Saturday, June 4, 2011

Randall Collins’ Sociology of Philosophies: Learning My Role as a Burgeoning Intellectual

All of us, from stars to bystanders, are part of the same field of forces. The network that links us together shapes and distributes our ideas and our energies” –Randall Collins

After listening to Byron Hawk’s fascinating talk on intellectual networks in the rhetoric and composition community at the 4Cs this year, I bumped into him in the hotel and asked him to tell me again the name of that book about sociology and philosophy. He told me it was by Randall Collins. We chatted about it for a couple minutes and he continued to one bar and me to another. Meeting and talking with Hawk about Collins’ book filled me with what Collins calls Emotional Energy (EE), which drove me to eventually order Collins book, read the first two chapters, which again filled me with EE, which gave me the impetus to write this blog. Indeed, the 4Cs conference was a successful networking adventure, as I met (and in some instances, got intoxicated with) several people whose books and articles I had read. I wasn’t even presenting at the conference, but it was probably my favorite conference experience. The intellectual energy was partially in the lecture rooms, but mostly it was at the bars. 4Cs is a major “interaction ritual” for the rhetoric and composition community.

My experience at the 4Cs and other conferences seem to provide personal empirical evidence for the way Collins describes intellectuals. Perhaps it is a bit early for me to meta-reflect on my own intellectual development and connections, but such reflection is necessary in order to enter an academic community. Furthermore, there are three forces that make me want to think about this issue: 1) Collins’ book, 2) conversations I have had with my friend, advisor, and mentor, Dr. Blake Hobby 3) my current environment.

Point 1 is pretty self-explanatory, so let’s turn to point 2. I remember like it was yesterday a very important conversation between Blake and I regarding emotions and intellect. I had just been to a counselor who would talk about how I was cutting my emotions off (he used the analogy of cutting off an arm) by over-intellectualizing every situation. Now, I won’t deny that I sometimes use intellectualization as a defense mechanism, but it was very clear to me that this counselor did not understand that intellectuals are emotionally driven by their intellectual activity[1]: thinking, communicating, writing, networking. I have never thought of my ‘feelings’ as apart from questions of ontology, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. Blake let me know that that is common for intellectuals. We get excited about ideas, we get depressed by ideas, we get frusturated by ideas, we can hate ideas, we can love ideas. Our emotions are inevitably tied to our intellectual productivity—we need what Collins’ called “symbolic payoff.”

Furthermore, we love interacting with people in focused conversations about particular ideas or figures. This brings me to my third point. Currently, I am living away from my network of English student intellectuals in North Carolina. I have repeatedly told people that I love NC, where I am, and who I am living with but that I feel “disconnected” from the network of people that provide me with support—and—intellectual energy. I am reading books and blogging, but I feel like I have no direction to my research. There are connections sure—and these connections may foster a productive research direction, but right now, I am dwelling on a horizontal plane of texts, where I see connections and distinctions, but lack focus. Collins argues that it is this focus and reflexivity of our activity that makes us intellectuals. Ideas and creativity does not form in the isolated mind of a genius, but rather through the flows of connections and discussions of individuals on a micro and macro level.

This may be a reason why many of us who teach undergraduate students—particularly in rhetoric and composition—have a hard time seeing them as “intellectuals.” All college students are not intellectuals. They are more concerned with a social network of friends than a network of colleagues who help develop ideas. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly from a pedagogical standpoint, Collins’ clearly echoes many things I have said about the importance of text and lecture in the classroom: “The key intellectual ritual, the lecture, is one that has been prepared for by reading a relevant background of texts; and its contents are typically on the way to becoming published” (Collins 26). The importance of a background of texts—or even text—gives focus to a discussion. If students haven’t read the text (or watched the film) there is no common ground or context for intellectual discussion. Do we ask too much of our students, who may not always be intellectual, to retain a focus (in an oral situation) on one topic? If so, what happens to the discussion model of the classroom—particularly if that classroom is oriented toward teaching writing, which is tied up in teaching reading (a book, a film, a commercial, an ad, an artwork, etc.)? Are we modeling our classrooms one our own experience as intellectuals? If the university is a place for intellectual gathering, why do we find it a pre-requisite for any job on the market, where a technical school would do just as well (if not better)? Why as a culture do we want to make everyone an intellectual?

These are scattered thoughts and anecdotes. A more focused discussion of Collins’ book will be forthcoming. I plan to put him into conversation with Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention. Muckelbauer, strongly influenced by Derrida and D&G, argues that we must “inhabit” texts in order for an affirmative invention to occur. His task is to see if there is a way to get away from the necessity of dialectical negation in order for change to occur. Collins’ book seems to be a very “position” based approach in one way, but I also think by paying attention to concrete interactions of people he may be “inhabiting” these connections historically as Muckelbauer does textually. Also, I want to place Collins’ book in context with my recent thoughts on Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? I see overlaps between the two works, and I particularly want to discuss the relationship between the “intensity” of a “concept” and Collins’ explanation of “emotional energy” and “cultural capital.”

Works Cited

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge: 
        Belknap, 1998. Print. 

[1] I am also reminded of another distinction from a  more current friend of mine—coincidentally also named Blake—who told me there were two kinds of people who go to graduate school: one type consists in the type that know their niche, they like doing that thing, and that is their career. And then, these are what he calls “intellectuals.” I think that using Collins’ book, I might be able to make his distinction more clear and say that these “intellectuals” are the ones who derive emotional energy from their research, writing, and focused conversation. 

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