Sunday, 1 May 2016

PhD diary #7: 01/05/2016 – On stupidity

Among the questions commonly asked of PhD candidates concerning their research, there are two that I think are closely related: the "so what?" question and the "what are your normative commitments?" question. The first asks for some justification, by unspecified criteria, as to the project's general worth and validity. The second might be attempting to elicit some sort of political or tribal affiliation – as is an academic's wont; or, it might be asking largely the same thing as the first question but slightly more specifically: what are the political or moral commitments that make this a worthy, valid project to be undertaking?

With a project as broad, abstract, philosophical and, therefore, as "academic" as the one that I am working on, these questions can be tricky – not least because these are the sorts of questions that keep PhD students up at night, quite apart from any summary, collegial interrogation! Particularly, working in the field of International Relations, there is often an implicit sense that the intellectual validity of your work is directly proportional to the directness with which it is concerned with grotesque amounts of horrendous violence and death – actual or possible.

Of course, I have many normative and political commitments, some of which might even be relevant to this specific instance. Likewise, there are many ways in which I think that I could respond to the "so what?" question with regard to this or that nugget of academic debate. However, the stronger answer that I am inclined to give, even if this might be seen to indulge in a certain intellectualism, is to say: what I am against, what I am resisting, what I am seeking to undo, displace or contradict is, most fundamentally, stupidity.

Now, of course, that is the kind of word that requires immediate qualification.

In Isabelle Stengers' recent (or, rather, recently translated) book In Catastrophic Times (2015, Andrew Goffey trans. [Au temps des catastrophes, 2009]), she describes stupidity [bêtise] as follows:
"Stupidity does not here refer to stupor, to paralysis, or to impotence. Stupidity is active, it feeds on its effects, on the manner in which it dismembers a concrete situation, in which it destroys the capacity for thinking and imagining of those who envisaged ways of doing things differently, leaving them stunned, a stupid and nasty argument may well leave you stunned with the mute perplexity of a “he may be right but all the same,” or enraged, which confirms it in turn: you see, with these kinds of people, there’s always violence."
The concept has a particular meaning in the context of her overall argument, which particularly concerns how to deal with (or not) the "guardians" that take it upon themselves to govern us. My meaning is slightly different, although perhaps adjacent.

For my purposes, stupidity is not so much inadequacy of understanding or inability to respond intelligently to a problem as an inability to recognise such inadequacy as inadequacy and, therefore, a wilful, active inability to recognise this thing as a "problem" at all.

It is in this sense a second order inability. The proper response to stupidity is neither problematisation as an end in itself nor an attempt to fix or solve the problem once and for all. Rather, it is to attempt to respond better, by some metric relevant to the immediate situation. General metrics can only lead to further and deeper stupidity.

A failure to think where thinking is necessary. (Of course, everything rests on this "necessary.")

In whichever way you cut it, there is a great deal of stupidity with regard to how we think (or do not think) about issues of environment and geopolitics, today. Both the purposes and the commitments of the project therefore derive from a determination to, in however minor a fashion, ease the pressures imposed by the stupidity of the moment.

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