Review of A Methodology of the Heart

With A Methodology of the Heart: Evoking Academic and Daily Life, author Ronald J. Pelias aims to change academia, and more importantly, change us.

Academia makes us crazy, drives us out of our minds and out of our bodies. So does science, journalism, eco- nomics, law, and this culture’s religion. Indeed, this separa- tion from our minds and bodies is a central component—if not the central component—of this culture and its patholo- gies. Academia drives us out of our minds in part by pretend- ing that “I” does not exist; that emotions are secondary, untrustworthy, or nonexistent; that academia (science, journalism, economics, law, etc.) is impartial and that aca- demics (scientists, journalists, economists, lawyers, etc.) carry no biases, that they are “objective.” This is of course nonsense as well as insane. It is a measure of the culture’s generalized insanity that so many people pretend objectiv- ity is possible, much less that its pretense is slightly honest, and very much less that it is even desirable. Perhaps just as bad, the pretense of objectivity can make for unforgivably bad writing.

Pelias, thank God, makes no claim to objectivity. He writes in the first paragraph, “The essays [in this book] all originate in the desire to write from the heart, to put on dis- play a researcher who, instead of hiding behind the illusion of objectivity, brings himself forward in the belief that an emotionally vulnerable, linguistically evocative, and sensu- ously poetic voice can bring us closer to the subjects we wish to study” (p. 1) One purpose, then, is to bring life, liveliness, presence into academic writing. The book attempts both by its content and its form to undercut many of the founda- tional premises of academic writing and replace them with premises that are more embodied, more real, and that make for more interesting reading.

This book’s greatest strength is that in this direct chal- lenge to these premises the author reveals many profound truths. He writes,

“Some would object: ‘To say all research is a first-person narrative is not to say that all research is about the heart. The heart pushes the self forward to places it does not belong.’ “And I would respond, ‘I don’t want to go places where the heart is not welcome. Such places frighten me.’ “‘Are you frightened by the truth?’ would come the rejoinder. “‘No, I’m frightened by what poses as the truth.’” [p. 8]

Or here is another: “Science is the act of looking at a tree and seeing lumber. Poetry is the act of looking at a tree and seeing a tree” (p. 9).

“The alchemy that separates the head from the heart finds no gold” (p. 9).542

These examples are not unique. The book contains many like them.

But as occasionally happens, the book’s greatest strength—in this case its direct discussion of matters of the heart—also becomes its greatest weakness, as Pelias found it necessary to keep reminding readers that he has a body, and to keep reminding readers what a body is. Although this is still more interesting than disembodied scholarship, it sometimes made the text drag. It is an odd position for him to be in: The culture has denied the body for so long that this denial has become a sort of invisible default, which means that in order to batter his way through this denial he has to say many obvious things over and over. But saying many obvious things over and over gets tedious. Another way to say this is that because he is writing outside the default, much of his writing has to be about why he is writ- ing outside the default (e.g., cops in movies are expected to commit acts of violence—it is a genre convention—but if a woman commits acts of violence the film must be about why she commits those acts).

My great hope for academia is that A Methodology of the Heart and other books like it will help to pave the way— or, rather, unpave the way—toward a scholarship that em- braces our hearts and bodies so fully that such scholarship becomes as natural as breathing.

Originally appeared in Volume 107, Issue #3 of American Anthropologist

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