Tactical Collaboration: or, Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick

[Note: See also the MLA 2011 version of this post, which I gave at panel discussion on “The Open Professoriat(e)”]

“Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick.”

From Herodians of Alexandria: his imperiall history of twenty Roman cæsars & emperours of his time. First writ in Greek, and now converted into an heroick poem by C.B: Stapylton (London: Printed by W. Hunt for the author, 1652)

I’ve always had trouble keeping tactic and strategy straight. And don’t even get me started on tactick and stratagematick, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as very early forms of the words in English. I knew that one was, roughly speaking, short term, while the other was long range. One was the details, the other the big picture. But I always got confused about which was which. I’m not exactly sure what the root of my confusion was, but the game Stratego makes as good a scapegoat as any. The placement of my flag, the movement of my scouts, that seemed tactical to me, yet the game was called Stratego. It was enough to blow a young game player’s mind.

Even diving into the etymology of the words, which is how I tend to solve these puzzles nowadays, doesn’t help much at first:

  • Tactic, from the ancient Greek τακτóς, meaning arranged or ordered
  • Strategy, from the Greek στρατηγóς, meaning commander or general

A general is supposed to be a big-picture kind of guy, so I guess that makes sense. And I suppose the arrangement of individual elements comes close to the modern day meaning of a military tactic. (Which leads me to dispute the name of Stratego again; the game should more properly be called Tactico. Unless your father breaks in, commandeering your pieces, as shown on the original game box. Then you’re back to the strategematick.)

In any case, I’ve been thinking about tactics lately. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about the tactics of collaboration. And to make an even finer point, I’ve been thinking about tactical collaboration.

This line of inquiry began in May, amidst the one-week creation of the crowdsourced anti-collection, Hacking the Academy, edited—though curated might be the better term—by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The idea of crowdsourcing a scholarly book (to be published, it’s worth nothing, by Digital Culture Books, an imprint of the University of Michigan Press and University of Michigan Library) generated much excitement, many questions, and some worthwhile skepticism incorporated into the book itself.

It’s one of these critiques of Hacking the Academy that prompted my thoughts about tactical collaboration. Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, asked three key questions that “the forces of change” should consider during the course of hacking the academy. It was Howard’s last question that resonated most with me:

Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? Or: Maybe you will find allies where you don’t expect any. As a journalist, I’m no stranger to generalizations. Still, it’s disconcerting to go to different conferences and hear Entire Category X—administrators/university presses/librarians/journal editors/fill in the blank—written off as part of the problem when at least a few daring souls might not mind being part of a solution. It may not be *your* solution. You might have to venture a closer look to find out. I can’t say what you will discover. It may not be at all what you expect. It might be exactly what you expect. Let me know.

[pullquote align=”right”]The enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well.[/pullquote] Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? We all know that the enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well when you want to be a force for change. I read Howard’s question and immediately began thinking about collaboration in a new way. Instead of a commitment, it’s an expedience. Instead of strategic partners, find immediate allies. Instead of full frontal assaults, infiltrate and disseminate. In academia we have many tactics for collaboration, but very little tactical collaboration:

Tactical Collaboration: fleeting, fugitive collaboration that takes place suddenly, across ideologies, disciplines, pedagogies, and technologies.

I’m reminded of de Certeau’s vision of tactics in The Practice of Everyday Life. Unlike a strategy, which operates from a secure base of its own, a tactic, as the Jesuit scholar writes,

must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow puts it, and within enemy territory. It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy…. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantages of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep…. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected.

Now I understand what a tactic is. Strategies, like institutions, depend upon dominance over space—physical space as well as discursive space. But tactics rely upon momentary victories in and over time, a temporalization of resistance. Because tactics are of the moment, they require agility, nimbleness, feigned retreats as often as real retreats. And they require collaborations that the more strategically-minded might otherwise discount. Recalling some of my recent writings on the state of academia, such as my underconference manifesto and my eulogy for the digital humanities center, I realize that what I have been thinking about all along are tactical collaborations. As I wrote in March,

Don’t hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, digital humanists must be agile, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical.

Stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. Seek affinities over affiliations, networks over institutes.

I was speaking then specifically about the digital humanities, but I’d argue that my call for mobility over centralization is crucial for any humanist seeking to hack the academy, any scholar seeking to poach from the institutional reserves of knowledge production, any teacher seeking to challenge the ever intensifying bureaucratization and systematization of learning, any contingent faculty seeking to forge success and stability from contingency.

We need tactical collaborations, and we need them now. And now, and now. The strategematick may be the domain of emperors and institutions, but let the tactick be the ruse and the practice of you and me.

[Stratego Family image courtesy of Frederick Bauman, Creative Commons Licensed]

3 thoughts on “Tactical Collaboration: or, Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick”

  1. The difference between digital-humanities scholarship and the tactics/strategy distinction in de Certeau is power differentials. Yes, humanities scholars are lower on the academic totem pole than STEM, but that’s a very different issue from the de Certeau powerless-engaging-in-tactics. In the case of digital humanities, playing with institutional arrangements without a larger strategy may well be productive. I’m afraid that in the case of people with little power confronting the powerful, tactics without a larger smart strategy is often a waste of very limited resources, grand gestures that can backfire. Saul Alinsky, the master of the tactical gesture, had broader strategies.

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