Topography and/(or) Narrative in The Work of Scholarship

Posted by on Dec 13, 2013 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping

[Submitted by Adam Foster]

As a researcher for INKE’s Modelling and Prototyping division, a great deal of what has guided my work has been a critical attitude towards the idea of narrative in scholarship. But why be critical of narrative? Before that question can be answered, it is important to be clear what narrative means in the context of scholarship. Narrative, for me, is story telling. A narrative is a single, sustained voice telling a specific story. Applied to scholarship, it means that the scholar creates a thesis to which the entirety of his or her scholarly work – whether it be an article or a monograph – works towards proving either through the logical reasoning of Analytical philosophy, allusive metaphors of Continental philosophy, or a combination of both. Logical reasoning refers to the notion of the argument’s pieces being something akin to building blocks; a premise is presented, and it provides the foundation for the next ultimately leading to the final piece – that is, the thesis. Allusive metaphors instead seek to lead the reader to the argument by way of comparison to other bodies of work and literary metaphor (such as Martin Heidegger using commentary on Nietzsche to lead his students towards his own, unique conception of epistemology in his series of lectures titled What Is Called Thinking?). Though this divide emerges from classifying philosophy, these are the two dominant ways of engaging in scholarly work in a broader context. There exists a sharp divide in philosophy on the basis of these two methodological models, however – for the sake of my argument –  they share in common one thing: Both are narrative in so far that they involve one voice leading the reader to one possible outcome, just as the story teller only has one ending that he will deliver. Narrative is therefore a model that is unable to accommodate a plurality of voices, as it is, by definition and practice, features a guiding, single voice. It fails to consider the possibility of other versions of the story.

In trying to resolve this problem, the notion of topographical thinking has emerged as an alternative way of thinking. An example of this is what was attempted with the model sketched out in my last blog. In understanding the premise behind this concept, it is fruitful to think of how a body functions. One might consider the body – equated with the conscious ego of the mind – to be governed by the head, under whose control all other organs fall. This would be like the narrative function of a primary work, wherein everything has a rigid structure falling under the organization of the central thesis. However, this model is not how the body actually functions. Instead, the Gestalt model is more apt, as – non-hierarchically – the entirety of the body’s neural workings simultaneously act together in creating an action. The topographical model might represent this premise, with all the pieces working together in a non-linear fashion. A topographical model presents pieces of scholarship – whatever they may be – in a spatial layout that avoids the linear ordering of a narrative argument. The topography is in some ways a map or atlas, and the reader (because maps are texts and thus have readers; topography does not change the nature of the user) is then able to navigate the layout according to his or her own volition.

There are a number of reasons why this spatial epistemological model is greater than that of the narrative long-form argument. The first is the one that has already been alluded too; this model is more accommodating to a plurality of voices, as readers are able to navigate the landscape differently. Narrative is still possible, as one creates a narrative to make sense of their life experiences. However, the narrative that would emerge from navigating the topography would be purely subjective and apply only to the reader. Therefore, it refrains from being dominating and restrictive. There is a certain liberty in so far that the reader comes to the conclusion because of his or her own actions. Perhaps one might think of it as similar to “choose your own adventure” children novels; there is flexibility in the way the work progresses. However, there would exist no predetermined paths (which is a feature of choose your own adventure novels). Instead, there would be pure freedom in how the reader navigates the space. Perhaps, even, if a model were crafted on a large and grandiose level, no two readers could navigate the landscape in the same way. Fundamentally, though, the structure of the scholastic landscape should be open to allow the reader some ability to build scholarship around personal belief.

The second reason stems from the affective turn in theory. Drawing on Deleuze and Spinoza, a group of theorists have posited that the body is subject to affects that constitute the body’s being or ontology. Affects are external forces that impinge upon the body, thus altering it. A very popular trend in this group of theorists is to consider affect neurologically, arguing that there are unconscious neural factors that determine the way that we think. This conception is overtly limited, as it fails to capture the means by which sensation (touch, smell, sight, and so forth) and past experiences affect the body’s nature; it merely addresses how they are codified into our being. All these factors come to determine the way our thinking is categorized, in so far that these sensations enter into our worldview. Current scholarship fails to consider these aspects, instead focusing on the act of rational thought. What is crucial about the affective turn is that it demonstrates a disconnect in how the individual is currently thought of in relation to criticism: scholarship presumes that the individual is a wholly rational being that will accept universally agreed upon principles. Affect tells us that these universally agreed upon principles cannot exist, as being is not static across bodies. This causes individuals and/or cultures to perceive concepts differently than one another. Therefore, any model that imposes a structure or argument upon the individual forces the individual to conform to a predetermined conclusion, which goes against the true nature of the individual’s cognitive ego. The alternative to this is to create a model for engaging in criticism that mimics most the way the individual engages with the world around him or her in real life. This is apt as it better represents the way the individual functions and engages with the text and his or her thoughts, instead of an a posteriori act of criticism wherein the primacy of affect is rejected for purely rationalist and deliberative thought.

There is a clear and somewhat compelling counter-argument to this topographical model of scholarship, and that is persuasion. Yes, the narrative of the journal and the monograph is a singular voice that does not allow for dialogue within the confines of the text itself. However, that is not the point of this type of scholarly work. The storyteller is meant to either persuade and convince the reader of his or her point, or educate them about it. Given that scholarship is meant to be an inherently progressive system, building upon past findings in order to present new ones, it follows that the scholar’s argument does not exist a priori in the minds of his or her reader; it is not meant to echo or mimic the individual reader’s own affective experience, but is instead an extensive project; it extends outwards from the reader’s previous knowledge, or expands upon it in order to facilitate the growth of knowledge.

Furthermore, this progressive feature does allow – to some degree – for the plurality of voices that narrative scholarship has been criticized for lacking. Perhaps this scholar did not make this new discovery on his or her own. Perhaps the scholar comes to their conclusion through dialogue between a number of texts or arguments they researched. This is what citations are for; there exists a system for noting the intertextuality of a written work, and how texts speak to one another. Furthermore, this system is highly functional, in so far that if a scholar does not cite their work, they are deemed to be plagiarizing. Indeed they are doing just that, and the scholastic world is adamant in its reinforcement of the notion that the scholar’s article does not exist in solitude.

However a new model is still seen to be necessary in so far that scholars can fail to convince their reader of his or her argument if the logic – which affect tells is not universal – does not carry. A prime example of this might be Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. While a significant amount of scholars would argue this text is still relevant, the way Hobbes constructed his text is very much akin to the logical model aforementioned. His methodology is that “premise A leads to premise B, and if you agree with premise A then you cannot refute premise B.” The issue with Hobbes is that these early premises are now outdated Gallilean conceptions of movement that few would agree with today. With premise A disproven, it might follow that the rest of the argument loses its foundation and falls apart. Of course, people continue to read Hobbes, but it is not because of his logical model. Hobbes provides an example  of how logic can fail if its constituent premises become false. His work does not continue to be relevant because of logic.

Furthermore, there is the case that quite often, people will simply not disagree no matter how well something is argued. The fact that Shakespearean scholars continue to publish articles and arguments on  his work has less to do with the profundity of his writings than it does with the fact that, when it comes to scholarship, a text is pure potential. By potential, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, I am referring to the potential for a number of very diverse interpretations; it is like clay that has yet to be moulded. This goes against the idea that a text has a singular predetermined meaning that must be uncovered and revealed through academic labour. This notion is true only for rigidity empirical disciplines like the natural sciences; whenever the act of interpretation enters into the academic’s work, there is never absolute meaning, only subjective meaning (which may or may not be shared amongst other readers)  or contextual meaning (which is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the reading of the text, which can and do change).

Therefore, it is clear that the logical, linear narrative model that continues to dominate scholarship is not perfect by any stretch. Its functioning is contingent upon many factors on the part of the individual reader – namely agreement upon logic and an agreed upon idea of structural meaning. Furthermore, the linear model only captures the act of rational and logical thinking. There is no doubt that individuals do engage in sustained and logical thinking. However, one must not neglect the factors and moments that precede this act of rational thought, and that has a large bearing on the way we think. A topographical model may allow for the scholarly model to capture these immediate reactions that may be associated with affective thinking. In doing so, it may allow for an understanding as to how certain concepts or theories are built at the level below rational thought, combining and joining pre-rational kernels of thought and micro-perceptions into the chunked ideas that are the building blocks used in rational and sustained thought. Simply speaking, a topographical model has the capability of encapsulating a larger portion of the interpretive and epistemological process of scholarship than narrative, linear arguments. This is not to say that a topography inherently rejects the single strain of deliberative thought that writing an article or monograph builds upon. Rather, it better hosts the cognitive processes that precede such a practice, and questions as to if these cognitive processes are themselves relevant and can be an argument.

There is one paradox to the argument I am making, and that is the fact that I am using narrative to criticize narrative. It would follow from my argument that I instead create a topographical model wherein all aspects of the philosophy of scholarship are presented, allowing the reader to move throughout the landscape in accordance to their beliefs and visceral reactions. One reason is that the idea of not submitting a piece of writing that falls into the paradigm of narrative seems incredibly brazen and intimidating; writing the way I do feels safe and comfortable. This is, in fact, a crucial point as it suggests that many scholars would not feel comfortable partaking in this topographical scholarship. However, there  exists also methodological reasons for why I utilize narrative, and they are two fold; skill and time. First, it requires a great deal of finesse with computer programming to create such a model – a skill I do not have. The closest I could come would be to create a world that somehow echoed the ideas I am presenting. This would take a great deal of time, which is the second point. In so far that my argument calls for the creation of highly complex topographical landscapes, it would likely be far more time consuming than writing an article or monograph. It calls for immense research to ensure the breadth of the landscape, and then the act of crafting the landscape. These are two different skill sets, but that can easily be remedied by calling upon two different scholars. However, one has to question if the extra time and labour is truly worth the pay off when we quickly replace older arguments for new ones by reading newer books and articles (for the most part). The saving grace for the topographical premise is that, in so far that it truly represents the landscape of the topic of study, then the landscapes created will be inherently timeless.

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