July 12, 2003

Lisa Ruddick's "The Flight From Knowing"

Like several other academics posting blogs, I found this article deeply affecting in many ways. (The thread at Invisible Adjunct reminded me of the Ruddick article, which I recalled having read excitedly when it was first published in the Chronicle.)

Ruddick absolutely crystallizes my own state of mind.

Her article clarified my own struggles with my second book perfectly, both when I was working on the project some in 2001 and again now, as I wrestle with the hardest two chapters of the book. Ruddick helped me to understand what it is that I’m trying to accomplish with it. What started as a fairly straightforward comparative life history of three Zimbabwean chiefs, with an interest in the theoretical status of the concept of agency, has metamorphosized into a mediation on why academic African history, like most scholarly fields, generally has lost a sense of contact with an evocative sense of what it means to be human and a commonsensical engagement with society and culture in those terms.

The book as I am trying to write it is about trying to tell stories that I find compelling, to witness the things I think need witnessing, to tell the truth as I see it, to make sense of a history that is often very remote to my own life and background, to explain the questions and issues that need explaining, to connect with other human individuals and the human spirit as a whole. It's not, I hope, about the next moves on some giant chessboard where the game being played is theoretical one-upmanship of the kinds of futilitarian, despairing, sterile positions that postcolonial theory makes so readily available and inescapable in my own field.

I always go back to a moment in graduate school that my friends from those days remember very well, when one person in our program who was the ne plus ultra postmodern theorist of our cohort shoved me into a room and told me not to talk about any of the key French poststructuralists because I hadn’t read their entire corpus of their work. I was, well, is what I’ve said about them wrong, in your judgement? No, just not sufficiently knowledgeable, because if one is more knowledgeable, there really is no basis for rejecting any of their insights, as I was struggling to do.

That was the tyranny of theory crystallized to one magic moment, made all the more peculiar coming from a fervent anti-foundationalist who was dedicated to equally fervant anti-foundationalists. How could a dedicated Derridean possibly claim that a comprehensive knowledge of the canon was required even to speak? That was the kind of practice made omnipresent by graduate students and their teachers, and by the general intellectual sociology and institutional practice of academic life. The haunting sense that one did not know enough to speak, that one did not possess all the theory necessary to “ground” the more homely details of one’s research.

That was where the joy and the passion of inquiry started leaking out of me like air from a balloon, where it somehow became shameful to say that I had been drawn to African history simply because it seemed interesting, because its intellectual challenge was substantial, because there were real things worth knowing in it that did not seem to me to be generally known.

That is where what Ruddick calls “questions of conscience” started dissolving into questions about what the proper theoretical position was, something one determined by mapping all the positionalities and reading all the professional tea leaves, not by an understanding of how any particular theory actually helped the struggle to understand and speak. Indeed, for some theorists, the point was to complicate and render speechless all possible positions, to render the academic enterprise simultaneously impossible, invalid and indispensible all at once.

It has taken me a long time to struggle through all of this in my book, in relatively plain-spoken language, and the way this summer is going, it’s going to be a while longer before I finish. But Ruddick’s article—and the blog discussions that recall it this week—help a lot.