In her well-known 1984 essay, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Carol Cohn writes of her experience in a defense seminar in the early 1980s, when the cold war was hot again and missile defense less a question than a Reagan-inspired reality. The essay is often (mis)cited as dealing specifically with the gendered language of the defense community–missile size, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” missile silos as “nice holes”–it’s easy to get caught up in that part of the essay, but it’s so much more than that. Cohn’s real insight is the way that specialized language, particularly language meant to disguise and divert our attention from the horrible realities of war, death, and nuclear destruction, can be terribly seductive. The seduction lies in knowing the secret words of a small club, to speak them fluently and glibly, and to feel accepted within that specialized community. But speaking and thinking in the language of the defense intellectuals, she argues, risks closing off your ability to think critically about it or to speak dissent; the danger of seduction is that you can lose yourself in acceptance.
I recently discussed this essay with my graduate class. It’s a small seminar on Gender and International Relations and gives me the space to revisit the feminist IR literature; it’s a literature that represents a community that intrigued me as a student and has since become my community. I’ve gone from being an academic groupie to one of the kids at the big table (okay, not quite all the way to the biggest table, but I’ll get there). I am not only reading the literature, I’m helping to create it.
As a graduate student, I encountered each new text as a fully formed, discrete intellectual artifact that represented yet another piece of a larger puzzle: its existence was real, accepted, unquestionably important. The author was not a person, the author was a name that denoted a particular brand of thinking: “oh, that is so Waltzian,” “What would Bueno de Mosquita do?” “Enloe would tell us that…” People were disembodied while they simultaneously became bodies of work.
But then I was no longer a graduate student: I was expected to be a producer, not just a consumer, of knowledge. This comes with the realization that the creation of knowledge is a social endeavor while also intensely personal. I thought that I understood what it meant to have conversations through the texts, but I now understand that the conversations I have with my peers at conferences, via email, even through gossip, are just as important in understanding their work. In knowing that so-and-so has a sharp sense of humor, I could read her text and see the humor in it where I hadn’t before. In experiencing so-and-so’s passionate belief in mentoring younger faculty, I could understand her careful reading of other scholars and understand that her genius was not only in her willingness to critique, but to do it with the utmost respect. In witnessing the defensive shyness with which a well-respected figure in my field presented her research, I read her work with a different appreciation, almost a gentleness. All the texts I had reified as a student had become humanized as an academic.
I’ve noticed something interesting and slightly disturbing about myself in teaching this course, however–my own use of the “secret” words of academia, the knowing asides about the literature, the almost smug way I use author’s first names because I happen to know them personally. I reflect on this as I listen to my students interpret each author’s work and I think “hmm, would so-and-so really have said that? I don’t think so” or I smile wryly when a text is treated as semi-sacred and I recall that the author has a killer laugh, loves martinis, and tells really bawdy stories. A sloppy review of a friend’s work made me defensive and slightly angry, and I was perhaps a bit harsh in my own critique of a less-than-friendly colleague’s work.
I wonder if speaking the language, and being a member of the club, even peripherally, is affecting my ability to see the work critically, to think differently. Does this have an adverse affect on how I teach this literature? Am I too close to it? And if that’s the case, is it better to teach only the literature with which you are not personally involved? Or, on other hand, does my personal involvement anchor the literature in such a way to avoid its unnecessary (or even dangerous) reification? Being part of a feminist community is nowhere near being part of a the community of defense intellectuals, surely, so perhaps I am overreacting to a perceived danger where none exists. But I am grateful for the caution, because I think it’s important.
If I ask my students to read with a conscious, critical mind, I want to remember to teach the same way. Instead of smiling at the faces I see in my mind when I read people I know, I will try to think more deeply about what they have to say. At the same time, I will try to appreciate the people they are.
That being said: Carol, thanks so much for your essay. I love teaching it.
This post was originally published at http://uvenus.org on 2010.03.18.
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Denise Horn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective atUniversity of Venus.