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, here, here, here, here, here, here, 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?
Quaker Ghosts: Academic Responsibility and Common Sense
I teach at a Quaker liberal arts college. Although the formal relationship has lapsed and only a minority of the students are Quaker practitioners, it remains one of the flagship institutions of American Quakerism. Conversations about social and environmental justice, activism, and community engagement are a major part of the intellectual life of the campus. The suburban forest, rounded footpaths, grassy fields, and unpretentious architecture contribute to the atmosphere of reflection that the founders envisioned the college would become–an intellectual retreat where the truth of the world could be progressively revealed and placed in the service of conscience.
For the Quaker founders of the college, the production of knowledge went hand in hand with the pursuit of social justice. When I walk the paths from my office to my house at the corner of the campus grounds along the Nature Trail, looking for foxes hiding in the trees or the grasses beside the lake, I wonder what the ghosts of the Quakers who built this place would think about me and the generation of scholars who now hold it (temporarily, in my case) in our hands.
I tell my students on the first day of class that we are here to take apart common sense. Common sense, I explain, is a rhetorical mousetrap, a machine to create intellectual immobility, a noble-sounding appeal to the virtues of American pragmatism that is actually designed to get you to stop asking questions. Common sense is not unified, a recourse of universal appeal; it’s a network of local presuppositions and values placed beyond the pale of possible challenge. Common sense for us here and now is not common sense for other bodies in other times and places. Common sense is the book written by the status quo.
Academic work–from the most esoteric journal to the classroom–is a particularly dense relay within the network of power-knowledge. In the humanities, we recognize that our job is not only to serve as a repository of information, but to train students in the techniques of displacing archives of sedimented understanding with critical questions. Academic labor is always about laboring over conversations, disassembling common sense, reassembling values and ideas into new configurations. It would be impossible for academic work to ever be anything other than political: the churn of power, knowledge, and affect is too heavily concentrated in academic spaces to be separated from the broader field of conversations that set the raw parameters of political possibility. And it would be impossible for our own academic and personal values to be kept out of this mix, if by no other means than the choice of topics we examine and the questions we ask.
But this doesn’t dispose of the dynamic between academic knowledge production and academic responsibility. Because I don’t know that I share the Quakers’ optimism–their own passionate confidence filtered through the prism of Enlightenment positivism–that the coalescence of knowledge is always a vessel of human good (as if only humans could have goods attached to them), that it always marches in tandem with justice and compassion (as if justice and compassion ever lined up together without remainder).
This is why Foucault writes, at the end of his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” that
[k]nowledge does not slowly detach itself from its empirical roots, the initial needs from which it arose, to become pure speculation subject only to the demands of reason; its development is not tied to the constitution and affirmation of a free subject; rather, it creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence. Where religions once demanded the sacrifice of bodies, knowledge now calls for experimentation on ourselves, calls us to the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge (Foucault: 1984, 96).
The provocation of new questions in classrooms, in writing, and in the everyday scholarly art of conversation puts values at risk–even the values we hold sacrosanct. The paradox of academic responsibility is the field of risk we open up in the process of doing our jobs–of teaching students how to disrupt regimes of power-knowledge. In the wake of this labor, we never know what will be sacrificed. When the ghosts peer over my shoulder, floating up from the graveyard of common sense past, I wonder if they despair or rejoice at what we’ve been up to.