Critical Point 2: The return to political economy

This is the second post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

I was saying in the last post that Gusterson smuggles in his own preferred theoretical approach beneath a set of ostensibly neutral epistemic criteria, such as “systematicity” and “self-awareness.” His preferred approach is, in substance, a contemporary version of political economy. So let us take time here to see what Gusterson’s political economy looks like.

It is a materialist analysis that he advocates. He cares about flows of money and power, about class interests and the role of the state. This is, in itself, fine. And yet, as an ethnographer of French activism, it comes to mind that we always have to ask: what is supposed to be the link between a particular materialist analysis and a given activist practice? In the wake of Marx, critical political economy is always supposed to be a theory coupled to a social movement (a praxis, if you prefer). It is not supposed to become a purely scholarly approach. It is meant to inform activism and, in the Marxist tradition, a labor movement that should also become a political movement.

So the first thing to say about Gusterson’s political economy is that, unlike earlier generations of left intellectuals, he does not try in the least to connect his materialist analysis to any labor movement. Or any other political or social movement, for that matter. Thus his preferred approach to political economy may still involve what we could call, generically, a historical materialism about the university. But it is, fundamentally, a depoliticized, even deradicalized historical materialism.

Gusterson does, however, retain one of the key axioms of Marxist analysis. He consistently presumes — without argument — that the political economy, the state, and class reproduction (which he sees as systematic approaches) are more valuable rubrics than studies of race, gender or identity (all of which he sees as unsystematic or auxiliary variations).

This basic distinction then gets mapped, quite strangely, onto a distinction between studies of faculty/staff/administrators (too few of these, says Gusterson) and studies of students (too many, he thinks). It sometimes also maps onto an untheorized distinction between “ideology” (which Gusterson thinks we should study, e.g. the ideological role of economics) and “culture” (which he treats as being too particular, too unsystematic, and overly associated with ”the student niche in this [larger] institutional lifeworld,” 437).

Again, it is not that I have anything against political economy as such. But Gusterson’s argument ends up reproduces the following schema:

systematic analysis = political economy/faculty/class/unmarked “we”

unsystematic analysis = identity theory/gender/race/students/minority concerns

I think this basically comes down to advocating orthodox Marxism’s “class first” approach. But this approach largely stopped seeming like a sufficient general framework for social inquiry decades ago — I suspect it was in the 1960s and 1970s. In South Africa and the United States, for example, a certain masculine Marxism was problematized by the births of numerous feminisms, Black Consciousness and Black Power movements, and the Combahee River Collective’s now foundational theory of identity politics. Yet Gusterson is systematically uninterested in the transnational history of post-60s critical theory. This body of theory, nevertheless, has problematized the implicitly white, masculine universalism that Gusterson still tends to presume. His paper is framed around a feminist concept — “homework” or work on the places we live. Yet methodologically, feminist concerns have not really been taken on board. Nor has an intersectional approach to political economy, which has made clear that capitalist economies are gendered economies are racial economies, that processes of minoritization are always entangled but inseparable from class projects, and so on.

So I came away from the paper thinking, oddly, that Gusterson needed both a little less and a little more Marxism. A little less, since it is honestly too late to propose returning to class and the political economy, as if on their own they could constitute a satisfactory master narrative (and a non-minoritarian critical subject to go with it). But also a little more Marxism, since he would have benefited from the powerful reflexive contributions of late Marxian thinking. In particular, Gusterson needs a clearer, more critical account of his own class position and class interests as a tenured anthropologist in North America.

Several decades of recent critical theory — often writing with Marxism or after it — have put in question precisely the status of tenured academic elites, and called attention to their division along gendered, ethnoracial, sexual, political, and other lines. Gusterson does not seem to have read the transnational radicals at Edufactory, nor Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Mara’s collection The Imperial University, nor Jeffrey Williams (on professorial class affect), nor my teacher Lauren Berlant (on the contradictions of radical and feminist pedagogy under neoliberalism), nor Marc Bousquet (on academic labor), and on and on… Gusterson also seems not to have read earlier generations’ radical critiques of the professoriate, prominently including Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s theory of the PMC and Pierre Bourdieu’s radically self-critical account of homo academicus.

My complaint here is not bibliographic, but reflexive. It is about the lamentable lack of class self-consciousness that permeates Gusterson’s “return to political economy.” It takes a fundamental reflexivity about studying the academy. Campus ethnography is in my view not just about doing “homework”; it is about building a more vulnerable, recursive epistemology. Who am I that I write about the academy? Why am I licensed to know? From what position do I speak? On behalf of what sort of class power?

This is not about being confessional or autobiographical for its own sake. It is about accounting for the very structures that organize critical knowledge.

But Gusterson does not try to do this. Instead, we are left with a point nicely formulated by Jana Bacevic:

Ever encounter a professor stand up at a public lecture or committee meeting and say “I recognize that I owe my being here to the combined fortunes of inherited social capital, [white] male privilege, and the fact English is my native language”? I didn’t either.

When you don’t think rigorously about your own location in social space, it ends up showing through. That’s why Gusterson’s paper is full of untheorized references to “middle-class kids” and “comfortable tenured faculty like myself.” Ultimately, it collapses into a problematic, exoticizing representation of adjuncts, a point to which I will return laster in this series. Gusterson writes, in the end, on behalf of a certain we that is anything but universal. A we that resists identity theory. It is this resistance to identity theory that I now want to explore in more detail.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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