Say Swiss Cheese!

I’ve been a bit busy lately, now working as a researcher in a project. It’s not exactly what I do in my own research, but when it comes theory, it’s still within my reach and pushes me to use it in different context, as well as to expand my reading into areas where others tend to make use of the same authors I happen to read, namely Foucault. I ended up reading Lilie Chouliaraki’s book ‘Spectatorship of Suffering’, which led me to Bent Flyvbjerg’s book ‘Making Social Science Matter’. That led me to read a bit by Michel Foucault. I also ended up reading Gerard Delanty’s book ‘Modernity and Postmodernity: Knowledge, Power and the Self’ as some of the terms used by Chouliaraki reminded me of Immanuel Kant’s work when it comes to aesthetics. Anyway, I intentionally used the word theory there in the second sentence, because I wanted to write about theory. When I was writing an essay on ocularcentrism, privileging vision over other senses, I remember reading Jacques Derrida mentioning the origin of the word theory, which, to be honest, I had never even thought of before that, not in English, not in Finnish, not in any language. I’m unsure if this is it, but I was able to trace this to the notes section of ‘Writing and Difference’, where it is noted (398) that Derrida points to the origin of the word, “from theorein: to look at, behold”. This was not of particular interest at that point, beyond the marvel that what is known as theory, this abstract cut from the world in your head contemplation, has to do with seeing, as it is indicated in a dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, s.v. “theory”, n.):

“[A]ncient Greek θεωρία action of viewing, contemplation, sight, spectacle, in Hellenistic Greek also speculation, theory”

It’s fascinating how what tends to be considered as abstract thinking actually has to do with something as mundane and practical as seeing. Anyway, that’s actually just a side note to theory as this probably matters not to most people. Instead, as I was reading Flyvbjerg’s book, more specifically the chapter on Aristotle and Foucault, aptly titled ‘Empowering Aristotle’, I started thinking something I came across a while ago, something I had read already in the past. That happened to be an interview that took place in 1972, translated into English as a transcript under the title ‘Intellectuals and Power’. In that interview Foucault and Gilles Deleuze discuss the role of an intellectual, as the title already suggests. Here I’m not as interested in the role of the intellectual, but what they mean by theory. It’s of course tied to the role of the intellectual, but that’s not the main point here. I covered that aspect more in my previous essay, so I won’t be addressing it much here. Anyway, early in the interview Deleuze (205) states:

“At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence; at other times, it had an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms.”

So, in other words, theory is generally thought to be separate yet linked to practice. There’s nothing particularly controversial here. Anyway, Deleuze (205) continues:

“In any event, their relationship was understood in terms of a process of totalization.”

Again, in other words, there was always this grand scheme of things, coming up with a better, clearer or accurate understanding of something. One would either apply theory and attempt to make it better, if not both. Deleuze (205), who also seems to be speaking on behalf of Foucault, counters this:

“For us, however, the question is seen in a different light. The relationship between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary.”

In other words, Deleuze does not hold theory to be a totality, as he already mentioned. He (205-206) continues:

“On one side, a theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another sphere, more or less distant from it. The relationship which holds in the application of a theory is never one of resemblance.”

Moving on to practice then, he (206) comments:

“Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.”

Together then, he (206) argues while commenting the role of the intellectual in society:

“Who speaks and acts? It is always a multiplicity, even within the person who speaks and acts. All of us are ‘groupuscules’. Representation no longer exists; there’s only action – theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks.”

Okay, that might not work for you. Deleuze is not exactly easy to come to terms with unless you are familiar with his parlance. Foucault (208) is far more clear on this:

“[T]heory does not express, translate, or serve to apply practice: it is practice. … [I]t is local and regional, as you said, and not totalizing.”

So, in summary, we can’t think of this as either or, as theory vs. practice. Deleuze (208) responds to Foucault:

“Precisely. A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself.”

In other words, theory is practical and in reverse, practice is theoretical. To clarify one bit here, it’s unlike signifier because, as Deleuze holds it, signifier never actually refers to any signified but another signifier in a never ending chain of signification. I actually think it’s highly comical to think otherwise. You can’t have one without the other. It makes me wonder if there is a reason to ever consider something as either theoretical or practical. Say, if I theoretize something and make up an example for it, is that not practical? Am I not doing it right now? I reckon I am, theoritizing, thinking out loud, except on paper, or so to speak, not that this involves speaking or paper, but I take it you know what I mean. Is it only practical when it is manifested in the real world, or, well, supposed real world. What is real? Isn’t this part of what is real? How would this be unreal? Here I am, writing, pondering, contemplating, whatever you want to call it, but is this not me pressing buttons on a keyboard? Am I not doing something which is actually meshed in practice? Conversely, if I do something, something that is typically deemed practical, very hands on if you will, say, shoot a puck at a local rink, is it only practical? I’ve never been super good at it and as a kid I’d always wrist it instead, not that I was that good at that either. I actually was more of a playmaker, setting others for the shots. Anyway, as an adult I can do it alright, having practiced it enough. Fair enough, you could just point out that it’s all about the physics involved. Indeed it is, but I never took up a physics textbook or watched a related documentary and then went to apply the theory at the rink. I tried different things, different swings, stepped in differently, leaned on to it differently, had my hands positioned differently etc. You name it, I did it. By doing that, all that in practice, did I not engage in theoretizing? Did I not gradually get the gist of it, how to use my body in it effectively? For me, learning to do it was not some mental armchair exercise, pondering how it should work, then simply applying that to great satisfaction and achievement. I came up with a theory by doing something, constructing it on the basis of various experiences. I didn’t have a flawed understanding of physics that simply needed application and certain fine tuning according to its application. I figured out how to make use of my body, on the spot. Of course, it’s not that I don’t know how to make use of my body and all things involved, namely the ice, a stick and a puck. You could say that I already had theoreticized something, but that’s sort of the point. It’s all very localized, knowing something, at least sort of, and making use of it and extending it elsewhere. It’s also the other way around, doing something practical, which pushes your theory of this or that into certain directions. It’s the same with walking. I don’t need a grand theory of walking, explaining all the bits that go into it in order to walk and have an understanding how that is. It’s the same the other way around, I don’t need to do all kinds of set up experiments related to everything that bears relevance to walking in order to come up with a grand theory explaining it, as well as other things. So, as Deleuze (205-206) points out, theory is always local, applicable in a limited sense, not something grand, all encompassing and universally applicable. So, right, reiterating what Foucault (208) states, theory is practice. This is also the point Deleuze (208) makes in reference to Marcel Proust who he characterizes as someone known as a “pure intellectual”:

“[I]t was Proust … who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair[.]”

Deleuze (208) is very adamant on this, noting that theory is worthless if it isn’t functional, if it doesn’t bear relevance outside itself, as already noted in an earlier quote. Also, returning to an earlier point made by Foucault (208), theory “does not express, translate, or serve to apply practice” because it is practice. In other words, it’s instrumental, as explained by Deleuze (208):

“A theory does not totalize; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself.”

What it is opposed to then, Deleuze (208) adds, in reference to Foucault:

“It is in the nature of power to totalize and it is your position, and one I fully agree with, that theory is by nature opposed to power. As soon as a theory is enmeshed in a particular point, we realize that it will never possess the slightest practical importance unless it can erupt in a totally different area.”

Of course, it’s worth noting that Foucault and Deleuze are discussing much more pressing matters than I am, explaining this with my silly examples. I acknowledge that it’s a bit silly to explain shooting a puck, something I do for leisure, when they are discussing how state institutions apply totalized theories on individuals. The point on totalizing applies nonetheless. As their discussion on prison reform bleeds into other institutions, namely those of the education system, something that I also research, it’s worth letting them further explain it. The crux in this discussion is that theory is generally seen as totalized and applied top-down. Reforming it is seen as beside the point, tinkering with something, not really addressing the issue, experts talking on behalf of others, regardless of whether the people wish to be represented by experts. Deleuze (209) states:

“If the protests of children were heard in kindergarten, if their questions were attended to, it would be enough to explode the entire educational system.”

Now, it’s worth noting that this is from the early 1970s and in reference to French educational system. So there’s that and you have to take it into account. I really can’t comment on how it was back then, nor how it is these days. That said, the discussion is still relevant as it deals with the role of intellectuals, or experts, and whether the people that go through the system should or shouldn’t have a say in how it functions. This then bears relevance to theory. There is a theory of education, how people ought to be educated. This is then applied in the educational system. When it comes to reform, it’s a mere revision of an existing theory, as indicated by Deleuze (208). It ignores those involved and bears little relevance to practice. Those who know better know better because they know better.

Foucault’s and Deleuze’s views on theory should now be quite evident. In summary, they oppose totalized and universalized theory that exists by itself, not to mention for itself, to be subsequently applied in practice. Moreover, they oppose such view on theory not only because theory is seen as distinct from practice, but because it elevates the intellectual, the expert, the one who theorizes, above others, telling how it is on their behalf. Foucault (207-208) actually points out that the intellectuals should be aware of their position, how they can be made use of by others. This is something that I came across in Flyvbjerg’s (128) ‘Making Social Science Matter’ and led me to read Foucault’s ‘Politics and Ethics: An Interview’. In this interview, itself actually a compilation of question posed by a number of other authors, Foucault (373-374) points out that anything can be used for whatever purposes, including purposes that are in contradiction of the original purposes:

“[T]he ‘best’ theories do not constitute a very effective protection against disastrous political choices; certain great themes such as ‘humanism’ can be used to any end whatever[.]”

Now, Foucault is not saying that just because anything can be spun into something, even to its polar opposite, that theory doesn’t matter, whatever, chuck it, can’t be bothered or the like. He (374) is actually very clear on that. He (374) is hardly against theory. He’s (374) rather concerned about coming up with great theories that do seem to work on paper but then fail in practice. He (374) points out that theory requires “a demanding, prudent, ‘experimental’ attitude” and being aware of how thinking and saying are linked to doing. He (374) clarifies his view:

“If I have insisted on all this ‘practice,’ it has not been in order to ‘apply’ ideas, but in order to put them to the test and modify them.”

So, as Deleuze (206) puts it in the interview with Foucault, “[p]ractice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another” and theory can’t develop without having practice poke holes in it. I have experienced this for sure in my own research. For example, I had certain preconceptions in the initial stages of data gathering, but as I working in the field, practice poked so many holes into my theory that it ended up being Swiss cheese. That meant I had to go back to the drawing board, adjust accordingly and come up with something new instead. To use a more concrete example, I just wasn’t happy with annotating my data as authored by this or that participant. It just made little sense when it was evident that, for example, a poster on a wall was designed by some external entity, such as a company that is in the business of making teaching materials, yet that entity is not responsible for it being issued on that wall. They don’t have that kind of control. Now, someone could point out that the designer is irrelevant, only the issuer matters. Fair enough, it sort of makes sense, yet, it seems obvious to me that if you let others create content for you, that you just make use of, then you are yielding control of its contents to someone else. Of course, you are still in control of what gets issued, but by not doing the materials yourself you are forced to select from a finite number of options. Plus, one way or another you grant influence to others. As a result, I had to modify the agency category in my own research, splitting it to designer and issuer. I also included an audience category in order to address the intended audience. Of course, of course that did not go well down in review, because I did something that was unorthodox in theory, despite being blatantly obvious in practice. Fair enough, some of it needed some rewording, there’s that, as well as exemplifying it. Then again, did I really need photographic evidence to support my claim? Absolutely not. For me, this strikes at the core of this theory vs. practice hubbub. If I can explain here, for example, that, as in the poster example that I just provided, whoever designed or created something is not necessarily the same person or entity responsible for its placement somewhere, why is it that I need to provide further evidence of it? This thought process, as actualized by me by poking at pieces of plastic on a plastic board, how is it not sufficient? How is it outside practice? I reckon it’s very much of this world, as I pointed out earlier on. There’s nothing unreal to it. If I can pose this as a practical problem, without any evidence beyond what is posed, in writing, how is it not valid? Is the parallel that I then drew between Derrida’s example of postcard, as discussed in ‘The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond’ and ‘Limited Inc.’, necessary? No, it is not, no offense to Derrida. I just happened to stumble across the same issue as he did when he pointed out that anyone can write anything and have someone else put their signature on it as if they had written it. The same with the audience. A postcard is addressed to someone, but it can be potentially read by anyone. These features are hardly limited to postcards though, not that Derrida stated that these are exclusively related to them. That’d be hilarious if he did. This applies also here. These essays could nominally be under my name, yet created by someone else. There’s no way to actually prove that it’s me who wrote these, no matter that the system requires a personal login. Someone could be using my credentials. How would you know? You wouldn’t, simple as that. This could be extended to the teleportation issue. If someone is teleported from one place to another, hypothetically that is, is that person still the same person or a copy of the person who no longer exists, a simulacrum? I reckon it makes no difference really, even if it sort of does. The clone or supposed clone isn’t aware of being a simulacrum, in this case an exact copy of something without an origin to point to. That’s probably too hypothetical, but really, it’s the same question you could ask yourself when you wake up in the morning. You wouldn’t know the difference, clone or no clone, so you don’t ask such questions. Okay, fair enough, getting back on track here, I have no intent to deceive, nor that I would want others meddling with what I do for that matter, so you have my word that it’s me, unless stated otherwise. When it comes to audience then, well, I reckon this is intended for people interested in, erm, in landscapes and discourse, yet as far as I know it can be read by anyone and that’s how I like it. No closed doors, no excuses for as to why it should be accessible only to supposed intellectuals or experts, as regulated by them in conformity to some established standardized practices that are held as valid despite their arbitrariness. If someone finds what I write useful, well, like with Proust, as explained by Deleuze (208), good, if not, too bad, find something else to read then. Maybe no one reads this. It doesn’t matter to me really, one way or another. This is all very practical to me, despite seeming all super theoretical and esoteric to others.

I’ve been called ‘the theory guy’ and the like because I keep engaging with it, writing about it and spending time explaining it in presentations, probably to an extent people are overwhelmed by it. Now, for me, on the contrary, I often find presentations and papers by others underwhelming in this regard. I keep thinking to myself, what’s the premise to this, where’s the theory? Why is it that we are skipping the bits that explain why this is relevant? Why is it that we are jumping to explaining the applied methods without first explaining what it is that this is grounded upon? Am I just supposed to know what the theoretical foundation is without any explanation? In the terms used by Deleuze and Guattari (7) in ‘What Is Philosophy?’, what is the field or the plane that all this is based on? I guess this sets me apart from others or I guess I should say many others as it’s unlikely that I’m the only one thinking this way, even if that’s only a handful of other people. I don’t work with a given or axiomatic premise, assuming that there are universals. That’s not to say that I think that there aren’t any historical givens, certain premises that are held as true, but that’s not the same thing, at all. Universals and givens are handy in the sense that you can always refer back to them for support, to state that you are right about this or that because … you are, but I just find that to be a cop out. It may well be that there are universals, that some things are as they are, constant, forever and always and not just approximately so, fair enough, but at least I can’t verify them as such and I reckon others can’t either. Okay, maybe the premise is not as important when one is dealing with something that isn’t fixed in place, that is to say it having less to do with whatever is examined, so the examination holds well if it’s this or that premise. However, as my own research has everything to do with space and more broadly speaking reality, it’s kind of hard to ignore the issue as some theoretical trifle. It seems a bit dishonest not to address how everything fits in place to begin with when that’s central in what you engage with. Of course, if you are a universalist or an objectivist (feel free to come up with other monikers) then you obviously don’t even feel like addressing this as stating that there is a premise to be stated already puts that premise into question, considering that it’s you who is positing it. At least I think it would make sense to simply ignore it, not that it works for me though. I can only state that something appears to be the case, which may well be the case, but I cannot know for sure as that’s beyond me.

When it comes to theory, I keep getting asked why you bring this or that up? For example, I’ve been asked why I bring up the importance of calculus for Deleuze. Now, I’m not blaming anyone. It must seem a bit of a stretch to bring it up. However, if you’ve read Deleuze, it’s more or less the example of examples for him when it comes to explaining how reality functions. I usually start with explaining the noumena/phenomena as explained by Kant, then shift from that to the virtual/actual as explained by Deleuze because while the two are not the same, I think understanding how Deleuze defines real as virtual/actual is easier to comprehend if you can comprehend how Kant works with the noumena/phenomena as that’s still very thingified, considering that he speaks of the thing-in-itself. Deleuze goes one step further, so what he would speak of as the noumena, the virtual, is not how something is beyond our observation and understanding of it. That’s already assuming that the phenomenal, how we observe whatever it is as something is actually a distinct entity, this or that. For example, as we observe the phenomenon of a rock, the noumenon, the thing-in-itself, whatever it is, with or without a label, is unknowable. It may well be that it is what it is, say a rock, but we can’t be sure. Now, regardless of whether we are sure or not, we are speaking of what we don’t know as some distinct entity. When it comes to Deleuze then, this is not at all clear. He is keen on addressing how what comes to appear to us as a distinct entity comes to appear as such. In other words, he’s interested in how something is actualized as this or that, not whether it is this or that. Perhaps I’m being unkind to Kant. It’s hard to say whether he is stating that whatever we perceive as something is actually a distinct entity or not, because we can’t know for sure just based on the appearance of it.

Speaking of things, it’s probably because I’ve read Kenneth Olwig’s work on landscapes where this is brought up, albeit in a different context, but the word itself warrants further attention. In contemporary parlance it generally has to with what a dictionary (OED, s.v. “thing”, n.1) refers to as “[a]n entity of any kind”, existing individually. However, the word (OED, s.v. “thing”, n.1) is also indicated as meaning “[a] meeting, or the matter or business considered by it, and derived by senses.” A meeting then (OED, s.v. “meeting”, n.) is defined as “relating to the gathering together of people”. For me, this already undercuts thing as something (haha, it’s so hard not to use that word) objectively so. Instead, to me, it appears that what we call a thing, typically with some label, for example a rock, a chair or a table (feel free to add your thing of preference), is because we’ve agreed to do so, not because it objectively is so. This then reminds me of Foucault’s (49) definition of discourse in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language’ as pertaining to “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.” It’s actually a bit ironic that we don’t think of things as having been agreed upon, for example in some meeting, despite it being indicated as such in its etymology.

Anyway, to wrap things up, this essay is just on something that I came across doing other things. It might explain to people why I focus so much on theory and not on practice. It’s because for me they are not at all neat and discrete entities to be held apart from one another. They typically are considered separate from one another, but that’s not how I roll and I fear you are missing the point if you cannot connect the dots, see how theory is necessary in practice and how practice is necessary in theory. For me, it’s all very real and whatever I can put into words are of this world, including made up mock examples. I’m very amused when people go for arguments such as pics or it didn’t happen and/or please cite some titan of science to back this up, otherwise this is merely abstract and theoretical. Moreover, it’s worth emphasizing that I don’t want to hold theory in some grand position, stating that this is how it is, for sure, and this is how it must be. I cringe when people make universalist or humanist appeals, even when it is done (supposedly) for good purpose. Why? Well, as discussed by Foucault (373-374) in ‘Politics and Ethics: An Interview’, it doesn’t take much ingenuity to hijack such appeals and use them against people.


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