Refusing to read more in order to read better: on moral and epistemic injustice in academia

Identity prejudice in literature 

In my last post, I wrote about trait criticism as a virtue, and I argued that criticizing well is more important than criticizing more. I also argued that the vice of judgmentalism reflects a distorted critical compass and a fixation on trivial norm violations to the exclusion of more significant ones. I called this disposition ‘critical fetishism.’ The critical fetishist practices criticism to excess on a narrow range of critical targets, becoming too critical relative to those targets, and insufficiently critical outside of that domain. I then argued that critical fetishism is a problem in academic philosophy because it marginalizes non-standard perspectives in  the field, and this translates into discrimination, content bias, and a lack of strong objectivity in academic research (Harding 2015).

Recently, Amy Hungerford (2018) has noted a similar issue in English. She argues that literary scholars should refuse to read more, in order to read better. By declining to read every new publication recommended by the literary press, literary scholars are choosing to be, in a sense, academically irresponsible. They are conscientiously embracing a “distinctively nonscholarly form of reasoning,” deciding whether a book is worth reading prior to reading it. They are, in a sense, judging a book by its cover. This method of literary curation is necessitated by the ever-increasing speed of publishing, which makes it impossible to read every new piece of writing; but it is also a moral imperative: by ignoring the literary press, the canon, and the conventions of the discipline, the conscientious critic makes room in her life (and her discipline) for non-standard content and marginalized voices – content and voices that she would otherwise not have read.

Hungerford explains how literary conventions favour conservativism and white-male-bias. In ‘Modernism/modernity,’ a journal created to promote diversity in literary scholarship,

“A handful of major canonical authors — Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Stein, Beckett, etc. — continues to preoccupy the journal’s attention while subjects outside that canon fail to create a similarly shared body of criticism. The top 11 authors cited as subjects claim 41 percent of the articles. Most authors not already canonical appear only once or twice each, never achieving the critical mass of scholarship that motivates further study and writing within the context of scholarly careers, let alone further reading by the general public. Such poorly known and rarely taught works are not reissued as their canonical cousins are — in cute new formats, anniversary editions, or as the object of some fresh backlist marketing effort.”

Rather than letting literary traditions and market forces determine which books are worth reading, critics ought to prioritize talented but overlooked and under-appreciated authors and subject matters. Hungerford doesn’t explain precisely how to decide what to read, but one small step in the right direction would be to retain core disciplinary standards while venturing outside of the normal canon, exploring writing by women, people of color, and other underrepresented authors and critics. This is a fairly conservative, but effective, way of diversifying the field of literature and of distributing epistemic respect more fairly. (More radical revisions would be beneficial, but less accepted by the majority; I’m identifying the least controversy method, not the ideal one). Literary conventions essentially create a climate of epistemic and moral irresponsibility in the literary community, which spills over into mainstream society.

Critical fetishism

This connects with my last post, where I argued that “critical fetishism,” or an obsessive focus on a limited range of critical targets, is a vice, whereas critical curiosity is a virtue (inspired by Kate Norlock 2017 and Mariana Alessandri 2018). The world of literary publishing is marred by critical fetishisim, an obsession with a limited range of (predominantly cisgender, white, male) authors and critics and their academic products. Critical fetishism creates a climate of epistemic injustice in which the literary talents and insights of marginalized groups are discredited, and it creates a climate of moral injustice in which historically disadvantaged groups are silenced and oppressed due to systemic identity prejudice. Critical fetishism reproduces mainstream social inequalities in knowledge-producing systems, giving cisgender white males privileged access to the means of production. Thus, they work less hard for more acknowledgment and respect than they deserve.

In my last post, I suggested that critical fetishism is a vice because (1) it sanctifies certain disciplinary subspecializations and discredits others, and it channels attention, money, and respect into canonized subspecializations; (2) it promotes extreme specialization, which may cut off connections between disciplines, and between academic research and community issues; and (2) it can consume a person’s whole life, resulting in ‘alienating saintliness’ (Wolf 1982). This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t specialize, but rather, that specializing to the exclusion of important connections across disciplines and extracurricular boundaries carries epistemic and moral costs. Hungerford shows how the sanctification of canonized authors produces epistemic and moral injustice within the literary community. This is an illustration of the kind of critical fetishisim that I’m describing as a vice – the fetishization of privileged voices to the exclusion of the marginalized.

Hungerford gives a concrete example from her own discipline: David Foster Wallace (the author of the abstruse, 1000+-page tome ‘Infinite Jest’) has been effectively deified within literary criticism, elevated to the status of a literary saint. Hungerford speculates that the marketers of ‘Infinite Jest’ intentionally catered to the intellectual hubris of their target clients, designing a “marketing campaign that appealed to a Jurassic vision of literary genius” (a vision that was a social construct). Rebecca Solnit, too, has called Wallace’s book an example of literary hubris, a conventionally male trait (2017). One thing that men like to mansplain about is esoteric literature, which gives them intellectual cred in the eyes of their academic peers. Women, by contrast, are punished for appearing ‘too smart,’ which is why the job market favours modestly academically successful women but highly academically successful men (Quadlin 2018). In the time it takes to read, analyze, or review ‘Infinite Jest,’ a critic could read several books written by underrepresented authors. This would be ‘academically irresponsible’ in a narrow sense, but it robustly academically responsible, as it would increase epistemic, moral, and social responsibility in academia. There may, then, be an all-things-considered imperative to read less canonized scholarship in favour of exploring more uncharted territory.

Because conventional academic standards are so pervasive within the Ivory Tower – and so imperative for publishing and getting a job – academics tend to feel guilty for not reading the core canon. Hungerford explains how a famous Americanist was reluctant to admit that he had never read Moby Dick; he felt shame over a what he took to be a disciplinary transgression. I don’t think that this is a strange case; rather, it reflects the normal process of academic enculturation, whereby academics internalize the value of the canon and related disciplinary norms so deeply that these norms become part of their personal identity. Questioning disciplinary norms, then, can feel like blaspheme, or a rejection of the self. Implicit bias against non-standard perspectives is probably, in part, a result of this process: the value of the canon is tied up with the value of the Academic Self. This may also partly explain the casualization of academic labour: academics’ over-identification with their discipline makes them highly vulnerable to market exploitation. Being deeply (as opposed to superficially) academically responsible, then, requires not only changes in academic culture, but changes in the inner lives of academics. It requires that we commit what we may perceive as acts of academic irresponsibility: refusing to prioritize canonized scholarship above other types of writing.

Is there identity prejudice in philosophy?

That title is a rhetorical question – of course there’s identity prejudice in academic philosophy. In response to Aleander Rosenberg’s “philosophy is flat” comment, I responded:

“Philosophy is notoriously plagued by pedigree bias (de Cruz 2014), gender bias (Schwitzgebel & Jennings 2016), and racial bias (Botts et al. 2014). Moreover, 35% of philosophy professors are neither tenured nor tenure-track (AAAS Report 2013), and many of these instructors are living in poverty or very close to it. Philosophy is one of the least diverse disciplines in the Humanities (Schwitzgebel & Jennings 2016). Proposed reasons for the lack of diversity in the profession include naivety, conservativism, pride, and hostility to the interests and insights of underrepresented groups amongst the privileged (Kidd 2017).”

Helen de Cruz then wrote a more thorough response to the ‘philosophy is flat’ (‘just world’) theory in the Disability and Disadvantage Blog (2018), with a focus on pedigree bias.

Some of the inequalities in philosophy may be caused by contingent factors, but many are caused by implicit and explicit bias and stereotype threat (Jenkins & Hutchison 2013), which are psychological vehicles for what Miranda Fricker calls identity prejudice (2007), i.e., bias activated by the perception of a person’s demographic attributes, which produces epistemic injustice – a climate that systematically discredits the target’s speech.

 In my last post, I wrote that philosophy is beset by critical fetishism, or a disciplinary obsession with specific objects of philosophical scrutiny. Critical fetishism sanctifies certain philosophers to the exclusion of others, and it has distinctive gendered and racial characteristics. Philosophers have a remarkable fetish for David Lewis, whose work comprises 6 of the top 20 most-cited publications in philosophy (Healy 2013). Of the top-20 most-cited publications, 6.3% are by David Lewis, and 6.3% are by women. That’s right: David Lewis is more cited than all of the most-cited women combined. Saul Kripke is the second-most cited philosopher, and John Searl is high on the list, both of whom have been accused of sexual harassment. According to Jennifer Saul, maybe we shouldn’t be citing sexual harassers at all, let alone citing them more than all of the women in the field (2017). Most philosophers in the profession are also white, so there are racial exclusions as well. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read and cite canonized philosophers, but that the amount of attention we give them has epistemic and moral costs.

The sanctification of these scholars is an example of critical fetishism, which is, in effect, a kind of epistemic injustice. Critical fetishism is a problem not because it elevates some philosophers above others, but because it elevates philosophers with privileged socioeconomic status above members of historically disenfranchised groups, creating epistemic injustice in the field and tainting the production of philosophical knowledge. This is a moral and an epistemic problem because it discriminates against minorities (a moral transgression) and it undermines epistemic equality and the production of objective knowledge (an epistemic transgression) (viz., Harding 2015). Therefore, critical fetishism is something that we should care about and try to remediate, as scholars and as moral agents. Obviously this is not an easy feat, since it requires a reconsideration of our very identities as academics and a restructuring of the means of academic production, but effectively practicing any virtue is hard. The virtue of critical responsibility is no different.

 Addendum

A colleague pointed out that there is a difference between literary criticism and philosophical criticism, so we can’t treat criticism in both fields as if it were the same. I am using the term ‘criticism’ loosely to denote critical scrutiny of any piece of writing, so any differences across disciplines are immaterial. The main point is that in both fields, analysis is focused on scholarship with disciplinary credibility, and that credibility is partly constructed by conventions within the discipline rather than objective (unbiased) criteria. We should work to ‘un-bias’ the distribution of credibility in all academic fields.

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