Sunday, October 29, 2006

Paris and Practice

Helmette is in France for a week visiting family and friends and Helmut is spending that time... working. All of a sudden, a kind of freedom. What do I do with it? Well, I did take a Venezuelan friend and one of my favorite grad students, two lovely and interesting women, to the Dolls show on Friday, but apart from that it has been work. I also ordered a pizza. One of my neighbors brought me some chocolate chip cookies. That was sweet. And I fell asleep very late last night in front of the TV; dancing in my head were dreams of new and exciting infomercial products and, I swear, someone talking earnestly about bodily "fecal matter backup" (I managed to open an eye - an excitable plastic man with some anti-fecal backup product to sell - my eye closed before I determined whether it was a pill or a spatula).

Apart from a work weekend of torture and globalization and developing a new seminar on ethics in management and leadership, my thoughts have wandered over to, well, Paris, and to a problem that constantly arises for a philosopher teaching at a public policy school: the moment of policy practice. There's a vague relation between these two disparate items. Bear with me, and I'll see if I can weave them together.

Paris: Paris is a big city, of course, but it's also very small. I don't mean this only in the sense that - like other European cities - it has a center from which the rest of the city radiates, turning the city into something more intimate, walkable, and experientially and historically rich than we usually know with American cities. I mean this also in a sense that a relatively unknown French photographer I like, Michel-Jean Dupierris, has a clever eye for: the tiny, passed-over worlds underlying the city. Paris is grand, yet infinitesimally complex. Dupierris, like other artists before him, notices the small and complex. He has the eye of an abstract expressionist.

In another, now-parenthetical lifetime, I, Helmut, was a painter (before going on to grad school and the career I have now). I even had shows and sold paintings, mostly in Paris. It was fun, and I met plenty of interesting people, but it was grueling in terms of making a living. As, I think, for any artist, you have to learn when to throw individual works away rather than keep at them tenaciously while their mediocrity grows in front of you. This is integral to building up a collection of work that you find to be good. I would tear up pieces that, it had become obvious, were going nowhere. Sometimes I had worked on them for days. One thing I noticed, however, was that the little worlds found in the shredded pieces were more interesting than the original painting I had made and decided to toss. I ended up keeping many of the pieces, as did Helmette (I find them sometimes being used as bookmarks or glued onto a page of her design journals). The odd thing is that I didn't really do them, at least not intentionally. I painted the larger works. The small pieces were accidental worlds. They wouldn't have existed without the larger work, but they were what they were, created only by my often-exasperated ripping and shredding.

At that time, I also knew a Japanese artist named Kozo (via my friend, the late Dominican monk Père Gilles Vallée, who created and managed the little Left Bank gallery, Galerie du Haut Pavé). Kozo became known for his interior designs and, in my view, not the best of his work. His best work was/is the little paintings and drawings he would make of the unnoticed features of nature, the smallest details, pieces of nature in their most austere simplicity. A bean, for example. A petal of a wild coquelicot. I first met him as he walked up from the Dordogne River to his medieval house. He had a fish, whose details he proceeded to rub with charcoal onto paper. Kozo and Père Vallée insisted - literally, religiously in Père Vallée's case - on the cosmic significance of the infinitesimal. I only figuratively bought the religious claim, but I think I did come to appreciate the small and passed-over, something perhaps shared especially with Kozo as he drew out an aesthetic I hadn't recognized in myself from living in Japan as a child: the aesthetic of restrained elegance found in objects not traditionally considered beautiful (for what it's worth, maybe some of my silly fruit photos reflect this).

Our eyes - perhaps especially American eyes - are accustomed to the grand and exciting and... exploding. They've forgotten Thoreau. In this sense, Dupierris's work is representative of Thoreauvian eyes, even if nature - as traditional "nature" - is not the subject. Dupierris builds or, rather, discovers a now-absent human history in his photos, a bit like Atget, retaining the mystery of the subject's potential use or past use. Use doesn't matter. That it was used does matter.

A world like that of Paris is comprised of infinite layers of use, misuse, detritus, and the little histories that lead to an object being here rather than there. Signs of something and of nothing. This is how I know Paris, and why Dupierris' work, for me, is a kind of vicarious experience of the city.

Practice, then: my background, as many of you know (despite the blog!), is in philosophy. I now teach graduate seminars in a public policy program. The seminars are generally viewed as some of the more philosophical that students will take in the program (although philosophers might see them as more policy-oriented than philosophical). Allowing for this line in graduate education is something I love about this particular university. It doesn't take a merely number-crunching approach to policy analysis. Nevertheless, some take to the philosophical dimensions of policy issues much more immediately than others. For those others, a common remark is that they don't see the practical import of more philosophical analysis (conceptual, normative, etc.). I think this is a common question encountered by "applied" philosophers. After years of teaching, I still really don't have a good answer. And I'm not sure I'm actually seeking one. I try to teach the intersection between philosophical reflection and practical policy issues as one of an ambiguous terrain of conflict, experimentation, self-examination, criticism, contingency, the importance of experience, moments of decision, and exploration of where the limits and limitations of human inquiry are located. This intersection is a fundamentally "problematized" one, especially when policy analysis and decision-making is necessarily a matter of collective action. Working through the intersection can stultify at the necessary moment of the policy decision, the time when one has to choose to do something rather than something else (or nothing). So why go through it at all?

My philosopher's answer runs along the lines of an epistemological claim - that theory and practice are always bound together, ought and is are always in conflict, normative and descriptive are never isolated from each other, policy instruments are always historically and epistemically contingent tools, past history and future goals and ideals are always reconstructing the present, that moment in which policy "practice" is commonly thought to take place. We are here, now, faced with this problem, with these tools to figure it out, they say. Yes, indeed. But why are we here rather than there, with this problem instead of that one, with these tools rather than others? This might seem an academic question or set of questions. But I really don't think so. Now, there's a book to be made out of these questions, and a lot of history of philosophy to draw upon. But a short response might be that the practical moment is always funded, in Dewey's sense of the term, with the detritus of things that have been used, misused, thrown away, taken on as habits of action, little histories that lead to us being here rather than there. Theory doesn't need to be viewed as grand systems theory, the view inherited from Kant and Hegel and Marx as "footnotes" to Plato. It can be viewed as any moment of generalization, when we have to make a general out of a collection of particulars, which we do constantly as human beings. "We have such exorbitant eyes," Emerson said, "on seeing the smallest arc, we complete the curve...." In this sense, when someone wants the particular and concrete and "practical" - just the facts, ma'am - it can be a great danger to forget that the moment of "practice" is anything but just the facts, ma'am.

There is no such thing as a neutral, innocent moment of practice, even when we turn our practices into a function of numbers and graphs and models, as in orthodox policy analysis. These are important, no doubt. But if, however, we understand the ambiguous intersection, the layers upon layers of wisdom and stupidity, the ways in which the future affects our decisions here and now, the ever-present conflict embedded potentially within nearly any decision, I think we can come to get something richer (wiser?) out of policy, philosophy, and experience.

All photos by Michel-Jean Dupierris. See his Le Monde blog here.


Peter said...

Here's a Dewey quote that's very à propos:

"Philosophy, like politics, literature and the plastic arts, is itself a phenomenon of human culture. Its connection with social history, with civilization, is intrinsic. There is current among those who philosophize the conviction that, while past thinkers have reflected in their systems the conditions and perplexities of their own day, present-day philosophy in general, and one's own philosophy in particular, is emancipated from the influence of that complex of institutions which forms a culture. Bacon, Descartes, Kant each though with fervor that he was founding it anew philosophy because he was placing it securely upon an exclusive intellectual basis, exclusive, that is, of everything but intellect. The movement of time has revealed the illusion. ... Philosophers are part of history, caught in its movement; creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past."

(Dewey, Philosophy and Civilization, 1931)

What do you think of this?

1) We cannot think wisely about policy without expressly considering matters of value. (And these are the traditional questions of philosophy.)
2) But Dewey is right that any philosophy emerges from a "civilization." Therefore ...
3) Wise thinking about policy requires deep reflection on the particularities of one's culture and history.

MT said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MT said...

Nice entry, and very interesting to learn you once were on track to art. (I made the fruit connection straight away.) Your point about photographic portraitists capturing subjects' personal histories made me wonder for the first time if that's partly what the superstition is about among the "primitives" and others who supposedly fear being photographed or at least object to photography. Then again, capturing just what's on a subject's mind at any instant seems to fit better to me with the talk of soul stealing. Anyway, since a viewer of the photo is doing at least as much projecting as inferring of your present mind and past, and so is liable to get you completely wrong, the offense is more like being mischaracterized in the newspaper or in a TV docudrama (false appropriation?). I might buy a used car based on a video portrait of the salesman, but not from a photo.

Why has the infinitesimal become so big? Cheap macros? I loved Microcosmos, and used to love scanning electron micrographs, but now I lean toward the Hubble Deep Field.

MT said...

So is this a reasonable capsule: It's good to learn theory partly just to know when you're using one, and to recognize an opportunity to evaluate it ad/or use another (to be a decent empiricist, you might say). I'd buy that.

helmut said...

I agree with both of you, Peter and MT. I tend to teach "theory" as a matter of degree rather than over and against practice somehow. Like a Deweyan, I like the notion that theory is a practice. What I take this to mean is that, on one hand, 1) as with all practice, it is therefore a response from within a given context or "civilization." And, on the other hand, 2) that any description, interpretation, and analysis of policy or even simply lived elements of experience is theory-laden.

I think this can be made clearer via the pragmatic continuum of ends and means as applied to action. That is, ends articulated from within practices are subject to various evolving contingencies of those practices, while the practices themselves don't take on any meaning unless they're informed by these ends. So, in a sense, we're always trying to figure out what (and why) we're doing while we're doing it. Put another way, policy analysis appeals to notions of one direction being better than another, judged from the position of given articulated ends, whose justification is sought in policy outcomes.

Policy choices that we have, institutions, policy-making instruments, etc. are all the result of previous policy deliberations. As we work through which of these no longer yield reasonable outcomes, we develop new instruments while articulating new goals. Those goals are, even in their minutiae, theoretical constructs.

I'm tempted to say that even going to a restaurant (prompted by the fact that I'm hungry, then that I then need some cash, where are my car keys? etc.), is a process that takes place largely in a kind of imaginary "small-t theorizing" about the future based on cumulative results of past experience. All this occurs before I ever get to the restaurant. It's imaginary until that outcome. And this kind of process makes up our entire waking life. If the analogy holds by degree, there are very good empirical, practical reasons for engaging in theoretical analysis as an integral part of policy deliberation.

Anonymous said...

Policy choices that we have, institutions, policy-making instruments, etc. are all the result of previous policy deliberations. As we work through which of these no longer yield reasonable outcomes, we develop new instruments while articulating new goals. Those goals are, even in their minutiae, theoretical constructs.

I am thinking out a blog post that will use something like this idea, but probably won't use such philosophical words. With any luck, I will be able to post it before the end of the week.


MT said...

With any luck, I will be able to post it before the end of the week.

Perfect example.

MT said...

Speaking of self-reference, I heard someone on the radio today talk about orders to make wheel-chair friendly the San Francisco public schools, even though many of them sprawl up and down steep hillsides and are composed of several levels. Without a trace of irony he characterized the remodeling challenge as "staggering."

barba de chiva said...

I'm a bit of a Yogi Berranian, myself: "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

helmut said...

Damn, San Francisco would seem to be better off if it just made a complex system of elevators and escalators. I mean, we can do the elevator to space, right?

The Berranian view, I think, assumes theory in a certain way. Like Derridean deconstruction or Rawlsian constructivism or Just War Theory. These are the big theories academics like to discuss and the practice-oriented type thinks is so much rigamarole.

I'm trying to say that theory and practice are inseparable in the sense of that going to the restaurant example above. In fact, we pretty much all share a theory of restaurants in this sense. Pretty banal notion of theory, I know, but I have a hard time distinguishing between this kind of everyday theorizing that comprises our lives and the Big Theory. I think they're more like matters of degree and sophistication regarding how much they purport to explain. But, generally, practice that would be somehow separated from any kind of theory would be completely directionless. Even Yogi Berra would have to admit this about the game of baseball.

barba de chiva said...

Actually, I was with you from the start. I'm just one of those guys who likes to throw in a Yogi Berra quote now and again. I know, it's tiresome.

helmut said...

No. I had to go and take it too literally. I love Yogi Berraisms.