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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


Response to LHM Ling

One of the joys in my life is to have been enveloped in a cloud of scholars who studied with Hayward Alker at MIT Lily Ling is one of them. In various ways, they all pushed back from MIT’s ultra-positivist culture by absorbing Hayward’s humanist sensibility and appreciation for dialectical processes. None of them appreciates the implications of dialectical thinking more subtly than Lily, and few scholars anywhere are more subtle and effective in exposing the multiple dialectical relations of world-cultures. That she attributes subtlety to my work inspires me to engage her essay in a dialectical spirit.

Lily’s dialectic is Daoist. Dao is way-making - ‘an easy flowing stream.’ Its emphasis, and hers, is process. Way and making are themselves dialectically related, with way and making two processes. The first is open (any way/no one way) and the latter closed (one way/not another), each giving way to the other. My concern is world-making, also a process in which world and making hold a relation that I might just as well call dialectical as co-constitutive. World (any world/the world) is only notionally fixed for the moment; it is already made and always making way for the next moment (and another world).

What then is the difference between way-making and world-making? After all, every world has its way of being what it is, however provisionally, and every way comes momentarily complete as a world. Both processes happen without just happening; making happens by way of being made to happen. The question has an easy answer, as it should - way-making has an easy flow. Way-making is an Eastern way of talking and world-making a Western way, but both ways pretty much say the same thing. They both give priority to process in what is then a dialectical relation between structure and process.

If this is the case, then it is no great surprise that most Western scholars do not cotton to an emphasis on process and, more specifically, on world-making. The strong bias in Western culture grants structure or position priority over process or change. Being trumps becoming; every place has its time; things change only as things first and last; constitution is a state of affairs then subject to causation. Eastern cultures reflect an equally strong bias in favor of flow, motion, time passing. East and West occupy a frozen dialectic, frozen now in the West’s favor but in the nature of any dialectic, not for long.

Well, this is easy - too easy for me. I am not concerned here with gross aggregation of diverse cultural experiences, with turning East and West into big things tightly, uneasily positioned. This is exactly what I think Lily seeks to combat in her exciting work on Worldism. I am concerned with conceptual underpinnings - the choice of terms reflecting a Westerner’s positional preoccupations. This concern leads to a deeper concern (position again) where the philosophical and the personal converge.

Making is doing, or at least one way of doing. We tend to think we make things consciously, on purpose. The very term world-making gains much of its force by subverting this tendency. More generally, we do what we do for ends or reasons that we may, or may not, actively know. The language of doing and making is surely universally human, and so must the language of purpose, of goals and plans, means and ends. More abstractly, function links structures through processes; every ‘system’ is a world.

Daoism tells us this, but only if way-making is anything close to an adequate translation of Dao. I suspect it is not - translators can never fully escape the cultural bias built into every metaphor (and making has a rich metaphorical history). More to the point we, as humans, cannot escape the many terms that fix us as actively involved in making (our way in) the only world we know - the world that presses on us and that we push back against. The inadequacies of translation aside, we function in a world and constantly talk about doing so.

I say that we do this together. Who, then, is this I who points to you as another I with the purpose of getting you to accept this proposition, thereby contributing jointly to the process of world-making? Is your I as coherent as I think (no doubt mistakenly) mine is? The Dao’s way does not say. If all flows within us, without us (with apologies to George Harrison), it does not matter. Dao’s making is another matter, even if it does not precisely correspond with my deeply Western sense of the term. Making makes a difference, and so must I.

Consider Lily’s doctoral students at Poncy University (poncy: nice touch). Each one an I, each made a fool of himself, and yet this they did together. They failed miserably to work out a plan that would have satisfied their respective wishes - so much for active, collective world-making. This is hard work, often subverted for selfish reasons (as game theorists and political realists are so happy to remind us). Our clueless students will nevertheless make the world what it will be in the dialectical process of learning their craft. Will each make a world only for himself, for us all, or not at all? In the dialectic of way and world, the Daoist way invalidates the question. But wait now.

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