Henry A. Giroux | Academic Madness and the Politics of Exile

2014 1117giroux (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted: Lost and Taken)Ideological fundamentalism and political purity appear to have a strong grip on US and Canadian societies as can be seen in the endless attacks on reason, truth, critical thinking and informed exchange. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decries what he derisively attacks as intellectuals and journalists who are “committing sociology” by which he means holding power accountable. For Harper, the attack on “committing sociology” becomes synonymous with removing critical thought from both the university and public discourse.

In one instance of ideological suppression, the Harper government has been accused by a number of scientists and academics of “a pattern that has seen the . . . government reduce media access to scientists and cut funding and programs” because the latter have provided evidence for the destructive effects of climate change. (1) Of course, in the United States, political illiteracy seems to be the one qualification, besides great wealth, that gets one elected to political office. At the same time, celebrity culture smothers the US public with a rampant idiocy that practically ensures that violence is largely experienced as entertainment further reinforced by an anti-intellectualism that provides the foundation for paralyzing most forms of critical and engaged agency.

This type of fundamentalism might be expected in a society that has become increasingly anti-intellectual, given its commitment to commodities, violence, privatization, the death of the social and the bare bones relations of commerce. But it is more surprising when it appears in universities, especially among so-called liberals and progressives. In this instance, political fragmentation, desperation and the fog of insularity appear to be producing a form of ideological fundamentalism fueled by a take-no-prisoners version of political purity that is wrapped in a kind of self-righteous moralism. This is a moralism marked by an inability or reluctance to imagine what others are thinking. Or as Kant once said, “to think in the place of the other person.” This type of ideological self-righteousness by so-called progressives, and sometimes elements of the orthodox left, is especially dispiriting because it makes a mockery of academic freedom, and often condemns other positions even before they are heard or are available to be discussed and analyzed.

Rather than open up conversations, this type of pedagogical terrorism closes them down and then collapses into a kind of comedy of intellectual boasting while assuming the moral high ground. Hubris becomes more than shameful in this instance; it becomes toxic, blinding the ideological warriors to their own militant ignorance and anti-democratic rhetoric while shutting down any notion of the university as a democratic public sphere. What is lost here is how a pedagogy of repression assumes a revolutionary stance when in fact everything about it is counterrevolutionary. In the end this suggests a kind of theoretical helplessness, a replacing of the inability to think with the discourse of denunciation and a language overflowing with binarisms of good and evil. What is at risk here is both the moral collapse of politics and the undermining of the very nature of critical thought and agency. Of course, this raises the question of how one survives in the university without being in exile, or at the very best existing with one foot in and one foot out.

Such attacks have been waged against critics who speak outside of the box of normalized political positions. Historically, these would include critics such as Scott Nearing, Paul Sweezy and I.F. Stone to more recent radicals such as Ward Churchill, Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita. One can hear echoes of such attacks on women who criticize some versions of what might be called a take-no-prisoner, all-boys club in administration; critics of the Israeli government; critics who call for overcoming political fragmentation among the left; theorists who speak of the need for emancipatory forms of leadership and authority – while refusing the so-called leaderless revolution – with calls for long-term organizations and strategies. And so it goes.

And then there are those of us who talk about pedagogy in the tradition of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Paulo Freire, who are viewed as not being abstract enough or relegated to the garbage can of theory because we believe that matters of agency and culture are as important as economic and state structures. What the fundamentalists cannot understand is that the call for lifting ideas into public life supports the assumption that theory is crucial but should be accessible and address important social issues. In this instance, matters of politics, morality and relevance are not stripped from theory but give it life, room to breathe, and connect it to the rhythms of everyday life.

In other cases, intellectual capacity and insight collapse into biology as certain individuals and groups are excluded from voicing a position because they are deemed not authentic enough. When Freire was alive there was a group of so-called radical editors at the Harvard Educational Review who argued that he should not be published in the journal because he was considered the white, male voice of critical pedagogy. Under such circumstances, the poisonous embrace of a deadening binarism turned critical pedagogy into the enemy of feminism. In this instance, political purity embraced a version of intellectual infantilism in which all that is left politically is what Richard Rodriquez calls “an astonishing vacancy.” (2)

How can one not be in exile working in academia, especially if one refuses the cliques, mediocrity, hysterical forms of resentment, backbiting and the endless production of irrelevant research? These spaces have become dead zones of the imagination mixed with a kind of brutalizing defense of their own decaying postures and search for status. Leadership in too many departments is empty, disempowering and utterly rudderless, lacking any vision or sense of social responsibility. Students are constantly being told that they should feel good instead of working hard and focusing. We no longer ask students what they think but how they feel. Everyone wants to be a happy consumer. When students are told that all that matters for them is feeling good and that feeling uncomfortable is alien to learning itself, the very nature of teaching and learning is compromised.

This is the academic version of the Dr. Phil TV show and often results in modes of pedagogy that are as demeaning to students as they are to professors who take on the role of therapists who speak in terms of comfort zones but rarely offer support in the interest of empowering students rather than infantilizing them. This is not to suggest that students should feel lousy about themselves or that educators shouldn’t care about their students. But caring in the most productive sense means providing students with the knowledge, skills and theoretical rigor that offer them the kinds of challenges that make them feel good about what they accomplish in their capacity to grow intellectually, emotionally and ethically. Or as Victoria Harper puts it, “because they had accomplished something; they had learned to grapple with difficult material, understand critical ideas, and even started to engage in real dialogue.” (3)

In the neoliberal university, there seems to be a pathological disdain for community, trust and collaboration. As the bounds of sociality and social responsibility are undermined all that is left is a kind of sordid careerism, and the quest for status and some financial crumbs from corporations and defense contractors. What remains is the insufferable cultural capital of academics bounded by the private orbits and self-interests in which they live. These are academics who have surrendered to a regime of conformity and instrumental rationality while reducing politics to a private endeavor.

At their most cartoonish moment, they appear to inhabit a kind of cultural capital made visible by their desire to tattoo an Oxford degree on their foreheads and speak with a British ruling-class accent. Academia is now overwhelmed by reclusive boundaries of the private, the irrelevant and the loss of solidarity. Rigor, public scholarship and integrity are in short supply in these departments. So is sanity. Under such circumstances, exile seems less like a reprieve than a revitalized kind of public space where a new language, understanding of politics and new forms of solidarity can be nurtured among the displaced, the othered and those who refuse the neoliberal machinery of social and political death that now defines education as a source of profit and mode of commerce.

Zygmunt Bauman comments on his notion of welcoming exile under certain circumstances are not surprising, especially in light of his own experience of marginality in US scholarship. But what must be made clear is that his comments do not constitute a celebration of marginality; rather they are an affirmation to keep going in the midst of what sometimes appears as a form of academic madness driven by forces that undermine the university as a democratic public sphere. Bauman writes:

I need to admit, however, that my view of the sociologists’ vocation does not necessarily overlap with the consensus of the profession. Dennis Smith has described me as an “outsider through and through.” It would be dishonest of me to deny that denomination. Indeed, throughout my academic life I did not truly “belong” to any school, monastic order, intellectual camaraderie, political caucus, or interest clique. I did not apply for admission to any of them, let alone did much to deserve an invitation; nor would I be listed by any of them – at least unqualifiedly – as “one of us.” I guess my claustrophobia – feeling as I do ill at ease in closed rooms, tempted to find out what is on the other side of the door – is incurable; I am doomed to remain an outsider to the end, lacking as I [do] the indispensable qualities of an academic insider: school loyalty, conformity to the procedure, and readiness to abide by the school-endorsed criteria of cohesion and consistency. And, frankly, I don’t mind . . . (4)

While I don’t want to romanticize positions of marginality, they may be the only spaces left in the university where one can develop a comprehensive vision of politics and change, challenge the often deadening silos of some versions of identity politics, and make connections with social movements outside of the university for whom both the educative nature of politics matters along with its economic and structural forces. Maybe the space of exile is one of the few spaces left in neoliberal societies where one can cultivate a sense of meaningful connections, solidarity and engaged citizenship. Exile may be the space where a kind of double consciousness can be cultivated that points beyond the structures of domination and repression to what the poet Claudia Rankine calls a new understanding of community, politics and citizenship in which the social contract is revived as a kind of truce in which we allow ourselves to be flawed together. She writes:

You want to belong, you want to be here. In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live – you will live together. The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen. As an equal. As just another person. As another first person. There’s a letting go that comes with it. I don’t know about forgiving, but it’s an “I’m still here.” And it’s not just because I have nowhere else to go. It’s because I believe in the possibility. I believe in the possibility of another way of being. Let’s make other kinds of mistakes; let’s be flawed differently. (5)

To be “flawed differently” mitigates against the circles of certainty that define fundamentalisms of all ideological stripes and suggests the need for democratic public spheres, noisy conversations and a kind of third space informed by compassion and a respect for the other. Under such circumstances, critical exchange matters not simply as a performance of the self interviewing itself but as a reaching out, a willingness to experience the other within the space of exile that heralds a democracy to come. This would be a democracy where intellectual thought informs critique, embodies a sense of integrity, and reclaims agency in the service of justice and equality.


1. Carol Linnitt, “Harper’s attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy,” Academic Matters (May 2013). Online: http://www.academicmatters.ca/2013/05/harpers-attack-on-science-no-science-no-evidence-no-truth-no-democracy/
See more at: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/harper-controlled-dfo-is-censoring-federal-scientists-with-research-rules-critics-say-1.75280#sthash.42UhaZul.dpuf

2. Richard Rodriquez, “Sign of the Times,” New York Times Style Magazine (October 19, 2014), p. 58.

3. Personal correspondence with Victoria Harper, November 17, 2014.

4. Efrain Kristal & Arne De Boever, “Disconnecting Acts: An Interview with Zygmunt Bauman Part II, Los Angeles Review of Books (November 12, 2014). Online: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/disconnecting-acts-interview-zygmunt-bauman-part-ii

5. Meara Sharma interviews Claudia Rankine, “Blackness as the Second Person,” Guernica (November 17, 2014). Online: https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/blackness-as-the-second-person/