Doing things with theory


Last week I spent two challenging, inspiring and exhausting days with a research team exploring academic identities. Here is a bit about our three projects which will presented at the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima in September. (The theme is The Peaceful University: Aspirations for academic futures—compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation!)

In the photo above (without a selfie, it wouldn’t be a legitimate academic gathering) we are, left to right in a zigzag, Tai Peseta, Machi Sato, Cally Guerin, Catherine Manathunga, Fran Kelly, Barbara Grant, Jamie Burford, Jeanette Fyffe, Fiona Salisbury and me, Agnes Bosanquet. Not pictured is Jan Smith, who joined us from the UK via Zoom when the time difference permitted.

In the picture above, I’m the blurry head at the front right, but we were all a bit fuzzy-headed by  the end of it. One of the most enjoyable, and difficult, things we did was to read complex theories about subjectivity and identity together.

We read:

  • Michel Foucault’s (1982) The Subject and Power
  • an extract from Judith Butler’s (1990) Gender Trouble
  • Stuart Hall’s (1996) introductory chapter Who Needs Identity?
  • a chapter on assemblage from Nikolas Rose’s (1996) Inventing our selves: Psychology, power and personhood
  • and Rosi Braidotti’s (2006) article Posthuman, All Too Human

Each of these readings deals with questions of selfhood, our relations to others/systems/institutions/objects, ontologies (ways of being) and epistemologies (ways of knowing). (I’ve included the definitions in parentheses because I remember getting my ‘ologies’ confused as a student and don’t want to make assumptions about readers’ understandings). At the risk of error-ridden simplification, here are two sentences on each of these readings. This is probably the briefest summary of these ideas that you will ever read and, needless to say, all errors are mine alone.

1. Michel Foucault (1982) conceptualises subjectivity through power relations (to be self-aware and to be subject to) and resistance. He offers a useful, and much cited, list of five considerations for analysing power relations: differentiations (e.g. economic differences); objectives (e.g. the maintenance of privileges); means of bringing power into being (e.g. surveillance, rules); institutionalisation (e.g. school, family, state); and rationalisation (the field of possibilities for enacting power).

2. In a challenge to most philosophers and theorists before her, Judith Butler (1990) argues that sex and gender are performative. The gendered self is an illusion, a stylization of the body, a regulatory fiction, a strategy for survival, reinforced through repetitive practices.

3. Stuart Hall (1996) gives a history and critique of scholarly thinking on identity from the Enlightenment to now, via humanism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, performativity and identity politics. He defines identity as the temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us.

4. Nikolas Rose (1996) uses Deleuze and Guittari’s work on the plurality and nonsubjectivity of individuals to consider how humans are subjectified as multiple ‘assemblages’. He uses the term ‘psy’ as shorthand for the disciplines (psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy) that have invented selfhood, which he complicates with reference to  post-structuralists such as Foucault (on power) and Butler (on gender).

5. Rosi Braidotti (2006) gives her reading of Donna Harraway (most well known for her manifesto “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”) to emphasise the importance of the body in thinking through subjectivity and power. She teases with ideas that are explored in more detail in her other writings—nomadic thinking, becoming, non-human others, monstrousness and the disruptions of technology.

These readings, my simplified summaries notwithstanding, are hard going. The wonderful thing about reading alongside this group of (accomplished, scholarly) people was their willingness to acknowledge when they did not understand. They revealed their vulnerability as scholars, and the limits of their knowledge, and their lack of time for close reading. We sat together and talked through our unknowingness.

We also shared a methodology reading each—more on that in a future post—but Barbara Grant’s choice is relevant here. She shared a chapter from Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times, in which Maggie MacLure (2017) thinks about how to work with complex methodologies and asks whether we could use a “judicious dosage” which might be “just enough” to infuse new life into exhausted research. We decided to use these theoretical works in a similar way—to take just enough to allow us to think differently, without having to swallow the ideas whole and risk intoxication.

As I drafted this post, my favourite book blogger Whispering Gums posted How to read difficult books. It is as simple (and as hard) as this: keep turning the pages.

P.S. A tip for your research meetings—record and transcribe your discussions to capture the moments you almost grasped an idea (or someone else did) and you want to revisit it.

6 thoughts on “Doing things with theory

  1. This sounds like an amazing enriching 2 days – wow! I wonder if anyone has brought up Roy Bhaskar’s concept of meta-reality after his years on critical realism? I used his theory to explore identity and selfhood with visual artists back in 2008. You can read my simplified summary of it in Kathy Pitt ‘Sourcing the Self’, Peter Lang but I am sure there are plenty of others as he, too, offers plenty of complexity.
    Good luck with this project and future conference.


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