A DELEUZIAN ANALYSIS OF A CASE OF ACADEMIC REJECTION

(I) POSITIONS VS PROPERTIES: reticular vs scalar, perspectivism vs ranking

John Protevi reacts to a true-life anecdote, recounted by Brian Leiter, concerning a rejected candidate for an academic job who wrote a letter in reply that contained a “sarcastic” sentence. Protevi responds by trying to deploy Deleuzian concepts to explicate it, but I find the set of concepts that he uses could be pushed a little further. He does a very good on the pluralist aspect (anti-essentialism,  multiplicities, networks, perspectivalism) but I feel does not do as well on the “becoming” aspect. I will attempt to supplement his analysis as best I can.

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.

(II): MULTIPLICITY AND BECOMING: toxic or curative, resentment or resistance

Analysing a job application is an interesting case study in terms of the asymmetry of power. However, the anecdote that Protevi considers is a little one-sided. It is told from the point of the view of the rejectors, and is needlessly hostile to the rejected candidate’s response. It may be interesting to compare this event with a similar anecdote recounted by the applicant. In the preceding section I commented the rejectee’s reply as perhaps being more than a simple retort out of resentment, but an act of resistance. I will consider the case of Paul Feyerabend who tells us about one candidature where he was finally accepted, whereas he had been rejected for several others.

Feyerabend, in Stories from Paolino’s Tapes, recounts a job interview which came at a decisive juncture in his life, at the beginning of his career. He remarks that had he been rejected he could easily have ended up a homeless drunken bum in Vienna, instead of being hired as a university lecturer and going on to become a world-renowned philosopher. (In Deleuzian terms, demolition is always a possibility on any line of life). Feyerabend tells us how he submitted to the interview process, and had to suffer the nastiness of someone noted for his vicious and bullying behaviour. At the end he said “Stop! You ask me a lot of questions, now I want to ask you some questions”.

Thus he decided to resist the temptation to passivity, to break with the asymmetry of the interview situation and to speak to his interviewers on an equal footing. Even here in this little anecdote we can see Feyerabend’s lifelong engagement in favour of immanence, and his refusal of the asymmetries of transcendence. According to him this act of enunciation, plus recommendations from Schrödinger and from Popper, got him the job. Elsewhere, Feyerabend tells us that he was rejected by two other universities, but the committee at the University of Bristol “was impressed by Schrödinger’s recommendation and by my big mouth” (KILLING TIME, 102).

An interesting Deleuzian note here is Feyerabend’s awareness that he could have become a “drunken bum” instead of a philosopher. This resonates with Deleuze’s declaration that in his books and in his seminars, and in his daily life, he was very careful not to say or to do anything that could make someone take a turn towards demolition rather than creation, and turn into a wreck (ABC Primer, D for Desire). As a job candidate Feyerabend had his own network, including positive intercessors such as Popper and Schrödinger. But he refused to reply passively to a set of questions posed by the others, and asked his own questions. This was to take a risk, as this behaviour could also have provoked rejection; Indeed we may ask if his “big mouth”, as he called it, was responsible for his rejections elsewhere. An act of enunciation is a pharmakon, both toxic and medicinal, capable of poisoning us (demolition) just as much as curing us. Could opening his “big mouth” have been perceived as “sarcastic” by those other hiring committees? Leiter seems sure that speaking sarcastically will get around, and do you no good. However, this is not the only possible outcome, and Leiter should perhaps have stayed with enouncing probabilities.

(III): QUANTATATIVE MASTERS: mimesis and becoming, rotting and sacrifice

John Protevi wishes to talk about those who meet with academic rejection, and undertakes a Deleuzian analysis. He talks about the “job lottery” and about the ” injection of sheer luck into placement and advancement”, but we have seen that this is not the full story. It may be luck, in the sense of good fortune, but it is not “sheer luck”, it is not a game of chance but of reticular compatibility. We all know dull plodding eager-to-please-those-in-power spirits who have succeeded against wilder talents. Deleuze, in talking about sport, gives a lesson that can also be applied to academia. He talks about those who have obtained a form of quantitative (number of publications) and mimetic (the right sort of publications, i.e. the right sort of quality), and how they are so often better placed than those who attempt a qualitative leap (the “wrong” sort of quality). Quantitative mimetic masters can be found everywhere, they profit from previous models and are readily identifiable as good reticular subjects, yet they are often, while competent, completely uninteresting.

My problem is one of becoming: What do those rejected for any length of time become? I don’t think that they stay the same, but just live in circumstances that are less favorable to intellectual production (even if that is not always the case). I don’t think that it is just a case of less opportunity to actualise one’s philosophical qualities. Not only does one have less opportunity to actualise, one has less opportunity to cultivate and improve those powers, and they begin to change. In part, they rot, part of them dies. In part, they become something else.

My second question is: what sort of, and what degree of, sacrifice is needed to succeed academically despite these difficult circumstances? If the price is too high, many people who are willing to work hard and well may not be willing to sacrifice the bulk of their life to getting it back on the (academic) success track. It may be possible, one may know people who have done it, but it may not be desirable for many people who were capable of it. As Deleuze says, noone notices an absence.

My conclusion is that the original post on Leiter’s blog is written from a subjective position of identifying with the winners, as defined by the academic game. Protevi’s take is a little contradictory, as he thinks that there is some bad metaphysics going on, here I agree, and he tries to give a “Deleuzian” analysis, which I think is interesting and worthwhile as far as it goes, but he manages to carry it out only incompletely. He gets the pluralist part right, that “our” qualities are not properties of a subject, but are positions on a relational matrix. However, he still maintains the unquestioned privilege of the (tenured) academic job as the place where philosophy is done, and he does not see how one’s positioning in the network affects not just the actualisation of our powers, but those powers themselves. So strangely he conseves a sort of essentialist identity of the person. But where you are performs who you are. So I find him lacking on the notions of identity, becoming, and performativity – all of which are key Deleuzian notions.

Finally, I find it a shame to blog presupposing the primacy of academia, instead of seeing that blogging has the potential to weaken and relativise the hegemony of the university model in the definition of the flourishing intellectual life.

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2 Responses to A DELEUZIAN ANALYSIS OF A CASE OF ACADEMIC REJECTION

  1. sdv says:

    There seems to be an assumption that the academic arena in the USA and France is essentially the same type of academic sructure. Is this your intention or are you merely discussing how the US Academic system works.

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    • terenceblake says:

      Feyerabend describes a candidature for a university post in England. Protevi comments on an American anecdote. My main inspiration is that Protevi tries to apply Deleuzian categories to a concrete case, and manages to go only half way. Feyerabend, who as far as we know had not read Deleuze, gives a more fully Deleuzian account. France does not really enter into it. However, I am assuming that the factors at work at the very general level (scarcity of posts, implicit agenda and criteria for incorporation in a network, asymmetry of power, augmentation and diminution not only of the opportunities for exercising our powers but of those very powers themselves) are common not only to academic success or failure in many countries, including France, but also to many other, non-academic, situations.

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