In many areas of education, the instructor needs to be able to demonstrate a certain degree of proficiency in practicing what is being taught. Dentists teach at dental schools. A person who practices First Aid, teaches First Aid to others. A ticketed plumber teaches others how to be plumbers. A painter teaches others to paint by (amongst other things) demonstrating certain techniques.
However, when one moves to some of the more theory-oriented areas of education, this same point does not always hold true. Rather, one demonstrates one’s proficiency not in any point of action but by manipulating signs within some sort of game that does not seem to connect directly to one’s life and actions. Pure mathematics or some realms of physics are probably some of the most obvious examples of this.
The catch here is that some theories are praxis-oriented or praxis-dependent. That is to say, if one accepts a theory that is like this as “authoritative” or “right” or “true” in some sense, one is also required to act in a certain manner. This is how one demonstrates both an acceptance and understanding of the theory. The alternative is that either one rejects this kind of theory (as “non-authoritative” or “wrong” or “untrue”) or simply does not understand the theory (i.e. by claiming to accept it while failing to live into it).
One example of this would be New Testament studies, as performed by those who claim that the New Testament is an authority in their own lives. It is hard to engage in any sort of sustained study of the New Testament without realizing that the life, actions, and commitments of Jesus — as exemplified particularly well in Phil 2.5-11 — are also to be the model for the life, actions, and commitments of any who wish to follow Jesus or who consider the New Testament to be a sacred text of some sort. If one teaches Phil 2, or New Testament studies, but does not live into a trajectory of creative solidarity and resistance alongside of those who are being marginalized, oppressed, and deprived of life by the death-dealing Powers of our day, one demonstrates that one has not actually understood or accepted the teachings of the New Testament. Therefore, to try and teach such material while pursuing tenure in an academic institution (which are clusters of wealth, status and power), or holding some prestigious posting within the institutional church (say, for example, writing a book like Jesus and the Victory of God, while living in the luxury afforded the Bishop of Durham). Is an exercise in missing the point (which also explains why N. T. Wright’s pastoral writings are constantly disappointing, and why he fails to follow through on the implications of his more scholarly works). It would be like having a non-dentist teach dentistry — sure, they can probably tell you everything, memorize all the approaches and names, problems and solutions, but when it comes down to them showing you how to do a root canal on a patient sitting in a chair, they are going to fuck it up royally. Which, of course, is part of the reason why we have so many Christian scholars or pastors who can say a lot of nice things about Christianity but don’t have the first clue about what it means to actually live as Christians — those who taught them never showed them.
The same, I think, can be said of those who teach and advocate on behalf of Marxist theory in the academy. I got thinking about this again because of a recent post by Adam Kotsko at AUFS, and the ensuing comments (see here). Adam concludes his brief post by asking: “Is the self-proclaimed Marxist with no relationship to the worker’s movement any different from someone who claims to have a Buddhist or Kabbalistic outlook on life without practicing Buddhism or Judaism in any serious way?”
I think this is an excellent question and one that academics don’t seem to like to ask themselves all that much (and they often like it even less when others ask them this question)… although they certainly do a pretty fine job of being appropriately critical about other contexts. Personally, I do not feel that there is any significant difference between the (majority) of self-proclaimed Marxist academics and the so-called Western Buddhist (whom Zizek has often criticized). Espousing Marxism is supporting a form of theory that has direct implications regarding a person’s lifestyle, trajectory, and the relationships that person chooses to enter into (or not). I think Marxist anarchists have always understood this much better than Marxists in the academy (where the anarchists are notably absent… for good reason). Essentially the Marxist professor who chooses to situate him- or herself within a context of privilege, status, and wealth, wining and dining at conferences in St. Andrew’s, scouting a position at an Ivy League school, and trying to attain tenure is doing nothing different than the New Testament scholar who plays the same game — i.e. betraying the very position he or she claims to espouse.
That those rooted in the Academy tend to avoid any analysis of this is well reflected in the comments of Adam’s post. Adam suggests that maybe this means the so-called Western Buddhist isn’t all that bad, another person suggests that the Marxist is better simply by being a Marxist (here the claim to be a Marxist is taken at face value), and another person essentially deploys the “stop splitting the Left” argument because, really, we’re all already oppressed enough by capitalism.
However, as always occurs in this kind of conversation, the argument was made by an additional person that detached Marxist professors are worthwhile in that they create a space where some students can be exposed to some important information, and then those students may go on to be “future activists” who go out and “tear things out.” This is the classic “do as I say, not as I do” line, and I see professors deploy it all the time. Of course, the proper response to this is to point out that any students who do go out and do engage in solidarity with the workers, or some marginalized population, or whomever else, do so despite the example set by the professor.
The professor is actually one of the largest barriers to the students going out to “tear things up” (just as children will almost always go on to do as their parents do, not as they say). The professor is constantly showing the students that they can (supposedly) have their cake and eat it too — i.e. be considered “radicals” or even “Marxists” while continuing to deliberately pursue a life that perpetuates the status quo of capitalism and enjoying all the perks of those who embrace this lifestyle. Further, lacking a decent practical model, the student who does go out and try to live out what he or she learns, may face serious difficulties (like a dental student who was only taught dental theory and never taught to develop the fine motor skills needed to drill teeth). This often leads to rapid burn-out or disillusionment (“fuck this, I’m sticking to the books!”), not to mention the harm it can do to others.
Of course, this is not to say that “academia is just a black hole of total worthlessness” (as Adam thinks that some “activists” view the situation). The knowledge gained in studying Marxism (and the various subjects engaged by Marxism) is very important, but it is important to point out that those who claim to be Marxists (or New Testament scholars), while remaining almost exclusively rooted within the Academy are betraying and working against the very thing for which they claim to act as advocates. So, really, we need to rework Zizek’s well-known statement that “Christians and Marxists should be on the same side of the barricades.” The truth is that, all to often, they already are on the same side of the barricades — the side of those who choose to barricade themselves from the poor and the oppressed.