One more time with [structures of] feeling: anxiety, labour, and social critique in/of the neoliberal academia

Florence, April 2013

Last month, I attended the symposium on Anxiety and Work in the Accelerated Academy, the second in the Accelerated Academy series that explores the changing scapes of time, work, and productivity in the academia. Given that my research is fundamentally concerned with the changing relationships between universities and publics, and the concomitant reframing of the subjectivity, agency, and reflexivity of academics, I naturally found the question of the intersection of academic labour and time relevant. One particular bit resonated for a long time: in her presentation, Maggie O’Neill from the University of York suggested anxiety has become the primary structure of feeling in the neoliberal academia. Having found myself, in the period leading up to the workshop, increasingly reflecting on the structures of feeling,  I was intrigued by the salience of the concept. Is there a place for theoretical concepts such as this in research on the transformations of knowledge production in contemporary capitalism, and where is it?

All the feels

“Structure of feeling” may well be one of those ideas whose half-life way superseded their initial purview. Raymond Williams introduced it in a brief chapter included in Marxism and Literature, contributing to carving out what would become known as the distinctly British take on the relationship between “base” and “superstructure”: cultural studies. In it, he says:

Specific qualitative changes are not assumed to be epiphenomena of changed institutions, formations, and beliefs, or merely secondary evidence of changed social and economic relations between and within classes. At the same time they are from the beginning taken as social experience, rather than as ‘personal’ experience or as the merely superficial or incidental ‘small change’ of society. They are social in two ways that distinguish them from reduced senses of the social as the institutional and the formal: first, in that they are changes of presence (while they are being lived this is obvious; when they have been lived it is still their substantial characteristic); second, in that although they are emergent or pre-emergent, they do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action. Such changes can be defined as changes in structures of feeling. (Williams, 1977:130).

Williams thus introduces structures of feeling as a form of social diagnostic; he posits it against the more durable but also more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’. Indeed, the whole chapter is devoted to the critique of the reificatory tendencies of Marxist social analysis: the idea of things (or ideas) being always ‘finished’, always ‘in the past’, in order for them to be subjected to analytical scrutiny. The concept of “structure of feeling” is thus invoked in order to keep tabs on social change and capture the perhaps less palpable elements of transformation as they are happening.

Emotions and the scholastic disposition

Over the past years, discourse of feelings has certainly become more prominent in the academia. Just last week, Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas featured a discussion on the topic, framing it within issues of free speech and trigger warnings on campus. While the debate itself has a longer history in the US, it had begun to attract more attention in the UK – most recently in relation to challenging colonial legacies at both Oxford and Cambridge.

Despite multiple nuances of political context and the complex interrelation between imperialism and higher education, the debate in the media predominantly plays out in dichotomies of ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’. Opponents tend to pit trigger warnings or the “culture of offence” against the concept of academic freedom, arguing that today’s students are too sensitive and “coddled” which, in their view, runs against the very purpose of university education. From this perspective, education is about ‘cultivating’ feelings: exercising control, submerging them under the strict institutional structures of the intellect.

Feminist scholars, in particular, have extensively criticised this view for its reductionist properties and, not least, its propensity to translate into institutional and disciplinary policies that seek to exclude everything framed as ‘emotional’, bodily, or material (and, by association, ‘feminine’) from academic knowledge production. But the cleavage runs deeper. Research in social sciences is often framed in the dynamic of ‘closeness’ and ‘distancing’, ‘immersion’ and ‘purification’: one first collects data by aiming to be as close as possible to the social context of the object of research, but then withdraws from it in order to carry out analysis. While approaches such as grounded theory or participatory methods (cl)aim to transcend this boundary, its echoes persist in the structure of presentation of academic knowledge (for instance, the division between data and results), as well as the temporal organisation of graduate education (for instance, the idea that the road to PhD includes a period of training in methods and theories, followed by data collection/fieldwork, followed by analysis and the ‘writing up’ of results).

The idea of ‘distanced reflection’ is deeply embedded in the history of academic knowledge production. In Pascalian Meditations, Bourdieu relates it to the concept of skholē – the scholarly disposition – predicated on the distinction between intellectual and manual labour. In other words, in order for reflection to exist, it needed to be separated from the vagaries of everyday existence. One of its radical manifestations is the idea of the university as monastic community. Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, were explicitly constructed on this model, giving rise to animosities between ‘town’ and ‘gown’: concerns of the ‘lay’ folk were thought to be diametrically opposed to those of the educated. While arguably less prominent in (most) contemporary institutions of knowledge production, the dichotomy is still unproblematically transposed in concepts such as “university’s contribution to society”, which assumes universities are distinct from the society, or at least their interests radically different from those of “the society” – raising obvious questions about who, in fact, is this society.

Emotions, reason, and critique

Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the strongest reverberations of the idea is to be found in the domain of social critique. On the one hand, this sounds counter-intuitive – after all, critical social science should be about abandoning the ‘veneer’ of neutrality and engaging with the world in all of its manifestations. However, establishing the link between social science and critique rests on something that Boltanski, in his critique of Bourdieu’s sociology of domination, calls the metacritical position:

For this reason we shall say that critical theories of domination are metacritical in order. The project of taking society as an object and describing the components of social life or, if you like, its framework, appeals to a thought experiment that consists in positioning oneself outside this framework in order to consider it as a whole. In fact, a framework cannot be grasped from within. From an internal perspective, the framework coincides with reality in its imperious necessity. (Boltanski, 2011:6-7)

Academic critique, in Boltanski’s view, requires assuming a position of exteriority. A ‘simple’ form of exteriority rests on description: it requires ‘translation’ of lived experience (or practices) into categories of text. However, passing the kind of moral judgements critical theory rests on calls for, he argues, a different form of distancing: complex exteriority.

In the case of sociology, which at this level of generality can be regarded as a history of the present, with the result that the observer is part of what she intends to describe, adopting a position of exteri­ority is far from self-evident… This imaginary exit from the viscosity of the real initially assumes stripping reality of its character of implicit necessity and proceeding as if it were arbitrary (as if it could be other than it is or even not be);

This “exit from the viscosity of the real” (a lovely phrase!) proceeds in two steps. The first takes the form of “control of desire”, that is, procedural distancing from the object of research. The second is the act of judgement by which a social order is ‘ejected’, seen in its totality, and as such evaluated from the outside:

In sociology the possibility of this externalization rests on the existence of a laboratory – that is to say, the employment of protocols and instructions respect for which must constrain the sociologist to control her desires (conscious or unconscious). In the case of theories of domination, the exteriority on which cri­tique is based can be called complex, in the sense that it is established at two different levels. It must first of all be based on an exteriority of the first kind to equip itself with the requisite data to create the picture of the social order that will be submitted to critique. A meta­ critical theory is in fact necessarily reliant on a descriptive sociology or anthropology. But to be critical, such a theory also needs to furnish itself, in ways that can be explicit to very different degrees, with the means of passing a judgement on the value of the social order being described. (ibid.)

Critique: inside, outside, in-between?

To what degree could we say that this categorisation can be applied to the current critique of conditions of knowledge production in the academia? After all, most of those who criticize the neoliberal transformation of higher education and research are academics. In this sense, it would make sense to question the degree to which they can lay claims to a position of exteriority. However, more problematically (or interestingly), it is also questionable to which degree a position of exteriority is achievable at all.

Boltanski draws attention to this problem by emphasising the distinction between the cognition – awareness – of ‘ordinary’ actors, and that of sociologists (or other social scientists), the latter, presumably, able to perceive structures of domination that the subjects of their research do not:

Metacritical theories of domination tackle these asymmetries from a particular angle – that of the miscognition by the actors themselves of the exploitation to which they are subject and, above all, of the social conditions that make this exploitation possible and also, as a result, of the means by which they could stop it. That is why they present themselves indivisibly as theories of power, theories of exploitation and theories of knowledge. By this token, they encounter in an especially vexed fashion the issue of the relationship between the knowledge of social reality which is that of ordinary actors, reflexively engaged in practice, and the knowledge of social reality conceived from a reflexivity reliant on forms and instruments of totalization – an issue which is itself at the heart of the tensions out of which the possibility of a social science must be created (Boltanski, 2011:7)

Hotel Academia: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?

How does one go about thinking about the transformation of the conditions of knowledge production when one is at the same time reflexively engaged in practice and relying on the reflexivity provided by sociological instruments? Is it at all possible? The feelings of anxiety, to this end, could be provoked exactly by this lack of opportunity to step aside – to disembed oneself from the academic life and reflect on it at the leisurely pace of skholē. On the one hand, this certainly has to do with the changing structure and tempo of academic life – acceleration and demands for increased output: in this sense, anxiety is a reaction to the changes perceived and felt, the feeling that the ground is no longer stable, like a sense of vertigo. On the other hand, however, this feeling of decentredness could be exactly what contemporary critique calls for.

The challenge, of course, is how to turn this “structure of feeling” into something that has analytical as well as affective power – and can transform the practice itself. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I think, is a wonderful example of this. As a melody, it is fundamentally disquieting: its impact primarily drawn from the fact that it disrupted what were, at the time, expectations of the (musical) genre, and in the process, rewrote them.

In other words, anxiety could be both creative and destructive. This, however, is not some broad call to “embrace anxiety”. There is a clear and pertinent need to understand the way in which the transformations of working conditions – everywhere, and also in the context of knowledge production – are influencing the sense of self and what is commonly referred to as mental health or well-being.

However, in this process, there is no need to externalise anxiety (nor other feelings): that is, frame it as if caused by forces outside of, or completely independent from, human influence, including within the academia itself (for instance, government policies, or political changes on supranational level). Conversely, there is no need to completely internalise it, in the sense of ascribing it to the embodied experience of individuals only. If feelings occupy the unstable ‘middle ground’ between institutions and individuals, this is the position from which they will have to be thought. If anxiety is an interpretation of the changes of the structures of knowledge production, its critique cannot but stem from the same position. This position is not ‘outside’, but rather ‘in-between’; insecure and thought-provoking, but no less potent for that.

Which, come to think of it, may be what Williams was trying to say all along.