Friday, May 9, 2008

The Complexity of that "Dimension of Domination"

Those who follow the comments submitted to this blog may have noticed that some interesting controversy has emerged surrounding the Truthdig article by Wellford Wilms that I used as a point of departure for my "Cautionary Tale about 'The Dimension of Domination'" post. At the heart of the controversy were extended Truthdig comments by two "insiders" at Baldwin Park High School, the "scene" (in the terminology of Kenneth Burke's dramatistic framework) of Wilms article. Those comments were highly emotional, but they also revealed substantive observations that cannot be ignored. The most recent of these comments apologized that the truth behind Wilms account was not as "theatrical" as his depiction (or, I suppose, my own efforts, which invoked the likes of David Mamet).

Reflecting on this new side of the story, however, I realized that there is a "theatrical" element to this whole affair; but it comes not from Mamet but from David Simon. More specifically it comes from the fourth season of The Wire in the plot line that involved a team of social scientists getting a grant to run an experiment at an inner city Baltimore public school by focusing on those kids who were most socially maladjusted. Details aside, Simon's punch line was that the social scientists got to deliver a paper at their professional meeting and nothing changed in the Baltimore classrooms (thus reinforcing the overall theme of The Wire about the deterioration of our most fundamental social institutions).

I do not feel that these "new data points" impact my original thesis: This is still a cautionary tale about "the triumph of domination of signification." However, as I observed in my own comment to my original post, it is also a cautionary tale about what Michel Foucault has called "the authority of the author." To invoke the Burke framework again, the "teller of the tale" is also an agent in the tale, which means that he is not the detached objective analytic observer he makes himself out to be. That observer would have us believe that all the elements of domination can be traced back to Los Angeles politics. What is omitted are the elements of domination that involve academic projects always in desperate need of funding.

My own "tragic flaw" is that I did not follow the hyperlink on Wilms' name (which I reproduced from the Truthdig site in this post as well as the original one) before writing anything about his analysis. The profile at the other end of the link is up front about his UCLA "insider" connection, which explains why his narrative overlooks that element of the plot concerned with those agencies that fund the abstract world of academics and encourage them to design and implement experiments in real-world classrooms. Simon's point was that the academics never have any stake in such projects other than their publication records. My wife was involved in a summer project (which involved bringing students into a professional research laboratory, rather than going into a classroom); and since then she has been very skeptical about allowing "academic theorists" into her classroom! From my point of view, I feel more than a little chastened for my failure to follow my own caveat lector precept!

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