Last week, there was an all-student email sent out linking a 2005 Chapel Talk by former Wabash Classics professor Dr. David Kubiak. This was in response to an assignment from Dr. Rognlie’s Ethics course, which stipulated that students must defend various ethical positions during the “Ethics Bowl” assignment in the course. Some of these positions included defense of abortion, access to gender-affirming care and weapons restrictions. Unsurprisingly, some students were upset by this assignment, but there is something missing from these students’ understanding of both the practice of philosophy as well as liberal arts more generally. Core to the practice of the philosophy is the analysis of argumentation, breaking arguments down into particular structures and generating new insights about the content of the arguments itself.
There is much insight to be gained from the construction of arguments, whether you agree or disagree with these arguments. The construction of arguments for positions you disagree with can be particularly helpful, showing the internal flow and logic of the position and revealing potential contradictions or limits. The notion that students of philosophy would be shocked or offended that they were expected to construct arguments they may disagree with in an introductory ethics course is quite strange, given that the aim of the course is explicitly to encourage analysis and construction of philosophical arguments. While I’d like to affirm the importance of thorough student engagement in courses, Dr. Rognlie’s course expectations are clearly aligned with typical conduct in philosophy and promote further understanding of philosophical arguments.
To move past this discussion, however, I’d like to turn to the content of the talk from Dr. Kubiak and evaluate it. As Dr. Kubiak himself says, “I want to make some more theoretical remarks,” though I suggest my remarks will be much more textual and substantive.
Because I wasn’t a Wabash student in 2005, I’ll ignore the comments regarding the state of the College, and instead focus on the theoretical remarks and claims he makes throughout his talk about feminism and gender theory. The talk, titled “Viva la Bash, or Why Gender Feminism is Killing Our College”, begins by labeling his “perennial ideological opponents” as “gender feminists.” These gender feminists, according to Kubiak, “hate [Wabash] men… who mostly have traditional ideas about what it means to be a man.” He justifies this claim by arguing that several Wabash professors expressed their interest in campus as a sort of “laboratory,” a description he finds to be dehumanizing.
Beyond the casual irony of Dr. Kubiak accusing others of dehumanization, I think it’s important to give this point a serious reading. The point of Wabash as a “laboratory” is not to suggest that we are lab rats, but rather that Wabash offers a unique place to experience and research gender. The point is exactly the opposite of Dr. Kubiak’s understanding, highlighting the potential of Wabash to cultivate new and interesting relationships to gender and masculinity.
Moving on to the next point, Dr. Kubiak claims that women are “much too intelligent and self-possessed” to enjoy Viva la Bam, an old MTV show which celebrates “unfettered masculine instincts.”
While the claim is dubious at best, I’d like to focus on how Dr. Kubiak is clearly interested in concretizing gender roles and limiting the expression of Wabash men. To be a man only falls within the bounds of what Dr. Kubiak identifies as traditional masculinity, a term which is paralyzed by nostalgia. It is justified with reference to previous cultural icons of masculinity, but this is precisely the point; the figures are cultural, and our culture continues to change over time. The reason why something like Sean Connery’s masculinity seems anachronistic in our contemporary era is because it truly is; his relationship with masculinity is informed by the culture he exists within.
To speak to his references and representation of “feminists,” Dr. Kubiak claims that “feminist” thinkers such as Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff-Sommers have been “carefully concealed,” but I contest that such thinkers have been amplified in conservative media and have generated significant attention for many of their claims. Camille Paglia appeared multiple times on Fox News to discuss the #MeToo movement and other contemporary issues of gender. While Dr. Kubiak is quick to point out the heterogeneity of the feminist movement and highlight ‘conservative feminists,’ he has no issue homogenizing the complex and multiplicitous field of gender studies and feminism into “gender feminism.” This ignores the robust intellectual tradition of the fields and obfuscates the various strands of thought within them. These aren’t merely trivial disagreements between feminists, but rather have resulted in the development of entirely new methodological analyses including post-structural feminism, intersectional feminism, critical phenomenology, post-colonial feminism and many others. His portrayal of academic feminism and gender theory as homogenous is disingenuous and reveals a serious gap in his knowledge of the field. Turning now to his characterization of the French post-structuralist theorists, he argues that they are “ignorant of science [and use] esoteric language… to advance their academic careers after the collapse of the academic job market.” This is obviously an unserious engagement and the relegation of these complex thinkers such as Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous to “social constructivism” shows a further lack of understanding and engagement with the fields.
To discuss a final example of Dr. Kubiak’s intellectual laziness, I turn to a part of his Chapel talk in which he discusses “deconstruction.” This is in reference to Jacques Derrida’s work, and particularly his works Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology. Dr. Kubiak claims that deconstruction is aimed to “see the sexist-style readings of [texts]… and whittle[s] books down to a “look at the overpowering sexist dominance of the main character.” In contrast to Dr. Kubiak’s characterization, at the core of Derridean deconstruction is the idea that “There is nothing beyond the text.” (Of Grammatology, 64) This point clarifies that deconstruction is a method which uses the internal logic and grammar to expose presuppositions and commitments within the text. This can be manifest as things left unsaid, suggesting a reading of texts at the margins in order to develop new insights about its structure and logic. This description stands at clear odds with Dr. Kubiak’s discussion of deconstruction, suggesting that he either is misrepresenting Derrida and deconstruction, or he simply didn’t read the texts he is attempting to critique. This is a common theme in his remarks, and it seems that the repeated mischaracterizations and misreading reveals that he simply hasn’t read the works which he is so committed to discrediting.
If Wabash students want to maintain the College’s image of intellectual rigor and engagement, we must move away from thinkers who demonstrate such a disregard for these values. If you’re looking for a space to practice intellectual rigor and engagement, the philosophy department itself offers an excellent opportunity for this.