The Humanities Scholar as an AdMan

A reflection on academic language

In his famous 1999 essay Authority and American Usage, writer David Foster Wallace meticulously examines the politics of English language. Amid more obvious analyses of political correctness, White English and Black English, Wallace reserves an “interpolation” of his grandiose argumentation to a discussion of what he terms the “verbal cancer” of “Academic English”. For the American writer, Academic English is an extremely obscure and pretentious variant of Standard English, even worse than the English of government or business. Academic English is so terrible mainly because disrupts what Wallace terms the “delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own résumé”. In other words, because it’s more about the writer than the writing. With a hint of gratuitous psychoanalysis, Wallace concludes that the “real purpose” of Academic English is “concealment and its real motivation fear.”

Yes, we still miss you.

Three years before the publication of Authority and American Usage, physicist Alan Sokal pulled his memorable hoax on the academic journal Social Text; in an attempt to verify his general intuitions about the declining intellectual rigor of academic humanities, he set up the following experiment: “Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies […] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?” As it is widely known, the answer was a big “hell yeah!”. In the Social Text spring/summer 1996 issue, dedicated to so-called “Science Wars”, the article Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity by Alan Sokal was published. On the very day of its publication, the American physicist revealed his hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca to much following debate. 
 It is evident that, despite Sokal’s own cautions, the scope of the hoax was broader than the mere demonstration of the lax editorial standards of a renowned academic journal. Indeed, what was at stake was the credibility of the most cutting-edge trends of academic humanities. What was questioned was their fashionable but non-intelligible language made of the “pretentious diction and opaque abstractions” that Wallace described.

“Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)” [Alan Sokal]

Some twenty years after, it seems that the situation just worsened. Last May, the peer-reviewed journal Cogent Science published The Penis as a Social Construct, another academic hoax à la Alan Sokal perpetrated by scholars Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. I reckon the title enough self-explanatory in regard of the article’s main theoretical concern. The only argumentative detail that might be worth to be further specified is that the two authors, writing under the pen names Peter Boyle and Jamie Lindsay, claimed that climate change is “conceptually” caused by penises. A significant particular, as I will argue in greater detail. In the long article for the magazine Skeptic, where they declare and explain their hoax, Boghossian and Lindsay write that their aim was to test the hypothesis that “flattery […] of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies […] is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field”. In this regard, it’s significant that they firstly proposed the fraudulent article to the journal NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies that rejected it suggesting a possible alternative publication in Cogent Studies, a pay-to-publish, open-access journal closely partnered with Taylor & Francis, NORMA’s publisher. Thus, the two hoaxers claim that the aim of their experiment became twofold: on one hand, they demonstrated that gender studies departments suffer of “an echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense” while, on the other, they shed a light on the flaws of the publishing model of predatory open-access journals. Clearly and openly, Boghossian and Lindsay were inspired by Alan Sokal; however, their Penis lacks the subtle satirical style that distinguished its 1996 progenitor. At the opposite, it shows the paradoxical, fideistic zeal so typical of many professional atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris: it takes a prejudicial and dogmatic grand claim (in this case that gender studies departments are nonsensical) and uses (manipulates even) any kind of available evidence to corroborate it. Per se, the Penis reveals at best the inherent problems of pay-to-publish systems rather than the validity of gender studies as a field.
Additionally and sadly, in this time of post-truth politics, the boundary between reality and fiction blurs on a daily basis and maybe hoaxes are not even needed anymore.

We live in a time where the boundary between fiction and reality is shifting dramatically.

Last May, The Minnesota Review, a literary magazine published by Duke University Press1, proposed in its new issue a paper called Assembled Bodies: Reconfiguring Quantum Identities by feminist scholar Whitney Stark. In a nutshell 2, the paper discusses how quantum physics can be combined with intersectionality 3 for the benefits of marginalized people. As argued by biologist Jerry Coyne in an entry for his blog, it’s difficult to determine whether Whitney Stark’s paper is a hoax or not; its jargon is undeniably Sokalesque and the whole argumentation is a premium instance of postmodern vagueness and obscurity. 
 The Conceptual Penis and the Quantum Identities 4 distinctly represent the zeitgeist of humanities scholarship. In this regard, another enlightening instance is surely the recent “Hypatia transracialism controversy”. As it is known by anyone that liked a sufficient number of feminist or philosophy pages on Facebook, last April, the journal Hypatia published the article In Defense of Transracialism in which untenured assistant professor of philosophy Rebecca Tuvel maintains that race is a social construct like gender. Moreover, she argued for an account of race also 5 based on self-identification. In the days following the publication, Rebecca Tuvel has been the target of an intense online shaming by (mostly) fellow philosophers that attacked her paper but especially her persona. The shitstorm was quickly formalized into an open letter addressed to “Hypatia Editor, Sally Scholz, and the broader Hypatia community” in which the 830 signatories claimed that In Defense of Transracialism falls shorts of scholarly standards for various reasons. Among them, there is one that is particularly significant for my analysis: Rebecca Tuvel was solemnly accused by this readily assembled academic Holy Inquisition of using “vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields” and of engaging in “deadnaming a transwoman”. Luckily, the fierce tone of this highbrow witch-hunt was cushioned by the pro-Tuvel interventions of many established scholars like Suzanna Danuta Walters, Sally Haslanger and Rogers Brubakers.6 However, it was too late to cancel an ugly page in the history of humanities, an episode that confirmed once again that this field of knowledge has still to effectively address the fundamental problem of its language.

An highbrow witch-hunt…that’s what the Hypatia controversy looked like.

In specific, I believe that all these examples show how the language of humanities increasingly resembles that of advertising, whereas in 1999 Wallace drew parallels with the languages of business and politics. The language of advertising is anti-essential, based on catchphrases, catch titles and rhetorical tricks. It works as long as it attracts attention. Along the same lines, the humanities scholar becomes like an adman (or an adwoman…) that has to pitch his material in a constant act of re-branding due to the “publish or perish” system (in which the preadatory open-access journals are like vendors of overpriced water in the desert). In this regard, already good ol’ Noam Chomsky noted that postmodern philosophers had to “keep doing something new” in order to hold the focus of public attention on them but since it’s not always possible to churn out new, provocative ideas, they had to “come up with crazy stuff”. However, there are crucial differences between the situation described by Chomsky (or Wallace and Sokal) and the current state of academic language in the humanities. At the time, humanities scholars still retained an aura of public authority (Chomsky refers to the “star system” of French philosophers that gravitate around the newspaper Le Monde) whereas nowadays they’re mainly confined into their esoteric departments. They don’t need new ideas to get media attention, they need them to survive in a jungle of shrinking funds. Actually, they don’t even need ideas, what they really crave is new terms. Indeed, I think that nowadays humanities scholarship is foremost a matter of terminology. In this, its language becomes the bespectacled twin of that of advertising. Examples proliferate; think of Judith Butler, the high priestess of feminism, that recently re-branded the concept of “vulnerability”. It’s difficult to grasp what exactly she means with this term, the same way it was almost impossible to moor “performativity”, her previous household notion, to an unambiguous definition. Nonetheless, her whole theoretical discussion is based on the employment of this term. It is a discussion that would require much further debate but it almost seems that what is advanced is a paradoxical view of language that it is based on the fixity and prominence of terms and names but at the same time it postulates their anti-essentiality and relativism. It’s evident that a similar language can’t last in the long run because unbearable paradoxes arise. For instance, in the case of the Hypatia contreoversy, Rebecca Tuvel has been after all dogmatically accused of not using the right names. A similar language is sustainable only if it boils down to be a kind of lubricant liquid for more quantitative insights but this cannot be the case of the humanities. In this bastard field of knowledge, language is nothing less than the method of research. The postmodern assumption that “all is discourse and text” (quoted also by Sokal in a pejorative way) might be extended to most of the humanities, not at the level of content but surely at the level of methodology.
 As it is probably already clear, what I’m writing is less about answering questions than about opening up cans of doubtful worms. However, small adjustments are as much necessary as obvious. For instance, clarity of expression, that Ortega Y Gasset defined as the philosopher’s courtesy, is more relevant than ever. Similarly, humanities scholars should try to open their paradoxically gated communities to the public, killing the “tremendous dragon of terminology” (again Ortega Y Gasset). Boghossian and Lindsay’s Penis as a Social Construct didn’t say much about gender studies a field but the reception of the hoax by mainstream media outlets certainly demonstrates how the discipline is often presented as abstruse and jargon-filled. Moreover, it is telling that several alt-right commentators employed it both to mock gender studies as a discipline and to discredit the scientific relevance of climate change.

Judith Butler as Don Draper of feminism…why not?

As a master student in media studies, I’ve often struggled myself with the obligation of cranking out new papers on a regular basis. Having to do so in a language that is not your mother tongue incentives a formulaic style and an opposite tendency to balance it with the same kind of advertising-like style that I described. In addition, media studies, a fairly bastard and indefinable discipline, is increasingly adopting mixed methodologies mainly in the direction of digital humanities. Other disciplines take similar approaches. However, language retains all its centrality because it shields the ultimate specificity of humanities disciplines: they’re all ontological. As it goes a brilliant French pun that en passant dissipates any suspicion of this article’s francophobie: “la lettre” reveals “l’être”.

1 The same publisher of Social Text.

2 Emphasis on “nut”.

3 A concept used to describe how oppressive institutions (racism, sexism,..) are interconnected and cannot be separated (


5 It’s this very “also” that makes Tuvel’s argument reasonable or at least worth to engage with.

6 In particular, Brubakers, in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, raises a good point that is somewhat tangent to my discussion; he writes that Tuvel’s case brings to the fore the issue of “epistemological insiderism” that is the idea that as a scholar you can research on certain topics like race or gender only if you belong to the category you want to discuss. E.g. you need to be a transgender person in order to discuss “transgenderism”.* The “epistemological insiderism” argument is a really slippery one because 1) In a time of gender’s fluidity it often undermines its own premises (how can I externally decided whether you belong or not to the category you affirm to belong to?) 2) It reduces humanities scholarship to a form of collectively financed psychoanalysis. 
 *My apologies to the 830 signatories that banned the term in their Malleus Maleficarum Academicorum.