On Facebook, Scott Erik Kaufman pointed out Kieran Healy’s paper Fuck Nuance, which I greatly enjoyed. One thing that stood out to me was his repeated claim that the endless demand for more nuance is a form of symbolic violence. Often it can be a very explicit power play: you aren’t allowed to make that kind of argument until you take account of my pet topic. But more generally, how often have we heard attempts to disqualify arguments on ostensibly “procedural” grounds that wind up being an open-ended demand for more work? “I won’t even consider what you have to say until you address X, Y, and Z text, etc.”
For instance, I recently received a singularly unhelpful reader report that demanded I refer to a ton of other texts and make all kinds of subtle distinctions. What was missing from this report was any sense of whether my argument was generally right or wrong and — crucially — what these further references and nuances would actually add. The report amounted to a demand that I completely rewrite the piece in question, but provided no guidance, no sense of what would constitute “enough.”
I have previously referred to phenomena like the fillibuster as weaponized debate — that is to say, a rhetorical intervention that takes on the appearance of debate, but actually functions to preempt or shut down debate. The same thing is going on with nuance-trolling, which amounts to an academic fillibuster: rather than directly talking about the argument in question, the critic runs out the clock by listing off all the things they happen to know.
The sad fact of the matter is that we academics are way better at carrying out those kinds of weaponized fillibusters than actually engaging with each other’s work in a serious way. It would be bad enough if we were all just bullshitting in the seminar room, but people’s careers and livelihood depend on these kinds of interactions. In a time when academia is in such profound crisis, we should learn how to take better care of each other — and if we have the privilege of engaging in the life of the mind, we should actually do so instead of wasting everyone’s time with the tedious one-ups-manship of nuance-trolling.