excerpts from “The (Im)possibility of Intellectual
Work in Neo-liberal Regimes”
by Bronwyn Davies
Oppressive state language—that is, currently, the language
of neo-liberal government—is more violent than its bland,
rather absurd surface might lead us to believe. It is at work here,
busily containing what we can do, what we can understand. It is
the language in which the auditor is king. It is a language that
destroys social responsibility and critique, that invites a mindless,
consumer-oriented individualism to flourish, and kills off conscience.
What can the academy do in the face of such a powerful relanguaging
of our work when that relanguaging is tied to our economic survival?
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Toni Morrison warned in 1993 that [t]here will be more of the
language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and
history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language
glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting
their neighbours; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to
lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness
This is exactly what neo-liberalism has done and continues to
do. It co-opts research to its own agendas, it silences those who
ask questions, it whips up a small-minded moralism that rewards
the attack of each small powerless person on the other, and it
shuts down creativity. It draws on and exacerbates a fear of difference
and rewards a rampant, consumerist, competitive individualism.
It makes emotion, humour, poetry, song, a passion for a life of
the intellect unthinkable.
A question I have asked again and again in my work is how can
we, as teachers, as scholars, as students and as members of the
public, learn to catch ourselves and each other in the act of taking
up the terms through which dominance and oppression take place.
How might we catch ourselves mouthing the comfortable clichés
and platitudes that together we use to shape the same world that
we shake our heads at with sorrow and resignation—or that
we secretly in our darkest hearts applaud? How might we put to
one side our own safety and comfortable certainties and ask the
impossible questions that exist outside of the already known, the
already asked, the comfortably conservative discursive universe
that shores up our certainties and keeps the world a safe place—for
us? How are we to resist engaging in the neo-liberally induced
surveillance of ourselves and each other, surveillance that limits,
that holds us neatly packaged within economic and utilitarian discourses.
How can we dare to ask, in the face of that discourse and its constraints,
the questions that unsettle, the questions that disrupt the certainties
and securities, the questions that honour a passionate ideal of
the academy where intellectual work is without fear, where it does
not know, necessarily, where its questions might lead—passionate
work that recognizes no boundaries that might prevent its development
and where it also cares passionately about its effects.
Morrison, Toni (1993). Lecture and speech of acceptance, upon
the award of the Nobel Prize for literature, delivered
in Stockholm on the seventh of December, nineteen hundred
and ninety-three. London: Chatto and
BRONWYN DAVIES is Professor of Education in the
Narrative, Discourse & Pedagogy College Research Group at the
University of Western Sydney, Australia. Her 2005 article, The
(Im)possibility of Intellectual Work in Neo-liberal Regimes, is
Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 26(1),