Thursday 3 January 2019

What Do the Humanities Do? They Parse.

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons recently and came across one of the most famous scenes from the series (although to many fans of my age, all scenes from Seasons 3-10 are famous). In the scene, an exasperated Kirk Van Houten is playing Pictionaryat a dinner party  with his wife Luann as his partner. Kirk quickly becomes frustrated by Luann’s inability to guess the meaning of his impossibly abstract drawing. When their time is up, Kirk throws his hands in the air and exclaims, “It’s dignity! Don’t you know dignity when you see it?!”

Kirk Van Houten's rendering of dignity

I still laugh at this moment, part of the reason being that the concept of dignity (and Kirk’s ridiculous drawing) was perfectly chosen for this gag. The fact is that dignity, as noted by Philosopher Remy Debes, remains one of the most often-referenced, but also most vaguely understood concepts in contemporary philosophy, jurisprudence, and just about any field of knowledge interested in better understanding the human experience. 

So what do we do when we find ourselves constantly referring to a concept that we have difficulty defining, especially when we’re willing to create laws based on that concept? We do the core work of the Humanities, which is to parse.

By standard definition, to parse means “to identify the parts of a sentence and explain how they work together”; it also means “to examine in a minute way: analyze critically.” But I’d like to expand on these definitions within the context of the Humanities to define parsing as “To pursue the critical analysis of a concept up to the point that the concept becomes opaque or seemingly impervious to further description, analysis, or understanding, and then, through an act of verbal acuity, to discover a new means by which to describe, analyze, or understand that concept.” In other words, to parse means to analyze a concept so minutely that one either finds new constituent parts to break it into (like the discovery of subatomic particles) or one articulates a new paradigm through which to describe and analyze the concept (like a paradigmatic shift from Newtonian physics to the Theory of Relativity).

Anyone who's taught or studied the Humanities knows intimately the moment that parsing occurs, the moment at which one is writing an essay exploring a concept, and one stops typing, leans back in their chair, laces their hands behind their head, and tilts their gaze toward the ceiling, struggling to articulate a half-formed thought or break through the point at which an idea has become seemingly irreducible. This is all but synonymous with the work of thinking. It is the essence of Humanities-based work and critical thought in general. It is also the part of our thinking that is most severely threatened by a culture bent on rendering all human experience as "user" experience, based on principles of frictionless cognition that are best captured by the title of one of the most influential books in online design—“Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug

Now to be fair to Krug, the point of his book could be revised to say “Don’t Make Me Think (About Anything Except the Stuff that Really Matters)”. But the fact that Krug and his publisher settled on this title speaks to a deep cultural desire to remove the moment of thinking, and its attendant friction and discomfort, from human experience altogether. On the opposite side, I’ve seen a reactionary movement among some Humanities professors who believe that the antidote to this trend is a generalized fetishization of discomfort, in which it’s assumed that anything that makes a student uncomfortable is inherently good and indicative of growth. But cognitive discomfort is a secondary effect of the work of parsing; it is not an end in itself. 

In an article last year titled, “'The difficulty is the point': teaching spoon-fed students how to really read,” Tegan Bennett Daylight does a good job of aligning the work of parsing with the act of reading itself, especially when one is working to understand challenging material. “This is what I want for my students," writes Daylight. "First, I want them to read a book, all the way through. I want them to find something difficult and do it anyway.” One could argue that there is perhaps no statement more countercultural than that of “I want them to find something difficult and do it anyway.” In a culture increasingly driven by a paradigm of user experience, which is intent on stripping the world of cognitive friction, this notion of finding something difficult and doing it anyway has been replaced by a paradigm of helping people get in touch with their core passions, with the hope that doing so will provide them with a level of emotional compulsion that will make discipline irrelevant, as the force of their "passion" will propel them onward through a semi-conscious flow state, and the uncomfortable experience of coming up against conceptual opacity and forcing oneself to work through it by an act of will shall no longer be necessary. 

To be fair, there are no doubt thinkers out there who are propelled by compulsion more than discipline. If one is utterly obsessed with parsing ambiguity and pressing beyond conceptual opacity, no discipline is required, since the involuntary force of the compulsion will propel one onward. Patient devotion, though, is different, as it requires the discipline to continue pressing onward with the work of parsing even after one is not in a flow state of immersion in one’s work, and one must be left with uncomfortable thoughts and an apparent lack of progress for an indefinite amount of time.

It’s also important to note that it takes many different registers of language to perform the work of parsing. Sometimes, concepts or aspects of human experience become so amorphous, opaque, or irreducible that we must rely on poetry, literature, and the other arts to perform the work of forging onward, attempting to give any form at all (however intuitive) to what has thus far been formless. Sometimes, an explorer will combine the language of poetry and analysis to forge onward, as one can find in the mind-bending work of Maurice Blanchot, which is sometimes so patient in its parsing of the unarticulated that it verges on maddening. 

This point also brings us to the issue of the rage that often accompanies the work of parsing. This rage can come from many places, which include the mind’s desire to defend its cognitive status quo, the desire to believe that one already knows everything that’s worth knowing, and the belief that all knowledge that isn’t fully objective is arbitrary and thus unthreatening. These status quo beliefs are often held with a deep sense of urgency, as the distant rumble of the yet-to-be-parsed can threaten the conceptual bedrock of a person’s identity. On a more basic level, the work of parsing can make us all feel stupid, and there is nothing more heartbreaking and more enraging than the feeling that one is stupid. This is an emotional reaction to parsing that we must understand and respect while still insisting on the need to forge onward with the work of parsing. 

What some Humanities scholars might struggle with today is the notion that the work of parsing is cumulative and additive, meaning that over time, we as a discipline have added to the stock of knowledge. This is not the same thing as stating that Humanities research is progressive, since progressive presumes a fictional telos or “end of knowledge” that might one day be reached. We need not believe in progressive teleology to see value in the work of parsing, but we do need to understand that when a new act of parsing has occurred, something important has been achieved. This moment of achievement is every bit as significant to human knowledge as discovering the constituent parts of the atom, and the Humanities as a discipline must learn to recognize and celebrate the fact of such achievement, even as groups within it might value certain achievements over others. 

By way of example, it is clear that for all the criticism directed toward it, the concept of intersectionality has made enormous contributions to our understanding of the human experience, the situatedness of knowledge and the dynamics of power among identifiable groups being but two (and two that have been much better parsed in the existing literature). These contributions have added to the stock of knowledge by which we understand human experience. We can have a debate about whether intersectionality is the singular means by which to understand human experience, and we can also debate the extent to which power shapes human relations, with positions seeming to range from those that relegate power to the realm of secondary effects (it is rarely, but sometimes a factor in constituting human relationships and hierarchies) to those that assign power a hegemonic, all-encompassing status (“There is no outside, and one can never appeal to a basis for knowledge that isn’t predicated on power”). Regardless of where one falls in this debate, what remains clear is that the concept of intersectionality has further parsed the human experience, and in doing so, has made available to us a realm of knowledge that wasn’t available prior to its being parsed. 

In addition to a culture that is bent on reducing all forms of cognitive drag, we also live in a culture where people celebrate and defend points of conceptual opacity because these points of opacity provide us with occasion to scream at one another. A point of opacity now serves as a fulcrum, on each side of which you have a camp that makes slippery slope arguments about the other side. By way of example, this schism can manifest in the fear that an absolutist approach to free speech will defend fascist beliefs just long enough for them to take over, or the converse belief that any regulations on speech will soon lead to an Orwellian nightmarescape. This is very different from the act of two people coming together with an interest in taking an erstwhile opaque concept and working together to press onward in parsing it. 

That said, it doesn’t take long to see the naivety of this idea, because the fact is that people don’t parse concepts from a position of political neutrality, but often do so with a vested interest in defending ideas that shape human experience and power relations in the way that best serves them. But to throw out the possibility of genuine cooperation in the work of parsing would be to adopt the position that all knowledge and human relations are 100% reducible to power, and that the influence of power is homogeneously exercised across all aspects of human experience, with no spectrum leading from more power-heavy aspects of experience to less power-heavy ones. This monolithic, homogenous, there-is-no-outside understanding of power isn’t one I agree with, for the primary reason that it requires very little thinking and leaves no possibility of further parsing other aspects of human experience like joy, beauty, and love. 

What remains true in all of this is the centrality of parsing to the work of the Humanities, and the need for the field to better recognize the cumulative contributions that the act of thinking and parsing has made to human knowledge. Finally, we must learn how to better celebrate these achievements and to acknowledge that we are the better for them. 

1 comment:

  1. Just sharing some fragments of thought that your post has provoked, Phil, so apologies if this post isn't fully formed.

    With respect to parsing, opacity, and knowledge production: I think it’s reasonable to say that clarity and transparency are necessary for knowledge transmission. If we accept the suggestion that a good faith attempt to “parse” works in the service of producing new knowledge, then parsing would also be beholden to clarity. Parsing in bad faith, I guess, would be an attempt to confuse, or to augment opacity. Alternatively, one can be confused about parsing, which can also produce further confusion.

    Inevitably, a theorist or a practitioner will encounter an irresolvable contradiction as they think through a problem, at which point it might be useful to follow one pathway while remaining mindful to backtrack and follow the other one as well. Your definition of parsing includes this notion of breaking concepts down into smaller and smaller parts, but I have reservations about this: if I understand you correctly, you’re talking about parsing concepts, though not necessarily objects. So I don’t view this so much as a metaphor based on size (i.e. breaking concepts down into smaller and smaller parts) than of someone trying to clear a path in a forest to try and figure out how the whole thing is interconnected while also making that path accessible for others. Of course, both of these metaphors—forest and size—ultimately fail because they’re metaphors, not the thing itself. So maybe it’s a matter of constantly paying attention, or being vigilant about how metaphor can both help and hinder our attempts to think clearly about complicated concepts, and the extent to which it falls short.

    Which gets me wondering about traditions of withholding or guarding knowledge (say, in the context of Franciscan scribes in the medieval period or Brahmanical scripture, which regulates knowledge dissemination based on caste; of course, such paradigms of “withholding” don’t ring true for all traditions). It seems that transmission is a necessary but not sufficient condition of knowledge production (as transmission alone isn’t necessarily an agent of “good” knowledge; transmission and knowledge production are contingent on privileged relationships with the mediators of knowledge dissemination, whose guardianship is assumed to be built on preexisting criteria of how to distinguish good knowledge from bad knowledge). So in order to maintain clarity and coherence there has to be some form of gatekeeping involved. Consequently, certain knowledge pathways get hardened. Sometimes, if a critic or dissident suggests an alternative pathway, they might encounter resistance, some of it well-founded, some of it not. Then again, they might not encounter resistance at all. Some of it depends on the rigour of the dissent, but it can also depend on audience. Which is maybe a question of gatekeepers who act in good faith and those who don’t.

    It could be that parsing as an act of knowledge production is a method of clearing confusion, with the caveat that confusion is built into the structure of thought (or langue, I guess). Spurious or bad faith attempts to clear confusion, which I think you refer to as the paradigm of “user experience,” actually compound confusion because those attempts impose what looks like a solution by ignoring contingency in favour of expedience. It’s sort of like a bad phenomenological Photoshop job, or the way that the commodification of knowledge evacuates knowledge’s use value, leaving behind a fetish object that looks like knowledge but actually consists of nonsense.

    When you refer to this cultural imperative of “user experience” to smooth over troublesome knowledge or inconsistencies, I think you’re implicitly referring to a specific cultural context. If you want to develop some of your ideas here further, you might like Friction by Anna Tsing.