On doing it badly

I’m reading Christine Korsgaard’sSelf-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity‘ (2009) – I’ve found myself increasingly drawn recently to questions of normative political philosophy or ‘ideal theory’, which I’ve previously tended to analytically eschew, I presume as part-pluralism, part-anthropological reflex.

In chapter 2 (‘The Metaphysics of Normativity’), Korsgaard engages with Aristotle’s analysis of objects as an outcome of organizing principles. For instance, what makes a house a house rather than just a ‘heap of stones and mortar and bricks’ is its function of keeping out the weather, and this is also how we should judge the house – a ‘good’ house is one that fulfils this function, a bad not so much.

This argument, of course, is a well-known one and endlessly discussed in social ontology (at least among the Cambridge Social Ontology crowd, which I still visit). But Korsgaard emphasizes something that has previously completely escaped my attention, which is the implicit argument about the relationship between normativity and knowledge:

Now, it is entirely true that ‘seeing what things do’ is a pretty neat description of my work as a theorist. But there is an equally important one, which is seeing what things can or could do. This means looking at (I’m parking the discussion about privileging the visual/observer approach to theory for the time being, as it’s both a well-known criticism in e.g. feminist & Indigenous philosophy *and* other people have written about it much better than I ever could) ‘things’ – in my case, usually concepts – and understanding what using them can do, that is, looking at them relationally. You are not the same person looking at one kind of social object and another, nor is it, importantly, the same social object ‘unproblematically’ (meaning that yes, it is possible to reach consensus about social objects – e.g. what is a university, or a man, or a woman, or fascism, but it is not possible to reach it without disagreement – the only difference being whether it is open or suppressed). I’m also parking the discussion about observer effects, indefinitely: if you’re interested in how that theoretical argument looks without butchering theoretical physics, I’ve written about it here).

This also makes the normative element of the argument more difficult, as it requires delving not only into the ‘satisficing’ or ‘fitness’ analysis (a good house is a house that does its job of being a house), but also into the performative effects analysis (is a good house a house that does its job in a way that eventually turns ‘houseness’ into something bad?). To note, this is distinct from separate issues Korsgaard recognizes – e.g. that a house constructed in a place that obscures the neighbours’ view is bad, but not a bad house, as its ‘badness’ is not derived from its being a house, but from its position in space (the ‘where’, not the ‘what’). This analysis may – and I emphasize may – be sufficient for discrete (and Western) ontologies, where it is entirely conceivable of the same house being positioned somewhere else and thus remaining a good house, while no longer being ‘bad’ for the neighbourhood as a whole. But it clearly encounters problems on any kind of relational, environment-based, or contextual ontologies (a house is not a house only by the virtue of being sufficient to keep out elements for the inhabitants, but also – and, possibly, more importantly – by being positioned in a community, and a community that is ‘poisoned’ by a house that blocks everyone’s view is not a good community for houses).

In this sense, it makes sense to ask when does what an object does turn into badness for the object itself? I.e., what would it mean that a ‘good’ house is at the same time a bad house? Plot spoiler: I believe this is likely true for all social objects. (I’ve written about ambiguity here and also here). The task of the (social) theorist – what, I think, makes my work social (both in the sense of applying to the domain of interaction between multiple human beings and in the sense of having relevance to someone beyond me) is to figure out what kind of contexts make one more likely than the other. Under what conditions do mostly good things (like, for instance, academic freedom) become mostly bad things (like, for instance, a form of exclusion)?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to what constitutes ‘bad’ scholarship (and, I guess, by extension, a bad scholar). Having had the dubious pleasure of encountering people who teach different combinations of neocolonial, right-wing, and anti-feminist ‘scholarship’ over the past couple of years, it strikes me that the key question is under what conditions this kind of work – which universities tend to ignore because it ‘passes’ as scholarship and gives them the veneer of presenting ‘both sides’ – turns the whole idea of scholarship into little more than competition for followers on either of the ‘sides’. This brings me to the question which, I think, should be the source of normativity for academic speech, if anything: when is ‘two-sideism’ destructive to knowledge production as a whole?

Is bad scholarship just bad scholarship, or is it something else? When does the choice to not know about the effects of ‘platforming’ certain kinds of speakers turn from the principle of liberal neutrality to wilful ignorance? Most importantly, how would we know the difference?