Academic Love and the Critical Space of Academia

Academic Love and the Critical Space of Academia April 9, 2013

I want to write a quick response to Churl’s post yesterday on love in academia.  Like Churl, I too am a doctoral student. Like all doctoral students, my topic is fairly narrow: I study how Chinese Christians engage the public sphere. Like most topics, its narrowness is fairly expansive, encompassing fields I thought I’d never study.

Churl thinks that, unlike other people who seem to be doing more public service than him, academic work comes down to love. This is in the face of a shrinking academic job market, where tenure track jobs seem to be disappearing. Responding to only the latest apocalyptic statements in the higher education journalistic buzz, Churl argues that his job is to love his research subjects, to listen to them, and to stay in this metaphorical marriage though it really is doing him very little economic good.

I admit that I love my Chinese Christians too, more than they will ever know. I’d like to think that I listen to them closely. But God forbid, I hope I’m not married to them, or else my shifting postdoctoral research will be framed as a divorce. Moreover, as I once told my wife, “You are my love, not academia. That’s because while you love me back, academia will never love me back.”

Why do I stay, then?

To answer that question, we need to go back to what academia was originally for. John Henry Newman argues in The Idea of a University that the purpose of the university is to teach universal knowledge, including theology. I think Newman takes this a little bit too far, admittedly, to the point where he thinks that universities do not primarily produce research, but rather function as teaching centres. In his McGinley lectures on the relationship of church and state, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, has a more convincing answer. For Dulles, university theology is a gift to the Church because it isn’t produced under ecclesial governance, per se. As much as Stanley Hauerwas fulminates against the powers of the state over modern academia, neither is it governed by the state (or at least it’s not supposed to be). Teach-ins at the University of California, Berkeley, particularly by professors like Saba Mahmood, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown, have also railed against a market takeover of the university with attempts to privatize the institution, which means that the market isn’t supposed to govern academia either. Instead, the university, while cognizant of the competing governing structures of church, state, and market, is supposed to govern itself as an independent space producing knowledge that is critical of each of these structures. Pace Newman, the university is supposed to teach universal knowledge, and pace Dulles, the university is supposed to produce universal knowledge, and all this not for knowledge’s sake, but to contribute that knowledge to a critique of where knowledge gets bent by governing structures to legitimize their claims to power.

That the university doesn’t actually operate that way right now is not cause for cynicism; it is cause for thoughtful public action. This isn’t the first crisis of the university–imagine, for example, if you told the student strikers of the 1960s, faculty operating under totalitarian regimes, or even Galileo himself that they weren’t going through a crisis of the university–and it is not going to be the last crisis. The university is arguably always in crisis because its critical independent space of contested, contingent, and challenging knowledges isn’t always conducive to the governing power of church, state, and market. Because of this, the powers will always try to co-opt the university. Oftentimes, the university allows itself to be co-opted. But this isn’t a case to be cynical about the university; it’s a call to liberate it. To the extent that we can’t liberate it from within, we might need to take jobs outside of the university, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in academia anymore. It’s that we will fight for its liberation from other vantage points because the existence of that critical independent space is crucial for the public good. After all, it makes sure that neither church nor state nor market has total domination over our knowledge production, but that their powers are relativized by constant independent, prophetic critique. (This, by the way, is why democracies must publicly fund universities. To the extent that they do not, their democracies themselves fall into crisis. To the extent that democracies fund projects only based on their supposed “relevance,” they undercut the university’s ability to produce the truly critical knowledges that make a democratic relativization of power work.)

To drive the point home that the university is an independent space that produces critical knowledge, let me suggest that Churl is himself deeply invested in this task. Referencing his studies in Old English, Churl often suggests that people think that his work is irrelevant to contemporary conversations. I beg to differ. Perhaps this is because I have spoken a lot with Churl, but in my understanding, one of Churl’s biggest pet peeves is something called medievalism. Just as racism is when you make stereotyping remarks that are often (but not always) derogatory about a race–and ditto for orientalism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, etc.–medievalism, as far as I can understand from Churl, is when you do that sort of thing to medievals. It’s when you call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages, or when you use the word medieval to mean backward and retrogressive, or when you posit that everyone who ever lived between the third and sixteenth centuries thought, lived, and acted the same way. Just like racism, sexism, orientalism, heterosexism, ageism, etc., medievalism is a modern construct, designed to legitimize modern power structures, underwrite policies ostensibly designed as egalitarian reversals of the Dark Ages, and undercut any appeal to tradition (despite the fact that anyone who has ever done an academic literature, legal, scientific, policy, etc. review is doing tradition).

So yes, of course, Churl loves his Old English research subjects by listening to them. But that love is not apolitical. By listening deeply to his Old English research subjects, Churl is challenging how our contemporary society is thoroughly underwritten by medievalism. Making that challenge in turn is a critical contribution of independent knowledge that not only isn’t governed by church, state, and market, but challenges some of the legs on which they stand. In other words, Churl is saying that medievalism is not a valid justification for any policy, political statement, public discourse, or poetic output. He knows better. It’s because his knowledge was produced in the independent critical space of the university.

I imagine, then and finally, that some readers of A Christian Thing may be aghast that I have lumped the church in with state and market governance. As Christians who believe in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints, wouldn’t we love nothing more than to be governed by the church? Yes, if only the ‘church’ were simply equivalent to the communion of saints at all times and in all places. With some degree of consensus, scholars of the late medieval period, especially those aligned with the theological school of radical orthodoxy, argue that the church began to consolidate its power as a bureaucratic institution, centralizing its hierarchy as a chain of top-down organizational command. To some extent, the rise of universities were a response to this new power consolidation, producing knowledges that were independent of this church governance and often in tension with it.

In other words, I’m suggesting that just as many have noted that monasteries were established as independent critical spaces after the advent of Constantinianism, universities became independent critical spaces after the church’s bureaucratic consolidation of power. Universities thus engage with these structures by producing truth independent of these systems of governance so that truth can’t be bent by power. Instead, scholars speak unvarnished truth to power. To the extent that the university has become complicit with the powers, then, we must work both within and without the university to return it to its prophetic character.

In short, it’s because we believe in the public good of prophetic critique that we are economically stupid enough to be doctoral students.

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