Randi R. Warne Randi R. Warne is a professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Philosphy/Religious Studies At Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax. She is also a founding member of MSVU’s Cultural Studies program, one of the three free-standing Cultural Studies programs in Canada. Her research interests include religion and culture, gender theory, and the politics of knowledge. Recent publications include “‘Gender'; Making the Gender-Critical Turn” and a two volume co-edited work New Approaches to the Study of Religion (with Armin Geertz and Peter Antes), published by Walter deGruyter.
In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship. The previous responses can be found here, here, and here.
The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?
Advocacy, pleading a case through argument, is institutionalized within universities as customary discursive practice. This process is guided by rules, which may include patterns of deference, comradarie, mentoring, pronouncement and attack. It is a relational term, dependent within the academy upon a conversational partner, even an adversary, who must be persuaded, or even bullied into agreement or submission.
To temper the potentially destructive elements of these engagements, the university frames them in terms of its own interests as “the marketplace of ideas” and “academic freedom.” However, as anyone who has contravened these often unspoken conventions can find, these ostensible values of openness and freedom are not without limits. Crossing boundaries can be penalized, often sharply, by withholding grant support, impeding promotion and tenure, shunning, and other disciplinary strategies.
Thus, advocacy already exists throughout the academy, and indeed is its normal practice, albeit in distorted form. Claims of disinterested objectivity as being the sole legitimate academic practice and goal merely obfuscate that reality. (Anyone not convinced that disinterested objectivity is an invested position might wish to visit an academic conference in which its worth is being debated.)
Yet despite its foundational importance to the institution of the academy, advocacy is often used as a term of opprobrium. It is invoked, I would argue, when the subject of argumentation is perceived to threaten the set of positions which the university has previously institutionalized, especially those of recent origin, such as “the business model.” This is perhaps especially so when the consequences of the position being argued are perceived to threaten the social status quo, and resistant to digestion within it. Here, the rhetoric of “the free play of the intellect” within academic walls serves as a convenient fiction, effectively underscoring the institution’s counterclaim that the new views being advanced are censorious, and contrary to the university’s essential purpose. As you may note, this is a bit of a rigged game.
I grew up in an environment of fractured narratives, with different familial ethnicities, first languages, and religious affiliations. Few of the last were stable. Education, “the immigrant’s dream,” was seen as a good in itself. The evidence of my own experience (and I admit, wide and inappropriate reading from an early age) resisted easy accommodation into the dominant cultural narrative. Everything required accountability and justification, from marital arrangements, to religious practice, to the Single Tax. This served me relatively well at the undergraduate level in a prairie city known for its activist history; at “the Harvard of the North,” considerably less so.
I have spent a good deal of my academic career considering the material conditions of knowledge production, as well as analyzing the questions which seem to be impediments to garnering institutional support for that inquiry. It matters to me to be able to talk, and to a certain measure, to be able to judge its soundness for myself. I have values that I support over other values, foremost amongst which is asking the question behind the question. I think, however naively, that living and working in that liminal state can help make a better world.