Against the concept of academic politics

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.

12 thoughts on “Against the concept of academic politics

  1. But even if the internal politics of an academic department don’t really touch the larger world outside of academia, don’t they have some bearing on the institution itself? And aren’t you studying, in part, the institution itself? You say that these internal politics are “central to the reproduction of institutional order.” Is it of no interest to you why such a thing would be? That is not a rhetorical question. I can understand why it would not be of interest, whether because it falls outside the scope of your project, or whatever else. But it does seem to me that, just because these internal politics reproduce institutional order (let’s assume that they do, mainly) doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of intellectual curiosity. They may not be “real” to the world at large, but they are “real” to the institution, certainly.

    1. Hi Max! A pleasure to hear from you. As you’re pointing out, internal departmental quarrels, procedural reorganization, faculty factions, etc, do indeed matter a lot to the workings of universities. My point isn’t to deny that; I simply want to argue that the correct term for these processes is (with certain exceptions) not “politics.” What people typically call “academic politics,” I would describe less glamorously as the inefficient execution of administrative procedure. This does matter (even to my project), but calling it politics is a trivialization of politics. I guess that’s the gist of it. Does this make any sense?

  2. I can see what you’re saying. I guess my objection to the term “politics” being used in relation to these actually fairly mundane goings-on in academic departments would depend entirely on who’s using the term. If it’s an academic outsider or, say, a grad student referring to the work of the higher-ups, then I’m inclined to see the term merely as a convenient descriptor. If it’s coming from an insider, i.e. somebody who actively engages in the “academic politics” at issue, I’d be more inclined to think that the term is an attempt to inflate the importance of mundane nonsense. In any case, I agree that it’s worthwhile to recognize the pernicious implications of this type of terminology.

  3. Fair enough. I mean, in my case I usually hear talk about academic politics from faculty (whether my own or outside grant reviewers), and so I think the term is one that’s largely internal to faculty self-understandings of their own activity. Academic outsiders generally aren’t tremendously interested in the internal workings of universities, from what I can tell. But yes, generally I quite agree with you that my objection to the term is an objection to a particular use of it by particular academic types. That said, I am also inclined to argue more generally against other such mistaken references to politics — I’m against talking about “office politics” or “domestic politics,” etc, etc, at least except in the exceptional circumstances when home or work is actively politicized…

  4. Hey Eli T.,

    I love this post, and I agree with most of it, but I think you dodged an important aspect of your initial question. You started by saying:
    “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.”

    Your explanation of the distinction between potential and actual politics mostly makes sense, but then I think you make a conflation between two meanings of “actual politics”: politics that are consciously thematized by the actors themselves and the ‘micro-politics’ that take place at the sub/unconscious level of subjectivity formation. (E.g., struggles between formations of careerist/capitalist vs. workerist/anarchist subjectivities – struggles which take place between academics but also *within* the subjectivities of individualized academics, including you and me – cf. The latter type of ‘micro-politics’ is problematic for your frame of “active politicization” which seems to presuppose an ‘actor’ of an individualized subject, because the ‘actors’ are ‘acting’ on a more ‘micro’ scale.

    The latter is a politics that you do engage in necessarily through your talking with people in your ethnographic studies. If you want to call your interaction with them something that is removed from processes of “politics,” then I think your missing out on the potential for your work to be more politically effective. I’m not saying that you would need to be as intentional about co-creating a political project with your subjects of study as are the participatory action researchers (which we discussed earlier… I do, however, think that you could take their examples as a spur to push yourself to ask further questions about the relation between the politics of your research and the ‘internal politics’ of departments.

    The question of whether the micro-politics of subjectivity formation is thematized as ‘politics’ is a matter of adopting a different perspective. From the perspective of a participatory action researcher who is doing militant research work with organizers of a grad and faculty union, that micro-politics is definitely politics. So, the provocative question I have for you is, why do you see the political project of your research as being most effectively carried out through a disengagement from the internal politics of the academic departments you study? What advantages for your research do you gain from choosing not to intentionally engaging in what you call “the social process” of “the passage from something [e.g., the micro-politics of academics’ subjectivity formations] being potentially political to being actually politicized”?

    Sorry if I’m taking your question off on an irrelevant tangent…

    See you in France soon!

    -Eli M.

  5. hey Eli (m),

    Thanks for the great question. Sorry to take a while to get back to you; I’ve had some other things going on. So if I take your point correctly, it’s like this: there are conscious actor-thematized politics and then there are (sub/)unconscious (micro)politics that happen outside the bounds of awareness or, perhaps, intention? And of course, if there are the latter, one is constantly engaged in them at every moment…

    But I’m not sure that I would refer to the fine-grained, contradictory processes of subjectivity formation with the word “politics.” Politically relevant, yes. Massively affected by political processes, yes. But politics as such? I’m not sure; by my definition here, to be political they would have to be the outcome of some process of politicization. And I think one can make a fairly straightforward argument that split subjectivities under normal circumstances are at best political symptoms and at worst the preconditions of the continued functioning of the status quo. Yes, in the case of politically lively union organizers, local consciousness can become a political arena. But by the same token, this is not inevitable and local consciousness need not be politicized.

    Let me stop to spell out some of my motivation behind the notion of politics I’m developing. My initial thought is that we need a political concept of politics, a politically viable or even utopian concept of politics. It won’t do to have a kind of analytically broad-brushed and intellectually amorphous concept of politics that includes practically everything that’s contradictory or contestable, not only because this is conceptually unsatisfying but also because such a notion of politics is neither politically habitable nor inspiring. I’m hoping, rather, to look for a concept of politics that can accommodate a degree of utopian impulse while not erasing the obvious gritty reality of political activity. I guess you could say I’m interested in a concept of politics that will capture something of the complex, intense, difficult commitments and feelings of real political involvement (as I know it anyway). Which is why I’m interested in thinking about politics as that praxis and field of possibilities which involves the negotiation of utopian (one can call them sacred) ideals with pragmatic (call them profane) problems of tactic, strategy, compromise, etc.

    Now, when I say that I think of politics as a praxis and a field of possibilities, this isn’t to immediately take a position on the relation between politics and consciousness, which seems to be at issue in your query. Is it politics when there’s micro-level conflict between subjectivities? I’m arguing that it’s generally not. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of there being unconsciously or semi-consciously executed political projects. Perhaps one can sometimes discover that one has been politically involved without knowing it, or one can be involved in collective political work through a division of political emotion that doesn’t allot intense political sentiment to everyone equally, etc. And obviously, political praxis needn’t entail a conscious concept of the political as an academic would develop it.

    So I guess part of my response to your query is: can you say more about your notion of politics and how it relates to the kinds of split subjectivities and internal procedural quarrels that (I’m sure we agree) characterize academic settings? Do you view all subjectivity formation as political? What’s the relation between politics and subjectivity? Surely it must be variable and incoherent, no?

    But I do still think your question about my project is great and powerful — though the answer has to be, for one thing, that as a foreigner it’s not clear how exactly I would have any cause to participate directly with French university politics and for another thing that I’m waiting to discover, empirically, what kinds of politicization and depoliticization exist in my fieldsites. I guess I tend to imagine my project’s political involvements relating more to the level of trying to bring the results home to the US (the very idea of free public higher ed is itself a radical political idea in america, these days). I would love to develop an action research project here, of course. But as we know, PAR isn’t something one develops a priori in advance, but rather is something that gets slowly negotiated in the field as one discovers ways of being usefully involved in the local situation. So… stay tuned? My original point in this post, at any rate, wasn’t that I am against that kind of involvement; just that I am against the study of minor intradepartmental conflict under the banner of politics….

    does this remotely make sense? eli t.

  6. hi eli, one more quick thing about politics. In trying to carve out a more restricted notion of politics, and in distinguishing “politics” from dominant “power,” I’m drawing on some distinctions made by Ranciere in ‘politics, identification, and subjectivization.’ He calls these the differences between “policy” and “the political,” where the political is something like what I’m calling politics here and “policy” is like state governance-cum-social order enacted in the name of community/society.

    Ranciere goes on to suggest some content for “the political,” which has to do with processes of emancipation that involve impossible identifications and emerging enactments of equality/universality. I’m not extremely persuaded by the concrete content that Ranciere ascribes to the political; it’s very briefly stated and I’m not sure I always understand it very well; eventually it descends into a critique of identity politics that seems somewhat particular to the 90s. But I thought it would be worth flagging this bit of intellectual inspiration for my argument. Ranciere is explicitly interested in the relation between the political and subjectivation, so it would seem relevant for our discussion here!
    eli t

    1. Well, first of all my experience is that actually people in the humanities are mostly fairly uninterested in definitional questions in the philosophical sense of giving clear criteria for something being an X. A lot of technical terms are used without much attention to formal definitions. If there’s some looser sense of disputing definitions, perhaps you could provide examples of what you mean by that?

      Anyway, I guess my second question is, are you saying that the discussion in this post is a dispute over definitions and therefore a distraction from what you’re interested in? In that case, I guess my response would be that I think in doing research on academic culture one needs to have a clear concept of politics. Otherwise one gets lost in the kind of delusions (about minor bickering being “political”) that I’m trying to critique here. Quarreling over definitions may not always be worthwhile, at least when it becomes an empty scholastic exercise (which is what you seem to be gesturing towards), but sometimes false definitions can be ideologically self-serving and we must guard against that too.

  7. Oh no! You wrote a thoughtful response, that means I have to reciprocate!

    Upon reflection, my previous comment is unhelpful. I’m going to ignore the larger issues I was getting at until I’ve thought them through better and focus my attention where I think we can make more progress.

    You started the post by noting that people sometimes ask you “Why aren’t you more interested in the “internal politics” of the departments you work on?” I don’t have a deep understanding of your project, but that sounds like a question I might ask. So I was a little disappointed that in the post that followed you didn’t directly answer the question, as I understood it.

    What do people mean by internal/academic politics? I assume the phrase refers to the fact that professors implicitly and explicitly debate the goals of the department and how to achieve them. How much research, teaching, and other responsibilities are required? How does the department encourage individuals to go beyond the minimum, what do they do if people don’t perform the minimum… who should be hired and tenured, what courses should be offered and which ones required? How How should the budget be allocated?

    There are disagreements based upon values, interests, differences of opinion about questions of fact, strategic factions or coalitions, etc.

    Departments have decision making processes which I know little about… how common is consensus? direct democracy with majority rule? delegating decision-making power to individuals or committees?

    Is this, or is this not, what people typically mean by academic politics? If not “academic politics,” what should we be calling this stuff? I’d ask why this is relevant or irrelevant to your project, the question I thought this post was going to answer, but it is unfair of me to ask that question until I’ve read your proposal. If, for some reason, you feel the need to try to answer it, I recommend a whole new post.

  8. Hm, I thought my argument in the post was fairly clear but maybe I’m wrong. It basically went like this:
    (a) People ask me why I’m not studying the “internal politics” of the departments I’m examining.
    (b) However, I argue, the definition of “politics” invoked in this question is faulty. I don’t think the word “politics” should apply to internal departmental decision-making (which is the stuff you mention). Since you ask, I would call that “policy” rather than “politics” — and in my view (though you may disagree) there is a crucial difference between the two. (To simplify what I was trying to say in my post, I argue that politics is about social change, whereas policy is not about social change but only about the continued recalibration of the status quo.)
    (c) Since there are no “internal politics” in the sense people think they mean, the initial question can be dismissed as badly posed and irrelevant.
    (d) Moreover, the reason I’m not studying “internal politics” in my project is (to over-simplify slightly) because I don’t think there is such a thing.

    I guess the slightly more genial answer to the initial question is that even if you want to call it “politics” when the faculty are bickering, I don’t think that these internal departmental “politics” are usually very interesting or important compared to external, extra-academic political involvements by academics. I don’t really care about the internal debates over the photocopier in the uchicago econ department, while I think it is politically significant if John Cochrane defends Milton Friedman in the popular press. There can be exceptions in which internal politics does become interesting: firing professors explicitly for political reasons is an interesting form of internal politics, for example. But I think those are the exceptions and that’s why generally speaking internal politics don’t play a role in my research design. (The other more practical reason is just that it’s not very easy for an outside researcher to get access to faculty politics in an academic department; they tend to be kept close to the vest, you know? WHich is why you say you don’t know much about departmental decision-making even as a grad student.)

    sorry for the long response, but does this clarify at all?

  9. Never apologize for a long response, as long as it doesn’t create the obligation to respond in kind.

    My first thought is: “wow, we couldn’t disagree more.” If I dedicate myself to working this through it will take all day, but here is my response in brief. I’m sure we don’t actually disagree as much as it appears on the surface, or perhaps this is closer to the truth; we have an implicit, yet to be discovered disagreement elsewhere.

    To a significant extent, I think the reason national policy matters is that it alters the internal decison-making. Cochrane’s decision to defend Milton Friedman in a newspaper column may very well be influenced by far away decisions. If universities make money on students they may be more likely to allocate funds to departments based on whether such an allocation increases enrollment. Departments will then respond by making their courses more attractive to students, which may mean making them easier or making them harder (which might earn the department a reputation for producing top scholars) or just changing what time they are offered. A department with the ability to negotiate salaries with individual professors might offer a bonus for writing op-eds, or for good student reviews, or academic citations, or for none of these things.

    Distinguishing politics and policy is necessary, and not always easy. I say politics is the process which determines policy. It operates differently in different contexts, but I think there is enough similarity to call it politics. (as does ) The reason I don’t like the term decision-making as a replacement for “internal politics” is that it neglects the competitive element, the coalitions, the ideologies, etc. that come into play when a group is repeatedly making important decisions together.

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