This American Quarterly forum builds on a symposium held in 2011 at Wesleyan University on the relationship between academia and activism. Our symposium was inspired by a pair of concerns: that academics too often either romanticize activism as the site where “real” political work happens or else ascribe an abstracted radical politics to quotidian academic work. These concerns emerge especially within interdisciplinary fields—fields like American studies, women’s and gender studies, queer studies, and critical race and ethnic studies—that are grounded in social movements and becoming institutionalized in an increasingly corporatized university.
Gathering together scholars from a range of disciplines, political orientations, and institutional locations (from recent doctorate to center director, from both public and private universities), the symposium examined academia and activism as linked sites, social institutions, and practices. We aimed to move beyond claims that academia and activism are already interconnected (a claim that can bypass a thorough analysis of the specificity of each category) while also resisting the call to “bridge” scholarship and political action (a call that re-creates a presumed distinctness between knowledge or intellectual labor and the larger social world). Instead, we focused on the duality of intellectual and activist or political labor, traced the intersections and gaps between activist and academic work, and historicized dichotomies of theory and practice, “ivory tower” and “real world.”
The essays in this forum are reflections that contributors wrote after the symposium. Each focuses on the challenge of doing meaningful political work both at and from the university. Ranging from analytical to polemical to lyrical, the essays explore the contradictions, possibilities, and challenges of pursuing transformative politics within an institution that threatens to reproduce precisely the oppressions that left intellectuals seek to transform.
At the close of the forum, we include four interviews we conducted with activists (and activist-scholars). Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Gwendolyn Beetham of Feministing were part of the [End Page 787] Academia and Activism project but unable to attend the symposium. They spoke with us about the intersections of queer and feminist intellectual and political labor. We have included two additional interviews: one with Jasbir Puar on the travels of homonationalism as a hybrid activist-academic “buzzword”; and one with Ryan Conrad, Yasmin Nair, and Karma Chávez on the queer archival and visionary work of the Against Equality collective. The interviews complement and extend the forum’s focus by reflecting on the creation and circulation of radical knowledge outside and on the borders of the contemporary university.
Locating the Political
“Whereare left intellectuals looking when they look to purportedly real politics?” This question guides Matthew Garrett’s essay, which explores the “peculiarly spatialized political desire” among left intellectuals for a “real politics” sited elsewhere. Examining these spatial politics, cultural geographers have mapped the production of academia and activism as a binary organized around false inside/outside logics—seeking ways to disarticulate the binary, to find spaces outside it, or to historicize its dual constitution.1 The essays in this forum, along with the interviews, similarly point to the disjunctive and complex geographies of activism and academia.
Garrett analyzes such spatializations as a “romance” with an out-of-reach “authentic activism” that misrecognizes connections between the grounded location of an academic writer and politics writ large. Aimee Carrillo Rowe joins him in critiquing these inside/outside logics, instead mapping the “vexed convergences” between her political and social communities and the institutions she navigates as a teacher-scholar. And, as Scott Lauria Morgensen and Dylan Rodríguez emphasize, the university constitutes itself through settler colonialism, on native land. Their essays draw attention to the displacement, dispossession, and expropriation intrinsic to the space of the university campus. At the same time, all of the contributors argue that the radical knowledge produced by left intellectuals can forge and sustain our collective political imagination—both inside and outside the academy.
Left Intellectuals/Radical Knowledge
Given the “university’s current mission to reproduce the professional-managerial class and to mirror the institutional arrangements of corporations,” Purnima Bose asks, “What are the prospects for progressive faculty activism”? Doing radical work within the university is a challenge for...