So what’s a theor-orgasm?
Well it’s a term that one of my friends used to use and I suspect she invented it, although I’m not sure. I couldn’t find it when I googled it so I think that she must have.
Her job involved her working as an industry/practice research partner with academics. These days, in the UK, she would be seen as being the person with whom knowledge was being exchanged.
She would often come back from partnership meetings with academics and, when asked how it had gone, would sigh loudly and say “Oh well, another theor-orgasm….” She meant by this that the academics had engaged in a lot of theoretical talk which was of no interest to her. She saw theory-talk as self-indulgent and self-pleasuring – in other words, and in fact the very words she used, she saw the academics engaged in theory-work as wankers and the process of theorising social phenomena as one of wanking. Theory was, she said, only helpful if it was practical; if it wasn’t producing any information useful in the professional contexts that she cared about and was representing, then she wasn’t interested.
When pushed, she did admit that she wasn’t actually theory averse and there was quite a lot of theory that she used in her work. But she said, what she didn’t want to be involved in was the generation of that theory. She thought that the work of theorising – producing specific languages, explanations and thus meanings that might be applied to phenomena – was something that ought to be done by consenting academic adults in the appropriate place (in universities). She recognised that the process of theorising could be intensely pleasurable, if one was so minded, but it wasn’t something that she wanted to do. She really didn’t want it foisted on her with an expectation that she would participate – as if she had given consent. And she certainly didn’t want to have to sit quiet and watch while the act was performed in front of her.
Now, her responses might be easily dismissed as both anti-academic and anti-intellectual, and that might be right. But that wasn’t all that was going on in her coining of the theor-orgasm term. In the rest of this post, I want to focus on the situation she was addressing – the work of partnership.
I work with some practice partners who don’t mind theoretical discussions – in my case these are artists. The work that they do is profoundly about ideas, and I know from long term observation of, and conversation about, what they do, that we have a mutual interest in understanding arts-education practice much better. My research partner Chris and I have, in fact, just had a wonderful day with a group of six artists talking about what they do, how they do it, and how it might be made sense of. I think it would be disrespectful and elitist to assume that they didn’t have an interest in theory.
However, it would be equally patronising for me to assume that these artists had read everything I have and that they have an interest in discussing the relative positions of various theories and theorists . They’ve been working away at their arts practices while I have on mine – research and teaching. So I don’t expect to sing, act or write as well as they do, nor do I expect them to have read shelf loads of philosophy, cultural studies, social science and geography. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a meeting place.
But there are things I have to do to make that meeting place work.
Academic practice in the social sciences is about generating theory as a means of producing understandings. When I go into the shared partnership space, I have an obligation to try to make my reading comprehensible and available for deconstruction, joint discussion and development. If I litter my conversation with names, book titles and too many new concepts all at once, then I WOULD be just wanking on. I would be setting up a conversation using my rules and my conventions. It would be on and in my terms. For me, partnership work requires a process of translation and interpretation, of moving from one genre of communication to another. I must come out of the privacy of my academic bedroom and into the shared public space of the partnership lounge.
Yes, academic-practice partnerships can be tricky. They need careful thought. Both parties may have to give up or modify their habituated behaviours in order not to piss the other one off (to put not too fine a point on it). Both are working to build something different together than what each does separately. So finding out expectations of what counts as acceptable conduct at the start is pretty important. The rules of engagement need to be considered and negotiated.
But it’s also worth remembering that practice partners are not all the same. Some partners are very focused on research that will help them do what they do in better ways (whatever better might be). Like my friend, they want the theories that are talked about to be put to work at the time rather than left without their practice connections being made clear. Other practice partners, as in the case of the artists with whom I work, ARE profoundly interested in producing better understandings of what’s going on in their contexts and in new ones we might invent together. They are happy to have conversations where there appear to be no immediate outcomes other than some interesting ideas being aired and shared.
This all points to the importance of choosing partners carefully. I would go nuts – and indeed have – if teamed up with a practice partner who just wants to know what works. Other academics that I know are pretty happy in this situation. But I need to work with partners who are interested in ideas per se. My friend and I couldn’t work in partnership together I’m sure.
I reckon the choice of who to team up with must always involve a consideration of the fit between the two parties – there needs to be some compatibility of purpose, process and some hope of mutual pleasuring. If not, the partnership runs the risk of only one party getting what they need, while the other squirms in discomfort at the time – and then rants after the event. We might get new terms out of these kinds of experiences, but not much else.