Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Connection of Desire to Reality Possesses Revolutionary Force: Going to Harvard


Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic. Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality ... that possesses revolutionary force.

~Michel Foucault, Preface to Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

I arose very early this morning (4:30am) in Washington, DC to board a train to Boston, as I am giving a talk at Harvard tomorrow afternoon (details on poster above). In point of fact, I really didn't sleep much at all last night. Because to be honest, I'm pretty depressed, and while I can't go into all of the details here, suffice to say that this past year has been a hard one and some new hardships are on the horizon. I'm sad and frightened and yet remain paradoxically hopeful and optimistic because I can't see the point of grabbing on to anything except hope and optimism. I've always hated people who tell me "everything will be okay" when, really, they have no idea and it's just an empty platitude that people say when they don't know what else to say. It's supposed to be comforting, but is, for me, inherently annoying. But I also really believe (again, paradoxically) that everything really will be okay. I'm just not sure when, and as Hamlet might have said, "there's the rub." Throughout the past few months, I've had to examine everything I'm doing and constantly ask myself if it's worth it and whether or not I even know anymore what matters -- as in, what sort of work is worth doing and on whose behalf or for what purposes? what is a personal life and how does one construct it with any sort of thoughtfulness and care (and even more pointedly, is "personal life" a too narrow category for living: in other words, does one really have a life for oneself and then some sort of "other" life, or lives, as in that old distinction between "work" and "life" -- a distinction, I might add, I believe is unhealthy)? is it possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren't focused on monetizing everything (on which point, see Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution)? And so on.

I share these thoughts because I was recently invited, by Richard Cole (who has an essay in postmedieval's issue on the Holocaust) and other graduate students at Harvard, to give a talk for their Medieval Studies Workshop. I asked them to give me guidance on what they wanted me to talk about, and they said they wanted to hear about BABEL and its various projects, for which I'm deeply grateful (and honored), but I've given quite a few talks about BABEL over the years, and I don't want to just repeat myself. Given my own personal upheavals, this feels like an opportunity to engage in some serious reflection on what I think is important and most meaningful right now -- not just for me, but for everyone who works within (or just to the side of) the university, and the phrase I keep coming back to is "academic freedom." There is perhaps no concept that is seen as *less* debatable, among academics, than "academic freedom," but I've personally always been a bit bothered by it, partly because, over the years, I've seen so little of it in actual practice (and this is very much part of the reason BABEL came into existence at all -- my, and others', feeling that there isn't much academic freedom in the precise place where it is cherished and argued for as an ethical good of the highest value). Quite obviously, one isn't going to get very far arguing *against* the importance of academic freedom, but at the same time, most discussions and debates about academic freedom see it as inextricably connected to, and guaranteed by, tenure, and I've always been a little mystified by this, first, because I believe that freedom of expression should be vigorously cultivated, cared for, and defended as a legal right everywhere and for everyone, but more importantly: what about everyone in the university who does not have tenure, and now, with non-tenure stream teaching positions making up about 70% of all teaching positions, what about those who never *will* have tenure? And for the increasingly privileged few, what are you supposed to be doing, free expression-wise, *before* you have tenure: as a graduate student, as a postdoctoral fellow, as an assistant professor, etc.?

But hang on a minute, because this isn't really where I'm headed. You see, I believe that even if all faculty at all universities had tenure, there would still be very little academic freedom, not because faculty could be fired at will, regardless, for the things they might say and write (although we see examples of this all of the time, in quite frightening ways), but because of all the myriad ways in which we are coerced (both forcefully and more subtly) to think alike, or to follow certain methodologies of thought, outside of which it is believed (by many!) only "bad" or nonsensical scholarship could result. In his very short and extraordinary Preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, Foucault wrote that, in the face of what he called "the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us," we should concentrate all of our energies on these questions,
How does one introduce desire into thought, into discourse, into action? How can and must desire deploy its forces within the political domain and grow more intense in the process of overturning the established order? Ars erotica, ars theoretica, ars politica. ... How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant? How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?
Increasingly, I find academic freedom to be the most vital, but also most elusive, element of academic (and para-academic) life. There is no academic freedom, per se; it is not even a *right*. What it is, instead, is a kind of practice that we have to work at (vigilantly) every day (for ourselves and for others), and at the same time, it is also a state of being, a sort of ontological ground without which practically nothing new could ever emerge: one must be free from worry, free from debt, free from hunger, free from predators, free from ill health, free from bullying censure, free from oppression, free from harm, free from grief, and so on, before one can even begin to feel safe enough to express oneself, or even to *work* at all as a thinker and researcher. This is true more generally for everyone, of course, and is considered by many to be a global human right, but who guarantees this, who works on its behalf, etc.? It is worth repeating: freedom is a state of being, and it is not natural. What this means is that we actually have to work, and fairly hard at that, to establish the means, and the spaces, and the mechanisms (etc.) with which anyone anywhere at all could exercise their so-called "academic" or any other sort of freedom. We have to be and *feel* free, and I find myself lingering here because I don't think I have ever given a talk anywhere about my own work, or about BABEL, or about punctum, etc. where at least one anxious audience member hasn't said, in so many words, "well, that's all cool for you, but what about those of us who are more vulnerable and less established? how can we say just whatever we want, or pursue work that has no one's pre-approval when we're still trying to get a job, still trying to get tenure, etc.?" There is no real answer to this question except some sort of version of "stop being so scared," but that's easy for me to say because guess what? No one scares me and they never have. I'm weird that way.

The better answer is, let me help you to feel less scared to want the things you really want. Let me work with you, and with others, to secure the freedom you don't actually have yet, and that won't be guaranteed by tenure. Because nothing is guaranteed in this world, everything is provisional, and there are a lot of assholes out there. We are also assholes when we're not paying enough attention to what is going on around us. We are also assholes when we don't care enough to do something when the university doesn't live up to its ideals (however elusive, however difficult to put into actual practice). Part of what spurred my thinking on all of this was watching the movie Selma on the plane from Los Angeles to Washington, DC just this past Wednesday. The movie was stirring and moved me to tears, but I couldn't help but think to myself that, even though it was a stunning achievement to mobilize all of those people to walk across the bridge in Selma and to also get the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, when I look back at that moment from our current vantage point, I feel as if I glance across a wasteland of black lives that have never, ever mattered *enough* to us, and who have been ground down through poverty, violence, racism, and the like. Because legal acts don't guarantee the sorts of prosperity (of mind, soul, and body) that enable real freedom (the ontological status) such that one could exercise one's freedom as a practice that contributed to one's well-being and flourishing. I know that sounds tautological, but it's the only way I know how to express this idea at present -- that what we need to work on now, if we really care about "academic freedom," is not just ensuring or extending tenure for more persons (although of course that is important), but also working, in Foucault's words again, to track down and extirpate "all varieties of fascism, from the enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives." In my own experience, I have seen the university serve as a fertile ground for this sort of everyday tyrannical bitterness. Do you know why? Because it's populated by humans. We aren't always the nicest or even the bravest species on the planet, but because we chose to work in this place called a university, we have to try harder, and our only motto should be "we think in here." And we shouldn't have to justify that to anyone. But we sure as hell need to work hard to secure the necessary resources (both material and somatic-psychic) for such an institution, and the persons within it, to be safe from harm.

There is much more to say on the subject and this is only a preamble for the talk I will give tomorrow, after which I'll return here to post the text of the whole talk and offer more reflections. And if you're in Boston, I hope you'll drop in and help me think through all of this.

1 comment:

i said...

I love this, Eileen. I've been thinking a lot over the past few years about how academic acculturation renders certain kinds of choices, and certain kinds of work, "unthinkable." It's unthinkable to quit a tenured or TT job, even if one would be happier otherwise. It's unthinkable to write for the general public. Of course these things are not really unthinkable, but they become much harder under the normalizing forces of academe.

I'm not like you -- I'm scared of all sorts of things, and am generally a nervous worrier. That said, I got tired of being scared and worried about what people would think about this or that. I've done my best work when I didn't give a damn what other people thought. And I'm very, very happy and grateful that Punctum is giving me the chance to do something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago (I kept it on the DL in my previous position and even on my job applications), but that is probably the most meaningful thing I've done so far.