20 days ago

Thinking Academically

Link: http://demandingchange.blogspot.com/2024/06/thinking-academically.html

At Goldsmiths University yesterday for a discussion on Paratactical Life with Erin Manning and Brian Massumi. Academic jobs at Goldsmiths are currently threatened by a so-called Transformation Programme, similar to management initiatives at many other universities, giving critical urgency for those in the room to consider the primary task of the university in society, and the double task of the academic. For which Erin Manning advocates what she calls strategic duplicity.

This involves recognizing what works in the systems we work against. Which means: We don’t just oppose them head on. We work with them,
strategically, while nurturing an alien logic that moves in very
different directions. One of the things we know that the university does
well is that it attracts really interesting people. The university can
facilitate meetings that can change lives. But systemically, it fails.
And the systemic failure is getting more and more acute.

One of the domains in which this duplicity is apparent is thinking itself. And this word thinking appears to have special resonance and meaning for academics – what academia calls thinking is not quite the same as what business calls thinking (which was the focus of my practitioner book on Organizational Intelligence) and certainly not the same as what tech calls thinking (the focus of Adrian Daub’s book).

One of the observations that led to my work on Organizational Intelligence was the disconnect between the intelligence of the members of an organization and the intelligence of the organization itself. Universities are great examples of this, packed with clever people and yet the organization itself manifests multiple forms of stupidity. As of course do many other kinds of organization. I still believe that it is a worthwhile if often frustrating exercise to try to improve how a given organization collectively makes sense of and anticipates the demands placed on it by its customers and other stakeholders – in other words, how it thinks. However any such improvements would be almost entirely at the micropolitical level, I don’t have much idea how one would go about dismantling what Deleuze calls the economy of stupidity.

Although I think the concept of organizational intelligence is a reasonable one, and have defended it here against those who argue that organizational functions and dysfunctions can always be reduced to the behaviours and intentions of individual human actors, I don’t imagine that an organization will ever think in quite the way a person thinks. There are some deficiencies in organizational thinking, just as there are deficiencies in algorithmic thinking. For example, there are some interesting issues in relation to temporality, raised in some of the contributions to Subjectivity’s Special Issue on Algorithms which I guest-edited last year.

For Brian Massumi, the key question is what is thinking for. In an academic context, we might imagine the answer to be something to do with knowledge – universities being where knowledge is created and curated, and where students are supposed to acquire socioeconomic advantage based on their demonstrated mastery of selected portions of this knowledge. Therefore much of the work of an academic is taken up with a form of thinking known as judgment or sorting out – deciding, agreeing and explaining the criteria by which students will be evaluated, using these criteria to assess the work of each student, and helping those students who don’t fit the expected pattern for whatever reason.

But what really gives a student any benefit in the job market as a result of their studies is not just a piece of paper but a sense of their potential – for both thinking and doing. The problem with students using chatbots to write their assignments is not that they are cheating – after all, the ability to cheat without being found out is highly valued in many organizations, if not essential. The real problem is if they are learning a deficient form of thinking.

(This is far from a complete report on the afternoon, merely picking out some elements of the discussion that resonated with me.)


Update: Comments have been added to the goodreads version of this post.

Philip Boxer, The Three Asymmetries necessary to describing agency in living biological systems (Asymmetric Leadership, November 2023)

Philip Boxer, The Doubling of the Double Task (Asymmetric Leadership, February 2024)

Adrian Daub, What Tech Calls Thinking (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2020)

Benoît Dillet, What Is Called Thinking?: When Deleuze Walks along Heideggerian Paths (Deleuze Studies 7/2 2013)

Kenan Malik, The affluent can have their souls enriched at university, so why not the poor as well? (Observer, 2 June 2024)

Brent Dean Robbins, Joyful Thinking-Thanking: A Reading of Heidegger’s “What is Called Thinking?” (Janus Head 13/2, October 2014) 

Uriah Marc Todoroff, A Cryptoeconomy of Affect (New Inquiry, May 2018)

Richard Veryard, Building Organizational Intelligence (Leanpub, 2012)

Richard Veryard, As we may think now (Subjectivity December 2023)

Related posts: Symptoms of Organizational Stupidity (May 2010), On Organizations and Machines (January 2022), Reasoning with the majority – chatGPT (January 2023), Creativity and Recursivity (September 2023)