Fred Moten is the author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003) and The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study with Stefano Harney (2013) as well as Hughson’s Tavern (2008), B. Jenkins (2010), The Feel Trio (2014), The Little Edges (2016) and The Service Porch (2016). He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of California, Riverside.
Sign the “Open Letter” calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only the signatures of (former or current) MLA members will be included.
I’ve been learning something recently as the rhetorical energy surrounding the idea and actuality of an academic and cultural boycott of Israel—which is the least those of us who are still concerned not only with human life in Palestine but also, and more generally, with unsettled, non-colonial life can do—has increased and intensified. Two ploys are often used in anti-boycott rhetoric and are, therefore, deserving of special notice. One takes the form of a radical refusal/inability to distinguish between individual and institution that emerges as essential to the defense of Israeli academic freedom. The other is the suggestion that an academic and cultural boycott of Israel is legitimate if and only if it is accompanied by similar action directed at every regime structured by the selective application of brutality upon populations under its control or, more specifically, at every settler colony including, and most specifically, the United States of America.
Those of us who are trying to organize and agitate for BDS, both within the Modern Language Association and outside of it, remark, rightly, that those who argue against it in the name of Israeli academic freedom exhibit no concern whatsoever for the far more debilitating and absolute assault on Palestinian academic freedom that Israel has carried out, as a matter of policy, for many decades.
These moves are revelatory precisely insofar as they say something about the relay within which fantasies of sovereignty operate. On the one hand, Israeli academic freedom, but more precisely, Israeli academic activity as such, is understood to be inseparable from those institutions that—admittedly, without debate—participate in and benefit from occupation, which is thus understood simply to be the condition of possibility of Israeli intellectuality. On the other hand, settler colonialism and racist brutality are implicitly acknowledged to be the structural foundations of Israeli and American sovereignty so that we are challenged with the necessity of a general critique of and resistance to such authority, by the very ones who embody and enact it, lest in singling out Israel for special notice and censure, we be unfair.
The moral inconsistency is, of course, maddening but what if the vicious prevarication in which defenders of Israeli, and only Israeli, academic freedom are engaged inadvertently alerts us to something true? What if the charge of selective prosecution, brazen in its admission of the prosecution’s factual basis, has the effect of exposing the general conditions and apparatuses of force and terror that must undergird the settler-colonial state? Then perhaps we would do well to take note of what defenders of the terrible emergency that radiates beyond Israel’s ever-expanding borders (as incorporative exclusion and purportedly self-protective aggression) admit with the cavalier thoughtlessness and self-absorption that characterizes sovereignty’s half-assed, pseudo-intellectual comportment. Then perhaps we would do even better to attend to the local conceptual field in which the state-sanctioned individual intellectual, the state-sanctioned intellectual institution and the settler colonial state animate and support one another. Surely such inquiry would allow and require us to disavow the kind of regulated, regulatory cogitation that always and only extends the material effects of sovereignty’s horrible immateriality in favor of a vast range of fugitive assertion. At stake, finally, in the opportunity that the current rhetorical situation affords, is the question of an- or sub-autonomous knowledge. Another way to put that question is this: what’s academic freedom got to do with us?
Those of us who are trying to organize and agitate for BDS, both within the Modern Language Association and outside of it, remark, rightly, that those who argue against it in the name of Israeli academic freedom exhibit no concern whatsoever for the far more debilitating and absolute assault on Palestinian academic freedom that Israel has carried out, as a matter of policy, for many decades. (Even those who argue against the very idea of free speech speak in defense of [Israeli] academic freedom as if inhabiting such a contradiction required neither thought nor comment, perhaps in the recognition that none of the various reconciliations of these positions that one might imagine can be very comforting.) Supporters of the boycott note the immorality of this position even while taking pains to assure those who take it that, in any case, BDS in no way infringes upon Israeli academic freedom as its deputies narrowly and exclusionarily define it. But this raises the question of whether or not Israeli academic freedom—or, for that matter, any state-sanctioned, state-protected academic freedom but also the very idea of academic freedom insofar as it must be state-sanctioned and state-protected if it is to exist—should be subject to constraint. What if academic freedom is defined precisely by the fact that it is a thing that can be enjoyed by peoples such as the Israelis and not by peoples such as the Palestinians? What is academic freedom that it can be exercised by Israelis and not by Palestinians and why would Palestinians, and those in solidarity with them, want it? Corollary, but absolutely subordinate, to that question is the question concerning the cost of academic freedom that Israelis are asked to pay. Like the evil song says, freedom isn’t free. What does academic freedom cost those who are said to enjoy it? This is a question that is, again, corollary and secondary to the question concerning the cost of academic freedom that is meted out upon the ones whose oppression brings it into existence and relief. This problematic of cost is, of course, inseparable from a set of questions concerning benefit. We assume the benefits that accrue to academic freedom without considering the benefits that accrue to intellectual fugitivity. Academic freedom is a matter of state. It’s unclear what business it is of those of us who are, and/or may choose to be, stateless.
Perhaps we should be moving and thinking against state-sanctioned, terror-defined academic freedom, intellectual normativity’s oxymoronic mode of being, which is only instantiated by way of exclusion and honored always and only in its non-observance, which (neo-)liberal defenders of it administer constantly through any number of vicious and brutal forms of evaluative regulation. Consider the profound structures of unfreedom within which students everywhere, and of every age, must operate. Academic freedom is the condition under which the intellectual submits herself to the normative model of the settler. Academic freedom is a form of violence perpetrated by academic bosses who operate under the protection and in the interest of racial state capitalism. Recognize that as a form of violence it is reactive and reactionary in its brutality. It responds to the anoriginary counter-violence of thought and of imagination. It seeks to regulate thought’s capacity and imperative to (over)turn. It is left to us not only not to assert a right to this irreducible violence of thought and poesis but also, and rather, to assert that its existence is before rights, before the state that constructs and guarantees rights by way of a range of modalities of exclusion that can only be ours to refuse. This is all to say that the call to solidarity that the movement for BDS has been trying to answer gives MLA members—and indeed all American intellectuals—another unmatched and unmatchable gift which allows and requires us to think about how to live and what to do.