Gender Studies Won’t Have Them As A Member: The Attempted “Conceptual Penis” Hoax

…the isomorphism between the conceptual penis and what’s referred to throughout discursive feminist literature as “toxic hypermasculinity,” is one defined upon a vector of male cultural machismo braggadocio, with the conceptual penis playing the roles of subject, object, and verb of action.

That’s a line from the intentionally nonsensical “The Conceptual Penis As A Social Construct,” submitted as a hoax to, and then published by, the “multidisciplinary open access” and, as it turns out, “pay-to-publish” journal Cogent Social Sciences. The essay is by Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and James Lindsay, who holds a PhD in math and writes about atheism.

They describe their hoax at Skeptic:

This paper should never have been published… our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.”… [W]e wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal…

We didn’t try to make the paper coherent; instead, we stuffed it full of jargon (like “discursive” and “isomorphism”), nonsense (like arguing that hypermasculine men are both inside and outside of certain discourses at the same time), red-flag phrases (like “pre-post-patriarchal society”), lewd references to slang terms for the penis, insulting phrasing regarding men (including referring to some men who choose not to have children as being “unable to coerce a mate”), and allusions to rape (we stated that “manspreading,” a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide, is “akin to raping the empty space around him”). After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.

The authors take themselves to be perpetrating a new version of what’s now known as the Sokal Hoax, in which physicist Alan Sokal successfully published, in the journal Social Text, a nonsense article parodying postmodern writing about science. Here, Boghossian and Lindsay are taking aim at a different target,what they take to be “the moral orthodoxy in gender studies”:

[W]e sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.

How successful was the hoax? Well, it is notable that NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, a Taylor & Francis gender studies journal, rejected their submission, after which they sought publication in the iffy Cogent Social Sciences.

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, James Stacy Taylor (College of New Jersey) provides a potent critique of the project:

[I]t turns out that the joke’s on the hoaxers themselves—both for failing to spot some very obvious red flags about this “journal,” and for their rather bizarre leaps of logic…

[The paper] was accepted after what seems to be very cursory peer review, and, from this, they’re claiming that the entire field of Gender Studies “is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.”

It might be. But their hoax gives us absolutely no reason to believe this. First, let’s look at the “journal” that they were accepted at.  Like all the digital, open-access journals run by Cogent (a house most people have never heard of before now) it charges authors fees to publish. No reputable journal in the humanities does this. Worse yet, it allows authors to “pay what they can”. This appears to signal that this journal publishes work from authors who can’t get institutional support to publish in it. (Or, if they could, don’t seek this as they would prefer it not be widely known that they’re paying to publish.) The journal boasts also that it is very “friendly” to authors (a clear sign of a suspect outlet) and notes that it doesn’t necessarily reject things that might not have any impact. (!) It also only uses single blind review. The whole thing just screams vanity journal.

Now, the hoaxers are aware of all of this. But they try to duck the “facile” objection that they submitted to a junk journal by noting that it’s part of the Taylor and Francis group, and that it’s “held out as a high-quality open-access journal by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)”. Yet even a quick perusal of the journal’s website makes it clear that it operates entirely independently of Taylor & Francis, and that its publishing model is utterly different to theirs…

Having managed to pay for a paper to be published in a deeply suspect journal the hoaxers then conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is suspect. How they made this deductive leap is actually far more puzzling than how the paper got accepted…

You can read the rest of Professor Taylor’s critique of this “big cock-up” here.

Angela Bulloch, “Five Form Stack”



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