VOICES (street logs): Theory

Theoretical Backgrounding–The Ideas That Have Shaped Our Project

(An Evolving Work in Progress)


Achievable Utopia

In Collective Intelligence, Pierre Levy proposes what he calls an achievable utopia.  “He asks us to imagine what would happen if the sharing of knowledge and the exercise of grassroots power becomes normative.  In Levy’s world, people from fundamentally different perspectives see a value in talking and listening to one another, and such deliberations form the basis for mutual respect and trust. The challenge is to create a context where people of different backgrounds actually talk and listen to one another” (Jenkins 246).


The twenty-first century “belongs to the collagist, for whom the creative act is not invention from scratch but rather the collecting, cutting and pasting of the already extant.” (from the cover of Collage Culture).  Collage culture, then, is the assembling and reassembling of things already in existence.  This I try to do with ideas and theory.  For there is an extra, palpable dimension that collage can create – a fundamentally new tone and reading that it can bring about (Kahn 14).   We are incessantly bombarded with information.  “Without our best attention, the mess can own us.  We own the mess when we consider it, like collages, from various distances, with our most thoughtful scrutiny, the kind we save for art” (Kahn 45).  Creative re-mix culture is the “hybridization of styles” (Rose 72).  This is what I seek to do.  William James’ description of the “highest order of minds” also beautifully articulates this concept.  James writes:  “Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rarefied abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard-of combination of elements… a seething caldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about, a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems the only law” (qtd. Johnson 106).

The Cut-Up Technique

  • The Cut-Up Technique. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique) “The cut-up technique is an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut-ups are used to offer a non-linear alternative to traditional reading and writing.  The concept can be traced to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s, but was popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs, and has since been used in a wide variety of contexts. The cut-up and the closely associated fold-in are the two main techniques:
    • Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text.
    • Fold-in is the technique of taking two sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), folding each sheet in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page.
  • The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin by William Burroughs, 1963. This is a cut and paste editing technique that allows writers, poets and artists alike to create collages of random thoughts. (http://a.parsons.edu/~geigd983/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/1673-The-CutUp-Method-of-Brion-Gysin.pdf).


Susan Sontag writes in Against Interpretation, “Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.  All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties (…) What is important now is to recover our senses.  We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (13-14).

The Ties Between Language, Theory and Action
Words are the concrete foundation of that which is meant to be spoken.  The assemblage of the written word in theory may embody subversive practices of open, courageous discussions, aiding in the creation of relevant counter-discourses (hooks 31).   The expressive voice of theory can incite radical change; the language of theory may be inextricably tied to action.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her work The Human Condition, wrote extensively on the primary link between knowing and doing, speech and action.  Arendt views the use of language as a qualitative tool that brings humans into existence as humans.  In silence we exist as mere scaffolding upon which others project themselves.  Mute, we lack the assertion of who we are, and remain, as such, unknowable.  It is through the use of language, written or verbalized, that we reveal ourselves to the world. Speech, as articulated by Arendt, is the very vessel by which we come into being. Acts of communication have strong, inseparable, ties to deeds.  Arendt postulates that speech, being the actualization of the human condition, is invaluable to the
human performance of action.  Without the accompaniment of speech action would lose all revelatory character (178).  Through the coupling of articulation and performance, individuals more fully reveal who they are, as they are.  Through these formulative collaborations, humans may dynamically unveil their unique personal identities, and construct their appearance – casting it into the physical world (179).

Language must precede exertion; it acts as the conduit through which meaning is attained.  Furthermore, “A life without speech and without action… is literally dead to the world,” Arendt writes (176).  We lack the insertion into the world that is necessary to begin being, when we fail to interact.  In silent stasis, we cease existing as separate individuals among collective individuals.  Arendt asserts that to come into being is never possible in isolation, that we are deprived from this capacity in solitude.  “Action and speech need the surrounding presence of others…  action and speech are surrounded by and in constant contact with the web of acts and the words of other[s]” (188).  Our interrelatedness, and our interaction, allows for us to exist as we are.

Speech and action work to establish relationships and as such have the expressed ability to counter-act limitations and “cut across boundaries” (190).   Together, the word and the act work to connect individuals to others.  Arendt writes: “Interests constitute, in the word’s most literal significance, something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together.  Most action and speech is concerned with this in-between… this in-between is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common. We call this reality the ‘web’ of human relationships, indicating by the metaphors its somewhat intangible quality” (182-3).
Revealing ourselves by engaging with others requires a form of bravery.  As Emerson writes:  “Inaction is cowardice” (6).  The connotations that surround courage, according to Arendt, are fundamental to human interrelatedness.  It is inherent in our willingness to act and speak at all – to insert ourselves into the world and “begin a story of one’s own” (186).  This force of will is present in the formulation of ideas as well.  However, the intellectual should not abide forever in state of contemplation.  Instead they should seek to engage in the realm of human affairs, and use the conceptual realm for that of  “guidance as standards and rules by which to measure” (Arendt 226).  Speech and action are the collective tools by which to participate. They are what constitute the creation of theory.

The term ‘action’ is descriptive of a myriad of expressions.  For Emerson, even “the preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action” (6).  The fundamental value of all expressive works, for Emerson “is that it is a resource…  The mind now thinks, now acts; and each fit reproduces the other…  Character is higher than intellect.  Thinking is the function.  Living is the functionary” (8).  Action and interaction enable us to command an illustrious language “by which it illustrate and embody our perceptions” (7).  Both theory itself and the practice of theory are invaluable actions, so defined.

In her article, Not by Degrees:  Feminist Theory and Education, Charlotte Bunch asserts that the formulation of, in this example, a solid theory enables us to “understand present events in a way that would enable us to develop visions and plans for change” (12).  Theoretical postulation is the platform from which to operate.  Theory should strive to be a process that is based upon insight, awareness, percipience, and essential activism.  It is not something meant to be set apart from our lives.  Rather, the theoretical is birthed out of the enmeshed intricacies of lived experience (13).  Through description, analysis, vision, and strategy, theoretical construction allows for the classification of how concealed elements of domination operate upon us, and how counter-discourses might be chosen to counteract these deceptive influences.  Often the theory itself is the counter-discourse: the radicalization of unnoticed reality, into defamiliarized representations.  In this way we see afresh.   Through the facet of theory, the individual can formulate their energies accordingly, “challenge the sources of our oppression effectively” (15).  The individual can understand and present what has previously gone unseen.

bell hooks, like Edward Said, trumpets the use of the theory, and active, intellectual pursuits, as a way with which to challenge the status quo (28).   hooks writes: “When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice” (29).  She distinguishes how theory and language are tied to the actions of lived experience; how subversive acts of counter-discourse aid the Othered intellectual in their pursuits.  “I have come to see that silence is an act of complicity (31),” hook observes.  As Emerson declares:  “We hear that we may speak” (5).

Standpoint Theory

Patricia Hill Collins, a leading feminist theorist, asserted the importance of positional stance, which she termed standpoint, to influence perception and experience.  A standpoint is a particular site of entry into the world that ultimately influences how the world is viewed and constructed socially.  A person’s particular standpoint, defined by how they are labeled within the larger language structure, impacts their angle of vision.  Collins writes:  “The overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives, situated knowledges, and for clearly identifiable subordinate groups, subjugated knowledges” (476).  For every category there exists a separate angle of vision, each distinctly different.  Further, no single group possesses a clear, all encompassing knowledge pertinent to all – however it is true that an unequal distribution of power and prestige, or status, is given to knowledges of certain groups.  Collins proposes that to counteract this ingrained social bias, and ensure that all partial perspectives are given voice, we must essentially engage in ‘pivoting the center’ (477).
Standpoint theory, as delineated by Collins, asserts the necessity that each group  speak from its own situated context and contribute their particular partial knowledge to the larger whole.  Centering upon the importance of open dialogue, an epistemology must be created that is more inclusive, and more relatively objective, than those knowledges which arise from only one standpoint; subjugated discourses must undermine the power granted to the master discourse.  Varied experiences, and the countless ways in which the world is understood, illuminate the multitude of frameworks in operation.  The aim of Standpoint theory is to actively avoid common impositions regarding the normative, through the sharing of language and thought particular to many groups.  Collectively, the constant shift in focus will give rise to a stronger and more complete outlook under which to effectively operate (477).
Compelled to the shifting perspective, the intellectual maintains a spirit of “Universality,” as labeled by Said (xiv).  Said’s Universality is fundamentally akin to Patricia Hill Collins’ Standpoint Theory, both emphasizing the need for the giving of voice to situated, subjugated knowledges, in order to counter-act the supreme dominance of the master discourse.  Both Said and Collins propose that inclusive theory only emerges by giving credence to the vantage point of those Othered.  Collins quotes the activist playwright Lorrain Hansberry, who observed:  “I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.  Universality, I think, emerges from the truthful identity of what is” (475).
According to Said, each intellectual is faced with certain concrete choices, and each must be aware that through the representation of a thing to the public they in fact are “representing themselves to themselves” (xv).   They exist, ideally, in a habitually reflexive state, their utterance cycling back around upon themselves, inducing a perpetual state of self-analysis.

Situated Meaning Principle

“The meaning of signs (words, actions, objects, artifacts, symbols, texts, etc.) are situated in embodied experience.  Meanings are not general or decontextualized.  Whatever generality meanings come to have is discovered bottom up via embodied experiences” (Gee 105).

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see them as we are”. – Anais Nin

Critical Thinking:  Living Life in the Margins

bell hooks writes in her introduction to Outlaw Culture:  “Merging critical thinking in everyday life with knowledge learned in books and through study has been the union of theory and practice that has informed my intellectual cultural work.  Passionately concerned with education for critical consciousness, I continually search for new ways to think, teach, and write that excite and liberate the mind, that passion to live and action in way that challenges systems of domination” 3).  Conventional pedagogy and its emphasis on specialization is limiting and deadening after a fashion.  Interdisciplinary work and thought, and combining theory and practice as a pedagogical strategy, is the panacea for thisStrive to live life as “a radical outsider, someone who only felt at home in the margins” (hooks 3).  hooks writes:  “I cross boundaries to take another look, to contest, to interrogate, and in some cases to recover and redeem” (5).

“Decolonizing our minds and imaginations, we learn to think differently, to see everything with “the new eyes” Malcolm X told us we needed if we were to enter the struggle as subjects and not objects…  Celebrating and affirming insurgent intellectual cultural practice is… an invitation to enter a space of changing thought, the open mind that is the heartbeat of the cultural revolution” (hooks 8).
The Probe, Hypothesize, Reprobe, Rethink Cycle

A  four-step process that is a hallmark of the reflective practice
1.  Probe the current environment and perhaps engaging in a specific action
2.  After probing, one forms some sort of hypothesis
3.  The environment is then reproped with that hypothesis in mind, to explore the effects
4.  This this effect is treated as feedback from the world and one must accept or rethink the original hypothesis
“Some consider this four-step process to be the basis of expert reflective practice in any complex semiotic domain.  But it also how children learn, even very young children, when they are not learning in school.  It is how children initially build their minds and learn their cultures”  (Gee 88).

All sound is inherently powerful and speech is a form of sound that shares this common power. Like other sounds, it comes from within a living organism and is quite difficult to ignore.  Moreover, speech takes many forms.  Both McLuhan and Ong document the apparent re-emergence, in the electronic age, of a kind of ‘secondary orality’ that displaces written words with audio/visual technologies like radio, TV and telephones. Unlike primary oral modes of communication, these technologies depend on print for their existence. Mass Internet collaborations like Wikipedia rely primarily on writing, but re-introduce relationships and responsiveness into the text.  However, in a truly oral culture the most reliable and trusted technique for learning is to share a close, empathetic, communal association with others who know. This hallmark principle of orality, that truth emerges best from communal process, continues to resonate today.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orality

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