joy james & edmund gordon, “activist scholars or radical subjects?”

excerpt from joy james and edmund t. gordon, “afterward: activist scholars or radical subjects?” in engaging contradictions: theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship, charles r. hale, ed. (2008)

curator’s note: as james and gordon make a clear distinction between the “radical” and the “revolutionary,” and stake a claim on the former (not the latter), what would a “revolutionary” relationship to academic institutions look like, something that james and gordon are only able to describe as ideals but not as praxis?

curator’s note #2: do james and gordon only use the term “exit” metaphorically (or affectively, i’m tempted to say)? are “entry” and “exit” (metaphorical or otherwise) the only relationships to have with academic institutions? can “abolition” be a relationship (albeit fraught)?


“Clearly, contributors [of the edited volume] have a shared desire to translate academic skills and positions into vehicles of passion for transformative social change and human liberation. However, the tentativeness that runs through the collection regarding this desire stems in part from the self-policing (against [nonelite] radicalism) that results from our participation in corporate academe. Such sites are at best liberal-reformist in their institutional politics and at worst complicit with the global military-industrial, and consumer-commercial, complex that enforces and/or regulates the marginalization and impoverishment of the majority of the world.” (367)

huey-p-newton-santa-cruz-county
                                                                  huey p. newton was arrested by santa cruz police in 1978 when he was finishing his phd in history of consciousness at uc santa cruz.

“Thus, in considering an alternative [to the corporate university], we have to examine three issues for struggle raised by Hale and volume contributors. First, is it possible to open up our institutions in order to create ‘more supportive space for the particular kind of research that we do’? Second, do the rewards and operating principles of these institutions force us into “elitism and hierarchy” expressed as narcissism and conformity? Third, will our mere presence and participation within elitist institutions make us complicit in the subjugation of subaltern communities?” (368) — curator’s disclosure: james and gordon’s answers to these questions are (in my understanding): no, yes, and yes.

“Concerning ‘supportive space’ [for activist scholarship] in the academy, higher education depends upon the continued support of elites, given that it is a leading sector of the global North whose governing principles include the management and control of disenfranchised communities. Institutions of higher education have a vested interest in keeping scholarship ‘objective’ (mystifying), ‘nonpolitical’ (nonsubversive), and ‘academic’ (elitist)” and in continuing to reserve the most advanced technical training for that small portion of the world’s population who will manage the rest, as well as consume or control its resources and political economies. Unless elite educational institutions are transformed, activist research will never reside within the academic mainstream as an entity that produces a revolutionary, or even radical, counternarrative and practice.” (368)

“(Dis)incentives channel the dissemination of potentially radical knowledge into journals and books where its usefulness to the dominated becomes increasingly marginal and its commodification creates currency for antiradicals. Our continued participation in these institutions strengthens them by allowing them to make hegemonic claims to fostering ‘academic freedom,’ a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ and rational neutrality…” (368-69)

“We insert into the academy at three points: appearance, communication or discourse, and performance on the staged arena of academic life. Progressives maintain the continuity of systems of dominance at the first two points of entry and have the potential for disrupting them at the third point: that is, we can exit the staged arena. We can be organic intellectuals of formations other than the academy⎯that is, relevant radical subjects⎯if, and only if, we reject the sites of entry and performance as final destination points for activist politics for social justice.” (369)

“First, there is physical entry into the academy itself. The notion that mere appearance of progressives in institutionalized learning constitutes a disruption of the normative reproduction or the continuity of repression seems shortsighted. Just to have women, queers, and people of color in academe is insufficient, in and of itself, for social change. Second, there is the entry point of communication and political rhetoric through academic discourse. The view that writing or teaching in a ‘radical’ vein, or building progressive units within the academy, transforms educational institutions also seems myopic. Neither entry nor communication is sufficient to incite transformation. Radical ideas can easily be commodified to accommodate hegemonic institutions in their claims of impartiality that mask their facility to reproduce or enable dominant social structures.” (369)

“But the third entry point, of the staged arena, can actually function as an exit point from the academic machinery. Our work with marginalized communities as a destination point for our intellectual and political selves requires that we connect to radical collectives embedded in communities struggling for social justice… We are handmaidens to the bourgeoisie until we exit the academic arena in search of these radical collectivities.” (369-70)

“All of those who define work as academics by progressive agendas will not necessarily exit. Those who define their teaching and publications of critical thinking (antiracist, feminist, queer, Marxist, anti-imperialist) as inherently radical are likely not to exit. The predictable stressors of the ‘safe’ environment of conservative-liberal academe foster less aversion than radical praxes emanating from sites that elites do not control.” (370)

“Radical academics may point to the hegemony of the institution, and its dominant intellectuals, without challenging their own power and investment in these structures. Their ‘outsider’ status mystifies the power and privileges of progressive activist scholars. Once truly outside the academy, academic-bound radicals may be unmasked as ‘insiders’ aligned with institutional power. Stable identity constructs as ‘transformative’ or ‘activist’ scholars crumble—except for those who can reconstitute themselves as practitioners outside the academic arena.” (370)

“Academic-bound radicals, as slaves, despite their marginalization engender new thinking and analyses and through their very criticisms of the prevailing order function to revitalize that order.” (370)

“Radical subjects, to construct and control the presentation of their own politics, need a departure, an exit from the arena. If they refuse to exit, academic-bound radicals reject radical subjectivity and validate the reproduction of hierarchies in which we function as powerful ‘outsiders.’ Consequently, academic-bound radicals more easily share the arena with liberals and conservatives than with radical subjects as activists.” (371)

“Both the academic-bound radical… and the radical subject… share similar fears and weaknesses: loss of status and respectability, diminishment of social stability and material resources. The [radical subject] can guard against its potential losses by entering on levels one and two mentioned above, appearance and communication: show up to work, teach class, publish, convene conferences, build programs… Furthermore, the radical subject is not a revolutionary subject given his refusal to accept the losses from nonparticipation in repressive institutions.” (371)

“We do not contest our obligations (contractual agreements for material and emotional remuneration) to appear and communicate⎯to show up, teach, write, conference, workshop, build programs. We contest only the performance of the loyal outsider…” (372)

“To be able to walk in and walk out, and to return, is a freedom wielded by the radical subject (to be able to act freely is an agency wielded by the revolutionary subject).” (372)

“We seek spaces that constitute their own sites of struggle. So we leave academia to make connections with collectivities within which our very elitism is challenged and devalued. As radical rather than revolutionary subjects, we accept our engagement with academic institutions while asserting our responsibility to be more than mere performers.” (372)

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