In his 1797 essay, “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives,” Immanuel Kant famously argued that people are strictly bound by moral principle to tell the truth in all situations, even when that truth might bring harm to themselves or others. His test case was the “murderer at the door” scenario: he maintained that if a murderer showed up at your door and asked whether his intended victim was inside, you were morally obligated to say “yes” if that was the case, even knowing that this information would facilitate homicide. Kant’s point is that lying, like murder, is deeply harmful and not just to an individual victim but to “mankind generally,” because if we allow truth-telling to be morally contingent based on individual circumstances, then we have no foundation for collective moral laws at all. We can’t say how we should treat one another if we are not speaking to the same basic reality.
Del Hanks, the narrator of Maureen Medved’s disorienting novel Black Star, is a professor of philosophy who specializes in “different perceptions of reality.” Employed at an unprestigious university that nevertheless holds its faculty to punishing standards, Del has been working for more than a decade on a massive monograph titled The Catastrophic Decision. The book is supposed to be about philosophy of mind and the subjective problems of decision theory, but “it kept bucking and veering back into moral philosophy.” Del needs to publish this book to seal her pending tenure, but it gradually becomes clear that it is not likely to come together. Her meditations on Kant’s murderer, among other moral quandaries, don’t lend order to reality but spin off comically into surreality.
Del’s flailing manuscript is a terrifying confirmation to academics that maybe our work really is as aimless and confused as we constantly worry it might be. Black Star powerfully captures the overriding atmosphere of dread that defines much of academic institutional culture, tying it to the anxiety and paranoia that come from feeling that neither your employment nor your expertise is on solid ground. Del’s “excellent credentials” as a scholar are no match, in her own estimation, for the symptoms of impostor syndrome that the novel deftly links to her working-class background, her sexual exploitation by a powerful mentor, and the pervasive culture of fierce, gendered competition.
In Medved’s version of the academy, there is no collective moral purchase because no one is tending the truth. Del is detached enough from a firm sense of reality that it is initially impossible for a reader to know, for example, whether the homeless figure who menaces her from the stairwell of a campus building is actually there or a paranoid apparition. He turns out to be actual, but even as their interactions grow concrete and intimate, she treats and responds to him in ways that seem not to register his full reality as a person – actions that have dramatic moral consequences.
In its rendering of certain details of academic life, the novel’s own command of reality is questionable. No one in a department like Del’s needs to finish a second book for tenure; in fact, in philosophy, due to the vanishing market for monographs, journal articles alone are standard. Authors of academic books do not receive advances; they barely receive royalties.
Most distracting among these infelicities is Del’s foil: the cool animal-rights specialist Helene LeBec, who joins the department as an adjunct professor and quickly rises to celebrity status both within and beyond the university. The conceit of the adjunct as wunderkind, loaded with prestige and material rewards, rich in time to pursue her interests and connections, is perplexingly implausible. Adjunct professors are an exploited labour force, not occupants of honourary positions. LeBec insinuates herself close to the chair of the department, but this is not the centre of power the novel would have us believe: humanities departments are not autonomous enough under current structures of university governance for them to reliably dictate the fate of their faculty members, whether from altruistic motives or, as in this case, sinister ones.
Under Kantian moral law, murder happens, but at least we can say who the murderers are. A world made of lies can claim to be free of murder, though it is steeped in blood – we would have no way of knowing for sure what had happened or who was responsible. Del returns repeatedly to her mentor’s dismissive assertion that whatever has happened between them, “Nobody died.” Black Star portrays academia as a world haunted by deaths for which no one is accountable – a world with no scruples about eliminating people or their potential, about reducing them to “nobodies” who are irrelevant as casualties. In this way, it could have been a powerful allegory about the catastrophic conditions of academic labour, if it had committed to telling that narrative truthfully.