Philosophy

Where in the World Is Carmen de Macedo?

Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the editors of the Journal of Philosophy the opportunity to respond to this article. They declined, but did confirm the change in editorial policy noted below.

What would you feel if you were informed that, for the first time in your academic career, your article was accepted for publication in the very top general journal in your discipline? Pride? Elation? A delusion of grandeur?

I had some of these feelings myself a couple of years ago when my wife phoned me one morning to tell me that I had just received a letter with the very good news from the Journal of Philosophy. I still remember how excited I was that my article "Guilt by Statistical Association: Revisiting the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and the Interrogator’s Fallacy" would appear in the journal that to philosophers is approximately what Nature is to scientists. But I also immediately became worried. Although the paper offered a completely honest and responsible analysis of its topic, there was a problem with the authorship of that wretched article.

No, it was not plagiarized. In fact, quite the opposite. Whereas plagiarizing is publishing someone else’s work under one’s own name, what I was about to do was publish my own work under someone else’s name. And this someone else did not exist.

OK, why did I use a pseudonym? Was I merely trying to be funny or amusing? Was I just fooling around like the late (and delightfully extravagant) linguist Jim McCawley who enjoyed publishing stuff under names like “Quang Phuc Dong“ or “Yuck Foo“ (a spoonerism of you know what)? Or was I perhaps trying to imitate the playfulness of philosopher David Lewis who once wrote an article in which he criticized his own views and then published it under the pseudonym “Bruce LeCatt“ (the name of his own cat)?

Not really. Although I do love this kind of humor, I had a more pressing reason for hiding my identity. The thing is that at that time the Journal of Philosophy did not have a practice of blind refereeing of submitted papers. On the contrary, it even publicly advertised on its website that decisions about publication were usually made without the submissions being anonymized: "A majority of papers submitted to us are reviewed by the members of our editorial board… Manuscripts while in circulation inside the editorial board are not blinded." (In 2010 the journal changed its policy without explanation and introduced blind refereeing.)

What exactly was the problem with my name being known to the journal editors, who were to read my manuscript and decide about it? Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail about this delicate matter. It should suffice to say that several years ago one of the editors took umbrage at my published criticism of his views and even became angry (on his own admission). Therefore, arguably, had the article been associated with my name, any lingering resentment could have easily interfered with impartial refereeing. Notice that no accusation is being lodged here, not even a hypothetical one. I am not claiming that I had compelling grounds to believe that this kind of bias would happen, but only that I feared that it might happen.

Now, even if my fear had no basis in reality, I still thought that the journal itself was to blame for this awkward situation. For if it had only adopted the usual practice of blind refereeing (the norm for most scholarly journals), the worry that troubled me could not have arisen. So although the use of pseudonyms is indeed quite rare in academic publications, it seemed to me that it could be justified in this case.

The reader may wonder why I did not deal with the worry about potential bias by simply submitting the paper to another philosophical journal that had a better policy of reviewing manuscripts. There is an answer to that. Since my article went beyond "pure philosophy" and addressed some specific issues in statistics and criminology, the Journal of Philosophy was clearly the best choice because among the top general philosophy journals it is by far most open to interdisciplinary contributions. Moreover, its officially declared purpose is to "encourage the interchange of ideas, especially the exploration of the borderline between philosophy and other disciplines." In sum, the nature of the article dictated the journal, which didn’t have blind refereeing, which in turn made the use of a pseudonym advisable.

The first step then was to choose a nom de plume. Obviously I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on that, for I was well aware from the beginning that the chance of my article being accepted for publication in the Journal of Philosophy was very low. It's not that I had any doubts that my paper was an earth-shattering contribution to philosophical knowledge. It's more that I was afraid that others might not be able to recognize that.

Anyway, the name that soon sprang to mind and won the competition hands down was "Carmen de Macedo." One of its advantages is that it really has a good sound to it. Besides, I knew that in the unlikely case that I pulled the trick off, the name could be neatly used for a catchy title (see above), if I eventually decided to tell the entire story.

After the plan was promptly approved by my superego in January of 2008, I proceeded to open a Gmail account in the name of my nonexistent doppelgänger: carmendemacedo@gmail.com. Using that email I electronically submitted the article to the Journal of Philosophy under this false name, explaining along the way, somewhat apologetically, that I (Dr. Carmen de Macedo) was not currently affiliated with any university. I gave my own Hong Kong home details as Carmen’s contact address.

Five months later, instead of a rejection letter (which I frankly expected) a thick envelope addressed to Dr. de Macedo arrived in my mailbox, with the editorial verdict "Accepted without revisions" and with all those usual pre-publication documents and instructions. Wow, I did it!

Immediately, however, I was facing a new dilemma. Should I finally disclose my identity at this point, given that the decision has already been made and announced? Or perhaps not? Indeed, did any good reason remain to continue with my clandestine authorship? Actually, yes.

It could be plausibly assumed that the editors might be annoyed by my antics, and that, if told about the whole thing, they might reconsider their decision to accept my paper. Again, I am not saying that this would happen or that this was the most probable reaction. Yet it was definitely a possibility to be reckoned with.

I asked for advice from several prominent philosophers (some of whom had been editors of leading philosophy journals), and they agreed that my disclosure might well make the editors angry and lead to their retaliation. One of these consultants told me that he would himself feel bamboozled if something similar happened to him as the editor and that he did consider concealing the author's identity ethically inappropriate. He conceded that the policy of non-blind refereeing was unacceptable but he added that, in his opinion, the fact of the journal behaving badly did not justify doing likewise.

Some other colleagues, although by no means all of them, expressed similar concerns. Yet I just couldn’t see what could be morally objectionable about continuing with the Carmen gambit. The way I saw the situation was that, first, the authors surely have a right to be protected by anonymity while their articles are being evaluated. And second, since the journal failed to provide the blind review, I simply arranged for the service myself and by using a pseudonym I effectively blinded my own paper.

In the process I may even have decreased the chance of my article being accepted for publication because it could now raise many eyebrows by being linked to an author without any university affiliation and with no public record whatsoever of any academic activity or qualifications. But if I was myself ready to pay this price (for whatever reason), what was the harm in all this?

Moving from defense to offense, isn't the official doctrine in scholarly circles that it's what you say, not who you are, that counts? What’s in a name really (I mean, in this context)? Admittedly, there are situations where the use of a pseudonym would be illegitimate, as for example if writing under a different name in order to praise one’s own work or to get around the one-item-per-author rule in some publications, etc. But under normal circumstances, it is hard to see why scholars using an alias in publishing their work would be doing anything improper, irrespective of whether they did that because of some personal quirk, or because of a fear of being exposed to a personal bias, or for some other reason.

Clearing my conscience in this way and absolving myself from sin, I concluded that I was in fact not facing a moral dilemma at all but a pragmatic choice. I just had to weigh the two courses of action open to me (the Carmen strategy and the Neven strategy) and to see which of them had a higher expected value. It was a no-brainer. The Carmen strategy (continuing with the pseudonym even after receiving the editors’ letter of acceptance) would make it virtually certain that there would be no nasty last-minute surprise and that my article would see the light of day. On the other hand, the Neven strategy (coming clean about my name at this late stage) could possibly jeopardize the whole intricate scheme that was so beautifully planned, while the only advantage would be that, if everything went well, I would get the pleasure of seeing my own name printed in the Journal of Philosophy. Although I admit that this would have been kind of nice, I easily decided that having an opportunity for such an ego trip was not worth the risk.

After the decision was reached, the only thing left to do was to sign a copyright transfer form and send it back to the journal secretary. So I went ahead and drank the magic potion that helped me transform from the evil Mr. Hyde (or better, Mr. Hide) into the good Dr. de Macedo, and I then signed the form in her name. I felt a bit uneasy entering “my” new signature for the first (and last) time. For some reason, I even tried to make my handwriting look different from usual, although I was not quite sure why I really bothered. The article appeared a few months later in the June issue of 2008.

Alas, now it’s time to say good-bye to that formidable woman Carmen de Macedo, an incredibly low-profile person, an exceptionally silent collaborator and a highly elusive philosopher who just didn’t manage to make that crucial step and spring from nothingness into being. Thanks for everything, dearest Carmen, and I must say it’s a great pity that you don’t exist. For if you did, I’m pretty sure you would be quite a gal!

Author/s: 
Neven Sesardic
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Neven Sesardic is a professor of philosophy at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong.

Attitudes Toward Kenneth Burke

“I am not a donkey,” Max Weber once said, “and I do not have a field.” And yet it is always possible to label Weber as a sociologist without unduly provoking anybody. Things are decidedly more complicated in the case of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Situating such Burkean treatises as Permanence and Change (1935), A Grammar of Motives (1945), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966) in cultural and intellectual history is a task to test the limits of interdisciplinary research. His theories concerning aesthetics, communications, social order and ecology took shape through dialogue with the work of Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bergson, and the American pragmatist philosophers, to make the list as short as possible. (And Weber too, of course.) It’s still hard to improve upon the assessment made by Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and Bennington College professor, more than 60 years ago: “He has no field, unless it be Burkology.”

The triennial meeting of the Kenneth Burke Society, held at Clemson University over the Memorial Day weekend, drew a diverse crowd, numbering just over one hundred people -- with at least a third, by my estimate, being graduate students or junior faculty. The Burkological elders told tales of the days when incorporating more than a couple of citations from “KB” in a dissertation would get you scolded by an adviser. Clearly things have changed in the meantime. Tables near registration were crowded with secondary literature from the past decade or so, as well as a couple of posthumous collections of KB's work. The program featured papers on the implications of his ideas for composition textbooks, disability studies, jazz, environmental activism, and the headscarf controversy.

There were also Burkean discussions of “Mad Men,” Mein Kampf, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Unfortunately I missed it, but Camille Kaminski Lewis gave a paper based on her continuing analysis of the history and ideology of Bob Jones University, where she once taught. (Her book on the subject did not meet with the institution's approval, a matter she discussed in an essay for the Burke Society's Journal.)

The range of topics would sound bewildering to anyone uninitiated into KB’s work; likewise with the vocabulary he created along the way (“dramatism,” “logology,” “terministic screen,” “socio-anagogic interpretation”). But people attending the conference received commemorative tee-shirts bearing excerpts from KB’s “Definition of Man” -- an essay attempting to reduce his thinking to a succinct formula, devoid of any jargon:

"Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection."

Quit a bit is going on within that nutshell. (The phrase “rotten with perfection,” for example, is Burke’s idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy.) But an academic organization devoted to an esoteric thinker who fits comfortably in no particular departmental pigeonhole would seem unlikely to have much potential for growth. On the final day of the conference, David Cratis Williams told me that when the Kenneth Burke Society formed in 1984, he suspected that it would for the most part appeal to people who had known KB personally. And that small circle was bound to shrink over time, as people retired.

Something else has happened instead. There was more to it than a few then-young Burkologists becoming institutionally well-situated – though that no doubt made a huge difference. Williams, for example, is the director of the graduate program in communication and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. (He is also working on a biography of the maverick thinker.) And David Blakesley, who organized the conference at Clemson just a few months after arriving there to assume an endowed chair in English, is also the founder of Parlor Press, a peer-reviewed scholarly publishing house. The name of the press is taken from a passage in which Burke describes the world as a parlor where an unending conversation unfolds.

Having a few well-placed and entrepreneurial Burkeans has certainly helped to consolidate the Society. But I suspect that other factors are involved in the continuing vitality of the KB scholarship. Three things stood out about the conference: the crowd was multigenerational; many of the younger Burkeans have a strong interest in archival research; and the scholarship is now orienting toward digital media, not just to study it but to use it.

These tendencies seem to be mutually reinforcing. Since the early 1990s, Jack Selzer, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, has not only been doing archival research on Burke’s involvement with a number of literary and intellectual circles, but encouraging his students to use the Burke papers at Penn State as well. One of his graduate students was Ann George, now an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University. In 2007, the University of South Carolina Press published Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which situates its subject in the political and cultural context of the Depression. (While specialized and extremely suggestive to the longtime Burkean, it’s also the book I’d be most likely to recommend to someone new to KB.)

Now students of both Selzer and George are digging around in the 55 linear feet of Burke papers at PSU -- and sometimes taking trips out to the farmhouse in New Jersey where Burke lived and worked, full of still more manuscripts as well as KB’s heavily annotated library. Besides his correspondence with other literary and academic figures, they’re finding unpublished manuscripts and notes showing his concern with economics, music, and other areas relatively neglected by earlier Burke scholars. One senior figure told me that the influx of graduate students was both encouraging and anxiety-inducing: “I really have to finish the project I’ve been working on because now it’s just a matter of time before one of them beats me to it.”

The value of having digital editions of his writings seems clear -- especially in the case of works that Burke revised from edition to edition. In the meantime, two graduate students are digitizing "Conversations with Kenneth Burke," which consists of eight hours of interview footage with Burke conducted by Clarke Rountree at the University of Iowa in 1986. (He is now a professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.)

Joel Overall, who is one of Ann George's students at TCU, told me about it. "Our project involves upgrading 8 hours of interview footage from VHS to DVD format,” he said. “In addition to upgrading the graphic design of packaging materials, DVD titles, and credits, we're also working on transcriptions of the interview that will be included through subtitles and a searchable pdf file. This is a particularly valuable contribution since KB was somewhat difficult to understand at the age of 89.“ (The other member of the project, Ethan Sproat, is at Purdue, where he worked with David Blakesley before DB's move to Clemson.)

The DVD will be released by the Society within the next year. “Since [Burke’s] written works are often difficult when first encountered, these interviews allow us to hear his voice and see him in cinematic motion, providing us with extra-textual elements that are crucial to understanding his work.”

Following the conference, David Blakesley pointed out another development in the Burkological world. While he was a polyglot as well as a polymath -- reading and translating work from from French and German, and an ardent student of Latin literature as well -- Burke's reputation has long been almost exclusively confined to the United States. But Belgian and French scholars were at the conference.

“They, too, felt welcome, “ he said, “and are excited about their prospects for future work on Burke. In fact, Ronald Soetart (University of Ghent) wants to organize a European Burke conference now. The French contingent was eager to see that as well since there appears to be a groundswell of interest in Burke throughout Europe. I noticed that when I presented on Burke and visual rhetoric at the International Association of Visual Semiotics in Venice last April, too.”

I attended the conference as a keynote speaker, and also delivered a paper -- and so was sitting there feeling mildly fried when I was invited to participate in another multimedia project. A group of Clemson graduate students in the master of arts in professional communication (MAPC) program were conducting a series of interviews for a video on the field of rhetoric. (That is rhetoric understood as the well-established study of effective communication, rather than in the modern sense of a technique for evading reality.)

Drew Stowe, a second-year student in the program, explained that the project would “show the importance of rhetoric for modern students, in the modern university, and to lay audiences such as parents of prospective students, the board of trustees and other corporate partners who recruit graduates from the MAPC program.” Burke is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in rhetoric since antiquity, so scouting the conference for talking heads made sense.

In front of the camera, I aspired to coherence rather than eloquence. My main point was that KB’s work is a toolbox of ideas useful for analyzing the messages with which everyone is bombarded. As someone who’s read a few of Burke’s books until they’ve worn out -- my hardback copy of the first edition of Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), for example, started falling apart during the conference -- I take his continuing relevance as a given. But where did it come from?

“I've always sensed that KB lived at a particularly interesting cultural moment,” wrote Jack Selzer to me by email, following the conference. “Major wars were changing international affairs fundamentally, new communications technologies were so important, and of course postmodern and post-Nietzschean philosophies (and the linguistic turn) were troubling modernist and rationalist assumptions. Somehow he was brilliant enough to perceive the vitality of these changes even as he was living amidst them, and he was able to theorize and meditate on things so productively -- even though (or because?) he was so close to them. As a consequence, what he has to say remains very contemporary. It was wonderful to see the younger scholars drawn to his work in every way imaginable, and I think it has to do with how shrewd KB was about such important intellectual currents.”

Ann George described teaching Burke in a couple of courses over the past years and finding that students “were struck with, and even a little dispirited by,” the parallels between Burke’s motivating concerns and the present scene. “His political, economic, and environmental insights are remarkable: American exceptionalism and the war in Iraq; 'socialization of losses' via government bailouts, 'rereadings' of the Constitution, Ponzi schemes -- it's all there. Of all the theorists we read in the modern rhetoric course … though, students felt Burke offered more answers -- or more hope -- because he didn't idealize human motives or overestimate how much we might be able to change things for the better. “

That’s a very good point -- and there is a profoundly humanist vision that emerges as the pieces of Burke’s theoretical jigsaw puzzle come together.

He put it best in Attitudes Toward History (1937): "The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.

“When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy.” Studying Burke is sometimes difficult, but there are moments when it makes the world seem a little less mad.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

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