What is a good way to introduce yourself to someone? I hadn’t given this question much thought. But I started asking it when I received Rachel Haywire‘s tweet, “Where can I get an introduction to your work?” Is there an introductory place in my work? A place appropriate for new friends and interlocutors? I can search for such a place now, or ex post facto put the label “start here” on an article. But I think the very fact that such a place hasn’t yet organically presented itself is an indication of something. It might indicate my rather over-generalized aversion to academic manner and nicety. Alternatively, it might indicate my suspicion that pure beginnings do not exist. My introduction, if there is to be one, should acknowledge my inability (and disinclination) to point to an introductory place in what I have done so far. That says something about me, my history, and the types of relations I have had.
Growing up in my childhood home, we didn’t often have guests. When we did, things deviated from the normal in an obvious way. My mother would get anxious and uncomfortable before the guests would arrive. She would run around cleaning and organizing. I sometimes had to run out for a last-minute trip to the store, when she suddenly remembered we didn’t have fresh fruits, biscuits, or some other essential item. The sense of deviating from the normal course of events was partly because the host-guest relation in Iranian culture is not a casual affair. It was also partly because, as I would later realize, we were not a very sociable family. As a consequence, when we had guests, they would enter a place that was no longer familiar to me. Our home would transform to receive the guests. It became brighter than usual, more organized, and more presentable. There were more snacks on the coffee table. My parents would become more energetic and polite. We (the kids) had to do the same. There was a discipline involved in acting as hosts, a pretense, and the distance I felt between my usual self and my self-as-host prevented me from taking the latter seriously.
The host-guest theme came to me while trying to understand why introducing myself and my work doesn’t come easily. Being a host requires training. To connect it with the rest of my life and identity, it has to become familiar. More importantly, if something provokes anxiety and discomfort, it is probably not part of your home. If you’re running around, tidying up, organizing, sending the kids to buy biscuits, then you might be covering up your home with an extra layer of etiquette. In playing the part of a host, I must be undisciplined or maybe counter-discipline. Can we introduce ourselves without the typical good manners of the academic, social media, or corporate culture? Can we get to know each other without transforming home into non-home, without generating the distance between self and self-as-host?
Pieces of the Puzzle
While writing this, I am discovering a lesson in being a host. If you want to receive guests at your home, then don’t transform your home into a foreign place for them. Don’t tidy up! The manner in which I am a host should acknowledge that my home isn’t a very tidy place. I believe that says something about me, my history, and the types of relations I have had. Refusing a tidy beginning, a tidy introduction, means we can begin in an arbitrary point somewhere along the road. This isn’t a beginning. It’s a meeting, an encounter.
One possible meeting point is my conversation with Peter Limberg (Nov 2018). In that conversation, we talk about my mixed feelings and my characteristic ambivalence toward my place in academia. We talk about culture wars and the marginal figure. Peter refers to something I had written prior to our conversation (Margins & Vitality), which could itself be used as a meeting point. In addition to the podcast episode, and the M&V piece, there is the very first post on my website, which is a book review. Beneath the surface, it is an indication of my growing separation from a conventional academic path. That post begins by stating that I was about to (at the time of writing the post) give a conference talk, but that my heart wasn’t in it. I was uneasy with the way I had been disciplined.
It was, by the way, the last time I attended that particular conference, after five years of regular attendance. I was told if I stopped attending those “major” conferences, it would end badly for my “career”. So be it. I am much happier now. That post is important because it marks a moment, at which I started listening to (and acting in accordance with) my heart. My heart wanted to stop being an academic salesman. Rather than wanting to do trendy research, I wanted to “inherit the past”, to feel a little more at home.
Everyone was puzzled when I declined the Veni grant. But by that time I had lots of practice in listening to my heart. I declined the grant and moved to Macao. I briefly explained this move in my conversation with Peter. I talked about it as “a move away from the hotspots of academia”. I moved to develop my voice. I wrote my articles, “Behavior versus Performance” and “Building Blocks of Psychology”, and–given the absence of feedback from others–I felt like I was essentially writing for myself. Let’s bring to mind the image of a home without guest. I kept working, mostly to clarify my own problems with experimental psychology, identifying places where “scientific” psychology over-promises and under-delivers and places where it distorts and impoverishes our everyday thinking. Identifying and exploring those instances culminated in the writing of my book, Experimental Psychology and Human Agency, which is a work in counter-disciplinary (critical) psychology.
As Peter mentioned in our podcast conversation, my book was originally titled The Fragmented Subject: Essays on Experimental Psychology. But my Editor didn’t like that, so I changed the title. The book continues to reflect my style of thinking, though it might not be the best introductory place. If you’re not being bothered by the problems that motivated the book, if you don’t have the same itch, for which the book lends a scratching hand, If you’re not trapped in the same “fly bottle” that I was finding my way out of, etc., then you don’t need to read it. A good introduction requires the right type of relationship, a complementary view. That may be the second lesson I have learned about making introductions. A good introduction arises out of a preference for the right kinds of relationships (which means a refusal of the wrong kinds of relationships)
Theory vs. Autobiography
One more piece in the puzzle, before closing this “introduction”. There is an anti-theoretical attitude that I am slowly settling into. I am beginning to value autobiography over theory. A theoretical formula owes its life to a personal life-history, which it might later repress. Theories are not as necessary as they are typically advertised.
I cannot, and I don’t want to, offer a general “antidote to chaos” that works for everyone. I cannot, and I don’t want to, offer a way “to awaken from the meaning crisis” that works for everyone. I would be happy to simply talk about my own (on-going and unresolved) struggles with crises of meaning. I will try to not generalize and not offer impersonal formulae. I am suspicious of theory without autobiography, as I am suspicious of a psychology without people. Theories are often not future-oriented the way life is. I want to learn to celebrate life better, rather than learning to celebrate a theory; I want to learn to live better, rather than theorize better. This is probably the essence of psychology as counter-discipline.
Maybe I am setting up a false dichotomy between theory and autobiography; maybe in doing so, I am offering a theoretical stance; maybe in setting up such a dichotomy I am sharing a piece of autobiography. Regardless, when I imagine being presented with such a dichotomy, being given a choice between expressing an idea in a personal and concrete form, on one hand, and offering theory, on the other hand, I favor of the personal and the concrete. That, I am afraid, indicates once again the impossibility of this introduction, because it is not sufficiently personal, because it could not completely escape from being a (well-mannered) starting point.