So anyhow, my explorations of the hot blog topic of trolls and grey vampires, of sneers and accusations, of projects and critiques, are motivated only in part by my desire to choose sides. We might wish we had tough skins, separating critiques of our work from critiques of our selves, but I’m not sure it’s either possible or optimal. Who I am consists in large part of what I do and of what’s done to me. Much of what I do is impersonal, in the sense that anyone could do it. When I drive my car or do the laundry or calculate the mean and standard deviation of a data set I’m performing a generic task, in a prescribed way, that’s intrinsic to the role I’m occupying. Still, my performance of these tasks can be distinguished from that of a machine. I take an alternate route to admire the scenery; I fail to notice the black sock mixed in with the whites; I detect a possible pattern among the outliers while eyeballing the raw data.
In academic work some projects seem inevitable. There’s an obvious next study to be conducted in a research trajectory, an obvious connection to be explored between two thinkers. And yet the precise contours of even a predictable project almost always carry some idiosyncracies in their design and execution, idiosyncracies that can be traced back to the person conducting the project. Do project idiosyncrasies make manifest certain stable characteristics of the individual or team undertaking the projects? Or is an individual or a team best regarded as a temporary nexus of historical and contemporary trajectories, such that even their idiosyncracies can be regarded as predictable for them? I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter, but I believe it does.
We can talk in inhuman terms: while an object and its environment occupy the same reality and interact bidirectionally with each other, there is a difference within that reality between object and environment. What constitutes the environment depends on what kind of an object we’re talking about: what a patch of tall grass means to a rabbit is different from what it means to the guy who mows the lawn. And whether grass patches and rabbits and lawnmowing guys are more or less interchangeable, this particular patch of grass is part of the environment only for this particular rabbit, this particular guy. (And vice versa, of course: this rabbit, this man, are part of this grass patch’s environment.)
But humans are different in the ways they interact with their environment. Individual rabbits surely differ in the way they go about eating a patch of grass, but those differences are minor random variations in the execution of a preprogrammed instinctive behavior pattern common to the species. The behavior of the guy with the lawnmower might be predictable too, but his behavior depends on whether he’s the owner of the patch of grass or the guy hired by the owner, whether the neighbors keep their lawns well-manicured or not, whether the guy prefers to mow on a weekly schedule or based on how much the lawn has grown since last time, and so on. These individual differences are surely affected by species-wide characteristics, but they’re not locked in as tightly by instinct. There are distinct characteristics about this particular guy — his sensitivity to social pressure, his economic motivation, his aesthetic sensibilities, his enjoyment or distaste for the task, his compulsiveness versus impulsiveness, other things he wants or has to do today — that affect what he does with his lawnmower to that patch of grass.
This particular guy’s characteristics: do they describe what he does, or who he is? It’s not a clear-cut distinction. Individual differences between people manifest themselves in the different ways they perform particular tasks — that is, in the ways they interact proactively with their generic and specific environments. I don’t believe that my selfhood is diminished because I have no personal lawnmowing responsibilities. Still, when I had a lawn and a mower, someone could infer a few things about me by observing the way in which I typically performed the task. In all likelihood there are other tasks which I do perform these days that would offer similar glimpses into some of those same characteristics I manifested as a lawnmowing guy. The performance of a task exposes both the characteristics of the task as well as certain characteristics of the performer. This is true of lawnmowing, of doing crossword puzzles, of formulating theories, of writing blog posts.
So, returning to the topic of undertaking a project: one could argue that the project in effect executes itself. Maybe there is no meaningful difference between person and environment. Projects emerge through the social interactions among humans and the neural interactions in those humans’ brains. The boundary between the guy with a project and the guy with a critique of the project is an artificial one: the interactions internal to the social and intellectual environment are what make the project happen. That’s one way of looking at it, and it’s a legitimate way. Differences among individual projects would be less important than the projects regarded collectively as the cumulative expression of a larger human intellectual environment.
It’s also legitimate to regard individuals and their particular projects as separate entities, distinct from other people and their projects. As an individual I act and am acted upon by a local environment made up of natural things and forces, of artifacts and social forces, of other individuals and what they’re doing. I can regard the blog post that I’m writing as manifesting a particular pattern of generic characteristics present in all blog posts which, together with those posts’ readers and commenters, collectively comprise the blogging environment. Or I can regard the writing of this post as a distinct and focused expression of part of who I am as an individual. And I can regard the post itself, now that it’s just about finished, as a unique artifact that in all likelihood would never have come into existence if I hadn’t done it. Outside forces surely have shaped what I’ve done here regardless of my awareness or intentions. But to some degree I can intentionally filter those influences, absorbing or deflecting or adapting to them. They are part of my local environment. My idiosyncratic interactions with that environment reveal as much about who I am as about what I do and the environment in which I do it.
I venture to assert that this blog post is different from any of the other millions of blog posts floating around out there, and that this particular post would never have come into existence if I hadn’t written it.