A Case Study in Academic Failure

Here is an article abstract from a scholarly journal, which I like because I think it captures many of the worst aspects of both contemporary leftism and contemporary academic writing:

In this paper, I read Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman and the ensuing debates surrounding Stand Your Ground law through Frantz Fanon’s critical reformulation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. For Fanon, the unacknowledged reciprocity of Hegel’s dialectic obscures the sub-ontological realm—to which Fanon and Martin alike were condemned—and Fanon’s concept of comparaison sheds further light on Zimmerman’s motivations as a liminally racialized subject. I argue that it is precisely by questioning the circularity of Hegel’s formulation—in which to stand one’s ground is to claim what one already has access to—and by diagnosing what lies beneath that ground that we can avoid mistaking the legal symptom for the underlying ailment and craft strategies for resisting white supremacy in the present.

I am sure that, for many, the reasons for recoiling at this sort of thing will be self-evident. But since some people write this stuff (if not read it), presumably some people would also think “What’s so wrong with that?” at seeing a sample of it. Also, my own distastes are uniquely personal, so let me list why I myself react with unmitigated horror followed by despair:

  • Hegel – Anytime Hegel is mentioned, nothing clear is going to be said.
  • Being relevant without actually being relevant – The author is clearly concerned with racial injustice. The author wishes to develop “strategies for resisting white supremacy” (in the present, no less!) According to this person’s faculty webpage, the author “encourages students to leave behind the realm of pure theory and enter instead into rich conversation with the empirical and everyday world.” And yet, this engagement with the real world, this abandonment of “pure theory,” simply involves taking the same theory and slathering it atop current events. The author wants to make a difference, but believes that actual political gains can be made through the correct application of Hegelian analysis. The author wishes to produce something relevant for stopping a wrong, and yet produces something that can have no conceivable effect on stopping that wrong.
  • Dialectic – See above re: Hegel. Anytime dialectic is mentioned, unless it is as a synonym for “dialogue” (in which case “dialogue” should be used instead), nothing clear is going to be said.
  • “mistaking symptom for ailment” – Cliché. Personal pet peeve.
  • Liminal, sub-ontological, reciprocity – Terms at too high a level of abstraction, or with too little precision, to have useful meaning. “But wait,” you say, “you are only judging by the abstract. Perhaps you should read the article, and they will be defined and specified.” Good point. I have just checked the article. They are neither defined nor specified.
  • comparaison – This is a French word, meaning “comparison.” But the author does not translate the word. Instead, the author italicizes it and leaves it in the original. These seems to me one of the more ludicrous examples of deploying foreign words in ordder to seem intelligent. Here we have an almost perfect cognate, but the author would have us believe that that extra “a” makes all the difference, and that Fanon’s idea of “comparaison” was so far different from our own word “comparison” that we must use the original if we are to do him justice. I object to this. (Of course, I also object to all of the philosophers who have loudly insisted on “ressentiment” as importantly distinct from “resentment,” so I might just be an idiot.)
  • As far as I can understand, the actual theory about the sub-ontological realm – As far as I can grasp it, I think I actually object to part of this author’s thesis. The author says that Fanon and Martin “alike were condemned” to the realm of sub-ontology, which as far as I can tell, means that black people do not really “exist.” In another abstract, the same author discusses “the violent self-assertion and public appearance of colonized and racialized non-beings which creates the necessary groundwork for their entry into being.” Thus, because the process of colonization and racialization strips one of one’s humanity, people subjugated by race do not properly exist until they successfully assert themselves through violence. This is not a position I find sympathetic or well-founded; I don’t share the opinion that one’s very being or non-being is defined by one’s place in a racial hierarchy. But my complaint in this respect is probably unfair to the author, since he is simply borrowing Fanon’s (Hegel-derived, as I understand it) premise that “[m]an is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him.” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 216) So I believe that both Fanon and the author have bad conceptions of existence and humanity. Why on earth would we define being human the way Fanon does? Fanon’s own statements in support of the position are non sequiturs (“As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his actions.” What does it even mean for actions to have themes?) So, yes, the author gets partial blame for the article, Hegel gets some other portion of it, and Fanon gets a sliver as well, although at least Fanon was a doctor and tried to do some good with his life.

Now, a hypothetical critic may here come back at me: “You are relying an awful lot on the author’s abstracts. Abstracts are not articles, be fair!” Ah, yes, I know. But (1) most of the time if an abstract sounds dreadful, the article will be worse, and (2) even though the author is a staunch leftist committed to destroying privilege, his articles are still locked behind a paywall in an expensive limited-access journal, and I can’t get to them. So I was working with what I had when I first jotted down my list.

But I did actually manage ultimately to find full access to the Trayvon Martin article. I did not get very far through it before giving up. Would you like to know how it begins? First, it describes the rainy night on which Martin was shot. Then we get:

Were it not for the drizzling rain and strange choice of weaponry, this confrontation might evoke the abstract world of G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage in which one “self-consciousness” is confronted by another, with each holding the key to the other’s full recognition. But as powerful as the Hegelian framework might seem…

Now when I, as the reader, see the assertion that were it not for the rain, Hegel’s dialectic might be evoked, I must ask myself “Might it? Might it really?” (And why does the rain make all the difference?) And when I see the statement “But powerful as Hegel’s framework might seem” I reply the same way. If I am being honest, I have to think that it very much might not.

[Update: It has come to my attention that some people do not believe this could be an actual article. I had hoped to spare the author the embarrassment of being identified as having written it, but the necessity of proving that I am not engaged in an elaborate act of parody demands that I reveal my source. Here.]

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