Roberto Sirvent: You were recently interviewed on the podcast Millennials are Killing Capitalism about counterinsurgency in various corporate and non-profit spaces. The conversation has helped many academics re-think their relationship to the university and the academy, a distinction you emphasized in an interview with BAR last year. Why do you think it’s so hard for academics to hear about their vocation’s predatory, counterinsurgent, and colonial structuring forces?
Dylan Rodriguez: I generally don’t care, or more honestly, i try not to care, about most academics’ feelings. I think academics don’t like being reminded (or maybe being told for the first time) that they are generally, at best, politically irrelevant. At worst, they are actively providing (diversity) cover and training on behalf of an occupying, extractive force—that is, the college and university—that’s a skip and a sneeze away from the actual machinery of violent global racial capitalism and empire. Academics get in their feelings when people suggest they are operating as apologists and, at times, disempowered operatives for an institutional/state liberalism that is central to the antiblack colonial empire war machine.
A peculiar combination of insecurity and political flimsiness is hard-wired into the professional identity of the academic, which often means they are a liability—if not an activated danger—to collective projects that confront the oppressive violence and deadly cynicism of institutions like 21st century universities and colleges. Academics tend to be a menace to most efforts to minimally reform these places, not to mention radically disrupt or dismantle them.
Many of us observed this firsthand during the two-plus years of organizing and mobilizing the Cops Off Campus movement within the statewide University of California system and across North Amerika. Many of the academics—included those tenured and relatively financially secure—who publish, teach, tweet, post, and eagerly broadcast their critiques of state violence and policing were nowhere to be found when it came to supporting what i considered to be a relatively modest, contained attempt to confront campus police departments and their long histories of repression and profiling. This absence was unsurprising, but no less disappointing and enraging.
Don’t get it twisted: i’m not throwing this criticism out there with some projected threshold of “authentic” participation from these people—i’m saying that the academics i have in mind were wholly absent. Zero. These people know who they are. You know who you are. They ghosted the whole thing and wanted nothing to do with the collective work of confronting police violence on their own campuses. It was their loss, because this period of campus-based organizing and collaboration built and strengthened a continuum of relationships between scholars who were actively exceeding and contributing to the obsolescence of the “academic” position.
The 2022 UC Strike was another moment that exposed a lot of academics as hypocrites, liars, and respectability-seeking bootlickers. Most people reading this probably remember how the strike quickly gained traction in mainstream media as the largest “academic strike” in the history of the United States. Remember, the people on strike were and are workers who not only do most of the teaching, but also the majority of the research in the University of California. The strikers were and are the university, if we momentarily accept the UC mission statement on its own terms of “serving society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge.”
This was a statewide picket line of almost 50,000 teaching assistants, postdoctoral researchers, graduate student researchers, and instructors across the UC campuses. I physically joined the UC Riverside picket line every day of the strike. I’m not asking for congratulations, i’m saying that’s the fucking least i could do. Out of 850 tenured and tenure-track professors at my employing campus, there were maybe a dozen who consistently joined the picket line. I would say that well under 50% of the 850 chose to even honor the picket line. While there was a dogged effort by a group of committed UC faculty from around the state to organize support and solidarity for the strike, the vast majority of our colleagues crossed the picket line, undermined the strike demands, and/or cynically used “underrepresented” and “first generation” undergraduate students as their figurative human shields to deflect and disavow the call for a grade strike. (Here i should mention that most undergraduate students i encountered strongly supported the strike as soon as they learned basic information about its context and demands.)
By the way, nothing i am saying in this interview is hypothetical or self-righteous. I understand the limitations and violence of working within the university machinery. I’ve been employed by the University of California for almost twenty-five years—thirty if you count graduate school. I’ve paid my dues playing various roles on the campus and in the academy: i was an ethnic studies department chair for seven years, president of the American Studies Association, served two terms as the faculty-elected chair of the UC Riverside Academic Senate, and right now i’m working as the co-director of a humanities center. I have no delusions about the limitations of working within the parochial context of a university, even one that constantly boasts of being the world’s largest public academic institution. I have consistently led and participated in efforts to create spaces and build relationships within these institutions that support people’s capacities to survive and advance, including working with the Underground Scholars Initiative, joining the new Department of Black Study, and organizing activities that redistribute space and resources to people with histories of involvement in radical, revolutionary, and liberationist movements, within and beyond the United States. But these efforts are disruptions—not transformations—of what you correctly identify as the predatory, colonial, counterinsurgent infrastructures of the university.
This is all to say, we should not be surprised when academics respond poorly to the idea that the academy and their employing universities and colleges are engines of oppressive violence and conquest, because most tend to identify with those institutions—or at least not radically disidentify from them.
In the Millennials are Killing Capitalism interview, you discuss why lots of communities engaging in revolutionary struggle are highly suspicious of academics – and rightly so. I’ve even heard organizers claim they’re just as suspicious of a tenured professor as they are of an executive from Goldman Sachs, a cabinet-level appointee at the White House, an Editor of the New York Times, or the chief of the NYPD. What lessons can this offer academics who wish to support revolutionary social movements?
People directly involved in building and sustaining collective struggles against state violence and oppressive state power should be especially suspicious of academics, including the ones who market themselves as experts on radical and revolutionary traditions, movements, and organizations, or who write and teach about—and sometimes hail from—occupied, displaced, incarcerated, enslaved, and/or colonized communities and peoples. The suspicion is necessary because there is no guaranteed correspondence between a given academic’s research on radicalism and revolution, and their commitment to radical or revolutionary principles, activities, collectives, and communities. The research is a form of labor, while the commitment requires an acceptance of shared responsibilities beyond—and sometimes against—the university, college, and academy. (I think about the praxis of shared responsibility in the context of what i have learned from Amika Tendaji and Martine Caverl, the co-founders of Ujimaa Medics.)
Some of the most self-serving and institutionally reactionary academics—those who pose a real danger to collectives and communities engaged in radical forms of movement—are the ones who publish books and articles about radicalism and revolution as well as convincing critiques of policing, racism, antiblackness, gendered colonial violence, sexual violence, prisons, and so on. I bet the organizers you’re referencing in your question are understating the case, too: at least the corporate executives, mainstream media elites, cops, and state officials tend to be far more honest with themselves and others about who and what they are—there’s no pretense or mushiness about their institutional and political loyalties. By contrast, some academics who fuck around with radical, progressive reform, and other social justice and “social change” focused organizations and movements are delusional or dishonest about their intentions, commitments, and loyalties.
Something i’ve learned over the last three decades is that people in my profession have earned default suspicion from serious radicals and revolutionaries, especially when those academics don’t actively participate in collective projects that attempt to move toward radical or revolutionary horizons. I recently participated in a conversation convened by AAPI Women Lead, a feminist abolitionist and pro-sex worker organization based in the Bay Area, in which we emphasized the importance of thinking about “community” as a verb rather than a taken-for-granted noun. In the context of trying to build radical and revolutionary projects, the work and experimentation of community is especially precious and vulnerable.
These communities-in-the-making are everywhere: in the U.S. context alone, there are variously scaled movements to confront and abolish antiblack and colonial state power, including sustained struggles for police abolition in Portland, Minneapolis, and Stop Cop City in Atlanta, Indigenous water and land defense at Standing Rock and Mauna Kea, the everyday work of organizations like Ujimaa Medics and Dissenters, strikes in U.S. prisons and detention sites, and militant labor organizing all over the place. These examples show how the term “social movement” is sometimes inadequate or inaccurate when identifying what people are actually creating through radical, autonomous, liberationist, and revolutionary forms of community—again, i’m thinking of “community” as an activity, not a static or predetermined constituency. These community projects—which can also be framed as collective experiments in radical and revolutionary power, sociality, and insurgent becoming—are likely to confront overt state repression as well as liberal counterinsurgency and extra-state opposition from business and corporate interests, conservative religious and cultural groups, and reformist social justice and nonprofit organizations.
Academics can pose special security risks to these projects, experiments, and movements. They generally don’t have the training or practical preparation, much less the militancy of commitment to enter these communities without creating additional vulnerabilities for other people (and sometimes themselves). Sometimes academics’ sensibilities are deformed by liberalism and pacifism—many academics, for example, have a knee-jerk aversion to guns and firearms, which raises concerns about how they might respond to community projects that are prepared to militantly defend against reactionary attack and militarized state repression. There is also a long record of academics exploiting organizations, movements, and communities by playing the role of curious opportunists who don’t make themselves available to the collective in ways that aren’t self-serving.
These are lessons as much as they are criticisms. I think it’s both possible and necessary for the academic to be sacrificed and figuratively immolated for the sake of enlivening and emboldening the radical scholar or “guerilla intellectual,” a notion that Kalonji Changa, Joy James, Jared Ball, and others at Black Power Media have thankfully revived in recent times. (I constantly think about the late Dr. James Turner, who sat me down in 1995 and explained the charge of becoming an “intellectual guerilla fighter.”)
I’ve learned from collaborators and fellow scholars, people like Michele Welsing and Yusef Omowale at Southern California Library, that it is necessary for university employed scholars and teachers like me to present ourselves to committed radical, liberation focused collectives and communities with full transparency. A condition of shared responsibility is the understanding that suspicion of “the academic” is a historically informed, principled political position rather than a petty personal attack; there’s no room for the thin-skinned academic here. It’s not about you.
I want to humbly propose that the urgent imperative for people in my line of work is to learn how not to be an “academic” while doing the vital work of scholarship, teaching, research, and study, ideally in settings of shared responsibility with people committed to imagining, experimenting with, and practicing insurgency, liberation, and radical forms of autonomy—the kind of collective praxis that accelerates revolutionary and abolitionist possibilities rather than deferring or pacifying them. To be in communities like these usually means that the community will put the “academic” in check while summoning the scholar/teacher/researcher to share their skillset, resources, and expertise for the sake of enriching, emboldening, and mobilizing the collective.
A friend of and contributor to the Black Agenda Report, Kalonji Changa, shared a story on Twitter about a prestigious academic who felt the need to interpret and ventriloquize what Kalonji had said on a panel. The academic began his reply with, “What the Brother is saying is...,” and Kalonji responded, “that's NOT what I was saying and I don't need a ventriloquist.” What are some of the violent ways that academics “ventriloquize” revolutionary thinkers and texts? And how is this ventriloquizing a form of counterinsurgency?
First, shoutout to Kalonji, who’s one of the most serious and studied revolutionaries i know. Everyone should check out his work on Black Power Media. I remember when Kalonji posted that tweet. I replied to it. (“I need a name. DM me.”) I think Kalonji was being unintentionally generous when he responded to the unnamed academic that way. It takes a lot of skill, training, artistry, and stage presence to be a good ventriloquist. The truth is, that academic is a cop, and the university is a precinct (many also call it a plantation; having grown up not far from the University of Virginia, that’s always made sense to me). The academy and the academic are both constituted by a form of police power that precedes and exceeds the police.
As i’ve said before, the position of the academic is more aspirational than vocational. To exist as an academic is to identify with a colonial abstraction, “the academy,” that claims a fraudulent prestige-based monopoly on proper knowledge and, by extension, attempts to institutionalize and police proper ways of knowing. The academic is a cop—in Kalonji’s case, also an invasive and condescending ventriloquist—because the “academy” is constituted and reproduced through carceral power. The academy is a carceral regime, by which i mean it’s an arrangement of power and violence that colonizes, disciplines, and effectively incarcerates knowledge, epistemology, imagination, and archive.
The academic regime preys on the canonical myth of the “academic” as an individual, self-contained mode of intellectual production; this is the philosophical foundation of the academy as a concept and ritual that traces back to Plato and company. More truthfully, academics are largely unexceptional people who are trained to do certain forms of work—research, writing, teaching—within institutional settings that direct that work toward the reproduction of the ongoing Civilization project. And this project is the animating, originating force of the academy in the first place, as a backbone of the perpetual European and euroamerican colonial fantasy. (Following thinkers like Sylvia Wynter, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Walter Rodney, Haunani-Kay Trask, and others, i use the term Civilization as a shorthand for the long present tense of conquest and warfare that has taken various overlapping global forms, including empire, racial capitalism, antiblack chattel, colonial conquest, genocidal policing and criminalization regimes, and violent gender normativity.)
Of course, part of the reason we’re having this conversation is also because radical, liberationist, and revolutionary movement can catalyze insurgent scholarly and artistic projects that organize research, curricula, art and performance studios, teaching, and professional profiles around formal expertise in areas of thought and study that decenter, demystify, and potentially obsolete Civilizational knowledge as such. These projects may even become institutionalized by colleges and universities, usually through a messy process of rebellion, negotiation, compromise and concession. (Nick Mitchell’s forthcoming book thinks about this dynamic in relation to institutionalizations of Black studies and women’s studies in what she calls the “post-Civil Rights U.S. university.”)
This leads to what i think may be better described as an irreconcilable antagonism rather than a dialectical (or otherwise resolvable) contradiction: academic institutionalizations of what you call “revolutionary thinkers and texts” expose this archive of work to the intellectual abuses and disciplinary violence of academics who are generally uninterested in, or actively opposed to participating in—or even overtly supporting—the forms of radical and insurgent praxis that catalyzed that revolutionary thinking and writing in the first place! By way of example, when that unnamed academic tried to speak for Kalonji, they were trying to domesticate him and neutralize his words, perhaps because Kalonji’s thought signifies something wild, unrespectable, and potentially dangerous—to the academic, the academy and the university. Of course, that academic failed. F fucking minus.
This provokes another key question, and i confess it’s one that hovers over me every day: How do academics participate in sustaining Civilization, often while offering rigorous and even radical critiques of its violence and oppressiveness in their scholarly work? Part of the answer to that question comes from understanding how universities and colleges are counterinsurgency machines in-and-of-themselves.
Universities and colleges are carceral sites, not necessarily in the sense that they’re directly comparable to prisons and jails (although this can sometimes be the case), but rather in terms of how they institutionalize logics of occupation, displacement, and policing that selectively immobilize people and subject them to gender, colonial, antiblack, and disability violence. These logics target students, staff, and faculty, as well as surrounding criminalized populations, for forms of surveillance, policing, and expulsion under the authority of academic administrators who not only resemble, but materially learn from a long lineage of colonial and neocolonial administrators.
This is why graduate school tends to be a toxic, damaging experience for people who are not fully comfortable with embracing an academic identity: the training is correctional and disciplinary, including within fields like Black and African American studies, ethnic studies, Latino/a/x studies, feminist studies, queer studies, and Native American studies. Over the last half century, universities and colleges have institutionalized these academic fields as generally underfunded, politically vulnerable programs and departments that often serve as de facto sites of student triage and mandated diversity exhibition for the benefit of university and college administrators, public relations managers, and governing boards.
Of course, waves of revanchist and chauvinistic white academics (and their allies) denigrate these fields as expendable artifacts of affirmative action or as “politically biased” (and even “antisemitic”) so-called social justice efforts unworthy of their respect or esteem. I’ll never forget when the then-UCR Provost visited the Ethnic Studies faculty during my first year as the departmental chair and referred to us as a “boutique department.” If anything, these white academics and their tokenized buddies should be celebrating the existence of these departments and programs because they are structured to domesticate and assimilate Black, Brown, queer, poor, and radical students into academic respectability and legibility. (Kalonji’s encounter was a corollary theater of this power play.)
Your question brings attention to how the logic of academic knowledge production is not merely extractive and exploitive, it’s also depersonalizing, individualizing and entrepreneurial. Academics train, reward, discipline, and reproduce each other just in ways similar to other professions, but the difference is that this industry fixates—conceptually and materially—on a colonial delusion called “the academy.” This delusion takes institutional and material form through various arrangements: dues paying professional societies, think tanks, elite networks that advise state and military officials, and academic cartels like the University Innovation Alliance and the American Association of Universities, both of which include my employing institution of UC Riverside among their members. I have often argued that students, staff, and faculty can best prepare themselves to navigate university and college power structures by treating them as a hybrid of military hierarchy and organized crime.
A community organizer once told me about a purported “radical” professor he had as an undergraduate who told the students they were going to read George Jackson’s Soledad Brother but not Blood in My Eye since George Jackson’s views are too extreme in the latter. What lesson does this serve for those of us in the university who think we’re being radical merely by assigning radical texts? How do the power dynamics involved in the classroom affect how students are learning this material?
College and university teachers can and should prime their classrooms as sites of experimentation that invite students to experience radical and revolutionary thought, art, and imagination. Despite the limitations of this institutional work, it can sometimes stoke creative, “extracurricular” movement and counter-war against terror, repression, misery, and institutional extraction, both despite and because of a given teacher’s pedagogical intentions.
At the same time, i don’t think there can be a universal blueprint for these pedagogical strategies because the asymmetries of violence created by Civilizational warfare permeate institutions of so-called higher learning. It makes no sense to think in generic, universalizing terms about “students,” “the classroom,” or “the teacher” because those asymmetries disperse and differentiate people even as they’re enrolled in the same class, sitting together for three hours a week, reading the same shit. That’s why i consider teaching to be an experimental labor rather than a formulaic practice. Further, i do not think teaching, in-and-of-itself, is inherently “radical” work, regardless of what books, films, poems, and essays one is assigning.
Far too many academics discuss their “activism” and “radicalism” in terms that basically glorify the things they do within the existing terms of their job descriptions; i’m not minimizing or dismissing this kind of political and pedagogical work. I am saying, however, that creating badass curricula, class assignments, student mentoring relationships, and community engaged projects (etc.) are things that academics are literally paid to do. The point is to obsolete the academic for the purpose of cultivating the scholar, teacher, artist, and researcher who is radically available to people, projects, and collectives that are not paying tuition and fees.
Many academics who present themselves as radical, critical, woke, social justice oriented, and even “abolitionist” are essentially liberals who remain entirely within a field of respectable institutional politics that does not threaten or even significantly disrupt the everyday business of universities and colleges, not to mention other institutions or structures of oppressive violence. Yet, these same academics will get angry and indignant if they’re identified as liberals because they view themselves otherwise. It’s another layer of delusion. “The academy” is a powerful drug.
There seems to be a tendency among academics to think about their political identities (as well as their political activities or non-activities) in individual terms, as if they’re choosing those identities from a buffet of available categories. Academics train and discipline each other to do this.
The academic identity of “abolitionist,” for example, has surged in popularity among academics over the last several years, including among people who never, ever wanted to be affiliated with abolitionist praxis until after the summer of 2020. I’m glad that some academics are engaging with it seriously, of course, but i think many are not—they are basically adding an abolitionist identity to their professional profile and lazily adding a few more authors and books to their syllabi and academic citations. (Regarding this last point, i have to repeat alongside many other longtime abolitionist scholars that The New Jim Crow is overtly anti-abolitionist. I wish people would stop referencing it like it’s anything other than a liberal reformist book! And i say this with real respect for the author, Michelle Alexander, whose thinking has moved closer to abolition over the years.)
While there’s nothing inherently radical about assigning texts to a college class, i do think it’s helpful to note when academics explicitly decline engagement with certain thinkers and ideas. To reference your example, it’s thoroughly unsurprising that a professor who presents themselves as “radical” wants nothing to do with teaching Blood In My Eye in an undergraduate course. George Jackson is theorizing and strategizing the possibilities of waging revolutionary guerilla war against reformist antiblack U.S. fascism; many—perhaps most—academics find the implications of his thinking repugnant, irresponsible, and dangerous. Some professors are probably scared shitless at the prospect of teaching this material in their classroom. I bet some would even dismiss and effectively criminalize it as “domestic terrorist” reading material.
On the other hand, i suspect there are academics who teach Blood In My Eye in ways that alienate the text from its primary purpose, which is to theoretically inform and embolden people who are engaged—or ready to engage—in radical-to-revolutionary activities, however they might define those activities. I think in some ways, this is worse than refusing to teach the book at all.
These and other liberal reactions to revolutionary praxis further reflect the lies that academics often tell themselves (and students) when they claim certain political identities. But to paraphrase the great poet Rasheed Wallace, the Dragon don’t lie.
Some readers of BAR are familiar with the “Masterclass” trailer of “Black History, Black Freedom, and Black Love” that came out last year. Intellectuals from the Black left have critiqued this video – along with the 1619 Project – for many reasons, one of which is its call for Black communities to direct their love to America, and not to Black revolution. In what ways have you noticed other academics – especially those who teach on issues of abolition and radical social movements – frame freedom struggles as compatible with incorporation into the American project, thereby promoting a patriotic version of liberation that expects communities to show pride in a genocidal regime like the U.S.?
The fact that John McWhorter was one of the teachers of that so-called masterclass was enough to undermine its credibility for anyone remotely serious about “Black history, Black freedom, and Black love.” This is the same person who ranked Malcolm X number one on his list of prominent figures that Black history—and, in his own words, Black people—could do without (writing in The New Republic, no less; he ranked O.J. Simpson tenth.) I encountered McWhorter during the early years of his academic career at Cornell, when his assimilationist elitism and dismissive contempt for Black thought, Black and Africana studies, and certainly Black radicalism were abundantly evident even to me, a nonblack Filipino who grew up in Northern Virginia. (He was another student’s faculty mentor for what was then called the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship Program, in which i participated from 1992-1995.)
McWhorter aside, it’s always a problem when any curriculum, pedagogy, or text attempts to vindicate the United States nation-building project by soliciting the hope, loyalty, and, as you put it, love of people who have been and continue to be defined and treated as non-people, disposable property, and expendable-violable flesh by that very same project. I am continuously stunned by the irresponsibility and dishonesty of academics—especially those who serve as pundits for corporate media outlets—who decry antiblack state and extra-state violence while calling for Black inclusion, which is really a refurbished patriotism, as inoculation against the possibilities and consequences of insurrection and radical, autonomous extra-state and anti-state power that refuse to presume the permanence of “America,” much less condone “love” for it.
At their most dangerous, these and other inclusionist messages and narratives create a cultural pretext and preemptive political justification for the continued state and extra-state repression of militant Black freedom practices. Alex Mingus famously said it in St. Paul, Minnesota last October right in front of the white chief of police: “I do not rock with the police. They don’t keep us safe. We keep us safe. Riots work.” A lot of “left” academics could learn from him and others about the fundamental opposition between collective Black safety and the existence of the United States of America.
To flow with the phrasing of your question further, it would be far more interesting for free, public, popular courses in Black study—the opposite of a pay-to-play masterclass—to curate and platform deep collective discussions and debates on the concept and praxis of “Black revolution.” This term is not taken for granted even by the most veteran U.S. based Black radicals and diasporic Black revolutionaries, because it is a summoning and a charge rather than a platform or proceduralist program. This refusal to issue formulaic, pseudo-scientific guarantees partly defines the longstanding Black radical tension with Eurocentric marxist and backdoor white supremacist notions of revolution. The question of Black revolution also forms a point of contention within and between Black revolutionary nationalist, Black marxist, Black anarchist, Black radical feminist, Black queer and trans abolitionist, and other Black radical traditions that inform and challenge each other.
One point on which these various traditions seem to agree, however, is that liberated, thriving, robustly self-determining Black existence—not to mention Black freedom, however that’s understood and enacted—is incompatible with the United States. This is a morbid, toxic, deadly incompatibility that renders any liberal allegation of reconciliation or reformist inclusion into the U.S. regime untenable and insulting. If anything, this incompatibility constitutes the geography, algorithm, and arrhythmia of Civilization’s antiblackness and mandates the induced obsolescence of “America,” the colonial-chattel shorthand for the United States’ virulent Civilizational form. (It’s always instructive when people from other parts of the hemisphere refuse to consent to the common conflation of America with the United States.)
Black liberation, Black radicalism, and Black revolution are streams of activity that involve dynamic argumentation, theorization, and mobilization. Speaking again as a nonblack person working alongside and within these streams, i understand these forms of Black study and praxis as the antithesis of “America,” that is, as practices of love, revolt, community, and freedom that expose the Amerika of George Jackson’s guerilla revolutionary theorization and subject it to a reckoning.
One last thing i will mention on this point is that i think it’s time to intensify analysis of and opposition to the counterinsurgency of the Democratic Party, including and especially its progressive arms. While the Republican Party is effectively an unstable coalition of spineless neoconservatives and actual, unapologetic fascists, the Democratic machinery is strategically channeling the people power, political energy, and organizing capacity of militant resistance, liberation, proto-radical, and self-defined radical communities into various vortexes of bureaucratic and electoral activity. To quote the U.S. military’s Joint Publication 3-24 (more commonly known as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual), these Democratic Party vortexes have the effect of “weakening the insurgents while simultaneously bolstering the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the contested population.”
Much has been written about the predatory nature of the university, and the amount of exploitation required for university executives, tenure-track professors, and tenured professors to do their job. This includes exploitation of custodial workers, support staff, and contingent faculty, not to mention how universities plunder low-income communities and the exploitation that necessarily accompanies the university’s accumulation of wealth. I’m also reminded of Joy James’ observation that many elite academic institutions serve as “think tanks for U.S. empire.” In what ways do wealth, comfort, and prestige seduce and corrupt academics – especially those that teach about abolition and radical social movements? What dangers does this present to revolutionary struggle?
While most academics are not wealthy (though i know some white senior faculty who appear to have been born into transgenerational wealth), they do inhabit institutional positions that individualize the logics of predation, exploitation, and self-serving violence that define the broader material and political protocols of the university. Shake the trees and you will learn how many academics who write and teach radical critiques of oppressive violence are exploitive and abusive toward people who work “for” and “with” them. It’s sobering and disillusioning, but also a necessary reminder that the academy is no different than many other industries saturated by normalized, systemically silenced violence.
Academics and academic administrators are the front lines of this violence, which includes extraction of unpaid work, disrespectful and denigrating treatment of staff and contingent (temporary) faculty, unreported sexual violence and sexualized exploitation of academic power relationships, theft of graduate students’ and untenured assistant professors’ original research, and retaliation against those who attempt to confront and resist these dynamics. On the latter point, i can offer that the only reason i’m no longer in the Department of Ethnic Studies is because three women faculty and i were the subjects of what amounted to a “reverse sexism” Title IX complaint filed by four men in the department. (Appropriately, i received notice of the complaint against me three days after Trump was elected.) The external Title IX investigator eventually told me that the basis of the complaint was the allegation that our constant criticisms of departmental sexism and misogyny constituted a form of gender discrimination against and harassment of these men. The complaint was dismissed, but it became clear that there was nothing to stop the same complaint from being filed over and over. I bring this up because it’s a concrete example of how the policies and protocols of universities and the federal government—in this case the feds’ education and civil rights arms—facilitate retaliation rather than preempting it. These institutions are not only systemically incapable of creating or sustaining a climate of liberal equity in the workplace, they are configured to undermine it.
While i have been heavy in my critique of academics in this interview, it’s worth stressing that college and university administrators are a whole other beast. These administrators (most of whom are essentially former academics) are a primary executive stratum of 21st century empire. The administrative elites who run the University of California, for example, are defrauding the university’s ostensible historical mission as a “public serving” research and teaching institution. This mission is foundationally colonial and white supremacist, of course, but i’m convinced that UC administrators either deny the relevance of this historical fact or believe it’s been resolved by things like ceremonial institutional land acknowledgements.
During my four years serving as the UCR Senate chair (2016-2020), i was in meetings with UC administrators almost every workday. The primary distinction in those meetings was that i was not attending in an “administrative” role; i was there to consult and provide input as an elected representative of the faculty, so i was basically an underpaid, overeducated outsider in most of these interactions. Worse is that i was constantly ignored, condescended, and disrespected by a carousel of glorified, overpaid bureaucrats, many of whom couldn’t name five enrolled students who weren’t their employees (i sometimes asked). It was exhausting and enraging dealing with these people.
Academic administrators—Deans, Presidents, Chancellors, Provosts, Vice Chancellors, Vice Provosts, and all their bureaucratic relations—are a generally mediocre lot who view themselves as accountable to other administrators rather than students, staff, or faculty (not to mention the “public,” whomever they believe that to be). At one point in Summer 2020, for example, a faculty member asked a high administrator whether there was a numerical threshold of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths that would force a change in the UCR administration’s ill-conceived plan to prematurely bring students, staff, and faculty back to campus; that administrator’s blunt answer was, “we haven’t thought about that.”
Most academics want to curry favor with these administrators and many also want to become them. The default academic position is not merely passively counterrevolutionary, it’s actively counterinsurgent. This is why defection and disidentification with these terms—academy and academic—is such a simple but necessary political move if people in my line of work intend to at least get out of the way of radical and revolutionary struggles, activities, movements, and insurgencies.
Perhaps if more academics can get over their defensiveness, predation, self-serving relationships, insecurities, and fragilities, they can learn from the intellectual and creative traditions that originate and flourish in generalized alienation from the academy and university—from streams of Black study and Africana studies to abolitionist and anticolonial orientations in queer and trans studies, feminist studies, disability studies and ethnic studies, among others. At their best, which is to say when they are most connected to collective projects that resemble intellectual and pedagogical fronts of updated guerilla warfare, autonomous power, and militant resistance, these traditions can reflect how knowledge emerges through radical collective genius.
I’m not romanticizing these projects as if they’re free of contradiction, internal power struggles, and their own liberal-to-reactionary tendencies; what i am arguing is that the knowledges they incubate and generate can be significantly different—and productively alienated—from the colonial knowledge-institutions of the academy precisely because they form in contexts of duress and revolt, terror and joy, immobilization and liberating movement against Civilization and its extractions, occupations, and asymmetrical casualties.
This kind of collective genius is a problem for “the academy,” in large part because it signifies the long overdue obsolescence of “the academic.” Of course, the counter-problem is that some—many—academics individualize an extractive relationship to this collective genius and turn it into a career path rather than an embrace of complex responsibility and intellectual humility. But fuck that.
Dylan Rodríguez is a teacher, scholar, organizer and collaborator who has maintained a day job as a Professor at the University of California-Riverside since 2001. He is a faculty member in the recently created Department of Black Study as well as the Department of Media and Cultural Studies. He is the author of three books, most recently White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logic of Racial Genocide (Fordham University Press, 2021), which won the 2022 Frantz Fanon Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Dylan Rodríguez can be reached by email at [email protected] as well as on Twitter (@dylanrodriguez), Instagram (dylanrodriguez73), and Facebook (www.facebook.com/dylanrodriguez73).
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.