Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Against Objectivity


Nine months inside towers of knowledge give me a lot of sustenance but it takes away much from me too. I forget, even when I learn new things. I look at this world as a giant workplace. I worry - will my students find work as scholars, architects, draftspersons or historians? Will I get a raise for merit? Or fret, will my dearest friends appreciate my work or would they turn their nose up that I don’t study distant places – call centers in India, rivers in Uzbekistan, charity in Africa and architecture of Venice. Will my mentors smirk at the field school and inform me – as they indeed do – that working on local issues will never let me rise above the banal, perhaps never allow me to get to that cherished fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study. I hope that my work, goals, and citations would rise to my colleague’s seemingly high standards.

The pile of houses, streets, people, grime, sweat, and noise outside academia seems like a cacophony. That world is a “field” as I so smugly write in the BLC field school webpage. My students and I will “interpret” this world in ways never done before; we will be measured and self assured. I use key words like “respect” and “truthfulness” even while laughing at the impossibility of our social science colleagues who pretend to live up to terms like “objectivity” and “generalizability.”

But, in reality, all of us mean the same thing. That world is out there and we step into it momentarily in order to help out. It is dark and we shed light into that dungeonous cavern. We carefully roll up our white linen trousers so as to not stain with the muddy sidewalks of life. I obsess about retaining my objectivity and distance since I know that I will not return. Jean, Janet, Joe, Janine, Jasmine, Jerome, Jack, Jaccinta will not be my neighbors. They will linger in the dark corners of my memory only to be resurrected on sad lonely moments or when I write my interpretive articles.

What if I had to come back to this world to live my life?

I forget so easily that the world out there is where I live. I do return to this world – just not this particular one but an ordinary world all the same. I live in my so-called field; I ride with bus drivers; I pay the surly checkout clerk at Pick n’ Save, and I smell the food cooking in my neighbors house. I have a say in this world because I belong to it and I own it too. This world outside the moats of the academy has much to teach me not because it is some exotic locale. On the contrary it has to teach me because I live in it. If I can understand the everyday and the banal with humility and courage I will be finally be free.