Attack of the Killer Nouns

Milo and I were watching the livestream of the Heterodox Academy “Open Mind Conference” last week, and at one point he simply started shaking his head.

“It’s all throat-clearing, isn’t it?,” he asked me. “[Quoting] ‘Yes, I think that question about identity and expression is an important one, and one we should really focus on...’ WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN.”

Indeed.

Everyone knows that academics have a peculiar way of speaking that makes it difficult for Random Laypersons to understand.

I myself have been accused by family members of using “big words” to no purpose, back in the day when I was just learning academese. I think the culprit in that particular conversation was “Christology,” but it could have been “exegesis.” I don’t think I knew the word “hermeneutics” at that point.

“But,” I defended myself, “it is a technical term. I am writing for other scholars who would know what it means.”

“But don’t you want people to read your work?” my sister countered.

I spluttered. What did she know? I was the one in graduate school; she was just a random layperson, at least with respect to medieval Christian history. (She would go on to do graduate work in neurobiology; I think she worked with rats....)

Fast-forward thirty years, and nobody knows what anybody is talking about.

How was it that the Open Letter signed by some 1,500 of my colleagues in academia put it?
We write as a group of medievalists and other scholars deeply concerned about the recent words and actions of your faculty member Rachel Fulton Brown. While tenets of academic freedom dictate that Professor Fulton Brown is allowed to express any opinion she wishes, we do not believe that doing so in a manner that puts an untenured scholar of color—or any scholar—in harm’s way is her right. And while, again, she is allowed to say what she likes, her ignorance of basic theoretical principles of race theory renders her an ill-informed and substandard interlocutor in the rigorous scholarly discussion of this important subject. To say the very least, her highly public statement reflects poorly on your department. 
But her words do far more grievous damage as well. Professor Fulton Brown attempts to argue that: 1. she is not a white supremacist because she acknowledges the Middle Ages’ own complex awareness of non-white presences; and 2. the field does not espouse white supremacy because William Chester Jordan, a medievalist scholar of color, has attained an elevated position in it. These arguments betray her fundamental lack of knowledge concerning the discourses of structural racism and white supremacy. To claim that medieval studies’ support of a specific person of color negates any relationship the field has to white supremacy is, as even your undergraduates trained in theories of race will surely attest, stunningly benighted. Despite her assertions of respect for Professor Jordan’s work, Fulton Brown emphasizes his race, particularly by including a photo. Making race the lens through which to view his considerable achievements is in itself diminishing. Furthermore, it seems an entirely rudimentary point that a difference exists between the features of a historical period—such as the premodern cultural and demographic diversity that Professor Kim and other medievalists frequently discuss—and the modern constitution, practices, and reception of the field of study focusing on that historical period. Professor Kim and others argue that the latter house, attract, and produce white supremacist attitudes. Such attitudes are structurally implicit and by no means defused simply by particular medievalists mentioning particular non-white medieval figures in their research and teaching. The failure to understand the complexities of relation and distinction between a period’s artifacts and the engines of their study reveals a dearth of sophistication, research, and knowledge concerning not only race but also historical inquiry.
What had I done that was so embarrassing? Take your time, I know it is hard to read through the accusation.

I did emphasize Professor Jordan’s race—to point to how disingenuous it was of any colleague to point to him or herself and declare that, solely on the basis of what he or she looks like, he or she might escape charges of racism. (Nobody can, that is the whole point of the charge—it is unanswerable.)

But I don’t think that that is what upset my colleagues the most. (Aside from the image that Milo’s team used with the article they posted on Dangerous—I wrote about that here.)

What upset them was that I had “[intervened] with ignorance into an already developed and nuanced scholarly conversation”—to wit, I didn’t use the correct big words.

See how they tried to shame me for my ignorance from the outset:
And while, again, she is allowed to say what she likes, her ignorance of basic theoretical principles of race theory renders her an ill-informed and substandard interlocutor in the rigorous scholarly discussion of this important subject. To say the very least, her highly public statement reflects poorly on your department (emphasis added).
I am not rigorous or scholarly because I do not deploy the right theory. If I had, I would know that there are “structurally implicit” attitudes that render it impossible to combat racism simply by showing how such attitudes did not apply in the period that I study.

(To reiterate: This is what I meant when I said the best way to signal that you are not a white supremacist is to “learn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field”: real white supremacists will find no support in the study of the period, quite the reverse. My point was also to suggest that, like Milo, I am a very poor example of a white supremacist if I dedicate my life to loving someone who is “black but beautiful,” but I think that my colleagues missed that part.)

Note who the main actors are in my colleagues’ description of the danger that I pose: white supremacy, white supremacist attitudes, discourses of structural racism and white supremacy. Not people—just abstractions: supremacy, attitudes, discourses.

Nor can we hope to counter these discourses of structural racism and white supremacy by appealing to actual persons, whether in the present or the past. It is the modern constitution, practices, and reception of the field of study focusing on that historical period that put my colleagues like Professor Jordan at risk, whatever individual researchers like myself might say.

In my academic colleagues’ words:
Such attitudes are structurally implicit and by no means defused simply by particular medievalists mentioning particular non-white medieval figures in their research and teaching.
I.e., what I just said, only in fancier language with bigger nouns.

There is a technical term for what my colleagues are doing here: reification. In layman’s terms: they are taking something that is a process—studying the history of the European Middle Ages—and making it into a thing, and then attributing agency to that reified process: the modern constitution, practices, and reception of the field of study focusing on that historical period, which, they insist, puts Professor Jordan and others like him at risk by [housing, attracting, and producing] white supremacist attitudes. 

Who does this research? Who holds these attitudes? My colleagues do not say.

And because I do not accept their reification of this process? I am exhibiting a dearth of sophistication, research, and knowledge concerning not only race but also historical inquiry. Except that it isn’t me doing this exhibiting. It is another fancy noun: the failure to understand the complexities of relation and distinction between a period’s artifacts and the engines of their study.

Do you see what they did here? I am getting anxious just trying to parse what it is my colleagues were saying—no wonder so many of them were so alarmed that they rushed to add their signatures to the list.

I have a new theory about why everyone on campus is so hysterical these days. It isn’t (pace Professor Peterson) postmodernism. After all, at least with postmodernism, you might have actual postmodernists to fight.

It is something much more sinister: nominalization, the grammatical transformation of human actions and beliefs into abstract things, quite literally (at the level of language) erasing human agency from our study of ourselves.

Look at the nominalization I used right there: the grammatical transformation of human actions and beliefs into abstract things. I could have said: The reason that everyone is so hysterical on campus these days is that academics refuse to speak in terms of people doing things or having thoughts.

Why didn’t I?

Well, I was trying to sound just a little bit smart. Like Professor Peterson, I do not like being called names (white supremacist, for example). But as an academic, I dislike even more being accused of not being smart or sophisticated enough to understand my colleagues’ abstract thought.

And I despise the way in which my colleagues use such abstractions to try to cover up for things they do not understand.

Like religion. And faith.

Why do academics, particularly social scientists and humanities professors, write the way that they do?

Because, as Professor Michael Billig explains in Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (2013), they have something to sell.

Nominalizations like the discourses of structural racism and white supremacy are not just convenient ways of talking about complex processes.

They are brands that enable academics to recruit others to their school of thought.

They enable them to found journals and study centers, to call for majors and fund graduate students. They give them a frame in which to publish and conferences to attend. They are badges of belonging—and justifications for doing research.

The reason that they often strike Random Laypersons as confidence tricks is because, in an important way, they are. They are advertisements for the shiny new thing that promises to solve all your (academic) woes, if only you learn how to speak like one of the tribe.

No wonder it makes my fellow academics so anxious when there are those of us (like Milo and me) who are not buying what they have to sell.

We do, indeed, threaten their very existence as scholars when we declare, as we are wont to do, that the emperor has no clothes—because without the clothes of nominalized processes like the discourses of structural racism and white supremacy, they would be naked indeed, forced to explain who did what when, where, how, and why with reference to actual human beings, not agentless abstractions with which they can fudge.

In Billig’s words (p. 137):
So long as you keep using words like ‘nominalization’ [or discourses of structural racism and white supremacy], you do not have to specify exactly what they mean and to what sorts of processes they refer.... When we use these nouns, we do not have to be clear—we do not have to think hard about what we really mean, especially when we are writing for others who regularly use these same words. In our own safe circles, where we all will be exchanging the same semantic tokens, we can leave the gap between the world and the words as wide as we want.
One of the signatories of the Open Letter wrote his own letter to the President at Vassar, outlining what he saw as the greatest threat in my blogging about the debate in our field.

Was it because I had called out my colleagues for fomenting racial tensions by claiming that it was our work that was somehow responsible for the death of Heather Heyer in August 2017? No, it was because I had blogged about what should have been an internal debate in our field:
Furthermore—and this is the primary reason I’m driven to write—Fulton Brown has enlisted the support of several right-wing personalities and websites with an enormous reach far outside the academic communities in which these debates typically take place. While Kim has addressed her fellow academics—experts in the field, with a particular duty to teach and tell the story of our field correctly and ethically—Fulton Brown has played to the crowd. 
I fear the results may be unpleasant, and I urge your office, particularly your public relations people, to do what I would expect they’re already doing, which is not to mistake the voices of nonexperts for the voices of experts. Notably, several of the leading professional organizations in medieval studies, including the Medieval Academy of America and the New Chaucer Society, have recently issued statements on respect and professional ethics, all at least implicitly in support of Dorothy Kim. Fulton Brown has just as notably received no such support from professional, academic organizations, whether in or outside her field. 
If the university is to survive as a vibrant and worthwhile place for the free exercise of intellectual inquiry, it needs to respect the expertise of its members and their communities. I write with that in mind.
It should come as no surprise that this is the same colleague who dubbed my Facebook salon of friends “Random Laypersons,” a.k.a. “the crowd.” His greatest fear? That the public relations people at Vassar “not...mistake the voices of non experts for the voices of experts.” The experts, he insists, had spoken in support of our colleague, whereas I—the academic outcast—had received “no such support from professional, academic organizations, whether in or outside [my] field.”

*

Milo posted a question for the president of my own university during the livestream of the Heterodox Academy conference.
I would like to ask: ‘In an episode of “We the Internet TV”, a member of your faculty, Prof Rachel Fulton Brown (History), described her efforts to support the study of Western civilization and an open letter 1,500 academic colleagues signed AGAINST her for doing so. What has Chicago done to support her? Has her department offered her any support?’

Bari Weiss, Bob Zimmer’s interviewer, ran out of time before she was able to read out this question—the only one, by the by, posted in the livestream. One of our students tweeted about it, noticing the four of us involved (“what a squad”).

Indeed.

At what point is it appropriate to take such questions out—as did the livestream—into the public sphere?

At what point are we academics going to answer Milo’s question: “WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN”?

Image: Schoolhouse Rock “Nouns”

See MedievalGate for my continuing adventures as a conservative in academia.

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