I recently accepted an offer to start a Masters programme in Cultural Studies. I say this to make the point that despite what follows, I thoroughly enjoy academia and for a long time I intended to pursue it. Nevertheless, I am very aware of some of its shortcomings. The most frustrating thing about academia for me is its potential detachment from everyday life.
One thing I love about language is that it presents the opportunity to choose words carefully to convey specific meanings. But by the same token, language is very limited in that there are not enough words to convey all the meanings that exist. Much is lost in the process of verbally articulating what one means, or intends to convey – we simply choose words that are the closest approximation to what it is we mean. As such, I understand why it is sometimes necessary for academia to use very specific language and to operate at such a ‘high’ level. I understand why in some disciplines like Sociology, authors sometimes even invent words so as to uncover and explore nuances and new areas of meaning.
Academia, however, can be exclusionary and become inaccessible, as the sometimes unnecessarily sophisticated language used makes it difficult for the layman to relate to. Academia is ultimately useless if it is detached from the populations and subjects about which it theorises. As the late philosopher and historian Michel Foucault argues, there is a power dynamic inherent in knowledge. The emergence of any knowledge system is always linked with a shift in power. Take psychology. When madness was seen as Holy and supernatural in the Middle Ages, those considered ‘mad’ were allowed to roam free. They were left untroubled and sometimes were even revered. When the understanding of madness evolved, those considered ‘mad’ became seen as dangerous and were associated with deviance. The mechanisms of power evolved to match this transition in understanding. Those considered ‘mad’ were confined within prisons and treated contemptuously as criminals. Now that madness is seen as an illness and is medicalised, those understood as ‘mad’ are subject to the power of psychologists and doctors who sometimes forcibly administer treatments and impose medications. This is an example Foucault uses to illustrate the idea that ‘knowledge is power’ – not just in the overused, clichéd conventional sense of the phrase.
I have a huge problem then, with the fact that while academia masquerades as objective and value free; it is often, if not always, based on particular biases. Again according to Foucault, “each society has it’s regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true”. In other words, each society has an “episteme”, a set of assumptions, prejudices and mind-sets that structure and limit the thought of any age. The discourses that arise from these assumptions, that is the ideologies and the way we understand and speak of them, are constitutive of subjects such as “the asylum seeker or “the criminal black male” or “the insane”. This subsequently effects their treatment at both an individual and institutional level. Hence, academia is pivotal in the way we as a society understand the world.
Academia also contributes towards “hegemony”, which is a concept from philosopher Antonio Gramsci who describes the collective acceptance of a set of ideas as legitimate. More simply, academia can collaborate with other institutions such as the media and hospitals to shape the public imagination and individual world outlooks.
It has been demonstrated that knowledge has a real, lived effect on human lives. Knowledge is inherently political. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that academia should not be detached from or inaccessible to the populations about which it theorises. It should not operate in an isolated vacuum in and of itself, without accountability. Demographics should not be spoken on behalf of without the opportunity to contribute and partake in the discussion. They should be allowed to form their own narratives and speak for themselves. Despite all the airy fairy language and deeply theoretical contentions within academia, I believe no one is qualified to speak about particular issues more than the people directly experiencing them. How on earth can policies be passed without consulting the people it will effect?
Thus, while it is necessary for academia to explore new caveats of meaning, I believe there is the pressing need to translate academic concepts into discussions which are practical and understandable for all. Not just those who have been privileged enough to attend higher education. By failing to do this, we miss out on a vast amount of human capital and brilliant ideas within the minds of those who have been left out of the conversations. This is the premise of This is 2020: to begin and widen such discussions. To promote inclusion and transparency.
I urge us to be reminded of what’s at stake here. While we sit relatively comfortably in classrooms and bury our heads behind the covers of books, or behind computer screens, that which we read and write about is having a profound effect on individual human lives.
This quote from the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall truly hit home for me. I shared it as one of my inspirations at a meeting for the Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies group at my uni:
“At the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of Cultural Studies?”
This question forces one to confront the reality of what it is we study. As academics, our role is not to be preoccupied with individual egos and be fuelled by the desire to be accredited for grandiose ideas. Our role is to genuinely interrogate and intervene in social phenomena because people really are, for example, dying in the streets.
This great responsibility is why, despite my disillusionment with the effectiveness of academia and my disdain for it’s pretentiousness, I intend to pursue it. I endeavour to use academia, literary fiction and other mediums like rap and art to make knowledge more widely accessible.