Driving to the Canadian border in January 2011, headed for Toronto and NAASN-II with my friends Daniel and Susan, I was asked the purpose of our visit. “To attend an academic conference,” I said, perhaps a little too briskly, because the guard in the booth pressed us: “On what subject?” “On anarchism,” I said, affecting a casual tone. We were asked to pull over, and while the car was searched, a customs agent started grilling us: how did we know each other? Where were we staying? What were we going to be doing? Finally, I pulled out the conference program and showed him: “Look, I want to go to this guy’s presentation—he’s going to be talking about his dissertation…” It was like a magic spell, that word: dissertation. The agent relaxed visibly. “Oh, I see— you’re just studying anarchism! You’re not talking about being anarchists.” “No,” I lied, smiling, as if at a small, private joke. We were let through.
There are many, of course, for whom the very idea of an “anarchist conference” or “anarchist studies” is a joke (fig. 1), or an oxymoron at best. Probably most of these have never heard of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo or Peoples’ Global Action. Some who have never picked up a copy of David Graeber’s Debt or Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution may think of anarchism as anti-intellectual, as pure action (but not as cognitive or social activity). Some of us, for whom anarchism is, among other things, a way of thinking otherwise, are nonetheless skeptical about the notion of an “anarchist conference” or “anarchist studies” for quite other reasons. “Anarchist studies” can indeed sound like just another item in a long list of topics for dissertations—urban studies, women’s studies, cultural studies, disability studies, science and technology studies, etc.—which begs the question: are we, in fact, studying it or doing it?