James McFarland


There is nothing we can’t read in the university, nothing we can’t write about. Debates may swirl around the appropriateness of certain documents for certain tasks, but for any document dismissed from one department, there is another discipline ready to accept it, read it, discuss it, write about it. For the university as a whole, truth might be anywhere, in any document, so no example is beneath contempt. And yet, there is nothing that we can merely read in the university, nothing that we can merely write about. However distant from academic norms the document at issue may be, university writing engages it on a field of its own device, an institutional site of articulation to which it must remain congruent, a specific history to which it must remain transparent, if it is to allow the document to come forth as science.

How can this history itself be critiqued in writing? For a vicious circle neutralizes its written academic objectification. What happens to reading and writing in the university field, to our reading and our writing, touches us very nearly. But it is the lack of agreedupon criteria for assessing even agreedupon criteria for these procedures that makes discussions of the university institution so prone to polemic. Peggy Kamuf, considering Locke’s essay of 1693, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, observes that "his treatise is polemical, and in this it shares what seems to be an inevitable mark of the genre, a condition that will have remained more or less constant from Plato to his latterday disciple, Allan Bloom." Something more and deeper than the touchiness of immediate concern governs this inevitability, something inscribed in the very situation of the inquiry.

Polemics are an aggressive engagement at the edges of politeness. Polemical language, lifting away from the reasoning that produced its conclusions, is freed to wield its coercive force, and can easily enough fall into an unpleasant tone. In reviewing recent discussions of the University, Bill Readings remarks on "a question of tone," and identifies a shift between "mellifluent pomposity consequent on entire selfsatisfaction" characteristic of considerations earlier in the century, and the "vitriolic complaint" that shows up in contemporary discussions. Beneath polemic’s constant invocation and transgression of argumentative standards, the larger, vaguer notion of tone raises questions of propriety, of where linguistic aggression or rhetorical domination is legitimate and where it becomes wrong.

It is Kant who raises explicitly the question of a particular tone appropriate to rational inquiry, a tone he heard distorted in the texts of various Christianizing Platonists. The works of a certain Schlosser and a Count zu Stolberg provoked from Kant the polemical essay, "On a Newly Arisen Superior Tone in Philosophy." "At bottom," Kant finishes there, "all philosophy is indeed prosaic; and the suggestion that we should now start to philosophize poetically would be just as welcome as the suggestion that a businessman should in the future no longer write his accounts in prose, but rather in verse." The appropriate tone has practical implications for Kant as well. At the start of his late discussion of the university, The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant objects to the heavyhanded censorship efforts of Woellner, Friedrich Wilhelm II’s Minister of Justice, who had in 1794 invoked royal displeasure to silence Kant’s rational theology. Even if heresy was abroad in the land, Kant feels, there was no call not to have combated it quietly in the university, with argument and pedagogy, "for young clergymen had tuned their sermons to such a tone that no one with a sense of humor would let himself be converted by such teachers." Governing both philosophers and clergymen, the question of an appropriate tone transcends the distinction between speculative and practical employments of reason.

"The Unabomber Manifesto," as Industrial Society & Its Future has come to be known, is a deservedly disreputable document. Its author, identifying himself only as "FC," claims to be the person responsible for the deaths of three people and the injury of ten others over a brutal 17 year campaign of mailbombings. The 35,000 word screed was delivered to The New York Times and Washington Post on June 28, 1995. In the hope of provoking a break in the baffling case, journalists and lawenforcement officials published it in the papers, an unusual arrangement. So the text got rather wide exposure. Even had it not, John Douglas, the behavioral profiler for the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, would have been asked to read it. And this places Industrial Society & Its Future here at the outset in a curious relation to our society’s struggles for the cultural capital of scientific respectability. Behavioral profiling, of course, is the systematic analysis of crime scenes in order to build up a hypothetical portrait of the perpetrator, and it’s been enjoying something of a vogue in popular culture recently. In films and television shows such as "Silence of the Lambs" or "Millennium" or the forgettable "Kiss the Girls," the work is wrapped in libidinal fantasies of proximity to transgression, its empathetic aspect emphasized. And Douglas isn’t above some of this. "To be a good profiler," he says in his bestselling autobiography, Mindhunter, "you have to be able to evaluate a wide range of evidence and data. But you also have to be able to walk in the shoes of both the offender and the victim." Here follows a suspiciously enthusiastic specification of what this last would involve in a case of rape/murder. I’ll forgo citation. But all through Mindhunter, as well as in Unabomber, Douglas’s memoir of his involvement with the Unabomber case, behavioral profiling hovers between science and empathy, between the stolid business of evaluating wide ranges of evidence and the lurid business of donning a psychopath’s shoes.


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