Re: Resistance and speaking out

From: Bramble House (
Date: Wed Feb 02 2005 - 17:30:19 PST

Hi all,

I've been reading through all the posts on this valuable topic, and am trying now to sort through my own barrage of thoughts and reactions... but I will, I think, emphasise the importance of Jay's remark:

"You can't win by following rules created by your adversary. Most of the discourse norms of our academic culture, formal and informal, tend, I believe, to protect the status quo. That's how they evolved into being a part of the status quo."

Part of the trick, here, is identifying the adversary, of course. And this is where issues about identity and history play an uncomfortable role. For me, the adversary was, for a very long time, the traditions of the institution itself. The adversary was a gendered, racialised history of particular privilege, a hegemonic presence in the Gramscian tradition (a lovely definition: "Hegemony is the dominance of one group over other groups, with or without the threat of force, to the extent that, for instance, the dominant party can dictate the terms of trade to its advantage; or more broadly, that cultural perspectives become skewed to favour the dominant group.[] ) ...and I apologise if that's a condescending gesture, defining the term, but in my experience is gets tossed about it academia without acknowledging how it is tautologically embedded in the very discourse it attempts to describe: a hegemonic discourse describing hegemony, aieee. Even terms like "counter-hegemonic discourse" are, pretty much, the epitome of a hegemonic discourse. I'm pretty sure counter-hegemony is a little messier, if not downright plain-spoken. Yes. Anyhooo, I've digressed, I think.

Stepping outside the rules of the adversary, in an institutionalised setting, is excruciating. It is why the voice of my dissertation reads as so much anguish, because the only tone of writing that could articulate the complexity of my resistance to the traditions of doctoral work that could actually enunciate the conflicts needed to evoke a passion not found in academic writing. Jay writes of passion, and it is crucial, I agree, for an act of resistance to be actually resisting and not merely cajoling or attempting to be gently persuasive.

A few mentioned the dominant norm of civility and politeness and this, too, represents a particular tradition of identities and histories that could be taken apart to better understand what kinds of speaking out can be heard, and why it is so difficult, if not downright imperilling.

Something else to consider, especially in terms of identities and histories, is most eloquently articulated by Gayatri Spivak ("Can the Subaltern speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 1988) in terms of who has the authority to speak out, and more critically, how gender, race and class frame what might (not) be said, and what might (not) be heard. With regards to my dissertation, for example, it became apparent early on that my supervisor did not feel she had the authority to endorse what I was doing, because as a woman, a feminist, a queer educator, she was not in a position to legitimise the kinds of resistance I was enacting. In the end, it required several white liberal menfolk to legitimate the work. Even then, we were all pretty much agreed that it was a swan song, that no one was going to want me hanging about much after the diss was done. True enough, and yet I can honestly say it was worth it.

So, along with issues of identities and histories (which are not transparent or self-evident, of course, and require a certain amount of critical reflection) there are issues about risk, sacrifice, what are you willing to give up, and so on. The image I have of Jay preaching at the religious right hecklers is one of excellent indignation and peril - the risk of doing such a thing is real, physical, dangerous. But if it matters enough, if we are angry enough, anguished enough, we do it.

It isn't only a matter of encouraging students to be more critical, because students don't enjoy the same kinds of intellectual freedoms that their profs have; students don't have the authority to question authority and it seems to me that unless their educators are willingly modelling the kinds of resistance that inspire others to dissent, students are more likely to worry about learning the rules than they are likely to invest energy in criticising or breaking the rules, let alone questioning the validity of the rules.

It also seems to me that the unwillingness to be critical of privilege, and how it utterly defines the kinds of speaking that might still take place, is particularly sticky. Resistance and speaking out is awkward, ugly, dangerous, messy, and sometimes kind of rude.

Methoughts. Thanks to you all for kicking the ideas around a bunch. They are valuable ideas.


----- Original Message -----
  From: Jay Lemke
  Sent: Saturday, January 29, 2005 6:30 PM
  Subject: Re: Resistance and speaking out

  Thanks to David, Mike, Peg and others for keeping this thread in our attention. I'll also be happy when Diane rejoins our discussion.

  I certainly agree with Mike that our local communities are the places to begin, because we are more likely to be effective in them, and because they also provide good practice for any wider efforts. But in doing so we may have to face issues of our own identity and history, and of our personal relationships with others, which can work to inhibit us as well as support us.

  My recent intellectual fascination with this topic is very much around the question of inhibition. Why is it so hard for so many of us to speak out in our local communities and say what we really think, especially when what we really think will be perceived as critical, negative, or (horror!) ideological? Working on this question may help many of us come to feel freer to act in the ways we really want to.

  I smile at David's confidence in my rhetorical powers. I can be pretty good sometimes, and there have been moments in my past when I was actually astonished at how people reacted to my efforts to put passion into speech. In part I think we just don't, especially in the academic world, very often hear passion combined with effective argumentation and thoughtful ideas. They're not supposed to go together, are they?

  I also know that another component of my occasional effectiveness is my willingness to transgress many other norms of academic speech. With humor, irony, and even (dangerous) sarcasm. With more poetic turns of language that are also not supposed to go with serious intellectual reflection. With overtly rhetorical styles and cadences that were more common a century ago, and can still be heard occasionally in the UK and are much more normal in Spanish-speaking and some other cultures. (Yes, Hitler used them, too. They work.)

  You can't win by following rules created by your adversary. Most of the discourse norms of our academic culture, formal and informal, tend, I believe, to protect the status quo. That's how they evolved into being a part of the status quo.

  A key norm centers around truth. David mentions that progressive discourse sounds uncertain compared to the simple, familiar certainties that support dominant interests. That's very much because we're trained to hedge, to match degree of certainty expressed to our level of awareness of complexity and alternate possibility. If we ditch the complications, however, we run the risk of becoming the simple-minded demagogues we detest.

  An alternative is layering on complexity on a different timescale. Certainty in every now, but not always the same certainty. Let the complexity accumulate over different occasions. Build a discourse on the social time-scale, not on the situational timescale. (When accused of the dreaded "flip-flop", assert the perfect consistency of your positions, as can be seen by anyone with common sense, and note a few specific examples of the political opportunism of your inconsistent adversaries.)

  One more point. Our sense of right. Not right and wrong, but the right to say what is right. Today most of us are not from the ruling class, nor from the corporate culture of arrogance (I'm rich, so I must always be right). Some of us might approach the technocratic culture of arrogance (I know a lot, so I must be right, e.g. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz), but I don't recommend that path. We need to find within ourselves the voice of authority, the voice that says I have a right to speak for humankind, to speak for principles and values. I sometimes imagine that I must be descended from some Old Testament prophet. I can feel what the Greeks called "thymos" ... a righteous anger or higher obligation to speak out, something that sweeps through me almost outside my control. Yes, it's a little frightening. But it is also exhilarating. It is good for your soul to speak out for the right, no holds barred.

  But I don't do it very often. (I once scattered a crowd of religious right hecklers at a gay pride event in New York by telling them, very loudly and in full prophetic voice, just what God really thinks of their actions and opinions.) This also points up that we all need to speak the language of morality and human values more strongly against those who pervert moral discourse for their own ends. Academics prefer to ground our rhetoric in fact and reason. It's not enough. Whatever moral doubts you may have, they are trivial compared to the gulf between any higher human values and their power-lusting, greed-impelled hate-mongering. Evil is a powerful and dangerous word. It needs to be used more often by people who actually know what it means.


  At 03:04 PM 1/29/2005, you wrote:


    Part of what we're about, as an academic community, is developing a counterhegemonic discourse with application to matters of social and educational practice. There are many such communities that participate together in an intellectual movement of resistance. Within our enclaves we are articulate and insightful. In the long run we do contribute ideas to the mainstream culture. But in my experience, when our discourse is juxtaposed directly with that of defenders of the status quo--who have the advantage of default interpretations and assumptions on their side--we end up sounding tentative, insecure, ideological, or apologetic. How often have I cringed at those horrid televised debates pitting advocates of the left and right against one another, at how ineffective is the progressive voice. In fact, there is only one scholar on the left that I've ever heard speak who has the passionate conviction, the depth of insight, the breadth of scholarship, the quickness of mind, and the gift for reconnecting complex issues back to basic progressive ideals, to be effective in such forums. And that person, dear Jay, is you. I don't mean to be off-loading my/our responsibility for public action on to someone else (in fact, to my surprise, I find myself having just completed a political piece for our student newspaper at LSU), but please do consider diverting part of your time and effort to this kind of public service.

    Sorry to say so publicly.



  Jay Lemke
  University of Michigan
  School of Education
  610 East University
  Ann Arbor, MI 48109

  Tel. 734-763-9276

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