Charity and the University, continued

by zunguzungu

Biryanilady always gets the “Most Useful Dissent” award. In response to that last post, she writes:

I can’t help but think that Lee (et al) are painting with a perhaps too broad brush. Is grad school alienating? Yes. For many if not most people. For women? Yes. For marginalized/oppressed people? Yes, and yes, and yes. But is that all it is? Is that narrative of assimilation into privilege, the oppressor class as it were, the complete story? I don’t think so. It is more complicated than that. If that was the whole story, I think more people (from all sorts of groups) would opt not to go. Why suffer what doesn’t somehow enlarge you? Is it all a big jokey performance of false consciousness? The mediations – intellectual, social, cultural, affective – of university life seem to me to open up some ‘worlds’ and if not actually foreclose then sorta squeeze others into tighter quarters. Does it sometimes seem as if talking about issues of poverty or class oppression or gender or the experience and ways of expression that come from ‘home’ cultures becomes merely representing the margins to people who can’t touch them directly? Yes. But there is also a slow opening of that complex, rich public conversation, a broadening if you will. In our society, there are very few spaces in which people bump up against each other and talk about what matters. I believe universities can be such a place. That’s why I study (in one) and teach (in another)(public, LOTS of first generation higher ed students).

I learn a lot from reading Galeano and I respect his passion and commitments. But this opposition between charity and solidarity seems to me facile and romantic. Certainly, to think of charity from a “faith” perspective, to take the mandate of that as a serious epistemological and social and theological claim, is to call into question the very foundations of wealth and the monetization of human life. It is to recognize that this immanent material existence is radically unownable, that we are fragile, that we have been thrown (in that Heideggerian sense) into positions with unequal chances in life – and that we could be thrown out of them. That the subject position we occupy is not who we are and that possibilities of identification (and failures of that) involve us reaching and touching people who are suffering. It is not the case that everyone everywhere and always will be able to stand on their own two feet: this life can crumple anyone. Charity is not opposite to solidarity, as Galeano frames it: they are rather two different relations, connections. They are not unrelated, true. But charity is that recognition that the capacity to cope collapses, for some people, for some times, perhaps for us. I am not saying that charity does not occasion all kinds of misrecognition: it certainly does perpetuate asymmetries. But there is more than that, too – there can be an ethic of interdependence and intersubjectivity at work. Galeano misses that.

Part of why the Lee quote spoke to me was that she articulated a point that’s often left unarticulated: that the thing that universities should be, that makes them worth fighting for, is not something that can be taken for granted, a promise that too often goes ungranted. Like Biryanilady, I have great faith and hope and idealism about the university publics in which I hope to make my life. Which is why I take the point so hard that for every sociology class that teaches the kind of understanding that leads to empathy – to pick on sociology – there is also the technocratically isolating knowledge-paradigm that widens the chasm between subjects and objects. Or for every “African literature” class – to strike closer to home – that brings its readers closer to the experience of normality that Africans live, there is also the exoticizing tendency of making “Africa” an object of study. These tendencies push against each other, and we ignore that at our peril. And it helps to think about what it is that universities can so often be in practice as we work to prevent it becoming so. 

As for the Galeano quote, it strikes me that the “charity” in his voice is almost totally bereft of the deeper perspective out of which it originates but in which, as Biryanilady demonstrates, it can still certainly have a very different kind of meaning. It’s useful to remember, if only (again) because we again come up against the point where charity as a means of socially misrecognizing other people – reifying and naturalizing economic distinctions in the very act of apparently mitigating them – becomes distinguishable from a very different kind of charity, the kind that could imply and allow the practice of an ethic of interdependence and intersubjectivity. That’s a useful distinction, and principle, to think through, not least because — in the resolutely secular context in which that term is most often used — it isn’t just Galeano who frames charity and solidarity as opposites, but the people he’s critiquing. (Of course, all of this leaves aside the pressing issue of dealing with the kinds of “solidarities” that neoliberal development posits as a substitute for charity, using very similar terms. But that’s a whole other kettle of worm-fish.)