October 25, 2014

Yes, I was Addicted to "Leiter Reports"

Seeing this post on Brian Leiter's blog, I realized something: I have wasted so much of my life staring at that blog.

It feels embarrassing to say, but I see now there is no better way to put it: I was addicted to Leiter Reports. In grad school, as an assistant professor, and even after I left academia, I kept going back to that blog, over and over again. Unendingly. Unfailingly. Even when I felt upset by it, felt abused by it, felt powerless to say or do anything in response, I knew in the back of my mind that the next day or the next hour I would go back to it. Maybe the next time it would be a nicer experience. Maybe.

How silly of me, right? To be addicted to a blog. That too a professional blog. I must have pretty low self-confidence, right? Be pretty gullible? I must be a fool. A moron. A degenerate. There must be something wrong with me. I must be over-sensitive. Right?

No. Wrong.

And this is important to tell not primarily to Leiter. Or to his supporters. Or to the philosophy profession. But to myself of ten years ago. Five years ago. Even six months ago. To myself right now. Bharath, it's not your fault.

I don't remember the first time I read Leiter Reports. Must have been sometime in the early 2000s, more than a decade ago. But what I do remember is that I would go to the blog when I felt dissatisfied about how grad school was going. I often had bouts of feeling alienated from my classes and my dissertation. I would write a draft of a thesis chapter, my advisers would give comments, and I would stare at the draft as if it were written by someone else, as if it had nothing to do with me or my thoughts. I felt a general numbness, a general disinterestedness. I knew I was interested in philosophy, and yet that interest didn't seem to materialize into tangible achievements I identified with. Being distant from my own writing, I felt distant from professional activities as well. I felt stymied. That the way professional growth was defined in the normal, physical spaces of classes, conferences and departmental events wasn't working for me. But why not? I wasn't sure.

Enter a virtual space of philosophy. Something that didn't have many of the old triggers of the physical spaces. Something which seemed fresh and open with possibility. Where many of the old formalities were dropped, and a heady sense of possibility permeated from the screen. That was the way I was initially drawn into Leiter Reports. A new space. With new possibilities.

Unlike the physical spaces which felt to me busy and lacking in self-reflection, this Leiter person seemed to invite conversation about the profession. What was good about it, what was bad. What worked, what didn't. Feeling alienated from the physical professional spaces, I was also acutely aware that I was missing out on certain forms of camaraderie that happen in those physical spaces, such as after talks, at the bars late at night, at the party at someone's house. The kind of camaraderie which presupposes that the physical structures are working for the group to some extent. Though I felt my professors and fellow grad students were nice people, that I was friends with them, and that I could in principle enter that space of camaraderie with them, I was also aware within myself, in a way which I hid from others, that I didn't feel that camaraderie. That I missed it. And I wanted it.

Leiter Reports seemed a space where this kind of camaraderie was in the air. Out in the open. Didn't require going to a bar or having to chit chat in the department lounge. It seemed to promise the camaraderie without any of the trapping of physical spaces. This was the hook. I was addicted.

From the beginning I experienced Leiter Reports not as the thoughts of a single person, but rather as the public space of philosophy on the internet. The blog was a virtual Agora. One in which it felt that I could participate simply by reading it. In a physical gathering, just listening while others talk, and doing this for weeks and months, can be discomforting, as if one were not really participating. And over time this is how I started to feel about blogs too. But initially, for a long time, simply going to Leiter Reports gave me the feeling that I was contributing to the virtual conversation; that I was helping sustain that space through my participation.

Of course, the participation wasn't the same as Leiter himself or guest bloggers or commentators. There was an undeniable voyeuristic dimension to my reading. People I had known from my undergrad years at Cornell such as Jason Stanley and Jessica Wilson were showing up in this virtual public space and speaking freely in a way I never had a chance to hear them in the physical public spaces. I thought: so that is what they think about the analytic-continental issue or about politics. Leiter Reports helped me see a more rounded human side of people who I knew simply as professors or teaching assistants. Or whose articles I was reading, or who seemed to be well known in the profession. And there was the implicit sense that if I am thus able to know more about them, then there must be a budding camaraderie here. The virtual Agora thus created in me a virtual sense of camaraderie. The more I became emotionally disconnected from the physical public spaces, the more I depended on the virtual public space. The addiction became stronger.

Add to this the fact that Leiter was also the editor of the Gourmet report, and that routinely he was posting about "insider" information such as which big shot will be going from this department to that department and how this would affect this or that department's ranking, and Leiter Reports gave me the feeling that through it I was able to be connected to the inner dialogue of the philosophy profession. That what used to get said over dinner between top philosophers who were friends was now getting said publicly for everyone to see, and that in this way everyone could be part of the in-group. All you had to do was go to the website.

I was gripped by the sense of eves dropping on this inner dialogue in the profession. Partly because I wanted to be a part of the group. But equally because, having chanced on the inner dialogue, I felt I finally found an object to focus on in order to better understand my alienation in the profession. Thoughtless comment after thoughtless comment, blithe generalization after blithe generalization, my addiction to Leiter Reports grew as I fixated on the inner dialogue as a way to make clear to myself that my alienation was justified; that my own professors seemed to believe, or at any rate excuse, many of the insensitive, callous, self-congratulatory, abusive things that Leiter and some of the other contributors were saying on the blog. For a while John McDowell was the contemporary philosopher whose writings I found most inspiring, especially his ideas that thought and action, truth and virtue are inseparable. And I would stare incredulously at some thoughtless thing Leiter would say, purporting to just be a New Yorker calling out the idiots, and I would wonder to myself: But why aren't John McDowell or Hilary Putnam or Martha Nussbaum saying anything? Why are they letting this happen? Given that they were not disagreeing with Leiter, it seemed as if they were implicitly agreeing with him. And that seemed to be the conclusion Leiter was drawing as well.

In the early to mid 2000s I vaguely had a sense that Richard Heck was standing up and trying to say something. But what he was mainly objecting to publicly was the methodology of the Gourmet rankings. I was very sympathetic and felt proud to be a student of Heck's. But it seemed to me that Heck then, unlike now, was generally silent publicly about the blog itself. In my limited knowledge as a grad student I assumed that perhaps this was because some of his good friends, such as Stanley, were explicitly endorsing the blog and actively participating in it. Ultimately Heck's silence about the blog made it easy for people to ignore his worries about PGR. For given that PGR is a reputational survey, and so therefore depends on the shared social norms of the people filling out the surveys, and given that Leiter Reports was the space where those social norms were expressed, talked about and defended, to criticize PGR while being silent about Leiter Reports was like trying to uproot a tree by breaking a branch. Leiter seemed aware of this, and reveled in it, as if to say to Heck: You can't do anything to me, and you will only seem irrational, as long as all these people hang out with me on the blog; you are outnumbered.

So why didn't Heck at that time criticize the blog itself and the way Leiter and others were using it as a bully pulpit? Because it was, and still is, routine for many people to dismiss the blog as something trivial, as just a place where people talk about silly side things instead of doing the real work of philosophy.

A few times I went to some professors to talk about Leiter Reports. Given that for me the blog was a public, professional space, I assumed that the effect of that public space on me would be of concern to my teachers. Instead, I was generally met with the response,"Oh, that's nothing but gossip. You should do better things with your time. Focus on philosophy." Very strange to me, some of the people who gave this response were members of the board of PGR. Whereas I had gone to talk about the detrimental effect I felt Leiter Reports was having on me and what could be done to change philosophy's online public discourse, I was told that I was myself responsible for any detrimental effects, since I was actively choosing to engage in gossip and that I should know better.

Such a response stopped me in my tracks. Was I myself to blame? Worried about this possibility, I would stay away from Leiter Reports and try to focus again on my dissertation. But in due course my dissatisfaction with the physical public spaces in the profession and how my dissertation was supposed to fit into them would grip me once more, and then the need to have an outlet in the virtual space would overwhelm me. So I would binge with my voyeuristic gaze on all the posts I had skipped and all the comments I had missed, taking in all the interesting, considerate things that were said, and pained by all the harsh, judgmental things that were also said right alongside, and accepting that pain as the price I had to pay for virtual camaraderie.

What became apparent to me from this process is that my sense of alienation from the profession was mostly invisible to my professors. When they carelessly told me that I should avoid gossip and focus on my research, they exhibited no awareness that I might be drawn to the virtual space precisely because it wasn't so easy for me to just focus on my research. That though for them there was a vivid sense of a public space in the profession in the old fashioned physical sense, that I was having difficulty precisely with developing and sustaining such a connection to the physical, public space. To not address my issues with the physical space, but to then also summarily dismiss the virtual space, felt to me as if my growth in the profession was unimportant to the people whose responsibility it was to care about such growth. Feeling like an intellectual orphan, I would go off to a corner to binge on Leiter Reports, ice cream and movies in order to fill the sense of emptiness.

Another thing that became apparent to me was that there was a double talk regarding Leiter Reports which both Leiter and his critics often engaged in. If there was something good about Leiter Reports or the PGR, then this was due to the efforts of many people and the profession as a whole, since without all the guest bloggers, high profile commentators and the inside news being passed along, Leiter Reports would just be one's guys interests in attacking conservatives and posting strange poetry. But if there was something bad about Leiter Reports, then suddenly it was treated as just the ramblings or the gossiping of a single individual, and suddenly the guest bloggers and the people who were enabling Leiter Reports as a news source were not mentioned.

Leiter Reports thus became a venue in which many of the implicit beliefs in the profession could be vented and acted out. It was the space which could be used in the internet age to affirm and control dominant narratives about the norms in the profession, including about who is philosophically good and who is not, who is in and who is out, what is supposed to be obvious, ridiculous and mere common sense. As long as nobody objected, Leiter's pronouncements could be read as marking what most people in the profession think, especially those at the "top" departments. And if someone did object, then the profession could wipe its hands, and say that it is only the opinions of one person, and if you don't like it, the only thing to do is to ignore it.

This double talk between speaking as a profession as a whole and speaking as just one individual ended up making Leiter a martyr in many people's eyes. As if though Leiter is tracking the true norms of the profession, many people are too weak willed and too prone to political correctnesss and middle-class morality to be able to affirm these norms. That someone has to be willing to do the hard work of holding up the norms, and that Leiter, as the no-nonsense, lawyer, Nietzschean New Yorker, will take this task upon himself and hold up the profession.

It is in this sense that Leiter sometimes used to get pegged as "the most powerful person in the profession". It seems ridiculous to even imagine this could be true (and it was most definitely not true), and yet I cannot deny that I myself used to phenomenologically have that sense from time to time when reading Leiter Reports. It wasn't the fact that he was the editor of the PGR that made me have this feeling, though that is related. Rather, what made me feel that was the sense that here was someone who was speaking his mind freely in a way that I never saw any of my professors or colleagues do so publicly. Most philosophy professors, when speaking in public, often hem and haw about making any generalizations about the profession; they emphasize how they don't know everything, how we need to take this into consideration and take that into consideration, etc. Most people do this not because they are silly or stupid, but because they are at least mildly aware of the enormous privilege it is to be a philosophy professor and the ways in which it involves lots of implicit biases. So hemming and hawing is a way to try to not act out all the implicit biases.

In contrast, Leiter often gives the impression that he has no implicit biases, or that at any rate, whatever implicit biases he has must be good because, damn it, he is a good philosopher, educated and teaching at the top universities, and not just a second-rate hack. Leiter's blogging voice exudes a sense of finality and precision, as if he were a finely engineered philosophical machine, who in a single move is able to demarcate the wheat from the chaff and make the results available to all through his blog. There is something in the form of this kind of complete belief in the one's own correctness that feels inspiring and makes one want to follow the person who has such resolute beliefs. When I used to read Leiter Reports with a submissive attitude, it was because I felt the power of thinking of Leiter this way and felt overwhelmed. It is as if much of the bias in the philosophy profession which I wanted to struggle against got concentrated in a single voice, so much so that even as I wanted to struggle against it, I kept falling under its sway.

Ultimately, however, through engaging with other blogs, I came to see that the Leiter blogging voice I felt overpowered by was just a creation of a set of contingencies. In the big scheme of things it is nothing more than a momentary blip, lasting roughly twenty years from the mid 1990s to the present, as the philosophy profession transitions from the pre-internet age to the internet age. 

Imagine the philosophy profession before the internet. Then as the internet starts to take hold, there is bound to be someone who first gets on there and starts to act out some of the implicit biases in the profession on the internet. Because the internet is a new medium, many of the older figures in the profession (such as McDowell and Nussbaum) ignore it, treating it as nothing more than a side show. But as the internet becomes more and more central to our lives, including our educational structures, the person who seemed to have first harnessed the internet will seem like a genius, someone whose instincts were right and so whose instincts in general can be trusted. Then more and more people will align with that person, giving that person a sense that they are indeed capturing something of the spirit of the age and the norms of their profession.

If that initial internet maverick doesn't have an intrinsic strong sense of himself, then soon he will grow to depend for his sense of self on the identity of the internet maverick. Anything that undermines the sense, built up over years, that he is the cutting edge guide to the profession on the internet will seem to him to be a threat to his very professional identity. In response, he will attempt to ridicule and belittle other entries in the new medium, anything to try to retain the sense of the heady and exciting days when he seemed to be ahead of the pack and people were following him. But no medium can be controlled by one person or one group for long. And soon new, more innovative ways of using the internet in the profession will come, and the initial maverick will be left trying to argue against both, as it will seem to him, the conservative nature of the pre-internet professionals and the normless, amorphous chaos of the next generation who are moving beyond him.

I was an undergrad from 1995-1999 and was in grad school from 1999-2008. Those were the years when the internet was a new medium in the philosophy profession, and Leiter as an initial internet maverick held a certain power over the philosophical community's imagination. In this sense, a certain part of me feels vividly, and remembers, that sense of Leiter as a maverick. And given my own needs to have virtual camaraderie, I felt I needed Leiter Reports to develop a sense of myself in the profession, and so fell sway under the sense of Leiter as someone who was leading the profession by ushering it into the internet age.

But now there are many blogs in the profession, and there will be many more. A professor or a student who feels the need for a virtual public space in the profession can choose between different such spaces. And in a few years the feeling that is still vivid for me, that Leiter through some magical genius pulled philosophy into the internet age, will become an anachronism.

For future students virtual public spaces in the profession will be so commonplace that the existence of such spaces will seem not like the work of a special, original maverick, but rather the natural and inevitable result of broader cultures forces in an internet age. Those future students might go to Leiter Reports and read what Leiter and other contributors there think. But what they won't think is that somehow this blog, this Leiter Reports, is the main professional blog, the one where all the cool, smart philosophers from the top departments gather. Because to students a few years from now it will be obvious that the philosophy profession's virtual public space cannot be limited to one blog, any more than the profession's physical public space can be limited to one building.

That is a good future.

2 comments:

  1. Bharath your honest self-searching around this issue is very valuable in my opinion. Very philosophical, in the best sense.

    I did my graduate work earlier than you (1993-1999), so the blog was never as hegemonic for me. Rather I watched its appearance, apparently from nowhere, rise and subsequent influence on the profession In terms of narrowness of perspective, a certain shrillness) with dismay

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  2. This was a fantastic note that resonated with me completely. I hadn't realized that that's how I felt about it, but yes -- that captured it exactly.

    I'm a bit older -- undergrad was 1992-1996, grad school was 1997-2005. And I was completely taken in, for precisely the reasons you articulated so eloquently.

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