Institutionalizing ‘radical’

I heard a lot of academic stuff this past week; by which I mean guest lectures and presentations. Some of it was good, most of it was eh but what really got me thinking was not the substance of these talks but rather the title of one in particular: ‘How to be a Radical Geographer.’ Does any conversation encapsulated within the standard 45 minute presentation-15 minute Q and A- wine and cheese reception have any business talking about Radical much less How to? Mind you, ‘How to be a Radical Geographer’ was an honorary talk, celebrating Don Mitchell’s presence in the Geography Department some decades ago. So probably radical was historically situated. Perhaps it was tongue and cheek. But really I think it has to do with the resurgence, the gentrification of radical. We have Occupy, the Radical Cartography group is showing their maps at PS1, and great new jacket covers for Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life Volume I-III . The professor of the class I’m TAing, who is an economist, is having the 80 some freshmen read Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men. He tells me this is an ‘incredibly radical’ move on his part. So far the only radical thing that’s come out of this is the number of emails I’ve received from students asking me if the book is really about the end of men.

An hour before the ‘How to be a Radical Geographer’ talk I overheard someone in the Urban Planning Department (the most unradical of them all), ask someone else what will make this talk radical.

“It’s because he is a Marxist,” replied another.

That got me wondering, is Marx, was Marx even radical? Had I read so many of Verso’s Radical Thinkers, that I’d become radically complacent with an institutionalized understanding of radical? If something is truly radical, it probably doesn’t need to be named as such. Especially in the academic context where even if you yourself are radical in your ideas or in your methods, there is a good possibility that your salary comes from, say, fossil fuel investments.

Thinking about the institutionalization of radical geography reminded me of Joshua Clegg’s lunchtime talk only a day earlier. I’m not sure that he actually said this, or even made this point, but I think Clegg was arguing that we in the Skeptical-Epistemology-Anti-Postitivism camp should not throw out the Enlightenment ideals. You know, when Gallelo stood up for Copernicus’s ideas of heliocentricism? Against the Inquisition? He was being pretty fucking radical. What Clegg’s talk reminded me was that radicalism, like people, softens with age. It wrinkles, loosing form and definition. Gravity starts to take over and radicalism becomes slightly more grounded. I think then this is what is called history. History allows the subjective (passion) to age into objective…ness(?). It becomes identified as (objectively) radical because it has been reflected upon, compared to other events, ideas, and practices of the time. And yet what was actual radicalness loses its radical-ness because of exercises of reflexivity.

Which is why I did agree with one of Mitchell’s points (I actually agreed with a lot of them): every academic discipline is critical. A discipline, by nature MUST be critical. But is critical a prerequisite for radical? Is there anything inherently radical about critical theory? I don’t know. Was the Frankfurt School radical at its time? Yes. But it wasn’t radical enough to let Benjamin into the academy. And Benjamin at the time wasn’t considered radical, just obtuse. And Benjamin then is perhaps a good example, an alternative to what I just proposed above because of course it is now, only half a century after his suicide that Benjamin is considered radical.

One Response to “Institutionalizing ‘radical’”
  1. So much of this rings true. This piece in the new issue of Logos may interest you.

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