Mess of methods

flickr photo by kara brugman shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Earlier today was the first reading group that I’ve convened. My Director of Studies suggested it might be useful to unpick themes I’ve been wrestling with, as exemplified through a particular text – After Method, John Law, 2004. The idea that three learned people would give up their time to discuss a text with me was a complete but delightful surprise. Discussing an entire book was unlikely to be manageable in the available time, so I settled on one particular chapter; the one that had proved most challenging for me.

Chapter 7, Imagination and Narrative, calls into question the Euro-American view of reality as ‘independent, prior, definite and singular.’ Law does this using the example of an Australian guidebook which presents Uluru/Ayers Rock in two ways: the single, definite, realist geological narrative, juxtaposed with the aboriginal Tjukurpas which recreate and retell the stories of Uluru, bringing it into being with each practical enactment. The chapter opens with, for me, a tough paragraph. Tough because of the language and vocabulary used:

Method assemblage is the process of enacting or crafting bundles of ramifying relations that condense presence and (therefore also) generate absence by shaping, mediating and separating these. (122)

What it then goes on to do, is to introduce the ideas which will be covered in the chapter, though I have one of my supervisors to thank for pointing that out. I’d (initially) found it too impenetrable. Law’s work, and the earlier chapters in the book explore and propose that different realities are created by different methods. It took a while for that to sink in. Not the realist, perspectival view that we see things differently depending on how we look at them (an epistemological view), but that the very nature of a reality is brought into being by the methods assemblage used to enact it. Ontological politics –

If realities are enacted, then reality is not in principle fixed or singular, and truth is no longer the only ground for accepting or rejecting a representation. The implication is that there are various possible reasons, including the political, for enacting one kind of reality rather than another, and that these grounds can in some measure be debated. (162)

This was somewhat of a bolt from the blue, forcing me as it did to reassess my ontological stance. Actually it would be more accurate to say that it made me think seriously about it in a way I hadn’t previously done. Now I reflect back, although I’ve usually claimed a constructivist epistemology, I think I’ve been doing that from a realist ontology, in which I assumed an independent, single, definite reality existing out-there. What the whole book, and this chapter in particular, helped me do was to see that reality can be multiple, vague, dependent and brought into being as it is enacted. Chapter 3, Multiple Worlds, in which Law described the research of Annemarie Mol on atherosclerosis really helped here.

Even as I write this I’m feeling queasy. Although I’m beginning to rationalise these things in my head, I’m not sure I’m yet in a place where I can articulate them in a lucid form for others to read. Is that because I’ve not yet developed the vocabulary and grammar to do that, or that my conceptions are still poorly formed? So what should my next steps be? Again I’m thankful to one of the group who suggested mapping what Law was saying onto an example which has more practical ramifications for me. In terms of my own research into professional learning through Twitter then, perhaps I need to reposition? Starting from what the world knows about professional development and professional learning, and seeing how that marries with what teachers are claiming for Twitter, might be framing things too realistically. A stance which views professional learning as single, prior, definite and independent. How might things appear if instead, the myriad of ways in which teachers use Twitter and other sociomaterial assemblages, were enacting different realities? Professional learning becomes multiple, dependent, messy and contingent on the methods used to enact it. Maybe that better reflects the reality (realities?) of professional learning with which I’m familiar?

There were other aspects to the ‘reading’ that also unsettled me. Some of the observations which were made, at the time seemed clear, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I fully understood. This I know to be one of my weaknesses; I struggle to process information quickly enough to follow and synthesise multiple strands of a discursive argument in real time. I need to take things away and allow them to ferment. Looking back, I now know I’m not sure about how ‘politics was absent’ from the chapter. I (now) know that politics can be viewed as the struggle for power, though am still not sure how the chapter failed to deal with that, or perhaps more importantly, why that matters. I know this is one of the criticisms generally leveled at actor-network theory, so getting a better understanding of this has to go onto my ‘To do’ list.

One concept that Law used with which we shared (varying degrees of) ambivalence was that of allegory. Here once more I have no more understanding than a vague recollection of allegory in a literary sense. Memories of ‘O’-level English Literature and Shakespeare drift back. I struggled to see why Law invokes allegory as being particularly helpful. Do different levels of meaning and symbolic representation link with multiple realities? As Law himself intimated, there is an inevitable tension in re-presenting an aboriginal re-creation in the Euro-American format of a visitor guide. Was that where he was going? More homework for me to resolve.

One of the outcomes from this chapter which should inform my thinking, if I find the methods assemblage approach useful, is how I might represent what I find. Is the traditional, linear, definite, singular format of a thesis appropriate if multiplicity, mess and ethereality are what emerge? Perhaps aboriginal Dreamtime or the Dreaming might be able to inform my research? Specifically it’s timeless-ness. One telling of the Dreaming is ‘what happened in the past and how things came to be, what’s happening now and what will come to be in the future.’

Crass though it might initially sound, could Twitter reality be better expressed through indigenous metaphysics? It does after all have this strange temporality which moves back and forth; is recreated and retold.

Aboriginal method assemblages enact a spatiality that is indissolubly linked with the Tjukurpa, the telling, the re-enacting, and the re-crafting of the stories of the ancestral beings – events which exist, as we have seen, in an eternal simultaneous past and present.

Can I legitimately, sensitively and respectfully borrow from a different culture? Much to ponder.

I’m fairly sure that whilst writing my research proposal over a year ago, aboriginal philosophy and spirituality wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.


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