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Thursday, December 16, 2004

'State Work' is Hard Work....

I have been making my way through Harney's State Work: Public Administration and Mass Intellectuality
book (page 41 at this point), and it is quite a chore. There is something to be said for spending some time on developing a coherent argument. It isn’t that Harney is not making some interesting points – but the lack of a logical presentation, and his reluctance to just get on with the task at hand is getting extremely annoying.

(At page 41 I am passed the Intro and well into chapter 1, and the presentation keeps folding back on itself. He finally got into his case study around page 22, and then interrupted it with a discussion on the literature of public administration and method at page 31 which essentially reargues points made earlier in the intro; and as far as I can tell he is just now getting back to his case study at page 41. He had me convinced of the approach way back in the early pages, and just when he seems to get into his study he goes back to rationalizing what he is doing. It’s like watching my neighbour try to start that old mower over and over again – and after awhile it gets pretty annoying….)

Among the ‘interesting’ points raised thus far (who knows – he may change his mind and mine on the next page) is that the public administration literature reflects an ideological commitment to the state, and that even those who are critical tend to take the state as given (or at least that is what I think he is saying). What he is determined to do is approach public administration as ‘state work’ through ethnographic studies of his own and others’ experiences. His is clearly a ‘liberationist’ postmodern perspective, and he promises to go beyond the mere instrumental or ‘critical’ approaches of others (e.g., my Rutgers colleagues Marc Holzer, Kathe Callahan and Frank Fischer get specific mention). But for now there ain’t much of a coherent argument to write home about.

That said, he has me thinking of the dilemma facing those who assume the critical-emancipatory-liberationist perspective. While I am always impressed at the depth and energy of their analyses (not only of public administration, but of social life in general), I wonder at times if they realize how much their insights into the ideological embeddedness of others are themselves embedded in an ideological perspective. Habermas termed this the ‘performative contradiction,’ and it is inevitable since critiques that assume the ideological foundations of all thought must necessarily come to terms with the ideological basis of their own critiques. The choice they face is to make a career of critique for critique’s sake (hey, someone has to do it!) or to engage in a serious justification of their own critical perspective. Harney gives the impression that he will confront that dilemma head on – so I plod ahead….
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