This Academic Life
  The status quo
An issue that I continue to wrestle with in the general area of "science and politics" concerns the charge often leveled at me and some of my students that we are not "political" enough. At first I thought that they simply meant that we were not letting our politics drive our scholarly conclusions, and so I simply took it as a compliment -- even though this is almost certainly not how our accusers intended it. Then I though that it might be exhausted by the fractalization of the contemplating-enacting dichotomy; while I think that this gets us part of the way there, it does not suffice to get at all of the relevant complexities of the issue -- largely because there are divisions inside each of the four categories produced by that fractalization that do not seem to involve contemplating-enacting at all, but seem implicated whenever "science and politics" is discussed. And I have colleagues and students who have no doubts about their Cc scholar status, but who are still very concerned about the lack of "politics" displayed by other Cc scholars.

So here's where my thinking about this puzzle is at the moment: what is going on here involves the basic insight that the social and political status quo does not appear to be "political" by virtue of its being the status quo. So if my analytical assumptions about the world mirror more or less closely the arrangement of forces and factors in the world, and if I further proceed with this analytic without taking pains to distance myself from it or to criticize it, this apparently appears "unpolitical" to those who are much more opposed to the status quo than I am -- and perhaps to me, too, inasmuch as I appear to simply be reflecting the world as it is and not making a "political" claim about the world at all. Silence equals consent -- taking the world the way it appears to be and not overtly critiquing it slips easily over into a a signal of support for that world and its arrangements.

"Political," then, seems to mean opposing the status quo, while "unpolitical" means defending it, or at least not condemning it in toto. This is a curious usage, inasmuch as a good Nietzschean would be the first to admit that all knowledge was power-laden and in that sense "political." But I can see how a refusal to overtly condemn the status quo might be taken to be "unpolitical" if what one was interested in was a more or less explicit attempt to change that status quo, or at least to distance oneself from it.

Once again, the content of the terms seems to depend on one's position in a set of local debates. Fractalizing the dichotomy as before, we arrive at the following breakdown:

proPp: defendersAp: critics
antiPa: reformersAa: radicals

It is important to note that pro- and anti-status quo stances are potentially much more fluid and transient than the orientations towards politics that appear in my first chart. As the status quo, or one's conception of it, changes, a particular person may find themselves going from Pp to Aa without changing the substance of their claims one bit. If I think that world politics is divided up into sovereign territorial state units, and I am researching global social movements, I am most likely an Ap or an Aa: my work directly goes against what I think of as the status quo, by introducing other elements into consideration. But suppose I then alter my sense of the status quo, perhaps through doing more research, so that I now think of world politics as consisting of broader flows and networks; my concern with global social movements becomes Pa or even Pp. Similarly, if I am working to get human rights on the agenda when it is not, I am anti-status quo; if keep working on human rights after conventions are signed and standards are implemented, I am now pro-status quo, even though I may still be dissatisfied with precisely how human rights are being deployed (I'd be a Pa, whereas I might have been an Ap or an Aa before).

This fluidity is not characteristic of the orientations to politics arranged around a fractalization of the contemplating-enacting dichotomy. If my attitudes towards politics are such that I really want to pursue particular goals, I am not likely to be happy with contemplation; likewise, if I am after comprehension, the daily business of enacting will probably not suffice for me. While it is always possible that someone who begins on a contemplative path will end up forsaking the academy for a more consistently activist life, and vice versa, I'd wager that this is less likely than someone finding themselves at various times in their lives and careers occupying all four of the stances generated by the fractalization of the pro-status quo-anti-status quo division. And while I think that one might well simultaneously occupy multiple positions on this chart, depending on the status quo in question, I do not think that occupying more than one position on the first chart is sustainable for long. More likely is that (for example) someone with enacting inclinations but an overall contemplative disposition [and I am deliberately avoiding the question of whether such dispositions are innate or contingently constructed; my inclination is for the latter, but that's neither here nor there] will end up as an expert trying to speak truth to power in defense of her or his specific causes and issues. But trying to be both a scholar and a practitioner at the same time strikes me as quite difficult, perhaps even impossible, to pull off.

(Can there be people who are temperamentally anti-status quo? Sure. Ditto the opposite. I don't think this changes my analysis much, though, since the possibility of changing positions in the chart remains more open than it does, IMHO, in terms of the contemplating-enacting dichotomy.)

Thinking of the issues like this should, in the first place, put to rest the silly notion that there is any such thing as "non-political" thinking or behaving. Every action has a politics, inasmuch as it is always oriented towards or against the status quo, and is so oriented in more or less extreme ways. But now that we have that out of the way, notice that the change of being "unpolitical" is most likely to arise in one specific debate -- between Aa radical and Ap critics -- because of the usual habit in fractalized debates of conflating local opposition with a more global issue, and thus collapsing Ap critics into Pp defenders of the status quo. No such option is available to Pa reformers, although they are quite likely to be conflated with Aa radicals by their Pp defender opponents -- a dynamic that we see in political debate all the time, for instance in the patently absurd notion that any tampering with the operations of the free market is the same as state socialism, or that allowing moments of silent prayer in schools is the same as theocratic dominion. So being called "unpolitical" most likely means that you are debating with an Aa radical, and there's a good chance that what has offended their sensibilities is that you are an Ap critic instead of a proponent of their Cause -- whatever it is.

Notice also that this dichotomy also parallels the distinction, first brilliantly sketched by E. H. Carr, between "realist" and "utopian" views of social order. Realists are by definition pro-status quo, because they think that this is the way that the world is and that a failure to take this into account would be disastrous. And anti-status quo orientations have something of a utopian tenor to them, inasmuch as they rest on a vision of the world that is at variance with how the world appears at present. Pa reformers are utopian with respect to Pp defenders, and both are "realists" when compared to Ap critics and Aa radicals. The debate between critics and radicals that can easily lead to the deployment of a charge like "non-political" is, in this sense, a debate about realism vs. utopia, albeit one in a specific local context of people generally opposed to the status quo.

[Notice also that the way I have set this dichotomy up -- like the contemplating-enacting dichotomy -- deliberately abstracts from the specific content of particular positions. A debate about what the status quo is is, I think, a different matter from the issues I am trying to highlight here. By doing this, I have also left open the possibility that people of different orientations might nonetheless come to agree on what the status quo consists of -- optimistic, perhaps, and maybe even a little utopian. But I would still like to think that people's general moral-practical orientations do not completely determine the "facts" that they apprehend; I'd prefer to reserve that for the analytical apparatuses that they produce out of their substantive commitments. But I digress…]

Now, the real action starts when we combine the two dichotomies, generating sixteen ideal-typical combinations of positions that people might adopt. Combine this with the basic observation that the most intense fights are between those who share the most in common (the "family" rule, so to speak), and we have a rather dynamic way to account for and appreciate the struggles that we see inside and outside of the academy. A group of scholars who disagree on their orientation to the status quo will engage in vitriolic debates about one another's "politics," in part because they share the same basic orientation to politics. A group of radicals might almost come to blows over the question of whether "theory" was or was not an important component of the revolutionary struggle that they all agree is necessary, and what theory's precise role should be. And in all cases, the local meanings of the terms deployed would be specific to the situation at hand, while bearing enough of a Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" to the way that those terms are deployed in other local contexts to enable interlocutors to drag in other statements in support of their claims -- hence characterizing their opponents as occupying more extreme positions in the fractalized field than they actually do occupy…

Also, consider that in present circumstances (and for the moment I am deliberately leaving underspecified what those "present conditions" entail) opposing the status quo is somewhat intuitively easier to do from a position of actively intervening in politics, while the institutional and organizational constraints of the academic life make it quite tempting to simply engage in disinterested or detached analysis rather than explicitly opposing the social and political status quo under investigation; there is thus something of an "elective affinity" between contemplating and affirming the status quo, and between enacting and objecting to the status quo. This means that it is in many ways easier to be an "unpolitical academic" than it is to be an academic opposing the status quo, and that it is easier to be a "political activist" than it is to campaign and to mobilize around the notion of a defense of the status quo. [Here part of the genius of mobilizing fundamentalist Christians during the last election, since their narrative always places them in opposition to what they conceive of as a sinful, secularized status quo…even as they make concrete inroads and enact policies that increase the overtly Christian character of the public sphere in much of the United States.]

What this means, ultimately, is that the people who have the hardest time will be those who occupy the most "counter-intuitive" positions, such as (for example, since this is where I'd locate myself :-) scholars with a critique -- but not a radical one -- of the social and political status quo. Such CcAp folks are likely to get accused of being "too political" by their Pp and Pa scholarly brethren, and too "unpolitical" by CcAa radical scholars; they may also (shifting the kaleidoscope slightly) be accused of being hopelessly out of touch with practical reality by Ec and Ee critics, and dismissed as too impractically conceptual by ApCe "critical experts." CcPp scholarly defenders, like EeAa practitioning radicals, have the power of socially sustainable consistency to draw on in support of their stances. "Scholarly radicals" -- CcAa -- and "practicing defenders" -- EePp -- have the consistency of their positions (always more radical or more status quo oriented, or always more contemplative or more enacting oriented, than others in their local group) to draw on for support. [This is much clearer when fractal dichotomies are drawn in a different graphical format, such that a secondary division is below the first and is connected to the initial split with lines forming an inverted "v" -- I really need to find the html for doing that.]

But as for the rest of us, muddling through -- and differentiating ourselves from one another in myriad ways -- is perhaps the best we can do.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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