On September 24 2013 the IFLS and the Centre for Feminist Research at York hosted Professor Margaret Thornton of the Australian National University, with commentary by Professor Emerita Lorraine Code of York.
The new digital age is all about you, of course, when where and how you want it – so this time we’re happy to offer you the video (streamed):
Prefer text over video?
You can read Professor Thornton here at Taylor and Francis online (probably not open access) – the cite is The Mirage of Merit: Reconstituting the Ideal Academic 2013 Australian Feminist Studies Volume 28, Issue 76, and you can read Professor Code (who graciously agreed to supply us with her written remarks) below.
delivered September 24, 2013, posted October 28, 2013
A Response to Margaret Thornton’s “The Mirage of Merit” by Lorraine Code
It is challenging to comment on Margaret Thornton’s paper for the perhaps unusual reason that I agree with almost everything she says. So the standard (if outworn?) philosopher’s strategy of parry and thrust with the aim of demolishing an opponent’s argument cannot be my approach. Given the dire picture Margaret paints, I only wish it could! Nor am I well versed in legal theory, so even though I claim to agree with her, I really do not know whereof I speak: a strange position for a self-professed epistemologist to occupy. And yet there are sufficient points of overlap with academic institutional issues in law and philosophy, and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, for striking affinities to be apparent, even though there are no very obvious ways to counter Margaret’s counsel of despair with a counsel of hope! But there is a certain heuristic strength in naming the issues now, just fifty years after Betty Friedan began
to change the world by naming the problem that hitherto had no name. And indeed, Margaret Thornton has produced a wonderfully astute analysis of the current state of gendered divisions in the legal world as she finds it, focusing on what she so aptly refers to as “the mirage of merit”. In what follows I will engage briefly with her analysis from the point of view of the beleaguered situation of the humanities and social sciences more generally in the English-speaking world in Canada, with the hope at least that there is strength to be gained from recognitions of mutuality/solidarity, and perhaps also inspiration about where to go from here.
The aptness of Margaret’s reference to the “mirage” recalls certain debates about hiring policy more than a decade ago, here at York University, where affirmative action with respect to gender and other so-called “minority” identities was an active issue, and “excellence” was one of the principal attributes specified for a potential hire: an attribute believed, it would seem, to encompass all the rest. Members of one department remarked, as though in passing, that at least “we” all knew what “excellence” meant, intending then simply to move on to evaluating candidates, slotting them in to that category, or not. But it was not so simple, for this it seemed was the very issue: we did not and I think still do not know what “excellence” means except perhaps as a character summary of just that person who is the hero, or the villain, in Margaret’s presentation: “benchmark man”. Oh, things are better than these comments suggest, at least in many departments at York and elsewhere, where care is usually taken to be clear about faculty expectations, and fair in assessing potential applicants. But in the wide world of philosophy, which is the world I know best, and in academic hiring in North America more generally, it is hard to judge how much of a real, deeply effective conceptual shift has taken place, away from outworn categories of “excellence” as tacitly embodied as much in white heterosexual maleness as in certain areas of credentialed inquiry, and toward opening out into newer, more creative ways of deliberating and judging, especially in view of an increasing (if too often suppressed) awareness of changing demographics and concomitantly, of changing conceptions of the worthiness, as much as it pertains to certain subject matters as to certain human “kinds”: to subjectivities, people. Here, especially, a far-reaching conceptual shift seems to be required.
Yet I think the “atavistic fear” Margaret aptly refers to is partly a deep fear about prospects of having to navigate a range of unfamiliar ideas, outrageous questions, issues and new “styles of reasoning” that disrupt and unsettle the “absolute presuppositions” that have long governed academic life: presuppositions about the “ideal academic” that, she rightly notes, are now threatening to reaffirm their hegemony. This thought pertains as much to deep-seated assumptions about what kind of person a worthy academic must be as to what projects of inquiry, what thoughts, questions, and ideas are worthy to occupy physical and intellectual space in the academy, across a range of disciplines and sub-disciplines. There is a deep security in homogeneity; and the “timidity” whose history Margaret aptly refers to must surely figure into various forms of resistance to potential innovation and reconstitution projects, at this rather tenuous juncture in the history of “the academy”, loosely aggregated: innovation that responds to ways of being in the world that differ from the hitherto taken for granted ways of “benchmark man”, yet that require the kinds of openness standard typologies rarely allow.
What I want to call the “embodied specificities” of people who differ from “benchmark man” were once declared irrelevant (in principle, if not always in practice) to processes of judging that elusive quality I have mentioned: “academic excellence”. Yet at the same time, some of those specificities were tacitly (or not so tacitly) effective in practices of sorting the putatively deserving from the undeserving, and not always even-handedly. Often, beneath the surface, they were definitive of the deliberations and exclusions that sustained a demographically monolithic, monochromatic academic community, quite apart from its variations across disciplines. Their current troubling (if sometimes tacit) reaffirmation informs much of Margaret Thornton’s astute analysis. Such specificities manifest in external concerns about the public face of the university, interwoven with internal convictions about which matters are worthy of academic inquiry, which projects are deserving of grants, worthy of publication, cause for recognition and esteem; and in certain areas of research, about how their absence – or their tentative attempts to establish a presence – works to reaffirm the monologic status of the mythical “man of reason” (to borrow a phrase from Margaret’s compatriot, Genevieve Lloyd). Anecdotally, I am thinking about the eminent British ethicist Philippa Foot who, in the late 1960s, was to deliver a paper at a US university. In response to a request for her title she sent a illegibly scribbled note: evidently faculty members consulted up and down the corridors, trying to decipher it, saying to one another that it seemed she must be going to talk about abortion, but surely that could not be so!! I mention this incident not just for itself but to suggest that indeed there have been changes even in a subject so hitherto austere as philosophy, concomitant with wider social changes, at least to the extent that topics once beyond mention in the elevated conversations of philosophers have, in their acceptance into the discipline, changed the landscape of inquiry well beyond what the substance of that one landmark paper on abortion suggests.
But the change is tenuous, unstable: recent closings of women’s and gender studies programmes, ongoing reminders to job candidates at least in philosophy (and very likely elsewhere) that it is best not to list feminist philosophy as an area of specialization, small numbers of women on conference programmes, on faculty lists in full-time tenured positions, attest to an ongoing need for vigilance and – yes – for advocacy, despite the bad press it tends to attract. Issues internal to the disciplines: issues connected to what Margaret calls “numerosity” in evaluations of “merit” also attest to continued pressures to venerate Benchmark man in his presumptively autonomous, self-sufficient aspects. Of many possible examples, I am thinking now of an ongoing disdain for collaborative inquiry, with the complexities it produces for evaluations of merit; of the research evaluation exercises (REF) that haunt the lives of academics in the UK; and by way of illustration, of the exclusion of book reviews from items that figure as calculable evidence of productivity. These latter are perhaps less easy to characterize thus until one pausess to think that books that fall into limbo for want of having been reviewed are less apt to garner scholarly recognition of the sort that academics, both new and old, require not just for purposes related to “numerosity”, but also for confirmation and inclusion in a productive academic community. These aspects of academic life are not as straightforwardly calculable in their effects in maintaining an outworn status quo, but their contribution to a climate of collegial vulnerability, or not, cannot be gainsaid. Hence although in many disciplines, book reviews no longer count as contributions to scholarly achievement, their exclusion devalues both the book itself and the scholarly work that goes in to producing a thoughtful review. Moreover, devaluing book reviews as forms of academic productivity, together with other not-solitary forms of scholarly activity damages any tacit sense of universities as communities of inquiry while revalidating a spirit of competitiveness. Although how some of these exclusions reinforce the stature of Benchmark Man is more oblique than with other examples I have adduced, their contribution to a solitary and stark individualism is part of this larger picture.
So what does it all amount to? Clearly, the point cannot be to work toward displacing benchmark man only to replace him with an equivalently monolithic “alternative” figure. Rather, as Margaret’s paper invites us to do, the project must be to deconstruct the very thought of a monolithic ideal and thence to work toward aspirations that better reflect the demographic multiplicity and scholarly diversity of the early twenty-first century academy, and wider world. The thought is not simple in its potential for realization because the timidity Margaret refers to generates precisely the kind of “pull-back” into an older and more comfortable (for some) stasis that the so-called new social movements of the 1960s and after promised to dislodge, and neo-liberalism is now working to reaffirm. Nor is that “pull-back” straightforwardly reprehensible in an era of increasing insecurity in the academy, where whole programmes and sub-disciplines can be closed down with rationales justified by appeal to numerosity. But the process is in no sense ameliorative, and it needs to be acknowledged for what it is, not just for purposes related to “numerosity”, but also for confirmation and inclusion in a productive academic community. These aspects of academic life are not as straightforwardly calculable in their effects in maintaining an outworn status quo, but their contribution to a climate of collegial vulnerability, or not, cannot be gainsaid. Hence although in many disciplines, book reviews no longer count as contributions to scholarly achievement, their exclusion devalues both the book itself and the scholarly work that goes in to producing a thoughtful review. Moreover, devaluing book reviews as forms of academic productivity, together with other not-solitary forms of scholarly activity damages any tacit sense of universities as communities of inquiry while revalidating a spirit of competitiveness. Although how some of these exclusions reinforce the stature of Benchmark Man is more oblique than with other examples I have adduced, their contribution to a solitary and stark individualism is part of this larger picture.
Thinking about the implausibility of imagining simply displacing the monolithic masculine ideal Margaret has diagnosed with a new, less coercive and restrictive one, recalls Genevieve Lloyd’s response, in the mid-1980s, to participants in discussions of her then-new book, The Man of Reason. There she documents the implicit or frequently explicit “maleness” of ideals of reason as – with culturally specific variations – they inform western philosophical and cultural discourse from the ancient Greeks through to the late twentieth century. When she was challenged, at that time, to propose an “alternative” to the man – and the maleness – of reason, she remarked that it had taken so long and so much careful analysis to deconstruct ideals of reason, and thus to expose its 2000+-year-old tacit or overt associations with maleness and exclusion of “the feminine”, that it would be facile, careless, to imagine that a new conceptual apparatus could without further ado be inserted, ready-made, in its place.
Although it may seem to be something of a stretch, I want to suggest that this thought has distant echoes with some readings of Audre Lorde’s caution against using the master’s tools to dismantle or rebuild the master’s house: a caution I am reading as a revolutionary declaration and not, as some of her detractors have claimed, as a reactionary shutdown ploy. On the reading I find plausible, Lorde is insisting she does not want us (whoever we are) to cower in fear of the master, but to stand up and disrupt the false consensus that constrains us. Hence she wrote, “… survival is not an academic skill. . . . . It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” Lorde recognized that feminists, in 1979, had not succeeded in countering the separations and schisms within the movement, which only perpetuated the dominance of patriarchy. So in arguing that, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she is insisting that only if feminists “learn how to take our differences and make them strengths ”will true that equality be achieved (2899). The conundrum, of course, is that practices and processes that accord Benchmark man the definitive voice will persist; and those of us who oppose them cannot just stand in the rain, outside the house, waiting for new ways of building, doing, and being to evolve. So the challenge Margaret has presented requires renewed efforts from feminists, both female and male, to recover, and rethink the early promise of feminist thought: to bring about far-reaching conceptual change. From Margaret’s astute analysis it is also apparent that the forms such reenacting can take are still to be determined, given how insistently Benchmark man is currently being reactivated/reanimated!! These are the deliberations Margaret’s excellent paper urges us to undertake. They require ongoing, arduous effort just when some of us might have been tempted to sit back and believe the issues had been resolved. But this is the rallying cry Margaret Thornton’s analysis has sounded.