Monday, February 22, 2010

Nurse, May I Have My Painkiller? Nurse?

I hadn't looked at Stop Me Before I Vote Again in a few months, but I was feeling masochistic today so I clicked and browsed, and hit pay dirt. Fovver Smiff let loose a rather Hitchensian fart of exceptional stankiness (recycled from an earlier comments thread, yet! not that I'm casting asparagus, I've done it myself) on the subject of "studies" departments in our institutions of higher learning -- you know, "women's studies," "race studies," "queer theory," and the like. Here he quotes himself:
To demand that historians, say, should start paying attention to formerly ignored historical subjects was a great thing. To demand that universities should have "departments" and "majors" for these things, however, reveals some of the limitations of a radicalism whose world is the campus -- particularly since the topics in question were defined in a way derived from the conventional worldview. There's History, which deals with the Duke of Wellington, and then there's African Studies, which is not my department, as Wernher von Braun says in the Tom Lehrer song.

And it gave the credentialling sector bureaucrats a glorious opportunity to professionalize and regulate the study of these topics. Are we well served by having the highly-credentialled and boneheaded Meshuggah Lacey-Bracegirdle set up as an anointed authority on "race" -- whatever that is -- rather than just discussing it amongst ourselves?

My problem with "race" as an academic subject is partly that it's a bogus concept -- there is no such thing as "race", as Ashley Montagu explained a long time ago.

The history of the concept, and the grisly stuff it justified, is something that historians study -- or ought to study. Critique of the concept, as pseudo-science, is something that biologists do or ought to do. But a Professor of Race Studies? It's like having a Professor of Phlogiston Studies.

And here he expands on his, erm, argument.

"Race" as a concept is purely a social construct; there's no entity in the outside world that corresponds to it. It's a fairly recent invention and has pretty clear roots as both reflex of, and justification for, certain human institutions (like slavery and colonialism).

Certainly the concept calls out for criticism -- thoroughly destructive criticism, in fact, since there are lots of people out there who still think that the human species is divided up into "races", and this belief, conscious or unconscious, still has considerable malign power.

There's a historical critique of the concept of race. There's a scientific critique. There's the organizer's critique -- it divides people mentally who need to be united in practice. No doubt there are plenty of others.

But none of these critiques require you to be a race specialist: they require you to be a historian or a scientist or an organizer. If you are none of these things, your critique is going to be rather feeble, because you don't have the knowledge you need to make it stick.

And I would go farther. To occupy a chair of "race" means that your livelihood depends on the continuation of the problematic of race. Demolish the concept, and Othello's occupation's gone. So having professors of race studies or whatever you call it tends to reify and hypostatize the concept, not destroy it.

Hm, well, let me see. First, I do agree with Smith that "race" is a social construct, though 1) it's not a "recent" one, except in its specifically Euro-American pseudo-scientific form; and b) it's rather ironic that he should use the term "social construct" (to say nothing of "the problematic of race"!), which is part of the academic jargon he deplores in his next paragraph ("a thin gruel of dull jargon-crammed papers in journals nobody reads"). Jargon, my dear Smith, is relative. One crank's no-nonsense plain-speaking is another crank's relativistic, post-modernist babble/babel. Talking about "race" as a "social construct" marks you out to other reactionaries as part of the problem you're attacking -- the takeover of the University by jargon-spouting epigones of French philosophical fads.

Second, I can agree that "having professors of race studies or whatever you call it tends to reify and hypostatize the concept, not destroy it", but "whatever you call it" is the rub. Here at IU, I believe we have a Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, formerly Afro-American Studies, and that's not a category that needs to be destroyed even if the "problematic of race" were universally abandoned. There would still be all that History, and Literature, and Music to be studied, and there really doesn't seem to be much danger of its being mixed into the great melting pot of History tout court anytime soon. Second, the very tendency Smith here warns against is a commonplace of postmodernist, deconstructionist discourse. And I've found (though we all know I'm weird) that the more I've studied "race", the more clearly I see it as a social construct. Maybe it depends on how you study it.

Sure, "race" is a social construct, but so is America. Perhaps Smith would rather not have departments of American History or programs in American literature (let alone American Studies). But there are other bogus social constructs that have a secure place in the old-fashioned groves of academe: theology, for one, and from Smith's past condescending remarks about religion I presume he has no objection to studying the Christian Bible, as long as it's not in a "debased modern version." And so on. (That bit about "the highly-credentialled and boneheaded Meshuggah Lacey-Bracegirdle" is more of the routine netgeek misogyny I'd noticed before in Smith's oeuvre.)

A "Department of Phlogiston Studies" would be perfectly valid if phlogiston were still a live concept in our society, and if it had the kind of deleterious impact on people's lives that "race" does. What Smith appears to be complaining about is change within the University -- it's been taken over by hairy barbarians who don't teach things the way he remembers from his youth. A stroll through Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind (Beacon Press, 1996) might prove enlightening.

Finally, Smith's complaint is one I've often encountered in connection with queer and feminist studies in academe. Many critics of Queer Theory and Academic Feminism take for granted, generally without any actual knowledge, that queer and feminist academics are never activists or organizers, and are even hostile to activism and organizing. This may be true some of the time, but not always, or even most of the time. "To demand that universities should have 'departments' and 'majors' for these things, however, reveals some of the limitations of a radicalism whose world is the campus -- particularly since the topics in question were defined in a way derived from the conventional worldview." There's some justice in this statement -- I've said similar things myself -- though it applies just as much to conventional "radicalism," which tends to react to the conventional worldview; that's called working in the real world, I believe, though utopian theorizing can be useful in radical organizing and activism too. And the changes in American academia to which Smith pays lip service were often forced on the universities by radical organizing and activism. It doesn't mean that academic study is useless to activism; it only means that the two shouldn't be confused with each other. No one knows in advance which jargon-crammed monographs will be embraced by people outside the University. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (Doubleday, 1970), to name just one famous example, was a revised version of Millett's doctoral thesis at Columbia, but it had quite an impact on American and other feminisms, and on public discussion on sex and gender.

"Gender" is a social construct too. It appears from the discussion in the comments that Smith hasn't really absorbed the concept of social constructs, nor does he know much about the "studies" departments he derides, as here: "['Queer theory'] is my favorite -- as if people couldn't be sufficiently queer without a theory to guide them." That's not what queer theory is for, or even thought to be for, but for a mini-Mencken like Smith, what counts is playing the Philistine.