In modernity, dread only takes a holiday once in a while. Right now Mr. Dread is hard at work all around the world, and he’s not just sticking to the big geopolitical dramas or some single-issue fear. He’s kicking back and making himself comfortable everywhere where uncertainty holds sway, which is to say everywhere: homes, workplaces, boardrooms, the shop, the street, the wilderness.
So asking: why so anxious? of anyone is an almost pointless question. Who isn’t anxious? All the tigers in our souls are prowling the bars of whatever cage we’re in. But I’ll go ahead and ask.
What I’ll ask about is this: what stirs many tenured faculty in humanities departments at wealthy private colleges and universities to so often pick and fret and prod at almost any perturbation of their worlds of practice–their departments, their disciplines, their publications, their colleges and universities? Why do so many humanistic scholars rise to almost any bait, whether it is a big awful dangling worm on a barbed hook or some bit of accidental fluff blown by the wind into their pond?
The crisis in the humanities, we’re often assured, doesn’t exist. Enrollments are steady, the business model’s sound, the intellectual wares are good.
The assurance is, in many ways, completely correct. The trends are not so dire and many of the criticisms are old and ritualized. Parents have been making fun of the choice to major in philosophy for five decades. Or longer, if you’ve read your Aristophanes.
And yet humanists are in fact anxious. Judging from a number of experiences I’ve had in the last year at Swarthmore and elsewhere, there’s more and more tense feelings coming from more directions and more individuals in reaction to a wider and wider range of stimuli.
Just as one example, I just got back from a workshop with other faculty from small private colleges who have been working with various kinds of interdisciplinary centers and institutes and almost all of them reported that they’re constantly peppered by indirect or insinuated complaints from colleagues. We even heard a bit of it within the workshop: at one point, an audience member at the keynote said to the speaker, “Whatever it is you’ve just shown us, it’s not critique, and if it’s not critique, it’s not humanities”. When faculty are willing to openly gatekeep in a public or semi-public conversation, that’s a sign that shit is getting real.
I’d call it defensiveness, but that word is enough to make people legitimately defensive: it frames reaction as overreaction. Worried faculty are not overreacting. Maybe the humanities aren’t in crisis, but the academy as professors have known it in their working lives is. It is in its forms of labor, in its structures of governance, in its political capital, in its finances. That’s what makes the tension within the ranks of the few remaining tenured faculty who work at financially secure private institutions so interesting (because otherwise they are so atypical of what now constitutes academic work). Why should anxiety about the future afflict even those who have far less reason for anxiety?
The alarm, I think, is about the possibility (not yet the accomplishment) of transformations across a broad spectrum of everyday academic habitus: in the purposes and character of scholarship, in the modes of its circulation and interpretation, in the methods and affect of inquiry, in the incentives and commands that institutions deploy, in the goals and practice of teaching. With these fears coupled to the unbearable spectacle of many real changes that have taken place in the political economy of higher education, many of them unambiguously destructive, in the terms and forms of labor and in practices of management. A tenured humanist at a well-resourced private university or college might feel secure in their own working future, but that is the security (and guilt) of a survivor, a security situated in a world where it feels increasingly irresponsible to encourage young people to pursue academic careers as either vocation or job.
Change comes to every generation in academia. Rarely has any generation of academic intellectuals ceded power and authority gently or kindly to the next wave of upstarts. But most transitions are a simple matter of disciplinary succession: old-style political and intellectual history to social history to the “cultural turn” and so on. Whatever is at stake now seems beyond, above and outside those kinds of stately progressions.
When academia might or could change fundamentally (as it did at the end of the 19th Century, as it did in the 1920s, as it did after the Second World War), that tends to harshly expose the many invented traditions that usually gently sediment themselves into the working lives and psyches of professors. What we sometimes defend or describe as policies and practices of long antiquity and ironclad necessity are suddenly exposed as relatively recent and transitory. We stop being able to pretend that sacred artifacts of disciplinary craft like the monograph or peer review are older than a generation or two in their commonality. We draw lines of descent between ourselves and those intellectuals and professors we imagine to be our ancestors, but it only takes a few generations before we’re desperately appropriating and domesticating people who lived and worked in situations radically unlike our own. We try to whistle our way across jagged breaks and disjunctures: do not mind the gaps! Because if past intellectuals carried on writing, thinking and interpreting without tenured and departmentalized disciplinarity to support them, then arguably future intellectuals could (and will!) too.
American professors have figuratively leapt upon melancholic bonfires in gloomy protest all through the 20th Century over such retrospectively small perturbations as the spread of electives, the fall of Western Civilization (courses), the admission of women into formerly all-male institutions, the introduction of studio arts and performance-based inquiry into liberal arts curricula, the rise of pre-professional majors. Even going back the creation of new private religious colleges and universities or to the secularization of much academic study in the mid-19th Century. As we celebrate Swarthmore’s sesquicentennial this year, it’s hard to remember that once upon a time American small liberal-arts colleges might have seemed as much a kind of faddish vanity born out of every congregation and municipality wanting to put itself on the map with its own college.
Not that these changes were not major changes with a range of consequences, but well, here we are. The world did not end, the culture did not fall, knowledge was not lost forever. Often quite the contrary. Life went on.
In the end, when academics vest too much energy in discussions of particular, sometimes even peculiar, forms of process and structure within their institutions, they lose the ability to speak frankly about interestedness, both their own and the larger interests of their students and their societies. Simon During, whose recent essay “Stop Defending the Humanities” very much informs my own thinking in this piece, writes that “The key consequence of seeing the humanities as a world alongside other broadly similar worlds is that the limits of their defensibility becomes apparent, and sermonizing over them becomes harder”. An argument about whether a particular department gets a line or not, whether a particular major has this course or that course, about whether students must learn this or that theory, is always a much more parochial argument than the emotional and rhetorical tone of those discussions in their lived reality would imply. Nothing much depends upon such arguments except our own individual sense of self in relation to our profession. Which of course is often a very big kind of dependency when you’re inside your own head.
Perhaps counter to the general trend, I personally feel as if I have little invested in the fortunes of history as a discipline or African studies as a specialization. I have a great deal invested in the value of thinking about and through the past, and in the methods that historians (in and out of the academy) employ, but I don’t see such thinking as necessarily synonymous with the discipline of history as it exists in its academic form circa 2014. I have a lot invested in my own fortunes, and were I working for an institution where the fortunes of history or African studies in their institutional forms continuously determined the future of my own terms of employment, my sense of vestment in those things would have to change. I’m just lucky (perhaps) to work in a place that gives me the institutional freedom to cultivate my own sensibility.
There’s nothing wrong with self-interest. Keeping self-interest consciously in the picture is what keeps it from becoming selfishness, it’s what allows for some ethical awareness of where self-interest stops and the interests of other selves begin. That awareness can allow people to tolerate or even happily embrace a much wider range of outcomes and changes.
If it turns out, for example, that there are ways to reorganize labor within the academy that will create a much larger number of fairly good jobs, at the expense of exploitative forms of adjuncting but also at the expense of a very small number of extravagantly great jobs, well, that’s a good thing. If it turns out that more energy, attention and resources put into humanities labs or other new institutional structures leads to less energy, attention and resources to some more traditional structure of disciplinary study, well, what the hell, why not? Que sera, sera. If I need to teach one kind of course less often and another kind more often because of changes in student interest, then the main thing that change affects is me, my labor, my satisfaction, my sense of intellectual authenticity. Not the discipline or the major or the university I work for, except inasmuch as my sense of self is entangled in those things. Some entanglement is good: that’s what makes faculty good custodians of the larger mission of education.
A lot of entanglement is bad: that’s what leads to grandiose misidentifications of an individual’s transitory circumstances with the ultimate fate of huge collective projects (like disciplines or institutions or even departments) or society as a whole. That’s what leads to trying to control that fate through the lens of those individual circumstances.
There is a lot of entanglement in the academic humanities at the moment.
Hacking and Yacking
Scholars in STEM disciplines have their own concerns and worries, but they do not tend to feel the same kind of existential dread about the future of their own practices nor worry so much about the kinds of misremembered and misattributed “traditions” of scholarship and teaching that many humanists allow themselves to be weighted down with. This is not to say that they should get off lightly. STEM professors are also frequently prone to think that the structures of their majors or the organization of their disciplines or the resource flows that sustain their scholarship are precisely as they must be and have been at any given moment, and find it just as difficult to accept that not that much depends upon whether this or that course gets taught at this moment or in that fashion.
More to the point, most STEM faculty are copiously invited by the wider society to define their research as having immediate and urgent instrumental impact on the world. That’s what often leads to scientism in disciplines like psychology, sociology, economics and political science, wherein a demand for resources to support research is justified by strong claims that such research will identify, manage and resolve pressing social problems. In many ways, natural scientists and mathematicians are often more careful about (or even actively opposed to) claims that their work solves problems or improves the world than social scientists tend to be.
Hardly anyone in the academy seems able to refuse in principle the claim that their work might make the world a better place. Because of course, this could be true of anyone. Even more modestly self-interested people hope that in some small way they will leave the world better than they found it.
The problem here with humanists is the characteristic tropes and ways that they use to position themselves in relationship to the world (or as During aptly puts it, worlds), at least in the last three decades or so.
I found myself a bit embarrassed last year while attending a great event that my colleagues organized that showcased scholars and creators working with new media forms. After one presentation of a really amazing installation work, one of our students eagerly asked the artist, “What are the politics of your work?” and followed the question by stating that the work had accomplished important reframings of the politics of embodiment, of gender, of sexuality, of identity, of race, of technology, and of neoliberalism. There is almost no artist or scholar who is simply going to say, “No, none of that” in reply to something so earnest and friendly, and so it was in this case: the speaker politely demurred and asserted that the politics of the work were in some sense yet to be known even (perhaps especially) to the artist herself. I was embarrassed by the moment because the first part of the question was a performance of studied incuriosity, a sort of hunting for the answers at the back of the book. Cut to the chase! What’s the politics, so I know where to place this experience in my catalog of affirmations and confirmations. It was in its own way as instrumentalized a response as an engineering major listening to a presentation by a cosmologist about string theory and then saying, “Ok, but what can I make with this?” The catalog of attributions that formed the second part of the question both preceded and superceded any experience of witnessing the work itself.
Ok, I know: student! We all had such moments as students, and the thinking of our students is not necessarily an accurate diagnosis of our teaching and scholarship. But there seemed to me in that moment something of an embryonic and innocent reflection of something bigger and more pervasive.
Harvard faculty who recently surveyed the state of the humanities at their university identified many issues and problems, many of which they attribute to forces and actors outside of their own disciplines. However, one of the problems that the Humanities Project accepted ownership over was this: “Among the ways we sometimes alienate students from the Humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in our classrooms.” Or similarly, that some ideas are required. Recall my mention early on of the scholar who protested, “If you aren’t doing critique, you aren’t doing humanities”—and what the Harvard authors imply is that for some humanists, critique is not just a method or act, it is a fully populated rubric that dictates in advance a great many specific commitments and postures, many of which are never fully referenced back to some coherent underlying philosophy.
Scholars who identify with “digital humanities” know that they can quickly get a rise out of colleagues (both digital and analog) by reciting the phrase, “More hack, less yack”. Rightly so! First because working with digital technology and media requires lots of thoughtful yacking if you don’t just want to make the latest Zynga-style ripoff of a social media game or whatever. Second because theory and interpretation are hacks in their own right, things which act upon and change the world. The phrase is sometimes read as a way of opting out of critique, and thus retreating into the privileged invisibility of white masculinity while continuing to claim a place in the humanities. Sometimes that’s a fair reading of what the phrase enables or intends.
The problem with critique, however, is not that it’s not a hack, but that many times the practice of critique by humanistic scholars is not terribly good at hacking what it wants to hack. This is not a new problem, nor is it a problem of which the practitioners of critique are unaware. This very thought was the occasion for fierce debates between left intellectuals (both in and outside of the academy) in the 1980s, and one of the sharpest interventions into that dialogue was crafted by the recently deceased Stuart Hall.
In the 1980s, Hall was working out of an established lineage of questions about the relationship between intellectuals and the possibility of radical transformation of capitalist modernity, most characteristically associated with the works of Western Marxists like Gramsci, Adorno, and Lukacs but also other lineages of critical work associated with Bourdieu, Foucault, and others. For me, since this was one of the formative moments in my own development as a scholar, the most electric thing for me about Hall’s reading of the 1980s in Britain was his insistence that Thatcherism had gained its political ascendancy in part because of its adroit reworkings of public discourse, that it managed to connect in new ways with the subjectivity and intimate cultural worlds of the constituencies that it brought into a new conservative coalition. E.g., Thatcherism was not merely a question of command over a repressive apparatus, not merely an expression of innate structural power, but that it was the contingent outcome of a canny set of tactical moves within culture, moves of rhetorical framing and sympathetic performance. The position was easily applied to Reaganism as well, in particular to explaining the rise of the so-called Reagan Democrats.
This was of course exciting to left intellectuals (like me) who saw themselves as having expert training in the interpretation of culture, because it seemed to imply that left intellectuals could make a countermove on the same chessboard and potentially hope to have a big impact. But here came some problems, which Hall himself always seemed to have a better grasp on than many of those who claimed him as an influence. Namely, that knowing how identities are constructed, how frames operate, how common sense is produced, is not the same as knowing how to construct, how to frame, how to produce common sense.
Critique commonly embeds within itself Marx’s commandment to not just interpret the world but also to change it. That’s the commitment to “hack”, to act upon the world. What Hall and similar critics like Gayatri Spivak or Judith Butler had to ask during the debates of the 1980s and 1990s was this: what kinds of frames and rhetorical moves create transformative possibilities or openings? Hall played around with a number of propositions, such as “strategic essentialism”: e.g., leverage the ways that the language of essentialism is powerfully mobilizing within communities formed around identity while not forgetting that this is a strategic move, a conscious “imagining” in Benedict Anderson’s sense. Forgetting that it’s a strategy risks appropriation by reactionary movements and groups associated with nationalism or sectarianism. Which is in some cases more or less what has happened.
But the risk or the problem was more profound than that. In the very best case this scenario involves anointing yourself as part of a vanguard party or social class with all the structural and moral problems that vanguardism entails. E.g., the reason you believe you can play the chess game of framings and positionality is that you know more and know better than the plebians you’re trying to move and mobilize. And you believe that’s equally true of the guys on the other side: that the Reaganites and their successors win because they know which buttons to push without themselves being captive to those same buttons, that they know what they’re doing, not that they authentically feel and believe what they say. It is a conception of critique that puts the critic (or enemy of the critic) up and outside of the battlefield of culture, as capable of framing because they are not produced by frames. And in the case of humanistic critique from the left, the critic holds that their own engagement not even produced by the defense or advancement of self-interest. The position has to hold that interests of critique are simultaneous with the interests of everyone who is not grossly self-interested: e.g., by a true yet-to-be pluralistic kind of universal good that negates the self-interest of capitalist modernity. That it is working for the Multitude rather than the Empire. This is one of the oldest problems for any radical left: how to account for its circumstances of its own possibility. There are many venerable ways out of that intellectual and political puzzle, but it is always an issue and one that becomes more acute in a politics that names culture as a battleground and intellectuals as one important force in that struggle.
What humanists who aspire to critique understand best about rhetoric, language, culture (both expressive and everyday) through both theoretical and empirical inquiry is often at odds with effective action within culture, with the crafting of powerful interventions into public rhetoric, with the shaping of consciousness through framing gestures. Humanists are rightly suspicious of foundationalist, positivistic claims about the causes and sources of culture and consciousness, whether they come from evolutionary psychology or economics. That often means that only highly particularistic, highly local understandings of why people think, talk, and imagine in certain ways will do as a basis for expert knowledge of people thinking, representing, talking and imagining. But much of the time when we wrap up our scholarly work that has that kind of attention to particularism, we don’t end up more confident in our understandings of how and where we might mobilize or act. The particularism of much humanistic study is frequently even more fiercely inhibiting to the possibility of a deliberate instrumental reframing of the themes or mindsets that have been studied. Why? Because such study often convinces us that consciousness and discourse are the massively complex outcomes of the interaction of many histories, many actions, many institutions. It convinces us that frames and discourse often shape public culture and private interaction in ways that only partially involve deliberate intent and that also often escape or refract back upon that intent. And, if we’re at all self-aware, it often reveals to us that we’re the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time to be trying to reframe the identities, discourses and institutions that we have identified as being powerful or constitutive.
One way out of that disappointing moment is to assert that when the other guys win, it’s because they cheat: they have structural power, they have economic resources, they astroturf. Which just takes us back to some of Hall’s critics on the left who always thought messing around with cultural struggles was a waste of time. At least some of them more or less got stuck instead with hanging around waiting for the structural contradictions of capitalism to finally reach their preordained conclusion. Or alternatively anointed themselves not as the captains of counter-hegemonic consciousness but as the direct organizers of direct struggles, a posture which has usually lead up and out of direct employment within the academy.
Accepting the alibi that the right wins in battles for public consciousness because they have overwhelming structural advantages prevents the development of a meaningful curiosity about why some discursive interventions into public culture (conservative and otherwise) are in fact instrumentally powerful. Many humanistic critics seem doomed to take power and domination as always-known, always-transparent subjects. There have been significant attempts to undo that doom–the history of whiteness offered by scholars like David Roedinger and Nell Irvin Painter is one great example, and there are others. But always there is the problem: to treat the interiority of power and domination as being as interesting, as unknown, as contingent as anything else we might study is to open a space of vulnerability, to make critique itself contingent not just in its means but its ends. If it turns out, for example, that both powerful and subaltern conservatives in contemporary American society are as produced by and within culture as anyone else, then that potentially activates a whole range of embedded intellectual and ethical obligations that we tend to be guided by when we’re looking at something we imagine to be a bounded “culture” defining a place, a community, a people.
If it turns out that the other guys win sometimes not because they’re cheating but because they’re more present and embedded in the game than the academic intellectual, then what? Hall was always aware of this dimension of Thatcherism: that it worked in part because Thatcher herself and a few of her supporters were acutely aware of the ressentiments of some lower middle-class Britons, because of her fluency in some of their social discourses and dispositions. It stopped working because most of the rest of her party only spoke upper-class twittery or nouveau-riche vulgarism but also because ressentiment as a formation tends to press onward to vengeance and cruelty, to overstep. But this goes for many causes and ideals that progressives treasure as well. The growing acceptance of gay marriage in the United States, unless you believe Michele Bachmann’s views that it’s the work of a sinster conspiracy, has at least as much to do with a long, patient appeal to middling-class American views of decency and fairness as it does to sharp confrontational attacks on the fortresses of heteronormativity. It’s an achievement, as some queer theorists have noted, that has the potential cost of the bourgeois domestication of sexuality and identity as a whole, but it’s still an example of a deliberate working of the culture towards an end, and it’s a working that scholars and activists can rightly say they contributed to.
But this is the thing: every move that’s justified as a move within and about the culture then needs to be thought through in terms of what its endgame might be. You can justify tone-policing and calling people out on social media as a way to mobilize the marginalized, as a strategy of making people visible. You can justify it as catharsis. But I’m not sure, as some seem to be, that there’s much in the way of evidence that it works as a strategy for controlling, suppressing or transforming dominant speech.
The critical humanist wants to lift up the hood of the culture and rebuild the engine, but it turns out the toolkit they’ve actually got is for the maintenance of some other machine entirely. Which means in some sense that all the framings, all the hackings, all the interventions into rhetoric have tended come squarely back to that other machine: to the academy itself. Which explains why the anxieties of critique are visited back so intensely upon academic life and upon academic colleagues who seem in some fashion or another to have wavering loyalties. Humanistic critique might not have hacked the culture, but it definitely remade the academy. We are our own success story, but critique dare not let itself believe that success is in any way firmly accomplished, and it must also believe that any such accomplishment is always in deathly peril. It is, in any event, not enough: the remaking of the academy alone is never what critique had an aspiration to achieve.
I don’t think that bigger aspiration was wrong, but I do think that taking it seriously should always have implied a fundamentally different kind of approach to professionalism and institutionalization for critical humanists than it ultimately did. It’s not surprising in that sense that Stuart Hall always insisted that he wasn’t really an academic or a scholar, just an intellectual who happened to work in an academic environment. But of course even that “happened to” raises questions that were almost impossible for Hall and others to explore or explain. What if the deeply humanistic and progressive intellectuals who really make powerful or influential moves on the chessboard are not, cannot be, in the academy, whether by design or a “happening”? What if they’re app designers or filmmakers or preachers or entrepreneurs or community activists or advertisers? And what if the powerful moves to be made in the public culture are not a function of profound erudition and methodological disciplinarity but emotional intelligence? Or the product of barely articulated intuitions about the histories and structures circulating in the body politic rather than the formal scholarly study of the same? (More uncomfortably on the “happened to” front, what logic would entice disciplines to hire intellectuals rather than scholars? I’ve met more than a few academic humanists who insist that they, like Hall, are only intellectuals passing through the university only to see them turn around and be wholly committed to the most stringent enforcement of intensified and narrow disciplinary authority over who gets hired, tenured and promoted.)
The scholar devoted to critique could seek consolation by imagining they supply tools and weapons to other actors in the public sphere. That they give the intuitive critic and the culture worker information, ideas, frameworks. Hey, the Wachowskis read their philosophers when they made the Matrix films, right? And that would be a fair enough consolation in many cases: many people have been indirectly influenced by Foucault’s anatomization of power who could not cite him; Judith Butler changed the inner life of gender for people who have never heard of her. With a touch of humility, it’s not at all hard to claim our place as one more strand on the loom of cultural struggle.
Maybe that humility should be more than a touch. In recent discussions at Swarthmore over controversial events and a series of protests, I’ve heard it said more than once that academic institutions should never legitimate oppression by voluntarily inviting it inside their walls. Some of my colleagues have rolled their eyes in derision at the riposte of one student in the student newspaper who pointed out that we frequently and often respectfully read the works of people who were deeply involved in oppression: isn’t that legitimation, too? Well, why is that a silly response? It’s silly to some humanists because they believe that their own critical praxis allows both for awareness of how past (and present) works are implicated in power and for a plasticity and creativity in how we appropriate or create productive readings out of texts, lives, practices that we otherwise reject or abjure.
But this is where the hubris of an attachment to “framing” comes in. Like the Mythbusters, we come on at the beginning of the show and say: do not try this at home. We are trained, and so we can frame and reframe what we offer to produce an openness in how our students interpret and do it without producing too much openness. That novel can mean this thing or that thing or oh! how delightful, a new thing that it’s never meant before. But no, it doesn’t mean that thing, and no you shouldn’t think that of it, and oh dear, please you know that part is just awful. And so, if (for example) a terrible reactionary comes to campus and doesn’t perform his terribleness on cue and the wrong thing gets thought by many in the audience as a result, that’s a failure of framing. You know the frame has failed when the anticipated and required readings of the text are not performed. That’s not a failure of the audience and it’s not a success of the text. It’s alleged to be a failure of pedagogy, of scholarship, of intellectual praxis. The ringmaster forgot to flick his whip to get the clowns to caper when they were supposed to. All roads always lead back to us, ourselves, because that’s where we’ve vested our professionalism as both scholars and teachers: we are those who produce consciousness, at least within our own dominion.
The thing is, why do academic institutions legitimate? Because they do, they really do. There’s a reason why public figures and politicians who’ve just done something wrong or who have had the morality of their actions called into question often gratefully accept the opportunity to speak at a university, to accept an honorary degree, to teach a course. There’s a reason why the current government of Israel worries about the prospect of an academic boycott.
We legitimate not because we are adroit (re)framers, not because we put the Good Humanist Seal of Approval on some performances and the Stamp of Critique on others. We legitimate because after all the populist anti-intellectualism, after all the asshole politicians trash-talking the eggheads who waste money on gender studies and art history, after all the billionaire libertarians who trash universities as a part of their own preening self-flattery, because after all that most people still trust and value academia, both their ideal vision of academia and even much of its reality.
Look it up: on the list of must-trusted and least-trusted professions (in an age of profound alienation and mistrust) teachers, professors and scientists all still fare very well. We legitimate because people expect us to do our homework, to be deeply knowledgeable, to be honest, to be curious, to be temperate and judicious, and to be fair. And they even trust us despite the fact that we are the gatekeepers of the economic fates of many of our fellow citizens, and often even trust us more in proportional relationship to the degree to which we anoint the future elites of a society that is growing more unequal and unjust by the second.
This is not a liability: it’s a strength, but you have to use it as it comes. If there’s one thing that the theoretical indebtedness to Foucault among many humanists today should lead to is an awareness that virtue does not arise as an automatic consequence of your distance from power. If you want to practice critique, you work first with what you got and with who you are, you work the power you possess rather than pining for power elsewhere. The master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house: they built it, after all. Or they can change what’s inside of it. If that’s not acceptable, then you make something else, somewhere else, as someone else. Humanistic-critique-as-mastery-over-framing wants the legitimacy and influence of academic institutions without accepting the histories and readings that produce that legitimacy. It wants to be intellectuals elsewhere just happening to be here. It wants to hack without really understanding the code base it’s working with.
Academic Freedom as a Positive Liberty
Ok, but I too am anxious. I too do not want to work with what I’ve got and accept what I am. Can you tell that, 5,000 odd words later? And no, it’s not the anxiety of loss, not that old white liberal spiel about “oh, back in my day, the students were all very such-and-such, now we have that awful critique and multiculturalism and postcolonialism”. Inasmuch as I can and do perform that kind of ghastly professorial nostalgia, I’m probably indistinguishable from most of my humanist colleagues: oh, dear, I remember that great directed reading on Marxist critical theory with that student; oh dear, I used to have students who knew who Fanon was; and so on. Inasmuch as I am mournful in my expressions on social media, it’s often about my profound sense that many things I thought were irreversible signs of social progress have turned out to be profoundly reversible. Inasmuch as I rage about political trends, I sound very much like your average left-leaning humanistic professor.
It is not the anxiety of loss I feel most in my work these days. It’s the anxiety of a mostly-never-was and maybe never-will-be understanding of what I think the main or dominant professional ethos of an academic intellectual ought to be in scholarship and teaching and public persona.
It’s the opposite of what I think is embedded inside the idea of critique-as-reframing, critique as chess move in a war of position. When someone says to me, “Why didn’t you frame that event differently? Why do you let those words stand out there implying that the event means this? Those words out there that permit people to think that?”, my gut wants to reply as Justice Harry Blackmun did to the death penalty: “I shall tinker no more with the machinery of framing”.
By this I do not mean to say that I do not hope, as a writer, to mean what I say and say what I mean, and to influence people accordingly. But the worst problem with believing that any politics, intellectual or otherwise, is a matter of framing is ultimately the way that it encodes the framer as an agent and the framed as a thing. That both tempts the person who hopes to control the frame into a hubris that intensifies the ways in which they come off as inauthentic and manipulative (and therefore defeat their own goal) and paradoxically keeps the aspirant framer from a richer understanding of how and why other people come to think and feel and act as they do. That undersanding is actually crucial if you hope to persuade (rather than frame) others.
With all of their defects, including potential blindness to power and an air of liberal blandness, the terms persuasion and dialogue are, if you’ll excuse the irony for a moment, a better frame for what a critical humanist intellectual, or maybe just a critically aware human being, might want to be and do in relation with others. Because they start at least with the notional humanity of everyone in the room, in the conversation, in the culture, in the society. That’s not a gesture of extravagant respect to other people, it’s not generosity. It’s a gesture of self-love and self-empowerment, because you are going to get precisely jackshit nowhere in moving people to where you think they ought to be if you permit yourself the indulgence of thinking some people are things who can be dogwhistled wherever you want them to be. Even the most crass and awful kinds of dogwhistles don’t work that way, really. Maybe that gets you some votes in the primary election but it doesn’t change hearts and minds, doesn’t change how people live and act. As Raymond Williams once said of advertisers, there are a lot of people working the culture who are magicians that don’t know how their own magic tricks work.
So part of how I want an institution devoted to thoughtful, scholarly inquiry and conversation to work is to stop overthinking everything. And I don’t think I’ll get that.
But it is also this. One reason I absolutely did not want to defend the presence of Robert George at Swarthmore in conventionalized terms of free speech, in conventional languages of academic freedom, is first that this is just the most tedious kind of counterpunch in the stupid pantomime show that American national politics have become. The outsiders who tut-tutted at Swarthmore students and faculty on Twitter and so on have not a fuck to give about academic freedom when it extends to something they don’t like or respect. If there is anything a decade of blogging often about academic freedom has convinced me of, it is that there is almost no one who can be counted upon to be an honest broker on the subject, but most especially not many of the right’s most dedicated concern trolls.
This begs the question of what exactly I am looking for as I wander around with my lamp in the daytime.
The idea that academic freedom means that the academy should be a perfect mirror of the wider society is stupid. That would not be the outcome of an honest and balanced approach to academic freedom. That would just be evidence that the academy had become completely pointless. As indeed I would say of any specific social or political institution: nothing with a mission or a purpose should be judged success or failure on whether it is a precise microcosm of society as a whole. You make institutions to be a part, a piece, that the whole cannot be or isn’t already.
I’ve suggested in the past that academic freedom also doesn’t particularly accomplish what its defenders allege it does. It doesn’t liberate scholars and teachers to speak honestly and openly, it doesn’t incentivize the production of new ideas and innovation. Even less so now of course with the corrosion of tenure and the rise of adjunctification, but tenure never really protected most of what is claimed for academic freedom. It has long tended to domesticate, to conventionalize, to restrict scholarly speech and thought.
Academics still insist on defining academic freedom, like freedom of speech more broadly, as a negative freedom. A freedom from power, from restriction, from constraint, from retaliation. What if, instead, we defined it as a positive liberty? Meaning, something we were supposed to create more of for more people in more ways. What if we saw it as an entitlement, a comfort, a richness and saw ourselves not as the people protected from harm but as those who are obliged to set the table as extravagantly as we could?
What would that mean? It starts here: nothing human is alien to me. So then this: our curricula, our writing, our events, our conversations, should be cornucopia bursting to the brim with everything, with anyone. Our learning styles, our teaching styles, our everyday world of learning and thought, should run the spectrum and we should love each thing and everyone in that range. Love (but challenge!) the slacker, the romantic, the specialist, the literalist, the dissenter, the generalist, the cynic, the critic. The only thing you don’t love is the one who is trying to keep everyone else from their thing, who is consciously out to destroy and hurt.
Don’t build departments and legacies and traditions. Don’t hire people to cover fields, hire people because they’re different in their thinking and methods and styles and lived experiences and identities than the last person you hired. Build ecosystems full of niches and habitats. Let them change. Be surprised at what’s living over there in that place you haven’t looked at lately. Be intrigued when there’s some new behavior or relationship appearing.
Stop framing, stop managing. Because here’s the other thing: academic freedom retold as a positive liberty would be about accepting the ethical and professional responsibility to populate the academy with as much different kinds of shit as it can hold. It would be about giving up the responsibility to guarantee in advance what the outcomes will be. It’s about not quickly putting up the guard rails every time it looks like someone is going off-message or having an unapproved interpretation. Not freedom to speak, not guarantees against suppression. The active responsibility to cultivate more speech! More speech and thoughts of any kind! All kinds in all the people! All the things!
I build most of my classes as environments and see my students as agents. I’m not empowering them in the conventional Promethean sense, taking them paternistically from marginality into authority. Sure, I have boundaries to what I’m doing, and I have responsibilities to enforce some standards—-both those I agree with myself and those that I am the custodian for. I’m not everyone and everything: I have things I know well, things I know less well, things I don’t know at all, and I steer clear of the latter. I have my hangups and my obsessions: if you’re in my class, you’ll hear about them. But outside of that? Anything’s a good outcome. Anything has to be, if you’re really committed to teaching into the agency of students rather than teaching as the control over that agency. I learned that from my best graduate advisor, who helped Afrocentrists and Marxists and liberals and postmodernists and pretty much every foundling or lost puppy who ended up on his doorstep to be better and smarter at what they were, rather than remolding them into kinfolk in his lineage house. Almost all outcomes are good. Almost all lives that pass through education are good, and all of them should feel as if they grew and were enriched by that passage.
Which I think is frustratingly sometimes not the case, and I think it’s often because we the faculty in all our disciplines and all our institutions want to control too much, want to be not the gardeners of an ecosystem but the bosses of a workplace. Or the aspirant framers of a culture-to-come whose imagined transformations can only be thus and not that.
This is in the end the other place where the critical theories that inform so much of contemporary academic humanism are frustratingly mismatched with the substance of much practice. We should know better than to place “power” and “virtue” as opposites—but we should also know better than to embrace predictability and control. Both because systems, societies, futures are not predictable or easily controllable, and because many of the most beloved theorists among progressive humanists don’t want them to be. Don’t just describe some ideal possible future way of being as rhizomic, be the rhizome.
There are many powerful forces that would rise to stop such a vision, have already risen to do so. We can’t teach and speak and think this way in higher education as long as most of the teaching and thinking is happening at sub-poverty wages among adjuncts who have zero security and institutional power. We can’t teach and speak and think this way if our administrations are gigantic corporate-style bureaucracies or if our public funding is completely removed.
But the way I’m thinking the academy, and especially the humanities could be, might actually be the solution to many of those interminable debates about process and structure and even about public acceptance. If we could live with, even embrace, the profound indeterminacy of culture and transformation and knowledge, if we could build ecosystems and be rhizomes, I think we’d be more consistent with the indeterminacy and unpredictability of the world that we hope to serve.
But yes, I’m anxious and a bit sad. I don’t expect this to ever be the way we are, and I fear it won’t be not just because something alien or sinister will move in to stop us. It’ll be because we won’t. Maybe we can’t. I think there are lots of humanists I know that are doing some or all of what I think we should do, lots of humanists who are wise enough, most of the time, to avoid thinking they can control the horizontal and the vertical. But it’s a reflex that jerks very hard at precisely the moments where it shouldn’t, and each time it does a niche in the ecosystem goes dead. Cliched as the Serenity Prayer might be, what we need is the wisdom to know the difference between what we can (and should) change and what we can’t (or shouldn’t). If not for our institutions and our students and our disciplines, for ourselves. Because I think that’s where there’s some relief from anxiety. Let it go.