La plus rare et la plus pure

After yesterday’s search for the source of Simone Weil’s oft-quoted “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” went a bit Lot-49ish on me, I wondered whether I should just have been satisfied with that “attributed to.” But I’m glad I didn’t let it go, for a couple of reasons.

First, I did finally get ahold of a copy of a version of the actual source. The quote comes from a 1942 letter from Weil to poet Joë Bousquet, which from what I can tell was first published in a 1950 issue of Cahiers du Sud, and then subsequently in a volume of Weil and Bousquet’s correspondence. My library has neither of these, but thanks to the extraordinary institutional generosity of Interlibrary Loan, a scan of the Cahiers du Sud version landed in my inbox last night. (Seriously, can we all take a moment to be grateful for ILL?)

And second, the context of the quotation is even more important to my own context than I’d guessed it could be. Bousquet was in the hospital, suffering from a grievous war injury, when he and Weil corresponded. She’d apparently given him a piece of writing, on which he’d given her some kind of comment. And thus:

J’ai été très touchée de constater que vous aviez fait véritablement attention aux quelques pages que je vous ai montrées. Je n’en conclus pas qu’elles méritent de l’attention. Je regarde cette attention comme un don gratuit et généreux de votre part. L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.

That is:

I was touched to see that you had truly paid attention to some pages that I showed you. I did not take from that that they deserved attention. I regard that attention as a gift freely and generously given on your part. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Being closely read, and receiving careful feedback, may in turn be the rarest and purest form of attention. I owe the readers of Generous Thinking more than I can say.

Generosity and Attention

Among the reading I’ve picked up thanks to suggestions from the most generous readers of the draft of Generous Thinking is a bit of Simone Weil. Alan Jacobs, who pointed me toward her work in a couple of spots, noted in particular that she “seems to have thought that [attention] is the primary form of generosity.” So I’ve been reading around in the places where her thoughts turn to attention, including Gravity and Grace and Waiting for God.

A quick search online for Weil and attention, however, surfaces a vast number of references to her most quotable quote:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

But that quote is never accompanied by a citation; in fact, this incompletely answered question on Quora leads not to a source but to yet another quotation. It’s the free-floating nature of that aphorism that I suspect leads Alan to say that she “seems” to have thought this connection between attention and generosity.

So I find myself in an odd spot: The quotation, assuming it’s a quotation, perfectly describes the thing I am trying to explore. And yet this specific point is small enough, and there are so many other issues in revising the manuscript that also demand my attention, that I can only give so much time to running down the source, assuming there is one.

I’m opting to go with an “attributed to” reference, at least for the moment, but I’d be enormously grateful if anyone were able to point me to an actual original.

On Generosity and Obligation

I am returning, at last, to the thoughts I was exploring in my recent posts on Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (post 1 | post 2), and I’m starting to wrestle this morning with the big one: obligation. Thinking about community as a strategic rather than an idealized concept, community in its pragmatic coalition-building sense, leads me to consider the work required to create and sustain communities. If the kinds of communities that I am seeking in trying to imagine a more generous relationship not only between the university and the publics that it engages but also, crucially, within the university itself are first and foremost voluntary communities—self-organizing, self-governing collectives based in affiliation and solidarity—what exactly can we be said to owe those communities? Do those communities and our relationships to them impose obligations on us?

This question about obligation came up early on in the review process for Generous Thinking. For some readers, my suggestion that “we” (meaning, in this case, those of us involved in and committed to the life of the university) have obligations to one another and to the world evoked a sense of noblesse oblige, a condescending assumption that we bear gifts that we must bestow upon the less fortunate around us. For others, the notion of obligation seemed to erode the idea of generosity itself, undermining individual commitment with a sense of requirement. Several commenters wanted me to replace the term, but I remain convinced that it’s the right one, though I’m still working on explaining why.

Obligation as I intend it is not connected, except etymologically, to noblesse oblige. In fact, I’d argue that noblesse oblige is a particularly self-aggrandizing form of voluntarism: we may feel that we have to give to those in need because of our station or privilege, but that “have to” is one we can easily walk away from; the commitment is entirely self-selected. The obligation that I’m focused on, that I hope that we can consider in the context of generosity, is one of which we cannot absolve ourselves. As Francois Lachance pointed out in the discussion, “obligation” derives from the Latin obligare, “from ob- ‘towards’ + ligare ‘to bind’.” That is the sense of obligation that I want to explore: that which binds us together, that which we cannot walk away from without doing grave damage both to ourselves and to the fabric of the whole.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have choice, as members of voluntary communities, about whether to fulfill those obligations, or that there isn’t agency in the kinds of generosity I’m hoping to foster. But I remain convinced that we do bear actual obligations toward one another deriving from our common presence in a space, an institution, a community. We owe one another recognition as members of that community. We owe one another attention to the concerns we bring to that community.

In the course of the discussion of Generous Thinking, I started wondering where my use of “obligation” in this sense began, and so searched my notes. The term popped up in several key locations, including Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. (25)

These two strands, for Appiah, exist in an ongoing tension: we bear obligations that bind us together; we take seriously the differences that mean we must be allowed to go our own way. That individual, agential freedom does not relieve us of our shared obligations, but nor does the nature of our obligations eliminate the agency that all of us bear in our own lives.

This tension also appeared in my notes in Lewis Hyde’s consideration of the debts that participation in a gift economy creates. Hyde cites Marcel Mauss on the “three related obligations” that mark gift economies: “the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate” (xxi). Hyde winds up at moments treating the notion of obligation in a fashion much closer to the reading of my commenters—as a requirement that a gift imposes upon us, an imposition that we attempt to remove by passing on—but it’s also a relation that sustains the entirety of a community. There is, I think, something important to consider in this connection between obligation and the gift, especially if we are to seek alternatives to the neoliberal economies in which our institutional and personal lives are otherwise embedded.

Most compelling for me, however, is the use that Bill Readings makes of obligation in The University in Ruins. In attempting to define a path out of the morass that the University of Excellence has landed us in, Readings turns repeatedly to the notion of obligation and its connection to community. His goal, he notes, is “an anti-modernist rephrasing of teaching and learning as sites of obligation, as loci of ethical practices, rather than as means for the transmission of scientific knowledge. Teaching thus becomes answerable to the question of justice, rather than to the criteria of truth” (154). That connection among obligation, ethics, and justice leads to his commitment to dissensus and his sense that “the condition of pedagogical practice is, in Blanchot’s words, ‘an infinite attention to the other’” (161), an ethical obligation that cannot be discharged. And an obligation whose infinitude is created in no small part by our being-in-community; “the obligation of community,” he notes, is “one to which we are answerable but to which we cannot supply an answer” (187).

If we are going to build and sustain communities, then—not romanticized communities, but rather communities based in solidarity, communities based on non-market relations of care—we need to be able to think about our obligations to one another, about our relationships to our voluntary communities beyond voluntarism. Coming full-circle to Joseph: her association of community with the structure of the non-profit, which deploys private philanthropy as a replacement for public commitment to the common good, underscores not only the voluntarism at the heart of noblesse oblige but also the political and economic sources of it: I am generous with what I have—I choose to be generous with what I have—precisely because we are no longer committed to one another as members of a shared social structure. Instead, the shift of responsibility for the public welfare toward private entities displaces our obligations to one another in favor of individual liberties and, I think, leaves us queasy about the notion of obligation altogether.

What I’m trying to explore in considering generosity as a potential ground for rebuilding the relationship between the university and the public good, then, is in part the force of the commitments that we make to one another, but commitments that are based in an ethical obligation that endures beyond and outside individual agency. It’s a commitment that we must continually make the choice to renew, but an obligation that persists regardless of our choice.

I’m still wrestling with all of this as I revise the manuscript, but the notions of community, solidarity, and commitment to the public good with which I’m working seem defined by the unresolved tensions in the relationship between generosity and obligation. As Readings says, we are left “with an obligation to explore our obligations without believing that we will come to the end of them” (190). This is where I’m trying to linger. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Writing Is Hard

And then there are the mornings when I can spend two hours trying to untangle the logic in a single paragraph. I’ll grant that the thing I’m trying to say isn’t, and shouldn’t be, simple. And the paragraph is one of the keys to explaining why this chapter is in the book at all, so it’s important to get it right. But I didn’t expect it to be quite that hard to say. And the difficulty makes me wonder whether I’ve really gotten it straightened out at all.

Leaving this here, in any case, to remind me to be a bit humble in this process. I have found few things quite as difficult as writing with clarity.

Reading, Anxiety, Possibility

Every so often you come across That Book, the exact thing you need to read, and a lot of the time it’s something that you might not have run into before and that you certainly had no idea you needed to read, and probably wouldn’t have except that more than one person pointed you toward it, and then it’s so much the thing you needed that you kick yourself for not having found it sooner yourself.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyhow: Anne Gere’s Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920 is this week’s That Book. And I’m more than a little bruised from all the self-kicking I’ve been doing.

I might be willing to forgive myself, if the title turned up in my previous research, for assuming that it was a history of turn of the century women’s clubs, and thus that it didn’t have much to tell me about my own current project — but a slightly deeper glance might have given me a hint that there was something I needed here. The book focuses on those clubs’ reading and writing practices at the heart of their self-formation and their public and private work. Even more, her chapter on “(un)professional reading and writing” makes a compelling argument about the ways that scholars of literature came to professionalize in no small part in opposition to the models of reading and writing embraced by clubwomen. This bit of the narrative of how we got to be the way we are is exactly what I’ve been missing, so completely at the heart of the argument I’ve been trying to make (about the dominant role that competition plays in today’s university structures, and the ways that a more generous engagement with the “common reader” might help promote a recommitment of our institutions to the public good) that I’m both overjoyed to have found it and mortified not to have found it sooner.

This is why I wish I had time enough to stop and read all the things.

That Intimate Practices is That Book, if it hadn’t already become clear, would have been made glaringly obvious when I ran into one uncanny bit of overlap. In a section that I’ve entitled “Why Do Readers Read?”, I note that dismissing pleasure in reading (whether as illicit, or unserious, or whathaveyou) opens space for anxiety to become one’s dominant reading affect, and particularly “anxiety about whether we’re reading the right stuff, or reading for the right reasons, or reading in the right way.” Gere, for her part, describes professionalized scholars of English, claiming for themselves a role as arbiters of taste, as having the effect of “making nonprofessionals fearful they were reading the wrong books or reading them in the wrong ways” (217). I’ve scoured my notes, as well as the texts I previously cited around that spot, to be sure that I didn’t somehow pick Gere’s phrasing up at second hand, but I’ve found nothing. So I’m taking this coincidence as a sign of deep connection, if an unknowing one, and I’m working on how I might build on it, what the rest of my argument might still have to learn.

Strategy and Solidarity

As I noted in my last post, I recently read Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community as a means of thinking a bit more deeply about the ways that Generous Thinking deploys the notion of community. As Joseph’s analysis suggests, the concept is often used as a placeholder for something that is outside the dominant structures of contemporary public life, a subcultural relation that harkens back1 to a mythical premodern moment in which people lived and worked in more direct connection with one another, without the mediating forces of modern capitalist institutions. It’s also often an imagined relation, in Benedict Anderson’s sense, as the invocation of “community” is designed to yoke together groups whose singularity is largely constructed, “the gay community” being Joseph’s primary referent. Calls to work on behalf of the community or to the community’s values wind up not only, as I noted in my last post, ignoring community’s supplementary role with respect to capital but also essentializing a highly complex and intersectional set of social relations.

And it’s that last that got me wondering, first, whether a key part of the problem with “the community” might be less “community” than “the” — whether acknowledging and foregrounding the multiple and multiplicitous communities with which we interact might help us avoid the exclusions that the declaration of groupness is often designed to produce, the us that inevitably suggests a them. And second, whether the model of identity politics might lead us to a community politics that can similarly deploy a strategic essentialism in thinking about community, a recognition that our definitions of whatever community we’re discussing are always reductive, but also at least potentially useful as an organizing tool. Can we develop a strategic sense of community that is based not on a dangerous, mythical notion of unity, but rather around solidarity, around coalition-building?

It’s the pragmatic, organizing, coalition-building function of community, or communities, that I’m most interested in, both in thinking about identifying the publics with which the university might work and in thinking about the structure of the university itself. As I discussed in my last post, Joseph compellingly analyzes the function of the non-profit organization, an entity very often associated with community in the underconsidered sense she critiques. Under late capital, the non-profit has been asked to take over the space of providing for community needs or supporting community interests that had formerly been occupied by the state as the entity responsible for the public welfare. The impact of that transition on higher education has been enormous: state universities, which had long functioned as state institutions in the most literal sense, have themselves been privatized, transformed almost wholly into non-profit organizations.

So what might be possible if instead of allowing institutions of higher education to be understood as giant nonprofits, required to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on fundraising, we were instead to adopt a strategic sense of “community” as the basis for their structure? Are there particular forms of voluntary community — the labor union, for instance — that might provide models for the development of self-governing, activated collectives that are directly responsive to member needs? Would a deployment of community in this sense, always recognizing its complexity, help commit us to a sense of the common good?

And — the $64,000 question — what would it take for us to actually get there?

In Revision

Yesterday morning, I closed comments on the open review of Generous Thinking. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who took the time to read and give me feedback on the project: 30 commenters left a total of 354 comments (and prompted 56 responses of my own). I have a good bit of insight into what’s working well and what needs improvement in the manuscript, and I’m excited about the possibilities ahead as I embark on the revision process.

Getting started on revising a piece of writing is always daunting for me. The draft feels complete, and it usually holds together and works as a thing, if imperfectly, and the beginning of the revision process almost always involves breaking that completeness, that thingness, in order to open it up and rethink how it works. I resist initially, not so much because I don’t think the thing could be better but because I worry that breaking it open will wind up making things worse, that I won’t be able to do the hard transformational work of putting it back together in a new way.

That initial leap, hard as it is, almost always pays off; once I get into the revision process I usually find myself excited by the patterns that I couldn’t see before, the new ways that ideas can be drawn together. But it’s still a leap, one that requires a deep breath (and a good cup of coffee) before diving in.

Thanks to everyone, again, who read and commented and linked to the draft. The discussion will remain up and available, if you’re curious about how it went, and the general comments remain open if you have further thoughts I should take into consideration. I’ll look forward to sharing some of my thoughts from the revision process as things proceed.

Community Review

In my last book, Planned Obsolescence, I argued for the potentials of open, peer-to-peer review as a means of shedding some light on the otherwise often hidden processes of scholarly communication, enabling scholars to treat the process of review less as a mode of gatekeeping than as a formative moment in which they could learn from and contribute to their communities of practice. In Generous Thinking, my focus is somewhat different—less on the ways that scholars communicate with one another and more on the ways we invite the world into our work—but the emphasis on opening up our processes and imagining the ways that they might invite new kinds of conversations remains.

When I launched the open review process for Planned Obsolescence in 2009, the world was somewhat different. There seemed cause for optimism about the potentials presented by new kinds of openness, and though there was without question just as thick a strain of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general hatred within western culture, it was somehow less emboldened. Or so it seemed to me, at least, in my narrow corner of the internet, where my colleagues and I chatted happily through our blogs and on Twitter, imagining the ways that our networks could help support more open, egalitarian modes of scholarly engagement.

Things are different in 2018. Scholars are being actively targeted for their political beliefs, with off-campus groups campaigning for their dismissal. Entire academic departments have come under investigation by state legislatures for their apparently subversive activity. And too many writers whose work explores issues of race, of gender, of sexuality, of oppression routinely receive threats of violence in response.

As Generous Thinking will attest, I still believe in the opportunities presented by building more open forms of conversation both within the academy and between the academy and the broader publics with which we engage. But I am more cautious about how we should do so now, or at least I am less naive. And so I’ve staged this review process a little bit differently.

For the last two weeks, the manuscript has been open to a group of invited readers, many but not all of them close colleagues, including folks on- and off-campus, folks in a range of faculty and staff positions, folks with bents more optimistic and much less so. My hope was—and remains—that inviting a community to engage with the text before opening it up to the world would help create a space of honest, productive critique, a space in which the manuscript’s shortcomings might be discussed without fear.

But it’s nonetheless important—it’s in fact the heart of Generous Thinking’s argument—to take that next step, to engage in a broader dialogue and invite the world into the process. So the community review is now moving into a period of open review. That openness is both important for this project’s own development and important for this project to model: if we’re going to find our way to a space of greater generosity, it has to start here.

Not just because this project needs to live by its own principles, though that’s an important part of it. But because some of us face far greater dangers than others, and those of us who, like me, are comparatively safe must be willing to create spaces where important public discussions can take place. We need to build our communities, and then we need to invite those around us into them.

So: between now and the end of March, Generous Thinking is open. After that, the record of our discussions will remain publicly available, but the comment function will be closed. I hope that you will share any thoughts you have about the project, and that you will invite any readers you think might be interested to join this discussion.

Thanks to those who have read and commented so far, and thanks to all of you who are reading now. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

On Developing Networked Communities

I dropped what a friend of mine referred to as a “Twitter bomb” this morning, spurred on by a question raised by Tim Hutchings:

My thoughts have gotten a bit of attention, and in order to ensure that they’re not lost to the passage of time (and to do the editing that Twitter won’t permit), I thought I’d capture them here.

I’ve heard the concern about the way we named Humanities Commons a few times, and I have taken it to heart. I’ve tried, as much as I can, to put aside my somewhat knee-jerk desire to point out that few have complained about the ways that projects with “science” in their names limit their address. Because there’s a real point being made here: naming the humanities limits our reach. And to a significant extent, that’s purposeful.

The humanities have long been underserved by digital infrastructure projects. Scientists have loads of open science networks available to them. Social scientists have had SSRN. And given that Humanities Commons began with the MLA, and MLA Commons, it seemed only natural that we should serve our own constituency first.

But: First. Platforming outward from MLA Commons to Humanities Commons has been one step in a process. And more steps are to come.

It’s hard to develop community by simply throwing open the doors, though. Much as I resist the Facebook analogy (as I wouldn’t want a scholarly commons to take it as a model), it’s worth considering how the platform grew. First, they established internally-focused networks within individual institutions, enabling members to connect with people they already knew. Then they created means of connecting across those networks. And only once there was a critical mass of participation did they open the doors to everyone.

One of the mistakes that’s been made repeatedly in open scholarly communication projects has been the attempt to create the bucket of everything. Sometimes that bucket has been journal-shaped, and sometimes it’s been social network shaped. But they all face the same challenge: getting individual scholars who identify with their field or subfield and who want to speak with their colleagues to recognize themselves in “everybody.”

So Humanities Commons has begun with communities of practice — but they’re just a place to start. We welcome the involvement of new communities of practice, and we look forward to growing the network in organic, collaborative ways.

The Commons and the Common Good

A photo showing a plant growing out of a concrete wall
Earlier this week, I took a whirlwind trip back to my old New York stomping grounds, where I both had the opportunity to catch up with my colleagues at the MLA and to spend a day talking with the leaders of several scholarly societies who are helping us think through the future of Humanities Commons. I’m still a bit fuzzy-headed from travel and sleep deprivation, and I’m still processing the discussion and the challenges that it surfaced, but I’m excited about the energy in that meeting room and the possibilities that lie ahead.

Two things became clear to me in the course of our conversation. The first thing is that organizations and institutions across the humanities are facing many of the same challenges and have many of the same resulting infrastructural and communication needs. The second is that chief among those needs — if often unrecognized or unarticulated — is the ability to have some agency with respect to the solutions they adopt. Neither of these ideas really qualifies as a realization, but the degree to which the shared nature of the challenges risks obscuring the shared potential of the solutions did become a good bit sharper.

A huge part of the problem is that the most shared of the shared challenges is budgetary: everybody’s underresourced and understaffed; everybody is trying to figure out how to do more with less. Scholarly societies need to provide their members with more, and more compelling, services in order to keep those members involved and invested, but doing so often involves new systems and platforms, and supporting (much less developing) those systems and platforms is often beyond those societies’ capacity. Similarly, colleges and universities need to provide their faculty members and students with compelling ways to develop their research and make it available to and discoverable by the world, but they face similar challenges in developing the infrastructure — not just technical but crucially human — to facilitate that work.

This gap between needs and capacities has led to a thriving ed-tech and association management industry. Solutions (with a capital S) abound. The problem, of course, is that the end goal of those providing the Solutions is not the same as the end goal of the organizations and institutions they’re providing the Solutions for: not improving education, or facilitating communication, or supporting research, or whathaveyou, but instead (as Neal Stephenson would have it) increasing shareholder value. In order to do so, of course, their Solutions need to be pretty good, and pretty well-supported, but where the goal of increasing shareholder value runs up against the needs and pressures of the organizations and institutions they’re ostensibly serving, the industry’s goals are going to win. And the result is platforms and services that function more to extract value from organizations than to help those organizations serve their members’ needs.

These platforms and services, however, are generally speaking too difficult to develop and maintain for any organization or institution to manage on their own. And it’s that “on their own” that makes the Solutions industry a viable one. As long as organizations and institutions not only assume their needs to be idiosyncratic but feel the need, as Chris Newfield has put it, to “compete all the time,” they’re stuck, at the mercy of the market.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity over the last several years to work for an organization that recognized the importance of providing community-focused platforms for scholarly communication, and that gave me the latitude to work with other like-minded academic groups to develop an open-source, not-for-profit solution (with a small s) to fill that need. The MLA is large enough, and well-resourced enough, to have been able to take such a project on where many of its sister societies could not. But sustaining a solution like this requires more than even the largest and best-resourced organizations can provide.

What’s required is a more robust sense of the commonality of our interests and the collaborative possibilities of our solutions. We need organizations and institutions to put aside competition and embrace the sorts of collective action that might help protect all of us from the markets that promise solutions but provide only Solutions. That’s a significant part of what we’re hoping to build with Humanities Commons — not just a platform for open scholarly communication, but a model for collective development and support of shared services.

This is no small challenge. We know all too well how to think about market-based forces like competition. We have much less experience, as a culture, with thinking about collaboration. But solving shared problems sustainably is going to require just that shift.

Photo credit: Cooperation 2 by Erich Ferdinand. CC BY.