U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Personal, the Political, and the Academic

This week, Michael Eric Dyson published a highly critical essay about Cornel West in The New Republic. The piece has generated much debate on social networks, with some bemoaning how the feud represents the search for fame and power that typified the rise of the “black public intellectual” in the 1990s, while others see Dyson’s essay as a typical example of how liberalism evades politics by making everything personal. The last response in particular was interesting to me, for as I read Dyson’s essay, what came to my mind was not how Dyson was trying to separate the political and the personal, but how openly and explicitly he combined them. For while I’ve got no particular horse in this race – so I’ll refrain from weighing in myself on whether or not Dyson’s essay was fair – it did remind me how difficult it can be to navigate the terrain of academia when nothing is supposed to be personal, but sometimes, it feels like everything is.

The production of scholarship and intellectual output is usually imagined as a solitary endeavor – the professor, sweater on backwards and all, shut up in her disheveled office covered in piles of papers and books. Yet some of the most significant work has been at least partly the product of creative partnerships: Marx and Engels, Freud & Jung, Camus & Sarte. Yet just as often as such friendships are intellectually productive, they also sometimes rely on a tension that, when accentuated, can lead to a spectacular and sometimes devastating falling out.

Usually, when these splits come, the participants describe them publicly (if they are discussed at all) as something other than personal feuds – it’s about proper politics or, if it’s a dispute between academics, it’s neither political nor personal but rather about “scholarship.” In Dyson’s essay, however, it’s all three – yet the fact that he lays all those threads open and allows us to examine them does not necessarily make them any more easy to disentangle. Hence all the speculation about why, exactly, Dyson wrote this essay – was it liberalism that drove him to do it? Jealousy? Careerism? Or, are his feelings just so hurt that he needs to exorcise his sense of being rejected by a once-mentor by publicly repudiating him?

The frustrating fact of the matter is that these threads are usually impossible to disentangle; the life of the mind takes place in the same skull that houses the rest of our lives, and the departments are not merely constantly communicating, but are rather inseparably intertwined. Who can say how long we may cling to bad ideas partly because we associate them with defending ourselves against those who have hurt us or injured our pride, and what do we do with the unavoidable and understandable fact that as thinking people, we incorporate our viewpoints into our identity and thus have quite a lot invested in them?

Considering these challenges, it makes sense that a set of practices has been built up to try to keep spheres separate. Professionalism implores us to leave personal issues at the door – certain spaces are for scholarly discussion and scholarly discussion alone. Yet in the context of academia, this often seems to come up short as a way of dealing with the messiness of our intellectual and personal selves.

First, our work reflects not merely the monotony of doing what one must do to get a paycheck, but rather nearly always represents something someone has chosen to do because of a belief in its value. Thus rather than a nine-to-five job that you can leave at the office, our work is inescapably a reflection of our hopes and values – and therefore inevitably, to us, a reflection of ourselves. Consequently, the stakes of being wrong can sometimes feel rather high.

Second, the success and fate of that work is tied to a process of peer review. We need not merely please the inept boss, whose particular likes and dislikes we’ve learned to adjust for – we have to please an entire community of diverse people trained to appraise our work critically. So while officially we’re supposed to keep it professional, in reality we constantly open ourselves to criticism which can hit us in some of the most personal places. Yet, of course, we’re not supposed to show it. We keep our game faces on; or at least certainly try to.

Yet this produces a problem; when a community is based both on professionalism and peer review, it makes using a critical response as a personal weapon incredibly tempting. So not surprisingly, one of the most talked about charges that Dyson leveled at West is that in the past decade, his scholarship has been shabby or near to non-existent. Indeed, Dyson even points out, West has even gone as far as co-writing a book with a non-scholar, a professional writer rather than even a second rate pubic intellectual! It’s telling, I think, how much these criticisms read like darts hurled at an opponent: for when we accuse someone of not being true to the trade, we simultaneously imply that they have also not been true to the tribe – and thus, therefore, maybe no longer belong.

Often, I think, such dynamics operate on the level of the unconscious. If it were always obvious to us, after all, what our motivations are, we would not have nearly so much trouble untangling them. The ambiguity then of what is going on between fellow scholars is not a question of any particularly high proportion of us being consciously willing to wield criticism for personal reasons, but rather the unavoidable conclusion that knowing when you’re being critical and when you’re being personal can actually be hard to discern, and requires a decent amount of not-always-pleasant introspection. Indeed, at the end of the day, the best we can do is try to keep abuses of critical practice in reasonable check, since the personal, the political, and the scholarly probably can’t ever be entirely separated. (Nor would we want them to be.)

Nonetheless, the halls of academia can be rather confusing, sometimes, to navigate. (Sometimes literally.) And I offer no brilliant solution for these problems. Yet on the whole, it often seems preferable to me to allow ourselves our humanity and pursue being open and honest rather than polite and proper; after all, our entire selves are dragged in to intellectual spaces along with our thinking selves, whether we want them there or not. If we accept this, maybe it can help all of us be a little more candid and patient not merely with one another, but with ourselves.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a fascinating piece Robin, thanks for writing it! You make some good points that have been largely overlooked in how people have analyzed the current dust up between West and Dyson.

    I don’t want to make any direct comparisons here, but now that I think about Dyson’s comments they do remind me a bit of the classic Baldwin essay dismissing Richard Wright, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In both cases you had younger public intellectuals dismissing the work of a person they once considered mentor. Of course the comparisons have a limit for a variety of reasons; but nonetheless your essay does get at the very thin line between the personal and political within academia and a larger “public” intellectual space.

    • Great point about the link between Dyson/West and Wright/Ellison. I’d be curious to know if Dyson has said anything more since this came out.

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