PROTEVI’S DELEUZIAN ANALYSIS OF ACADEMIC REJECTION (1): positions vs properties, reticular vs scalar, perspectivism vs ranking

John Protevi reacts to a true-life anecdote by trying to deploy Deleuzian concepts to explicate it, but I find the set of concepts that he uses a little too thin. The case in itself is interesting, it concerns a reaction (to a rejection letter) from someone who had applied for a university job in philosophy and who protested against the hiring of someone he thought to be less qualified. The anecdote is reported, and then analysed in very unsatisfactory terms on Brian Leiter’s blog.

1) The anecdote:

A colleague elsewhere showed me the response to a rejection letter from a candidate who basically wrote back to say, sarcastically, “I can understand why you hired John Smith, even though he has far fewer publications than me in the same area.”

2) The analysis:

In fact, people are not hired by counting up their total publications; responsible hiring committees actually read the publications and writing samples of their finalists.  Someone who sends a response like this assumes, falsely, that quantity of publication is what should matter and implies, probably unfairly and obviously self-servingly, that the hiring committee was unable to make a qualitative evaluation of the work.

3) The conclusion

Since word of these kinds of replies do get around, the candidate is not doing himself any favors.

This conclusion is reinforced by the title of Leiter’s post: “How not to respond to a rejection letter”

The anecdote is recounted a little confusingly by Leiter, as he clearly identifies with the “rejectors”, rather than with the rejected. The facts seem to be: a job applicant, who had applied for a university position, received a rejection letter, and replied (“sarcastically” is already an interpretation) with a letter that said, among one supposes other things, “I can understand why you hired John Smith, even though he has far fewer publications than me in the same area”.

Protevi’s opens an analysis where he talks about the evaluation of “merit”, and of the necessity of treating it as an attribute positioned on a multi-dimensional network, rather than a quantity situated on a one-dimensional scale. To do otherwise is to commit a category mistake, to be guilty of “an attribution error: you’re making network position into a property of a person.” He goes on to give a more Deleuzian account, replacing “merit” as a property that one posseses with “multiple dimensions of philosophical quality” that one condenses is one’s individuations. He opposes a monist scalar ranking to a pluralist reticular perspectivism, and declares:

a one-dimensional ranking is bound to do violence to the radical perspectivism or irreducible plurality or real multiplicity of philosophical quality.

I think all this is clearly right, as far as it goes, but I do not think that it is fully adapted to the original anecdote. I do not think that the rejected candidate, lets call him or her “Doe”, is presuming that the selection committee is officially supposed to be applying a quantitative assessment of merit, and doing so erroneously (as Leiter affects to believe), for unacceptable, unofficial, unstated reasons. If hiring decisions in the university were based on intrinsic merit this would be a widely publicised and generally acknowledged state of affairs, but in fact noone buys that.

Noone buys that, not even Leiter. He amusingly retorts “responsible hiring committees actually read the publications and writing samples of their finalists”, thus implicitly acknowledging the existence of “irresponsible” committees, and prudently abstaining from any statistical quantifcation of relative proportions. Leiter continues: “Someone who sends a response like this … implies, probably unfairly and obviously self-servingly, that the hiring committee was unable to make a qualitative evaluation of the work”. I love this “probably unfairly”, as despite giving, this time, an estimation of probability, the concession is quite damning. Leiter admits that irresponsible and /or incompetent hiring committees exist, but estimates that they are a minority.

Hiring committees may not be competent to assess the “quality” of a candidates work, and even when competent they may apply, or pretend to apply, a quantitative measure such as number of publications. They may also hire a candidate for personal, economic, or political reasons that they do not care to state. This is an open secret, so why does Leiter find the letter of the rejected candidate so “sarcastic” that he must analyse its implications and warn against this sort of response to rejection? The answer seems to be a pragmatic one, that this will decrease the candidate’s chances of being hired elsewhere, or on another occasion:

Since word of these kinds of replies do get around, the candidate is not doing himself any favors.

Yet there is something ominous about this analysis. If one applies Protevi’s wife’s adage (“You can’t take rejection personally; there are too many variables at work… In fact, you can’t even take acceptance personally!”). then one understands that hiring as part of what Deleuze calls the “system of judgement” is not primarily an affair of scalar ranking, but of reticular validation and incorporation. It is a network-based decision from the beginning and all along the way. The hiring committee is a network embedded in a multiplicity of other networks, and it applies a “multi-dimensional matrix” of criteria, not to choose the “best” candidate according to some objective scale of merit, but the most appropriate candidate for the network. If you call into question this functioning because of one rejection then you are potentially showing that you are not a good reticular candidate. You may be “good” on some measure, but you are not “good for” the network. This is a specific application of the more general and totally Deleuzian principle: you can’t take anything personally

In sum, in the anecdote as described in Deleuzian terms, I see an asymmetric situation of power (a job application) and an order-word (rejection letter) operating an incorpreal transformation. Just as acceptance transforms you, and makes you a hired bureaucrat of thought, rejection transforms you too, making you an inferior to the person that was hired, and perhaps consigning you to the status of “precarious labor person” (which could mean existential freedom, or psychic death, depending on circumstances). Such a rejection contains, with more or less impact according to your situation, in reduced and symbolic form, a death-sentence, a small or large contribution to your line of demolition. This is what Protevi was alluding to with the word “violence” (“a one-dimensional ranking is bound to do violence to the radical perspectivism or irreducible plurality or real multiplicity of philosophical quality”), but he does not do much explicit work with the concept. Further, we have what is perhaps in Deleuzian terms an “act of enunciation” (replying in a letter: “I can understand why you hired John Smith, even though he has far fewer publications than me in the same area”), an attempt at resistance

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