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Short-Circuiting Knowledge Production

Nirmal Puwar and Sanjay Sharma | Journal: Commons | General Issue [0] | Issues | May 2007

The interior and exterior space of the writer is blown up in Giancarlo Neri’s 30ft table and chair made from six tons of steel, plated with wood and painted brown.[1] Placed deliberately in Hampstead Heath (London, UK) in 2005, an area with a historical concentration of canonized writers (Keats, Freud, Marx, to name a few). As one moves around the elongated table legs and looks up from under the table, the weight of the world as it is carried by the labour of writers, overwhelms, tires and leaves one wondering. In the writing of the literary histories of this landscape we know that the processes of legitimation and memorialisation have sliced out particular writers who have taken in the air of the heath and spoken out to the global currents of the landscape.

Only a five minute walk away from the sculpture, is located the house where C.L.R. James and George Lamming lived during the 1950s. The footprints of these Caribbean diasporic writers, as well as the scores of other theorists, musicians, students and writers from the colonies which have lived and written in the area are not part of the social imagination of what has been hailed as a specific literary corner of the world. The guidebooks of local histories are not full of the concerns of C.L.R. James as he sat at his desk on 70 Parliament Hill writing about racism and revolt, for instance. Neither does the house have a blue plaque at the front of it. These blue circular memorial tablets are placed by English Heritage on buildings where people of eminence have resided or worked, they are one way in which visitors navigate the city. As the processes of consecration are rarely black/white and the conditions of inclusion are always uneven, there is nevertheless a blue plaque in a neighbourhood nearby (Primrose Hill) to B. Ambedkar, a dalit political activist who fought against caste in India.

Countering exclusion and eurocentrism often produces an anxiety framed by content rather than grappling with the modalities of knowledge production. How often do we experience a bemusement amongst academic colleagues when they implore “there just aren’t enough minority or third world concepts, writers, and theorists on our programmes!”, or repeatedly ask “what or who should be included in the curriculum?” This kind of accretive multicultural model naively pluralizes knowledge and fails to take on what pedagogy is – a contested process of knowledge production. And nor does it properly grasp what knowledge can do – mobilizing unruly connections and ways of becoming otherwise. What gets labelled as multicultural knowledge has to be refigured in relation to the emergence of a particular cultural formation – how an identity or knowledge of ‘otherness’ is constituted. To encounter and produce ‘non-Eurocentric’ knowledge means at least questioning how systems of colonial governance and knowledge have jostled to maintain a manichean divide between the same-other, west-rest while desiring/disavowing the multicultural.

The conditions in which a particular ‘culture’, ‘identity’ or ‘knowledge’ emerge, and the constant negotiations, dissonant exchanges, and operations of power which inscribe particular differences need to underwrite our pedagogies. Cultural difference cannot be reduced to the consensual unity or the banality of pluralized knowledges. Rather, multiculture inhabits the entangled political terrain of possibly discordant and disruptive cultural encounters. To practice pedagogy means risking antagonistic exchanges in a classroom, and with incommensurable points of view and knowledges not being diffused in the moment of their expression.[2]

The questions of ‘what is knowledge for?’ and ‘what does knowledge do?’ cannot be answered in their generality. Likewise, as Stuart Hall pointed out many years ago, there are ‘no pedagogies in general’.[3] This doesn’t suggest we simply valorize the ‘local’, whether as a counter to the charge of eurocentrism, or champion specificity as an antidote to hegemony of the universal. The pursuit of the particular – for example, in the demands separate Islamic, Sikh, Jewish schooling in the UK or ‘Ethnic studies’ in the USA – often leads to a reductive mode of identity politics bearing suspect claims of cultural authenticity on behalf of racialized groups.

It is hardly surprising that neo-liberal education is embracing cultural difference for an ever-expanding multicultural capitalism. Certain kinds of (acceptable) fragmented subjectivities are at the very heart of a new culture-knowledge economy. Knowledge about ‘otherness’ – ‘ways of life’, cross-cultural hybridities and geographies, emerging markets, technologies and communications – has become vital to producing a new ‘information-rich, self-reflexive’ educated class for the needs of transnational capital.[4] Moreover, when a student is more interested in maximizing their grades rather than immersing themselves in critical thinking and analysis, is this a failure of radical pedagogy or merely symptomatic of a world out there that is already operating within everyday university teaching? Increasingly, we find ourselves equipping students with skills to successfully compete as ‘flexible workers’ in an age of neo-liberal governance. How ever much we individually pursue a reflexive micro-politics of knowledge in our teaching, a disciplinary curriculum driven by market imperatives and standardized assessments is not easy to institutionally challenge and transform. The collective, dialogic pedagogies in the early work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) appear for instance, anachronistic today.[5]

An association with the writers block is one of the intended points of attention of the sculpture for Neri, of course each engagement with the piece is able to produce much more. Perhaps though, proliferation rather than block has become the condition of writers including academics, who now know the judicious statement ‘publish or perish’ only too well. A continuous lattice of works keeps the spider’s web of writing spinning. For the global ‘A’-list stars of academia a book a year seems to have increasingly become the bench mark annual speed of production. As we invent and produce more books, blogs, vod-casts, pod-casts, e-lists and sub-sub specialism journals, as well as generating multiple variations on Centres and degree programmes, proliferation has become a means of existing.

The art of re-invention keeps the masters at bay, showing that you are at the forefront leading the latest game in town, while at the same time allowing us to create ‘MySpace’, a 24-hr generator of ‘novel’ ideas for the curriculum, research and administration. Re-inventing education through experimentation and novelty allows old time radicals to play around with chairs and squares – some how shifting the architextures of power? The finely tuned MySpace functions as a social and emotional magnet and hub, offering some scope for autonomy and reigns over the levers of the educational regimes we inhabit and produce, with desire and longing. At the same time the sinking funds of institutions and departments remain a constant driver for niche marketing universities, courses, as well as the self of course. University promotion procedures hinge on evidence of both generalist management skills as well as ingenuity in assessment methods, sub-sub disciplines, student recruitment targets, you name it. We all know that the international market (the double, trebled fees of ‘there’ coming over ‘here’) affords continuous flexibility and invigilation of targeted zones on the world map and methods of global contact.

Diverse, competing and overlapping transnational circuits of knowledge production and exchange are in process.[6] Local, eurocentric, capitalist, postcolonial academies and academics are all inside this. However we know that positionality is central and not secondary to the commodification process, points of entry are unequally experienced, just as sustainability is. Neither does proliferation of international contacts and exchanges of different orders and scales mean that the consecrated methods of induction and inculcation of ‘Homo Academicus’[7] have fallen away. The academic tribes simultaneously exercise reproduction while being flexible to re-invention. The strength of social cloning and tacit endorsement procedures continues through the academic machinery. Double speak in terms of devotion to radical theories of flow, percolation, assemblages, syncretic fusions, border dialogues and re-terroritorialisation live alongside the exercise of Jesuit methods of recruitment. The market, status and recognition subsist in this world together.

In ‘Representations of an Intellectual’, the published Reith Lectures Edward Said delivered at the invitation of BBC (1993), to which a loud chorus objected to Said being the chosen presenter for these prestigious annual public lectures, on the grounds that he was (because of his politics in the Middle East) not a proper intellectual of the ilk and quality worthy of this honourable position of authority, Said eloquently grapples with the role and the style of the public intellectual. Thinking of the distinctive signature of an intellectual, and while having issue with the texture of the intellectual as “a dreary moralistic preacher”[8], he smokes out “the insiders, experts, coteries, professionals” who often comprise “a superior little band of all-knowing men in power”.[9] He highlights the “intellectuals’ relationship with institutions (academy, church, professional guild) and with worldly powers, which in our time have co-opted the intelligentsia to an extraordinary degree…”,[10] while urging a sense for texture and flare in the enactment of the public responsibility. We could undoubtedly ponder on how Said’s own somatics of speech, habitus and authority, as a postcolonial intellectual, offered him entry to the inside, while not being quite right, as far as the bestowal of invitations, honours and blue plaques are concerned.[11] In addition, it is also worth paying attention to how even the critical experts of academia invest in coteries and professional identifications that result in unproductive schisms which scream and claim outsider or insider status.

Thwarting the simplistically positioned euro-centric, modernist, post-colonialist, class camps and categories of comfort, in an international exchange, right from within the academy, Edward Said, as the President of the Modern Language Association (MLA), invited Pierre Bourdieu to present a keynote address to the association. On a satellite link from Paris to Chicago, Bourdieu spoke ‘For a scholarship for Commitment’, arguing for

the productions of critical networks that bring together “specific intellectuals” (in Foucault’s sense of the term) into a veritable collective intellectual capable of defining by itself the topics and ends of its reflections and action – in short, an autonomous collective individual…It can organize or orchestrate joint research on novel forms of political action, on new manners of mobilizing and making mobilized people work together, on new ways of elaborating projects and bringing them to fruition together.[12]

Mainstream accounts of the intellectual trajectory of Bourdieu are notable for their occlusion of his colonial post-colonial formation and connections. This is perhaps not surprising given that the Algerian connections of Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Derrida and Cixous, are rarely central to investigation of these social theorists. For Bourdieu, his time in Algeria during the French occupation (on conscription and then as a lecturer), continued to impact upon him throughout his years. Before his sudden death, he had started to curate an exhibition with Franz Schultheis (President of the Bourdieu Foundation, Geneva) and Christine Frisinghelli (Camera Austria, Graz) from the hundreds of photographs he had taken while he was in Algeria. Aside from a few that appeared on his books, the bulk of the photographs remained in a shoebox, although he regularly took them out and reflected on them. The photos were field notes for him as well as being therapeutic aids for coping with the violence of 3 million displaced by French pacification policies. He was drawn towards what he observed as the art of invention in impossible situations.

At Goldsmiths, we have installed the 150 photographs of the touring exhibition within the university campus for this academic year.[13] Notwithstanding the industrial tendency of academic fandom, for us, inhabiting the exhibition offers the possibility of raising and working through a number of questions:

  • of how social thought has been cooked up in colonial and postcolonial encounters
  • of the place of academics and intellectual work in war time
  • of the modes of cultural translation and transformation

Of note is how a pedagogy of representation of Bourdieu’s photographs throws into sharp relief what is constructed as European/non-European knowledge production. To insert Bourdieu into a post-colonial frame of reference neither simply turns to the locality of Algerian otherness (as an radical ‘outside’ space of Europe), nor utilizes otherness merely as an ontological category for deconstructing the origins of Europe. While Bourdieu’s photographic practice eschewed dominant colonial regimes of representation, arguably he remained governed by traces of Orientalism.[14] Nevertheless, the exhibition of his work opens up the opportunity to mobilize other ways of knowing. And it is this short-circuiting of the hegemony of racialized knowledges which activates the possibility of an ethics of difference.


1. This post is a contribution to the Conflicts in the Production of Knowledge debate for edu-factory. Photograph by Kuldip Powar (2005)  [↑]

2. See Sharma S (2006) Multicultural Encounters, Palgrave [↑]

3. Hall, S. (1983), Education in Crisis, in Is there Anyone Here From Education? (eds) J. Donald and A. M. Wolp, London: Pluto [↑]

4. Zavarzadeh and Morton (1994) Theory as Resistance: Politics and Culture after (Post)Structuralism, Guildford Press [↑]

5. Hall, Stuart (1990) The emergence of cultural studies and the crisis in the humanities, October 53: 11-23 [↑]

6. Rey Chow 1998, Ethics after Idealism, Indiana University Press [↑]

7. Bourdieu P (1990) Homo Academicus, Stanford University Press [↑]

8. Said, Edward (1993) Representations of the Intellectual (The Reith Lectures), Vintage, p.14 [↑]

9. ibid. p. xiii [↑]

10. ibid. p.xvi [↑]

11. See Puwar, N (2004) Space Invaders, Berg [↑]

12. Bourdieu, P (2003) Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market, New Press, p.20-1 [↑]

14. Robert Young and Azzedine Haddour presentations at the Post-Colonial Bourdieu, ESRC Seminar, 4th May, 2007, UCL [↑]

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