Reflections From Behind the Brick Wall
By Bakri R
“SCHOLARSHIP IS ART AND WE ARE ARTISTS. THIS IS IN ALL CAPS TO BE HEARD OVER THE NUMBING SILENCE AND CACOPHONIUS BLABBER OF THE ACADEMY. ARTISTS AND CREATORS AND LIFE-GIVERS ARE NOT APPRECIATED HERE. THERE IS NO BODILY INTEGRITY. NO REFLECTIVE QUIETNESS. NO TENDER TOUCH. ONLY THE CRUDE NECESSITY TO SELL AND CONSUME UNTIL YOU BECOME A CANNIBAL OF YOURSELF.”
I’m writing this as a way to process the four years I spent in school, but I am not sure where to start. I could plunge into a critique of the academic industrial complex and the corporatization of higher education, but my memory is working in snapshots right now. Crying in professor’s offices, in corners of the library, embarrassingly often. Looking at the ceiling and doodling during class in boredom and frustration. Feeling a murky cloud of self-doubt settling over me. I still feel silly and self-indulgent writing this. It’s not something I want to talk about, but I feel like I have to get it out of my head.
I spent a lot of time wandering campus and feeling cynical and somewhat horrified by my surroundings. The thing about getting a critical education is that it will invert your gaze upon yourself in a self-destructive way. Not everyone carries the analysis of the world that they learn through gender theory, critical race studies or postcolonial studies far enough, but those of us that do realize that we are being given the tools to unravel the institution we find ourselves in from within that institution. It is a hugely unsettling paradox that can provoke a lot of rage (that has nowhere to go). We see what is wrong with not just the broader world, but with our immediate world – the university – a place that thrives off all sorts of material and psychological violence. And it is then that we come upon a painful realization that this place does not want to change, and will not. It may teach you what is wrong with the world, but it is divested from engaging in how to change it. What good is a “reading room in a prison”?
I discovered the limits of supposedly “radical” spaces in the university too quickly. I remember sitting in my senior feminist studies seminar, becoming aggravated with a classroom that was more interested in discussing whether Beyonce is a feminist rather than talking about how neoliberalism is claiming feminism, more interested in reading Tina Fey than Marxist feminists, more inclined to read Audre Lorde’s poetry as “pretty words” than an clear articulation of a pain that necessitates action. Is this really the next generation of feminists? I would ask myself with frustration. I found out later that this was symptomatic of a focus on postmodernist feminism, one heavily invested in language and representation rather than material realities. In an age where the university was becoming increasingly ruled by capitalist interests, an article about the revolutionary potential of Rihanna’s pussy pat would sell more than writing that actually elaborates the grim realities of capitalist patriarchal exploitation. So even the “feminist" classroom was deeply disappointing; radical theory was far removed from radical action, coupled instead with the glittery status of “sounding” radical without being threatening to the status quo.
And there was no space for our rage. The classroom centered “the personal is political” around the individual, turning politics into a therapy session that glorified the narration of personal experience, rather than affirming that what was political was already profoundly personal and directly connected to histories of trauma and violence. We would hear 10 stories about “the first time I got my period”, but reading the first-hand testimonies of third world revolutionaries provoked no emotional response. Centering our personal experience so much made students unable to draw links between their stories and collectives histories of oppression.
I found that I learned far more outside the classroom, in student groups and organizing. Yet even that work was frustrating – our activism almost always culminated into fruitless meeting with administrators. While I think the presence of a loud and vocal bloc of students was beneficial to the overall apathetic student body typical of elite institutions of higher education, personally I found myself constantly exhausted from being in a kind of war with the university. I signed up for a column in the college newspaper, thinking that it would be a good outlet for my words, but I wondered how long I could keep informing people about the obvious, how many times I could say that an incident was racist, how many ways I could say that this is wrong.
Sara Ahmed once described the work of diversity workers in a university as constantly banging their head against a brick wall. The “brick wall” was a metaphor I found grimly accurate for the university – a place that won’t change, no matter how much “head-banging” those invested in changing it painfully endured. I remember walking around campus taking pictures of brick walls as a kind of disillusioned art project. Another time, I took pictures of the beautiful scenery of my campus, and juxtaposed the imagery with text detailing collusion with imperialism, slavery, and colonialism. I spent a lot of my last two years not going to class (somehow I graduated), wandering around, and observing my surroundings with a sense of horror and absurdity that I never want to lose. I think that holding onto that initial feeling of “WTF is this” when our paradigm is being shifted is key to remaining authentically committed to the ongoing project of justice. Don’t get used to the way things are.
What to do with a place so absurd that it is showing you the tools to destroy the it but not letting you use them? Become a troll. Trolling as a bullshit response to the bullshit of the university is something that is impervious to co-optation in a way that can allow someone to maintain their sanity in a totally insane place. Subversive actions whether it was late-night “vandalizing’ racist posters with sharpies, wearing Israel day shirts as crop tops marked with Palestine to large school concerts, or gracing a racist and sexist creative writing teacher with a poem entitled “why I don’t want to talk to white people” as a final assignment (and getting full marks) were modes of survival in a place that was constantly drilling into our heads that we were wrong, “crazy”, even worthless. I found myself not being able to do the things I was best at, like writing, because I was overcome with so much self-doubt. I kept coming back to a quote by Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her article The Shape of My Impact: “the university does not love you, but the universe does”. In such a place of invalidation, the affirming power of laughter and community were very important. My advice to young and critical people in the university is to find a family of trolls to nourish you.
I hugely appreciated the words of others who have written on this topic, your words made me feel less alone. I write this now with a necessitated urge to take the theory we learn within the academy outside the academy. That is the only healing response to violence of the university: to redistribute its wealth and knowledge potential to the spaces where these things are needed the most, through community organizing, through art, etc. Right now, I am thankful to be out of the often toxic space that academia is, to be able to think outside of it and beyond it, and focus my mind and energy on things that matter.