David Graeber, euphemism and the university

April 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

I just read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on David Graeber. Graeber’s involvement in Occupy Wall Street has arguably positioned him as the most famous anthropologist in the world today, and, in this respect, probably the closest approximation to a Margaret Mead that the discipline has had since Margaret Mead. Focusing on the fact that he has not managed to get a job offer in the US, the article featured a couple of nice quotes from Jeff Maskovsky and Laura Nader:

“It is possible to view the fact that Graeber has not secured a permanent academic position in the United States after his controversial departure from Yale University as evidence of U.S. anthropology’s intolerance of political outspokenness,” writes Jeff Maskovsky, an associate professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in the March issue of American Anthropologist.

That charge might seem paradoxical, given anthropology’s reputation as a leftist redoubt, but some of Mr. Graeber’s champions see that leftism as shallower than it might first appear. Anthropology “is radical in the abstract,” says Laura Nader, a professor in the field at the University of California at Berkeley. “You can quote Foucault and Gramsci, but if you tell it like it is,” it’s a different story, she says.

Nice one, Profs Maskovsky and Nader. As the article suggests, however, there may be more to the Graeber story than this.

More than that, though, there are those who suggest that the ailment identified by Maskovsky and Nader may be afflicting academia beyond US anthropology – as suggested by Alexander García Düttmann in an article published in Radical Philosophy in 2011. Düttmann claims that euphemism “is the linguistic condition of contemporary society and spreads through the university as much as through any other institution.” He argues that

Using a euphemism always signals a resistance that stems from a fundamental acceptance. All acceptance is ultimately a virtual resistance, in so far as there is an active element to it, or in so far as pure passivity could never accept anything. What the euphemism does, then, is to exploit the resources of acceptance in the realm of language.

If euphemism can be understood as exploiting the resources of acceptance in the realm of language, if the one who uses euphemistic speech reveals to all others that he is a player, it should be clear why there is no place for it in the university. Using euphemistic speech is a manner of saying something with the intention not to say it. Today, it is even a manner of not saying something with the intention of saying it, as if the euphemism were being used against itself, a husk of a husk. The university, however, is the place where, as Jacques Derrida remarks in his 1998 lecture on the idea of an ‘unconditional university’, the ‘fundamental right to say everything’, and to say it publicly, even in the guise of fiction or as an experiment of knowledge, must inform the teaching imparted and the research undertaken. It follows from this paradoxical condition that the restrictive fiction of euphemism subordinates teaching and research to power, hence to exclusion, and destroys the very idea of the university. It abandons its name to manipulation and domination. The operation performed by euphemistic speech severs the link between the word and the idea. As a result, it transforms words into euphemisms not only by substituting a particular content for another content but also by way of the substitution itself, of a formal procedure, as if language and speech, or structure and actual utterance, were inseparably intertwined. Once the university is governed by euphemistic speech, once the word ‘university’ is severed from its idea, it is already a euphemism, regardless of how it is used in specific academic, political or social contexts. Seven years ago, Mary Evans noted that ‘the word “university” is, in contemporary Britain, a vague and unreliable term’.

Which is not to say that there are no academics resisting this disease in their own ways, from within the walls of universities. In fact I would suggest there are quite a few in Goldsmiths, the institution Graeber has just left and where I currently work: people who ‘tell it like it is.’ For example, those listed as speakers for the upcoming “Ethics/learning and teaching in higher education” event, which features both Düttmannand Mary Evans (referenced at the end of the Düttmann quote above).

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