Whose academy? Academic feminism, privilege and the Age of Austerity

Does academic feminism oppress women?

This piece holds that it does, broadly arguing that universities, like other societal institutions, are patriarchal and exist to further the interests of men, and that academic feminism often silences non-academic feminists, reinforcing existing authority and ways of being rather than supporting calls to action and effecting real change. It argues that “You don’t need to read books to be a feminist. You don’t need to be able to read at all.”

What is academic feminism, and does it have a case to answer? There is a vast range of feminist writing, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it begins: was it with Wollenscroft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with the aristocratic female poets of earlier centuries, with women who did not write in English? These are books as separate from academic feminism, though: academic feminism can specifically be said to have begun around the establishment of the first Womens Studies departments in 1970.

What we can also definitely say is that in recent decades feminist argument has often been used by those in power to state that women need educated along the path to becoming equals; that the West is inherently superior – an argument used to justify the Iraq war, despite the deterioration of conditions in Iraq and the immense misery and suffering the war has caused to women; and to state that certain groups of women such as straight women, practitioners of BDSM or trans women are inherently anti-feminist.

The “third wave” of feminist thought of the 1990s also has many specific criticisms of the “second wave” of the ’70s and 80s centred around the flaws with essentialist thought and the intersectionality of oppression: by avoiding binary distinctions, by playing with and owning the language we use, and by fighting all kinds of oppression that affect women, it was thought that we could progress towards real gender equality. A great deal of queer theory was written, taking its inspiration from radical communities and activists which pursued a critical, non-assimilationist politics.

Many of the most criticised “second wave” feminists were and are academics. Roz Kaveney’s criticism of Sheila Jeffreys centres around the essence of her feminism as an academic, theoretical project, and criticism of the recently-glitterbombed Greer does likewise.

Modern academic feminism, however reluctantly, also includes figures like Catherine Hakim, who argues that feminism is over and that any oppression women suffer is because they are not trying hard enough. Clearly there is much to criticise about all periods of academic feminism. But is making individual critiques enough?

Looking back from 2012, the inherent superiority of “feminism 3.0” is becoming less clear-cut. There are many accounts of ’70s and ’80s feminism being vastly more diverse than the academic history suggests, and a general project is taking place to reclaim and rethink the term “radical feminist”, and re-read and re-appreciate the many fierce “second wave” feminist thinkers, some of whom, like Dworkin, were not originally academics.

We are also facing an age of austerity, and feminist thought is re-focusing on the economic realm, the intersectionality of struggle and on the function of labour. So what does this mean for academic feminism? Does the academy specifically function to oppress women?

The wider role of academia

Anti-oppressive critiques of academia can be taken back to not long after the Enlightenment itself. Edward Said, writer of Orientalism, deeply critiqued the role of 18th and 19th century philologists in “fixing” representation of the orient and of the “orientals” living there. This school of thought was a crucial influence on the intellectual ideas used to justify the emergent forms of fascism in the 1920s and 30s.

However, in the same piece Said calls for a current return to philology, a discipline which can only be broadly categorised as the creative study of language. Academia is a terrain in which disciplinary boundaries and the weight of evidence are constantly shifting, and a mode of study which was once reactionary may later be undertaken to different effect.

It is also difficult to place the role of academia in society in relation to the geopolitical and the economic. Marx believed that intellectuals held a crucial position in driving revolutionary change, and Gramsci later developed this into a specific critique of the social role of intellectuals in society: “all men are intellectuals” [and presumably women] “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”.

Gramsci called for “traditional intellectuals” – today’s academics – to be joined by “organic intellectuals” from the working class to effect social change. This is somewhat of an oversimplification of Gramsci, and it is worth noting that the vast majority of people today fit Marx’ definition of the proletariat – those who must exchange their labour for the means of subsistence, whether that means be rent or mortgage. It seems likely that many online-educated social justice activists might themselves fall within his definition of “organic intellectuals”. Still, there is a general critique here: academia has a social role in propping up current hegemony, and it cannot simply wish that role away through sufficiently stringent enquiry.

Chomsky, writing more recently, suggests that common sense is and should be sufficient to understand the social sphere, and has somewhat disagreed with Marx’s take on the role of state power for some time. Chomsky also specifically dislikes Marx due to Marx’s role as a theorist: Chomsky feels that ideological change must not come from the auspices of some overarching theory, but from practical argument, evidence, and common sense. Quite what Chomsky thinks of the radical anthropologist David Graeber, who appears to share and comprehensively evidence this view on state power, is still a mystery.

None of these thinkers seem to take a position specifically against academia, however, calling instead for critical self-evaluation. Giroux, writing this year, draws on the writing of the Brazilian radical educator Paulo Freire to argue that Occupy is right to insist on an emphasis on education as part of participatory democracy; neoliberalism is stifling critical thinking in academia, and critical thinking is essential for any kind of real democracy. “Education cannot be neutral”, he states.

But let us not vanish here into the competing arguments of male thinkers. Decades before Occupy, feminist bell hooks had met Friere and considered the same issues, concluding that literacy is essential for the feminist movement: “because the lack of reading, writing and critical skills serves to exclude many women and men from feminist consciousness. Not only that, it excludes many from the political process and the labour market”.

bell hooks practices a notion of praxis similar to Friere’s, combining reflection and action and, in teaching, requiring this from both students and teachers. Teachers must be aware of the power disparity they possess when in the classroom, and take a holistic approach emphasising well-being and self-actualisation of both student and teacher.

Clearly a part of this must be being critical of the role of academic outside the classroom, as well. However, nothing about academia functions specifically to oppress women – though it may have a social role of oppression, this is one which functions intersectionally, and cannot be combated by a posited removal of one axis of oppression alone. Remove gendered oppression, and we still have race, class, and so many others. And perhaps you don’t need to be able to read to be a feminist, to survive under capitalism: but it helps.

Neo-liberal governmentality – who watches the watchers?

Under neoliberalism, we watch each other.

Critiques of academia in previous generations centred around its social role, too.  Writing in 1969 on the back of a decade of student-led upheaval, Chomsky stated “It is pointless to discuss the “function of the university” in abstraction from concrete historical circumstances”. And while the 1960s shook the capitalist world to its foundations, the dreamed-of revolution never materialised. It seems likely that Chomsky’s views on “the marketplace of ideas” would now be rather different, as the market is more obviously a creation of the state.

The critical thinker Michel Foucault also shared later Chomsky’s and Graeber’s understanding of the state’s relationship to the market – at least until the birth of neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, “It is the market form which serves as the organizational principle for the state and society”. This sea-change in conception, if not in political fact, has resulted in a definite change in social relations under neoliberalism, referred to by Foucault as “governmentality”, and characterised by”social responsibility becoming a matter of personal provisions”.

This regime has necessary implications for anti-oppression work. Current models of privilege are intertwined with governmentality, asking that the individual take responsibility for their own white privilege, male privilege, and so forth, and individually work to educate themselves and, so far as possible, remain aware of their own privileges as the first step towards dismantling them.

Thus systemic racism and other forms of oppression can only be challenged by first making an intervention – challenging someone – which is predicated on neoliberal understandings of the self. A hegemony which is based on global racism, sexist division of labour, resistance to the social model of disability, and so forth, can only be opposed by first intervening in a way which is based on this hegemony. Challenging privilege often meets with a vitriolic response. Among frantic derailing and privilege defence, there is also sometimes a component of generational resistance to neoliberal social relations. It is worth understanding this and, where possible, to treat it separately, in order to better challenge the privilege which it conceals.

This resistance is no excuse, of course, for perpetuating oppression. Older systems of social relations also perpetuated oppression, failing in the end to overcome it and often having their struggles derailed and rendered futile by lack of attention to other forms of oppressions, to intersectionality. For many people, older concepts of community and communal struggle did not prove to be communal at all. What, as feminists, can we learn from this dynamic?

Firstly, that the privilege-based model of oppression came not from academia, but from grass-roots activism. Innovative responses to current conditions need not come from the academy, nor need academia to give them legitimacy. Using academic language is not the same as being politically part of academia, nor is it necessarily the same as not being understandable.

Secondly, that academic expression is not always optimal or desirable. Frequently the most impenetrable academic theorists – Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak – are those articulating the most interesting ideas, rendered near-unintelligible by their need to simultaneously defend themselves against hostile male colleagues; this elaborately-buttressed language renders their ideas unassailable, yet difficult to use effectively. Yet it is also a style, just as technical writing is a style, and without this style neither theorist would have been able to have the significant influence which both have had. We cannot simply choose our mode of speech, it is also determined by our environment. An idea may not currently be articulable within one way of speaking, while being so within another.

Thirdly, that there is at least one privilege that it is massively difficult to address within our current understanding: that of the English language. Currently the English language is globally dominant, and as bell hooks argued that literacy is essential to empowerment, our current understanding is that the English language is essential to global empowerment. Yet English is simply not added to a non-anglophonic person’s choice of means of speech: there is a power disparity globally, with many writers from non-anglophone countries choosing to write in English simply to find an audience. Hegemony tends to edge out other choices, to perpetuate power dynamics, to present a totality from which there is no easy escape. We must be mindful of this ambiguity of language, and place it in context among global oppressions which can be pitted one against the other, amongst hierarchies of power, privilege and being which invisibly rule.

And we must not simply watch one another, as individual actors, but recover some sort of sense of solidarity and communal struggle. The queer community is  built around this: grass-roots, communal, informed by academia, against imperialism, patriarchal capitalism and every form of oppression. Yet there are some profound ambiguities here: in being defined against something there is the potential to create both in- and out-groups, to repeat the mistakes of the past. The language-slippage of “queerness” seeks to counterbalance this, but will it be enough?

Academic language is essential to governmentality, as neoliberalism uses academic language to legitimise its ruling strategies, to ensure that we govern ourselves as (neoliberal) consensus sees fit. Whether we want it or not, academia and academic language is shaping up to be a major battleground as neoliberalism is becoming austerity neoliberalism, a process which is the natural consequence of changes during decades before.

Austerity and Academia

Now we have left the early days of neoliberalism and entered an age of austerity, in which previous liberal certainties appear to be under attack.

Academia is under attack, also. In 2010 funding formulas meant that Middlesex Philosophy – a department that cut across language divides in studying (often, presumably, in translation) French and German philosophy – was cut. Other UK university cuts have followed suit, with London Met soon to become little more than a technical college. The University of Sussex is finding itself increasingly far from its 60’s radical roots, as the future of its Sexual Dissidence comes under question, while increasing support is being given to Security Studies. The state and the market are acting to close in the gaps, to solidify one particular set of interests – and these are broadly not the interests of women.

Women are under attack. Austerity is a vitally significant moment for feminism. Cuts are having a vastly disproportionate effect on women, leaving women unemployed, without childcare, forced into remaining in abusive relationships, doing more unpaid work, being pushed inch by inch back towards the margins. Meanwhile, most feminist discussion in the media consist of manufactured attacks by women on other women. Something is entirely rotten here, and it must be fought.

Feminism and Austerity are holding a conference to examine austerity and to combat and resist negative changes in academia – as well as in the wider public sphere, considering challenges to women’s writing, art and performance as well as scholarship.

While this is worthwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that any approach which attempts to fight austerity in academia alone will not be enough. We need solidarity across the board, between classes, races, genders, between all people committed to making a better world than the ideologically and linguistically whitewashed dystopia which austerity capitalism offers.

Being an individual is not enough, and neither is being a class.

How should we speak to power?

If we cannot choose not to fight on every front, we can at least prepare the battlefield.

Academic feminists must become conscious of the social role of academia, particularly under neoliberalism. We must also be conscious that academic language is a particular kind of speech; different kinds of speech have different relations to power under different historical conditions. At present, academic speech is heavily privileged under neoliberalism: this makes it both a tool, and a potential accidental weapon against those with less privilege.

While it is not quite true to say that academia oppresses women, the writer who argued that it did was quite right to not spend her time casting about for references to permit her to argue from authority.

Where I have done so, it is more an attempt to weave a tapestry from which a pattern can be discerned, than to argue in order to convince, to force, to educate without doing so mindfully, to compel. These issues exist together with other “women’s issues”, together with all people’s issues, in a way that ties women’s work across time and across space. This is a pattern of progress for some women – and only some: first worldly, sociologically middle class, articulate, here.  We must act mindfully to ensure systemic change for all, before the thread is rudely cut off.

What we can do is be conscious of our speech, and speak appropriately. We can challenge privilege where others are unconscious or uncaring of it; we can snark to each other and in the face of power, as marginal speech acts to build solidarity. We can speak to power openly on our own terms, rather than adopting a different discourse, rather than labouring emotionally to make our words palatable to others.

What we cannot do is disengage from power entirely, but often we are better speaking to each other, so that when we do address the mass media we do so honestly and giving the minimum potential for distortion. So that when we speak to each other we do so as as close as we can come to equals, as feminists and allies, as mindful human beings.

When we do speak to power, we should do so to amplify the voices of the unheard, rather than to put forward our own interpretations and agendas: under neoliberalism, they are not entirely our own.

And when we do leap up to take action, we can do so united as one body rather than striking alone against one form of oppression. We stand at a vital point in history, and our words and actions will weigh disproportionally in the scale of what comes next.


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