Fissure Price? Do Not Detach, or On Living the Double Life of Academic and Freedman
Issue #43, April 1999
When you are an academic with a strong desire for political change, or with a taste for publishing in the popular or journalistic writing market, or a mission to teach elementary school ... or when you are an academic with any aspiration that would seem to draw a line between utility and theory, leaving your academic self in the bedroom of theory while the other half explores the "useful" world, you are bound to feel torn in opposite directions. And why not? Any group that has come to think of itself as a group or has felt and enforced (regardless of which came first) that dividing line between within and without — us and them — starts to create reasons for the necessity of the split and then naturalizes the split and its reasons into unquestionability. But what is utility, what theory? Part of the problem we face surfaces in asking the question in this way. Utility is acting in the "real world" and theory is the work of thought or reflection that has withdrawn from this so-called real world — I employ these distinctions because they are common ones. We westerners tend to think in terms of this split (and others) — some say this is "human nature." We name it a necessity but the very strange thing about so many of our necessities is that they are manufactured and thus not at all necessity by strict definition. And so, the feel of the pull in different directions is a symptom of our defining utility and theory as opposed when in fact they are imbricated in each other.
Whoever decided that there is, was or could be a line between thought and action? Perhaps it was Plato — no matter. In truth only a machine (or maybe bureaucracy) separates knowing from doing. The necessity of the split between the academy and the outside world is manufactured over and again by — what? The need to justify academia or the real world? (It is darker than this, the reason for stark opposition, of course, being a need to ground certainty in doubt — denying what we can't answer so we won't question what we can — needing certainty that badly — maybe it was Descartes, not Plato — no matter.) To academics who read this, it will immediately be apparent that this is not an original thought: there is no line between utility and theory. Any action undertaken rests on the thought that enables it. We are not automatons. Even the action of a machine is grounded in the thought of its maker. What is at stake in the pull of opposite directions is the work of thinking and what we will allow within its sphere.
I am a Ph.D. student pursuing a dissertation that does not place me smartly into any particular discipline (job-search hell) and who, like many graduate students, teaches undergraduate courses for very little money in order to pay for my living. I also publish a small independent magazine (h2so4) dedicated to treading the line between disciplines, between serious and silly, arcane and mundane, opening up new possibilities for old topics, allowing disparate writing styles to cohabit and to engage each other. And so I am often asked (it was such a question that occasioned the writing of this piece) how it feels to be pulled in two directions — toward academia, away from academia, toward a more liberating practice of reading and writing (whichever direction you think that is), more possibility. Of course I am only asked this by those who feel a similar pull. My answer to how it "feels" is that it is nothing to complain about — as will become apparent in what follows, I hope. The work you do, whatever you choose to do, is the work of your life. By "work" I do not mean "career," as entire careers have been spent supporting lives whose work was other than money-gaining. In any case, as above, there is no split between theory and utility, only different ways of managing what is perceived as the pull between the two.
And why is such a pull perceived at all if there is no split? Applications of thought must vary according to circumstance. Judgment (in thought on an act) differs according to the nature of the action, the intention of its agent, etc. There are times when judgment gives way to compromise or a less-desired course is followed for the sake of nonviolence or less noble results such as monetary gain, etc. Political concerns — that we must live together — make thought less free when it moves to reckon with all the variables. These can all make utility and theory, action and thought, appear to be unwed. At times political activists point at people in academies and accuse them of not living in the real world. For instance: how can we theorize the workings of legal systems, the lives of welfare mothers or colonialist subjects, being involved in none of these? What do we know of what these lives really are, what they require, how they should proceed? And then there come times when compromise in the "real world" becomes a way of life to such an extent that its actors no longer know what their original aim was or how they might retrieve some sense of purpose. For instance: do politicians and social workers, with their "real world" power and experience, know the lives of legal systems or welfare mothers? Do welfare mothers know that there are or could be other choices? The funhouse mirror works both ways. Perhaps this is when academics (and others) start publishing more books — with varying levels of specificity or possibility of practical application — about what might be done, about possibility. (A tangent point here is that academia often tries to close out or discount the intellectual work of those outside of its doors. This is simply shameful or jealous conflict-manufacture, more evidence of the need for fake certainty in defining what an "intellectual" is.)
Some might label the automatic opposition we feel between doing and thinking the distinction between "is" and "ought" — what is and what ought to be, the real world and the theory world. But why the need to choose which is better? At its basis this is/ought distinction is what makes us human (or it ought to be). It doesn't make us human by being that of which we are the "better" half; we are the distinction. We must continuously think this distinction in order to be human. If we simply accept what "is" with no thought for what we would have the world be — the ought — we are no longer using our specifically human capacities — those of thought and responsibility for others — and have betrayed what we are (I will not say "have descended into animality" as that would simply be a gross misrepresentation of what the animal world might be, as fictive as a "state of nature.") Conversely, if we think only of what ought to be without regard for what is, we have become idealists setting the stage for a denial of life. Again, to an academic always looking simultaneously (paradoxically) for proof of research and absolute newness, this is not an original point.
So to my point, which may or may not be original — no matter: the pull in opposite directions is us, whether we are in or out of the academy, and we should not complain about it overmuch. It is difficult, but so what? Who said we would all be congratulated, rewarded and sent to bed on time? The thought that wants ease and absolute reciprocity is the thought of those who have always known ease and reciprocity, or have been schooled to expect that. What I mean is that requiring recognition or payment for every "service" is one way of walking through the world but is not the only way — it is a matter of training, to need a carrot to make the cart move. I might "work for a living" and feel my art pressed by the need to work only at night, or I might teach academics during the day and activists at night. The school of absolute reciprocity gets its knowledge from laziness and wanting to believe in theory or utility but not both. Some might say it is easy enough for me to say such a thing making my fabulous $1000 a month. Others might say what makes it easy is my position in the academy, away from the real world. Both may have a point. Money does make the world much easier, and even a bare-living $1000 a month makes the life of a scholar-to-be uncommonly livable — and having the opportunity to make my work one of reading and writing does remove me somewhat from the world.
But I think these arguments are red herrings, however, ploys to divert our attention from the matter at hand. Which is: that if we are to change the world (yes I know how naive it sounds to begin a sentence this way, but irony need not be our only way of life) we won't do so with money nor by deciding whether the world is more real within or without academia. Or maybe we will. But if we do, we won't do so by beginning with the expectation of immediate equality in every aspect of life. Being an academic is not "like" being a politician, nor "like" being a web designer or chemical engineer. Why should it be? "Equality" needs definition to make it something other than leveling or a production of sameness. Some will be academics (or maybe just "thinkers"), some will be politicians (and why not also "thinkers"?), many others will be something else (thinkers?). There is nothing inherently unfair or unjust about that. Indeed the very originary idea of law as "what is just" is to allow each what is properly his or her own -- and this is not sameness. We may have to find a way to embrace an inequality that is opposed to oppression, an idea of which the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes in Otherwise than Being, stating that "one has to be patient oneself without asking patience of others — and for that one has to admit a difference between oneself and others." I know my responsibility to others before the law speaks it to me. But yet I know what makes my life livable before I see what the neighbor has. This is: balance, responsibility, grace. It is difficult, independent and giving — without expecting receipt — and rewarding (without material reward). Isn't that what teaching and learning are supposed to be? And is not life lived in teaching and learning?
Torn in opposite directions? I'd say — so be it. It means you are on the right course, truly alive. Give thanks for feeling torn and make it your mission to spread that feeling without regard for borders inside or outside of the academy. (And never use it as an excuse to do less work.)
Jill Stauffer is a Candidate for the Ph.D. in Rhetoric at U.C. Berkeley and editor/creator of h2so4, a journal published twice yearly whose only motto is: "won't you join us we're drowning in obscurity but the water is lovely." Both can be reached at email@example.com.