Tuesday, February 08, 2005

We recently met up to discuss Patti Lather's 1993 article “Fertile Obsession: Validity after Poststructuralism” (in The Sociological Quarterly, 34:4, p. 673-693). Nina suggested that we read it in part, I think, because as social scientists who frequently collaborate with researchers, designers and technologists in business, we commonly run up against especially virulent and calcified forms of validity.

To me, Lather's article seemed dated, from a time when a certain kind of diffident self-reflexivity seemed like it might be adequate to the task of undermining validity and other positivist practices. We talked about how this form of coy irony (e.g. rather than a checklist, Lather gives us a "checklist that mimics checklists") will and does play out very differently for men than for women (it's one thing for a man to claim a kind of power in playful unknowing; another for a woman to do so—especially in confrontation or collaboration with fields which still very much value knowing, and knowing with certainty). Although a self-professed feminist, Lather doesn't account for this. But this too may be a factor of time: in its moment, Lather's poststructuralist language may have, itself, seemed like enough to trouble standing gender codes. But 10 years on, I'm not sure this is true—and it's certainly not true in corporate boardrooms. Relatedly, we talked about how Lather's tactics (like so much Deleuzean or Derridean poststructuralism—and Lather frequently cites both, although seems not to have read much Deleuze or Derrida, but mostly secondary commentators writing about them) seem so thoroughly writerly; in fact, they seem encased in her text and lacking a will to move outward (e.g. Lather's professed interests in a project on people living with HIV/AIDS are entirely methodological, "Who are my 'others?' What binaries structure my argument?"—but what about the people living with HIV/AIDS? Will we learn anything about them...anything useful?).

But there was also some optimism about the possible uses for Lather's idea of "voluptuous validity," for work that is always excessive or "too much." In fact, there may have been much more optimism than I'm representing. I admit to being a pretty grumpy amanuensis.