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February 25, 2019 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

On Having an Ax to Grind

“Productive scholars have an ax to grind.” That was a lesson imparted on me by one of my undergraduate mentors, Brian Murphy. We were walking across campus during my senior year, and I had been talking about the possibility of pursuing some kind of graduate degree, at the time in Literature. Brian was narrating how, despite enjoying the scholarly work he had done throughout his career, he never felt particularly driven to participate in the arguments motivating many scholars in the discipline. (Little did I know that the postmodernism debate was in full rage mode at the time.) Frankly, I didn’t really know what to do with the advice at the time, but I tucked in away.

A man comes to get his ax ground, sometime in the Middle Ages? (From Married to the Sea)

While I was working on the Master’s degree that followed (in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool), I had things I was interested in, but the work was driven more by curiosity and expediency than having a real argument to make. Over time, the thesis I wrote there developed more of an argument and ended up being publishable as a couple of articles about superhero utopias and the role of law and capital in superhero comics. But to this day, I’m not sure I have much of an ax to grind when it comes to superheroes.

It was while working on revising that content that I received a second piece of advice, this time from Hai Ren, a faculty member I worked with at Bowling Green. Hai suggested that to write a dissertation, one needed “three theorists.” Hai’s point, as I understood it, was that you need some parameters on the ideas that you’re working with, and that having three theorists — who, he suggested, one reads in their entirety (queue up the qualifying exam reading list) — gave a writer the ability to play off differences and consensus between sets of theory. If I wasn’t sure what ax I had to grind, Hai gave me a way to craft one.

I’ve made the same recommendations to students over the years, but I add that the theories that one adopts should really be ontologically compatible. So monists and dualists don’t go together, nor do communists and free marketeers, nor biological determinists and social constructionists, etc. I had started thinking about this after reading Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power, where she draws together Freud, Lacan, Bourdieu, Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Hegel (and others, I’m sure, but memory fails me). Butler’s “toolbox” approach struck me as eliding the profound differences between a thinker like Freud, who really believes in some form of biological determinism, and Foucault, who really does not. You can put them together, but you can’t really build a sound theory out of them because the ontologies don’t fit together. That is, unless you find ways to treat some thinkers as existing within an ontological paradigm developed by others who you take more seriously (e.g. Freud’s use of biology is a form of Foucaultian discourse and not really materially reductive. But I’m skeptical.).

If you go look at the introduction to The Slumbering Masses, I’m pretty explicit about using three sets of theory and having an ax to grind: I’m trying to work through the overlap between Bruno Latour, Bernard Steigler, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and I’m trying to bring them to bear on how we conceptualize the interaction between medicine and capitalism in the U.S. That means, in part, that I’m rejecting medicalization as a way to think about human nature and its interactions with capitalist forms of medicine (which you can read about here).

That doesn’t mean that I’m only working through the theories that come out of those four, white, relatively elite, able-bodied, heterosexual French men. I’m intensely aware of who these men were (and are), and use their monism to engage with other thinkers (especially Genevieve Lloyd and Moira Gatens, two Australian Spinozist philosophers) and the subfield interests I have (especially science and technology studies and feminist medical anthropology). Those engagements helped me suss out things from the theories I was using and guided me through my interactions with those rather large fields of literature. It also gave me a way to talk about things like my “contributions” to the field and the “significance” of my research (scare quotes to denote my general skepticism of that kind of grant-speak criteria). In saturated areas of study, being clear about your theoretical commitments can also make clear what you’re doing differently than other people working on the same topic or area of study.

I try and get students to think about what they believe. Stop thinking through the ecumenical polytheism of graduate study, and consider what kind of world you want to make with your scholarship. What is the ontology that you’re committed to? And who are the right thinkers to join to that project? It shouldn’t just be people that you enjoy reading, but people (and sets of theories) that you fundamentally share a common sensibility with. In committing to a set of thinkers, what differences can you map out between them and how might they guide your interactions with key concepts in your field? That can provide a ton of grist for the mill, both in terms of the initial dissertation, but also in articles and other spin-off projects.

I have other axes to grind — especially around racism in science and medicine — and those too are informed by my theoretical commitments. Having a pretty solidly determined ontological commitment gives me a framework to engage with whatever springs up. And, over time, I’ve changed the people most central to the projects I work on now. But having a set of theoretical commitments helps to guide what and how I read as well as the kinds of questions I ask about the phenomena that I’m drawn to work on.

It took a while, but now I have axes to grind…

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