The Pseudo-Family from Hell: Against Philosophy Departments and For Philosophy Research Groups.
An edgy essay by Z
Originally published 3 September 2015.
Every happy philosophy department is the same, but each unhappy philosophy department is fucked up in its own special, weird way.
Of course, I’m profanely spinning on the justly famous first line of Tolstoy’s titanically brilliant Anna Karenina.
Tolstoy knew all about fucked-up families.
But philosophers are, by nature, special, weird people; and professional academic philosophers are almost paradigmatically, deeply special, deeply weird people.
And Tolstoy didn’t know first-hand about that, nor did he know about their professional academic pseudo-families, departments of philosophy.
But as a former inmate, serving a life-sentence, in what might well be the most complete instantiation of the ideal type, Philosophy Department From Hell, in the history of the actual universe, hence my very own professional academic Pseudo-Family from Hell, I can tell you some things about what Tolstoy never knew, with first-person evidential immediacy, and a special insider’s knowledge.
Now leaving aside the happy-little-camper pap that is typically posted on the home pages of philosophy department websites for the benefit of undergraduates and their education-consumer parents, what is a philosophy department, really?
It’s essentially a homogenized social unit within the Professional Academic State, putting together a fairly small number of people with PhDs in philosophy, usually with completely different philosophical interests and very often completely different and antagonistic personalities, +/- graduate students, and some usually scandalously underpaid and all-too-often disrespected support-staff, under the coercive control of college or university administrations,and also very often also under the coercive meta-control of state or federal governments, for the express purposes of “research, service, and teaching.”
–Teaching undergraduates, that is, +/- teaching graduate students.
In short, it’s nothing but an artifact of academic professionalization, a phony made-for-TV family, and more specifically it’s a unique site for malicious so-called “professional colleagues,” in covert or overt collaboration with equally malicious administrators, many of whom are also departmental so-called “colleagues,” to do evil things to each other, often via the thought-controlling T&P system, hence often in absurdly ironic violation of the supposed aims of tenure, supposedly put in place to protect against precisely this sort of malign manipulation, as this recent piece of boilerplate bullshit from the APA so brilliantly exemplifies:
At its quarterly meeting last week, the APA board of officers approved a statement in response to the new budget recently signed into law by the state of Wisconsin, which includes a provision that threatens academic freedom in the University of Wisconsin System. Under the new law, tenured and probationary faculty members may be terminated or laid off prior to the end of their appointment due to budget constraints and program changes.
The statement reads, in part:
Tenure is the most important safeguard of academic freedom, and academic freedom is a bedrock principle of philosophical inquiry. The Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association deplores the assault on academic freedom in Wisconsin, whether it affects the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or any other universities in the UW System, and we deplore the precedent it sets. We call on legislators, regents and other campus administrators to work towards restoring recognized standards of tenure in Wisconsin.
The APA has a longstanding commitment to defend the professional rights of philosophers. We encourage all of our members to join us in taking a stand against this and similar threats to academic freedom.
All the best,
Amy E. Ferrer
— Ah yes:
“Tenure is the most important safeguard of academic freedom, and academic freedom is a bedrock principle of philosophical inquiry.”
Such sanctimonious bullshit.
In reality, The Pseudo-Family From Hell can do anything it likes to any of its inmates, up to and including ending their careers and messing up their lives, therefore it’s almost inevitably guaranteed to make everyone (except the coercive “colleague-collabos” and the administrative controllers, little monsters all, usually significantly better paid than their under-laborer colleagues, who really, really enjoy their coercive power) anxious, resentful, and unhappy, but above all, almost inevitably guaranteed to undermine the basic aims of real philosophy.
By sharp contrast, what I call philosophy research groups are voluntary associations of like-minded and mutually respectful — but not mutually uncritical — philosophers working together on the same, similar, or at least mutually compatible research topics, and (if practicable) teaching together, and (again if practicable) talking philosophy together, in order to create and disseminate real philosophy, whether written, spoken, or by some other medium, to the best of their individual and collective abilities.
Again sharply unlike philosophy departments, philosophy research groups:
(i) are not, except accidentally, parts of the Professional Academic State, in the sense that such groups may be, and often are, composed of people all of whom also just happen to be professional academic philosophers,
but (ii) they certainly can exist and flourish altogether outside of the Professional Academic State,
and (iii) their existence can be merely virtual, i.e., online, via frequent correspondence, Skype, etc.,
although (iv) ideally they consist of people who live near each other, and are able to meet in person frequently, or at the very least are able to travel somewhere fairly frequently and work together in real (space)time.
Now, in my own case, having been a “lifer” inside the Professional Academic State and ALSO a member — thank god, I mean thank the Highest Good — of several sanity-preserving and soul-saving philosophy research groups, I can say with great epistemic confidence that the very presence and existence of philosophy research groups can be, and often is, a subversive intellectual and practical threat to the efficient functioning of philosophy departments–and other academic departments too!, as I’ll describe a few paragraphs down.
Or more bluntly put, belonging to such a group can get you into serious trouble with the professional academic philosophy fuckers*, if you’re not already in serious trouble with them, merely in virtue of the nastiness of your malicious collabo-colleagues and malicious administrator-colleagues already, that is.
For example, if graduate students or untenured faculty members belong to the research group, it can often enough happen that they will be shunned by their peers, or badly evaluated — perhaps having their qualifying essays failed, or perhaps being turned down for re-appointment or tenure — by senior faculty who fear, despise, and seek to undermine the philosophy research group, its activities, and its basic aims.
Indeed, as an example from my own experience, for several years I ran a philosophy research group with several graduate students, and another faculty member, at that time untenured.
It was amazingly good, and we even produced a co-authored, published book.
But the graduate students in the group were still made to feel like philosophical losers by their peers for belonging to the group, to the point where they stopped telling people about it, and were also advised by other senior faculty members to drop out of the group and concentrate on writing publishable papers for respectable professional journals, as per this recent edgy essay–
Philosophical Rigor as Rigor Mortis, Or, How to Write a Publishable Paper Without Even Having to Think.
And the other faculty member in the group was scandalously turned down for tenure by his own department, for being TOO philosophical–absurd, amazing, and all too sadly, true–despite at least two books of his own either in print or forthcoming, in addition to several published essays, and of course the chapter in our collaborative book, and despite his being hired precisely BECAUSE he worked both in the field covered by that department and also in philosophy.
And here is something else.
Belonging to a philosophy research group generally makes it possible for philosophy to be a real joy, exhausting but still exhilarating, and endlessly repeatable, whereas belonging to a philosophy department is, all-too-often, a kind of sickness-unto-death that gradually but irremediably kills the philosophical will-to-live.
So those professional academic philosophy fuckers* who fear, despise, and seek to undermine such groups are already, in effect, professional academic killer-zombies, existing in the night of the living academic dead.
Now I am sure that if you have managed to make it through to this point in the essay, you’ll be thinking to yourself, or muttering out loud,
“OK, right, you crazy anarcho-philosopher!, you make some good critical points, but how the hell can we avoid belonging to philosophy departments, simply passively accepting all the bad features of them, if we want to climb the greasy T&P pole and survive?”
Well, the answer, I think, as already discussed in several earlier edgy essays and discussions in APP, e.g.,
Why Does Conscience Make Cowards of Us All? The Tenure-&-Promotion System as an Extremely Effective Device for Thought-Control.
is that you can either
(i) remain inside the the Professional Academic State, working your way up the pole, in a happy department, but also try your best to subvert the larger system covertly, which is inherently a very tricky and risky enterprise, not only practically but also psychologically, for the reasons discussed in this edgy essay,
but anyhow one still hopes there are some happy departments and that it can be done!,
or (ii) you can enter the Semi-Professional Academic State, which means a significant downgrade in your professional status and bragging-rights,
or else (iii) you can exit the Professional Academic State and try to survive as a real philosopher altogether outside professional academic philosophy, with all of the obvious downsides of that risky project.
So which will it be?
As for me, a former lifer, now an escapee, and as they say in therapy-talk, a “recovering” professional academic philosopher, I say,
three cheers for philosophy research groups!, damn the torpedoes, full-steam ahead!, let’s crash out!,
and choose door number (iii).
*This is a technical term. I never or only very rarely use profanity, myself.
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Wednesday 19 July 2017.