Academia is not your parents

Is everyone OK? Do we need to take a moment? Catch our breath, check if anyone is missing, see if anything is broken . . .

Feels like we’ve been in a car wreck. You know what I’m talking about.

Prof. Polzonetti has written his own last word on the subject in the comments of this blog, and I will give him the last word in the debate on this site. As the accused party, he has that right, I believe. And with that, I am closing comments on all Polzonetti-related posts, including this one, because I’m going to write some stuff that you will probably not like, and I don’t care if I hurt your feelings, and I don’t care about your Correct Ideas on the Issue. This isn’t an invitation to join an online conversation, it’s me telling you that you are wasting your life on bullshit. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Although I have my own opinions, even the thought of trying to say something about L’affaire Polzonetti makes me feel bone-weary. Surely everything has been said by now. And — here’s the funny thing — I am also absolutely, 100% certain that nothing anyone has said pro or contra Polzonetti, not one of these carefully-worded, passionately-held arguments, has made the slightest bit of difference to anyone’s opinion.

So why did we do it?

This is one time that the musicological community en masse acted out the imperatives of social media. People like to complain that “the media has a left-wing agenda” or “the media has a right-wing agenda,” but the truth is that the media has a media agenda. And what media wants is for you to keep using media. Facebook doesn’t give a shit whether you are clicking on a right-wing or left-wing article; it only cares that you’re clicking. And what motivates people to keep clicking is whatever is meant by the expression “click-bait”: anger, pride, contempt, in-group feelings of superiority, horniness, reassurance that you have not wasted your life, and whatever it is that makes you rubberneck at car crashes. Aside from horniness, these are pretty much exactly the things that stoked this online frenzy of academic bloodletting.

You’d probably like to think that  everything you do is governed by your noble principles, but really, you just allowed yourself to turn into the internet’s hand puppet. Social media is a daimon, an incorporeal entity with its own agenda, and you were possessed. So put a quarter in your ass, ’cause you played yourself.

I have heard that friendships were ended as a result of this quarrel. I doubt it was worth it. Ending a friendship over an intellectual principle is fucking lame. It represents the triumph of intellectual values over human values — this being one of the most common symptoms of what I have come to think of as “Academic Personality Disorder.” If you’re reading this, recalling the unkind things you said to someone you used to consider a friend, and hearing the tiny piping voice of your conscience, you are probably trying to drown it out with a loud bray of self-righteousness (“But my principles really are more important than mere personal feelings!”) and, if my own experience is any guide, you are probably succeeding. This too is a symptom of Academic Personality Disorder.

A long time ago I wrote a piece about my Dad’s unhappy academic career. And one of the things that poisoned scholarship for him was something that a mentor of mine, Joel Weinsheimer, warned me about just as I was graduating with my Ph.D. I find I have little to add to my characterization of it.

Many professors in later life [though really, this can happen anytime] feel themselves to be overlooked and unappreciated, he told me; no matter how high they have risen in the academic profession, no matter how many books they have written, or how many honors they have been granted, they resent their colleagues for failing to understand them. They resent the successes of others, feeling they are rightly theirs, and they are full of envy and contempt for the work of younger scholars coming up in the profession. Everybody knows professors like this, but each of these people was once someone just like you, a basically normal nice person motivated in his work by a love of knowledge. So what happened? At some point, Joel said, they reached a point where they had experienced some disappointment or setback, and there the found, dangling before them, the fruit of bitter self-consolation: no-one understands you, so screw ’em. And it’s a low-hanging fruit: it’s right there, just waiting to be picked, and you can reach out and take it without any trouble, and though it’s bitter it tastes like wisdom. But its bitter knowledge is false, and the fruit is poisoned. It’s a long slow poison, and it kills.

But I didn’t contemplate why academics so often fall prey to this temptation — what a friend of mine calls “joining the all-bitter squad.”

I have a theory about that. I have written repeatedly about how the social and intellectual structures of academia are formed, root and branch, by the mechanism of peer review. And understand that “peer review” doesn’t just mean the formal process your article goes through to get published. It’s a general cultural expectation that we learn long before we ever publish anything: you’re nothing until someone says you’re something. And while in the formal peer-review process we know we’re courting the good opinion of readers 1, 2, and (where necessary) 3, in the atmosphere of those more general and diffuse cultural expectations within academic life, we don’t really have particular people whose approval we can beg. So we try to figure out whether we’re in step with abstractions like “the discipline,” which only become concrete for us in largely symbolic benchmarks like who gets selected to read a paper at the national meeting of the AMS. Or we go looking for a group into which we can submerge our identities, a posse we feel we can roll with, whose rising and falling fortunes (measured by that one thing someone said on Twitter or whatever) become a matter of intense personal urgency and indeed become identical, in our minds (by whatever obscure process of mental association), with our own individual fortunes, because, at the end of the day, what we are looking for is validation of our own personal worth, a validation that is never forthcoming from that bitch goddess, The Discipline. We love The Discipline, don’t we, like those poor kids loved Joan Crawford. Sometimes we caper and mug for The Discipline, and sometimes we hiss and spit at it, but either way, we want it to love us, or at least to take notice of us. Look what I made. I drew it for you. Put it on the fridge, please, Mommie.

We are all of us neglected kids, here.

If you are still inclined to feel angry at The Enemy, whomever he she or they may be (racists! academic leftists! people who don’t love classical music! people who do love classical music!), consider how very sad this is. It is not an occasion for gloating or resentment, but for sorrow and compassion.

Apparently the same kind of thing happens in show business, which is similarly an economy of personal reputation. If celebrities are screwed up, that’s probably why. It’s a horrible way to live your life, living only for what other people will say about you. Trying always to get something to love you that won’t, and can’t, love you back.

This is why Marc Maron, the comedian and podcaster, likes to say that “show business is not your parents.” And it’s true for academia too. Musicology is not Mom and Dad. To the degree that you act as if it is, you are asking for trouble. You will inevitably feel slighted, ill-used, unappreciated, rejected, and it is very hard to act like a human being under those circumstances.

So what are we supposed to do about this? I don’t know. I suspect that if there is a way to avoid joining the all-bitter squad, it has something to do with finding our reward in the work itself. Easy for you to say, Mr. Tenured Professor. Well, first of all, that’s Dr. Tenured Professor to you. And secondly, what’s so great about having an academic job? It certainly hasn’t done anything to make most of us any happier.

And by the way, if you somehow believe I’m going after your particular group or interests — or for that matter if you’re happy because you think I’m going after your enemies — then you haven’t understood a word I’ve written. It’s not often I get pissed off enough to quote the Bible, but there’s a line that’s been running in my head just lately, Romans 3:10: “there is none righteous, no, not one.” And before some genius goes telling me that I, at least, seem pretty sure of my own righteousness, how do you think I know so much about Academic Personality Disorder?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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