There’s a sort of Hegelian contradiction at the heart of all academic political theory that has pretensions of being emancipatory. In a nutshell, the question is that of how this theory can avoid being a sort of commodity. Using Hegel as a model, this contradiction goes something like this: emancipatory political theory says it’s undertaken for the sake of emancipation from x. Yet with rare exceptions, it is only published in academic journals that few have access to, in a jargon that only other academics or the highly literate can understand, and presented only at conferences that only other academics generally attend. Thus, academic emancipatory political theory reveals itself in its truth as something that isn’t aimed at political change or intervention at all, but rather only as a move or moment in the ongoing autopoiesis of academia. That is, it functions as another line on the CV and is one strategy through which the university system carries out its autopoiesis or self-reproduction across time. It thus functions— the issue isn’t here one of the beliefs or intentions of academics, but how things function –as something like a commodity within the academic system. The function is not to intervene in the broader political system– despite what all of us doing political theory say and how we think about our work –but rather to carry out yet another iteration of the academic discourse (there are other ways that this is done, this has just been a particularly effective rhetorical strategy for the autopoiesis of academia in the humanities).
Were the aim political change, then the discourse would have to find a way to reach outside the academy, but this is precisely what academic political theory cannot do due to the publication and presentation structure, publish or perish logic, the CV, and so on. To produce political change, the academic political theorist would have to sacrifice his or her erudition or scholarship, because they would have to presume an audience that doesn’t have a high falutin intellectual background in Hegel, Adorno, Badiou, set theory, Deleuze, Lacan, Zizek, Foucault (who is one of the few that was a breakaway figure), etc. They would also have to adopt a different platform of communication. Why? Because they would have to address an audience beyond the confines of the academy, which means something other than academic presses, conferences, journals, etc. (And here I would say that us Marxists are often the worst of the worst. We engage in a discourse bordering on medieval scholasticism that only schoolmen can appreciate, which presents a fundamental contradiction between the form of their discourse– only other experts can understand it –and the content; they want to produce change). But the academic emancipatory political theorist can’t do either of these things. If they surrender their erudition and the baroque nature of their discourse, they surrender their place in the academy (notice the way in which Naomi Klein is sneered at in political theory circles despite the appreciable impact of her work). If they adopt other platforms of communication– and this touches on my last post and the way philosophers sneer at the idea that there’s a necessity to investigating extra-philosophical conditions of their discourse –then they surrender their labor requirements as people working within academia. Both options are foreclosed by the sociological conditions of their discourse.
The paradox of emancipatory academic political discourse is thus that it is formally and functionally apolitical. At the level of its intention or what it says it aims to effect political change and intervention, but at the level of what it does, it simply reproduces its own discourse and labor conditions without intervening in broader social fields (and no, the classroom doesn’t count). Unconscious recognition of this paradox might be why, in some corners, we’re seeing the execrable call to re-stablish “the party”. The party is the academic fantasy of a philosopher-king or an academic avant gard that simultaneously gets to be an academic and produce political change for all those “dopes and illiterate” that characterize the people (somehow the issue of how the party eventually becomes an end in itself, aimed solely at perpetuating itself, thereby divorcing itself from the people never gets addressed by these neo-totalitarians). The idea of the party and of the intellectual avant gard is a symptom of unconscious recognition of the paradox I’ve recognized here and of the political theorist that genuinely wants to produce change while also recognizing that the sociological structure of the academy can’t meet those requirements. Given these reflections, one wishes that the academic that’s learned the rhetoric of politics as an autopoietic strategy for reproducing the university discourse would be a little less pompous and self-righteous, but everyone has to feel important and like their the best thing since sliced bread, I guess.
ASIDE: Autopoiesis refers to the activities a living, conscious, exchange, or information system must engage in to continue its existence from moment to moment. For example, cells must engage in all sorts of processes to continue to exist as cells. A cell is simultaneously that which produces and what is produced. Likewise, capitalist economy must engage in acts of exchange and production at each moment to continue to be that economy. It is both the market that produces itself and the market that is produced through activities of exchange (cf. Althusser on the necessity of reproducing the conditions of production). Academia too, if it is to continue to exist, is simultaneously both that which produces itself and that which is produced. It does this through scholarly work. As an autopoietic system, academia is not concerned with its referent or what its discourse is about, but is a strategy for simply continuing to reproduce itself. This is the article, the production of students that will later become professors and researchers, conference presentations, and so on.
In the humanities, politically inflected discourse has proven to be an extremely effective strategy of autopoiesis (which is why we can wonder whether it’s really political at all). Why? It provides a telos for researchers, giving them meaning to their work (when they’re really just reproducing their own discourse). It provides a strategy for addressing those forces of power that are outside the academic system but which threaten it (administrators, legislators, boards of trusteees, the public) by giving a rationale for their work. In the eyes of administrators, for example, scholarly work on Dante might appear decadent, but if you can persuade them it has vital political importance you might convince them to let you continue your work in reproducing the discourse of your discipline. Finally, it provides an auto-immune system, that defends against that which would prevent autopoietic operations. You can castigate the critic by casting aspersions on their politics (or lack therof), thereby insuring that your kind of work will continue.
But the situation is even worse! Despite its solipsism and the fact that we perpetually end up only addressing one another rather than the broader world, the university discourse has been one of the most effective– if not the most effective –discourse in gathering knowledge of how the social field functions, how oppression is produced, how power functions, and all the rest. We just haven’t yet created a more effective machine for producing this sort of knowledge. Of course, this machine is sadly deficient in applying those critical tools to itself (to see this, amuse yourself one day applying the tools of critical theory to your critical theorist friend and see how he reacts. Apparently everyone else is a dupe and he’s the only one that doesn’t have a discourse structured by dominant sociological relations; narcissistic denial, anyone?). Now Marx, especially in Grundrisse, distinguished between production, distribution, and consumption. He argued that there’s a production of production, a production of distribution, a production of consumption, a distribution of production, a distribution of distribution, a distribution of consumption, and a consumption of production, consumption of distribution, and a consumption of consumption (that last one is fascinating!). Now I’ll tell the story of this baroque grid another day, but what I mean to say here is that the university system has managed to create a system of production (S2 or academic knowledge), a production of itself (the reproduction of the academic system through the production of new academics and the writing of articles (academic commodities) that perpetually reproduce this system, and a production of consumption (academics consuming the work of each other), but it’s done a piss poor job creating a system of distribution (disseminating it’s “knowledge” throughout the broader social world outside the walls of the autopoietic system of academia) and a system of consumption (devising strategies to assist non-academics in integrating those S2’s or knowledge). The academic system is solipsistic, even though it claims to be worldly. The question is how to break the self-enclosed membrane of that solipsistic cell, so that the form and content of theory might be aligned with one another.