This Academic Life
  Politics, academic and otherwise
Call me crazy, but part of the reason I decided to become an academic was because I have, in Weber's terms, a vocation for science rather than a vocation for politics. The difference involves the kind of sensibility that one brings to one's work rather than the empirical setting in which one concretely performs one's work, even though Weber does make a very big deal about the specific history of how the state developed in Europe and the implications that this specific history has for political issues. but the basic distinction between the scientist and the politician is dispositional: the politician seeks to enact concrete programs by proportionately combining categorical ethical imperatives with the practical necessities of governing (knowing when to focus on conviction, and when to focus on consequences), whereas the scientist seeks to generate knowledge about phenomena through the rigorous, disciplined application of value-laden presuppositions that cannot themselves be justified scientifically. This distinction drives a sword into the heart of Marx's dictum that the point of philosophy is to change the world, replacing it with the more Nietzschean sentiment that action cannot be rationally grounded -- and, indeed, that trying to do so would produce all manner of horrific results, since operating with a pure ethic of conviction while commanding the vast destructive resources of a modern state would invariably lead to extremely violent consequences.

Now, Weber's distinction focuses on politics narrowly understood, and the topics he takes up in his famous "vocation" lectures are specific to states, political parties, and the like. But even though not every organization has the same kind of capacity for violent force (I tend to reserve terms like "violence" for those activities that, in principle, can kill you if pressed far enough, and are in fact intended to do so even though the motivation of the person engaging in the violence might not be to kill the victim -- to my mind, threatening to kill someone is violence, sparring with them in a rule-governed arena is not), organizations are constitutively coercive inasmuch as participants in them seek to coordinate action in ways that fall short of idealized rational consensus. And even idealized rational consensus is coercive unless one buys the position that somehow Reason sets you free if you adhere to its strictures and dictates; as far as I'm concerned the jury's still out on that one, so for the time being I'll stick to my earlier claim: human social organizations are coercive in principle. And as such we shouldn't be surprised that we find "politicking," power struggles, attempts to outflank and entrap and connive and ensnare and downright obliterate opponents, pretty much everywhere. Even in academia.

But this introduces a wrinkle: how can there be "science" in the sense of attentive, rigorous production of knowledge if even scientific organizations are shot through with politics? One solution would be for the administrative aspects of the scientific organization to be completely separated from the science aspects, so the scientists do science and the administrators give them the proper resources to do that. But this doesn't work, because particular scientists disagree about what kinds of tasks should be given priority and where the resources should go; resource scarcity exacerbates the problem. Add to this the fact that scientific researchers are human beings, so various kinds of petty personal grudges, feelings of marginalization or centrality, and the like often infiltrate their organizational deliberations, and you have a recipe for ongoing political clash.

The disturbing thing about this from my perspective is that the result is to politicize our analytical, theoretical, scientific "prosthetics" -- those tools, conceptual and otherwise, that we use to make (sense of) the world. Politicizing those prosthetics means converting them into weapons of war, abandoning their logical sense and their philosophical specificity in favor of their value as campaign slogans, rallying-cries, or other forms of underhanded bludgeoning. When the choice between intellectual integrity and instrumental efficacy is posed, the latter course is chosen, at least for the purpose of the struggle in question. The result is eerily similar to the "politicizing" of scientific concepts characteristic of those forms of critical theory seeking to affect the world by theorizing on behalf of some interest (often "the proletariat," but one could easily read certain neoliberal economists as the organic intellectuals of finance capital, were one so inclined), although in some ways it's even worse because sincere critical theorists try to balance their scientific and political commitments [although in my experience they are usually politicians when push comes to shove] whereas the politicizing characteristic of debate within the academy about resources and programs seems to drain our analytics of almost all meaningful scientific value.

Case in point: a conference I co-organized recently to try to flesh out the contours of a novel position in IR theoretical debates, one that would combine sensibilities that are not usually combined. After a day and a half of wrestling with the substantive intellectual issues involved, and beginning to map out the contentious commonplaces out of which such a position might be constructed, the conversation abruptly shifted when we started talking about common enemies -- suddenly people seemed very much inclined to sacrifice intellectual coherence for political efficacy, offering to build bridges to positions with very different ontologies by essentially downplaying the importance of those concerns for tactical advantages. Phase shift: we had been doing science, and then suddenly we were doing politics. (After all, politicized science is politics; just look at the evolution "debates" going on in Kansas at the moment.)

I don't want to be misunderstood here. Science, as far as I am concerned, is not a passionless effort to build consensus based on data. Rather, science is a particular kind of clash in which value-commitments are transmuted into analytical devices and then those devices square off. But there are rules for a scientific debate, rules involving the importance of coherence and consistency, the value of clarity and logical derivation, and what we might call the sovereignty of argument -- you can't win a point unless you can produce a good argument supporting it. I am skeptical that this will ever lead to some kind of Rationally Defensible Truth, but it will at least produce something like a victory for the strongest argument, with the caveat that what seems strong now may seem exceptionally weak in the future, and vice versa.

There is, to my mind, a certain kind of nobility to a scientific debate, which is why I think of it as (s)wordplay: knights facing off with weapons drawn, adhering to specific and strict codes of engagement as they seek to press their claims. Bizarre to outsiders, who might wonder why certain moves are not employed when it might seem advantageous to do so. But the effect of that deliberate narrowing and focusing of effort generates the kind of aesthetically pleasing combat characteristic of a good sporting match or an epic lightsaber duel (which is of course my paradigm case for this stuff).

So what pisses me off about academic politics is that it results in a cheapening of the enterprise of science, at least temporarily.

With sensibilities like mine I'm very glad that I'm not "in" politics. The whole "ethic of responsibility" thing doesn't sit well with me; from where I stand it looks like a set of unacceptable compromises. As an ethical matter I am certainly in favor of politicians who know well how to do this; as an interpretive matter I am full of praise for those politicians who can effectively balance and combine ethical absolutes with practical necessities (FDR being my personal favorite) while condemning the alternative (the current leadership of the US, who self-admittedly despise those living in the "reality-based community," are a great example of people who shouldn't be politicians because they obviously lack the sense of proportion that such an occupation calls for). But I am uncomfortable doing it myself, whether inside or outside of the academy. Me with actual capacity to make and enforce political decisions would be a dangerous situation indeed, since I'd most probably brook no compromise and end up condoning the worst kinds of coercion and violence in the name of my own gods and daemons. Not a good idea. So instead I'll keep serving them myself, and keep trying (perhaps in vain?) to construct situations in which other people serving other gods are nonetheless willing to enter into noble combat with me.

Maybe doing this will require some political compromises. The methodology debate got us the replacement of the existing statistics requirement with two sequential courses designed to cover multiple methodologies, including the proper philosophy of science considerations that ground each of them -- not what I wanted, exactly, but close enough for the moment. And the IR theory workshop did have a fair amount of intellectual content. Engaging in political struggle for the sake of hollowing out space for science (my kind of science, at least) seems acceptable, although I'm more comfortable letting other people do the actual politicking. And I'd be happier still if the politicking would just go away so I could get back to doing what I think I'm called to do: think, debate, teach, research, write.

So I am a political scientist who, in the end, doesn't really like politics all that much. Even worse, I'm a Nietzschean trying to maintain something like the constitutive autonomy of science, which you'd think would be somewhat difficult to do. But at least I get to have Weber (and Wittgenstein) on my team, even if I am surrounded by faculty colleagues who don't seem all that interested in what Obi-Wan Kenobi once called the use of "an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age." And I count myself fortunate in the sparring partners I have found, and trust that there will be others in the future.

[Posted with



<< Home
"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 :-)



Powered by Blogger