The Power of Praxis: Reflections on a Watershed Semester
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As I read and reread the collection of posts our Watershed team has contributed this semester (15 truly stellar pieces of writing in all), I was struck by their shared commitment to expanding theory’s reach beyond the computer screen and into the world. These texts are saturated with calls to action, reorienting readers toward the pursuit of praxis.
Although I teach writing and consider myself mathematically challenged, there is one equation I consistently write on the board in my classes:
theory + practice = praxis
I often think of praxis as an educational concept, one I first encountered in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This foundational 1968 text castigates the “banking model” of education in favor of a problem-posing stance oriented toward praxis. Freire defines praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (129), and this framework feels especially necessary in the current neoliberal (read: market-driven) climate of American education. “Praxis” is also the title of the certifying exams administered to potential teachers by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), another structure that might benefit from some transformation (but that’s a post for another day). After a little research, I also learned that the ancient Greek concept of praxis has been explored and embraced by theorists across the globe, from Antonio Gramsci and Hannah Arendt to Hebrew philosophers and Byzantine Christians. “Praxis” additionally serves as the title of a prominent journal in writing center studies; an apprenticeship-matching service for startup companies; an international art museum in Buenos Aires; and a homeless housing program in New York City, to name just a few namesakes. It’s clear that this focus on connecting what we think and what we do has some serious symbolic currency, serving as “branding” for a range of social, academic, and entrepreneurial projects.
But it’s more than just a catchy rhetorical strategy. When viewed through a lens of praxis, this semester’s Watershed posts also take on a new sense of kairos--an intentional urgency and timeliness. Right now, in this historical moment, Americans want less empty rhetoric from leaders and politicians and more action. “Our theories are important,” the Watershed contributors seem to be saying in these posts, “but only if they get us to close our books and computer screens and change how we move within the world.” This, I think, is the true power of praxis: forcing us to push theory to its boundaries and translate it into structural transformation.
Here are some of the ways the Watershed team has taken up that important work over the past semester:
In her thoughtful musing on the temporal and spatial dimensions of public monuments, "How Confederate Statues Have/Are/Will Disturbed/Disturbing/Disturb Time and Space," Jessica Tebo clearly outlines the practical implications of her theory: “museums can and should display these objects, but within a setting that deliberately encourages the flourishing of heteroglossia. An object placed within a setting that facilitates genuine dialogue has the potential to generate truth, even if that potential is a dangerous one.” Anne Johnson invites readers to consider the affective dynamics of power-saturated medical interactions in “Minor intimacies: how queer, the blood draw.” This haunting post does not give us easy answers about what to do, but rather forces us to ask difficult questions: “So what is to be done? No legible social space exists for the phlebotomist and the patient to hold the queer intimacy -- a mess of fear, responsibility, erotics, repulsion, and care -- created between them.”
In “Sheet-Caking, Sitting, and Outrage, or, Pondering the Radical Democratic Potential of Agonism,” Adam Hubrig considers the affordances of an agonistic stance within the public discourse surrounding race and identity. He ends with a series of compelling questions that can only be described as action-provoking: “But how can agonism be properly mobilized in other spheres? How does the ball start rolling? Sheet-caking? Sitting? Public demonstrations of outrage? What would this change look like in your communities?” Jessica Masterson’s post, “Truth in the Time of Facebook,” offers a powerful reexamination of two cultural phenomena: the tendency to discredit online sources we disagree with as “fake news,” and the deconstruction of “truth” in the work of visual artist Yinka Shonibare. Masterson ends with a new strategy for orienting ourselves toward authenticity, rather than superficial judgments: “However, were we to peel back a few layers, we might become privy to something that, if not better than our illusions is, in the end, more sustaining.”
Stevie Seibert Desjarlais makes a powerful move in “Demagoguery Among Us”: she not only critiques public discourse, but also admits her own complicity in today’s demagogic political landscape. Towards the end of the post, Seibert Desjarlais artfully (and wittily) reframes this contradiction through the lens of dialogic action: “‘Hi, I’m Stevie, and I have demagogic tendencies,’ is what I might start off with if I wanted to take ownership of my own role in the less-than-helpful political rhetoric of our current cultural climate in the U.S.” She also advocates two concrete approaches to demagoguery: inclusiveness and fairness. In her post introducing Humanities on the Edge speaker Timothy Scott Brown, Gabi Kirillof articulates several thought- and action-provoking questions generated by Brown’s analysis of West Germany in the 1960s. As Kirillof eloquently asks: “How can we create productive forms of large scale protest? How can individuals participating in large scale movements prevent themselves from unintentionally incorporating the ideologies they are fighting against?” Similarly, Daniel Clausen’s insightful review of Brown’s lecture engages the concept of revolutionary subjectivity. Clausen invites us to consider the possibilities of this framework for our current moment: “So, while 1968 may have had problems and failures, it still provides an imaginative role. It tried to connect the dots. Small separate streams tried to become a raging torrent, and they might once more.”
In his introductory post on Humanities on the Edge speaker Dr. Ronald Judy, Dillon Rockrohr also takes up the revolutionary theme, carrying it into the realm of aesthetics. Reflecting on some of the takeaways from Judy’s work, Rockrohr emphasizes “the centrality to revolutionary politics of an activity of poetic expression, with its ability to communicate desire, to imagine beyond the reach of what is allowed.”
I’m also inspired by the urgency in Ángel Garcia’s review of Dr. Judy’s lecture. Garcia ends with an invocation that feels especially kairotic as we move into the second year of a Trump presidency: “only when we explore fully the possibilities of the human condition and engage in ethical relations with others or act empathetically when considering what it means to be human and what it means to be free can we begin to envision, on its own accord, the progression of a new manifestation of liberated humanity.”
Adam Hubrig’s second call for theory-as-action in “Racism and Misogyny in Nerd Culture: When Your Local Public is ‘Riggety, Riggety Wrecked’” is direct and incisive. Hubrig concludes his compelling takedown of toxic Nerdom with two questions: “What local publics are yours? And how are you going to address inequality within them and challenge hateful, enclave thinking like that of the alt-right?” P.S.: Shoutout to Adam for contributing not one, but two excellent posts this semester!
In “An Affective Podcast: Queerness, Toxicity, and Futurity in S-Town,” Colten White skillfully unpacks an audiotext that has continued to haunt me long after I listened to the last episode. White’s careful interweaving of plot analysis and theoretical explication raises an important possibility: that “. . . the paradigm of queer futurity might offer hope for an un-cruelly optimistic future for queer bodies.”
Rachel Cochran’s mixtape musings on fan culture and and the problematic politics of the artists we love, “Kate and Me, a Romance: Or, Fandom and Participatory Culture as Inoculation against the Postmodern Erosion of Identity,” ends with a revisionist glance toward resistance. Cochran speculates: “Maybe if I had donned a red dress, if I had walked out into that field in London, or Sydney, or Dublin, or Berlin, I might have felt that there was a place I could turn when my feelings toward [Kate] Bush and her work became more complicated than mere consumerist enjoyment . . . Simply standing there might have been enough.”
Anne Nagel’s “Interspecies Intermezzo: Lines of Flight Deluzean and Ornithological” explores the distinction between actual and virtual by documenting the nesting patterns of pigeons in her backyard. As Nagel notes in her discussion of the non-human condition, reflections on otherness can lead to more expansive understandings of difference: “If we can conceptualize difference in itself, perhaps we can conceptualize identities that don’t precede it. The concept of identity would be destabilized, no longer fixed as a point to measure difference from.” Such an orientation feels especially appropriate in a political moment when difference is constantly being silenced and pathologized.
In “The Ideological Pillars of White Supremacy,” Christy Hyman writes that “CMAs [Confederate Memorial Associations] looking to survive into the future will have to revisit new methods to bind communities together as the existing ideological framework has been literally taken down.” This collaborative turn toward new methods is filled with possibility.
And finally, Gina Keplinger delivers perhaps the most praxis-geared post of the semester, a resounding critique of incarceration and a call to “get inside” the oppressive structures of our prisons. In "The Poet Goes to Prison: Nebraska's Carceral System Renders Me (In)Visible," Keplinger’s invocation is clear, compelling, and impossible to ignore: “I am asking for your time, your energy, your talents. I am asking you -- yes, you -- to make this work a priority.”
Looking back on the semester, as I read this rich collection of praxis-driven posts, I am ready to move beyond thinking.
I am ready to go to work.
As always, Watershed appreciates the generous support of our advisor, Dr. Marco Abel; the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the intrepid theory-lovers who started the blog before us; and our thoughtful, action-ful readers. Of course, the heart of the Watershed collective is our contributors. I know how much work goes into each one of these insightful posts, and I thank you all for sharing your time, your ideas, your theory and your practices with us in Fall 2017.
Works Cited and Consulted
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Fabella, Virginia, and Sergio Torres, editors. Doing Theology in a Divided Word: Papers from the Sixth International Conference on the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, January 5-13, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland. Orbis Books, 1985.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academy, 1970. Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers Company, 1961.
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