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 read Rachel Haywire‘s tweet, “Where can I get an introduction to your work?”
Is there an introductory place in my work? A place that is appropriate for new friends and interlocutors? I can search for such a place now, or ex post facto call an article “a beginning place”. But I think the very fact that such a place hasn’t yet organically presented itself is an indication of something. My introduction, if there is to be an introduction, should acknowledge that there is no introductory place in what I have done so far. That says something about me, my history, and the types of relations I have had.
Being a Host
Growing up in my childhood home, we didn’t have guests often. And when we did, things obviously deviated from normal. My mother would get anxious and uncomfortable before the guests arrived. She would run around cleaning and organizing. I sometimes had to run out for a last-minute trip to the stores, when she suddenly remembered we didn’t have fresh fruits or biscuits.
The “deviation from normal” 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 tables. My parents were now more energetic and polite. We (the kids) had to do the same. There was a discipline involved in acting as hosts.
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 isn’t 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 choose to be counter-disciplined.
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. With that in mind, let’s begin.
One piece of the puzzle 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 else I had written prior to our conversation (Margins & Vitality), which could itself be used as a messy introduction to my thinking.
In addition to the podcast episode, and the M&V piece, another possible staring point is the very first post on this website, which is–on the surface–a book review. But beneath the surface, it is an indication of my growing separation from a conventional academic path. I begin that post by saying that I am about to give a conference talk, but that my heart isn’t in it. I was uneasy with the way I was disciplined.
It was, by the way, the last time I attended that conference. 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 starting point for me. I started listening to (and acting in accordance with) my heart. My heart wanted to stop being an academic salesman. I wanted to “inherit the past” and I wanted to have a 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 “Behavior versus Performance” and “Building Blocks of Psychology”, and–given the absence of feedback from others–I felt like I am essentially writing for myself. Remember 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 common sense. Identifying and exploring those instances culminated in the writing of my first book. The book is a work in psychology, but it is a work in counter-disciplinary 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 to “Experimental Psychology & Human Agency”. Although the book reflects my style of thinking, it might not be the best introduction to my work. 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’s perhaps the second lesson I have learned about making introductions. To learn to introduce myself better, not in this awkward manner, I need to cultivate the right type of relationships.
Theory vs. Autobiography
One more piece in the puzzle, before I end this “introduction”. There is an anti-theoretical attitude that I am finding myself 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. Instead, I would be happy to tell you how I have been dealing with the chaos in my own life. Likewise, 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.
Perhaps I am setting up a false dichotomy between theory and autobiography; perhaps in doing so, I am offering a theoretical stance; and, perhaps in setting up such a dichotomy I am sharing a piece of autobiography. Regardless, I’d simply like to state that whenever such a dichotomy is present, and whenever I have a choice between expressing an idea in a personal and concrete form, on one hand, and offering theory, on the other hand, I’d decide in favor of the personal and the concrete. That, I hope, clarifies the spirit in which I offer this introduction.