime in Literature: Sociology of deviance and fiction, I expected to find the author undertake sociological analysis of crime fiction. Instead, while still maintaining the title’s implicit promise to unleash social science research apparatus upon literary fiction, Ruggiero chose to look at (more or less major) classics of literature as fodder for his examinations. Interestingly, while the choice of fiction as a valid field of study receives some explanation, the choice of studied works is not commented upon. Nevertheless, I do find it interesting.
The examined authors range from Cervantes to James Baldwin, with a strong overrepresentation of 19th century writers, including Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Manzoni, Melville, Twain, and Zola. No works of living authors appear among the analysed writings. Since there is no accompanying explanation, I remain struggling with possible reasons for choosing material to study—after all, depictions of crime, criminality, and the law process could be found among a variety of genres and forms of literary expression, widely spread across the ages of literacy. The author’s reading preferences are one obvious criterion, but so is the possible interpretive richness of great works of fiction. Or, possibly, the use of established classics sheds some credibility onto the dubious endeavour of sociological analysis of fiction.
Choice criteria are important not just as an exercise of curiosity, or as part of a misguided quest for methodological rigour, but also for discussion of the importance of quality judgement for any interpretive or critical endeavour, as discussed in the preceding post. It must be said, though, that Ruggiero’s book fails to offer any conclusive evidence. There is little in the way of explicit critical evaluation of analysed material’s quality, but numerous offhand remarks attest to a generally appreciative reception: “Melville was... an excellent novelist (p. 154); The Devils is “a literary masterpiece” (p. 19), and Manzoni’s Storia della Colonna Infame is “[A] neglected classic of Italian literature.” Praise is not spread evenly, though, with Baudelaire, London and Zola being treated with uncharacteristic condescension. The former pair is exposed as ignorant—they do not “appear to be aware” (p. 74) of imminent expansion of drug use popularity, and “fail to predict the process ahead” (ibid.). Baudelaire “totally overlooks the economic aspects of drug production, distribution and use” (p. 75) , while London “neglects the outcome of drug use criminalization (ibid.).” There is an obvious quality judgement here, but one focused on the authors’ knowledge rather than any literary merit of their work, consistent with Ruggiero’s avowal that “[i]t is not a book of literary criticism, but a book written by a sociologist who reads classic fiction sociologically” (p. 1).
Yet, when we turn to Zola, the line begins to blur. He is discovered to be “more romantic than he wanted to admit” (p. 84), who “thought he could complete the transition from Stendhal and Balzac... to the new technique of naturalism” (p. 84-85), and apparently failed. Furthermore, “[b]ecause he could not always consistently adhere to his own programme, he is said to have become a great writer” (p. 85, emphasis mine). This critical distance towards Zola lies at the heart of Ruggiero’s interpretation, where exposition of Zola’s dislike of his own heroine implies his misogyny. As a reader, I start doubting whether Ruggiero’s (admittedly, implicit rather than explicit) commitment to cold examination of literary works is not just as flawed as that of Zola.
One more thing jumps out at me when reading the book—the work of Cesare Lombroso, the 19th century father of positivist criminology, reappears numerous times in the text to provide background for analysed fiction. It is used mostly to show the writers’ criminological assumptions as rooted in their specific milieu. In the same process, of course, it shows Lombroso’s work as anchored in the very same context as the fiction of his contemporaries, and leaves me disappointed that Ruggiero refrains from dissecting the criminological classics using the very same methods he applies to fiction. It would have been very interesting to see the results of such an endeavour.
This brings me to my final comment: Ruggiero’s analyses jump from the analysed works’ temporal context (Lombroso on crime, Freud on drugs) to recent criminology with no reasons given for choosing one frame of reference over another. This is exacerbated (or perhaps just exemplified) by providing original publication dates for only some of the cited works: Dostoyevsky ([1872] 1971) coexists with Dostoyevsky (1979) – and it’s not like Crime and Punishment was not published, or translated into English, until the 1990s. A reader could be excused to assume that Richard Wright’s Native Son (referenced as 1981 but published in 1940) was written in response to James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (referenced as 1965, written in 1964) when, in fact, the opposite could be said to have been the case. As a result, I miss any consistent temporal grounding of the analysis—does Ruggiero wish to examine works in their context or comment on general (and timeless) issues surrounding criminality? I do not believe the two mix quite as well as the author expects them to.
Ruggiero, Vincenzo (2003) Crime in Literature: Sociology of deviance and fiction. London: Verso.

Monday, 10 November 2008

How Can Social Science Study Fiction? Reading Delany's Early Forays into Criticism

In “About 5,750 Words,” Delany argues that the common content/form distinction is, particularly when examining science fiction, both nonsensical and harmful. Any content, he claims, is inextricably bound up in its form and, in fact, it is the very specifics of form (words and their structuring) that give rise to what is commonly referred to as s-f content. It’s an issue which seems particularly interesting for studies not concerned with literary criticism, but looking at (for example, organizational) themes raised by a given piece of work.
For the most part, such studies are clearly framed in terms of content, disregarding the question of form altogether. Books such as Good Novels, Better Management (Czarniawska-Joerges and Guillet de Monthoux, 1994) and Lost in Space (Kitchin and Kneale, 2002) devote very little attention to literary aspects of studied works, and yet it is obvious they constitute important contributions to their field of study. It seems, thus, that there is at least some demonstrable merit to separating literary work content from its form of expression.
At the same time, there might be some enticing reasons for paying greater attention to the interdependence of language and expression when examining the latter. Ideas are expressed and thought through language, and any form of representation (including interpretation) is cognate with translation. And, of course vice versa (Steiner, 1975/92). Well presented ideas are, of course, more persuasive, where “well presented” involves embedding in the context familiar to the reader—a concern of a fiction as well as academic writer.
And, of course, the ideas we end up discussing are the ones we find persuasive (or particularly appalling). Which brings up another of Delany’s points about literary criticism—passing judgement is a necessary part of any critical process, and intellectual honesty requires the critic to reveal his or her judgement. Does this commandment extend to the organization theorist examining works of fiction? More importantly, should it?
This, finally, rouses the beast of representation and reflexivity, much like the core questions underlying much of contemporary anthropology and ethnography (Geertz, 1973; Van Maanen, 1988; Behar, 1993). What is the role of the examined/presented text in the context of organizational reflection? How much of the reading process does the researcher need to reveal to the reader? Where does this revelation of the interpretative process turn into self-obsession?
Predictably, I am left with little in the way of answers, except for a resolve to keep asking myself whether examining the language of the works I interpret can bring any new insights into my analyses. I can only hope to come to more definite (or, at least, binding) answers on a case by case basis when interpreting particular (rather than abstractly posited) works, looking for insights on particular issues.

Behar, Ruth (1993) Translated Woman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Czarniawska-Joerges, Barbara and Pierre Guillet de Monthoux (eds, 1994) Good Novels, Better Management: Reading organizational realities, Chur: Harwood.
Delany, Samuel R. (1968/77) “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” in: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. New York: Berkeley Publishing.
Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Kitchin, Rob and James Kneale (eds, 2002) Lost in Space: Geographies of science fiction. London: Continuum
Steiner, George (1975/92) After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Maanen, John (1988) Tales of the Field: On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press