Thinking the Permissible, or Speaking in Common

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In this paper written for the MLA roundtable “Toward an Academic Commons: Academic Freedom and Sites of Contested Speech,” Colin Dayan reflects on what happens when academic freedom is cornered and subsumed by the demands of “civility” and “rationality.”

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And these are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devour

–John Clare, “To a Fallen Elm”

Who gets to speak? “To speak,” Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks is to exist for the other. “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” To acquire a “civilizing language,” then, is to be an exile in your own land, however we define the terrain of personal significance and conviction.

The “academic commons,” is something of an oxymoron, a paradox as heady as St. Paul’s encounter with the vexation of bodily resurrection. Must not a new definition of the body be coined? The crux of the matter lies in the spirit that is also the flesh, in something quite intangible, even insensate, but persistent and always quite thing-like.

The call to the commons, to a “common ground,” or, as some would endorse “the common interests,” is to revel in what we as teachers and students share “in common.” But who is to say what the ground of the common, the commonplace or commonality is? As Morrison wrote in Beloved, “definitions are always in the hands of the definers.” To hold ideas in common is much like the call for consensus: whoever calls for this fellowship has a pretty good idea of what is or is not to be accepted or permissible as shared values. Or to put it more bluntly, these values are akin to holding certain “truths to be self-evident.” As Justice Taney made explicit in his opinion in Dred Scott: “we the people” was never meant to include that class of persons who carried the “indelible mark” of “degradation”:

The men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary acquirements, high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others, and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery.

Which people, or persons, or members of the global Academy are excluded from the commons? Zones of exclusion mark off indelibly the lives that are cordoned off, trapped, demolished, bulldozed, expropriated, uprooted, by-passed.

But for some of our colleagues, those of us who would bring these lives to light are guilty of “partisan politics,” “purges,” and “censorship,” even though there is absolutely no evidence of such practice or intent. Politics is never separate from scholarship. Thought, imagination, and learning is always enhanced by collision and conflict. In “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” Theodore Adorno wrote, and I paraphrase, any poet who claims not to be political is in fact proclaiming a politics—and I would add—silencing others in a far more devious because subtle way.

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Why should I speak? I’ve always been haunted by Gramsci’s warning that we are all “experts in legitimation” and by the savvy insight of Bourdieu and Passeron in Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture published in 1977, that we – no matter what we intend—can never shed that ermine robe of authority. An authority honed to say what needs to be taught and thought in the right, the tasteful, the distinctive and recognizable—the civil—way.

But there is always a politics to the under-read and the critical background against which such silences are made. William Carlos Williams recognized the silencing generated by experts, the careening authority of the estimable critics. Before the formidable and raging Book 3 of Paterson, against the background of a library burning and books in flames, he scorned the “knowledgeable idiots, the university,/…../The outward masks of the special interests/that perpetuate the stasis and make it profitable.”
He recognized how inextricable is the language, the craft, the tools of scholarship from the casual disregard, the everyday violence in the “corrupt cities.” So it was not artlessness that he wanted but something else, something he called “the foulness”—the kind of writing that threatened the moneyed and the privileged, the extensions of state-sanctioned racism and its sanguine exclusivity.

The affront to the reasonable, the necessary, and the secure matters now more than ever. Reasonable consensus and civility: these words engage me, unsettled as I am by the prospect of divisions (not only of subject but also genre) that allow the continued dispossession of those creatures – human and non-human alike–who remain outside the circle of grace, delivered to subjection without recourse. How can we shed the mantle of civility, consensus, and rationality just long enough to question the claims of decency?

How do we speak? When it comes to matters of civility and befouling, we need to question our role as teachers and scholars, as well the threats to our profession by a silencing that is racially driven though culturally masked. The remedy of culture always excuses or conceals the experience of racism. In this time of terror, in our complicity with “kill lists,” drone strikes, global dispossession, mass incarceration, and murders of black citizens on our streets, what are the choices offered us as academics?

A cure for all kinds of threats, reasonableness has long been a way to extend persecution, civil death, and torture. But this rationality, like the theory that accompanies it, is tied to figurative power, and its metaphors can at any time become more insistent. What the anthropologist and historian, the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot, called the “explanatory power of culture” allowed the contexts for inequality and racism to continue. Indeed, they became harsher because hidden by the call for a common ground.

Our embrace of the “commons” or “academic commons,” though well-intentioned, risks enabling the false ideal of “consensus” that always rears its ugly, if “reasonable” head just when social and racial stratification is at its worst. Against the fashionable cartography of the commons, or a search for common ground, stands the language of stigma, incarceration, control—and downright extermination. Should we not reclaim the singularity of lives that do not span borders, or more precisely, who never —at least not in this country—gained the right to have rights in common?

Matters of terminology delimit privilege, just as they silence the disenfranchised, the invisible ones, who are always quite visible though objects of serene disregard. Our thought should be supple and ever watchful for the terms that perpetuate the very contexts of inequality—and specifically, racism. I’m grappling here with the push-and-pull of the call for the commons, always moderated and even reproduced by the humanitarian concern that is analogous to it, and hence always already closed to criticism. I learned from Trouillot—may he rest in peace—how the most benign of academic trends carried with it a strategy of extermination that always targets people of color, the poor or the powerless. He knew its eugenic violence even as he confronted its universalizing promise, what he called “totalitarian humanism” and the bugbears of academia: civility and compromise.

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Retaliation hides behind a logic that is at once exclusionary and authoritarian. This policing of thought indulges in all manner of intolerant behavior. In the context of the de-hiring of a scholar like Salaita, we have sought in our conscience how to respond to coercion and threat found in the least likely of places—the university’s so-called “ivory tower.”

Sickened by the civility-mongers’ pieties and the costs to scholars who dare to think hard and feel passionately, I recall Poe’s disdain for the oracles of “higher morality.” These “thinkers-that-they-think” used “civility”–and all such words for self-righteous sentiment–to destroy literary careers and exclude anyone who threatened the status quo. Such entrenched proclivities for what Poe condemned as “doggerel aesthetics” masked the ugly money-fundament to such cunning ideality. What has happened to Steven Salaita matters to us all, no matter our views or our assumed status in the groves of academe. The resilience of genuine academic freedom is that it ensures that these abuses, and the watchdog groups and alumni that abet them, are no longer hidden from the eyes of the world, immune to the prescriptive force of morality, beyond the judgment of society, masked by the appeal to “civility.”

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