Voyou Désœuvré

Adam points to the annoying habit among people doing academic work of moralizing about the “relevance” or accessibility of their work, and, I think, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the way this usually proceeds. By positioning themselves in opposition to academic “irrelevance”

the speaker can make a double assertion:

  1. The common people are right to be suspicious of some intellectual work, which really is useless at best or counterproductive at worst.
  2. I, however, do not do that kind of intellectual work and am very suspicious of it myself.

The problem with this is that by focusing on the individual’s choice of academic style, this kind of move distracts from a critique of the exclusionary power structures of academia. It’s a kind of beautiful-soul anti-intellectualism, that attempts to position the speaker outside of the harmful effects of academia through their individual virtue. But the problem is not one that can be solved just by good intentions, it derives from the structures of capitalism; abstractly, the division of manual and mental labor, more concretely, in the particular ways (social, economic) that some people are prevented from reading and thinking about certain things.

So, the problem here cannot be solved by choosing to write in a particular style (and it is a matter of style—these kinds of complaints always end up talking about Judith Butler’s subordinate clauses); what prevents wider participation in theoretical work is not superficial matters of subjects that are supposedly distant from “real life,” or writing that is supposedly inaccessible to “real people.” My favorite example here are the workers’ study groups of the 19th and early 20th century, who had no problem reading Capital. And, surprisingly given the elitist connotations of a revolutionary “vanguard,” Lenin has some forceful things to say about the stupidity of worrying about what the poor workers can get their little heads around:

It is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of “literature for workers” but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature. It would be even truer to say “are not confined”, instead of “do not confine themselves”, because the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough “for workers” to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known.

Lenin, What Is To Be Done?

As Lenin says, imagining the response of a worker to his anti-theoretical comrade, “We are not children … we want to know everything others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every political event.”


  1. Adam Kotsko, 11:44 am, May 2, 2007


  2. What in the hell … :: … do you mean, “(ir)relevance”? :: May :: 2007, 9:55 pm, May 8, 2007

    […] The following started out as a response to a post here but it got too long so I made it its own blog post. […]

  3. geo, 12:32 pm, May 9, 2007

    hey voyou, i agree sort of. i guess i’m on board for the critique of the academic who does academic work and yet cleanses her soul through this maneuver. happens all the time. but what do we do? the structural argument is powerful and true, but doesn’t the claim that workers can read capital cut against the claims about academic structure?  is the bit about lenin meant to say that it doesn’t matter, the workers will get it anyway, or that capital was an accessible text, or that it managed to avoid being academicized? kisses g

  4. Nate, 2:10 pm, May 9, 2007

    I just want to add that this post has made me like Baudrillard for the first time in many years – what the academic does who makes step 2 of the move here is asimulacrum of politics! Get thee behind me s(imul)atan!

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