Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 2 - No. 2 
Fall, 1998


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Radical Theory, Academia and the IAS
by Michelle R. Matisons

Radicals suffer when forced to choose between a task-oriented activist culture and an academic milieu that is filled with ideas but empty of politics. Michelle Matisons helps us explore some of the issues we must confront while building an alternative to these false choices.

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When I was asked to write on the topic of "the academicization of radical theory" my first thought was that this issue has recently become a standard preoccupation among progressive academics. They are now expected to show concern about academia’s effect on theory - otherwise known as the theory/practice problem - and typically sprinkle self-conscious, ironic remarks about the inaccessibility of their ideas before they inchoately present these still inaccessible ideas.

But is there a unique perspective that anarchists can bring to this topic? Since so much theory is produced within the university system today, it is important for anarchists to gain clarity on the repercussions of this development. Although I have no absolute answers to these questions, I will draw upon my experience as a conflicted doctoral student in one of the US’s first Women’s Studies/Feminist Theory Ph.D. programs and offer some thoughts on the inadequate progressive solutions to the " academicization of radical theory" problem.

Academic Feminism and Accessibility
The relatively recent inauguration of academic departments and programs inspired by social movements - Women’s Studies, Race/Ethnic Studies, Gay/Lesbian/Queer Studies - provides a unique opportunity to analyze and criticize how academicization transforms politics and ideas that emerged in the context of a movement. In fact, an interesting debate about academic co-optation and accessibility occurred during the second wave US feminist movement. One feminist theorist, Patrice McDermott, documents this debate in her book, Politics and Scholarship: Feminist Academic Journals and the Production of Knowledge. McDermott chronicles the birth of three prominent academic journals - Signs, Frontiers, and Feminist Studies - and their struggles around specialization, professionalization, and the community/academy split. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, many feminists argued that the new infatuation with the French feminists, who are influenced in varying degrees by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault, would alienate the journals and theorists from a broader readership and a debate emerged concerning the issues of accessibility in all three of the above mentioned journals. Signs was the most open to the new theory, which McDermott attributes to its international connections. Feminist Studies gradually warmed up to it and Frontiers, the most non-academic of the three journals, blatantly opposed its exclusivity. Kathi George, one of the founding editors of Frontiers, summarizes the journal’s position on the new theory: "Unless it is done brilliantly, it represents the worst tendencies in academic feminism - the stuff that is so arcane, so abstract, so self- absorbed - we viewed it very critically."

In my program and beyond, I have encountered many vaguely defined progressive academics who pretend to be concerned about the insularity of academic feminist theory, but positively emphasize how university resources have allowed it to become more sophisticated. This balanced "pros and cons" view ignores the serious sacrifices that are made when theory is done in a university setting. These sacrifices include accessibility, radical, political passion, and relevance to all socially marginalized people, especially those impoverished by global capitalism’s international division of labor.

Although it is common for today’s academic feminists and progressive academics to bemoan the academicization of theory, and the powerful bureaucracies of their respective institutions, in the same breath, most will defensively call critics of academic theory "anti-intellectuals." On this basis, that wrongfully confuses a critique of insular academic theory with anti-intellectualism, they conclude that they would rather their theories be isolated than not exist at all. And in concluding this, they then seek political engagement in a few standard ways.

Standard Progressive Solutions
One notable development is the reluctant academic, who carries the burden of progressive academic guilt. Guilt frequently has her seeking quick relief in committees, but without application and transformation of her theory according to her practical experience. After all, committee work is not much of a practice to speak of. But this is the committee activist’s solution. She complains as much as the next person about all of the annoying bureaucracies, but she needs this pseudo-practice—her university-craft—to relieve her guilty conscience. Of course there are plenty of true, campus-based struggles worth engaging, but militant student groups spontaneously galvanized around an issue is rarely the committee activist’s focus. The guilty committee addict, be it a professor or graduate student who already feels guilty about her professional aspirations, is not looking to make the kind of trouble that would threaten her job or stipend. She wants to be an "activist" and pack her resume at the same time. How convenient. Another variation on this theme is the academic who has managed a strict division between her teaching and her political work. I recall an incident with a professor at the New School for Social Research who claims to be politically active. When approached by a graduate student seeking her support in a case of professor/student sexual harassment, her response was that she could not do anything because it would jeopardize her career. She is an after-school activist who rarely takes controversial political stances within university walls. She leads a double life where theory and practice each have their own unique place. Because they are so divorced from each other, neither are totally fulfilling or effective. These are just a few examples of ways that progressive academics try to simplistically resolve the theory/practice problem and keep their careers thriving at the same time.

But these are false solutions to an increasingly false problem: academic isolation vs. political involvement. Given that humanities programs are losing funding and that there are no large scale radical movements in the US, the polarity between theoretical isolation and political engagement has to be rethought. One cannot be isolated in fields and programs that are underfunded or under attack. In fact, the "downsizing" of humanities programs, the abolition of tenure, the growth of adjunct "temp services" and the exploitation of graduate student labor, to name just a few developments that characterize the contemporary university system, have burst the younger academic’s professionalized bubble. These and other institutional developments that Russell Jacoby describes in his widely circulated The Last Intellectuals and his more recent Dogmatic Wisdom are becoming more pervasive than ever.

Many young anarchists of the post-New Left generation are involved on some level with the acquisition of higher degrees, and many teach at universities for a variety of reasons including the most obvious one - it’s a job. Is it misguided to think that one can sustain a passion for teaching and writing radical theory and involve themselves in the university-craft required by this job? And if she does follow this path, according to what criteria can her theoretical work be deemed "too academic" and out of touch? There are no universal criteria to judge these questions, but they need to be addressed in a way that is different than the standard progressive academic solutions of resigned academic isolation, committee activism or after school activism. The best response is not to seek quick fixes, pet answers or secure ripostes to today’s complex reality of institutionalized theory. We must all be suspicious of others selling out, but also of our own motives for engaging academia or not.

Intellectual Criteria and the IAS
Where does the IAS stand in relation to these issues? The IAS tries to provide alternatives to academic theory in the ideal form of the counter-institution. We have limited financial resources, yet we try to support writers who usually fall through the cracks of conventional funding sources. But still, at our biannual meetings, the IAS board always faces difficult questions concerning academic theory. Although we have established basic criteria for assessing applications, we consistently come up against difficult questions with no easy answers. Do we fund a superficial, journalistic article written by an engaged activist that addresses a pressing political issue? Or do we fund a more sophisticated piece written by a graduate student who is busy attaining higher degrees and securing teaching posts? We always jump at the chance to fund the rare non-academic, politically engaged writer of a solid piece - a rare breed indeed. She is unique because most writing today seems to be locked into either side of the academic/journalistic polarity.

The question about who to fund gets even more complicated when we take into account the social and class differences of our applicants. Since a middle-class writer has more intellectual leisure time than a welfare mother or a prisoner, how do we assess the relative merits of their projects and their applications? Merely awarding money to people whose writing complies with objective intellectual standards will not suffice. We must also begin establishing preconditions for intellectual work that reflects the vast array of people and issues that have been historically ignored. For example, to say that we will fund more women or Hispanic writers when we receive high quality applications from them, ignores one serious way that socio-economic oppression operates: it divorces people from intellectual resources, like free time and a well-rounded education. If we ignore the struggle that a poor person undergoes to find a "room of one’s own" to study and write, then we do nothing to challenge how social oppression is reinforced through intellectual hierarchies. Clearly, we must have some general intellectual standards, but what, besides a writer’s politics, constitutes a revolutionary, intellectual criteria? Although intellectual objectivism is not a radical solution, intellectual relativism is no solution either.

Our funding track record reveals that the IAS board’s current strategy is to fund a variety of writing projects with differing strengths and weaknesses. We have funded people from various social and class backgrounds. We have funded professors, graduate students, community activists, anarchist activists, and the rare radical intellectual who has resisted the seductions of academic professionalism. But, cultivation of diversity - social, political, and intellectual - will take us only so far. Although there are no simple solutions to the problems I address in this article, we should not forget that our biggest problems will arise if we become complacent in our ambiguity and reluctantly accept the circumstances handed to us.


Michelle Matisons is a founding board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and author of the recently published essay "The New Feminist Philosophy of the Body: Haraway, Butler and Brennan," European Journal of Woman’s Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 1998. She lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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