I used to be quite taken with the idea of militant research. I’m not any more. I think it’s often quite problematic.

I think the term and interest in the activities that go with it often express laudable impulses. Among those impulses are the desire to do good political work, the desire to do political work which is intellectual satisfying, the desire for one’s actions politically and intellectually to have some empirical basis, and the desire to do intellectually satisfying activities.

I think it can also be a vehicle for less laudable impulses. As Craig said in a comment here, “it would be fucking stellar if some radicals would come out with a full critique of academic writing and academic radicalism — that writing for your CV is not much of a revolutionary act, that JSTOR is not a space of “popular education” and that case-studies, as much as the academic researcher may be an ally, are primarily for the purpose of academic security and achievement, regardless how much rhetoric of ‘militant research’ gets wrapped into things (oh academics and finding justification and revolutionary potential in everything! [they do]). after two master’s degrees i still can’t help but find utterly offensive the way in which so many academics (some of whom i rather like ) switch around their academic work to be something of more societal importance than that of the work done by a garbage man.”

A while back I read whatever I could find on the subject and wrote a think piece, trying to get my thoughts clearer. I was then quite taken with all this. Writing about it led to doubts which have since become (sad) convictions about the problems with this stuff.

Here are some of those doubts:

“If one presses upon the concepts and practices of militant research, there is an aspect of militant research within all good organizing. In a sense, politics and organization does not occur successfully without some operation akin to militant research. Counseling activities are a type of research, in that the counselor and the other person produce at least some of the following: knowledge of each other, a shared relationship, the solution to some problem, and clarity and decisions as to goals and the steps needed to accomplish these goals. Even if the data, so to speak, are known in advance, the carrying out of the conversational form of the research still has a useful effect. (…) militant research in at least some formats has much in common with feminist practices of consciousness raising. It matters less if something has been said before about women’s oppression and more that this particular person or group of persons comes to be able to say it – and does say it – for themselves.

It is similar with workplace organizing. An agitational conversation, one involving, say, the question “what is your job like?” is less about the contents being articulated in order to extract knowledge than it is about a performative activity in which the person has an affective experience (becomes angry), makes a decision (to take a small action toward changing the workplace and coming together with others), begins to develop a relationship with the conversation partner, and begins to acquire the confidence, skills, and analysis needed to successfully organize their workplace. In this sense, then, in terms of its organizational-compositional effects, militant research is a perhaps ineliminable tool for organization in building itself or rebuilding itself (the way that a body builds new cells and repairs or, if need be, replaces old ones). It also has another use, which is for an existing organization to know about itself in order to be able to assess its wants and needs, assess its power, and make informed decisions.”

I also wondered about the roles of universities and academics in all this, inspired by remarks by the Colectivo Situaciones. I’m not pleased to say it but at least in the anglophone world I’m not convinced the CS succeed in meeting the criterion they articulate, that “[m]ilitant research distances itself from those circuits of academic production.”

In some ways I think I’m running into dead ends stemming from bad answers to these sorts of questions I’ve wondered about for a while. I wonder if a possible way out might come through digging back into Foucault on specific intellectuals, I haven’t thought about that in ages but from what I recall maybe some of this stuff I’m less than keen on might be a sort of specific activity in a context of labors of (faux) universalization. In that case, the rhetoric I object to still has negative effects in terms of who is in the conversation but might make for some opportunities. That would require, though, that the rhetoric not be sincere.

That aside, it seems to me that militant research at least as I’ve encountered it has problems in common with the autonomist marxist milieu, about organization. I’d say it’s soft anti-organization, leaves organization large underthought, and embodies forms of organization which are both precedented (usually unacknowledgly, pardon the ugly term) and unexamined (namely, the organization as publisher of a paper, a journal, pamphlets… I wonder if this is an example of what FRSO calls ‘miniature leninism’ (have to check that and find the reference)… And, if I’m right that all organization involves qualities that are or are part of what is called militant research, then I wonder both if there’s a problematic dynamic possible when there are specialists in some of those qualities (so-called militant researchers) and a problematic dynamic of those qualities being truncated or distorted in their form as separated from organization.