The Future of Objectivity (3)

Some of the most successful challenges to the objectivity of scholarly writing have come from feminist thinkers. Amy Katz Kaminsky raises the issue briefly in her contribution to The Future of Scholarly Writing and suggests it represents a tension between “academic” and “ethical” principles. Fortunately, she asserts the importance of “reconciling the two” (184) and not, as others have, of abandoning objectivity altogether in pursuit of some higher aim. As in my previous engagements with this book (see parts 1 and 2 in this series), please remember that I’m taking Kaminsky’s views on objectivity out of their larger context, both of the chapter they appear in and the book that it, in turn, is a contribution to. I will eventually read this book from front to back like we normally do.

Kaminsky begins (183-4) by questioning traditional standards of “mastery” and “authority” in scholarly work. Women’s Studies, as she points out, is a relatively young field and many of its practitioners were therefore trained in other disciplines. But she notes that authority can be problematic in any case, when, for example (I imagine), a scholar of Latin American literature who does not have Spanish as a first language proposes to teach, say, Latin American students. One is always, in this sense “between cultures”, she suggests. Moreover, the “stark” history of the relationship between the United States and Latin America makes this cultural encounter even more difficult to navigate.

The notion of objectivity comes up when she turns her attention to the legitimacy of feminist scholarship in the academy. The problem, she says, has been one of “carving out a space for situated knowledge … in a realm where objectivity and neutrality have been key values” (184). She argues that the “neutrality” that is invoked is often simply the “generic masculinity” of the “dominant group”. This defines a “norm” and maintains the “status quo” that it is the goal of feminist scholarship to change. Presumably, “situated knowledge” is neither objective nor neutral because it involves something like Susan McClary’s “particular investments” in political and ethical projects of various kinds, which, the argument might go, are inexorably partisan and subjective.  The challenge, then, is to bring about a transformation of dominant group commitments (shades of Kuhn) without losing the legitimacy that adhering to those commitments confers. This is arguably the dilemma of all social change projects.

It is not entirely clear in this passage what the endgame is, only that Kaminsky does not wish to maintain the status quo. I can’t tell whether she wants to maintain a semblance of objectivity and neutrality only long enough to do away with it, so that the future of scholarly writing will be liberated from the “high seriousness of academic standards” and be free to pursue more “situated” concerns, or whether she wants merely to challenge the “masculinity” of the current norms and achieve a new kind of neutrality (gender neutrality?) with its own kind of seriousness even after “the foundations of those very standards” have been challenged. I do know that some of the conversations about the current replication crisis have turned on whether traditional criticism, which involves directly pointing out the errors in the work of other scholars, is actually a distinctly male form of bullying. I hope the pursuit of objective truth is not destined to be seen as a “generic masculine” form of harassment.

Like I say, I am entirely encouraged by Kaminsky’s suggestion that we must find a way to reconcile traditional norms of objectivity and neutrality with the increasingly political and engaged desires of modern academics, who, as if to adopt Karl Marx’s famous slogan, are not content to interpret the world, but hope also to change it. I’m not sure that this tension is as gendered as some people seem to think it is (I’m not ready to say how gendered Kaminsky thinks it is)–Marx, after all, was very much a man, and revolution has always, it seems to me, had a certain machismo about it. But I will admit that, at this moment, I am more concerned about preserving, and even conserving, the objectivity and neutrality of our scholarship in the face of the “post-factual” dystopia that seems to be looming, than I am about finding room for the “situated knowledge” of any number of political projects that seek the authority of “academic” work.

[Part 4]

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