Go Fund Me

“The concept of personality cannot be saved. In the age of its liquidation, however, something in it should be preserved…”
-Theodor Adorno, “Gloss on Personality”

“Anybody can set up crowdfunding.”
-Alan Shaver, president of Thompson Rivers University, upon being asked whether the university would provide any assistance to a sessional instructor undergoing breast cancer treatment

 

A few weeks ago, a psychology professor learned that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) would not be renewing his funding. I’d rather not name him here, since a large number of his internet fans are right-wing trolls, so I’ll call him Dr. Frink. (Mwa-hey-hey.) For most academics, this funding cut would be disappointing but not newsworthy; about 75% of grant applications are declined. But Dr. Frink is crying conspiracy. The National Post, which has already given Frink far too much publicity for his uninformed assertions about Canada’s speech laws, has made him into a martyr of sorts. This after years of mocking junior scholars who did receive SSHRC funding.

It’s a rare occasion that knowledge production, and the state’s role in it, becomes visible to the public. The non-story about SSHRC came out at the same time that the US government is threatening to eliminate its major organs for humanistic work (the NEA for artists and the NEH for scholars). The right-wing attack on the humanities and social sciences is often based around the premise that the proper domain of the arts has been contaminated with politics. Conservatives never care about Shakespeare as much as when they’re counting the number of conference panels that aren’t about Shakespeare. And indeed, prior to his own grant application being declined, Dr. Frink repeatedly called for the defunding of non-STEM fields in Canada.

Here’s where things get weird. A right-wing media consortium, which I’ll call Rubble Media, has initiated a crowdfunding campaign on Dr. Frink’s behalf (the second crowdfunding campaign supporting Dr. Frink, who also has tenure). To date, they’ve raised enough money to support the first two years of the laboratory’s work. What a win: Dr. Frink gets to indulge his fantasy of autonomy, of scholarship unhampered by the lefty state or the victim-obsessed university.1)As Natalia Cecire and John Pat Leary observe, right-wingers who promote “alternative facts” have adopted the rhetoric of epistemic marginality and suppression. Same thing here.

But this autonomy will be a liability for the grad students’ careers and compromise the research itself. One solution to the “replicability crisis” in psychology has been to make the peer review process transparent, tracking replication studies and making all the raw data available.2)Barry Lam’s Hi-Phi Nation podcast gives a good run-down of the movement, including a too-good-to-be-true experiment which did not find that political extremists see colours differently. The “openness” of the internet (more ideology than reality) is central to the open-science initiative, as it is to the strange attempt to crowd-fund a bunch of personality tests. But the reasoning is opposite: Open Science advocates want to circumvent confirmation bias, and the Rubble donors demand more of it.

In the meantime, SSHRC will release the names of its reviewers once all of the grants for the year have been disbursed. All in the name of transparency and integrity. But will this year’s jurists find their names published on Rubble Media? Will they be doxxed and threatened? Whose interests does this transparency serve?

Some of the Rubble donors have contributed as much as $1000, and they expect a good return. I’ve read the original grant proposal and most of it is standard stuff based on the “Big Five” personality trait inventory (NEO-PI). I assume that what’s most enticing to the Rubble crowd, apart from the David-against-Goliath mystique Frink has constructed, is the promise of a new measure of political correctness, along with a new personality profile, the “PC Authoritarian.” Presumably, none of them know the history of authoritarianism as a trait.

Personality research has been, historically, a liberal endeavor. I’m thinking mostly of mid-twentieth-century American psychologists and anthropologists such as Gordon Allport, Henry Murray, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. They talked about Emerson, Nietzsche, and systems theory. They hated the bomb but looked askance at the social movements of the 1960s. Some of them were into weird sex stuff. But the pluralist orientation of this work took on a different tenor during the Cold War years. Many social scientists collaborated with the Office of Secret Services and the CIA. Modern, democratic subjects were self-authored, “creative,” and “flexible,” while pre-modern or communist subjects sublimated their need for a Father-God into blind adherence to the Party.3)See Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago, 2014) and Sarah Brouillette, “Cultural Work and Antisocial Psychology” (in Theorizing Cultural Work [Routledge, 2014] The type of the authoritarian, originally reserved for anti-Semites, union bashers, and of course people who checked their horoscopes daily, could easily be expanded into a description of anyone who did not match the neoliberal ideal of endless flexibility and resilience.

It’s around this question of complicity–intentional or not–that the purported autonomy of the humanities comes back into the picture. In the Cold War U.S., the arts were marshaled along with psychology in a double-pronged attack against communism, again cast in dispositional terms (as authoritarianism, unfreedom, or homogeneity).4)Aside from a general awareness of the CBC, NFB, and CanCon regulations as nation-building enterprises, I’m not aware of anything analogous in Canada. One left critique of the NEA/NEH takes up this history of cultural diplomacy-as-containment, challenging the assumption that government-supported intellectual work really means independence from the market.5)On this point I’m grateful for the Twitter conversations I’ve been permitted to eavesdrop upon, especially among Juliana Spahr, Anne Boyer, and Sarah Brouillette

People are different from each other, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in 1991. Queer theory came about during an autonomy crisis of its own. The NEA was attacked for supporting queer artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley; the MLA came under fire for hosting Sedgwick’s paper “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” David Mamet wrote Oleanna, about a beleaguered male professor whose private (taxpayer-funded?) workspace is invaded by a scheming feminist student. At the same time, many scholar-activists recognized that existing institutions were not serving them. AIDS activists learned how to sidestep the FDA. Black, Indigenous, and disabled scholars talked about alternative research methodologies within and outside the university. At least two Canadian bookstores (Toronto’s Glad Day and Vancouver’s Little Sisters) took Canada Customs to court to challenge the censorship of erotic material, including guidelines on safer sex. Coincidentally, the Big Five personality trait inventory was introduced around the same time. It was supposed to be culture-proof and translation-proof, with no trace of the “nonce taxonomy” Sedgwick described as integral to queer life. Self-confirming, autonomous.

Queer studies still faces funding shortages and ridicule, but it’s also struggling with its own insider status, the loss of autonomy that comes from being granted a degree of legitimacy. Nevertheless, this isn’t an argument against institutions. The Frink case is one of many examples of how the emancipatory potential of decentralized research being co-opted. Open-access journals are often predatory; anti-hierarchical and “student-centered” pedagogies are refashioned for the age of the student as customer6)See, e.g., Raphael Dalleo, “The Work of Teaching Literature in the Age of Mechanical Education,” PMLA 131.5 (Oct. 2016).; and if you can crowd-fund your research budget, why not your employee benefits?7)Speaking of which.

References   [ + ]

1. As Natalia Cecire and John Pat Leary observe, right-wingers who promote “alternative facts” have adopted the rhetoric of epistemic marginality and suppression. Same thing here.
2. Barry Lam’s Hi-Phi Nation podcast gives a good run-down of the movement, including a too-good-to-be-true experiment which did not find that political extremists see colours differently.
3. See Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago, 2014) and Sarah Brouillette, “Cultural Work and Antisocial Psychology” (in Theorizing Cultural Work [Routledge, 2014]
4. Aside from a general awareness of the CBC, NFB, and CanCon regulations as nation-building enterprises, I’m not aware of anything analogous in Canada.
5. On this point I’m grateful for the Twitter conversations I’ve been permitted to eavesdrop upon, especially among Juliana Spahr, Anne Boyer, and Sarah Brouillette
6. See, e.g., Raphael Dalleo, “The Work of Teaching Literature in the Age of Mechanical Education,” PMLA 131.5 (Oct. 2016).
7. Speaking of which.