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.

3 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.

  3. What about working class intellectuals who don’t disproportionately benefit from privilege? Sure, a poor single mother still has some privilege if she is a white Westerner, in comparison to a similar person who is non-white and/or non-Western. But such privilege is often rather minimal in the big picture. If she intellectually writes of her own experience and identity, strategically essentialist or otherwise, what are others to make of it? Of course, some of the most radical feminism came from black women, whatever their class status and educational attainment. Should we usually or always analyzee intellectual products according to economic, racial, etc demographics that are interpreted according to degrees of privilege or lack thereof?

    I could note that I speak as someone who is a working class intellectual with only a high school degree who makes his living as a parkng ramp cashier, and as one dealing with mental illness and a learning disability. On the other hand, I grew up middle class. I acknowledge my historicity and what privilege I have as a white male American given relatively more resources and opportunities, depending on the comparison. Certainly, it’s harder for me to maintain a privileged pretense of speaking beyond my personal experience, even as I often write about the broader scholarly topics I study. I’m not one who is prone to referring to essentialist identities, much less bothering with using them strategically.

    Whatever one can say of my intellectual writings, they certainly are not “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.” In fact, I rarely travel and my free time is often occupied by family, and my rare vacations are typically nearby family trips. Nonetheless, outwardly simple and limited as my life may be, I’m not lackng in ambivalence as an intellectual. Yet, ambivalence aside, I’m very much concerned with “supposedly actual (and not just strategic) wrongs” that feel quite personally and viscerally real.

    I’m not making any particular point here. Just wondering out loud. Or, if I am to make a point, I could emphasize the privilege of being a professonal intellectual in speaking to other professional intellectuals, while not acknowledging intellectuals in your potential audience who don’t fit that profile. Not that there is anything wrong with specifically addressing people of a shared demographic, as I occasionally do the same in (sometimes falsely) acting as if my own blogging audience is American or Western, to be surprised by unexpected commenters with entirely other backgrounds. But, admttedly, I’ve never had the luxury to assume much of an audience of other working class intellectuals like me, although plenty of us exist, if not in an organized manner as found among academics.

    It is always an interesting topic to think of all the ways privilege gets experienced and expressed. Even though I lack a college education, I was raised by parents who worked in educational professions. In fact, my father was a professor. So, I informally learned and internalized an intellectual style that has become central to my identity. I carry some middle class privilege from my upbringing, even though it doesn’t define my economic status. Because my mother was raised working class, she still thought and acted working class, which is what she instilled in me. My ambivalence as an intellectual includes some class identity confusion.

    Anyway, as one of the “modern intellectuals” you refer to, albeit humble working class, I supposed I can halfway join you in your concluding thoughts. For obvious reasons, I have less certainty and confidence about occupying a “powerful position of no place.” But, like most people, I do wish my moral judgments could “carry real weight,” a normal human impulse. From the perspective lower down the totem pole, I’m probably more likely to speak with moral strength than is typically heard among academics and other ‘respectable’ intellectuals who might worry about appearing moralistic. I’m not without ironic ambivalence, although it feels less necessary as an intellectual pose.

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