NP hit me with this question in a game of blog tag. NP asks,

How do you understand the relation of your own political research/writing/whatever to political practice; whether you view it as a kind of political practice itself; and to what extent do you view the separation (assuming there is a separation) between your work and political struggle to be problematic?

I feel like I’ve blogged on this before to a tiresome degree, so NP asking me is nice in that maybe I’m not as repetitive as I think I am. To me the relationship is not political or collective, in the sense that I don’t see my work in university as something which matters in the same way (according to the same criteria) as my political work. The relationship to me is personal and private, which is not to say individual – my love of bad british comedy is personal but shared, ditto the themes in my academic work. That is, to my I work on things in my academic work due largely to the experiences, questions, and values which drive and result from my political work.

I don’t view my academic work as a political practice and I don’t view the relationship between my work and my politics as problematic. I should say, by ‘academic work’ I mostly mean my research and writing. I also teach. I’d say the same of that work too. I mean, I think the values which make me do the political work I do inform my teaching just as I said they inform my writing and research. For instance, I work at a university with a lot of students who work long hours and who come from less privileged backgrounds. I work hard to teach them well – to take them seriously, to push them intellectually, and so on, and they are populations which our society has not slotted into the ‘take these people seriously’ and ‘encourage the intellectual lives of these people’ tracks. And I work to not give them bad grades because the grades have an economic impact (their loans, their scholarships, the massive amount they pay per credit). I don’t see that as political, though. I see this as me doing a good job at the parts of my job that I think are worth doing. I don’t think this is much different than what nurses and electricians with similar values to me would do in their jobs. I see my political work as unpaid – and necessarily so, because I think the moments when people get paid to do real and important political work are few and far between, and the pay is as likely to be a mechanism for undermining as for facilitating the work (this is not a claim to my own political work being ‘real and important,’ just so that’s clear).

I’ll also say that in my experience, parts of the humanities run on a claim to the political nature of scholarship. This is an enabling ideology of those parts of the humanities, and is part of what they sell (along the lines of university presses selling books on Marx). The humanities and universities are not unique here – other industries do this too, like so-called nonprofit social justice organizations. In these parts of the humanities, I think the claim to the political nature of the endeavor has several problematic qualities – among them: it enables really problematic behavior (“we’re doing it for the cause, we have to fire you/make you work harder/cut your funding” etc as well as behaviors typical of academics and other professions such as a feeling of superiority and exceptionalness), it serves as a sort of consciense wage which costs the employer very little while offsetting other aspects of the job such as low pay and long hours, it allows a sort of comfort that insulates people from pressing political issues, and it cheapens other issues.

The above paragraph is in response to Rob’s question to NP in the comments over at hers. He asks

how is it that the above question becomes not just an obvious, not just an apparently important, but a seemingly lethal question to ask of “theory” or of academic practice more generally? (…) [T]he regularity of the statement, as it were, may itself warrant investigation…

That is, I would say that the question “how is this political?” is motivated by a claim – often not made clearly and with evidence but more along the lines of a posture and a gesture – of basically “this is political.” At least for me.

Two qualifiers.
One, this is in now way an attack on theory. It’s an attack on political claims about/on behalf of theory. I love philosophy. I love Schelling. I love Quine. I love Rorty. Not for their political content, but for the sheer joy of the stuff. (Ditto my love of a lot of music and fiction and food.) Political-ness is not the only value, by far.

Second, because I expect someone will say something like this – I’m fine with the notion that there are many types of politics, ways of being political. I will say, however, that a sort of omni-politicization (a la “everything is political!” or that we can always ask about any X “what are the politics of X?”, such that for any X there is some Y which is “the politics of X”) is flattening and trivializing. At a minimum, the different meanings of ‘politics’ in each context should be treated carefully rather than all just being one thing called politics. (My sense is that ‘political’ is often used as an honorific, which is fine but it has not more to do with political as a substantive term than my use of ‘radical’ as an adjective meaning ‘really good’ has to do with radical in the political sense.) This is not to say that new uses of terms should not be invented, but I feel the onus is on the inventor of a new term to be careful to make distinctions here, given the moral stakes involved.

As a parallel, I feel the same way about metaphors of violence – “language is violence,” for instance. Fine, but the violence of the signifier is a different mode of violence than the violence of getting fired (which is different from that of getting pistol whipped), and the difference between these modes has moral relevance. JPool said something similar in the discussion here as an objection to metaphorical uses of words like slavery and rape. (Jpool is right and I need to get back to her/him after I have more time to think about the issues s/he raises.)

All of this is course contextual. There is no a-contextual (non)politics of academic work. That said, I would much rather err on the side of humility and assume the nonpolitical unimportance of my work – if I’m wrong then I’m wrongfully modest and my work has a political importance, whereas if I assume my work has a political importance and I’m wrong then my work is useless and I’m arrogant.

I also want to add that I get tense in this sort of conversation when it happens in person, because I’ve had a number of experiences where academic people make claims about what is needed politically and suggest that their role is linked to their role as an academic, that is, that their political function is the same as or analogous to the role that they play in society as an academic — providing concepts, asking important questions, etc. I’m not convinced that’s the case, in that I feel like often those conversations are with people who just don’t know about a lot of important movement/political/organizational stuff that’s going on in the world (understandably – that sort of knowledge is only rewarded in an academic context in discipline-specific ways, for the rest of us it’s not part of our jobs and the job makes it hard to acquire that knowledge because the job takes up so much mental energy and time), and related to this I feel like it’s easy to fall into an implied division of labor: we academics will be the brains – or at least the reflective and theorizing part of the brains – of movements/organizations. Maybe, but there’s also a lot of thought and reflection and writing that goes on outside the academy which is as high or higher caliber as stuff done in the academy. Or rather, inside/outside the academy is not a mark of quality of intellectual work. There’s was a discussion of this at Long Sunday a while back, I said most of what I think on this in the comments there.


Tzuchien on his academic work in relation to politics, Mike and Todd on their intellectual work (theoretical for both and for Mike also historical) outside of the university and how that connects to politics, and Adam on both his academic and extra-academic work in relation to politics. I’d like to hear Ericco‘s thoughts on this as well.