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March 22, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Defending the language of politics

Robbie Shilliam is a senior lecturer at Victoria in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations. He will be presenting a lecture as part of Victoria Student Media’s lecture series ‘How do we make ourselves a student body without organs?’ VBC 88.3FM’s Jonathan King asks Robbie about his ideas on the subject.

With the title of the lecture series being ‘How do we make ourselves a student body without organs?’, what would your response to this question be?

It could mean many things, but I am guessing in this context it refers to how political agency might be retained in the absence of fixed organisational structuring principles.

Who is Walter Rodney, and how has his work influenced your views on academia and the role of intellectuals?

Walter Rodney was a Guyanese academic, an historian of Africa and the Caribbean who taught in both places. He was a seminal voice in the Black Power era, writing the very influential book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. But he was a critic, especially, of what he called the “Black Bourgeoisie”, including members of the Caribbean political elite, many of which were university educated. He became involved in the Guyanese Working People’s Alliance, an opposition group, and was assassinated by the Burnham government in 1980. For the last part of the question, see below.

What is meant by “The groundings with my brothers” and how does this phrase relate to today’s situation?

This refers to Rodney’s several meetings, while at the University of West Indies, with Rasta in Kingston. To ground is to discuss and reason with Rasta. It is called grounding because you sit on the ground. That might sound silly, but it has a profound meaning. Rodney, the educated, privileged academic—the legitimate producer of knowledge of society—sat down on the ground with Rasta and treated them as equally legitimate producers of knowledge of society. In terms of the hierarchies of knowledge production, and of who can speak authoritatively, this was a revolutionary action: it meant that those who are so often talked about in academia—the poor, the destitute, the abjected, the suffering, the ‘masses’—themselves talked about those who took upon themselves the right to study them. In my opinion, that is true critical dialogue. Student Unions have often sought to provide a bridge between the world of academia and the world academia (and especially the social sciences and humanities) interrogates: just think about anti-Apartheid movements, here, in Aotearoa and at this very Whare Wananga. So that is the importance of talking about Rodney in the context of these present debates.

What problems do you think exist within the current university model?

Within the university, or amongst students? Not everything can be blamed on the university model. But in general, the problem is that the changes happening—and this is a thing that is sweeping the entire ‘western’ world, and not just universities here—is that the core purpose of the university, especially with regards to its faculties of humanities and social sciences (that is, to be a critical conscience on society), is being dismantled. No policies ever state this directly (how could they?!), and most of the policymakers involved don’t think they are doing this, but this is what is being done. The focus on outputs for output’s sake; the turning of the student into a consumer; the focus on efficient maximising of throughputs—all of these means have become the ends. I note that in many ‘third world’ countries, most of their universities have to focus on very practical contributions to society. It used to be the privilege of ‘first world’ universities that each had a focus on more long-term visions and critiques of what the good life for all meant. I wonder where our universities are now situated.

What role do you think academics, students and the university should ideally play within the university and society at large?

The purpose of university is to constantly debate that very point. Hence, the provocation of my talk is that to debate a student body without organs cannot be narcissistic. It is neither about the students, or the university, but the ethical and political relationship that students and universities hold to the ‘objects’ of their inquiry. Rodney would have spat on that word, ‘object’!!

Some people have argued that we would do well to do away with the university and the student, with the other half of the title of your talk being ‘knowledge prodution outside of the academy in the academy’, what is your view on this?

Quite simply that our society is based on hierarchies of power, those hierarchies reproduce themselves in elite forums and institutions. The social glue of these forums and institutions is knowledge production. Now, these institutions can be formal (e.g. a university) or they can be informal (e.g. the living room where the family is emptied out and the men and their student-sons talk to each other). So the question is: which forum/institution do you think is more healthy? Let’s not delude ourselves with puerile thoughts. Getting rid of public institutions doesn’t get rid of privilege and hierarchy.

With large cutbacks in funding of university education occurring around the world, accompanied by rising resistance from students, what advice would you give to the student body?

The very space within which to debate and consider the relationship between power and knowledge production is under threat. The history of universities, in the main, has been predominantly one of people paid by elites and armed with weapons rushing in and violently stopping meetings and talking. That is the main history of it. However, those people with weapons have usually had practice, first, upon the ‘objects’ that we in the social sciences and humanities study in university. It is about you and your education, but you and your education in relation to hierarchies of power in which you yourself are situated favourably, and thus about your thoughts on how that hierarchy can or cannot invest itself in a good life for all. It is, then, about defending the very language of politics itself. So those are the stakes at play.

“The Groundings with my Brothers”: Knowledge Production Outside of the Academy in the Academy
Robbie Shilliam
Monday 29 March, 5pm
Adam Art Gallery
Refreshments Provided!

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