The Bullshit of the Academy


This post will remain at the top of Larval Subjects until something changes with the Middlesex Situation.

In solidarity with our brothers and sisters at Middlesex and to preserve the integrity of academia, I strongly encourage readers of Larval Subjects to sign this petition boycotting Middlesex until the Philosophy department is restored and those students and members of the faculty who have been wrongly suspended have their positions restored. This is not just an issue pertaining to the Middlesex Philosophy department, but goes straight to the core of academia. We must not let these sorts of practices become acceptable.

We the undersigned therefore commit ourselves to an academic boycott of Middlesex University until it shows evidence of full reinstatement and continued support for its philosophy program.

Prior to such reinstatement, we will refuse to act as external examiners or to deliver talks at the school. We will encourage colleagues to reject job offers at Middlesex. We will refuse to visit campus for any reason other than to protest the decision to close the philosophy program. We will, in short, cease to engage with Middlesex as a legitimate academic institution.

You can find the petition here.

I don’t have much to add to what Balibar, Harman, Toscano, and Protevi have said beyond the angry grunt that Middlesex’s suspensions are absolutely disgusting. I find this situation depressing beyond words.

Harman has a REALLY INTERESTING post up on Brentano and the Analytic/Continental divide. For the most part I agree with all that he has to say. Occasionally I hear people say that SR is trying to bridge the analytic/continental divide. Perhaps this is true of some theorists, but it is something that never even occurs to me. As I’ve occasionally stated, for me there’s just philosophy. There are Anglo-American philosophers I appreciate, and continental philosophers I appreciate and value. It never occurs to me to think there’s a divide that somehow needs to be overcome. In fact, I think this divide is more about institutional power and hiring practices, than about philosophy.

And to be quite honest, often I find myself impatient with philosophy (the academic discipline, not the practice) in general. On the continental side you seem to encounter a lot of intellectual historians that seem to believe that philosophy consists in providing commentary on other thinkers. On the Anglo-American side you encounter an over-estimation of the value of argumentation (though I do value good demonstration), a sort of technocratic mentality not unusual to admistrators and managers, and a deeply anti-communistic/anti-democratic fetish for journal articles over books (i.e., media that are only available to a specialized elite group of insiders that know a specialized language, and worse yet, that are only directed at that cloistered elite). I even had a faculty at a liberal arts school job interview (translation, highly eclectic department) once tell me that he thought journal articles are more valuable than books. My point is not that “books are better than journal articles”, but rather that this attitude strikes me as reflective of a highly cloistered mentality where ones primary audience is professional philosophers and academic advancement rather than those outside of philosophy. It’s difficult to imagine what would become of Socrates’ dialogues were this the case. Socrates was ready and willing to talk to anyone and everyone at any time, regardless of whether they were a “philosopher”. Dialogue only ended when someone behaved like Thrasymacus, threw a temper tantrum and acted rudely, and stomped off. Hell, Alcibiades stumbles into the drinking party of The Symposium completely blasted and proceeds to engage in a most memorable and embarrassing speech about love.

Philosophy, I think, dies when it becomes a discipline and an elite and closed community of philosophers. And if this is the case, I think it is in part because philosophy is without an object. In this connection, I’m partial to Badiou’s thesis that the aim of philosophy is to think its time. Whatever else one might think about Badiou’s philosophy, I think he’s got it right when he argues that the conditions of philosophy are always outside of philosophy. They are to be found in the politics of the day, the science of the day, the art of the day, and great loves. And probably many other things besides. When have we ever had a genuine philosopher that wasn’t secretly animated by the mathematics or science of his day and how it had overturned everything, that wasn’t struck by the political transformations of her day and therefore had to rethink the nature of being, who hadn’t been struck by the art of her day and therefore had to rethink the nature of the world, or who hadn’t been struck dumb by an amorous encounter? Philosophy always finds its animation from elsewhere than philosophy. Or to put it differently, the production of philosophy is not strictly immanent in the sense that it is not motivated simply by other philosophers.

Whenever philosophy happens, of course, many philosophers emerge and argue with each other. But I cannot help but feel that this is because they are all collectively responding to conditions outside philosophy. Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, etc., responding to, among other things, Galileo. And this is why philosophy becomes so sickly when it becomes a discipline. Because philosophy finds its conditions outside philosophy, because philosophy is always parasitic, like a self-reflexive meta-discourse trying to think the state of discourse and what it reveals about being, and because disciplines must have an object you end up with something like a morbid continental philosophy that can only feed on the corpses of dead philosophers, and a technocratic and administrative Anglo-American philosophy that tries to turn philosophy into a scientific discipline based on minor problems. Philosophy is here cut off from its outside and as I’ve said on another occasion, philosophy cannot happen without its others. This is why I’m always embarrassed when others from other disciplines and practices apologize for “not being philosophers” when addressing philosophers.

And I must say, that any trip to the APA or SPEP reveals that the discipline is in rather dire straits. Not only are there rather ugly unconscious gender attitudes endemic throughout philosophy, but there is a certain deep provincialism regarding political matters one encounters in these environments. Nothing is more embarrassing than hearing an accomplished philosopher promulgate mediocre political views that anyone could have gotten from propaganda nodes like MSNBC or Fox News. It’s embarrassing to the practice as a whole and its distinguished history. And the worst part about it is that there’s a certain smugness about this provincialism and ignorance, where philosophers behave as if they are superior to all the other disciplines and know better than them. And the worst part is that 9 times out of 10 the real theory or philosophy is always done in disciplines other than philosophy such as English, media studies, sociology, anthropology, biology, history, geography, etc., etc., etc. And this, no doubt, because they have an object other than philosophers and therefore do not have the patience to labor over the body of philosophical corpses beyond engaging with these dead bodies in terms of how they advance the questions and problems their subject presents them with.

I suppose this isn’t the sort of rant one should place on a blog.

I came across this advice to administrators in The Chronicle. So true, and I confess I do enjoy being pet.

Anthem has some terrific links up on how the Middlesex fiasco is being covered in the news. If there’s any justice in the world this decision will be quickly reversed. It’s fairly clear by now that they had no idea what they were in for. I suppose I take some grim satisfaction from this, but all the same it would be better if we ceased hiring administrators who have never spent any significant time in the classroom, who do not support the Arts, and who believe that universities are isomorphic to corporations. So it goes with the Taylorization of higher education. Sigh.

Please sign this petition to save Middlesex’s philosophy program.

I am just now hearing about the disgusting events taking place with the Middlesex philosophy department. If there is anything I can do, just say the word. Given the quality of the work that comes out of that department this is simply unbelievable.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the most common informal philosophies in philosophy. These tend to appear when someone is arguing against another position. My vote is for false dilemma and the strawman. Of these two, I think false dilemma tends to be the more insidious as it looks like one is presenting a legitimate argument when they are not. The mechanism is very simple. You characterize the other position in terms of two alternatives, the first of which is fairly undersirable and the second of which is completely unacceptable. In non-philosophical contexts you might encounter an argument like “look, we can either deal with prison overcrowding and an increase in taxes to build more prisons or we can let murderers, pedophiles, and rapists walk free on the streets.” It is likely that few want prison overcrowding or higher taxes, but when contrasted with the alternative it appears to be the only choice open. If this is a false dilemma, then this is because there are other options like house arrest, freeing non-violent offenders, decriminalizing certain drugs, and so on.

In philosophy we see false dilemmas like this all the time. “You either accept that there are eternal, ahistorical norms embodied in a transcendental subject, the mind of God, or a Platonic realm or you endorse the thesis that ‘anything goes'”. Are these really the only two alternatives? Another would be the one Deleuze addresses in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense where we are told that “either there is a supremely individuated world where identity precedes difference (through forms, transcendental categories, essences, etc) or the world falls into an incoherent chaos.” Both Kant and Proclus are guilty of this in their own ways. In the case of Proclus if identity does not precede difference than the world becomes completely irrational chaos. In the case of Kant, without the pre-existent of the categories the field of sensibility is an incoherent chaos. Darwin, it seems, blew this line of thought out of the water by showing how 1) organisms differ from themselves over the course of their development (they’re never the same from moment to moment), and 2) that no two organisms of the same species are exactly the same but that they randomly vary, but that nonetheless 3) we are able to give an account of how pattern, organization, or form is emergent through selective processes.

The strawman is fairly common as well. For example, how many times have we now heard that speculative realists, in placing humans on equal footing with other entities or in claiming that we need an ontology capable of thinking the world in the absence of the human, are guilty of excluding the human, denigrating the human, or not attending to the human? The only speculative realist position that comes remotely close to this position would be Brassier’s radical nihilistic and thought of extinction, but even there his tremendous interest in political and ethical issues speaks otherwise. The rhetorical strategy here seems to be implicit. The idea is to implicitly link SR to a hatred of the human so that it can be cast in the patina of a nihilistic, totalitarian political and ethical philosophy advocating things like genocide or various forms of abuse and murder for technocratic and pragmatic aims. Of course, none of the speculative realists advocate anything remotely like this and many of them even advocate the ontological de-centralization of the human precisely because they believe that treating the human as central leads to rather poor political theorization.

In philosophical debate, whether in text or in action, one almost never sees, I think, an honest or accurate portrayal of the opposition’s positions. We need only think of Husserl’s strawman with respect to the notorious “natural attitude”. Has anyone within the natural attitude ever advocated the crass positions Husserl targets? In Utah Eleanor and I had an amusing moment when she suggested that I’m being rather unfair to the phenomenologists (and a quick glance at my bookcase would indicate, to the contrary, that I’m deeply fond of the phenomenologists), to which I responded “because, of course, the phenomenologists have been so fair to naturalists, realists, etc., etc., etc..” Likewise, we might think of standard Anglo-American characterizations of phenomenology, postmodernism, continental philosophy, and so on. Similarly we might think of Kant’s characterization of Hume in the first Critique. Or think about the endless bullshit media and technology theorists have to face when they are told that examining the role that technologies play in the social they are falling into “technological determinism”. Another favorite (though I’m not sure if this is so much a strawman as an all purpose tool for not having to think about certain things) is the critique of philosophical positions that asks “but did this way of thinking arise at this particular point in history?” In other words, the thesis seems to be that if a particular ontology arose at a particular point in history this renders it false or artificial. Sighs. This is similar to the standard critique of SR where it’s said that the human is being excluded as opposed to not being treated as central. Almost every critique of another philosophical position seems to resemble the position it is critiquing about as much as a shadow resembles the person that casts it. Moreover, the characterization of the position being critiqued is about as substantial as a shadow as well.

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I have often commented on what I take to be the insufferable figure of the scholar, but never seem to tire of doing so as I encounter them everywhere. By the “scholar” I have in mind the person who has devoted their entire life to work on a single figure in the history of philosophy. Allow me to be clear. When I describe the scholar as insufferable, I am not referring to scholarship. I have benefited tremendously from the work of scholars that have devoted all their work to understanding particular thinkers. I have engaged in this sort of work myself when it comes to Lacan and Deleuze. Nor does every engagement with figures in the history of philosophy count as what I would characterize as “scholarship”. Derrida’s Speech of Philosophy, despite being devoted exclusively to Husserl and a close reading of certain key moments in Husserl’s thought is not a work of scholarship but a genuine work of philosophy in its own right. Derrida does not set out to represent Husserl, but produces something new in and through Husserl. Heidegger’s Sophist lectures or his massive four volumes on Nietzsche, while engaging with a particular thinker, are not scholarship but genuine works of philosophy. Iain Hamilton Grant’s book on Schelling is not scholarship, though it is very scholarly, but is a genuine work of philosophy. Although the dividing line is fuzzy, the difference between a scholarly work on a philosopher and a philosophical engagement with a philosopher seems to revolve around whether the work seeks to represent the philosopher or whether it is engaging with the philosopher to produce a new work of philosophy. In this respect, my Difference and Givenness is a work of scholarship insofar as it seeks to represent Deleuze and explain his transcendental empiricism and how it is working with the rationalist tradition and the tradition of transcendental idealism, whereas DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is a genuine work of philosophy in that it takes up Deleuze’s thought to produce a philosophical work of its own. Both types of work are valuable and make their own contributions.

When I describe the scholar as an insufferable figure I am speaking of the manner in which a certain breed of scholars engages with others in discourse. The problem endemic to so many scholars is that they seem to have a very difficult time engaging in dialogue with others that does not end up trying to trace everything back to a discussion about their favored figure. Rather than approaching the discussion as a discussion about the issue at hand, these discussions instead become discussions about the figure. Often the scholar understands himself as “setting the record straight”. The philosopher criticizes some thesis of a particular thinker in the process of developing his argument, concepts, and position. For example, Kant criticizes Hume’s empiricism, arguing that impressions and associations are insufficient grounds to account for how we are capable of making judgments about causality. “How”, Kant asks, “do humans ever arrive at the concept of necessity at all entirely on the basis of impressions and associations, both of which are contingent or subject to the structure of subalternation in Aristotle’s square of opposition?” Kant answers that you cannot. He has made a philosophical argument against the root claim made by Hume and uses this as his launching point.

Enter the insufferable scholar. Noting that in the Critique and the Prolegomena Kant never gives a detailed discussion of Hume’s Treatise Concerning Human Nature or Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the insufferable scholar– who I’ve elsewhere referred to as the “minotaur” in a slight misrepresentation of the original myth –smiles wickedly and immediately brings out his knife. Of course, Kant never gets criticized in this way because he is coded or marked as a “master-thinker” and therefore the very same “sloppy” scholarly work that the scholar would charge another contemporary thinker with is off limits in the case of Kant. Not only does Kant not give a sustained analysis of Hume’s Treatise or Enquiry, he doesn’t even reference them! The first charge is that Kant is misrepresenting Hume or misinterpreting him. “If only, Herr Kant, you understood Hume you would assent to his position!” The second charge leveled by the insufferable scholar is that Kant is ignorant of what Hume is claiming. If this kind of scholar is insufferable– and certainly not all scholars are like this –if they are obnoxious, if they are disrespectful and lacking in civility, if they are the last person you want to invite to a party, then this is because they relate to others in such a way that they deny 1) that in most cases, philosophers make very basic arguments that can be addressed without engaging in the activity of the collector that turns over every corner of the philosopher’s text, and, more fundamentally 2) they are perpetually accusing others either explicitly or implicitly of being ignorant or poor readers. In other words, the insufferable scholar or the minotaur is a poor participant at the party (in the Greek sense of a “symposium”) because they rudely wish to talk only about themselves (they make every issue an issue about their fetishized thinker rather than engaging in a broader discussion capable of including others), and because they constantly condescend to all of those about them suggesting that they don’t know what they are talking about or that they are unfamiliar with the works to which they refer. Everywhere they seek to occupy the position of the teacher and to situate their interlocutors as students.

There seems to be a very peculiar will to power behind these figures. What they seem to enjoy is policing or “making the record straight”. When others criticize those who police, the police officers often respond by claiming that these critics want “anything to go” and to evade all rigor. That is, the police figure interprets those disgruntled by policing as wanting to play without any constraints. But this isn’t the issue at all. The issue is that the police mentality, not unlike Nietzsche’s priest, seems to be psychologically organized in such a way that they perpetually aim to correct others as a way of maintaining their power and mastery. Because there is this underlying will to power behind such figures, they interpret others in such a way as to maximize their opportunity to correct others. In other words, there’s a systematic distortion in how they read others that approaches their interlocutor in such a way as to treat them as a priori ignorant, guilty of absurd claims that no reasonable person would make, and guilty of misinterpretation precisely so that they might have the opportunity to correct the other. They will note, for example, that their interlocutor does not express another philosopher’s concepts using the same language, or will argue that everything hinges on some occasional, obscure piece written by the philosopher. The mechanism is not unlike that of Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live:

Just as Debbie finds every opportunity to locate the insufficiency of every thing and every event, the insufferable scholar situates discussion in such a way as to perpetually make it about their figure, how others have misinterpreted their pet figure, or how their figure has already done what others are trying to do. It seems to me that this figure of consciousness, to use Hegel’s expression, is a sort of habitus produced through graduate training. Those of us in the humanities already suffer a great deal of insecurity– especially in the United States –feeling usurped by other disciplines and having a rather small voice in the general social order. Despite the countless hours we devote to our work and the sacrifices we make in pursuing this sort of life, many of us feel as if we go unrecognized. On the one hand, the game of playing the scholar in social interactions functions as a way of establishing social hierarchy among graduate students or professors attempting to assert their superiority over others in their discipline. On the other hand, it functions as a mechanism for insuring one’s superiority over others outside of academia. If one is capable of situating others as always being mistaken, as being ignorant, and so on, then they can think themselves as having a secret truth to which the others are not privy.

In a very real sense this activity resembles Plato’s cave where the philosopher thinks of the rabble there in the cave as engaged in all sorts of idle talk and thinks of the philosopher as swooping down to rescue them with his superior knowledge of the forms. In this case, however, it is not knowledge of the forms that the scholar possesses but knowledge of the master-thinker that he and he alone understands and that everyone else, despite their own careful studies and training, have somehow missed. What this scholar seems to misrecognize is that far from practicing intellectual rigor by “correcting the record”, the scholar has changed the subject and is no longer discussing the issue at hand. I have often been guilty myself of behaving this way in discussions surrounding Deleuze and Lacan. It is an ugly posture and one best abandoned both professionally and intellectually, though one difficult to overcome.

It will be said that I condescend, attack, police and all the rest. Like the recent rightwing “protests” at the town hall meetings regarding healthcare, this is the way it always is in these discussions: a whole lot of attempts to prevent the discussion from taking place at all. What the insufferable scholar seems to forget is that he was the one that condescended by suggesting that a genuine philosophical disagreement is a matter of misinterpretation, that my criticism is the result of ignorance rather than already having worked through these things myself, that I am so stupid and idiotic that I would advocate positions that no reasonable person would advocate. Somehow the trollish insufferable scholar always seems to miss the way in which his own mode of engagement resonates or speaks, or what it says at the level of subtext. And above all, these speakers rudely attempt to change the subject of discussion by making it a discussion about the figure, rather than attending to the issue and the argument. Were the Hume scholar able to simply make the issue about whether or not association can account for how we are capable of making causal judgments a discussion could take place. Yet when the Hume scholar suggests that somehow I haven’t understood Hume’s arguments, that I can’t simply cite these arguments, outline why I believe them to be problematic, and move on to my own project… Well such a person is just a prick that seems unable to recognize their own condescension or what a philosophical discussion is about.

No doubt this is the reason that those doing genuine work so often flee from the scholar. What are such figures but ephemera that contribute nothing and that fail to recognize all constraints and norms governing discourse? How do they differ from the protesters that are attempting to silence all discussion? How is dialogue possible with someone who doesn’t first practice charity in their interpretation of what you’re claiming and who doesn’t begin from an egalitarian stance that both of you are on equal footing in your understanding of the basic contours of the issues being discussed. And then when you point out that the insufferable scholar has been rude and condescending, that they changed the subject, that they situated you in a position of ignorance and idiocy, they have the gall to accuse you of behaving like a prick even as they lecture you and shift the entire issue being discussed. What a wretched species we are. But this is exactly how the insufferable scholar proceeds: uncharitably in their interpretation of your claims, rudely in shifting the issue to their own figure of which they are fanboys, lecturing like the petty professor that can brook no discussion and that is accustomed to filling student papers with red ink (and no doubt arguing with their relatives about the importance of what they do), and inegalitarian in their views your understanding of the figure you’re criticizing. Nothing is ever a genuine difference in positions. Rather, it is perpetually a failure to read to the corners.

Responding to my post about my own academic career, Ben writes:

I was struck but what you wrote as I am beginning the process of applying to phd programs here in the states and find myself constantly frustrated by the options (you mention two of ‘continental friendly’ programs and I would add New Mexico as well) and have been lately considered whether it is worth it to go into philosophy at all in the states.

Part of me wants to just flee across the ocean where the rest of me thinks it is long over due that continental philosophy have proper homes (or a proper home) in the states and that something like black mountain college/egs needs to be made here – a theory camp if not a real school.

Sorry I am mostly rambling – I guess my question is – is it even possible to get into well respected (but always analytic) programs in the US with continental credentials and, if so, like you partially suggest, is it impossible to teach what one likes in the high ivory towers?

I really like Ben’s idea about starting something like the equivalent of EGS here in the United States. This is something that theorists from a variety of disciplines should be talking about and something that should seriously be implemented. I have even been considering going after a second PhD at EGS not only for the opportunity to work with theorists and artists of such stature, but as a motivation to write another book. Although an outsider, I think I have enough background in media theory and technologies to have something of interest to say on these issues.

With respect to the academic job market, I think it’s worth emphasizing that a lot of what I wrote in my post is really my own personal symptoms and insecurities. I think there are a lot more possibilities out there than I suggest, and that in my own case I often create artificial barriers where they don’t exist. Lacan often observed that neurotics tend to manufacture barriers against jouissance as a way of sustaining their desire. Moreover, one of the ways in which neurosis functions is through the frustration of the Other’s desire. This is certainly the case in my own psychic economy. Throughout high school, undergrad, and graduate school, I had to do things in a very indirect fashion. Thus, in high school I skipped so much schooling that the state actually attempted to bring charges against me for truancy. What the state didn’t know was that I spent my days at the local coffee shop reading history, mathematics, literature, and philosophy. Fortunately, given that I had reached a point where I was performing very well in school, the teachers and administration came to my defense and said “leave him alone, this works for him.” Basically I had home schooled myself.

As an undergrad I had to read texts for my philosophy courses– I took 116 hours of philosophy at Ohio State –a quarter in advance because it was constitutively impossible for me to read assigned texts during the actual quarter. The situation was similar in graduate school. In other words, I had to trick myself into doing the work. The reason for this, I think, was that I simply cannot tolerate what I perceive as an order issuing from the Other. If I am told that I am required to do something, I simply shut down and dig in my heels. This tic is so pervasive for me that I even have difficulty filling out forms.

From a psychoanalytic point of view this would be a way of frustrating the desire of the Other, but also a refusal of the Other’s jouissance or a refusal to be enjoyed by the Other. However, while this is an unconscious strategy for frustrating the Other’s desire and refusing to be an object of jouissance, it’s also worthwhile to note that this is a way of stealing jouissance from the Other. To do one’s schoolwork at the local coffee shop or read texts other than the assigned text during the semester is a sort of theft of an illicit enjoyment. It’s a delight in doing what you believe you’re not supposed to be doing. In this regard, I wonder if the way in which I portray academia isn’t a variant of a fantasy structure organized around the theft of jouissance. If I tell myself that academia only recognizes commentary, that there’s no place for the sort of work that I would like to do, then I can gratify myself by stealing something from academia or believing that I am stealing something. In other words, there’s a way in which I need this sort of impediment to get off in the way that I do. I often wonder if the sort of depression I experienced after the publication of Difference and Givenness wasn’t precisely the result of the manner in which its publication and its warm reception challenged my unconscious fantasy structure and economy of jouissance. I experienced a sort of subjective destitution and sense of the surreal or uncanny after the book was finally released. No doubt this is part of the reason for my antipathy towards the book.

Here I think it’s important to note counter-examples. Adrian Johnston, for example, has found a way to do what he wants to do within the current framework of philosophy as practiced in the United States. Who would have thought it would be possible to do serious work on Zizek, Lacan, and German Idealism and land a position in a graduate program? DeLanda is really a total outsider, but has found a way to do what he wants to do. Harman has made himself a place as well. It’s also worth citing the example of Jameson. Who would have thought it would have been possible to do the sort of Marxist literary criticism in the milieu he was working in? Finally, I have been able to publish a good deal on the sorts of things that interest me despite the belief that there is no place for my work. My point is that we have to make a place for ourselves within the institutions that exist. We also get an opportunity in the long run to change those institutions through collaborative activity, the formation of alliances, the production of journals, conferences, etc. Get involved, get to know people, put yourself out there and publicly develop your thought and you have a good chance of getting somewhere. Each generation of thinkers remakes the institutions within which they were trained. It’s your job to do that.

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