Nothing Is Neutral

Useful sometimes, less so other times

Sometimes things have to hit me several times in quick succession before I think about what they mean.

  1. This morning, I had a new colleague ask how to find reliable data on adjuncts. I told him that I didn’t think there was any, because all the data that IS collected is collected to serve a question that I’m not asking. The IPEDS differentiation between “full-time” and “part-time” faculty actually conceals what I’m trying to learn. Their question is about calculating student-teacher ratio, and my question is about the insecurity of intellectual life. It’s like using a kitchen thermometer to measure how many potatoes I have left; they’re both kind of about food, but they’re not mutual or interchangeable.
  2. Yesterday, my friend Aimee was talking about which of two gallery spaces was preferable for her fall show. And she was talking about the art world’s preference for the plain white wall, so that “the space wouldn’t compete with the art.” That, of course, privileges art that lives nowhere in particular, eliminates the notion that art could cooperate with a space rather than compete with it. (She actually used the term white box artist, which I think is its own wonderfully revelatory category.)
  3. Nora is trying to put a group of local food providers together with local people or families who are in need of that food during our time of home isolation. And we quickly realized that we don’t have a great way of doing that. The school knows the families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but that only includes families with kids between 4 and 18 years old. The local social service agencies know the people they care for, but there are a fair number of families who have done everything they can to stay below the observation of social services, knowing that their lifestyle would draw scrutiny and possible intervention if it were exposed. Or we can just put out the call to say that food assistance is available, and run the risk of freeloaders (its own contextually defined category)
  4. I was pointed to the category of “under-recognized artist,” which the Harpo Foundation defines as an artist who hasn’t presented in major museums or events, hasn’t received multiple awards or grants, and isn’t represented by a prominent gallery. (Note the subsumed categories of “major” museums and “prominent” galleries.) Likewise, Bread Loaf divides its participants between Contributors, Scholars, or Fellows, based on number and scope of prior publications.

Every category we make serves some purpose, draws attention to some characteristics and ignores others. Think even about the photo at the top of this post. Having those four cards would be terrific in poker or in rummy, would be okay but not outstanding in cribbage (unless the cut card was an ace or an eight), and would be disastrous in a game of spades. Categories support rules, and don’t easily transport across rule systems.

If we accept data laid out in the categories provided by others, we’re kind of like the drunk looking for his lost car keys under a street lamp because that’s the only place he can see well enough to search. We’re often forced to rely on data that’s carefully illuminated but not helpful for our specific need. I’ve been published (and paid for my writing) for over thirty years, with three books, but not published specifically in fiction. So am I a contributor, a scholar, or a fellow? Am I an emerging artist, or a mid-career artist, or an established artist? Is my research part of the humanities, or the social sciences?

You want to play the game, you need to know the rules. The rules will determine the categories. And the categories, far too often, define who we are.