Academia can be tough to crack. Too frequently, faded ideas are articulated in fading tones that reverberate off only slightly-less faded classroom walls, stacked atop each other in austere buildings that resemble psychiatric hospitals. Some campuses, like my town’s Windward Community College, actually are converted asylums, proving that you can have your metaphor and critique it, too.
It was within such an environment that I overheard the following conversation between two graduate students, recently, neither of whom, I assume, is in a satisfying relationship:
“You’re wrong. You’re totally wrong,” said the first graduate student, examining his colleague’s abstract.
“No, I’m just taking a different approach,” countered the second student.
“Yes, you are. You clearly haven’t read Patton’s take on political deterritorialization, which contravenes your thesis,” argued grad uno, growing agitated.
“No, I haven’t, but that’s not relevant to my point,” said grad dos. “If you want to argue against me, fine, but that doesn’t devalue the validity of what I’ve said based on the line of thinking I cite.”
“Your line of thinking discounts Paul Patton. You can’t cite someone out of context.”
“I’m citing Deleuze, not Patton, and I can do the former without having read the latter.”
“Yes, you absolutely do need to be familiar with the relevant secondary literature before formulating an argument in that vein.”
“I don’t even need to familiar with all of Deleuze’s own works, if what I am familiar with helps me think through the problem I’m working on.”
“But that could lead to a complete bastardization of his thought,” shouted the initial objector, slamming the abstract on the table where he and his classmate were sitting.
“The only bastard here is you,” his classmate screamed back, before storming off toward a nearby parking lot, leaving behind both his abstract and peace of mind.
While the preceding tiff may be childish, it’s not uncommon in higher education circles, where a premium is placed on original scholarship. And by “original,” I mean textually dependent. By emphasizing the semiotic structure of scholarly discourse–a structure reaffirmed through the almost entirely textual medium of peer reviewed scholarship–the pressure to publish reduces ideation to pseudo-intellectual vexation, an endless cleansing of analytical stains from prior signification. Accordingly, genuine exchanges often devolve into disingenuous, disruptive disputes about perceptions of expertise, whereby one party is said to be “inexpert” because of a lack of familiarity with a specific specialization or subsection of an author’s work. Not only do such disagreements reify disciplinary parameters that arrest investigations of coevally constituted knowledge formations, they partition critique into compartmentalized fragments, ensuring that reality remains an inaccessible fiction beyond the boundaries of book deals.
In other words, thanks to the textualization of the ivory-tower, problematization is only permissible if and when epistemological claims are exhaustive, which they can never be. And we wonder why professors are so easily programmed to accept indentured servitude.
Here’s an academic resolution for 2018: let’s couple our critiques with corresponding efforts to build a more just and equal world.