Ivory towers. | Wikimedia Commons
Jarek Ervin,  October 10

No Joke

Bullshit in the academy, beyond Sokal Squared

Ivory towers. | Wikimedia Commons


Last week, news came to light that a group of disgruntled researchers had perpetuated one of the biggest academic hoaxes in recent history. Working under pen names, the trio of James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian spent a year attempting to publish research papers mocking the ideological bent of so-called “grievance studies”—the social justice-oriented writing emanating from gender and cultural studies departments.

One piece produced by the “Sokal Squared” group argued that replacing the empirical methods of astronomy with interpretive dance would atone for the West’s dominance over the natural sciences; another offered ethnographic analysis of dog park rape culture; and a third retooled Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf as a feminist manifesto. In the end, the crew successfully published a third of its essays in peer-reviewed journals, often receiving glowing reviews in the process. The point was simple: in such fields, even what passed for research was often bullshit.

The hoax was followed by a bitter online debate between different sectors of the center-left. The apostles of the long-running war against “political correctness” in the American academy gloried in the orchestrated debunking of the faux-radical intellectual left and its assorted “illiberal” tendencies. Others rushed to defend politically tinged humanities research as part of the conduct of open inquiry essential to a robust higher education. However, a small and embattled third corps of leftish academics has viewed the prank as a long overdue opening for some honest discussion of the glaring weaknesses of a scholarly apparatus that appears unable to maintain even its own internal standards.

Up front, we should be clear that the smug tricksters behind the hoax are not allies of the left. Some commentators have already pointed out that these kinds of pranks are fodder for right-wing crusaders like Ben Shapiro, while others have noted that there’s not actually much radical cachet in dunking on a small discipline like feminist theory. (Love or hate the self-styled subversions of today’s academia, but that required “Women in Literature” gen ed elective that poor Chadwick slept through during his freshman year didn’t actually turn him into a raving footsoldier for the coming Woke World Uprising.)

The debate has been cast as a feud between the hard sciences and the humanities.

The group’s odd manifesto-of-sorts is drenched not only in heroic paeans to “liberalism,” “open inquiry,” and “modernity,” but also a jock mentality that sometimes falls under the purview of the hard sciences. (The phenomenon is undoubtedly rampant in the humanities, as well.) It’s notable that the group received its moniker from the 1996 Sokal Hoax—when the physicist Alan Sokal managed to publish an article implying that gravity was a social construct in the (still-influential) cultural theory journal Social Text.

Then as now, the debate has been cast as a feud between the hard sciences and the humanities. In the wake of the prank, the presses have been fired up for a dispute about whether the left needs more creativity, theory, and critique or facts, logic, and reason. One scholar has defended the sort of work parodied in the study, while an article published in The Atlantic insists that this sort of chicanery simply doesn’t fly in more “traditional” fields. (Narrator voice: it does.)

It’s tempting to jump into the fray, either to note that bullshit is too common in the humanities, or that fraud is equally rampant in science and medicine. But I take it that the dispute itself—which has endlessly been staged as a turf war within the College of Arts and Sciences—holds low stakes for socialists. Both sides play into an idealized vision of the university, and sifting through forms of idealism shouldn’t be our business.

Even so, academia often is our business, and we who reside in the university might want to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Many rebuttals of the prank acknowledged widespread issues in academic publishing, and broader discussions about higher education make it abundantly clear that life is anything but a dream for most of us who work in the university.

It’s odd to me, then, that the discussion thus far has largely ignored this aspect of university life and has skipped altogether a serious consideration of the extent to which the current dynamics of the university shape the way we think.

So, minimally, we should probably consider a basic question: what is all the bullshit really good for?

Working for the Weekend

Now, I’m sure many of us have a default answer to the question already cued up. Say what you want, but the ivory tower has often given shelter to the most radical ideas of the time. After all, Noam Chomsky held a linguistics post at MIT while maintaining that university types still had a responsibility to speak about the ills of the Vietnam War, and E. P. Thompson wrote his magisterial The Making of the English Working Class while teaching adult education courses at the University of Leeds.

I’m not big on nostalgia, but it’s undeniable that during the lengthy period when the word socialism was banished from mainstream political life, academics were often the ones who had the freedom to sit around monitoring the rate of profit for sudden drops or endlessly speculating about how we’d spend all of that free time after the coming revolution. And even those of us who didn’t land that pristine tenure-track gig after graduate school can still admit that, all things considered, our training did sharpen our wits. It was even fun: spending a few years organizing Capital reading groups and sitting in seminars deconstructing cultural norms tops breaking rocks for a living.

Still, that’s a bit of a drop-off from the heady days when SDS proclaimed the campus a front line in the struggle for a better society to come, or even a moment when socialist intellectuals spoke to a general public from time to time. But alas, sometimes a gig is just a gig. And if academia is just here to pay our bills, we should think about what sort of daddy it is.

Even a quick appraisal of the model of higher education as an incubator for political action shows daddy ain’t easy to please. I’m sure a lot of leftists have heard about the risks of pursuing a career in the university, and while stories about students sleeping in cars and professors selling blood plasma are exceptional, they still speak volumes about the pitiful state of labor conditions in the academy.

The university is hemorrhaging tenure-track jobs, and many of the ones that are left come with absurd publishing requirements, higher teaching loads, and hefty administrative service duties. Meanwhile, most academic gigs offered today are adjunct positions—typically contracted semester-to-semester with a salary of about $2,000–$4,000 per class. The rest of the workload is often handled by graduate students. Something like half of them never finish, and many who do end up borrowing massive amounts of money to offset their meager stipends, or fight through mental health issues and ignore abuse by their higher-ups along the way.

If academia is just here to pay our bills, we should think about what sort of daddy it is.

In my short decade in higher ed, I’ve watched colleagues toss aside relationships to accommodate their intense schedule or frequent moves; seen successful professors power through life catastrophes to keep up with relentless publishing schedules; and known students who’ve endured sleepless nights because they left a typo in an email to some kingmaker in the field. Those who made it through grad school often ended up moving back in with their parents, defaulting on their student loans, living without health insurance, or settling for poverty wages so they could keep a foot in this noble institution.

In the end, a lot of the hand-waving about runaway PC dogmatism and the atrophy of true critical thought completely elides a far greater crisis: the nightmare of trying to cobble together a viable career in higher education. I’m not sure how much a lot of us have to gain by taking sides in pissing contests between Big Data Jocks and Lit Crit Bros, given that low-ranking humanists and scientists alike are viewed as a form of disposable labor by their employers.

I’ve encountered a pervasive mindset about labor conditions in academia: a grimly austerian consensus holding that all of us who are wasting away under the debt-subsidized workloads of sweated academic labor should just avoid rattling the cage. Most people I know with decent jobs are still glad to complain about office politics or rant about their rat-bastard boss—indeed, most forms of workplace politics primarily take the form of criticizing labor conditions. Meanwhile, the stans of the academy are all-too-ready to defend the excesses of their feudal overlords, whether they’re in the business of producing decadent scholarship or creating unparalleled new levels of economic exploitation.

At the heart of this vast scheme of ideological rationalization is a curious paradox: the devotion of soi-disant radical left intellectuals to a blatantly anti-democratic guild of cartelized knowledge work, operating on a self-replicating model of knowledge scarcity. I’ve often been puzzled by the fact that ostensibly radical intellectuals act as if admission into a PhD program is some kind of honor, or that simply questioning the limitations of academia amounts to an act of betrayal. The chief reason for this state of psychic abjection, as far as I can see, is that universities butter our bread. That, paired with a recrudescent attachment to the receding dream of joining the ranks of the university star system—to ascend into the company of name-brand proprietors of bureaucratic university fiefdoms even as the bulk of our academic workforce sinks further into precarity and penury. It is, indeed, a brand of vicarious socioeconomic identification with the oppressor akin to Steinbeck’s struggling Americans who believe themselves to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

How else to explain the present state of affairs, which finds even people living off of the moldy scraps from their overlords’ table hesitant to cast any blame? There’s a whole genre of so-called “quit lit”—heartbreaking farewells to academia penned by people who have given up the tenure search. One of the more popular such testimonials focuses entirely on the emotional consequences of getting forced out of academia: “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m good for. I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that I have so much in my head, and so much in my Google Drive, that is basically useless right now. I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that the life I imagined is not going to happen.”

This kind of feelingful reflection is standard in the literature. Of course, it’s motivated by sincere sentiment, unlike the smug devotion to liberal modernity put forth by the Sokal set. And while it’s fine enough to consider the psychological impact of what we do for a living (especially since it’s misguided to blame ourselves for getting starved out of the business we were trained to work in), this process often substitutes self-care for structural critique. Forget grief; I want to see some rage.

The Life of the Middle Mind

Now, let’s be fair. These days, many academics do accept that there are institutional problems within academia, and anyway, most don’t go around saying that university trustees are saints. All things considered, it’s still nice enough work if you can get it, and while it’s a tough business, many other jobs come with a lot more bullshit. At least this one lets us do radical critique, right?

I’ve noticed a strong resistance to the notion that tackling a grueling workload in the face of constant precarity has even a minor impact on how academics actually think, as if the form that contemporary academic discourse is compelled to take somehow leaves its content immaculately unaffected. This guileless posture is especially striking as it overtakes a class of people who make their livings by critiquing the ways other institutions shape other forms of knowledge.

In a provocative essay “The Dangerous Academic is an Extinct Species,” Yasmin Nair writes at length about the ways higher education conditions academics to avoid serious political engagement. Nair faced intense criticism for the piece, but I thought it was advancing a rather unremarkable and self-evidently true observation: very few college professors are revolutionary communists these days. Grad students face pressure to replicate their teachers’ ideas in order to climb the ladder, while teachers face pressure to preserve an entertaining summer camp atmosphere for their student-customers. (College students, of course, also face pressure—to borrow small fortunes to fund education, to pull all-nighters to keep up with the pace, and even to accept that the risk of sexual assault is the cost of entry into a social life.) Researchers strive to produce work that is publishable, fundable, and hirable—a market trend necessarily consigns the slower, more tedious, and less sexy work to the unheralded margins of academic life. Novelty, regardless of value, has an edge in the marketplace of ideas.

Very few college professors are revolutionary communists these days.

Even if every last dangerous academic hasn’t been hunted into extinction, many have accepted that domestication is the next stage of evolution. The psychological toll for academics who haven’t muscled their way into star status is significant. I’ve heard some people admit they’ve settled on spending ten or twenty years playing along (at times also swearing they’ll someday get back to the business of revolution). Still others I encounter seem comfortable lying, cheating, and stealing their way to the top, cravenly chasing trends and flattering their betters while stabbing friends in the back.

Peer review shares part of the blame, and the Sokal Squared Group is at least right to regard it with a suspicious eye. Even when functioning optimally, the process can cultivate a style of writing that is a perfect balance of unoriginality and inoffensiveness designed to avoid ruffling feathers. Sometimes, yes, work passes because it panders to disciplinary norms. But I’ve more frequently heard about an article that made it through because a reader knew the author—or alternatively, got rejected because the name of one of the reviewers didn’t appear in the bibliography. Forget wokeness; try having your life’s work torpedoed because a reviewer was outraged by a comma splice or the fact that you only cited their second favorite monograph on the Peace of Westphalia.

Of course, a certain kind of critical engagement does persist, but the main run of today’s academic work is often more in line with the apathetic consensus that propels careers in higher education, not the ruthless criticism of all that exists. As the literary critic Terry Eagleton notes in After Theory, a paradigm shift in higher education has replaced the pedantry of yore with a new commitment to radical libertinism:

The bright young things who pen essays on foot fetishism or the history of the codpiece eye with suspicion the scrawny old scholars who dare to maintain that Jane Austen is greater than Jeffrey Archer. One zealous orthodoxy gives way to another. Whereas in the old days you could be drummed out of your student drinking club if you failed to spot a metonym in Robert Herrick, you might today be regarded as an unspeakable nerd for having heard of either metonyms or Herrick in the first place.

Eagleton argues that what once held a radical allure in the academy has risen to the status of cliche. Critique has been disconnected from the politics it once (ostensibly) served. Empty verbiage proliferates, and monographs abound with promises to rethink, unsettle, or problematize—to do everything, that is, except much of anything at all. Often, these gestures are pseudo-interventions, or take the form of clowning on some terrified graduate student presenting a conference paper for the first time—while also going out of the way, in the same ex cathedra pronouncements, to shower praise on celebrity academics and potential bosses.

I’ve noticed that this kind of thought has even started to creep into left circles. Academics who stumble into the realm of politics don’t always ask whether or not their mastery of Mittelhochdeutsch or exhaustive knowledge of the organology of Renaissance wind instruments actually translates into organizing wherewithal. Some carry themselves as if it is self-evident that the revolution was only waiting around for a few more graduate students to proclaim themselves Philosopher-Kings-in-waiting. This crowd often ends up playing the role of schoolmaster, showing off how much Lenin they’ve read or their virtuosic ability to toss directionless critique in the faces of people who just came to an organizing event because they were tired of living in a broken society.

After the University?

In spite of all the bullshit, I still believe that many scholarly projects have been greatly beneficial to radical politics. They could be—and should be—again. In the meantime, it’s nice enough that a few decent Marxists get tenure from time to time. I’ve got sympathy for anyone who accepts a degree of bullshit in their struggle to make it in the business. And I’ve only got praise for those who haven’t been corrupted by the system, as well as for those who do use their time to help out with the daunting project of piecing together a truly majoritarian left.

But we should ask ourselves about what this institution can’t help us accomplish and be honest with ourselves about when we’re just playing the game. Finding a niche in the humanities might help us pay the rent (if even that), but its moment as an enclave of engaged and radical thinking—if it ever had one—is long since past.

Critique has been disconnected from the politics it once (ostensibly) served.

We should also call bullshit when we see it. There is little to gain from explaining away the ills of universities, or lionizing those who posture to impress other academics while prostrating before those who sign the checks. Of course, that goes equally for the Sokal Squared group, who seem determined to save an institution they themselves believe has turned rancid. We do not need more heroic defenses of the crumbling and corrupt institutions of higher education, nor should we hold onto the delusion that academia is inherently a beacon of progress and reason.

In the end, the point isn’t that we need to replace the doe-eyed critical theory set with button-mashing technicians, or vice versa. As academic conditions become increasingly oppressive and the ranks of the revolutionary intellectuals dwindle, not only do these disputes drift away from the reality of our lives—they obscure that reality.

The ultimate point, then, is to ask ourselves how willing we are to believe the bullshit. Discovering that there are limitations to academia can feel tragic—especially for those of us reared on the promise that the university could offer us a life as dangerous academics. Indeed, a tempting conclusion is that serious questions will sometimes be better answered on the other side of ivy-coated walls.

But, in a moment where a frantic hustle for job security provides no kind of security at all, we have an opportunity to consider alternative forms of intellectual production unbeholden to the changing tides of academic fashion. We also have an opportunity to consider our true allies. Of course, we should be suspicious of those who claw each other’s throats out on the way to the top of the institution, or who insist on playing the role of partisan for a faded intellectual dream.

But the good news is that most people actually have no patience for bullshit—and they form a more sizable constituency than the radical professoriat ever did.

Jarek Ervin is a writer and teacher based in Philadelphia. His published work focuses on art, culture, and politics.

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