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  • A Politics of Encounter: Knowledge and Organizing in Common
  • Mara Kaufman (bio)

I want to begin with the relation of activism to academia not as a problem of the separation or conjunction between these realms but as a problem of practices and structures internal to both. We often assume that these are principally antagonistic and mutually distrustful fields, characterized by activist anti-intellectualism with regard to the academy and academic skepticism with regard to social change. This leaves us with the idea that we must bridge the two fields, which in turn tends to rely on innovative individuals to carry forth this task, a poor frame of reference that is more a reflection of the problems within each realm—the central figure of innovative individual—than a solution. I’d like to move away from the idea of “bridging,” but also away from the categories of activism and academia altogether to think about organization and knowledge production. While these things can happen within activism and academia, there is no guarantee that they will.

My thinking about the relation between knowledge and organizing comes from a collective organizational process that includes exposure to movements around the world, including and perhaps most importantly Zapatismo, but is primarily based on the work of the organization of which I am a part, El Kilombo Intergaláctico. Based in Durham, North Carolina, El Kilombo is made up primarily of students, migrants, and African American members of our local community, who work toward the creation of dignified housing, the production of and access to healthy food sources, and cooperative self-employment. All organizational projects are created by and for the community itself. The concepts presented here come from our collective thought and work.

Activism and Academia

What issues internal to activism and academia impede organization and knowledge production today? A first problem might be thought of as the extraction of the individual from the processes of knowledge production and political action through the formation of the professionalized identities of academic [End Page 823] and activist. The individualized academic careerism demanded by the requisites of resume building and the structures of authorship are exactly those that tend to discourage genuine engagement with a community, at least in ways that promote rather than exploit it. Professionalization is constructed in part around the need to suppress confrontation with concepts that exceed institutional control. The distance of critique provides the illusion of independence from the social entanglements that accompany what is produced in common.

Related to this is the dependence within both activism and academia on foundation and philanthropic funding. The sheer amount of time and energy involved in the cycle of funder-oriented proposal and report-back has a depoliticizing effect, as it takes one out of the time-space of collective rhythm. The subjective interpellation of professionalization and the participation in funding cycles, accented by the cutbacks and increased workloads of the neoliberal university and its counterpart in nongovernmental organizations, amount to what Tiziana Terranova reminds us is a kind of control over the surplus of production.1 At stake in control over surplus is precisely the limit or capacity of the social to produce alternative forms of relation and organization, that is, to do politics.

In academia, we must add to this the social-reproductive function of the university, which transforms students not into obedient labor power but into self-managed human capital, driven by cultural more than wage capital. Work in the university risks becoming the management function of this human capital production, monitoring its development, selecting and supervising for its most promising potential.2 We can often see this as well in the nongovernmental and even noninstitutional sphere, in activist résumés: “I run this campaign, shop this co-op, organize this media series, and make documentary film shorts on the side.” In other words, my social capital is speculative but highly profitable. Or, in sociologist Jared Ball’s metaphor, some of these spaces function like “live facebook”:3 the parading of profiles and the management of networks— visibly circulated, easily modified, and widely marketed.

It is important to recognize that these elements—the “privatization of the social individual” and the individual accumulation of...


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