The Tenured Radical

A brief character study.

The Tenured Radical

The tenured radical is a mean creature. No blunder is too small to point out and magnify, no conversation too anodyne to incite accusations of “violence” and “colonization.” To them there is no difference between the Jakarta method and a white colleague speaking too much at a faculty meeting. Violence is violence, even when it is not.

The tenured radical is also tortured, with perpetual furled brow, at all times channelling the ills of the world through the hall of mirrors that is the complex critical criticality of their criticism. A layperson might take the grammatical flexibility and jargon-laden nature of their speech to be evidence of psychosis, but this naive onlooker could not begin to understand the intersectional palace upon which it is based any more than they could hope to grasp theoretical physics. Or at least that is the paradoxical manner in which it is pronounced: at one and the same time they speak from on high and insist that for them, at least, there is no such thing, and if there is they are precisely the ones dismantling such privilege.

For all these reasons, organization tends to be anathema to the tenured radical, whose nose is trained to sniff out hierarchy and constraint. This is why they revere the spontaneous outburst as the model of all political intervention. If something appears organic and of the moment (even if it is foundation-funded), and if its essence is a non-communicative shouting down, the tenured radical approves. Autism for the masses, passive aggression for the self-chosen intellectuals who speak for them.

Their class position is best suited by politics that largely leave things as they are. Marx said the working class gains consciousness and power in copying, to some degree, the organizational structures they encounter on the job. In privileging “horizontalism” and “structurelessness,” abstract discussion and the endless deferral of any action that is not immediate and emotive—in other words, the opposite of what one encounters in the workplace—the tenured radical enacts subcultural accommodation, not contestation. With contestation, there are stakes, and with stakes, things can change.

In rare cases the tenured radical has decent politics—a politics typically fashioned in explicit opposition to other tenured radicals. In these cases, the tenured radical will proudly lambast the regressive tendencies of their ostensible “colleagues,” even permitting themselves to indulge in a vulgarity strategically deployed to signal a reluctant or unnatural membership in the professional-managerial classes. But they will only do so in private; in public, they are “too” smart to be “too” crass, and the judgments about degree here are carefully molded from the earliest days of their graduate careers.

This is ultimately what must be kept in mind when engaging the tenured radical: despite their rhetoric and purported beliefs, tenured radicals are consummate professionals. They have been well subjectified in a field that demands a long and anxiety-producing training period and that offers brutal job prospects. To get tenure today, one must be a good academic subject first, and only a halfway decent scholar second. The confused meritocrats like to think that only the best of the best rise to academic job security today. The truth is that the near impossibility of landing a tenure-line job requires academic success to be nepotistic or personality-based, and not determined by the quality of scholarship. When they don’t have the right friends, or perhaps because they do, tenured radicals are smooth operators.

This is all obvious in one sense, but the disjunction often goes unprocessed—like the phrase “culture industry,” which was intended by Adorno and Horkheimer to be a shock to the system. Tenure—a remarkable combination of material security and the freedom to fantasize—plus radical politics: what do we expect?

Aurora Borealis ate her own parents and has nothing to show for it but a vivid fantasy life.