måndag 25 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 4: theorizing

One afternoon in 1997 (or 1998) I had a seminar on the study that eventually became my doctoral thesis. I can’t quite remember the discussion, but it must have concerned some rather theoretical issues, because I do remember my supervisor, professor Lars Höglund, sighing: ”but we must be able to tell something – it is possible for us to know things!!?”. I was a bit puzzled by this odd exclamation – that was really not the way I looked at what I did.  Of course he was right. When I started off in research twenty years ago it was not, however, self-evident that a young doctoral student would have that perspective. Postmodern theory was, at least in Library and Information Science, prevalent amongst the young, and we upheld some pride in taking in the ”new”.
Looking back now, however, I can see that maybe I never actually was as postmodern as I thought I was. At some point I definitely understood that I at least had left the postmoden irony-laden theories which I, to be honest, found quite tedious. Instead I see, through the whole of my work, a consistent theoretical underpinning relating to marxism (the ”young” Marx), neo-marxism and critical theory. The names I have followed and used in my research are, among others, Paul Ricoeur, James G. March, Chantal Mouffe and lately also Maurizio Ferraris. I have revolved around an axis which actually consists of a serious questioning of the postmodernity I thought I was a part of in the beginning of my scholarly path. What instead has guided me is the firm belief in society as something which really is ”out there”, possible to grasp and analyse, based on a materiality untouched by interpretation (often visible through its documentality) and without the binary relation of individual/context that so has fuelled contemporary Library and Information Science. The theory of mimesis by Paul Ricoeur was Aristotelian rather than Platonic; the ”new institutionalism” of James G. March opposed traditional institutional theory, based on simple behaviorism; the theory of agonistic pluralism forwarded by Chantal Mouffe gave me tools to analyse political processes which could explain why the often proclaimed death of ideologies was just an illusion; the concept of documentality, as formulated by Maurizio Ferraris, has made it possible to explain the legitimacy of social objects and insitutions through the documents and processes of documentation by which they are made visible.
These perspectives of course not only provide arguments for social critique, they may even be part of an argument for change. On the other hand, I don’t believe (anymore) that science will overturn the structures of power that opress the world today. Should the masses act on scientific knowledge, then we would for instance all be vegetarians, based on the fact that (a) we do not need to eat dead animals to survive, (b) the logic of the ”market” make the meat industry one of the most cynical and disgusting in the world.  But most people don’t act on such facts, now do they?
In Library and Information Science, we can establish the democratic significance of library services working in local society settings, as well as we can analyse the importance of a well working scientific communication – a prerequisite for development through knowledge. Not enough, perhaps, to turn contemporary society into a more worthy and humanistic one than that which we have today – but, enough to provide the basis for formulation of important questions that reach well beyond the influence (and interest) of the discipline.
In order to see the world, we need knowledge; in order to see the knowledge we have to document it; the documents need to be described and organized, they need to be made available and possible to retrieve; once so, we can internalize them and convert them into action, and out of this action there is (still?) room to achieve change. But, of course, the thought of redirecting social development requires an understanding of the very existence of social relations, not as ironies or discursive constructions, but as experiences of real people. In this way both studies of librarianship and documentation may in itself be legitimized from a materialistic point of view. Library and Information Science has indeed a lot of potential in this respect.

If any of my scientific writings should find a place for someone, somewhere, in the quest for social change and the role therein of documentation and librarianship, I would probably die a happy man. Before death, though, I might just keep doing this for, well, another twenty years.

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