Sunday, March 29, 2009

Keep your eye on the red queen...

Literary theory and psychology have a hot new hybrid: Impostor Studies. It seems perfectly natural to me that feelings of academic fraud should be formalized, as a great many of the people I know in academia seem to suffer from it. It’s the mental equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome for the knowledge worker. Or perhaps antibodies against overweening cognitive arrogance, the kind of prompted Larry Summers--when he was merely the chief economist of the World Bank and not the President of Harvard--to say, “I've always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.” (This was his explanation of why the U.S. should export toxic wastes to Third World countries.) On the other end of the spectrum, you have Buster Keaton flirting with this impulse when he claimed he really didn’t feel qualified to comment on his own work. In one sense, post-modernism is Imposter Theory writ large. If one entertains primal doubts about the legitimacy of one’s own speakerhood, then it is a natural (and arguably ethical act) to export it to all speakers, if for nothing else than to keep everyone honest. Mind you, this might be a fundamentally more compelling argument if power did not accrue to the one performing the destabilizing critique.

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