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Nothing Has Yet Been Said: On the Non-Existence of Academic Freedom and the Necessity of Inoperative Community

Published onMay 01, 2015
Nothing Has Yet Been Said: On the Non-Existence of Academic Freedom and the Necessity of Inoperative Community

[originally posted on May 1, 2015]

But if this world, even though it has changed … , proposes no new figure of community, perhaps this in itself teaches us something. We stand perhaps to learn from this that it can no longer be a matter of figuring or modeling a communitarian essence in order to present it to ourselves and to celebrate it, but that it is a matter rather of thinking community, that is, of thinking its insistent and possibly still unheard demand, beyond communitarian models or remodelings. … Nothing has yet been said: we must expose ourselves to what has gone unheard in community.

 ~Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

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 want to begin by saying something about the image from Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums that adorns the poster for this talk. Why this image? Partly because, on one level, all of Anderson’s films seem to be about misfit families—with ‘family’ here denoting actual, more traditional ‘kinship’ families, but also circles of friends and accomplices, whose dysfunction is rendered with a certain tender sweetness, and whose commitment to each other, with occasional failures of loyalty, remains steadfast. Characters in Anderson’s films typically do not get what they want or deserve, but the one thing they never relinquish is their affection for each other, even when that affection might be fucked up, or laced with sadness. They pursue ridiculous adventures that typically fail (such as Steve Zissou in The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou chasing after a mythical “jaguar shark” in order to kill it as revenge for the death of a friend, or the three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited looking for their estranged mother in India who abandons them not once but twice, or the two misunderstood children in Moonrise Kingdom running away together), but these ill-advised adventures are conducive nevertheless to the development of aesthetic practices for more artful styles of living, which also explains why some critics hate Anderson’s films for their archly aesthetic (and thus supposedly non-realist) staging. Nevertheless, many of Anderson’s characters are fiercely determined to chart different (often foolish) courses, and to do so stylishly. And for me, style is neither incidental, nor merely an ornament, to the content of one’s life. As Anna Kłosowska has memorably put it, “style, neither fact nor theory but facilitating the transition between the two … is the generative principle itself.”1 Or as Aranye Fradenburg has also put it, “Aesthetic form is a spellbinding (or not) attempt to transmit and circulate affect, without which not much happens at all.”2 Let us not underestimate style, then, especially for what it contributes to natality, to “something else” emerging.

With regard to the particular still image from The Royal Tenenbaums of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum, the brother and (adopted) sister who are in love with each other, smoking cigarettes on the rooftop of their Manhattan brownstone, with Richie’s hawk Mordecai perched on Richie’s glove, it’s hard for me to explain why and how, over the years, this image has served as an emblem for me (literally, a sort of badge and also heraldic device) of the BABEL Working Group’s core mission: to craft medieval-modern mashups in order to reveal the uncanny and untimely ways in which the medieval and modern co-inhabit each other; to promiscuously cruise subjects, theories, and disciplines not believed to be “proper” to the field of medieval studies; to work on an ethics and politics of friendship (no matter how messy and difficult) as the vital heart of forms of scholarship that emerge from a certain “togetherness,” no matter how asymmetrical, dissensual, fractured, and flawed at times; and most importantly, to embrace, even with joy, our “fucked-up-ness,” or as Chris Taylor once memorably put it in an essay about the ways in which our critique of each other’s work can become unproductively toxic,

We live on and through [the fictions that we’re inclined toward each other even when “we sometimes decline from one another or swerve away into terrible things”] … for the simple reason that we are all too wounded by this world to not carry fucked-up-ness with us in ways we can’t even know without the rigorous, critical, sustaining, and enriching help of our revolutionary friends.3

The image of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum on the rooftop also resonates with me because it signals that we need to embrace our failures—in their case, the failure to move beyond their arrested development, to fully overcome their dysfunctional childhood. More pointedly, we need to embrace failure as integral to what we do without giving up on each other or our work. And we don’t necessarily have to “grow up,” to allow ourselves to become “disabled” for what Joan Retallack has described as “the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars.”4

So let me begin (again) by saying that, ever since leaving my tenured faculty position in August of 2013, that I have faced all sorts of difficulties and even despair as regards my decision to manage the affairs of the BABEL Working Group and punctum books full-time. The invitation to give a talk here at Harvard came at a propitious moment, especially as I was asked to comment on the aims and projects of BABEL, and not wanting to simply repeat or rehash the things I have said on that subject over the years, I felt a keen urge to take advantage of the opportunity to really reflect on what I think is most important right now—within medieval studies, yes, but also more broadly, within the humanities and the university-at-large, and also, for myself personally. Throughout the past few months—and as a direct result of the difficulties of maintaining our projects as independent but also para-institutional entities, which has led to moments of personal and also collective depression—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. For example: What sort of work is worth doing and on whose behalf and for what purposes? What is a “personal life” and how does one construct it with any sort of thoughtfulness and care? Even more pointedly, is “personal life” a too impoverished 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 have always believed is unhealthy, especially within the university where we are already more free to choose our labors than so many others who are forced to work at soul-crushing jobs they can only hate. Can a collective survive, without becoming fascist, or is it always doomed to fall apart at some point? Can we figure out ways to survive but also to embrace that eventual falling apart in ways that might prove liberatory and sustaining? On this question, I have always concurred with Bill Readings in The University in Ruins that cultivating certain “rhythm[s] of disciplinary attachment and detachment,” as well as abandoning “disciplinary grounding” (while still retaining the “structurally essential … question of the disciplinary form that can be given to knowledges”), is more important than installing permanent structures for the creation and dissemination of knowledge (whether academic departments or scholarly associations), but: how to create a collective that could cultivate and sustain such continual unsettlement, ungrounding, and abandonments, and which would be willing to dwell in a “university in ruins” as a mode of “try[ing] to do what we can, while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge”?5 Who, further, will sign on for a group whose mission is continual disruption and which seeks an inoperative community without identity? This question partly stems from Jean-Luc Nancy’s thinking on community and how,

behind the theme of the individual, but [also] beyond it, lurks the question of singularity. What is body, a face, a voice, a death, a writing­—not indivisible, but singular? What is their singular necessity in the sharing that divides and that puts into communication bodies, voices and writings in general and in totality?6

An “inoperative community” would be one that merely commits itself to thinking community beyond its bad histories and beyond any futurizing ideologies that seek specific (utopian) ends. My question (and worry) of whether or not anyone will want to join an inoperative community, especially under the aegis of a humanities under siege by techno-managerial forces, is also partly influenced by the thinking of the cultural critic Jan Verwoert, who has also asked,

If, living under the pressure to perform, we begin to see that a state of exhaustion is a horizon of collective experience, could we then understand this experience as the point of departure for the formation of a particular sort of solidarity? A solidarity that would not lay the foundations for the assertion of a potent operative community, but which would, on the contrary, lead us to acknowledge that the one thing we share—exhaustion—makes us an inoperative community, an exhausted community, a community of the exhausted. A community, however, that can still act, not because it is entitled to do so by the institutions of power, but by virtue of an unconditional, exuberant politics of dedication.7

This would be to think of community as a sort of “mutual admiration society,” but also as a convalescent ward, in which “taking care” (of ourselves and each other) would be more important than “performing” according to so-called “professional” standards and protocols. What sorts of agencies might we be able to craft under these conditions that would be mutually sustaining and which would not signify giving up? And given various tears in the fabric of the Real that we are currently grappling with—whether the end of liberal education as we thought we knew it or ecological catastrophe—how does this change what I, or anyone, should hope for? As Jonathan Lear explicates beautifully in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, “as finite erotic creatures it is an essential part of our nature that we take risks just by being the world” and the world itself is not “merely the environment in which we move about”; rather, “it is that over which we lack omnipotent control,” and at any moment, it “may intrude upon us,” outstripping “the concepts with which we seek to understand it.”8 So, in merely thinking the world, we always take the risk “that the very concepts with which we think may become unintelligible.” In such a scenario, can we continue to believe in community formation (especially with an eye toward cultivating practices of inoperation) as a form of radical hope—not hope as an affective (and ultimately insipid) orientation toward definitive (projected) outcomes, but rather, hope as a longing, or desire, for things that we do not fully, and cannot ever fully, understand? Finally, one last, but increasingly (for me) the most important (and terrifying) of all of these questions: will it be 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?

Given all of these questions (or worries) and my own personal upheavals, the one phrase I keep returning 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 secondarily, and 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 here’s the weird thing: these are not the questions that really interest me. 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 can 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 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 nor proceed, which is why I believe one of the most important tasks—perhaps the only task—of an inoperative community today would be to simply clear space (to make room). One must be free from worry, free from debt, free from hunger, free from predators, free from ill health, free from bullying, free from 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, unbesieged by various fears. 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?

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, spaces, and mechanisms with which anyone anywhere at all could exercise their so-called “academic” or any other sort of freedom. We have to feel free (which is not the same thing as actually being free, but which will have to “do” in the interminable interim), 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, 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, especially as the university becomes more corporatized, but also because nothing is guaranteed in this world, everything is provisional, and there are a lot of jerks out there. We are also jerks when we’re not paying enough attention to what is going on around us. We are also jerks 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 week. 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 (as ontological ground) 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 kindest 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 harder to secure the necessary resources (both material and somatic-psychic) for such an institution, and the persons within it, to be safe from harm, so that they can pursue the work they most desire to do.

So what I’m ultimately trying to convey here is that, if someone were to ask me today what BABEL, and punctum books, is about—what it stands for, what it is trying to do, what it is trying to effect—I would say something like, we are trying to create spaces of radical hospitality within which persons feel more free (which is not the same thing as being completely free: that could never be possible given the forces that shape this world, both human and inhuman) to experiment, to take risks, and most importantly, to pursue in their work their (and not our) desires, unencumbered by professional anxieties over whether or not those desires are legitimated in advance by what our “fields” have already deemed as “proper” to themselves. This is also to ask that we replace the idea of the humanities as some sort of guarded (and self-regarding) competitive-agonistic staging ground of cultural authority with the idea that the humanities—especially in its role as a critical site for the creation and dissemination of knowledge—be reconceptualized as a site for the care and curatorship of all persons who desire to contribute their labors to an always precarious, always unsettled, and most importantly, always unbounded intellectual commons. This is to say—for the one, for the singular, and thus for all. And by choosing to never define exactly what it is we do in here with recourse to what we have deemed in advance to be “correct,” and also because, similar to Herodotus’s Scythians who could not be captured by Darius’s Persians because they were so skilled at running away, we refuse to engage the sovereign in the manner they demand of us, we remain elusive, vagabond, intinerant, and also free.

Photo by Daniel Silva on Unsplash

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