Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Social Character of Intellectual Work

I've been gradually working my way through writing a series of posts reflecting on doing intellectual work outside of the academy. I started out with an introduction explaining more or less what the series will involve and why I'm writing them. I followed up with one talking about what exactly I mean by intellectual work and what aspects of it I feel capable of talking about -- that is, that intellectual work is any activity that involves making sense of the world, and that I specifically am going to talk about intellectual work that is done with a sense of vocation and with an intent to communicate whatever sense is made of the world to others in a mediated way. (See the post for a more complete explanation of what I mean by that, as these specifications are central to what I talk about in the rest of the post.)

This time, I'm going to talk about what it means to think about intellectual work in a social way. I raised this in my introductory post in the context of a shift in how I thought about my own most-frequent form of intellectual work, writing. That is, when I first started the painful journey that allowed me to identify unflinchingly as a writer, my main focus of attention was on the relationship between myself and the page. However, making good choices requires having as complete a picture as possible of what is going on. It has become clear to me that what I do as a writer -- or what anyone does who engages in vocational, mediated intellectual work, whatever the form of what they produce -- can only really be understood in a grounded, material way if I recognize that the relationship between the producer and the immediate content they produce is only one part of the picture. An important part, for those of us who labour daily to shape blood and sweat into meaning meant to be shared with others, but just a part. Intellectual work is also integrated into social relations in a general sense, much like any other activity. And in a more specific way, it is centrally about creating a particular kind of relation between the person doing the intellectual work and those who read (view, hear) whatever it is that they produce.

All Doing is Social

In thinking about this, I start from the idea that all doing is social, though the way it is all organized in our present society breaks that sociality (though still always depends on it) and makes it hard for us to see. I like the way that John Holloway talks about it (see my reviews of two of his books), but his is just one take on an idea explicitly present in a number of left traditions and latently present in many others. He writes:

Doing is inherently social. What I do is always part of a social flow of doing, in which the precondition of my doing is the doing (or having-done) of others, in which the doing of others provides the means of my doing. Doing is inherently plural, collective, choral, communal. This does not mean that all doing is (or indeed should be) undertaken collectively. It means rather that it is is difficult to conceive of a doing that does not have the doing of others as a pre-condition. I sit at the computer and write this, apparently a lonely individual act, but my writing is part of a social process, a plaiting of my writing with the writing of others (those mentioned in the footnotes and a million others), and also with the doing of thsoe who designed the computer, assembled it, packed it, transported it, those who installed the electricity in the house, those who generated the electricity, those who produced the food that gives me the energy to write, and so on, and so on. There is a community of doing, a collective of doers, a flow of doing through time and space... Any act, however individual it seems, is part of a chorus of doing in which all humanity is the choir (albeit an anarchic and discordant choir). Our doings are so intertwined that it is impossible to say where one ends and another begins. [Change the World Without Taking Power, p. 26]

He goes on to talk about how the way that our lives and the relationships amongst us are organized in a capitalist context means that the social character of our doing is fragmented and hidden. This is true in material ways related to a few people having great power over the making and doing of most of the rest of us, and to the capitalist tendency to focus material organization and symbolic attention on relations among things rather than on people and our activities. However, he writes, "The rupture of doing does not mean that doing ceases to be social, simply that it becomes indirectly social" [ibid, p. 31].

As the quoted paragraph implies, there are at least a couple of general ways in which the social character of all doing is relevant to talking about intellectual work in the ways that I want to.

The first is that the overall context in which the intellectual work that I'm talking about occurs is a capitalist one. A future post in the series will talk a bit about the practicalities of finding space in our lives to engage in intellectual work outside of the academy, but however we choose to relate to it, capitalism sets the ground upon which we must make decisions. That is, as many thinkers have noted in different ways, capitalism depends on compulsion, on unfreedom. We are compelled by the way social relations are organized to engage with the market. This means that in order not to die, almost all of us must sell our time and effort for money, exist in a relation of personal dependence on someone else who does so, or exist in a relation of personal dependence on state relations (which, particularly under neoliberalism, are organized to push us as soon as possible into waged labour regardless of the level of the wage or the working conditions). All of our choices about what we do with our time exist in and are constrained by this larger social context, and intellectual work is no exception.

The second broad way in which intellectual work is integrated into the social world is through discourse. That is, the sort of vocational, mediated intellectual work I'm writing about can only occur through engaging with the words, organizations-of-language, and shapes-of-thought that are already out there, that have been shaped by others. The need to be intelligible to people who have taken up what has come before shapes the space we have to make sense of the world and to communicate that sense to others. Note that I'm not attributing some sort of external reality to discourse, independent of the people take it up and propagate it, but that doesn't make those constraints any less powerful. To repeat a quote from Mikhail Bakhtin I originally posted almost five years ago:

The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his [sic] own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that a speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own.

And, similarly, the contribution of our own intention, our own accent, is part of what others must deal with when they take up our words to make meaning of their own, and when they deploy them in turn.

The final general way in which intellectual work is social is mentioned above by Holloway and is closely enough related to discourse that some might collapse the two, but I think they are worth keeping separate. That is, there are the more overt ways that we draw on the ideas of people who have come before (whether we are always able to recognize that debt or not). To adapt Holloway's words, we plait our writing (and the other ways we have of engaging in intellectual work) with the writing (and other intellectual work) of others.

An Artifact and its Circulation

There is something more specific about the social character of the kind of intellectual work I'm writing about, however. As I've said, I'm writing about intellectual work that is intended to be communicated to others, and that said communication is intended to happen in a mediated way.

Let me put it another way. Intellectual work of this sort is meant to connect with other people using some kind of media artifact that encodes whatever sense I've made of the world that I want to share. This artifact might be a video clip, a snippet of broadcast audio, a book, a blog post, a 'zine, a newspaper article, an academic journal article, or something else entirely. I make it, it goes out into the world, and someone takes it up and makes their own sense through engaging with it. In a very particular way, this is creating a relation between me and whoever is at the other end of that process. Admittedly, to speak of what is happening as a connection, as a relation between two people, may feel a bit peculiar. It's a relation that is usually one way, and even in the era of comments sections and easily obtained email addresses for feedback it is still pretty imbalanced. It is often very impersonal, since person B is completely unknown to person A, and person A is most often known to B only as a disembodied name or perhaps through a shallow public persona. It is asynchronous -- you write it, it sits as an object, and at some later point someone else reads it. And it is usually quite fleeting. But it is still a connection, and it can be a crucial one, depending on how the person at the other end takes up the sense that you have made of the world and encapsulated into the artifact that has then been circulated. This kind of textually mediated relation can inspire us, organize our thoughts, shape our actions, make us feel. (It's long enough ago that I read it that I can't remember which bits, but some of the way of understanding texts in this paragraph comes from here, and see also this engagement with a later book by the same author.)

Creating that relation, then, requires three steps that go beyond the tortured relation between writer (or other intellectual worker) and page. It requires taking the sense that we have made of the world and that we wish to share and creating an artifact out of it -- a circulable artifact. Then it requires some means to actually circulate said artifact. And, finally, it requires people at the other end to engage with the content, to do a certain kind of work themselves that involves creating their own meaning from whatever it is that you've written, filmed, recorded, blogged, tweeted, printed, or photocopied.

This is not separate from the me-and-the-page relation, or an add-on, or an option; it is right at the heart of what (vocational, mediated) intellectual work is. Making good decisions about how to engage in (vocational, mediated) intellectual work requires treating it as such.

For one thing, I would argue that what I've actually done when I engage in an act of intellectual work is inseparable from how these relations get formed. What is the artifact? Where does it circulate? Who engages with it and how? The same thousand words handed out as a photocopy on a downtown Sudbury street corner, published on my blog, published in my local newspaper, or published in the New York Times are, materially, doing different things, and I think it makes sense to be able to talk about my act of making sense of the world as transmitted in those thousand words with all of the nooks and crannies and ebbs and flows of reach and impact as integral to that conversation. And it is important to emphasize that this is far, far more than making judgments about how many people the work reaches. It is about what you are trying to achieve with a given piece of intellectual work. If those thousand words are on my blog, for instance, odds are that relatively few of the people with whom they connect would live close to me, while handing out photocopies on a streetcorner and publishing in a local paper would both achieve that, whereas the population likely to access it on this site is more likely to represent a particular constellation of intellectual and political proclivities but a geographic dispersal. And even within Sudbury, handing it out on a downtown streetcorner and publishing in, say, The Sudbury Star, are going to reach different audiences. And sometimes reaching a small, specific audience is exactly what you want. As bell hooks said years ago in an interview,

I would never feel happy just to have that limited readership; at the same time, it's also okay when people want to write something that may only be magic for a small audience. I don't want to denigrate that. I think we can have both.

That begins to get at the ways in which it's not just about assessing the reach and impact but also about making the nitty-gritty decisions about what we are doing in the me-and-the-page stage of intellectual work.

Let me try to explain that a bit better. I think the place to start is the fact that most people encounter the media artifacts that they read (view, hear) not in random places but as a result of largely habitual practices. The practices have developed in connection with the different ways that media artifacts already get produced. That is, most people have a routine when it comes to reading newspapers or blogs, watching the eleven o'clock news or online video documentaries. We listen to the CBC or Democracy Now!. We read these periodicals or those books, go to hear certain speakers, take classes, read academic journals, listen to particular hip-hop artists, and so on. Our practices for taking in information about the world do change, but not quickly or easily.

As I said, these habits come to exist in connection with the various paths which already exist whereby media artifacts come to exist. And media artifacts come to exist through the work of people organized into particular kinds of organizations, institutions, or more ephemeral spaces -- clusters of relations and practices, if you will. These clusters, in turn, are embedded in broader social relations. Those clusters of relations that produce and circulate artifacts can and do change, entirely new configurations do occasionally spring into existence, and existing configurations can be pushed to adopt new standards and practices in some circumstances. But the opportunities for them to exist and survive are very dependent on the larger context in which they exist. Each of those existing paths has constraints. A newspaper, a book publisher, a magazine, a community radio station, network TV, your friend's older brother's 'zine, a community group's web site, some funky journal that experiments with form and content -- each of these is produced by groups of people who make choices about what to turn into artifacts for circulation. Each has its own particular constellation of constraints. Some need to make a profit, and most can't consistently lose large amounts of money. Some are subject to disciplinary practices and norms, others to professional practices and norms, all of which are regulated by particular institutions. Actual audience responses and (often quite poorly informed and prejudiced) assumptions about likely audience responses are also constraints. Some are more directly subject to regulation by state relations. Some are owned by larger private corporations which have interests that they are compelled to protect. All of these things add up to each source of media artifacts having a specific range of forms which they are interested in, and a specific range of content. As well, each has an existing public who habitually relate to them and which they are likely to be able to reach with each new artifact they produce.

There are also more do-it-yourself alternatives, like blogs or 'zines, which have fewer barriers to turning whatever you want into a media artifact, but they come with their own set of challenges and constraints around the circulation step. And in every case, the existing tastes (prejudices, preferences, practices) in people you might connect with around form, content, medium, and so on plays a role in whether (and how) they will take up the meaning you have made even if you manage to draw the artifact to their attention.

All of these constraints, the details of which look very different in different situations, are not extraneous to our processes of making that meaning and inscribing it on artifacts. I've already said that the character and extent of what is actually done in the name of (vocational, mediated) intellectual work depends not just on me and my blank page but on where and how and with who these mediated relations with other people happen. How you navigate the significantly constrained landscape in which these mediated relations can be made to happen depends partly on what you want to achieve, what you want to create, but in order to do that it is often necessary to keep those constraints and possibilities in mind even during the me-and-the-page phase. If I want to do some intellectual work based on protests against a neoliberal trade summit (or based on a 19th century English novel, or based on the learning processes of midwifery students, or whatever), how I do that work depends on how I decide to try and navigate the landscape of possibility and constraint that lies between me-and-the-page and the people I want to forge this sort of mediated relation with. Who I want to reach, what I want them to get out of it, how I want them to engage in it, what clusters of artifact producing relations I already have access to -- these and many other questions about what I want to accomplish shape whether I write or film, whether I use broadly accessible or narrowly specialized language, whether I write something small or long, what form I use, what voice I use, what style I use.

The sense that I feel called to make, the words that are burning inside of me and need to come out, that very personal struggle embodied by the relation between me and the page, are crucially important and present. But they are not separate from the requirements of the very social process of building strange, fleeting, asynchronous relations with people I may never meet. Intellectual work is social in character, and we will understand our work better if we keep that in mind.

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