Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Women and Madness I

A scholar of my acquaintance, a man in his thirties, recently regaled me with accounts of the run-ins he'd had with an eccentric female colleague of an older generation. His story took the three-stage form we're all familiar with from the folk and fairy tales of our childhood, with the third stage --the foot that fit the slipper, the pig in the brick house, the final denial of Christ, as it were-- being the older woman's rudest and most irrational outburst, at which time the younger man refuted her claims, denounced her solipsism, and turned on his heel, never to speak to her again.

Now, the guy is a rigorous and reliable person; and the older woman does indeed have bouts of aggressiveness and paranoia. But what got to me was the smarm, or at least the pride, with which the younger man described his put-down. As though he were Speaking Truth to Power, rather than just deciding that he lacked the patience to deal with a meshugeneh old colleague. 'Cause not only does the older woman lack power, but paranoid and emotionally volatile is not really a fun place for a person's head to be, you know.

Hence I'm pretty unnerved at the turns the denunciations of Priya Venkatesan are taking. Clearly she was a very bad teacher, she treated her students poorly, and she reacted with paranoid ideation to events in her classroom. But it also seems reasonable to infer from the article that a) She did indeed, prior to entering the classroom, have to deal with a crushingly hostile environment in the laboratory and b) She is at this point, to use an old phrase, "not right in the head." Yet even the gentle Scott Eric Kaufman responds to her odd, mad behavior with disgust (vindicating Martha Nussbaum's suspicion of that emotion's social utility); and the comments on other weblogs are much more condemnatory.

Indeed, eccentric or unreasonable claims on the part of a woman with an audience seem to act as blood in the water to the sharks of the internet. Followers of the sf blogosphere will recall the harsh comments about Judith Merril here and the nastiness in the comments on Readercon 16. Neither of those victims were paranoids on the level of Venkatesan; but both seemed to incur a disproportionate amount of venom for their eccentric opinions.

I find this sort of thuggery disconcerting even when it's aimed at deserving targets: Norman Finkelstein, to my mind, weakened his argument against conservative ideologue Phyllis Chesler when he ended his polemic against her (in Beyond Chutzpah) with the suggestion that "One wonders whether Women and Madness was autobiographical." Among fans and writers of comics, it's called playing the "bitch crazy" card: one can resolve any number of plot complications by appealing to the readers' understanding of the old Chandleresque trope "bitch crazy" (Chandler, to his credit, sometimes had strong, rational women providing a counterpoint to the wild femmes whom Marlowe had to chercher). Acephalous commenter JPool puts his or her finger on the uses of the Venkatesan case: here's someone who, by all appearances, seems to be breaking down in a very public way and . . . the swirl of uses and projections that that public breakdown (or at the least, very poor behavior) can be put to.


Lesley Hall said...

And sometimes women are using the assumptions - there was a fascinating article in yesterday's Guardian Media section, an interview with the foreign correspondent Ann Leslie: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/may/05/dailymail.pressandpublishing
in which she says that she sometimes deployed her 'dotty old woman' persona as a disarming strategy to get the story. But this is a potentially risky procedure except in specifically delimited situations for a particular purpose.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks very much for this post, Josh. I presume you've seen "Thoughts on Venkatesan" on the Is there no sin in it? blog, elicited by you. [I can't make a link work, but the URL is: http://istherenosininit.wordpress.com]

A White Bear writes:
I admit that I’ve felt afraid in the classroom. Here I am, this smart, confident woman with eight years of teaching experience, and there are times when I’ve been scared to go to work because I know one of my students is going to come to my office hours and try to talk about his rape fantasies. Or I know that one of my classes has a strong homophobic contingent who are going to giggle in the corner when we talk about violence against gays and I’m going to have to maintain extraordinary poise if I want to make that into a worthwhile confrontation. Sometimes I’m in control of that anxiety enough to handle it really well. Sometimes I’m not, and I know I’ll be judged far more harshly for it than a white straight dude would be.

& here she's fucking brilliant:
But what the Venkatesan situation makes me realize is that it’s those of us who manage to stay relatively unwounded by hostility who are the delusional ones. People in Venkatesan’s department do seem to hate her, as do her students. Some of it seems to be a response to her failure to be a sensitive or generous teacher and colleague, but, sure, it’s probably compounded by racism and sexism, which are inescapable. But what we seem to expect of minority academics is that they stop seeing systems of oppression as affecting them. I don’t tend to complain about being a woman in academia because I maintain the delusional hope that my students can learn to abandon their prejudices if I say and do everything right, if I never feed their suspicion that they’re somehow beating me down with it. I can never act like a victim, even when I am one, because no one hates anything more than a victim who calls attention to their victimization.

JPool said...

I have a longish response over at AWB's place.

Recognizing and rejecting the abuse of crazy or unreasonable people can indeed be a triumph in life. We shouldn't be so understanding that we put up with endless nonsense from those who should know better. But, as you say, there more than a little celebratory and occasionally viscious schadenfreude trotted out in response to this case. It makes you appreciate the reserve of Tim Burke's first response.