Recrimination and Ruined Hope

This is a guest post from Rei Terada, one of my favorite thinkers, and a piece which–in view of its timeliness and pertinence–I was delighted to be able to host. 

Reading Laura Kipnis’s “My Title IX Inquisition” prompts the need to consider student-faculty hostilities in a more historical and relational light. Kipnis’s article details how she has become the target of student protest and Title IX retaliation complaints. She had published an essay, written in what she calls a “slightly mocking tone” arguing that new codes ruling out consensual erotic student-faculty relationships “infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives.” For Kipnis, complaints of retaliation against her appear misplaced because she had never been accused of harassment and therefore had nothing, in her view, to retaliate for; as she saw it, she had simply published an opinion about a matter that did not directly concern her. Thus, Kipnis discusses student hostility primarily as a threat to her academic freedom. She laments a “climate of emotional peril” and “collective terror” on campuses, where “there are a lot of grudges these days” (“My TItle IX”) as well as the capriciousness and opacity of the officials investigating her.

Lauren Leydon-Hardy, who is a member of the department from which the Title IX complaints against Kipnis have issued, has written from her perspective. I would like to step back from the particulars of this and any dispute, however, to connect some otherwise unconnected elements of the larger situation.

Everyone seems to agree that this kind of conflict is new, as is its expression through rhetorics of vulnerability and institutional instruments such as Title IX and codes of conduct. Indeed, this trend has developed in the aftermath of student protests over privatization and other crises, and needs to be considered in conjunction with them. The protests began in California in 2009, then spread with the help of Occupy in 2011-12. They encompassed tuition increases, exploitation of workers, institutional anti-blackness, and police brutality, among other issues. Over the course of events (remember?), campus police arrested, beat with batons, pepper-sprayed, fired projectiles at, and on at least one occasion drew a gun on student protesters. University administrations harassed students with conduct charges for protests and prosecuted them in county courtrooms for political speech. There were people whose lives were seriously damaged by frivolous criminal charges.

During all this, the overwhelming majority of faculty remained distant and passive. I’m not aware that Laura Kipnis was ever moved to editorialize about the plight of students who fought for political expression during these years; few feminist faculty were, despite their avowed beliefs. Jennifer Doyle, in notable exception, observed in 2011 that student protesters were labeled “violent” no matter how restrained they actually were (I should add that Doyle has a detailed position on campus sexual politics that I do not mean to conflate with my thoughts on campus politics in general). When Berkeley campus police attacked students standing on a lawn with linked arms, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau responded by trying to argue that the students were “not non-violent.” After police pepper-sprayed seated students at UC Davis, Chancellor Linda Katehi was reported to be afraid to leave a campus building because students were gathered outside. A strange spectacle was staged in which Katehi, ashen with an imaginary distress that reversed the actual direction of the violence, was escorted by police to her car as funereally quiet students lined her path. Doyle wrote of the “increasing force directed at protesters who have sought ever more dramatic ways of demonstrating that they are angry–but not violent. Shouting? Too violent. Standing? Violent. Sitting down and chanting? Still violent. Finally, our students are on the floor with their mouths shut . . . [That] leadership has produced a situation in which the most effective protest has been silence should give us all pause.” Such phenomena form a matrix for the protest trope that Kipnis dismisses, students with “mouths taped shut (by themselves).” Or as Kipnis puts it–attributing the source of the problem to students–“open conversations are practically impossible” (Kipnis, “TItle IX”). Yes, they are.

After this attempted reduction to immobility, and after officials like then-UC President Mark Yudof repeatedly equated political speech with hate speech, thus closing the conceptual space for objection, how can it be surprising if anyone concludes that casting university problems in the terms of hate speech–the only terms it recognizes–might be an effective tactic? It is darkly logical to use the very codes of conduct and safety in the name of which the university represses protest to turn the tables, even as the fact that that is so sinks in with disappointment and resentment. Returning the rhetoric of the university to itself cannot perform autonomy, but constitutes a bitter reflection on its unavailability.

While commentators have observed the mostly “left” politics of the current friction, they haven’t got beyond seeing it as a contradiction. “It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years,” Kipnis writes (“My Title IX”). In fact, aggressive vulnerability is neither a blind contradiction nor supposed to be celebratory. It can mean different things in practice, without those things’ implying that it is anyone’s model of what meaningful remediation would be. Last quarter, UC Irvine’s Chancellor Howard Gillman derided student legislation against the use of national flags in student government space, then failed to object as racist insults and death threats to the students poured in. Students demanded that Gillman take issue with lack of civility against them, for a change, until he eventually succumbed to pressure in a belated op-ed. These claims of vulnerability were indeed “aggressive” in a way that complicates the picture of exaggerated sensitivity and absence of worldly realism. Where there are death threats, there is certainly vulnerability. At the same time, the protesting students were not, in my witness, at all cowed by racist threats, nor did they crave the loving kindness of an administration they perceived as corrupt. They were politically aware people who refused to be set back, and they pointed to their involuntary vulnerability to highlight the uneven application and would-be convenience of civility. The university’s official culture finds itself in a double bind of its own making. Given the demolition of options all around–the closure and threatened closure of programs, funds, access, time, and expression–that double bind is the impoverished shape of the remaining political space. It is a “right-wing” form, often but not inevitably used for “left” purposes (insofar as one can use that liberal vocabulary). It deploys university administrations (at best, parts of them against other parts). It’s airless, tense, and unsatisfying to inhabit, for anyone. It’s a form of damage. But whose signature is on it?

I’m not unsympathetic to Kipnis’s experience of administrative persecution, its protocols “under-explanatory in the extreme” (Kipnis, “My Title IX”). Rather, it sounds all too familiar, like what people lower in the hierarchy, people unlike myself, often experience. Faculty continue to sound oblivious to the conditions in which others in the university live. Kipnis’s original essay contends that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around” (“Sexual Paranoia”; my italics), and at length this turn-about seems to be much of the problem. It’s shocking to Kipnis that due to the animosities, “a tenured professor on [her] campus” might now lie “awake at night worrying” about losing her job (“My Title IX”); but the novelty of the experience suggests that the tenured professor does not lie awake worrying about others’ losses, and doesn’t find them intolerable. “If a graduate student can publicly blast her own university’s president, mock his ideas, and fear no repercussions, then clearly the retaliatory power that university employment confers on anyone — from professors to presidents — is nil,” Kipnis writes (“My Title IX”). But as soon as the graduate student does not arm her criticism in the legal obligation of Title IX, it doesn’t hesitate, as Kipnis leaves unmentioned, to treat her as a thing to be persecuted or ignored. Although Kipnis is sorry that “adjuncts, instructors, part-timers,” don’t have academic freedom, her immediate concern is not to get it for them. It’s that the situation not get worse by consuming her own, for “the idea is that once you’ve fought and clawed your way up the tenure ladder, the prize is academic freedom” (“My Title IX”). Here as elsewhere today, the concept of academic freedom can be appropriated to justify and obscure social discriminations. This defense of meritocratic freedom for the few (i.e.: of non-freedom) culminates in Kipnis’s “refus[al] to believe that students get to dictate what professors can or can’t write about, or what we’re allowed to discuss at our Faculty Senate meetings.” But isn’t the deeper question why students should be excluded from deciding what their relations to professors are, i.e., why they should be excluded from governance? Malcolm Harris’s interpretation of vulnerability claims against syllabus choices–that they “are a red herring in a wider fight” and “a way students have found to use language to lodge a complaint against the canon”–is closer to the mark (“Western Canon, Meet Trigger Warning”). The current state of things suggests that academic freedom can be developed only when it ceases to protect an inside from an outside; until then, there will always be a legitimate motive to attack what people are using, in practice, to protect themselves from the experience of others. Recrimination in the language of the university is the image of a ruined hope that things would be different. Many things would be better, but the ruin is not the invention of the mirror.

On the other side of the defense of hierarchy is not a new world with less hostility–not now, anyway. Sexism and/or racism arrive from within the activist/student milieu as well as from the hierarchy, and the former does not have much habitus to offer. Overworked, angry, underslept communities are not, in the extramoral sense, reliable places to live. In such places, hostilities continue to fly. Yet, they are what they are whether or not faculty manage to live above them, and their conditions and the forces that maintain them remain the issue. As long as that remains to be realized and altered, there is point in dwelling in the damage. I don’t see how “academic freedom” is or will have been possible unless everyone takes up residence on exposed ground.