Monday, October 25, 2010


In his preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, Foucault suggests that one of its lessons is "not [to] become enamored of power" (xvi) (if you wish to master "the art of living counter to all forms of fascism" (xv)). But he also says that we should "not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant" (xv). I generally interpret all this to mean that our resistance to power must not be undermined by "ressentiment". Do not, we might say, be resentful of power either.

Where academic writing is concerned, our resentment is often directed at the power of editors and publishers. Last week, Thomas Presskorn drew my attention to a very instructive statement of this attitude towards academic writing by Levi Bryant, who is known for his work on Deleuze. As I said in my comments to his post, it would be difficult for me to disagree more completely with his approach than I do, and part of my disagreement stems from having been there myself. I know, I dare say, exactly how he feels. After a long struggle with similar "tics and phobias", I have a more joyful (less sad) attitude towards the academic discourse, "even though the thing one is fighting is abominable," as Foucault puts it (ibid.). I have learned, I think, that my resentment of the power of discourse lay in something closer to my being enamored with it than I had hoped. It lay in something like envy, which is also, of course, a crucial component of Nietzschean "ressentiment" (standard Kierkegaard translations render "envy" simply as "ressentiment").

The first thing I should point out is that there is a less than constructive, and ultimately sort of false, humility in Levi's post. He begins as follows:

I ordinarily don’t like to give advice on writing as I don’t believe I’ve attained the status as a philosopher, academic, or writer to speak with authority on these sorts of issues. I often think of myself as a sort of rogue, scoundrel, or hobo that wanders about at the margins of the academy without having really established myself in any way. In other words, I have a pretty low opinion of my work.

That this humble "hobo" is constructing this position out of his ressentiment can be seen in his response to my criticism, where he (quite rightly, I should add), points out that his work (and therefore his reflections on how he produced it) is worthy of some respect:

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with my own scholarly work. As someone who has done fairly well recognized scholarship– I’d direct you to my book on Deleuze –I’m not exactly speaking out of the blue, nor am I some young, idealistic upstart as you patronizingly suggest.

Moreover, on the Q&A on his faculty page, where we also learn that he is a perfectly respectable professor of philosophy, he tells us that, "I have wanted to be a professor since I was roughly 15 years old, so I haven't really considered other possibilities." It is not at all surprising that such a person would describe himself as a "rogue, scoundrel, or hobo", but it is, I would argue, also a pretty typical symptom of academic ressentiment.

That Levi sees his writing as an extension of the art of "non-fascist living" can be seen in his disparagement of journal articles and conference papers:

In my core I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands. [...] When it comes to writing I struggle to complete articles and conference presentations. Rather, I experience blog posts and email discussions as far more valuable and rewarding. [...] What is an article but a line on the CV that falls into oblivion, killing more trees along the way, never to be heard from again. What the hell are we doing in writing articles?

As I never tire of explaining, an article is not just a line on a CV. It is, when it is done well, a contribution to an ongoing conversation among knowledgeable peers. It is not simply a genuflection to disciplinary authority, a falling in line, saying the same old thing, although it obviously can be all of those things. But so can any other form of writing (Levi valorizes blog posts over academic texts). The academic, "professional" literature is not just a "demand" that we write, it is an opportunity to engage with with what is known on a subject.

I'm out of time this morning. I'll take up Levi's very important treatment of originality on Wednesday. Needless to say, I worry that all this looks like an attack on Levi, and in a sense it is, but it occurs to me that when Levi suggests "setting these weird little ticks aside", he is granting half my argument. He's giving me a finger and I'm taking the whole arm. I am making explicit what he has perhaps already implicitly said. By way of apology for this, then, let me repeat that I'm after my own sad self here, not Levi's.


Jonathan said...

There is something so fake about that "rogue" pose.

Mark said...

I can believe that in theory writing in a professional literature coud be an "opportunity" rather than a "demand". I think in practice though, this is uncommon. How many people do you know who, given a free choice unconstrained by the need for professional advancement, choose to write journal articles? I don't know of anyone. People who aren't grad students or junior professors write books, or they write blog posts, or they write open letters, or do any number of other things, but they rarely write journal articles (or do conference presentations).

Thomas said...

I do. And I don't need to in order to advance professionally because of the somewhat unique role I've carved out for myself at the moment. (I left my academic post in part because I didn't enjoy writing for publication; I'm thinking of returning only now that I've come to see the point of the exercise.)

Also, many of the authors I've worked with began with a deep resentment of the "demand" to publish. Then, as we worked on their papers, responded to reviewer comments, revised, resubmitted, reworked the ideas, etc. they came to genuinely enjoy the process.

You're right that it's rare. But part of the reason is that the "demand" image is the default one. That's why I'm trying to push back a little here.

Mark said...

Strange! Enjoying working with reviewers is something I have definitely not found; it feels like arbitrary gate-keeping, often with conflicts of interest strewn about the process. A particular problem is that many journals send revise-and-resubmits to new reviewers, rather than the original set. And the new reviewers often have completely different ideas! Sometimes they want something new changed; sometimes they actually want something you changed to please the first reviewer un-changed, because they agreed with your initial approach that the other reviewer had shot down. If reviewers can't even agree among each other, what business do they have being gatekeepers? Why not let the author choose his/her preferred approach, instead of having to conform to whatever idiosyncratic views a randomly selected set of three reviewers (plus possibly another randomly selected set) happen to hold? The whole process just seems absurd.

Obviously real disagreements happen, but 9 out of 10 times where I've encountered a major disagreement from a reviewer (not only in my own writing), the appropriate response from the reviewer would have been, not to try to stop the article's publication or force changes, but to let the article be published as-is, and then write a reply article. I try to argue that position when I'm a reviewer myself, but it's often a losing battle with my co-reviewers on a panel.

Jonathan said...

I like writing journal articles, and I also like the process of peer-reviewing other people's articles. I can really make a difference by offering suggestions that turn a confused essay into a publishable article. I agree with Mark, though, that editors should use the SAME reviewer to look at the revise-and-resubmits.

Thomas said...

That's a common complain, Mark, not just the result of resentment but, as you suggest, piss poor reviewing. Now, the "joyful" reaction is to stop trying to publish in journals that treat you poorly. There are lots of good journals out there, lots you haven't tried (I'm presuming). Of course, if you've committed yourself to two or three "central" journals for career advancement reasons...

The whole trick, the attitude change, is to accept rejection and ordinary ineptitude as natural consequences of submitting work often. Don't take it personally. If a journal jerks you around, don't send to them again for a while. It's really their loss.

Anonymous said...

The anti-publishing reaction can be useful. Maybe mostly for people who are good at it. It can become an obsession, sort of an academic game, and successful academics have an overachieving personality that makes it hard to break out of those games. A call for papers vaguely relevant to my area? I've got to think up something to send! I finished up some research? How can I break it up into MPUs (minimum publishable units) to maximize the publication cred I get out of it? Soon you're a successful professor with 200 papers, but is that really a good goal? You quickly get sucked into academic fads, because they're easiest to publish in, or really arcane debates, because they're also easy to publish in (and taking inflammatory positions in those debates is great for your citation count).

The completely reactionary "screw publishing" response isn't necessarily the best one. There has to be some way to break out of it, though, especially for academics with the kinds of personalities that make them prone to being addicted to videogames. I think I first had the dear god, what am I doing? reaction when I realized as an early-career researcher I already had something like 20 publications. Twenty! And were they pushing my agenda? Did I even agree with them? No, mostly they were opportunistic. I saw a place I could publish, I reverse engineered what that community considers good, and I wrote something to match. It's really easy to get sucked into that.