Local Knowledge

by MT

Appropriating a book title that I have not read for article title is perhaps not the smartest thing to do. But the term local knowledge does summarize what has been in my mind for the past few weeks besides the hassle of cross-continental moving and settling down. Last semester there was a rare opportunity that three Mandarin-speaking architectural historians coexist in the program. Although each needed to tackle with our own busy life, we still managed to gather and have a nice dinner once in a while. Interestingly most of the times the conversation ended with the debate over methodology in architectural history—whether theory or material should guide the organization of the narrative. One of the context for this conversation is that various sociological theories and big names has dominated the current scholarly concerns in architectural history (or perhaps many other humanity fields) in Taiwan.

Both sides of the argument have their points and both seemed equally valuable. Admittedly we need theory to organize the seemingly scattered amorphous materials. As the economist Keynes remarked, even a claim to avoid theory is a theory itself. On the other hand it is a pain when we come upon a book or article full of jargons that consume our energy in debunking the overly convoluted speculation only to find it doesn’t make sense at all. In fact, it seems to be a consensus among several professors in the program that a good scholar (to paraphase Professor W) wears his theoretical baggage lightly.

Of course an easy answer is that we need both theory and material and attain a balance through constant reverberation, as historian Peter Burke said that “structures change and changed are structured.” But it is an irony that the notoriety of sociologists has replaced the reputation of philosophers in their theory making. As Collingwood mentioned in the Idea of History, the rise of sociology under Comte was triggered in part by the impatience with pure philosophical speculations and an urge to seek evidences and facts. (Well, think about Socrates and the sophists!?) Since when do we blame sociologists for obsession with theory? Or perhaps the prosecution should also cover anthropologists and literary critics and those big names who cannot be pigeon-holed with disciplinary categories?

Sociology, admit it or not, has made a great impact on historical studies. Peter Burke rightly points out that many times when people say “theory” they mean “model”. In his nice book History and Social Theory (another book on my ever expanding must-read list) he discusses several “central concepts.” Indeed, a less disputable term than theory, concept is really important as an organizing tool. Depending on the question an author wants to deal with, the model and central theme of the same archive material may differ, therefore the organization of the material will also be different. Merely a glimpse over the list of central concepts Burke discussed we realize the ways people look at and write about the society can be so different: social role, sex and gender, family and kinship, community and identity, class, status, social mobility, conspicuous consumption and symbolic capital, reciprocity, patronage and corruption, power, center and periphery, hegemony and resistance, social movements, mentality and ideology, communication and reception, orality and textuality, and, finally, myth.

Now the argument may have tilted to one side and betrayed the title of the article. To be fair I should confess that I am a theory-oriented researcher. I am aware of this serious bias, but at the same time I also try to push it to the limit in order to let go. The research proposal I submitted recently is full of theories that have been swirling in my brain fort he past two years. The response I have gotten so far from several generous and perhaps tolerant professors has been helpful. One of the great feedbacks is that, since I have moved to this place, the Bay Area of California seems to be a good site for facts and evidences for the designer I am working on. It also solved my problem of not being able to deal with the continuous spectrum from country to city. After all, like sociologists and designers, historians need to work with materials and are bound to be local. Even the theorists cannot avoid being local. In a recent conversation, Professor S mentioned that theorists like Charles Jencks and Rosalind Krauss all have their own version of postmodernism that is “local” in nature. Very refreshing. Well, sometimes it takes a long detour to realize a simple point.