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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

On Mark Bauerlein’s “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace”

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 07/13/05 at 05:14 PM

As there was travel-induced delay in receiving the book, I decided to write first about an article that’s available online for everyone to read. Later, I will post some comments about the volume in particular, with specific reference to the question of its audience and in what type of class might it be assigned.

Bauerlein argues that social constructionism has gained prominence in the humanities (a too-general term he frequently uses, but once qualifies as mostly applying to literature and -studies departments) because its unquestioned assumptions allow for the mass-production of scholarship in an age of scholarly overabundance. I’m sympathetic to parts of his argument, puzzled by others.

I agree, along with everyone in scholarly publishing (and the official statements of the MLA as I recall), that the overemphasis on the quantity of scholarly production, particularly books, in English and affiliated departments is neither sustainable nor sane. (I should indicate here that I have rarely heard anyone, when observing the poor quality of today’s books, include their own.) Bauerlein doesn’t talk much about the cause of this problem, however. If he followed his materialist analysis to its conclusions, I suspect he would address academic labor conditions and status envy in more detail.

Few would disagree that, if people were able to take more time writing and researching their books, they would be better than they currently are. While uneasy with the specifics of Bauerlein’s description of social constructionism, I agree that the canny will make intellectual choices that they might otherwise avoid if their entire future is at stake. There are two things to note here, however: 1) What Bauerlein calls “social constructionism” is thus only a symptom and 2) his analysis of institutional pressures applies even more accurately to the New Criticism.

GI Bill. Expansion of universities. Baby boom. Ready-made critical template. De-emphasized time-intensive contextual investigation. Superficially easy to teach. It’s a familiar bit of institutional history. And is the philosophical underpinning of the New Criticism much different from social constructionism? One, perhaps, overemphasizes objectivity. The other, in Bauerlein’s version, impatiently denies its existence. I don’t think that’s accurate or fair. But there’s a more important problem.

What can be done to change institutional standards about scholarly publication? Bauerlein often speaks wistfully about times before the BFT. Did they exist at UCLA in the 80s? At Emory at any point since he’s been teaching there? I’d guess not. I suspect the only solution is for the departments and institutions regarded as elite to unilaterally abolish the BFT (or B2FT). Though I have an estimate of the plausibility of this ever happening, I will first invite reader speculations.

I am reluctant to discuss “social constructionism” as presented in this essay because I don’t think it’s the main point. There’s a brief mention of “science studies,” but there isn’t any analysis of the Edinburgh school, to take one important example out of many. An uncontextualized soundbite from Heidegger on Newton. Roger Kimball calls something “sophomoric.” Ian Hacking has written lucidly on the topic. His The Social Construction of What? and the essays collected in Historical Ontology are both valuable and accessible resources for anyone interested in the philosophical issues too briefly treated here. But the essay addresses an important question about the social construction of academic standards. I wish that Bauerlein would have spent less time with social constructionism and more investigating the history of the “quantification system” that “stands as the academic wisdom of the age.”



By bbenzon on 07/13/05 at 07:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And is the philosophical underpinning of the New Criticism much different from social constructionism?

As I discussed vis-a-vis Wellek on whatever thread that was yesterday, that argument’s gold if you’re talking about New Criticism and deconstruction.  But you’d have to benn-michaels that puppy to put the New Critics in bed with social constructivists.  Maybe you can defend that query of a claim, but you’ll have to queer Brooks et al near beyond recognition to do so.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/13/05 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Book-for-tenure.  You have to read the linked article.

By on 07/13/05 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And is the philosophical underpinning of the New Criticism much different from social constructionism?

Aren’t they talking about two differnt things?  New Criticism is about how to derive meanings from literary texts.  Social constructionism is about how meanings and values (and truths in the strongest form) are created by human societies.  I’m not sure how you link the two together.

By on 07/13/05 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As above, so below.

Or, to be very general, they’re linked in that they have an improbable view of objectivity, one too weak and one too strong.

By Jonathan on 07/13/05 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not clear from Mark Bauerlein’s article what would count as learning in the humanities that is NOT socially constructed.  He also fails to distinguish between “weak” constructionism and “strong” versions of this claim.  No humanist of my acquaintance really holds the “strong” version that would hold the laws of Newton MERELY contingent, socially constructed knowledge (i.e. not subject to emprical validation).  This is a hard distinction for many to make, I realize. Strong constructionism seems absurdly counter-intuitive.  It makes an easy target for this reason, but I view it as a straw man. 

The use of Eagleton in this article also disturbs me.  That’s surely a case of Marxist reductionism, not of “social constructionism” in the more subtle sense.  Of course the New Critics ideas were influenced by the fact that they were Agrarian Southerners.  You do have to view their ideas in that context.  But these critics did not discover the Newtonian laws of literature:  they simply came up with a theory with complex social and philosophical roots that need to be teased out. 

In terms of academic labor, I have noticed in my own field (Hispanic Studies) that those in cultural studies do much more archival research than traditional literary critics do.  Thus those who tend to be social constructionists actually do more work to determine what the actual social construction of reality was in a particular period.  If Social Constructionism is simply a labor-saving ideology, I certainly don’t see it that way.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 07/13/05 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The argument seems superficial to me, but what would I know? I haven’t been in the academic world for two decades.  And that’s part of my skepticism. The article was written in 2001 and he talks as though the institutional situation he describes is relatively recent, at least that’s how I read “of late” in the following: “Of late, at many universities senior faculty and administrators have discovered a mechanism that frees the decision-makers of responsibility and isolates for the aspirant the hurdle for advancement: the book.” That’s how it was two decades ago and the situation wasn’t new at that time. (Perhaps complaint about how standards have been falling recently is a standard complaint.)

If intellectually slack social constructivism is really as institutionalized as Bauerlin says it is—I’m certainly not in a position to judge this—then, yes, that requires an explanation. But I don’t think Bauerlin’s proposal is very illuminating. He doesn’t like the institutional situation, he doesn’t like the ideology, and so he thinks that one must be the cause of the other. But, as they say in social science methods courses, correlation isn’t causation.

As Goodwin notes with respect to New Criticism, cheap versions of any number of critical approaches would serve institutional purposes just as well. Why not one of those other ideas?

By bbenzon on 07/13/05 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It does seem to me though that some humanists hold to the “effectively strong” version of constructionism. E.g., not that Newton’s laws are entirely contingent, but that it is immaterial to talk about their reality because it’s not knowable. This is the hair that a tremendous amount of postmodernist, deconstructionist or postcolonial theory splits with considerable but aggravating cleverness, I think. Timothy Miller can apply Said’s Orientalism to colonial Egypt and say, “Look, of course there’s an ‘Egypt’ which precedes the colonial construction of ‘Egypt’ but not only is it not knowable, the desire to know it is part of the colonial construction”. Gyan Prakash can make very similar claims about science and colonialism, and arrive at much the same conclusion: we can know the ways the West sought to know the non-West, but not what the non-West actually was. Derrida made this move often in his work in terms of meaning and interpretation. Anything which is not knowable in a positivistic sense becomes almost equally perfectly unknowable, even when one concedes its “reality”. Lots of theorists make that claim in some very smart, thorough and serious ways, but it’s also a kind of evacuating gesture made more banally by a lot of people who deploy the trope of constructionism in the ways that Bauerlein decries.

By Timothy Burke on 07/14/05 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I meant Timothy Mitchell, sorry.

By Timothy Burke on 07/14/05 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan is quite right to ask for more institutional analysis of the embedded standards of the profession, such as “book-for-tenure.” This would not be a substitute for intellectual assessments of constructionism etc., but an alternative to them when the topics under review seem to have reached a point of sanction or dogma. Institutional analyses don’t determine a thing about the truth or falsity of social constructionism, but they do explain its popularity and predictability.

And Tim Burke and bbenzon are right that some excellent work may issue from that viewpoint, but only if it does a requisite amount of empirical study into social conditions. Too often, constructionism ends up providing a shortcut around that, even to the point of using the “interrogation” of empirical methods as a way around the evidentiary demands.  It doesn’t have to happen, but it sure happens a lot.

And one can’t really blame the doers. If you’re a grad student facing only one more year of fellowship funding and a tight job market, you can’t do the solid empirical work.  There isn’t time. How much easier to study “The Construction of Middle-Class Identity in the Novels of X,” analyzing the images in the novel instead of the vast and complex constructions one finds in the historical moment in which the novel was published. I’ve read dozens of manuscripts for university presses in the last few years and had to say more than half the time that considerable intelligence and a few good ideas were lost in such hasty readings and cliched frameworks.

Regarding J. Mayhew’s point, non-socially constructed knowledge in the humanities would be chronologies of literary history, linguistic studies of a poet’s versification, and the like. And the Eagleton example is Marxist reductionism, yes, but I would place Marxist reductionism as a species of social constructionism in that it attributes intellectual materials definitively to social/economic conditions. I know that sounds broad, but one of the reasons social constructionism has become so widespread is that is scoops up so many other outlooks into a single one.

By on 07/14/05 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: If Bauerlein’s “analysis of institutional pressures applies even more accurately to the New Criticism,” then why was there not also the kind of overproduction of scholarship we see now? You yourself acknowledge that the current quantity of published scholarship “is neither sustainable nor sane” This must be in comparison to an earlier era, in which such a glut did not occur. You can say that there were many fewer graduate students/programs back in the day, and pressures to publish were less intense, but this only reinforces Bauerlein’s contention that social constructionism is an effective way to relieve some of the current pressure. You also forget that there were numerous institutional alternatives to New Criticism: the Chicago School, myth criticism, Leavisian moral criticism, historical scholarship of a traditional kind, even reader-response and psychoanalytic criticism in their earliest forms.

By Dan Green on 07/14/05 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There was a sharp increase in production. Some viewed it as overproduction, always a relative estimate.

The article doesn’t address when all this became a problem. That’s, to my mind, the important issue, along with what can be done about it.

The other approaches you mention perhaps have less mass production utility than the NC (though more, certainly than the OC).

By Jonathan on 07/14/05 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you could argue that there was an “overproduction” problem in the era of the New Criticism.  Else why did Jonathan Culler and others complain that that it would be no good to have yet another interpretation of Paradise Lost? 


On Mark’s point, I suppose a purely linguistic description of a poet’s versification or a chronological list of works published by certain publisher would qualify as not socially constructed, but any possible USE to which such knowledge could be put would put us right back in the area of socially interpretable questions.  Literary history is not mere chronology.  The study of poetic rhythm is a notoriously controversial field as well.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 07/14/05 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I sometimes wonder if there’s anymore to a claim ‘X is socially constructed’ than ‘X, huh… well that’s what *you* say.’

By on 07/14/05 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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