Thoughts on the passing of an intellectual interlocutor

I suppose that one of the inevitable consequences of getting older is that more people whom you have known, either personally or through their work, shuffle off this mortal coil and move on to whatever comes next. 2016 seems to have been a bad year for musicians whose work I (and many others) have known and appreciated: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, Glenn Frey…the list goes on. But although I’m an amateur musician myself, my appreciation for folks like these is primarily as a member of the audience, part of the fan base, someone who was touched by their music and mourns the loss of a great talent that may have had more to give the world but now won’t be able to. They were people whose work I admired, but not peers: they were in a very different line of work, so I do not feel like I learned anything from them, although they provided the soundtrack to a lot of my life and the fact that they won’t ever be producing anything new that I can listen to is heartbreaking.

It’s different when someone you personally connected with dies. At least for me, whether you were “friends” or not is less important — the hole left by their passing is a hole in a set of concrete social relations and transactions, a disruption in the web that we each find ourselves enmeshed in. We are who we are in no small part because of those relations and that web; we only become ourselves in conversation, in dialogue, in and through the social transactions in which we participate and which, in turn, sustain and transform us. So when someone like that dies, someone who was a living part of the cultural ecology within which you yourself are a relative stability, there are profound reverberations. How could there not be? You have lost a part of yourself, the part that was carried in concrete relation to that other person.

Some of the people in your web are probably people you shared a lot of experiences with. Some of them are people you interact with regularly and routinely and robustly, some by choice, some because for whatever reason you are tossed together with them from time to time (say, on holidays). Some are more distant acquaintances, more occasional partners; some were closer in the past and more distant now, some the opposite. If you’re lucky, some were your teachers, whether in the formal in-a-classroom-getting-a-grade sense, or in one of the various versions of counselor/mentor roles distributed throughout contemporary life. I say “if you’re lucky” because I fear that some people go through life without such relationships: instead of teachers and mentors they have trainers and patrons and people in positions of power and influence who certify and vouch for them…but that’s as far as it goes. Teachers and mentors care about your development and your learning, and whatever private motives they may harbor related to why they engage in mentoring and teaching, the intention of a teaching/mentoring relationship is not focused on the mentor or teacher, but on the mentee or student. Teachers and mentors at their best hold open the space for us to be and become ourselves, if not precisely our best selves, then at least better versions of ourselves.

It’s different again when a colleague passes. I don’t simply mean when someone one knows personally who is (broadly speaking) in the same line of work dies. That’s sad, sometimes tragic, but the feeling of loss is different if the deceased is not just someone engaged in the same overall endeavor but is someone who you have had actually conversational exchanges with about that endeavor. A teammate, part of the cast and crew of the show you’re putting on together. Someone who is thinking about the same problems that you are thinking about, or at any rate, close enough that there is a practical, partial overlap between your concerns and that is enough to make you peers, regardless of the different levels of experience or proficiency you might have. At the end of the day, facing a common problem or challenge is a great equalizer. Even if the team you’re facing the challenge with includes someone who was once your teacher or mentor, someone from who you learned the basic rules of the game, once it’s no longer a training exercise and becomes a live performance, you are just a group of people collectively wrestling with something that demands commitment and creativity from all of you.

This morning I learned that John Shotter died. Yes, I am very aware that it’s taken me until the fifth paragraph of this essay to get to that fact — even though it’s the occasion for my reflections. What I am trying to do is to clarify for myself why the news of his death hit me so hard, despite the fact that the sum total of our personal interactions were perhaps a dozen e-mails and one lovely two-day workshop (facilitated by Rom Harré) over a decade ago. In order to clarify that for myself I needed to first create some mental space where I could appreciate that relationship properly. Only then can I perhaps start to grieve.

I suspect that many if not people reading this blog have no idea who John Shotter was. He wasn’t part of “our” academic tribe of international-relationsists, didn’t attend “our” conferences, wasn’t someone whose work got discussed in “the literature” of the field. He wasn’t my teacher, and I would be reluctant to say that he was my friend simply because we had so sparse a history of interaction. But his work was absolutely critical to my intellectual trajectory, and his generous reactions to my work (and to the use I made of his work) gave me a real sense of belonging to a common scholarly enterprise — one that stretched far beyond Political Science and international studies and even academia as a whole — that I have rarely if ever encountered amidst the daily grind of the academic life (and when I have, it has almost always been about teaching, and virtually never about scholarship). And all of this from a man whose skepticism about “theory” and valorization of “practice” was legendary, to the point where most of his scholarly writings functioned, like Wittgenstein’s metaphorical ladder at the end of the Tractatus, as signposts pointing beyond themselves into a place where the could be safely kicked away.

I mention Wittgenstein here not just the allusion fits, but because although I’d read Wittgenstein before, it isn’t until I read Shotter that I actually got Wittgenstein. I appreciated the logical sparseness of the Tractatus and the demolition of the notion of a “private language” in Philosophical Investigations, and I cherished Wittgenstein’s quip about the lion (PI §IIxi, p. 223: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”) as a weapon to wield against people who argued that communication was about transmitting subjective states of mind to others. But I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with all of that until one day in the Lehman Library at Columbia University, when I was a graduate student, I picked up and checked out a copy of Shotter’s book Cultural Politics of Everyday Life (largely because of the title and the tremendously cool cover, which prominently featured a photo of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) and…well, to be perfectly honest, I put it on my shelf at home alongside the zillion other things I had in my “to read” queue, and did not actually crack it open until I encountered a reference to it in a Harrison White article about networks and social relations some months later. Although I was very intrigued when by Shotter’s formulation in the book’s Introduction of a “rhetorical-responsive version” of “social constructionism” — by that point in my graduate student career I had already become dissatisfied with what mainstream IR called “constructivism” and was casting around for alternatives — when I got to the poststructural linguistic philosophy on pp. 13-14 I found myself nodding in strong agreement as Shotter put his finger on both what I found appealing about Derrida and Lyotard and what I found unsatisfying about them. And then came p. 14 endnote 15, which appears on p. 220 of the book:

And clearly, it is in the unbridgeable ‘gap’ between this reality and its presentation, opened up both in recent philosophy and poststructuralist literary criticism, that ‘the unending free play of signifiers’ occurs. This, however, it seems to me, is only possible as a state of affairs ‘in theory’, that is, within a theoretical system unaware of its own social conditions of possibility (intelligibility). In practice, the dilemmatic themes intrinsic to our ways of talking and knowing are resolved; that is what the practical politics of everyday life is about.

For me that was a proverbial jaw-hitting-the-floor moment of intellectual clarity. In those three sentences John Shotter gave voice to precisely what bothered me about many “deconstructive” readings of texts, including the texts of international affairs: they were often too clever by half, locating chains of signification and allusion and reference that were only implausibly connected to the actual situation. As political claims, I appreciated them, but as explanatory claims? No thanks. Better by far to focus on what we actually had in front of us, which was a collection of situated actors with a pliable-but-not-infinitely-so set of tropes, gestures, and commonplaces (inhabiting what Shotter called a “living tradition,” borrowing the term with some important modifications from Alasdair MacIntyre) facing practical challenges that they had to resolve with the resources available to them. Texts just don’t mean whatever we can make them appear to mean, but they don’t have a single unequivocal meaning that can be somehow “plainly” read off of them either. Instead we need to turn our eyes towards sense-making practices, situated actions by situated actors as they strive to make sense of their situations and figure out how to “go on” in them.

That was the implication of Wittgenstein. That was how one might engage in something like the scientific explanation of social outcomes without succumbing to either mindless quantification or hyperbolic rationalism or static “thick description” that eschewed causality altogether. And that was what social science was for: not merely for providing useful correlations that might enable the powerful to manipulate the less powerful or the less powerful to become more powerful, not merely for translating political claims into apparently “objective” language in order to valorize some claims while impugning others, but instead to aid in the recovery of agency and creativity by showing how people’s situated actions brought about outcomes. As Shotter put it in the book Conversational Realities, published the same year as Cultural Politics of Everyday Life but which I did not read until I first taught a Ph.D. seminar on the philosophy of inquiry a few years later and wanted to assign some Shotter but not Cultural Politics because it’s actually a very dense book, the pressing scholarly task was to help forge new “basic ways of talking” that could help us avoid the dangers and errors of rationalism, structuralism, objectivism, and all of the other isms that were maintained as viable concerns by the academic form of life which placed a premium on written words exchanged in a controlled setting. Because so much of academic discussion is directed at other scholars, and takes place in stylized “disciplines” with their own peculiar vernacular, the risk of reification is immense — we spend so much time talking to one another about our abstractions that they all-too-easily take on an ontological weight that they don’t deserve. And our everyday academic practices sustain those unreal realities, not just inside of the academy, but outside of the academy as well, since our scholarly deployment of notions and concepts and theories often helps to anchor and sustain them in broader perspective. So what was and is called for is some way for the fly to get out of the fly-bottle, some way of getting past the disciplinary obsession with producing and refining theory as an end in itself, some opening to the appreciation and cherishing of everyday situated creative action.

Obviously I didn’t figure out all of this in a flash on first reading that endnote, but the pathway leading from that moment to that broader awareness is pretty clear. In the near term, my dissertation and first book made much of the notion of a “living tradition” as advanced by Shotter, emphasizing the inherently ambiguous and indefinite character of the “rhetorical commonplaces” drawn on by policymakers to legitimate their policies. I read a lot more Wittgenstein, and that colored my reading of Max Weber in ways that I now realize needs a book-length explication (which is why I am working on that book for the remainder of my sabbatical). My appreciation of theory became a lot more instrumental and pragmatic than is the norm in our field, which is partially why I could write a book based in a notion of “science” so broad that it gave no operational instructions beyond “be systematic, open to public criticism, and focused on the world instead of anything beyond it” — because I wagered that such an epistemically pluralist notion would prove more useful in directing our scholarly attention back to where it needed to be directed than any restricted notion of “science” would. I don’t care about the supposed “progress” and “cumulation” of knowledge; I care about what William James would call the “cash value” of knowledge-claims, and in particular what they afford us in terms of explaining outcomes in a way that highlights and preserves the creativity of action. And I wager — and will continue to wager — that a lot of different philosophical ontologies can help us get there.

I would label myself a “Shotterian” except that I know that John would hate that. Rather, I would say — as he generously said to me on those few occasions when we spoke, either in person or by e-mail — that we were working towards similar goals, part of the same campaign. Shotter’s main target was the language of academic psychology, with its focus on mental states and essential attributes of personality, and its preference for controlled experimental settings rather than open-ended actual situations; his work in discursive psychology and social constructionism was in many ways an exploration of relational person-hood. But although his fights were not precisely my rights, they were similar enough that he appreciated what I was doing in treating state person-hood as an ongoing project, advocating epistemic pluralism without abandoning logical rigor, and generally trying to figure out how to help us stop worrying so much about the right way to study something and to worry more about the consequences and implications of the way that we had chosen to study something. And likewise I could appreciate what he was doing with the targets he chose. So when we exchanged papers and draft chapters, as we did a few times over the years, we rarely discussed the details of our respective criticisms of the problems of our fields, but focused on the overlap, our shared concerns. His responses to my papers were usually to point out phrasings of mine that he liked (including, on one occasion, something to the effect of “that’s not how I would have said it but I like the way you said it better” — a comment which kept me in high spirits for some weeks thereafter) and to affirm that the kind of work I was doing was “much needed.”

I was not John Shotter’s student in any meaningful sense. He was neither my teacher nor my mentor. We worked in different fields, moved in different circles, tilted at different windmills. My initial encounter with his work was more of the “part of the fan base” type — I read it, thought it was brilliant, and never dreamed that I might meet the guy one day. Let alone exchange papers with him, talk about autism with him (our last conversation back in May was about autism, spurred by a paper he’d written on “communication anxieties” and the challenge of allowing others to be themselves in conversation), come to feel like he and I were playing for the same team. But John was always very clear that he thought we were in fact engaged in the same campaign, and he was delighted that I found his writing useful for that purpose. There was a real intellectual generosity about him, a sense of commitment to the overall project — and a complete lack of ego in welcoming a junior academic from a completely different field as an ally. In music-fan terms, it was like meeting an artist one admired and then playing in a band with him, or at least playing in a separate band and exchanging songs.

That’s what I will miss. Despite the fact that it could be years between times we spoke, when we did there was always that affirmation that I wasn’t alone fighting this fight, that someone whose work had affected me so profoundly counted me as making useful contributions to the cause. John’s writing remains, and I still refer people to it all the time, and continue to draw on it in my own work. In the Epilogue to Cultural Politics, John refers to his “textual friends,” the authors he repeatedly quotes from in his own writing, the people with whom he is having a conversation, albeit a conversation that is mediated by text. In that sense, I am proud to count John Shotter as one of my “textual friends,” and am honored to have have engaged with him as a living person as well. John Shotter has passed on, but the work remains.