Sunday, 14 March 2010

Academic Rumspringa, Peer Review as Holy Scripture

There are a raft of issues to be dealt with here.

But firstly, give 'em enough rope and they hang themselves: what I posted about Slavoj Zizek in "Britney Is Cheaper" is pretty much confirmed in The Truth of Zizek, edited by Bowman and Stamp. I was amused by the irony in Simon Critchtley's contribution, which recounts how Zizek accused him of being an academic Rumspringa:

"the Amish practice of letting their children run wild for a couple of years of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll with the 'English' before either deciding to return to their community or preferring not to. Basically, Zizek accuses me of...[engaging] in a series of hysterical political provocations based on the dim memory of some radical past."

I regard Jeremy Valentine as doing a better job than Critchley of fleshing out the implications of this characterisation for Zizek himself. Gilbert makes specific mention of how Zizek does not take cognizance of the institutional and commercial forces that act upon him and make his interventions possible. Think of my Britney comparison then, when Gilbert writes:

"What we see here is simply the logic of celebrity culture and deep commodification extended to the field of 'intellectual' publishing, and it is virtually a truism today to acknowledge that celebrity is one of the most striking manifestations of the commodifying and individualizing logics of neoliberal capitalism".

In other words, Zizek is no social epistemologist, and, as Gilbert convincingly demonstrates, a dubious Marxist to boot. These are serious charges, so one might expect a vigorous self-defence to be launched in reply. Sadly, the reply could most charitably be described as a philosophical minotaur: a mythological creature, pale and only half formed. Zizek's strategy is to argue that he simply has no institutional power. He claims there are no academic departments dominated by Lacanians, as proof of his marginalization, and that he gives public lectures because, "this is all I have". But would Zizek be able to retain tenureship if he did not have such an extensive publication output as well, what with auditing culture being what it is? And wouldn't his celebrity status ensure that the teaching component of his tenureship would virtuallly give him a rubber stamp to teach whatever (and probably whenever) he wanted, because enrolments in his courses would far surpass that of the average journeyman academic? Surely such relative privileges would more than compensate for any "marginalization" Zizek may have felt when, according to him, his letters of recommendation did not lead to candidates winning academic jobs? Why not square up to the specific charges about publication and celebrity status, rather than just ducking and weaving all the time?

Because no straight answer is forthcoming, I can only conclude that the answers are so unsatisfactory because these kinds of people are simply unprepared for this line of questioning. But why should I expect anything different? Afterall, when you are habitutated to operating in a bubble you probably won't change too much. Recidivism rates will remain high for such serial offenders because there is little incentive to do anything else as you are so totally institutionalised you cannot openly acknowledge the forms of "structuration" at work in academia i.e. it both enables and constrains your actions. Donna Haraway is someone who could see through the kind of imposture Zizek embodies, when she warned of the danger of adopting the "God trick", to see everything from nowhere- what could also be described as omniscience.

With Haraway still ringing in my ears, let me be perfectly clear then about where I'm coming from. I'm not in the business of peddling academic gossip. What I've said about Zizek is meant to have nothing to do with anything that trivial. I'd also distinguish it from Furedi's argument concerning how peer review is infused with vested interests. For Furedi, this is pretty much unavoidable, but he claims it need not always invalidate holding authors accountable to an objective standard of scientific evidence. He maintains that this accountability can even come from "the grey literature", ie. what is published outside of the official channels of peer review. What appears then as a democratisation of [extended] peer review though, founders on an unfortunate reliance on the sanctity of objective scientific evidence as the gold standard to measure intrinsic worth. In practice, what this means is that Furedi is unwilling to accept any 'vested interest' that equates to 'advocacy science', wherein research is politicised and moralised, on behalf of a greater cause than the individualised careerist advancement that can routinely manifest in the procedures of peer review.

It's not difficult to see though that Furedi isn't throwing a very long lifeline to scientists, who, need I remind anybody, also comprise the general public. Furedi's goal appears laudable at first glance: peer review should not be used as a form of Holy Writ to prevent the public from raising concerns about, for example, climate science. But wouldn't these concerns be raised in the name of some other standard of the moralisation and politicisation of science anyway? For example, people living in the communities that could be affected by the implementation of scientific policy, could, quite rightly, demand a greater say in how the science should be used in an everyday context. So, it's the inclusiveness of peer review that needs to be extended, and this does not require placing a moratorium on social epistemological concerns.

Speaking personally, whenever I listen to an anarcho primitivist such as John Zerzan, I don't even really need to be a climate science sceptic to know why I find his beliefs so repellant. I've already got ideas from my sociological studies about why everyday life in the form of communitarianism he advocates would quickly become unbearable. I was reading Richard Sennett before I'd even heard of climate change. Moreover, writing as a sociologist, Furedi should have no trouble acknowledging this either. Just look at the mission statement of Spiked:

"spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it".

So it seems the definition of a "free thinker" certainly need not entail any exclusive reliance on the scientific method. If the challenge is to escape the dangers of academic rumspringa and peer review as holy writ, those who have sensed Steve Fuller waiting in the wings, can feel relieved that I can now bring him to centre stage. His record speaks for itself, as it is clear he would find common cause with Spiked in principle. To escape the twin dangers I've been discussing though, he would also insist, as a social epistemologist, on reading together the "two Karls": Marx and Popper. Indeed, mentioning Fuller at this point provides a convenient way of bringing this post full circle. Back in 2000, he was interviewed in the journal Configurations (8/3/pp389-417), and had this to say about the choice of research problems for many academics. Permit me to drop this science on you. It is a description of how many folks follow the path of least resistance, which reminds us that Zizek et al are symptomatic of a general, institutionalised character type:

CMA: To what extent, if any, are research problems dependent on the researcher's interest profile, taken in a psychological sense?

SF: You know, I'm a very funny kind of academic, because I don't have a very high opinion of academics as a group of people. My impression of academics is that they basically stick with what works. Let's say you're a graduate student and you spend a certain time working on a thesis. (This is so true in the United States, where people end up taking their thesis and making it into the basis, the methodological basis, for what they do subsequently.) They do this thesis, they've got this method, they manage to publish a few articles that get them some initial visibility in the field, and then they say: "Well, gee, people seem to like this. Let me see how many different ways can I do the same thing for the rest of my life."

CMA: So we are back to B. F. Skinner?

SF: I really think old B. F. is underestimated. The guy had some ideas, though he wouldn't call them that! He had some good conditioned responses, I should say. But in any case, his take on things is largely true--and so disappointing.

CMA: But is there something more to it than just positive feedback, so to speak, or reinforcement? Some motive or motivational structure of belief?

SF: I've always found it very hard to figure out why people go into academics. I don't actually think many people go into it because they've got an idea that they want to promote. If you were a naive observer on the scene, you might think that was the reason people would go into academics. But my experience with students and colleagues, even the very bright ones, is that that's not really what they are about. Once they find something that works, they simply stick with it. They like the environment or the lifestyle or something about academic life. Then they ask, "What do I need to do to be recognized as one of these people?" Thus, I find a lot of academics are almost pathologically interested in having other people in their fields respecting them. There's such a great deal of concern about that it ends up really influencing the problems they choose, etc. Of course, even ambitious people will always think certain "respected" characters are idiots, and they wouldn't want to please them for anything in the world. Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze me how often academic discourse will revolve around: "Well, you know, X was in the audience at my latest talk and, you know, he asked me a very pleasant question and I think he likes me . . ." I don't think this way myself, but I think most people think this way and that's why they end up working on the kinds of topics that they do. It's not because they come in wanting to work on the topics, or anything like that.

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