everything as prologue

We lingered as long as we possibly could at the last day’s luncheon after sharing brief updates on research projects concerning European Union institutions. Not only did we have the desire “to stick with the event” (de pluckers belaven, if I got the Dutch right) but also with each other. I keep hoping that mingling will enable the spontaneous growth of new neural pathways as well as strengthen interpersonal and professional relationships.
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There is incredible diversity across our projects.
I listen and wonder.
I listen explicitly for information and insights that can aid my project, and I wonder: if we were to compose an epistemic community, what expertise would compose our authoritative field? Let me be clear: this is not what we are charged with doing. Each of us is responsible for an individual project on a particular topic within a specific discipline. But if we were supposed to come up with something together, or rather – if we imagined that we do constitute a group with collective influence, what “knowledge and causal beliefs about knowledge” did we enact, and how might these cohere into “a force for change”? [Quoting Dr. Mai’a Cross as she explained the concept of an epistemic community.]
Maggie pegged me to start, which – in retrospect (from my point-of-view, grin) – was an act of strategic genius. Despite the fact that I had prepared a handout, my presentation was felt rambling and disorganized. My self-consciousness increased as one neatly-organized description after another followed in steady procession. Uncomfortable, I wondered, why is my style so different? Is “style” the best label? Does “style” adequately capture the distinction in presentation format – if there is one – or mask it? There is a stylistic component: I like to present along the same lines as I learn (backward chaining). This may be an anti-academic mode. I could, for instance, do a better job of establishing the context in order for others to grasp why the particular details I’ve chosen are relevant. But as soon as I have this thought I realize why I resist doing it – even to the point of being aware (not always, but sometimes) that I am deviating from what is expected, normatively, within the academic community. I resist conformity on the essential principle of communication theory as always contingent: there is no one, singular context any more than there is ever only one, singular meaning.
Here my desire to be a practitioner comes into conflict with my desire to be a scholar. The interpretive range opened up by refusing to pre-establish context enables (I hypothesize) creativity in the co-construction of shared knowledge. The conscious choice I am making is between enabling the momentum of an historical trajectory and seeking co-incidental links for a future unfolding. Rather than beginning in linear, chronological time with an overview of how the research/knowledge field has already been constructed, I choose to begin with an immediate encounter and then tack accordingly pending the live interaction as it occurs. Thus, my presentation was given within a different temporal paradigm than the presentations of my peers. An exchange with Scott crystallized (in my thinking) the different orientations to time: not only am I working on a different temporal scale (as noted by Nell a few days prior) than most of my colleagues, but I am also working in a different temporal paradigm. My analysis is projected into the future (the co-creation and maintenance of intercultural communication practices with their implicit relationships and shared identifications) rather than compared or contrasted with the relatively concurrent present or situated historical past. If I had been recording, I think there would be evidence in the tense structure of our utterances. I presented simultaneous interpretation as a powerful means for developing multilingual culture in the future and Scott argued that “it doesn’t work that way” by citing what has occurred before.
This tension between what has gone before and what may come was highlighted during Dr. Carolyn Ban‘s presentation on public service motivation in the European Commission. In the midst of that project she is speculating about a two-way, reciprocal effect within the European Commission as a result of the 2004 Enlargement. While it is well-established that new people coming into an organization socialize to the norms of the organization, it is also true that organizations change under certain conditions – such as a change in management or an increase in size of staff, for instance, the influx of a significant number of new people, at all levels.
Dr. Ban’s anecdotes and descriptions suggested to me a nice fit with the interpretive schema of critical discourse analysis that I use in my work. While the discursive and interactional trajectories of past organizational cultural practices imbue momentum (one can think of this in terms of force), new configurations in the present can alter the direction, shape, and effective impact or outcome of those energies. Some of the shifts can be attributed to direct causes, while other shifts may occur indirectly, over time, from the interaction of a variety of actors who may or may not be intending to work together toward a common goal or collective purpose.
For instance, large-scale, long-term changes like the re-organization of Europe from embattled nation-states to a transnational union may be accomplished more effectively through indirect, uncoordinated events than by intentional design. To be specific, Justin is investigating the possibility of a leapfrog effect in the legal realm as local courts bypass national courts to fight battles in the European Court of Justice. His project is geared toward recognizing and explaining processes that lead to unintended (not deliberately planned) effects. This is different than Dr. Cross’s work on the defense experts working on European harmonization in internal security, although I find the two projects similar in illustrating behind-the-scenes (but not secret) processes contributing to stronger transnational political unity in effect, regardless of the status of independent national sovereignty.
The realms of law and internal security are top down mechanisms of social change. Vanja, meanwhile, is assessing the effectiveness of social policy implementation in the area of racial/ethnic discrimination. The policy is top-down, but the implementation seems (as I conceptualize it) to require lateral application. I think this is similar to Dr. Amina Merchant’s analysis of the interactions of health care policy with health care delivery. Both of these projects demonstrate reciprocity between social implementation of policy and the institutionalization of policy.
The dynamic fact of reciprocity suggests parallels between the diffuse actors in these two broad fields of nondiscrimination training and health care delivery and the actors in Dr. Ban’s study who are concentrated within a single – albeit very large – organization. Jen’s analysis of citizen participation in processes of legislation regarding climate change will likely demonstrate reciprocity as well, although her angle seems even more laterally-oriented than either Vanja’s or Dr. Merchant’s projects. The contrast in relative position of the key actors in the lateral components of these research projects illustrates the point that how context is perceived varies: it is contingent upon the role or status of the actors and/or the researcher in relation to the topic. Most of the projects are explicitly engaged with the effects of action ‘down’; Jen’s study is more along the lines of action ‘up.’
This reminds me of a conversation with Daren about the average person in Hungary, who has only felt the effect of joining the EU in negative ways, such as the shock that the small shop their family has run for generations is out of compliance with sanitation requirements.
The following passage from Bruce Benderson‘s, The Romanian, captures this point perfectly:

Yet not even the blessing of the old man can save Romulus – and perhaps the old man himself – from that great shift towards the West and its materialistic values that was accelerated by the fall of Communism. It’s a shift that will continue as the European Union pushes eastward, until perhaps even the old man or his son finds its tentacles at his doorstep, questioning his children’s health and education, suggesting better ways to till his field, frowning at his unlicensed plum brandy or grinningly promoting cartoon versions of his seasonal rituals, as designed by an ethnographer in Bucharest. (2006, p. 231)

Given the inexorability with which top-down processes are effecting daily life, it is no wonder that the European Union is having a difficult time generating citizen enthusiasm, much less any sense of common identity or sentiment, for shifting from the nation-based anchor of self-consciousness to a regional or continental shared identity. The attempt to use language policy to achieve a new kind of hybrid consciousness of particular nation and Europe-as-a-whole is premised upon the historical use of language standardization to compel bonding. By most accounts, this strategy is not accomplishing the desired result. While it is true that learning another language expands your cognitive capacities, it does not necessarily follow that you become more tolerant, wiser, and/or develop relational bonds with others who are substantially different than yourself.
It may not seem obvious that there’s a connection with another Fulbright Fellow’s work on public transportation, but in lauding the example of Strasbourg, Jason explained how the mayor “framed the debate” by posing the question: underground or tram?
She argued for trams on the surface because “then you change the way people interact with the city” (emphasis added). What is now a tangible exemplar came about as an outgrowth of language use (framing the debate) and interactional practice (e.g., cars left outside the city center). If I remember correctly, the original framing of the debate was a campaign strategy which resulted in the Mayor’s election (or re-election). This suggests another lateral process which led in a bottom-up kind of way to the formation of city policy.
All of this effort in attempting to construct coherence among research projects and the processes under study suggest that the principles that might be most relevant to deliberately structuring a re-construction of identity may not reside in trying to impose or extend the cultivated consciousnesses of the cosmopolitan elite but rather in the modes of “translating” institutional infrastructures interactively with the middle- and working-class consciousnesses of the general populace.

2 thoughts on “everything as prologue”

  1. It’s on the roof of the Musical Instrument Museum, just outside the Royal Library where the Fulbright offices are located. ­čÖé We walked past it the first night we were in Brussels and it loomed above as we departed the final debriefing.

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