Salaita, Steven. 2014. “Normatizing State Power: Uncritical Ethical Praxis and Zionism.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 217-235). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Along with the chapters by Pulido and Abowd already discussed on this blog by my classmates Basile and Poulin, and as pointed out by the latter in her post, the chapter by Salaita speaks to the issue of academic containment. Drawing from his own experience of having had his tenure application denied on account of his controversial political engagement, Salaita locates containment in the normative structures which tacitly support the economies of academic professionalization, which function as a transparent means of socializing “faculty into particular modes of thinking” (p. 218). These structures – which work through anything from professional advancement and publication to academic funding mechanisms – tie researchers to the imperatives of institutional legitimacy, and as such render the academic environment vulnerable to state interests. Central to Salaita’s discussion are the interests of the Zionist cause, whose advocates he understands as being “without question the largest impediment to the development of justice oriented intellectual communities in American universities” (p. 224).

The leitmotiv that runs through Salaita’s discussion is how, in the course of his tenure evaluation, his work was qualified as “political.” The implication he resents, and which he identifies as the principle mechanism by which the boundaries of acceptable academic activity are policed, is that there can be a such a thing as a neutral, non-political space from which to judge the degree of objectivity and validity of politically engaged academic work. By naturalizing one particular political arrangement, the institution can then effectively discipline any threat to its legitimacy while retaining the apparent impartiality of its commitments. As such, the most pernicious form of policing is not located in overt political contest – which would make visible the university’s colonial affiliations – but works through the more liberal proponents of academic freedom who delineate a realm of proper academic conduct, the transgression of whose bounds is then critiqued as “political” – i.e. un-academic. The author is unequivocal in his statement that any use of the term “political” to qualify the controversial character of one’s scholarship “inevitably” comes from individuals who are “in the thrall of state power” (p. 221, emphasis added).

Part of what this makes clear for the author is that there is an important gap between the discursive performance of academic subjects – in publication or otherwise – and their actual engagement in the communities in which universities are embedded. This gap between scholarship and activism is where he locates the sort of controversies that have inhibited his own professional advancement and those of many others. In the current political climate where security discourse has distinct ethnic overtones, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – itself almost a euphemism for what the author understands as a near-genocidal settler-colonial project – is virtually anathema. Crucial to the political interests which muzzle academic dissent in this case is the picture of Israel as a prototypically modern, enlightened, and civilized frontier within a sea of barbaric, irrational, and archaic terrorists (see also Puar’s discussion of “pinkwashing,” in this volume). Such a normative depiction precludes the possibility of critique, and as such legitimizes the colonial violence exercised by Israel – or indeed the United States – as a necessary defense of the fruits of civilization – progress, liberty, democracy (see, for example, Fukuyama and Bloom (1989) and Huntington (1993) for well-known representatives of this sort of argument). The dynamics of naturalization and legitimization of this geopolitical project function in very much the same way as those within the imperial university. What the author calls “the global dictatorship” is “enforced by the interchangeable axes of American imperialism, Zionist colonization, neoliberal economies, and corporate warfare” (Salaita 2014, p. 233). Within this constrictive environment where unspeakable crimes are committed, Salaita argues that academia needs to be “unaffiliated to institutional power,” which otherwise puts limits on both the pursuit of knowledge and that of justice, and that academics focusing on controversial issues should have protection to do so.

To be sure, Salaita’s argument for an academic environment free from imperial influence where scholarly inquiry and commitment to social justice can flourish is uncontroversial in itself. What remains unaddressed – aside from fending off the virtually all-pervasive corruptive Zionist influence that the author so diligently denounces – is how exactly this freedom and justice is to be achieved. Underlying Salaita’s discussion is the expectation that justice is a right rather than a relational quality that is to be achieved and maintained through continual work. As such, his politics reproduce the extractive, polarizing interactional modes that can be found across the spectrum of institutional power: identify, target, and remove the enemy. What is excluded from the equation is the manner in which political intervention works to shape the political opponent and the possible outcomes of the encounter. To give the most obvious example – but one à propos to Salaita’s discussion – Israeli military intervention against Palestinian “terrorists” – or more generally US anti-terrorist intervention worldwide – while meant to eliminate subversive elements, also works towards perpetuating the conditions that foster armed resistance. Contrary to Salaita’s assumption, there is a wide spectrum of political intervention whose quality can be assessed aside from whether it threatens the legitimacy of the establishment. So even though his argument about the normatized disciplining of scholarly activity is a valuable one, the manner in which he conducts his critique – which by painting a binary, Manichean political field, is polemical indeed – closes down its own set of possibilities, much like his opponents do, which in the end weakens his argument. And this is the point. If we start from the principle that our social existence is necessarily and always already constituted of political relations, then the goal of activists concerned with social justice might be more to tailor their interventions to the environment they inhabit in order to make them more fruitful and productive – and as such incrementally work towards fostering a more just environment – than to perform their uncompromising ethical obligations, regardless of the outcomes. As one seminar participant pointed out, there is no pre-political world to which we may aspire – academic knowledge is itself a form of power that can never exist in a free and unproblematic way. Power, and the social inequalities it produces, is everyone’s domain, and it serves us little to demonize, two-dimensionalize, and exclude those who hold it at the moment from our utopian visions of the future.

Work Cited
Abowd, Thomas. 2014. “The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement and Violations of Academic Freedom at Wayne State University.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 169-185). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 22–49.

Puar, Jasbir. 2014. “Citation and Censure: Pinkwashing and the Sexual Politics of Talking about Israel.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 281-297). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Pulido, Laura. 2014. “Faculty Governance at the University of Southern California.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 145-168). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.


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