swirled

Note to self: when most confident, be most wary of unrecognized assumptions.
I did think, going into the Communication Graduate Student Association meeting yesterday, that the handouts were practically self-explanatory. I had distributed the first handout the day before in order to jog people’s memories of the brainstorming session in December. I covered it very fast (time limit) and moved into the second handout, which I also covered quickly.
I was then pulled under by the discursive currents with the very first comment. I do not remember who spoke, or what was said, except that I was instantly fighting for my life. I felt desperate and appeared as such, speaking with increased volume, intense diction, and sweeping generalizations. My attempt to pull (to bind centripetal forces in a formal procedure) and others’ (centrifugal) countering pushes thickened the borderzone where “a group” is constituted. I was sucked deep into the maelstrom.
It took a while for me to re-establish the kind of balance necessary to float, to be relaxed enough to trust that my head was going to stay above water.


I appreciate the advocacy of our Australian buddy (especially when she very diplomatically told me to shut up! – something to the effect of a particular line of inquiry not being very productive). She stayed after the meeting with some others to try and hash out the confusion and did a great job of translating me. After several rounds of back-and-forth, with folks arguing that the procedure I’m advocating is already in place and me insisting that current procedures are not the same as what I’m proposing, Li articulated two assumptions and their temporal juxtaposition. The difference, he said, is at the starting point. I’m beginning from an assumption of cohesiveness (that we all do belong and are always already “members” of an extant group), and others are beginning from an assumption of essential individuality (the independence of the self, the freedom to choose whether or not to belong at any given moment or regarding any particular issue).
These differing assumptions may be (probably are) part of heteroglossic equations of discourse about student governance that require translation into mutually intelligible language.
[I could not have said this yesterday. This is ‘new knowledge’ cohering in my mind as I reflect on the critical feedback and supportive interpretations presented in conversations with various colleagues during and since the meeting. Some part of these thoughts are also influenced by reading some pages in Derrida‘s Otobiographies yesterday afternoon and this morning, to wit: “A prejudice: life. Or perhaps not so much life in general, but my life, this ‘that I live,’ the ‘I-live’ in the present” (1985:9).]
Phenomenologically, I swim against the current. Somehow, I need to remember that its countervailing force is not necessarily deliberately directed against “me” (or anyone else), but is rather an effect of momentum and historical flow. The confusion voiced by some members of the group was (and may still be) genuine: I was “too abstract”. Some resistance was, also, specific and particular: “It’s too dangerous to be political in academia right now.” “I don’t want [the potential of] a majority view imposed upon my minority view.”
How do I become more concrete for those who are struggling with the abstractions? I could give another “for instance” that is more tied to where we (graduate students) are right now in terms of negotiations with management about space. We’ve lost the graduate lounge and the present computer lab. We’ve been given a different space that has no natural light, no air-conditioning, and no wiring. We’ve been told the work and materials needed to remedy these deficiences is too expensive. Negotiations with management about these issues continue in “the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”
Why did we give up the present computer lab? I suggest at least one reason we gave it up is because we don’t have the collective willpower to be confrontational enough to demand respect in the form of adequate resources. We haven’t sought alliances with each other that would protect individuals enough from the risks of “being political” in order to say (hypothetically – let me rush to qualify!!), this department literally could not function without us. Chances are good we wouldn’t be on our own (as graduate students only) if faculty knew how unhappy we are. They need us, and I imagine they’d rather have us satisfied than disgruntled!

9 thoughts on “swirled”

  1. Steph, i was unfortunately not present for the entirety of your presentation. however i assume you now realise that neither of your handouts made much sense to most of the members present. i guess some of us were expecting elucidation rather than the obfuscation we encountered and that was the reason for much of the anger. i for one had the distinct impression of being talked down to and that was in itself mildly irritating. in addition, when i perceived that what you intended was not an explanation of your thoughts regarding the mysterious e-mail attachment, which i was looking forward to, but further irrelevant references to mikhail bakhtin (of all people), i was exasperated, and i offer my reaction as one particular instance of a shared experience.
    i’m sure you realize that there is an infinite number of ways of reading a particular situation. forcing everything into what you assume is a bakhtinian framework is only one of those ways. to first assume that everyone knows what you are referring to or talking about is folly enough, but then to also assume that everyone is interested in hearing you expound on your pet thesis in what is meant to be a discussion of our common issues, struck me as sheer arrogance. there is a context for discussing bakhtin and polyphony and heteroglossia (please remember these are not neutral or context-free concepts that everyone agrees on) and the CGSA meeting is definitely NOT such a context. the reason there exists a set of normative behavior (rules, language, etc.) for a meeting is not to suppress anyone’s speech. on the contrary, it is to ensure that everyone feels equally comfortable to raise common issues in a neutral forum. your intentionally obscure language and handouts and your disregard for this normative behavior shows only your disrespect for everyone else’s intelligence, their capacity to engage with you, and their stake in the meeting. to me, personally, it appeared a display of selfishness and arrogance that said to me “either speak to me in my language, or just shut up and listen and look at my incoherent transparencies with unintelligible arrows and squiggles”.
    i guess what i should (or would, if i’d stayed) have said to you is “i do want to listen to your articulation of what the problem here is, and how we can collectively take action (for that is something i would also like to organize towards), but then i don’t understand a word of what you’re saying and i can clearly see that most people in the room cannot understand either, and are desperately trying to tell you that – despite their obvious exasperation – but you keep insisting that we discard our shared discourse and talk about whatever it is that you want to talk about at the moment”.
    on a more material note, i am also offended that you think that we’ve “given up” on our common space; for two reasons:
    1) there was an overwhelming amount of response from fellow-students, across several cohorts, around the issue of space reorganization. i was actively involved in collecting everyone’s responses and compiling a memo to the chair that incorporated everyone’s opinions about the issue and their suggestions for possible changes. this was one of the most democratic and participatory actions that i’ve seen in my three years in the department, and a mode of operation worth carrying forward.
    2) in my own opinion, we’re not ‘giving up’ anything, the current lounge is a much reviled room far from anyone’s workplace, and in the most inconvenient location possible for graduate students. the current computer lab, while an essential space, does not have the best of conditions to work in, with absolutely no natural light and a ridiculous printer situation that is highly unfair towards our colleagues who have to deal with technical maintenance. the spaces that the CGSA has negotiated are (even under these extraordinary circumstances) a much better deal than what we currently have, although there still exists the potential and possibility for further suggestions and ideas.
    to me, therefore, this whole situation called for a modicum of praise for the CGSA executive for the way the situation has been dealt with so far, and for suggestions in “the spirit of cooperation and collaboration”, rather than ‘confrontation’ (with whom?)
    finally, i would suggest that you reflect on the possibility that “being confrontational” is not the abstract fetish that you have reduced it to, but a material form of action that is rooted in, and arises out of, a particular and concrete situation. in this case, i do not see such a situation, and i look forward to your explanation of why you do.

  2. I’m not sure how carefully you read what I’ve written, Srinivas, as you seem not to have taken in that I *did* register the confusion and anger, nor did you acknowledge that part of my process was digging out of my own (surprised) reaction to it.
    I can’t account for your sense of being ‘talked down to’ except to say that my tone may have come across that way because of an imposed time limit that I was trying to honor. I recognize, now, that I needed to explain more but/and the format didn’t exactly encourage such. You are correct, however, that I have assumed some level of familiarity regarding theories of discourse. You’re also correct that I’ve chosen Bahktin instead of, say, Foucault or even Hall, because I can’t imagine the assessments those lenses might bring would be any better received. That said, I don’t think these approaches are necessarily exclusive; I happen to find more space in Bahktin to negotiate difference without invoking power as sole arbiter.
    I also framed my comments about the new lounge/lab space in HYPOTHETICAL terms, in the attempt to provide a material example, which some people had asked me to do. It was not intended to diminish your labor or the contributions of all those who participated in the process but I can see how it has done so. 🙁 Although it seems you were already quite angry with me so that example just gave you more ammunition? At any rate, I’d hardly reduce what is happening between you and me in this exchange, or what occurred in the meeting, as “an abstract fetish”. This is the kind of conflictual exchange that arises when people have different interpretations of what has occurred and/or what needs to be done.
    I do appreciate that you responded to the invitation of my posting by commenting here, even if what you’ve had to say doesn’t feel very nice. :-/ I trust you are sincere in saying that you “want to listen to my articulation of what the problem here is, and how we can collectively take action.” Perhaps Li’s insight is relevant between us too, because you want me to have already worked out precisely what “the problem” is and put it into terms you already understand (individual to individual), and I’m approaching this from a sense of “there IS a problem of some kind here” but I can’t quite figure it out on my own (because it ‘belongs’ to all of us as a group). I think the kind of open discussion you and I are having here is a way to develop a shared discourse that – respectfully – I don’t agree yet exists among the communication graduate student body as a whole.
    As to “the particular and concrete situation” in which I perceive a problem, the extreme language you’ve used to characterize my difference (unintelligible, intentionally obscure, disrespectful, arrogant, selfish, etc) is just a wee bit over the top, don’t you think? Perhaps you felt you needed to be so extreme in order to ‘get through’ to me? This kind of othering belies the insistence that there is a set of normative rules and use of language (etc.) that applies equally and neutrally to every one of us.
    I’m sure there is something else I’m supposed to say here – some language that I don’t speak which would give you access to my thoughts/thinking in a way more amenable to your own ways of thinking. I’m sorry I can’t get there, although I hope I’m learning and who knows, someday maybe I won’t have to rely so much on third parties (be they theorists, like Bahktin) or colleagues who can translate my meanings into a form that makes more sense. Really shutting up until I get there, though, isn’t how I’m going to arrive.
    Finally, I do know that I can say I appreciate the time on the agenda that has been alloted so far to this discussion and I hope we won’t just stop because it’s difficult, frustrating, and otherwise a pain-in-the-ass.

  3. Steph,
    I’ve always thought I have a decent vocabulary, but your posts have made me question myself. How does one present a real life case in a “hypothetical” way in order to provide a “material” example?
    This is what you wrote:
    “How do I become more concrete for those who are struggling with the abstractions? I could give another “for instance” that is more tied to where we (graduate students) are right now in terms of negotiations with management about space. We’ve lost the graduate lounge and the present computer lab. We’ve been given a different space that has no natural light, no air-conditioning, and no wiring. We’ve been told the work and materials needed to remedy these deficiences is too expensive. Negotiations with management about these issues continue in “the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
    Why did we give up the present computer lab? I suggest at least one reason we gave it up is because we don’t have the collective willpower to be confrontational enough to demand respect in the form of adequate resources.”
    This is what you wrote, yet you bizarrely claim you were being “hypothetical” here? You clearly are referring to REAL events with REAL disdain and REAL arrogance.
    Are you going to throw in the word “hypothetical” whenever you need to protect yourself from “real” critiques?

  4. Dear Auntie,
    I used real life events, with an interpretation (hypothesized) that differs from the dominant view. I projected into a future in which funds are not made available for the necessary renovations based on the uncertainty with which the information about costs were presented – too expensive or too costly because of how the university charges for these kind of things. I framed it as part of a history of losses because IF that future occurs I imagine retroactively that this is how it will/would feel. Where’s your imagination?!!!
    I can’t predict how things will turn out, but I can suppose that things may not be rosy! That doesn’t negate the possibility (also technically a hypothesis, isn’t it?) that “continued negotiations” will generate the necessary resources – which I agree would be a grand improvement on what we’ve had.
    What I don’t understand is the animosity toward even contemplating the possibility of conflict. I’ve highlighted the terminology used (e.g., cooperation, collaboration, negotiation) because it signals a definite strategy – perhaps even an ideology? I’m not opting out of that strategy, and (contrary to apparent interpretation) I’m not displeased with anything it has accomplished, but I’m not convinced it is wise to trust it exclusively.
    Affectionately (!),
    your troublesome microbial niece

  5. Steph,
    You are finally getting somewhere! I’m saying this as a long-time observer of your “conflicts” with the grad people :):(. There are many grads, I’m sure you know, who feel somewhat antagonized to your proposals, whatever they may be. But, up to now, by and large, they have killed those proposals (and you) with a debilitating aggressive passivity that ignored you, threw you looks and talked about you behind your back. I think the best thing for you at this point is to have people come out and confront you! Some think your manner of proposing things is arrogant – it’s good they are saying so, and therefore giving you the opportunity to explain that you don’t mean to be arrogant and to examine what might give them that idea. I know and sincerely believe in your good-will (God, if only I had that much of it!), but many don’t. It’s simply your job to convince them of it and by their finally confronting you, you have your opening. The hard thing is to get over the superfluous aggressivity… it’s a hard thing to do, when you think it’s uncalled for and unfair. But keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak – don’t forget that this dialogue, no matter how confrontational, can tell you a lot about the problems that yo’ve so far encountered. Srinivas is very articulate and I hope you pursue that discussion with him. And, check this out: pursue that discussion NOT ONLY IN THE BLOG, but also face-to-face, interpersonal-like… that’s where the aggressiity is moderated and the “real” dialogue begins…

  6. Much like the grizzly bear that crawls from its den every spring, or the failed Hollywood actor of a recent documentary who posited himself as the object of grizzly bear survival, the above reflexions speak of a desire that awakens annually with a growling hunger. Upon its awakening, the agent of this desire must go looking for something with which it may become satisfied. If it cannot find anything, then the agent will be forced to create for itself its own meal: it must give birth to the very thing upon which it desires to feast.
    We can see this act of creation happening here, once again, and in precise terms, when, for example, the following is written: “What I don’t understand is the animosity toward even contemplating the possibility of conflict.” This reflexion would be fair enough if the “possibility” of “the possibility of conflict” was not something that had been actualized for the explicit purpose of consumption. What the author fails to see is how, on the one had, it is one thing to overcome the presence of conflict; and on the other hand, how it is quite another to create conflict for the purposes of having something to overcome &emdash; to consume or devour. It is this act of creation that has occurred each spring in our department, where the neurosis of “contemplation” takes the form of a perverse enjoyment in one’s positing of something that did not before exist, for the purposes of their own self ful-fillment.
    In terms of handling this annual awakening, consider how in lean seasons the scarcity of food in a bear’s natural habitat will often cause the bear to go looking for a meal in areas populated by humans. When this happens, those bears are called “problem bears.” For the safety of others, such bears must be dealt with. The question for members of CGSA can appropriately be put in the following terms: “what to do about a problem bear?”
    The answer is quite simple.
    Consider how the failed Hollywood actor mentioned above was, in the end, eaten by one of the bears he set out to save. Being a failure, what the actor desired more than anything else was to become the one thing that the other needed most in order to survive. That is, the actor desired the desire of the other &emdash; where “the other,” in this case, was the grizzly bear. As it turned out, since there was nothing else to save the grizzly from starvation except to eat the actor, the actor therefore got exactly what he most desired. What happened here, in effect, was a case not simply of the failed actor being eaten by the problem bear, but of the actor eating himself.
    What we can learn from this is that the CGSA problem bear (or is it the failed actor?) will, as we have seen, continue to search for things that will temporarily satisfy its desire. What it cannot find, it will surely create. We know this as well. However, in giving birth to that upon which it desires to feast (conflict, or the attention obtained from conflict), our problem bear/failed actor will take care of itself: eventually, it will get hungry enough and eat itself.

  7. Thanks cg! You know me better than I know myself. 🙂 I won’t deny desire, or even hunger. I’m not convinced the form you’ve posited is correct, and EVERY spring I’d question, but I concede the last two. I’d also dispute, however, that I’ve “created” a conflict where none existed before. I may have exacerbated conflicts folks would rather keep under wraps, but if NONE existed, my exertions could hardly engender as much animosity as has arisen.
    For the record, I don’t enjoy it. It may be no consolation to you or me, but I’d rather not be anyone’s meal.

  8. I have more problems with this whole “discussion” than I have time to enumerate right now, but I do feel compelled to say this: I do not feel the sense of oppression from the faculty that you seem to, Steph, and I think to assume this antagonistic stance is unfair, unproductive, and misrepresentative of the attitudes of most CommGrads. In my experience, the faculty is not plotting against us; in most cases, they seem to be strugggling to make the most of the very limited resources given to the department. We need to pick our battles, and to rise up in revolt over a “lounge” that smelled of dead crustaceans and rotting journals from 1982 is an unwise and unneccesary move. To combatevery compromise every step of the way is to engage in a fight AGAINST the growth of the program, something I believe we can all agree is a bad thing.

  9. Brett, I agree. I agree that combating every compromise is counterproductive. I agree that the faculty are not plotting against us.
    I have not, by the way, experienced any oppression from the faculty. The faculty are separate from management – that’s the University administration as represented (now) by Michael. After him (within one year) management will be represented by someone else. Someone from outside the department because the faculty cannot agree on anyone WITHIN to run the department in a fair and evenhanded manner (as many believe Michael has done). That, or the folks who are trusted enough don’t want the position, for their own reasons.
    My USE (!) of the computer lab etc space issue AS AN EXAMPLE (!!!) does not represent any recommended course of action! I am not trying to get us to rise up in revolt NOW. I am not trying to tear anything apart now (or ever). I *am* trying to create a space or theme or thread within the growing discourse of the CGSA that ALLOWS for the possibility of something akin to ‘revolt’ *if* we ever need it!
    If most of us have this fight now, then if/when the time comes (which it may not and wouldn’t that be wonderful) we won’t have to have it then, thus delaying valuable time and perhaps missing an ideal moment of timing. This is why my examples and proposals are not specific – one can’t say! I used space as the example because I thought it would be easy for folks to imagine an alternative scenario. It didn’t occur to me that folks would think I was seriously (?) proposing a walkout or some shit over an issue that’s still moving forward productively – as everyone seems to agree!
    Why do my proposals have to be taken as *completely* out of step?
    Well, maybe they are “out of step” because they go somewhere else than where you (plural) go, but I START from the same place. Our proposal was accepted. Now what? My thinking is it isn’t bad to consider things not going our way, and having some preparation for that contingency, at least by way of foundation. And part of that foundation means the possibility has to be part of the discourse.
    Meanwhile, we could perhaps turn the ‘brand’ of the CGSA and/or UMass Comm Dept to other decent political uses.
    And, as an additional side effect, we could have a procedure that outlines a streamlined process for dealing with questions that could send us spinning (all the problems associated with this conversation),
    which also just happens to guarantee any communication graduate student the right to work their butt off to try and enter new terms or ideas or possibilities into the official CGSA discourse
    AND
    includes a mechanism for dispensing with these requests quickly – after a fair and consistently-applied procedure – if the majority of comm grads present and participating in full CGSA meetings vote them frivolous.
    That’s one way to deal with a problem bear! 😉

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