networks: July 2004 Archives

The Network Fallacy?

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Bopping around this morning, and came across Stanley Fish's latest column in the Chronicle. In it, he cites the conclusion that Mark Taylor arrives at in The Moment of Complexity:

Either argument -- the one that begins, no longer is it possible to maintain the divide [between the academy and society], or the one that begins, there never was a divide in the first place -- leads Taylor to the same conclusions: Let's stop pretending that we can operate in a splendid (but fictional) isolation from everything that enables us; let's accept the fact that we are in, and of, the market and "find new ways to turn market forces to [our] own advantage"; let's prepare "students for life and work changing at warp speed"; let's go beyond the kind of critical analysis that does little more than "promote organizations and institutions whose obsolescence is undeniable"; let's adapt to the real conditions of our existence and eschew "a politics that is merely academic," a politics that is "as sterile as theories that are not put into practice."

As you might imagine, Fish disagrees on a couple of different grounds. The one that I was most intrigued by was what he calls the "system or network mistake":

the argument, more than implicit in Taylor's pages and in the pages of many other theorists of our condition, makes what I would call the "system" or "network" mistake -- the mistake of thinking that because something is embedded in a network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape, it is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were free standing and discrete.

The trouble with that reasoning is that it operates at a level of generality so high that you can't see the trees for the forest.

Well, yes and no. This is not a new "mistake"--it's been around at least since the heyday of poststructuralism (and it would be easy to trace back through Burke and IA Richards as well). There, it was used as a reductio ad absurdum with which to point out the problem with deconstruction and the like--if it's all "free play of signifiers," then nothing means anything, and we might as well give up, blah, blah, blah. Basically, it involves ignoring one half of KB's "paradox of substance."

Calling it a "network mistake" doesn't quite work for me, because it ignores the degree to which network theory toggles among nodes, links, flows, patterns, et al. And I only buy system as a name for it if we're working with that term circa Jacques Ellul, and Taylor most definitely is not. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only way Fish could have arrived at this characterization is by only reading the final chapter. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but even though it's been a couple of years since I read it, I know that Taylor's discussion of complex adaptive systems is more nuanced than the false dichotomy of forest/tree being offered here.

The "argument" as Fish lays it out sounds no better if the terms are reversed:

the mistake of thinking that because something has boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network, it is incoherent to speak of the network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape. Since nodal points are free standing and discrete, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were network-dependent.

Network theory, as partially as I may understand it, poises itself between these false alternatives. And from that perspective, it's entirely plausible for Taylor to argue that we need to reconsider the cultural, political, and social flows that connect us to various other points "outside" the university. There are places where I really disagree with Taylor's proposed solutions (many of which are a result of the spectacularly miscalculated keynote he delivered at C&W a few years back), but I also respect the fact that he proposes solutions, and would prefer to see them engaged at that level. Fish has never tired of the strategy whereby he pulls out rugs at a logically prior point, both invalidating the conclusions and removing any need to engage with them. It's certainly a fun tactic to watch, but it rings a bit hollow when it's applied to a writer who's as careful and as skilled as Taylor is. Taylor, quite frankly, deserves better.

The latter half of the column goes on to engage in a longer running crusade of Fish's, the place of morality (or politics or diversity) in academic institutions. While there may indeed be curricular implications to Taylor's position, it differs from the issue of MAC (morality across the curriculum) in ways that Fish doesn't seem to acknowledge. In his February column, he explains that:

The left may have won the curricular battle, but the right won the public-relations war.

While the two are certainly related to one another, Fish has no trouble conceptually separating them in February, and honestly, it's not that tough to see that Taylor's advocating that the public-relations war be reopened. Taylor himself may fall afoul of Fish's arguments re curriculum, but to suggest that this is all Taylor is talking about is to neglect the very distinction with which Fish opens that Feb column. And the result is a July column that paints Taylor in a pretty unflattering fashion, which he almost certainly does not deserve.

And here I thought all I wanted to do was to scold Fish for using the word network without my permission...;-)



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This page is a archive of entries in the networks category from July 2004.

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