This essay appears in our special web symposium on bullshit. Read the rest of the bullshit symposium: David Egan on calling bullshit and Whitney Sha on the lost standards for judging bullshit in the humanities.
a column by Gal Katz
A urinal called Fountain has been placed in the halls of academia, or rather a whole series of urinals. No fewer than four hoax papers were published in peer-reviewed academic journals, from studies of rape culture among dogs and the prospects of “fat bodybuilding” to a survey of sexual objectification in Hooters-like “breastaurants,” to “Going in Through the Back Door,” a paper on the difficult yet promising relationship between straight men and anal sex toys. Three other papers were forthcoming, one of which consisted of rewritten passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, replete with fashionable feminist jargon.
Since it was made public in early October, debate over the hoax has centered on what it proves about the seriousness of academic research in academic areas—race, gender and other minority studies—that the hoaxers targeted and pejoratively called “Grievance Studies.” In a manifesto-like essay defending their project, the hoaxers condemn the “radical constructivism” endemic to Grievance Studies, where subjective opinion and political agenda replace the good old scientific quest for objective truth. Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard and self-described “leading expert on the crisis of liberal democracy,” cheered the hoax, branding it “Sokal Squared”—after the 1996 scandal when physicist Alan Sokal managed to publish a nonsensical paper arguing that quantum gravity is a social construct in a distinguished journal for postmodern theory. Mounk thinks we should all be worried that “some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit.”
I’m not sure what he means by bullshit, but the anxiety that the object of my research is not “real” or serious is all too familiar to me. I can feel it whenever I try to explain what it is that I’m doing or why it matters to a blank-eyed, indifferent audience, an outsider to academia or just to my particular sub-sub-field. Such explanations often feel like an attempt to justify myself. And truth be told, I sometimes find myself in the position of just such an aloof outsider when, say, a geeky historian tells me with that familiar hint of angsty enthusiasm about her interest in queer relationality in medieval saintly texts, or a continental philosopher raves about the meaning of catastrophe in Walter Benjamin.
The situation was dire enough when I was writing about “absolute negativity” in Hegel’s philosophy. It was surely “serious” (Hegel is serious by definition) but real? How? For whom? Declaring that absolute negativity is “the fundamental principle of reality” would make the listener all the more alienated, even if amused. Reality seems to do perfectly well without input from starry-eyed Hegel scholars. And recently, as I find myself writing on sexual and emotional intimacy in post-Kantian philosophy, I can’t even count on the guise of seriousness. Indeed, writing about sex and gender puts me in dangerous proximity to Judith Butler and all the other luminaries of Grievance.
If a paper of mine is published I feel the stamp of forthcoming reality. Perhaps, if I gather enough publications I can land a permanent academic position. How real will I be then! Hopefully much of the anxiety will recede. But is being real in this economic sense—of doing something people are willing to pay for—what academia is for?
Anxiety about the reality or seriousness of our objects of research is of course as old as the academy. In Aristophanes’s comedy The Clouds, Socrates’s character researches “how many of its own feet a flea can jump.” When one of his disciples finds him in a basket suspended in the air, he expresses his fear that, similar to “the process observed in lettuce,” the earth would drain out his thoughts like moisture. To an outsider, what we do in some branches of academia seem incomprehensible at best and useless at worst.
Things have changed in the past two millennia, but anti-academic satire has persisted throughout. In the Renaissance, philosopher-satirists like Erasmus and Rabelais ridiculed the vacuity of medieval academia, thereby marking the beginning of the new, properly scientific era, when research in the natural sciences finally became serious and real—no longer based in mere speculations about non-tangible abstractions.
This is partly why members of the more scientifically oriented regions of academia are less acquainted with the anxiety I’m describing. While it’s often equally impossible for them to explain what they do to outsiders—as it presupposes an elaborate technical language—they are less likely to feel the need to justify themselves in the first place. The value of the object of their study, its usefulness, is self-evident, its prestige fortified by centuries of technological advancement.
As a scholar of the humanities, I don’t have this privilege. When I start teaching a new class, I spend a considerable amount of time justifying my object of research, explaining why students should care in the first place. Yet my lack of privilege is also an occasion for rare yet precious joys. The anxiety that some students might not get it and simply gaze in bemusement only makes when they do get on board all the more exhilarating. It often feels like a little miracle: why should a nineteen-year-old living in New York City in 2018 care about Hegel? Or anything, really, that doesn’t have a practical, even economic, point?
A few months ago, I ridiculed here the common appeal to “academic Eros” in the aftermath of #MeToo, suggesting that it testifies to a self-serving academic fantasy. But there’s one sense of academic Eros that I’m very serious about: academia is erotic, or ought to be, in the sense that its object is always partly constituted by the love of its practitioners. It is their love for the object of study but also for each other, sharing a fascination usually lost to the uninitiated.
This, if you’d like, is my peculiar lesson from the hoax, quite the opposite of what its authors intended: like Duchamp’s original Fountain, it shows that applying serious titles like “art” or “academia” have much to do with what we are willing to take as serious—not as a superficial lip service but with the earnest and serious labor of a life calling.
Before I’m charged with being yet another “postmodernist” or “radical constructivist” who thinks there is no truth, let me clarify: the problem is not that there is no truth, but rather that there is all too much of it. To put it differently, the world is full of facts, including the number of feet that a flea can jump. The question is which of these facts matter, and to whom. The scientific parts of the academy are less concerned with this question since their objects of research are validated by powerful economic and technological interests. In the humanities and parts of the social sciences, by contrast, we mostly make our object matter by maintaining a tradition within which it does matter, including educating new generations of citizens for whom (hopefully) it will.
Admittedly, this can become intellectually dangerous. Academic research in the humanities can often slide into pseudo-religious mysticism, losing sight of a healthy modern aspiration: to make oneself comprehensible to others. And yes, people who have trouble fitting into the mold find themselves ostracized—perhaps not unlike Helen Pluckrose, one of the hoaxers and a self-described “exile from the humanities.” It reminds me how recently, in the wake of another academic scandal, a scientist friend asked me what’s the deal with Avital Ronell, the NYU professor suspended on harassment charges. She’s a theorist, I told him. “Theorist of what?” Well, a theorist period, I said. After I gave him the backstory and he had a good laugh, he suggested that the perverted power culture exposed in L’Affaire Ronell might not be unrelated to the insular language of that discipline called “theory.”
I think we must resist tendencies toward insularism and in-group conformism and attempt, wherever it’s possible, to explain ourselves to others—both to other academics and to the larger world. But this is not to say that we can or should give up the ivory tower. Just as Plato established his academy to avoid the ridicule that Socrates had suffered, so there are numerous subjects nowadays that need academic freedom and protection in order to exist—including subjects that fall under “Grievance Studies.”
When I read Yascha Mounk cheering on the hoax, I envied his confidence that he’s not doing bullshit but something real and morally valuable. But that confidence has no doubt at least in part something to do with the amount of recognition that he has received: the sales of his book, the talks he is invited to give, and, last but not least, his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. This is why I’d also expect of him solidarity with academics who are less fortunate. Academia has a place for Mounk and his influential kinfolk only because it’s the only place for those Mounk ridicules. And insofar as academia is a place to experiment with constructions whose reality in the economic or practical sense is under challenge or attack, they are academe’s soul.
Read the other two pieces in the bullshit symposium: David Egan on calling bullshit and Whitney Sha on the lost standards for judging bullshit in the humanities.