Return to sender – a reply to ‘An open letter to UQ Philosophy’

A1200, L29346
NAA:A1200, L29346

Open letters are funny things. Who are they really addressed to? Do they solicit an answer and if so from whom? And if an answer was sent who would it be addressed to and would it arrive in time? An open letter to UQ Philosophy by Taylor Redwood compels serious engagement. For the most part the open letter is both a stinging critique of the contemporary university and of the functional cynicism of the contemporary student. Now this is reason enough to be read but it doesn’t really necessitate a response. But the open letter is more than this. It is the first statement that has emerged in the context of the current cycle of struggles in Brisbane that explicitly places the relationship between theory and action on the table.  And for this reason, it is worth noting and taking seriously. This open letter is much like Machiavelli’s cannon – it ‘marches in the opposite direction to that in which it fires’ (Althusser 2000, 5). Whilst the open letter is aimed at the UQ Philosophy Department it really is a line of flight away from the university proper into a new intellectual and theoretical space.

Redwood makes at least three claims:


  1. There is a fundamental division between Western Theory[i] and Decolonial Theory[ii]. The former is incapable of understanding and critiquing the global social order and simultaneously reproduces oppression; the latter can both explain the social order and offer a radical contribution to emancipation.
  2. That the UQ Philosophy Department by privileging Formal Logic as a key component of philosophy, and as a necessity for entrance into a higher degree, coupled with the exclusion of Aboriginal Relational Logic, means that as a department it is unable to either contribute to understanding and/or changing the world and even more than this it is thus complicit with the oppressive nature of the social order. As such UQ Philosophy fails to meet the benchmark of the university as a place of critical enquiry.
  3. A new space has developed – The Brisbane Free University (BFU) – that does offer the possibility of this radical and critical scholarship and thus announces the possibility of thought and struggle meeting. Quote: ‘Through my involvement with this movement I am able to put my philosophy into practice and engage in a form of praxis. I also believe that it is fundamental for political movements to have scholars embedded within them to ensure theoretical depth and philosophical engagement permeates their work.’


What can be said about this? All three points share the same problem: they insufficiently ground theory in the concrete and material social relations of society and thus fail to understand how theory is constituted by and expresses the antagonisms that live within the afore mentioned social relations.


At the level that the open letter is a call for increasing the range of and space for knowledges that are accepted at university, a demand for students to have an increased role in determining the content of what they study, and a critique of the cravenness of the university life I can but agree. So too I can but agree with the idea about the need, possibility and virtu of intellectual spaces outside of the university –   especially that of the BFU. But it is on the deeper and more complex point of the relationship of theory to social struggles that I think Redwood remains limited and this needs to be fleshed out in more detail. And this is what is really at stake in the open letter: what is the relationship of ideas and action? And how should this relationship be lived in the ecology of radical efforts that BFU contributes to and is part of?


Because really who cares about the university? Or better yet the only way to really care about the university is to not care. Redwood (like so many Left critiques) judges the present university against the image of an ideal university (place of learning, community of scholars, etc.) and finds the former wanting. This is a complete error. The university has always been an integrated part of the social order – as well as being a site for rebellion against its role. It is an error to conflate the former and the latter. What has changed is the specifics of how it functions within capitalism as capitalism itself has changed. In contemporary capitalism, the university functions to produce technical knowledges and useful ideologies, carry out R&D and train and validate labour-power. It is thus a workplace in the broader social factory. The image of the ideal university works as an ideology to entrap and enwrap those that work in the university (paid and unpaid). Rebellion on the terrain of the university needs to critique this ideology and understand the university as just another node in the planetary work machine and thus, as such and because of this, a place of antagonism and struggle.  It is by doing this that those who work in and are exploited by the university can grasp their common concerns and conditions with everyone else who work across and are exploited by capitalist society. And whilst the different specifics of labour at university vary from the specifics of labour across society this is the actual common condition of labour today: that no one figure of the worker unites us (Endnotes 2013, 44-52). Equally rejecting the ideology of the ideal university also means rejecting the identity of the academic and the student as the primary figures of labour at university.


Redwood conceives of theory as made up of opposing and pre-constituted blocs that can be picked up and used or brought to struggles. But theories, and ideas more broadly, don’t really exist separate from the people who think them, discuss them and write them and they live in these practices. The very fact that in our society ideas appear to have a life of their own, to exist above us and dominate us (that is to constitute ideology), is an effect of the way that these tasks are organised in our society as part of a broader division of labour. ‘If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process’ (Marx and Engels 1973, 47). Thus ideas, like any social practice, being a product of the social order are also cut by the antagonisms and conflicts that constitute the social order.



The opposition that the open letter deploys is one between Western/European/Anglo-American thought and Decolonial/Aboriginal Thought with the crux of the opposition being between two forms of logic. Whilst it is clear that Redwood opposes the former and supports the latter it is not made explicit why the readers should do so based on the content of either approach. But this division is premised on each camp being somehow consistent and coherent – and this is completely unsupportable. In fact, the difficulty that Redwood has in consistently naming each bloc is indicative of this. This is not Redwood’s failure but rather a red light that should alert us to how each bloc is unable to wear a stable name because in a very real way each doesn’t exist. For sure it is often useful to try to name schools of thought, to create a taxonomy of thinking, indeed this is often what academic careers are built on, but doing so often obscures what it reveals.


When we describe a group of thought as Western/European/Anglo-American the first question is where is this place that is meant to think these thoughts? European fascists remind us that they oppose both the ‘the helmet of a Red Army soldier’ and ‘a diet of hamburgers in Brooklyn’ (de Benoist quoted in Cottrell 1991) and anti-Deutsch electroclash musicians would rather be Americans than Germans . The notion of the West or Europe or America as being cohesive spaces is pure ideology that ignores the torn, contested and antagonistic history that such an ideology was constituted in and a response to. Western Philosophy can only indicate at best a series of violent conflicts and disagreements. Formal logic is surely shared by only some in this conflict. Does it apply to Hegel or Derrida, Foucault or Butler? These conflicts don’t just float around in the air but rather ‘Philosophy represents the class struggle in theory’(Althusser 1971, 8). These disagreements are products of and part of the conflicts in the social order they exist in, emerge from and feedback to. As Hardt and Negri argue in Empire ‘Europe and modernity are neither unitary nor pacific constructions, but rather from the beginning were characterises by struggle, conflict and crisis’ (2000, 70). This place we call ‘Europe’ emerged with and is characterised by the struggle between revolutionary, immanent and creative forces and the counter-revolution against them in the form of sovereignty (when does it emerge? 1600s?). This struggle also plays out within philosophy.


So too it seems to be inappropriate to present as unified Decolonial Thought with First Nations Philosophy as well as too assume to present Aboriginal Philosophy itself as a cohesive bloc; whether one refers to the latter’s existence on either side or cutting across the violent process of colonialism.  Take for example the current Decolonial hit The Ends of The World (Danowski and Viveiros De Castro 2017) which displays a strange disregard for actual Indigenous people even as it transports Amerindian cosmologies to the centre of its ‘cosmopolitical’ project. The authors dismiss with a flick of the wrist the vast majority of actual existing Amerindian political projects celebrating only the Zapatistas (107) . But it is a poor celebration that shows little substantial engagement with Zapatista thought. Danowski and Viveiros De Castro pose their entire project as one against the concept of ‘Humanity’. But for the Zapatistas ‘Humanity’ is a key part of their thinking and identity – often posing their struggle as being ‘for humanity and against neoliberalism’(The  Zapatistas 1998).


If we were to look at current work of Aboriginal theorists in Australia what we can see is not a simple conceptual unity but rather rich divergences, sharp disagreements and serious debate. Not only does there seems to be little in common between, for example, Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s (2017) conceptualisation that the ‘ontological relationship to land is a condition of our embodied subjectivity’ for Aboriginal people and Marcia Langton’s (2011) arguments for modernisation they are in fact opposed and hostile projects. Both are attempts to transform Australian society and vastly improve the conditions of Aboriginal people – but they differ from top to bottom not only in how they diagnose the problem and propose the solution but also in how they understand reality itself. (It is a common mistake on the Left to try to see only the politics and thoughts of Indigenous people we agree with as authentically Indigenous and genuinely representative. But this is a dangerous game that if it is not actually racist borders on the edge of being so and involves strange mental gymnastics to count those we agree with as being more important than those we don’t).


None of these demarcations and divisions in thought are simply scholars’ disagreements. They are expression of the deep real division in society over who rules and who is ruled, who gets what and who doesn’t and the necessary forms of strategy and tactics to achieve these ends.


The open letter leaves in place the specialist role of the thinker, perhaps embedded in but still separate from, the movement that they guide. Thought doesn’t exist ‘out there’ nor thinkers either.  When Redwood imagines the meeting of theory and action as ‘scholars embedded within them (social movements) to ensure theoretical depth and philosophical engagement permeates their work’ Redwood’s framing of the existence of ideas and the role of the theorist bears a relationship to a revolutionary that I suspect Redwood would be shocked or unsettled by the comparison with: Lenin.  And it is in Lenin’s work that we see both the richness and the failures of an approach that says yes theory and action should meet but ultimately doesn’t try to dissolve the appearance of theory as a separate realm or undermine the specialist role of the theorist.


Lenin states that ‘Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’(1973, 28). That revolts and social struggles remain imprisoned in the ideological coordinates of capitalism unless they can develop a systemised and critical understanding of the system itself and their own struggle against it. This revolutionary theory emerges from, is produced by, the encounter of the intellectual armed with ideas and the worker in struggle. Revolutionary theory then lives in the organisational apparatus of the Party and techno-media architecture of the revolutionary newspaper. The latter aggregates all the small struggles and partial understandings into a larger critique of a larger totality. Lenin is particularly concerned that without this living fusion of ideas and action then ideas are pulled back into the confines of the dominant ideology and actions are contained within the accepted limits of society – neither challenging the roots of our condition.


The strength here is the insight that we need to understand the world we are struggling in-against-and-beyond to change it and that this knowledge is a living production that arises out of thinking and struggling together, a transformation of specific experiences and insights into a larger picture. The weakness is that it sees the theoretical contribution to the creation of revolutionary theory as coming from outside the antagonisms of society – a product of a world of reified thought. And the division of labour between intellectual and worker, mind and body, is reinforced rather than undermined.


The problem with this is that it reaffirms a division of labour between thinking and doing, leaders and led – that is it reaffirms the granular relationships of class society. So too it reduces the span of what we understand to be theory – cementing the idea that it is only big words in books. Rather we can open up the idea of theory to mean all the attempts people make to understand their world whatever medium or genre. Lenin also ignores the deep historical traditions of popular and worker’s education.  This is not a call to replace abstraction in method with empiricism or that theory may only be presented in ‘everyday’ language. Such demands are patronising bullshit that imply the vast majority of people lack the capacity or interest to do the heavy lifting to understand their world. If this is the case what is the likelihood such people would attempt to transform it? Theoretical reflection will probably always involve retreating to the study to hit the books, as well as arguments at demos and meeting, rich communion on car trips, spray paint on walls, long conversations over dinner, performances of erudition in the pub, songs sung, films watched, slogans hurled and whatnot.


But even when theory is expressed in the most difficult language or uses the most abstract methodology it is always of the world it attempts to explain and critique. To theorise is to attempt to make summations and understandings of the antagonisms of the society we stand within – to illuminate the possibilities and trajectories that we inhabit. Marx’s letter to Ruge provides us with a most useful summation: ‘we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it is wishes or not’ (1992, 208-09). Theory is our attempt to understand our world in a way that presents the possibility of other worlds within it – in latent, embryonic and/or spectral forms. ‘Theory does not simply decipher the meanings of the world but recodes and rearranges them in order to reveal something about the meanings and incoherencies that we live with’(Brown 2005, 80).


The strength of Lenin’s approach is the understanding of revolutionary theory as greater than one individual and as something that lives in an assembly of efforts. Revolutionary theory arises from the constant and ongoing interaction of reflection and social struggles – both of which emerge from and constitute the antagonism of the social world. Any attempt to bracket or further entrench the role of the specialist of thinking breaks the fecundity of these interactions.


The answer to Lenin isn’t to simply deny that differences in understanding, education, access and/or erudition exist (this denial another form of patronising behaviour dressed up as egalitarianism). But rather to build into the creation of revolutionary theory a practice of pedagogy that undermines the division of labour by raising everybody up.  The point of getting a specialist to speak to a crowd is to contribute to her own self-abolition as a specialist: to generalise all knowledge as a common. As should be the motivation of a revolutionary to write…


Whilst often unacknowledged I think it would be impossible to imagine the current Brisbane moment without the Brisbane Free University. The BFU and other spaces (various programs on 4ZZZ, some blogs, a series of conferences/meetings around the Right to The City, The Queensland School of Continental Philosophy, etc and a broader culture of conversation built in the scene in South Brisbane through the efforts of people like Anna, Briohny and Fern) help to clarify our collective understanding of the moment and bring people together to think. At no point does BFU paper over differences in knowledge and has resisted the demand to do so – but in practiced it has helped to overcome them. (Though I think there is still too much deference to the speaker rather than what is said).


Redwood’s desire for BFU to dig down and start producing more serious research and scholarship is exciting. But if this effort holds ideas as pre-existing clear and coherent sets and valorises the thinker as specialist then it will limit the usefulness of this work to the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’(Marx and Engels 1973, 57).




Althusser, Louis. 1971. “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon.” New Left Review no. I (64, November-December 1970):3-11.

Althusser, Louis. 2000. Machiavelli and US. London & New York: Verso.

Brown, Wendy. 2005. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Cottrell, Robert. 1991. “Paris shrugs off Mickey Mouse’s cultural imperialism.” The Independent, 12 February 1991, 10.

Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo  Viveiros De Castro. 2017. The Ends of The World. Translated by Rodrigo Nunes. Cambridge & Malden: Polity Press.

Endnotes. 2013. “The Holding Pattern.” Endnotes (3):12-55.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England  Harvard University Press.

Langton, Marcia. 2011. “Anthropology, Politics and the Changing World of Aboriginal Australians.” Anthropological Forum no. 21 (1):1-22.

Lenin, V.I. 1973. What is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Marx, Karl. 1992. Early Writings. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.

Marx, Karl , and Frederick Engels. 1973. The German Ideology Part One. 3rd ed. New York: International Publishers.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2017. Senses of Belonging: How Indigenous Sovereignty Unsettles White Australia. ABC Religion and Ethics [cited 15th August 2017]. Available from

The  Zapatistas. 1998. Zapatistas Encountro: Documents from the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. New York: Seven Stories Press.

[i] There is a long history of trying to distinguish something called ‘Philosophy’ from something call ‘Theory’. Here this distinction is not made as it is not useful for this level of discussion.

[ii] I have tried to stay as closely as possible to Redwood’s terminology

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