- Intellectual Inquiry Otherwise: An Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Margot Weiss talked to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore about the academic appropriation of activist intellectual labor and the hierarchies of intellectual work inside and outside the university. Sycamore is a writer, editor of several books including That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull, 2004, 2008), Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal, 2007), and Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press, 2012), queer activist, artist, filmmaker, and critic.
Let’s start with what you’ve described as trickle-down academia. What kinds of intellectual work would you characterize in this way?
I use the phrase trickle-down academia to describe the process by which academics often appropriate anything they can get their hands on—especially people’s lived struggles, identities, methods of activism, and other challenges to the status quo—and then, claim to have invented the whole package. Historically, this is perhaps most obvious in disciplines like anthropology or sociology, but unfortunately the same thing happens in newer fields that initially came about to address some of the structural problems with these older disciplines—sure, fields like queer theory and cultural studies might hone a more-sophisticated rhetoric, but often it’s just to earn status in the battleground of ideas.
Is this kind of appropriation akin to speaking for, rather than with or within, a community, or to the cachet that can accrue to academics who claim proximity to radical activisms, or to something else entirely? [End Page 833]
Part of this is a problem with academia in general, with its hideous hierarchies and maniacal competitive viciousness. Careers are made by the discovery, categorization, analysis, or exploration of something “new.” I first noticed this with AIDS activism, sex work, and gender transgression in the early 90s. Not to say that’s when it started, obviously—that’s just when I started to look at things as an avowedly queer, radical person in the world. Some of this academic work felt intoxicating in its rigor and attention to detail—I think that’s the potential of academia, to take something specific and examine it in all its facets. But more often than not I think it becomes a quest for ownership—string together some cool new vocabulary words (or rework some old ones), and the territory is yours, you own it, you are the expert on homonationalism or homonormativity or affect or temporality or whatever. I’m just using homonationalism and homonormativity as examples—I actually think they can be elegant and insightful terms, but they are building on decades of activist struggles to challenge the violence of gay assimilation, something that many who embrace the latest theoretical jargon often ignore. I’m not saying that I’m against cool new vocabulary words, or even entire new vocabularies—I’m a writer, so I love the possibilities of language. What horrifies me is the group-think that arises, the endless drive to utilize the hottest terms of the moment but not necessarily the intended politics or analysis. Sometimes I think that academics have the amazing ability to take everything that means something to me, and repackage it as a dead object, museumified and mummified for elite consumption. That’s why I left college in the first place—I saw that the most avowedly radical courses were the most intellectually elitist—I couldn’t deal with that contradiction.
But this happens with activism, too—people might use the word pink-washing to show that they are in the know, but not really to expose the Israeli government’s strategy of packaging tyranny as LGBT inclusion. Or cisgender, a term I often see wielded as much to police the right type of speech as to expose gender hierarchies.
You’re speaking to the dynamics of power and knowledge that hierarchize forms of intellectual work?
I grew up in a status-driven upper-middle-class assimilated Jewish family where academic attainment was seen as the most important thing—my parents’ upward mobility was also a fantastic tool...