As I mentioned in a previous post, my vacation reads from earlier this summer were an eclectic mix, but I managed to find or fashion some faint connections between them. After I finished off Charles Capper’s fine intellectual biography of Margaret Fuller, I moved on to Laura Kipnis’s controversy-courting polemic Unwanted Advances.
Of course I found myself disagreeing with many of Laura Kipnis’s positions. Honestly, I don’t think the good old days of “unproblematic” professor-student intimacies were all that good – or, rather, I think they were good not because of that dynamic, but in spite of it. (I went to college in the ‘80s; so when it comes to the good old days, I know whereof I speak.) Not that our present days of increasingly intense administrative scrutiny and regulatory control of the campus climate are vastly better in all respects – I think these days are just differently dangerous.
Still, I was glad to be reading Kipnis’s book, because even as I balked at her take in places, I greatly appreciated her intellectual company, her voice on the page. She is someone worth listening to, even if you disagree with what she’s saying. (Claire Potter made a similar point recently in a forum hosted by Signs.) Some have compared her style and her critical stance to Camille Paglia’s, usually as a way of dismissing or diminishing Kipnis’s arguments as anything different or new, but I don’t think that’s an entirely apt comparison. Yes, both deploy irreverent humor (is there any other kind?) as a rhetorical weapon to advance their polemics. But they use it very differently. Camille Paglia takes no one seriously, but herself; Laura Kipnis takes no one seriously, including herself. It’s a minor distinction, perhaps, when they’re both mocking pieties right and left (or Right and Left), but it makes a difference. A real capacity for self-deprecating humor is a good trait, and it’s something I appreciate about Laura Kipnis’s voice on the page.
Mostly, I appreciate this: Laura Kipnis’s take on any controversial issue is her take. This is where I drew a connection between Margaret Fuller and Laura Kipnis, since both used cultural criticism as the métier for conveying to the reader not just critiques but also the critic herself. And Kipnis does what cultural critics worth their salt are supposed to do: in the course of rendering her own judgments she explains the conditions and criteria by which she arrived at them. She is taking a line, for sure, but she is also modeling for readers how to take a line — not by trying to think more like Kipnis, but, like Kipnis, by daring to think more like themselves. Her cultural criticism successfully moves a lot of people from the position of thoughtful reader to engaged (and sometimes outraged) critic.
There are lots of outraged critiques of Kipnis’s book out there, and they’re as worthy of consideration as the book itself. Of all the reviews and critiques I have read of Unwanted Advances, this thoughtful review by Lisa Duggan stood out for me as particularly sharp, fair, and useful: “Rapture and Risk on Campus in the Age of the Sexual Security State.”
But what about this reader? Do I have anything useful to say about Kipnis’s book, beyond the fact that I am glad I read it? And, yes, I realize that simply saying that much – or that little – is enough to invite outraged condemnation from some quarters. In this job market, why risk offending anyone? Well, flip that around, as I do: In this job market, what does it matter whether you offend somebody or not? There are so few tenure-track jobs, the odds of landing one are already infinitesimally small. Might as well say what you think and not worry about it.
So, in that spirit, let me say this…
There’s a motif running through Kipnis’s book that really jumped out at me, but that I haven’t seen addressed very much in any of the reviews: the suggestion that academics are using the administrative apparatus of Title IX to intentionally damage the careers of other scholars. To me, that is by far the most explosive allegation considered in this book, but it has not garnered much attention. Most critics have focused either on what Kipnis says about particular students or about students in general, or on what Kipnis says about the serial predations (my reading, not hers) of Peter Ludlow. Some critics have focused on what Kipnis says about her own experience as the target of a Title IX investigation – and it is crucially important to remember that Kipnis was investigated for possible Title IX violations for an essay she published in the Chronicle, and that experience prompted her to write this book. But most reviews have really given a wide berth to Kipnis’s ruminations about how Title IX proceedings play into professors’ dealings with one another.
That critical silence is interesting to me, and I don’t quite know what to make of it. In some ways, it seems to me that Kipnis has achieved a feat of legerdemain, with everyone on the one hand closely parsing her claims about the students and about the professors they have accused of malfeasance, while with the other hand she has laid some potent charges on the table and lit the fuse unnoticed.
To characterize Kipnis’s ruminations on possible faculty involvement in these Title IX cases as “charges” is, of course, a play on the idea of “explosive allegations.” But for the most part Kipnis does not allege that particular professors did use the Title IX process to settle personal scores. Instead, she entertains the possibility that they might have done so. For example, in her discussion of “Jocelyn Packer,” the pseudonym she has assigned to the thesis advisor of Peter Ludlow’s accuser “Nola Hartley,” Kipnis notes that “Packer and Ludlow had once been friendly,” at least in Ludlow’s telling. “Ludlow,” Kipnis writes, “thinks the friendship may have gone downhill after a spat about a hiring decision—Ludlow hadn’t supported Packer’s candidate, who didn’t get the job. Packer would later complain to Joan Slavin [the Title IX officer] that Ludlow had girlfriends half his age and poor moral judgment, so maybe the estrangement had nothing to do with turf wars – but who knows?” (91-92).
That fillip of uncertainty renders the passage something just short of a direct accusation.
Then there is Kipnis’s discussion (pp. 109-123, passim) of “Professor X,” an academic with whom Ludlow’s accuser had had a relationship before coming to Northwestern. Writing of the Title IX investigator assigned to investigate the graduate student’s complaint against Ludlow, Kipnis says, “Bobb knew about Hartley’s relationship with Professor X, but ignores the implication – which is the uneasy spectacle of one philosophy professor with whom Hartley had had a relationship helping to take down another philosophy professor with whom she’d had a relationship, and using the secret juridical apparatus of our institution to do it – a project in which our administration appears to have unwittingly collaborated” (111-112). Kipnis uses italics for emphasis here and there throughout the book, usually just highlighting a single crucial word. The phrase above is the longest such instance of italics for emphasis in the whole book. It’s an important idea she is presenting to the reader – though, again, not quite as a direct allegation, but rather as an implication.
A bit later, in discussing her own Title IX investigation (“My Title IX Inquisition,” she calls it), Kipnis says that Packer contacted the editors of the Chronicle “informing them that I’d been brought up on Title IX complaints, and advising them to distance themselves from me. It was like being tattled on to the teacher. I did find it outrageous that Title IX was being wielded as a club to discredit someone (me) with an employer – was she trying to get me blacklisted too, along with Ludlow?” (130) Kipnis continues:
If word gets around that Title IX can be used by one professor to try to shut down a rival professor’s point of view, I foresee potential complainants lining up around the block.
All this made me wonder whether Packer had advised her students to file the Title IX complaints against me – she did seem rather invested in the situation. If so, it was spectacularly dumb advice (130-131).
Well, the word that professors might be able to do this to one another has gotten out, thanks in part to Kipnis’s account of her own experience. Indeed, I think this may be the most pivotal aspect of her story, at least for Kipnis. The astonishing fact that a professor could undergo a Title IX investigation for an opinion piece published in the Chronicle is really subordinate to the even more astonishing idea that professors might see this as a legitimate means of curtailing the academic freedom and crushing the careers of those with whom they disagree. That’s the truly explosive charge at the heart of this book – that academics might be using Title IX not to protect students but to settle scores under the cloak of anonymity.
Kipnis does a little score-settling of her own towards the end of the chapter on her own Title IX case when she discusses the possible involvement of “Heidi Lockwood, the roving crusader for female sexual justice who’d advised Hartley in the Ludlow case” (152). Kipnis is careful to say that she does not know “if Lockwood had anything to do with my Title IX case,” but adds that Lockwood was “certainly involved in the case against Ludlow, one of the various shadowy figures advancing his downfall” (152). Kipnis goes on to describe a legal affidavit that Lockwood had filed in another case related to Ludlow, an affidavit that had apparently been posted to or at least discussed on “the philosophy blogs,” where commenters reportedly took issue with Lockwood’s characterizations of their views.
Kipnis offers this assessment of Lockwood’s involvement in/commentary on Title IX proceedings at Northwestern: “…Lockwood at least signs her name to her stories, though when confronted about circulating pernicious rumors, she typically denies all responsibility; her usual response is that she was merely repeating information, not attesting to its truth. The abdication of responsibility seems to be Lockwood’s signature move….Is it possible Lockwood sees repeating hearsay about people as a form of political activism? I recently came across the phrase ‘noble cause corruption,’ the belief that a good cause justifies fraudulent means. Maybe it does in some cases, but it would still probably be reckless advice to give to students” (154).
That was an extraordinary passage to read in a book about academe written by someone who not only has but intends to keep a job in academe. That wasn’t some thinly veiled reference to a conflict that would be legible only to those already apprised to it: that was one academic saying, in front of God and everybody, that another academic is “circulating pernicious rumors” and “repeating hearsay,” and calling that person out by name. That’s not how most conflicts between academics usually play out, in my observation.
I’m surprised this passage, if not this whole strain of Kipnis’s argument about how some academics may be weaponizing Title IX, hasn’t gotten more attention in the reviews of the book. (If I have missed a review that focuses on this point, please do add a link in the comments.)
But I do wonder if this particular aspect of Kipnis’s argument – or at least the recoil from it – isn’t the driving force behind some of the animus that has been directed at Kipnis’s work or at Kipnis herself. She has done something unforgivable: she has explicitly described and publicly criticized alleged guild behaviors and misbehaviors that the canons of academic decorum – or, perhaps, the strategies for survival in a dysfunctional institution that is itself embedded in a dysfunctional society – would cover up in silence or, if necessary, allude to only in highly coded speech.
For that offense alone, this book would garner critics, even if they aim their criticisms elsewhere. How else can we talk about someone talking about the things we can’t talk about?
I am reminded of one of my favorite poems from Spoon River, the epitaph of the scrappy Dorcas Gustine:
I was not beloved of the villagers
But all because I spoke my mind,
And met those who transgressed against me
With plain remonstrance, hiding nor nurturing
Nor secret griefs nor grudges.
That act of the Spartan boy is greatly praised,
Who hid the wolf under his cloak,
Letting it devour him, uncomplainingly.
It is braver, I think, to snatch the wolf forth
And fight him openly, even in the street,
Amid dust and howls of pain.
The tongue may be an unruly member –
But silence poisons the soul.
Berate me who will – I am content.
In a nutshell, that’s Laura Kipnis as a critic: someone who insists on snatching the wolf forth. That’s not an easy gig, but it’s an important one, and I think it’s a role that comes naturally, if not easily, to her — just as the role of village censor comes naturally to others. There are plenty of critiques of Kipnis’s book that move well beyond mere supercilious censoriousness, but some of them start in that mode and never get out of it. Even so, there are certainly worse things for people to be in this scenario than self-appointed guardians of village decorum, or spectators watching the drama play out from the silence and safety of the sidelines. And of course not everybody can be like Dorcas Gustine or Laura Kipnis, and maybe not that many people would want to go through life that way anyhow.
One thing’s for sure: you don’t ever want to be that wolf.
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