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  • Affiliation and Change: A Year of Campus Labor Activism
  • Cary Nelson (bio)

No one acquainted with Michel Foucault’s work will be surprised to learn that affiliation is always a double-edged sword: it creates opportunities for action at the same time as it installs powerful constraints defining what actions seem possible; it constructs and reinforces certain identities while casting out other identities as implausible or obscene. Like all forms of social regulation, as Foucault helped us see in other contexts, affiliation often promotes organizational and institutional ends less by punishing offenders than by rewarding compliance. Not that punishments, including monstrous ones, are ever absent from a properly affiliated imagination; they haunt both actual and hypothetical trespass. But affiliation also enriches subjectivity and positions identities in such a way as to win willing assent without seeming to extract compliance violently. Affiliation limits what it is possible to imagine, creates outcomes we can fear, and naturalizes the status quo within institutions.

So it is with academia and with all the forms of affiliation promoted in this most paradoxical set of vocations, so many of them combining extreme self-consciousness and an unexamined life. In academia one often subjects everything but the very social constitution of one’s own identities to intense scrutiny. There is a gap, then, between the theoretical assent my opening paragraph might win and the willingness of many academics to interrogate the nature and consequences of their own affiliations. Affiliations may be constitutive and constraining, academics might argue, but they are often blind to their own constraining ideologies. For they have been, perhaps irrationally, persuaded they are themselves affiliated but with freedom. [End Page 85]

So long as the academic system worked efficiently, affiliation might proceed harmlessly on a dual tracks of equally focused inquiry and ignorance. From time to time, of course, multiple affiliations were brought together—or collided—in such a way as to produce desperately needed change. We saw that during the 1960s and 1970s when anti-war activism propelled academics into institutional critique and radically different forms of affiliation. We saw it again when simultaneous affiliation with feminism and the academy forced universities to begin confronting their multiple discriminatory practices. And multiple affiliations produced activist confrontations between black students and the institutions in which they were enrolled. Other marginalized groups have since followed their lead.

These multiple and conflicting affiliations have been both theoretical and organizational, though they have not necessarily operated on the same plane for every individual. Yet it is often only the friction between multiple affiliations that opens a space for reflective critique. Even in academia—the very institution supposedly most devoted to unfettered reasoned analysis—the horizon circumscribed by one set of seamless and mutually reinforcing affiliations can severely limit our insight. One belongs to a department, one belongs to a campus, one belongs to a discipline and perhaps to its national organization. It is but one step further to the nation state. This is a hierarchy of interchangeable affiliations that obliterates difference and contradiction within a setting that is, ironically, rife with them.

Yet affiliation on the other hand can position one to effect much needed change. To abandon affiliation because of its inherent limitations and constraints is perhaps to be even less empowered. Necessary change seems most likely to occur, however, when multiple affiliations are in tension with one another. Out of those tensions—erupting across subject positions in dialogue and in conflict with one another—can evolve alliances that link affiliated subjects in new ways. And the social space occupied by multiple persons taken up in different affiliations in turn promotes moments of recognition and self-critique ordinarily suppressed by affiliations that merely reinforce one another.

It is time and past time for such patterns to assume prominence throughout higher education. We have been through three decades of a disastrous job market for new Ph.D.s in which “apprenticeship” has been steadily emptied of its authenticity as a subject position. Affiliation has for many “apprentices” been a mode of enslavement.

This paper, then, is about networking and acting for change in academia. It is about people occupying places in key organizations and using those affiliations to...

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pp. 85-96
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