For and Against Object-centered Collaboration


Dear Mark (and Ralph),

Mark wrote:

The image-argument thus encodes the complex proposition that “collaboration” entails an opposition, a “them,” and that the ground for the us-them distinction is inherently unstable. It is easy to break collaborations apart by denying the principle commonality that unites them. It is perhaps equally easy to find alternatively commonalities, grounds for collaboration where none seemed to exist. Which is to say, I suppose, that collaborations exist as they are practiced and not as they are planned or defined.

Ralph commented:

First, collaboration involves serious risk, specifically, a risk that one may betray oneself, investing precious effort in projects of little interest or value, or perhaps of interest and value to one’s adversary. To my mind, the sea-change from Ransom’s time has to do with how we might conceive the adversary today, in particular, our inability to identify it with anything as self-contained, objectified, and monolithic as Ransom could or did. However, that increases the risk, making it more likely to be insidious and devastating. (I take this to be no argument against collaboration.)

All agreed. Collaborations are provisional, sometimes project or segment of project specific, and as bound to schism as they are to growth. All the better.

I do not want to collaborate with Nazis like Louis does in Casablanca and am relieved that Ralph thinks that is not really the risk anymore. Relieved but than on alert, in as much as Ralph says that I can stop worrying about card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were, but should start worrying about the far riskier proposition that (other than the banks perhaps) our adversaries today are less identifiable than card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were.

To my mind, this apt description of the risk entailed in collaborating now makes it crucial to question the givens that make our humanities practices identifiable. Not that we need to be in disguise because our adversaries are diffuse and not readily identifiable. But rather because by reconsidering the practices that let us know what we are doing and why, we may prepare ourselves for working on different problems and considering new projects and maybe even getting wise about what it means to collaborate with a diverse array of experts.

Where I am, then, on the object question, given that objects tend to organize our work in the humanities.

For the object:
Objects serve as matters of concern around which collaboration happens and they also are collaborators themselves that facilitate some kinds of work and exclude others. Humanities scholars cluster around objects and things happen. Any limit to the sort of work that can be generated through object-centered study is, as Ralph stipulates, also potentially a strength. Ransom, Ralph writes, “can hardly conceive of his practice apart from what he practices it on, in relation to or with, and vice versa.” I have had the good fortune to be invited to join a sizable collaborative endeavor organized around the study of video games called IMMERSe. Across disciplines, on six plus campuses, including “industry partners,” and forecasting myriad projects on an array of themes, this collaboration would be unthinkable without the object, video games.

Ransom, in this regard, is a model.

Mark, you wrote,

I think Ralph’s got a point that no matter how low we estimate Ransom’s approach, it is notably self-conscious in saying what English should be as a professional endeavor.

Do we collaborate with Ransom in trying to figure out 1) what it means to be an English professor and 2) how this could be made more satisfying work?  I think we might when we use him to call attention to assumptions that continue to inform the practice of the discipline, even if few current practitioners would explicitly avow the whole “Criticism, Inc.” package.

If memory serves, we credited Ransom like Leavis for doing what everybody says they did: making English reproducible as a university discipline. So in response to your questions, I’d say “Yes” to both 1) and 2). I also think that we are more convinced than many of our colleagues that “Criticism, Inc.” is a pretty relevant essay for thinking about what happens in English departments today precisely because English professors are far from being convinced they should give up object-centered practice akin, in many respects, to that promoted by Ransom. Ralph, I take it, is with us on this one. We’d make a comparable argument about the relevance of Leavis, although for a slightly different strain of English professor (a little more Raymond Williams-esque).

To the extent that we can recognize the capacity of object-centered study to organize inter-disciplinary collaboration and departmental formation (itself a collaborative practice), we’re intrigued by Ransom et al. We might go farther and say that these Ransom et al. established the default mode of collaboration in English. They helped make it possible (how, exactly…) for English professors to think of themselves as collaborating most profoundly with the literary objects they study. Such professors do so as part of a collective composed of similar close readers, of course, so even discrete pairs of scholar and poem are part of something bigger. That collaborative model worked for more than a half century, in that it facilitated the growth of English and other similarly collaborative disciplines/departments. Does it still work today?

Against the object:
Objects balkanize the humanities. Their very capacity to help us group into departments and specializations divides and excludes even as it brings certain scholars together. That’s not a problem, per se, but it can be in certain circumstances. I think this balkanization tends to be entrenched now, such that it can make more plastic collaborative dynamics hard to fit into our existing institutional structure.

Objects tell us to stay in our lanes. They make us recognizable (film scholar, novel scholar) which can be good but also limiting. Our specialization becomes a kind of professional identity. With all the benefits and costs implied.

I have a fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient. If we are expert in something really small, doesn’t that mean we’ll see the greater need to work in groups? To stop pretending that any of us could possibly write a book on our own and to start making more visible collaboration that currently exists the better to manage it in the future?

I’m not interested in reproducing the English department or the humanities as they have been, in short. Objects are part of that legacy I’m willing to consider living without.

Living with Hierarchy:

Mark wrote:

Collaboration entails an idea of the common good and an epistemological uncertainty about it.

Graphic Artist Two iconographically invalidates as bad faith Billy’s semantic negation of competition, while leaving the imperative “Collaboration!” untouched. I like this second interpretation. It seems to be of a piece with Graphic Artist Two’s cynicism: a reminder that while collaboration might be valued over competition it cannot be opposed to it, since would-be-collaborators begin from a position in a competitive hierarchy with which they may unwittingly collaborate despite avowals to the contrary.

If that’s cynicism, then I’m cynical. There’s nothing about collaborative practice that mandates equality even if collaboration invokes the common good in principle. We’re talking about collaboration that takes place within and connected to the university, a meritocratic institution, a hierarchy-generating machine. Unless we think meritocracy just completely incompatible with the common good, we’re stuck with something like this dynamic. And something like this critique. No?


2 thoughts on “For and Against Object-centered Collaboration

  1. Ralph Berry

    John (also Mark),
    I don’t really know how to post, so I’ll just respond, but I like the drift of your commentary above, and I’m challenged by your remarks on objects to say a little more. You say, “Objects balkanize the humanities…tell us to stay in our lanes.” I think this is right as an observation about the predominant version of current institutional practice. Whether conceiving poems or films (or institutions) as objects actually requires this kind of sharply differentiated practice I’m less sure, but it’s pretty clear to me that the New Critics’ focus on literary objects, which I believe they got from the object-based models of language in Russell and early Wittgenstein and Logical Positivism, were intended to achieve exactly this result, so I think conceiving humanistic practice in terms of the kind of object it is practiced on, as Random does, is symptomatic of exactly what you’ve described.

    However, I keep wanting to inject the related idea that replaces objects in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy,i.e, the idea of examples (or paradigm cases). That is, the order and regularity of social practice in Wittgenstein’s later work is controlled, not by discrete objects, but by particular examples (of a game, of understanding, of a color, of virtue, etc), some of which (particularly those learned early in life) function as paradigmatic for our determination later of what will count as examples of the same kind. Wittgenstein’s idea would be that humanistic practice would be inconceivable without certain examples from which we learned it (e.g., “The Waste Land” “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” “Art as Device,” “Casablanca,” “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”) even if, as we develop our practice we find that we pass well beyond these examples, even dismissing them. Moreover, he believes that these examples continue to exert, usually unrecognized, a determining influence on our later practices, even though there is no predetermined limit on how far beyond them we can go or of what we can or cannot later count as a further example of them. All of this can only be determined in practice. Being able to tell a story of how we got from, e.g., “Criticism, inc” to “Structure, Sign, and Play” to EMPIRE usually brings out the determining issue or criterion.

    I belabor this point just to see if you feel as I, that institutional practices that are guided by particular examples, especially by examples that have functioned as very important in our early attraction to a practice or discipline, would seem less susceptible to balkanization, more likely to provide the basis for establishing new relations, than practices wedded to objects. I like examples because, in the same gesture, they explain to me both why Shakespeare is more important to me than Soyinka and why Soyinka is important to me. Or put differently, video games interest me, not despite my lifelong commitment to novels, but because of it.


  2. Pingback: Examples, not Objects » Humanities after Hollywood

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