Hospitality

From The Oxford English Dictionary:
1. a. The act or practice of being hospitable; the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill.

A quick dive into the etymology of “hospitality” reveals that it grows from the Latin word meaning “host.” A host, the OED helpfully explains, is “the correlative to guest.”

From The New Testament, Hebrews 13:2, slightly altered:
Be not forgetful to entertain [i.e., show hospitality to] strangers: for thereby some have entertained seekers unawares.

I’d have quoted a more recent translation–I’m no “AVolater”–but the prose was so clumsy in the versions I consulted that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

From Elizabeth A. Wilson, Affect & Artificial Intelligence (University of Washington Press, 2010 — with thanks to Christine Labuski at Virginia Tech for alerting me to the book)

The following chapters present an empathic engagement with these eccentric tendencies toward artificial feeling. Readers may find themselves disappointed by a methodology that is not critical enough…. I want to be hospitable to my material. This orientation derives, in part from my immersion in the archives: the marginalia of these researchers’ lives and the density of their intellectual and emotional interconnections have generated an attachment to them governed more by curiosity and care than by cynicism. This orientation also derives from a very strongly felt intellectual conviction that engagements of an empathic kind can be immensely, uniquely effective. If that makes my analysis seem too credulous it’s a small price to pay to divert myself and my readers from the dogged approaches to critique that have become our stock in trade. On occasion I will insert a footnote to direct readers to more conventional critiques of these projects; and at times I will examine in some depth where I think AI [artificial intelligence] researchers have gone astray. In general, however, it is my intention to build a critical engagement with these men and their ambitions and their moods and their machines that is based in secure, rather than avoidant or ambivalent, attachment.

Wilson then quotes what she calls Bruno Latour’s “fiery rhetoric about the dissipation of critique.” Latour writes,

The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rug from under the feet of the naive believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution. (Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam? From Matters Of Fact To Matters Of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, Winter 2004)

After which Wilson notes, “Latour pleads for a mode of critique that trades in multiplication rather than subtraction and scorn.”

The word scorn is exactly right, I think. “[A] Common Romanic word of Germanic origin,” the OED says, tracing the word from 1200 to the present across many languages, all of them using this word–harsh to the point of onomatopoeia–to indicate mockery, derision, contempt. As a verb, scorn carries an even stronger sense of an attitude toward an inferior: “[t]o feel it beneath one, to disdain indignantly to do something,” the dictionary relates. “Jeer” is a synonym, as is “despise.”

When Jon Udell went to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to urge academics there to narrate their work by blogging on the open web, he met with considerable resistance from those who couldn’t imagine putting what they called “half-baked ideas” onto the Web for all to see. Compare that response with Michael Nielsen’s poignant story in his Reinventing Discovery: The Rise Of Networked Science:

A friend of mine who was fortunate enough to attend Princeton University once told me that the best thing about attending Princeton wasn’t the classes, or even the classmates he met. Rather, it was meeting some of the extraordinarily accomplished professors, and realizing that they were just people–people who sometimes got upset over trivial things, or who made silly jokes, or who made boneheaded mistakes, or who had faced great challenges in their life, and who somehow, despite their faults and challenges, very occasionally managed to do something extraordinary. “If they can do it, I can do it too” was the most important lesson my friend learned.

What’s important then is that blogs make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to get an informal, rapid-fire glimpse into the minds of many of the world’s scientists…. It’s not just the scientific content that matters, it’s the culture that is revealed, a particularly way of viewing the world. This view of the world can take many forms…. The content ranges widely, but as you read, a pattern starts to take shape: you start to understand at least a little about how an experimental physicist views the world, what [he or she] thinks is funny, what [he or she] thinks is important, what [he or she] finds irritating. You may not necessarily agree with this view of the world, or completely understand it, but it’s interesting and transformative nonetheless. Exposure to this view of the world has always been possible if you live in one of the world’s intellectual capitals, places such as Boston, Cambridge, and Paris. Many blog readers no doubt live in such intellectual centers. But you also routinely see comments on the blog from people who live outside the intellectual centers. I grew up in a big city (Brisbane) in Australia. Compared to most of the world’s population, I had a youth of intellectual privilege. And yet the first time in my life that I heard a scientist speaking informally was when I was 16. It changed my life.

Who are the academics willing to be present in this way? Academia reserves a particular scorn for the informal expression of one’s thoughts, which has among many other dreadful results a terrible chilling effect upon many professors’ willingness to reveal themselves as learners, let alone seekers, in front of their students.

Who will dare to be a learner, a seeker, a yearner in the face of such hostility? Many academics insist that the withering, contemptuous varieties of critique are like a refiner’s fire, purging dross from gold, making our arguments more rigorous and our conclusions more sound. I wonder. Others wonder as well: see, in addition to Wilson and Latour, Alex Reid’s notes on the ethics and limitations of “critique.” Be sure to read the comment stream that follows, in which hospitality emerges after a great and admirable struggle to walk away from the more usual paths of academic exchange.

One of the things I enjoyed most about my first days in the world of “edtech” (for want of a better world) was the hospitality I was shown by folks who’d been blogging, using wikis, exploring mobile technologies, and working within virtual worlds for a long time before I arrived on the scene (conference debut as an attender: MIT, fall 2003, AAC&U topical meeting). That hospitality was challenged rather severely when the conversation became fragmented over edupunk. My own capacity for hospitality shrank, which I truly regret, but hospitality and punk seemed so antithetical (still do, to me) that I was mostly just torn up inside. I recognized the urgent need for reform, but I couldn’t see my way to these means, though of course I worried that too might be a failure, either of hospitality or of outrage. Hospitality has also been strained in the current storm over MOOCs and the future of higher education. Ironically, this is the very moment in which we need to grow and employ more hospitality than ever, if only to demonstrate the value of carving out a space for college, the place where colleagues share intellectual devotion that is hospitable even to sharply defined, but collegially (even cordially) expressed disagreements.

I keep hearing Elizabeth Wilson’s voice: I want to be hospitable to my material. More curiosity and care, less cynicism. It’s a poignant insistence, given the challenges she evidently anticipates in response. It’s a necessary insistence, I believe, given the openness and zestful curiosity that we need to entertain each other, and our conjectures and dilemmas, in community. Henri Nouwen reminds us that “the time has come to realize that neither parents nor teachers nor counsellors can do much more than offer a free and friendly place where one has to discover his own lonely way” (Reaching Out, special edition, 2006). Not much more than that, perhaps, but not any less than that, either.

In response to my last post, my friend Louis sent me a link to a marvelous exploration of hospitality by Leonard Cohen. Louis is patiently opening the world of this artist to me–and doing so very hospitably. In the comment below the clip, Louis writes,

Here’s a transcript of Cohen’s interview comment on the song, so it’s easier to follow: “I think that kind of imagery can be discovered all through the literature. The Persian poet Rumi [13th century] uses the idea of the guests a lot. The festival, the feast and the guests. It’s almost impossible to talk about that seed moment of when a song begins. It could be the soul comes into world. There is some notion the soul has that there is a feast, that there is a festival, that there is a banquet. It strives to experience the hospitality of the world. It doesn’t achieve it. It feels lonely, this is everybody’s experience. It feels lost. It stumbles around on the outskirts of the party. If the striving is deep enough or if the Grace of the host is turned towards the seeking guest, then suddenly the inner door flies open and he finds himself, or the soul finds himself, at that banquet table. Although no one knows where the night is going, no one knows why the wine is flowing. No one actually understands the mechanics of this grace except that we experience it from time to time.” It’s a clip from a 1979 documentary called *The Song of Leonard Cohen.*

It’s a good place to pause for now.

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