Friday, November 29, 2013

Once More Into The Breach, Dear Friends

Prompted by a recent piece on newAPPS, I'm (somewhat reluctantly) forced to acknowledge the renewed attention to a not-at-all-new phenomenon in the world of Philosophy over the last couple of years, namely, the dramatic under-representation of women in our profession.  Here's what you need to know up front, assuming that some of you readers are among the (dominant and completely normal) population of people who do not keep up with the Ivory Tower goings-on:  gross gender disparity is not at all new in Philosophy.  The attention to it is new, but it has always been the case for Philosophy in the United States.  For a long time, it was a kind of silently acknowledged reality that, for many, didn't rise to the level of what could be properly called a "problem." Thanks to the consciousness-raising work done by What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? (and it's spin-off site What We're Doing About What It's Like), the APA Committee on the Status of Women, the SPEP Committee on the Status of Women, the Pluralist's Guide to Philosophy's "Climate for Women in Philosophy" and many other projects, websites, initiatives and data-gathering researchers, it's gotten increasingly more difficult to shrug-away the phenomenon as not a genuine problem.  What is more, because Philosophy also inadvertently served up more than its fair share of salacious stories over the last couple of years, our dirty laundry has garnered the attention of public (i.e., not-strictly-academic) mainstream media-- the New York Times, National Public Radio, and Slate, for example--  making it increasingly necessary for working philosophers to address, if not also attempt to explain, why it is that we don't have our house in order.

The consequence of all this is that now, every few months or so, the same tired debate about "why there are so few women in professional philosophy" gets trotted out, put on public display, and performed for the people again.  Occasionally, someone makes a half-hearted attempt to patch up the holes in the costuming of the players, do a bit of fix-it stitch-work where the players' dressing has become frayed, repair or adorn them with slightly-different accessories, all in the attempt to appease anyone who didn't enjoy a previous iteration of the show... but, for the most part, it's all a lot of (to borrow from the Bard of Aron) once more into the breach, dear friends. 

By which I mean, metaphorically speaking, it's all still for the benefit of the boys: God, Henry, England and Saint George.

For the record, I'm glad philosophers are having this conversation, and even more glad that we feel we can't not have it anymore.  That's progress, to be sure.  However, in my view, what has become the dominant frame in which we have that conversation needs to be dispatched with post haste.  That frame seems to assume, at minimum, something like the following:
     1.  Professional philosophy is, if not by its nature then at least in practice, a fundamentally antagonistic, aggressive, combative discipline.  (See Brian Leiter's "The Aristocracy of Sex in Philosophy.")
     2.  Philosophy ought not be (or ought not be only) an antagonistic, aggressive, combative discipline. Or, stated positively, Philosophy can and ought be practiced in a way that is more cooperative, caring, mutually affirming, cognizant of and attentive to the value of difference.  (See Jonathan Wolff's "How can we end the male domination in Philosophy?")
     3.  Women would be better represented in professional Philosophy, and/or would be better at Philosophy, if the dominant professional culture of the discipline practiced Philosophy in a way more like (2) and less like (1). 

There are a number of problems with this kind of frame, some of which I've articulated before on this blog and not the least of which is that it assumes a kind of gender-essentialism that really should be largely verboten for rational agents living in the 21stC who have read even the slightest bit of feminist/gender/queer theory, who also believe in science, and who are willing to make the bare-minimal concession that gender is both socially-constructed and performative.  I won't rehash those issues again, because they are exactly the same issues that are rehashed in every iteration of the why-aren't-there-more-women-in-Philosophy debate now.  (It's really, really so unfortunate that we can't seem to progress past Square One on that point, which requires very little more than the disassociation of "women" with "mothers/caretakers.")   Rather, this time around, I'd like to point out how fundamentally racist the frame itself is, and how the imperative to respond to this frame as already-framed-in-this-way commits one to certain implicitly racist positions even as one objects to the deployment of it in re gender.

Reaching not-at-all-deeply into my Philosophers' bag-o'-tricks, here's a Thought Experiment:
Let's imagine that there were compelling (even if not also morally or politically "good") reasons to concede that the actual explanation for why there are disproportionately fewer women in professional Philosophy is because both (1) and (3) above are true.  I don't think we necessarily have to concede (2) for this thought experiment, that is, one might still think that it is analytically true that the under-representation of women in Philosophy is a consequence of the unalterable or definitionally true nature of both "Philosophy" and "women" and that it shouldn't or can't be otherwise (which I suspect some philosophers really do think).   At any rate, let's assume that the reason that there aren't more women in professional Philosophy is because Philosophy per se both values and rewards antagonistic/aggressive discourse and because women per se don't have a particular facility for such discourse.  For the record, and this is important to note, many if not most of the so-called pro-women/feminist arguments in the current debate, as it is currently framed, effectively concede exactly these points.

So, here's the question:  given these stipulations, how do we also explain (what philosopher Charles Mills would call) not only the capital-W "Whiteness" of professional Philosophy, but also the little-w "whiteness" of most professional philosophers?  Why are people of color also so dramatically under-represented in professional Philosophy? Fair warning:  in this Thought Experiment, you've already stipulated (1) above.  You don't get to go back and change it now that you smell a rat.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, makes the case that the under-representation of people of color in professional Philosophy is a consequence of the dissonance between the "nature" of philosophical practice and the "nature" of people of color.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, suggests that if professional Philosophy were practiced in a way that was less aggressive, combative or antagonistic, then people of color would be more successful at it and/or representative of it.  Why not?

And here we can see why the pro-caring/pro-cooperative, anti-antagonistic/anti-aggressive "attitudinal" arguments for including women in Philosophy not only so grossly miss the mark with regard to women, but do so on the back of a set of implicit, unacknowledged, fundamentally, essentializing and essentially racist presumptions.  Just in case this is not obvious, let me connect the dots:  we don't stipulate the same frame when we're dicussing the under-representation of people of color in Philosophy as we do when we're discussing the under-representation of women in Philosophy because the frame itself would undermine our implicit (though unacknowledged) presumption that people of color-- at least when they do, or try to do, "philosophy"-- ARE taken already to be combative, aggressive, antagonistic.  Sure, we may concede that the reason philosophers take people of color to be more combative, aggressive and antagonistic when it comes to "doing Philosophy" is a consequence of a long history of deeply sedimented disciplinary prejudices and practices, but that only makes more obvious (to me, anyway) the manner in which our concession to the given frame of talking about why-there-aren't-more-women-in-Philosophy twists us into philosophical pretzels. 

I mean, really, just imagine someone publishing a piece in The Guardian, The New York Times, NPR, or even newAPPS that argued that we could amend the racial disparity in professional Philosophy by not only insisting that we should make the profession "nicer," but that we should do so because people of color are by their very nature "nicer" and therefore are incapable of effectively performing in a discipline that does not accommodate their nature.  Imagine someone publishing a piece in any of those venues that argued that white people could amend the racial disparity in professional Philosophy by acting more like people of color "naturally" are. 

I wish someone would, if for no other reason than because it would force us to take a longer, harder look at the (White) Man behind the curtain and why we concede, so unfortunately and unreflectively, to his claim that we should "consider ourselves lucky" even to have  earned his audience.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tolerance Is Not A Virtue

Let me be clear at the outset: when I say that tolerance is not a virtue, I'm saying that as a philosopher for whom virtue has a conceptually substantive meaning.  I do not mean to imply that tolerance is a vice, a claim to which I think no reasonable moral agent, and no philosopher worth his or her salt, would concede.  Rather, I only want to point out that being tolerant requires, at most, nothing more than refraining from being vicious.  And I don't think anyone deserves moral credit for refraining from being vicious.

There are, of course, many good reasons to encourage our fellow citizens and moral agents to be tolerant, not the least of which is that ignorance and prejudice, to which we are all susceptible, incline even the best of us toward vicious behavior.  In the unfortunate cases where ignorance and prejudice cannot be corrected or eliminated, we ought to try at least to de-fang them, ameliorate their effects, soften the severity of their blows.  I take the value of "tolerance" training to be a kind of propaedeutic, a disarmament strategy, an effort to achieve the least-worst state of affairs, or something like what we philosophers would consider a sort of intro-level course in being a moral agent.  Lesson One of such course: if you want to be virtuous, you first have to stop acting like an a-hole.

Lesson Two: you don't get any moral credit for not being an a-hole.

For a number of accidental reasons, this particular issue-- what I might call the "hyperinflation" of the value of tolerance-- has been brought to the fore in my experience over the course of the last several months.  Some of this has to do with the fact that "marriage" has been situated culturally, morally and politically as THE issue around which one demonstrates how liberal or progressive (culturally, morally and politically) one is with regard to LGBT issues and folk. I'll leave for another day why I think this is a grossly deficient frame of reference for such determinations, and instead focus on an unfortunate consequence of that sort of framing: namely, the proliferation of a category of behaviors by self-identified allies who subtly (and probably unintentionally) vacate the meaning of the word "ally" of any real positive or progressive moral/political sense.

Now, I don't want to pick on allies any more than I want to pick on tolerant people.  That's not because I think allies (exemplars of tolerance, in many ways) exhibit some virtue that is beyond reproach, but rather because I think allies (some of them, not all of them, but more and more of them) don't exhibit any kind of "virtue" in their alliance at all.  They don't deserve opprobrium for their tolerance, to be sure, but neither do they deserve praise.  They're not being vicious, thankfully, but they're not being virtuous, either.  Increasingly, what it means to be an ally is to have taken on a moral disposition that is fundamentally (and much too proudly) tolerant, that is to say, neutral. There was a time when "ally" was the antonym of "opponent" and the synonym of "advocate," but more and more it appears that being an ally requires little more than a disavowal of the advocate/opponent dichotomy.  If it requires anything at all, it requires only a sort of "fine by me" indifference. 

Last month, on "National Coming Out Day," a group of students and faculty at my College (mostly "allies") wore t-shirts that read "LGBT? fine by me."  The photo at the top of this post is the one the College proudly circulated on its website and in social media.  (For what it's worth, the "fine by me" catchphrase is not the creation of our local GSA group; it's a trademark logo created by the Atticus Circle, which actually is an "advocacy" group.)  For what are maybe obvious reasons, I was asked personally by some of my students/colleagues to purchase and wear the t-shirt on National Coming Out Day and to participate in the photo shoot.  I opted not to do so.  At the time, I made some flippant remark about how "LGBT? fine by me" must have just barely won out over "Diversity? whatevs" in the let's-find-a-completely-vacuous-statement-for-a-tshirt-logo contest, but the truth is that my non-participation was a tough decision for me.  Part of that is because I worried that non-participation would be seen as non-advocacy of LGBT rights and concerns, which are very important to me for many and varied reasons, but also because, if I'm being totally honest, I had also been lulled into a kind of moral/political sleep by the enchanting "tolerance is a virtue" lullaby.  I had to stop and really think about whether or not "fine by me" was something I wanted to declare on a tshirt, on my body, as a person, a citizen and a moral agent.   

Why not wear the shirt?, I thought to myself.  I mean, it's not perfect but it's something, right?

In the end, I decided that it's really not something positive or progressive, and it may even be counter-productive.  It is, at best, nothing.  It says nothing, declares nothing and represents nothing, or nothing more than "I am not an a-hole" (which, in my view, is not something that needs to be announced or ought to be congratulated for declaring). I am, of course, glad that more and more people are finding ways to be more and more tolerant of difference. I genuinely do believe that makes the world a less vicious (even if not more virtuous) place... but I would much prefer that we continue to insist upon the distinction between advocate, opponent and "ally."  If tolerance is all that is required of allies, if "fine by me" is the most substantive declarative statement that allies can make about themselves, then we need to stop congratulating them on the deployment of their moral agency. 

[An aside: when my students asked me, as many of them did, why I wasn't wearing the "LGBT? fine by me" shirt that day, I asked them whether or not they would wear a shirt that said "Black? fine by me" or "Disabled? fine my me" or "Female? fine by me" or "Poor? fine by me."  Not surprisingly, none of them would have.  The fact that they couldn't, or wouldn't, critically consider the similarities between those shirts and the LGBT shirt is what is most disturbing to me.]

I say: be an advocate or an opponent.  Or, if not one or the other, then concede that things on which you cannot take a position do not matter to you enough to warrant praise or blame.  But please oh please don't think that being tolerant is being virtuous.  It's not even properly being an "ally."  Allies should be advocates, not merely non-opponents.  And advocate-allies should oppose "fine by me" as a declaration of their advocacy and their moral agency.

Even Bartleby did more than that.

UPDATE 11/21/13: 
I'm supplementing this post with an addendum as a result of my College's recent release of its version of the "It Gets Better" video, a campaign started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller several years ago in response to a spate of LGBT teen suicides.  Here is the Rhodes College video:

First, let me say that I'm very glad that the College got around to making this video. (Fwiw, ALMOST FOUR YEARS AFTER THE "IT GETS BETTER" CAMPAIGN BEGAN and more than a year since Dan Savage visited Rhodes, but whatevs.)  That notwithstanding, I see confirmed in it the unfortunate and critically-blind attitude toward LGBTQ advocacy that my post above about allies meant to illuminate. Being an advocate requires, or ought to require, much more than what this video accomplishes.  And soooo much of what it doesn't accomplish

Who does it "get better" for at Rhodes?  From the video, it appears, not gay men (who are not already tenured faculty or administrators), not people of color (or only ONE in the video), not trans-identifying people (AT ALL), and not even lesbian or bisexual woman with any sort of job-security (i.e., tenure).  In fact, assuming this video is primarily directed at students, prospective students, faculty or prospective faculty, it only (possibly, maybe, assuming they stay) "gets better" at Rhodes for WHITE WOMEN.  C'mon. now.

I'll say again, for the record, I'm glad that Rhodes took the time to make this video.  I genuinely do congratulate the people who made the effort to participate in it, many of whom are friends of mine and who cannot and should not be blamed for the gross oversights that this video makes blindingly apparent.  And/yet/but (as Derrida was fond of saying), let's not make the mistake of eliding tolerance and advocacy.  Just because I'm not hurting you doesn't mean I'm helping you.

Sometimes "mere" tolerance is not only not a virtue, but also a vice, especially when it clouds one's ability to see how self-congratulation for one's merely tolerant behavior impedes one's ability to critically and honestly assess the problem at hand.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Genius: Generative or Generic?

I had the very good fortune of seeing historian Darrin McMahon (Florida State University), author of the recently published Divine Fury: A History of Genius, deliver a lecture last week as part of Rhodes College's year-long Communities in Conversation lecture series. I want to write a bit here about some of the questions his book and lecture inspired in my own mind-- and left lingering there-- but before I do that, a preliminary aside.

I'm not sure if I'm just reaching "that" age or stage in my career but, this year in particular, I've found myself disappointingly underwhelmed by many of the academic lectures and fora I've attended.  That isn't because they haven't been interesting or because they've exhibited some sub-par level of scholarship, but more so because they just haven't been-- for lack of a better word-- generative.  That is to say, I didn't leave with something else to think about, with persisting or persistent questions, with a bait or a hook that I could throw out into other waters.  On the whole, I'd say the lectures I've seen over the last year or so have erred on the side of analysis and, as a consequence, I've found myself more often than not leaving with a nicely-wrapped, fully contained, but dead-as-a-doornail argument, exegesis or evaluation.

No so with McMahon's lecture last week, much to my delight (and relief!).  An intellectual historian by training, McMahon recounted the history of "genius," beginning with the ancients and proceeding through various medieval, Renaissance and Christian modifications, which reached a kind of apex in the 18thC when it was dramatically redefined by the scientifically-minded moderns who, as we all know, were nothing if not utterly in thrall with the project of precisely refining human categories.  As a result of that refinement, according to McMahon, we see in the 19thC (esp in Germany) the rise of what he called a "cult of genius," a kind of quasi-religious fixation on human excellence and exceptionalism that extended well into the first part of the 20thC.  (McMahon's discussion of the early 20thC "good genius v. evil genius" contest-- personified in his account by Einstein and Hitler-- was particularly interesting.)  The waning of the importance of religious or supernatural explanations in the modern period and following, coupled with the emergence of a discourse of human equality, meant that "geniuses" were no longer understood as actually divine (or possessed by the divine), but they never stopped being metaphorically so.  They were, as is indicated by the etymology of the very name "genius," creative in the way that God(s) was/were: capable of manifesting or bringing into existence something ex nihilo, unrestrained and unrestricted by normal human conventions or limitations, something like a causa sui incarnate, that is to say, gods in the flesh.

Yet, sometime over the last half-century, democratic sentiment seized control of the category "genius" and effectively vacated it of its historical content.  McMahon's example of this-- the Apple "Genius Bar", which can be found in every retail location-- reveals our contemporary ambivalence with regard to the category of genius.  We still employ it, desiring in our use to indicate a deference to excellence, even if no longer exceptionalism, in human being and doing.  But, as McMahon noted and as is analytically true, if everyone is or can be a genius, then no one is or can be a genius.

It was this last point, so ingeniously demonstrated by McMahon's study, which provided for me the bait and the hook to throw into other waters that I have been so missing in other lectures I've attended this year.  Much of my own research is centered around aporetic concepts like "genius," that is to say, ideas that we employ as "real" possibilities only on the (largely unacknowledged, if not outright disavowed) condition that their perfect realization is and remains an impossibility.  The later work of Derrida, of course, was primarily focused on elucidating a long list of such concepts-- friendship, hospitality, giving and forgiving, community, humanity, sovereignty, democracy, et al-- and it seems to me that "genius" is a concept of the same kind.  It is a concept that, perhaps like all concepts of exceptional excellence, must function as a regulative but unrealizable ideal.  McMahon's address crystallized for me, perhaps for the first time, just how essentially undemocratic the category of "genius" is... and/yet/but (as Derrida was fond of saying) also how indispensable that same category is for democracy, which is why I left his lecture with the truly generative question: is the fundamentally undemocratic nature of genius its virtue or vice?

As Derrida put it in Rogues, "the great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps of all democracy... is that the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alternative."  For what it's worth, this is the question that, in one or another of the almost infinite iterations that it can be posed, keeps me up most nights and that keeps me working most days.  To wit, I'm very grateful to McMahon's study of "genius" for generating another way to cast my line into these waters again.

Listen to Darrin McMahon's interview with Jonathan Judaken on Counterpoint here.

Monday, November 04, 2013

AltAc, TransAc, PostAc and Just Plain Old ACK!

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow published a piece a few days ago in the NYT entitled "The Repurposed Ph.D.," which served as my first introduction to the neologism "post-academic." The abbreviated (and eminently hashtaggable) version of that term-- "PostAc"-- is something like the poorer, sadder and less pretty twin of "AltAc" ("alternative academic"), which has for the last couple of years served as a descriptor for the sorts of jobs that professionally trained and credentialed academics perform outside of the Academy, but that are informed by or utilize graduate-level academic training.  (For example, PhD's who, instead of pursuing faculty positions at colleges or universities, have gone on to be librarians, nonprofit workers or who work in/for government agencies  are considered alt-ac professionals.)  The "alt" in AltAc, presumably, points to the fact that AltAc professionals are still doing "academic" work, albeit in nontraditional venues.  Whereas most people agree that "AltAc" refers to a sort of combo-category of professionals and their professional work (non-academic jobs performed by academically-trained workers), the newer term PostAc seems to carry a more substantial ideological weight. 

I'll just point you to the "PostAc Manifesto" as justification for that last claim.  There, PostAc is described as an orientation, distinct from AltAc inasmuch as it does not merely indicate one's status or professional location as "outside of the Academy," but rather PostAc constitutes and is constituted by a "set of values," a "way of relating to academia," and “a belief that the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable and therefore impossible to directly engage with.” Because PostAc is more of an identity-label than AltAc, which is more of a activity-label, PostAcs get far more backlash for their ownership of that term.  There have been some interesting revaluations of pejoratives like "Grad School Quittas" by PostAcs, but many still see them as something like Nietzsche's last men: weak, barren, bitter and full of ressentiment.

One of the things that I find interesting about the AltAc/PostAc conversations of late is the absence of a third, not-strictly-academic but very-common, category: TransAc.  I'd describe TransAcs as persons who still technically hold academic positions, but who are "underemployed" and by necessity must supplement their academic work with non-academic work in order to make ends meet.  This is, of course, the situation of many adjuncts and VAP's, who find themselves in the last stage before either landing a Golden TTicket or joining either the PostAc or AltAc Team.  And, according to almost all of the data on academic labor, it is here, in what I am calling the "TransAc" stage, that people have to make the deep philosophical decision that distinguishes AltAcs from PostAcs.  That is, TransAcs have to decide whether being an "academic" is an activity or an identity.

I've been in a TT position since I received my PhD in Philosophy in 2007 but, after a negative tenure decision, I'm back on the market for the first time in seven years.  The last (and only other) time I was on the market, the odds of landing a TT job were terrible, and I was very lucky.  Now, the odds are exponentially worse.  So, like many others, I've had to consider the possibility that I may opt to, or be forced by necessity to, "leave" academia.  On this point, I agree with both AltAcs and PostAcs: there is absolutely nothing in graduate school that prepares one for, or even sufficiently informs one about, that (not only possible, but very likely) possibility.  Least of all in my discipline (Philosophy), where that possibility is dramatically more likely than in many other disciplines.

I feel luckier than most inasmuch as I have more than a few AltAc and non-academic job options available to me should I strike out on the academic job market this year.  And should I strike out, I also know enough of the monumentally depressing statistics about TransAcs to know that I should probably cut bait and go fish somewhere else.  Nevertheless, it's very, VERY hard to cut that bait.  The time, energy and money, not to mention the deep, personal-identity-laden investments required to complete a PhD are ties that bind in many complex, complicated and sometimes paralyzing ways. 

Last weekend, at a major Philosophy conference, a good friend and senior colleague in my field said to me: "After three years in VAP or adjunct positions, it's practically impossible to re-enter the market as a real competitor for TT positions. Maybe four years, but probably only two."  If that's true, which my own anecdotal experience seems to confirm, that's an incredibly small window of opportunity.  It's hard to be a rational judge, to survey the so-called "crisis" in the humanities and the state of the university, to review the overwhelming evidence confirming the corporatization of higher education, and not to agree with the evaluation of PostAcs that "the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable and therefore impossible to directly engage with.”  But, at the same time, once you've boarded that boat-- the S.S. Ivory Tower--  and find yourself out to sea, years of training behind you, all that time spent making yourself sea-worthy, miles and miles and (very expensive) miles from shore, and then, all of the sudden, one day you wake up and realize there's water coming overboard.... well, it's much harder to jump ship than otherwise reasonable people would think.

ACK.  Give me a bucket, I guess.