In his tremendous (albeit somewhat romanticized) treatise, Representations of the Intellectual
, the late Edward Said paints a compelling picture of the role of the academic in contemporary society. For many years this small book has been quite dear to me because it so powerfully articulates that the "role" of the intellectual is actually a set of obligations, the most urgent of which is to "speak truth to power." In Said's
account, this task is facilitated by a certain exilic
distance, and that exile is quite often solidified as the unfortunate byproduct of highlighting particularly inconvenient truths. It is not exile in the merely physical sense, but also a mental skepticism that looks critically at all master narratives, the irony being that "speaking truth" often involves dismantling the binary myths that pundits and politicians use to explain our world.
Having never fit into my surroundings while growing up in rural South Dakota, I became used to standing outside the established community and even enjoyed my state of quasi-exile because of the freedom it engendered: I could think and write about whatever I chose without fearing the cool kids (they were too cool to care what the hell I was talking about), and I could easily pack my bags and leave because there was no force that made me want to stay. It's the dork's
fantasy version of being a rootless cowboy. Perpetual exile allows you the intellectual and emotional distance to go where the wind takes you without fear.
Years later, I am still living a self-imposed exile from most "-isms" and institutions because they usually involve a competing set of obligations that render intellectual honesty more difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult, because either the horizons of inquiry are narrowed or the subject matter is watered down as to not offend, limiting one's ability to really speak "truth to power" (even if the truth itself is quite ugly). Certain personal relationships can curtail one's intellectual life in the same way, and in the past I definitely repackaged my opinions in neater wrapping in order to not jeopardize
a relationship with someone. And I fear the long-term impact that such watering down has on one's intellectual life and in this case, academic career. And in more concrete terms, I fear compromising my intellectual integrity--a most closely held obligation--for the sake of maintaining peace in the house.
It is thus not surprising that I thought I would never marry, and that so many academics do not. It's simply very difficult to be deeply invested in work that your mate deplores. And equally difficult to maintain a relationship with an someone who is either totally indifferent to your life's work, or an opinionless
drone who agrees with you all the time. The solution is often a personal exile from the closest of all relationships, marriage, in an attempt to preserve one's intellectual freedom to roam.
So, given my historic comfort with exile and my highly politicized area of study (the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine), I'm a bit freaked out to find myself getting married in 4 months. My fears are only exacerbated by my religion (Jewish), my politics (left), my fiance's
family (right wing) and my fiance's
own deeply held convictions about what will become my life's work. Because you are no longer living in exile when you have a family on the other side of a deep divide to whom you must explain yourself. Is it really a choice between love and intellectual honesty? Can you do both without pissing everyone off, and thus probably screwing up the love anyway?
Or have academics just invented this notion of emotional distance in order to justify their inability to maintain personal relationships because they are so invested in their work that they forgot that the satisfaction generated by dismantling post-colonial narratives probably pales in comparison to watching your kid score a soccer goal? Or maybe it doesn't, and maybe those same "irrelevant" academics have much more of an impact than they know and than we're willing to admit and it's not just a question of intellectual narcissism
. I know the professors who have taught me have changed my life, and I hope to change many more and maybe even the policies I find objectionable. It's like the academic's notion of trickle down economics, in which case, maybe the decision to wholly devote oneself to a field of study is worthwhile after all. Or maybe in varies by person, and it probably does, but I don't yet know what type of person I will become. Who knows. Town, my fellow thinking radical, I need some help. And for all the non-radicals, thinking or otherwise, your input would be much appreciated.