I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be particularly intense at CTS, but I’m sure happens elsewhere. This is the phenomenon of being impatient with scholarship and theoretical work that does not appear to have an immediate practical application or to be immediately communicable to “common people.” Today this did not come up in class, since we were talking about a very topical book of Judith Butler’s (Precarious Life), but when discussing the idea of how an identitarian “we” very often ends up excluding some of those that it by all rights should include, this issue came to mind.
It seems to me that various types of activist movements, identitarian or not, and also religious movements tend to marginalize or exclude their more “intellectual” members. Hence when we get the impatient question, “But how does this play to the people on the streets/in the pews?,” it may represent a certain defensiveness among people who are seeking to be intellectuals who are faithful to the movements with which they identify. In rhetorically identifying with the “common person” — which the speaker, who is in this case enrolled in an advanced degree program, simply no longer is, whether they want to admit it or not — the speaker can make a double assertion:
- The common people are right to be suspicious of some intellectual work, which really is useless at best or counterproductive at worst.
- I, however, do not do that kind of intellectual work and am very suspicious of it myself.
This identification and distancing, then, can be a means of expiating a certain type of guilt for enjoying “useless” intellectual pursuits for their own sake. It is difficult for me to imagine that anyone would enter a PhD program without enjoying intellectual work for its own sake, even if the primary goal is, for instance, to document a neglected aspect of one’s cultural heritage or history, or to develop specific programs to help people, etc., etc. Even if one really is a “movement intellectual” in sincere solidarity with an activist or religious group, one is still an intellectual, which is always going to include at least some minimal slippage between one’s intellectual pursuits and the immediate needs (strategic of propagandistic) of the movement. One may take theological stances that one’s church body takes as disruptive of the training of ministers, or one may ask questions about sexuality that are experienced as attacking the unity of one’s identitarian movement — in any case, one’s identification is not complete. Even if that must necessarily be true for every member of a movement, it is much more of a “public” issue for the intellectual, whose role makes it much less easy to hide misgivings than is the case for a “private individual” in the rank and file.
What often results is a kind of imposed asceticism of the intellectual, who must in some sense deny a part of herself in order to be counted as faithful to the movement. In fact, this phenomenon is precisely why I myself am no longer an active part of a “movement” — after being marginalized in the Nazarene church for all my life due to my intelligence, I eventually came to understand that the apparently much more pro-intellectual Catholic Church to which I’d fled would also demand a certain sacrifice of the intellect.
It is of course not possible to view intellectuals as an oppressed group in the classical sense — and I am by no means making any such claim. Intellectuals, at least those who manage to make a career of it, are generally economically secure and enjoy a certain degree of social prestige. Beyond that, there is an inherent pleasure to intellectual work, at least for those who are particularly drawn to it. The question is how to build a community such that the pleasure of intellectual life is not viewed as a threat.