Affiliation is power (without irony)

As many of my readers probably know, the big controversy in my field this year (in American cultural anthropology) has been about a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, essentially as a protest of the Palestinian situation. The substantive politics have been debated for months and years, and I’m not going to get into them here. But this past couple of months, I’ve been subjected to unsolicited weekly email missives from the anti-boycott faction, and as an ethnographer of academic culture, I couldn’t help noticing the extremely standardized introductory format that they all use:

My name is ——. I am the Lucy Adams Leffingwell Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western University. I am also a lifetime member of the American Anthropological Association and President-elect of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. I am writing to ask that you vote against the boycott of Israeli universities.

My name is Dale Eickelman, the Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations at Dartmouth College

I am Paul Rabinow, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. I write to urge you to watch this important new video where anthropologists who know something about the matter demonstrate how an academic boycott is ultimately personal.

I am Ulf Hannerz, Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University, Sweden. I have been a member of the American Anthropological Association since the 1960s, and I am a former member of its Committee on World Anthropologies. I have voted against the boycott resolution.

My name is Myra Bluebond-Langner. I am a medical anthropologist currently at the Institute of Child Health, University College London where I hold the True Colours Chair in Palliative Care for Children and Young People as well as Board of Governors Professor of Anthropology Emerita at Rutgers University. I am a long-term member of the American Anthropological Association and a recipient of the Margaret Mead Award from the AAA and the Society for Applied Anthropology. I am writing to urge you to vote against boycotting Israeli universities in the AAA’s spring ballot.

I am Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, a member of the AAA for over thirty years. I write to urge you to vote NO on the proposal to boycott Israeli universities in this year’s AAA spring ballot.

I am Michele Rivkin-Fish from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I am writing to urge you to vote NO to boycotting Israeli universities in the AAA’s ballot this month.

These are all the opening lines of the anti-boycott emails. I have to say I’m struck — amazed, really — by the massive recourse to institutional affiliations, titles and credentials. It is as if the most important task for these authors was to establish their own power, as if that in itself conferred authority. None of these people are untenured; none of them are unemployed; none of them are adjuncts; none of them are working-class, all of them are privileged; and we’re meant to know and value that as we imbibe their prose. It’s like a parade of academic capital that you hadn’t planned on watching go by.

One particular slippage that I find interesting is the quite direct equation of the person with their title. I am XYZ, not I work at XYZ. I find that particularly pernicious, as there is nothing more antithetical to the spirit of democratic inquiry than identifying speech with the institutional trappings of its producers. And yet it turns out that the anti-boycott group has an explicit rationalization of this equation. They note in “ten reasons to vote against the boycott” that

Badges we wear at conferences, by-lines at the top of journal articles, resumes and terms we use to introduce each other all consist of names attached to titles and affiliations – institutional idioms that define who and what we are.

But is it really the titles and affiliations that define who and what we are? It’s an idea fit for a feudalism re-enactment camp, but apparently for this group of academics, the thought can somehow be defended non-ironically. Do they not realize that this proposition amounts to saying that unemployed scholars are nothing? And that their recourse to their own titles tends to make their whole discourse nothing but an argument from authority?