An OPEN LETTER to Maestro R. Stuart Geiger, PhD (student):
I have recently received joint approval from the UC-Berkeley Committee on the Protection of Human Subjects and the Graduate Division for our Nemesis relationship.
This is a relief. It’s been a restless fortnight since our last Thirsty Thursday encounter, when you scandalized me with your ideological confessions. Naively, I came to the School of Information expecting a research utopia. But lo! Snakes in Eden!
I refer of course to the three pillars on which you declared your research to rest: positivism, postmodernism, and statism.
- “Positivism is a philosophical approach, theory, or system based on the view that in the social, as well as in the natural sciences, sense experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment are the exclusive source of all worthwhile information.” [W] [SEP]
- “Postmodernism is a philosophical movement away from the viewpoint of modernism. More specifically it is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problem of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. It involves the belief that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs, as they are subject to change inherent to time and place.” [W] [SEP]
- “Statism is a term usually describing a political philosophy, whether of the right or the left, that emphasises the role of the state in politics or supports the use of the state to achieve economic, military or social goals.” [W]
Could there be a more dastardly trifecta? Positivism, long the secret handshake of the hard sciences, sneaks its way into the social sciences to allow it to shirk responsibility for social norms. It’s redeeming quality is its devotion to methodological rigor, which you undercut with postmodernism! What’s left are bare facts to be consumed by self-legitimizing cliques of academic speculation. Statism all but follows, for what is the postmodern state but the amalgamation of institutions that uphold the status quo? Bare facts with no critical teeth are but raw data to be consumed by engines of instrumental rationality, fodder for power. History churns at a standstill, with you, Maestro, victoriously expert.
It is brilliant. You have won.
But what has been lost along the way? Shouldn’t we, with the opportunities afforded to us by UC Berkeley School of Information, aspire to more?
First, should our work not engage the passions? Should it not transcend “just the facts, ma’am” toward human potency? For this, our inquiry requires components forbidden by positivism. It must cross the Rubicon between the false dichotomy of facts and values. It must recite narratives and, when challenged, respond with legitimizing metanarrative. It must engage critically with itself until it achieves consciousness. We must go beyond the mere exposition of the facts of sensation (data) and its methodological corollary, the totalization of the library sciences through hegemonic abstraction.
Second, we should aspire to truth. Though this aspiration should go without saying in an enterprise of knowledge-production, as linked as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ are, it nevertheless meets with resistance. Operationally, what is at stake is the territorial waters within our archipelago of academic disciplines. Is it a neutral, placid trading zone, or is it a battlefield? In the first case, interdisciplinary work is merely eccentric, at best a form of seasteading wherein a few libertarians can smugly bear arms on a big boat. The alternative is that interdisciplinary work is cross-disciplinary invasion. With survival at stake, there is common ground for consensus and truth-discovery. The iSchool, situated as it is at the nexus of disciplinary information flows, is well suited for such discourse. We should strive for synthesis, not schizophrenia.
The first point is directed toward our individual research. The second toward our research community. The third aims at the world at large: our research should be radical, if not anarchist. The political reality of our time is the failure of the state and the use of information technology in its transformation. As a school, we ought to embrace the agenda of technical disruption of the state.
As these are issues of critical importance for the intellectual identity of the iSchool, I have no choice but to throw down the gauntlet. Maestro, I challenge you to a duel.
Or, rather, a series of debates, one on each of these topics. Time and place decided by eD. Judged by a self-selected panel of faculty and fellow students. Format to be determined.
I await your response.
Sebastian Benthall, PhD (student)