Better Read Than Dead

“God knows; I won’t be an Oxford don anyhow.”
—Oscar Wilde

As I approach the mid-point of my second decade performing an imitation of being in academe, I’ve come to one deeply held conviction regarding the purpose and status of publication; namely, that if given the choice between being interesting and accurate, I almost always think that the former is preferable. A few caveats: firstly, I should feign a pose of studied humility and confess that when it comes to the disjuncture between being interesting and accurate, propriety and etiquette compels me to claim that I’m rarely both, sometimes one or the other, and often neither.

Secondly, when I pitch an encomium for the interesting, that is to say the obscure, the esoteric, the unconventional, the strange, or the wondrous, over mere fact, the disciplines which I have in mind are of the humanistic variety. When it comes to the enshrinement of accuracy over interest, I’m very much fine with certain domains policing the factual with the utmost rigor; for example, I’ve no problem if research published in nuclear physics or on Ebola vaccination is morbidly boring. I’d prefer, rather, that it’s correct, checked, and cross-checked. German philosopher Paul Feyerband may have claimed that “Science is not sacrosanct,” and that’s all well and good when it comes to misapplying the scientific method to other domains, but creationists, climate change deniers, and anti-vaxxers will get absolutely no truck from me. Rather when it comes to research, or “research,” in philosophy, theology, humanistic psychology, and my own discipline of literary study (and many other inquiries aside) I think that if given the (often false) choice between saying something which makes the heart genuinely ache with wondrous longing versus just another studiously placed single brick in the edifice of knowledge, I will by temperament always pick the first.

A third caveat should probably be explicated before I continue angering people, and that’s that when it comes to humanistic writing (i.e. analysis, interpretation, criticism, theorizing, and readings), I’m not advocating for the sacrifice of factual accuracy as an end unto itself. The actual dataset, as our friends in the natural sciences might call it, should be as unassailable as possible. I may celebrate being interesting over being accurate, but I’m not here to deliver an epideictic oration in favor of rank lying. A historian who claims that the Civil War had nothing to do with the “peculiar institution” of slavery might be interesting, but he’s wrong. The philosopher who thinks that Ayn Rand had any merit in her rejection of Immanuel Kant, and that that somehow means we’re all allowed to be as selfishly douchey as we want may be charismatic, but she’s incorrect. And any literary critic who believes that a complex numerological analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets reveals that they were actually written by Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere, or time-travelling Steven Bochco may be fascinating, but he’s also categorically full of shit.

Jordan Peterson’s fans might find his Kermit-the-frog voice oracular, but his unholy synthesis of the worst of the Enlightenment (or what he imagines is the Enlightenment) with the wooliest of post-Romantic mysticism is an exercise in the rhetoric of misrepresentation and reductionism. So, I have to ameliorate the seeming radicalism of my initial claim a bit, because it’s not a clarion call for epistemological relativism in this winter of “fake news;” I don’t wish to be misunderstood as advocating for the demolishment of fact. Besides, I should confess that the examples I’ve given of inaccurate humanities writing aren’t things that I actually find particularly interesting, so I’ve perhaps made my own task a bit easier. It’s not like I attacked something genuinely great, though of dubious inductive import, like Ancient Aliens.

What I do wish to suggest, however, is that a misapplied empiricism, appropriated from the natural sciences where its application makes sense and then misapplied to humanistic discourse is the ultimate cause of a particularly damaging category mistake. This error, the projection of a positivist metaphysic onto the humanities, was inherited from a manner of structuring the university in the 19th century, and was then reaffirmed with the rise of big science after the second world war. In part, this positivist metaphysic was due to contemporary humanities’ patrimony from 19th century German philology, a field which was nothing if not rigorous. The implications have been dramatic in terms of how we talk, teach, write, research, and allocate resources when it comes to the disciplines of the humanities. For a certain species of aging culture warrior, what went wrong with literary study in the United States can be traced back to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 1966 lectures on post-structuralism at Johns Hopkins University. In part they’re correct about Baltimore being the location of a particular death, but they’re off by about a century.

Perhaps being more interesting than accurate, I’d argue that the postlapsarian moment occurred as Johns Hopkins became the first genuine research university in the United States upon its founding in 1876, organizing itself along a continental-German model of higher education designed in not just the teaching of undergraduates, but the production of pure knowledge as well. As someone who has spent his entire adult life, arguably his entire life, in the environs of American higher education, I should establish that there is something undeniably utopian about Johns Hopkins’ initial mission, and that the university system in the United States as it was established in Victorian Baltimore, later greatly democratized by the GI-Bill following World War II, is alongside baseball and rock music as one of the few unambiguously good things that this nation has ever produced.

But…. there was, for all that was beneficial in the model of the research university, something fallacious and pernicious when it came to the humanities. Louis Menand writes in his account of philosophical pragmatism The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America that during the proliferation of the Johns Hopkins model “most Americans who saw the German university as an adaptable institutional model…tended to reduce [it] to a single term: science.”

British chemist C.P. Snow infamously wrote in his 1959 The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that there are “Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension,” but this isn’t quite right exactly, is it? That there are institutional distances is no doubt true, and spending any time with humanists will disavow you of the courteous assumption that they’re a particularly scientifically literate group, even as they frequently cannibalize the contributions of those other disciplines. Where Snow errs is in taking too literally the importance of general knowledge of other disciplines; he invests too much importance in what humanists know of science, because what’s important is that, despite proffering (often misguided) critiques of science, the humanities since Johns Hopkins awarded its first PhD in literary study and philosophy have very much thought of themselves as being kind of, sort of, maybe like science.

There has been a science envy, an anxiety about positivism, and so the humanities have enshrined an imitation of a particular type of rigor above the free interplay of ideas. While there have been some epistemic benefits to that reality, there has also been a profound loss of possibility concerning more radical ways of practice. Literary criticism is not particle physics, philosophy is not quantum mechanics, and theology is not evolutionary biology – nor should they be. We do a poor imitation of the sciences, and the result has been overproduction of research, timidity in thought, and the reification of a system which (as neoliberal, late capitalism collapses in on itself) has unmasked itself as something which no longer works. If one wishes to blame Johns Hopkins for the somnambulism of the humanities, then by all means do so, but leave Monsieur Derrida out of it. The infection has been slow-moving, but it was contracted almost a century-and-a-half ago.

What’s resulted is a network of humanistic disciplines conducting themselves as if they were natural sciences and, despite political protestations to the contrary, using a positivist metaphysic in which to make their arguments. Deconstruction may have attacked “logocentrism,” but clearly not enough. “Logic,” “reason,” and “rationality” remain the watchwords in disciplines where they make scant sense. How humanists conduct and publish research, how they comport themselves, their entire institutional edifice of journals, academic societies, and conferences, can all be traced back to how the sciences operate, and it reveals a profound anxiety about both the legitimacy and rigor of our disciplines. The result isn’t just the turgid, jargon-heavy prose of academic criticism (which was never the problem that conservatives thought it was), but rather the entire sequence by which academic research is evaluated and disseminated, especially regarding its over-production. The problem is often less the product than the process.

In an essay of caveats, half-steps, and hedge-betting, let me offer yet another cowardly partial measure – I’m proud of all the peer-reviewed academic writing that I’ve done. I’ve written several peer-reviewed papers (links on my website!); nothing particularly prolific for a junior scholar of my experience, and I’m glad to have written all of them and glad that they exist. I hope, in the truest sense of the utopianism of academe, that all such papers are a small, humble contribution to the edifice of knowledge, that they’ve been helpful in the thinking and research of other scholars. But…… unless I have a tenure-track job, I will not be producing more peer-reviewed writing anytime soon.

That’s because, and everybody knows this, peer-reviewed research in the humanities is fundamentally produced to garner a job, and then when said job is garnered, to work towards the tenure of said writer. As tenure has increasingly disappeared, hell, as any jobs have increasingly disappeared, the very process of peer-reviewed academic writing has begun to seem like a predatory pyramid scheme. Of academic research in the humanities – too much is produced, taking too long a time in the production, read by too few people. I gain meaning from what’s often dismissively called “public writing” by academics (and known as “writing” by writers); why would I use my finite hours of the day waiting on peer-review comments for an article that would go into a tenure file, for a job that I don’t have, written for an audience of just me?

Justin Stover writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “Academic works are written for many reasons – for qualification, for institutional and personal advancement, even to be a lasting contribution. But they are not written to be read.” But here’s the thing: when I was a teenager and I fantasized about being a writer, I very much wanted to be read. I’ve written all of my academic work with each one of Stover’s purposes in mind, but unless my professional circumstances change, I’ve found “public writing” to be more meaningful, a greater contribution, and much more likely to be read, even if some might critique that I’ve sacrificed accuracy upon the altar of trying to be interesting (and again, with partially feigned humility, having perhaps accomplished neither).

That none of us really keep up with the peer-reviewed writing in our fields is in part a function of our digitally molested attention spans, but also because too much academic research is published. That’s not to say that the ideas in those papers shouldn’t be explored – I’d suggest the opposite. In fact, what I’d claim is that less conventional forms of disseminating academic research, from blog post to transcribed conversations between colleagues, would work much better at doing what the humanities are supposed to do – stimulate thought. A gross paradox in the overproduction of academic labor, whose fruits are then locked away behind paywall, but one which makes clear the purpose of such writing – professional advancement, rather than the dissemination of actual ideas. That more accessible writing counts for little on the job market or in the tenure process only speaks to the unholy union of hypocrisy and elitism which still holds sway over how much of the professoriate understands what our function should be.

Such a way of doing things, held over from the Victorian era and ramped into a sort of anxious, frantic, hyper-awareness by the conditions of neo-liberal capitalist realism, lends itself to a predatory business environment for those who produce peer-reviewed writing. Have you seen how much academic monographs cost? Do you know what the price is to subscribe to your average peer-reviewed journal? There are (still, somehow) fantastic non-profit university presses, but increasingly the job of academic writing is being subsumed by a handful of massive, monopolistic, international publishing houses whose job isn’t to produce new knowledge, but to rather return maximum profits. Part of this process’ rationalization is to hold onto the fetish of the old ways of doing things, to genuflect before the totems of peer-review so as to maintain the simulacra of academic rigor, though often what’s enacted isn’t rigor, but neurotic scrupulosity. That which is interesting is sacrificed in terms of that which is accurate, or at least the process would have you think that, because what often results isn’t either.

Such was the argument of Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian who, inspired by the infamous “Sokal Affair” of 1996, submitted twenty self-evidently ridiculous papers to a variety of peer-reviewed publications, several of which were accepted and published. The subjects included studies of canine rape culture, a long analysis on male anal masturbation, and a feminist interpretation of Mein Kampf. All these papers were written as obvious parodies; however, say what you will, though they may lack in rigor, they’re certainly interesting. Yet what I take from the “Sokal Squared” affair is less the intended conservative lesson (though all of the hoaxers are committed leftists): that academic writing is inherently a sham, than the related but more specific and personal lesson that the imprimatur of “peer-review” doesn’t necessarily make any intellectual writing more legitimate. I’ve written any number of ridiculous things (perhaps this essay right now!) but I’ve largely been proud to have my name on them, and I hope that said honesty is at least in the spirit of creative possibility.

Because the problem is that peer-review morally justifies itself through impartiality, but what’s often lionized is actually a type of dishonesty. When considering the Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian affair, one must wonder to what extent the peer-reviewers of the journals to which their papers were accepted thoroughly read the essays in question? That would substantiate that the process is always less about rigor and more about the reification of a particular hegemony; the tautological stamp of “We approve this, so it is approved!” Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, has criticized peer-review as “unjust, unaccountable… often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.” I’ve been on both sides of the peer-review process, as writer and reviewer, and there is much in Horton’s uncomfortable observation that has the stench of truth about it.

The “double-blind” part of the peer-review process often peaks out from underneath its mask; who hasn’t read their comments and known exactly who is providing their critique? Normally it’s the author of whatever monograph has been suggested as invaluable research which the original author has unjustly ignored. There’s also the weirdly Calvinist affirmation of certain hierarchies as naturally just, a tendency which makes one doubt just how blind double-blind peer-review actually is. Reading through the table of contents of PMLA, which I used to pretend to read back before I left the Modern Language Association due to its timidity at dealing with issues that face contingent faculty and graduate students, I couldn’t help but notice that the deities of double-blind peer-review seemingly favored the already famous and Ivy league professors, in a manner not dissimilar to how Santa Clause mysteriously seems to love rich kids more. I’m actually not suggesting any sense of the nefarious here, simply that elite ways of speaking and elite ways of reading and elite ways of research and elite ways of publishing subconsciously reaffirm themselves over and over, and that the victim is often a greater imagination. As the scholar and publisher Eileen A. Fradenburg Joy writes, this process is too “invested in certain protocols of disciplinary (and other) oversight that we are (perhaps unconsciously) homogenizing our fields.”

Honesty compels me to admit that I’ve been a woefully inadequate critic of the work I’ve been sent to evaluate, which out of anxious generosity I normally (though not always) err on the side of accepting. The experts in contemporary lit who run the journals for whom I’ve peer-reviewed, displaying the typical prejudice of that tribe when they regard those of us who write about literature published before 1972, perennially send me articles about medieval writing, even though I’m barely more qualified to consider that subject than anyone else with a PhD in English, with the time period which I study being chronologically closer to the present than it is to the middle ages. For those editors, I suppose that all of those centuries are collapsed together into “Wooden Shoe Times.” Regardless, I’ve tried to extend my duties as a service, as fairly and competently as I can. Now might be the point at which it’s fair to observe that such a process, neurotic though it may be, doesn’t necessarily have “Truth” as either its goal or as its conclusion. I only bring this up to suggest that perhaps a bit more transparency would be beneficial, that rather than pretending at a rigor which isn’t there we stick everyone’s names on everything, and let the gods sort it out?

Peer-review is a bit like Gandhi’s estimation of western civilization – it sounds like a pretty good idea. What often will dawn on you is that the ideas which are expressed have less to do with accuracy and more to do with garnering the approval of academic gate-keepers. Of course, the product is often an exercise in intellectual timidity. For those who would sacrifice interest for truth you will often have neither. If you want to see the actual site of intellectual energy in the humanities, which despite my denunciations is actually stronger today than at any point in recent history, you won’t read it in PMLA, but in widely-read internet sites that mimic the feel of the “little magazines” of yesteryear such as The Partisan Review; contemporary publications like N+1, The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, and my own editorial home of Berfrois. The virtues of the articles that I read in any of those publications, frequently by scholars or those with advanced degrees, are legion. Part of what those magazines exemplify is not just a rejection of academic gate-keeping, but risking the audacity of being potentially wrong.

This isn’t to advocate for the inanities of “political incorrectness,” or to extol the anemic “virtues” of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. My criticism of peer-reviewed publishing has nothing to do with the milquetoast centrist liberalism of most academics, nor do I think that there is anything admirable in an embrace of pernicious political revanchism masquerading as truth-telling. All of the publications I listed above are broadly of the political left anyhow (or at least many of their writers are); rather, what I think they offer public discourse is something that should be the primary purpose of all writing in the humanities, that is the opening of spaces for imaginative possibility. If I can return to the creation myth concerning higher education which you indulged towards the start of this essay, my argument has always been that there was a fallacy in applying positivism to the humanities; that while we trade in facts, the attainment of them should never be the goal our goal. The humanities exist not to describe the world, but to dream of a new one; their goal is not measurement or the compiling of facts, but the imagining of a different way of doing things; they don’t serve data, but their function is to construct new realities. Contrary to the lazy fears of the anti-humanities right, our disciplines don’t suffer from a surfeit of post-modern anarchism, but rather from a deficit of it.

Such was the goal in editing my upcoming collection The Anthology of Babel, In that book, I’ve compiled almost twenty original academic papers by a variety of scholars in the United States, Europe, and Australia who provide analysis and readings of literary texts by authors who are completely invented. The exercise is self-consciously Borgesian, to place criticism above primary text and to liberate scholars from the tyranny of accuracy in favor of the utopia of interest, to set out towards that space of imaginative possibility which has always been the humanities’ most sacred domain. Such a project shouldn’t be read as mere parody, or only as expression of whimsy (though I hope that it is at least that), but rather as a statement about the utility of this thing we do called literary criticism, to detach it from a misapplied positivism and to return it to the proper realm of wonder to which it belongs.

Little is traditional about such a task, and it required a publishing house whose interests were congruent with my own eccentricities. Punctum Books, an open-source organization, supplied such a possibility, with its visionary founder Fradenburg Joy explaining that “punctum doesn’t publish books for your grandmother’s tenure and promotion committee, which somehow, through a strange process of zombie-fication, is still operating within the ossified crevasses of the Groves of Academe.” Rather, Fradenburg Joy argues that the “only consideration that should be taken into account when assessing a colleague’s or student’s work is whether or not it makes a unique contribution… the greatest discoveries and achievements in the history of knowledge have always arrived via unconventional, unexpected routes.”

I’d add that such contributions, in the humanities, have always been those that err towards the metaphysic of interest, of wonder, of the miraculous, of the transcendent, more than ever being concerned with simply data, or worst of all placating those guarding the door in the wall. We must reject logocentric positivism; we must be radiantly beautiful. As one humble suggestion, I say liberate the journals, unlock the doors and unscrew the jambs. In our analyses. In our interpretations. In our readings. In our scholarship. Our readings must risk delight at the expense of foolishness. Reach for wonder and beauty and let a thousand flowers bloom, even if we’re goofy or strange. “Plus ultra” we should shout, ignoring the warning affixed to the Pillars of Hercules, charting a course westward into that space of imaginative possibilities. If you’ve found me to be hopelessly inaccurate in my analysis, then I pray you at least found something of interest; it was, after all, my most solemn purpose.

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.

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