Magazine Issue 4: Theorising from Outside (the Academy)
Theories are most alive when they are embodied, when they resonate with and speak to the daily experiences of people. We theorize about the daily, on the daily, whether it is about our own lives or the lives of others. We export theory to check that we are understood — or maybe just to make sure that our world view is not distorted.
Theory we are told, requires abstraction. abstraction. abstraction. and it is at its best when it is conceived within and by the academy. academy. academy. Not for ordinary people. and not for ordinary situations.
Safeguarding theory, as a possession of the academy, means that scholars regularly use language that is drier than the burnt toast you had for breakfast. Academic language is specific and mechanical: it is inaccessible to those who have not been taught to use it.
In an interview with Pitchfork in 2003, M.I.A explained that “’Paper Planes’ was an accident. It wasn’t a song we made for the masses. It took two years to get popular, and there were many fights about censoring the gunshot sounds. Speaking to the “masses” as M.I.A accidentally does through her song is not something that academia aspires to nor is something that it is capable of – maybe with a few exceptions, like belle hooks.
M.I.A’s theory may not have been immediately communicated to the ‘masses’, but her approach to transmission is what makes it possible for her message to be received at all. Her music videos are sensorial experiences that attempt to convey political, or non-political, messages through a multi-layered approach. The sound of a gunshot is more likely to give us a sense of what the border feels like. Reading about it in a criminology course might come close, but it is unlikely that the experience will be as vivid.
Theorizing on the outside gives us the freedom to be flexible in our methods. It also places us in a unique position to critique dominant systems and institutions. The outside is a position from which alternatives can be imagined. It is from the outside that we can continue to challenge the academy.