Respectability, Epistemic Disobedience, & Methodological Dereliction

Ice, your series on respectability was amazing, and I have a lot of thoughts about it, some of which I will frame as questions in a subsequent post, and some of which I will address here. In this post I want to focus on (a) Ann Larson’s critique of the legitimation of Composition as an academic discipline, and (b) your discussion of epistemic disobedience and Jared Sexton’s concept of “methodological dereliction.”

First, Larson’s critique of “Composition’s push for institutional legitimacy” resonates in exciting and provocative ways with your analysis of philosophical respectability. Composition, unlike philosophy, is relatively new to the academy. It arose in the last few decades of the 20th century. Because of its newness, Comp scholars needed to argue for the legitimacy of the field as a “real” academic discipline. But they did this in a way that, to be blunt, threw its most vulnerable members (i.e., contingent faculty, which tend to be disproportionately white women and scholars of color) under the bus. According to Larson, the discipline has made a “category mistake” in which “adjuncts’ demands for fair pay and secure jobs in workplaces and elites’ demands for legitimacy and recognition in academic departments were [treated as] the same struggle.” The idea was that recognition of Composition as a legitimate academic discipline would solve its labor problems. Or, that academic respectability was a proper solution to what we might call a “demographic problem.” As Larson puts it:

Trimbur and Cambridge believed that demanding legitimacy and respect for a particular subject matter – in this case, the pedagogy of writing – would create better conditions for teachers of that subject matter. While not an unreasonable strategy, it turned out to be wrong. A less generous reading is that, in their framing, the “blatant exploitation” of workers was transformed into a symptom of the valuing of some kinds of scholarly interests above others, a problem arguably of less concern to those teaching in dead-end jobs for poverty-level wages than to an arriviste class focused on attaining professional legitimacy. (bold emphasis mine)

So instead of arguing for changed institutional conditions, mainstream Composition scholars argued for legibility to that institution in established terms: “We are a legit member of the academy,” was the line, not “the academy is the problem and must be changed.” Or, more, erm, philosophically, instead of offering the devaluation of Composition as evidence of the academy’s illegitimacy (i.e., offering that as a ‘wrong’ to process via disagreement), Composition scholars sought to demonstrate their ability to conform to the academy’s normative framework (i.e., its distribution of sensibility).

So, composition played a particular game of respectability, and, as Larson notes, “it is not surprising that the majority of writing classes are still taught by low-wage adjuncts. Not much has changed.” As you note, Ice, in your second post in the trilogy, respectability politics never solve “demographic problems,” they exacerbate them for the least advantaged members of whatever group(s) is seeking legitimation–adjuncts, black queers, etc.

Though the particular conditions of Compositional respectability and Philosophical respectability are different, I think Larson’s essay resonates, at a certain level of abstraction, with our project here (at minimum, it’s the same overarching academy that we’re addressing). For example, this portion of Larson’s essay might well be describing the kinds of Rosenbergian exceptionalism we’ve been critiquing:

the discipline’s intellectual work has often functioned to legitimize labor exploitation. This is where Composition’s decades-long fight for status in academia was always fated to lead. Any semblance of class struggle, not to mention old-fashioned liberal sympathy, has been reduced to the dictum: “those unemployed people should have been smart like us.”

Similarly, Larson’s claim “The problem is not that Compositionists lost that battle against disciplinary discrimination; the problem is that they won it” is equally valid for mainstream analytics and mainstream continentals. The problem isn’t that they lost the battle against disciplinary marginalization (in the academy in general, in the discipline itself), but that they won. Because even and especially in continental philosophy, this battle for respectability in the discipline generally comes at the cost of reinforcing philosophy’s demographic problems.

Larson’s proposed alternative to “respect” also resonates with your discussion of epistemic disobedience.

The task ahead is not to reclaim Composition within the social division of labor that exists. As public institutions are dismantled around us, those who identify as Compositionists should take the radical step of refusing to apply our knowledge and expertise in the corrupt institutions as they are. We may believe ourselves to be knowledgeable about literacy development and about the theory and practice of writing and learning, as we surely are. But the operative questions now must be: in whose interest is such knowledge deployed and in what contexts might it be made valuable again? The battle for respect and authority has proven to be ineffective and downright counterproductive to a goal truly worth fighting for: the end of the university as “bureaucratic corporation” and the creation of democratic sites of teaching and learning in which teachers and students might re-think what counts as knowledge in a world of deepening inequities and re-make their relationship to each other in the process.

Larson echoes your question “to whom is our thought faithful?” Pushing Larson a bit, we could say that being faithful to philosophy’s diverse practitioners means disrespecting a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal academy. And it requires re-making our relationships to one another as philosophers–which might include thinking of ourselves as workers first, lovers of wisdom second. In the last line of the quote above, Larson clearly ties a re-making of the discipline to a re-making of its, and the academy’s, politics. The substantive disciplinary question (what is philosophy?) is inextricable from the demographic and political question. Re-making philosophy means re-making our relationships to one another.

On the topic of epistemic disobedience, I want to contrast the respectable “pluralism” that we’ve been critiquing with a different kind of pluralism, what Jared Sexton calls “the ecumenical spirit of Fanon and Du Bois” which

pulls otherwise incompatible modes of inquiry into a common horizon of concern. Fanon, in particular, proves deft at moving between the fields of philosophy, literature, poetry, and history or psychiatry, psychoanalysis, political theory, and anthropology—often in the matter of a paragraph….His sense of intellectual freedom and professed methodological ‘dereliction’ licenses, I think, a certain shuttling back and forth between disciplines, in and out of entrenched disagreements among theorists and critics…cultural and political criticism that draws from the psychoanalytic archive, putting to work its concepts and operating within its broad intellectual sphere but guided by aims ‘beyond the couch’” (Amalgamation Schemes, 10-11).

Sexton puts “ecumenicalism” together with “dereliction”–this sort of pluralism doesn’t faithfully reproduce philosophy or psychoanalysis (or any method, really) because it “aims beyond” the universe in which it orbits. You might describe what I’m trying to do here is give a sort of queer genealogy of epistemic disobedience–to show which derelicts have sketched the lines of flight that sketch the orbit of our philosophical practices. Dereliction isn’t the erasure of influence, but the strategic misreading of the texts that ground us, misreading guided by disobedient loyalties, a faithfulness beyond the horizon of ‘philosophy’ proper.