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Should academics cite those who have breached moral and humane borders?

Does citing a scholar run the risk of being perceived as validating not only the research, but the researcher? Michael Brace/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Should academics cite those who have breached moral and humane borders?

In the United States and, indeed, worldwide, academics have been shocked by the arrest of a University of Cincinnati professor of classics, Holt N Parker, on child pornography charges. Parker was arrested on charges of distribution and receipt of child pornography in mid-March and promptly suspended from his academic position.

Shocking as it may be, such an incident is nothing new. Scholars have long encountered skeletons in the academic closets of peers and intellectual heroes. Personal misdemeanors or crimes range from longstanding mistreatment of family and friends to offensive political beliefs and obscene acts.

Louis Althusser. via Wikimedia Commons

French theorist Louis Althusser (1918-1990) is still revered in some academic quarters as an important and influential Marxist theorist. His work on interpellation, the cultural process whereby ideas become embedded and structure one’s life, continues to influence academic disciplines from sociology, anthropology, film studies and feminist theory.

In an entry on Althusser in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the decline of interest in his reading of Marx is attributed in part to the “ill-fated facts of his life”.

This is a somewhat casual allusion to Althusser’s murder of his wife, Hélène in 1980. A luxurious description of the act opens his autobiography:

I place my two thumbs on the hollow of flesh round the top of the breastbone and, applying pressure, one thumb to the right, the other aslant to the left, I slowly reach the harder zone beneath the ears. I massage in a V. I feel a great muscular fatigue in my forearms; they ache whenever I give a massage.

Helene’s features are serene and motionless, her open eyes gazing up at the ceiling.

Althusser never stood trial. Instead, he was admitted to Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital and, later, Soisy-sur-Seine. After three years, he was released, but he continued to be regularly readmitted to institutional care until his death.

Can scholars separate the murderer from the philosopher? According to Geraldine Finn in Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence (1995), the answer is “no”:

His philosophical and intellectual practice cannot be separated from his personal and emotional practice: they are rooted in the same soil and have the same material, social, historical and ideological conditions of possibility …

Finn attributes the act not to reports that Althusser was suffering from a psychotic episode, but to the conditions of a society that enables male scholars and their work – at the expense of women.

Paul de Man. Goodreads

Paul de Man (1919-1983) did not strangle his wife, but he too poses ethical conundrums for scholars.

A Belgian literary theorist and leading figure of deconstructionism, de Man’s intellectual legacy began to seriously crumble in 1987, some three years after his death.

The cause was the discovery of several articles published in the Belgian pro-Nazi newspaper, Le Soir during the War. One in particular was unambiguously anti-Semitic. In addition to his writing, de Man mingled socially with the Nazis in Belgium, and maintained allegiance to the occupation regime after relocating to France in 1941.

Interestingly, de Man’s anti-Semitic essay has sometimes been linked to his work on deconstructionism. Namely, to think and to write is to theorise. Accordingly, what one writes does not represent a definitive meaning. Nor does it represent the definitive beliefs of its author. While this is a slippery interpretation of de Man’s anti-Semitic writing, it demonstrates the link between the public work of the scholar and the private life of the scholarly individual.

Similarly, in the case of Parker, media reports have attempted to forge an intimate connection between his scholarship and the acts leading to his arrest. As Parker built an impressive academic career on the study of ancient sexualities – a confronting subject to many members of the general public – the scholarship, the scholar and the private man have become intertwined.

The examples of academics such as de Man, Althusser and Parker (although the latter has not yet been convicted of any crime) provoke a series of ethical questions. Should the research of such intellectuals be assigned to the academic junk pile? Or should scholars continue to cite their work?

If scholarship is regarded as an intimate part of a scholar, as inseparable as an arm or a leg, then the answer is probably “no.” Apropos: the scholarship is seen as tainted or inherently corrupt, as per Finn’s stance on Althusser.

Alternatively, a “no” may come from a more general moral unease. Apropos: the act is suitably vile that a protest is in order. Either way, the research is assigned its own sentence: solitary confinement in the form of censorship. But a “no” may be to the detriment of new work and therefore to scholarship.

A “yes” keeps the work in academia. But does the citing scholar run the risk of being perceived as validating not only the research, but the researcher?

Knut Hamsun pictured in 1890. Wikimedia Commons

Would citation endorse inhumanity, cruelty, racism and other corruptions? Would censuring and censorious scholars be promoting humanity, kindness and racial harmony by shunning authors such as Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, for example?

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 for his philosophical and exquisitely composed novels, Hamsun also wrote an obituary for Hitler. Would extending censorship to artists such as Hamsun, the subject of academic endeavours, open up the floodgates of political correctness and lead to the definitive editing of geniuses such as Ovid and Shakespeare?

But what if a scholar cannot do anything else but not cite? What if the actions or beliefs of an artist or intellectual are so repellent, so abject that they incite a response that is not cerebral but something deeper, something innately emotional?

What if Althusser’s strangulation of his wife and his description of it are so shocking that some scholars simply cannot cite his work? For such scholars, the author is not dead, and will never be dead (pace Roland Barthes). Instead, the author is a living, breathing monster and always will be. And, as with all monsters and their (written) progeny, they should be locked away forever.

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