Wanted: New Subject of Knowledge -- No Alienated Intellectuals, Please

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I feel redeemed by Walter Benjamin's assertion, "being an intellectual (is) the experience of a perpetual state of homelessness."
Mary Kelly

Issue #52, November 2000

In attempting to gather my thoughts on Walter Benjamin, the value of intellectual activity, radical and otherwise, and my own somewhat nebulous position as would be-author / not quite recipient of a Master's in Women Studies, I find myself torn. On one hand, I feel redeemed by Benjamin's assertion, "being an intellectual (is) the experience of a perpetual state of homelessness." I am validated. I, too, have suffered from a sense of homelessness and failure in academia. My own experience as an "intellectual" thus far has been halting, backtracking, often unfinished, particularly unremunerative, and certainly not respectable.

Overall I have to admit that my performance in the intellectual realm has been less than stellar. Slightly below average grades at a small, rural high school led to mediocre marks at an unremarkable state university, and several years later I struggled to be accepted into a master's program, which I have yet to complete. Moreover, the interdisciplinary footing of Women Studies can be slippery at times, and there still seems to be a lack of seriousness attached to Women Studies in general, both in and out of academia. Yet, using Benjamin's thesis as a point of reference, my position outside of "real" intellectual production offers some recourse in the hope that, having nothing to lose in terms of academic status, I can at least speak my mind and possibly approach a more synergistic, even radical politics. Perhaps the lack of cultural value attached to my intellectual activity can at least afford me an opportunity to approach the political in a way that includes all of my bits and pieces, from the blond, blue-eyed pastor's daughter who grew up in a trailer in Dinwiddie, Virginia, to the 36-year-old feminist, mom, and San Francisco dweller that I now am.

However I also find aspects of Benjamin's thesis that make me uncomfortable. Approaching intellectual life from a perspective of alienation, homelessness, and inhabiting the margins can be compelling, even romantic. But it can also leave one unwittingly mired in modernist philosophies and ideologies that are, to my mind, no longer appropriate and useful in understanding how 21st-century subjects might emerge in relation to knowledge. As a feminist writer interested in looking at how intellectual property affects "everyday struggles over meaning," I am concerned with how perpetuating an image of intellectual life as set apart, or alienated might effect everyday struggles over one's own relationship to knowledge. I am also concerned with an image of the intellectual that evokes writing as a separate, originary pursuit. Contemporary struggles over copyright and intellectual property consistently show that, though outdated notions of authorship still hold currency, such positions can no longer contain the complex ways in which language and knowledge (information) travel and assume value in a public sphere. I am wary (and weary) of relying on descriptions of the intellectual that in some way reconstitute a Wordsworthian figure, one brilliant and set apart, emerging as a repository of cultural wisdom, higher morality, social vision, or even "political radicalization."

I do not have issue with Benjamin's thesis insofar as it reflects his own life and struggles and his relationship to his work. Nor do I wish to dismiss the impact of his work on 20th-century philosophy and critical thought. His conflation of intellectualism and homelessness is understandable, given his experience as an intellectual Jew born in Germany at the turn of the last century. His ability to earn a living lecturing and writing was severely curtailed by increasing anti-Semitism in pre-WWII Germany, and he spent several years quite literally homeless, forced to flee Germany for his life. My problem is with the ease of taking Benjamin's thesis out of context and applying it as a kind of de rigueur model for intellectual life and political struggle. Yes, exile is a real fate endured by many scholars, writers, and activists -- world-famous and unknown. We don't need CNN coverage of recent wars to show us the devastating impact of homelessness -- we can go to People's Park in Berkeley, or any other crowded urban center, and see "for real" what happens when people are displaced. Juxtaposing homelessness with intellectualism out of context, though, is a serious matter that ignores the considerable privilege attached to trafficking in ideas, speaking the language of academia, and being a representative force in the public sphere.

Being an intellectual is not something that everyone gets to do, and that is the hard truth. Edward Said, in Representations of the Intellectual, describes the intellectual's role in culture as representing "symbolic personages" and, while indeed there may be a certain lack of cultural value placed on intellectual activity, I think there is considerable symbolic value attached to the image. This 20th-century ideal of the intellectual operates strongly as both a sign and a commodity within academia and culture, a kind of aesthetic copy (to borrow from Benjamin) with an organizing effect on the production and consumption of knowledge. The aesthetic of the intellectual influences how we mediate knowledge, who sits on bookseller's shelves, who is seen on TV, who speaks for this country or that national cause, who we read and listen to. It is a role that represents the ultimate subject of knowledge, the author-izing agent of culture, the moral voice that speaks both to and for the masses.

Such representative power is inextricable from a public sphere and only made possible through an economy of publication and communications. Access to this economy, at least historically, relied on particular attributes -- namely being white, male, literate and propertied. Participation also relied on a facility with language, the ability to engage in rational, linear logic. While we may no longer require those bodily particulars for engagement in a public sphere, we still assume many of the particulars of language. We still abide by copyright laws and academic codes rooted in an ideology / value system that refers to a male subject of knowledge and philosophies of exclusion and privilege.

Hence, used as a symbol of intellectual life, or a standard of what real intellectualism entails, Benjamin's thesis obfuscates issues of access, privilege and accountability. My mother recently shared with me how hard my father struggled to make it through seminary shortly after WWII. At 40 he went back to night school to complete his GED, and was eventually accepted into the seminary program at the University of West Virginia. He spent three years trying to balance attempts at study with a growing family, a small farm, and two churches. I remember my father as a laborious reader and not a very proficient writer, and I have many memories of him mouthing words to himself as he read, following the line of text slowly with his index finger. I recently realized that he was quite possibly dyslexic. My mother described how one evening he threw a philosophy book across the room and collapsed with his head in his hands, almost in tears, exclaiming, "I just can't do it." He never completed his last year. My heart ached at that image of my father and, perhaps for the first time, I felt a sense of real connection, saw my own struggles somehow reflected. But I had something of an epiphany too: Any struggle to expand consciousness and learn, no matter how halting, incomplete, or seemingly fruitless by certain standards, can culminate in an experience of political radicalization.

not woodrow wilson I have come to the conclusion that the only reason I can write at all is because I am proficient at mimicry. As I was forced into exile in my own bathroom last night, attempting to finish this article while the rest of my family slept, I entertained this idea, and I now firmly believe that it is true. Throughout college and especially in graduate school, whenever I was confronted with a writing assignment I went directly to the library, not to research ideas per se, but to try to figure out how one talks about ideas at all. I am not a blatant plagiarizer, but I am guilty of copying form, style, ways of using language, as well as a whole vocabulary about as original to me as my current shade of L'Oréal. This led me to consider how writing in general, particularly academic writing, is really just a huge mimetic system. Copyright is designed to protect an author's right to the fruits of her labor, as well as to regulate how and when others may use the author's text. The concept is based on a line of logic regarding the value of original ideas, and the owner/writer's right to determine how and where they may be used, copied, referred to, etc. I think, however, that the logic of copyright fails to incorporate the actual manner in which writing occurs. I am obviously not the first one to look at writing/scholarship/knowledge as derivative, an intertextual institution constructed via an elaborate web of legal precedents, citations, and footnotes. That aside, though, I believe that imitation is fundamental to how people learn, and an integral part of being a writer.

Copyright since the time of Wordsworth has been contested ground. However, ideas about what constitutes author, text, an original, or a copy are increasingly complicated by the everyday use of communications technologies and digital reproduction. Moreover, rapid developments in recording technologies and digital imaging have blurred the border between creative agent and property owner. Determining the parameters of authorship, fair use, and proprietary rights has become a convoluted process, and old concepts based on notions of print and copy are no longer useful in navigating postmodern textual terrains. I guess I would be remiss at this point to ignore Benjamin's own preoccupation with concepts of originality and reproduction. Benjamin's concern in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was that the ease with which original work can be reproduced in a mechanical age creates a kind of cultural fracture in terms of representation, whereby an aspect or "aura" of the original is irrevocably lost. Underlying this concept is the idea that technology changes how we experience representation, and thus a sense of ourselves in relation to space and time. The age of digital reproduction complicates understandings of original even more, giving credence to Baudrillard's assertion that, eventually, events and productions exist only in their reproduction.

I prefer to look at such disorientations within language and representation as openings for alternative realities, politics, and subjectivities to emerge. The disembodied aspect of cyberspace creates a new social arena where virtuality is a phone call away (closer if you have a DSL line). Online I can plagiarize in a hundred different ways, create any body, gender, persona that I want, print anything I see, and pretty much use it any way that suits me. How does that change me as a subject of knowledge? How does that change how I participate in an economy of representation? When my son was still not sleeping through the night I spent considerable time perusing parenting chat boards, and one night found a great article that someone had pieced together, copying word-for-word quotes from several parenting books, interspersing it with her own experiences, opinions, and advice. Many other people had started threads of their own in response to her offering, and I printed the whole thing out, made several copies and passed them out to a few other semi-conscious, sleep-deprived parents I knew. I don't even remember what all of the information entailed, but I do remember it being a lifeline for me at the time, and I was largely comforted by the understanding that I wasn't alone, rather than by any particular solution it offered. Now it interests me as an example of knowledge, proprietorship, and authorship being mediated in both virtual and material worlds.

Online zines, chatrooms, bulletin boards, and journals are constantly creating alternative public spaces where all you need in order to "publish" are a computer and a modem. Representation, at one point in history so connected to particulars of the body, is now played out in ways that challenge and complicate both notions of the body and how the body experiences social relationships. Such cyberspace forms an amorphous network that not only changes the way that we store knowledge/information, but how we participate in it, interact with it, and claim it. It also recreates spaces where multiple, even conflicting, concepts of authorship can emerge. However, textual mutability and alternative ways of authoring culture and self are not limited to the Internet.

On a recent walk through the Mission district in San Francisco I was struck by how an alternative sense of public is collected, owned and contested through the tagging of public spaces. An intricate network of graffiti art covers alleys, the sides of buildings, billboard, and walls to create a mixed textual reality that is multiply signed and authored in an overlapping array of colorful, fat writing and images. Political missives protesting the arrival of the digerati into the poor, largely Latino neighborhood take up wall space between shops and buildings. In the margins other authors leave their marks, comments, and dire warnings. Something new is always overlapping old text until eventually it is covered or recreated. Paint wars are fought over turf, literal and symbolic, and access, ownership, and accountability are at stake.

Problems can also occur when representation exceeds itself. When the potential for reproduction and multiplicity exists so readily, important points of negotiation can be erased. For example, experiences of gender and race online can become consolidated and reconstituted in ways that reinforce Cartesian understandings of subjectivity and knowledge. While new forms can create modes for hybrid, oppositional consciousness to emerge, often it is at the expense of still other voices and visions.

Recognizing the collective nature of authorship and the contingent nature of knowledge is perhaps a first step in attempting to fashion a new politics of culture, creativity and ownership. Also important is consciously positioning oneself against hegemonizing tendencies embedded in modern concepts of authorship and copyright. Rather than adopt a view that alienation leads to radicalization, I would rather view political and intellectual struggles as complex, potentially integrative forces that always shape new subjects, often within the minutiae of everyday life. To me, one of the most radical notions in relation to intellectual practice, politics, and writing is that the ability to write and participate in a public conversation is built on series of connections, not separations.

Mary Kelly is a graduate student and writer living in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2000 by Mary Kelly. All rights reserved.

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