Eva Silot Bravo, PhD.
Visiting Assistant Professor
University of Miami
Presentation at the International Academic Forum in honor of Dr. George Yudice. University of Miami. April 7-8, 2017. 1
“We risk becoming the best-informed society that has ever died of ignorance.” Ruben Blades
Challenges to scholars as public intellectuals: How to promote relevant and meaningful venues of cultural and civic dialogue in polarizing times.
- Scholars as Public Intellectuals
The conditions for knowledge production, the role of intellectual debates, the promotion of dialogues among different ethnic, cultural and ideological groups, the relevance of academia and a diverse and sound public education system are under scrutiny in the complex and polarizing times we are experiencing today. The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other journalistic and non-profit publications, systematically report on the erosions within the academic world. Several articles warn about the pressures to streamline and cut funds and to downsize the humanities. An increased number of graduate students face a jobless and troublesome market. The adjunctification of the academic young work force is a serious question. Tenure track processes are full of arbitrariness and subjectivities. Young scholars lack protection and the gender pay gap still affects many women scholars. The above progressively generates an environment of uncertainties and distrust, and compromise the independence and importance of academia in the 21st century.
As it’s known, the bureaucratization of knowledge production and the writing process in academia is centered in peer-reviewed publications. As a result, many scholars are constrained to write for readers in their own discipline, without regard to public engagement or social impact beyond the university walls. Others simply have neither the time nor the interest to engage with the injustice and challenges systematically taking place in their immediate surroundings. In the meantime, higher education costs and tuition-related debts are on the rise, practices of open anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, virtual trolling and different forms of discrimination to minorities are painful and commonplace occurrences among certain sectors in our society. Open-ended and heated political discussion on social networks often turn into battlefields driven by personal insults and verbal aggressions.
There’s an increased gap and apparent impossibility to find middle ground positions between the left and the right on many important issues, such as climate change, gun control, reproductive health, quality of education and affordable health, among others. The increased polarization of the political life mobilizes virtual debates and resistance, but increasingly promotes apathy, distress and alienation. Just consider the increased number of people, around 43 %, who simply don’t vote in the U.S. elections. Despite the promises of the liberal discourse, competitiveness and lack of empathy is highly visible in the social and academic fabric. Many people feel either left behind, don’t know or dismiss the benefits of a culture of dialogue, and distrust intellectuals and the left.
Of course, there’s always the possibility to portray a more positive context considering other variables. My goal is not to depict an apocalyptic vision of the context where we operate, but to highlight the urgency, potential and shared responsibility we have in addressing the challenging trends described above, which are increasingly difficult to avoid.
Like many of you, I spent quite some time thinking in depth about these questions. I don’t pretend to have the solutions to the queries posed. However, that doesn’t prevent me to advance some opinions to continue promoting this pressing debate. The challenges are real and affect us all. The Gramscian debate about the role of intellectuals and the transformational capabilities of social consciousness in everyday life is still relevant and should be updated, considering the unavoidable problems we face today. The time is now to put our capacities and imagination to a greater service.
- Changing Times and the Academic Debate
After the collapse of the socialist eastern European bloc at the end of the 20th century, some academic and public debates proclaimed optimistically “the end of history”, the globalization of the “benefits” of capitalism worldwide, and the decline of nations and nationalism with the emergence of “a global village.”1 The increased pace of technological developments prompted an environment of greater interconnectivity, human mobility and ideational exchange across the globe. Online transactions and electronic media increasingly mediate human interactions and prompt the emergence of faster and instant ways of communicating through a seemingly unlimited virtual space.
1 For more detailed accounts on the relationship between the global condition and narratives of nations and nationalism see Levitt; Fukuyama; Huntington; James Tulloc; and Appadurai in Modernity.
Since the turn of the 21st century, narratives and human interactions are mainly constructed, negotiated and disseminated through social media and mobile communication. The processing of information takes center stage as an important mode of production across the globe. Virtual communities became relevant actors for artistic, intellectual and social agency. Metanarratives, modern values and the historicity of memories have been under interrogation, while skepticism and relativism prevails. Patriarchal orders and traditional gender roles are increasingly put into question, contested and modified (Nemoainu, 3-17). As a result, public and academic debates concurred on the limitations of modern narratives like nationalism, national identity and national subject, to represent the diversity and complex reality of “other” relevant subjects, identities and narratives, such as transnationalism, blacks, migrants, women, queers, the displaced, the marginalized and dissidents. This approach looked critically and warned us about the constraints posed to the human imagination and cultural creation by authoritarian and elitist discursive practices of normative national institutions.
The praise of globalization also brought an increased disbelief towards the modern “anxiety” to categorize and conceptualize, resulting in changing aesthetics and a scholarly fashion of contestation and/or deconstruction of foundational modern narratives. Postmodern debates announced repeatedly “the death of the intellectual” as a disenfranchised elite. However, with the shifting global map of the latest revival of fundamentalist nationalism in different parts of the world, from both the left and the right, there’s a renewed need to critically address the challenges posed by the process of globalization, not only to developing but also to developed economies, to better approach the understanding of cultural practices, processes of identity negotiation and the search for meaningful spaces for peaceful coexistence. More importantly, there’s an imperative to re-examine the somewhat superseded debate over the power of narratives of nations and national identity, as referential and protective mechanisms in times of crisis vis a vis. the expectations associated with the emergence of a global village.
Another critical debate that needs to be at center stage is the instrumental role of national narratives as tools of ideological and political manipulation of the forgotten masses across the world that no country is exempted to experience, despite how “advanced” its immersion in the global context is or could have been perceived. In Nation and Nationalism, Gellner provides important coordinates to examine this question. He focuses on the instrumental view of nationalism as an organizational and ideological tool through which power subjects and institutions impose the idea of national identity as a force of ideological, political and cultural homogenization. As Gellner indicates, nationalism is an important referent for power institutions and agents to impose certain values and cultural practices, aesthetic preferences and canons. As a result, narratives of nationalism promote elitism, hierarchies, silences, repression and exclusion of other subjects and narratives they fail to represent.
Cuba is an interesting example of Gellner’ claims about the instrumental character of nationalism in the hands of political and ideological institutions to promote notions of cultural identity bounded to a nation-state. The official revolutionary discourse generated a national identity tied to the revolution as cubanidad’s origin and destiny (Rojas, Una Isla 49-50). The government promoted the rewriting of narratives of the Cuban past in all political, cultural and educational institutions. The media and cultural industries are in the government hands. For the longest time, any private initiative was considered illegal and penalized. This top-down political process led to the adoption of a highly ideological, defensive and “messianic” nationalistic discourse, which became rapidly embedded in a “culture of the masses”. The revolutionary government undertook a very centralized and ideological construction of a new national project with a wide populist appeal that soon began criminalizing any acts of criticism, dissent and/or opposition. Those who disagreed with state tutelage were ostracized, repressed or fled the island.
All these elements shaped the official discourse after 1959 as a site of bilateral and irreconcilable confrontation with its enemies, “the other” against which the Cuban revolutionary nation was constructed. That discourse took the shape of a narrative of isolation and messianic exceptionality that has been constantly exploited by the Cuban government: A small Caribbean developing nation, entrusted with the “historical” mission to “resist” and “oppose” the largest hegemonic power in the world. To emulate Cuba as the biblical small David fighting against the giant Goliath became a common image used by the Cuban official discourse. The “other” against which the Cuban nation was constructed since 1959 would include a range of actors, from hostile enemies of the revolution, all those who critique and oppose the government ideas, to any internal opposition, any intellectual critique enacted in texts or by individuals, the United States governments and especially Cuban exiles. Duany observes that one of the results of this ideological projection has been the exclusion of the diaspora, and I would add of any dissident voices and critical narratives, from any serious reflection on the Cuban nation (34-35).
With commending exceptions, Cuban studies is an academic field where the effects of the Cuban government propaganda, fear, double standards and “political correctness” is yet an unfortunate practice in the 21st century. Cuban studies are still far from having a real impact in Cuban-American and local affairs, where important sectors of younger Cuban migrants tend to replicate the Republican anti-intellectualism and conservatism from the Cold War era. When are we going to release, once and for all, the sequestering of an open-ended examination of Cuban issues beyond the never-ending debate between the left and the right? For how much longer are we going to postpone a serious consideration of the exclusions, silences and repression made by the Cuban nation-state in the name of the revolution to its own citizens, particularly the diaspora, and to any critical voices? It’s time to recognize the shared responsibility that the intellectual sector and the academia have in this scenario. Otherwise, we face the danger of remaining in closed circles of false sanctuary, self-complacency and of becoming more irrelevant.
National imaginaries have been among the most salient epistemological frameworks to comprehend, organize, and represent the human experience since the onset of Modernity, with the emergence of print media, colonialism and the spread of a Western “rationality” associated with the so-called Enlightenment period. Thinking about the global era, Appadurai perceived a different process of cultural imagination where the global is imagined at the local level through increasing flows of mass mediated images aided by electronic technologies and migration. In his view, this process of imagination creates diasporic public spheres as alternative spaces that represent sites of encounter and contestation to nation-state interests. Stuart Hall situates the process of articulation between the global and the local in the realm of cultural identity, as a multidimensional positioning of being, belonging, identification and rupture with historical and cultural common narratives from the past (223-225).
Nationalism is not only an instrument of power and ideology, but also a complex narrative space where values, structures of feeling, cultural practices, social contracts and norms are constantly negotiated. Despite being highly revisited, Anderson’s conceptualization of nationalism as “imagined communities” is once again relevant nowadays, by inviting to explore the power of narratives of nationalism not mainly as tool for ideological manipulation, but because they develop a strong sense of emotional awareness and belonging coalesced by certain cultural symbols, texts, and technologies that people massively could respond to. Anderson remind us about the emotional and psychological power of narratives of nationalism when they are embraced by certain individuals, groups and communities as symbols of patriotism. He highlights historically how people have even died or killed in the name of nationalism, or to defend a sense of belonging and identity to certain groups when they feel fundamentally threatened.
-Conclusions. What are we going to do?
The promises associated with the emancipatory power of technological advancements and the global era have also been curtailed by the overload of information, especially of fake and trash news, and the emergence of notions of alternative facts. There’s a return to old themes like the denial of scientific knowledge, the profound disconnection of the political establishment beyond the electoral process and the threats to the scrutiny of the press to the political establishment, among others.
The crisis of utopia, brought by the fall of the socialist bloc, the degradation of the environment and the welfare system by predatory neoliberal practices, and an excessive optimism about the benefits of the global condition and the end of history, has prompted a curious moment characterized by dystopia, double standards and the emergence of fundamentalist nationalisms. But for those who acknowledge history as moments of cyclical development, this moment is certainly an opportunity to use our imagination and human capital in more creative ways to constructively and actively contribute to the current state of affairs.
Scholars like George Yudice, among others present here, have consistently promoted cultural policy activism through his research, and by establishing bridges of communication between academia and nonacademic policy making and cultural institutions. That is a concrete example of a path to public intellectualism, which could be adapted as a more systematic practice in our scholarly endeavors.
We need to enhance the promotion of relevant spaces of dialogue and interaction with other nonacademic, local and international actors beyond ideological positioning and self-complacency. Academic debates could benefit more by engaging in difficult but necessary conversations about the impact of the current political context in our work environment.
We could also empower local communities, particularly relevant local actors in the humanities. We should try to “represent” less and reach out more, and to establish spaces of mutual learning with “other” agents of knowledge and activism at the local and global levels. We need to engage in action oriented debates to preserve the humanities from the devastating consequences of privatization and monetary centered results to our programs and the academic work force.
We need to be realistic and transparent with our graduate students about their prospects in the academic world and the job market in the current times. We should find the motivation to move beyond our individual agendas, making universities more open-ended spaces of encounter and communication that promote multidisciplinary conversations and collaborative projects.
In this task, Yudice’s findings on the multiple uses of Culture as a resource to ultimately improve the human condition locally and globally are more relevant than ever before.
• Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1994. Print.
• Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
• Duany, Jorge. “From the Cuban Ajiaco to the Cuban-American Hyphen: Changing Discourses of National Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora.” Cuban Studies Association Occasional Papers. Paper 16. 2.8 (15 October 1997). 1-31. Print.
• Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. Print.
• Gramsci, Antonio. Selection from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Print
• Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence, 1990. 222-237. Print.
• Nemoainu, Virgil. Postmodernism & Cultural Identities: Conflicts and Coexistence. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010. Print.
• Rojas, Rafael. Una isla sin fin. Contribución a la crítica del nacionalismo cubano. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1998. Print.
• Yúdice, George. The Expediency of Culture. Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.