righteous feminist anger

Rex Murphy again, and Against a Disembodied Academy

In case you weren’t aware, Erin’s open letter to Rex Murphy from last week was a major online hit. Currently on H&E has 5472 hits, and it was cross-posted to rabble.ca, generating lively (and sometimes awful) commentary. In fact, the post gained so much mileage so quickly that it received on the same day a misogynist, vitriolic backlash piece published in the Halifax-based tabloid magazine Frank, entitled “Wunker of the Week.” In that piece, Andrew Douglas slings mud at our beloved H&E cofounder, corroborates Murphy by questioning Emma Sulkowicz’s rape, and ridicules women’s studies generally:

Not only is Dalhousie enrolling record numbers into its various femme-babble gender studies programs this year–much to MSVU’s chagrin, I’m sure–I see that a Dal prof has taken it upon herself to loudly condemn National Post columnist/CBC troll doll Rex Murphy for (gasp) making fun of that silly girl at Columbia University who’s been dragging a mattress around behind her all year. 

So patronizing, so dismissive, so sarcastic, really hardly even worth a close-read. A bit of research on this publication unsurprisingly revealed that Douglas has traveled in or somewhere near rape apologist circles for awhile, dating back to the suicide of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons in 2013, when he claimed that there “wasn’t enough evidence” to charge the boys accused of her gang-rape, and proceeded to level blame at Parsons’ mother. In 2011, Frank Magazine was involved in another seemingly anti-feminist scandal when Douglas fired one of his employees for “questioning a column on sexism.” With 14 000 followers on Twitter, this guy is certainly not a nobody.

In this post, I’d like to stand behind Erin and the urgent, brave work that she does for this blog, which itself is an outlet for women to express our outrage with the system that makes it possible for national news figures to publicly mock the “vacant head[s]” of educated women who dare to speak out in ineluctable ways about misogyny, victimization, and their own experience with rape. Additionally, however, I want to unearth the implicit violence that Douglas and Murphy themselves enact on female bodies insofar as they both strive for an erasure of affective, embodied approaches to education and to literature. It is notable that the two main pop culture figures Murphy cites in his mockery of modern educational practices are Madonna and Beyoncé, with her “hermeneutic hip tossing grinds.” In this latter instance, Murphy not only targets a female pop culture icon, but a woman of color, drawing attention to her hips and her gyrating body in a way that subtly reinforces misogynoir stereotypes. This in addition to his transphobic opening rant against categories like “cis” and “hetero” or pronouns like “ze” and “xe.” 

Andrew Douglas, in turn, derides Erin’s reference to “Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women” (which, yes, is a Thing, a horrifying and urgent Thing), and ridicules one of her class assignments in which she incorporates the study of affect into digital mapping technology–the very kind of “Thinking Through the Body” practice about which she has recently blogged. Murphy claims that the goal of the discipline of the humanities is “to teach what is worth knowing; to train the intellect; to acquaint students with, and help them appreciate, the glories of the human mind and its finest achievements.” In proposing that the university system must draw us away from popular culture to that which he deems “the glories of the human mind,” in objecting to Sulkowicz’s use of her body as a locus for protest and change, Rex Murphy implicitly calls for the erasure of disruptive female bodies from university campuses. This form of sexism, epitomized in Murphy’s and Douglas’s articles, does not simply involve slut-shaming or antiquated approaches to literature, but additionally involves an internalized discomfort with women’s bodies as topics and subjects of engagement in humanities classrooms.

My vision of the academy involves Jane Austen, John Milton, and Madonna, and accepts that honest educational encounters with contemporary culture and with the past will uncover unpleasant truths, truths that lie far below the “glories of the human mind and its finest achievements” (which are implicitly, in this context, gendered male). My vision of the academy incorporates womens’ bodies into the conversation and exposes the ways they are systematically attacked, erased, murdered, and raped. My vision of the academy embraces embodied practices and approaches to literature, and resists the neoliberal urge to reduce what we do as scholars to impersonal numbers and metrics. Basically, my vision of the academy wants nothing to do with the twisted vision offered by these offensive online attacks against women in major Canadian media outlets.

NB: A version of this blog post appeared a week ago, under the title “Solidarity with Dr. Wunker,” but I removed it soon after posting because it wasn’t quite fully developed. Thanks are due to Andrew Ferris (Department of English, Princeton) for reading that earlier draft with a generous eye, and helping me clarify and expand some of my ideas regarding the proper role of the academy.