The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Activism and academia

December 21, 2005

Courtesy of Jenny, an interesting advice column from entitled “Should I leave grad school to be an activist?” [subscription, or watch a short ad to get access]. In a nutshell, what we have here is a philosophy grad student coming to grips with what most of us realize at some point in the course of our Ph.D. programs: academia is not some idyll within which people sit around in smoky cafes airily debating Revolution (or Being or Truth or any of the other Big Ideas — really, I had better and more free-wheeling conversations about those kinds of things as an undergraduate. I suspect that most of us did). It is instead a place where people usually engage in fairly narrow (“academic”) debates, deploying literature most of which runs the gamut from banal to esoteric; it is also a place that is not organized so as to provide positive incentives for the promotion of social change. [Last time I looked that wasn’t even a category on my annual Merit Review form: we have “teaching,” “research,” and “service,” but no “revolutionary activism.”]

I think that many of us go through a period of disillusionment like the letter-writer, as we slowly realize the awful truth: being an academic is a profession as well as being a vocation. And like any job whatsoever, being an academic necessarily means not being other things — like a full-time political activist.

Not surprisingly, most of the conservative punditry sites have seized on the column’s author’s statement that “if the current oligarchy cannot be removed via the ballot, direct political action may become an urgent and compelling mission. It may then be necessary for many people in many walks of life to put their bodies on the line.” But what no one seems to have really discussed yet is the underlying issue of whether being an academic is actually incompatible with being a political activist. So, since I have grading and other things that I am supposed to be doing at the moment, I’m going to take a few minutes and try to provide our readers with a little food for thought.

To give away the conclusion at the outset: yes, they are incompatible, and in most circumstances, you have to make a choice about which vocation is, as Weber might put it, “the daemon that holds the threads of your life.” If your overriding goal is to affect social change — and especially to do so in a short time-frame — don’t go into academia.

Now that you know where I’m going, permit me get there in three stages.

1) being an academic is a profession, a job, a career. Academia is a place to pursue a career, and as such has certain job-responsibilities associated with it. In particular, there are two:

  • teaching students; and
  • producing knowledge.

That’s it. Period. Everything else that we academics do — attending conferences, serving on university committees, editing journals, and so on — is ancillary to these two central responsibilities. I use the word “responsibilities” advisedly here, because teaching and knowledge-creation are things that you agree to do when you accept the paycheck (often meager, compared with other professions with a comparable educational prerequisite) and other benefits (which can run the gamut from slim to extravagant) associated with a position at a college or university. None of this is to say that you can never do anything else while employed as an academic, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call those other things “part of your job.” And that includes fomenting revolution, organizing workers, fighting with police, and so forth.

For some strange reason this is easier to understand if we look at another profession/job/career, something like “auto mechanic.” If you’re an auto mechanic, you have a set of job-responsibilities that largely involve repairing automobiles and keeping them running. Now, it’s entirely possible to be an auto mechanic and to be involved in social activism, but I’ve never heard anyone argue that social activism ought to be one of the job-responsibilities of being an auto mechanic!

Weber’s distinction between living “for” and living “from” politics seems apropos here. Living “for” politics is what people with a political vocation do: the desire to affect social change, to enact some vision and to produce some outcome, burns so powerfully in them that they couldn’t do anything else and be content. Living “from” politics is what happens when your job-responsibilities involve political action: if you’re a lobbyist, or the head of a campaign, or an elected official, or something like that. Using this distinction, I can clarify: being an academic is not living from politics, and if you live for politics than academia may not be the place for you.

2) there’s a kind of elective affinity between academia and the other great vocation that Weber discusses: the scientific vocation. A vocation for science means a passion for the systematic production of knowledge, a willingness to subordinate one’s personal preferences to the dictates of logic and method, and a commitment to ideas and principles rather than to tactics and results. It also means a clear separation between proselytizing and analyzing, such that the scientist insists on precision and nuance instead of the “by any means necessary” rationale that often governs the use of words and concepts in other social settings: as Weber points out, precise analytical terms can be used as “weapons of war” in public political struggles, but at this point they are no longer being used in their scientific sense. (Think “globalization” or “postmodernism,” terms that have ceased to have much analytical meaning because they have become part of the vernacular of the age; they certainly have social and political import, but that’s a different matter entirely.)

Now, someone with a vocation for science is in some sense not really cut out for the give-and-take and necessary compromises characteristic of the political sphere. The central drive of such a person is in a way more similar to that of an artist: there’s an expressive quality to good science, in that it represents the most compelling arrangement of elements that the author could assemble in order to generate insight. And science is similar to art in another way, too: at the core of both enterprises are value-commitments that can’t be demonstrated from within the enterprise itself, but which ground and bound and sustain the enterprise and those laboring within it.

What this means is that science in its pure form is not at all concerned with “results” or with dispensing “advice.” Science — and by this I mean not only the physical sciences, but the social sciences as well — is (as Hedley Bull succinctly declared several decades ago) a very different endeavor:

The search for conclusions that can be presented as “solutions” or “practical advice” is a corrupting element in the contemporary study of world politics, which properly understood is an intellectual activity and not a practical one. Such conclusions are advanced less because there is any solid basis for them than because there is a demand for them which it is profitable to satisfy.

Where can this vocation be most effectively exercised? Hint: not in the sphere of practical politics. And not in more-or-less politicized “research institutes” (many of which do excellent political work, but please let’s not confuse that with scholarship). Industry? Not bloody likely. So that leaves us without many options…hey, what about academia? “Create knowledge” is one of the job responsibilities, after all. Now, in practice things are not so clear, since the actual way that knowledge-creation is organized in contemporary academia involves institutions like peer-review and the notion of a “disciplinary mainstream” of debates and concepts and issues with which one has to engage if one wants to do things like get articles and books published in prominent places and create a name for oneself — things that one has to do if one wants to get tenure. But for all the inanity and insanity of the disciplinary knowledge-creation process, it’s still closer to the scientific vocation than almost any other profession I can think of.

Plus, being an academic means that one gets to teach students, which is not something that one gets to do in any other line of work. This too is near and dear to the heart of the scientific vocation, since teaching properly understood is about helping people confront the limitations of their own perspectives and commitments — and about confronting your own. Repeatedly. It’s gloriously agonistic, and antagonistic, and if done correctly allows the teacher to be and to provide the occasion for her students to become the people they are. Ain’t nothing like it.

Is knowledge-creation and teaching enough? Should one put up with the bullshit that goes along with maintaining an academic job? There are only individual answers. In the end, it depends on your vocation.

3) the letter-writer whose note occasioned the column was operating from a fallacy in posing her or his dilemma. “Academic Who Would Be a Revolutionary” — who wonders at one point “if there is a way in American academia to seriously help make the world a better place,” to which I’d reply no, that’s a different department — declares that s/he is “both deliriously happy with what I am doing and wracked with guilt over what I am not doing.” This tension results from AWWBaR’s feeling that s/he should be emulating the personal trajectories of the philosophers whose work s/he is teaching:

Whenever I teach about people like Michel Foucault or Antonio Negri, I make sure my students know some biographical details about their lives. I make my students aware that for these two men, and many others I teach and read, there was no way to separate their resistance from their scholarship. There can be no separation between a Foucault who got into fights with the cops and a Foucault who wrote “Discipline and Punish.” Nor can there be a separation between a Negri who helped organize workers in Italy and a Negri who wrote extensively on Spinoza (mostly while in prison).

This strikes me as just plain wrong. What’s wrong here is not that both Foucault and Negri did both of these things (even Weber, who defined the vocation for politics and the vocation for science in such opposed terms, actually engaged in both endeavors over the course of his life). And what’s wrong here is not that both Foucault and Negri often reflected on the mutual imbrication of their scholarship and their activism, and allowed each to inform the other. What’s wrong with AWWBaR’s logic here is the contention that Foucault’s scholarship is not logically separable from Foucault’s activism. [I’m reserving judgment on Negri, because quite honestly I’ve never read anything by Negri except writings that I would classify as political manifestos. But I haven’t read everything of his.] To the contrary, I’d say that it helps not one iota to know that Foucault got into fights with cops; understanding what’s going on in Discipline and Punish doesn’t require you to know much about Foucault’s political activism, just like Foucault’s homosexuality doesn’t really illuminate his History of Sexuality all that much. And ironically, the first person who would tell you that would be Foucault himself, via his essay “What is an Author?”

In this sense, AWWBaR is posing a false problem. If, on reading Foucault and Negri and other post-structuralists, one feels that the only appropriate response is to devote one’s life to the promotion of social change, then by all means go do it! Just don’t call it “scholarship” and don’t assume that academia is the appropriate place to do it. And at the same time, be aware that not every reader of Foucault has that reaction; some of us read Foucault and are just fine exercising a scholarly vocation in academia, and appreciate Foucault as a scholar of social relations and the subtle machinations and maneuvers of power. Further: some of us are fine assigning Foucault to people who might have the politics-as-a-vocation response, and choose not to become academics or to engage in scholarly knowledge-production; I have a fair number of students (present and former) who are much more political by vocation than I am.

So: if you want to be an activist, then go be an activist. Academia is not a place to be a full-time activist any more than it is a place to be a full-time auto mechanic. Academic practice is not activist practice, and fusing them seems to me to be an unworkable endeavor — something will of necessity suffer, and I’d bet good money that it’ll be the scholarship that becomes weaker. “Activist scholarship,” while it might be very good activism, is likely to be poor scholarship. Now, this is not to say that one person can’t do both in sequence, but it is to say that one person can’t do both at the same time. This isn’t about people not having the strength of character or the courage of their convictions or anything of the sort; it’s about the logical incompatibility of the two vocations.

Then what are we doing over here at Duck, and at other points in the blogosphere? I think that “political journalism” comes closest as a descriptor. It isn’t scholarship — I don’t put blogging on my c.v. and I’d be startled if an academic job applicant did. (Then again, I put television and radio appearances, and quotations in newspapers and periodicals, on my c.v. Something to ponder.) Quite frankly, I’m a poor political journalist — you’ve probably noticed that — in part because I really really don’t have much of a vocation for politics. Instead, all I have to offer is value-clarification, the political value of which I will leave for others to decide.
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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.