25 July 2006

Something Fishy

A pleasant cooling has hit the BEC metropolitan area. Temperatures in the seventies over the weekend have made Mr. Gordo’s Easy Bake much nicer, even if we did spend the weekend north of BEC with L. and A., las dos Reinas, two artists who we adore, at their lovely country home, where aside from my bought of heat- or salmonella egg-induced gippy tum, we thoroughly enjoyed a relaxing adventure, which included antiquing, picnics (!), and catching up with some old friends over kebabs. We returned to find that our “Mickey problem,” however, has exacerbated to the point of intolerance, and aside from the option of getting a cat, have decided to roll up our sleeves and tackle the problem ourselves (especially since Mr. Gordo’s slumlord is decidedly lackadaisical when it comes to his management of his properties). Rather, I should say that I, Miss Butch, have decided to deal with the problem, since the sight of a mouse, or as we have been calling them lovingly, the ratoncitos, seems to send Mr. Gordo into paroxysms of squealing, screaming, and jumping on chairs (for real!). It’s at times like this that I wonder when did I become the butch? I ventured into the city yesterday with my Fendi bag and a bad attitude to fetch steel wool (to seal up holes) and traps (to send our ratoncito friends to mouse heaven). Oh, and also peanut butter and bananas, which seemingly are an irresistible elixir for BEC mice (the combination is important, for peanut butter alone, while a temptation, does not seem to drive them into the pleasurable spasms required to set off the reassuring clack of the trap). Yes, life is unfair, and our pleasures found randomly can assure, occasionally, the whack of a steel bar upon our necks. So far, so good; I’ll keep you posted.

On the way back into the city, we picked up the Sunday New York Times to make the train ride less unbearable, and lo and behold there was Ms. Fish getting all busy on the Op-Ed page of the Times! And I was pleased (although not surprised) to wake up yesterday to several blog entries regarding Stanley Fish’s comments on teaching and indoctrination in the wake of the Kevin Barrett-9/11 Wisconsin thing as well as a strange echo of the Ward Churchill “happening” from the late spring. In general, the tone and argument of Fish’s argument for engaged non-doctrinaire teaching was, as Jesus is initially described by Pontius Pilate in Jesus de Montréal, "inoffensif." I mean, what professor worth their professional salt doesn’t, at least in public, believe this? The whole thing seemed to be some sort of elaborate public defense of standards in the wake of the Churchillian drama and ACTA reports (indeed, the ink is not even dry and ACTA has already pounced on the Op-Ed as evidence for its arguments). Fish, like other academic superstars, carries a lot of presence, whether deserved or not, and this very public refutation of the doctrinaire in favour of rigorous “analysis” was, apparently, just what the doctor ordered to reassure a jittery public, concerned parents and trustees, and rapacious politicians (and perhaps even David Horowitz himself) that most professors (except the bad ones that aren’t), in general, are committed basically to teaching and scholarly rigour, and not political partisanship. OK, I can understand this, however something about it didn’t sit well, sort of like the vague nausea I had before the weekend’s gippy tum attack. Something here was not right, off a bit.

When the Churchill "happening" occurred in May, I read the report (horribly turgid, if enlightening nonetheless), pondered the issues, considered blogging on it, decided against it, and read, with great interest, the thread of commentary over at Easily Distracted on the controversy and the ACTA indictment of the professoriate and the university as being little laboratories of leftist mind-washing. For me, some of the thoughts from that moment ended up here. But others were left inchoate, because they seemed, on some level, to be so difficult to articulate. I have felt cautious over the Churchill “happening” for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the excessively manufactured nature of the crisis, the political forces driving the inquiry. With the oft-cited truism that "everyone" secretly thought Churchill was a nut job (for me, his scholarship was not useful in the classroom because it was so clearly polemic), the controversy around his case had the distinctly unpleasant odour of a witch hunt, as has the ongoing kerkuffle in Wisconsin. Unauthorised ideas and the tender minds of “children” (university students) are always a dangerous if enticing combination, and the perfect storm came together here for those who, for a myriad of reasons, none terribly innocent, bemoan the “changes” in the academy since the sixties.

At the time, in an attempt to think through some of the issues, I discussed the Churchill case with Mr. Gordo, who after my description developed an interesting off-the-cuff PoMo theory about the end of authorship, the challenge to established knowledge practices (through citation), and the trickster figure playing with truth and expectation, to which all I could say was, incoherently, “No, No, No!” When I recovered myself a bit and countered that in fact I thought Churchill’s deviations from academic research expectation were grave errors in judgment and method, Mr. Gordo responded intriguingly that he was only surprised I was defending the academy (and its methodologies) so forcefully. Indeed, how can one hold a principled academic perspective (that in my field, at least, is decidedly political as well as scholarly) and retain a balance in the classroom? Most of us cobble it together as we go along, learning from every student cohort and fine-tuning our approaches. But the latest assault on the academy and standards and measures has little to actually do with what happens in the classroom, and more with the symbolic dimensions of academic study, for which some key moments, like Churchill and Barrett are easy, if egregious, targets. For, to my mind, the process of indoctrination in academia (or more largely through education) isn’t what is at stake, for this is what we do: we indoctrinate students into a mode of thinking, behaviour, and approach. Rather, the question seems to be what type of indoctrination is best, for society (and for the political players and power centres within).

The ACTA report that uses Churchill as a metaphor for this (Leftist) academic “corruption” of indoctrination was, I think, nicely taken apart by Easily Distracted, but the comment thread revealed firstly the intractable nature of the perception of the academic culture as Leftist (i.e. “bad”: alternative/critical/reevaluatory) indoctrination, and secondly, and perhaps most importantly, a continuing investment on the part of rightist commentators in the notion of uncritical objectivity in the realm of teaching and research, a sort of “The facts speak for themselves, Ma’am” perspective, to counter purported leftist indoctrination. The cipher for this sort of perspective at Easily Distracted was one Willy Wonka (in fact, his screen name was Withywindle, linked to a defunct blog, but Willy Wonka sounds so much more interesting). My comments in the thread spoke to the resistance of teaching to formulary strategies, and to some of the problems of objectivity in this regard. In fact, I had to edit my comments before I posted, for the whole conversation thread made me quite annoyed, primarily because the rightist angle relied on an uncritical reading of objectivity as the golden standard of truth. As I wrote at the time:

WW’s critique of the banality of academic “agit-prop” (et al) is cogent, and some of the examples ACTA digs up are indeed egregious, to which ED also speaks. But, there is something about this whole thread that is bothering me, like the tag on the back of a shirt, chaffing. And that, at the risk of sounding like a polemist, is the fact of race in the middle of the entire conversation. And not only race, per se, but fear as well, the fear of change, of different perspectives, of debate, of argument, of the delegitimation of long-accepted myths of who we are as a people. Behind all the talk of professionalism, professional ethics, and standards, are all the lurking and pressing postmodern questions which, seemingly, WW and the angry men and women of the Right dismiss out of hand as irrelevant, unprofessional, *subjective*.


what strikes me as the true problem here is that for the last forty years, people of colour, women, lesbians and gay men (both communities and academics alike, and yes, that’s right, NOT homosexuals) have not been content to believe the myth of objectivity, especially when it comes to living in a society deeply deformed by white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. Buzzwords? Sure, why not? So are “standards” and “professionalism,” which as far as I can tell function in this vein as a polite version of “Shut your pie hole!”


To which Willy Wonka responded,

I like to think that any history worth teaching can be taught with an aspiration to objectivity. If OsoRaro is unwilling to make that aspiration, then I suppose I am dubious about the content of his course. If he is willing to make that aspiration, with regards to history he considers important, well and fine. When we engage in the mutual aspiration to objectivity, we contract also to mutual scrutiny, and to mutual justification. I will endure any restriction he does; I believe that this will result in conversation, not silence.

So much for the lost art of conversation! In other words, we were talking past each other, breezily, as so much of our political discourse nowadays. I responded with a particular political economy, and Willy Wonka retorted with a vague of apolitical “aspiration.” But indeed, I feel that objectivity as a principle should be questioned deeply, not to undermine knowledge per se in a sort of post-posty way (“we can never know anything ever” would be the pop expression of this sentiment), nor necessarily the concept of socio-historical truth, but rather to more broadly question what in fact constitutes knowledge and truth.

As others have noted, Fish’s distinctions around academic freedom and teaching method seem strangely dissonant from his published works. And in a return to Willy Wonka, how do we determine objectivity in teaching and scholarship? Especially in his openly rightist project, such “aspirations” are in fact political arguments, just as mine are. The disciplines have parameters that have been shown to be remarkably adaptable to changing historical and social conditions. Teaching race and ethnicity and sexuality, for example, was thirty years ago considered partisan and doctrinaire (some [many?] still believe this). Activist and critics of the university in the sixties from without and post-structuralist theorists and their fellow travellers from within began a process of questioning the superstructure of knowledge, which at its base obscured the role of ideology in the formation, perpetuation, and transmission of canonical knowledge. One of the primary engines that powered this superstructure was the notion of uncritical (hegemonic) objectivity. These folks, and people before them, and after them (Fish among them) have attempted to chip away at this superstructure, to demonstrate the essentially subjective nature of knowledge, of what is “known.”

Now, again, that doesn’t mean we have to throw up our hands in exasperation and retreat to our tribal caves, never being able to attain the lofty heights of enlightenment omniscience and 18th and 19th century notions of total knowledge. But this does speak to the idea of limits, discursive or otherwise, to how we see the world. And indeed, the ocular metaphor is apropos here, for seeing was crucial to project of knowledge in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as being crucial in pre-modern and modern understandings of race and racial difference.

In some of my work in the real world, I have found Donna Haraway’s admittedly post-posty argument on “situated knowledges” to be a useful guide to some of these questions, which returns us to the ever-present and seductive fantasy of ocular supremacy, the total(ising) vision we have been trained both as scholars and as members of society, to expect and want. Haraway details the ways in which multiple perspectives can combine to give a greater, truer (more approximate truth, which, like utopia, is always just out of reach) vision of something: a subject, issue, condition, contention. This method doesn’t give us totality, or objectivity in its everyday sense, but does provide something valuable, namely a modest understanding of concepts and things and conditions that can serve as a standpoint as well as a point of departure. In some hidden, coded ways, Fish’s argument speaks to this. But in our society, which is so deeply wedded to the visual, actually coming out and advocating the end of objectivity in its classic (colonialist, racist, vicious) proportions is something that is verboten, like farting at a fancy dress dinner table, or impolitely observing the fallen state of our republic on network television. But if this is so, how can we possibly ever move forward? The old methods, for many of us, no longer work (if they ever did), and the newer ones have fallen to trend and parody (even Haraway would fall into this category). The world, of course, will continue on its course, regardless of the debates within the academy. But if we believe, as I do, that academics and intellectuals offer society the reflective impulse, what we do (in the classroom, in research, in our public lives) will always be considered, on some level, proselytizing,

And it is race (and gender, and sexuality) that I think are really, in many ways, being discussed in these conundrums, coded and veiled, but present nonetheless. One of the most interesting aspects of the long and tendentious comment thread back in May on Easily Distracted was a discussion of a course on the American Revolution at Swarthmore: Was it objective? Was it polemic? Was it Anti-American? (All, I might add, focused on the course description, which reveals the ridiculous nature of these critiques, on some level. There indeed may be problems within, but you ain’t gonna get it from the catalogue.) And for me, that was really getting to the heart of the matter. For that is what these struggles over indoctrination and doctrinaire inculcation are about: Who and what is America? Are we a beacon of freedom or a global oppressor? Are we a just society or one rent by discrimination and violence? Again, decidedly political (and unbearably didactic) questions, with different answers and opinions all of which can objectively be proven. So, contra Willy Wonka, the focus of this debate (in this instance on the American Revolution, the larger stage being teaching and the transmission of knowledge) has little to do with objectivity (and therefore method), and more with the pitched political struggle over message. This lends the whole debate an unseemly taint of the “culture wars,” but this is also too easy of an answer. It is about the culture wars, obviously, but is also about scholarship as a node of resistance against “common sense,” against an apolitical and bland regurgitation of ideologically loaded concepts which themselves have complicated and embricated and hidden histories. How do we come to know what we know? Some of it is family, some of it intuition, some experience (slippery, difficult experience), a lot of it is education structures, all of which are in fact compromised and subjective and limited.

Common sense four hundred years ago contended that Native Americans were without souls or civilisation. Common sense three hundred years ago held that the African was inferior, and perhaps inhuman. One hundred and fifty years ago it was that the mestizo hispanophones of the hemisphere were racially corrupt and savage. One hundred years ago it imagined Asiatic hordes toppling the white republic through immigration. All of these phenomena have demonstrable causes and effects that are awkward and offer relatively little comfort. History, of course, is not a childhood primer, with simple lessons in moral goodness. Yes, we have, as a society, become more enlightened but these historical echoes persist, in insidious ways. So, how do we approach teaching race and ethnicity, given our contentious and violent past? How do these debates then reflect on contemporary society, for (an explosive) instance, what do white Americans owe historic US communities of colour? Is there an objective way to teach these topics, considering the wide variety of materials, approaches, and subject matter they entail? Who chooses the focus? Why is any individual focus better than another? These, again, become subjective choices, which are necessarily and naturally political.

So where is the objective perspective here? Is it that indeed the US developed as an industrial nation on the backs of slaves, violent land acquisition, racial discrimination, and racial debasement? Or is it the other, more conventional narrative: we used to think and do bad things but now we are good (the primer model)? Willy Wonka argued on Easily Distracted that the critical course on the American Revolution sought to undermine the grandeur of the Revolutionary moment in contemporary polemic and second-guessing. But isn’t that what we should be doing? Fish would argue this, subjecting the American Revolution to analysis. But here is the catch: the analysis itself is, to rightist critics, suspect. So, in some ways, what we have here is the Left again pandering to the rules of a game firstly set by the Right and secondly, and more depressingly, one the Left cannot ever win, because the game is already over before it has begun. Fish’s platitudes will not satisfy the blood lust of the critics, such as Willy Wonka, who persisted into absurdum with their critiques, revealing in the process their own polemical stances. This is not really about standards; it is about politics.

The debate over at Easily Distracted, along with my conversation with Mr. Gordo, had me pondering the question: What in fact are the standards, my standards, of teaching controversial materials (which to read ACTA would be pretty much any subject in the humanities)? Indeed, I do believe in “standards,” however inchoate and subjective and personal those might be. As someone who teaches controversial topics, I want my students to read critical work, to ponder uncomfortable positions, to rethink what they assume to be true. If, at the end of that process, they can change their thinking, super! If not, well, they cannot say they didn’t know there were other opinions. In other words, I want my students to own their positions, not just inherit them from their family, their communities, Fox News, or NPR, for that matter. This methodology is decidedly iconoclastic (for undermining leftist conceptions of things like race and sexuality is as important as paying attention to those on the right), which runs its own risks, and is only partially successful, admittedly (like, I might add, all teaching).

But one of the most disappointing aspects of the inquiry into Ward Churchill for scholars of colour was how the evidence uncovered therein reinforced stereotypes both about teaching and research on race, as well as scholars of colour themselves, as professionals, as part of the institution, as accredited members of the professoriate. We have and hold standards and expectations for our teaching and research, but these are hard to encapsulate either in the ACTA/Willy Wonka charge of objectivity or in Fish’s claim to analysis. In this way scholars of colour are no different from their white colleagues, except for the fact that the burden of proof is against us in sharper ways. This is why, I think, so many have been publicly silent on the matter: not because of a lack of critique against Churchill, but rather because of the awkward realisation that the accompanying scandal tainted all of us, and perhaps if we choose to be silent, it will just go away.

The critiques against Churchill and Barrett operate on two different levels, that of the professional (for which I think they are indeed culpable), and that of the social (the awkward and uncomfortable polemic critique), which is in fact the level that they are being punished on. The Shop, after all, is full of cheats, liars, grifters, sociopaths, sloths, and nutters, but typically they remain local problems. Why did Churchill and Barrett stand out? Because they entered the fray of the contemporary political divide, the most important effect being that this has increased the amount of outside attention on our little world of academe. Nobody likes a party pooper, and in the academy nobody (really) likes a standpoint that deviates from accepted knowledge (whether fringe or alternatively outside of "disciplinary rigour"), so the response of professional disavowal (à la Ms. Fish) should have, in the end, been anticipated (although that does not explain why they were tolerated so long, if they were so wrong; Churchill, after all, was tenured, a fact that indicts the institution much more than Churchill himself).

You take your lumps with unpopular or unconventional or unauthorised work (truly challenging work, not Cultural Studies "Resistance" passion plays), and that seems to be a depressing fact of the profession. It doesn’t mean you can’t do this work, but it does mean you will pay a price, and here I am not thinking of folks like Barrett and Churchill, who admittedly are out there (again, too easy of a pot shot, and in the end, how much do they really challenge our understandings?), but of the rest of us, who seek to question the more modest shibboleths of knowledge from within the profession. This, to me, is the only message for most of us in these debates. Watchale, Miss Thing! It’s only one or two steps from grace to disgrace, and you don't have to be hawking the latest fringe festival theories to run afoul of prescripted knowledges. One or two crusty dead-wood historians will do just fine. I know a couple, if you need some on the cheap for a tableau vivant.

Last night, after dinner browsing at an artsy-fartsy bookstore with Mr. Gordo, I bought a hand-printed postcard that reads, "Fear Trumps Intelligence Every Time," a political critique of our current moment that may not embrace 9/11 conspiracy theory, but does speak to our general malaise. I bought the card as a joke, because I thought it would be an apropos motto for Sadistic College (emblazoned on t-shirts, it would be a hit with the irony crowd, and look oh-so-fetching on job announcements on the MLA JIL). But in retrospect, it also seems to be a nice aphorism for the academy and society in general right now, completely aside from and outside of the Churchill and Barrett scandals. Fish's white flag in the Times is about fear, more than anything else, not only the fear of the continued intrusion of partisan politics into academe through the ciphers of Barrett and Churchill, but also the fears beneath the profession: friends, networks, race, access, change, gender, ability, talent, accepted knowledges, youth, age, generation, sexuality— the hard truths. But we knew that already, didn’t we?

No comments: