Monday, March 27, 2017

Engagement amid structural silences.



Engagement taxes the body of the engaged academic.

Some days, when the body is tired, and the spirit has been beaten up by the insistence of structures to be impervious, the engaged academic wonders: What is the price we pay for engaged scholarship?

Engagement assumes a sense of willingness/openness of structures "to" engage. Engagement also assumes the continued openness of communities at the margins to engage, to come to conversations, especially when their lived experiences with engagement often teaches them to not trust structures, to not have hopes in the possibilities of making spaces within structures.

In this dance between community life and organized structures of social life, the engaged academic negotiates power, the privilege of the engaged position, and the challenges that come with it.

Because in so much of my earlier writings I attend to Spivak's evocative concept of "privilege as loss," in this post, I will attend to the other side of the journey of engaged scholarship: the challenges to engaged scholarship amid structural silences. How do we sustain the spirit of engagement amid structural rules, roles, codes, and formations that are immersed in techniques of top-down rule?

First comes the negotiation of the expectations of academic structures, increasingly constituted within parochial commercialized vision of the role of the University in communities, states, regions, and globally. The expectations of academic work, measured in frameworks that are pushed by private rankings-based, metric-driven corporations, are driven by top-down articulations that often privilege the production of academic work as writing.

What is the price we pay for the labor of engaged academic work that is not easily translated into journal articles, counted in top-tier, high impact factor journals in our fields?

The engaged academic therefore has to do double work in order to survive institutionalized academic structures, and in order to retain the space of academic-community engagement. Do the work of publishing so you can sustain yourself in academia. The work of engagement then comes as an addition.

And if engagement is to be performed with integrity, this means that the participation in community-activist networks is driven by a commitment to seeing change happen, not by the academic ends that would be met by the work. This means that the nature of the work is open-ended, fluid, and labor intensive. The engaged academic returns to engagement because of a commitment to communicative processes that bridge.

What is the price that engaged academics pay for this labor of continually pushing the definitions of what makes up academic work? And more pertinently, how does the engaged academic retain the spirit of engagement, grounded in community life while simultaneously negotiating the bureaucratic structures of Universities as institutions, constituted in the corporate logic?

Second, and more importantly, comes the work of engaging structures outside the University. Beyond the structures of academic life, engagement calls for continued negotiation with societal structures- institutions, bureaucracies, organizations. These include structures such as organizations delivering basic services such as food, health, and housing; structures of states and development institutions; and structures of global organizing that circulate the overarching ideas of governance. To engage is to continually push these structures toward opening up to "other" voices, with a deep commitment to reflexivity.

However, the notion of creating space that sites outside of the dominant agendas is usually seen by the dominant structures as threatening. What is the price to be paid for continually pushing these structures that are typically impervious and quite used to their general performance of opaqueness?


In the work of culture-centered projects that are committed to building infrastructures for listening to the voices of the margins, a commitment to engagement translates into the everyday work of creatively "working through" structures to make space for voices at the margins. "To work through" is to continually engage the organizing logics of the structures and simultaneously rendering these logics impure to make space. This "making of space" counters the processes of marginalization written normatively into structures through acts of invertive listening that foreground rationalities that interrupt the dominant taken-for-granted assumptions.

Note here that listening in the framework of the CCA is not located within institutional structures and organizational diktats. Processes of listening located within the dominant structures simply serve dominant agendas of reproducing hegemony, without really inverting them and without disrupting the silences they reproduce, to the extent that these processes are established within organizational norms and within the contours of decision-making. Therefore, the concept of building structures of listening in the CCA situates the listening structures outside of the existing dominant structures, and in a dialectical relationship with these dominant structures. The spirit of dialoguing with dominant structures of knowledge production is grounded in a deep understanding of the impossibility of dialogue.

The CCA theorizes that to build infrastructures of listening, attention needs to be paid first and foremost to inverting the oft-circulated logics of the dominant structures that are often taken-for-granted as common sense.

To build these infrastructures of listening outside of the frameworks of dominant social structures therefore calls for the continued work of community-grounded collaborations. It is in this act of making space that the CCA offers an entry point to other imaginations, locally grounded in community life and based on invertive conversations with structures. The questions that arise from these community conversations are uncomfortable to the everyday assurances of dominant structures in reproducing hegemony.

The work of the engaged academic therefore becomes one of finding sites of solidarity with communities at the margins, and continually working to disrupt the silences that are produced by structures. This can be perceived by structures as threatening, leading to the typical response by structures of shutting down these spaces of listening.

For the engaged academic, this recognition of the everyday nature of structures to silence voices is a key point for continued struggles for co-creating spaces of listening to the margins, drawing on ideas of grassroots democracy. An awareness of the intrinsic challenges to listening and the discomforts produced by listening is key to sustaining the labour of engaged academic work in partnership with communities.

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