A question that people sometimes ask me about my project is: why aren’t you more interested in the “internal politics” of the departments you work on?
My objection to this question, which has been strengthening for months like steeping tea, is the following: strictly internal politics aren’t actually politics. “Academic politics” as commonly discussed is an oxymoron and a terminological error. Loosely speaking, I would draw the following distinction: politics is about social change; but “academic politics” are merely a form of internal quarreling central to the reproduction of institutional order.
Now I agree, as someone is sure to object, that the internal affairs of a department can involve scheming and bickering and back-room deals; yes, they involve structures of power and domination, (occasional) resistance and (very seldom) subversion; certainly, they have institutionalized decision-making processes, like democratic voting or dictatorial edict. And some of these structures and processes are commonly thought to be political. But to call all of this stuff “academic politics” is, in my view, a confusion of certain means used in politics, with politics itself.
What is politics, then? — one might reasonably ask at this point. Or less grandiosely, what do I mean by politics here in this post? The term politics is obviously used to refer to a bunch of semi-overlapping things: for one thing, there’s the official “political sphere” (the thing one discovers in the politics section of the newspaper with its speeches and pundits); for another thing, there’s everything that people do to interfere with and alter social reproduction, which only seldom overlaps with the “political sphere”; for another thing, the term “politics” can be applied to anything — it becomes a traveling metaphor that can be used in whatever other contexts one likes. I guess my view, not terribly well formed but sufficient for this argument, is that politics (in those modern worlds that have it as such) is the key secular boundary zone between the sacred and the profane, a space filled with both utopian projections of nonactual, future (and presumably “better”) worlds and with bitter and inevitably compromising struggles to implement some fractions of these utopian projections.
The important term here is world: what’s purely personal or interpersonal is not politics, on this account, except insofar as it reshapes the world and not just the individual circumstance within that world. The suffering of the oppressed, for example, is not political until it is explicitly politicized. Hiring a new person in a department is not a political act, unless it happens to be part of a reworlding project. I read “the personal is political” as saying not that everything is political always and everywhere, but that issues arising in personal life are potentially open to being politicized, and are themselves the outcome of past political struggles whose outcomes have become sedimented as social order. This means, as a corollary, that a lot of life, for those of us who are unable to be politically active at every moment, goes on in some comparatively nonpolitical space of the ordinary grind, what Lauren would call ongoingness or Robert Desjarlais would have called struggling along.
Now, in academia, especially in the loosely postmodern social sciences or humanities, there are plenty of people who do hold that everything is more or less political, or more precisely perhaps that everything related to the workings of power is political, or anyway that everything related to disagreement and contestation is political. But is every fight a political fight? And is every social practice that involves power therefore political? Not necessarily, it seems to me. To clarify the last paragraph: true enough, any social practice is always potentially political, but it seems to me the passage from something being potentially political to being actually politicized is itself a social process. If we think everything is always already political, then we are likely to overlook the intricate processes of politicization and depoliticization, of breakage and reintegration in ordinary life, at work around us.
I admit that part of the urge to argue that everything is political comes from a perfectly valid intuition that the boundaries of what’s politicized are themselves sometimes politically organized. For example, if in the face of feminist critique traditional gender roles are cast as a matter of sheer human nature, that can amount to a political meta-argument that gender roles are not something that should be open to political struggle. In this case, we might say that the boundaries of politics are themselves unfairly politically constricted. (I am in a sense trying to constrict the boundaries of politics here in this post, though only in a conceptual sense and not in a way that would inhibit any concrete issue from being politicized.)
But the converse case can occur, too, which is where the boundaries of politics are outlandishly extended, not for any properly political reason but simply because politics can become a word that’s fetishized and appropriated as part of the academic ascription of value. Take the old canard that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. This appears to have been codified as Sayre’s Law, and it claims that “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue.” This is an idiotic claim, I have to say: I defy any reader to produce a contested tenure case that rises to the intensity of sheer collective sentiment felt, for example, by pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian activists. But at any rate, what I think is happening in talk about “academic politics” and its bitterness is that the banality of maintaining the institutional status quo is simply being dramatized and over-valued by calling it politics. What better way to glorify the administrative tasks of inefficient and indecisive faculty governance, than by sanctifying them as politics and raising them metaphorically into the historic sphere of revolutions, empires, fundamental social transformations? The boundaries of politics in this case are not wrongly constricted but hyperbolically ballooned. And the concealed politics of the status quo are, if anything, masked and misrecognized by the illusion that one is doing politics through one’s involvement in minor strife about institutional operation.
I should say that sometimes academic life actually is involved in politics. Hiring certain professors is politically controversial — anarchists, for example — and can indeed pose the spectre of a different institutional world than was previously known. And the political significance and implications of academia are in fact really complicated to analyze. (Good thing for me, because my research project would be too easy otherwise.) But the important thing is that academia’s political entanglements are not given, are not always already instituted in every academic scene, are somewhat contingent and for that very reason need to be shown rather than presumed.
But someone reading this far will still say: in the end, every action and habit is always reshaping a world, one cannot arbitrarily decide that some such actions “count” as transformative politics while others don’t. To which I respond: it is the height of feeble megalomania to fantasize that everything we do matters to the world, which is beyond us and not easily changed.