An Apologia (Letter to My Detractors)

Dear Detractors,

This post is addressed to the speakers and audience at a plenary session at this year’s ASTR (American Society for Theater Research) conference, and everyone who heard about it at the time, and everyone who heard about it later, I don’t actually expect any of them to read it, but that doesn’t much matter.

The plenary speakers were two early-career scholars (or maybe one was a graduate student); the audience was rather small, maybe 50-60 people, almost all also early-career scholars or grad students—a fact which I found disconcerting. The two papers seemed to me to be quite good, but I felt there was a significant problem for both of them, and I decided to say as much. Had I been a bit smarter I would have raised my concern as a question, or maybe just shrugged and moved on, but no such luck. I said four things:

  • I’m an older white man, who works in theater studies and social theory.
  • I thought the papers were both quite good.
  • However, performance per se was rather secondary or marginal. Discussing meanings, symbolism and representation is not the same as discussing performance.
  • However, against #3, the papers could have a home, just not here. The two scholars needed to “go big,” as I put it.

These statements were taken as extremely out of line and as in some way blind to the material on performance in them, attacking the papers’ quality and the speakers themselves, and striving to push them out of the field.  Unfortunately I am not very articulate in extemporary contexts (or most social contexts, actually), so I expressed my concerns quite poorly (the third item particular put everyone on the defensive), and with far too much abbreviation because I secretly believe in telepathy.  I ended up appearing as The Face of Oppressive and Narrow-minded Elder Scholars and whatever other horrible things, and word spread quickly.  (The road to hell, and all that.)  It probably didn’t help matters that both speakers were young women.  I did manage to extend a personal apology to each of them, because I had indeed been patronizing and assumed they weren’t already doing what I hoped they would do (one of the two in fact had taken at least one and maybe more steps in that direction), plus to some extent I came bearing a fair amount of disciplinary history and inappropriately projected it onto them; hence also my clarification/self-defense here, intended for the broader community.

Obviously the first two items aren’t controversial.  However, I still think the articles weren’t particularly on performance: they were articles that (to differing degrees) used performance and other approaches to interpret cultural developments or as component subjects and therefore would fit better elsewhere, most likely cultural studies or some cognate discipline.  As the speakers delivered their papers, I looked around the room, its sea of young faces, and thought, How many here have twenty years of experience doing archival work?  Twenty years soaked in the history of New York City or Cleveland?  Twenty years in cultural studies?  Twenty years of arguments on historiography?  Who can support the speakers by giving deeply informed comments?  In an audience this small?  Five?  Two?  Most likely none, which seemed borne out by the questions they were actually asked.  Although the papers seemed quite good to me, I certainly don’t have all the expertise to say they actually were good, and it didn’t seem like anyone else did either.

I’ve been an outside reader for journal articles often enough to know that one of the questions they’re usually supposed to answer is whether the article is a good fit for the journal.  I don’t know whether other readers actually discuss the issue, but I certainly do.  An article on Restoration theater architecture probably won’t fly in Modern Drama.  (It’s conceivable, but a stretch.)  At least once and maybe twice I’ve recommended rejecting an article not because I thought it was bad, but because it was submitted to the wrong journal and consequently wasn’t going to get its best readers.  Given a journal’s limited space, sometimes readers have to make these judgment calls.  The same goes for book publishers: the University of Michigan Press is good for some topics, Routledge for others, and so forth—and if you talk with their editors they’ll tell you so (in fact they often want proposals to explain why they’re the best publisher).

Theater and performance studies people like to be warm and welcoming, which is nice, but unfortunately it hasn’t done much to promote intellectual rigor—performance studies in particular has turned tended to be an amorphous home for “interesting stuff” because there’s no real theory of what performance is.  Sorry, but that’s the reality, and the progressive exit of major senior scholars is telling.  I’ve even overheard grad students grumbling about it.  I’ve attended way too many presentations with inept social analysis and grade-school anthropology that would be laughed off the podium at their respective conferences but get a round of applause from us because we’re warm and welcoming people who fortunately know squat about the other fields.  On top of that, we’re a minuscule field that tends toward parochialism.

Importantly, the two presentations did not seem like scholarly slop, hence my desire to speak up.  But if scholars want to do interdisciplinary work, they need to get out—get out, that is, of our parochial corner and into the (probably) larger field that knows a whole lot about what you’re discussing and possesses the expertise to comment on work that isn’t specifically on performance but rather uses performance as one approach to larger topic.  Even better, you should show how powerfully the performance approach can inform their understanding of topics in that field.  The greatest compliment I’ve received in my entire scholarly life came from a professor of sociology and social theory (my “other” field), who in effect said, “Damn, you theater scholars are smart!”  Why the hell would you not strive for such a compliment?  And if you want it, where the fuck do you think you’re going to get it—from other theater and performance scholars?  In other words, as I put it (too elliptically) at the conference, “go BIG.”  That doesn’t mean (as apparently some people thought, including the speakers) “Go away, I don’t want you here.”  Hell no.  Like parents pushing the kid out of the nest, they (hopefully) don’t mean “Get lost, we never want to see you again,” they (hopefully) mean “We love you and we want you to become the best at whatever it is.”  And I’ll add, “Please come back whenever you have things to say specifically focused on our interests and expertise!”  You get very limited funds to attend conferences, so why the hell waste it on people who can provide warm and fuzzy applause for your interdisciplinary work but no real help?  An audience of 10 people who have the expertise to help you is worth 100 who don’t.  It’s fine to feel that you’re not ready yet—but in the case of the two speakers’ papers, my sense was that they were already or are close to being able to head into the Big Leagues, and I wanted them to give it a shot.  These two papers were not built for the ASTR audience, they were built for a different audience, whatever the authors and audience imagined.  Conversely, if you just want to get the warm and fuzzies for a bit longer by presenting ill-suited papers at ASTR, you certainly have that right—but don’t for a moment assume everyone in the audience will be thrilled.  Certainly not me, I’m both intellectually honest enough and stupid enough that I might accidentally tell you what I think.  (Nicely, if I can, but I had to construct my scant social graces through careful observation and they aren’t reliable. If you want to avoid me, just present really, really bad papers and I’ll give up on you.)

“But Tobin,” you might ask, “who’s to judge whether something’s sufficiently on performance or not?”  Pffttt, push comes to shove, that’s dead easy.  It’s certainly not me, I’ve never had a tenure-track position giving me power over anyone, my only powers are to comment and to be an asshole (independent scholarship means never having to be cordial to get tenure).  It’s not most of the professors either.  In fact it might be people who never participate in conferences at all.  It’s editors.  Book and journal editors.  Focus, people!  The law of the academic jungle isn’t “Present papers or perish,” it’s “Publish or perish.”  Presenting papers is merely a way to sharpen your articles.  Remember what I said about outside readers screening articles for their suitability to the journal?  Well, we’re only the second pass: the first pass goes to the editor.  The editor has only limited space and they’re committed to serving the journal’s/book publisher’s mission and intended audience (within which they or may not have room for personal goals), which may or may not match yours.  They’re also swamped with submissions.  They simply can’t afford to send all of them to outside readers, who incidentally are hard to come by: they may need to reject articles based on their own quick overview (or in the case of journals, possibly a grad student’s, which is pretty frightening). So you’ll have to be very clear about why the editor should give a damn about you, and if you submit to the wrong journal or book publisher, you’ll waste a whole lot of everyone’s precious time and effort, most of it yours.  Ditto for attending the wrong conference.  Though I’m an older white man who works in theater studies and social theory, you shouldn’t assume I was there to gate-keep, which is all too tempting (and lazy).  I was certainly acknowledging my potential biases, which is de rigueur despite being blindingly obvious, except for the crucial part about my work in social theory.  But also subtextually: “I’ve been around the block a few times with interdisciplinary work, I can tell you a thing or two about the roadblocks and shortcuts and strategies, please listen up!”

If you’re worried about my politics and biases, you’re welcome to plumb my personal history and my publishing work (new edition of Theatre Histories textbook now in progress, and the team of writers I gathered is stellar and wonderful). You might be able to dig up some of my history with ASTR, though probably not the juicy bits during my tenure as Treasurer when I wanted to put dues and conference fees on an income-based sliding scale, which turned into a nasty battle that I lost. (Some people’s politics transform when you touch their pocketbook. Years later, most of the idea was finally instituted.) And you probably won’t discover my two stints of union organizing. But a lot of info is publicly available. Or just ask me: I’m both honest and stupid enough to tell you.  Am I going to meet all your political purity tests? Hell no, concrete reality hasn’t enabled me to meet even my own, that’s probably true for everyone else in my generation, and the generation after you will definitely excoriate you for your own failings, so grow some humility and get off your ivory tower. Plus, statements that were completely acceptable a mere five years ago could be out of pocket today, which is fine but presents interpretive challenges. As Fredric Jameson says, “Always historicize!” (Wait—you don’t know who Jameson is??)

Look: if you’re going to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship—real scholarship, not the warm and fuzzies—you better gird up because in many of these fields, scholarship is a blood sport. Like Katniss Everdeen, you’ll need to be bow-and-arrow sharpshooters.  A few of your scholarly predecessors on this end are so horribly oppressive and narrow-minded, they’d like to give you a couple thoughts for your advancement and survival. To wit: go out, get big, and go get ’em, tiger.  We’ll always be here for you.  But make us proud, goddammit. Make us proud.

With love and battle axes,


IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part III: The Philosophy of metaReality?

The lopsidedness of the postconference brings me to the question of the “spiritual turn.” Critical realism supposedly endured a break between the “original critical realism” of A Realist Theory of Science, The Possibility of Naturalism and related texts, and the dialectical critical realism announced by Dialectic. I suspect the severity of the break has been greatly overstated – most practical applications of critical realism need few dialectical concepts, if any, and so attitudes toward DCR may lean more toward indifference than opposition. And what defines rejection of DCR? Some of Bhaskar’s notions are keenly debated on philosophical grounds, most notably “alethic truth” (a category error in my view), and his view that there’s indeterminate non-being, not just determinate absence (I’m undecided on this score, and I doubt it has much practical or even theoretical purchase). However, it doesn’t seem to me that disputing these two ideas necessarily constitutes a break from DCR; nor do I see why they should stop one from using the firmer parts of Dialectic, as I do myself. On the whole I think there’s less of a problem here than some have asserted.

However, it’s news to nobody that Bhaskar’s philosophy of metaReality and the “spiritual turn” in critical realism are far more controversial. I can only offer a few brief comments here. There are two main concerns. The first is whether these ideas represent a continuation of critical realism, or a fundamental departure from it. The second is whether it poses any particular problem for the acceptability of critical realism within scholarship more broadly. The two issues are independent.

I’m certainly not the first to say that PMR appears to make several arguments that seem implausible on logical grounds and inconsistent with OCR. Despite Mervyn Hartwig’s protests in the Dictionary, and presumably Bhaskar’s as well, PMR appears incompatible with the materialist philosophies (marxist, feminist, and otherwise) that have grounded the work of many critical realists until now, myself included. Thus PMR seems to have parted ways from critical realism. The claim that it continues and succeeds (“preservatively sublates”) critical realism isn’t very persuasive; to draw a slightly rude but pointed analogy, it looks similar to the way Christianity claims to continue and succeed Judaism.

That said, turning to the second concern, on one level it doesn’t particularly bother me if some people support PMR. On the whole I believe in the “big tent” view of critical realism – although at some point the tent ends. But on another level, I worry that for scholars outside the existing ambit of critical realism, PMR will further muddy the waters regarding what critical realism is all about, exacerbating the accusations that it’s a cult. It may even muddy the waters within critical realist circles themselves, by upping the ante on what it means to be a critical realist.

It might be healthiest for everyone, then, to straightforwardly refer to the adherents of PMR as “metaRealists” while continuing to call the advocates of OCR and DCR “critical realists,” acknowledging that there’s a historical relationship between them, but they’re philosophically distinctive. PMR neither subsumes critical realism nor is utterly alien to it. That may have implications for how we think about the conferences and IACR, but that’s manageable.

The conference in Cardiff will certainly have a different flavor: there will be more people with more extensive and varied experience with critical realism, and more time will have passed for us to think about critical realism post-Bhaskar. That last I’d say is the most important: critical realism should now become a leaderless movement, and attend more closely to expanding into other areas of scholarship, particularly through its conferences.

IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part II: The “New Conversations in Science and Religion” Conference

It occurred to me that Religious Studies is a field within the humanities, so I decided to pay attention to the postconference.  Of course it’s not surprising that the chosen humanities field was Religious Studies, given the (to me, surprising) surge of critical realists revealing the importance of religion in their lives.  I would have preferred something like history, however.

My responses to the postconference were naturally shaped by my own religious background and views.  I am culturally Jewish: I don’t practice, yet it is part of how I identify myself, how I think about the world, and (I would say) my general style of action.  For all intents and purposes I’m an atheist, but as a good fallibilist I officially describe myself as an agnostic.

I have long been struck by the fact that critical realists, as best as I can tell, include very few fellow Jews.  It’s odd.  We’re widespread in scholarship, both historically and in the present.  Now, I don’t go around checking people’s religious affiliations, but it’s not unusual for us to suss each other out.  Of course, maybe my impression is simply wrong.  In any case, we seem rare within critical realism.  I can’t help but wonder why, but I don’t have any answers.

However, a distinctly Christian element within critical realism began to declare itself with Bhaskar’s From East to West.  As almost everyone admits, it’s a highly problematic book, but I found the chapter “To the Promised Land” (in which Bhaskar recounts his soul’s supposed Jewish phase) particularly off-putting.  Who are the “twelve disciples” (p. 74)?  What’s the holy grail doing here, and why is it given him at age 33-4 (p. 75)?  Why is his late teacher resurrected (p. 76)?  What exactly are these dilemmas of Judaism that somehow need to be resolved (pp. 77-78)?  Can the claim that they have been resolved mean anything other than a belief that Judaism has been surmounted by something better, and now can safely be dispensed with?  It seems like the basic function of this chapter is to presage the coming of Christianity, and covers a phase to be passed over as soon as possible (pun intended).

Now that a range of people within CR have declared their religious feelings, the “Science and Religion” postconference (which had very little science) was predictably oriented toward Christianity, and – not quite as predictably – blinkered about it.  Only Kevin Schilbrack, who gave the day’s best paper, made a substantive effort to include other religions in his compass.  (To be completely accurate, I don’t know for certain about one plenary talk because after 10-15 minutes of exasperation I quietly left.)  There are many things you can discuss while considering only one religion.  You can study its sociology in connection to, say, labor history or gender relations.  You can analyze how one religion adjusted its theology in response to scientific discoveries.  You can explore how a religion’s institutions interacted with state institutions.  Etc.  But you can’t analyze religion per se by looking at only one religion.  You can only do that by considering numerous religions.  The situation is the same in my own work: if I were to use predominantly realistic plays like those of Anton Chekhov or Tennessee Williams as my models for conceptualizing theater, my theory would go far astray, not even capturing Shakespeare.  And so it is for religion.

For example, Christianity in all its variants is essentially a religion of beliefs.  But the same cannot be said of Judaism: it’s principally a tradition of practices and orientations.  Although there are differences among the various branches of Judaism regarding the interpretation of the sacred texts and some doctrinal matters, what distinguishes them most are their attitudes about adapting the traditional practices and laws to the times.  Under Orthodox Judaism, one keeps kosher, prays only in groups of at least ten people, and observes a wide number of holidays, including the Sabbath; under Reform Judaism (in the UK, called Liberal Judaism) many such practices go by the wayside.  But respect for the Torah and the highest holidays, and for education generally (whether religious or secular) remain central to both.  Faith isn’t obligatory: one can be both an Orthodox Jew and an atheist.  Conversely, one can follow none of Judaism’s traditional religious practices, yet still share its orientations and relationship with history and knowledge, and thus consider oneself Jewish.  A Christian concept of religion as a faith cannot accommodate these possibilities.  Indeed, the very notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” is objectionable, since it exaggerates the continuity between the two and implies that Christianity has superseded Judaism.  Somewhat in the way Bhaskar does it in From East to West.

In short, important as it is to understand one’s own religion, it’s important to understand others’ as well, and to do so in relation to each other – both Self and Other, or perhaps better, Martin Buber’s I and Thou.  So a critical realist discussion of religious ideas faces two imperatives: one is to pursue truth, e.g., to develop an accurate and comprehensive definition of religion, which requires a comparative and nondenominational approach; the other is to seek what Bhaskar called “eudaimonia,” a society of universal flourishing, which entails equity – a policy which in these times of intense religious conflict is in terribly short supply.

[Next: The Philosophy of metaReality?]

IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part I: The Main Conference

The following are a few comments on the 2015 IACR conference at the University of Notre Dame and the “New Conversations in Science and Religion” one-day conference that followed.  I am by no means attempting to provide a full survey or review, but some of my interactions and responses to the conference raised thoughts about the state of critical realism generally; and as the point of this blog is to work out my thoughts, there is a necessary personal element here. I’ve broken up my discussion into three parts: the main conference, the “Science and Religion” postconference, and issues raised for CR as a project by the rise of the “philosophy of metaReality.”

I turn first, then, to the main conference.  The majority of IACR members are in the social sciences, with a smattering of philosophers, whereas scholars of culture and the arts like me are few and far between (although I’ll somewhat modify that statement later).  This is a continuing problem in CR: even after 18 years of conferences, their attendees are still in a narrow range of scholarly fields, encouraged by themes usually tailored mainly if not strictly for social scientists.  (This is on top of the sharp demographic disparities in gender and race: it’s still mainly a meeting of middle-aged white guys.)  Particularly astonishing is the paucity of historians.  Historiography is the humanities field with the most kinship to the social sciences, so one would expect historians to be at least as populous as the philosophers.  That said, the “Science and Religion” postconference can be seen as an effort to open up to other fields (in this case, religious studies) – a problematic effort, but an effort nonetheless.

One thing conferences are good for is running ideas past colleagues, and discovering what concepts one’s readers might have difficulty with (perhaps more urgent but also more difficult for a disciplinary interloper like me).  For these reasons I wanted to talk with Margaret Archer about my paper-in-progress on embodied collective reflexivity, which naturally draws upon her work.  In considering the possibility of an embodied form, I am thinking of communication – and thus the possibility of reflexivity – that is not simply about the body, but through it.  Unfortunately I was thoroughly inarticulate when I talked with Maggie, so it was difficult to tell whether her response reflected my lack of clarity or her unfamiliarity with the concept of embodiment I work with. Thus when I was in a more lucid state (i.e., I’d had a beer) I approached her to see if she could catch on to it by quoting a line that I felt captured the idea: “Sex is a promise you make with your body.”  (This was a slight misquotation of from the movie Vanilla Sky, which I haven’t seen so I’m not sure where I heard it.)  Her look betrayed utter bafflement, and after I returned to my chair, she repeated the sentence to Alan Norrie (seated next to her) with an expression that said “WTF?!”  Her reaction was perhaps surprising, given some of her arguments in Being Human; but perhaps not, as her discussions of embodiment are somehow disembodied, and there is a distinct rationalist streak in her work. For me, the sentence is completely comprehensible – whether one agrees or disagrees is beside the point. The gestures and interactions and intertwinings of our bodies are intrinsically meaningful. (It seems my unconscious was working overtime, as I kept trying to remember the English for Brecht’s plumpes Denken, “coarse thinking,” which is gritty with the material world.) I ran the phrase by a few other people; some shared Maggie’s reaction, some got it right away.  I suspect that most people in theater studies would have understood it immediately. So it’s clear that I’ll have to pay a little more attention to explaining the concept in my forthcoming article.

I tend to think that the most important aspects of a conference aren’t the plenaries and panels.  That said, for my money the best plenary was easily Ruth Groff’s, which is now available on her blog.  The panels were the usual mix of good and not so much, but it was striking how many of the speakers were relatively new to CR.

It was also striking how many speakers appeared more than once.  I raised this matter at the Annual General Meeting because I think it’s bad practice, and I proposed a policy that conference presenters should only appear once.  Christian Smith (the conference organizer) informed me that few papers were submitted, so no one was excluded as a result of the multiple presentations.  I was startled that the submission numbers were so low, but there you have it.  That surely won’t be the case next year in Cardiff, however.  The organizer for that conference (Ismael Al-Emodi?), while sympathetic, wants to keep the option of multiple presentations open, which I think is unwise.  As far as I’m concerned, between allowing someone to present two papers at the cost of someone’s ability to attend, and enabling one more person to attend at the cost of forcing someone to make a choice, it’s not even a question.  (Besides, one more attendee is one more registration being paid.)

Attendees of the Annual General Meeting also witnessed Maggie threatening to quit the organization over some language in the proposed amendment regarding diversity in IACR.  It’s true that the language was problematic, but frankly Maggie’s vehemence was over the top.  And the implied assumption that we would all leap to make sure she stayed appeared rather presumptuous.

Organization members really should attend Annual General Meetings.  I know they sound boring, but I’ve been involved in several organizations and seen them do (or attempt to do) some incredibly stupid things, plus the meetings provide an opportunity to discuss problems and propose improvements.  The quality of the conferences does have an influence on critical realism’s intellectual development.

[Next: The Postconference]