Martin Luther King

Challenging the politics of knowledge, continued

9 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

Ana Deumert's recent column points to some major shortcomings in the contemporary politics of knowledge surrounding academic work. Her conclusion is unambiguous: "if as scholars we simply reproduce ‘citational chains’ - chains which largely privilege white, male authors from the global North – then our work will be poorer, more limited, and more parochial."

Is this the problem with the politics of knowledge?

I agree entirely with that conclusion, partly because I have heard this point being made for over thirty years now (and made it myself on several occasions), and because I have heard it being made with increasing frequency in the recent past. It is, once again, a battle cry for equity and equality in the world of knowledge and one can only welcome and endorse it. But, stepping away from Deumert's text, what I miss in this kind of analyses is (a) a precise diagnostic of the predicament in which we find ourselves, and (b) an agenda for change.

As for the former, I keep being baffled by the ease with which new essentialisms are being invoked as cause and driver for the processes of inequality - see the 'white, male authors' above, and observe how white (a racial label, note) and male is quickly equated with 'the global North', as opposed, one presumes, to a 'global South' which would be non-white and feminine. It can, on occasion, be narrowed to 'Europe' or to the 'transatlantic area', depending on the specific arguments made. Practical questions as to the actual boundaries of such notions arise whenever I encounter them (are Chinese scholars 'white'? Is someone like Dinesh D'Sousa 'non-white' or 'a voice from the South'? and where does 'the North' start and end?) Frankly, the importance of these issues is not reflected in the rather sloppy ways in which these issues are debated.

As for the agenda for change, I rarely hear more than the suggestion that, as soon as white male academics would be - individually - more conscious of the inequalities in their environment, this environment will change. Having been an equality activist for three decades and more, I find this, too, quite unconvincing. If this is the problem with the present politics of knowledge, very little will be done about it, I'm afraid.

I keep being baffled by the ease with which new essentialisms are being invoked as cause and driver for the processes of inequality.

So let me attempt to be somewhat more precise with regard to these points.

The political economy of knowledge

I find it extraordinary to see the problem of inequality in the field of knowledge distribution being attributed to a vague and altogether unsustainable view of 'history', where this history is in the most summary (and categorical) way sketched as centuries of 'white' domination over 'non-white' peoples. More on this below. I find it equally baffling to read that such a history should, eventually, be collapsed into individual attitudinal forms of reproduction of a power structure that was and is apparently monolithic, homogenous and without contest. It is quite simply about individual (white, male, all of them) academics who have to change their citation practices, for they (all of them) are insufficiently aware of the power effects they have . In Deumert's words, "once we understand our own citation practices – and those of our disciplines – we can change them. Sarah Ahmed, for example, decided not to cite any ‘white men’ in Living a Feminist Life".

Of course, nothing will change without individuals growing aware of what's wrong and putting in their own little bits of adjustment. But individual agency alone is terribly insufficient. Reducing the 'politics of knowledge' to individual moral stances and awareness makes no sense. A political economy of knowledge offers more perspective, and our own citation practices are a case in point. There is an elephant in the room.

It has been often remarked: academics operate in an industrial model of production, in which their output - the teaching others should receive, conference talks others should hear, and texts others should read - is increasingly, and continuously more extremely, commodified. Universities are run on a competitive free market and managerial program. Students pay large enrolment fees; conference organizers charge hundreds of Euros of registration fees, and academic publishers (some of which are among the world's most lucrative businesses) appropriate academic writings and put them behind paywalls. Such factors simply, and predictably, exclude the overwhelming majority of the world's scholars, especially those who do not belong to the privileged elites studying and working in generously funded institutions. It generates a real 'parochialism' (to adopt Ana Deumert's term), but one of global elites. These elites, I should add, can be found in Harvard, Cambridge, Berlin and Bologna, to be sure. But also in Delhi, Shanghai, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Cairo, Istanbul and Qatar. 

Here is a more specific problem about 'citational chains': they emerge as effects of profit-maximizing industrial strategies.

So here is a more specific problem about 'citational chains': they emerge as effects of profit-maximizing industrial strategies, and as long as those militantly advocating more equity and equality continue to submit their work to the logic of that system, such work will be exclusive and excluding, and it is very predictable which particular constituencies will be excluded and which one will stay included. Here we have real systemic reproduction, and it is with great disappointment that I observe colleagues passionately calling for more inclusion in the politics of knowledge playing the game of exclusion-by-commodification whenever it comes to publishing, university lecturing, or talking at conferences.

I can sketch part of an effective agenda for change now: go radically Open Access, circulate your work as freely downloadable working papers prior to having it published (and hidden behind paywalls) in the so-called 'top journals', and fight your corner whenever commercial publishers articulate desires for exclusivity. Record web lectures and put them on the Internet. You will make your work available to scholars who do not have the resources to come and study with you, buy your 125€ books and download the 35€ pdf files of your articles in commercial journals, or to book a flight and a hotel and pay the 365€ registration fee to hear you talk at a conference. Start where the system puts most pressure on you to comply with it, and offers you the highest rewards for compliance - usually, that's the point where change is most effecive, and where it is most needed.

Individual moralization versus hard power

I believe the point I just made is quite obvious: it is not helpful to reduce inequality to an individually moralized 'politics' while continuing to comply with a logic of industrial competitiveness, the excuding effects of which are easy to observe. It is not by engaging with 'non-white' ideas produced by people (women, as is proposed) working outside the geo-economic zones of wealth and privilege that we will shape a more equal field of knowledge, when the products of our engagement are published in commercial outlets targeting an exclusive and increasingly elitist market. It is not by citing an 'African female expert' in a book sold (with early bird preorder discount) at 79€ that the voice of that African female expert is made more prominent and given more impact. Surely, we should cite the African female expert. But we must do vastly more in breaking the kinds of citation chains to which most of us appear not to have too many objections - the commercial ones, euphemized as the 'prestigious' ones. Let us not forget that we are actors in a political economy of knowledge too.

It is not by citing an 'African female expert' in a book sold at 79€ that the voice of that African female expert is made more prominent and given more impact.

It is by considering these economic dimensions of our knowledge practices that another point emerges. The new essentialisms mentioned above have, actually, very little to do with real power balances in our academic world, and they cannot provide a reasonably accurate description of it. The hard power is not held by 'white' people: it is held by powerful people, people who have the capacity to enforce their power on the ways of life and work of large numbers of others. Many of those are white and male, but many are not. They are tied together by neoliberal competitiveness in a field in which knowledge is a commodity to be sold at the highest possible price. This, I can add, was described in great detail some decades ago by scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein and André Gunder Frank - scholars hardly ever cited in the current debates on global inequality. Sure enough, both are white male authors and one should read more than this; but adjustments to the politics of citation should not exclude some authors, I would presume.

Wallerstein and Gunder Frank did address the hard dimensions of power and the geostrategies of inequality and exploitation. Historically, indeed, inequality could be said to 'have a color' and a locus of production - exploitation of Africans was chronic and it was perpetrated by what we can call (with some qualifications) the 'global North'. But not entirely. Colonial exploitation went hand in hand with the exploitation of domestic (white) populations, and the latter explains - see the seminal work of Bourdieu and Passeron - why in countries such as France (as elsewhere) the working class remained underrepresented throughout the system of higher educationIt is strange that such dimensions of inequality are usually overlooked, or in some cases even dismissed as irrelevant.

The new essentialisms have, actually, very little to do with real power balances in our academic world.

The outcome of such dismissals, however, is a crippled analysis of power and a powerless appeal for something which, at best, is a poor and metaphysical caricature of it. And so, while I deeply share the concern with inequality voiced by so many scholars nowadays, I deeply disagree with the way in which they define and addresss this concern.

Martin Luther King's colorblind dream

Saying that I do so because I'm a white man from a country in the 'global North' working in a well-resourced university won't make me change my mind. For I'm not the only one making the points just made. I am, in fact, in rather decent company.

Let us return to someone whose status in the struggle for a more equal world is unchallenged: Martin Luther King. And let's return to his iconic I Had A Dream speech, given 55 years ago. King, as we know, fought against structural racism, and the dream he articulated was that of a world in which the color of one's skin would no longer matter:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".

For him, the irrelevance of color defined equality; equality is a state in which skin color, as much as any other categorical social diacritic, cannot predefine someone's destiny:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

And he added a socio-economic dimension to this view of equality. Class stratification, such as that between slaves and slave-owners structuring racial stratification, should become irrelevant as well, and be replaced by universal brotherhood:

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

King's colorblindness is the active refusal to allow racism to continue being a factor of inequality.

In the vocabulary of more extreme (and less informed) voices in the present debates on equality, Martin Luther King would be accused of 'colorblindness', which - so it is claimed - is a form of racism as well. In the eyes of Martin Luther King, however, it was the solution to racism, its opposite, its end as a factor of oppression and exclusion. His kind of colorblindness, to be very precise in this, is not the denial of racism as a - very - big factor of inequality, nor is it a passive neglect of that factor. It is the active refusal to allow it to continue being such a factor. It is an active engagement with real power - the laws and the Governor of Alabama in King's I Had A Dream speech - preventing the realization of freedom and equality. Or more accurately, freedom through equality. I share King's kind of colorblindness.

I would invite anyone involved in these debates and struggles today to carefully consider the view of King and others sharing that vision, and to be a bit more precise and convincing than usual when engaging with them. After all, Martin Luther King fought the same battle. And he described his dream not to African Americans only, but to a broad coalition of all groups in his country. For he knew that battles such as these are not won by divide-and-rule tactics, and that a struggle to redress the wrongs of racial discrimination require the efforts of a broad alliance, the members of which "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".