Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi, Ph.D.
Growing up in Tehran, Iran, during the ‘60s and the ‘70s as the youngest and only son in a middle-class family of five, I was often expected to take sides and mediate in the quarrels between my Westernizing father and Easternizing mother. The dilemmas posed by my parents’ seemingly irreconcilable diverging traditions and subsequent marital problems despite their still continuing love for one another as (also) immediate cousins, always preoccupied my energy and mind, and pained my heart. The emotional suffering I endured as a result of seeking to find a way to bring them back to each other in the broader context of wider Eastern and Western cultural structures, norms, and prescriptions for the conduct of everyday life is impossible to be enumerated here. However, they have strongly contributed, consciously and subconsciously, to the motivating forces of my life’s conduct and scholarship in search of a sociological imagination most conducive to a radical understanding and transcending of the dialectics of personal troubles and public issues amid the simultaneity of a deeply personal as well as a thoroughly world-historical context.
Luckily, during childhood, I had the ‘spatiotemporal’ luxury of being able to take refuge in my own room from the unending conflicts between my parents in order to more constructively engage in alternative hobbies such as drawing, painting, carpentry, assembly of amateur electronic kits, or building of cardboard models of houses and towns—while also trying to pursue my formal education. At school, however, I confronted a similar unsettled mixture of Western and Eastern subjects and methods. Science and religious courses were often mixed in the curricula in Iran, though at the time (under the Shah) the emphasis was on the former, casting religious and social studies as secondary subjects in elementary and high school education. However, I recall when it came to my participating in (and winning) an art contest organized by and on the Iranian national educational television station, the thematic subject to draw was “the mosque.” At the same time, my constant involvement in home-based crafts or hobbies was perhaps a personal reaction and solution to the lack of an experimental and practice-oriented curriculum at school. Not having any close family members or relatives who had the formal training to act as guides for my education, from the beginning in my childhood I was self-reliant in my search for answers to questions, often seeking “my own ways” of solving problems.
Having chosen mathematics as my study major in late high school years in Iran, during which I became especially interested in the subject of spatial geometry, in 1977 I entered the Technical College of Tehran University, majoring in what seemed to be curiously a favorite and highly praised career choice for parents in Iran: engineering—especially civil engineering. (This, of course I later learned, had much to do with the extremely rapid process of “modernization” and urbanization in Iran especially during the 1970s.) The beginning of my undergraduate years at the Technical College, a highly politicized center of student activism in Iran for many decades, coincided with the events leading to the overthrow of the 2500-years-old monarchial political system in Iran. The Easternizing Islamic revolution in Iran against the Westernizing regime of the Shah again reminded me of the age-old conflict. In the meantime, the “revolution” reinforced the deep and often obsessive desire already present in me, thanks to my family experience, to seek the root causes of things— now, of broader social conflicts.
Universities in Iran being in turmoil and soon closed down, I moved abroad in 1978 to enter U.C. Berkeley for my undergraduate studies, shifting my study major to architecture. In the context of the explosive revolutionary situation in Iran, when squatter-dwellers (“kookh-neshinan”) were rising up against the palace-settlers (“kakh-neshinan”)—as Khomeini’s political rhetoric acknowledged—and amid the political radicalism characterizing the U.C. Berkeley campus for all walks of life, the pursuit of a mainstream and conventional career in architecture did not prove to be sufficiently attractive for me. When a vast majority of the world’s population suffer from lack of basic housing and urban facilities such as water and electricity, I thought at the time, a career focused on pleasing the elaborate spatial idiosyncrasies of the rich seemed to me to be too far out of sync with reality. Besides, as a de facto immigrant to the U.S., the contrasts of subtle cultural differences between the East and the West, even for me whom I thought had already been sufficiently “Americanized” even before entry into the U.S., was becoming too personal and intimate to dismiss.
As a result I experienced a severe identity crisis during the first summer of my stay here in the U.S. in 1978, the likes of which I have not experienced in my life. Challenging both my Eastern quasi-religious beliefs and Western “petty-bourgeois” or “bourgeois” cultural inclinations, the student movement abroad occupied an important place in my life during almost a decade after my arrival in the U.S. I met and learned from many Marxists—which explains why I exerted considerable efforts in my doctoral dissertation to critically understand what went wrong in Marxist “revolutionary” theorizing and praxis. Despite many reservations I have about that experience, especially its one-sided emphasis on “practice” at the expense of “theory,” I owe to this movement my deeply ingrained, almost “habitual,” inclination to pursue social theory and practice relationally—which of course was already present in me in a technical sense due to my architectural training. However, the effect such a practice-oriented approach to education had on the duration and lengthening of my graduate studies cannot be underestimated—an experience which I have cherished.
During my undergraduate studies in architecture at U.C. Berkeley, when also my early interest in Marxism grew, I became interested in what is referred to as the “housing question” under capitalism. Due to clear directives in the classical Marxist (especially Engelsian) literature to give priority to the “social” question rather than the symptomatic and “secondary” problems of capitalist society such as the “housing question,” I learned that the causes of the housing problem lie not in physical but in “non-physical,” i.e., social, conditions. In other words, it is not that we cannot technically build adequate and/or affordable housing around the globe, but that this seems to be socially inhibited for one reason or another. At the time, and concluding my studies at Berkeley, I expressed the view in my applications for graduate schools that the problem with “low-income housing” resides not in the “housing” but in the “low-income” aspect of the issue. Hence, upon graduation from U.C. Berkeley with a major in architecture, I abandoned the “housing question” altogether and shifted my studies to sociology and entered the graduate program at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
However, it was during my graduate studies in sociology at Binghamton that I realized how “low-income” and “housing” conditions are in fact dialectically interrelated, and that the “housing question” itself can be an important window of research and possible practical involvement toward realization of concrete social change. Without such interests in urban and housing issues, for instance, I would not have paid as much attention to urban protest movements such as those in the Afsariyeh district of Tehran whose strange but artful slogan (“Na Qarbi, Na Sharqi; Na Abi, Na Barqi”; meaning, Neither Eastern [Bloc], Nor Western; Neither Water, Nor Electricity; نه شرقى، نه غربي، نه آبى، نه برقى) originally inspired my doctoral research. My academic rediscovery of the significance of the housing question in social revolution, which revealed definite inadequacies in Marxism itself, prompted me to reintegrate my original ‘architectural’ interests and skills with my current ‘sociological’ research projects. The origins of my concept of ‘social architecture’ (which I later modified to ‘human architecture,’ reflecting a new step in my understanding of the limits of the ‘social question’ and of ‘sociology’ themselves) can therefore be partly traced to this desire for a synthesis of my formal educational backgrounds.
At a practical level, however, I personally experienced in time how the very inner organizational and social practices of individuals who profess to follow the Marxist project can be totally distant from and alien to the methodological and theoretical formulations and principles of the ‘revolutionary’ paradigm itself. “Not practicing what you preach” syndrome, so to speak, personally hit home particularly when I resigned from an Iranian student association in protest against censorship. As if experiencing the failure of Iranian Marxists abroad or in Iran was not enough to convince me of the shortcomings of Marxism, I (along with millions of others) soon had the extraordinary chance in a lifetime of observing under our very own eyes the crumbling of a whole Communist Bloc in a matter of a few years, if not days. Witnessing this, but also the failures of other nationalist and religious ‘revolutionary’ models of Western and Eastern extraction in Iran on a global context, I became deeply curious about why all paradigms of social revolution, religious or scientific alike, have hitherto failed—and about the possibility of existence or emergence of any alternative paradigms of change.
It was during this period of personal confusion and dissatisfaction with Marxism as a Western doctrine that I learned, by the mere accident of watching a film (Meetings with Remarkable Men, directed by Peter Brook, New York: Remar Productions, Inc., 1978) about the life of an “unknown” man, a certain G. I. Gurdjieff, who in the 1920s “appeared in Europe having had extraordinary experiences in the East” (as told in the opening scene of the motion picture). I was strangely ‘attracted’ to this man’s life and teaching, as I soon discovered I already shared much of his cultural background and intellectual interests. Although in time I grew dissatisfied with the works by and about Gurdjieff, yet, I felt then that I had discovered the “fragments” of a tradition deeply close to what I had been searching in my life—a statement that I later found, ironically, repeated by many encountering Gurdjieff’s teaching, and the adequate understanding of which turned out to be even more revealing to me than what I had learned in my experience with Marxism.
Gurdjieff’s teaching was the spark that opened my mind to the rich (and for many reasons also controversial) accumulation of knowledge in the world’s mystical tradition about self-knowledge and change. He shed a meaningful light on the esoteric nature of all the Persian poetry I had heard or read all my life as part of the cherished heritage of all Iranians, but never really understood their intent beyond their superficial, though beautiful, rhymes and images. Gurdjieff also disturbed in my mind the spatiotemporalities associated with “progress” advocated by both the mainstream, and the socialist, propaganda apparatuses and intellectual organizations—for here I found an allegedly “ancient” teaching that was in many ways far more scientific and useful in dealing with questions of everyday life than many others I had encountered in conventional academic literature. Perhaps this was a “postmodern” challenge in my mind to the assumed “progressive” superiority of the West over the East, of the modern over the traditional, and of the present over the past.
Nevertheless, it was through persistent and independent critical study of Gurdjieff’s own writings that I gradually understood the reasons for my initial, hypnotic ‘attraction’ to his teaching—which also allowed me to observe in a directly personal way the underlying structures of most religious and mystical teachings at work. I soon realized that it was simply indispensable for me to try to critically integrate my experience with Gurdjieff’s teaching into my doctoral research undergoing at the time on the underlying paradigmatic causes of failure of past human efforts at world-historical change. I intentionally remained independent of all Gurdjieffians, orthodox or not—learning from my past experience of involvement in the student organizations associated with Marxism—especially since the very teacher-student relationship was itself implicated in the subject matter of my doubts and questions about Gurdjieff and other mystical teachings.
In my doctoral research undergoing at the time, my purpose was to move beyond unfounded prejudices that had been hurled at Gurdjieff from different quarters before then, most of which I had also found to be based on heresy and a result of superficial acquaintance with his own writings. However, I also aimed at going beyond habituated readings of Gurdjieff based on others’ opinions of him, seeking to provide an independent critical assessment of the shortcomings and contributions of Gurdjieff’s life and teaching based on his own primary writings. In this, my intentions were to contribute to our awakenings to all trances in life, including those paved with good intentions by Gurdjieff himself.
My decision about organizational independence from all mystical schools, including that of Gurdjieff, was irreversibly reinforced later upon my critical participation in January 1995 in an intensive, both extraordinary and controversial, 10-day Buddhist meditation course in the U.S. associated with Goenka’s Vipassana teachings, followed by my continuing readings in mysticism and new independent experimentations with various techniques of meditation. The challenge I faced during that 10-day meditation course deeply opened my eyes to the elaborate but subtle subconscious conditioning one can undergo not only in mystical schools, but also especially in everyday life. I now questioned many things that I otherwise would have taken for granted, including the conceptual and curricular structures of academia itself. In this process, as I had questioned architecture in my undergraduate years, I began to question the very notions of self, society, and also of sociology. In particular, I became especially concerned with the ways in which disciplinary boundaries in academia have constructed or perpetuated the dichotomies of self and society, objective and subjective, matter and mind, science and philosophy, and so on.
Studying sociology, therefore, I discovered the self, a discovery which soon proved transient as well, for in the course of further research I also discovered beyond the evasive unitary and individual surface appearances of the self its underlying and inner (and not just contextual) multiplicity and “sociality.” The study of the works of Karl Mannheim, proposed to me by my dissertation advisor at the time, provided me with an opportunity to link my interest and involvements in utopian and mystical teachings with those in the academia. The sociology of knowledge has traditionally been concerned with the study of the relationship between knowledge and society. The study of the underlying causes of failure of various mystical or utopian movements is essentially a study in the sociology of knowledge, since these movements espouse to have developed not only knowledges which accurately reflect the human reality, but also prescriptions and modes of organization and practice that in their view can change that reality toward attainment of desired goals and aspirations. I found much value in Mannheim’s original intentions for constructing the sub-field. Reading him carefully, I felt a sense of unfairness in the way his views had been received and challenged by his contemporaries. But, a constructive reading of Mannheim’s legacy necessitates an openness to see both the value and the shortcomings of his project.
My educational experience had thus been a process of increasing awareness of both the ways in which our knowledges are world-historically constructed, and the extent to which we can begin to consciously and intentionally shape and influence such construction processes. My intellectual transitions from the sciences of math and civil engineering to architecture, from urban housing and community development to the study of Iranian revolutions, from World-Systems and Middle Eastern studies to the study of methods, space and society, the sociology of knowledge, and finally the study of the self, had not been easy. However, in this “architectural” project, I felt that at last I had found (or I may say designed and constructed) my own intellectual home. It had been a long process of self-critical challenge to the previously taken-for-granted structures of my own knowledge— structures that then, when I thought about them, as much as I thought about the very personal structures of my own emotional and physical behaviors, were world-historical constructions mediated through the particular Eastern and Western cultures, social institutions, class relations, and idiosyncratic inter- and intrapersonal environments amid which I had intellectually matured.
“There is no royal road to science,” Marx wrote in 1872, “and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” But, which “science,” or whose “science,” did Marx have in mind? Despite his historical treatment of many philosophical and theoretical categories in his voluminous works, Marx often seemed to take for granted the universality of the spatiotemporally particular nineteenth century European mountain of “objective” science he was seeking and encouraging his followers to climb. To be sure, the sociology of world-historical self-knowledge as advanced in my doctoral research may prove to be, I thought at the time, even more difficult to ascend. But, the summits of its illuminating (hopefully dialectical) twin peaks may also turn out to be much more rewarding for the kind of creative and artful task that is necessary for clearing the habituated Augean stables of our inner and broader social enslavements in favor of new, humanized and de-alienated, realities.
My preoccupations with Eastern and Western paradigms of change, therefore, are hardly a result simply of academic curiosity. These concerns are unique forms of articulation, in the biographical dramas of my own and others’ lives, of conflicting paradigms of world-historical change. My doctoral research had been, I thought then, as much a world-historical exploration of three utopystic thought-systems as an effort in seeking personal self-knowledge—critically revisiting the three major utopian, mystical, and academic thought-systems associated with Karl Marx, G. I. Gurdjieff, and Karl Mannheim that had shaped my own identity in the past. In seeking to know and change myself I needed to critically reexamine and change these perspectives themselves. There was an identity of part and whole inquiries at work in every page of my dissertation, and for that reason the study was a first work in my newly conducted sociology of self-knowledge and in human architecture and utopystics as its methodological and praxiological components, a study during which the three overlapping new fields of inquiry were themselves founded.
I think a prerequisite for excellence in research and teaching is transcending their spatiotemporal dualism, which itself cannot be adequately accomplished without questioning and seeking publication alternatives to the taken-for-granted, prevailing structures of academic learning, research, service, publishing, and careerism still prevalent in the university system today.
Research and teaching, i.e., creation and communication of knowledge, are inseparable from one another. Good teaching is always a research endeavor, and good research always a teaching experience, reflectively and/or with others. It is no wonder that we often learn more about a subject when we teach it, or better teach it when we are ourselves learning it anew. I see the relation of the two not in terms of a dualism, but in terms of the dialectics of part and whole, recognizing their simultaneity, that is, both the identity and the difference of the two at the same time. Which is part and which whole depend on institutional space and time—I do not think either is more important than the other. The dialectical part/whole approach to teaching and research introduces a spatiotemporal simultaneity to the two otherwise dualized aspects, helping to restore the integrity of the educational process as a creative experience.
My concern with spatiotemporality in social analysis and pedagogy dates back to my undergraduate studies at U.C. Berkeley where I received a liberal arts training in architecture in its College of Environmental Design. My graduate studies in sociology at SUNY-Binghamton, known for its World-Systems Studies concentration, were guided by an interest in the dialectics of long-term, large-scale social change and lifelong dynamics of personal self-knowledge. I have had a long-standing teaching and research interest in the spatiotemporal dialectics of micro and macro social processes, extending the inquiry in both directions to the study of how here-and-now personal self-knowledges of one’s multiple selves and singular world-historical social structures constitute one another. Omar Khayyam’s poetry, work, and life have always been great sources of inspiration for me in this regard, not due to any infatuation with a widely popular historical character, but due to a scholarly informed consideration that his thoughts and life’s work present a viable solution, hitherto still not adequately unveiled, fo the world-historically constituted dilemmas still facing humanity today.
The sociology of self-knowledge, human architecture, and utopystics (with a “y”)—three fields of inquiry I initiated as part of my doctoral research—are aimed at the construction of new conceptual and curricular landscapes for the pursuit of my research, teaching, and professional interests as outlined above. My overall disciplinary interest in the sociology of knowledge can be broken down into its component interests in self and society on one hand, and world-historical and comparative sociology on the other hand, aided by a sensitivity to matters of spatiotemporality in social analysis, and informed by a reflexive preoccupation with micro-macro sociological theories and the dialectical method. This explains the central concern of my scholarship with understanding and advancing C. Wright Mills’s “sociological imagination” which is concerned with cultivating a sociological state of mind that enables us to understand our personal troubles and broader public issues in relation to one another in particular socio-historical contexts.
I am also interested in psychohistory, broadly defined, because of its acknowledgment of the challenge posed by individual and collective subconscious factors in bringing about historical knowledge and change. This is explored in the context of a research interest in the study of failing ideological and political practices in social institutions, movements, and revolutions, with an eye on the newly revitalized East-West civilizational discourse. My approach to the study of social stratification considered in a world-history context is utopystic, i.e., I find it more fruitful to explore class, gender, racial, ethnic, and other inequalities as part of an overall search for alternative paths to social de-stratification within a simultaneously micro and macro, reflexive and global, framework. My studies in alternative utopystic theorizing and practices are guided by a special interest in the comparative/integrative study of utopian, mystical, and academic movements emergent from philosophical, religious, and scientific paradigms.
When teaching, I see each of my classes as a makeshift, semester-long, “research working group” involvement, during which students are treated as more or less young research scholars engaged in a most important research undertaking: understanding (and perhaps changing) their selves within a micro/macro sociological framework. The classroom is thereby transformed into a research collective of scholars whose central goal in the semester is to critically develop new knowledges about (and perhaps realities in) their globally constituted selves. Audiovisual, and especially feature film, materials are used to invoke not only intellectual but also emotional and sensual experiences into the self-interpretive and transformative learning process. This pedagogical technique I apply in all of my sociology classes, the difference among them being the particular subject matter or readings assigned to each course. It works each time. In each class, students come to know themselves differently from the vantage point of that particular subject matter set in a global context. The sociology of self-knowledge and human architecture in a world-history context concerned with utopystics, as advanced in my work, involve both explanatory as well as creative practices. The knowledge that results in the process of actual and persistent pursuit of this pedagogy across multiple course enrollments provides at the same time a fertile landscape for tearing down walls of class, gender, race, ethnic, religious, national, age, and disability alienations in favor of building integrative, globally and historically self-reflective, identities.
To accommodate my teaching and research interests, and especially to make possible the communication to others of my work and those of my students and colleagues, in 2002 I initiated an academic journal, a research center, and a publishing press which are represented in various pages of this website. My professional interests in architecture and book/publication design continually shape both the substance and expressive forms of my applied sociological pursuits. I believe teaching and research must both be concerned with matters of professional creativity—in substance and form, as well as expression. Art is the ultimate hope, in my view, beyond the valuable but one-sided and fragmented contributions of religion, science, and philosophy. Only art can bring them together in new ways in favor of the good life. I think this is the key to understanding Omar Khayyam’s message.
For further reflections on the perspectives inspiring my research and teaching, please visit respectively OKCIR: the Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science (Utopystics) and the editorial perspective of Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge.
Below are some of my research questions serving the broader framework of my teaching philosophy and inspiring my professional practice:
Research on utopianism: How can we go beyond ideological rhetoric—religious or scientific—to assess the real contributions and shortcomings of the utopian tradition? How does the utopian mode of challenging the status quo differ from the “antisystemic” variants? Many utopian experiments (such as that of the so-called “utopian socialists”) were much more real and concrete undertakings in explorations of alternative social arrangements than many contemporary party manifestos and platforms. Can one in fact find evidence that utopianism, i.e., building the alternative society in the here and now (imaginatively and/or experimentally, by example), has been not an exception but in fact the norm in previous transitions in historical modes of production? Can we develop new, more appreciative, research agenda in world-historical explorations of utopian movements? Can we go beyond ideological rhetoric of “antisystemicity” and develop our notions and criteria of what really is antisystemic or not using historically inductive, rather than merely deductive, methods of reasoning and research? Can we develop new world-historical typologies of utopian movements based on the ways in which they have emerged from various philosophical, religious, scientific, and humanist paradigms of social change?
Research on mysticism: What explains the dismissive attitudes of Western utopianism and science toward mysticism as an Eastern scientific endeavor? How can contributions of mystical teachings to self-knowledge and change be interpreted in liberatory and scientific sociological terms, particularly in terms of multiplicities of selves and roles in contemporary society? How can we constructively engage with and learn from the substantively rational elements in the world’s mystical teachings and movements without legitimizing and reproducing long-ingrained asymmetrical and dependent modalities governing their teacher-student relationships? What shapes and forms have mystical teachings and their student-teacher modalities taken across time and space in world-history? Have there been, or are there emerging, alternative approaches and experimentations in the mystical tradition which avoid such asymmetrical interpersonal structures in the search for transcendental self and divine knowledge and experience? What impacts have new textual, audiovisual, and electronic/internet technologies made on further rigidification and/or transformation of substantive contents and organizational forms of mysticism? How has “globalization” and the age of information affected the secretive, isolationist, and “mystical” tendencies found within various mystical schools?
Research on science and the academy: Why do we give/receive “credit” for learning about everything in the universe in our universities and classrooms, except for the study of our own individual selves? How can we critically assimilate the best contributions of mystical and utopian traditions into the confines of our formal and informal, on and off campus, “classrooms” while discarding their irrational elements? How can we engage students and ourselves in new, 21st century, discourses on “know thy self and world”? The study of theories of “self and society” still cannot replace engaged undertakings by the student to critically examine and study her or his own selves in everyday life. How can we build encouraging and supportive educational and curricular environments in schools and programs for such undertakings? How can we engage students in creative intellectual and experimental explorations and constructions of “future” de-alienated and more egalitarian social arrangements beginning in the “classrooms” of their schools, universities, homes, and peer groups, here and now? What ontological, epistemological, methodological, theoretical, and historical-interpretative impediments are preventing us from realizing that the alternative self and social arrangements need also to be “socially constructed” here and now—rather than merely promised in political platforms for a future society? How can rapidly developing technologies of internet and media communications contribute to the bridging of the self and global divide, and their knowledges, in contemporary society? What challenges do these new technologies pose for student lives and education in terms of new forms of habituations, automations, and mental and physical illnesses? What new methods, techniques, and styles of teaching can we create to accommodate a globally more responsible engagement with self-knowledge and change in undergraduate and graduate educational and curricular landscapes? How can new advances in science and technology contribute to transforming long-habituated publishing structures of knowledge production and dissemination in favor of more creative and liberating scholarly pursuits toward a just global society?
To read Tamdgidi’s Personal Statement submitted in 2008 for the purpose of his tenure review, which expands further on his scholarship philosophy in regard to the simultaneity of his research, teaching, and service work, please click here.
At the time I was concluding my doctoral research in 2002, I argued that without utopistic universities that break down and erase not only conceptual but also curricular, disciplinary, organizational, and professional fragmentations prevalent in the academia, we cannot defragment diverse manifestations of humanist utopystics into an integrated whole.
I argued that the reason the academic tradition, world-historically, has been unable to reconcile and transcend the dichotomizations gripping utopian and mystical traditions and teachings, has been that it has itself not been spared from such fragmentations. The separations of matter/mind, self/society, and theory/practice, are as much sources of academic disciplinary fragmentations as they are sources of alienation of academia from both utopian and mystical traditions. The question I asked was: how can we go about building utopystic universities? How can we overcome the fragmentations of humanist utopystics into its utopian, mystical, and academic variants?
One approach, I considered then, is to adopt an “antisystemic” strategy towards academia from within or without—to remain in or leave academia and be preoccupied with exposing the shortcomings of the academic interstate system. After all, there is no shortage of stereotypes against the “forgetful professor and his umbrella” in our popular narratives, especially if one is coming from practical utopian or mystical tradition backgrounds. Such stereotypes, of course, are part of the metaphorical arsenals that have alienated academia from the more practically involved mystical and utopian currents (and vice versa). A traditional “social origins of knowledge” argument still prevalent in the sociological discourse, would lead us either to abandon universities altogether—because we would assume that to be a “part of the system” should “inevitably” lead us to become forgetful professors with umbrellas left behind—or to remain inside and yet adopt an antagonistic attitude toward the guardians of the system, leaving us of course no timespace to do anything else.
I thought then that these approaches to building utopystic universities lead us to abandon academia altogether, literally or functionally, adopt an antagonistic attitude towards it, and join one or another “practical” movement already long alienated from the “unreal” life of the campus. But the currents who hurl stones at the academicians and to which we would enter have not themselves been assumed to be without sins. The stereotypes of “gurus” and pipe-dreaming “utopians” have been hurled at us from remote past as well, preventing us from coming to know these traditions and movements for what they really are, to see their valuable contributions as well as their shortcomings. Besides, the mystical and utopian movements are also as much alienated from one another as they are both suspicious of university professors.
The irony is, I thought then, that while each movement has sought passionately to defragment and reassimilate pieces of its own past history, it has often stopped short of moving beyond its own cherished party lines, mystical sects, or departmental walls to embrace its alienated fragments in its neighboring rooms. There are of course efforts by those inside genuine mystical and utopian traditions to question their own authorities, intra/ interpersonally conceived, and their habituations, but they too, like disgruntled academic protestations, often literally or functionally leave their movement to build something new. What is common to all these “antisystemic” movements within or without, is their preoccupation with demolishing the other than building the alternative self-realities in the here and now while remaining, organizationally or not, a part of their respective traditions.
I thought then that here, again, we are confronting the dialectics (or lack there-) of part and whole. What has been the distinctive feature of most previous mystical traditions (as Gurdjieff reminded us) was their tendency to retreat from life to build their alternative realities, and not build them amid life. Gurdjieff’s “fourth way” helped us see the need to move beyond a retreative attitude to alternative reality building, and to practice alterity in the midst of life. The same, I thought, we must consider with regards to past utopianisms. We need also fourth way utopianisms, of seeking to build alternative inter/extrapersonal realities in the mist of the mainstream social system. We need to practice dialectical part-whole relationisms rather than “materialist” predeterminisms. We need to see and empower the parts vis-à-vis their wholes. But, as parts, we need to move beyond practicing crude antisystemicities, and be antisystemic in an utopistic way. We need to show, while being a part of the system, the this-sidedness, the advantages, the fruitfulness, of our own alternatively designed, constructed, and practiced research, pedagogical, and professional spacetimes. This, I thought then, is the best and most effective way to change the whole, for here we are introducing the alterity in the very organic structure of the whole. By being and practicing the alternative historical reality within the whole, we have already changed the whole. And these seeds, these makeshift trenches, are all that is necessary to reconstruct the whole, beginning in the here and now.
I therefore concluded at that time that building utopystic universities must be carried out not in retreat from, but in the midst of the old traditions, be they academic, mystical, or utopian. Erasing the world-historical barriers and buffers within and among the three traditions, barriers and buffers that are not only interpersonally but also intrapersonally constituted and maintained for each of us, must therefore be a central task of building utopystic universities as part of the broader efforts at human architecture. Building bridges must begin from within all the three movements, and utopystic universities must be able to build bridges across the inner and outer campuses of academic, mystical, and utopian schools, traditions, and paradigms.
But to raise such slogans of unity, and to actually practice them, are of course two different matters. I did recognize at the time, in other words, that seeking to defragment the three-fold utopian, mystical, and scientific contributions via grounding inside one of the traditions (such as the academia) was not an easy task. Each of the three traditions are ensembles of long and deeply ingrained institutional habituations and automaticities: physical, emotional, intellectual, interactional, organizational, processual, and professional. There are enormous pressures on the “members” of each community to abide by the “rules and regulations” of each river—practicing, protecting, and passing on its own shared values, biases, and traditions. To be part of each movement, and to try to be utopystic in its midst is inherently loaded with contradictions, conflicts, and tensions, requiring enormous time and energy to balance one’s own cherished principles with meeting the required institutionalized and habituated needs of the parent mainstream. Tensions often lead either to the wholesale incorporation of the “member” into the mainstream of the parent institution, or to marginalization, institutional alienation, and informal or formal resignation. To invite those in the three currents to question their own outer or inner administrative authorities is a much easier task said than done, I wrote at the time, in 2002.
I did recognize then, that even when the personal commitment and integrity are so deep-rooted that alternative utopystic spacetimes are created in the midst of the mainstream current, these spacetimes often prove to be makeshift trenches exacting more toll, energy, and time in challenging the authorities than on actual building of alternative realities. The alternative construction projects in such situations thereby remain often half-finished and incomplete, soon to be retracted upon the physical or social departure of its originators from the scene. But the utopystic mode of social change is much more effective than crude forms of antisytemicity long habituated in our behaviors. The latter crude forms will exert such pressures on the alternative building project that the actual design and construction efforts of alternative pathways become themselves frozen in time and space. The antagonistic posture deprives the creative selves from other sympathetic voices inside the current—selves which often arise but fail to express themselves adequately due to the existential dependence of their voices on the physical, emotional, and/or intellectual resources provided by the parent mainstream.
A more fruitful approach to building utopystic universities, I argued then, was to do so utopystically—that is, to begin building the alternative conceptual, curricular, and organizational structures here and now, in the midst of the mainstream academic, mystical, or utopian traditions, while maintaining an active dialogue and working institutional affiliation with sympathetic voices across neighboring currents. This to be sure involves swimming against currents, against long habituated and institutionalized automaticities, so to speak. But, was not awakening to such long-ingrained trances of life the very ends to which my study itself pointed my attention? The problem with the mutual alienations of academic, mystical, and utopian traditions from one another has often been that “joining” either one has deprived establishing meaningful, open-minded, and critical dialogues among all the three. This is due to the fact that the institutional and organizational structures of all three exert such enormous social, psychological, material, and hypnotic influence on the “member” that he or she ends up being often irreversibly exhausted and drawn into the exclusive inertia of each movement at the expense of building bridges across the three.
However, I tried at the time to find a way out of this dilemma, by considering the multiple and fragmented nature of the self. Having noted that in my study I had already broken down the illusive “individual” into its component selves, suggesting that one can become an “individual” while consciously and intentionally maintaining one’s multiple selfhoods and social roles. As selves, we may be members of and affiliated with all the three traditions, but retain our own independent and autonomous intellectual identities in the framework of the alternative utopystic universities we build in the midst and across the three traditional rivers. As creative selves, we may begin relinking our fragments across Eastern and Western campus borders, and begin to experience their paradigmatic reintegration as de-alienations of our own fragmented selfhoods. I thought then that it may be fruitful to invent a new “fourth way” of blending harmoniously the spatiotemporally lop-sided ways of the professor, the mystic, and the utopian.
I proceeded to call such a hybrid and alternative way, the way of the human architect—one among many alternative possible historical ways of exercising humanist utopystics. I argued that we need to listen more to Mannheim’s proposals about engaging in alternative pedagogies inside the academia. We need to learn from Marx the experience of schooling and serious research outside academia. We need to learn from Gurdjieff the vocabulary of virtual schools and schooling in the midst of everyday life, of turning the ordinary everyday events into extraordinary learning and teaching experiences. We need to abandon the rigidified and habituated notions of “university” and “school” being confined to the spacetimes of campuses, classrooms, offices, and corridor hallways—or monastery retreats and party schools. We need to absorb the fact that now we are living in the informational global cities of virtual realities, educational networks, and pedagogical webs. We need to seek new landscapes for building de-alienated and self-determining individualities, within and without.
Why can we not have alternative universities, I asked in 2002, even in the midst of the mainstream academia, in which we are our own administrators, faculties, and students—both intra- as well as interpersonally imagined? Why should we, as parts, allow status quo structures become internalized into our intra/interpersonal pedagogies? If there is one tangible result emanating from the transformation of our dualistic “house storeys” metaphors into the part-whole dialectical praxis, is the realization that our academic institutions are not located on some separated top or middle floor of the capitalist world-economy, free of its cyclical rhythms and secular trends as far as capital-labor relations are concerned. Simply because we do “intellectual” or “cultural” work, I argued then, or that we are part of a “state” university system, does not mean we are not a cogwheel in the machinery of corporate capitalism—whether or not we imagine ourselves to be “antisystemic.”
I reminded myself then that, as I had argued in my study, both the state and the educational systems must be conceptualized as being parts of the economic sphere, though having their own particular and unique forms of labor organization, managerial control, and production processes. The managerial staff of the administrators, the labor force of faculty, and the raw materials of students fulfill in our university systems the same requirements or tasks expected of any capitalist enterprise—whether or not we are or not formally “corporatized.” Here’s in fact the irony of graduate students’ making efforts to roll back the corporatization of universities, when the alternative “public” or “state university” status quo is already a corporatized institution par excellence. Only we do not want to see it. The alienations within and among faculty and students are necessary by-products of any stratified and disciplined corporate structure under capitalism. So, the question I asked then was not really how to leave our existing universities, but how we can creatively open alternative university structures in the midst of the mainstream shop-floors, and demonstrate by example the actual fruitfulness and productivities of our alternative university practices.
I asked myself: Why can we not apply the lessons drawn up by the Gulbenkian Commission (Wallerstein, 1996) by actually building our desired alternative utopystic universities in the midst of our mainstream heres and nows? Why can we not show the superiority of a “unidisciplinary” curriculum by the evidence of its own actual reality and productions than through proposals delivered to a largely skeptical, if not hostile, audience? Why should we exert energies, often unappreciated by our American or international sociological associations, to defragment existing universities and disciplinarities, when we can build alternative universities from scratch ourselves, beginning from the here and now—in the hope of being able to make a difference in turning the tides of the coming “terrible fifty years”? Why can we not show by the example of our own alternative pedagogies and dialectical research practices the advantages and creative productive forces of our self-designed academic social relations?
Instead of wholly attaching oneself to one or another movement—academic, mystical, or utopian—it may be more fruitful, I concluded then, to adopt inside these structures a detached “interstitial” seminomadic and semi-settled strategy, building engaging and open-minded cross-tradition forums across the three rivers, starting from whichever fragment we happen to be at the moment. We can spread our multiple selfhoods across artificial movement and disciplinary boundaries—and beyond. Immanuel Wallerstein had at the time fruitfully questioned the habituated notions we all hold about the monopoly of university establishment on the production of knowledge, and had directed our attention to the possibility of building alternative research and educational institutions both inside and especially “outside” the traditional university establishment. I also was mindful then of the fact that the advent of internet and computer technologies was also providing new possibilities that could have only be “dreamed of” in recent past. I deemed it fruitful, then, to question our habituated professional trajectories, and to open our horizons to alternative historical possibilities for building meaningful, committed, and independent intellectual institutions more effective in defragmenting our inner and global research, educational, and professional trajectories.
But, one trajectory does not necessarily have to arrive at the expense of others, I argued at the time. We can design and construct our own independent intellectual identities and residences, while maintaining a constructive, productive, and engaging discourse and cooperation across all the three currents. This is not a question of preference, but a matter of absolute necessity, I thought then. Although we would be “in but not of” each current, from a bird’s eye point of view we and sympathetic voices in each current would be parts and parcels of a singular humanist utopystic project. Again, I thought, we should abandon our “individualistic” view of relationships and memberships, and adopt a subatomic and quantal view of social memberships in terms of discourses and dialogues among many selves. To be sure, we are not, and must not be, imprisoned by the structures of academic, mystical, and utopian movements from which we originate or within which we may operate. If there is one thing my critique of Karl Mannheim had taught me is that we, ourselves, are part of our “social existence” and the “social origins” which constitute our knowledges. My own doctoral research at the time, I thought, may perhaps be itself regarded as one example of how voices in fragmented river streams may become aware of and awakened to the voices of their neighboring currents, splashing drops of insight from one onto the others. It also demonstrated that universities are not completely closed-minded to the voices in other traditions. The dissertation research itself was made possible through efforts and support of committed intellectuals, such as Terence K. Hopkins, the founder of the Graduate Studies program in sociology at SUNY-Binghamton, who had painstakingly found creative ways to open utopistic niches in the midst of the mainstream academia.
The question is, I asked then, what should we explore, research, and teach in our utopystic universities? There were, of course, many possible alternatives. Here, I can only speak for the voices that were at the time emergent from my doctoral study. Although the ancient educational wisdom “Know Thyself,” taught in the oldest schools of the East, found its way into the Greek civilization more than two thousand years ago, our modern educational practices in formal institutions of learning seem to have taken little notice of its value. In our universities, we learn about everything in the universe—including many philosophical, sociological, and psychological theories about the self—except seriously examining our own very individual selves and receiving due credit for it, both as students as well as self-knowledge promoting faculty. As a result, “Know Thyself” has been exiled from our modern formal institutions of learning and relegated to the other institutions who have unfortunately often fostered it in ideologized, secretive, or sectarian ways. Instead, the modern educational institution has been increasingly corporatized to train automated human resources, “disciplined” to serve the “other.”
I did recognize at the time that advances made by modern sciences in teaching us about the world at large cannot be denied. The recent decades’ growing discourses on “globalization” are positive steps despite the latter’s underlying corporate engines, awakening particularisms East and West about the reality of our singular human civilization. In this revisiting of the East by the West, however, a new appreciation of that ancient educational wisdom has surfaced. This new awareness has now the possibility of merging the Eastern sciences of the self with the Western sciences of the world in a real, substantively rational, and practical way—devoid of all mystifications. My doctoral study had aimed at transcending the one-sided self or world foci of the human educational experience in the past two millennia in order to advocate a new “Know Thy Self and World” pedagogical praxis for the new millennium.
At the time, I insisted that even amid the reality of an academic environment characterized by disciplinarity, we must try to explore alternative conceptual and curricular structures of knowledge dedicated to world-historical self studies. My experience of designing and teaching several courses at Binghamton University and SUNY Oneonta during the preceding years had convinced me not only of the necessity and possibility, but also the feasibility, of building new curricular structures in the sociology of self-knowledge. A practical demonstration of the value of such curricular innovations was a class-book I published in 1997, compiling the works of my students at the time (see Tamdgidi, “I” in the World-System: Stories from an Odd Sociology Class (Selected Student Writings, Soc. 280Z: Sociology of Knowledge: Mysticism, Utopia, Science), 1997. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge and its parent research center OKCIR: Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science (Utopystics), were then launched in Spring 2002, to help institutionalize and promote new conceptual and curricular structures of knowledge whereby critical study of one’s selves within an increasingly world-historical framework is given educational and pedagogical legitimacy.
Revisiting and reading today my thoughts written back in 2002, I can say that they were both somewhat enlightening as well as limiting. The basic thrust of the argument I was advancing was that in order to meet the enormous challenge of transcending the mutual alienations of the utopian, mystical, and scientific traditions, it may have been possible to be a member of academic institutions and pursue the intended task. Even though I even then foresaw the challenges to be faced as a faculty member in going against the institutional inertia in academia to pursue my creative and independent projects, I can see now that I had pursued a line of justification that set too much unrealistic hope in one’s being able to pursue the task at hand while being a member and part of the academic institution. I had recognized the need for remaining independent from utopian and mystical organizations in pursuing my project; however, for reasons that perhaps had to do with my own hypnotically internalized expectations of scientific objectivity and open-mindedness from academia, I thought then that it was possible to make an exception and find myself at home in a university setting while pursuing the project I had set for myself to pursue as emergent from my doctoral studies.
Now, based on the practical experience of having become a tenured professor at a university, I can see how both structural as well as interactive dynamics (not to mention incidental effects of a few oppressive characters that may or not be found in one or another academic setting) gripping even a more or less progressive university fulfilling its state and institutional functions can provide significant impediments in pursuing the kind of project I had set for myself to pursue based on my research findings at the time. The fact that despite the odds I maintained and continued my own independent projects (such as the research center, its journal, and the autonomous lines of my own research, teaching, and professional interests and activities), does not take away from the fact that significant time and energy was also lost and/or frozen in time, due to preoccupations with at times completely useless and wasteful bureaucractic demands of a university structure that had to meet the habitual standards set for its organizational operation serving to maintain the social status quo.
I can now see, based on direct experience nourished by personally verifiable participant-observation findings derived from my professional life as a tenured university faculty, that the projects I had set for myself cannot be adequately pursued in a timely and effective manner by remaining an organizational member of any of the three trends noted above—ones whose mutual alienations from one another due to their intended or subconsciously perpetuated inertia provide significant obstacles to maintaining a healthy distance from all the trends in the hopes of appreciating their worthwhile contributions while problematizing their shortcomings. My experience as a university faculty has not been in vain, to an extent, and I have derived important insider and hands-on experience about how it works (or not) and without the experience thus gained I would perhaps be still holding on to false hopes regarding what may be achievable by investing one’s life and integrity in the bureaucracy of mainstream university structures.
The considerations regarding the structural limitations of the world-university system, however, cannot and should not be automatically extended to any judgments regarding the integrity and contributions of any of the students, faculty, or staff of these structures. Each has to reckon with their own experience, and it is clearly possible to consider that there may be concrete variations across universities or departments even within the bounds of university structures world-wide. However, it is also important to realize that especially today with all the enormous advances in information technology (many of which, as historical record also can attest to for the past, have ironically been invented by university drop-outs and those severely critical of formal educational institutions), it is a duty for those who are interested and can, to try to imagine, design and build alternative utopystic and pluriveral university, publishing, and social movement structures that creatively set their goal in favor of not giving in to the hypnotic inertia that continues to feed the alienating currents still prevalent in scientific, utopian, and mystical schools.
I am happy to know that I have come to this awakening from the hypnotic trance of academia, before it is too late. And I owe this at least partly to the unusual wisdom of a genius living a thousand years ago, who remained true to his own sense of purpose and intellectual integrity, seeking what he believed to be right and true despite all the odds:
We hung piety’s cloak on the barrel of Wine,
And abluted ourselves with dust in the ruin’s shrine,
So we may recover from the dust of tavern
The life that we so wasted in the schools’ confine.
— Omar Khayyam, circa 11th century A.D. (© Tamdgidi Translation)
For more information, visit here.