Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Random Thoughts on Privilege and Critique

The changing composition of funding for academic work over the past several decades – with more funding from the private sector, and more funding potentially tied to problematic intellectual property agreements, restrictions on publication or research design, and other commercial arrangements – prompts recurrent debate over the ethical implications of linking academic work to commercial interests. Few people draw a hard line on this issue, insisting, for example, that all forms of private funding are unacceptable, or that private funding arrangements never pose problems for academic integrity. Most of us – myself included – make our own separate peaces, hoping that we can trust ourselves to be guided by some principled logic other than what is most convenient for our research needs at the time… And few of us draw lines in the same places, meaning that the issue of outside funding arrangements provides a reliable source of ongoing debate within the academy.

Every time I become involved in one of these debates, I can’t help but think of Horkheimer’s “Fable of Consistency”, from Dämmerung. I couldn’t get my hands on the original for this post, but I’ll reproduce Martin Jay’s retelling from The Dialectical Imagination:

In the fable, two poor poets are invited to accept a considerable stipend by a tyrannical king who values their work. One is disturbed by the taint on the money. “You are inconsistent,” the other answers. “If you so believe, you must continue to go hungry. He who feels one with the poor, must live like them.” Agreeing, the first poet rejects the king’s offer and proceeds to starve. Shortly thereafter, the other becomes the court poet. Horkheimer finishes his “fairy tale” by cautioning: “Both drew the consequences, and both consequences favored the tyrant. With the general moral prescription of consistency, there seems one condition: it is friendlier to tyrants than to poor poets.”

I love this fable, although I realise that statements like this are often cited in criticisms of the Frankfurt School scholars – that they lived in too much material comfort, too distant from practical political struggles, etc. Nevertheless, I think it can be important to acknowledge that intellectual work involves a level of privilege and a level of distance – and, however disturbing it can be that similar privileges and choices may not be freely available to anyone who wishes to pursue them, access to a certain level of privilege may be integral to critique. When consistent choices “favour the tyrant”, critique may be characterised precisely by its lived inconsistency with emancipatory ideals – a complex subject position that Benjamin also seemed to regard as intrinsic to a reconfigured historical materialism:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

Kerim Friedman from Savage Minds has recently been writing his own series of posts about what kinds of knowledge academics produce, reflecting on whether we can regard knowledge as cumulative, on whether anthropological knowledge in particular “matters” for government policy at the present time and, most recently, on whether we hold some responsibility for how our published words might come to be used. In this final post, Kerim cites a passage from Adrienne Rich’s “North American Time” (the original poem is available in full here) relating to the ways in which published words persist, and come to be reappropriated in unanticipated – and sometimes horrific – ways when historical circumstances shift around them:

Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

We move but our words stand
become responsible
for more than we intended

and this is verbal privilege.

The poem parallels the Horkheimer fable, the author asking whether our understanding of this privilege – and of our ultimate lack of control over the impact our work will have on the world – should reduce us to silence:

I am writing this in a time
when anything we write
can be used against those we love
where the context is never given
though we try to explain, over and over
For the sake of poetry at least
I need to know these things

And decides that the need to give voice to the potential for change outweighs the costs of speaking.

2 responses to “Random Thoughts on Privilege and Critique

  1. Kerim Friedman October 22, 2006 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for the Horkheimer fable! Lots to think about…

  2. N Pepperell October 22, 2006 at 5:02 pm

    I’ve always liked the fable – I’ve never been sure how widely known it was, or whether other people would perceive it as an interesting observation… I’ll have to dig up the original at some point… I keep meaning to respond more substantively to your original post on cumulative knowledge, but my schedule has been a bit of a zoo… I may pick up the topic here in a calmer time…

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