Exile as a Space of Disruption in the Ivory Tower
By Henry A. Giroux / Disrupt(ED)This piece first appeared at Disrupt(ED), a project of the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
How can one not be in exile working in academia, especially if one refuses the cliques, mediocrity, hysterical forms of resentment, backbiting, and endless production of irrelevant, if not sometimes unethical, research that increasingly has come to characterize the corporate university? The spaces of retreat from public life now occupy too many institutions of higher education and have transformed them into dead zones of the imagination mixed with a kind of brutalizing defense of their own decaying postures and search for status and profits. Leadership in too many academic departments is empty, disempowering, and insular, lacking any outward vision or sense of social responsibility. Mimicking the instrumental logic of a business culture, too many administrators lack the vision, totality of knowledge, or will to address what role the university should play in a democracy. Too many individuals are tied to endless committees, overwhelmed by the mediocrity they or others endorse, and fearful of anyone who steps outside of the boundaries of bureaucratic conformity and civility. Excellence has become part of an empty recruiting slogan that has little do with the actual work or scholarship of faculty who are often punished or resented for such work.
One thing is clear: The retreat from the ethical and political imagination in higher education in too many countries has become legion. Little is being done to address the army of subaltern labor that has become the new poor in higher education and elsewhere. Moreover, faculty are increasingly told that the most important register of scholarship is grant writing over and against activities of teaching, community engagement, or other forms of public scholarship. In addition, students are constantly being told that they should feel good instead of working hard and focusing while being burdened, at the same time, with an insufferable amount of financial debt. Too many academics no longer ask students what they think but how they feel. Everyone wants to be a happy consumer. When students are told that all that matters is feeling good, and that feeling uncomfortable is alien to learning itself, the critical nature of teaching and learning is compromised.
This is an academic version of the Dr. Phil show where infantilized pedagogies prove to be as demeaning to students as they are to professors. Professors are now increasingly expected to take on the role of therapists speaking in terms of comfort zones but are rarely offered support for the purpose of empowering students to confront difficult problems, examine hard truths, or their own prejudices. This is not to suggest that students should feel lousy while learning or that educators shouldn’t care about their students. To the contrary, caring in the most productive sense means providing students with the knowledge, skills, and theoretical rigor that offers them the kinds of intellectual challenges to engage and take risks in order to make critical connections and develop a sense of agency where they learn to think for themselves and become critical and responsible citizens. Students should feel good through their capacity to grow intellectually, emotionally, and ethically with others rather than being encouraged to retreat from difficult educational engagements. Caring also means that faculty share an important responsibility to protect students from conditions that sanction hate speech, racism, humiliation, sexism, and an individual and institutional attack on their dignity.
For a range of theorists extending from Theodor Adorno to the post colonialist theorist Edward Said, exile was a central metaphor for defining the role of academics. As oppositional public intellectuals, academics played an indispensible role in Adorno’s notion of critical theory and Said’s work in defending the university as a crucial public sphere. They also played a crucial role in engaging culture as a site informed by mechanisms of power, and taking seriously the idea of human interdependence while living on the border — one foot in and one foot out, an exile and an insider, for whom home was always a form of homelessness. In Representations of the Intellectual, Said argued that exile referenced a space of engagement and critique, serving as both a theoretical and political reminder that educators often occupy a similar role and space where they work to “publicly raise embarrassing questions, confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), and refuse to be easily co-opted by governments or corporations” while offering models of social engagement that redefined the role of academics as civically engaged public intellectuals. This politically charged notion of the oppositional intellectual as homeless—in exile and living on the border, occupying a shifting and fractured pedagogical space in which critique, difference, and a utopian potentiality can endure—has provided the conceptual framework for generations of educators fighting against the deadly instrumentalism and reactionary ideologies that have shaped contemporary educational models in public schools and universities.
Under the regime of neoliberalism, too many institutions of higher education have transformed the culture of education into the culture of business and are now characterized by a withdrawal into the private and the irrelevant. In this view, education is driven largely by market forces that undermine any viable vision of education as a public good connected to wider social problems. Solidarity, rigor, public scholarship, and integrity are in short supply in many departments and are largely ignored by the new and expanding managerial class of administrators. In this context, exile is less a choice than a condition that is forced through policies of containment and procedure where contingent faculty are given short term contracts, struggle with course over loads, and bear the burden of time as a deprivation rather than a space of reflection and ownership over the conditions of their labor. Under such circumstances, exile is a state that can just as easily be manipulated to produce a key element of the neoliberal university which, as Noam Chomsky points out, is “designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.”
Exile in this context speaks to new forms of faculty servitude that restrict and shut down spaces for dialogue, scholarship, dissent, and quality teaching. This is a form of forced exile, one wedded to expanding faculty powerlessness and undermining any sense of autonomy. It is against this notion of oppressive exile wedded to the market driven prescription of undermining faculty power while intensifying their labor that the concept of exile has to be rethought. Instead, exile must be seen and theorized as part of a larger political and empowering discourse connected to an affective and ideological space of struggle and resistance. Less an oppressive space of containment and deskilling, exile can become the grounds for a revitalized kind of public space and activism where a new language, a new understanding of politics, and new forms of solidarity can be nurtured among the displaced — that is, among those who refuse the neoliberal machinery of social and political violence that defines education solely as a source of profit, mode of commerce, and “feel good” pedagogy. The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s comments on his notion of welcoming exile under certain circumstances should not therefore surprise us, especially in light of his own experience of marginality as a Jewish public intellectual and as a courageous exemplar of civic courage. What must be understood and emphasized here is that Bauman’s position, along with that of Adorno and Said’s, does not constitute a celebration of marginality. Rather, for all of these scholars, exile is an affirmation to keep going in the midst of what sometimes appears to be a deadening form of academic madness and insularity driven by forces which constantly seek to undermine the university as a democratic public sphere. Bauman writes:
I need to admit, however, that my view of the sociologists’ vocation does not necessarily overlap with the consensus of the profession. Dennis Smith has described me as an “outsider through and through.” It would be dishonest of me to deny that denomination. Indeed, throughout my academic life I did not truly “belong” to any school, monastic order, intellectual camaraderie, political caucus, or interest clique. I did not apply for admission to any of them, let alone did much to deserve an invitation; nor would I be listed by any of them—at least unqualifiedly—as “one of us.” I guess my claustrophobia—feeling as I do ill at ease in closed rooms, tempted to find out what is on the other side of the door—is incurable; I am doomed to remain an outsider to the end, lacking as I [do] the indispensable qualities of an academic insider: school loyalty, conformity to the procedure, and readiness to abide by the school-endorsed criteria of cohesion and consistency. And, frankly, I don’t mind.
While I don’t want to romanticize positions of marginality and exile, they may represent some of the few spaces left in the university where one can develop a comprehensive vision of politics and social change, challenge the often deadening silos of disciplinarity, while making connections with wider social movements outside of the university. The fight for the university as a public good is essential to the development of a vibrant formative culture and democracy itself. Exile may be one of the few spaces left in neoliberal societies as democracy is pushed ever farther to the margins where individuals must learn to work together to cultivate a sense of meaningful connection, solidarity, and engaged citizenship that moves beyond an allegiance to narrow interest groups and fragmented, single issue politics. Exile might be the space where a kind of double consciousness can be cultivated that points beyond the structures of domination and repression to what the poet Claudia Rankine calls a new understanding of community, politics, and citizenship in which the social contract is revived as a kind of truce in which we allow ourselves to be flawed together. She writes:
You want to belong, you want to be here. In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together.The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen. As an equal. As just another person. As another first person. There’s a letting go that comes with it. I don’t know about forgiving, but it’s an “I’m still here.” And it’s not just because I have nowhere else to go. It’s because I believe in the possibility. I believe in the possibility of another way of being. Let’s make other kinds of mistakes; let’s be flawed differently.
To be “flawed differently” works against a selfish desire for power and a sense of belonging to the often suffocating circles of certainty that define fundamentalisms of all ideological stripes. Being “flawed differently” also suggests the need to provide room for the emergence of new democratic public spheres, noisy conversations, and a kind of alternative third space informed by compassion and respect for the other. Under such circumstances, critical exchange and education matters not as a self-indulgent performance in which individuals simply interview themselves but as public acts of reaching out, a willingness to experience the other within the space of exile that heralds and precipitates a democracy to come. This would be a democracy where intellectual thought informs critique, embodies a sense of integrity, and reclaims education in the service of justice and equality.
Exile is not a prescription or rationale for cynicism, nor is it a retreat from one’s role as an informed and engaged faculty member. On the contrary, it is a space of possibility where the reality of the university as defined by the culture of business and a reductive instrumental rationality can be challenged by a view of the university as a public good, one that expands and deepens relations of power among faculty, administrators, and students while redefining the mission of the university.
What might it mean, then, to imagine the university as containing spaces in which the metaphor of exile provides a theoretical resource to engage in political and pedagogical work that is disruptive, transformative, and emancipatory? Such work would both challenge the mainstream notion of higher education as a kind of neoliberal factory, as well as the ideological fundamentalism that has emerged among many conservatives and some alleged progressive voices. What might it mean to address the work that we do in the university, especially with regards to teaching as a form of classroom grace– a place to think critically, ask troubling questions, and take risks, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures?
Exile is not a prescription or rationale for cynicism, nor is it a retreat from one’s role as an informed and engaged faculty member. On the contrary, it is a space of possibility where the reality of the university as defined by the culture of business and a reductive instrumental rationality can be challenged by a view of the university as a public good, one that expands and deepens relations of power among faculty, administrators, and students while redefining the mission of the university. In an age of overwhelming violence, war, and oppression, universities must create formative cultures that allow students to assume the role of critically engaged citizens, informed about the ideologies, values, social relations, and institutions that bear down on their lives so that they can be challenged, changed, and held accountable. Exile in this sense is a space of critical dialogue, a posture of engaged dissent, a place filled with visions that refuse to normalize the present while imagining a more just future. It is a deeply political and moral space, one that makes education central to any viable notion of agency and politics, and works hard to create the public spaces and formative cultures that make democracy possible.