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Power and spirit

28 Oct

I watched Heather Rae’s documentary on the Native American artist and activist John Trudell yesterday, and it never fails to inspire me. At some point Trudell says that authority is not the same thing as power. We confuse them when we think that the government or corporations have power, when what they have is only authority. Power is about our relationship to life, or the development of what Trudell calls the “human spirit”.

I’ve been thinking about postmodern theory and the issues that I have with relativism. Trudell seems to believe in the existence of an essence, an irreducible substance that defines spirit. I see postmodernism, on the other hand, as a disembodied theory which tends to obscure human experience. I sometimes wonder what a theory of the sensible world would look like. I like Lisa Brooks’s analysis in The Native Critics Collective’s Reasoning Together when she argues that “the concern to which we should turn is the need for thought that acknowledges its embeddedness in experience, which cultivates and expresses an intimate relationship with the world in which it thinks.”

Academic freedom?

6 Sep

When I was a student at university, I idealized academe in spite of all the inconsistencies I saw. I believed that it was possible to be a free spirit within that institution and pursue vital, personal interests in a stimulating context of exchange. The idea that such a freedom exists is part of academia’s founding myths. Although it may look like tenure professors have the liberty to think and act freely, they can only be critical as long as they do not apply their ideas to the workplace, as long as they do not directly threaten the dominance hierarchy that constitutes the university. Jeff Schmidt says that “Academic freedom is given to those who will be least likely to use it”. You have it “to the extent that you can express views that your employer would not otherwise allow you to express”. But According to this definition, the few who dare challenge the institution stand out: “That’s what activists do: things that they weren’t hired to do”. Which is why some of them get fired.

The idealism I used to nurture also made me believe that I could sublimate my need for action by investing it into theory or that “ideas can change the world”. Rancourt points out that “truth and research are not threatening to power in a culture of subservience and obedience. In such a culture, radical-in-thought academics only stabilize the system by neutralizing the more action-minded youth”. In short, it is not enough to be a radical intellectual, you also need to engage in radical praxis. All too often, universities (as well as other institutions in my experience – when you’re lucky) promote discourse as a safe substitute for action. I have learned that I can express ideas if I lay them out in the appropriate format, carefully back them up with established sources, and cut myself off from the practical implications of the theories I develop. It seems that my credibility as a scholar depends on it. Now I increasingly wonder: is there a space for free thinkers? The more I examine the institution, the less I believe that university provides such an environment. Is academic freedom only a façade?

The practice of truth

10 Aug

Truth is personal and based on one’s experience. You adopt a truth because it makes sense to you and test it in your life. This means rejecting unverifiable truths handed over to you by experts, scientists, politicians, and other figures of authority, but also popular culture and normative prescriptions. I am again borrowing ideas from Rancourt, who says: “If the science that is of interest to you is not helping you to understand yourself, then what’s the use? What’s the point of it? … What you need to know is how to figure yourself out”. This stance is distabilizing from an elitist perspective because it challenges intellectual privilege and decentralizes power. Truth starts to belong to practice rather than theoretical constructions. Theory must feed into practice in order to be of relevance, and this practice is centered on self-liberation. As a free individual, conscious of your own truths and open to being challenged by new ideas, you become able to associate freely with other individuals who practice similar truths. Truth then becomes a collective practice, constantly being re-asserted, constantly being challenged, constantly being adapted.

Can intellectuals be activists?

31 Jul

At university one learns that thought prevails upon action, that intellectual work has at least as much value as organizing. However, the principle that radicalism is to be discussed rather that enacted protects the interests of the institution. Paulo Freire said that you can only fight your own oppression. Only yesterday I wrote that “Privilege should imply responsibility” – doesn’t this suggest that responsibility is reserved to an elite which could “teach” others how to be free? At the very least, it implies that the so-called privileged in our society are free themselves, which is far from true. What is too often defined as activism can simply serve to maintain one’s rank by avoiding risks since, as Denis Rancourt points out, “There are a million elaborate and slogan-supported rationalizations to not be an activist and most involve re-definitions of activism in terms of actions that present no significant risk to one’s socio-economic status.” Rancourt’s definition of activism detaches itself from “dogmatically non-violent” forms of organizing and instead privileges direct action, and he denounces anyone who does not directly confront power as complicit with the oppressor (post). In this light, activities such as building community or political blogging do not qualify as activism, and theorizing is only”Useful as an aid to reflection for those practicing a praxis of liberation.” Intellectual thought, then, needs to serve action and reflect on it but should never stand on its own. At the theoretical level, ideas not only have limited reach but tend to maintain (and justify) the status quo.