Contested spaces worth defending

Introductory Note:

The Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Graduate Student Conference this year took place on April 3, 2010. It had the theme “Contested Spaces: The (Re)Organization of Schooling Under Neoliberalism”. From the conference program:

Introductory Note:

The Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Graduate Student Conference this year took place on April 3, 2010. It had the theme “Contested Spaces: The (Re)Organization of Schooling Under Neoliberalism”. From the conference program:

Contested Spaces’ point of departure is that schooling and education in Canada are inscribed in histories of settler-colonialism, imperialism, and (neo)liberalism. We will consider these terms broadly to provide a space for dialogue on the regulation of bodies and the production of knowledge, and for the imagining and practicing of alternate possibilities.

Also, this conference responds to the increased attack on disciplines and programming that critically interrogate the state, institutions, systems of power, and social relations. Recent eliminations of programs such as Women’s Studies at the University of Guelph, History and Philosophy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), and cuts to equity programs such as Disability Studies and the Transitional Year Program (TYP) at the University of Toronto, are only a few examples. Further, the intervention of the Conservative government into the governing of Social Sciences Humanities and Research Council (SSHRC) grants/scholarships, its consequent requisite to make research legible to business and state interests, and scrutiny of the organization of conferences such as “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace”, reveal the ways in which the academy is being actively reshaped by security and corporate interests linked to the state and shifts in this geo-political moment.

Justin Podur was one of the keynote speakers at the conference (Radhika Mongia was the other keynote). Below is Podur’s talk.

Here’s a premise: it’s actually worse than we think. Worse not just in terms of how powerful the system is or how deep oppression goes or how far the process of social and environmental destruction has advanced, but actually worse even in the narrow terms that we’re discussing, of academic freedom and the neoliberal education system. We cannot actually get away with saying and doing things that would directly challenge the system on the job. We cannot do that and keep our jobs.

This is anecdotal, but I have several friends who are intense, academically inclined researchers who work full-time doing freedom-of-information requests, studying primary sources, digging in official documents, interviewing people, and trying to analyze things like foreign policy, democracy promotion, the relationship between military and media operations. Other friends theorize about economic and social matters and I’ve learned more from their theorizing than from any university-based theorist. They are among the best researchers I know and I cannot imagine them being able to do their work at any university in Canada. I might be proven wrong, but I think they are going to have to make their work a little less accessible and a little less hard-hitting if they want a place in the academy today. Some of the best and most influential academic studies of the past few years were not done at universities or by people at universities, and again, I couldn’t imagine them passing in the academy – not because they’re not good enough, but because they’re too good.

So, we protect ourselves. We all do it. There are many ways to do it. Here’s mine: I am not a radical on the job. While I like to think that my research on forest fires and climate change isn’t harmful, and has social value, I work according to scientific criteria, not political ones, when I’m working on that. What I do as an activist I do not as part of my job.

That’s one protection. There are others. One other is to use obscure language, which means that anyone watching would conclude you’re irrelevant and therefore no threat. I have heard it many times. Colleagues of mine that I respect a lot saying things that are true and very radical but are basically incomprehensible because they are phrased in in-group language. Certain things can’t be talked about except in abstract language, I understand that. But look at the program for this conference. Look at the titles of the talks. Many, maybe most, are incomprehensible to non-specialists. This would be true at a mathematics conference too, or a computer science conference, but isn’t what we are doing different from that? What is it that we’re doing, exactly?

What role do activists at universities have? What is our role at universities, the role that we know is under attack? What is it that is under attack? What is it we’re defending? Is it worth defending?

It seems to me that what we have at the university is one of three things.

#1, a comfortable job that allows time and resources to do things off the job, whether that’s activism or vacations.

#2, a job pursuing knowledge for its intrinsic value, as one would in any other field from biology to classics to astronomy.

#3, a base from which to pursue profound change in the society, to think through what needs to be changed and how to do it – in other words, a base of opposition to power.

#3 gets you into trouble. Opposing power gets you into trouble. I would argue we aren’t actually doing very much of #3. Perhaps that is because we can’t, because things are already so bad that the universities are closed and you can’t do actual opposition on the job. I think that might be true. I don’t know. I think that these spaces are under attack not because of what we are doing, but because we might one day do something with them and those we might one day oppose can’t stand that idea, can’t stand that potential, and have to destroy it. I haven’t found a way to do #3 myself. Not on the job, at any rate. But if we start from the premise that we aren’t doing it, then we might think about how we could do it. If, on the other hand, we think we are doing it now, when we are actually just enjoying comfortable situations (in relative terms), we have no reason to think hard about how to do it.

If you accept my premise that we aren’t actually doing effective opposition to power, and that we are under attack more because of potential than reality, then it follows that we should try to increase our effectiveness. I have my own thoughts about that which I will share, but first I want to say a few things about the consequences of our ineffectiveness.

Leftists used to be the smartest people around. They were the source of original ideas of all kinds, from science to health to reformist policy to revolutionary strategy and organizational models. Major debates that were being had in societies had leftists deeply involved. Today, we’re much more marginalized. We live in a bubble and talk to each other. Our society is a little different today, I think – everybody’s in a bubble and talking to each other – there are music scenes, technology fan scenes, parenting scenes – all that have their own blogs and facebook and twitter groups and books and youtubes. But without really thinking about it, we’ve accepted that we’re just another such bubble – and not a very pleasant one, not a bubble many people can stand to be in for very long. And major debates that do go on, go on without us. Major innovations in many fields are happening without us. People don’t look to us for answers in crises. Part of that is that we have been marginalized – but I think part of it is we’re not really trying, we’re not really in the fight.

Another consequence of not being in the fight is an inward focus. That’s one of the buzzwords of today’s activists, self-reflexivity. You’re supposed to be “self-reflexive”, and if you’re not you must be “held accountable”, if you fail to “check yourself” or “check your privilege”, you must be “called on your shit”. You might be “called on your shit” if you are “taking up too much space” (incidentally, “taking up space” is an impoverished metaphor, assuming as it does that “space” is a scarce commodity). All these buzzwords, if you count the number of times that you hear them at any activist meeting it’ll be in the dozens at least, have in common an intense focus on the internal dynamics of the group and the feelings of the people involved. It is quite possible to focus on them while the world burns. Which is more or less what is happening.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, in defense of this kind of thing, the question: “How can we change the world if our own organizations reproduce some of the same dynamics that we are against?” But that seems to me to be a real question, and not a rhetorical one. And as a response, I have two suggestions. First, the reverse might be the case. If oppression has more to do with structures than with individual behavior, as I believe it does, then it might be impossible to have perfect behavior without changing the social structures. It is important to have high standards of conduct, certainly, but it is also important not to have impossible standards. I have a second response to the question, and that’s a question of my own: How can we change the world if all we care about is our own feelings?

This isn’t an argument for being racist or sexist in activist groups. It is an argument that the internal focus has supplanted the external, fighting focus far too much, and that the result isn’t very interesting, especially since so much of it has become cliches.

It’s definitely possible to act without being reflective about it. But it’s also possible to be self-reflective and irrelevant, and I am afraid that we err towards principled irrelevance over unreflective action. Indeed, unreflective action or speech is swiftly punished – that is the one thing that today’s activists are extremely swift and disciplined about, is punishing one another for not meeting high standards of speech that fit theoretical notions of self-reflexivity or anti-oppression. In any activist space you go to you will find this policing of behavior, and it is actually very oppressive psychological and power dynamics that go on in the name of anti-oppression. It seems that because we can’t say what we want to to the enemy, we turn on each other.

It’s almost fortunate that we don’t have any actual power, that the only enforcement of these impossible standards is relatively weak social sanction in a small and marginalized “scene”. I sometimes shudder about what would happen if we did have more power. But the result in today’s world is that we’re simply repulsive. People who come and witness these dynamics quickly move on, and it acts as a huge check on growth. Of course we should always be having internal conversations – talking amongst ourselves is how we share with each other, persuade each other, and strengthen each other – but that’s very different from thinking that the focus of our political struggles is to chastise, sanction, and purge our fellow leftists, which drives people away and leaves us talking only to ourselves.

I think this has become an orthodoxy: a set of implicit assumptions about why we are here, what we are doing, who we are, what we have in common, what makes us human, what we should care about. Before the current orthodoxy on identity politics and anti-oppression, there were orthodoxies about democratic centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, guerrilla focos and armed struggle, protracted people’s war. Like all orthodoxies, it has plenty that’s valuable in it, it met the needs of a certain situation, and that is why people gravitated to it. But it loses value when it becomes the tool for all situations, and it loses value when it becomes a cliche, which it has.

Maybe it’s impossible to work without some set of assumptions, and maybe I am doing what all academics do: attacking one set of assumptions and trying to replace them with another, and argue that everyone should work according to my assumptions instead. If that’s what I’m doing, I hope you won’t listen to me, because it isn’t what I am trying to do. What I am trying to do is point out that living by an orthodoxy leads to an unhelpful rigidity in thinking and to an inhumane lack of compassion, because you respond to rules and not to people.

So, what to do about it? The danger of a talk like this is that I’ll tell you that everyone should be doing what I think is important. But if you aren’t already taking what I have to say with a grain of salt, then start now. As a research program, I would want to see researchers interested in social change working with an external focus. I would want to see more research on how the system works and where the cracks might be in it, than research on internal dynamics and movement organizations. More research on methods and models of organizing – that might come from anywhere – and less on the contradictions and paradoxes of activist scholarship. I would want to see less of a leftist bubble and more leftists in every single bubble that is out there. More plans and analyses of campaigns that could win reforms today and less about how much oppression hurts.

I have no idea if we can win everything that I think we need to. But I am convinced that we could limit Canada’s capacity to support destruction, whether of people in Afghanistan and Palestine and Colombia and the DRC or of the atmosphere. If we were doing that from the universties, we would probably be facing much worse consequences than we are now at the universities, but there must be a way of doing it that makes repressing us difficult too. If we are in the unusual situation of being paid to think – or, at least, being able to pull together enough money to spend some time thinking – maybe we owe it to most of the world who doesn’t have that luxury, to think about that, some of the time.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.