Discursive Tools of Subversion

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Generative metaphors are one tactic that some members of the listserv use in order to create binary oppositions favoring particular forms of research activity over others. Another interesting strategy evident in two of Ken’s messages to the list is that of rhetorical attribution. By “rhetorical attribution,” I refer to the act of attributing thoughts, beliefs, or opinions to someone else in an effort to persuade an audience to accept an argument. Unlike formal references, rhetorical attribution does not necessarily entail direct quotation. It is speculative. Perhaps even hypothetical. When Ken attributes an opinion about “research creation” to Picasso, for example, he says, “Picasso would have laughed at the notion of research-creation.” Ken does not know with certainty that this is the case even if he is familiar with Picasso’s life and works. In this section, I focus on Ken’s rhetorical attribution of key thoughts, beliefs, or opinions about research-creation to Picasso. I ask, “What does this rhetorical attribution do? What is its function in the discussion?”

Early in the RtD thread, David Durling posts the preliminary findings of the Research Excellence Framework (RAF), which is “an assessment by an expert panel [in the UK] on the quality of submitted research, environment, impact etc. [from local universities]” The findings, as summarized by David, “make the sector [of practice-based research] seem quite healthy, and the [specific praise in the report aimed at the practice-based community]… stands in stark contrast to those who still cannot understand the value of investigative design practice.” In short, the government of the United Kingdom acknowledges the value—the legitimacy—of practice-based research, inclusive of art and design. Ken is the first to post a response to David’s email. And he writes, “David’s post reflects my views.” This does not sit well with one other member of the listserv: Martin Salisbury, a Professor at the Cambridge School of Art.

“On the face of it,” Martin writes, “[the well-established presence of practice-based research in art and design] would seem not to reflect your views but rather to clearly contradict them as stated in your previous post.” Martin supports this thesis with evidence from Ken’s earlier posts. In particular, he extracts four quotes in which Ken seemingly enumerates the reasons why “research creation” is not research. In short, Ken states that research creation (1) lacks a question, (2) has little impact, (3) is irrelevant to a scholarly community, and (4) does not document its processes. But Martin also points to a quote in which Ken cites Pablo Picasso. “Pablo Picasso once said, ‘Others seek. I find.’ He was a magician and an artist, not a researcher.” This quote stands out to Martin because no one on the listserv had suggested that Picasso was a researcher. Furthermore, Martin argues that Ken’s characterization of artistic practice as “magic” is misguided and indicative of someone who misunderstands the ways in which artistic practice—like design practice—can be construed as research activity.

One of Ken’s primary tasks in responding to Martin is persuading him that research-creation does not constitute academic research activity. Ken may not be able to prove this conclusively. But one approach he can take to persuade Martin and others of the “truth” of his claim is to attempt to discredit its inverse, i.e. discredit the view that research-creation constitutes research activity. One way to discredit the claim is by referencing definitions of research and demonstrating the ways in which research-creation does not fit with the definitions. But Ken has already taken this approach, and it apparently did not work. Martin remained skeptical. Another way Ken might discredit the notion of research-creation as legitimate academic research is by subverting the dividing line between his views and Martin’s. In other words, get someone “on Martin’s side” of the debate to espouse Ken’s views. Demonstrate that there is dissent in the ranks. If he were to attempt to do this with a listserv member, however, he would likely be unsuccessful. All of the members participating in the RtD thread who might define themselves as artists or designers—and not as academics—express views firmly in line with Martin. Ken must find his subversive elsewhere. Enter Picasso.

Picasso functions as a tool of subversion. Ken uses him to subvert Martin’s argument that research creation is a legitimate form of research. Picasso was an artist. Martin is an artist. All the other members of the listserv actively arguing for “research-creation” as legitimate academic research activity are artists. But unlike the other members of the listserv Picasso was critical of the idea of the artist as an academic researcher. According to Ken, Picasso “would have laughed at the idea of “research-creation,” and he would not have wanted a PhD.

Ken thus positions “one of the greatest artists of the 20th century” in opposition to the members of the listserv arguing for “research-creation” as a legitimate (academic) research activity. If Martin responds, then he must respond both to Ken and to Picasso. This is perhaps a more formidable task than responding to Ken alone. That Ken is perhaps “outsourcing” his argument to Picasso suggests that he might also serve as a kind of stake inoculation. By attributing a particular perspective on research-creation to Picasso, Ken could be construed as ceding responsibility for the position espoused through Picasso. “Picasso would have laughed at the notion of research creation,” is written as an objective claim. Is Ken arguing through Picasso? Or is he reporting the truth of Picasso’s own views? This is an important question, but I believe its answer has little to no effect on Picasso’s functionality in Ken’s message.

Since Ken cannot prove that research-creation does not constitute academic research without referencing definitions that do not seem to convince his audience, Ken tries a different approach. He uses Picasso in an attempt to discredit the view that research-creation is legitimate, academic research. If Picasso, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, disavows the possibility that artistic practice could (or should) be construed as research, then certainly those members of the listserv arguing the inverse should take note and perhaps temper their position. Picasso could also be said to function as a stake inoculator for Ken. When Ken attributes certain thoughts, beliefs, and opinions to Picasso, he does so in the manner of a journalist reporting facts. Picasso would have laughed at the notion of research creation. Picasso would not have wanted a PhD. Yet for all the fastidious attention to references in this (and other) message(s), Ken provides no source material from which he derives these beliefs. It would be interesting to consider the possibility that the Picasso Ken invokes in his post is largely a fictional character with little resemblance to Picasso in reality. This may not change the intended function of the rhetorical attribution, but it would almost certainly change the way Martin and others might read and respond to Ken’s post.

2 thoughts on “Discursive Tools of Subversion

  1. This is a really grounded and detailed analysis! I really like this idea of rhetorical attribution. It seems that evoking Picasso is quite a significant move, which you highlight well here. I wondered whether it would have been as “powerful” to use a random artist that few knew. The use of Picasso is particularly intriguing, as it someone presumed to have cultural significance and presumed authority and meaning on the matter of art creation vs. research creation. Hm…

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