The thought of a lineage is of a lineage

By Os Keyes

My students last quarter had two jokes about me (well: two that I know of). The first was that every moment was a moment for a book recommendation (guilty). The secpnd was that I regularly brought up how authors we were reading were academically “related” to me; that Herbert Blumer was my great-great-grand-advisor, say. I’m guilty on this one, too. But I think it is interesting that it was a joke: that there’s something odd, or out of place, about attending to one’s academic genealogy. Because to me, it’s actually pretty relevant, for a couple of reasons.

The first concerns reflexivity. Phil Agre liked to say that critical thinking is the ability to see one’s own glasses. Reflexivity is about making that ability a habit; about actively practising asking questions about those glasses. About asking: what are my glasses? How do they shape the kinds of things I see? How do they shape how I perceive them?

In feminist circles, we’re used to seeing reflexivity or positionality appear in the form of statements about identity: about the authors’ races, genders, sexualities, disabilities, and so on. Sometimes these are just simple disclosures of identity (mocked by one feminist thinker - and I wish I could remember who! - as “embarrassments, etc” statements). Where they’re done properly, though, they’re incredibly powerful and important. Because they’re about not just disclosing identity but disclosing and demonstrating reflexivity about that identity; abut demonstrating that you have thought about how those aspects of your self, life and experience have shaped what questions you ask, what answers you perceive, and how you evaluate and interpret them.

To me, a genealogical awareness is part and parcel of that same set of practices. We are, as The Offspring say, a product of our environment, and that’s not simply how we are raced and gendered and how that shapes our worldview, but (in academia) how we are situated amongst theories and theorists. What perspectives and approaches are we exposed to? What information space do we inhabit? The perspectives and frames of reference our advisors have are a big part of that, and so on, back in time.

For myself - well, I articulate my academic identity in a lot of ways (“weak ontologist”, “postfoundationalist”, “genealogical pragmatist”, “critical feminist pragmatist”). But let’s take that last one as an example; “critical feminist pragmatist”. I’m interested in contingent, practice-oriented understandings (“pragmatism”) that take seriously the productive and repressive roles of power (“critical”) and have unabashedly normative goals of making space for those who don’t have it, with a particular focus on gender (“feminist”).

Now: maybe I would’ve always ended up at this spot, or could have through other routes. But, that I ended up here seems not-unrelated to the scholars I’ve been exposed to, the advisors and mentors that I’ve had, and the circles I run in. Feeminist, critical pragmatist - whose advisor studied under Leigh Star, a feminist who once burst into tears after finding out John Dewey was dead, and Steve Epstein, whose own advisor literally wrote the book on Foucault. It would be silly to claim there’s no productive influence, here.

At the same time, it feels just as silly to claim there’s no restrictive influence: that these aspects of my perspective don’t shape what theories or problems of lenses are unintelligible to me Take new materialism - it seems like a storm in a teacup to me, a lot of the time. Things are always performative? Great! That’s Butler, or the ethnomethodologists, depending on what you mean by performative. Everything is citational? Butler and the ethnomethodologists. People (re)make the world as they go? Symbolic Interactionism. Measures lead to what they’re measuring? Foucault. It’s all good, but it doesn’t feel new.

What stops me from writing long grumpy essays about new materialism (I mean, aside from: I’m busy, Im tired, and most of my friends do take new materialism very seriously indeed, and they’re all much smarter than me, so I’m probably missing something) is in part that genealogical awareness. It is, on the one hand, recognising that precisely because I have been shaped towards and away form certain thing, there may be (almost certainly is) something I’m missing in new materialism because I can’t see it with these glasses, or are folding it back into a concept I already have in a way that loses something. And on the other hand, that the contingency and specificity of my influences means that new materialism may be a perfectly good way of getting at these concepts for people who haven’t had to beat themselves in the face with the College of France lectures (hell, if it stops them from having to, it may well be better). Genealogical awareness is, in part, about seeing the road you’re travelling, and understanding it as a road you’re travelling. It’s not about some kind of gussied-up blood purity narcissism, but the opposite; it’s about humility, and contingency.

The other big part of it, for me, is those moments when I am not grounded; when it feels like something I’m working on is going out absolutely on a limb. My department (and field, frankly) are interdisciplinary, my joke being that it means “lacking in any discipline”. People who read what I read and write what I write are few and far between, both as a consequence of how much there is out there and how specifically niche my work can sometimes get (say, a mix of AI ethics, critical disability studies, political philosophy and feminist epistemology). It can get very lonely, and consequently, very uncertain.

But: just because I’m lonely doesn’t mean I’m alone. To say otherwise would be to say there’s something foundationally original or without-precedent in the work that I do, which I don’t believe in the slightest. This is thee other benefit of this kind of tracing; that it enables you to see what has come before. When I’m hybridising Symbolic Interactionism (often critiqued for being overly linear, rational, and focused on external signs) with more phenomenological or psychic work, it is tremendously powerful to spot the flashes of both in historical work. To have the confidence that while I might be completely wrong, and everyone looks at my abstract as if it’s written in Martian, I can point to (dead) pillars of the field who would think the same. If I’m flirting with process philosophy, it matters to be able to see proto-process-philosophy in Anselm Strauss’s works. To see myself as uncertain and lacking confidence in some of my work, yes - but to find that confidence in the work’s alignment with the thought of people both much smarter than me and coming from a similar perspective. Confidence from, as Danielle Lorenzini puts it, the knowledge that “I” am part of a “we”, “a ‘we’ made by all the men and women who endured and struggled against the particular power/knowledge formation delineated in the course of a given genealogy, and by those who, in the present, are carrying on or will carry on their fight”.

Research with a normative bent is about worldmaking: about pointing to a different world and contributing to making it possible. And worldmaking - even worldmaking on the small - requires, as Amia Srinivasan notes, that one not only change “one’s own local representations..[but] vie for uptake against the dominant mode of representation”. Achieving that, or simply having the hope it is worth trying, is an activity made more bearable with those friends and allies, and made more plausible by having enough self-awareness to know how your thought has been shaped. Direct “ancestors” aren’t the only sources of that shaping, by a long shot. But they’re one of them. And so it seems perfectly sensible to take their existence and role seriously.