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The moral 'overstanders'

Robert Jensen's book is a provocation to the academic to adopt the role of being useful in a big, violent, noisy world outside the library and the seminar room, writes SHELLEY WALIA.


ROBERT JENSEN looks into the future as a visionary of a world free from exploitation and domination, a world in which one would enjoy "anti-systematic" identities through jettisoning essentialist ideas. This is something that each courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big must strive for. The only path to affirmation of self is to act, to create new codes by embracing anti-authoritarian gestures that would challenge transcendent values and neutral truths as well as the academia which represses committed critical work.

It is rather paradoxically felt that silencing the dissident voice is a solution to all problems. Banning of dissident literature or imprisoning all those who criticise State policies cannot put an end to the views of many intellectuals who are dissatisfied with it. Jensen castigates the intellectuals who have remained silent and have lacked the courage to rise against State high-handedness. As is clear from the book, Jensen is a product of "both (his) professional training as a journalist inside the society's mainstream institutions and (his) political education outside those institutions". Left/progressive/radical people like him have to constantly question the mainstream media, sometimes use it to propagate radical anti-establishment ideas and often go to the alternative media to oppose and criticise the news and opinions and the hegemonic thinking of the State. As he argues, "Alternative media is crucial in providing the kind of in-depth information and analysis that radical political projects and social movements need". Jensen feels that for this strategy of using the mainstream media, the op/ed is the right kind of space to be utilised for airing views that are not strictly in keeping with the editorial policies because it is here that often activists and independent journalists manage to sneak in critiques of existing assumptions. Here lies the desire to change reality and to be critical of power, not to give in to it. You cannot give up your calling and compromise your principles.

Professional academic scholarship is invariably withdrawn, apolitical and private. The absorption of intellectual life by the universities marks the decline, if not the elimination, of the intellectual in a commodified and bureaucratised society. The intellectual derives all his authority and power from the university he or she is attached to and is content in being a closeted literature professor, with a secure income and no interest in dealing with literature and its relevance to the world outside the classroom.

Only those who can market their goods or credentials are accepted; the public and critical function of the intellectual seems to have almost disappeared, though a few like Foucault, Said or conscientious academics and activists like Jensen are figures who live out their ideas in a manner that is socially and politically meaningful. It is the duty of the literary intellectual to reject "corporate thinking" and in the words of Said, "raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted and whose raison d'etre is to represent all those people and issues which are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug". It is an eye opener that when academics like Rahul Mahajan or Jensen wanted to engage in free and uninhabited debate at the University of Texas by asking Henry Kissinger at his forthcoming visit to explain why he had constantly worked against the democratically elected government of Chile in the 1970s, or supported General Suharto in his use of American weapons for the carnage in East Timor in 1975 or comment on his role in the killings of thousands of Cambodians in 1969, his visit to the university was cancelled on the ground that student activists had "threatened to endanger public safety". Free speech is thus taken as anti-establishment; dissent is demonised. The individual must raise his voice against any such restrictions. As Jensen recently wrote to me when I told him about the complaint against me from an engineer in the West for writing against the American foreign policy, "Glad to hear you aren't getting in too much trouble. It's funny how many people believe that academic freedom should mean the freedom to express oneself within conventional boundaries. We have the same problem here, of course."

It has to be made clear to the authorities that face to face discussions, civil disobedience and protests are some of the legitimate ways of resistance used by political dissidents who otherwise have restricted opportunities of being heard. Here lies the joy of dissidence taking radical ideas "from the margins to the mainstream". As Jensen rightly argues, the practice of writing has to be encouraged as each one of us has the potential, and as freelance writers we must sell our writing as often as possible.

Let us be clear that all events are texts to be analysed. It is not merely the understanding of interpretations and commentaries on events but an attempt to clarify fundamental questions about the nature of their relationship to the whole fabric of cultural, social and political reality. This involves, to use Wayne Booth's expression, the "overstanding" of texts as nothing but social texts. The academic's overstanding gaze sees the wider universe of cultural or political discourse, the sign system, the social order of which the text is but a symptom. The whole exercise of radical analyses thus becomes intertextual. Jensen's book is a provocation to the academic to adopt the role of being useful in a big, violent, noisy world outside the library and the seminar room. Living in society one has to come to grips with the dynamics of domination and submission and thereby go to the "root of the issue" may it be feminism, rape, transformation of the curriculum or the overturning of hierarchies; this is radical politics (radicalis in Latin stands for "root") which will assist the process of empowering the powerless through a trickle-down effect from academe to the wide world.

Resisting the absorption of intellectual life by the universities or other state institutions, the intellectual must resist the retreat from the public realm and possess the attributes of "commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability" so necessary for an activist to stand in opposition to "think-tanks" and refuse to be "neutered". Hair-raising radicalism must confront the social and theoretical challenges of our time, ready to interrogate the existing assumptions through "writing dissent". This is a lesson for journalists, activists and academics.

Writing Dissent: Taking Radical ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream, Robert Jensen, New York:

Peter Lang, p.150, $13.95.

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