What’s the point of radical scholarship?

Radical scholarship: what’s it all about? So Clive Barnett, a geographer at the Open University, has been asking over at his blog, Pop Theory. Barnett has been ‘thinking out loud’ (his words!) about, among other things, some ideas outlined by Stanford University anthropologist James Ferguson in Antipode’s 40th anniversary special issue, The Point is to Change It.

Considering anthropology – but we might well consider geography – Ferguson argues one could be forgiven for concluding that radical scholarship’s goal is essentially negative: denouncing “the system” and decrying its harmful and objectionable tendencies. Is this the goal of critique, though? Is resistance its terminal point, refusal its final destination? Ferguson thinks it ought not to be, forthrightly posing some intractable questions: ‘…what if politics is really not about expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want? Then we progressives must ask: what do we want? This is a quite different question (and a far more difficult question) than: what are we against? What do we want?’ (Antipode 41[s1]:167).

Negation and disdain, to be sure, have their place. However, there’s more to critique, to “being critical”, than being “anti”. Radical scholars aren’t saying – are they?! – “we simply don’t want social life to be organised/arranged/governed” but, rather, “we don’t want to it governed, etc. like that”. So, how do we, and the people we work with, want things to be? For those interested in this question (and given the crises all around us, the Occupy movement, etc. [on which see our Staff Reporters] who isn’t?!), Ferguson’s Antipode essay – supplemented quite brilliantly by Barnett’s thinking out loud (his blog is ‘shaped by a sense that…“I have nothing to say, only to add”’: read it!) – is invaluable.


  1. Andrew Davies (@andyddavies)

    This is an interesting question, and one I think is key to teaching as well as theorising. Having just finished teaching a module on geographic theory and another on geographic political economy last semester, one of the things I find intriguing is getting students to think critically and to develop alternatives to the current state fo affairs (whether radical or not). They often seem to find it easy to be critical, yet when thinking of alternatives, fall into reform of the current system. It seems that many of them can’t imagine a world not run in a capitalist, individualistic way – especially as most of them are now born post-1989. Any kind of socialist/radical/anarchist alternative is treated as inherently small scale in today’s ‘global world’ discourse that they ahve bought in to. Of course, some take on some of the radical ideas, but they then join in the criticism, and don’t give much space to alternatives either. As you rightly say, some of the Occupy Movement is good at opening these door up – I keep encouraging students to go to Occupy Liverpool (to a not very big response), but it’s also useful to encourage as much engagement as possible – I’m off to Barcelona in a few weeks to teach a field class, and the ability for students to visit social centres and movements in a way that they dopn’t have on the doorstep in Liverpool is interesting, and useful as part of the liberal arts education I try to provide. Last year, for instance, we visited a squatted social centre, and it was like the veils had been lifted for some students, as they realised that squatting wasn’t a crime and that there were alternative ways to exist, rather than just believing the careerist stuff that we now have to feed them about how a degre will improve their ’employability’. Anyhow, enough ranting for now…

  2. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    Thanks Andy. You reminded me of a line from Jacques Ranciere: discussing Pierre Bourdieu’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, Ranciere argues that it combines “the orphaned fervour of denouncing the system with the disenchanted certitude of its perpetuity”. That is to say, as I read it, ‘he’s long on diagnosis and short on prescription, and that’s because for him the answer to the classic question, ‘what’s to be done?’, is ‘nothing – there’s nothing that can be done’. Now, whether those radicals today who are tight-lipped when it comes to talking about alternatives are so because they’re irredeemably downbeat about the state we’re in is an open question…

  3. David

    Great thoughts and questions. This reminds me of something MIchael Albert once said at a talk; to paraphrase, ‘we have next to me an imaginary stack of books to the ceiling decrying the system, deconstructing it to smithereens. In my hand I hold the other imaginary pile of books, the ones that visualize what we want. Which one would you like to contribute to?’. Thanks for linking to the Jim Ferguson piece, I’m going to go check it out now! -David