- Romancing the Organic Intellectual: On the Queerness of Academic Activism
Door!” said the chief. A booted foot and the trim of a skirt flashed past the small opening in the tent, then heavy blankets flopped into place. The lodge went dark. She stirred the bucket with a hollowed-out gourd, then dumped water over hot stones assembled in a hole in the center of the lodge. “Sssss,” said the stones, exhaling tufts of steam.
“This is a year of transformation. Our work is to stand in our truth,” the chief shared as her body cycled, again and again, through her task. “So we better know who we are.” My breath caught at her words. We better. Know. Who we are.
“I hate that question. Squirm when people ask me.”1 It’s been ten years since I wrote those words. You’d think I’d know the answer by now. All these years of theorizing, criticizing, teaching to transgress, and I still don’t know: activist, academic, “Poet Warrior”?2 Middle-class Chicana; indigenous-identified Xicana; queer, single mother, living in a multigenerational home; teacher, student, scholar; post-structuralist U.S. third world feminist? Damp air burns my nostrils and the back of my throat. Who am I? Wet-hot, the question rises like a prayer to the top of the lodge.
Who we are matters to our intellectual production. As Mara Kaufman argues in this volume, “genuine community engagement” is undercut by academia’s individualistic careerism. Her critique points to the importance of shifting the frame of intellectual production toward a politics of relation:3 as our locations shift over time and across communities, our affective ties within and beyond the academy constitute the politics of our intellectual production. The relationship between community and intellectual formation is captured in Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectual (1971), the scholar whose production is shaped not only by traditional education but also by lives structured through systemic (in his formulation, class-based) oppression. The concept was, it would seem, [End Page 799] inspired by his own positionality as a dark-skinned, working-class, southern Italian intellectual imprisoned for his intervention into cultural politics. Informed by Marxist assumptions that one’s positionality is formed in relation to the means of production,4 the figure of the organic intellectual compels us to examine the relationship between social location and scholarly production. Unlike the “traditional intellectual,” who builds consensus among the masses in ways that naturalize capitalism’s inequities, the organic intellectual draws on the knowledges of those “organic” groups to which she belongs—mobilizing political consciousness among the group and speaking on its behalf.5
My romance with the organic intellectual began in graduate school in the late 1990s. Wooed by its promise of a decolonial politics—inspired by U.S. third world feminism and informed by multiple queer of color, indigenous, and antiracist belongings—I thrived in the possibilities for radical teaching and scholarship.6 I wanted a pure politics. I still labor within the pulse of this youthful enthusiasm, even as I find my labor structured by the mighty forces of academia’s individualism and its participation in ongoing imperialism, neoliberalism, and genocide—conditions so awfully-beautifully detailed within this forum. So while my intellectual work on queer U.S. third world feminisms lends itself to the designation organic intellectual, the category remains vexed in ways that exceed Gramsci’s Marxist theorization. Gramsci argues that the “organic quality” of the intellectual involves his “degree of connection with a fundamental social group,” or social class.7 While Gramsci productively signals the ideological force our “connection” to home communities exerts over knowledge production, his account doesn’t provide an intersectional lens to untangle how multiple, cross-cutting connectivities become vexed through our labor as intellectuals. On the one hand, academics who seek to hold themselves accountable to colonized and marginalized groups often find themselves, as Dylan Rodríguez notes in this forum, inhabiting “alien (if not hostile) territory.” Not only do our radical (be)longings become vexed vis-à-vis the academy, but the production of our labor as intellectuals may also alienate us from home communities: rising class status, assimilation, and...