Jabberwocky Watch: Hybrid Tipping Points for Turbulent Times

Apr 09, 2010 | 

Peter Wood

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Jabberwocky Watch: Hybrid Tipping Points for Turbulent Times

Apr 09, 2010 | 

Peter Wood



DePaul University in Chicago has announced a summer seminar (see announcement below or download here) on “Negotiating Change: Critical Transitions, Tipping Points, and Cataclysmic Futures.”  I thought of posting this in our “No Comment” section, but really, sometimes you just have to comment.

If you had to guess from the title, what do you think “Negotiating Change” would address?  Financial markets?  Global warming?  Lifestyles?

Whatever you guess will be at least partly right.  The DePaul seminar runs “across disciplines” the way an inebriated pedestrian runs across a Manhattan street.  Heedlessly.  And likely to leave taxi cab drivers leaning on their horns, bus riders sprawled in the aisles, and bike messengers skidding into pavement.  It seems “Negotiating Change” is an invitation to think about “devastating earthquakes, financial collapses, climate catastrophes, social upheaval, rapid cultural change and so forth,” as all part of our “turbulent times.”

Scholarship as we once knew it took some conscientious pride in breaking large, complex, and seemingly unsolvable problems into smaller ones that could be solved.  The grand synthesis that attempted to join the smaller solutions into an encompassing theory was work that required thorough mastery of dauntingly large bodies of knowledge. Synthesis always was, nonetheless, a task that also required imagination and insight, and great works of synthesis—think of Newton’s Principia—are often also announce grand new vistas.

But why wait for a brilliant polymath to synthesize?  In the glorious new age of Connectivity, we can all be synthesizers!  The first annual “Connected Communities Summer Seminar” appears limited to DePaul faculty members, but that’s about the only limit in place.   To negotiate change in our turbulent times, it appears you don’t have to have much by way of a common intellectual vocabulary.  The four sessions outlined in the announcement are:

Examining rapid change in geology, ecology, political science, literary movements, child/adolescent psychology, linguistics,... (insert your discipline here);

Reading foundational literature (popular and academic – e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point; and Serge Gruzinski’s The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization; and readings from Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler);

Understanding, predicting and guiding rapid change (brainstorming); and

Innovation – best ideas for the future from the academic disciplines.

What shall we call the folks who propose this approach?  Connectivists?  They have a “foundational literature” of pop sociology and the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who is celebrated for her “impenetrable, jargon-ridden prose” and who once won first prize in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s “Bad Writing Competition.”  But in a time of turmoil, beset by “devastating earthquakes, financial collapses, climate catastrophes, social upheaval, rapid cultural change and so forth,” a little turbulence in the syntax is only to be expected.

In any case, the connectivists in the Connected Communities Summer Seminar seem a happy bunch.  Their announcement has its giddy moments:

Times of tumultuous change can be precipitated by novel combinations (e.g., genetic mutations in evolutionary change), and can in turn allow the marginal/marginalized to become central (sticking with an evolutionary example, the rise of mammals after the extinction of dinosaurs!).

And they are moved in part by the elation of the Obama Risorgimento.  Tumult need not be “unappealing,” also offers “space for innovation.” Doubt that?  “Witness Obama’s calls for sustainable technology as we climb out of recession.”  Never waste a crisis, even if you have to build it yourself.

The breathless excitement continues.  Change is everywhere!

In addition we will ask: what is the relationship between innovation and rapid change, what is the role of hybridity, of reconfiguration, reorientation and changes in systems, languages and cultures?

And in everything!

paradigm shifts, evolution of new species, revolution, new genders, sexualities and racial identities, movements in art, cultural production, new alliances, coalitions and contingent communities

Hybridity.  New genders.  Contingent communities.  Wheeee! 

I certainly hope the Summer Seminar is a success.  I can only imagine the fun of having geologists connect the Mohorovicic Discontinuity with Malcolm Gladwell’s account of how Hush Puppy shoes became trendy, Hurricane Katrina, and post-gender politics.

Fun though it may be, though, we probably shouldn’t confuse the “Connected Communities Summer Seminar” with intellectual synthesis—or serious academic work.  These are DePaul University faculty members educating each other. You have to wonder a little about what the 25,000 students enrolled in what the University calls its “challenging learning environment” are picking up from their sober-minded teachers.  Maybe not.  These are, after all, turbulent times.  Perhaps we need turbulent teaching too, and not so much of that old-fashioned clarity and precision that only stifled our critical transitions.  The world is changing.  Marie, Marie, hold on tight.  And in the midst of hybrid tipping points, down we went.


Call To Participants
Connected Communities Summer Seminar
Negotiating Change: Critical Transitions, Tipping Points, and Cataclysmic Futures
June 15, 16, 17 and August 24, 25, 26, 2010

The first annual Connected Communities Summer seminar will convene June 15th.  This year the seminar topic will be “Negotiating Change: Critical Transitions, Tipping Points, and Cataclysmic Futures.”  The summer seminar will provide an opportunity for faculty and staff to work together with colleagues across disciplines to think through ideas of rapid change in a series of intensive meetings.  By creating the space to discuss current thinking on rapid change from an interdisciplinary approach, the seminar seeks to stimulate conversations that will enhance the participants’ ongoing research projects.

We live in turbulent times: devastating earthquakes, financial collapses, climate catastrophes, social upheaval, rapid cultural change and so forth.  Though rapid change is often depicted as tumultuous and unappealing, times of reorganization are at the same time often seen as offering space for innovation (witness Obama’s calls for sustainable technology as we climb out of recession).  Times of tumultuous change can be precipitated by novel combinations (e.g., genetic mutations in evolutionary change), and can in turn allow the marginal/marginalized to become central (sticking with an evolutionary example, the rise of mammals after the extinction of dinosaurs!).

Many of our disciplines provide numerous (and default) models for understanding slow, steady changes encouraging us to project into the future as if the past is an adequate guide.  There is a growing interest, however, in developing narrative and mathematical models for understanding rapid change.  Popularized by notions such as “tipping points,” these accounts promise us a corrective or sometimes a disruptive description of the past (e.g., Foucault and Nietzsche’s genealogies) and a glimpse into the future by predicting rapid change.  In addition we will ask: what is the relationship between innovation and rapid change, what is the role of hybridity, of reconfiguration, reorientation and changes in systems, languages and cultures?  Our task will be to lay our work side-by-side examining change (paradigm shifts, evolution of new species, revolution, new genders, sexualities and racial identities, movements in art, cultural production, new alliances, coalitions and contingent communities) and seeing the degree to which our disciplines can inform each other in times when fresh thinking in the academy and beyond is called for.

The seminar will consist of the following sessions:

Examining rapid change in geology, ecology, political science, literary movements, child/adolescent psychology, linguistics,... (insert your discipline here);

Reading foundational literature (popular and academic – e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point; and Serge Gruzinski’s The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization; and readings from Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler);

Understanding, predicting and guiding rapid change (brainstorming); and

Innovation – best ideas for the future from the academic disciplines.

To apply to participate in the seminar, faculty and staff are invited to submit a one-page essay explaining your interest in the seminar.  For example, the statement could discuss your interests in the topic and how you might approach the topic given your discipline and/or interests; reasons for applying for this particular seminar; your own interest – both personal and academic – in the topic; what you hope to accomplish by participating, including any individual research and writing projects connected to the theme; and/or the relation of the seminar to your teaching.

Participants can be tenured/tenure-track faculty, staff and/or contingent or full-time non-tenure track who will have and will be on the faculty at least this and next year.  Each of approximately 12 participants will receive an $800 stipend for participation in the seminar.  Applications should be e-mailed to one of the seminar’s facilitators by Thursday, April 15, 2010.  Those selected to participate will be notified by April 30, 2010.

The facilitators of this summer’s seminar are:

Francesca Royster (English, African & Black Diaspora Studies), froyster@depaul.edu

Liam Heneghan (Environmental Science), lhenegha@gmail.com

Lourdes Torres (Latin American and Latino Studies) ltorres@depaul.edu

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