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UNCOVERING OUR WORK: THE PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE IN
ACADEMIA AND ACTIVISM
ANNA LEE GUEST
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Anna Lee Guest
For the best fiance with one e.
I would like to thank Dr. Susan Hegeman for giving me the encouragement and
space to begin and finish this project. Her questions and suggestions help me think more
critically about both my work and my future, and for that I am forever grateful. I would
also like to thank Dr. Apollo Amoko for his insightful critique with this project.
I must thank my academic partner-in-crime, Sarah Bleakney, for seeing me through
the past two years. Michele Sampson, Christine McIsaac, Kachina Domenick, and Nora
Spencer (the notorious sewing circle) have provided me with so much happiness, even
(and especially) on days when I'm "over it."
Deepest thanks go to my parents, James and Linda Guest, and to my sister, Julia
Guest, for their unfailing support. Finally, I thank my fiance, Nic Jelley. His listening
during the many phases of this project has been more crucial than anything else. His
encouragement and love remind me that the possibility I hope for is already within my
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv
A B S T R A C T ...................................................................................................................... v ii
1 IN TR O D U C T IO N ........ .. ......................................... ..........................................1.
Saving the World through Graduate School: "Hey, Why Not?" .............................. 2
W here C would W e G o From H ere? ........................................................... ...............4...
2 "WE WANT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AS ": ACADEMICS,
ACTIVISTS, AND CATEGORICAL DIFFERENCE ...................... ..................... 8
C ateg o riz atio n ....................................................................................................... ... 8
"A cadem ia" and "A ctivism ....................................... ........................ ............... 13
The A cadem ic/A activist D ivide ..................................... ...................... ............... 14
T he D raw of C ategorization ....................................... ........................ ............... 19
3 "I'LL DO IT MY WAY; THANK YOU": INDIVIDUALS IN ACADEMIA AND
A C T IV IS M ................................................................................................................ 2 0
Standpoint E pistem ology ........................................... ......................... ................ 2 1
Individuals in A ctivism ... ................................................................................ 22
Individuals in A cadem ia .................................................................. ................ 24
F orcing A cadem ia/A ctivism ........................................ ....................... ................ 26
4 "HOW DOES SHE DO IT?": PRODUCING KNOWLEDGE IN ACADEMIA
A N D A C T IV ISM ....................................................................................................... 29
P reduction and K now ledge.................................................................... ................ 29
Academics and the Production of Knowledge.......................................................32
Activists and the Production of Knowledge ............... ....................................37
W h at's th e P o in t? ........................................................................................................ 4 0
5 "WE'LL MEET UP SOMEWHERE": THE CONNECTION BETWEEN
A CA D EM IA A N D A C TIV ISM .................................................................................43
M moving from "A cadem ia" to A cadem ia .....................................................................43
Moving from "Activism" to Activism ...................................................46
6 "WE LIKE IT. WHO ELSE MATTERS?": CONCLUSION ..............................50
L IST O F R E F E R E N C E S ................................................................................................... 5 1
BIO GR A PH ICAL SK ETCH .................................................................... ................ 54
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
UNCOVERING OUR WORK: THE PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE IN
ACADEMIA AND ACTIVISM
Anna Lee Guest
Chair: Susan Hegeman
Major Department: English
This thesis considers the disconnect between academia and activism. It attempts
to open a conversation about how the two can, and do, connect at the production of
knowledge. While both produce different kinds of knowledge by different means on the
surface, it is the similarities in the production process that allow both to move beyond
repeating what already happens in their discipline and begin to break down disciplinary
In order to think through these ideas, the thesis discusses a number of academic
and activist figures and groups, including Denise Riley; bell hooks; Noam Chomsky;
Women's Action Coalition; Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas; and the Seattle
WTO Protestors. Recognition of the similarities between academia and activism may
allow both not only to communicate with each other but to better understand their own
work as well.
For the past year (and probably longer), I've felt a disconnect in my life. I
pursued a route of study I was excited about and challenged by, but I felt that for all the
angsty effort I put into my reading and writing, my scholarly work was not "doing"
enough. I had a sneaking suspicion that my work should simultaneously be acceptable
within academia and then change the world outside it too. Of course, I had no idea how
this might happen.
I have to make my way anew in this work every day; I am not entrenched. Not
only am I not entrenched, but I feel an intense pull between my desire to "act" and my
desire to interrogate the institutional structures which precipitate the need for action. In
other words, I seriously considered dropping out of my graduate program.
However, existential crisis aside, I began to consider why I felt this disparity, and
why I felt it so deeply. This struggle between academia and activism is written onto
individual subjects in a way that is rarely discussed in conversations about what academia
"should be" and what activism "should be." These shouldd" usually speak to theoretical
ground and rarely, if ever, invoke real subjects; that is, of course, unless it is as a
The shouldd" bring us to a major problem: why "should" academia and activism
coincide at all? This is less of a question of "should" than "could," but again the question
is why. Why not just let academics do their "thing" and let activists do theirs and be done
with the whole mess? That would certainly make this project easier.
In Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, one of the main characters, Chip, is a
failing English professor who struggles with the "point" of his work:
He'd never quite realized how seriously he'd taken his father's injunction to do work
that was "useful" to society. Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism
accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed
sickness wasn't a sickness at all ... then there was no longer even the most abstract
utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa's word, bullshit. (Franzen 44-45)
Chip's crisis reflects the problem of categorization. Chip is trapped inside "Academia"
with all the stereotypes that go along with categories that start with capital letters. He
wants "people" to recognize his work as "useful," but, in this passage, he realizes that he
doesn't know who those people are or how that may happen. Clearly, "people" are not
listening to him like they "should." But what does that mean? Ideas about who can and
should listen to you and what your work can and should do begin and end with
categorization. How can Chip make his work "mean" something?
Saving the World through Graduate School: "Hey, Why Not?"
How can I make my work "mean" something? Better yet, what is my work? I
began my graduate school career a scant two years ago. I leapt directly from
undergraduate to graduate work, and I did that in the heady air of idealism. I did my
undergraduate work in English and philosophy. I attended a very small liberal arts
college where I talked with my professors and my fellow classmates about our ideas
constantly. This same group was involved in work outside the classroom too: we wrote
letters for Amnesty International, we protested at the local nuclear plant, we each did
individual work in the community, we fought for a liberal arts education against
impending threats from outsiders, and we did more. It seemed that everyone had a stake
in the university and in the community and that there was no other way: one informed the
other. It never really occurred to me, in that setting, that this was particularly unusual.
However, this did more than just occur to me when I came to graduate school. It
blindsided me. No longer did the connection between university and community seem so
effortless. Now the expectations seemed to be more insular. Oh, how I cringe when I
think about my naivete. I chose to continue my graduate work in an English department
rather than in a Philosophy department because I saw it as a place more willing to engage
with ideas outside its own discipline. What I realize now is that this is true, but that this
does not mean what I thought it might. Throughout this argument I will use the
humanities as my primary context for the academy because it is what I know best.
However, I think the problem of categorization is built into every department of the
university, regardless of its subject of study. Although English is willing to engage with
Philosophy, Anthropology, Women's Studies, Art History, History, Linguistics,
Comparative Literature, Film and Media Studies, and on and on, and oftentimes even
encompasses these disciplines, it still remains first and foremost an academic discipline.
I had hoped, when embarking upon a career in English, that I could take all the
ideas I work with inside this academic discipline and use them to do more than just talk
to other academics--who are as invested as I am in producing more papers. My
disappointment and dilemma come from categorization because I see how academia and
activism can and do communicate on the same level in many ways.
I am not interested in encouraging academics to become activists or vice versa.
Oftentimes a discussion about academia and activism comes out in the theory vs. praxis
debate. While I find that interesting for a discussion about work within academia, I think
that it is self-defeating for this project because it does not look to how or why academia
and activism even could do something like that. I am interested in thinking about how
and why people (myself included) who are working on similar issues, but under different
guises (academia vs. activism), can begin to talk to each other about how what they are
doing is similar. I hope that this can open a dialogue and perhaps offer new ways of
understanding our work.
Where Could We Go From Here?
Academia and activism do coincide in obvious and subtle ways. However, we
must be careful first to define the projects of these academics and activists. Not all
academics who work outside the academy are activists on the left (just as not all activists
are on the left); there is also a revolving door between academia and government.
President Bush has just nominated Paul Wolfowitz to become the new president of the
World Bank: duringig the Clinton administration he was the Dean of the prestigious
School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University" (Pessin). Also,
the current First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF),
Anne 0. Krueger, who is the second in command there,
was the Herald L. and Caroline L. Ritch Professor in Humanities and Sciences in
the Department of Economics at Stanford University. She was also the founding
Director of Stanford's Center for Research on Economic Development and Policy
Reform; and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution. Ms Krueger had previously
taught at the University of Minnesota and Duke University. ("Anne")
Although academia and activism do coincide, we must be careful to define their
The idea that these fields are so radically different that they must be narrowly
defined so that everyone knows what they are doing--or should be doing--to continue
with their work is one of mystification. This is not a project of how to make better
academics/activists; instead, it is a project of demystification. For this reason, I avoid a
narrow definition of "academia" or "activism." I want to avoid the categorization that I
critique in this paper. Rather than saying what "academia" or "activism" are, I want to
consider how their comparable processes of the production of knowledge connect them.
These similarities often lead academics and activists into butting heads with each other
because categorization forces them to reject their similarities, or to deny they even exist.
However, this is a project of exposing the inherent similarities between activism and
academia and locating (or beginning to) ways that both academics and activists can use
these similarities to uncover their own work in innovative ways.
Many people in academia and activism today discuss the accessibility of scholarly
texts and an overarching vision for activism. While I see the impetus in these projects as
a positive move away from a narrow vision in either field, I believe they work to force
two categories into one unrealizable one, no matter who does the forcing. By avoiding
seeing academia and activism as categories with their own internal organization, which is
conducive to flexibility but not recasting, workers within each spend too much time
trying to mold one into the shape of the other without imagining a new site of possibility.
Making academics more activist and vice versa does not result in the same opportunities
for change as does revealing their similarities. The former calls for the recasting of
characters in the same old roles; the latter calls for new ways of working within those
Rather than trying to force academia to become more politically active and rather
than forcing activism to adopt a cohesive theoretical stance, perhaps a more effective
strategy is disjunction rather than conjunction. This requires recognition of their similar
stepping off point--the production of knowledge--which then diverges onto various paths.
This locus of similarity, the production of knowledge, is the site of possibility for
academia and activism for it also examines how both construct meaning. The common
ground between the two will be a common ground that identifies and works with
individual subjectivies and that places both in their cultural and historical context. This
project draws its methodology from feminist theory as it looks at how difference gets
written and how exposing difference ultimately leads to more possibility.
Academics and activists coincide at the production of knowledge. Both are
constrained in some way by production too--pressure to publish, pressure to have
demonstrable results. There is a doubling of production in this case: it is both what we do
and what is limiting. We must produce something quantifiable, but we do not realize that
we are also involved in the production of knowledge. The production of knowledge
builds on the process of material production, but it also goes beyond that in the sense that
it is not always contingent upon it. The material production reinforces disciplinary
difference; the production of knowledge moves within and beyond disciplinary
difference. If this is so, then recognizing that our work is the production of knowledge
can be effective for moving beyond narrow conceptions of both our specific area and
knowledge--seeing knowledge more on a continuum and recognizing "our" work in other
places. This shifting would, not remove knowledge from production, but open it beyond.
If, as Henri Lefebvre conjectures, "the concepts of production and the act of producing
do have a certain abstract universality," then demystifying this process for academics and
activists will allow us to take more control of the production of knowledge process; it
will allow us to become apparent in the process (15).
Last week I drove by a church and happened to glance at its marquee. Its sign
read: "An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory." Honestly, I'm not making that up.
While I'm not entirely sure what that means, I think I can make a pretty good guess at
what it is at least meant to connote: people should get out and "do" something rather than
sit around and think about it all day. The problem I see with this injunction, aside from
its pithy nature, is that the pithiness privileges one category (action) over another (theory)
without considering what either means--much less how they might be similar. This also
gets into the theory vs. praxis debate.
Academic production of knowledge needs to be made more transparent. The
assumption is that it is all cognitive, but it also involves social relations. Activist
production of knowledge also needs to be made more transparent. The assumption is that
it is all social relations, but it also involves cognition. This revealing process enables
academics and activists to use the production of knowledge as a means of transformation,
rather than a replication of disciplinary differences. In order to examine how this
demystification may be possible, I will examine a number of academics and activists to
consider their production of knowledge. Some of these individuals and groups include
Denise Riley, Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Cherrie Moraga, the AIDS Coalition to
Unlease Power (ACT UP), the Women's Action Coalition (WAC), Subcomandante
Marcos and the Zapatistas, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters in
"WE WANT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AS ": ACADEMICS,
ACTIVISTS, AND CATEGORICAL DIFFERENCE
In order to delve into how the similarities between academia and activism may be
uncovered, we must first look at where the connection usually breaks down. The
problem of categorization plagues a number of layers of this analysis, so the first place to
begin is with the construction of categories and the power that infuses them. Academics
and activists often get caught in the idea that their work springs forth as is solely from the
work of others in their field. This results from an acceptance of disciplinary
categorization rather than a lived mulitiplicitous reality. Instead of interrogating the
categories that house them, categorization can cause academics and activists to see their
work as polarities that work against each other for the same "cause" or "issue." Their
disciplinary differences cloud the processes which enable them to work for these issues in
the first place.
In Gender and the Politics of History, Joan Wallach Scott conceives sex and gender
as categories which require interrogation. She articulates gender as "the knowledge that
establishes meanings for bodily differences" (Scott 2). This definition allows her to
move within the sex/gender binary in a new way because it reconceptualizes sex and
gender at the level of epistemology. Such a move works to break down the "normal"
assumptions behind the categories of sex and gender because it displaces those
assumptions; it moves them off bodies and onto categories. This also creates space for a
dialogue about how sex and gender create meaning which can then move into an
investigation of how that meaning constitutes individuals and is itself constituted.
Scott argues that "[i]f sex and gender are both taken to be concepts--forms of
knowledge--then they are closely related, if not indistinguishable. If both are knowledge,
then gender cannot be said to reflect sex or to be imposed on it; rather sex becomes an
effect of gender" (Scott 201). By asking about the effects, Scott attends to how
individuals are interpellated.
Scott's work breaks down categories which get written onto individuals. In order
to move beyond these categories she points out that "[i]f sex, gender, and sexual
difference are effects--discursively and historically produced--then we cannot take them
as points of origin for our analysis" (Scott 201-202). Scott's argument lays important
groundwork for imagining a new site of communication within academia and activism
because it foregrounds individuals within the categories that constitute them.
Feminist theory investigates the category of "women" in provocative ways which
gives us another perspective on how categories which affect individuals can be troubled.
In Am I that Name?, Denise Riley reminds us that we cannot look at "women" without
also considering historical specificity and other concepts the category is posed against--
"Nature, Class, Reason, [and] Humanity which by no means form a passive backdrop
to changing conceptions of gender" (Riley 7). "Woman" is therefore a layered category
which is irreducible to any one of the aforementioned concepts. She sets forth her
argument by asserting the unstable nature of the category of "women," which "is
historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which
themselves change" (Riley 2). In order to prove the historical specificity of "women,"
Riley constructs a brief origin narrative of the historical and discursive construction of
the category. She does this on a broader scale by discussing how "women" became
inextricably linked with "the social" and "nature" (Riley 18-66). In both discussions she
takes care to develop how "women" did not spring forth as an already constituted
category; very particular historical and ideological processes were at work in order to fit
"women" into the framework of the moment (Riley 67-95).
She delineates the category of "women" in order to show difference. A revelation
of difference shows how meaning is created through binaries. "Women" gives people an
idea of what it "means" to be a woman. By exposing "women"--as a category--Riley
shows how the category creates meaning and how it is defined in a context. The process
of locating meaning in the category is similar for academia and activism. In order to
maintain their disciplinary difference, their difference remains in categorization. As we
unpack "academia" and "activism" as categories we will see how they constitute
academics and activists and will see how the categorical meaning is constructed, not
Riley also considers the effects of categorization. She discusses the implications of
"women" for women when she points out that "feminism never has the option of putting
forward its own uncontaminated, self-generated understandings of 'women': its 'women'
too, is always thoroughly implicated in the discursive world" (Riley 68). She establishes
a layered context for "women," and she does not leave women or "women" from the
stratification. The naming process itself does much to constitute individually and
collectively, and women are not exempt from this. She shows how men and women and
(not passive) social processes are all responsible for naming "women" in different ways.
Naming also works against academia and activism in the ways that it consigns people,
and the discipline itself, to narrow definitions of what is acceptable. Thus, the idea of
effects gets to the crux of her argument, which is that feminism can draw on the
instability of "women" in order to negotiate difference, which creates meaning. This
understanding can then be harnessed once we break down categories and begin to peel
back their layers.
Chandra Mohanty also defines how women can become caught up in constructing
"women" in her essay "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial
Discourses." She points out the danger in feminist theory of collapsing all women into
one for the sake of a cause. While this movement can be seen to set up a prototypical
woman from which to speak about the plights of women, the danger is in assuming
"women" as a category in the first place:
What binds women together is a sociological notion of the 'sameness' of their
oppression. It is at this point that an elision takes place between 'women' as a
discursively constructed group and 'women' as material subjects of their own
history ..... This results in an assumption of women as an always already
constituted group, one which has been labeled powerless,' 'exploited,' 'sexually
harassed,' etc. by feminist scientific, economic, legal, and sociological discourses.
(Notice that this is quite similar to sexist discourse labeling women weak,
emotional, having math anxiety, etc.) This focus is not on uncovering the material
and uncovering the ideological specificities that constitute a particular group of
women as 'powerless' in a particular context. It is, rather, on finding a variety of
cases of 'powerless' groups of women to prove the general point that women as a
group are powerless. (Mohanty 56-57)
Mohanty's discussion of the reductionism of categorization shows us how it is used for
inductive reasoning: moving from the specific to the general. Switching our focus
permits us to look backward, forward, and around: it gives us the ability to see beyond
our immediate context. On the other hand, disciplinary difference (and categorization)
implies stagnation, rather than accounting for the fluidity of what academia and activism
contain: people and knowledge.
Riley gives a brief example of how feminism can speak for "women workers" by
showing that they have no "fixed nature," and that only in some contexts can they be
distinguished from workers in general; feminism can then have a say in these purposes
(113). The effect of looking at the category, in this case "women workers" rather than
"workers," may or may not be useful in negotiating needs; feminism can then become
more politically active and effective. Riley advocates the idea that "an active skepticism
about the integrity of the sacred category 'women' would be no merely philosophical
doubt to be stifled in the name of effective political action in the world. On the contrary,
it would be a conditionfor the latter" (Riley 113). Breaking down the category of
"women," for Riley, would become a determining factor for political action because it
would effectively destabilize any narratives of naturalized femininity and would locate
difference in the category rather than in women's bodies.
I believe that Riley, and other theorists like her who seek to locate the
construction of "women" and thus work to break it down, comes a long way towards
dismantling some of the problems of categorization. However, I still think she leaves an
important category in her work untouched by "active skepticism," and this is the
relationship between academia and activism. In the previous quote she conflates political
action with this "active skepticism" (or scholarship), and I see it as a mistake not to
further investigate the implicit categorization in this claim. For while her academic work
lays the path for further thinking about the categorization of "women," it cannot
effectively lay claim to direct links to political action without also troubling the
scholarship and activism that must be done for both to occur.
Her understanding locates meaning in the category, but while it calls for change,
it does not make the leap to how or who could do that. Surely if "women" creates
meaning then the forces shaping the discussion do as well. This process involves looking
both into and away from the university.
"Academia" and "Activism"
In order to consider how academia and activism interact, we must first consider
"academia" and "activism." In other words, we must think about them categorically. The
categories work to inscribe disciplinary difference. We can define academia in contrast
to activism (and even subsets of each in contrast to each other) because of this
"Academia" comes to be constituted through a set of disciplinary practices whereby
the replication of those practices becomes the norm. "Activism" comes to be constituted
in precisely the same way. Although "academia" and "activism" comprise varying
degrees of internal difference, both are similarly constituted and maintained through the
replication of disciplinary difference. "Academia" and "activism" require academics and
activists to function within a small circle in order to sustain that circle.
The categorical difference of "academia" and "activism" relegates them to different
positions. They cannot be forced into one "academia/activism" because this only works
to initiate yet another categorization. However, academics and activists can work to look
through the categories, rather than from the categories, and see their similarities at the
point of the production of knowledge. These similarities can allow new conceptions of
both academic and activist work as it shows each the (hidden) processes of their own.
At first, it seems desirable to merge academia and activism. What could be better
than blending together what we're already interested in? However, the fields remain
separate because they both retain those degrees of disciplinary difference. If we simply
make a new discipline, then we are not calling into question the production of knowledge.
As Stanley Fish states,
It is not so much that literary critics have nothing to say about these issues, but that
so long as they say it as literary critics no one but a few of their friends will be
listening, and, conversely, if they say it in ways unrelated to the practices of literary
criticism, and thereby manage to give it a political effectiveness, they will no
longer be literary critics, although they will still be something and we may regard
the something they will then be as more valuable .... I say, if you want to send a
message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it. Or, if I may adapt a
patriotic slogan, 'the academy--love it or leave it.' (1-2)
Although branches of activism are seen to have as their mission a reaching out to wider
society, the same can be said for activism or any other category which institutes
disciplinary difference. Fish's argument proves useful because he reminds us of the ways
in which the work is different. However, I will disagree that you must "love or leave" the
academy (or activism). In contrast, you must go beyond it and come back to it with new
considerations about how it produces knowledge.
The Academic/Activist Divide
In the academic/activist divide people often get quickly classified as intellectuals
or activists, and while some categories have been created to reflect people who bridge
that gap (i.e., public intellectuals and activist professors), even they remain at the level of
categorization. The public intellectual and the activist professor are not threats to either
category because they are still categories; by creating a new category we remove any
threat they are to the old categories. Now these people are free to flit about and be
"public" or be an "activist" without bothering anyone else because they have seemingly
bridged an insurmountable gap. Much less do we need to worry about what it means to
be an intellectual or an activist (or, god forbid, both). However, what these people have
actually accomplished is a strange dislocation of both fields by trying to merge them into
I believe an effective way of examining intellectuals and activists would be to
first look at stereotypes. When I think of an intellectual I think of one of my college
professors; he is a man who is renowned in his field, but whom I rarely saw. His work is
so esoteric that it must be brilliant; I just haven't received my pass code to it yet. When I
think of an activist I think of one of my friends from college who was always the first to
jump on every cause that passed by. She would sometimes protest just for the sake of it.
Now, at this point, I'm even rolling my eyes at how reductive these portraits are.
No, I'm not trying to say that every intellectual is a man, or that esoteric work is not
beneficial, or that all activists are women, or that it is not productive to effect social
change for more than one cause (or any other stereotypes I may appear to have
subscribed to in the space of five sentences). What I am trying to say, though, is that,
while these stereotypes are remarkably simple in their analysis of each category, they are
also remarkably (in the re-markable; say it again, sense) on target in how these categories
often get constituted. A certain idea becomes the norm and then sets the tone for how
people "should" be or work. Even though individuals vary widely from the stereotype, or
categorical assumptions, those assumptions still taint the air because of their uncontested
status. They shape individual subjectivities by virtue of the way they define meaning on
multiple levels (Althusser 115-117).
In "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (a title replete with the categorization of
intellectuals), Noam Chomsky outlines the myriad roles intellectuals can play:
Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions
according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western
world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access
to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western
democracy provided the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth
lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class
interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. (Chomsky
Chomsky acknowledges the comparatively marginal role intellectuals have in terms of
sheer number, but he then infuses them with power unparalleled by anyone next to those
in the government. The impetus for Chomsky's article is the Vietnam War. He begins by
referencing a question from an article written briefly after WWII by Dwight Macdonald
which asks: "To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the
vicious terror bombings of civilians" (qtd. in Chomsky 254). Chomsky then uses this
question as a springboard for how intellectuals have the responsibility to "speak the truth
and expose lies" because they can easily become complicitous. Throughout the article he
gives examples of how "in no small measure, it is complicitouss] attitudes.. .that lie
behind the butchery in Vietnam, and we had better face up to them with candor, or we
will find our government leading us towards a 'final solution' in Vietnam, and in the
many Vietnams that inevitably lie ahead" (Chomsky 291).
While intellectuals do have a privileged position, Chomsky is unwilling to assess
them as a whole. Not even most privileged intellectuals are in the same unique position
as Chomsky himself and can hope to effect political change. As Stanley Fish reminds us,
"Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, the conversation that takes place within
the humanistic academy and the conversation that leads to legislative and administrative
action remain segregated from one another" (61). Noam Chomsky's career is one of these
exceptions, but from that we cannot extrapolate the powers of intellectuals in general.
By defining more shouldd" than couldds" his vision falls hopelessly short. A limited
conception of intellectuals such as this overlooks the inherent categorical difference it
establishes. Difference can be utilized as a way to oppose rigid categorization, but not
when it is used to polarize rather than create new meaning.
Antonio Gramsci provides a clearer definition of intellectuals in a broad range of
society. He discusses how the historical evolution of traditional intellectuals (i.e.
ecclesiastics) came to oppose the "organic intellectuals" who evolved from each class as
it developed its own specializations (Gramsci 6-8). Gramsci's use of the term "organic
intellectuals" speaks to his question about
What are the 'maximum' limits of acceptance of the term 'intellectual'? Can one
find a unitary criterion to characterize equally all the diverse and disparate activities
of intellectuals and to distinguish these at the same time and in an essential way
from the activities of other social groupings? The most widespread error of method
seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic
nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of
relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who
personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations.
Here Gramsci seeks to put "intellectuals" in a context and avoids categorizing them in a
way that looks only back towards what they "should" have been and does not look
towards what they are or "can be." This move locates individuals within the category as a
locus of change rather than locating the category itself as the only site of that possibility.
Activism is often seen as promoting individualism; however, this category, like
all others, seeks to prioritize its categorization. In "Beyond Activistism," Liza
Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti argue that today's activists do not
lack thought in their action:
[they] do indeed have a creed: They're activistists. That's right, activistists... In
this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one
who acts is righteous .... Activistism as an ideology renders taboo any discussion
of ideas or beliefs, and thus stymies both thought and action. Activists who treat
ideas as important--who ask the difficult questions that push into new political
terrain--find this censorious hyperpragmatism alienating and may drop away from
organizing as a result. But that's not the only problem. Without an analysis of
what's really wrong with the world or a vision of the better world they're trying to
create, people have no reason to continue being activists once a particular campaign
is over (72-74).
And the problems, folks, do not end there. They go on to accuse activism of a number of
crimes against thinking, and they end up calling for "an assault of the stupidity that
pervades American culture. This implies a more democratic approach to the life of the
mind. We challenge left activists to become intellectuals" (Featherstone, Henwood, and
Sounds good, right? We are finally going to get rid of reality TV! Oh wait, is
that the stupidity they are talking about? Who knows! The underlying problem of their
assertions is, again, categorization. They create a new catch phrase, and category, with
activistists, that seems to sweep all the old problems of activism (and activists) under the
rug. Except that, it doesn't. Activistism creates innumerable more problems than
activism because it does not bother to define activism, or thinking.
The subtitle of the article is "Why we need deeper thinking in our protests." I
withheld this until now because I thought you might find it as intriguing as I did at first.
It seems that the authors may discuss how thinking and protest connect. Unfortunately,
this is not the case. Instead, they try to make one into the other, which leaves both worse
The Draw of Categorization
I will admit that categorization has its own lure: it quickly becomes easy to work
within categorical distinctions (and disciplinary difference) because we know what to
expect. I know how I "should" write this paper because I know the academic
expectations of it. This is the benefit of categorization: it gives us a prescription to
follow from which we do not need to deviate.
However, while prescriptions are tempting, they are also only temporary fixes.
They fix us until the problem comes back again; in the meantime, we can forget about
them because the problem is hidden. A similar problem exists with categorization.
While it appears so easy that we often forget it exists, it only works to fix temporary
problems--like who we should include in the literary canon or what the slogan for our
movement should be.
These issues are constructs of categorization and only serve to further the division
it creates. Categorization is problematic because it does not provide connection; it hides
connection. Each category is inevitably shaped by, and in contrast to, another, so
disguising the processes which bring us to categorization in the first place only works to
maintain it. Instead, we must look to the effects of categorization. Examining the effects
obliges us to more critically look at categories themselves; the effects uncover the
categories. In turn, the categories uncover context--how and why they are shaped and by
and for whom.
"I'LL DO IT MY WAY; THANK YOU": INDIVIDUALS IN ACADEMIA AND
As individuals are constituted by categories, it follows that shifts in categorization
will write themselves onto individuals as well. Soon, everyone will be asking "what is
your category(ies)?" rather than "what is your sign?" as the new way of locating
difference (and similarity). Well, perhaps not, but this is only because the categories are
already so steeped into the individual that such a question is sometimes not very
Feminist theory attempts to answer this problem by foregrounding the individual
in the context of the powerful institutions that inscribe her with meaning. This kind of
theorizing hopes to show that not everyone is equally placed in axes of power (Fraser 7).
In order to think about how the individual gets placed in these various contexts,
though, we must first think about how these processes evolve in the first place. This
requires revealing our epistemology, or theory of knowledge (Harding 2). An analysis of
categories requires a candid discussion of epistemology if we ever hope to see the
categories of academia and activism unfold a new space for communication where
individuals can traverse the space of knowledge production.
Standpoint epistemology begins to open this space where individuals and
categories meet and greet. In the individual-category meet and greet, categories tend to
be a little shy; they huddle together off to one side hoping no one will notice them. The
individuals are hesitant as they have rarely encountered the categories face to face; they
prefer to speak amongst themselves about how they have each accomplished great things
free of any outside help (or how they have single-handedly ruined their lives). When one
individual has her back turned, a category accidentally bumps into her. What should they
do? Should they pretend they never saw each other?
In Donna Haraway's conception, feministit objectivity is about limited location
and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It
allows us to become answerable for what we learn to see" ("Situated" 583). Thus, the
individual and the category sit down for cucumber sandwiches and talk about the ways
they constitute each other. "Situated knowledge" allows us the vantage point of seeing
through the category rather than seeing from the category. It privileges the individual
while not elevating the individual to an unchecked status (Haraway, "Cyborg" 157).
Situated knowledge is a formulation of standpoint epistemology, which "'refers to a way
of conceptualizing reality that reflects women's interests and values and draws on
women's own interpretation of their own experience" (qtd. in Naples 70). Standpoint
should not be conflated with "viewpoint or actual experiences"; rather, it contextualizes
experiences in a way that juxtaposes individual and experience, individual and category--
the ways individuals are constituted by experience.
Of course, we rarely wake up in the morning feeling constituted by monolithic
categories (except on days when I prefer to stay in bed). Instead, we may feel anxious
about going to class (as students), feel excited about having dinner (as friends), feel angry
about watching the news (as citizens), etc. These various standpoints are all informed by
categorical relationships. More specifically, the categorical relationships are themselves
specific--most often to a place. For example, discussions about activist art as public art
have recently become "centered around a notion of the community or the public as the
'site,' and the public artist as one whose work is responsive to the issues, needs, and
concerns that define that elusive, hard-to-define entity" (Felshin 21). Activist/public art
replies to both the individual and her context by acknowledging the artist and the
Standpoint epistemology seeks this dual centering as well: "[M]ost standpoint
theorists attempt to locate standpoint in specific community contexts with particular
attention to the dynamics of race, class, and gender" (Naples 71). The focus on
categories within communities in standpoint epistemology and situated knowledge brings
us to how we can diffuse broad categories that continue to define academia and activism.
Contextualization also brings us closer to ways we produce knowledge by looking at a
network of meaning which includes the individual.
The one danger we must avoid is seeing from the category of the individual. Like
academia and activism, the individual can also become a rigid categorization, as can
experience. We must actively examine all categories in order better to understand how
each one, and all collectively, shape each other and shape us.
Individuals in Activism
A focus on individuals informs activist theory: "There is no single set of attitudes
or social group to which all others must conform. Instead, the unifying ethos is one of
decentered authority .... To put these theories into practice, activists need to develop the
mutually supportive character of their struggles" (Trend 172). No overarching
categorization must inform activism (or academia, for that matter); instead, a push for a
focus on individuals and their connections to others and to what they are organizing for is
their standpoint. During the WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999, activists drew
on this standpoint:
No centralized leader could have coordinated the scene in the midst of the chaos,
and none was needed--the organic, autonomous organization we had proved far
more powerful and effective. No authoritarian figure could have compelled people
to hold a blockade line while being tear-gassed--but empowered people free to
make their own decisions did choose to do that. (Starhawk 54-55)
However, while the WTO protesters drew on contextualized individuals, this conception
can itself break down as well if it is only narrowly contextualized (e.g. saying "it sounds
like a good idea to me!"--after you state an idea).
In 1991, after a number of attacks on women's rights (the trials of Clarence
Thomas, Mike Tyson, and William Kennedy Smith as some examples), "'The Third
Wave' [was] galvanized...a new generation of activist women declaring their fury,
summoning accountability, and demanding representation (Essoglou 335). In response,
on January 28, 1992, a group of women formed the Women's Action Coalition (WAC)
(Essoglou 333-339). WAC was known for its direct action style, but they were also
known because they "appeared to be 'fashionable,' 'confident' women .... [Their]
appearance was no doubt part of WAC's near-instant success. At the same time, it
brought with it an unfortunate lesson (and/or reminder) that while appearances can be
usefully deceiving, they are nearly always divisive" (Essoglou 341).
WAC's emphasis was on action even though they worked to fact-check that action
(Essoglou 358). They held an intense debate to determine that they would emphasize
action: "In naming ourselves the Women's Action Coalition, we were resolved to
emphasize action over our loosely based affinity as artists. It was also suggested that
referring to ourselves as artists was more passive, exclusionary, and limiting" (Essoglou
339). Unfortunately, they simply displaced one category for another. While they were
careful to choose action, they were not careful to define action: for whom, by whom, with
what means, etc. Rather than defining, they assumed the inclusion of "women"
(Essoglou 362); in other words, they did not look to the individuals comprising WAC.
They took on a breathtaking number of campaigns during their brief two year existence,
some of which include "the Pink Slip Action, the Democratic and Republican
conventions, Clinic Defense, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Women Firefighters, the Glen
Ridge Rape Trial, Rape is a War Crime, Take Back the Night March, Stop Police
Brutality, Tax Reform for Health Care, and more" (Essoglou 351). With all these
campaigns, though, the driving force of action caused them to keep pressing forward
despite dissent within their ranks that not even everyone their was being heard.
WAC's downfall was its inability to conceive situated knowledge. While they
artfully utilized direct action techniques from the ACT UP and Women's Health, Action
and Mobilization! (WHAM!) who had gone before them, they did not link their work
along other categorical lines as well (Essoglou 336). This failure to establish a firm
standpoint based on women's interpretation of their experiences in relationship to their
community led to categorization within WAC and ultimately to their inability to act
effectively. This was due to a limited understanding of various standpoints, not just one.
While individuals were a focus, they also became the focus, which is just as problematic
because neither situation provides context.
Individuals in Academia
Academics often signal their individual experience to the broader community of
academics in their research strategy. They do this through a conscious process of placing
themselves--their "method (techniques for gathering evidence) .... methodology (a
theory and analysis of how research should proceed) ... [and] epistemological issues
(issues about an adequate theory of knowledge or justificatory strategy)"--in a discursive
center (Harding 2). Method is privileged over experience here--which also leaves out
part of the equation.
From the perspective of standpoint epistemology, this emphasis is a necessary
component of research:
Another way to put this is that the beliefs and behaviors of the researcher are part of
the empirical evidence for (or against) the claims advanced in the results of the
research. This evidence too must be open to critical scrutiny no less than what is
traditionally defined as relevant evidence. Introducing this 'subjective' element into
the analysis in fact increases the objectivismm' which hides this kind of evidence
from the public. (Harding 9)
When writers emphasize their own experience in academia they highlight the potential
for merging categories. However, they are also open to critiques of the strategy "as an
attempt to create a more 'true' or 'authentic' depiction of the field encounter, thus once
again privileging the researcher's voice over others whose lives were the subject of
inquiry" (Naples 31). Academics must be careful to place their individual experience and
work in the ever-broadening context of that which informs it. Laying out the "facts" for
examination opens them to a critical examination of how they are informed by
categorization and how they might move from the delusion of severance to a place where
they can view their work anew--through the categories
This examination does not happen, however, without dislocation. Whenever a
paradigm shift is involved--from a focus on categories to a focus through categories--
invariably people will become grumpy, at least. This is to be expected; for example, right
now I am cozy inside writing, but my dog wants to drag me into the cold. While this may
appear on the surface to be much less complex than a categorical shift in perspective, it
still requires me to change my perceptions of how things are "supposed to be" at this
present moment. Similarly, when academics' and activists' focus shifts off categories the
results may be jarring--at first. However, by examining how they are both entangled in
the production of knowledge they can begin to move from dislocation to a location of
possibility and from the replication of disciplinary difference to a new conception of
disciplines, and knowledge, on a continuum.
Activists experience this categorical dislocation between assumptions over what
their action should "do" or "be." At a conference after the WTO protests in Seattle and
the World Bank and IMF protests in Washington, D.C., people such Ariana Huffington,
Michael Lerner, David Korten, Cornel West, and others gathered to discuss the "lack of
'unity of vision and strategy' guiding the vision against global corporatism" (Klein,
"Vision" 265). The participants were supposed to "give birth to a unified movement for
holistic social, economic, and political change" (Klein, "Vision" 265). Not only does this
goal sound difficult, near impossible, in the space of a few days, but it is also
counterintuitive for activists who define their work in terms of individual response:
When critics say that the protesters lack vision, what they are really saying is that
they lack an overarching revolutionary philosophy--like Marxism, democratic
socialism, deep ecology, or social anarchy--on which they all agree. That is
absolutely true, and for this we should all be extraordinarily thankful... It is to this
young movement's credit that it has as yet fended off all of these agendas and has
rejected everyone's generously donated manifesto, holding out for an acceptably
democratic, representative process to take its resistance to the next stage. Perhaps
its true challenge is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one
too quickly. (Klein, "Vision" 272-273)
These activists move from situated knowledge into their action. The dislocation comes
when their action has not been defined--not by outside influence--but by an internal
breakdown of the category.
Other activist groups feel similarly to the participant at the conference: "ACT UP
never entertained the notion that a group must hammer out its analysis before it takes
action; it instinctively disdained rallies, where speakers drone on to the already
converted" (Kauffman 38). Instead, they preferred to enact their high-profile style of
direct action for maximum results (Kauffman 38). This is not to imply that ACT UP had
no goals, but rather that they, like many other activist groups "consciously sought to
emphasize activist work and praxis over long discussions about philosophy or ideology"
(Shepard and Hayduk 8). The dislocation between activist work and knowledge, though,
is where we really meet a point of contention in this discussion.
An emphasis on action creates a very particular kind of knowledge. It values
specific acts and devalues others. This hierarchical relationship is in direct opposition to
activism's self-declared goals of a focus on individuals. By not first examining what
activism is and other categories that shape its meaning, activists lose any say in reshaping
its meaning. This is because they do not perceive it as something with an overarching
meaning to be queried.
The same may be said for academic work that speaks for social change without
considering the effect of academic writing or how it links with social change. Writing the
paper or doing the research without considering the category of academia (or what social
change might be) disregards the myriad forces within and outside the university pressing
on our work. Categorization draws a distinction between these two practices, but they
may not be so different in the end. When we examine categories and how knowledge is
produced within those categories, we see the similarities in practice within each. This is
not to say that academia and activism are the same or that they will become one happy
category (which would be an oxymoron anyway). Rather, it is to say that locating their
common practice as the production of knowledge allows people who work within
academy and activism to think about their work beyond the confines of categorization.
"HOW DOES SHE DO IT?": PRODUCING KNOWLEDGE IN ACADEMIA AND
What is the production of knowledge, anyway? It sounds like another abstraction
made up to confuse a simple process. Isn't knowledge either just intuitive or a
memorization of "facts"? And while it is often made to appear that way on the surface, it
is because of this seeming ease of acquisition that knowledge must be examined further.
Its processes are so bound up in production that they become obscured, accepted, and
replicated without notice.
Production and Knowledge
As a graduate student, I feel that I can only rarely escape the pressures of material
production: "Read more books, Anna;" "Write more papers, Anna;" "Publish and go to
conferences, Anna." I hear this internal refrain now due to the structures which support
it: the university, and more specifically, disciplinary demands.
While the people within this circuitous structure may feel that they are working to
produce new papers and even new ideas, what they are now doing is not the production
of knowledge: it is the replication of disciplinary difference. These are not just nuanced
versions of the same thing: the replication of disciplinary difference privileges
categorization. It does this by making phrases such as "academic enough" possible--it
enacts and sustains discipline specific standards. It also removes context from
knowledge by only looking within the discipline as a source.
In contrast, the production of knowledge is grounded in specificity: it centers
individuals and other ideas which inform its own. The effects are quite different as well.
The effect of the replication of disciplinary difference is more additions to the knowledge
base which sustains that discipline as set apart. The effect of the production of
knowledge is seeing what informs those ideas, that knowledge base, and each discipline,
and then taking that information to arrive upon a layered version of knowledge. When
we locate the similarity between academia and activism at the production of knowledge,
we acknowledge the processes that sustain those categories. For example, both
participate in creating knowledge, albeit with seemingly different tools because of their
categorical difference. To be reductive but make a point, academics write papers and
activists protest. In both examples, they are working to get out ideas to other people and
to further their own thought about those ideas. So even though protesting or doing door-
to-door campaigns about an issue may not look the same on the surface as this paper, at
the bottom it does something very similar. When we recognize this similarity, we then
have to acknowledge how we don't have the lock on those processes; the production of
knowledge is not categorically exclusive. When we see that the production of knowledge
does more than sustain our own work, we can begin to make our work (whatever it may
be) more concrete as it looks to sources outside its own genesis and category for further
The same dangers in academia can be said for activism as it works within itself.
Both areas produce specific kinds of knowledge, but that knowledge is constructed in
support of and as a structure for more of the same. Thus, the main danger when
considering the production of knowledge is removing meaning from the phrase and
leaving it open to any interpretation:
On the other hand, it must be said, in response to the left-wing or 'leftist' notion that
words, dreams, texts and concepts labour and produce on their own account, that
this leaves us with a curious image of labour without labourers, products without a
production process or production without products, and works without creators (no
'subject'--and no 'object' either!). The phrase 'production of knowledge' does make
a certain amount of sense so far as the development of concepts is concerned: every
concept must come into being and must mature. But without the facts, and without
the discourse of social beings or 'subjects', who could be said to produce concepts?
There is a point beyond which reliance on such formulas as 'the production of
knowledge' leads onto very treacherous ground: knowledge may be conceived of on
the model of industrial production, with the result that the existing division of
labour and use of machines, especially cybernetic machines, is uncritically
accepted; alternatively, the concept of production as well as the concept of
knowledge may be deprived of all specific content, and this from the point of view
of the 'object' as well as from that of the 'subject'--which is to give carte blanche to
wild speculation and pure irrationalism. (Lefebvre 72-73)
We must place knowledge solidly within its various contexts in order to examine it. As
Lefebvre points out, when you remove context from the production of knowledge (for
example, why did I start this project?) you are left with an empty phrase that can then be
used to mean any old thing. When we remove the production of knowledge from its
context then we are left with either (a) disciplinary difference; or (b) the actual
production of knowledge--with all the accompanying ominous images of isolated people
cranking out obscure ideas. When we place the production of knowledge in its context,
we place ourselves in the process, not behind it, and this gives us the possibility of
changing it from within and recognizing similarities in how we construct it.
When the production of knowledge is placed within its context, the people
involved in the process can begin to see its negative effect on their work: they are forced
to produce in order to move ahead in their work. Academics and activists speak their
own language, so to speak, in that they both have technical jargon which is (at least
relatively) inaccessible to outsiders. They use this language as a kind of shorthand;
however, it also serves to obfuscate the processes which get them there in the first place:
"One of the primary causes of academic mystification is the tendency to take academic
discourse for granted, as if it were a transparent vehicle of information or ideas" (Graff,
Clueless 25). This language is confusing because it presupposes disciplinary difference
and replicates it. It is removed from the processes which initiate it: "There is therefore
one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever
man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image,
wherever he links his language to the making of things .. and myth is impossible"
(Barthes 146). When we link the production of knowledge concretely to those who
produce it and to its processes then workers within academia and activism can move from
replication to transformation: with the processes revealed, they can see their similarities
and use them to re-imagine their work--and not only see it as "theirs."
Academics and the Production of Knowledge
A prevailing myth about academia is that knowledge produced in the sciences,
humanities, business fields, etc. is obviously disparate: it is generated differently and it
concludes with different results. While the processes at arriving upon knowledge may
appear different, they are actually quite similar: in all cases, the tools of the discipline,
and the work of others in that discipline, are used to further the process wherein they
produce more knowledge that contributes to that discipline. The replication of
disciplinary difference in "academia" makes the production of knowledge appear to be all
cognitive. The problem we confront now is the hidden "how." The how seems to get lost
in the production of academic knowledge in favor of the final result. Knowledge appears
to be the result of people who are smart sitting around thinking about things, when in
reality more takes place.
Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar are anthropologists who set out to uncover an
"anthropology of science" in their work Laboratory Life. In the introduction to this book,
Jonas Salk (who oversaw the laboratory they observed during the course of their
research) puts out a call for the clarification of scientific processes:
If the public could be helped to understand how scientific knowledge is generated
and could understand that it is comprehensible and no more extraordinary than any
other field of endeavor, they would not expect more of scientists than they are
capable of delivering, nor would they fear scientists as much as they do. This
would clarify not only the social position of scientists in society, but also the public
understanding of the substance of science, of scientific pursuits and of the creation
of scientific knowledge. It is sometimes discouraging that although we dedicate
our lives to the extension of knowledge, to shedding light and exemplifying
rationality in the world, the work of individual scientists, or the work of scientists
in general, is often understood only in a sort of magical or mystical way. (Salk 13-
Although Salk's request to demystify scientific processes is a positive step, it too
contributes to the replication of scientific knowledge because it is cloaked in the very
language that creates these problems to begin with. He says that scientists "dedicate
[their] lives to the extension of knowledge [and] to shedding light and exemplifying
rationality in the world" without ever explaining what on earth that could mean. He says
that he wants people to better understand scientists and that they are often viewed as
mysterious; however, this very language of exploration and conquest is what constructs
Latour and Woolgar work in the lab to uncover "the social construction of
scientific knowledge in so far as this draws attention to the process by which scientists
make sense of their observations" (32). By revealing the process inherent in the scientific
construction of knowledge, Latour and Woolgar are able to link science to other fields
which contribute to its advancement, show how social relations influence this process,
and examine how knowledge becomes accepted in the sciences. They point out that
afterr the paper which incorporates these figures has been written, and the main
result of the paper has been embodied in some new inscription device, it is easy to
forget that the construction of the paper depended on material factors. The bench
space will be forgotten, and the existence of laboratories will fade from
consideration. Instead, 'ideas,' 'theories,' and 'reasons' will take their place. (Latour
and Woolgar 69)
Implicit in "the existence of laboratories" are the social relations which allowed the
knowledge to surface. The scientific replication of knowledge, however, obscures this
through the progression whereby "an important feature of fact construction is the process
whereby 'social' factors disappear once a fact is established" (Latour and Woolgar 23).
Science thus becomes a category which will not play with others. It evolves a process
which maintains the replication of disciplinary difference and scientistsss thus appear to
operate scientifically because they are scientists" (Latour and Woolgar 153). Although
this is an obvious tautology, it reveals the danger of categorization as this is precisely
what categorization works to uphold.
The same process is repeated in the humanities, although on the surface by
apparently different means:
[The field coverage model's] great advantage was to make the department and
curriculum virtually self-regulating. By assigning each instructor a commonly
understood role--to cover a predefined period or field--the principle created a
system in which the job of instruction could proceed as if on automatic pilot,
without the need for instructors to debate aims and methods. It is only the field-
coverage principle that explains how the literature department has managed to
avoid paralyzing clashes of ideology during a period when it has preserved much of
its earlier traditional orientation while incorporating disruptive novelties such as
contemporary literature, black studies, feminism, Marxism, and deconstruction.
(Graff, Professing 7).
The field-coverage model, which attempts to account for variety, can appear to escape
categorization--within that particular discipline. If English has specialists for every area,
then it appears to be looking beyond the scope of English, or at least a narrow conception
of English. However, the field-coverage model actually enforces the categorization of
English even further. It does this by forcing "English" specialties.
Humanities departments are also dependent on social relations in order to produce
their work: the workers build on the work of other researchers (this paper is a perfect
example) to make their argument. They then take that new argument as evidence of
something "new" they have created, seemingly out of thin air, because the new then
becomes the basis of a different stepping off point. The new, though, serves to replicate
disciplinary difference as it (typically) stays within the confines of that discipline:
"Literature thus tends to be placed outside or above the sphere of practical affairs; the
stress on formal esthetic properties moves it in the direction of art-for-art's-sake. At the
same time, the professionalization of literary criticism--its academic 'disciplining'--has
separated it also from the realm of social practice" (Brantlinger 68). This is the catch-22
of categories: they demand attention no matter how you try to recast them. As long as
you still accept a categorical premise, you are unable to escape working within that
paradigm. This is not to say that the paradigm must be throw out completely; rather,
changing how we think about categorical premises can give us the ability to negotiate
those premises and draw new ones based on the production of knowledge. This same
process is repeated within other disciplines in the humanities and beyond as well; it is not
unique to literature because what is being reflected is the replication of disciplinary
difference, which is applicable beyond narrow disciplinary definitions.
Within the university, cultural studies attempts to break down some of these
entrenched notions of knowledge. It does so by locating meaning in various locations
and by looking for fissures in ways meaning gets written (Brantlinger 16-17). I believe
this emphasis on interconnection is useful for breaking down the delusion of severance--
so long as individual subjectivity does not get written away in the process. Situated
knowledge can be used here as one of the ways we write meaning--and difference.
Cultural studies also emphasizes "breaking down intellectual barriers to culture and
forging new patterns of intellectual and political critique both within and outside the
university. A renewed cultural criticism ought to look beyond the isolated text to the
creation of oppositional forms that are simultaneously academic and public, literary and
political" (Brantlinger 21). Brantlinger's call for critique inside and outside the university
is helpful for envisioning ways that connections could be forged between the two, but
only once both are first recognized for their constituted difference. Brantlinger easily
links "academic and public, literary and political" in his vision without first considering
the internal organization of those structures and how they produce knowledge. One
cannot transform into another without considering both how they are constituted as
categories and who composes them.
The work produced within each discipline reflects the organization of the
discipline: the knowledge produced works to sustain this structure. The same can be said
for the university as a whole, as todayda, all departments of the University can be urged
to strive for excellence, since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to
its emptiness" (Readings 23). Of course people want to be excellent, produce riveting
papers, conduct breakthrough experiments, and so on. However, when this production is
taken out of context and held up as a result of the triumph of knowledge, little is
accomplished. Individuals are removed from this process and trumped by how their work
"contributes to the conversation."
Activists and the Production of Knowledge
A prevailing myth about activism is that that is all it is about--action. More
importantly, the myth maintains the idea that people simply gather together about
something they are passionate about and then "do" something about it. They may have to
do some internal strategizing, but the action evolves naturally due to the work of the
activists. However, this is hardly the case. The apparent ease with which this action
takes place covers the process whereby it is possible: an incredible amount of research
and theorizing must take place first.
On January 1, 1994, the date of the beginning of the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA), the Zapatistas began an armed uprising in the Mexican state of
Chiapas that "was the first denunciation of a 'new world order' from the viewpoint of that
order's victims" (Hayden 2). This uprising would have been impossible without the
previous years of organization and theorizing by its members. The figurehead of the
movement, Subcomandante Marcos, describes how the position of the Zapatistas differs
from other uprisings: "In previous armies, soldiers used their time to clean their weapons
and stock up ammunition. Our weapons are words, and we may need our arsenal at any
moment" ("Hourglass" 12). The Zapatistas draw on the power of demystification to give
power to their activism. Rather than succumbing to denunciations of action without
thought, they consciously expose their processes for scrutiny.
Certainly, they invoke this method as deliberately in the production of knowledge
as do methods meant to obscure. However, their self-revelatory process exposes their
Speaking and listening is how true men and women learn to walk. It is the word
that gives form to the walk that goes on inside us. It is the word that is the bridge
to cross to the other side. Silence is what Power offers our pain in order to make us
small. When we are silenced, we remain very much alone. Speaking, we heal the
pain. Speaking, we accompany one another. Power uses the word to impose his
empire of silence. We use the word to renew ourselves. Power uses silence to hide
his crimes. We use silence to listen to one another, to touch one another, to know
one another. This is the weapon, brothers and sisters. We say, the word remains.
We speak the word. We shout the word. We raise the word and with it break the
silence of our people. We kill the silence by living the word. Let us leave Power
alone in what the lie speaks and hushes. Let us join together in the word and the
silence which liberate. (Marcos, "Word" 76)
Marcos's repetition of the word throughout his actions and writings (which are
inseparable), show us how an exposure of the processes leads into new forms of activism.
It also places individuals and their experiences solidly in the forefront of their movement.
Marcos is suspected to be a "former" academic, a Marxist whose academic status
is "former" only because he no longer works within a university. Unquestionably, no
matter who he is, Marcos's recognition of the similarities between thought and action,
academia and activism, fostered the Zapatistas: "He wrote in a torrent, producing
hundreds of texts, quickly disproving Hannah Arendt's claim that 'under conditions of
tyranny it is far easier to act than to think.' In less than twelve months, during sleepless
sessions on the word processor in the midst of fighting a war, [Marcos] generated enough
text for a 300-page volume" (Stavans 389). He produced all this writing to explain the
Zapatistas' demands, communicate with people outside the movement, and as or more
importantly, to engage with people who are drawn by that. The written word became a
seductive tool for taking the Zapatistas beyond another group of indigenous people who
could easily be dismissed. The Zapatistas combine the power of action and the power of
the word to amplify both.
This amplification occurs because the combination of power and action relies upon
the similarities between the production of knowledge. Marcos would have been unable to
maximize the processes of academia and activism without working with their similarities
in production. The similarities allowed him to see how the two categories could
communicate with each other, rather than isolate each other, and then the Zapatistas
began to build a movement. The Zapatista uprising was not solely activist or academic;
instead, it was both.
Similarly, from November 28-December 3, 1999, the WTO protests relied on
months of research: "WTO week in Seattle was a week of scholarship" (Thomas 13).
The protesters built on the prior knowledge of each group present and then worked to
accumulate new information about how to protest the WTO most effectively. So many
groups participated in this protest that it is impossible to name them all. However, what
is possible is imagining the interconnection necessary for such a protest to succeed.
While they did rely on social relationships to accomplish their work, Noam
Chomsky points out that other factors were necessary for success:
The highly successful demonstration of 'people's power' at the World Trade
Organization provides impressive testimony to the effectiveness of educational and
organizing efforts designed for the long term, carried out with dedication and
persistence, based on open and honest interchange, and guided by careful
evaluation of attainable goals and future prospects. (qtd. in Danaher and Burbach
As with the Zapatistas, the WTO protesters in Seattle relied on a network of knowledge
to achieve their goal of shutting down the WTO talks. The emphasis on education
present in Seattle allowed the protesters to consider what they were doing and why.
Again, though, the protests were neither entirely academic nor activist. The protests
relied on the processes of both to work with such a complex number of issues, groups,
These two examples show how groups seemingly focused only on action--
especially if they are observed through the lens of the media--rely on more. When we see
a protest on television, all we see is the action. We forget (or never realize) just as easily
as the process of categorization wants us to that the production of knowledge never
emerges from a puff of smoke.
What's the Point?
The question of "why are we doing this again?" sneaks up in unsettling ways for
both academics and activists. Both academics and activists often work, in their own
ways, on similar issues. However, if they're both producing knowledge, then some
questions quickly become forgotten as they are caught up in the process of that
production: "So far as the concept of production is concerned, it does not become fully
concrete or take on a true content until replies have been given to the questions that it
makes possible: 'Who produces?', 'What?', 'How?', 'Why and for whom?' Outside the
context of these questions and their answers, the concept of production remains purely
abstract" (Lefebvre 69). If we begin to answer these questions then we can begin to make
the production of knowledge more concrete. So our question now is, "what are these
people doing, and why?"
In bell hooks's Talking Back, she gives voice to voice: changing from object to
subject and speaking for oneself. Speaking becomes both a way to engage in active self-
transformation and a rite of passage where one moves from object to subject: "Only as
subjects can we speak. As objects, we remain voiceless--our beings defined and
interpreted by others" (hooks 12). In Talking Back, hooks creates a conscious discussion
between herself, her readerss, her text, her ideas, and back and forth and in between.
She does this to maintain her goal that "[v]isionary feminist theory must be articulated in
a manner that is accessible if it is to have meaningful impact" (hooks 39).
This question of accessibility delves into the problem of breaking down
categories. Accessible to whom? According to whose definition? hooks is quick to
point out that her goal "as a feminist thinker and theorist is to take that abstraction and
articulate it in a language that renders it accessible--not less complex or rigorous--but
simply more accessible" (hooks 39). When we think about accessibility we often think of
giving more people the ability to render something available to them: accesss has a
physical connotation--approaching, entering, using. The idea of access is represented
metaphorically as passages through doors and gates, over obstacles, barriers, and
blockages" (Scott 178). Thinking about access physically is especially interesting in light
of a challenge to break down categories--another physical metaphor. Accessibility, like
categorization, becomes tricky when left undefined. The idea is enticing that we can
make our work, no matter what it is, accessible to others (implicitly--make it matter to
others). However, the definition of accessibility changes depending on who gives it.
Some people may define accessibility in terms of access for others in the discipline
whereas others may define it as institutional access--and anything in between.
Accessibility functions as a category because it appears to be relatively simple, but that
simplicity masks its underlying processes.
Another question related to accessibility seems to be, why write a paper about
how social change is, say, reflected in contemporary novels (or the connection between
academia and activism), when you could work on actually effecting that change? Why
am I writing this paper rather than "doing" something about the problem I perceive? The
answer is simple--because I can. Yet, this is really not a simple answer. The fact remains
that, while I can produce this paper, it cannot produce itself. It needs me, it needs the
work of other people, and it needs the work of my discipline. In other words, it requires
social processes; this is not the exception, it is the norm. And while I can just turn this
paper in as the next step on my academic journey and move on without giving it a second
thought, I cannot remove it from the production of knowledge. Even if only a handful of
people read this paper, it has already interacted in this process because I have engaged in
the (multiple) steps necessary for it.
So how does this paper "do" something in its own way? And more importantly,
why "should" it? Perhaps we are asking too much of categories. They do not need to
interact--they already do. This paper "does" something by interacting in the production
of knowledge, which meets up with many other forms of "doing": other academic
disciplinary work and various forms of activism. The production of knowledge is the
common ground between forms of thinking and doing--it is where they get tossed around
and formed into new conceptions of each.
"WE'LL MEET UP SOMEWHERE": THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ACADEMIA
Categorization works to maintain disciplinary difference. However, as we have
seen, exposing the processes which lead to the production of knowledge can help us
move beyond categorization. This is not to say that academia and activism "should" meet
in the middle. Rather, it acknowledges how they already do meet by virtue of their
participation in the production of knowledge. It locates their difference in the category in
order to examine how it constitutes those involved. This also allows those involved to
see their similarities and uncover their own work from a new perspective.
Moving from "Academia" to Academia
Cherrie Moraga begins Loving in the War Years with the sometimes frightening
admission/reminder that "[o]n some level you have to be willing to lose it all to write--to
risk telling the truth that no one may want to hear, even you" (Moraga xii). While this
point of situated knowledge lets her reader know that she is going to position herself
within the contexts of her experience, it also implies an action that may or may not be
present. Moraga tends to conflate writing and action, but she does not break down the
category of action in her work.
Moraga addresses the difficulty of theory and praxis at numerous points
throughout her work:
[t]he university allows a benign liberalism, even a healthy degree of radical
transgressive thought, as long as it remains just that: thought translated into the
conceptual language of the dominant class to be consumed by academics of the
dominant class, and as such rendered useless to the rest of us. If the study of
insurrection must occur within the conceptual framework and economic constraints
of the patron-university--e.g., tenure tracking, corporate-funded grants and
fellowships, publishing requirements, etc.--insurrection can never be fully
conceived and certainly never realized. (Moraga 173)
Moraga's anger with academia comes through clearly here; however, I believe that
her disconnect comes from categorization. She points out that the university allows
varying degrees of thought, as long as it is "just that: thought... [which is then] rendered
useless to the rest of us." A number of categorical assumptions beleaguer this statement:
first of all, she assumes what is "supposed" to get done in a university setting. Rather
that assessing it for how it creates meaning, she tries to merge it with activism. Second,
she assumes that just thought cannot provoke action on its own and that thought is not a
form of action. Third, she aligns herself with "the rest of us" when she also works/has
worked within the confines of the university and is thus at least a part of both groups she
She also presumes that the "study of insurrection must occur" at all, much less
within the confines of the university, and then she points out that "insurrection can never
be ... realized" within that paradigm. Her equation of study with insurrection
counteracts her own construction of privileging action. Here I have my devil's advocate
hat on to show how by not first interrogating the categories she so urgently wants to
change, she writes herself into a situation which really can never be realized. She does
not look at how activism itself is also a site of knowledge production which can be
critiqued and utilized.
Nonetheless, Moraga does retain some hope for the university: "There are
exceptional students and exceptional faculty. There are remarkable moments where
'critical consciousness,' ... is awakened, where the most visionary and dangerous of
faculty inspire thoughts that directly affect the bodies sitting in front of them. The
bodies think. They stand up. They are not afraid of freedom. They act (Moraga 186).
However, even this hope is misleading as she places it onto bodies that "act" while never
defining the difference between those exceptional students who think and those who act--
or those who think and act. Moraga makes a mistake in writing the hope onto bodies
rather than first breaking down the categories, because she gives no definition of what
their action is or how it may be "better" than not acting (or what action means). By
avoiding the issue of the value she instills in action she is able to invoke it in the name of
change in the university without considering how that change could occur and how it
Leslie Salzinger attempts to bridge the problem of categorization in her work,
Genders in Production. In the beginning of the text she is very candid with the reader
about her position as a writer and a researcher:
It would be unbearably ironic to embark on such an investigation without placing
oneself within the panorama. Thus, as observer and analyst, both in the field and in
my writing, I attempt to define my position and to keep that position apparent. This
is not because the book is about me. It is not. Rather, in clarifying my location, I
give the reader the chance to understand the social/intellectual vantage point from
which this story is told. (Salzinger 2)
She conducts research in four maquiladoras in Mexico and works there in order to gain
insight into how gender subj activities are formed through the work. Her standpoint,
therefore, produces the knowledge in the text as much as (if not more than) that of the
workers she encounters. She tries to move from "Academia" to academia through
references to the political aspect of her work. By engaging her work outside the
university, Salzinger sees her work as somehow useful outside it.
In her conclusion she describes her vision of how the information she gathered
might be used:
Understanding the selves management addresses and evokes makes it possible to
speak directly to the subjects actually working. It also makes a particular version
of consciousness-raising available as an organizing tool, as activists themselves can
come to see and make visible the processes through which gendered 'manageability'
is generated under exploitative conditions. (Salzinger 165)
Even though this description does move towards a common ground between academia
and activism, it still retains a discontinuity. There is a disjuncture between what the
academic "can do" and what the activist "can do" in this construction. Here the activist
"can come to see" only with the academic's knowledge. She can act only with the
academic's help. Salzinger does not open space for the knowledge the activist also
produces and brings to meet with the academic's knowledge and action.
Salzinger's work comes close to breaking down the categories of academia and
activism, but in order to move beyond categorization into a site of possibility we must
take her conjectures a step further. Both academia and activism produce knowledge at
the categorical level and at the level of individuals. This dual meaning requires a new
focus. It requires attention to individual standpoint while concurrently envisioning both
academia and activism as producers of knowledge. Rather than forcing one category into
the other, which inherently values one over the other, this formula allows for difference
because it acknowledges the role of both in the creation of meaning. This new focus
opens a common ground between and within academia and activism that individuals on
both "sides" can navigate.
Moving from "Activism" to Activism
Within activism, breaking down categorization requires not only movement
between movements but also movement within movements. This means that those
involved must be willing to engage both their social relations and their theorizing with
multiple layers of people in order to connect their work across--not only activism--but
other arenas as well. "Activism" becomes activism when it looks beyond its categorical
boundaries and moves into an organization of knowledge processes that translate within
and beyond categories.
For the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos became "a one-man Web: he is a
compulsive communicator, constantly reaching out, drawing connections between
different issues and struggles" (Klein, "Unknown" 119). Through this constant
communication, he is able to draw in supporters for his movement. He is also able to
generate support for a new kind of movement, one based on communication:
[Marcos] has created his own dazzling image as a masked mito genial--his term,
meaning an inspired act of mythmaking. He has staged a very real, threatening war
on the Mexican state based on almost no firepower and a brilliant use of Mexicans'
most resonant images: the Revolution, the peasants' unending struggle for dignity
and recognition, the betrayed Emiliano Zapata. (Guillermoprieto 37)
The Zapatistas' move towards communication allows them to extend their movement--
even into new ones. Their emphasis on communication underlines the connections made
at the production of knowledge by doing just that: communicating. This is not a
tautology; rather, this assertion shows how the Zapatistas work to expose their work--
how it comes about, for whom, and by whom. As they assert how they produce
knowledge, they in turn open new avenues for their work because they do not limit its
The Zapatistas informed other movements that followed them through their
strategy of communication:
The Zapatista movement has generated movements of solidarity across the world.
At one level it has coalesced around a defense of the oppressed--the exemplary
victims of neoliberalism and corporate greed. That is their symbolic power. An
anarchist friend of mine suggested to me after Seattle that 'this was all because of
the Zapatistas.' Did he mean their example? In part that is what he meant--but
beyond that he saw them as representatives of a new politics. Zapatismo does not
seek power, only justice; Zapatismo does not acknowledge leaders, but it is
democratic in the extreme; Zapatismo is not a party, but a living and changing
movement; Zapatismo has used the Internet to create an international connection
between all those who reject capitalism red in tooth and claw. (Gonzalez 449-450)
In short, Zapatismo lays the groundwork for exposing the process of the production of
knowledge. It does this by placing knowledge in the context from which it came and
exposing the hidden "how." It moves from "Activism" to activism by decentralizing
categorization and centering the production of knowledge.
The sheer number of groups participating in the WTO protest in Seattle required
at least some participation between movements: "It's estimated that at least 700 groups
were represented at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle. Most of the groups represented
civil society; they were not affiliated with governments, although some were agencies
that were affiliated with the United Nations" (Thomas 66). This wide network worked to
achieve a number of goals in Seattle. It also worked to move beyond Seattle as groups
worked together in new ways and were able to take that interaction to Washington, DC
The mass, nonviolent protests in Seattle represented the culmination of a months-
long process of coalition building by organizations that did not initially all know,
understand or trust each other. We got to know each other as we discussed the
politics of trade and investment, and discussed strategies for confronting the WTO.
We won mutual trust and respect as we debated tactics. We became one movement
as we took classes in civil disobedience tactics, and laid the foundation for legal
defense. That collective and democratic process made possible the unity among
environmentalists, labor unionists and many others--groups who had not always
worked so well together in the past. (Benjamin 68)
The strategizing and theorizing that took place before Seattle reflects the protesters'
dedication to building a new kind of knowledge--one that looks for connections beyond
Connection between academia and activism give us the chance to look at
similarities within and between movements, disciplines, ideas, etc. It gives us a new
conceptualization of our own work in the context of others. Rather than viewing our
work from the named label, academia or activism, we can view it from something
connectedly new. This removes the presumption that we all already know what is going
on in any area.
"WE LIKE IT. WHO ELSE MATTERS?": CONCLUSION
For both academics and activists, a big question has to be audience. For whom are
we producing this work? Even when the production of knowledge is not placed in its
context, audience is an issue. Sometimes it does get lost in the shuffle as the demands of
material production usurp it, but we always think in the back of our minds, "who will
read this paper?", or even better, "who cares about this at all?"
A focus on the production of knowledge, rather than the replication of disciplinary
difference, will allow the question of audience (and accessibility) to emerge more fully.
It will do so by shifting the focus off a particular category, and thus a narrow idea of why
and for whom we do this work, and will enable us to work with and for more people.
This will allow us to contextualize our work, and the production of knowledge, even
As the production of knowledge moves from replication to transformation and as
individual standpoints move to the forefront then we can move towards a connection
between academia and activism. With connection, we can see knowledge on a
continuum, rather than as something that is produced in a disciplinary vacuum (whatever
your discipline may be). When we see knowledge on a continuum, we can include more
people in our conceptions of knowledge and see that people already "care" about what we
do because they are already working on it themselves with varying shades of nuance. We
may not be able to save the world through graduate school, but we can begin to take hold
of the possibility already there
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Anna Lee Guest graduated from Carson-Newman College with a B.A. in English
and philosophy. She will receive her M.A. in English from the University of Florida in
May 2005. She plans to continue her work in Florida's Ph.D. program in the fall of 2005.
This June, Anna will marry Nic Jelley and spend the summer relaxing. These are
her happiest plans.