Gavin Smith: Out of the academic enclosure

Marc Edelman ends his recent piece on FocaalBlog, “The forces of justice and decency will need to move from feel-good slacktivism to the streets, to face-to-face engagement, whether lobbying, community organization, or classroom dialogues.” This got me thinking. In the following manner…[1]

Experts have crowded round to make their analyses of the Trump Disaster. Some focus on just one of the discomforts that encouraged people to put him in power, others present a panoply, but in each case the compartmentalization of disciplinary knowledge is always evident: the social and geographical inequalities brought about by “neoliberalism,” fears of a too-powerful state and the “political class,” movements of aliens across national frontiers and their presence within national territories, climate catastrophe, the bad side of identity politics (aka racism, sexism, etc.) and so on. Zygmunt Bauman has put in his two bits, as have Thomas Piketty and Jürgen Habermas, not to mention a roster of cultural figures. With very few exceptions, these packages are not brought together to make a coherent whole—except of course to speak of the rise of the neofascist right—and taken as a whole or in their interconnected parts, never are these issues responded to with a coherent and holistic program for the left.

While the “absent presence” of the left is obvious and not to be brought back onto the political stage any time soon, a combination of two factors does seem evident: the extreme limitations of compartmentalized disciplinary knowledge and the distance between the perspectives of any of these writers from the practical knowledge of ordinary people—who, by the way, if they think within contained compartments at all, don’t use the same ones as the experts. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of fields, Bruno Latour speaks of the first of these as “field chauvinism.” He says little of the balance of power—between one intellectual field (say, economics versus social history) or between academics’ impact on the present and that of technocrats embedded in the apparatuses of State and Capital—but without accepting his solutions it is hard not to agree with Latour’s proposal: “The Zeus of Critique rules absolutely … but over a desert.”[2] Bourdieu, for his part, spoke of “revolutionisme du papier.”[3]

Bourdieu himself was especially acute in his critique of a form of intellectual hubris that assessed the world out there in terms of its failure to conform to proper ways of thinking and the logical extension from this: that the dominance of prevailing ideas was the problem rather than the somewhat more difficult question of the role classes play in the institutionalizing of sociopolitical formations.[4] As a result, we—the intellectuals of various clans—have been busily employing the hermeneutics of suspicion to deconstruct the horrors of “neoliberalism” and its advocates be they scholars or technocrats, while finding no leverage at all vis-à-vis the material ways dominant blocs have used identifiable wars of position to organize social relations from the scale of global geopolitics through labor processes and property regimes to the level of very different kinds of people’s everyday lives.[5]

If neither Machiavelli nor Clausewitz can provide us with the proper tools for today’s fields of force, we need at least to begin again to speak in the language of war if we wish to take class struggle out of the desert.

Gavin Smith is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and the author of Intellectuals and (counter-) politics: Essays in historical realism (Berghahn Books, 2014)


[1] The expression “academic enclosure” was employed by William Roseberry, “Political economy in the United States,” in Culture, economy, power: Anthropology as critique, anthropology as praxis, ed. Winnie Lem and Belinda Leach (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002), 59–72.

[2] Bruno Latour, “Why has critique run out of steam?” Critical inquiry 30 (2004): 225–248, here 239.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, “For a scholarship with commitment,” in Contre-feux 2 (Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 2001), 19–32.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000)

[5] Though one exception is Lesley Gill’s truly frightening A century of violence in a red city: Popular struggle, counterinsurgency, and human rights in Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

Cite as: Smith, Gavin. 2016. “Out of the academic enclosure.” FocaalBlog, 28 November.