The Intellectual Self-Defence of #USSStrikes: Social Media, Critique and Collective Intellectuals

Towards the end of his life, Pierre Bourdieu underwent an activist turn and offered a public sociology which I’ve long thought we can learn much from. In his Firing Back, he offers important ideas about how academics and social movements can work together. He maintains that “the work of academic researchers is indispensable to disclose and dismantle the strategies incubated and implement by the big multinational corporations and international bodies” who are able to “enlist unprecedented scientific, technical and cultural resources” to their cause (pg 46). He goes on to explain how such cooperation necessitates that activists and academics overcome their differing orientations:

Though they are different in their training and social trajectories, researchers engaged in activist work and activists interested in research must learn to work together, overcoming all the prejudices they may harbour about one another. They must endeavour to cast off their routines and presuppositions associated with membership in universes governed by different laws and logics by establishing modes of communication and discussion of a new type.

One of many things which has fascinated me during the recent university strikes has been how academics participate as activists in a quintessentially academic way. This is how I put it earlier in the week:

I suspect I’ll be trying for some time to analyse and articulate the characteristics of the social media commentary which seems to have played such a significant part in this dispute. This has spanned multiple genres: auto-ethnography, investigative journalism, quantitative analysis, organisational documentation. But they are all “modes of communication and discussion of a new type” relating to events taking place within higher education which are of concern to all parties to the exchange, as opposed to being specialised communication within a narrow subset of academics about events taking place ‘out there’.

In doing so, it moves beyond the limitations of critique as it is conducted within the academy where, as he puts it on pg 21, “it enchants itself without ever being in a  position to really threaten anyone about anything”. We can see here the outlines of a reconstruction of the “whole edifice of critical thought” driven by the immediate need by academics for intellectual self-defence in the face of a disingenuous and calculating onslaught. Is there an emergent subject to be found in this activity? This would be an immense overstatement but this is the question I feel we should be orientating ourselves towards. As Bourdieu writes later on the same page:

This is where the collective intellectual can play its unique role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realistic utopias. It can organise or orchestrate joint research on novel forms of political action, on new manners of mobilising and of making mobilised people work together, on new ways of elaborating projects and bringing them to fruition together. It can play the role of midwife by assisting the dynamics of working groups in their effort to express, and thereby discover, what they are and what they could or should be, and by helping with the reappropriation and accumulation of the immense social stock of knowledge on the social world with which the social world is pregnant.

This is not where we are but it is where we could be. There are many questions to answer about the campaign of the last four weeks, as well as further struggle in a fight which is far from over. But we should take stock of the gains that we have made, as well as the spontaneous methodologies which have contributed to them. I’m convinced something very important happened with how social media was used by academics in the last four weeks, driven by:

  1. a mass harmonisation of intellectual attention
  2. emergent cooperation and distributed creativity by workers usually bound in to hyper-individualised temporal regimes
  3. the necessity of intellectual self-defence

How can we ensure this activity survives when these conditions are not present? To put it crudely, it seems obvious it was in part an expression of people having much more discretionary time available when their usual daily obligations were absent. But there is more to it than this and we need to understand what this supplement is, how we can nurture it and how we can apply it to maximal effect.

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