In this post, by way of concluding part II of the formal seminar, I want to address the subject of rhetoric and “letters” in our online community.
I appreciated so much David’s remarks (May 3) about the difference between what can be achieved in a high-level colloquium in a disciplined academic setting and the level of discourse and dialogue we commonly experience in online groups. David comments that “There’s a lot wrong with higher education, but this [colloquium] represents the tradition at its best.” I agree. And one of my strategies is to notice where something epitomizes a tradition or a practice at its best, and then see if I can adapt it or use it as an inspiration, even in a modest way, in my own setting. Thus far in IAJS, as I noted in my paper, we have not developed a consistent style and ethos of discussion, but most of our members have been well acculturated elsewhere and bring some of their good manners and habits with them to this forum.
David reflects that listserve communication is not only “unlike speaking to someone in a colloquium. Interestingly enough, it’s also unlike writing a letter to someone who lives far away. Letter writing is slow, intimate, Dionysian, full of bodily emotions.” Now, here I must weigh in as an old lady who is a trained, committed, passionate letter-writer. The proper form and style for both business and personal letters was a routine part of my early education, and of course that included the now nearly dead art of penmanship. Yes, it is “slow, intimate, Dionysian, full of bodily emotions,” and I have not left it behind: my habits as a letter-writer were so well-established that when e-mail came along, I simply transferred them into the new medium. Yes, I love being able to dash off a quick e-mail or text on some casual or practical matter and get an instant reply. But I also take the attitude that e-mail can be used as a vehicle for continuing the craft of writing slow, serious, thoughtful, ardent letters, whether to an individual or to a group. The difference is that once the slow work of composition is finished, the message can be delivered instantly. This speed of transmission can enhance connection and collaboration among us, but I can’t help being nostalgic for the added layers of messaging conveyed by fine handwriting on beautiful paper, carefully selected postage stamps, and even the possibility, on special occasions, of a drop of perfume on the envelope! Lacking those sensory dimensions, I try to infuse more beauty into the writing itself.
Peter wrote (May 2), “While our disembodied community could not possibly draw on extroverted feeling in the manner you describe [in the university colloquium, etc.], I can’t help but wonder if the feeling-tone you put into your writing couldn’t invite us to aspire to some more disciplined use of feeling between us. I think this is one of your gifts and contribution to the seminar, the listserv, and our community. [Thank you, Peter!] However, it’s difficult to imagine what such a discipline would look like in the midst of our significant differences. Could you imagine into this and let me know what you see?”
A week or two ago I might have given a different answer. Today, having lived through a frightening and heartbreaking couple of weeks in Baltimore, I am not thinking in terms of developing a particular discipline or technique, a way of “manag[ing] our similarities and differences” or using “the point of tension between the individual and group creatively” as Peter puts it. Today I am thinking: let’s just all show up and bring what we have. I want to be like the African-American pastors who showed up in their good grey suits, bringing their rich preaching tradition and nonviolence training, and went out late at night to meet the gang leaders in their t-shirts and baseball caps, who brought their wounds, their street smarts, their power and assertiveness, and their vulnerability. I want to be like the Baltimore Symphony musicians who showed up outdoors with their instruments, the high school kids who brought their dances and drums to the wounded streets, the actors and singers from Center Stage who brought Bob Marley’s music, and Maestro Leon Fleisher who from the Peabody Symphony Orchestra podium acknowledged the cries for justice and the city’s pain, then turned to his student musicians and said, “Now we are going to celebrate some of the great achievements of civilization” (and they lifted their instruments and played their hearts out). I want to be like the teachers and housewives who brought their brooms and swept up streets and shops, the church ladies who made casseroles, the business leaders and football players and community organizers and truck drivers and caterers and everybody else who showed up and brought what they had and gave it with a full heart.
Of course, our little organization is not undergoing an emergency; however, emergencies sometimes teach us about community. This crisis has simply reminded me that when people invest their hearts in an undertaking, new relationships can be forged, out of which new strategies emerge. It is not too much to say that new forms of life can be generated by committed people who bring the best that they have to offer and make themselves vulnerable in difficult situations. People join IAJS for a variety of reasons and have varying levels of commitment. We need not ask everyone to “give their all”, but rather welcome what they do bring and try to evoke their best selves, even in small things, even if their participation is only marginal.
Peter further asks how we might use the sense of “gaps”, the “sadness” that sometimes creeps in, frustration arising from our differences, and the “compassion that comes from mourning” to generate energy for our task. I am thinking of the “gaps” as both the differences among us (the varieties of which Peter listed pretty comprehensively) and the discrepancies between what some of us (individually) hoped for and the reality of our experience as IAJS listserv members. One thing that spurred me to write my paper was the disappointment, frustration, and even righteous anger some members had expressed over the years at the group’s failure to come up to their expectations. I think it is important to acknowledge these lacunae and the emotions they stir (whether justifiably or not). There is also the fatigue that arises from trying to work together despite all the differences and distances, without a shared physical space and cultural context and without the sight of each other’s faces. I believe I am in accord with Peter in thinking that when we both understand their basis and allow ourselves to feel them fully, the negative emotions, fatigue, even the sense of alienation might fuel transformation.
To return to the subject of “letters,” I am delighted that David referenced the Republic of Letters. As I understand it, this phenomenon (and fantasy) was foundational to Enlightenment culture and thus to our modern notions and institutions of scholarship. The meaning of the term embraced the exchange of actual missives between scholars (“men of letters”), their travels, networks, and associations, and the idea of “the literature” (beginning with the first scholarly journal in the mid-seventeenth century). I imagine that you will all be as amazed and pleased as I was to learn that there is now a project based at Stanford University called “Mapping the Republic of Letters”! (//republicofletters.stanford.edu/) A brief look at what research on the Republic is turning up makes me think that we might not have to discount our online network entirely in comparison with that older “web.” One gets the sense that while the great thinkers and scientists of that day no doubt wrote each other pivotally important, high-quality discourses regarding immensely weighty scholarly or philosophical matters, they probably also engaged in casual correspondence on trivial and mundane matters (possibly erotic ones, too!), just as we do.
David observes that “the medium of list-serves favors speed, simple statements, enquiries as well as ego, grandiosity, the one-line jest. Dialogue and the development of long, sustained arguments or complex ideas are simply lost in the detritus of the medium itself.” I’m not sure, though, that we should write off the medium that easily. We might consider our own history of online seminars. In preparation for the present one, I was looking back at a couple of others to get a sense of appropriate scale. The seminar on ‘Emergence’ with George Hogenson (January 24 – February 9, 2011) involved the reading of two of his JAP papers and an introductory essay, followed by discussion over the sixteen-day period. I did a word-count to see how much material was involved; George’s papers plus his eleven online posts added up to over 34,000 words. I didn’t count words in the responses from list members, but they were substantial both in content and in length. That seems to me an indication that we should not underrate what is being accomplished here. In wonder, in fact, whether the Republic might not be alive and well and living on the internet, even – in a modest way –in our group.
Perhaps rather than focusing on efforts to manage and integrate our differences, we should just keep on writing e-mails and organizing seminars and conferences. Recognize the limitations and the strain involved, but throw ourselves into the work anyway, carry on with the experiment and see what arises out of the furnace. Techniques for managing human relationships have their place, but our first task, it seems to me, is to tend the fire.
In my paper I started from the premise that we are a frontier organization, pioneering in cyberspace. I therefore thought of my ancestors on the North American frontier and wondered how they had managed to organize life in their incipient settlements and towns. I’ve mentioned the vital role of clubs and organizations in their lives, and how the habit of joining such groups still runs deep in my family and in most of the communities I’ve lived in. I also think of Holocaust survivors and refugees I have met who have immigrated to this city, bringing with them their wounded hearts and souls, their need to be part of the human family, and their civilized habits, attitudes and skills. Many of them have poured their gifts and their need for community into local organizations dedicated to the arts, medicine, education, or the general welfare. I have noted how this kind of organizing in a local community where people live their embodied lives can be very healing and “ordering” to the community at large, and I confess that I look with a certain longing (even mourning would not be too strong a word) upon that past way of being together, knowing that it is beyond our reach. Still, even in the apparent wilderness of the internet the human capacity for empathy and connection has not been extinguished, and indeed is thriving, but in unfamiliar ways.
Liz wrote (April 23), “Perhaps the attraction of internet groups operating in cyberspace is that they offer an international group identity for those of us adrift with multiple nationalities who cannot return to our point of origin. One could say that IAJS and other online groups perform a valuable function as motherships in cyberspace by giving a sense of group identity and togetherness.” I think this is true, not only for those of multiple nationality, but for many others whose identities compel them to bridge cultural, religious, or intellectual divides, or who have a vocation to become planetary citizens.
So I leave you with the image of us all onboard the good ship IAJS, a motley crew no doubt, but who knows where we might go, what adventures we might have, and what we might learn together.
I think this is a good time for me to sign off on this phase of the seminar. Rather than try to tie it up with a bow, I suggest that we continue the conversation as people desire. I have a couple of followup questions for Peter which I’ll post in a day or two, and will of course respond to any posts directed to me.
With thanks and warm regards to all,
Your faithful correspondent,