“Grievance Studies” Exposed

In 2017, three academics undertook a hoax that would later be dubbed “Sokal Squared”. Like Alan Sokal, author of the 1996 hoax on the journal Social Text, they took issue with strands of constructionist thought that they claimed emerged from the “post-modern” theoretical turn of the 1960s, and which they took to be “problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses […] oppression rooted in identity” (Lindsay et al.). They had a slightly more concrete target than Sokal: the institutional presence of “grievance studies,” out of which they believed increasingly absurd constructionist thought continued to emanate under the banner of identity-based anti-oppressive work. To prove their point, they submitted 20 parodic articles to representative peer-reviewed journals in feminist theory, queer studies, gender studies, fat studies, and sociology of race, among other subfields. The articles forwarded what the trio considered morally questionable conclusions that could be derived from the existing literature of the field.

Like many public intellectuals critical of critical theory, these academics insist that they are not racist, homophobic, transphobic, or sexist. Similar to how Jordan Peterson defends binary transgender people in the same breath as he proclaims that gender-neutral pronoun users are mentally ill ideologues, those behind the “grievance studies affair” hold that critical theory is a perversion of the admirable aims of 1960s civil rights movements. They locate the problem not in bids for rights, but in the notion of intellectual deterioration. “Grievance studies,” in their estimation, puts presumed social grievances ahead of “objective truths,” thus predetermining and curtailing the kinds of conclusions that can be drawn. Oppression, to the extent that it may be objectively proven, would ideally be addressed through similarly objective interventions. The result of grievance studies, conversely, is “relativism which, for political reasons, promotes ways of knowing that are antithetical to science and ethics which are antithetical to universal liberalism” (Lindsay et al.). Their worry that white male children will end up “on the floor in chains” as a result of this intellectual turn makes it clearer how they imagine objective knowledge and universal liberalism to be connected.

The trio sought to expose the “corruption” of the standards of academic rigor through “critical constructivism and radical skepticism,” problematizing the method by revealing it to be an ideology “diverg[ent] from reality” (Lindsay et al.). Having already unequivocally named this an ideology, they declared themselves horrified to affirm its methods of reproducing itself in peer-reviewed journals, noting that “just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy [and] existing literature” (Lindsay et al.). As someone trained in the history of science by academics deeply invested in “objectivity” and its formulations, I feel slightly redeemed by the fact that this trio seems to be missing some context about the processes of communal sanction and accumulation through which all knowledge is established.

Responses to this hoax were quick and incisive. On vocal platforms such as Twitter, some identified the hoaxers’ position with alt-right ideologies and denounced the hoax as a predictable organized attack; others praised the hoax as a re-emergence of a universalist liberal center against an increasingly unhinged radical even-further-left. However, not many responses (even those published, e.g. Afinogenov) gave full consideration to the rhythms of thought, nor the specificity of the recognitions, identifications, and foreclosures that arise in the act of academic hoaxing. Much like in Sokal’s wake, responses to the “grievance studies affair” have continued the debate in the vein of cultural politics. Across the political spectrum, they seem to stop with finger-pointing. Not much has changed, then, since the Sokal Affair, after which supporters refurnished the “center” as belonging to “those who believe that science can be trusted to report on objective reality […] and who are easily alienated by anyone who believes anything different” (Robbins). Those perceived as the “furthest-left” are vilified, and the temperance of the “true Left” is reflected in the return to common “Enlightenment roots” (Ross 150) that would undo social construction as a cultural truism. In all cases, the debate becomes one of relative orthodoxies.

The focus on cultural politics in response to the “affairs” is in some senses correct and even necessary. There is much at stake if the divide between so-called objectivity and ideology widens. But the terms of the debate are also reductive. It is no coincidence that the object of parody here is always “ideology” and never objectivity; objectivity is not the method through which conversations take place precisely because it is believed not to need redefinition or any redrawing of boundaries. Cultural politics and “ideologies,” on the other hand, do need to be corrected, it is maintained, to let the real paths to justice and unity emerge. Because it structures them, this reductiveness is hard to perceive from within these conversations. Nonetheless, it causes several crucial things to be obscured: why thought that rebuffs self-certainty is perceived as an urgent threat; how bodies of thought encounter, reflect and alter one another; and how intellectual paradigms function in hierarchical relationships. What I offer here is a reflection on these themes: a reading of the “grievance studies affair” as a dialectical encounter in which a more complex sense of recognition is at play.

Intellectual Impasse & Hegel’s Lord/Bondsman

A potentially productive way of rethinking the relationship between objectivity and “ideology” (wherein subjective experience is mobilized to undermine a tautology of objectivity) is through the Hegelian dialectic. The story that Hegel tells is one of mutual identification through alterity. For a moment, let us put aside the fact that the use of Hegel – the original thinker of “otherness” – might predispose us to conclusions towards the lineage of thought his work spawned, thus pre-empting conclusions against ahistorical universalism (such as one possible meaning of “universal liberalism”). Hegel’s insights are, to be sure, not verifiable in the sense that would satisfy the hoaxers. Rather, the worth in applying Hegel comes from the fact that he is a historical relativist who also speaks in the name of truth. On the one hand, he recognizes that both claims to knowledge and ethical principles are contingent on their generation at different points in human development. On the other hand, his account of self-consciousness speaks to a struggle to raise one’s subjective certainty of oneself into what he calls truth. Both of these aspects are deeply relevant to the “grievance studies” affair. Rather than arguing on behalf of either position, Hegel’s thought is useful in grappling with this struggle as a point in a historical process. Though later critical theorists retold the Hegelian dialectic as a story cast with social and historical subjects, surely one of the roots of the conflict at hand, Hegel’s ambiguity allows for broader readings of two entities bound to each other, deriving meaning from a dependent relationship. I am taking liberties with Hegel’s ambiguity here, partially abstracting the dialectic from its commentary on self-consciousness as a distinctly human quality, and employing the process itself as a way to think through the establishment of human meaning.

In her essay “Can the ‘Other’ of Philosophy Speak?’, Judith Butler traces her own early encounters with philosophy up to her eventual nominal synonymity with “theory,” philosophy’s apparently derivative Other. In describing the hierarchical relationship between philosophy and theory, she reaches back to Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage,” the subject of her dissertation and first book, positioning these two intellectual nexuses as the dynamic parties in the tale. And so Butler briefly dramatizes the relationship between institutionalized “philosophy” and that which is “not philosophy”. “Philosophy” is already linked, through its own accumulated histories, to a kind of “consciousness,” or self-certainty. It has become capable of acting “with the full assurance of knowledge” (Butler, “Other” 233) in adjudicating what knowledge does and does not count as legitimate. Butler’s “philosophy” is analogous to the rigorous objectivity prized in the grievance studies affair: its claim to self-assurance functions as its boundary. “Not philosophy” is that which falls outside of the bounds of philosophy’s adjudication: it fails to meet these criteria. In Butler’s experience, the failures are often ways of understanding the world which take alterity and subjectivity as in some way constitutive of understanding (feminist philosophy, and theories of gender, sexuality, and race). In this retelling of the dialectic, we seem to encounter “philosophy” and “not philosophy” already in their respective roles as lord and bondsman, a product of philosophy’s past historical encounters.

How does all this relate to the “grievance studies affair”? Let us replace the terms “philosophy” and “not philosophy” with their respective correlates, objectivity and ideology. (Here I remove the scare quotes.) Objectivity, from its position as lord, enacts a desire to preserve its self-certainty, and to have this reflected back to it by the Other it has subordinated. On one hand, the preservation of self-certainty includes the desire to negate the alterity of ideology. The fact that objectivity and ideology can occupy the same mechanisms of knowledge (like peer review) threatens the self-identicality of academic rigor, as well as its authority over understanding. This alterity must be banished in order for objectivity’s self-certainty to remain. On the other hand, objectivity requires the alterity of ideology to preserve the definitive boundary around itself. If there were no Other, there would be no boundary. Objectivity has arrived at the point in the dialectic where any supersession of the other becomes a supersession of itself. Butler calls this a “scandalous appearance as the Other” (“Other” 233), which of course, works against objectivity’s self-assurance. This is a particular embarrassment, as objectivity is left reliant on ideology to provide that which it needs to establish self-certainty outside of itself, and at the same time, it is ideology that threatens to negate this certainty entirely by appearing as knowledge.

Part of what Butler says objectivity seeks in the face of self-loss is a “retrieval of itself, a restoration to an earlier time” (“Other” 241), but such a restoration has become impossible. Indeed, any possible future is premised on this impossibility. To exit the life-and-death struggle would either mean to die (and thus experience a complete expropriation), or to disengage and not achieve self-consciousness, to forfeit reciprocal recognition and the “spiritual unity in its duplication” (Hegel 111) that would be achieved. Neither is an option for objectivity, as its self-assurance of a worldview extending beyond its own internal contexts is fundamental: it requires this recognition to remain objective. In this sense, it draws the lord’s unfortunate lot. Its continued existence is dependent on that which it subordinates as its Other, and it remains perpetually dissatisfied because in negating the consciousness of the bondsman (or, of ideology), it remains without an equal through which reciprocal recognition might take place. As a result, the lord begins to doubt his own self-certainty. That is, in its fixture of ideology as its constitutive outside, objectivity loses its path of recourse. It can no longer raise its subjective certainty of itself into truth.

In the bondsman’s role, ideology – specifically in the academic contexts of the “grievance studies affair” – fares differently. Tasked with the bondsman’s work of interacting with the world on the terms of the lord’s desires, ideology is able to perceive that its desires are different from the world with which it mixes. The potential achievement of self-consciousness here is intimately linked with the process of becoming aware that it is not and cannot be an objective standard of truth in the world. Ideology’s self-consciousness and potential for development could be gained through this channel, irrespective of objectivity’s direct affirmation. For as long as objectivity continues to exist in the lord’s role, ideology’s potential achievement becomes part of its larger embarrassment. As Butler puts it, “[t]he bondsman scandalizes the lord […] by looking back at him, evincing a consciousness he or she is not supposed to have had, and so showing the lord that he has become Other to himself” (“Other” 250).

Approaching the terms of the “grievance studies affair” through this dialectic clarifies that it is the dogged attachment to constitutive differences between objectivity and ideology that impoverishes these debates. This might seem self-evident. However, it is worth taking a closer look at some specific ways in which this focus curtails movement towards reciprocal recognition in and following academic hoaxes. For example, paranoid thinking and parody. Both can be considered strategies employed against the infiltration of ideology into a putative sphere of rigor. Both techniques emerge through the lord/bondsman reading as strategies used by the lord to reduce the bondsman to its alterity.

Paranoia and Parody in the Struggle for Recognition

Paranoid reading, which we could perhaps also call “radical skepticism,” is one of the tactics that define the “grievance studies affair”. As defined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, paranoid reading turns on exposing that things are worse than we already thought them to be – that problems lie deeper, in systemic organizations of society that are nearly impossible to intervene against. Paranoia places its faith in the exposure of systems it posits as totalizing, and it produces tautologies in response. Through the act of exposure, paranoid thought rescues one from being embarrassingly duped, lets them imagine that through recognition of a harm they have succeeded in not replicating it, or in preserving value outside of it. Paranoia “sets a thief (and, if necessary, becomes one) to catch a thief” (Sedgwick 127).

Although paranoid thinking has been normalized at “every point in the political spectrum” (Sedgwick 143), it has been over-associated with the Marxist-Nietzschean-Freudian lineage of critical theory and thus has often been perceived as a tactic of the Left. When it is employed against critical theory by those who prize objectivity, it seems to accuse the Left of hypocrisy. Yet this accusation undermines the very argument against “grievance studies.” Let me clarify. Those behind the “grievance studies affair” did the following:

• they exposed the conclusions of “grievance studies” as products of a construct or ideology (by tracing how they emerged through prior existing claims of questionable verifiability);

• they configured this construct as totalizing (through their lack of acknowledgment that “constructivist” methods have already been productively complicated in identity subfields, and are no longer pervasive);

• they projected a set of harms resulting from the growing influence of this construct (through the introduction of a conflicting value system via “liberal universalism”);

• and they exposed this construct as such using the metrics of said value system

In short, they did everything that they accuse “grievance studies” of doing. However, the use of paranoid thinking here is not simply naïve hypocrisy. Within a dialectical reading of this conflict between objectivity and ideology, paranoia serves a very specific purpose: it attempts to preserve objectivity’s self-certainty.

Two of the qualities that Sedgwick assigns to paranoid thinking are reflexivity and mimeticism. Being both reflexive and mimetic, she says, “paranoia is drawn toward and tends to construct symmetrical relations, in particular, symmetrical epistemologies” (126). In support of this point, she quotes Leo Bersani’s observation that “[p]aranoia is an inescapable interpretive doubling of presence” (in Sedgwick 126). What Bersani means by this is that each interpretation that something inspires becomes a separate object, deserving to be approached with the same suspicion of misconstruing its own original. And so on. Significantly, this doubling is also something that Butler points to in the relationship between “philosophy” and “not philosophy”.

Taking Butler’s cue, objectivity produces its spectral double through enforcing boundaries around its self-assurance, excluding precisely that which might challenge it. This doubling itself is an act of paranoia, and the Other that it produces is a paranoid, tautological interpretation. This interpretation deserves to be approached with some skepticism, as the act of doubling is already an act of division, which separates and emphasizes the objecthood of the Other, fixing it in place as its difference. A reduction to objecthood, we recall, is precisely what the lord does to the bondsman in his servitude. Similarly, the mimetic function of paranoia is what turns localized observations into tautologies, resulting in the eventual erasure of some of the dynamism and richness that actually does exist (especially within so-called “grievance studies”). The example Sedgwick gives is of psychoanalytic theories that make sexual difference “inexorable, irreducible, uncircumnavigable, [and] omnipresent […] at every psychic juncture” (132, emphasis in original). Once identified as a problem, constant vigilance against these totalizing, structuring qualities becomes more important than challenging them through “thinking otherwise” (Sedgwick 133). The act of thinking otherwise here might equate too dangerously with reciprocal recognition, and thus a loss of “objectivity’s” status. And so this paranoid tautology stands, despite the fact that a survey of the journals that were hoaxed would reveal that the “critical constructivism and radical skepticism” under critique here are far from foregone conclusions in these fields, and continues to be stringently challenged and developed. Far from being a hypocritical step, paranoia functions as a defense against the self-losses of reciprocal recognition.

A connected argument can be made about the role of parody in these hoaxes. Rather than displaying a partial or oblique acceptance through intimate identification, as Butler argues (“Cultural” 34), it seems rather that parody is a similar act of fixing alterity, and negating the quality of transformation in this body of thought. The “grievance studies” hoaxers undertook a process which they called “reflexive ethnography” in which they claimed they were “conduct[ing] a study of a peculiar academic culture by immersing ourselves within it, reflecting its output […] until we became ‘outsiders within’ it” (Lindsay et al.). In light of my remarks about paranoid reading, I am reluctant to consider this process one of “affiliation and intimacy” (Butler, “Cultural” 35) in a transformative sense. Any doubling or reproduction that takes place here is objectifying, befitting of the hierarchical relationship in which objectivity and ideology presently exist. Rather than a movement toward recognition, I read parody as a type of exit from the life-and-death struggle: a forfeit in an attempt to prevent total expropriation and self-loss.

An Answer to the Grievance Studies Affair

Within this framework, it becomes clearer why debates of the “grievance studies affair” sort are deadlocked. There are several available forays back into cultural politics from this point (I am, of course, under no delusion that a rereading will solve anything). Anticipating that eventual return, the Hegelian reading seems to offer a call for closer attention to how certain terms are being flattened in the conversation. In answer to this call, it is worth discussing how current uses of “recognition” and “unity” contribute to thwarting productive struggle through the deadlock.

In nearly all references to “grievance studies”, the term “recognition” has been impoverished. Nancy Fraser’s definitions of recognition and redistribution offer a clear example. Fraser outlines recognition as a specific type of social justice claim, where justice would be granted through “recognition of the distinctive perspectives of ethnic, ‘racial,’ and sexual minorities” (“Social Justice” 3). In a sentiment echoed by the hoaxers, she argues that claims for recognition are currently pushing out and undermining social justice claims based on egalitarian redistribution of resources. Regarding academic feminism, she argues that an increased focus on gender difference over male domination leads to an overemphasis on “cultural or symbolic change” rather than economic, material changes (“Social Justice” 7).

As far as “grievance studies” is concerned, this is an inadequate understanding of recognition. It reduces the concerns of the work taking place under that derogatory label to concerns with status . Significantly, this characterization of recognition as a political project finds its way out of the hoaxer’s mouths as a caricature. These are precisely the motives and goals assigned to “grievance studies” by the critiquers. But this is objectively untrue. Anyone who has taken a passing glance at the most recent issues of Transgender Studies Quarterly or Feminist Theory (to name just two I’ve recently read) or similar journals would see, on the contrary, the centrality of redistributive politics, and indeed a decentralization of identity-based difference. Large swathes of gender theory are experiencing surging rejections of recognition-based arguments. “Recognition” mischaracterizes the goals of the feared constructivism and skepticism that “grievance studies” are thought to rest on. And this mischaracterization has seeped into the broader positions that are taken in the resulting debate.

Thinking about “recognition” in the Hegelian sense helps reconceptualize the potential aims of this scholarship, to the extent that it can be considered a coherent body of thought. Though there have been many theorizations of recognition, Hegel’s dialectic holds that recognition cannot be achieved at the level of particularized otherness. Recognition should instead be taken to mean that that which is most important in each entity in a dialectical relationship is the same. What is most important in humans, to Hegel, is a lack of fixed characteristics – the potential of becoming, or freedom. This is what is recognized when reciprocity is achieved. The goal of Hegelian recognition would mean a decentralization of particular difference, both as an object of thought and as a primary characteristic of meta-debate. Rather than a persevering essentialism that would seek primacy for the socially disparaged at the cost of white children chained to the floor, the result of reciprocal recognition of these frameworks would perhaps feature a retreat from particularity’s place in tautological systems as the primary object of thought. It might also, then, reorient the terms of the debate towards the achievement of a provisional unity.

In “Merely Cultural,” Butler criticizes calls for unity on the Left following the Sokal affair as actually calls to domesticate and subordinate opposition back into the dominant paradigm (37). Such rhetoric reinforces the idea that unity can only be “purchased through violent excision” (Butler, “Cultural” 44): that is, that unity is premised on self-identicality, and thus would be threatened by a process of reciprocal recognition. This definition of unity is actually a form of factionalization, Butler says; it makes the mistake of treating difference as a problem produced by the other rather than as that which produces the conditions of possibility for one’s own emergence (“Cultural” 37). Through an objectification of the Other’s difference, the unity that could be reached through reciprocal recognition is foreclosed.

The approach that I’ve just laid out suggests another possible definition of unity. Acknowledging that unity cannot come from synthesis, Butler suggests that it must instead appear as “a mode of sustaining conflict in politically productive ways, a practice of contestation that demands that these movements articulate their goals under the pressure of each other without therefore exactly becoming each other” (“Cultural” 37). What we see in the debates following the “grievance studies affair” is not an articulation of goals under the pressure of the Other, as it continues to feature an objectification of the Other’s goals. I take Butler to be suggesting that a different kind of attentiveness needs to be applied at the moment when the Other is faced. Perhaps this attentiveness would look something like Sedgwick’s reparative reading, in its opposition to the tautological tactics of paranoia. Perhaps it would look like an attempted, experimental incorporation of the viewpoints that challenge us into our own. Regardless, it is clear that the life-and-death struggle must continue – or, more accurately, must begin again – for the self must first wholeheartedly risk its own loss if community is ever to be achieved. That is, objectivity must broaden itself to ideology, and vice versa, in order for the stagnation of these debates to give way to movement.

Works Cited

Afinogenov, Greg. “Orthodoxxed!” n+1, 4 Oct. 2018, nplusonemag.com/online-only/online- only/orthodoxxed.
Butler, Judith. “Can the ‘Other’ of Philosophy Speak?” Undoing Gender, Routledge, 2004, pp. 232–50.
—. “Merely Cultural.” New Left Review, no. 227, 1998, pp. 33–44, newleftreview.org/issues/i227/articles/judith-butler-merely-cultural.
Fraser, Nancy. “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation.” The Tanner Lectures, 1996, tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/f/Fraser98.pdf.
—. “Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler.” New Left Review, no. 228, 1998, pp. 140–49, newleftreview.org/issues/i228/articles/nancy- fraser- heterosexism-misrecognition-and-capitalism-a-response-to-judith-butler.
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Revised ed., Oxford University Press, 1977.
Lindsay, James, et al. “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.” Areo, 2 Oct. 2018, areomagazine.com/2018/10/02/academic-grievance-studies- and-the-corruption-of-scholarship.
Robbins, Bruce. “Anatomy of a Hoax.” Tikkun, vol. 11, no. 5, 1996, pp. 58–59.
Ross, Andrew. “Reflections on the Sokal Affair.” Social Text, no. 50, 1997, pp. 149–52, doi:10.2307/466826.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Series Q).” Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You, Duke University Press Books, 2003, pp. 123–51.