The 3-hour max

Young academics struggling with a heavy teaching load and the need to "get the book out" may be relieved to hear that many of the great artists of the twentieth centuries suggest that it is difficult to do more than three hours of creative work a day. 

I take this conclusion from a book by Mason Currey that I blogged about earlier this week. It profiles artists and their daily routines, which Currey refers to as "rituals."  

A few examples of these working hours:

Morton Feldman 7-11am

Mozart 7-9am, 6-9pm

Strauss 10am-1pm, 3-4pm

 While many maxed out at three hours, others were able to do two three-hour sessions each day though this did not necessarily mean that they were more productive. Many told horror stories of writing only a few good sentences on some days. Gertrude Stein wrote that she could only do about a half an hour of writing a day, but claimed "If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day" (Currey, 2013:51). Young academics take heart!

Most who worked longer hours (and even some who worked only a few hours each day) had either a wife who managed EVERYTHING or a servant. Sigmund Freud's wife "laid out Freud's clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush" (p.38). Under such circumstances, couldn't we all write a masterpiece?

What I'm reading now: Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work 

Mason Currey's blog turned beautiful-little-hardback is a fun and easy summer read. It contains 166 brief bios of artists and their daily rituals: what time they wake up, how they get into the vibe, when and what they eat, and how they relax. The book's small size and brief sections make it an ideal book for the metro, the beach or the backyard.

Some artists (or "Writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, poets, philosophers, sculptors, filmmakers, and scientists" ) cannot accomplish anything after noon, others do not rise until then. Some are high maintenance (Mahler), others discreet (Austen). Arthur Miller has no routine at all. He explains his experience of inspiration as baffling: "The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightening storm" (p.56).

The most interesting part of savoring this little book, however, is not hearing the routines of the rich, famous, dead, talented or pampered. It is reflecting on one's own routine and how well it serves one's needs. Even a casual perusal of these brief vignettes will force the reader to think about which times of day (if any) bring a special inspiration or work ethic. It is only logical to then assess whether one is taking the necessary steps to defend and guard that time. It is this exercise that makes this an ideal book for academics and anyone whose professional or personal goals call for creation. I highly recommend it.

The Scientific Method and the Artistic Method, part I

I had a disagreement with someone recently. It was a couple, actually. They insisted that the scientific method was responsible for all advances of human knowledge and that ALL things can be measured. I'll admit to being a bit shell-shocked.  To put it mildly, I disagree. What a narrow vision of human knowledge! I thought to myself. And then it hit me, this is exactly the type of ideology that has seeped into most political science departments.

A little background: 

There are two kinds of knowledge. Ideographic knowledge is knowledge of the particulars. Nomothetic knowledge is  theoretical or abstract knowledge. So, for example, if a scholar collects information about a party system in one country, they are producing idiographic knowledge. If they are working at a more abstract level, assessing multiple party systems and thus still using idiographic knowledge but for the purpose of uncovering a larger theoretical relationship, then they are doing nomothetic knowledge.

The scientific method offers a highly organized way of assessing theoretical (nomothetic) knowledge.  But it is limited since it privileges the theoretical over the particular. This is not an issue as long as idiographic knowledge is also being produced. And, in our age, data is being produced in record quantities. So it makes sense that some people  argue for a hegemony of nomothetic knowledge within the discipline of political science. They think that there is so much data out there in the world that we don't need scholars out digging in the trenches. We need scholars doing meta-theorizing. I think this is a tenable position, but it is not one that I hold.

I see serious risks of a discipline solely examining the theoretical:

First, all nomothetic knowledge is grounded in idiographic knowledge. In order to build a dataset of party systems, a scholar will refer to a huge body of idiographic knowledge. In and of itself, this is not an issue. All scholars build on other scholars.

The issue is that  the economy of knowledge is beginning to look a lot like our market economy. People who do a tremendous amount of work to make the whole enterprise function are denied grants, publications, positions, tenure and a host of other goods in order to privilege those who do idiographic work. Even those who do idiographic work have to (or at least do) pretend they are doing nomothetic work. I see it all of the time. It is silly.

Secondly, I frequently see the tyranny of the method. People are wowed by fancy methodology. They are impressed when new tools are brought to bear on the study of politics. Once again, in and of itself, this is not an issue. It is exciting when a new tool is identified and it yields important advances in the study of politics. The issue arises when there is a lack of quality control on a publication because it uses a fancy methodology. Regardless of how you measure it, you must first start with conceptualization and you must defend your conceptualization to your audience. You must then convince the audience that your methodology is appropriate for your concept. This step is too frequently skipped. 

Third, there is also the opposite issue. There is sheer obsession with methodology in political science, and scholars approach one another's work with a huge degree of skepticism. Even collegial departments approach individual scholars' work with the intent of figuring out how they are being misleading. There is an assumption that the scholar presenting his or her work intends to exaggerate their conclusions. Why? Because scholars frequently do! And they frequently have to due to structural reasons that are totally beyond the scope of this enormous blog post. This has to stop.

Scholars ought to give one another the benefit of the doubt in certain matters. Some data just cannot be collected. It does not exist. Some data is not worth using, a government made it up. A nomothetic scholar is much more likely going to be faced with access to data that they know is hogwash. It is their perogative if they choose not to use it. A nomothetic scholar may also have access to information that she is  not privileged to share, or that it is unwise to share. She may also have close relationships with people in the field that encourage her to trust certain people over others. There is no way for the nomothetic scholar to communicate some of these points.

These risks are intimately rooted in the bias toward nomothetic knowledge in the discipline. If it were really acceptable for scholars to focus deeply on one case, there would not be pressure to exaggerate the extension of one's findings.

What about solutions? 

For over a year now, I've been mulling over the idea that the social sciences need to return to looking at the arts as a reference. Remember when you got your Bachelor of Arts in Political Science? There was once recognition of the relationship between the study of human beings and the artistic process, but our undergraduate classroom, graduate training, research design process and publications suggest a much stronger emphasis on understanding politics through the lens of the sciences.

I will certainly agree that much has been learned, and will be learned, from reference to the scientific method. What I'm suggesting is that this emphasis is narrow, and has risks (inadequately enumerated above) and discourages good people from the study of politics, people who would make strong contributions and have innovative approaches to the examination of nebulous and abstract concepts. I'm suggesting that people within the discipline already feel sidelined and many are taking their round selves and trying desperately to fit in a square hole. I know, because I've done this before.

An examination of the artistic process as an alternative foundation for research design, will open the discipline to more scholars, encourage creativity and innovation in research design and could change the culture of skepticism that pervades political science departments. 

I intend to harp on this issue on Fridays. So, if you're interested in learning more, y'all come back now, ya hear? 

Today in the Times... what PS can learn from Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's latest projects

I first encountered Ai Weiwei's work at the Tate Modern in London. I walked in and found his giant pile of sunflower seeds. I balked. "Modern art is so lame sometimes," I thought.

But then I read the description of the project, and the attention that had gone into the creation of it. I watched an interview with the author and those who participated in the creation of the project. And I marveled. And I fell in love with Ai Weiwei. The work captured the subtle forms of resistance of those who live under authoritarianism. The sunflower project highlights the ways that authoritarian symbols can be re-purposed and given new meanings by subjects.

Today the NYTimes has a review of some of his latest work (see link at top of page to see the pics). The pieces attempt to capture his time in detention under the Chinese authorities in 2011. The scenes depict Weiwei showering, eating, and sleeping under the watch of two guards. I think they are a brilliant illustration of life under authoritarianism.

The article touches on a few very important issues:

1. The effects of authoritarianism on individuals:

“China is still in constant warfare, with destroying individuals’ nature, including people’s imaginations, curiosity, motivations, dreams,” Mr. Ai said. “This state’s best minds have been wasted by this high ideological control, which is fake. Even the people who are trying to use it as a tool to maintain power or stability know that this is a completely fake condition.”

2. Similar to Political Science, art itself can abstract to the point that it obscures:

“Can political art still be good art?” Mr. Ai said. “Those questions have been around for too long. People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify humans’ emotions from the real world.”

3. The article also alludes to the difficulties of defining the boundaries of what is art:

"Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said in general, “Weiwei has been looking, in the years since his detention, for a way to use art to talk about social issues in a way that still codes and functions as art.” The metal rods from Sichuan, he said, are “a good example of his search for this middle road between overtly political and purely formal.”

In my own experience, political science theories about authoritarianism abstract to such a degree that it becomes possible to forget that real people live under these systems. Authoritarian subjects experience fear, paranoia and rage that must be silenced. One of my long-term goals is develop a syllabus on the politics of authoritarianism that marries recent scholarship with other art forms that capture day to day life under such a system and adds more texture to what can become a sterile study of a system of horrific abuse. I am planning on including some of Ai Weiwei's work.