April Book Potpourri: Kipnis, Stanley, Jorjani, More …

Over recent months and weeks any number of items have come to my attention that could have been blog entries, had I complete information about them.

For example, there is the just-released book by Laura Kipnis, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campuses (Harpers, 2017), as of this writing listed as #1 bestseller in feminist theory on Amazon.com. I don’t know how much “theory” it can contain, feminist or otherwise, but based on reports I’ve read there can be no doubt it is relevant to that. The book looks to be a scathing response to what its subtitle indicates: the sweeping sexual paranoia that has overwhelmed campuses over the past several years and is destroying people’s careers. In the case of her campus, Northwestern University, the target was philosopher Peter Ludlow who was publicly excoriated, and — these are Kipnis’s own words — it “was like watching someone being burned at the stake in slow motion …”  All following what appears to have been colossally ill-advised off-campus dalliances with a student.

Ludlow’s response to the proceedings seems to have been — well — philosophical. The publicly-available reports indicate that he resigned prior to actually being removed, packed his belongings, and was planning a move to Mexico.

Kipnis’s own point of departure was being attacked and nearly made into a pariah herself, for warning that such “witch hunts” (her term again) where the punishment vastly exceeds the proven extent of the crime was hurting the cause of women’s rights on campuses (assuming, for the sake of discussion, that women ought to have special “rights” that men don’t have). Ah, how the campus thought police of today have no problems eating their own if they step outside increasingly narrow orthodoxies, especially where sex/gender are concerned.

A cursory review of the “gang rape on campus” fiasco that occurred at the University of Virginia a few short years ago should have been sufficient to indicate that what can only be described as anti-male paranoia has gone completely off the rails.

I haven’t read Kipnis’s book, so I won’t attempt to comment further; a few revealing quotations from the book can be found on Brian Leiter’s blog, and a longer excerpt can be found here (there is relevant commentary here, but it lies behind a paywall). What my impression from a distance is, however, is that of someone who was stunned at how quickly those she considered political allies turned on her when she deviated from academic orthodoxy about sexual harassment and assault on campus. This is the problem with academic orthodoxies generally.

A quick time out, though, if you will.

I am based outside the U.S., and have been since 2012, following my walking away from a ridiculously underpaid adjunct position at a branch campus in the Southeast. One of the drawbacks of living in a foreign country, especially in South America, is getting North American books in a timely fashion. Which is why I don’t post about them more. I did manage to get a trove of books shipped here a couple of months ago (they arrived from Amazon in around six days, then sat in customs for over three weeks). Among them was Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press, 2015). I’ve not found the time to read it in any detail, though, and this time have no excerpts, so will defer any comments I might have for later this year. We had an exchange (ping to here) which was initially acrimonious but over time grew more cordial.

A private email went unanswered, however, which I thought unfortunate as we would likely have had a meeting of minds on something Stanley indicated he cared deeply about: the mass incarceration industry in the U.S., where people are not simply locked up but thrown into solitary confinement by sociopathic prison personnel and can actually die of thirst, or from insulin-deprivation in the case of diabetic prisoners, if they aren’t beaten to death or “commit suicide” (cases too numerous to link to). It is widely known overseas that the U.S. imprisons a larger percentage of its population than any other advanced nation in the world including Communist China. “Private” prisons (i.e., prisons operating for profit), moreover, have a perverse incentive to imprison more people.

In any event, the Stanley volume is one I hope to return to later this year, and comment on in light of earlier tracts related to its subject including those of Edward Bernays, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Jacques Ellul, and others.

Also in that trove of books was an unusual work which came to my attention by virtue of the denunciations of its author as some kind of neo-Nazi: the book is Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus and Atlas (Arktos Media, 2016). Again I’ve only found the time to read a little of it, but based on what I’ve read so far (Introduction and Chapter One): permit me to assure anyone who cares: while this time I’ve had no interactions with the author, so far the book is nothing of the sort! On the contrary, instead of a typical exercise in micro-specialization it is a sweeping, systematic work of a kind one almost never sees in professionalized academic philosophy! It elicits the errors of pivotal historical thinkers such as Descartes, whose bifurcation of the world gave us the roots of the mechanized world picture that evolved into modern materialism. Jorjani draws on modern and contemporary figures as diverse as Leibniz, Kant, Schelling, James, Heidegger, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Foucault, and Derrida. How the various contributions of these philosophers are integrated, and how the ancient heroic images of Prometheus and Atlas fit in to the schema Jorjani gradually assembles over the course of 12 chapters, might fill several blog entries when the time is right.

Key to Jorjani’s work, however, is an attack on the above mentioned materialism and a defense of the idea of the spectral — a new and original take on what are routinely dismissed as “paranormal” phenomena, along with the idea that such phenomena might actually be more common than anyone realizes: not noticed because, to draw on a notion Kuhn famously supplied in Structure, what does not fit into the conceptual boxes supplied by our dominate paradigms whether in science or in life more broadly often isn’t even seen:  except in those cases, perhaps relatively rare, which intrude upon our consciousness to a degree sufficient to disrupt our daily doings. What has long fascinated me — the fascination goes back to my undergraduate days, in fact, and is among the things that drew me to philosophy in the first place — was how those who turn out to be committed materialists react to reports of such, generally by people who don’t have the imaginative power much less the motivation to make something up. The reaction is generally one of ridicule, not analysis or anything else to indicate a desire to get to the bottom of what really happened.

What Jorjani’s book has to do with the “alt-right” I’ve not discovered yet (he does have other writings on the subject), but maybe I will; or maybe someone will enlighten me. The publisher (Arktos Media) has resurrected a few European writers with views most likely derived from the right-wing Hegelianism that preceded the alt-right. Jorjani seems off on a different (ad)venture, however. But time will tell, as well as reveal whether Jorjani can survive in the long term in academic philosophy, having written a tract such as Prometheus and Atlas.  Its antimaterialism alone will alienate it from the present-day philosophical mainstream, quite independently of anything its author has to do with the alt-right.

The last book I will say a few words about, from the same imported trove, is Socrates Tenured, by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). This work might not have come to my attention had I not run across this. That article observed what historians know: that prior to its migration into the modern university, philosophers had worked in a wide variety of occupations: Locke’s being a physician and then a diplomat; Berkeley’s being a cleric; Spinoza being a lens grinder, and so on.

But the situating of philosophy in the modern research university came alongside the rise of what I call “third stage” (after Auguste Comte) civilization, which assigns to science a monopolistic status in knowledge-seeking, and to technology and commerce the favored status they have because they bring in cash. Philosophy — never much understood outside the circles of those who directly engaged it — does not set out to do this, of course. It had a home, but the price tag was inhabiting back-room educational-administrative cubicles teaching students about Socrates’s “the unexamined life is not worth living” but in a fashion carefully designed not to rock the boat. And it meant increasing specialization and micro-specialization. Even for those for whom “the personal is the political”: what does that mean, after all, outside a specific range of disciplinary matrices in contemporary academic humanities? (Would Laura Kipnis concur? I don’t know, but it would sure be interesting to find out!)

Could Socrates have won tenure today? Frankly, the answer to this seems self-evident. Isn’t it far more likely that, assuming him to be the same character we encounter in Plato’s dialogues, he would suffer a fate not even equivalent to drinking hemlock — something dramatic enough to win attention — but as someone who asked too many of the wrong questions, simply being refused job interviews until he faded into nothingness among the rest of the quietly excluded? At least he would be allowed to live. Today’s corporate-administrative consensus need not kill its dissidents when it is easier to allow them to disappear. Maybe Socrates could get “gigs” driving for Uber.

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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