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War of Position and Academic Freedom

In one part of Demarcation and Demystification I wrote about what I called the "annihilationist" aspect of philosophy that is linked to its clarifying aspect, both of which are concerned with the overall demarcating and demystifying that defines philosophical practice. That is, while philosophy is often about forcing clarity (through arguments and critical examination), sometimes it can be used to demand the demolition of wrong ideas and ideological constellations.:

Take, for example, those philosophers who placed themselves in service of the concrete struggle against modern slavery by demanding the annihilation of every theoretical terrain and province that generated pseudo-truth procedures dedicated to the moral, religious, economic, and scientific justification of this social-historical edifice. Entire theoretical structures were singled out for liquidation; their potential clarity was no longer at issue, the clarity of choice [i.e. the logic of choosing one position over another] had been established earlier and, on the basis of this clarity, the role of the radical philosophical militant was to storm the gates of these racist heavens and subject their sacred truths to the conceptual guillotine. (165)

Following this discussion, I pointed out that the annihilationist practice of philosophy should lead us to realize that there is no point in continuing to debate positions that have already been revealed, logically and historically, as erroneous: "whereas Frederick Douglass worked hard to prove that the African slave was a human being, Malcolm X's militancy in thought, parallel to his militancy in concrete action, already understood this assumption as a priori and thus treated any theory that would say otherwise as meaningless." (166) Reactionaries, no matter what they might say, do not care about reasonable debate and in fact ignore all of the literature that has disproved (over and over and over) their positions. Humouring them is in fact unreasonable, and a waste of time, because they have proven themselves incapable of recognizing reason. And yet liberal academics, who want the university to be a debate club (well only the humanities, since most tellingly recognize that debate clubbing in the so-called "hard" sciences is silly) rather than an institution invested in seeking truth from facts, are still under the impression that we should still "give them an argument", avoid "cancel culture", and treat every outmoded and disproven argument with respect.

As I also noted in Demarcation and Demystification, even the annihilationist practice of philosophy is not enough. At best, since the demolition is conceptual, it can only suggest why certain regions of thought should be obliterated. On the ground struggle performed by social movements is what is actually needed, with philosophy serving such movements, because backwards ideas and theories do not easily die if the social formation is still determined by predatory class relations. Like the Freudian return of the repressed, all of the disproven and decrepit ideas can slink back into academia if this academia remains within an oppressive and exploitative social-historical context: physiognomy, phrenology, and white nationalism are being mainstreamed yet again––with their partisans demanding scholarly platforms––despite the fact that they were discredited and even slated for conceptual annihilation. But because they were slated for the latter, there is no rational reason why we should treat them as meaningful. We do not have to give them an argument because arguments were already given; rather we need to recognize them as a threat against thought itself and treat them with an annihilationist attitude. On the political-ethical level this attitude is completely justifiable: why should anyone ever take white nationalist arguments seriously, especially after scholarship has demonstrated the monstrosity of what such positions result in? Only people who will not be harmed by such arguments can afford to treat them as abstract debate points; such an abstract approach to reality is a despicable idealism that also shows little care in what has been established historically.

All of this is relates to the concerns behind a recent open letter I was involved in that sought, and succeeded, to terminate a pro-colonial book series co-edited by the charlatan Bruce Gilley. I was invited to write about my thoughts surrounding this letter in the American Association of University Professors blog, so I won't say much about it here except to indicate that this is an expansion of germinal notions contained in that small article. It is noteworthy that Gilley, upon discovering his book series was slated with cancellation, ranted about a Maoist conspiracy, comparing it to the Taliban, as if his own scholarship had not been thoroughly demolished already. This is because Gilley wanted scholars to treat his work as worthy of engagement, when it was not, because he knew such an attitude would allow it to persist and thus aid in the mainstreaming of racist positions that had already been disproven. All of his complaints about "cancel culture" and censorship, the reactionary version of virtue signalling that seeks to entice liberals, were delivered like the temper tantrum of a toddler who cannot accept reason. He should be pushed out of publication in this area because he is wrong, and because a wealth of scholarship he cares nothing about has proved him wrong, and we have no reason to humour racist nonsense. Especially in these times. In any case, my thoughts on this specific manner are in the aforelinked article.

But I want to go further than my thoughts about that affair, reflecting on the war of position in academia and scholarship. In The Undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney discuss how, at first, the university appears as "a place of refuge." (26) I have seen more than one reader (including some of my students) mistake this rhetorical statement regarding the appearance of refuge as a statement about the concrete truth of universities, but this is not what they meant. Just a paragraph later, after all, the write: "the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears." (26) Bounded by capitalism, but still invested in a concern for truth (because of the myth of Enlightenment), universities are institutions in which the "general antagonism" functions. They may allow some refuge, or the appearance of refuge, but in the end they are machines that seek to pull scholars into governance or make them disappear. Such disappearance may allow these recalcitrant scholars to find "maroon communities" within academia, and it is here that a refugee truth procedure is generated, but the point is that these are spaces of struggle. Or as the authors openly proclaimed in an interview on Millenials Are Killing Capitalism podcast: universities are like factories, subversive intellectuals are like workers organizing for a wildcat, and those involved in the wildcat do not see the factory and its management as something that can be reformed but rather something that should be taken over.

My point, here, is that when we recognize that academia is a space of struggle, and one that is still managed by dominant power, then treating it like a neutral debate club is a mistake. While it is the case that "subversive scholars" have been able to enter the university and, connecting with "maroon communities" have generated the kind of necessary scholarship that has rigorously unsettled dominant narratives, these scholars (and I place myself amongst them) always have to deal with the institutional boundaries that, while celebrating such scholarship because its quality cannot be denied, seek to defend the university's class basis. To appropriate the best thinkers, to turn their work into policy and governance, and to preserve the university's relationship with capital. In such a space we thus encounter scholars who, despite the quality of their research, are politically neutralized and cut off from the broader political struggle (or what Moten and Harney romantically call "the surround"), and we also encounter the ways in which concepts and perspectives derived from this radically meaningful scholarship are appropriated by professional programs. Indeed professional social worker programs, designed to transform students into institutional policy pursuants, often bake radical concepts into liberal reformist doctrine––including the work of Moten and Harney!

So is it any wonder that within these "maroon communities" of academia––which are the academic fugitive communities that have generated most of the useful scholarship for nearly a century––there has resulted a subjectivity that is largely divorced from social struggle, that doesn't know how to apprehend it or carry it out? That this subjectivity, now largely isolated from the surrounding spaces of activist organizing, is stymied when it comes to dealing with reactionary attempts to challenge and marginalize this scholarship, to return universities to the days when it did not have to worry about capturing and isolating the best and the brightest of the oppressed and exploited populations?

Going back to the open letter regarding Gilley's bullshit, it's worth noting that within twenty-four hours that the open letter was live, I was forced to engage with at least one academic who, despite despising Gilley, thought that an open letter was useless because it would allow Gilley to play the victim. The argument was that backwards and erroneous scholarship should not be directly combatted but should instead be subjected to vague ridicule. Such an attitude reveals the ways in which academia has pacified even elements of its "maroon community". Because how do we interact with reactionary scholarship that seeks to ignore and marginalize rigorous scholarship––how do we ridicule it if even open letters suggesting it should be ridiculed are deemed inadmissable? Even recalcitrant maroon scholars are brought into the fold of a vague liberal debate club logic; they don't know how to organize anymore, if they ever did, especially if they cannot see the lowest level of organization (an open letter) as something they can unite with. The university, as an ideological state apparatus, fragments and isolates. Gilley and his ilk count on this fragmentation while, at the same time, they work to build reactionary unity that takes advantage of university liberalism.

The dominant liberal perspective of the university thus conditions the way leftwing scholars act; it partially determines academic subjectivity. For liberal scholars this perspective makes sense since it is part of their ideological outlook, so let's examine those whose personal ideology align with this dominant perspective first. Such liberal scholars often rely on clever sounding maxims such as the one misattributed to Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it"––as one commenter on my aforelinked article wrote. The emptiness of such slogans reveals that the strength of this perspective is more ideological than logical. After all, someone having the right to say or write erroneous things is not obliterated by not being able to say or write such things in a university setting, nor does it imply that anyone should have whatever academic platform they wish simply because they want it. Even Mill wasn't that naive in his conception of free speech. Nor would most of these liberal scholars, as noted above, extend the same argument to other disciplines: they would not argue that an astrologer should be given tenure in astronomy departments, or be allowed to publish a book series celebrating astrology and claiming that anti-astrology was wrong, in an academic press. At least I hope we are not at that point. In point of fact, since liberal scholars are usually quite enamoured by the prestige of the university, they would be horrified by such assaults on scholarship. So why are they not similarly horrified when it comes to pseudo-scholarship in the humanities? Why do they think that in these disciplines the university is synonymous with a debate club and that any and every perspective, even ones that have been discredited and are tied to reactionary anti-people agendas, are part of what makes the university the university?

Answering these questions thoroughly would be a book in itself. But we can examine the general contours of an answer. First of all, the neo-liberalization of the university has resulted in a hierarchy of disciplines and professionalization wherein a number of liberal scholars in the humanities have, instead of disputing this hierarchization and professionalization, tried to justify their disciplines by collaborating with this tendency. In this sense, treating the humanities as simply a space where everything is open to debate and all perspectives are equal is amenable for aiming students at professional schools and maximizing profit. Secondly, and more tellingly, liberal scholars are largely incapable of understanding how normalizing disproven and reactionary scholarship is harmful because they are generally not the people who will immediately be harmed. Asserting that white supremacist scholarship should be given academic platforms, even if the assertion is made by someone who proclaims they disagree morally with such scholarship, is all well and good if you are not going to be harmed by such "scholarship". But mainstreaming shitty scholarship that celebrates slavery, colonialism, the bell curve, physiognomy, gender essentialism, etc.––all of which have been thoroughly debunked and rigorously disproved––contributes to reinforcing norms that justify violent reactionary behaviour. Amazingly even philosophers who study ethics, based on the way in which normative and applied ethics are largely studied, think that it is ethically correct to tolerate such debate within academia. Apparently the abstract notion of free expression is more morally significant than the harms of white supremacy and other chauvinisms. Truly ironic considering that most of the people who make these arguments are theoretically opposed to relativism, or the idea that truth and opinion are the same, because this is what their notion of free expression actually permits: a relativism in the humanities, and in ethical behaviour, where (to paraphrase Marx) "between equal rights greater power decides." Again, it is hard to imagine such scholars making similar arguments regarding the so-called "hard" sciences; they largely agree that it would be harmful to allow obscurantist pseudo-science into these disciplines. If only they could recognize that demystification should be universal, that the same obscurantism that manifests in the humanities should be combatted.

In any case, we should know by now that liberals have always aided reactionaries since they are simply different intensities on the same capitalist continuum. The larger problem is the ways in which this kind of liberal thinking also affects leftwing scholars. Despite the fact that they know that liberal scholarship and the liberal perspective is largely useless, they still abide by the mores––as the example of the scholar who refused to sign the petition demonstrates. This is because the liberal conception of the university is not only compelling but functions with the threat of discipline. These scholars believe that if they violate the liberal strictures of open debate that it will affect them personally (and to be fair it often does affect them personally), or that it will result in consequences that make reactionary scholarship look good. For example, refusing to debate reactionaries but instead organizing to push them out of academic platforms could result in these same reactionaries complaining about "cancel culture" or "censorship". The assumption is that such a result will harm actual scholarship and allow pseudo-scholars to play the victim. To be sure, this is precisely what the Gilleys of the world do whenever they are challenged: play the victim, complaining about censorship and the intolerant left. But we should ask why this consequence is worse than the consequences of allowing them to have whatever platform they wish. After all, the only reason they play the victim is because they want to have every and any platform; it's a cynical tactic of retreat. Considering that these reactionaries want to take over every space, and push out everyone who challenges their ahistorical/unethical/backwards narrative, letting them have what they want because they will otherwise whine about censorship makes little sense. There are far greater negative consequences to critical scholarship by allowing erroneous and backwards ideas every platform they desire than being called "censorious" for caring about the efficacy of scholarship. And yet still, the worry of participating in "cancel culture" largely determines thought even though it is dependent on rightwing discourse.

Against this worry, which is overdetermined by liberal sentiment, we need to do precisely what the right is doing: treat the struggle over the meaning of scholarship as a war of position. There is no reason to treat reactionary scholarship as legitimate by allowing it space for debate: it has already been debated and proved erroneous; it should be slated for annihilation. Moreover, it is entirely ethical to dismiss and marginalize backwards scholarship because allowing its promulgation results in the normalization of harm of those it chooses to target. We should not "defend to the death" the right of a white supremacist, for example, to promulgate their monstrous notions of reality since history teaches us––which is the very scholarship these reactionaries seek to erase––that such notions justify genocide and slavery. Such a maxim in fact flies in the face of any meaningful ethics since it legitimates genocide apologists! Nor are the reactionaries who are opportunistically using liberal ideology to mainstream their backwards ideas defending to the death the right to free expression for their opponents.

If such a war of position is to be truly successful, however, then it must be linked with a mass movement. The problem is also the fact that the liberal university, while allowing some space for the kind of critical scholarship that breaks with old ideas, is still embedded in dominant class power. "The more a dominant class is able to absorb the best people from the dominated class," Marx wrote in the third volume of Capital, "the more solid and dangerous its rule." And the university largely functions to capture and absorb critical scholars, even if this capturing/absorption is neutralizing such scholars within an academic cantonment, so there can be no "reclaiming" it from reactionary scholars. If we want to obliterate reactionary thought altogether, then simply trying to drum it out of a university that has long accommodated backwards ideas will never fully work. Instead, as the very notion of war of position implies, relegating wrong ideas to the historical dustbin has to be part of a larger revolutionary strategy.