At the margins of the Hypatia controversy

After an extended hiatus—the explanation for which I will reserve to a later date—I am back to blogging.

Initially I had planned for this return blog post to focus on a recent discovery I made while working with librarians from Houghton Library to prepare some portions of the late Hilary Putnam’s library for transfer to Houghton. However, a recent event within the profession—the strong reaction occasioned by the publication of an article in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy—has led me to defer that post to another time.

When I first conceived of this blog, I had no intention of posting on highly charged issues within or outside of the profession. Although I have fairly strong views and commitments, I did not see any need for this blog to be a space for me to air them. Rather, I wanted principally to highlight interesting marginalia in our collection and, in a related vein, to take up topics that are generally of marginal interest to the discipline of philosophy (e.g. the book in both its materiality and history). Those remain my aims and interests. However, the responses to the Hypatia controversy have convinced me of the need—even if only a personal one—to write on some of the issues lurking at its margins.

Since the controversy is sufficiently in the past at this point, I am including, for the benefit of readers, links to documents involved in the controversy and several published responses to it.

The “Open letter to Hypatia”

This is the first public document, in which the authors of the letter state their objections to Hypatia‘s publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism.”

“To our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy”

This is the response to the “open letter” by the Associate Editorial Board of Hypatia that appeared on the journal’s Facebook page on May 1, 2017.

“This is what accountability looks like”

Professor Lisa Guenther’s Facebook post in support of the statement by the Associate Editorial Board.

What follows are reflections raised not by Tuvel’s article (which I have read and which is certainly open to critique) but by the reaction it occasioned. My interest, in other words, is in matters at issue in the dispute that emerged between those who criticized Tuvel and those who criticized her critics.

 The question is which is to be master—that’s all

(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)

humptydumpty_wordsWhen criticism of Hypatia‘s publication of Tuvel’s article first appeared online, early reactions displayed considerable discursive uniformity when describing the article’s effects. The authors of the “Open letter to Hypatia” put it this way: “Its [Tuvel’s article’s] continued availability causes further harm [comment: it is unclear what original harm the author’s have in mind since this is the first time harm has been alleged in the letter], as does an initial post by the journal admitting only that the article ‘sparks dialogue.'” On May 1st, the Associate Editorial Board of Hypatia proceeded to publish on the journal’s Facebook page a response to the writers of the “Open letter,” apologizing “for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.”  Attributions of harm likewise appeared in statements of support for the “Open letter” published on Facebook and Twitter. Professor Lisa Guenther, a signatory to the “Open letter” and a member of Tuvel’s dissertation committee, signaled her apparent endorsement of the “harms” claim by quoting the Associate Editorial Board’s apologetic statement that “the words expressed here cannot change the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” On Twitter, Professor Rachel McKinnon repeatedly asserted—as if it were an already established fact—that Tuvel’s article harmed trans people.


When confronted with the argument that retracting Tuvel’s article might harm Tuvel’s career, McKinnon countered by denying the likelihood of such an occurrence and reiterating her [McKinnon’s] position that Tuvel “doesn’t have a right to harm us for her benefit.”

Perhaps the most heated criticism, however, came from Professor Nora Berenstain who claimed in a Facebook post (since made private) that Tuvel’s article “contains egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.” Berenstain’s appeal to a form of violence that inheres in the article’s discourse—a violence that pervades its terminological choices, its framing of the issues, and its methods—reveals obvious debts to the work of Foucault, Spivak, and others from which the concept of “discursive violence” and the related concept of “epistemic violence” arose.

The repeated claims of harm done or alleged to have been done by Tuvel’s article prompted a sustained reflection on this issue in Inside Higher Ed  by José Luis Bermúdez, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. Bermúdez’s tone throughout the article is considerate rather than polemical. He acknowledges more than once, for example, that “it is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal.” Nevertheless, Bermúdez shares my own suspicion that Tuvel’s critics have failed, in fact, to demonstrate the harm allegedly done by the article or even to elaborate a clear understanding of the concept of harm with which they are working. The absence of any such conceptual definition or clarification by Tuvel’s critics—standard practice among professional philosophers—ought, Bermúdez notes, “give us pause for thought.” And while it is at least implicitly clear what form of harm Tuvel’s critics do not have in mind—libel, for example—it remains mysterious what form they do mean. The demand for some positive elaboration on this point ought not to be perceived as unreasonable. Indeed, given the seriousness of the charge—harm rather than something far less grave or actionable like offense—Tuvel’s critics ought to feel obligated not only to provide the editors of Hypatia with a clear understanding of the concept but also to specify through careful argument precisely how and to whom the harm has occurred. All of this should be especially incumbent on them if, as the authors and signatories of the “Open letter to Hypatia” do, they seek a remedy in the form of a formal retraction of the article. None of this, to date, has happened.

And you may ask yourself, Well
How did I get here?

(Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”)

Disagreements like this over the appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular terminology and concepts (e.g. “harm”), while potentially productive in a limited and immediate way, avoid touching on or excavating the  roots that nourish and give rise to them. In requiring that Tuvel’s critics define how they are using “harm” and provide clear demonstrations of how and to whom it occurred, we miss asking ourselves and them the obvious question: “How did we arrive at the point where it was not at all obvious to a subset of people working in our own field or in a field adjacent to it that either definition or demonstration were needed?” Put slightly differently, “How do we explain why some scholars immediately resonated with the assertion that a scholarly article could cause harm to an unspecified group of people merely by the fact of its publication and ‘continued availability’?” In short, “How did [we] get here?”

The pursuit of origins brings with it familiar dangers, tendentiousness by the pursuer being among the most common. No doubt some will read what follows and conclude that I have failed to avoid it. I leave the truth or falsity of that for others to determine. By way of apology I will say only that in pursuing the origins of the perspective sketched out above—a perspective that takes as given that scholarship like Tuvel’s enacts forms of real-world violence and harm—I have been guided by the principle that one is more apt to find them by attending closely to what is immanent in the discourse of its defenders.

With that in mind, I want to return to Nora Berenstain’s criticism that Tuvel’s article engages in an “egregious” act of “discursive transmisogynistic violence.” As I previously noted, Berenstain’s understanding of discursive power appears to owe quite a lot to the work of Michel Foucault, who was arguably the first to introduce the concepts of “power-knowledge” and “discursive formations” into the American academy. Foucault developed these ideas in the course of a series of archival investigations into the evolution of the understanding and treatment of madness in France (Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique), the birth of and changes in the medical clinic (The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception), and the turn away from a penal system devoted to corporal punishment to one of penitential confession and self-mastery (Discipline and Punish). Foucault undertook these studies during the 1960s and early 1970s. Together they constitute a body of work commonly considered his most explicitly historical research into power-knowledge and its products.

It seems hardly controversial to me to suggest that all of this lies behind Berenstain’s formulation “discursive transmisogynistic violence.” Whether encountered first-hand or through one of Foucault’s many American interpreters, adherents, or sympathetic and/or critical interlocutors, Berenstain appears at minimum to accept the Foucauldian sense that particular forms of discourse (psychiatric, medical, penal etc.) produce effects of power-knowledge that, in turn, produce new kinds of subjects whose subjective lives are variously empowered and constrained by those effects.

Less obviously, Tuvel’s critics (Berenstain among them) appear indebted to work done on the French educational system by, among others, Foucault’s contemporary and occasional collaborator Pierre Bourdieu. Perhaps even more explicitly than Foucault—who occasionally made larger generalizations about western European practices of power-knowledge that he sometimes regretted and quickly abandoned—Bourdieu’s research on the academy strove to remain resolutely local, concerned not to uncover a general European logic at work but to disclose the distinctive features that made up the French academic field. In pursuit of this, Bourdieu sought to combine theoretical reflection with empirical research that tracked (among other things) the volume of scholarly production, where it was published, the institutional affiliations of its producers, the networks of influence among them, their media presence, governmental and political associations, and much more. From this mass of data, Bourdieu developed a set of analyses regarding the place the French educational system occupied within France as a whole.

When the works of Foucault and Bourdieu first arrived on American shores, their enticing theoretical insights and distinctive formulations—power-knowledge, discursive formation, habitus, cultural capital—came trailing in their wake a considerable but decidedly less sexy body of archival and empirical research on which they were built. Both the former and latter arrived at a time when American higher education was entering a period of crisis and change—in which (positively) many more underrepresented groups than previously were entering the academy and, at least to some degree, transforming the content of the curriculum through the formation of new disciplines and greater attention to interdisciplinarity, and in which students (again positively) were becoming more attuned to the political dimensions of the university. Negatively, this period also coincided with rising expectations by administrators over faculty publication and the perceived exhaustion, at least in some disciplines, of older frameworks and methods. American academics (particularly in the humanities but also in some of the social sciences), eager for new approaches to their fields and conscious of and concerned to correct the academy’s historical blindness to its role in the production, maintenance, and reproduction of modern political society, greeted the arrival of this work enthusiastically. Here, after all, were intellectual compatriots who had already (it seemed) done some of the heavy lifting for them. All that remained was to put their ideas to use in an American context and, when needed, to demonstrate the extent of their shortcomings.

The minor tragedy of the American reception of French thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu consists in the ease with which their conclusions were appropriated rather than their working methods. For the American academics who embraced them and digested their insights, the works of Foucault and Bourdieu were quickly shorn of their Frenchness and turned into expressions of a universal, totalizing logic despite academic protestations to the contrary. Given the vehemence of Foucault’s personal opposition to totalizing logics, the irony of this situation could not be more acute.

Forty years later, this minor tragedy has become a major embarrassment. Concepts like “power-knowledge” as well as claims about the social force exerted by certain kinds of “discursive formations” and “practices” like those of the academy—most of which arose from patient but hardly flawless archival and empirical research conducted on French institutions, with specific histories and more or less distinctive modes of thought, conducted in a language other than English and engaged with and intellectually indebted to a different set of interlocutors—have so entered the bloodstream of the American academy that we scarcely remember that they are not native to our shores. This is not to proclaim them irrelevant, merely to acknowledge that whatever hard won insights they contain were not achieved by us. Relieved of the necessity of doing the hard, unglamorous archival or empirical research into the extent to which the products of the American academy—scholarly journal articles, monographs, etc. —exert an influence on the larger culture or shape and constrain the subjectivities of the individuals within it, American academics can instead assume it, confident in their belief that an article published by an untenured scholar in a philosophy journal with limited circulation causes harm.  Somehow, this does not seem like the liberation we were promised.