The “Conceptual Penis” hoax: A con-job, co-option, or something way worse?

I join the list of academics who are quite annoyed (and worried, rightly so) of a so-called “hoax” that blew up on Twitter and social media last week, where two white male academics — one a professor, the other an independent scholar — published a manuscript “…loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory,” in a generic, 3 year-old, pay-to-publish journal, after being rejected by a better but not a very highly ranked one.

(Seriously, how difficult is it to get a list of the top 20 journals? Top 50? Here’s a few: Signs, Hyptia, Gender & Society…and there’s so many of them with the word “gender studies” in the fucking title!)

This, the authors claim, is the end of gender studies as we know it — a program that Peter Boghossian, one of the authors, thinks should be defunded — since the field itself is “is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil” (to quote from their paper).

And so rejoiced the old white men in science, philosophy, and so-called “rationalist” milieus (read: Islam-bashing forums) — from the likes of Steven Pinker, Michal Shermer, to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

In case there’s confusion, Dawkins and Harris are the ones accused of Islamophobia.

Oh, by the way, Lindsay and Boghossian also managed to show some glaring flaws in the for-profit academic publishing business (something that’s been written about time and again).

But who cares, gender studies was vanquished!

…by one pithy, parodic article which was published because they authors paid $625 (not their own money)…

….in a generic journal, which does not even list “gender studies” or “feminism” or “science and technology studies (STS)” anywhere on its website…at all!

An article which received “admirable” reviews by a reviewer…who isn’t a gender studies scholar, and doesn’t appear to have any gender studies or feminist publications on his official page.

But hey, credit where credit is due, I love the title of their paper, “The Conceptual Penis.” They describe it as thus,

“The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.”

This “conceptual penis,” further, they argue, stretches from manspreading (in their terms, “raping the empty space [around a man]”) — a legitimate form of harassment faced by women and girls in public spaces; just ask female commuters — to climate change — another legitimate environmental and socio-political crisis unfolding right before our eyes.

I meant for this post to be more of a serious nature, following some of the other wonderful responses to the so-called hoax. My first draft included arguments, citations, and all the jazz. But I then I said, fuck it. I take a different, sarcastic tone here because I realized this codswallop doesn’t deserve my best.

I guess I am channeling my inner-Amanda Waller from that clusterfuck-but-secretly-enjoyable Suicide Squad: “Do your worst, bitch.”

Let’s be honest, this con job doesn’t do anything at all to convince anyone who’s well-read and well-informed about the humanities and social sciences that there is an issue with the field of gender studies (or any other discipline like culture studies or cultural anthropology, which reject certain orthodoxies presented by ideological scientism).

This con job hilariously overstates its purpose in the name of science and skepticism and, ironically, fails at the very same tests.

Apparently, “vetting” here includes totally ignoring the fact that the said journal did not even have a Gender Studies or Feminist Studies section. Or that apart from writing a sham paper and Googling random references, the authors appear to have had no experience in Gender Studies whatsoever to lend any legitimacy to their exercise in the first place.

If Lindsay and Boghossian were any bit at all demonstrating issues in the field of gender studies, they would, first of all, like any scientist worth her salt, ground their skepticism or critique in one or the other issue. And no, the straw figures of “postmodern” or “post-structuralism” don’t count because no one — especially their critics — have any clue as to what they mean.

But oh no, they don’t do that — and I can think of no fucking reason as to why they should even bother doing so. Not like they’d be doing anyone a favor, in any case.

They just think, as an act of conjuring almost, that there is a problem with gender studies, and that it needs “house cleaning” (again, how utterly fucking wonderful for two white men to claim so!).

What problem exactly, one might ask?

Based on the insufferable prose in their blog, I could discern two responses: one, the “overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil,” and two that gender studies is an “echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense.”

There is literally no other reason apart from these two obtuse sentences! Not one legitimate or legible reason!

Q. Which gender studies programs, courses, or faculties are you referring to?
A. No answer!
Q. Okay, which scholars are you referring to?
A. No answer! Wait, wait, um, Judith Butler! Her writing sucks!
Q. What about empirical research in gender studies that rely on economic and sociological models?
A. No answer!
Q. What about works such as Emily Martin’s on the egg and the sperm, or Angela Saini’s on the scientific construction of menstruation and exclusion of women in science, or Anna Tsing’s work on the anthropocene, or Donna Haraway’s influential scholarship — to invoke some off-the-cuff examples?
A. No answer! But they must all need house cleaning anyway of course!

Do you — like me — realize just how inane and asinine this whole exercise has really been?

I mean, I greatly appreciate the likes of Ketan Joshi, Angus Johnston, Helen Pluckrose, and others, who have shown why the conceptual penis hoax shouldn’t be taken very seriously, that it is mean spirited, and is based on a questionable premise.

And as much as I want to shout out, “So why, exactly, is this such big a thing?!” I realize how pernicious, damaging and dangerous the con job actually is.

I say pernicious very deliberately, because I think it indicates the authors’ intent very clearly (I’ll get to it in the end).

Pernicious: because it co-opts and hijacks a field of studies, and its vocabulary, that emerged as a political movement and is already under serious threat.

Look around you, and you see that the “conceptual penis” becomes, with chilling irony, a remarkably cogent metaphor for our times.

A presidential race which was literally a dick measuring contest for some time, one which ended up electing a serial rapist and sexual offender as the President.

A time when sexual violence is an issue — on US campuses and in academic institutions (where rapists are let off with slap-on-the-wrist sentences, or not acted against at all); in conflict-prone zones where rape has remained a tool of warfare; in cities in India, where some cases evoke outrage (including the death penalty), and others none whatsoever.

A time when white republican men and women were so overtly concerned with the problem of which set of genitalia should correspond to bathroom signs, as trans people, and especially trans persons of color suffered a record amount of violence and abuse.

A time when rape and penetrative sexual violence become analogies to environmental degradation, and violence committed against indigenous peoples — in the form of fracking, oil pipelines, and the bullets and water cannons used against those protesting them.

Sure, my more-than-generous reading isn’t limited to seeing the “conceptual penis” as reducible to toxic masculinity — what Lindsay and Boghossian focus on in their con job. But it has hard to ignore that the authors, in their juvenile enthusiasm to show the ludicrousness of a make-believe term, actually manage to string together phrases that does signify something violent.

Notice, once again, why this whole farce is so tragi-hilarious: two white men decide to piece together incoherent words, which actually refer to legit, if obtuse, stuff; get it published in a generic pay-to-publish article; and then claim it was a hoax all along, and that gender studies needs to get its “house cleaned.”

I cannot keep laughing and swearing at how messed up this is anymore.

Seriously.

What this so-called hoax truly accomplishes — or tries to accomplish — is something that conservatives are already doing all across the world: engendering a project of violence against political minorities, their institutions, and their scholarship. This is a project that the authors, whether they want to or not, are complicit in it.

We heard the term “whitelash” in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election — referring to white working class people’s ostensible disdain for minority appeasement politics in favor of Trumpian machismo (in truth, seen also among white elites and middle classes).

The pernicious politics of this so-called hoax, garbed under progressive and scientific thought, basically, is a whitelash spearheaded by white men (presumably, cis-gendered and heterosexual, to use terms they probably deride) against scholars and fields that have breached the plantation mentality and feudal structure of academic thought, in philosophy and so-called objective sciences (like psychology, for instance, in the case of Jordan Petersen’s refusal to recognize the validity of gender-neutral pronouns).

In the Sokal Affair, veritably a cult now for some — which Boghossian and Lindsay hoped to ape, but didn’t at all manage — the issue was about what the nature of science should be, and how to best access it, even for political purposes. For Sokal, the answer was in objective language of scientific rationalism, not of postmodernism (a term he, too, understood poorly).[1] This dogged insistence on the “right path” for progressive politics is something we see time and again in academia: from Vivek Chibber’s diatribe against the Subaltern Studies collective (masquerading as a critique of postcolonial studies altogether), to Slavoj Žižek’s insistence on a Marxist solution to the refugee crisis (which uses the language of Islamophobic racism), to name a couple.

Sure, these men identify as Marxists and progressives — I don’t know yet where Boghossian and Lindsay stand — and claim that they only way in which politics can be accessed is through what they think are legitimate, rational means. Anything else that doesn’t, to invoke the title of Sokal’s famous book, is “fashionable nonsense” to them.

But things have changed in our post-truth era — where manufactured news, alternative facts constitute the Newspeak of this time; where data, science, reason, reportage, etc. are purged from the archives.

And if it hits the sciences hard now, it hits social sciences and humanities even harder. Not only because of the violence about which I’ve written above, or because of funding cuts, but because our modes of resistance — our concepts, vocabulary — have been taken from us, something I’ve written on before.

We, in the humanities and social sciences, always considered the truth to be contested: the truth of scientific racism, of political fascism, of sexism, and the truths of the people who experience the same.

These truths are denied now. Or, worse, there is the doctrine of false equivalences which suggests that privileged groups should be given “safe spaces,” or take pride in their racist or sexist cultures, the same way people of color and minorities do.

On the other extreme, of course, are pernicious con jobs like Boghossian and Lindsay’s article.

True, there are glaring issues we need to confront in our own spaces, yes: Issues of lack of representation of minorities in faculties, the instability and precarity they face, or the insincere and dangerous scholarship which denies such truths.

But it is a problem that won’t go away by making race or gender studies courses and programs disappear when, instead, we need them more.


[1] There have been far more interesting exchanges on this front, within the social sciences and humanities academic community, one might add. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ hilarious and sardonic commentary, Waiting For Foucault, on postmodern academics who take to Foucault so very easily, and uncritically, is one such example that is on-point and doesn’t need an iota of any intellectual dishonesty and meanness. Another instance would be the less-than-cordial spat between Žižek and Chomsky a few years ago (again, there was hardly any intellectualism here; compared to another academic Chomsky had a head-to-head with, the man himself, Michel Foucault).