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ACADEMIA ON SOMEBODY’S ELSE’S TERMS!

By John L. Jackson, JR.

Friday, November 26, 2010.

Jay Ruby cautions anthropologists against deploying film and video equipment on terms that are completely determined by an institutionalized media industry with its own assumptions about how stories are supposed to be told and circulated. He argues that anthropologists might need to organize their narratives (and distribute their films) in ways that run counter to industry (and even audience) expectations. There is a danger in approaching film making the way others do, he says, a danger that includes potentially betraying anthropology's intellectual mission.

Philosopher Lewis Gordon has recently penned a powerful piece that asks academics to reconsider current tendencies to perform intellectual authority in ways that traffic in neoliberal logics of financial accumulation and brand-name fetishization, logics that may similarly betray our basic intellectual mission. There is a danger, he argues, in performing scholastic subjectivity on terms that seem foreign (even antithetical) to academia's traditional considerations and methods of appraisal.

Gordon's thoughtful and provocative piece, "The Market Colonization of Intellectuals," reads something like a manifesto, and it made me think about my own too-easy acceptance of academia's hyermarketization. He argues that academics can't serve two masters, can't occupy two separate spheres at the selfsame time: the life of the mind and the mandates of the marketplace. Moreover, he claims that we are increasingly getting used to just such a bifurcated and contradictory existence.

Gordon describes a "managerial academic class" of professional administrators charged with aligning academia's values and self-assessments with the organizing principles and measuring modalities of the market. "Market potentiality," he says, "governs everything [that many academics] produce." Gordon designates this "the market colonization of knowledge."

Gordon also questions the branding of analytical concepts such that they are flattened out for public consumption and magically fused with their intellectual creators: deconstruction and Derrida being one of his prime examples. This isn't a critique of Derrida or a dismissal of deconstruction's epistemological purchase. It is a plea for, amongst other things, an academic model of productivity that doesn't reproduce and reinforce the ubiquitous cult of celebrity, one of the most powerful points of entry into a mass mediated public sphere and the overflowing bank accounts of its most recognizable occupants.

The piece even takes on academia's impoverished commitment to (and operationalization of) what it means to be "smart." "In the academy," Gordon writes, "nothing is more marketable than the reputation of being smart. This makes sense: No one wants dumb intellectuals. The problem, of course, is how ‘smart' is defined. In a market-oriented society, that means knowing how to play the game of making oneself marketable. The problem here is evident if we make a comparison with ethics. I once asked an environmental activist, who argued that a more ethical ecological position is the key against looming disaster, which would bother her more: to be considered unethical or stupid? She admitted the latter."

The piece asks what kind of academic world we've created if the universality of a certain apotheosis of smartness becomes our highest (maybe our only) moral value. Gordon demands of academics a more rigorous reflexivity, a critical self-consciousness that challenges what's become orthodoxy in contemporary academic life.

Gordon and Ruby both demand such a critical self-reflexivity from their colleagues. Gordon argues that anything less than that compromises our scholarly significance. Ruby claims that ethnographic films, as one instantiation of intellectual projects, might need to look very different from other motion pictures.

I'm teaching a graduate film course this semester that attempts to take up some of Ruby's challenge, asking students to de-familiarize mechanically reproduced audiovisual products just enough for them to start seeing such offerings in slightly newfangled ways.

We are reading critical histories of early cinema (for example, Peter Decherney's analysis of early Hollywood's ties to academia; Jacqueline Stewart's evocative theorization of the links between popular cinema and the lives of African Americans during the Great Migration; Hannah Landecker on the central role of early medical films to any discussion about the creation/popularization of cinema) along with ethnographies of media/mediation (from folks like Roxanne Varzi, Alan Klima, Michael Taussig, Diane Nelson, and John Caldwell), and differently pitched philosophical treatments of film/video/digital products/processes (by Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Kara Keeling, Susan Buck-Morss, Kirsten Ostherr, D.N. Rodowick, and others). We are also watching films/videos that challenge traditional ways of seeing (including Bill Morisson's Decasia, Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, William Greaves's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, and Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York).

The course hopes to trouble some of the taken-for-granted presuppositions that we all have about ways of approaching the ubiquity of televisual, filmic, and digital representations. If the course works, students may not be quite as prone to unproductively normalized assumptions about how we interface with such technology.

The film/video market and its logics can also colonize and cannibalize the minds and methods of anthropological filmmakers/film critics who can find themselves seduced in ways that mirror some of the criticisms delineated by Gordon's challenging essay. You don't have to agree with every facet of Gordon's piece to imagine it as a wonderfully productive starting point for a spirited conversation about what academia ought to be.

John L. Jackson, JR., is an anthropologist, academic and filmmaker. He blogs at From the Annals of Anthroman, and writes regularly for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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