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Today The Guardian featured a strange and confusing article entitled ‘How to break the stranglehold of academics on critical thinking‘ from Razmig Keucheyan (an assistant professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and author of ‘The Left Hemisphere’). In the piece, Keucheyan implies that academics are not sharing their ideas with radical movements – holding onto a (Foucauldian?) monopoly of knowledge – and therefore operating a stranglehold on contemporary social movements. But while the article suggests that there has been a loss of authenticity with an alleged loss of non-academic intellectuals, I wish instead to argue that it is precisely the type of argument that Keucheyan represents which is in fact regressive for contemporary movements.

Firstly, Keucheyan’s thinking is full of self-contradiction. Whilst recognising (from his own academic position) that ongoing social movements have come up with “innovative knowledge and political knowhow” (aww bless ’em!), he seems to suggest that this means little until there exists serious critical theory that can “provide” an “analysis” of its “potential”. But surely this condescension is precisely what Keucheyan is supposed to be arguing against! Yet his appeal to academics to ‘open their doors’ actually in itself posits their authority and power as experts over such knowledge. In other words, whilst apparently repeating Ranciere’s insights that the philosopher maintains power over ‘his poor’; that the researcher can laud over the researched; that the academic teacher can position themselves as an expert that can control the flow of knowledge and authenticity… he yet sustains these positions himself in his own analysis.

Keucheyan also errs in his blindness to the elaboration of “ideas by way of the new media” which he (bizarrely) seems to suggest is being done solely by David Harvey. On the contrary, there are plenty of open places to find critical theory (so much so that we are perhaps more at risk of an overwhelming saturation than of a lack!) There’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter of course… but also open source publishing is getting ever more popular on academic blogs or even journals (including the International Journal of Zizek Studies) and the recording of lectures and conferences (such as my recent involvement in capturing the Neoliberalism conference or websites such as ‘backdoorbroadcasting‘) are now in fact seen as central in the organisation of academic events.

Even the most neoliberal academics would contradict Keucheyan’s views. The impact agenda, public engagement and the widening of participation see not only the student but the ‘public’ as customers of the factory of knowledge. This, of course, brings its own problems as to the quality of that knowledge and the agenda it is used for, but it nonetheless indicates that the academy is far from the monopoly on knowledge that Keucheyan attributes to it. Indeed, it is so open, that the livelihoods and well-being of full-time thinkers – the cognitariat – is itself being directly threatened.

The problem is that in the very making of such an assertion that there are no open sources, Keucheyan actually perpetuates the issue rather than seeks to alleviate his own critique: erecting unnecessary curtains over sources rather than pointing them out. Strangely, then, rather than supporting current efforts to establish places for mediation, he chooses to argue instead that the form of discussion has not changed from ‘old-fashioned journals’ and ‘books that are no less substantial than the ones published by previous generations of critical intellectuals’ (as if Zizek, Butler, West, Badiou, Ranciere etc. had not written an enormous pile of accessible books and articles!)

Furthermore, he refuses to recognise that members of contemporary movements are actually savvy towards such ‘academic’ ideas on an unprecedented scale: nearly every Occupy site, for example, made it a priority to invite speakers, establish libraries, and hold discussions (such as Occupy London’s ‘Bank of Ideas’ or “Tent University’) and this is a trend that continues to define it as a movement. For further example, take this picture that I recently took at an occupation at the University of Warwick: does this not suggest that there is much mediating taking place?:

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Rather than recognising this, however, Keucheyan instead demonstrates all the tragic symptoms of left melancholia and working class romanticism, pointlessly parroting discussions of the empirical-class make up of Occupy (which, at least in my experience, is far too diverse to be simply a ‘middle class’ movement whatever that means). Instead, what is actually required is a reworking of the very notion of the ‘proletariat’ through the radical assertion of the original Marxian definition of “those that do not own the means of production and must sell their labour to survive” (actually contradicting much of Marxism and even Marx himself). This would align the proletariat with ‘the 99%’ and therefore reinvent the proletariat not as the ‘working class’ (or indeed, as any particular) but as a universal claim for equality.

Instead, by opting for nothing but cynicism towards the very tactic of occupying public spaces (which he argues is “a symptom of their not knowing what else to occupy”), Keucheyan mis-recognises the importance of such appearances in a space and discourse defined by the capitalist ideological-framework. Capitalism no longer exists in factories alone: it exists in the layout and usage of urban streets; the policed aesthetic of what can legitimately appear as sensible; the signals and codes that saturate the air around us…

It exists in the cynicism and ironical distance of the subject.

Perhaps we could speculate that the reason for Keucheyan’s short-sightedness might be his own ivory walls: unable to see the exciting mediation that is taking place between full-time-thinkers and activists; activists and full-time-thinkers. As is argued by the very academics he dismisses, ‘we’ do need to ‘learn from below’ rather than appear as an inauthentic (neoliberal) ‘experts’ of radicalism. But above all we must assert that authenticity is not simply to be found by looking back to May ’68 and Sartre… and it certainly is not to be found in expressions of regressive, self-sabotaging, post-political cynicism in national newspapers.

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2 thoughts on “Keucheyan and the Kognitariat

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