The Floating Phallus
July 23, 2007
Further to my article on the stunningly fraudulent Carolyn Guertin, some readers have suggested that the “radical cyber-feminist” is merely an anomaly, albeit a vivid one, and not a reflection on her corner of academia. I’ve subsequently argued that one has to ask how Guertin’s “work” survived evaluation and peer review, and how she has come to find an audience “at conferences and events across Europe.” The fact that Guertin has been employed, and is still employed, by otherwise reputable institutions suggests a systemic dysfunction. Indeed, I’d suggest that Guertin is merely a symptom of a much broader malaise – one that has rendered large areas of academic study irretrievably tendentious and intellectually worthless.
Evidence to support this view can be found via Durham in Wonderland, where the estimable KC Johnson casts a gimlet eye over Duke University’s history department and its postmodern leanings. One faculty member, Professor Pete Sigal, will soon be shaping young minds with courses on colonial Latin American history and a seminar titled Sexual History around the Globe. A synopsis of the seminar asks, somewhat breathlessly:
“What does it mean to sexualize history? How does the historical narrative change as we use sexuality as our reading practice? What happens to the sign of history when confronted with the sign of sexuality? …When we read a military history, we will ask not just about sexuality as a topic within the military (Did soldiers have sex with other soldiers? Did soldiers impregnate prostitutes?), but also about sexuality as a reading process. What happens when we centre our entire analysis of the military by sexualizing the bodies of the soldiers?”
Heavens. Somebody hand that man a towel.
Professor Sigal is, clearly, eager to “confront” students with the question: “What happens when we focus a feminist and queer analysis on history?” To resolve this burning issue, Johnson turns to Sigal’s previous scholarship, most notably his book, From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire. The “historical” themes explored by Sigal include The Phallus Without a Body and Transsexuality and the Floating Phallus.
Professor Sigal’s academic discoveries are, naturally, staggering and numerous. Among them are revelations that Mayan social structure was based on a “phallic signifying economy” and that “Mayan writing ostensibly was about politics, religion, ritual, and warfare, but subtextually was about gender and sexual desire”:
“The gendering of blood signified the transsexuality of fantasy and desire . . . The Maya fantasy world showed that the people would allow the phallus to play a central role in creation… The phallus certainly was vital, showing a male dominance, but its vitality was most important when it was attached to nobody.”
“Maya society, it seems, was a hotbed of sexual radicalism. But when Sigal explained how he reached his conclusions about ‘the central location of homosexual desire’ in colonial Latin American history, his arguments sounded a bit more dubious. [Sigal] conceded that much of his evidence was not readily apparent in the texts - even that other scholars had examined the very same documents he used and not detected his ‘previously unrecognized pederastic political rituals.’ How, then, did Sigal achieve this historical coup? He combined insights from ‘poststructuralist gender studies and queer theory influences’ with use of philology and postcolonial theory to ‘understand the texts that I read as literary devices which I decode in order to represent the cultural matrix.’”
Johnson observes that Sigal has previously warned students against “reading the evidence too literally,” and has cautioned that sources contradicting his claims, of which there are many, “cannot be taken at their word.”
“Some people might call Sigal’s ‘matrix’ little more than a rationalization intended to produce an outcome that fits [a] preconceived political and social agenda.”
Indeed. Some might even suggest the professor’s ‘matrix’ serves some autoerotic purpose. Now, I’m all in favour of homoerotic fantasies, even ones involving Mayans and colonialism, but I’m not convinced one should parade them in the classroom disguised as serious history, while appealing to “evidence” that doesn’t actually exist. Perhaps Sigal’s speculative talents would be better applied elsewhere, churning out a certain genre of pulp fiction. You know, homoerotic historical romps, set in some dark continent populated by bare-chested savages, with lots of sweating, shouting and spears. He could call it loincloth lit.
Johnson’s article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the dubious scholarship of other Duke faculty members, specifically the way in which their emphatic political views have frequently overridden academic proprieties. Johnson also reminds us that, “the people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, select new hires.”
It is, I fear, time for some academic sack beatings. Please, read it all.
Update: Readers with a taste for Professor Sigal’s imaginings may wish to explore his latest proposal, on Ethnopornography: Sexuality, Colonialism and Anthropological Knowing.