Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I am an academic Marxist...what?!

Most anyone who has had a discussion with me about anything remotely related to politics (and I can relate anything to politics -- trust me) would probably agree that if we were forced to use labels, I'd be labeled as some kind of Marxist. Sometimes it's said with a chuckle (even by me) and an admittance that it means I'm kind of crazy. Sometimes, I imagine, it's said with disdain (though usually not in front of my face). Sometimes it's said with a sneer by someone who knows better about how flawed or confused Marx (is/was). But for most who know me, it's said.

So let me say it. I am some kind of a Marxist. There's so much packed up into that word that I don't want to leave it out there without the qualifier "some kind of," because without such a qualifier there are just too many layers (or, perhaps as Derrida would say, "spirits," or "ghosts") to Marx (even as he gets packaged more and more reductively both in common parlance and academic conversation).

I'm currently taking a class on Jacques Derrida, and it is forcing me every week to rethink my own conceptions of the political; of what my purpose, my mission, my reason on this earth is; of how I expect to authentically act on this purpose, mission, reason; of my intellectual commitments to a fundamentally Marxist project; of my simultaneous weariness and forcefulness in claiming a Marxist identity; of my very conception of what it means to do work, or even to do; of my (mis-)understandings of the divisions between schools of thought. In short, the class makes me think. And rethink. A lot.

So the past three weeks we've been working through Derrida's Specters of Marx, and I have found our slow walk through this book (in a grad school life where I'm reading entire books each week only to discuss them for two hours in class before moving on to the next book, the time we take to dwell in this class is incredibly refreshing) to be enormously troubling, confusing, and invigorating.

There's so much I'm thinking about right now as I sit here and type just after getting out of this class that I don't even yet have the language to express what I'm thinking nor the intellectual force to even organize what I'm thinking into a mental substance fit for language. But I will try, since this is a blog post and I kind of want to keep this short and readable, to limit my discussion here to one of the critical points on which I'm meditating:

What is my responsibility as a socially and politically engaged intellectual? What does it mean to actually be an academic (as I hope to be), but to always be identified (for almost always others point it out about me before I admit it myself! - as happened in this Derrida class) as a Marxist? What are my ethical obligations and how can I go to sleep at night with my dreams of changing the world (because, after all, of what else does a Marxist dream?!) knowing that my hands and feet aren't all that tired from a day of dirty work? (and that last question, as one of my most important mentors knows, has been haunting me since before I got to Cornell)

I must confess that I've been struggling since the Occupy movement became visible* to justify (not sure if this is the right phrasing, but it's what I've got now) to myself my career aspirations, namely, my decision to attempt to earn a PhD and become a professor somewhere. Indeed, one professor I spoke to voiced that they believed I seemed better suited to work for a nonprofit or some such similar work. And I struggled with this as I watched people doing the "dirty work" of camping out in Zuccotti Park and marching and demonstrating and organizing organic conversational committees and leaderless groups. "Why am I not down there?" I though. What the hell am I doing up here in the academy?

As if the academy was separate from Zuccotti Park!

I had a crucially important conversation with someone (I'm not sure this person even realizes how important this conversation was to me) about this reservation before leaving Geneseo to begin the project that is graduate school. And this conversation helped me to understand activism in a way that was much more broad (and historically and factually accurate!) than my previous conception. It helped me to understand that there are spaces besides the streets in front of the cameras where activist work takes place, and that the halls of academia are one such place. And so I found myself rethinking my conception of activism and agency. We can do work in the academy to affect change in real social conditions. We are not (unless we choose to be -- which is itself always a political choice even as it masks itself as apolitical) separated from "the real world" or in some kind of bubble just because we spend our time reading, thinking, and talking (and being, right Heidegger?). There is work to be done in all spaces, including academia.

But what is "the work" I am talking about when I talk about "doing the work"? What the hell does that vague phrase which I repeat ad nauseum all the time, mean? 

Well, for me it means, as I said in a previous post, crafting my career in the model of a public intellectual. Of extending my teaching beyond the walls of the classroom, of writing in a style that appeals to more readers than other academics (not instead of, but in addition to academic writing), of writing in venues besides academic journals and university presses, etc.

So you can imagine my feeling when today in class my professor directly asked the question, "What is the responsibility of the intellectual?" and began to spin this story I just spun about engaging in the project of being a public intellectual in the extremely condensed way I just described only to end by exclaiming, "Hogwash! Don't give me that. Your only responsibility is to think."   

How dare he mock the career trajectory I have been thinking and talking seriously about for a year now! (for indeed, as he himself said, he was mocking on purpose)

But as I listened and thought, I realized something about myself: even as I so strongly value intellectual virtue, even as I take great pleasure in the life of the mind, even as I thirst for knowledge and understanding about any topic imaginable, I had, without realizing it or ever explicitly saying it, formed a binary at the bedrock of my thinking that placed thinking in opposition to "doing the work." Or, if not in direct opposition, then I had defined thinking as necessarily being that which in itself is never enough to qualify as work.

I had become so invested in the materialist concerns of Marxism that I had adopted (ideologically and dogmatically perhaps -- which is ironic, not characteristic of Marxism**, by the way. But see my second footnote so this parenthetical remark doesn't get even longer) a view of mental work as being insufficiently disconnected from the material. But perhaps this isn't the case. Thinking is work. What was Marx himself after all (well, he said he wasn't a Marxist, to be fair) but a thinker? The project of Marxism is, fundamentally, the realization of Justice (and this is why I am, for all of my problems with some of the particulars of Marxist theory, fundamentally a Marxist). And how do we get to Justice without thinking? Thinking our past, thinking our present, thinking our future? There is no activism without thinking; there is no Justice without thinking. Thinking matters. It is work.

Now, this does not mean I have converted to my professor's dismissive position regarding that whole public intellectual issue. I still want to do all of those things like write for a newspaper as well as for academic journals (an idea he seemed to be particularly vicious towards). But I have been forced to rethink what I think about thinking. And man, is this hard work. 

*(I say "became visible" rather than "began" because it can, I think, be less than ideal to start discussions about when a social movement "began," as if it wasn't an extension of what has already been -- and yet the particulars of our age demand that we begin again as if for the first time (every time), as Derrida says! But I digress...)

**Marx was nothing if not open to self-criticism. He wrote into his own theory the possibility of himself being superseded. Marxism is not merely a dogmatic list of propositions, as so many people (even folks who teach it in their course on Literary Theory) think. It is a way of thinking the world, a way of thinking about one's place in the world and one's responsibility to humanity. And part of that thinking is a commitment to critique everything, including the thinking itself. 

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