• working/reading

    I am reading through 'both ways' literature of Yolngu and non-Yolngu working their knowledge systems together. Alongside I am reading Lorraine Code's 2006 book Ecological Thinking. I am also browsing through blogs and discussions on knowledge work and community development.
  • About this Blog

    Here I post some of my work and thinking. It is a much harder task than I thought! It is an extension of my research on knowledge and difference connecting my experiences, reflections, formal written pieces, and hopefully friends and colleagues. As work and self cannot be separate this blog is both personal and intellectual. Comments are moderated because, while it is a site for collective work, it is not anonymous.
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This blog is not longer being used: it has been moved to www.christianclark.net


Speaking for Others: small steps and giant leaps

Recently I have been working on a paper about the Digital Objects at work in the Healthy Breathing and Heart Project. In the first draft of a paper I wrote that I was assuming an ‘double outsider’ and referenced a piece of work by Helen Verran where she wrote of being an outsider in what I read to be a similar workshop between Yolŋu knowledge authorities and Environmental Scientists (I’ll put all the papers I refer to down the bottom).

I made this move, assuming to be a double outsider, with a hope to make this simple point: by not being an insider of either recognised knowledge traditions (Yolŋu nor Environmental Science) I might hope to be able to credit and value both knowledge traditions and hopefully work in a way that supported multiple ways of know … not so easy!

A few months later I had the at first stomach turning then delightful experience of having two reviewers take my work seriously and provide some very strong and helpful feedback. After getting over the shock of the red and orange typing all throughout my paper I began to realise how supportive and helpful the comments were, not just to writing this paper but much more generally.

One of the points that was picked up on was how could I claim authority to write as an outsider and I was given two papers to read on ‘speaking for others.’ By trying to just take a little step in order to recognise multiple knowledges, I found I had taken a rather large leap.

So I have rewritten the piece with this in mind and as it happened removed much of the material about subjects and speaking for subjects and focussed on the agency of objects. What was very useful about the Linda Alcoff piece was that she identifies that the problem of speaking for other people as the same problem about speaking about other things: it is how we grant ourselves the power to make the great leap necessary in using a representational theory of knowledge – how we assure the connection between reality and our knowledge of it.

Reading Maria Lugones’ “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception” I had a reoccurring thought that it was making a parallel argument to Leigh Star and James Griesemer make in their well known piece on boundary objects. At some point I’ll read them together.


Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Cultural Critique, no. 20 (Winter, -1992 1991): 5-32.

Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception.,” Hypatia 2, no. 2 (Summer87 1987): 3.

Helen Verran, “A Postcolonial Moment in Science Studies: Alternative Firing Regimes of Environmental Scientists and Aboriginal Landowners,” Social Studies of Science 32, no. 5/6 (2002): 729-762.

Susan Leigh Star and James R Griesemer, “Institutional ecology,’translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social studies of science (1989): 387–420.

[From speaking for others: small steps and giant leaps]

Being wrong, tolerating dissent

A recent quote by a man of the moment, educationalist and thinker Ken Robinson has had quite a profound effect on me: ‘nothing original can be achieved if you are in fear of being wrong.’ Certainly as a university student the fear of being wrong is strong. I still feel it in writing this blog. As a tutor I often struggled with the impulse to simply hide behind the authority of the tutor rather admit I was wrong.

Being wrong, and right, are embodied experience. It is not simply about abstract knowledge claims, nor entirely about social status. My most recent experience of this was riding home a month ago. It was night time and a family was tumbling out of a car and congregating on the bike path outside a restaurant. My reaction was simply to slow down, stay on my line and ring my bell. I was right. I was on a bike, on the bike path. It was an immediate physical feeling of being right. I even sat up a little in that arrogant, impatient kind of way. I didn’t think to communicate with the family, think to call out in case my bell was too soft, or even notice that the family were too busy getting out of the car to notice me or my bell. My immediate reaction was that I was right and that it was their responsibility to notice me and get out of my way. In consideration of their ignorance I slowed down, a little.

“Sorry this must happen all the time,” said the man as he ushered his kids off the bike path. By speaking to me, addressing me, I was suddenly in a relation to this man and his family. Then I was twenty meters down the street thinking ‘It doesn’t actually happen all that often. What’s my problem!’

My problem was that the sense of being right came over me all to soon and unconsciously. It certainly had to do with the context; the quiet fear or anxiety a rider has on city roads, the fact that as a cyclists I have been given a lane and I was staying in it, as a cyclist I go much faster then a family on foot and could potentially ride past without considering them as people, just an obstacle.

I saw a similar situation and effect expressed the other day when a scientist said that the great myth of the climate change debate was that there was dissent amongst the scientific community. “There is no dissent!” he exclaimed (I remember it was a man). Why can’t he say, “Yeah, there is a very very small group of scientists who don’t agree and they are keeping the rest of us on our toes, but climate change is REAL problem that needs addressing immediately.”? Of course, he can’t say this because in the cut and thrust of politics and media it would be shortened to “Yeah, there is a very very small group of scientists who don’t agree”. And I would add, our general understandings of science (taught in school and common throughout universities and society) likes to keep talk of uncertainty and talk of reality separate and hence cannot tolerate a scientist talking about something that is both REAL and UNCERTAIN at once.

I worry about people and communities that can no longer tolerate dissent. In this case I agree that disinformation and dissent about climate change comes much from privately funded research and commercial interests. But that is also not why it is wrong or not worthy of consideration. No science today is outside private funding and commercial interest. If we have a problem with oil companies then let’s say it, if climate change is serious then say that, but denying dissent is dangerous.

This post is in some sense an admission to the family I rode so swiftly by. Often an admission is directed back on oneself, ‘I admit I was wrong.’ But an admission is also an act of allowing an entry, a sharing of a privilege, or making a place for something that is different (by not mentioning dissent the scientists above is not sharing with his dissenters the privilege of his interview and maybe this is justified). But … we need to protect places of dissent and allow families on bike paths without the fear that they will throw us off the path entirely.

[From Being wrong and tolerating dissent]

Tagging, Classification and Delicious

While I am aware of the problems of using tags as a form of standardized categorization (see the discussion here and more below) I have begun a Delicious page. Delicious is a way of keeping and tagging your bookmarks online. I saw one great page that had used Delicious to share a reference lists of online resources and this is what inspired me to have one. So, I am using Delicious to share what I have come across that is interesting during my research. By going to http://delicious.com/christianjclark you can see all the webpages I bookmark and read regularly and on the right you can sort them by tags such as research, news, indigenous.

One problem with Delicious is that it takes spaces ‘ ’ in a string of text as what distinguishes one tag from another. So “indigenous research” becomes tagged as ‘indigenous’ and ‘research’, and “science and technology studies” becomes tagged as ‘science’ ‘and’ ‘technology’ ‘studies’. Hence the grammar of tags does not preserve word order, which is not so good for those of us who work in English. One way to understand this is that it is a consequence of categorization purifying an entity to the smallest possible bits, just enough to give it names and then reifying these names as a categories. Hence, we are left with many residual relationships of what cannot be categorized, possibly because an entity is relational or complex, not discrete or simple. I was reminded of much of this in some wonderful presentation by Susan Leigh Star and Geof Bower at the Teaching From Country Seminar last month (see Star and Bowker’s book “Sorting Things Out” for more on classification and categorization).

For me, and others, Indigenous Research has particular and problematic meanings (ones I am still struggling with and won’t go into here but see Michael Christie’s “Transdisciplinary Research and Aboriginal Knowledge”). When Indigenous Research becomes tagged as ‘indigenous’ ‘research’ (at least here word order is preserved as alphabetical order) the multiplicity of meanings and their contestation can be lost and results in essentializing both ‘indigenous’ and ‘research’. This may result in, for example, any research done by someone who identifies as indigenous classified as ‘indigenous’ ‘research’ even if there is no consideration of Indigenous knowledge or methodologies. This is neither good nor bad, but it shows the power of classification which needs to be remembered along with the meaning that don’t fit.

So using Delicious is a project of both using and interrogating tags, online knowledge management, and collaboration. Let me know what you think.

philosophy and philanthropy

This is just a short little piece about … you guessed it, philanthropy and philosophy. It is perhaps an aroma wafting of what I am trying to cook up at the moment – a piece on what/who a philosopher might be.

So philosophy and philanthropy. As you probably guessed it is the words I am interested in: philosophy – the love (philia) of wisdom (sophia), philanthropy – the love (philia) of humanity (anthropos). Yet today they practice very different kinds of love. You can imagine a common picture of a philosopher loving through cherishing: cherishing books, libraries, comfy chairs, space and time to think. While the philosopher goes about living there is nothing they love more, nothing they cherish more, than some peace and quite and good thought. Love for a philanthropist, however, is not about cherishing but about giving. Their act of cherishing humanity is through giving, mostly money, but also material resources and expertise.

There is a famous quote by Lao Tzu: “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” Somewherre along the way, in trying to be kind philosophers have ended up thinking and generating profoundness and philanthropists ended up giving and generate love.

Now I’m sure Lao Tzu didn’t imagine a disciplinary division of kindness, but this seems to have occurred. Artists, poets, philosophers, writers and thinkers apply for grants from philanthropists. One thinks without giving the other gives without thinking.

So maybe philosophers need to spend a little less time cherishing quiet contemplation and a little more time giving (and one could add the counterpoint, philanthropists could spend a little less time giving and and more time thinking).

This might have something to do with my philosophizing in Arnhem Land, and Darwin and Melbourne. Many people are supportive of my research and I am very grateful. When I talk about my research however, I sometimes feel that either, people think I am ‘helping’ Indigenous Australians and they approve of that but don’t really get ‘what’ my research in on, or they get the philosophical traditions I work in but seemed puzzled as to why fixing car called Meṉḏa with some Yolŋu relations has any meaningful contribution to philosophy. I don’t think is because of what these individual people think as individuals but because of the understandings of philosophy and philanthropy we all seem to share, me included. Feeling that my reading of books is irrelevant to helping anything, and feeling my actions as all here and now and without thought are familiar to me.

So if we are to think about philosophy loving wisdom through giving wisdom, rather than cherishing it we might look to what Barry Schwartz has to say. But giving it not always good. the methods and conditions under which philanthropy provides help always influences the running of the project they support. If philosophy offers anything it also is responsible for what it gives. Believing that knowledge is somehow in the realm of consciousness or the ether has contributed to philosophy and the arts being later as ‘useless’, but any challenged to this also must be the challenge that knowledge is not a neutral good. Knowledge has effects in the world – I will explain this later when I attempt a larger explanation of my research. Until then, understanding the worlds that our knowledge effects and how giving can be done better is maybe a future for philosophy.

[From philosophy and philanthropy]

Tagging, Metaphor and Web 2.0

There is much hype about Web2.0 (blogs, twitter, feeds, rss, tags) and how it will transform the world as we know it. I have been draw in of late. I have been watching TED talks about how processor speed will get better and better with a prediction that in twenty years a computer will be as smart of a three month old baby and the internet will be as complex as a human consciousness (lot’s of three months olds?). I have also reading blogs and such on knowledge management and how social networking sites and technologies in Web2.0 such as tagging will liberate the use, categorization and transformation of knowledge (no longer will librarians and information managers sort and file our information but we will do it collectively over the internet). One major concern in talk about tagging is whether ‘tags’ (a word or words associated with a item of knowledge) correctly describe what they tag. Indeed, all the research I found on tagging looked at this. So it seems that we are simply reproducing the representation understanding of knowledge: does the representation accurate point to what it says it does. Not very transformative at all.

I bought up tagging with friends at the pub the other night and asked can tags ever work strategically as metaphors. I didn’t make my point very well and have been thinking about tagging ever since. Then walking down my street I come across this:


This form of tagging had not even come to mind in all my ponderings! But a few years ago a conversation at a pub about tagging surely would have been talking about these additions to our public landscape. But these tags were never meant to truly represent a real thing. They were many things; a claim to space, protest, art, communal practice, but not a representation. Perhaps a representation in the political sense by the disenfranchised. So who is tagging and claiming space online? I had a bit of a play Flickr. These are the amount of photos under each tag:

indigenous: 35 938
indigenous australians: 58
Yolngu: 147

war: 497 614
peace: 361 385

Africa: 1 537 437
America: 1 094 210

happy: 744 463
sad: 144 295

poetry: 109 007 (inspired by the tag next to my house)
music: 5 016 741
painting: 803 512
photo: 2 060 750

surveillance: 15 250
tagging: 47 409

A few observations: the Yolngu certainly are a popular group of Indigenous Australians. The ‘Africa’ tag has a lot of photos for a continent with not many digital cameras, so who is taking the photos? Amazing that music could ‘out-tag’ painting is a visual medium. Another interesting thing Flickr does is show related tags. On the tag ‘war’ the most related tags are ‘memorial’ (over 500 000 photos more that war itself!) and peace (not so popular) and protest. Under ‘indigenous’, ‘child’ is a related tag. Why is indigenous related to childishness?

What to make of this? Is war more popular than peace? Is Africa more photogenic than America? Is music more photogenic than a paintings? It’s all a little too confusing.

I’ll get back to my theme – is this really new? The distribution and logic of Web2.0 is not really that revolutionary. If most of the processing power goes into war and going to space, is more processing power really a social good? And if we do turn processing power and modern technology to social ends will it work? If processing power defines intelligence as essentially computational and is still being understood within a representation understanding of knowledge how will it deal with knowledge systems in Indigenous Australia and African that have vastly different logics? Are photos representing Africa helping make space for African communities gain control over how these technologies are used? If you doubled the process power of a ‘three month old’ does it become a ‘six month old’?

So I am bring a bit facetious now, but it is worth being suspicious. The difference between representation and metaphor is that representation in the West ignores its production and where it comes from. Once representation are made they are taken as as self-evident. A tag is taken to point to what it says. A photo never includes the photographer. A metaphor keeps the fact that is it moving from context to context more evident. I guess I am greatly enjoying the web 2.0 at the moment but I trying not to take it on its own terms.

[From Tagging, Metaphor and Web 2.0]