Weaponized critique: On nuance-trolling

On Facebook, Scott Erik Kaufman pointed out Kieran Healy’s paper Fuck Nuance, which I greatly enjoyed. One thing that stood out to me was his repeated claim that the endless demand for more nuance is a form of symbolic violence. Often it can be a very explicit power play: you aren’t allowed to make that kind of argument until you take account of my pet topic. But more generally, how often have we heard attempts to disqualify arguments on ostensibly “procedural” grounds that wind up being an open-ended demand for more work? “I won’t even consider what you have to say until you address X, Y, and Z text, etc.”

For instance, I recently received a singularly unhelpful reader report that demanded I refer to a ton of other texts and make all kinds of subtle distinctions. What was missing from this report was any sense of whether my argument was generally right or wrong and — crucially — what these further references and nuances would actually add. The report amounted to a demand that I completely rewrite the piece in question, but provided no guidance, no sense of what would constitute “enough.”

I have previously referred to phenomena like the fillibuster as weaponized debate — that is to say, a rhetorical intervention that takes on the appearance of debate, but actually functions to preempt or shut down debate. The same thing is going on with nuance-trolling, which amounts to an academic fillibuster: rather than directly talking about the argument in question, the critic runs out the clock by listing off all the things they happen to know.

The sad fact of the matter is that we academics are way better at carrying out those kinds of weaponized fillibusters than actually engaging with each other’s work in a serious way. It would be bad enough if we were all just bullshitting in the seminar room, but people’s careers and livelihood depend on these kinds of interactions. In a time when academia is in such profound crisis, we should learn how to take better care of each other — and if we have the privilege of engaging in the life of the mind, we should actually do so instead of wasting everyone’s time with the tedious one-ups-manship of nuance-trolling.

The last day of summer vacation

Tomorrow I have my first faculty meeting of the fall semester, making this the final day of summer vacation. Aside from a certain Unfortunate Incident involving unwanted online attention, it was a good one. It was obviously dominated by my work on The Prince of This World, the full manuscript of which is now under review. Finishing it was a big milestone in my life, but it was more than just checking something off a list — I enjoyed the work. And given that I had enough time to pace myself appropriately (3-4 hours of concentrated writing a day, max), it also provided a steady background for a very “civilized” lifestyle. I struck a good balance between semi-random reading and getting my sci-fi fix (I’m about halfway through Babylon 5 currently), for instance. Though we didn’t take any major vacations, we took advantage of The Girlfriend’s unexpected car ownership (the last vestige of the Minneapolis episode) to take a weekend trip to Milwaukee and several day trips for outdoor activities and/or visits to various brewpubs.

I also worked on piano in a more sustained and focused way than I have in many years. Yesterday I had a major breakthrough on my Schubert piano sonata, finally getting the most intricate new material to an acceptable level and playing through the whole first movement in one go. Much of what I have left to learn is a repetition of previous material in a different key with small variations, and it was gratifying to be able to sight-read passages that had taken weeks of hard labor on their first incarnation. It felt good to work on something that was purely an end in itself, with no greater purpose or goal.

At the same time, I did check plenty of things off the list. With my big translation submitted and the book under review, my decks are cleared in a pretty radical way. And over the last couple weeks, as a kind of cool-down exercise, I wrote an article on Star Trek that is quite literally the last piece of writing I’ve promised to anyone. My “writing” time for the next few months will therefore be dominated by responding to reader reports, answering copy-editing queries, and correcting proofs — a suitable accompaniment to my labor as a mid-level functionary at Shimer. In so many ways, becoming Associate Dean this year marks the end of a long class-aspirational journey for me: I’ve emerged from a working class background to become middle management. And as an added bonus, I am now, for the first time ever, a member ex officio of a committee. Oh, the policies I’ll draft! The data I’ll analyze! The resolutions I’ll propose!

Public shaming as a political strategy

In the social media age, the prospect of being socially shamed has become a real site of anxiety for mainstream culture. Jon Ronson has written a book on the topic, and columnists routinely meet their wordcount by repeating cliches about the dangers of Twitter hordes. The primary anxiety seems to be centered on social media storms coming from the Left, which seem to represent a new weaponized form of Political Correctness. And there are many on the left, particularly in campus activism circles, who are understandably intrigued by the potential power of shaming as a tool.

Tim Burke has already thoroughly addressed the potentials and pitfalls of public shaming. Arguably his most salient point is that “stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around.” While he is quick to clarify that this observation “doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal,” he encourages activists to be more cautious and realistic in their deployment of shame.

As the victim of public shaming, I want to amplify what Burke is saying. Even though people are most worried about shaming from the left, it’s the right that is really mobilized to carry out this kind of thing. They are absolutely relentless and merciless. Literally everything you say in response becomes more fodder for harrassment — above all the claim that you are being harrassed, which indicates your intolerance of criticism and unwillingness to consider other views. Here as elsewhere, whatever you do, however you respond, it proves that your harrassers are the real victims, who are thoroughly justified in defending themselves against you by any means necessary.

This is only one of many repeated rhetorical strategies. Indeed, what is striking about right-wing harrassment mobs is their crushing tedium. The same phrases and talking points are repeated over and over and over — and all with the clear presumption that you have never heard it before. It’s like they workshopped it ahead of time, and in a sense they did. Becoming a movement conservative (or aligning even further right) consists largely in learning the strategies of shaming and silencing, of drowning out and driving out opposing views. For us it might seem like a useful tool, but it’s their native language.

Hence I would like to add my own small point to Burke’s analysis: one danger of using shaming as a tool is that the right is way better at it. In fact, I think there’s a case to be made that they are especially prone to mobilize a shaming campaign precisely when they detect an attempt to shame them. And when it comes to a head-to-head shaming battle, there’s just no way we can win. Given the huge number of divisions and constituencies operating on the left, there’s no way we can generate that kind of lockstep relentless campaign. Nor, in the end, do I think we really want to — certainly not as an end in itself.

Progress report

This is the first summer I’ve had in a long time that didn’t feel like a state of emergency in some way — both financially and in terms of my self-imposed academic work. I’ve submitted my translation of The Use of Bodies to Stanford and got some very positive feedback from Agamben. This provided a boost to my liquidity as well as my ego, and in general it cleared the decks of a project that I had been expecting to take up much of the summer.

As for the devil book, I’m also ahead of schedule on that, and I now expect to have a full manuscript ready before the fall semester begins. It’s perhaps not surprising that it should be going fast, given that I’ve written, lectured, and taught over most of the material multiple times over the last several years. What has shocked me is how weirdly leisurely the process feels. I spend 3-4 hours writing or revising most days, and it is steadily coming together. Some days I even feel like I haven’t done much, but then I think, “Oh right, I wrote that section.” The whole atmosphere seems very out of keeping with the objective importance of the project.

All of this makes me glad that I didn’t wind up taking a leave for the fall, because I don’t think I could have made very good use of the time. Even assuming I went slower on the book, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up the momentum necessary to get started on a whole new project. As it stands, I’m looking forward to focusing on teaching and on my new administrative role as associate dean next semester, without taking on any major new research or translation work. I may go to AAR, but I definitely won’t be presenting.

Overall, I’m a little creeped out by how calm and settled I feel. But not so creeped out that I’m not enjoying it.

Posted in academia, The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off on Progress report

The problem with “consent”

As colleges and universities try to get on-campus sexual assault under control, the dominant framework for educating college students on the issue centers on the concept of “consent.” I obviously understand why this framing suggested itself, and as a practical matter, I don’t know what if anything could replace it. Yet I think it has pitfalls that have perhaps not been fully addressed.

In a typical conversation about this issue, students will tend to object to the idea of “obtaining consent” on the grounds that it seems like it will kill the vibe, ruin the mood, etc., etc. To some degree, this response is naive, but I think if we have ears to hear, they’re objecting to the use of legalistic language in the context of sex. It seems artificial and inorganic to the situation, like you have to bring a notary with you to the bedroom.

Clearly no one involved intends that (unless you’re into that kind of thing, I guess), and it’s easy enough to clear up the fact that you need to make sure the other person actually wants to be involved in what you’re doing, including when the nature of the activity significantly changes.

That’s all well and good, except that a shadow of legalism persists. Think of the way some men object to the idea that women can withdraw consent at any time. The way they talk about it, you begin to suspect that they believe that when a woman gives them sexual consent, it effectively means that the woman is their property until such time as they have ejaculated. That’s a horrible, destructive attitude — and it’s one that the legalistic language of “consent” could actually encourage.

If you frame the sexual encounter as a contract, then you’re framing it as a situation in which at least one of the participants is giving up their free agency and subordinating themselves to another person’s needs. This is how contracts always work everywhere else in society. You consent to be bound to an agreement in which someone else will have rights over you. And if you violate the contract, there are negative consequences.

In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman points out how destructively this works in connection with the marriage contract, and from that perspective, it’s a bitter irony that the same kind of legalistic language that has so often been used to subordinate and dominate women is being deployed in an effort to protect them.

As I said in the opening paragraph, though, I don’t have a ready alternative. The emerging idea of “enthusiastic consent” may be the least bad option. Switching to something like “make sure they really want to” seems to open up all kinds of destructive doors, such as the idea that you can know what someone wants better than they do, etc. And in the end, the problem can’t be solved at the level of rhetoric. In a sexist society, anything involving sex is going to be at least potentially distorted and destructive — especially at institutions that up to a few decades ago were completely male-dominated and that still function to perpetuate male privilege in virtually everything they do.

How do you write?

In the last few days, I’ve talked with a couple colleagues who have very different approaches to writing, from me and from each other. One always seems to have reams of material on hand, which he shapes into books and articles. Another seems unable to produce much other than in marathon sessions where he winds up generating a super-abundance of material that then needs to be vastly cut down to fit within the bounds of the project he’s working on.

My technique is much more systematic and goal-oriented than either. I rarely produce academic writing purely “on spec,” without knowing what project it’s contributing toward. Even with the devil book, which is strangely the first book I’ve written without having a contract in hand (or the need to produce a dissertation), I’ve had a specific publisher in mind the whole time and have been in dialogue with the editor. I’m also much more regimented in my approach — I typically have an overall outline in mind and try to write one section of a chapter each day while I’m writing, in such a way as to set up the next section. This usually results in me writing just the right amount, with very little unused material left over.

I developed my approach under the emergency conditions of trying to write Zizek and Theology between my coursework and qualifying exams. I spent a couple days “writing all day” — i.e., dicking around most of the time and feeling guilty I wasn’t writing — and realized that was not going to work. I stumbled onto the approach of more focused sessions of two or three hours, devoted to one specific step in my argument. I also found that to make the process sustainable day-to-day, I sometimes had to force myself to wait until the next day to write the next section, because when I did too much one day, I normally paid for it with a totally lost day soon after.

I’ve been operating under those emergency measures ever since, and it’s worked pretty well. My method has proven adaptable to talks and articles, and it got me through a dissertation, a trilogy of shorter books, and it’s now serving me well for the devil book so far.

I have nagging doubts, though. I wonder if my thinking is becoming too regimented along with my writing technique. I wonder if I would benefit from a more open-ended approach, or even from the occasional marathon session — arguably the best chapter of Politics of Redemption, the Anselm chapter, came out of an uncharacteristic marathon session. My approach has allowed me to do a lot, but are there things it’s keeping me from doing? Maybe once I finish up the devil I can let myself explore a little more.

But what about you, readers? How do you structure your writing time? How did you arrive at your chosen method? Have you experimented with various approaches?

Kids these days!

Campus culture has been much-discussed in recent weeks, as a growing consensus has emerged that today’s college students, though well-meaning, are often prone to overreaction and oversimplification of complex political and moral issues. The result is hurt feelings in the campus community and, all too often, shattered careers for professors.

Let’s grant that this diagnosis is partially correct. It does seem to be the case that campus political activism is often characterized by lack of nuance and by massive impatience. Student groups sometimes seem to choose “targets of opportunity” without any clear overarching strategy. Online activist culture has arguably contributed to this situation by substituting clever memes and carefully orchestrated outrage for actual political analysis. The result is an approach to political advocacy that does little to foster a community based on dialogue and mutual understanding.

The thing about this diagnosis is that, aside from the online aspect, pundits from time immemorial have said similar things about college students. This is because college students are adolescents who have often been thrown into a very intense and confusing social situation without much in the way of preparation. Simplistic moralizing and group identities based more on common enemies than shared substance are part of the natural growing pains. I went through a phase much like that described by the David Brookses of the world, and now I’m not like that anymore. Surely many of us can say the same, if we’re honest.

The hope, obviously, is that the end result of a college education would be, in part, a more sophisticated grasp of political realities, institutional structures, moral ambiguities, etc., etc. For me, the question is not whether college students are acting like college students, but whether our institutions of higher learning are helping them toward that laudable goal of political maturity.

And this brings me to the last segment of the punditical concensus: the ruined lives of professors. I think we need to recognize that students do not have the power to hire, fire, or discipline professors in any college or university in this land. That power is vested in some combination of the faculty, the administration, and the Board of Trustees. There is no necessity for those with actual power to use it to deal out draconian punishments for trivial offenses against the profound moral standards some student happens to have read about in a blog post that morning. Part of being the adult in the room is knowing when to tell someone they’re overreacting. If it really is the case that the situation is “worse” today, surely this overindulgence of petty complaints is a contributing factor.

Of course, here someone could say that those poor harried administrators are responding to market forces in our bold new neoliberal world of student-customers who are always right. What’s strange to me, though, is that students are always right about very trivial matters, but in the eyes of administrators, they are only very seldom right about much more serious offenses. When a professor is accused of sexual exploitation of students, for instance, suddenly he can count on institutional backing and the glories of tenure. There is a similar mismatch between students who are uncomfortable reading Huck Finn (always right!) and those who are uncomfortable being in class with a fellow student who has raped them (let’s not be hasty…).

One almost begins to think that administrators are opportunistically deploying student complaints as weapons in their ongoing war against faculty job security, while taking an equally opportunistic approach to more serious accusations that could significantly damage the institution’s reputations. And maybe part of the education we as faculty can provide to students is how to recognize these dynamics and start fighting the real enemy.

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