The following started out as a response to a post here but it got too long so I kept going and made it its own blog post when I really should have gone to bed ages ago. (Thanks for keeping me up you bunch of jerks.)

Voyou begins with a quote from Adam about a two part move that gets made sometimes:

” 1. The common people are right to be suspicious of some intellectual work, which really is useless at best or counterproductive at worst.
2. I, however, do not do that kind of intellectual work and am very suspicious of it myself. ”

Voyou says that “this kind of move distracts from a critique of the exclusionary power structures of academia.” I agree. Voyou continues that “the problem is not one that can be solved just by good intentions, it derives from the structures of capitalism; abstractly, the division of manual and mental labor, more concretely, in the particular ways (social, economic) that some people are prevented from reading and thinking about certain things.”

I’m in partial agreement, but I don’t like the last clause: “some people are prevented from (…) thinking about certain things.” The “some people” could just as much refer to academic fantasies of relevance, but I don’t think it does so here. In general, it’s quite difficult to prove a negation. More to the point, one can’t prove that people aren’t thinking about this or that subject simply because they’re not reading this or that book that academics are reading or using this or that vocabulary. Saying that social forces prevent people from thinking about something – people outside universities – strikes me as a repetition rather than a critique of the ideology of the separation of mental and manual.

One thing I do agree with, the “other academics are irrelevant but not me, I’m relevant” move is clearly stupid and self-serving. But that’s a two part move – other academics are irrelevant, followed by I’m relevant. It’s not clear to me which part Voyou is denying – the self serving assertion of relevance or the assertion of others as irrelevant. Attacking the former says “you’re irrelevant too” while attacking the latter says “your claim to special relevance is false because you’re not the only one who is relevant.”

Personally, I don’t think one has to get onto problematic ground to say that at least some academic work is obscurantist. In fact, I think one could give a read of Marx as saying in a sense that very thing about political economy: economists work is obscurantist in that it hides certain truths about capitalism (including from economists and capitalists as part of false consciousness/ideology, if one likes those terms) as part of – at the same time as – contributing to the continuing function of capitalism. It’s also pretty easy to affirm that the bourgeoisie produce (or rather, pay others to produce) cultural products for their own consumption which reflects and plays to their class prejudices and in doing so presents a distorted picture of the world. Presumably some of those cultural producers reside in unversities and one aspect of their work might be precisely its style.

Voyou goes on to say that “the problem here cannot be solved by choosing to write in a particular style” and asserts that the complaint implied – presumably that about academic irrelevance – “is a matter of style—these kinds of complaints always end up talking about Judith Butler’s subordinate clauses.” It seems to me there’s an implied “mere” here – the complaints are about “mere” style rather rather substance. If so, that seems to me a rather unmaterialist approach to style and to language – I have half-remembered hegelian formulations in mind about the relationship between forms and contents…. There also seems to me an implication here that complaints about academic styles of writing are not worth taking seriously. If so, that strikes me as problematic. (This is not a claim about the action-ability of those complaints, so to speak, nor is this any claim to my own not being subject to these complaints, rather it is simply to say that complaints about academic style shouldn’t be rejected prima facie.)

Voyou goes on to quote Lenin about, in Voyou’s words, “the stupidity of worrying about what the poor workers can get their little heads around.” Fair point, though I find Lenin unconvincing as someone who is pro- workers’ intellect.

I think it’s notable that in the Lenin quotes workers are reading, not writing. In the same footnote Voyou quotes, Lenin writes that workers take part (as theoreticians) in forming socialist ideology “only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.” That doesn’t seem to me an assertion that workers can learn so much as an assertion that workers who can learn are the ones who the party should focus on.

This follows one line after Lenin’s lengthy quote from the “profoundly true and important words of Karl Kautsky” that “Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so (…) The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia (…) Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously (…) the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat (literally: saturate the proletariat) with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle.”

Lenin hardly seems to be making an affirmation of proletarian intellectual capacity here. I think it’s just an affirmation of the proletariat’s capacity to learn what the bourgeios socialists plan to teach them – the workers can be trained, so to speak – which is really just an affirmation of the possibility of the bourgeois socialists’ project – and their crucial relevance and leadership within that project.

In Adam’s post which Voyou was responding to, Adam wrote of people “being impatient with scholarship and theoretical work that does not appear to have an immediate practical application or to be immediately communicable to “common people.”” This reminds me of a quote from the German Ideology: “how grossly Feuerbach is deceiving himself when by virtue of the qualification “common man” he declares himself a communist, transforms the latter into a predicate of “man,” and thereby thinks it possible to change the word “communist,” which in the real world means the follower of a definite revolutionary party, into a mere category.”

Adam opines “that various types of activist movements, identitarian or not, and also religious movements tend to marginalize or exclude their more “intellectual” members.” This is a problem because “[e]ven if one really is a “movement intellectual” in sincere solidarity with an activist or religious group, one is still an intellectual, which is always going to include at least some minimal slippage between one’s intellectual pursuits and the immediate needs (strategic of propagandistic) of the movement. (…) What often results is a kind of imposed asceticism of the intellectual, who must in some sense deny a part of herself in order to be counted as faithful to the movement. In fact, this phenomenon is precisely why I myself am no longer an active part of a “movement”.” I don’t particularly identify with the term intellectual, I haven’t had this experience in my ‘movement’ experiences, nor am I clear how the term intellectual is being defined so I’m not sure how to respond to this.

I feel affinity when Adam writes of “an inherent pleasure to intellectual work, at least for those who are particularly drawn to it.” I share this. I love books and I love obscure arguments. I’m not sure that this is much more than a hobby I’m passionate about nor am I sure this is worth more than some other things people are passionate about – say, visual artists, designers, musicians, etc. Which is to say, I’m not clear how the asceticism of not engaging in the pleasure of intellectual work while one is doing ‘movement work’ is any different from the asceticism of not engaging in the pleasure of playing guitar, drawing, etc (or for that matter, the pleasure of sleeping in, spending more time with friends and loved ones, etc).

My own view is pretty dull. I work at a university because it’s a job I can do and it’s not half bad as jobs go, particularly given my other options. I enjoy aspects of it. Some of the aspects I would do if I didn’t have this job. Some what I do outside my job (reading Marx, for instance, and occasionally aspects of this blog) I’m able to bring into the job in ways that make the job more enjoyable or a little less work (work I didn’t choose) for me. I think it’s important to be careful about being clear on the the making a living aspects of the job vs the making a life aspects, just like in the ‘social justice’ industry. This is important in part if one is trying to maintain relationships outside the industry, as some of the occupational hazards can be a real problem on relationships. At least that’s my experience. This is connected to my conviction that one is not going to change the world via one’s waged labor (that is, change the world politically, in the sense of systemic changes in power – one may well change the world ethically, I think nurses do that all the time, I’ve had musicians and teachers do that for me personally, but these are not the same thing).

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