Engaging with Challenging Theory

If we were to map the categories for Top Trumps educational researcher edition we might pick: books read (0-10), knowledge (0-10), theory wielding (0-10), publications (0-10), unmanageability of eyebrows (0-10), and neoliberal bashing (0-10).  Against all of which I would’ve scored pretty unfavourably while listening to Sarah Dyke present her PhD research, last week at ESRI (read about it here).  Listening to the dense and terrifyingly unfamiliar stream of theories, concepts and ideas I felt myself to be a mental husk, unable to formulate a thought or even to think ill of the market.  Being an academic is about having read a lot, knowing a lot, and understanding a lot so when words and theorists don’t make sense, it can be a little uncomfortable. confused-student-e1350394401788

Sarah applies Deleuze, Butler, Massumi and others to understand and re-imagine anorexia nervosa or, as she seeks to re-label it, a ‘problematic relationship with feeding the body’. This switch seems to be illustrative of the form and potential of this approach, and frustratingly what makes it so difficult to engage with.

As I understand it, the foundation of post-structuralism is to redefine social relationships using new words to enable new ways of thinking about things and so new social relationships. So, for example, ‘essences’ become ‘events’ and this is something to do with ‘jets of singularities’,

To reverse Platonism is first and foremost to remove essences and to substitute events in their place, as jets of singularities. A double battle has the objective to thwart all dogmatic confusion between event and essence, and also every empiricist confusion between event and accident (Deleuze, 2004, 64).

I’ll admit that when I heard this I didn’t, and still don’t, know to what ‘Platonism’ refers. So my thought process while reading this was, “To reverse Platonism”… what the hell did Plato do again? Never mind, carry on, hope it’s not important, “is first and foremost” Plato? Plato? Plato? Plato? “as jets of singularities…”  And so on.

So I missed most of Sarah’s theorising yet it is readily apparent that she has done some interesting and important work. She explained how the existing discourses related to anorexia, and the relationships and encounters they engender, make it problematic for a man or woman who tries to seek medical help.  Someone may ‘know’ they a problematic relationship to food and try to access medical help but they may be told they are not light enough to meet the medical criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. (This may be, of course, that this particular medical categorisation is not meant to define what something is rather it rations care.)

There were also interesting insights into how people chose or are chosen to do or be something.  How what once seemed to a person a desirable and glamorous way of living turns out instead to be miserable, dangerous and a waste of precious time. Beyond the focus on anorexia there are many more applications for Sarah’s research, from drugs and violence to disengagement and apathy.

Sarah identifies ‘counter-actualisations’ – different ways of understanding the fixity of identity, recovery, what it means to be something – as a way to help people find a path back or forward to happier times.

Discussing possible applications of post-structuralist thought, to help people live healthier lives, raises the thorny issue of its inaccessibility.  If the potential of a post-structural account is that it provides a new language, grammar, set of ideas, about anorexia then does this mean that someone struggling with his or her relationship with food must immerse themself in post-structural thought, much like Freudian analysis requires? Is it a talking/ reading cure? I’d hope not because this would limit such insights and help to the initiates of some incredibly dense and challenging books.

Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 10.01.00The method of post-structuralism is to re-imagine what are everyday or common sense ways of looking at the world yet by definition most people will use common sense and everyday words so the challenge is for researchers to precipitate a shift as to which ones are used and what they mean. So one way forward might be for Sarah to work with counsellors, doctors and those with a problematic relationship to food to translate this work from post-structural language into everyday ideas, metaphors, stories and all the various forms that help people ‘counter-actualise’ or try and be a little better or different.

James Duggan

One thought on “Engaging with Challenging Theory

  1. Thanks for this piece James. It provides a valuable space to consider how complex and dense theory can be made ‘thinkable’, for whom it is made thinkable, and also why processes of articulation and re articulation are vitally important to wider conversations regarding practice, ethics and social justice.
    In my piece I stressed the abstract of the everyday. I did this as a means of engaging methodologically with ethnographers of education, those who might be interested in new ways of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, but I also did this to draw attention to the ways in which matter connects to movements, places and temporalities in a manner which exceeds linearity and language. Rather than a theory or method of post structuralism, and the emphasis this can often place on language and culture, I also found it valuable to draw on new and feminist materialism to avoid taking from matter the speed, connectivity and ingenuity which are always already its potential.

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