Disciplinary exophilia, or, how self-scrutiny always misses

When academics decide to set their sights towards studying academic culture, there is an amusing trend in their choice of research objects. Call it disciplinary exophilia, the desire for the other. For who do academics study when they study academics? Themselves? Why, no. Au contraire. The anthropologists study the scientists (Joe Masco), and the historians study the anthropologists (George Stocking). Sometimes the scientists study history (Peter Galison), but more often they study postmodern philosophy with great care and concern (Alan Sokal), while the post-modern philosophers are, of course, studying science with equal vigor (Foucault). Education researchers, not themselves known for being particularly enterprising, study academic entrepreneurs (Slaughter and Leslie). The conservatives, naturally, scrutinize left-wing radicals (David Horowitz) while left-wing radicals study the ostensibly moderate and relabel them neoliberals (David Harvey). Sociologists study how humanists rate and rank each other (Michèle Lamont), while literary scholars write reports on how physicists are lazy readers of their colleagues’ papers (Charles Bazerman). A few brave souls study the presidents and boards of trustees (Thorstein Veblen may have lost his job over it), while the presidents generally don’t do research of their own, but they do request studies on how to cut costs by 3-9% in the next fiscal year. Opposite disciplines attract, sharpened knives held out in front as they charge towards each other.

What is this disciplinary exophilia, this tendency to choose to critically examine someone else’s discipline rather than one’s own, a tendency, reduced to its structural basis, to examine the other rather than the self, in short an unjustifiable bias towards alterity in one’s scholarly objectifications? Now of course it is the case that occasionally disciplines do self-scrutinize. But what happens then? The same thing, of course, just exactly the same kind of alterity bias, repeated on a smaller scale: the temptation is irresistible to scrutinize one’s colleagues, one’s theoretical competitors, one’s students, one’s elders, in short, those bad others that ruin one’s discipline. (I leave the provision of examples of this sort as an exercise to the academic reader.) Once in a while, true enough, individual academics do manage to self-scrutinize; however they seldom scrutinize their present; instead they are more often concerned to analyze their past self, which is, after all, almost like examining someone else.

So why not reverse this hideous bias away from self-scrutiny? Let’s start right here, right now, right in this very blog post. In fact, let’s start by scrutinizing this very sentence. Wait. This sentence? No, that one back there, three sentences back. Didn’t it enact a hidden politics of self-satisfaction and indulgence? Wasn’t it a bit lumpy, ill-formed, a bit past the parameters of good style? Rotten, really. Rotten. Not remotely up to the high standards of reflexivity established by David Moser’s aptly-titled “This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself” (a story which, parenthetically, I strongly suggest you, the reader, immediately read).

Dominic Boyer, my college advisor, once made a valiant attempt at self-scrutiny but it also ended in immediate failure (which was, alas, precisely his point). I quote:

“Even ideally sanctified office space is itself continuously subject to invasive “distractions.” As I am writing this paragraph, for example, strong morning sunlight dapples my desk. A warm breeze blows from outside, reminding me that I could instead be enjoying the fine weather outside. I can hear the university carillon just beginning to sound in the distance, but it cannot drown out the hum of my computer monitor nor the frenzied buzzing of a fly seeking to escape through my window. I am distracted by hunger and by waiting for a student to arrive who is late. Like the fly, I am somewhat frantic with a sense of stolen time. My leg is beginning to fall asleep but I rattle on trying to get a few more sentences out before my atention is drawn away to other concerns.

“Who needs such information to evaluate the artifacts of academic knowledge, you might well ask. That is precisely the point. What seems trivial and intrusive to the “real business” of theoretical work are precisely the nuances of the “outside” of academic labor, including all those forms of knowing and knowledge that seem extraneous to our own practices of knowledge-making. The denial of the outside—more or less successful on a moment-to-moment basis to be sure—abets the centering of epistemic formality in attention, producing in the end an expectation and appreciation of intellectual activity as decontextualized in its very character.” (Spirit and System, pp. 241-2.)

Boyer’s point is that a thorough reflexivity is obscured by the conditions of academic work — which is true, although a problem with this that has always bothered me, I have to say, is that the same point holds equally for other kinds of work too. I mean a businessman is not supposed to write business letters about the flies in the office either. Nor are bloggers just supposed to write about blog posts. If they do, it starts to seem like they abandoned their business. Having a business, by definition, means doing something, and doing something, by definition, means not doing everything, and if you were thoroughly, completely, self-conscious, you would have no time to do anything else, which suggests that complete reflexivity would be incompatible with any business whatsoever, not just with the academic business in particular.

One might suggest various philosophical reasons why complete self-consciousness would be, in principle, impossible to realize. For example, rephrasing the previous point slightly, one might suggest that all consciousness is consciousness of something, of some object, and that consciousness always goes beyond any particular object; thus, if self-consciousness is nothing but being conscious of one’s own self, it is bound to become just one more particular branch of inquiry. And if self-consciousness necessarily involves taking oneself as an object, one could suggest that the very moment of self-consciousness is a moment of self-objectification, which amounts to being a moment in which one becomes all the more distant from oneself at the very moment when one wanted to become whole.

Put another way: fully adequate, complete self-consciousness would be limitless, infinite, and silly, because consciousness is generative: suppose you want to thoroughly think about every part of yourself: but the more you think about yourself, the more you have to take account of your own process of self-consciousness as part of your own self-examination, which means adding more and more to the list of stuff you need to work through, and so on, ad infinitum.

It’s not surprising, then, that when academics decide to be self-consciousness or reflexive, they generally end up (a) turning reflexivity into its own specialized topic, if not into its own subdiscipline; and (b) establishing a deeper and deeper, curiouser and curiouser cleft between the self doing the scrutinizing and the other being scrutinized.