The Ambivalence of Intellectuals


“intellectuals are holders of cultural capital and, even if they are the dominated among the dominant, they still belong among the dominant. That is one of the foundations of their ambivalence….”

So wrote the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (d. 2002), in the closing lines to a 1996 address entitled “The Myth of ‘Globalization’ and the European Welfare State” (published in his little book, Acts of Resistance [29-44]). I think these lines are well wroth remembering when we read scholarship that writes against the grain, as some call it, or which undermines elite narratives by doing history from the ground up (what we once called social history). For, despite what they likely see as their own noble goals, the supposedly silenced voices that they recover are the products of their own travel grants, sabbaticals, and the privilege that comes with earning ones living by writing and talking about features of other people’s lives that strike us as interesting.

I think that it is this very ambivalence that accounts for the supposedly provocative, cutting edge scholars who re-inscribe surprisingly traditional notions of identity as they go about their work. I think here of Lisa Lowe‘s essay, “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences,” originally published in 1991 but then included in Theorizing Diaspora (132-155). After acknowledging that “‘Asian American’ is not a natural or static category” and then placing herself in Spivak‘s tradition of strategic essentialists–those who “utilize specific signifiers of racialized ethnic identity, such as ‘Asian American,’ for the purpose of contesting and disrupting the discourses that exclude Asian Americans, while simultaneously revealing the internal contradictions and slippages of ‘Asian American’…”–she fails to understand that those so-called dominant discourses that have excluded Asian Americans (perhaps now no longer used as a merely heuristic racialized category for strategically grouping people together for ones own political purposes…?) are also a product of her own and other people’s strategic essentialism. That is, while strategically holding onto the racialized ethnic identity as an effective rhetorical tool such scholars seem to forget that the seeming object against which they are eagerly working is itself not a natural or static category either; instead, it is equally a construct of their own for the purpose of opposition and resistance.

Taking strategic essentialism seriously means, of course, that we see all identities as the amorphous and always tentative result of ongoing and contestable claims–scholars’ claims included. In other words, what sort of essentialism, upon analysis, is not strategic? But of course this realization significantly weakens the moral position from which some engaged intellectuals wish to judge the supposedly actual (and not just strategic) wrongs that, with their help, need righting. And thus ambivalence enters the conversation: as modern intellectuals we cannot but humbly and ironically embrace our own historicity while nonetheless wishing to occupy a powerful position of no place where our moral judgments carry real weight. That this is a privileged contradiction, bought at a price that few can afford, usually fails to catch our attention.

2 Replies to “The Ambivalence of Intellectuals”

  1. Interesting article. I don’t completely agree with the argument on essentialism. Specifically, there is a lot of essentialising of identities which is NOT strategic – people who genuinely think of their own or others’ various group identities as authentic and unchangeable are essentialising those identities (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) – it’s only strategic if they don’t believe this but deploy this belief temporarily as a means to an end – to mobilise against oppression, etc, according to Spivak. But this bit is brilliant: as intellectuals we have to “ironically embrace our own historicity while nonetheless wishing to occupy a powerful position of no place where our moral judgments carry real weight.” So true, so ironic – “a powerful position of no place”, powerful phrase.

  2. Regardless the intention, the effect is strategic (i.e., has effect), one could argue–I don’t think I was implying intentionality on the part of the one making the claims.

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Culture on the Edge

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading