Posted by: Emily | July 15, 2008

Living inside analogies

So I’m reading Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto for the first time since college. Back in 1994, this was some seriously dense stuff–truth be told, I most likely read about six sentences before cracking open some illicit substance or other and calling the girl living upstairs to see if she wanted to, you know, talk. Fast forward fourteen years, an MLS, and four years working in an academic library, and this essay makes all the sense in the world.

One of Haraway’s fundamental points is about the breakdown in the boundary between human and machine. Back when I was 19 or 20, this was a largely abstract argument and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But now, if you want to see humans as coextensive with their machines, walk into an academic library and watch students do research. If information can’t be found immediately on the computer, it doesn’t exist at all. And when they do find information online with the appropriately beeping keywords, they operate as if it will download automatically into their brains. (I literally had to tell a student last semester that the only way she could find out whether or not an article from TDR was relevant was to read it.) Faculty are the same way–many seem to have forgotten entirely a world distinct from their terminals, even those who don’t use computers at all.

So I wonder, this morning over coffee and Choice cards, why, if critical theory makes so much sense in the context of our work, we don’t see more of it in the library literature? Another example: The failure of totalizing organizing projects and the kinds of subjects produced and re-produced by them is something those of us who work with LC know intimately in that daily-labor way, and yet we don’t as a profession seem to be in much conversation with the theories and theorists that take up these same questions–Haraway’s cyborg politics, Foucault’s biopolitics, Sandoval’s oppositional politics, etc. Any thoughts as to why, or whether or not it matters?



  1. I love that essay! Now I feel the urge to dig it out and read it again…

    I wonder if the reason has something to do with the tension between practice and theory that seems to run rampant through library schools (and, by extension, the library profession). It’s as if the majority feels that if we want to “just” DO, then we should not “have to” THINK. This is a false dichotomy, but it seems to influence a lot of the library literature.

  2. Good point, Gretchen, on that strange split! I do think there’s a false dichotomy there, but I fall into it too–I often think about running away from the practice so I can do some more book learnin’. Except that the practice is what prompts me to think about anything at all!

  3. I know exactly what you mean about wanting to run from the practice to do more theory stuff! I feel that way, too. Theory seems so much less stressful than human interaction, for one thing! But yeah, practice is what there is to think about. It would be really ideal to be able to strike a balance in our jobs between thinking and doing.

  4. I agree that there’s a false dichotomy between theory/practice, and that it informs what gets taught in LIS programs. In my own program, I was explicitly barred from engaging theory at multiple points in my coursework, which is why I defected to a cultural studies program for my PhD.

    I think there’s a perception that because some theory isn’t immediately applicable — because we have to make some translations — it requires too much time & energy (which could be spent doing instead of thinking).

    I’m constantly inspired by the way ethnographers and geographers are using critical theory to explore, describe, and explain social and spatial practices and phenomena — could we look to those fields for examples of how to make room for theory, while still being very invested in practice (praxis)?

  5. I confess I haven’t gone looking for critical theory & librarianism but I am surprised that it isn’t addressed more in our literature. And I think it is important. Everything we do interacts with the dominant power structure, whether undermining it (free books for all!) or validating it (“hierarchies” of knowledge made manifest in LC classification, e.g., postcolonial Caribbean or South Asian authors writing in English are classified under “English literature: provincial, local, etc.).

    Whether we acknowledge it or not, the practical bits that consume our days as librarians are informed by all the abstract isms of politics, economics, race, gender, etc., whether we are selecting materials, teaching research skills, digitizing collections, or establishing circulation policies. Who has access? Why are these systems so bewildering? Why is some information preserved? What does the organization of space in libraries say about our notions of academic life? Or civic life, for that matter? How invigorating (also destablizing) it would be if we spent some time interrogating and problematizing (which is what critical theorists always seem to be doing) our practice using some of these critical frameworks.

  6. Anyone who performs critical theory on librarianship invariably rubs up against the professional self-identity of librarians. It’s that simple.

  7. I think, like Alana said, that there is definitely a complicated dichotomy between theory and practice in libraryland. That said, I also think library workers are definitely discouraged from exploring the possible implications of our work. This is especially true in production-oriented environments, where you’re so bogged down with tasks that you don’t really have time to contextualize anything. Is that deliberate? Who knows?

    Also, I find a lot of critical theory to be far too intimidating and jargon-heavy for me to actually read and process. How can we explore concepts if the works aren’t accessible?

    P.S. I am not too clear on why this is tagged with “classification”.

  8. Is anyone here equally perplexed that Discipline and Punish is not staple reading in the criminal justice profession, or that critical management studies is not on the curriculum at most business schools?

    Critical theory is jargon-heavy only in the sense that many of its locutions are used as surrogates for complex ideas, and that in most cases such locutions lack an additional vernacular meaning that we might latch onto in lieu of accessing those ideas (however naively, whereby we might adopt only the air of comprehension). So I think the works are accessible to anyone who is patient enough to read them carefully.

  9. Interesting, Badda Being, that I would never expect to find Discipline and Punish in criminal justice courses, but would totally assume the presence of Foucault in the library studies profession. Perhaps a mistake of thinking the place where I am is just like me because after all I am here. Librarianship seems to me to be such a natively revolutionary profession that self-criticism and upheaval strikes me as ‘natural.’

    And I wonder if we wouldn’t benefit from doing some profession-wide translation of relevant critical studies stuff for each other, explaining the relevance, etc. Because I agree with KR that a lot of what I pick up I can’t really understand, and as somebody who works all day every day, I often don’t have the luxury of patience. Perhaps even a bibliography of translations would be helpful?

  10. Oh, and KR, that ‘classification’ tag is my brain hard at work communicating with itself–Haraway is on about the breakdown in divisions between animal/human, machine/human, and one other one i always forget. When I read her as a librarian, I think of her as breaking down classifications.

  11. Librarianship seems to me to be such a natively revolutionary profession that self-criticism and upheaval strikes me as ‘natural.’

    I take it that you’re gesturing toward the championship of “intellectual freedom” — first waged against the technocratic control of information, now more commonly against the corrosive tide of postmodern consumer capitalism. At any rate, librarianship aims to position itself between these two extremes, yes no? So the revolutionary affectations of the profession are really quite Janus-faced: they’re assumed whenever librarianship drifts too close to one extreme or the other. Thus, professional self-criticism actually operates in the mode of professional self-inscription. Moreover, critical theory tends only to smudge the resulting contours.

  12. By the way, are there any job openings out there for someone fresh out of library school with an interest in critical theory? Preferably on the west coast.

    The question is only half rhetorical. 😉

  13. You know, I was just thinking — strictly speaking, critical theory is not inaccessible at all. But maybe, paradoxically, this only makes sense once you have “accessed” it.

  14. God, that second paragraph in 8 is just stupid.

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