- The Church, the State, or a Corporation:An Object Lesson
Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons (2012) raises any number of questions about academic work. Wiegman does so through a set of epistemological explorations of fields she terms “identity knowledges”: gender studies and queer theory, whiteness and American studies, internationalism and intersectionality (1). Although Wiegman’s questions are focused on the specific fields that the books explores, they also have implications for academic work itself, no matter what the field in which it takes place. In fact, one of the central insights of the book is that even in fields that understand themselves as potentially resistant to or subversive of the dominant problems of the academy, the work produced in these fields is still complicit with various academic relations, including dominating relations—whether the class-stratification of working “in the knowledge factory” (Tokarczyk and Fay 1993) or its sexism, nationalism, or racism. Specifically, Wiegman provides an analysis of the complicity of identity knowledges in the very structures of power and oppression that these knowledges critique.
The question of complicity is, of course, one deserving of much discussion, and it has been usefully canvassed in many of the fields that interest Wiegman. For example, Miranda Joseph and David Rubin (2007) suggest in a survey of research from the Sex, Race and Globalization (SRG) Project at the University of Arizona that the question of complicity can be promisingly taken up if it is not short-circuited by “the common understanding of complicity that it is bad” (436). Alternatively, Joseph and Rubin suggest a reading of complicity “not so much as a hindrance to political and intellectual work per se, but rather as an embodiment of power relations where relationality is at stake, where the dimension of alterity is at play, where the chance for reiteration-with-a-difference resides” (436–37). [End Page 160]
Object Lessons takes up the challenge of an analysis in which complicity is not necessarily a negative moral category, but is, rather, the marker of historical imbrication, including imbrication in the history of the academy. In Object Lessons, it is as much the desire to be without complicity that presents moral problems, as it is complicity itself. This desire is an enabling fantasy—it enables the production of knowledges that depend on hopes for knowledge that is not oppressive. But it is also a dangerous fantasy. The fiction of living and working outside of complicitous relations can obscure ongoing participation in under-determined relations of oppression, leading one to miss the very ways in which something else might happen. In thinking that women’s studies or American studies are different than dominant academic undertakings, one could miss the ways in which these fields are not so different, as well as the ways in which they might be different.
I am trained in ethics and therefore have long been interested in these questions. But they have become even more pressing for me in my current position as director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). BCRW’s main focus is on connections between activism and the academy, and it develops research projects with collaborative partners, mainly activist organizations in New York City. These activist partners mostly understand themselves within the framework of social justice feminism and queer and trans activism. And yet, it is no great analytical insight to see that neither Barnard College, nor Columbia University with which it is associated, could accurately be called social justice organizations. What, then, to make of the fact that the projects sponsored by BCRW are bound to be complicit in academic institutions whose existence is predicated on some of the very social hierarchies and capitalist imperatives that projects with organizations like Domestic Workers United (DWU) or Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) would resist and undo? Does not Columbia’s position as one of the largest landlords in Harlem (Bradley 2009) mean, for example, that it is a very direct agent of oppression for many of the poor women, queer, and trans people who are the constituencies of both DWU and QEJ?1
I hope that these brief examples show why I found it so helpful that...