I get to stay at home for the most part today. Only a brief meeting with a journalist at a local coffee shop. Working from home is such a breath of fresh air. I am committing to doing this more during the next academic year. Even when I drive baby to daycare, I will come home and work. There is nothing better than sitting down to write with a cup of steaming, cream-dotted coffee, punctuated by brief bits of house cleaning. Those cleaning breaks are nice places to ruminate on a topic and generate new sentences and new ideas. I am falling in love with intellectual work all over again. I am remembering the feeling of savoring an idea, a turn of phrase, like I did as a young woman at Mills College.
It is so very delicious. Delicious… Yes that is the word. Critical thinking is like biting into a juicy piece of fruit. But it is also lonely in some ways now because I am often surrounded by people locally and in the wider society that have forgotten this, if they ever knew it. I can’t imagine. I try to remember that there are people all over the world biting into thinking. I have to keep them in view- the whip smart women of color on twitter, the black academics getting books published, the queer thinkers writing poems. And i have to believe that along with these more visible manifestations of intellectualism, there are countless people out there doing this work invisibly- writing songs about changing the world on napkins, making up new concepts to describe their experience. There are people imprisoned in cages all over this land who are making art out of the base materials around them. There are women singing new songs as they clean office buildings. Children are dancing along dirt roads on their way to work.
Anti-intellectualism is a commitment to not thinking. Avery Gordon writes:
… anti-intellectualism has almost always been a form of conservatism, with a particularly long and honored tradition in the United States… There are many dimensions to anti-intellectualism and the dismissal of theory is one of them. And like many forms of anti-intellectualism, the dismissal of theory is often underwritten by a genuinely populist mistrust of elites, of the rule of elite knowledge, and of the often disembodied and inaccessible nature of intellectual work and theory in particular. In my view, there is certainly good evidence and a long historical warrant to question and challenge elite knowledge, its institutional authority, and its social and human consequences. However, populism becomes complicit with elitism itself when it cedes the very activity of theorizing, by abandoning it, to those very same elites. To replace elite with popular knowledge, and to replace the social order we have now with a better, more just one, we certainly need a richer, more precise and complex understanding of power and people. Giving over that task to those to whom it cannot be trusted is foolish and tragic.
Anti-intellectualism allows us to move through our lives without questioning the given. So often people (particularly liberal folks) make anti-intellectualism into a virtue. As if sacrificing one’s intellectual work for others or working one’s self to scatteredness and sickness is loving. I cannot imagine that this is what my child needs from me. Maybe refusing to think would be okay if the given weren’t tyranny, if the given weren’t black death on a mass scale and children crushed by poverty. It is simply not enough to live one’s life refusing to make a ripple by thinking differently. So many of us just want to have good intentions and let the rest ride it out. It is as if we believe that just being nice, most of the time, is enough. But we have to rise to the challenge of our times. That requires asking what that challenge is over and over again. That requires thinking. It takes a commitment to remaining unsure, growing uncomfortable enough to sit in the discomfort of asking ‘is this the thing to do right now?’ ‘is this the loving thing to say in this moment?’ ‘am i living a reflection of the world i’d rather live in today?’ We can’t just consume our lives like a quarter pounder with cheese meal, hoping that if we are really docile or if we work at a frenzied enough pace that we will be given a free caramel frappe.
Photo credit: Foter.com
And meeting the challenge of our times must also mean demanding the luxury to sit and think sometimes. Yes action is most certainly needed. But we also need to learn to sit with the messiness of our current predicament, never turning away and be in the stillness that loving each other requires. Maybe social justice isn’t always running around to the beat of neoliberal time fighting the machine, maybe justice (a concept which almost always makes a potentially dubious promise in my view) is sitting quietly. In Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, he makes the case that only seeing blackness through a social public lens, or, in other words, for its social and political meaningfulness, through resistance (and thus always engaged with white supremacy) is racist. Our blackness also gets to have an interior that is not about white folks. Our blackness gets to be still sometimes. It gets to be introverted and nerdy and vulnerable. The challenge of our times requires resistance yes (although along with Quashie I think that term is too vague and imprecise), but it also requires a transformation of the pace of our living. It requires stillness and reflection. In the words of Kevin Quashie, “resistance, yes, but other capacities too. Like quiet.”
By Renée M. Byrd
Gordon, Avery. 2004. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder: Paradigm Publishing
Quashie, Kevin Everod. 2012. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press