Very Interesting

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Is it possible to organize departments of literature, culture, or humanistic study without norms, or around “the general norm that there are no norms,” as Meredith Ramirez Talusan suggests in a provocative Arcade comment? If it were possible, would such an approach be desirable? Should we replace questions of the form “Does this person fit into our preconceived notions of what our department does?” with questions such as “Is this person’s work interesting?”

My answers, admittedly thinly defended here, are that we can’t dispense with norms; that even if we could, we shouldn’t; and that accepting norms doesn’t entail abandoning the question of the interesting.  On this last point, something like the opposite is true:  the question of the “interesting” is directly tied up with the deliberative processes through which we decide what to study and what not to study, through which we determine what we value.  After all, who claims to rely on “preconceived” notions in allocating funds?  Who advocates that norms should be passively accepted without question?  Indeed, by bringing our norms into the light of day, deliberation and conception are exactly what come into play.

I would maintain that were we to eliminate such norms — that is, were we to eliminate e.g. specified/designated fellowships — we would simply displace or temporarily delay the ultimate questions of value we’re constantly asking each other.

The problem wouldn’t be that “anything goes” in a normless department, but rather that many things would still go and not go; what goes and doesn’t go would become mystified, dependent on an unacknowledged crytonormative foundation. Everyone will jostle to figure out how to gain attention, prestige, and funding, but unknown factors — such as fashion, personal vendetta, and whim — could prevail, though they wouldn’t necessarily prevail.

As Sianne Ngai writes, in her Critical Inquiry essay on the “Merely Interesting”:

Here interesting comes to the fore as the aesthetic judgment in which this question of justification looms largest of all… the interesting doesn’t seem tethered to any features at all. Though bound up with the perception of novelty (against a backdrop of the expected and familiar), what counts as new is much more radically dependent on context…

Far from being an aesthetic without content, the deepest content of interesting is the process of its own justification.

Ngai’s description seems correct to me, and sheds light on the politics of the interesting, which is as she later suggests the politics of deliberation (as opposed to revolution): more Habermas, less Foucault.

The value of named fellowships — in “feminist studies, sexuality studies, German studies, and Southeast Asian studies” — is that they wear their values on their sleeves, or try to. Indeed, we create such fellowships, often after a process of political struggle, in order to establish new norms, new areas of inquiry, new approaches to humanistic study. Such norms, institutions, and programs intentionally proceed by shutting down the aesthetic or charismatic dimension of study in favor of the deliberative, the institutional, and the procedural.

So does a Southeast Asian studies fellowship incentivize doing work of a certain type? Yes, that’s precisely why it exists in the first place.

Should it exist? That’s precisely what we need to deliberate on, a deliberation process where new interests, programs, and norms can be proposed, examined, defended, or rejected.

The key for me isn’t to eliminate such established areas of study but to continually open up space for new fellowships, new programs, new kinds of work. But even the “opening up” process requires deliberation within institutions, whose processes and procedures are themselves guided by (often tacit) norms. That’s why I think we’re stuck with norms, all the way down, at least if we want to operate in concert with other people.

But the most important caveat to our stuckness is this: to be stuck with norms isn’t to be trapped in an uninteresting world, but to be within the very domain where we deliberate (endlessly, productively) about what we find interesting, and why.