Elitism, Academia and Journalism
Issue   |   Tue, 02/18/2014 - 23:35

When I read through my first draft of this article, incomplete, written over a month ago and forgotten in the crevices of one of my many draft article ideas folders, I nearly threw up my tea in my mouth. “On the dialectic of intellectual elitism and egalitarian accessibility” was my working title, and it just got worse from there on in. It was written in vague, hazy academese, with liberal arts college major words like “paradigmatic,” “praxis” and everyone’s favorite, “problematic”, cushioned in every single sentence. Worse still, it was an article that was supposed to be about journalism, academic elitism and accessibility.

Accessibility and intellectualism are hotly contested terms amongst the political left, and I often find myself torn between two very valid arguments regarding them. The ivory tower of leftist academia is well known and rigorously criticized: what does it mean to have a political philosophy that is all about “empowering the masses” (a very condescending term in and of itself) that is written in language that is ostensibly inaccessible to the people it is writing in support of? What does it mean to write in a language, in obtuse terms and in lofty, complex syntax, about theories meant to be emancipate precisely the people who will never have access to them? Further, writing in academic terminology is often — there is no other word for it — masturbatory. Academic writing often seems to serve no purpose but to be a self-congratulatory, self-contained discourse where academics talk with themselves and nobody else, and celebrate their own complex ideas without looking outside their bubble. What is the use of academic leftism that has the same intellectual rigour, but also same intellectual inaccessibility, as graduate level mathematics? Youngist.org recently had a good article that explained it in much clearer terms that I could. Entitled “The Revolution will not be cited,” the article claimed that, “[the goals of leftist activism] were met in conflict with a desire in academia to concentrate knowledge among groups of specialized elites, instead of a focus on popularizing this knowledge for the greater good. Try reading any academic text from your local women’s studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies or anthropology department. The texts are almost always written so that only academics can understand.”

Further, even if such writing is appropriate for the world of academia, what if it spills into journalism, the world of supposed increased accessibility? Now, before you can say pot, kettle, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my own history of articles has been accused of the very elitism I am currently explaining the problems of, so whatever I say next comes with a healthy dose of self-criticism and wariness of my own potential hypocrisy. But part of this article was motivated by an article I recently saw on ACVoice, entitled “On Desire and the Good Life,” by Alice Wang. Now, the article itself was something I completely agreed with, and I found it informative and interesting. It was on the theme of seeing ourselves as human capital under the capitalist regime, desiring things that were taught to us by the system rather than finding the space to follow our own desire and not subjecting ourselves to the dictates of neoliberalism. However, the article was extremely difficult for me to get through, despite the fact that I consider myself an adept reader. Despite delightful phrases such as “vanilla aphorisms that even the contrarians among us can only concede as unequivocally stupid moves,” I was slightly turned off by the article’s employment of “Lacan’s reading of Antigone,” and that it was tagged, “Antigone, Ethical Desire, Foucault, Lacan and Secularization.” (Let’s not even talk about how the concept of secularization and neoliberalism, which I am familiar with, are not even mentioned in the article: the tag is pretty tangential to the central affair.)

Look, don’t get me wrong. I get what the article is trying to say. And, having taken the classes that have undoubtedly inspired the author’s reading of neoliberalism, subjectivity and capitalism, I understand how Lacan’s reading of Antigone, and Foucault and self-subjectification as human capital/entrepreneurs of the self under the regime of neoliberalism are all relevant to her case. But would I have if I had not taken said classes? Would I have if I had not read Foucault, Lacan and Hayek? And that prompts me to ask: what are the ethics of writing a piece for public consumption that necessitates the working knowledge of these concepts? What’s the point of talking in terms of split subjectivity to someone with a non psychoanalysis background? And what are more responsible ways of communicating the same ideas — that are undoubtedly products of careful study of the theorists cited here and inseparable from one’s reading of them — without imposing it on a reader in obtuse and unfamiliar ways? Are we assuming everyone has read them, are we assuming everyone is going to understand without having read them or are we only writing for a select group of people who have read these authors (and probably thus agree with this article anyway)?

But at the same time, as I get myself fired up with these criticisms — not just with the ACVoice article I have cited, with my own writing, or with academia in general, two thoughts stop me. The first one is when I say lofty academic concepts, or academic theory in general, is inaccessible or too abstract for “the masses” (again, absolutely condescending terminology), what am I saying about the working class, the oppressed, the proletariat, etc? Am I saying thought and theory are inherently only accessible to an intellectual elite? Am I assuming people outside the ivory tower of academia cannot think, cannot theorize, cannot engage in intellectual abstraction or philosophical debates? Am I assuming intelligence, debate, philosophy, theory, are inherently bourgeoisie? Am I assuming that those outside the ivory tower are engaged only in the base satisfactions and banal pleasures of every day, “non intellectual” activities? Not only would I be horrifically mistaken to assume such a thing, but that would be one of the most arrogant things that I could be doing, far more arrogant and hubristic than using the word “hubristic” in an article. To assume that intellectualism is inherently bourgeoisie is more elitist than anything else, surely. To assume theory is a pastime of the elite rather than a form of resistance against oppression, is not only to devalue theory and thought itself, but also discredit the organic political thought produced through the works and action of activists, often working class activists, working on the field, and writing, thinking and theorizing at the same time.
Further, it’s important to remember that the “elite” language often employed by leftist critics, academics and journalists, while often excessive and masturbatory, is sometimes very necessary. When one is writing against the oppressiveness of “common sense” or against the status quo, one has to introduce ideas that are unthought of by the dominant discourse. That’s the whole point of resistant writing, that’s the whole reason they’re written in the first place. In order to do that, one uses words like “hegemony” or “orientalism” — as examples — simply because they are concepts that summarize in one word a whole work that explores a problem with the system that we don’t ordinarily see. Gramsci took hundreds of pages exposing to us what exactly “hegemony” means. When I use that word, I don’t use it to sound smart; I use it because it’s the only word that can express a specific idea that, if you don’t already know, it’ll take me a book to explain, which will derail me from the argument I’m trying to make. Language expands to imbue in itself hitherto unthought of ideas. To employ academese sometimes, is thus not an act of self-congratulation or intellectual masturbation, but simply an act of jumping off and working in collaboration with decades of other ideas and intense thought that have informed not just whole bodies of theory but also political practice.

Further, an n+1 article, entitled “Revolt of the Elites,” points us to the truth about language: it is inherently more democratic than any other institution, including institutions that are not usually considered elite like corporations, movie making franchises, the music industry and so on. Our particular strain of elitism doesn’t demonize these institutions the way we do the employment of academic language, which is funny considering that, “Language, once you grant universal literacy and mediatized standardization, is among the hardest resources to monopolize, especially now that the internet has rendered the costs of publication negligible. No one can read a lot without learning how to write, or pay close attention to articulate speech without becoming more silver-tongued himself. Language is that rare thing to be able to consume which is also to be able to produce it.”

So where does this leave us? Clearly, ivory tower radicalism, and the closed off walls of elite academia, are — dun, dun, dun — “problematic.” Or, to be more explicit, are undemocratic, masturbatory, hierarchical and reinforcing the very divisions that they claim to be fighting against. Even the n+1 article agrees, claiming that their passionate defense of language does not mean “that the garrulous universities, with their seminars, lectures, presses and journals, and the logorrheic publishing world  —  in the widest sense of books and blogs and journals and newspapers  —  are today vehicles of a truly democratic culture. Access to them is too undemocratic for that.” When we write in lofty terms, complex language and cite theorists that we know a majority of our peers might not have access to, we must question our own language and intentions.
Still, we must know what the problem is, and who our true enemies are. Our real problem is not theory, complex language or abstract philosophies and ideas itself, for these are often radical and have historically and currently ignited mass political action, fostered radical change and created extraodinary change. Not to mention, the very act of engaging in theory and intellectual work is often considered dangerous and subversive enough to the governments that several famous intellectuals have been banned, deported or arrested simply for their writing. Theories, ideas, and words have power. And this space of radical thought, intellectualism and theorization is something that every human has the capacity to engage in. To say that such an act means nothing to the working class is to deign them as something other than thinking, intelligent human beings.
Our real problem instead is the barriers that make access to ideas and theory easier for some and harder for others. Our real problem is that academic ideas are confined to journals that one needs to be a member of an elite institution or needs to pay for in order to read. Our real problem is that the capitalist work economy makes it possible only for certain people to have the time to read and engage and argue, while deeming others as only fit for hard and continuous physical labour. Our real problem is the network of politics and hierarchy that makes academic work more a game of connections and networking rather than earnest intellectual work and discovery and collaboration. Our real problem is college bureaucrats, MOOCs, politicians who hike up the price of education and make universal education impossible, lobby groups and people who profit off the education industry. Our real enemy is not theory or complex words, or abstractions.

Our real enemy is not ideas. Our real enemy is inaccessibility and capitalism.

a '13 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/19/2014 - 22:46

Excellent article. Noam Chomsky has had similar thoughts, which are worth reading:


Colby (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/19/2014 - 22:47

Great stuff Meghna. One of your best yet.

Lester (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/20/2014 - 15:33

Hi Meghna,

I really enjoyed your article, and I agree that it is extremely important for academics to critique their own works, especially in terms of their social impacts and values. And you did a really good job highlighting the devastating irony that leftist academics, who are presumably dedicated to the empowerment and liberation of the "masses," so frequently indulge in such elitist jargon and attitudes.

I wonder, though, if this situation has to do with the fundamental structure of knowledge and the academia. Although you mentioned that knowledge is inherently more democratic than any other institution, the past few decades have already shown, I think, that this seemingly democratic and perhaps egalitarian institution of knowledge more often succumbs to the manipulation of power than actually empowers the powerless. For one, knowledge has effectively been commercialized just like any other object, tangible or intangible. It has been reduced to the calculable dichotomy between “know” and “not know.” And institutions of knowledge such as colleges and universities are also threatening to leave liberal (or indeed liberating) education behind and to serve exclusively the capitalist economy that constantly demands specialized and uncritical workers. Similarly, within the academia, which at least in this country feeds on the success of the exploitive capitalist economy, knowledge has become a virtual capital that decides one's employment, success, prestige, and power. The academia as it is clearly favors those that can legitimize, justify, and prove their knowledge over those that cannot, and specialized knowledge that speaks only to insiders, elitist jargon and quotations, and appeal to hard-to-understand authority are all just practical tools to prove that one "knows." In other words, it seems to me that as long as knowledge remains a capital, something that one either “has” or “does not have,” and as long as this capitalistic understanding of knowledge is not replaced with a truly democratic and experience-based one, there is probably no hope that the academia, including its leftist vanguards, is ever going to break out of the knowledge economy we have today.

This might sound utterly pessimistic (which I am not); but I think the lack of hope is also crucial for understanding and historicizing the kind of leftist academic elitism that more or less centers on the lack of clarity in their writing. As far as I can still recall, the Frankfurt School upholds its signature academic aloofness out of their pessimistic conviction following Stalinism and WWII that there was no longer any hope of breaking out of the totalizing oppression of capitalism: thus, any act of accessibility is a compromise with the oppression and hence an act of betrayal. And although through deconstruction Derrida tried to show the glimmer of hope that exists within the capitalist totality, he too argued that clarity is product of the imbalanced dichotomy between presence and absence, one that favors direct knowledge over mediated knowledge, one that favors one authoritarian meaning over multiple possible interpretations, one that favors the limits of clarity over the openness of ambiguity. Although I do agree that many academics post-modernize their prose either unconsciously or in hope of demonstrating their knowledge capital, it is important to bear in mind, perhaps, some of the historical and philosophical reasons for this ambiguity and inaccessibility (of which most people that write difficult prose might have already forgotten, of course).

An '11 (not verified) says:
Sat, 03/15/2014 - 09:07

This was a refreshing read to see coming out of Amherst. I look forward to more.