A Dark Precursor

Provisional Thoughts on Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Universities

Category: The University

Trapped in Cephalus’ House: Academics, Trolls, and Politics

By now it has surely come to seem somewhat banal to quote Socrates’ remarks at line 31d of the Apology when considering the question of a philosopher’s relation to politics. If not, it probably should, as much of the point of those remarks—at least absent considerable interpretive gymnastics—amounts to fairly standard-issue complaints that a) functioning as a public official means one has to abandon a serious commitment to justice; and b) that participation in politics as a speaker of truth (as Socrates has, of course, constructed himself since the beginning of the text (17c), exposes one not only to the risk but to the virtual certainty of death.

There is actually quite a bit to say about the second of Socrates’ claims. Foucault, for instance, has given us a tremendous amount of contextual material, in his studies of parrhesia, on the basis of which to interpret this claim, and even to ask to what extent Socrates’ very act of placing himself manifestly in danger as a result of his speech was supposed to function as an epistemological (and not merely a rhetorical) guarantee of the truth of what he had said.

But such interpretations already operate on a level that presumes another point: political speech, even and especially insofar as it carries the value of truth, often has little or nothing to do with attempts to produce knowledge or belief. On the contrary, political speech often presupposes one or the other of these, or at very least formations of sympathy, experience, sensibility, etc., that more or less predictably and reliably dispose people towards (or against) knowledge or belief.[1]  On this basis, political speech seeks to assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.[2] Such speech is not, by any means, always agonistic. It is perfectly possible for it to be broadly cooperative—and much of what takes place under the sign of political struggle is preceded by the development and extension of various forms of cooperation. But the forms of agon—the forms of struggle—which are certainly one of its the key modalities typically exist at a very significant remove from those which are frequently at work in philosophical practice—and, more broadly, in academic and scientific discourses and the institutions and practices that have been built around them. Read the rest of this entry »

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and the APA’s “Code of Conduct”

by Edward Kazarian and Leigh M. Johnson

A little over two years ago, more than 600 philosophers petitioned the American Philosophical Association to “produce a code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the academic discipline of Philosophy.” The immediate motivation for the petition was several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by philosophers, which together amplified what many viewed—rightly, in our estimation—as a widespread and endemic culture of hostility, predation, exploitation, and intimidation within the profession.  Shortly thereafter, in March 2014, we co-authored a piece entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating our concerns about the problematic effects of tone-policing, generally, and about the drafting and institution of a “Code of Conduct” by the APA, specifically.  In that piece, we argued that there was good reason to worry that such a Code would:

1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to “fit in” on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession.

The Executive Board of the APA subsequently decided in favor of producing the document and, earlier this week, published the final version of the discipline’s official “Code of Conduct” here.

Reading that document over, our original worries remain unassuaged and unabated, if not also intensified. We are especially concerned now that this quasi-official document—which elaborates a set of norms, but does not include any mechanisms for enforcement, adjudication, or sanction—will inevitably be used at the local (department-, college-, or university) level in unofficial, ad-hoc ways to undermine or sabotage already vulnerable members of the profession. Worse, we worry that this document will provide pretext for attempts to pressure APA members by complaining to their employers that they have in some instance or another behaved ‘unprofessionally.’ We recognize that any law or regulative code as such allows for the possibility of perverse application, but we maintain that the current iteration of this Code of Conduct is particularly susceptible to manipulation for a number of reasons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Letter to the Trustees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, re: Steven Salaita

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Hannah Cave, Trustee
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee
Karen Hasara, Trustee
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee
Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee
Edward L. McMillan, Trustee
James D. Montgomery, Trustee
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee
Robert A. Easter, President
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees

Dear Trustees and Other Officers,

I write to express my dismay at the conduct of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the case of Steven Salaita, who by all common standards and past practices at your institution (and throughout the U.S. academy) was hired as an Associate Professor of American Indian and Indigenous Studies at your institution, only to see his appointment revoked weeks before he was due to take up the position.

This action was taken in violation of established procedures of shared governance, which give faculty in individual departments and the academic authorities of their colleges control over the decision of who to hire. Salaita’s candidacy was thoroughly reviewed by his prospective colleagues, who found him acceptable, as did other university authorities. He was offered a contract and signed it. For Chancellor Wise, apparently on the basis of trustees’ expected refusal to give final approval to his appointment (heretofore an entirely pro forma step in the process), to terminate his appointment at this stage without any due process is a gross violation of the well established norms of shared governance, and in particular of the principle—set forward by your own accrediting body—that “the governing board delegates day-to-day management of the institution to the administration and expects the faculty to oversee academic matters” (see Section 2c4 of http://www.ncahlc.org/Criteria-Eligibility-and-Candidacy/criteria-and-core-components.html).

Further, the basis for all of this, namely the fact that some people were upset by some of Salaita’s public statements regarding events this summer in Israel/Palestine and lobbied the administration and the trustees, is a gross violation of established norms of academic freedom. Salaita’s statements have no bearing whatsoever on his professional duties at the university—regardless of the specious and deeply disingenuous arguments that have been constructed in order to make it appear that they might. Again, there is an ample body of evidence regarding Salaita’s conduct in the classroom, which was duly considered by his hiring department during his candidacy. By all reports, he is an exemplary teacher—one who is held in the kind of nearly universal esteem by his students that most of us could only dream of. To prefer the baseless insinuations of parties who have never encountered the man in a classroom to the reports of his colleagues and students in order to manufacture a pretense for removing him is absurd.

There is, in other words, no justification for removing him. More, to do so in the manner in which your institution has conducted itself is to violate core principles of due process, shared governance, and academic freedom—bedrock principles of university life. The degree to which this is true is evidenced by the extraordinary number of academics—including myself—who have agreed to boycott your institution until this decision is reversed.

Before closing this message, I also want to ask you to consider another aspect of this case which has been less frequently remarked upon, namely that what is happening to Salaita—the invocation of a standard of civility as grounds for excluding a scholar from a university community—fits an old and ugly pattern. Salaita, as I am sure you know, is Palestinian-American. Those of his statements which some have contested are not simply the speech of any generic individual, but the speech of someone whose own community was profoundly and directly affected by the events that he was discussing. This speech expresses a grievance. But this has been obscured in much of the discussion, which has simply painted him as generically ‘uncivil.’ And precisely this operation of obscuring the speaker’s position in order to facilitate labeling him or her as ‘uncivil’ has all too frequently been used to shut down aggrieved speech by members of marginalized groups against the systems (or the agents thereof) that marginalize them. In the American academy, this tactic has been all too common, having been used against generations of non-white scholars, non-male scholars, queer scholars, scholars demanding equitable treatment for those affected by disability, and so forth. (If you think about it for a moment, you should be able to recognize the stereotypes of the ‘angry black man or woman’, the ‘angry feminist,’ etc., and see how they work here.) Labeling the claims of those folks (and their conduct) as uncivil and unprofessional serves simply to divert attention from the substance of those claims and the necessity of acknowledging or answering them. It also prevents us from recognizing or acknowledging the position—and the anguish—of the speakers. That it frequently leads to the exclusion of the folks so labeled from the academic world as such is, of course, part of the point of such labeling. And to the extent that you have accepted that label as it has been applied to Salaita, you are reiterating this pattern once again.

What, then, are the stakes here? This tactic, the degree to which it is all too often successful, is a crucial part of why the U.S. academy remains, for all of its nominal or rhetorical interest in ‘diversity,’ a space that is dominated by logics of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. We are very far from really achieving the diversity that we supposedly seek—and which the same document setting out the Criteria for Accreditation under which your institution operates articulates as one of the values that it is bound to foster. The choice which faces you is thus not merely a choice regarding principles of shared governance and academic freedom, but it is also a choice about whether you will make the substantive commitment to applying those principles to all members of the academic community, and will actively seek to foster a community that is genuinely inclusive instead of reiterating once again an old, tired pattern of exclusion.

For all of these reasons, I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to approve Steven Salaita’s appointment. Doing so is the only possible path toward resorting the position of your fine institution within the international academic community.


Edward Kazarian, PhD
Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies
Rowan University*

*I list my institutional and departmental affiliations only for the purposes of identification. I do not speak for the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies or Rowan University.

Canards about the University: Three Orthodoxies

Earlier today, Natalia Cecire posted a remarkable intervention into the current debates about higher education on Twitter. She wrote:

@ncecire: Three orthodoxies. 1. There is a “skills gap,” meaning young people aren’t getting enough high-level education.

@ncecire: 2. We need far more teaching than we can possibly provide, which means we need MOOCs. 3. Far too many people are getting Ph.D.s.

My first response to this was to be thrilled, and to send her the link to my first post in this series, which interrogates her number 3 above.  What I appreciated, initially, was how I felt she’d captured something fundamental about the incoherence of the current state of the conventional wisdom, and I told her as much. But the more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to reformulate these slightly, or at least to ask after the conditions under which they frame not an inconsistent, but rather a consistent way of thinking.

Read the rest of this entry »

Canards about the University: “There are too many PhD programs.”

Consider this the first in a series devoted to pieces of conventional wisdom which one hears repeated in discussions of higher education, which strike me as deserving of more skepticism than they usually receive.

If there’s one thing that the current state of the job market proves, it’s that there are too many PhD programs in the humanities.

I think this is wrong. Read the rest of this entry »


Taking as read, for the moment, Althusser’s analysis of the ways in which the educational system functions as the core of the Ideological State Apparatus of capitalism, one can still wonder at the extent to which this system, and especially its key employees — teachers and professors —  have become the target of increasingly intense scrutiny and criticisms in the past several years.

We are, it seems, overpaid. Well maybe not, since this has in fact drawn one or two notable objections. But at very least, we seem to be woefully inefficient. Objections? Nothing too serious, it seems, as long as you don’t count the derisive howls of many academics I know when this was posted by several of us to various social networking sites. There, people felt no compunction about eviscerating Yglesias’ argument — a treatment which, indeed, it roundly deserves.

Nevertheless, let’s consider the symptomatic value of the fact that Yglesias was taken by many outside the academy to have made a fairly obvious point — one that he, himself, didn’t feel the need to research in any depth or supply evidence for. This seems to reflect a shift that is occurring within the educational ISA — and indeed within the State Apparatuses more generally, ideological or not. Under the guise of “privatization” in many instances, these institutions are being conceived of more and more as if they were businesses in the ordinary sense. This has a wide range of consequences, not the least of which is that worker-productivity or ‘efficiency’ appears to be an increasingly serious concern. Additionally, it may come to seem as if ‘technology’ — which, as an article of faith, is taken to increase efficiency in other realms — might well offer a way of improving matters.

But one objects: colleges and universities are not businesses, teaching is not a form of production, it is highly unclear whether educational technology improves efficiency or diminishes workloads, and so on. Of course.

So what is the function of this rhetoric? Broadly, its major use appears to be the same in both Levy’s and Yglesias’s pieces: to argue for spending less money on faculty, who are, it is claimed, the source of the rising cost of education. This, too, is false — as has been demonstrated repeatedly. It is also widely believed. And as a consequence, no one considers a much more likely source of many of the cost increases in higher ed over the past several decades: increases in spending on administration, and technology.