Students should feel free to experiment with ideas, and to get them wrong. It’s ok to throw out an interpretation that is flawed, an argument that’s an experiment. An undergraduate shouldn’t feel that there’s a mob armed with rotten fruit waiting for the first slip. I see this a lot at Swarthmore: students who just don’t want to be wrong, and so never risk much. I see it in academic writing, too. We qualify what we say so heavily because we want a fall-back position in case we draw heavy fire.
At the same time, part of being able to persuade is being persuadable. Part of making mistakes usefully is knowing and saying when you’ve made a mistake. Part of experimenting is knowing that sometimes it’s going to blow up. Then you have to clean up your mess, humbly and patiently.
In all the talk about Yale student Aliza Shvartz’s art project, the detail that consistently sticks with me is the aggressively entitled tone of her defense of her work. Not the details of her project, or what that project says about abortion rights or pedagogy or art. It’s the intellectual entitlement behind her defense of the project. Shvartz wrote,
It creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership. An intentional ambiguity pervades both the act and the objects I produced in relation to it. The performance exists only as I chose to represent it. For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation â€” the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far) â€” is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading.
This ambivalence makes obvious how the act of identification or naming â€” the act of ascribing a word to something physical â€” is at its heart an ideological act, an act that literally has the power to construct bodies. In a sense, the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term â€œmiscarriageâ€ or â€œperiodâ€ to that blood
This is what I call the porcupine strategy. Make yourself as pointy, sharp and inflated as you can, and hope that any predators will just go away. The problem with this particular porcupine act is that it’s not fooling anyone. Scholars who know something about the theories Shvartz is fumbling to deploy know full well that she’s said very little that makes sense in this passage, that it’s close to being a random assemblage of words. Observers who don’t know anything about those theories just see it as babble.
I hesitate to mention another case any further, because I think the principal actor is an unfortunate figure. But reading an interview with the former Darthmouth writing instructor who threatened to sue her own students, and a long profile of her that makes it clear that litigiousness is a standard strategy for her, it’s hard to leave the case completely alone. Partly because these are the cases that end up framing public awareness of academia, like it or not. Partly, however, because the professor in this case also used the porcupine strategy at many points. In fact, she turns it into an explicit pedagogical credo: one of the things that upset her was that the students questioned her authority, not just as the manager of the classroom but as an expert in her fields of specialization.
At another point, she tries to offer a definition of postmodernism. Look, I grant you that this is a very difficult thing to do. When I was a senior in college, I had an oral exam that was part of the honors program at my university. The basic set-up was that the panel of faculty could ask you questions about anything–all knowledge. So I prepared in the areas where I thought I was weak, and didn’t think much about the humanities. At some point, a line of questioning about historical methodology led to postmodernism, and I was asked point-blank: what is postmodernism? Total meltdown on my part.
These days, I’m a little more prepared when a student asks me that question. But part of my preparation is to leaven my answer with a little humility about my own knowledge but also about postmodernism as a concept. The Dartmouth professor in contrast seems so self-absorbed, so humorless, and most importantly, not really making much sense once you attend to the actual definition or description of postmodernism she offers:
Postmodernism has different definitions, but Iâ€™m going to give you the definition according to the guy that invented the termâ€”and heâ€™s Jean-FranÃ§ois Lyotard. He wrote a book called The Postmodern Condition, which was published in 1984 in America. The book basically outlines what is called the state of knowledge in post-industrial societies, that because of the influx of computer knowledge, information society, that we are going to have a change in what is known as expert knowledge versus lay knowledge. And Iâ€™m sure this will resonate with you because when you go to the computer, you access the Internet and you can get all this information.
Prior to the computer industry or information technology, this was not possible. There was a strict division between expert knowledge and lay knowledge. Expert knowledge of course would be defined as science; science was, according to positivism, the way by which we arrive at knowledge, a truth by the scientific method. Postmodernism was a challenge to that. It challenged the fact that science was the only way of arriving at truth. It was saying that we would have a leveling of the playing field in knowledge. The second thing that itâ€™s about is art, which in the period of modernism and literatureâ€”when you go back to [Emile] Zola or the modernist authorsâ€”for them, for them art was about the misting of reality. And art should follow the scientific methodâ€”that literature and art should follow the tenets of science. According to Lyotard, in the postmodern society, art and literature were going to be in something of a dichotomous relationship with science. In other words, art and literature were going to be now put on the same level as science.
Thereâ€™s another element to postmodernism prior to the information society in philosophy. The philosophy was about going after knowledge for knowledgeâ€™s sake, so you had people just talking about philology, biology, economics, just for the sake of knowledge. But for Lyotard, knowledge would be about efficiency; it would be about doing things better. Knowledge would be not for the sake of knowledge, but for the sake of productivity and technical efficiency. So thatâ€™s what postmodernism is about; it has nothing to do with the overthrowing of capitalism. It has nothing to do with it; in fact, postmodernism appropriated many of the tenets of capitalism in what it was talking about. It was not considered a liberal or leftist way of looking at life, although many postmodernists have been thought of as being left-wing or liberal. It was not in any way like thatâ€”I just wanted to quality that.
This is again a porcupine approach: back off, I know postmodernism and you do not, I am an authority and you are not, don’t question me. Again, it doesn’t work because those of us who know the texts and arguments the professor is using know that this is a marginally coherent explanation of postmodernism, and those who don’t won’t be able to make any sense out of this explanation but will not be particularly intimidated or impressed by it.
In both cases (and many more like them) the problem with the porcupine approach is that it is pursued at the moment that academic work has become visible to a wider public. It’s one thing if a scholar in one discipline gets irritated in an intramural debate with a scholar in another discipline and wants to end the discussion by asserting authority through obscurantism. It’s another thing if a scholar or student is trying to defend the integrity of their scholarship or teaching against skeptical outsiders.
There’s been a bit of talk about the privileged attitudes of some Ivy League students recently. When I see someone pull the porcupine strategy, that’s when I see privilege asserting itself. It’s both more ethical and more prudent to be pre-emptively open to criticism and dialogue at such moments. Aliza Svartz’ project was always going to draw heavy fire, but I think dangling half-formed chunks of critical theory like a sacred totem about her neck lost her any last shreds of legitimacy. When you have something to defend, you’d better figure out precisely what is that you specifically need to defend, where the heart of the matter is, and you’d better speak to that as clearly and openly as you can.