“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” – Cervantes, Don Quixote
Don Quixote is more than a tale of man who deludes himself into believing that he is knight in the age of chivalry but an allegory about abstract knowledge and its dangers. Sleeping too little and reading too much, the man from La Mancha has much in common with the average graduate student in the social sciences or humanities. At the same time, I think that graduate students risk suffering a fate like Quixote's. Being in the midst of reading thousands of pages of social scientific research and philosophical argument for my dissertation’s literature review, quixotism is a danger never far from my mind.
The information and knowledge written down in books, of course, are sought in the hope that they will not only inform but also heighten one’s sensitivity to aspects of reality that could otherwise be overlooked. Having poured over a text about how community exists as a symbolic construction, for instance, I am encouraged to look beyond social structure when examining communities in the real world. Yet, immersing oneself in abstract knowledge also carries the risk inhibiting one’s ability to accurately interpret the world. The researcher may come to construct an imagined reality, built out of what they have read, that inaccurately colors their every observation of the world and even begins to merge with their own identity.
The stereotype of the out-of-touch academic is, unfortunately, often used by people who would rather remain ignorant or find scholarly arguments incompatible with their ideology. Nevertheless, it is not a stereotype without a hint of truth to it. Interactions with classmates in seminar and colleagues at conferences have taught me that even the most sophisticated of thinkers build vast edifices to shore up beliefs that they take as unquestioned and axiomatic.
What has struck me the most upon enrolling as a graduate student in science and technology studies is how many of my classmates discuss contemporary inequalities and injustices mainly in terms of reified abstractions. That is, such problems are caused by “the corrupt system” or “capitalism” writ large rather than some clear and nameable way that institutions and rules are designed; their theoretical concepts cease to elucidate reality but instead replace it. The whole of western modernity becomes suspect and, therefore, they leave themselves with little means of accomplishing positive change. How can one fight an enemy when it has become as abstract and as large as civilization itself?
Similarly, I have interacted with a number of scholars, typically with strong libertarian or anarchist leanings, who cannot forthrightly admit negative consequences of Internet and other contemporary communication devices on people’s lives, communities and relationships. For instance, they write off those who view such devices as too easily affording narcissism or other forms of anti-social behavior, such as using cell phones to construct elaborate barriers to intimacy with others. I suspect that these scholars lack criticality concerning the Internet because its decentralized structure parallels the ideal politically decentralized world in which such scholars would want to live. In a similar way to how Don Quixote imagines a simple barber’s basin to be Mambrino’s famous helmet, the Internet becomes imagined mainly in terms of its abstract potential rather than as the pedestrian and uninspiring thing it is. It becomes an object confused with the theoretical construct to which it only bears a resemblance.
Likewise, I am bothered by what I see as an odd degree of attention paid towards misogynistic jokes by comedians such as Daniel Tosh as driving “rape culture.” As distasteful to some as rape jokes may be, adult comedy is generally far removed from the actual processes of socialization that permit men to believe that they are entitled to take advantage of women; jokes are more likely a symptom of rape culture or a minor variable at best, hardly reason to dedicate so much energy towards it. Writers on Jezebel and other academically-rooted blogs, I fear, are like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills while believing they are attacking evil and menacing giants. Those who disagree with such writers are often viewed in such a way that the original crusade is further justified; the unwillingness of others to view the words of comedians as such a large item of concern becomes interpreted as a sign that rape culture and comedy are even further intertwined and entrenched than previously thought and gives justification for such writers to become increasing militant about joke telling.
In contrast, one of the most insightful blog posts I have read about the roots of rape culture is by someone who is not an academic “culture warrior” but instead simply takes note of how little boys are often allowed to behave in socially pathological ways toward little girls under the guise of "boys will be boys." This simple, everyday observation can be easily overlooked if one's view of the world is constituted only by that which can be described via abstract cultural analysis, having no role for developmental psychology.
Preventing Don Quixote from realizing that the world he believes in is not like the one he interacts with is the sophistication with which he is able to construct ad hoc theorizations to shore up his worldview, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Each defeat and beating is reinterpreted through Quixote’s vast theoretical knowledge of chivalry so that his own world view is reinforced rather than undermined. It is fairly well-known in the psychological literature that most people’s attitude toward evidence contrary to their own ideologies are more like Don Quixote’s ad-hoc rationalizations than they care to admit, even among those who consider themselves “objective” or “rational.” It is not being like the Man of La Mancha that takes genuine effort; cognitive limitations are a constant presence in human thinking. Academics, in my experience, are often more adept than the average person at such theorizing away of inconvenient arguments and observations.
As bothered as I am by the quixotic tendencies in my fellow academics, the possibility of suffering from a similar but unrecognized affliction concerns me the most. It is, of course, far easier to recognize sins of others than those perpetrated by oneself. What are the windmills and barbers’ basins in my own thinking?
I worry that too often academic training provides students with a greater repository of tools for protecting their worldview from careful self-scrutiny as much as methods for asking critical questions about the world. The quixotism of an academic is perhaps even more dangerous than the average person’s self-imposed ignorances; university trained scholars are more likely to be utterly convinced of their own rationality. Nevertheless, as I continue to read too much and sleep far too little, I hope my own mind remains more flexible and self-critical than Don Quixote’s.
 To be absolutely clear, I am not defending Daniel Tosh. Rather, my problem is that too much attention is paid towards such highly visible and most obviously outrageous incidents with little concern about whether or not expressing moral outrage at comedians gets contemporary civilization anywhere closer to discouraging rape. I believe that far too many cultural critics are more concerned with taking down public figures and celebrities for their failings and/or pathologies than being effective at rooting out the behaviors and mindsets that they oppose.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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