On reparative reading and critique in/of anthropology: postdisciplinary perspectives on discipline-hopping

*This is a more-or-less unedited text of the plenary (keynote) address to the international conference ‘Anthropology of the future/The Future of Anthropology‘, hosted by the Institute of Ethnography of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, in Viminacium, 8-9 September 2022. If citing, please refer to as Bacevic, J. [Title]. Keynote address, [Conference].

Hi all. It’s odd to be addressing you at a conference entitled ‘Anthropology of the Future/The Future of Anthropology’, as I feel like an outsider for several reasons. Most notably, I am not an anthropologist. This is despite the fact that I have a PhD in anthropology, from the University of Belgrade, awarded in 2008. What I mean is that I do not identify as an anthropologist, I do not work in a department or institute of anthropology, nor do I publish in anthropology journals. In fact, I went so far in the opposite direction that I got another PhD, in sociology, from the University of Cambridge. I work at a department of sociology, at Durham University, which is a university in the north-east of England, which looks remarkably like Oxford and Cambridge. So I am an outsider in two senses: I am not an anthropologist, and I no longer live, reside, or work in Serbia. However, between 2004 and 2007 I taught at the Department of Ethnology and Anthropology of the University of Belgrade, and also briefly worked at the Institute that is organizing this very conference, as part of the research stipend awarded by the Serbian Ministry of Science to young, promising, scientific talent. Between 2005 and 2007, and then again briefly in 2008-9, I was the Programme Leader for Antropology in Petnica Science Centre. I don’t think it would be too exaggerated to say, I was, once, anthropology’s future; and anthropology was mine. So what happened since?

By undertaking a retelling of a disciplinary transition – what would in common parlance be dubbed ‘career change’ or ‘reorientation’ – my intention is not to engage in autoethnography, but to offer a reparative reading. I borrow the concept of reparative reading from the late theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay entitled “On paranoid reading and reparative reading, or: You’re so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you”, first published in 1997 and then, with edits, in 2003; I will say more about its content and key concepts shortly.

For the time being, however, I would like to note that the disinclination from autoethnography was one of the major reasons why I left anthropology; it was matched by the desire to do theory, by which I mean the possibility of deriving mid-range generalizations about human behaviour that could aspire not to be merely local, by which I mean not apply only to the cases studied. This, as we know, is not particularly popular in anthropology. This particular brand of ethnographic realism was explicitly targeted for critique during anthropology’s postmodern turn. On the other hand, Theory in anthropology itself had relatively little to commend it, all too easily and too often developing into a totalizing master-narrative of the early evolutionism or, for that matter, its late 20th– and early 21st-century correlates, including what is usually referred to as cognitive psychology, a ‘refresh’ of evolutionary theory I had the opportunity to encounter during my fellowship at the University of Oxford (2007-8). So there were, certainly, a few reasons to be suspicious of theory in anthropology.

For someone theoretically inclined, thus, one option became to flee into another discipline. Doing a PhD in philosophy in the UK is a path only open to people who have undergraduate degrees in philosophy (and I, despite a significant proportion of my undergrad coursework going into philosophy, had not), which is why a lot of the most interesting work in philosophy in the UK happens – or at least used to happen – in other departments, including literature and language studies, the Classics, gender studies, or social sciences like sociology and geography. I chose to work with those theorists who had found their institutional homes in sociology; I found a mentor at the University of Cambridge, and the rest is history (by which I mean I went on to a postdoctoral research fellowship at Cambridge and then on to a permanent position at Durham).  

Or that, at any rate, is one story. Another story would tell you that I got my PhD in 2008, the year when the economic crisis hit, and job markets collapsed alongside several other markets. On a slightly precarious footing, freshly back from Oxford, I decided to start doing policy research and advising in an area I had been researching before: education policies, in particular as part of processes of negotiation of multiple political identities and reconciliation in post-conflict societies. Something that had hitherto been a passion, politics, soon became a bona fide object of scholarly interest, so I spent the subsequent few years developing a dual career, eventually a rather high-profile one, as, on the one hand, policy advisor in the area of postconflict higher education, and, on the other, visiting (adjunct) lecturer at the Central European University in Budapest, after doing a brief research fellowship in its institute of advanced study. But because I was not educated as a political scientist – I did not, in other words, have a degree in political science; anthropology was closer to ‘humanities’ and my research was too ‘qualitative’ (this is despite the fact I taught myself basic statistics as well as relatively advanced data analysis) – I could not aspire to a permanent job there. So I started looking for routes out, eventually securing a postdoc position (a rather prestigious Marie Curie, and a tenure-track one) in Denmark.

I did not like Denmark very much, and my boss in this job – otherwise one of the foremost critics of the rise of audit culture in higher education – turned out to be a bully, so I spent most of my time in my two fieldwork destinations, University of Bristol, UK, and University of Auckland, New Zealand. I left after two years, taking up an offer of a funded PhD at Cambridge I had previously turned down. Another story would tell you that I was disappointed with the level of corruption and nepotism in Serbian academia so have decided to leave. Another, with disturbing frequency attached to women scholars, would tell you that being involved in an international relationship I naturally sought to move somewhere I could settle down with my partner, even if that meant abandoning the tenured position I had at Singidunum University in Serbia (this reading is, by the way, so prominent and so unquestioned that after I announced I had got the Marie Curie postdoc and would be moving to Denmark several people commented “Oh, that makes sense, isn’t your partner from somewhere out there” – despite the fact my partner was Dutch).

Yet another story, of course, would join the precarity narrative with the migration/exile and decoloniality narrative, stipulating that as someone who was aspiring to do theory I (naturally) had to move to the (former) colonial centre, given that theory is, as we know, produced in the ‘centre’ whereas countries of the (semi)periphery are only ever tasked with providing ‘examples’, ‘case-‘, or, at best, regional or area studies. And so on and so on, as one of the few people who have managed to trade their regional academic capital for a global (read: Global North/-driven and -defined) one, Slavoj Žižek, would say.

The point here is not to engage in a demonstration of multifocality by showing all these stories could be, and in a certain register, are true. It is also not to point out that any personal life-story or institutional trajectory can be viewed from multiple (possibly mutually irreconcilable) registers, and that we pick a narrative depending on occasion, location, and collocutor. Sociologists have produced a thorough analysis of how CVs, ‘career paths’ or  trajectories in the academia are narratively constructed so as to establish a relatively seamless sequence that adheres to, but also, obviously, by the virtue of doing that, reproduces ideas and concepts of ‘success’ (and failure; see also ‘CV of failures‘). Rather, it is to observe something interesting: all these stories, no matter how multifocal or multivocal, also posit master narratives of social forces – forces like neoliberalism, or precarity, for instance; and a master narrative of human motivation – why people do the things they do, and what they desire – things like permanent jobs and high incomes, for instance. They read a direction, and a directionality, into human lives; even if – or, perhaps, especially when – they narrate instances of ‘interruption’, ‘failure’, or inconsistency.

This kind of reading is what Eve Kosofsky Segdwick dubs paranoid reading. Associated with what Paul Ricoeur termed ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and building on the affect theories of Melanie Klein and Silvan Tomkins, paranoid reading is a tendency that has arguably become synonymous with critique, or critical theory in general: to assume that there is always a ‘behind’, an explanatory/motivational hinterland that, if only unmasked, can not only provide a compelling explanation for the past, but also an efficient strategy for orienting towards the future. Paranoid reading, for instance, characterizes a lot of the critique in and of anthropology, not least of the Writing Culture school, including in the ways the discipline deals with the legacy of its colonial past.

To me, it seems like anthropology in Serbia today is primarily oriented towards a paranoid reading, both in relation to its present (and future) and in relation to its past. This reading of the atmosphere is something it shares with a lot of social sciences and humanities internationally, one of increasing instability/hostility, of the feeling of being ‘under attack’ not only by governments’ neoliberal policies but also by increasingly conservative and reactionary social forces that see any discipline with an openly progressive, egalitarian and inclusive political agenda as leftie woke Satanism, or something. This paranoia, however, is not limited only to those agents or social forces clearly inimical or oppositional to its own project; it extends, sometimes, to proximate and cognate disciplines and forms of life, including sociology, and to different fractions or theoretical schools within anthropology, even those that should be programmatically opposed to paranoid styles of inquiry, such as the phenomenological or ontological turn – as witnessed, for instance, by the relatively recent debate between the late David Graeber and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro on ontological alterity.

Of course, in the twenty-five years that have passed from the first edition of Sedgwick’s essay, many species of theory that explicitly diverge from paranoid style of critique have evolved, not least the ‘postcritical’ turn. But, curiously, when it comes to understanding the conditions of our own existence – that is, the conditions of our own knowledge production – we revert into paranoid readings of not only the social, cultural, and political context, but also of people’s motivations and trajectories. As I argued elsewhere, this analytical gesture reinscribes its own authority by theoretically disavowing it. To paraphrase the title of Sedgwick’s essay, we’re so anti-theoretical that we’re failing to theorize our own inability to stop aspiring to the position of power we believe our discipline, or our predecessors, once occupied, the same power we believe is responsible for our present travails. In other words, we are failing to theorize ambiguity.

My point here is not to chastise anthropology in particular or critical theory in more general terms for failing to live up to political implications of its own ontological commitments (or the other way round?); I have explained at length elsewhere – notably in “Knowing neoliberalism” – why I think this is an impossibility (to summarize, it has to do with the inability to undo the conditions of our own knowledge – to, barely metaphorically, cut our own epistemological branch). Rather, my question is what we could learn if we tried to think of the history and thus future of anthropology, and our position in it, from a reparative, rather than paranoid, position.

This in itself, is a fraught process; not least because anthropology (including in Serbia) has not been exempt from revelations concerning sexual harassment, and it would not be surprising if many more are yet to come. In the context of re-encounter with past trauma and violence, not least the violence of sexual harassment, it is nothing if not natural to re-examine every bit of the past, but also to endlessly, tirelessly scrutinize the present: was I there? Did I do something? Could I have done something? What if what I did made things worse? From this perspective, it is fully justified to ask what could it, possibly, mean to turn towards a reparative reading – can it even, ever, be justified?

Sedgwick – perhaps not surprisingly – has relatively little to say about what reparative reading entails. From my point of view, reparative reading is the kind of reading that is oriented towards reconstructing the past in a way that does not seek to avoid, erase or deny past traumas, but engages with the narrative so as to afford a care of the self and connection – or reconnection – with the past selves, including those that made mistakes or have a lot to answer for. It is, in essence, a profoundly different orientation towards the past as well as the future, one that refuses to reproduce cultures – even if cultures of critique – and to claim that future, in some ways, will be exactly like the past.

Sedgwick aligns this reorientation with queer temporalities, characterized by a relationship to time that refuses to see it in (usually heteronormatively-coded) generationally reproductive terms: my father’s father did this, who in turn passed it to my father, who passed it to me, just like I will pass it to my children. Or, to frame this in more precisely academic terms: my supervisor(s) did this, so I will do it [in order to become successful/recognized like my academic predecessors], and I will teach my students/successors to do it. Understanding that it can be otherwise, and that we can practise other, including non-generational (non-generative?) and non-reproductive politics of knowledge/academic filiation/intellectual friendship is, I think, one important step in making the discussion about the future, including of scientific discipline, anything other than a vague gesturing towards its ever-receding glorious past.

Of course, as a straight and, in most contexts, cis-passing woman, I am a bit reluctant to claim the label of queerness, especially when speaking in Serbia, an intensely and increasingly institutionally homophobic and compulsorily heterosexual society. However, I hope my queer friends, partners, and colleagues will forgive me for borrowing queerness as a term to signify refusal to embody or conform to diagnostic narratives (neoliberalism, precarity, [post]socialism); refusal or disinvestment from normatively and regulatively prescribed vocabularies of motivation and objects of desire – a permanent (tenured) academic position; a stable and growing income; a permanent relationship culminating in children and a house with a garden (I have a house, but I live alone and it does not have a garden). And, of course, the ultimate betrayal for anyone who has come from “here” and ‘made it’ “over there”: the refusal to perform the role of an academic migrant in a way that would allow to once and for all settle the question of whether everything is better ‘over there’ or ‘here’, and thus vindicate the omnipresent reflexive chauvinism (‘corrupt West’) or, alternatively, autochauvinism (‘corrupt Serbia’).

What I hope to have achieved instead, through this refusal, is to offer a postdisciplinary or at least undisciplined narrative and an example of how to extract sustenance from cultures inimical to your lifeplans or intellectual projects. To quote from Sedgwick:

“The vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been so sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary that it’s no wonder few critics are willing to describe their acquaintance with such motives. The prohibitive problem, however, has been in the limitations of present theoretical vocabularies rather than in the reparative motive itself. No less acute than a paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic, the reparative reading position undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks. What we can best learn from such practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.“

All of the cultures I’ve inhabited have been this to some extent – Serbia for its patriarchy, male-dominated public sphere, or excessive gregarious socialisation, something that sits very uncomfortably with my introversion; England for its horrid anti-immigrant attitude only marginally (and not always profitably) mediated by my ostensible ’Whiteness’; Denmark for its oppressive conformism; Hungary, where I was admittedly happiest among the plethora of other English-speaking cosmopolitan academics, which could not provide the institutional home I required (eventually, as is well-known, not even to CEU). But, in a different way, they have also been incredibly sustaining; I love my friends, many of whom are academic friends (former colleagues) in Serbia; I love the Danish egalitarianism and absolute refusal of excess; and I love England in many ways, in no particular order, the most exciting intellectual journey, some great friendships (many of those, I do feel the need to add, with other immigrants), and the most beautiful landscapes, especially in the North-East, where I live now (I also particularly loved New Zealand, but hope to expand on that on a different occasion).

To theorize from a reparative position is to understand that all of these things could be true at the same time. That there is, in other words, no pleasure without pain, that the things that sustain us will, in most cases, also harm us. It is to understand that there is no complete career trajectory, just like there is no position , epistemic or otherwise, from which we could safely and for once answer the question what the future will be like. It is to refuse to pre-emptively know the future, not least so that we could be surprised.

Sally’s boys, Daddy’s girls

I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before  it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.

I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.

Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.

On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.

And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and  more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.

In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices  – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).

In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.

It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.

And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).

Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.

The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.

When it ends

In the summer of 2018, I came back to Cambridge from one of my travels to a yellowed, dusty patch of land. The grass – the only thing that grew in the too shady back garden of the house me and my partner were renting – had not only wilted; it had literally burnt to the ground.

I burst into tears. As I sat in the garden crying, to (I think) the dismay of my increasingly bewildered partner, I pondered what a scene of death so close to home was doing – what it was doing in my back yard, and what it was doing to me. For it was neither the surprise at nor the scale that shook me – I had witnessed both human and non-human destruction much vaster than a patch of grass in Cambridge; I had spent most of the preceding year and some reading on the politics, economics, and – as the famed expression goes – ‘the science’ of climate change (starting with the excellent Anthropocene reading group I attended while living in London), so I was well-versed, by then, in precisely what was likely to happen, how and when. It wasn’t, either, the proximity, otherwise assumed to be a strong motivator: I certainly did not need climate change to happen in my literal ‘back yard’ in order to become concerned about it. If nothing else, I had come back to Cambridge from a prolonged stay in Serbia, where I have been observing the very same things, detailed here (including preparations for mineral extraction that will become the main point of contention for the protests against Rio Tinto in 2022). As to anyone who has lived outside of the protected enclaves of the Global North, climate change has felt very real, for quite some time.

What made me break down at the sight of that scorched patch of grass was its ordinariness – the fact that, in front, besides, and around what for me was quite bluntly an extinction event, life seemed to go on as usual. No-one warned me my back garden was a cemetery. Several months before that, at the very start of the first round of UCU strikes in 2018, I raised the question of pension funds invested in fossil fuels, only to be casually told one of the biggest USS shares was in Royal Dutch Shell (USS, and the University of Cambridge, have reluctantly committed to divestment since, but this is yet to yield any results in the case of USS). While universities make pompous statements about sustainability, a substantial chunk of their funding and operating revenue goes to activities that are at best one step removed from directly contributing to the climate crisis, from international (air) travel to building and construction. At Cambridge, I ran a reading group called Ontopolitics of the future, whose explicit question was: What survives in the Anthropocene? In my current experience, the raising of climate change tends to provoke uncomfortable silences, as if everyone had already accepted the inevitability of 1.5+ degree warming and the suffering it would inevitably come with.

This acceptance of death is a key feature of the concept of ‘slow death’ that Lauren Berlant introduced in Cruel Optimism:

“Slow death prospers not in traumatic events, as discrete time-framed phenomena like military encounters and genocides can appear to do, but in temporally labile environments whose qualities and whose contours in time and space are often identified with the presentness of ordinariness itself” (Berlant, 2011: 100).

Berlant’s emphasis on the ordinariness of death is a welcome addition to theoretical frameworks (like Foucault’s bio-, Mbembe’s necro- or Povinelli’s onto-politics) that see the administration of life and death as effects of sovereign power:

“Since catastrophe means change, crisis rhetoric belies the constitutive point that slow death—or the structurally induced attrition of persons keyed to their membership in certain populations—is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain where an upsetting scene of living is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life after all” (Berlant, 2011: 102).

Over the past year and some, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of ‘slow death’ in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic (my contribution to the edited special issue on Encountering Berlant should be coming out in Geography Journal sometime this year). However, what brought back the scorched grass in Cambridge as I sat at home during UK’s hottest day on record in 2022 was not the (inevitable) human, non-human, or infrastructural cost of climate change; it was, rather, the observation that for most academics life seemed to go on as usual, if a little hotter. From research concerns to driving to moaning over (the absence of) AC, there seemed to be little reflection on how our own modes of knowledge production – not to mention lifestyles – were directly contributing to heating the planet.

Of course, the paradox of knowledge and (in)action – or knowing and (not) doing – has long been at the crux of my own work, from performativity and critique of neoliberalism to the use of scientific evidence in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. But with climate change, surely it has to be obvious to everyone that there is no way to just continue business as usual, that – while effects are surely differentially distributed according to privilege and other kinds of entitlement – no-one is really exempt from it?

Or so I thought, as I took an evening walk and passed a dead magpie on the pavement, which made me think of birds dying from heat exhaustion in India earlier in May (luckily, no other signs of mass bird extinction were in sight, so I returned home, already a bit light-headed from the heat). But as I absent-mindedly scrolled through Twitter (as well as attended a part of a research meeting), what seemed obvious was that there was a clear disconnection between modes of knowing and modes of being in the world. On the one hand, everyone was too hot, commenting on the unsustainability of housing, or the inability of transport networks to sustain temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius. On the other, academic knowledge production seemed to go on, as if things such as ‘universities’, ‘promotions’, or ‘reviews’ had the span of geological time, rather than being – for the most part – a very recent blip in precisely the thing that led to this degree of warming: capitalism, and the drive to (over)produce, (over)compete, and expand.

It is true that these kinds of challenges – like existential crises – can really make people double-down on whatever positions and identities they already have. This is quite obvious in the case of some of political divisions – with, for instance, the death spirals of Covid-denialism, misogyny, and transphobia – but it happens in less explicitly polarizing ways too. In the context of knowledge production, this is something I have referred to as the combination of epistemic attachment and ontological bias. Epistemic attachment refers to being attached to our objects of knowledge; these can be as abstract as ‘class’ or ‘social structure’ or as concrete as specific people, problems, or situations. The relationship between us (as knowers) and what we know (our objects of knowledge) is the relationship between epistemic subjects and epistemic objects. Ontological bias, on the other hand, refers to the fact that our ways of knowing the world become so constitutive of who we are that we can fail to register when the conditions that rendered this mode of knowledge possible (or reliable) no longer obtain. (This, it is important to note, is different from having a ‘wrong’ or somehow ‘distorted’ image of epistemic objects; it is entirely conceivable to have an accurate representation on the wrong ontology, as is vice versa).

This is what happens when we carry on with academic research (or, as I’ve recently noted, the circuit of academic rituals) in a climate crisis. It is not that our analyses and publications stop being more or less accurate, more or less cited, more or less inspiring. On the other side, the racism, classism, ableism, and misogyny of academia do not stop either. It’s just that, technically speaking, the world in which all of these things happen is no longer the same world. The 1.5C (let alone 2 or 2.5, more-or-less certain now) degrees warmer world is no longer the same world that gave rise to the interpretative networks and theoretical frameworks we overwhelmingly use.

In this sense, to me, continuing with academia as business as usual (only with AC) isn’t even akin to the proverbial polishing of brass on the Titanic, not least because the iceberg has likely already melted or at least calved several times over. What it brings to mind, instead, was Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, and the way in which professional identities play out in it.

I’ve already written about Area X, in part because the analogy with climate change presents itself, and in part because I think that – in addition to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam and Octavia Butler’s Parables – it is the best literary (sometimes almost literal) depiction of the present moment. Area X (or Southern Reach, if you’re in the US), is about an ‘event’ – that is at the same time a space – advancing on the edge of the known, ‘civilized’ world. The event/space – ‘Area’ – is, in a clear parallel to Strugatskys’ The Zone, something akin to a parallel dimension: a world like our own, within our own, and accessible from our own, but not exactly hospitable to us. In Vandermeer’s trilogy, Area X is a lush green, indeed overgrown, space; like in The Zone, ‘nature is healing’ has a more ominous sound to it, as in Area X, people, objects, and things disappear. Or reappear. Like bunnies. And husbands.

The three books of Area X are called Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. In the first book, the protagonist – whom we know only as the Biologist – goes on a mission to Area X, the area that has already swallowed (or maybe not) her husband. Other members of the expedition, who we also know only by profession – the Anthropologist, the Psychologist – are also women. The second book, Authority, follows the chief administrator – who we know as Control – of Area X, as the area keeps expanding. Control eventually follows the Biologist into Area X. The third book – well, I’ll stop with the plot spoilers here, but let’s just say that the Biologist is no longer called the Biologist.

This, if anything, is the source of slight reservation I have towards the use of professional identities, authority, and expertise in contexts like the climate crisis. Scientists for XR and related initiatives are both incredibly brave (especially those risking arrest, something I, as an immigrant, cannot do) and – needless to say – morally right; but the underlying emphasis on ‘the science’ too often relies on the assumption that right knowledge will lead to right action, which tends not to hold even for many ‘professional’ academics. In other words, it is not exactly that people do not act on climate change because they do not know or do not believe the science (some do, at least). It is that systems and institutions – and, in many cases, this includes systems and institutions of knowledge production, such as universities – are organized in ways that makes any kind of action that would refuse to reproduce (let alone actually disrupt) the logic of extractive capitalism increasingly difficult.

What to do? It is clear that we are now living on the boundary of Area X, and it is fast expanding. Area X is what was in my back garden in Cambridge. Area X is outside when you open windows in the north of England and what drifts inside has the temperature of a jet engine exhaust of a plane that had just landed. The magpie that was left to die in the middle of the road in Jesmond crossed Area X.

For my part, I know it is no longer sufficient to approach Area X as the Sociologist (or Theorist, or Anthropologist, or whatever other professional identity I have – relucantly, as all identities – perused); I tried doing that for Covid-19, and it did not get very far. Instead, I’d urge my academic colleagues to seriously start thinking about what we are and what we do when these labels – Sociologist, Biologist, Anthropologist, Scientist – no longer have a meaning. For this moment may come earlier than many of us can imagine; by then, we’d have better worked out the relationship between annihilation, authority, and acceptance.  

They’ll come for you next

I saw ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’ tonight, probably the best film I’ve seen this year (alongside The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, but they’re completely different genres – I could say ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing is the best political film I saw this year, but that would take us down the annoying path of ‘what is political’). There was only one other person in the cinema; this may be a depressing reflection of the local audiences’ autofocus (though this autofocus, at least in my experience, did tend to encompass corners of the former Empire), but given my standard response to the lovely people at Tyneside‘s ‘Where would you like to sit?’ – ‘Close to the aisle, as far away from other people’ – I couldn’t complain.

The film is part-documentary, part fiction, told from the angle of an anonymous woman student (who goes by ‘L.’) whose letters document the period of student strikes at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), but also, more broadly, the relationship between the ascendance of Modi’s regime and student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi in 2016, as well as related events – including violent attacks of masked mobs on JNU and arrests at Aligarh Muslim University in 2020*.

Where the (scant) reviews are right, and correct, is that the film is also about religion, caste, and the (both ‘slow’ and rapid) violence unleashed by supporters of the nationalist (‘Hinduttva’) project in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

What they don’t mention, however, is that it is also about student (and campus) politics, solidarity, and what to do when your right to protest is literally being crushed (one particularly harrowing scene – at least to anyone who has experienced police violence – consists of CCTV footage of what seem like uniformed men breaking into the premises of one of the universities and then randomly beating students trying to escape through the small door; according to reports, policemen were on site but did nothing). Many of the names mentioned in the film – both through documentary footage and L’s letters – will end up in prison, some possibly tortured (one of L’s interlocutors says he does not want to talk about it for fear of dissuading other students from protest); one will commit suicide. Throughout this, yet, what the footage shows are nights of dancing; impassioned speeches; banners and placards that call out the neo-nationalist government and its complicity not only with violence but also with perpetuating poverty, casteism, and Islamophobia. And solidarity, solidarity, solidarity.

This is the message that transpires most clearly throughout the film. The students have managed to connect two things: the role of perpetuating class/caste divisions in education – dismissiveness and abuse towards Dalit students, the increase of tuition meant to exclude those whose student bursaries support their families too – and the strenghtening of nationalism, or neo-nationalism. That the right-wing rearguard rules through stoking envy and resentment towards ‘undeserving’ poor (e.g. ‘welfare scroungers’) is not new; that it can use higher education, including initiatives aimed at widening participation, to do this, is. In this sense, Modi’s supporters’ strategy seems to be to co-opt the contempt for ‘lazy’ and ‘privileged’ students (particularly those with state bursaries) and turn it into accusation of ‘anti-nationalism’, which is equated with being critical of any governmental policy that deepens existing social inequalities.

It wouldn’t be very anthropological to draw easy parallels with the UK government’s war on Critical Race Theory, which equally tends to locate racism in attempts to call it out, rather than in the institutions – and policies – that perpetuate it; but the analogy almost presents itself. Where it fails, more obviously, is that students – and academics – in the UK still (but just about) have a broader scope for protest than their Indian counterparts. Of course, the new Bill on Freedom of Speech (Academic Freedom) proposes to eliminate some of that, too. But until it does, it makes sense to remember that rights that are not exercised tend to get lost.

Finally, what struck me about A Night of Knowing Nothing is the remarkable show of solidarity not only from workers, actors, and just (‘normal’) people, but also from students across campuses (it bears remembering that in India these are often universities in different states and thousands of miles away from each other). This was particularly salient in relation to the increasingly localized nature of fights for both pensions and ‘Four Fights’ of union members in UK higher education. Of course, union laws make it mandatory that there is both a local and a national mandate for strike action, and it is true that we express solidarity when cuts are threatened to colleagues in the sector (e.g. Goldsmiths, or Leicester a bit before that). But what I think we do not realize is that that is, eventually, going to happen everywhere – there is no university, no job, and no senior position safe enough. The night of knowing nothing has lasted for too long; it is, perhaps, time to stop pretending.

Btw, if you happen to live in Toon, the film is showing tomorrow (4 May) and on a few other days. Or catch it in your local – you won’t regret it.

*If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of these, my guess is they were obscured by the pandemic; I say this as someone who both has friends from India and as been following Indian HE quite closely between 2013 and 2016, though somewhat less since, and I still *barely* recall reading/hearing about any of these.

On doing it badly

I’m reading Christine Korsgaard’sSelf-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity‘ (2009) – I’ve found myself increasingly drawn recently to questions of normative political philosophy or ‘ideal theory’, which I’ve previously tended to analytically eschew, I presume as part-pluralism, part-anthropological reflex.

In chapter 2 (‘The Metaphysics of Normativity’), Korsgaard engages with Aristotle’s analysis of objects as an outcome of organizing principles. For instance, what makes a house a house rather than just a ‘heap of stones and mortar and bricks’ is its function of keeping out the weather, and this is also how we should judge the house – a ‘good’ house is one that fulfils this function, a bad house is one that does not not, or at least not so much.

This argument, of course, is a well-known one and endlessly discussed in social ontology (at least among the Cambridge Social Ontology crowd, which I still visit). But Korsgaard emphasizes something that has previously completely escaped my attention, which is the implicit argument about the relationship between normativity and knowledge:

Now, it is entirely true that ‘seeing what things do’ is a pretty neat description of my work as a theorist. But there is an equally important one, which is seeing what things can or could do. This means looking at (I’m parking the discussion about privileging the visual/observer approach to theory for the time being, as it’s both a well-known criticism in e.g. feminist & Indigenous philosophy *and* other people have written about it much better than I ever could) ‘things’ – in my case, usually concepts – and understanding what using them can do, that is, looking at them relationally. You are not the same person looking at one kind of social object and another, nor is it, importantly, the same social object ‘unproblematically’ (meaning that yes, it is possible to reach consensus about social objects – e.g. what is a university, or a man, or a woman, or fascism, but it is not possible to reach it without disagreement – the only difference being whether it is open or suppressed). I’m also parking the discussion about observer effects, indefinitely: if you’re interested in how that theoretical argument looks without butchering theoretical physics, I’ve written about it here.

This also makes the normative element of the argument more difficult, as it requires delving not only into the ‘satisficing’ or ‘fitness’ analysis (a good house is a house that does the job of being a house), but also into the performative effects analysis (is a good house a house that does its job in a way that eventually turns ‘houseness’ into something bad?). To note, this is distinct from other issues Korsgaard recognizes – e.g. that a house constructed in a place that obscures the neighbours’ view is bad, but not a bad house, as its ‘badness’ is not derived from its being a house, but from its position in space (the ‘where’, not the ‘what’). This analysis may – and I emphasize may – be sufficient for discrete (and Western) ontologies, where it is entirely conceivable of the same house being positioned somewhere else and thus remaining a good house, while no longer being ‘bad’ for the neighbourhood as a whole. But it clearly encounters problems on any kind of relational, environment-based, or contextual ontologies (a house is not a house only by the virtue of being sufficient to keep out elements for the inhabitants, but also – and, possibly, more importantly – by being positioned in a community, and a community that is ‘poisoned’ by a house that blocks everyone’s view is not a good community for houses).

In this sense, it makes sense to ask when what an object does turns into badness for the object itself? I.e., what would it mean that a ‘good’ house is at the same time a bad house? Plot spoiler: I believe this is likely true for all social objects. (I’ve written about ambiguity here and also here). The task of the (social) theorist – what, I think, makes my work social (both in the sense of applying to the domain of interaction between multiple human beings and in the sense of having relevance to someone beyond me) is to figure out what kind of contexts make one more likely than the other. Under what conditions do mostly good things (like, for instance, academic freedom) become mostly bad things (like, for instance, a form of exclusion)?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to what constitutes ‘bad’ scholarship (and, I guess, by extension, a bad scholar). Having had the dubious pleasure of encountering people who teach different combinations of neocolonial, right-wing, and anti-feminist ‘scholarship’ over the past couple of years (England, and especially the place where I work, is a trove of surprises in this sense), it strikes me that the key question is under what conditions this kind of work – which universities tend to ignore because it ‘passes’ as scholarship and gives them the veneer of presenting ‘both sides’ – turns the whole idea of scholarship into little more than competition for followers on either of the ‘sides’. This brings me to the question which, I think, should be the source of normativity for academic speech, if anything: when is ‘two-sideism’ destructive to knowledge production as a whole?

This is what Korsgaard says:


Is bad scholarship just bad scholarship, or is it something else? When does the choice to not know about the effects of ‘platforming’ certain kinds of speakers turn from the principle of liberal neutrality to wilful ignorance? Most importantly, how would we know the difference?

A Year of Reading Only (Well, Mostly) Women

Whenever someone asks me for my favourite (or top 5, or 10) books of the year, I become aware of the fact that in the last year (and some), I’ve read books only or mainly written by women.

This wasn’t entirely planned. Of course, I was aware of Sara Ahmed’s approach to citational justice in Living a Feminist Life, which entailed citing only women (and recall with amusement the shocked reaction of some of my colleagues to hearing this at Ahmed’s lecture in Cambridge, as if not citing white men constituted the ultimate betrayal of academic mores). But over the past year-and-some, I became increasingly aware of how much erasure of women’s work there is in the UK – in particular in theory. Some of this came through my work on epistemic positioning; but, like the concepts developed in the article, most of it came from participation in academic and other intellectual environments. I encountered social theory syllabi where barely any women were present (and if they were, they were all grouped in the incongruous pile called ‘feminist theory’ or ‘gender’, just like Black and minority ethnic scholars were to be found under ‘studies of race and racism’ and nowhere else); I saw special issues of academic journals on rather general topics that would feature articles only by men.  

As someone who read lots and indiscriminately, the absence of women – even those run-of-the-mill, obligatory ‘passage points’ like Arendt and de Beauvoir – truly stunned me. My own work gave me a good sense of how and why this was happening; but it left me none the wiser in terms of how to change it beyond the remit of my teaching. When it came either to reading/referencing recommendations or course design, I found myself mentioning or encouraging people to read women authors rather than just the ‘usual suspects’ White men. More often than not, it would turn out that people were in fact aware of the book/author, or at least had heard of them, but had forgotten about them, or just never considered them.

This brought to mind the relevance of attention, and time, in the fight for epistemic justice. Of course academics are overworked; as clearly expressed in the strike at the beginning of December, there has been a constant workload creep in the UK academia. It isn’t only about Zoom and incessant meetings in the first pandemic year, or juggling both online and offline content and growing student numbers in the second. Everyone is struggling. In this context, it is only too imaginable that people reach for the ‘usual suspects’, for the references they already know and have been using for years, rather than look for new (or old!) ones.

It also encourages lazy and reductive reading: of course you’re not going to bother with this book if it’s only about a ‘feminist’ reading rather than, say, about class and labour, or with this as it’s about ‘women’s history’ rather than philosophy. The only innovative thing about such tropes is the ingenuity with which they apply the assumption that ‘(White) boys write about everything, women write about women’s issues’, to a seemingly endless set of authors and topics. 

In this context, my New Year’s present is a list of things written only by women. Some of these have been published in the course of the last year; some of these I have been re-reading for different reasons, often connected with work. Every single time, however, I was struck by the relevance of ideas, the clarity of prose, and, not least – the patent absence of self-indulgence and clunkiness of phrase that so often characterises theoretical writing by men. Not all of these books were ‘theory’, either; there is a good degree of fiction, essays, as well as auto/biography.

Of course I also read some men – most notably when I had to for work, but also when I found pieces really interesting, although in this case as well I privileged men who were not white (two favourites: here and here), or who set good examples on how to cite women (and survive!). Goes without saying I also read non-binary scholars (two favourites: here and here).

So here’s my New Year’s list, with random annotated comments at times, and, roughly, in the order I have read them.

Simone de Beauvoir, Collected Works (2020)

This was a present for my 40th birthday. Given that my birthday took place under a lockdown, five months after I had lost my mother, and pending Year 2 of a global pandemic, this is one of the few things that made it worth it. There are many excellent, previously untranslated, essays here, with analytical prefaces by a range of contemporary readers, which are often almost as good; I read Pyrrhus and Cinéas for the first time (I read French, but have over time become lazy at reading philosophy in languages other than English, something I regret). It is one of the most powerful philosophical reflections on the nature of agency, and it helped me direct my thinking about the meaning of legacy, temporality, and change. Shorter pieces on abortion, Marxism, and colonialism, among others, are well worth a read, for the understanding of the evolution of de Beauvoir’s politics and the range – and influence – her thought exercised in the day (only to be, like many other women intellectuals, erased retrospectively). This edition is the first to fully recognize this legacy.

If you are new to de Beauvoir’s writing, you can start anywhere; if you have access to institutional libraries, encourage your university or institutional library to buy the collected works, and then you can read or assign specific essays. (Un)surprisingly, many students had actually never read de Beauvoir previously – despite being fed ‘post-feminist’ ideas about how feminism was passé.  Wonder why.

Kate Inglis, Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief

This book reached me in an envelope sent in the post, together with some (vegan) chocolate, some loose leaf Darjeeling tea, and a note saying ‘Here if you want to talk. Or if you do not. Or just generally here’, reminding me why feminist (and women’s) friendships are, and I use neither lightly, a blessing and a privilege.

Inglis’ book is exactly what the subtitle says. She wrote it after one of the twins she gave birth to never made it out of the intensive neonatal care unit. In some ways, of course, the experience that prompted the book could not be farther removed from mine: Inglis had lost a child; I had lost a parent. But it’s an excellent guide to mourning (don’t worry – no prescriptive ‘five stages’ bullshit here). It also contains one of the most insightful observations I have ever heard: the first moments after losing someone are uncharacteristic because you get to peek behind the thin boundary of life and death; if I recall correctly, she compares it to a heroin high, where you almost feel omnipotent just for being alive. It’s the comedown that’s difficult. I probably owe a lot of preserved sanity to this observation.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

In addition to dispensing wise books, tea, and chocolate at exactly the right moments, one of my best friends also shares my love of sci-fi, and the corresponding frustration about the lack of good new stuff. I was dispatched from New Year’s visit to her and her partner with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is excellent; I look forward to reading the sequels (Mercy, Sword, and Provenance).  

Chloe Cooper, The Arsonist

Know how I said it’s a privilege to have friends who buy you good books? I was lucky enough to get two of each at the end of last year – Sakshi Aravind and Solange Manche gave me Cooper’s The Arsonist and James Bradley’s Clade. I got started on Cooper, which is set in Australia; my partner borrowed Clade, which I was glad about not only for helping me maintain gender consistency but also because it’s a book about climate change. I look forward to picking up both in the new year!

Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

This might seem like it’s repeating the point made earlier, but I in fact bought and started reading Rose’s Mothers a few years back. I only picked up on it, however, after my own mother had died; I read it on and off throughout the year, and having finally completed it, must say it’s excellent. It also made me consider trying to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels again, which I started but did not feel compelled by in the slightest. I am an unrepentant longitudinal *and* parallel reader – I often pick up on books years after starting them, much to the chagrin of some of my friends – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t books that I can’t put down.

Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? and The Psychic Life of Power

I’m not even sure why I started re-reading Frames of War, but I found it – especially ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’ – incredibly relevant for the present moment. It’s also now part of the mandatory reading on my theory modules.

Speaking of which: The Psychic Life of Power is Butler’s best book. It’s a shame many social theory syllabi rarely feature Butler’s writing beyond Gender Trouble or Bodies That Matter (if at all); Butler is by far one of the most insightful theorists of power, which enforces my point that she should be read as a political philosopher.  

Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: beyond recognition

It was actually Oliver’s book that inspired me to read The Psychic Life of Power – it is a remarkably comprehensive yet analytical take on the logic of I-Thou, applying it to a range of examples from debates on politics of identity to transitional justice. Outstanding political theory writing. It’s a shame it’s not better known – oh, wait, I have an idea of why that might be the case.

Nancy Folbre, The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems: an Intersectional Political Economy

As Folbre noted in a recent book talk, a probably better title would have been ‘The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again’, given the resurgence of anti-feminist and misogynist politics, policies, and sentiments we are witnessing. Rest assured, however – the book is no friend to the ‘equality achieved, what are women complaining about’ brand of ‘theory’ (for a useful takedown of such theories, see here).  

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting

Wade’s book is part history, part biography, insofar as it details the lives of exceptional women – H.D., Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eileen Power, and Jane Harrison – who all lived in the same area of Bloomsbury around Mecklenburgh Square, but it is both so rich in narrative detail and strong on feminist politics of the day that I used it as bedtime reading. It is also one of my favourite parts of London, which helped soothe the London withdrawal syndrome caused by both lockdown and moving farther away.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick

Another present, this one from my dear friend and collaborator Linsey McGoey – I love McMillan Cottom’s writing and this is a good analysis of how raced (and gendered) assumptions shape dominant institutions’ perceptions of talent and intelligence, told from a biographical perspective. Now that the book made it out of storage, I look forward to continuing it!

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life and Complaint!

I am a regular reader of Ahmed but this was a fantastic double-bill. The first I re-read because I needed it (meaning, I was using it for an article I was working on); the second I eagerly anticipated. As it turns out, they also provided the framing for thinking about mediating my own personal experience of bullying and gender-based discrimination at work; in this sense, I certainly needed the first, and I am adamant about using the second as a guide for all scholars who are experiencing, or have experienced, these forms of abuse. I have also, with a few others, been discussing/planning a reading group on Complaint! at Durham.

Jacqueline Rose, On Violence and on Violence Against Women

In a year so defined by sexism, misogyny and patriarchy, my second most eagerly anticipated book after Complaint! was Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and on Violence Against Women. Not sure what specialists would have to say about it, but I was impressed by Rose’s capacity to say something new about a subject that has been extensively written about – and to connect it to the deepest questions of social theory. A difficult book – not for the style, which is excellent and crisp, but for the topic – which I’ve occasionally had to put down, but look forward to completing in the new year.

Adriana Zaharijevic, Life of Bodies: Political Philosophy of Judith Butler

Full disclosure: this book has not yet been published in English, but it is in the process of being translated by Edinburgh University Press. Written by my dear friend and feminist co-conspirator Adriana Zaharijević, it is an excellent analysis of the connections between Butler’s treatment of gender, precarity, and agency, by one of the best Butler scholars today. Incidentally, it also concurs with my reading that Butler is above all a political philosopher.

Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent

Angel’s book is excellent in managing to work through an issue that’s been extensively discussed while calling bullshit on both faux libertarianism and moralism in (almost) equal amounts. I was super-glad Angel was able to give the first lecture in the new Josephine Butler lecture series – if you missed it, your loss.

Deborah Levy, Things I Do Not Want to Know, The Cost of Living, Real Estate

I thought I hated (auto)biography. Turns out, I only hate autobiography because it is almost always focused on the lives of men. Levy’s ‘Living Autobiography’ series is a fantastic, funny, and at times shattering reminder that needn’t be that way; it is also a take on London through the eyes of a foreigner, something I can deeply relate to.

Levy’s books came to my reading list as I was beginning to contemplate the value of my own life (cost?) as well as ‘real estate’, both in terms of what my mother was leaving me, and what I was thinking about acquiring, or building, on my own. For someone whose preferred approach to dealing with the (im)permanence of material property was to acquire as little of it as practicable and dispense with it (or pass it on) as quickly as possible, this introduced a whole new element of ‘reality’ or, at least, materiality (no, I’m not saying they’re the same thing; no, this isn’t a social ontology post) to ‘estate’.

Annie Ernaux, The Years

Speaking of autobiography: I only arrived at Ernaux’s ‘The Years’ (Les Années) this year, which speaks to the degree to which I’ve given in to UK’s intellectual parochialism. The deep sense of shame did not prevent me from enjoying the narrative crossover between biography and sociology that she uses to depict the post-war years in France; I also found it interesting to reflect on how many of the references she uses made sense to me (French was my first foreign language, and I’ve spent some time part-living in Paris, but have allowed both linguistic and cultural competence to deteriorate since).   

Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: from State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis

Think you know what Fraser’s argument was about? Think again. I picked up Fortunes of Feminism as a holiday read (well, I was at a friend’s house in Wales for a holiday, the book was on his desk – yes, sorry, this is what happens if you host me in your house, I am going to read your books), and while I thought I had read most if not all of the essays included in the volume, I discovered several angles I had never noticed before, and was struck again by the clarity of writing and the ability to anticipate challenges – many of which are very much with us today.

Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice

Speaking of feminist icons: I know, I know, you’ve ‘read’ Iris Marion Young already. So have I. I just never read her last – and unfinished – book, which is a fantastic re-engagement with some of the issues raised in Justice and the Politics of Difference. And one much more relevant for the present moment, given that it addresses the thorny question of not just what is wrong but who has the moral (ethical, political) responsibility to fix it – something that speaks directly to issues ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change and, obviously, the role of social sciences in addressing them. Give it a go and see for yourself.

Serene Khader, Decolonizing Universalism: a Transnational Feminist Ethic

Speaking of which: worried all this ‘white feminism’ is ruining your progressive credentials? Before you buy into the argument that the best way to wiggle out of your shame for reading and citing almost exclusively white men is to hate on white women, read Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism – among other things, to try and understand what exactly decolonizing social and political theory might entail.

Laura Bates, Men Who Hate Women

I know, I know, the value of reading something you already know about is doubtful, and thus I avoided reading Bates’ work for a long time (not least because I was mildly resentful that the most recent book appropriated the title of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy). Turns out, it makes sense to remind oneself how widespread women-hating is, from incels proper to your garden-variety whatabouter (it will also make it easier for you to spot them, especially when they show up in classrooms, on boards, and, of course, your Twitter mentions).

Manon Garcia, We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives

One of the most pressing questions emerging from the contemporary readings of de Beauvoir is why some people will choose to submit, or to relinquish their freedom. Garcia’s book engages with this question, while also presenting a very accessible introduction to de Beauvoir’s thought. I’ve included it both in the mandatory reading and have recommended it to friends and family (and possibly also bought a few of them a copy ).

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation

In my neverending quest to diversify syllabi in theory (AKA: Only Men), I’ve introduced Federici to reading lists on both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Turns out students love it, which isn’t surprising, given that it is remarkably accessibly written, manages to weave a set of historical data into a remarkable and persuasive analysis of the constitution of gender inequality in the modern West that doesn’t, imagine that, avoid the question of colonisation and slavery, and does all of that in fewer words than Foucault. I’ve read the Autonomedia edition back in my anarchist days, but there’s a new Penguin edition that puts the book where it properly belongs – Modern Classics. Simply can’t understand how anyone can learn anything about the history of capitalism, class, or inequality without reading Federici (and Ellen Meiksins Wood, too).

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

Berlant died this (!) year, so, as is customary, many people only noticed her work after that (same goes for bell hooks, who passed away shortly before the end of 2021). I started re-reading Cruel Optimism for an article I am working on; I also introduced affect theory to undergraduate theory teaching, though it sadly occupies only one third of a single session, because, you know, MEN). While my first reading of Cruel Optimism was somewhat reductive – I was interested in the ‘relational ills’ element, which is what I presume what attracts most people who work in moral and political theory – on this reading, I became fascinated by arguments I had simply never noticed before, convincing me Berlant’s work was both more far-sighted than it is normally given credit for, and probably one of the most suitable for comprehending the present moment.

Hannah Arendt, On Violence and Life of the Mind: Thinking

Much like de Beauvoir, I believe One Should Regularly Re-Read Arendt, whether for writing or for General Edification Purposes. Enough said.

Amia Srinivasan, Right to Sex

I bucked and followed the trend of reading the Most Eagerly Anticipated Philosophy Book of 2021, at least according to white men who are trying to vindicate the absence of diversity of their reading lists. As it happens, I’ve read some of Srinivasan’s stuff before, and as it happens, I like it, so I am mostly enjoying the book so far, not least for the precision and clarity of prose – something, again, that is both the mark of Oxford’s school of philosophy but also of women philosophers’ writing more generally.  

Tabitha Lasley, Sea State

This one was excellent! I bought the book soon after it was published, but only got to reading it in November this year. Worth every page; I considered inviting Lasley to speak at the Qualitative Methods module I taught last year, so hope I will still get to do it – her work, not unlike Joan Didion’s, Alice Goffman’s, or Simone Weil’s, points to the ongoing challenges in engaging with ‘the field’ and as a woman.

Amelia Horgan, Lost in Work

I was the discussant for Amelia’s book in the Philosopher seminar series. In this sense, reading it was…’work’ (ha), but it also came at the right moment, because I was at the beginning of a very exhausting academic term. If you’re looking for a good primer on the history of work, labour struggles, and relations, especially in Western industrial capitalism, this is your book!

Katie Goh, The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters

The only thing I regret about this book is not having written it myself. That being said, I am (still) working on the sociological equivalent of it (early drafts here and here).

I picked up both this and the next book in The Bound bookshop in Whitley Bay, during one of my frantic searches for a flat in the area. I didn’t find a flat, but I found this bookshop, which is worth coming back for – fantastic selection, lovely staff, and a reminder (as clichéd as this may sound) of the value of independent bookshops.

Jacqueline Harpmann, I Who Have Never Known Men

Part-Handmaid’s Tale, part-Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but in some ways better (and earlier!) than both. A gem of a read.

Ruth Ozeki, Tale for a Time Being

This was also a present, this time for Christmas. Don’t know if it just the exhaustion of the preceding year, or my general interest in transcultural, translocal, and the combo of climate change, feminist anarchism, and Zen Buddhism, but this book feels like a balm on a weary soul. Thank you ❤

I am ending the year with two books I’ve taken with me – one is Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice; the other is Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings.

Campbell’s book attracted my attention as soon as it was published; I was even at the book launch/reading (held, fittingly, in Cambridge’s Polar Museum) before the pandemic. It is an impressive artistic/philosophical/literary reflection on change…and ice. Now that I finally got my (non-work) books out of storage, I can read it at peace. For someone who dislikes the cold (the northernmost I lived was Copenhagen, and I hated it), I have a long-standing obsession with the extreme North (possibly fostered by reading Jack London and wanting to own a husky dog as a child). My favourite photograph is Per Bak Jensen’s Disko Bay: I like it so much that I have two reproductions – albeit both small – hanging on my walls.

I was reminded of Ngai’s book by Milan Stürmer in a recent Twitter exchange in which I asked people what their dream interdisciplinary reading list/group would be. Ngai was one of the few authors mentioned that I haven’t read before. It’s definitely time to rectify that.

More importantly, however, reading the suggestions, I was once again reminded of the value of reading broadly, anti-disciplinarily, and against the tendency to reproduce structured inequalities in knowledge production, even if it is sometimes easier. So, for new year, my wish for everyone is not only to read more women, but also to read outside of the immediate or proximate zone of disciplinary, linguistic, conceptual, or even political comfort. This is not saying I always succeed – while I take pride in regularly stepping outside of #1 and #3, as this list demonstrates, I have grown lazy in terms of #2 and the events of the previous year have made me reluctant to engage with #4 beyond what I anyway had to by the virtue of living in a racist, misogynistic world.  

Books are many things – but one of them is lifeworlds. The words we surround ourselves with provide building blocks for the worlds we will inhabit. Make yours, you know, a bit less…predictable.  

How to think about theory (interview with Mark Carrigan, 28 June 2018)

In June 2018, Mark Carrigan interviewed me and a few other people on what is social theory. The original interview was published on the Social Theory Applied website. I’m sharing it here only lightly edited, as it still reflects to a good degree what I think about the labour of theorizing as well as what I call ‘the social life of concepts’, which is my approach to doing and teaching theory.

MC: What is theory?

JB: The million dollar question, isn’t it? I think theory can mean quite a few things – Abend (2008) has listed a few – but rather than reiterate that, I’d focus on two interpretations of the concept that are crucial to my work. One is that it is a language, or a vocabulary, for making sense of social reality; as all languages, it allows for improvisation, but also has rules and procedures that regulate how and under what conditions specific statements make sense. It is also a practice: that is, the practice of growing, developing, and engaging with concepts in that language. This is why Arendt’s discussion of the concept as theorein is not opposed to practice as a whole, but rather comprises action, though one that entails a different idea of engagement.

MC: Why is it important?

JB: This is also why I believe theory is important – I think that a meta-language, and a language about that language, is necessary in order to ensure we can have a meaningful conversation about social matters – and when I say “we”, I do not mean only scientists. Social life by definition involves some level of reduction of complexity: how we go about reducing that complexity has direct implications for how we go about dealing with other people and our environment. This is also why I think it is fruitless to separate social and political theory. Take the concept of class, for instance: it can – it does – mean different things to different people. We need to have both a language in which to make these concepts meaningfully talk to each other, and a routinized social practice for doing so.

MC: What role does it play in your work?

JB: One of the corollaries of my training in both sociology and anthropology is that I find it difficult to sustain discussions about theory that do not engage with how actual people go about using these concepts – the exegetic tone of “did Marx really mean to say this…” or “why Bourdieu’s concept of social capital is that….” is, in my view, both too canonical and insufficiently exciting.

Theory need not be scholastic. One of the elements I got interested in when I was doing my first PhD, for instance, was the concept of ‘romantic relationship’- there were different attempts to theorise it (inversion of historical abstraction of property/inheritance rights, subjugation of women, emancipation from gender roles, cultural expression of ‘hard-wired’ preferences, and so on), but fewer attempts to see how these interpretations ‘sit’ with people’s ideas and practices. Reality does not ‘naturally’ fit into a specific theoretical framework. Rather than trying to make it do so, I decided to put these different theoretical lenses into conversation, to see a particular empirical case could illuminate their commonalities, differences, and possible overlaps.

My second PhD – which is on the role of critique in and of higher education – pretty much repeated this movement, but took it one step further. It asks what difference people’s knowledge makes in how they go about approaching things (including their own situation). Some of this knowledge is theoretical, both in the sense in which it is imbued by concepts derived from theory (as in Giddens’ double hermeneutic), and in the sense in which the question of the link between knowledge and action is in itself theoretically informed. There’s a whole bunch of nested epistemic double binds in there, and that’s what I find so attractive! In philosophical terms, I am aiming to bridge the gap between [critical] realist and pragmatist accounts of the production of knowledge and its role in social reality. I’ve found speculative realism to be a potentially useful tool in doing so, but it is a signpost rather than a church.

I always strive to work simultaneously *on* and *with* theory; someone recently described this as “theoretically hybrid”, which I think was a nice way of putting that I was inclined to bastardize every and one concept I ever came across. But I think this is what the job of the theorist is about. I understand some people prefer to work within the confines of a single theoretical tradition, sometimes dogmatically so; but this has never been my choice. I have very little reverence for principled fidelity to specific theoretical frameworks. Theories are worldviews; this means they need to be challenged.

MC: What would this routinised social practice look like? Is this something social theorists are uniquely qualified to do? How do we ensure this challenge happens? There are lots of obvious mechanisms within the academy which militate against this.

JB: Well, I think routinised social practice is what happens in teaching of sociology and other social science disciplines; it also happens at conferences, reading groups, etc. – such as the Theory stream at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference. The problem is these practices are often sequestered from other bits of theorising. For instance, feminist theory is rarely treated as part of ‘mainstream’ social theory; same goes for postcolonial theory and theories of race, though it seems this is finally beginning to change.

This reproduces, as your question suggests, one of the worst tendencies in the academia (and beyond): theories about and by educated Western white men are treated as ‘theory’, while almost all theory that falls short of even if just one of these categories is automatically a ‘special case’ – as if feminist theory applied only to women, and theories of race only to people of colour. As someone whose induction into theory happened initially through the combination of social anthropology (where questions of identity and difference are pretty much front and centre) and philosophy of science (which acknowledged quite a while ago that all claims to knowledge – including theoretical knowledge – are socially grounded), I find this almost incomprehensible – or, rather, I find that explanations for this go back to the elements in the academia we do not particularly like: racism, sexism, Euro- or (not always mutually exclusively) Anglo-centrism, etc.

Social theorists, on the whole, have not been very good at talking about this. This means that this challenge tends to happen in isolated contexts – and a lot of mainstream social theory carries on with ‘business as usual’. Making it more central requires, I think, a lot of concerted effort. Some of this is personal – for instance, I make a point of always calling out these practices when I spot them, and very adamantly resist ‘pigeonholing’ in which, eg, women’s theoretical claims are routinely repackaged or treated as empirical. For example: a man writing on privatisation of enterprises is seen as contributing to Marxist theory, but a woman writing on the gendered division of labour is either writing ‘about women’ (sic!) or about household labour.

When I was writing my first PhD, about relationships, people often said ‘oh’, as it was a ‘light’ topic, or as if it pertained only to practices of social mobility in a post-socialist context, where my fieldwork was. Giddens’ ‘pure relationship’, on the other hand – which, incidentally, is a concept I did my best to write against – was not taken as only representative of the lived experience of transnational bourgeois mobile academics. This will sound a bit Gramscian, but a lot of theoretical claims made by ‘academic celebrities’ that are routinely taken seriously are often little but the extrapolation of their privilege. Yet, clearly, that is not the problem in and of itself – everyone writes themselves into theories they develop. It’s treating some of these as reflections of universal, God-given truth, and some as ‘about women’ or ‘about race’.  It’s the culture of condescension towards women and minorities that really needs to change.

Obviously, calling it out is not enough: I think we need a strong organisational and institutional support for this. One of academia’s performative contradictions – that I am particularly dedicated to exploring – is that often collective practices work precisely against this. So, we can have a workshop or panel on sexism, racism, or colonialism in social theory, but actually challenging these practices – including in their ‘everyday’ guises – takes a lot of courage, but also a lot of solidarity. It cannot happen outside of challenging the whole culture of fear that currently pervades the academia but which, I hope, the UCU strikes have started chipping away at.

The other thing we can do is provide spaces where these conversations can take place. For instance, the Social Theory summer school we ran at the University of Cambridge in 2016 was developed exactly to surmount this tendency towards ‘cloistered’ (well, of all words!) theorising. To step outside of the retreat of academic positions, seminars, self-rewarding research grants panels, etc., and ask: what is it that doing theory actually entails? Is it anything other than an attempt to justify our own (academic and non-academic) privilege by casually namedropping Foucault or Durkheim? I think this is the question we really need to answer.

How to revise theory

These are some of the slides I have developed for this year’s revision lecture for my students on Modern and Contemporary Sociological Theory at Durham. I am posting them here as they may be a useful pedagogical resource for thinking through teaching – not only social (or sociological) theory but also other kinds of social and political thought.

These slides are meant to help students revise and prepare for exams – note that this is not the extensive engagement we seek to encourage in essays, and does not represent the way teaching or revising theory is approached in other modules (or the other half of this module) at Durham. If you are using these (or similar) slides in your own teaching I’d be keen to hear from you!

This is the introductory slide that describes the ‘4C’ approach to revision:

(1) Specify the social, historical and political context of theories;

(2) Discuss their content (and how they approach different elements of social ontology and epistemology – note that this is a longer discussion);

(3) Contribution: discuss how they contributed to sociologcal knowledge, and addressed and challenged preceding/existing theories;

(4) Critique: how have other (or later) theories challenged or deconstructed the theories you are summarizing?

This is an example of how to do this for Critical Race Theory and theories of intersectionality (as difficult as it is to reduce all of this to one slide!)

And here are two more…decolonial and postcolonial theory and (some of the) contemporary feminist theories, performativity and affect

Night(mare) in Michaelmas*: or, an academic Halloween tale

Halloween, as the tradition goes, is the time when the curtain between the two worlds opens. Of course, in anthropology you learn that this is not a tradition at all – they are all invented, it just depends how long ago. This Halloween, however, I would like to tell you a story about boundaries between worlds, and about those who stand, simultaneously, on both sides.

  1. Straw (wo)men

Scarecrow, effigy, straw man: they are remarkably similar. Made of dried grass, leaves, and branches, sometimes dressed in rags, but rarely with recognizable personal characteristics. Personalizing is the providence of Voodoo dolls, or those who use them, dark magic, and violence, which can sometimes be serious and political. Yet, they are all unmistakeably human: in this sense, they serve to attune us to the ordinariness – the unremarkability – of everyday violence.  

Scarecrows stand on ‘our’ side, and guard our world – that is, the world that relies on agricultural production – against ‘theirs’ (of crows, other birds, and non-human animals: they are, we are told, enemies). The sympathy and even pity we feel for scarecrows (witness The Wizard of Oz) shields us from knowledge that scarecrows bear the disproportionate brunt of the violence we do to Others, and to other worlds. We made it the object of crows’ fear and hatred, so that it protects us from what we do not want to acknowledge: that our well-being, and our food, comes only at the cost of destroying others’.

Effigies are less unambiguously ‘ours’. Regardless of whether they are remnants of *actual* human sacrifice (evidence for this is somewhat thin), they belong both to ‘their’ world and ‘ours’. ‘Theirs’ is the non-human world of fire, ash, and whatever remains once human artifices burn down. ‘Ours’ is the world of ritual, collectivity, of the safe reinstatement of order. Effigies are thus simultaneously dead and alive. We construct them, but not to keep the violence – of Others, and towards Others, like with scarecrows – at bay; we construct them in order to restrain and absorb the violence that is towards our own kind. When we burn effigies, we aim to destroy what is evil, rotten, and polluting amongst ourselves. This is why effigies are such a threatening political symbol: they always herald violence in our midst.

Straw men, by contrast, are neither scarecrows nor effigies: we construct them so that we may – selfishly – live. A ‘straw man’ argument is one we use in order to make it easier to win. We do not engage with actual critique, or possible shortfalls, of our own reasoning: instead, we construct an imaginary opponent to make ourselves appear stronger. This is why it makes no sense to fear straw men, though there are good reasons to be suspicious of those who fashion them all too often. They do not cross boundaries between worlds: they belong fully, and exclusively, to this one.

Straw men are not the stuff of horror. Similarly, there is no reason to fear the scarecrow, unless you are a crow. Effigies, however, are different.

2. Face(mask) to face(mask)

Universities in the UK insist on face-to-face teaching, despite the legal challenge from the University and College Union, protests from individual academics, as well as by now overwhelming evidence that there is no way to make classrooms fully ‘Covid-secure’. The justification for this has usually taken the form ‘students expect *some* face-to-face teaching’. This, I believe, means university leadership fears that students (or, more likely, their parents, possibly encouraged by the OfS and/or The Daily Mail) would request tuition fee reimbursements in case all teaching were to shift online. A more coherent interpretation of the stubborn insistence on f2f teaching is that shifting teaching online would mean many students would elect not to live in student accommodation. Student accommodation, in turn, is not only a major source of profit (and employment) for universities, but also for private landlords, businesses, and different kinds of services in cities that happen to have a significant student population.

In essence, then, f2f teaching serves to secure two sources of income, both disproportionately benefitting the propertied class. In this sense, it remains completely irrelevant who teaches face-to-face or, indeed, what is taught. This is obvious from the logic of guaranteeing face-to-face provision in all disciplines, not only those that might have demonstrable need for some degree of physical co-presence (I’m thinking those that use laboratories, or work with physical material). The content, delivery, and, supremely, rationale for maintaining face-to-face teaching remain unjustified. “They” (students?) expect to see “us” (teachers?) in flesh, blood, and, of course, facemask – which we hope will prevent the airborne particles of Coronavirus from infecting us, and thus from getting ill, suffering consequences, and potentially dying.

That this kind of risk would be an acceptable price for perfunctorily parading behind Perspex screens can only seem odd if we believe that what is being involved in face-to-face teaching is us as human beings and individuals. But it is not: when we walk into the classroom, we are not individual academics, teachers, thinkers, writers, or whatever else we may be. We are the ‘face’ of ‘face-to-face’ teaching. We are the effigies.

3. On institutional violence

On Monday, I am teaching a seminar in social theory. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, this would mean leading small group discussions on activities, and readings, that students have engaged with. Under these circumstances, it will mean groupings of socially distant students trying to have a discussion about readings struggling to hear each other through face masks. Given that I struggle to communicate ‘oat milk flat white’ from behind a mask, I have serious doubts that I will manage to convey particularly sophisticated insights into social theory.

But this does not matter: I am not there as a lecturer, as a human being, as a theorist. I am there to sublimate the violence that we are all complicit in. This violence concerns not only the systematic exposure to harm created by the refusal to acknowledge the risks of cramming human beings unnecessarily into closed spaces during the pandemic of an airborne disease, but also forms of violence specific to higher education. The sporadic violence of the curriculum, still overwhelmingly white, male, and colonial (incidentally, I am teaching exactly such a session). More importantly, it includes the violence that we tacitly accept when we overlook the fact that ‘our’ universities subsist on student fees, and that fees are themselves products of violence. The capital that fees depend on are either a product of exploitation in the past, or of student debt, and thus exploitation in the future.

When I walk into the classroom on Monday, I will want my students to remember that every lecturer stands on the boundary between two worlds, simultaneously dead and alive. Sure, we all hope everyone makes it out of there alive, but that’s not the point: the point is how close to the boundary we get. When I walk into the classroom on Monday, I will remind my students that what they see is not me, but the effigy constructed to obscure the violence of the intersection between academic and financial capital. When I walk into the classroom on Monday, I will want my students to know that the boundary between two worlds is very, very thin, and not only on Halloween.

  • Michaelmas, for those who do not know, is the name of Autumn (first) term of academic year at Oxford, Cambridge, and, incidentally, Durham.

Women and space

Mum in space

Recently, I saw two portrayals of women* in space, Proxima – starring Eva Green as the female member of the crew training for the first mission to Mars; and Away, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of the crew on the first mission to Mars (disclaimer: I have only seen the first two episodes of Away, so I’m not sure what happens in the rest of the series). Both would have been on my to-watch list even under normal circumstances; I grew up on science fiction, and, as any woman who, in Rebecca West’s unsurpassed formulation, expresses opinions that distinguish her from a doormat, have spent a fair bit of time thinking about gender, achievement, and leadership. This time, an event coloured my perception of both: my mum’s death in October.

My mother was 80; she died of complications related to metastatic cancer, which had started as breast cancer but had at this point spread to her liver. She had dealt with cancer intermittently since 2009; had had a double mastectomy and repeated chemotherapy/radiation at relatively regular intervals since – in 2011, 2015, 2018 and, finally, 2020 – the last one stopping shortly after it started, as it became evident that it could not reverse the course of Mum’s illness and was, effectively, making it worse.

As anyone living with this kind of illness knows, it’s always a long game of predicting and testing, waiting when the next one will come up; it’s possible that the cancer that eventually killed my mum was missed because of flaky screening in November, or because of delays at the height of the pandemic. What matters is that, by the time they discovered it during a regular screening in June, it was already too late.

What matters is that, because living with this sort of illness entails living in segments of time between two appointments, two screenings, two test results, we had kind of expected this. We had time to prepare. My mother had time to prepare. I had time to prepare. What also matters is that I was able to travel, to leave the country in time to see my mother still alive, despite the fact that at that time the Home Office had been sitting on my Tier 2 visa application since the start of July, and on the request for expedition due to compassionate circumstances for three weeks. This matters, because many other women are not so lucky as to have the determination to call the Home Office visa processing centre three times, the cultural capital to contact their MP when it seemed like time was running out, nor, for that matter, an MP (also a woman) who took on the case. It matters, because I was able to be there for the last two weeks of my mother’s life. I was there when she died.

But this essay isn’t about me, or my mum. It’s about women, and the stars.

Women and the stars

Every story about the stars is, in essence, a story of departure from Earth, and thus a story of separation, and thus a story of leaving, and what’s left behind. This doesn’t mean that these themes need to be parsed via the tired dichotomy of the ‘masculine-proactive-transcendent’ principle pitted against the ‘feminine-grounded-immanent’, but they often are, and both Proxima and Away play out this tension.

For those who had not seen either or both, Proxima and Away are about women who are travelling into space. Proxima’s Sarah (Eva Green) is the French member of the international crew of astronauts spending a year at the International Space Station in preparation for the first mission to Mars.  

The central tension develops along two vectors: the characters’ relation to their male partners (Sarah’s – ex – Thomas, Emma’s Matt); and their relationship to their daughters – Sarah’s Stella, and Emma’s Alexis (‘Lex’). While the relationship to their partners is not irrelevant, it is obvious that the mother-daughter relationship is central to the plot. Neither is it accidental that both (and only) children are girls: in this sense, the characters’ relationship to their daughters is not only the relationship to the next generation of women, it is also the relationship to their ‘little’ selves. In this sense, the daughters’ desire for their mother’s to return – or to stay, to never leave for the stars – is also a reflection of their own desire to give up, to stay in the comfort of the ground, the Earth, the safe (if suffocating) embrace of family relations and gender roles, in which ‘She’ is primarily, after all, a Mother.

It is interesting that both characters, in Proxima and in Away, find similar ‘solutions’ – or workarounds – for this central tension. In Proxima, Sarah leaves her daughter, but betrays her own commitment by violating pre-flight quarantine regulations, sneaking out the night before departure to take her daughter to see the rocket from up close. In Away, Emma decides to return from pre-flight Lunar base after her husband has a heart attack, only to be persuaded to stay, both by the (slowly recovering) husband and, more importantly, by the daughter, who – at the last minute – realizes the importance of the mission and says she wants her mum to stay, rather than return to Earth. The guilt both women feel over ‘abandoning’ their daughters (and thus their own traditional roles) is thus compensated or resolved by inspiring the next generation of women to ‘look at the stars’: to aim higher, and to prioritize transcendence at the cost of immanence, even when the price is pain.     

We might scoff at the simple(ish) juxtaposition of Earth and the stars, but the essence of that tension is still there, no matter how we choose to frame it. It is the basic tension explored in Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy – the tension between being-for-themselves and being-in-relation to. It’s the unforgiving push and pull that leads so many women to take on disproportionate amounts of emotional, care, and organizational labour. It’s a tension you can’t resolve, no matter how queer, trans, or childless. Even outside of ‘traditional’ gender roles, women are still judged first and foremost on their ability to conceive and retain relationships; research on women leaders, for instance, shows they are required to consistently demonstrate a ‘collective’ spirit of the sort not expected of their male counterparts.

A particularly brutal version of this tension presented itself in the months before my mother died. I was stuck in England, not being able to leave before my Tier 2 visa was approved, and her condition was getting worse. Home Office was already behind their 8-week timeframe due to the pandemic; the official guidance – confirmed by the University – was that, if I chose to leave the country before the decision had been made, not only would I automatically forfeit my application, I would also be banned for a year from re-entering the country, and for a further year from re-applying for the same sort of permit. In essence, this meant I was choosing between my job – which I love – and my mother, which I loved too.

Luckily, I never had to make this choice; after a lot of intervention, my visa came through, and I was able to travel. I am not sure what kind of decision I would have made.

Mum and daughter in space

I saw Proxima in August, shortly after moving from Cambridge to Durham to start my job at the University. It was only the second time I was able to cry after having learned of my mum’s most recent, and final, diagnosis. I saw Away after returning from the funeral in early October, having acquired a Netflix account in a vague attempt at ‘self-care’ that didn’t involve reading analytic philosophy.

My mum saw neither, and I am not sure if she would have recognized herself in them. Hers was a generation of transcendence, buttressed by post-war recovery and socialism’s early successes in eradicating gender inequality. She introduced me to science fiction, but it was primarily Arthur Clarke, Isaac Assimov, and Stanislav Lem, my mum having no problems recognizing herself in the characters of Dave Bowman, Hari Seldon, or Rohan from ‘The Invincible’. Of course, as I was growing up, neither did I: it was only after I had already reached a relatively advanced career stage – and, it warrants mentioning, in particular after I began full-time living in the UK – that I started realizing how resolute the steel grip of patriarchy is in trying to make sure we never reach for the stars.

My mother famously said that she never considered herself a feminist, but had led a feminist life. By this, she meant that she had an exceptional career including a range of leadership positions, first in research, then in political advising, and finally in diplomacy; and that she had a child – me – as a single mother, without a partner involved. What she didn’t stop to think about was that, throughout this process, she had the support not only of two loving parents (both of my grandparents had already retired when I was born), but also of socialist housing, childcare, and education policies.I would point this fact out to her on the rare occasions when she would bring up her one remaining regret, which was that I choose not to have children. Though certainly aided by the fact I never felt the desire to, this decision was buttressed by my belief (and observation) that, no matter how dedicated, egalitarian, etc. etc. a partner can be, it is always mothers who end up carrying a greater burden of childcare, organization, and planning. I hope that she, in the end, understood this decision.

In one of the loveliest messages** I got after my mum died, a friend wrote that he believed my mum was now a star watching over me. As much as I would like to think that, if anything, the experience of a death has resolutely convinced me there is no ‘thereafter’, no space, place, or plane where we go after we die.

But I’m still watching the stars.  

This image is, sadly, a pun that’s untraslateable into English; sorry

* For avoidance of doubt, trans women are women

**Throughout the period, I’ve received absolutely stellar messages of love and support. Among these, it warrants saying, quite a few came from men, but those that came from women were exceptional in striking the balance between giving me space to think my own thoughts and sit with my own grief, while also making sure I knew I could rely on their support if I wanted to. This kind of balance, I think, comes partly out of having to always negotiate being-for-oneself and being-for-others, but there is a massive lesson in solidarity right in there.

The King’s Two(ish) Bodies

Contemporary societies, as we know, rest on calculation. From the establishment of statistics, which was essential to the construction of the modern state, to double-entry bookkeeping as the key accounting technique for ‘rationalizing’ capitalism and colonial trade, the capacity to express quality (or qualities, to be more precise) through numbers is at the core of the modern world.

From a sociological perspective, this capacity involves a set of connected operations. One is valuation, the social process through which entities (things, beings) come to (be) count(ed); the other is commensuration, or the establishment of equivalence: what counts as or for what, and under what circumstances. Marion Fourcade specifies three steps in this process: nominalization, the establishment of ‘essence’ (properties); cardinalization, the establishment of quantity (magnitude); and ordinalization, the establishment of relative position (e.g. position on a scale defined by distance from other values). While, as Mauss has demonstrated, none of these processes are unique to contemporary capitalism – barter, for instance, involves both cardinalization and commensuration – they are both amplified by and central to the operation of global economies.

Given how central the establishment of equivalence is to contemporary capitalism, it is not a little surprising that we seem so palpably bad at it. How else to explain the fact that, on the day when 980 people died from Coronavirus, the majority of UK media focused on the fact that Boris Johnson was recovering in hospital, reporting in excruciating detail the films he would be watching. While some joked about excessive concern for the health of the (secular) leader as reminiscent of the doctrine of ‘The King’s Two Bodies’, others seized the metaphor and ran along with it – unironically.

Briefly (and somewhat reductively – please go somewhere else if you want to quibble, political theory bros), ‘King’s Two Bodies’ is a concept in political theology by which the state is composed of two ‘corporeal’ entities – the ‘body politic’ (the population) and the ‘body natural’ (the ruler)*. This principle allows the succession of political power even after the death of the ruler, reflected in the pronouncement ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King’. From this perspective, the claim that 980 < 1 may seem justified. Yet, there is something troubling about this, even beyond basic principles of decency. Is there a large enough number that would disturb this balance? Is it irrelevant whose lives are those?

Formally, most liberal democratic societies forbid the operation of a principle of equivalence that values some human beings as lesser than others. This is most clearly expressed in universal suffrage, where one person (or, more specifically, one political subject) equals one vote; on the global level, it is reflected in the principle of human rights, which assert that all humans have a certain set of fundamental and unalienable rights simply as a consequence of being human. All members of the set ‘human’ have equal value, just by being members of that set: in Badiou’s terms, they ‘count for one.

Yet, liberal democratic societies also regularly violate these principles. Sometimes, unproblematically so: for instance, we limit the political and some other rights of children and young people until they become of ‘legal age’, which is usually the age at which they can vote; until that point, they count as ‘less than one’. Sometimes, however, the consequences of differential valuation of human beings are much darker. Take, for instance, the migrants who are regularly left to drown in the Mediterranean or treated as less-than-human in detention centres; or the NHS doctors and nurses – especially BAME doctors and nurses – whose exposure to Coronavirus gets less coverage than that of politicians, celebrities, or royalty. In the political ontology of contemporary Britain, some lives are clearly worth less than others.

The most troubling implication of the principle by which the body of the ruler is worth more than a thousand (ten thousand? forty thousand?) of ‘his’ subjects, then, is not its ‘throwback’ to mediaeval political theology: it is its meaning for politics here and now. The King’s Two Bodies, after all, is a doctrine of equivalence: the totality of the body politic (state) is worth as much as the body of the ruler. The underlying operation is 1 = 1. This is horribly disproportionate, but it is an equivalence nonetheless: both the ruler and the population, in this sense, ‘count for one’. From this perspective, the death of a sizeable portion of that population cannot be irrelevant: if the body politic is somewhat diminished, the doctrine of King’s Two Bodies suggests that the power of the ‘ruler’ is somewhat diminished too. By implication, the current political ontology of the British state currently rests not on the principle of equivalence, but on a zero-sum game: losses in population do not diminish the power of the ruler, but rather enlarge it. And that is a dangerous, dangerous form of political ontology.

*Hobbes’ Leviathan is often seen as the perfect depiction of this principle; it is possible to quibble with this reading, but the cover image for this post – here’s the credit to its creator on Twitter – is certainly the best possible reflection on the shift in contemporary forms of political power in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Never let a serious virus go to waste: solidarity in times of the Corona

[Please note that nothing in this post is a replacement for public health advice: if in doubt, refer to official guidelines].

I’m not going to bang on about neoliberal origins of the current crisis. To anyone remotely observant, it is obvious that pandemics are more likely to spread quickly in a globalized world, and that decades of underfunding public health services are going to create systems that are unable to deal when one, like the current Covid_19, hits. I’ll leave such conclusions to sufficiently white, British, and hyphenated writers in The Guardian; I’ve written about neoliberalism elsewhere, and a whole host of other people have too. But there is another reason why crises like these are almost a godsend for the kind of authoritarian neoliberalism that seems to be dominant today.

Self-isolation is useful health strategy, especially in the first phases of trying to stem the spread of the disease, but a nation of people boarded up in their homes staring suspiciously at anyone who seems ‘foreign’ or ‘an outsider’, with contact with the ‘outside world’ reduced to television (hello, BBC!) or social media is a perfect breeding ground for fear, hate, and control. In other words, the neoliberal dream of ‘no such thing as society – only individual men, women, and their families’, made flesh. In this sort of environment, not only does paranoia, misinformation, and mistrust abound, it becomes very difficult to maintain progressive movements or ideas. This post, therefore, is intended as a sort of checklist on how to keep some sort of social solidarity going under possible prolonged period of social isolation*.

It is a work in progress, and I didn’t have time to edit and proofread it, which means it is probably going to change. Feel free to adapt and share as necessary.

  1. Maintain social networks: build new ones, and reinforce the old.

Maintain networks and links with people whenever safe. You can spend time with people while keeping a decent distance, and obviously staying at home if you do develop symptoms. If mobility or public transport are limited, try to connect with people from the neighbourhood. Ask your neighbours if they need something. Use technology and social media to reach out to people. Text your friends. Call them on Skype: face-to-face contact, even if you are not physically in the same space, is really important.

Set up mutual aid networks (current link for Cambridge here). You can help distribute food (see more below), skills, and care – from childminding to helping those who are less able to provide for themselves. If you are worried, wear a mask and keep safe distance. Meet in open spaces. Spring is coming, at least on the North hemisphere. This is what parks and community gardens are for. Remember public spaces? Those.

  1. Develop alternative networks of provision and supply chains. SHARE THEM.

I know this doesn’t come naturally to people in highly consumerist societies, but think very carefully about your actual needs, and about possible replacements. Most shortages are outcomes of the combination of inadequate planning and the (surprise!) failure of ‘markets’ to ‘self-regulate’. Not having enough to eat is not the same scale of crisis as not being able to get exactly the brand of beer you prefer. Think about those who may need help with provisions: from simple things like helping the elderly or disabled people reach something on the upper shelf of a supermarket, to those who will inevitably be too ill to go out. Ask them if they need anything. Offer to make a meal and share it with them.

If possible, develop alternative means of providing food and other necessities. Grow vegetables or herbs; borrow and repair items (not that that’s not what you should be doing anyway). Many products that are bought ready-made can be assembled from common household items. Vinegar (white, 5%), for instance, is a relatively reliable disinfectant (this doesn’t mean you should use it on an operating table, but you can use it in the kitchen – listen to doctors, not to Tesco ads; remember your Chemistry lessons). So is vodka, but I didn’t tell you that. And FFS, stop hoarding toilet paper.

  1. Keep busy.

In the first stages, you may be thinking: ‘Lovely! I’ll get to watch all of those Netflix documentaries!’. However, as experience of people in self-isolation with relatively little to do – think long-distance sailors, monks and nuns – shows, you will get bored and listless. Limited range of mobility and/or actual illness will make it worse. It is actually very, very important to maintain at least a minimal amount of daily discipline. Don’t just think ‘oh, I’ll just read and maybe go out for a walk’. Make a schedule for yourself, and for your loved ones. Stick to it.

It is very likely that schools and universities are going to shut down, or at least shift most of instruction online. This may sound like the least of your worries, but it is incredibly important to keep some form of education going – for yourself, and for others. The immediate reason is that it keeps people occupied; the more distant one is that educational contexts are also opportunities for discussing thoughts and feelings, which may otherwise be scarce. It is also an opportunity to think about education outside of the institutional framework. When my school closed early in spring of 1999, our literature teacher kept up weekly seminars, which were completely voluntary. Best of all, it allowed us to read and discuss books that were not on the syllabus.

Obviously, we will have to think about ways to create meaningful discussions and forms of interaction in a mixture of online and offline environments, but it should not stop at technical innovation. That narrative about developing education that is not about the needs of the market? This is your opportunity to build it.

  1. Keep active.

Self-isolation does not mean you have to turn into a couch potato (trust me, there is rarely such a wealth of solitude as experienced on a long walk in nature). Keep moving – it’s fine to go out if you’re feeling healthy, just avoid enclosed and crowded spaces. Apparently, swimming pools are still OK, but even if you do not do swimming there are many forms of physical activity you can enjoy outdoors – from running and cycling to, for instance, doing Tai Chi or yoga out in the open, weather permitting. And walk, walk, walk. If you are unsure of your health or level of fitness, take shorter walks first. Go with a friend or in small groups. Take water and a snack. Stay safe.

The museums, galleries, cinemas, or shopping malls may be closed, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. Look around. Take a map and explore your local area. Learn names of plants, birds, or local places. There is a multitude of lovely books on how to do this – from Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost to Oddell’s How to Do Nothing, not to mention endless resources on- and offline on local history, wildlife, or geology.

  1. Do not give up politics.

In this sort of moment, politics can rightly feel like a luxury. When you are increasingly reliant on the Government for medical care or emergency rations, criticizing it may seem ill-advised. This is one of the reasons dictators love crises. Crises stifle dissent. Sometimes, this is aided by the designation of a powerful external (or internal) enemy; sometimes, the enemy is invisible – like a virus, or the economic crisis. Unlike wars, however, which tend to – at least in the long run – provoke resistance, invisible sources of the crisis, especially when connected to health, can make it much more difficult to sustain any sort of political challenge.

This is why it is incredibly important to keep connecting, discussing, and supporting each other in small and big ways. Make sure that you include those who are most vulnerable, who are most likely to be excluded from state care (that includes migrants, rough sleepers, and some people with long-term mental health problems or other illnesses). Remember, building solidarity and alternative networks is not only vital for the community to survive, but will also help you organize more efficiently in the future. Trust me, these skills will come in handy.

Stay safe.

 

*You are probably wondering what makes me qualified to write about these things. I have grown a bit tired of the fact that, as an Eastern European woman, I constantly have to justify my epistemic authority, but this time it does actually have to do with the famous Where (Do) I Come From. During the 1999 NATO bombing in Serbia, most public services were closed, there were shortages and a curfew. I was part of the opposition to the Serbian regime, which put me (and many other people) in a slightly odd situation of being opposed to what the regime had been doing (meaning waging war for close to a decade at that point against different parts of former Yugoslavia, which was also the ostensible cause of the NATO intervention) but, obviously, also not very happy about being bombed. Obviously, many things from that period are not scalable: I was 18. It was socialism. A lot of today’s technology wasn’t there (for instance, I remember listening to the long sound of dial-up modem whenever the air raid sirens would go off – it was easier to connect as most people went offline and into bomb shelters). But some are. So use as necessary.

Why you’re never working to contract

During the last #USSstrike, on non-picketing days, I practiced working to contract. Working to contract is part of the broader strategy known as ASOS – action short of a strike – and it means fulfilling your contractual obligations, but not more than that. Together with many other UCU members, I will be moving to ASOS from Thursday. But how does one actually practice ASOS in the neoliberal academia?

 

I am currently paid to work 2.5 days a week. Normally, I am in the office on Thursdays and Fridays, and sometimes half a Monday or Tuesday. The rest of the time, I write and plan my own research, supervise (that’s Cambridgish for ‘teaching’), or attend seminars and reading groups. Last year, I was mostly writing my dissertation; this year, I am mostly panickedly filling out research grant and job applications, for fear of being without a position when my contract ends in August.

Yet I am also, obviously, not ‘working’ only when I do these things. Books that I read are, more often than not, related to what I am writing, teaching, or just thinking about. Often, I will read ‘theory’ books at all times of day (a former partner once raised the issue of the excess of Marx on the bedside table), but the same can apply to science fiction (or any fiction, for that matter). Films I watch will make it into courses. Even time spent on Twitter occasionally yields important insights, including links to articles, events, or just generic mood of a certain category of people.

I am hardly exceptional in this sense. Most academics work much more than the contracted hours. Estimates vary from 45 to as much as 100 hours/week; regardless of what is a ‘realistic’ assessment, the majority of academics report not being able to finish their expected workload within a 37.5-40hr working week. Working on weekends is ‘industry standard’; there is even a dangerous overwork ethic. Yet increasingly, academics have begun to unite around the unsustainability of the system in which we are increasingly feeling overwhelmed, underpaid, and with mental and other health issues on the rise. This is why rising workloads are one of the key elements of the current wave of UCU strikes. It also led to coining of a parallel hashtag: #ExhaustionRebellion. It seems like the culture is slowly beginning to shift.

From Thursday onwards, I will be on ASOS. I look forward to it: being precarious makes not working sometimes almost as exhausting as working. Yet, the problem with the ethic of overwork is not only that is is unsustainable, or that is directly harmful to the health and well-being of individuals, institutions, and the environment. It is also that it is remarkably resilient: and it is resilient precisely because it relies on some of the things academics value the most.

Marx’s theory of value* tells us that the origins of exploitation in industrial capitalism lie in the fact workers do not have ownership over means of production; thus, they are forced to sell their labour. Those who own means of production, on the other hand, are driven by the need to keep capital flowing, for which they need profit. Thus, they are naturally inclined to pay their workers as little as possible, as long as that is sufficient to actually keep them working. For most universities, a steady supply of newly minted graduate students, coupled with seemingly unpalatable working conditions in most other branches of employment, means they are well positioned to drive wages further down (in the UK, 17.5% in real terms since 2009).

This, however, is where the usefulness of classical Marxist theory stops. It is immediately obvious that many of the conditions the late 19th-century industrial capitalism no longer apply. To begin with, most academics own the most important means of production: their minds. Of course, many academics use and require relatively expensive equipment, or work in teams where skills are relatively distributed. Yet, even in the most collective of research teams and the most collaborative of labs, the one ingredient that is absolutely necessary is precisely human thoughts. In social sciences and humanities, this is even more the case: while a lot of the work we do is in libraries, or in seminars, or through conversations, ultimately – what we know and do rests within us**.

Neither, for that matter, can academics simply written off as unwitting victims of ‘false consciousness’. Even if the majority could have conceivably been unaware of the direction or speed of the transformation of the sector in the 1990s or in the early 2000s, after the last year’s industrial action this is certainly no longer the case. Nor is this true only of those who are certainly disproportionately affected by its dual face of exploitation and precarity: even academics on secure contracts and in senior positions are increasingly viewing changes to the sector as harmful not only to their younger colleagues, but to themselves. If nothing else, what USS strikes achieved was to help the critique of neoliberalism, marketization and precarity migrate from the pages of left-leaning political periodicals and critical theory seminars into mainstream media discourse. Knowing that current conditions of knowledge production are exploitative, however, does not necessarily translate into knowing what to do about them.

This is why contemporary academic knowledge production is better characterized as extractive or rentier capitalism. Employers, in most cases, do not own – certainly not exclusively – the means of production of knowledge. What they do instead is provide the setting or platform through which knowledge can be valorized, certified, and exchanged; and charge a hefty rent in the process (this is one part of what tuition fees are about). This ‘platform’ can include anything from degrees to learning spaces; from labs and equipment to email servers and libraries. It can also be adjusted, improved, fitted to suit the interests of users (or consumers – in this case, students); this is what endless investment in buildings is about.

The cunning of extractive capitalism lies in the fact that it does not, in fact, require workers to do very much. You are a resource: in industrial capitalism, your body is a resource; in cognitive capitalism, your mind is a resource too. In extractive capitalism, it gets even better: there is almost nothing you do, a single aspect of your thoughts, feelings, or actions, that the university cannot turn into profit. Reading Marxist theory on the side? It will make it into your courses. Interested in politics? Your awareness of social inequalities will be reflected in your teaching philosophy. Involved in community action? It will be listed in your online profile under ‘public engagement and impact’. It gets better still: even your critique of extractive, neoliberal conditions of knowledge production can be used to generate value for your employer – just make sure it is published in the appropriate journals, and before the REF deadline.

This is the secret to the remarkable resilience of extractive capitalism. It feeds on exactly what academics love most: on the desire to know more, to explore, to learn. This is, possibly, one of the most basic human needs past the point of food, shelter, and warmth. The fact that the system is designed to make access to all of the latter dependent on being exploited for the former speaks, I think, volumes (it also makes The Matrix look like less of a metaphor and more of an early blueprint, with technology just waiting to catch up). This makes ‘working to contract’ quite tricky: even if you pack up and leave your office at 16.38 on the dot, Monday to Friday, your employer will still be monetizing your labour. You are probably, even if unwittingly, helping them do so.

What, then, are we to do? It would be obviously easy to end with a vague call a las barricadas, conveniently positioned so as to boost one’s political cred. Not infrequently, my own work’s been read in this way: as if it ‘reminds academics of the necessity of activism’ or (worse) ‘invites to concrete action’ (bleurgh). Nothing could be farther from the truth: I absolutely disagree with the idea that critical analysis somehow magically transmigrates into political action. (In fact, why we are prone to mistaking one for the other is one of the key topics of my work, but this is an ASOS post, so I will not be writing about it). In other words, what you will do – tomorrow, on (or off?) the picket line, in a bit over a week, in the polling booth, in the next few months, when you are asked to join that and that committee or to a review a junior colleague’s tenure/promotion folder – is your problem and yours alone. What this post is about, however, is what to do when you’re on ASOS.

Therefore, I want to propose a collective reclaiming of the life of the mind. Too much of our collective capacity – for thinking, for listening, for learning, for teaching – is currently absorbed by institutions that turn it, willy-nilly, into capital. We need to re-learn to draw boundaries. We need thinking, learning, and caring to become independent of process that turns them into profit. There are many ways to do it – and many have been tried before: workers and cooperative universities; social science centres; summer schools; and, last but not least, our own teach-outs and picket line pedagogy. But even when these are not happening, we need to seriously rethink how we use the one resource that universities cannot replace: our own thoughts.

So from Thursday next week, I am going to be reclaiming my own. I will do the things I usually do – read; research; write; teach and supervise students; plan and attend meetings; analyse data; attend seminars; and so on – until 4.40. After that, however, my mind is mine – and mine alone.

 

*Rest assured that the students I teach get treated to a much more sophisticated version of the labour theory of value (Soc1), together with variations and critiques of Marxism (Soc2), as well as ontological assumptions of heterodox vs. ‘neoclassical’ economics (Econ8). If you are an academic bro, please resist the urge to try to ‘explain’ any of these as you will both waste my time and not like the result. Meanwhile, I strongly encourage you to read the *academic* work I have published on these questions over the past decade, which you can find under Publications.

**This is one of the reasons why some of the most interesting debates about knowledge production today concern ownership, copyright, or legal access. I do not have time to enter into these debates in this post; for a relatively recent take, see here.

Knowing neoliberalism

(This is a companion/’explainer’ piece to my article, ‘Knowing Neoliberalism‘, published in July 2019 in Social Epistemology. While it does include a few excerpts from the article, if using it, please cite and refer to the original publication. The very end of this post explains why).

What does it mean to ‘know’ neoliberalism?

What does it mean to know something from within that something? This question formed the starting point of my (recently defended) PhD thesis. ‘Knowing neoliberalism’ summarizes some of its key points. In this sense, the main argument of the article is epistemological — that is, it is concerned with the conditions (and possibilities, and limitations) of (human) knowledge — in particular when produced and mediated through (social) institutions and networks (which, as some of us would argue, is always). More specifically, it is interested in a special case of that knowledge — that is, what happens when we produce knowledge about the conditions of the production of our own knowledge (in this sense, it’s not ‘about universities’ any more than, say, Bourdieu’s work was ‘about universities’ and it’s not ‘on education’ any more than Latour’s was on geology or mining. Sorry to disappoint).

The question itself, of course, is not new – it appears, in various guises, throughout the history of Western philosophy, particularly in the second half of the 20th century with the rise (and institutionalisation) of different forms of theory that earned the epithet ‘critical’ (including the eponymous work of philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School, but also other branches of Marxism, feminism, postcolonial studies, and so on). My own theoretical ‘entry points’ came from a longer engagement with Bourdieu’s work on sociological reflexivity and Boltanski’s work on critique, mediated through Arendt’s analysis of the dichotomy between thinking and acting and De Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity; a bit more about that here. However, the critique of neoliberalism that originated in universities in the UK and the US in the last two decades – including intellectual interventions I analysed in the thesis – lends itself as a particularly interesting case to explore this question.

Why study the critique of neoliberalism?

  • Critique of neoliberalism in the academia is an enormously productive genre. The number of books, journal articles, special issues, not to mention ‘grey’ academic literature such as reviews or blogs (in the ‘Anglosphere’ alone) has grown exponentially since mid-2000s. Originating in anthropological studies of ‘audit culture’, the genre now includes at least one dedicated book series (Palgrave’s ‘Critical University Studies’, which I’ve mentioned in this book review), as well as people dedicated to establishing ‘critical university studies‘ as a field of its own (for the avoidance of doubt, I do not associate my work within this strand, and while I find the delineation of academic ‘fields’ interesting as a sociological phenomenon, I have serious doubts about the value and validity of field proliferation — which I’ve shared in many amicable discussions with colleagues in the network). At the start of my research, I referred to this as the paradox of the proliferation of critique and relative absence of resistance; the article, in part, tries to explain this paradox through the examination of what happens if and when we frame neoliberalism as an object of knowledge — or, in formal terms, epistemic object.
  • This genre of critique is, and has been, highly influential: the tropes of the ‘death’ of the university or the ‘assault’ on the academia are regularly reproduced in and through intellectual interventions (both within and outside of the university ‘proper’), including far beyond academic neoliberalism’s ‘native’ context (Australia, UK, US, New Zealand). Authors who present this kind of critique, while most frequently coming from (or being employed at) Anglophone universities in the ‘Global North’, are often invited to speak to audiences in the ‘Global South’. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the lasting influence of colonial networks and hierarchies of ‘global’ knowledge production, and, in particular, with the durability of ‘White’ theory. But it illustrates the broader point that the production of critique needs to be studied from the same perspective as the production of any sort of knowledge – rather than as, somehow, exempt from it. My work takes Boltanski’s critique of ‘critical sociology’ as a starting point, but extends it towards a different epistemic position:

Boltanski primarily took issue with what he believed was the unjustified reduction of critical properties of ‘lay actors’ in Bourdieu’s critical sociology. However, I start from the assumption that professional producers of knowledge are not immune to the epistemic biases to which they suspect their research subjects to be susceptible…what happens when we take forms and techniques of sociological knowledge – including those we label ‘critical’ and ‘reflexive’ – to be part and parcel of, rather than opposed to or in any way separate from, the same social factors that we assume are shaping epistemic dispositions of our research subjects? In this sense, recognising that forms of knowledge produced in and through academic structures, even if and when they address issues of exploitation and social (in)justice, are not necessarily devoid of power relations and epistemic biases, seems a necessary step in situating epistemology in present-day debates about neoliberalism. (KN, p. 4)

  • This, at the same time, is what most of the sources I analysed in my thesis have in common: by and large, they locate sources of power – including neoliberal power – always outside of their own scope of influence. As I’ve pointed out in my earlier work, this means ‘universities’ – which, in practice, often means ‘us’, academics – are almost always portrayed as being on the receiving end of these changes. Not only is this profoundly unsociological – literally every single take on human agency in the past 50-odd years, from Foucault through to Latour and from Giddens through to Archer – recognizes ‘we’ (including as epistemic agents) have some degree of influence over what happens; it is also profoundly unpolitical, as it outsources agency to variously conceived ‘others’ (as I’ve agued here) while avoiding the tricky elements of own participation in the process. This is not to repeat the tired dichotomy of complicity vs. resistance, which is another not particularly innovative reading of the problem. What the article asks, instead, is: What kind of ‘purpose’ does systematic avoidance of questions of ambiguity and ambivalence serve?

What does it aim to achieve?

The objective of the article is not, by the way, to say that the existing forms of critique (including other contributions to the special issue) are ‘bad’ or that they can somehow be ‘improved’. Least of all is it to say that if we just ‘corrected’ our theoretical (epistemological, conceptual) lens we would finally be able to ‘defeat neoliberalism’. The article, in fact, argues the very opposite: that as long as we assume that ‘knowing’ neoliberalism will somehow translate into ‘doing away’ with neoliberalism we remain committed to the (epistemologically and sociologically very limited) assumption that knowledge automatically translates into action.

(…) [the] politically soothing, yet epistemically limited assumption that knowledge automatically translates into action…not only omit(s) to engage with precisely the political, economic, and social elements of the production of knowledge elaborated above, [but] eschews questions of ambiguity and ambivalence generated by these contradictions…examples such as doctors who smoke, environmentalists who fly around the world, and critics of academic capitalism who nonetheless participate in the ‘academic rat race’ (Berliner 2016) remind us that knowledge of the negative effects of specific forms of behaviour is not sufficient to make them go away (KN, p. 10)

(If it did, there would be no critics of neoliberalism who exploit their junior colleagues, critics of sexism who nonetheless reproduce gendered stereotypes and dichotomies, or critics of academic hierarchy who evaluate other people on the basis of their future ‘networking’ potential. And yet, here we are).

What is it about?

The article approaches ‘neoliberalism’ from several angles:

Ontological: What is neoliberalism? It is quite common to see neoliberalism as an epistemic project. Yet, does the fact that neoliberalism changes the nature of the production of knowledge and even what counts as knowledge – and, eventually, becomes itself a subject of knowledge – give us grounds to infer that the way to ‘deal’ with neoliberalism is to frame it as an object (of knowledge)? Is the way to ‘destroy’ neoliberalism to ‘know it’ better? Does treating neoliberalism as an ideology – that is, as something that masses can be ‘enlightened’ about – translate into the possibility to wield political power against it?

(Plot spoiler: my answer to the above questions is no).

Epistemological: What does this mean for ways we can go about knowing neoliberalism (or, for that matter, any element of ‘the social’)? My work, which is predominantly in social theory and sociology of knowledge (no, I don’t work ‘on education’ and my research is not ‘about universities’), in many ways overlaps substantially with social epistemology – the study of the way social factors (regardless of how we conceive of them) shape the capacity to make knowledge claims. In this context, I am particularly interested in how they influence reflexivity, as the capacity to make knowledge claims about our own knowledge – including knowledge of ‘the social’. Enter neoliberalism.

What kind of epistemic position are we occupying when we produce an account of the neoliberal conditions of knowledge production in academia? Is one acting more like the ‘epistemic exemplar’ (Cruickshank 2010) of a ‘sociologist’, or a ‘lay subject’ engaged in practice? What does this tell us about the way in which we are able to conceive of the conditions of the production of our own knowledge about those conditions? (KN, p. 4)

(Yes, I know this is a bit ‘meta’, but that’s how I like it).

Sociological: How do specific conditions of our own production of knowledge about neoliberalism influence this? As a sociologist of knowledge, I am particularly interested in relations of power and privilege reproduced through institutions of knowledge production. As my work on the ‘moral economy’ of Open Access with Chris Muellerleile argued, the production of any type of knowledge cannot be analysed as external to its conditions, including when the knowledge aims to be about those conditions.

‘Knowing neoliberalism’ extends this line of argument by claiming we need to engage seriously with the political economy of critique. It offers some of the places we could look for such clues: for instance, the political economy of publishing. The same goes for networks of power and privilege: whose knowledge is seen as ‘translateable’ and ‘citeable’, and whose can be treated as an empirical illustration:

Neoliberalism offers an overarching diagnostic that can be applied to a variety of geographical and political contexts, on different scales. Whose knowledge is seen as central and ‘translatable’ in these networks is not independent from inequalities rooted in colonial exploitation, maintaining a ‘knowledge hierarchy’ between the Global North and the Global South…these forms of interaction reproduce what Connell (2007, 2014) has dubbed ‘metropolitan science’: sites and knowledge producers in the ‘periphery’ are framed as sources of ‘empirical’, ‘embodied’, and ‘lived’ resistance, while the production of theory, by and large, remains the work of intellectuals (still predominantly White and male) situated in prestigious univer- sities in the UK and the US. (KN, p. 9)

This, incidentally, is the only part of the article that deals with ‘higher education’. It is very short.

Political: What does this mean for different sorts of political agency (and actorhood) that can (and do) take place in neoliberalism? What happens when we assume that (more) knowledge leads to (more) action? (apart from a slew of often well-intended but misconceived policies, some of which I’ve analysed in my book, ‘From Class to Identity’). The article argues that affecting a cognitive slippage between two parts of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis – that is, assuming that interpreting the world will itself lead to changing it – is the thing that contributes to the ‘paradox’ of the overproduction of critique. In other words, we become more and more invested in ‘knowing’ neoliberalism – e.g. producing books and articles – and less invested in doing something about it. This, obviously, is neither a zero-sum game (and it shouldn’t be) nor an old-fashioned call on academics to drop laptops and start mounting barricades; rather, it is a reminder that acting as if there were an automatic link between knowledge of neoliberalism and resistance to neoliberalism tends to leave the latter in its place.

(Actually, maybe it is a call to start mounting barricades, just in case).

Moral: Is there an ethically correct or more just way of ‘knowing’ neoliberalism? Does answering these questions enable us to generate better knowledge? My work – especially the part that engages with the pragmatic sociology of critique – is particularly interested in the moral framing and justification of specific types of knowledge claims. Rather than aiming to provide the ‘true’ way forward, the article asks what kind of ideas of ‘good’ and ‘just’ are invoked/assumed through critique? What kind of moral stance does ‘gnossification’ entail? To steal the title of this conference, when does explaining become ‘explaining away’ – and, in particular, what is the relationship between ‘knowing’ something and framing our own moral responsibility in relation to something?

The full answer to the last question, unfortunately, will take more than one publication. The partial answer the article hints at is that, while having a ‘correct’ way of ‘knowing’ neoliberalism will not ‘do away’ with neoliberalism, we can and should invest in more just and ethical ways of ‘knowing’ altogether. It shouldn’t warrant reminding that the evidence of wide-spread sexual harrassment in the academia, not to mention deeply entrenched casual sexism, racism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, all suggest ‘we’ (as academics) are not as morally impeccable as we like to think we are. Thing is, no-one is. The article hopes to have made a small contribution towards giving us the tools to understand why, and how, this is the case.

I hope you enjoy the article!

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P.S. One of the rather straightforward implications of the article is that we need to come to terms with multiple reasons for why we do the work we do. Correspondingly, I thought I’d share a few that inspired me to do this ‘companion’ post. When I first started writing/blogging/Tweeting about the ‘paradox’ of neoliberalism and critique in 2015, this line of inquiry wasn’t very popular: most accounts smoothly reproduced the ‘evil neoliberalism vs. poor us little academics’ narrative. This has also been the case with most people I’ve met in workshops, conferences, and other contexts I have participated in (I went to quite a few as part of my fieldwork).

In the past few years, however, more analyses seem to converge with mine on quite a few analytical and theoretical points. My initial surprise at the fact that they seem not to directly engage with any of these arguments — in fact, were occasionally very happy to recite them back at me, without acknowledgement, attribution or citation — was somewhat clarified through reading the work on gendered citation practices. At the same time, it provided a very handy illustration for exactly the type of paradox described here: namely, while most academics are quick to decry the precarity and ‘awful’ culture of exploitation in the academia, almost as many are equally quick to ‘cite up’ or act strategically in ways that reproduce precisely these inequalities.

The other ‘handy’ way of appropriating the work of other people is to reduce the scope of their arguments, ideally representing it as an empirical illustration that has limited purchase in a specific domain (‘higher education’, ‘gender’, ‘religion’), while hijacking the broader theoretical point for yourself (I have heard a number of other people — most often, obviously, women and people of colour — describe a very similar thing happening to them).

This post is thus a way of clarifying exactly what the argument of the article is, in, I hope, language that is simple enough even if you’re not keen on social ontology, social epistemology, social theory, or, actually, anything social (couldn’t blame you).

PPS. In the meantime, I’ve also started writing an article on how precisely these forms of ‘epistemic positioning’ are used to limit and constrain the knowledge claims of ‘others’ (women, minorities) etc. in the academia: if you have any examples you would like to share, I’m keen to hear them!

Existing while female

Space

The most threatening spectacle to the patriarchy is a woman staring into space.

I do not mean in the metaphorical sense, as in a woman doing astronomy or astrophysics (or maths or philosophy), though all of these help, too. Just plainly sitting, looking into some vague mid-point of the horizon, for stretches of time.

I perform this little ‘experiment’ at least once per week (more often, if possible; I like staring into space). I wholly recommend it. There are a few simple rules:

  • You can look at the passers-by (a.k.a. ‘people-watching’), but try to avoid eye contact longer than a few seconds: people should not feel that they are particular objects of attention.
  • If you are sitting in a café, or a restaurant, you can have a drink, ideally a tea or coffee. That’s not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your Martini cocktails or glasses of Chardonnay, but images of women cradling tall glasses of alcoholic drink of choice have been very succesfully appropriated by both capitalism and patriarchy, for distinct though compatible purposes.
  • Don’t look at your phone. If you must check the time or messages it’s fine, but don’t start staring at it, texting, or browsing.
  • Don’t read (a book, a magazine, a newspaper). If you have a particularly interesting or important thought feel free to scribble it down, but don’t bury your gaze behind a notebook, book, or a laptop.

Try doing this for an hour.

What this ‘experiment’ achieves is that it renders visible the simple fact of existing. As a woman. Even worse, it renders visible the process of thinking. Simultaneously inhabiting an inner space (thinking) and public space (sitting), while doing little else to justify your existence.

NOT thinking-while-minding-children, as in ‘oh isn’t it admirrrrable that she manages being both an academic and a mom’.

NOT any other form of ‘thinking on our feet’ that, as Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret (and Virginia Woolf) noted, was the constitutive condition for most thinking done by women throughout history.

The important thing is to claim space to think, unapologetically and in public.

Depending on place and context, this usually produces at least one of the following reactions:

  • Waiting staff, especially if male, will become increasingly attentive, repeatedly inquiring whether (a) I am alright (b) everything was alright (c) I would like anything else (yes, even if they are not trying to get you to leave, and yes, I have sat in the same place with friends, and this didn’t happen)
  • Men will try to catch my eye
  • Random strangers will start repeatedly glancing and sometimes staring in my direction.

I don’t think my experience in this regard is particularly exceptional. Yes, there are many places where women couldn’t even dream of sitting alone in public without risking things much worse than uncomfortable stares (I don’t advise attempting this experiment in such places). Yes, there are places where staring into a book/laptop/phone, ideally with headphones on, is the only way to avoid being approached, chatted up, or harassed by men. Yet, even in wealthy, white, urban, middle-class, ‘liberal’ contexts, women who display signs of being afflicted by ‘the life of the mind’ are still somehow suspect. For what this signals is that it is, actually, possible for women to have an inner life not defined by relation to men, if not particular men, then at least in the abstract.

Relations

‘Is it possible to not be in relation to white men?’, asks Sara Ahmed, in a brilliant essay on intellectual genealogies and institutional racism. The short answer is yes, of course, but not as long as men are in charge of drawing the family tree. Philosophy is a clear example. Two of my favourite philosophers, De Beauvoir and Arendt, are routinely positioned in relation to, respectively, Sartre and Heidegger (and, in Arendt’s case, to a lesser degree, Jaspers). While, in the case of De Beauvoir, this could be, to a degree, justified – after all, they were intellectual and writing partners for most of Sartre’s life – the narrative is hardly balanced: it is always Simone who is seen in relation to Jean-Paul, not the other way round*.

In a bit of an ironic twist, De Beauvoir’s argument in the Second Sex that a woman exists only in relation to a man seems to have been adopted as a stylistic prescription for narrating intellectual history (I recently downloaded an episode of In Our Time on De Beauvoir only to discover, in frustration, that it repeats exactly this pattern). Another example is the philosopher GEM Anscombe, whose work is almost uniquely described in terms of her interpretation of Wittgenstein (she was also married to the philosopher Peter Geach, which doesn’t help). A great deal of Anscombe’s writing does not deal with Wittgenstein, but that is, somehow, passed over, at least in non-specialist circles. What also gets passed over is that, in any intellectual partnership or friendship, ideas flow in both directions. In this case, the honesty and generosity of women’s acknowledgments (and occasional overstatements) of intellectual debt tends to be taken for evidence of incompleteness of female thinking; as if there couldn’t, possibly, be a thought in their ‘pretty heads’ that had not been placed there by a man.

Anscombe, incidentally, had a predilection for staring at things in public. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to the Vol. 2 of her collected philosophical papers, Metaphysics and the philosophy of mind:

“The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without realising it was philosophy, was perception (…) For years I would spend time in cafés, for instance, staring at objects saying to myself: ‘I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?’” (1981: viii).

But Wittgenstein, sure.

Nature

Nature abhors a vacuum, if by ‘nature’ we mean the rationalisation of patriarchy, and if by ‘vacuum’ we mean the horrifying prospect of women occupied by their own interiority, irrespectively of how mundane or elevated its contents. In Jane Austen’s novels, young women are regularly reminded that they should seem usefully occupied – embroidering, reading (but not too much, and ideally out loud, for everyone’s enjoyment), playing an instrument, singing – whenever young gentlemen came for a visit. The underlying message is that, of course, young gentlemen are not going to want to marry ‘idle’ women. The only justification for women’s existence, of course, is their value as (future) wives, and thus their reproductive capital: everything else – including forms of internal life that do not serve this purpose – is worthless.

Clearly, one should expect things to improve once women are no longer reduced to men’s property, or the function of wives and mothers. Clearly, they haven’t. In Motherhood, Sheila Heti offers a brilliant diagnosis of how the very question of having children bears down differently on women:

It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all (2018: 98).

Rebecca Solnit points out the same problem in The Mother of All Questions: no matter what a woman does, she is still evaluated in relation to her performance as a reproductive engine. One of the messages of the insidious ‘lean-in’ kind of feminism is that it’s OK to not be a wife and a mother, as long as you are remarkably successful, as a businesswoman, a political leader, or an author. Obviously, ‘ideally’, both. This keeps women stressed, overworked, and so predictably willing to tolerate absolutely horrendous working conditions (hello, academia) and partnerships. Men can be mediocre and still successful (again, hello, academia); women, in order to succeed, have to be outstanding. Worse, they have to keep proving their oustandingness; ‘pure’ existence is never enough.

To refuse this – to refuse to justify one’s existence through a retrospective or prospective contribution to either particular men (wife of, mother of, daughter of), their institutions (corporation, family, country), or the vaguely defined ‘humankind’ (which, more often than not, is an extrapolation of these categories) – is thus to challenge the washed-out but seemingly undying assumption that a woman is somehow less-worthy version of a man. It is to subvert the myth that shaped and constrained so many, from Austen’s characters to Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister: that to exist a woman has to be useful; that inhabiting an interiority is to be performed in secret (which meant away from the eyes of the patriarchy); that, ultimately, women’s existence needs to be justified. If not by providing sex, childbearing, and domestic labour, then at least indirectly, by consuming stuff and services that rely on underpaid (including domestic) labour of other women, from fashion to IPhones and from babysitting to nail salons. Sometimes, if necessary, also by writing Big Books: but only so they could be used by men who see in them the reflection of their own (imagined) glory.

Death

Heti recounts another story, about her maternal grandmother, Magda, imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII. One day, Nazi soldiers came to the women’s barracks and asked for volunteers to help with cooking, cleaning and scrubbing in the officers’ kitchen. Magda stepped forward; as Heti writes, ‘they all did’. Magda was not selected; she was lucky, as it soon transpired that those women were not taken to the kitchen, but rather raped by the officers and then killed.

I lingered over the sentence ‘they all did’ for a long time. What would it mean for more women to not volunteer? To not accept endlessly proving one’s own usefulness, in cover letters, job interviews, student feedback forms? To simply exist, in space?

I think I’ll just sit and think about it for a while.

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 18.12.20.png

(The photo is by the British photographer Hannah Starkey, who has a particular penchant for capturing women inhabiting their own interiority. Thank you to my partner who first introduced me to her work, the slight irony being that he interrupted me in precisely one such moment of contemplation to tell me this).

*I used to make a point of asking the students taking Social Theory to change ‘Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir’ in their essays to ‘de Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre’ and see if it begins to read differently.

Area Y: The Necropolitics of Post-Socialism

This summer, I spent almost a month in Serbia and Montenegro (yes, these are two different countries, despite New York Times still refusing to acknowledge this). This is about seven times as long as I normally would. The two principal reasons are that my mother, who lives in Belgrade, is ill, and that I was planning to get a bit of time to quietly sit and write my thesis on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. How the latter turned out in light of the knowledge of the former I leave to imagination (tl;dr: not well). It did, however, give me ample time to reflect on the post-socialist condition, which I haven’t done in a while, and to get outside Belgrade, to which I normally confine my brief visits.

The way in which perverse necro/bio-politics of post-socialism obtain in my mother’s illness, in the landscape, and in the socio-material, fits almost too perfectly into what has been for years the dominant style of writing about places that used to be behind the Iron Curtain (or, in the case of Yugoslavia, on its borders). Social theory’s favourite ruins – the ruins of socialism – are repeatedly re-valorised through being dusted off and resurrected, as yet another alter-world to provide the mirror image to the here and the now (the here and the now, obviously, being capitalism). During the Cold War, the Left had its alter-image in the Soviet Union; now, the antidote to neoliberalism is provided not through the actual ruins of real socialism – that would be a tad too much to handle – but through the re-invention of the potential of socialism to provide, in a tellingly polysemic title of MoMA’s recently-opened exhibition on architecture in Yugoslavia, concrete utopias.

Don’t get me wrong: I would love to see the exhibition, and I am sure that it offers much to learn, especially for those who did not have the dubious privilege of having grown up on both sides of socialism. It’s not the absence of nuance that makes me nauseous in encounters with socialist nostalgia: a lot of it, as a form of cultural production, is made by well-meaning people and, in some cases, incredibly well-researched. It’s that  resurrecting hipsterified golems of post-socialism serves little purpose other than to underline their ontological status as a source of comparison for the West, cannon-fodder for imaginaries of the world so bereft of hope that it would rather replay its past dreams than face the potential waking nightmare of its future.

It’s precisely this process that leaves them unable to die, much like the ghosts/apparitions/copies in Lem’s (and Tarkovsky’s) Solaris, and in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. In VanderMeer’s books, members of the eleventh expedition (or, rather, their copies) who return to the ‘real world’ after exposure to the Area X develop cancer and die pretty quickly. Life in post-socialism is very much this: shadows or copies of former people confusedly going about their daily business, or revisiting the places that once made sense to them, which, sometimes, they have to purchase as repackaged ‘post-socialism’; in this sense, the parable of Roadside Picnic/Stalker as the perennial museum of post-communism is really prophetic.

The necropolitical profile of these parts of former Yugoslavia, in fact, is pretty unexceptional. For years, research has shown that rapid privatisation increases mortality, even controlled for other factors. Obviously, the state still feigns perfunctory care for the elderly, but healthcare is cumbersome, inefficient and, in most cases, barely palliative. Smoking and heavy drinking are de rigueur: in winter, Belgrade cafés and pubs turn into proper smokehouses. Speaking of that, vegetarianism is still often, if benevolently, ridiculed. Fossil fuel extraction is ubiquitous. According to this report from 2014, Serbia had the second highest rate of premature deaths due to air pollution in Europe. That’s not even getting closer to the Thing That Can’t Be Talked About – the environmental effects of the NATO intervention in 1999.

An apt illustration comes as I travel to Western Serbia to give a talk at the anthropology seminar at Petnica Science Centre, where I used to work between 2000 and 2008. Petnica is a unique institution that developed in the 1980s and 1990s as part science camp, part extracurricular interdisciplinary  research institute, where electronics researchers would share tables in the canteen with geologists, and physicists would talk (arguably, not always agreeing) to anthropologists. Founded in part by the Young Researchers of Serbia (then Yugoslavia), a forward-looking environmental exploration and protection group, the place used to float its green credentials. Today, it is funded by the state – and fully branded by the Oil Industry of Serbia. The latter is Serbian only in its name, having become a subsidiary of the Russian fossil fuel giant Gazpromneft. What could arguably be dubbed Serbia’s future research elite, thus, is raised in view of full acceptance of the ubiquity of fossil fuels not only for providing energy, but, literally, for running the facilities they need to work.

These researchers can still consider themselves lucky. The other part of Serbian economy that is actually working are factories, or rather production facilities, of multinational companies. In these companies, workers are given 12-hour shifts, banned from unionising, and, as a series of relatively recent reports revealed, issued with adult diapers so as to render toilet breaks unnecessary.

As Elizabeth Povinelli argued, following Achille Mbembe, geontopower – the production of life and nonlife, and the creation of the distinction between them, including what is allowed to live and what is allowed to die – is the primary mode of exercise of power in late liberalism. Less frequently examined way of sustaining the late liberal order is the production of semi-dependent semi-peripheries. Precisely because they are not the world’s slums, and because they are not former colonies, they receive comparatively little attention. Instead, they are mined for resources (human and inhuman). That the interaction between the two regularly produces outcomes guaranteed to deplete the first is of little relevance. The reserves, unlike those of fossil fuels, are almost endless.

Serbian government does its share in ensuring that the supply of cheap labour force never runs out, by launching endless campaigns to stimulate reproduction. It seems to be working: babies are increasingly the ‘it’ accessory in cafés and bars. Officially, stimulating the birth rate is to offset the ‘cost’ of pensions, which IMF insists should not increase. Unofficially, of course, the easiest way to adjust for this is to make sure pensioners are left behind. Much like the current hype about its legacy, the necropolitics of post-socialism operates primarily through foregrounding its Instagrammable elements, and hiding the ugly, non-productive ones.

Much like in VanderMeer’s Area X, knowledge that the border is advancing could be a mixed blessing: as Danowski and Viveiros de Castro argued in a different context, end of the world comes more easily to those for whom the world has already ended, more than once. Not unlike what Scranton argued in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene – this, perhaps, rather than sanitised dreams of a utopian future, is one thing worth resurrecting from post-socialism.

Writing our way out of neoliberalism? For an ecology of publishing

[This blog post is written in preparation for the panel Thinking knowledge production without the university that I am organising at the Sociological Review’s conference Undisciplining: conversations from the edges, Newcastle, Gateshead, 18-21 June 2018. Reflections from other participants are here. I am planning to expand on this part during and after the conference, so questions and comments welcome!]

What kind of writing and publishing practices might support knowledge that is not embedded in the neoliberal university? I’ve been interested in this question for a long while, in part because it is a really tough one. As academics – and certainly as academics in social sciences and humanities – writing and publishing is, ultimately, what we do. Of course, our work frequently also involves teaching – or, as those with a love for neat terminologies like to call it, ‘knowledge transmission’ – as well as different forms of its communication or presentation, which we (sometimes performatively) refer to as ‘public engagement’. Even those, however, often rely or at least lead to the production of written text of some sort: textbooks, academic blogs. This is no surprise: modern Western academic tradition is highly reliant on the written word. Obviously, in this sense, questions and problems of writing/publishing and its relationship with knowledge practices are both older and much broader than the contemporary economy of knowledge production, which we tend to refer to as neoliberal. They may also last beyond it, if, indeed, we can imagine the end of neoliberalism. However, precisely for this reason, it makes sense to think about how we might reconstruct writing and publishing practices in ways that weaken, rather than contribute to the reproduction of neoliberal practices of knowledge production.

The difficulty with thinking outside of the current framework becomes apparent when we try thinking of the form these practices could take. While there are many publications  not directly contributing to the publishing industry – blogs, zines, open-access, collaborative, non-paywalled articles all come to mind – they all too easily become embedded in the same dynamic. As a result, they are either eschewed because ‘they do not count’, or else they are made to count (become countable) by being reinserted in the processes of valorisation via the proxy of ‘impact’. As I’ve argued in this article (written with my former colleague from the UNIKE (Universities in the knowledge economy) project, economic geographer Chris Muellerleile), even forms of knowledge production that explicitly seek to ‘disrupt’ such modes, such as Open Access or publish first/review later platforms, often rely on – even if implicit – assumptions that can feed into the logic of evaluation and competition. This is not saying that restricting access to scientific publications is in any way desirable. However, we need to accept that opening access (under certaincircumstances, for certain parts of the population) does not in and of itself do much to ‘disrupt’ the broader political and economic system in which knowledge is embedded.

Publish or…publish 

Unsurprisingly,  the hypocrisy of the current system disproportionately affects early career and precarious scholars. ‘Succeeding’ in the academia – i.e. escaping precarity – hinges on publishing in recognised formats and outlets: this means, almost exclusively, peer-reviewed journal in one’s discipline, and books. The process is itself costly and risky. Turnover times can be ridiculously long: a chapter for an edited volume I wrote in July 2015 has finally been published last month, presumably because other – more senior, obviously – contributors took much longer. The chapter deals with a case from 2014, which makes the three-year lag between its accepted version and publication problematic for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, even when good and relatively timely, the process of peer review can be soul-crushing for junior scholars (see: Reviewer No.2). Obviously, if this always resulted in a better final version of the article, we could argue it would make it worthwhile. However, while some peer reviewers offer constructive feedback that really improves the process of publication, this is not always the case. Increasingly, because peer review takes time and effort, it is kicked down the academic ladder, so it becomes a case of who can afford to review – or, equally (if not more) often, who cannot afford to say no a review.

In other words, just like other aspects of academic knowledge production, the reviewing and publishing process is plagued by stark inequalities. ‘Big names’ or star professors can get away with only perfunctory – if any – peer review; a series of clear cases of plagiarism or self-plagiarism, not to mention a string of recent books with bombastic titles that read like barely-edited transcripts of undergraduate seminars (there are plenty around), are a testament to this. Just in case, many of these ‘Trump academics‘ keep their own journals or book series as a side hustle, where the degree of familiarity with the editorial board is often the easiest path to publication.

What does this all lead to? The net result is the proliferation of academic publications of all sorts, what some scholars have dubbed the shift from an economy of scarcity to that of abundance. However, it’s not that more is necessarily better: while it’s difficult (if not entirely useless) to speak of scholarly publications in universal terms, as the frequently (mis-)cited piece of research argued, most academic articles are read and cited by very few people. It’s quite common for academics to complain they can’t keep up with the scholarly production in their field, even when narrowed down to a very tight disciplinary specialism. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the changing structure of academic labour, in particular the increasing load of administration and the endless rounds of research evaluation and grant application writing, which syphons aways time for reading. But some of this has to do with the simple fact that there is so much more of published stuff around: scholars compete with each other in terms of who’s going to get more ‘out there’, and sooner. As a result, people rarely take the time to read others’ work carefully, especially if it is outside of their narrow specialism or discipline. Substituting this with sycophantic shout-outs via Twitter or book reviews, which are often thinly veiled self-serving praise that reveals more about the reviewer’s career plans, than about the actual publication being reviewed.

For an ecology of knowledge production 

So, how is it possible to work against all this? Given that the purpose of this panel was to start thinking about actual solutions, rather than repeat tired complaints about the nature of knowledge production in the neoliberal academia, I am going to put forward two concrete proposals: one is on the level of conceptual – not to say ‘behavioural’ -change; the other on the level of institutions, or organisations. The first is a commitment to, simply, publish less. Much like in environmental pollution where solutions such as recycling, ‘natural’ materials, and free and ethical trading are a way less effective way to minimise CO2 emissions than just reducing consumption (and production), in writing and publishing we could move towards the progressive divestment from the idea that the goal is to produce as much as possible, and put it ‘out there’ as quickly as possible. To be clear, this isn’t a thinly-veiled plea for ‘slow’ scholarship. Some disciplines or topics clearly call for quicker turnover – one can think of analyses in current affairs, environmental or political science. On the other hand, some topics or disciplines require time, especially when there is value in observing how trends develop over a period of time. Recognising the divergent temporal cycles of knowledge production not only supports the dignity of the academic profession, but also recognises knowledge production happens outside of academia, and should not – need not – necessarily be dependent on being recognised or rewarded within it. As long as the system rewards output, the rate of output will tend to increase: in this sense, competition can be seen not necessarily as an outcome as much as a byproduct of our desire to ‘populate’ the world with the fruits of our labour. Publishing less, in this sense, is not that much a performative act as the first step in divesting from the incessant drive of competitive logic that permeates both the academia and the world ‘outside’ of it.

One way is to, simply, publish less.

Publishers play a very important role in this ecology of knowledge production. Much has been made of the so-called ‘predatory’ journals and publishers, clearly seeking even a marginal profit: the less often mentioned flipside is that almost all publishing is to some degree ‘predatory’, in the sense in which editors seek out authors whose work they believe can sell – that is, sell for a profit that goes to the publisher, and sometimes the editors, while authors can, at best, hope for an occasional drip from royalties (unless, again, they are star/Trump academics, in which case they can aspire to hefty book advances). Given the way in which the imperative to publish is ingrained in the dynamics of academic career progression – and, one might argue, in the academic psyche – it is no surprise that multiple publishing platforms, often of dubious quality, thrive in this landscape.

Instead of this, we could aim for a combination of publishing cooperatives – perhaps embedded in professional societies – and a small number of established journals, which could serve as platforms or hubs for a variety of formats, from blogs to full-blown monographs. These journals would have an established, publicly known, and well-funded board of reviewers and editors. Combined, these principles could enable publishing to serve multiple purposes, communities and formats, without the need to reproduce a harmful hierarchy embedded in competitive market-oriented models. It seems to me that the Sociological Review, which is organising this conference, could be  going towards this model. Another journal with multiple formats and an online forum is the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. I am sure there are others that could serve as blueprints for this new ecology of knowledge production; perhaps, together, we can start thinking how to build it.

Life or business as usual? Lessons of the USS strike

[Shortened version of this blog post was published on Times Higher Education blog on 14 March under the title ‘USS strike: picket line debates will reenergise scholarship’].

 

Until recently, Professor Marenbon writes, university strikes in Cambridge were a hardly noticeable affair. Life, he says, went on as usual. The ongoing industrial action that UCU members are engaging in at UK’s universities has changed all that. Dons, rarely concerned with the affairs of the lesser mortals, seem to be up in arms. They are picketing, almost every day, in the wind and the snow; marching; shouting slogans. For Heaven’s sake, some are even dancing. Cambridge, as pointed out on Twitter, has not seen such upheaval ever since we considered awarding Derrida an honorary degree.

This is possibly the best thing that has happened to UK higher education, at least since the end of the 1990s. Not that there’s much competition: this period, after all, brought us the introduction, then removal of tuition fee caps; abolishment of maintenance grants; REF and TEF; and as crowning (though short-lived) glory, appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students. Yet, for most of this period, academics’ opposition to these reforms conformed to ‘civilised’ ways of protest: writing a book, giving a lecture, publishing a blog post or an article in Times Higher Education, or, at best, complaining on Twitter. While most would agree that British universities have been under threat for decades, concerted effort to counter these reforms – with a few notable exceptions – remained the provenance of the people Professor Marenbon calls ‘amiable but over-ideological eccentrics’.

This is how we have truly let down our students. Resistance was left to student protests and occupations. Longer-lasting, transgenerational solidarity was all but absent: at the end of the day, professors retreated to their ivory towers, precarious academics engaged in activism on the side of ever-increasing competition and pressure to land a permanent job. Students picked up the tab: not only when it came to tuition fees, used to finance expensive accommodation blocks designed to attract more (tuition-paying) students, but also when it came to the quality of teaching and learning, increasingly delivered by an underpaid, overworked, and precarious labour force.

This is why the charge that teach-outs of dubious quality are replacing lectures comes across as particularly disingenuous. We are told that ‘although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to “teach-outs” on vital topics such as “How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East” and “Neoliberal Capitalism versus Collective Imaginaries”’. Although this is but one snippet of Cambridge UCU’s programme of teach-outs, the choice is illustrative.

The link between history and UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East strikes me as obvious. Students in philosophy, politics or economics could do worse than a seminar on the development of neoliberal ideology (the event was initially scheduled as part of the Cambridge seminar in political thought). As for mathematics – anybody who, over the past weeks, has had to engage with the details of actuarial calculation and projections tied to the USS pension scheme has had more than a crash refresher course: I dare say they learned more than they ever hoped they would.

Teach-outs, in this sense, are not a replacement for education “as usual”. They are a way to begin bridging the infamous divide between “town and gown”, both by being held in more open spaces, and by, for instance, discussing how the university’s lucrative development projects are impacting on the regional economy. They are not meant to make up for the shortcomings of higher education: if anything, they render them more visible.

What the strikes have made clear is that academics’ ‘life as usual’ is vice-chancellors’ business as usual. In other words, it is precisely the attitude of studied depoliticisation that allowed the marketization of higher education to continue. Markets, after all, are presumably ‘apolitical’. Other scholars have expanded considerable effort in showing how this assumption had been used to further policies whose results we are now seeing, among other places, in the reform of the pensions system. Rather than repeat their arguments, I would like to end with the words of another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who understood well the ambiguous relationship between the academia and politics:

 

‘Very unwelcome truths have emerged from the universities, and very unwelcome judgments have been handed down from the bench time and again; and these institutions, like other refuges of truth, have remained exposed to all the dangers arising from social and political power. Yet the chances for truth to prevail in public are, of course, greatly improved by the mere existence of such places and by the organization of independent, supposedly disinterested scholars associated with them.

This authentically political significance of the Academe is today easily overlooked because of the prominence of its professional schools and the evolution of its natural science divisions, where, unexpectedly, pure research has yielded so many decisive results that have proved vital to the country at large. No one can possibly gainsay the social and technical usefulness of the universities, but this importance is not political. The historical sciences and the humanities, which are supposed to find out, stand guard over, and interpret factual truth and human documents, are politically of greater relevance.’

In this sense, teach-outs, and industrial action in general, are a way to for us to recognise our responsibility to protect the university from the undue incursion of political power, while acknowledging that such responsibility is in itself political. At this moment in history, I can think of no service to scholarship greater than that.

I am a precarious, foreign, early career researcher. Why should I be striking?

 

OK, I’ll admit the title is a bit of clickbait. I’ve never had a moment of doubt around strikes. However, in the past few weeks, as the UCU strike over pensions is drawing nearer, I’ve had a series of conversations in which colleagues, friends, or just acquaintances have raised some of the concerns reflected in, though not exhausted by, this title. So, I’ve decided to write up a short post answering some of these questions, mostly so I could get out of people’s Facebook or Twitter timelines. This isn’t meant to try and convince you, and even less is it any form of official or legal advice: at the end of the day, exercising your rights is your choice. Here are some of mine.

I am precariously employed: I can’t really afford to lose the pay.

This is a very serious concern, especially for those who have no other source of income or savings (and that’s quite a few). The UCU has set up a solidarity fund to help in such cases; quite a few local organisations have as well, and from what I understand early career/precarious researchers should have advantage in applying to these. Even taking this into account, this is by no means a small sacrifice to make, but the current pension reform means that in the long run, you would be losing much more than the pay that could be docked.

But I am not even a member of the Union!

Your right to strike is not dependent on your membership in a(ny) union. That being said, if you would like the Union to represent/help you, it makes sense to join the Union. Actually, it makes sense to join the Union anyway. Why are you not a member of the Union? Join the Union. Here, have a uni(c)o(r)n.

unicorn-toys
Yes I know it’s the worst pun ever

 

 

 

 

I am afraid of pissing off my supervisor/boss, and I rely on their good will/recommendation letters/support for future jobs.

There’s a high chance your supervisor is striking – after all, their pensions are on the line as well. Even if they are not, it is possible that if you calmly explain why you feel this is important, and why you think you should show solidarity with your colleagues, they will see your point (and maybe even join you). Should this not be the case, they have no legal way of preventing you from exercising your basic employment right, one that is part of your contract (which, presumably, they will have read!).

In terms of future recommendations, if you really think your supervisor is evaluating your research on the basis of whether you show up in the office, and not on the basis of your commitment, results, or potential, perhaps it’s time to have a chat with them. Remember, exercising the right to strike is not meant to harm your project, your colleagues, or your supervisor: it is meant to show disagreement concerning a decision that affects you, was taken in your name, but you most likely had little or no say over. Few supervisors would dispute your right to do that.

I’ll be able to strike when I’m more senior/securely employed.

UK abolished ‘tenure’ about thirty years ago, so no one’s job is completely safe. Obviously, of course, this doesn’t mean there are no differences in status, but unfortunately, experience suggests that job security does not directly correlate with the willingness to be critical of the institution you work in. Anyway, look at the senior academics around you. Either they are striking – in which case they will certainly support your right to do the same – or they are not, which would suggest that there is nothing to suggest you will if, and when, you get to their career stage.

Remember, this is why precarity exists: employers benefit from insecure/casual contracts exactly because they provide an army of reserve (and cheap) labour in case the permanently employed decide to strike. Which is exactly what is happening now. Don’t let them get away with it.

I don’t want to let  my students down.

This obviously primarily applies to those of us who are teaching and/or supervising, but I think there is a broader point to be made: students are not children. Universities dispensed with in loco parentis in the 1970s. It’s fine to feel a duty of care for your students, but it also makes sense to recognize that they are capable of making decisions for themselves – for instance, whom they will invite to give a public lecture, how they will vote, or how they will interpret the fact their lecturers are on strike (here‘s a good example from Goldsmiths). Which is not to say you shouldn’t explain to them exactly why you are striking. Even better, invite them to help you organize or come to one of the teach-outs.

Think about it this way: next week, you can teach them one of the following: (a) how to stand up for their rights and show solidarity, or (b) how to read Shakespeare (sorry, English lit scholars, this came to mind first). You’ve got (according to employers’ calculations) 351 days in a year to do the latter. Will you use your chance to do the former?

I won’t even get to a pension; why should I fight for the benefits of entitled, securely employed academics?

If you are an employee of a pre-1992 university in the UK, chances are you are enrolled in the USS. This means you are accruing some pension through the system, thus the proposed changes are affecting you. The less you’ve been in the system – that is, the shorter the period of time you’ve been employed – the more of a difference it makes. Remember, entitled academics you are talking about have accrued most of their pension under the old system; paradoxically, you are set to lose much more than they are.

I feel this struggle is really about the privilege of white male dons, and does not address the deeper structural inequalities I experience.

 It’s true that the struggle is primarily about pensions, and it’s true that the majority of people who have benefited from the system so far are traditionally privileged. This reflects the deeper inequalities of UK higher education, and, in particular, its employment structure. My experience is a bit of a mixed bag: I am a woman and ethnic minority, but I am also white and middle-class, so I clearly can’t speak for everyone, but I think that this is precisely why it’s important to be present in the strike. We need to make sure it doesn’t remain about white men only, and that it becomes obvious that higher education in England rests not on the traditional idea of a ‘professor’, but on the work of many, often precariously employed, early career researchers, women, minorities, non-binaries, and, yes, foreigners.

Speaking of that – I’m a foreigner, why should I care?

This is most difficult for me to relate to, not only because my work has been in and on the UK for quite a while but because, frankly, I’ve never felt like not a foreigner, no matter where I lived, and I always thought solidarity is international or it is nothing. But here’s my attempt at a more pragmatic argument: this is where you work, so this is where you exercise your rights as a worker. You may obviously have a lot of other, non-local concerns – family and friends in different countries, causes (or fieldwork sites) on other continents, and so on, but none of that should preclude the possibility to be actively involved in something that concerns your rights, here and now. After all, if you can show solidarity with Palestinian children or Yemeni refugees, you can show solidarity with people working in the same industry, who share many of your concerns.

There is a related serious issue concerning those on Tier 2 visas – UCU offers some guidance here; in a nutshell, you are most likely safe as long as you don’t intend to be absent without leave (i.e. consent from your employer) for many more consecutive days during the rest of the year.

There are so many problems with higher education, this seems like a very minor fight!

True. Fighting for pensions is not going to stop the neoliberalisation of HE or the precarisation of the academic workforce per se.

Yet, imagine the longer-term potential of an action like this. You will have met other (precarious) colleagues (especially outside of your discipline/field) on picket lines and at teach-outs; you will have learnt how to effectively organize actions that bring together different groups and different concerns; not least importantly, you will have shown your employer how crucial for teaching, and research, people like you really are. Now, that’s something that could come handy in future struggles, don’t you think?

The paradox of resistance: critique, neoliberalism, and the limits of performativity

The critique of neoliberalism in academia is almost as old as its object. Paradoxically, it is the only element of the ‘old’ academia that seems to be thriving amid steadily worsening conditions: as I’ve argued in this book review, hardly a week goes by without a new book, volume, or collection of articles denouncing the neoliberal onslaught or ‘war’ on universities and, not less frequently, announcing their (untimely) death.

What makes the proliferation of critique of the transformation of universities particularly striking is the relative absence – at least until recently – of sustained modes of resistance to the changes it describes. While the UCU strike in reaction to the changes to the universities’ pension scheme offers some hope, by and large, forms of resistance have much more often taken the form of a book or blog post than strike, demo, or occupation. Relatedly, given the level of agreement among academics about the general direction of these changes, engagement with developing long-term, sustainable alternatives to exploitative modes of knowledge production has been surprisingly scattered.

It was this relationship between the abundance of critique and paucity of political action that initially got me interested in arguments and forms of intellectual positioning in what is increasingly referred to as the ‘[culture] war on universities’. Of course, the question of the relationship between critique and resistance – or knowledge and political action – concerns much more than the future of English higher education, and reaches into the constitutive categories of Western political and social thought (I’ve addressed some of this in this talk). In this post, however, my intention is to focus on its implications for how we can conceive critique in and of neoliberal academia.

Varieties of neoliberalism, varieties of critique?

While critique of neoliberalism in the academia tends to converge around the causes as well as consequences of this transformation, this doesn’t mean that there is no theoretical variation. Marxist critique, for instance, tends to emphasise the changes in working conditions of academic staff, increased exploitation, and growing commodification of knowledge. It usually identifies precarity as the problem that prevents academics from exercising the form of political agency – labour organizing – that is seen as the primary source of potential resistance to these changes.

Poststructuralist critique, most of it drawing on Foucault, tends to focus on changing status of knowledge, which is increasingly portrayed as a private rather than a public good. The reframing of knowledge in terms of economic growth is further tied to measurement – reduction to a single, unitary, comparable standard – and competition, which is meant to ensure maximum productivity. This also gives rise to mechanisms of constant assessment, such as the TEF and the REF, captured in the phrase ‘audit culture‘. Academics, in this view, become undifferentiated objects of assessment, which is used to not only instill fear but also keep them in constant competition against each other in hope of eventual conferral of ‘tenure’ or permanent employment, through which they can be constituted as full subjects with political agency.

Last, but not least, the type of critique that can broadly be referred to as ‘new materialist’ shifts the source of political power directly to instruments for measurement and sorting, such as algorithms, metrics, and Big Data. In the neoliberal university, the argument goes, there is no need for anyone to even ‘push the button’; metrics run on their own, with the social world already so imbricated by them that it becomes difficult, if not entirely impossible, to resist. The source of political agency, in this sense, becomes the ‘humanity’ of academics, what Arendt called ‘mere’ and Agamben ‘bare’ life. A significant portion of new materialist critique, in this vein, focuses on emotions and affect in the neoliberal university, as if to underscore the contrast between lived and felt experiences of academics on the one hand, and the inhumanity of algorithms or their ‘human executioners’ on the other.

Despite possibly divergent theoretical genealogies, these forms of critique seem to move in the same direction. Namely, the object or target of critique becomes increasingly elusive, murky, and de-differentiated: but, strangely enough, so does the subject. As power grows opaque (or, in Foucault’s terms, ‘capillary’), the source of resistance shifts from a relatively defined position or identity (workers or members of the academic profession) into a relatively amorphous concept of humanity, or precarious humanity, as a whole.

Of course, there is nothing particularly original in the observation that neoliberalism has eroded traditional grounds for solidarity, such as union membership. Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos and Judith Butler’s Notes towards a performative theory of assembly, for instance, address the possibilities for political agency – including cross-sectional approaches such as that of the Occupy movement – in view of this broader transformation of the ‘public’. Here, however, I would like to engage with the implications of this shift in the specific context of academic resistance.

Nerdish subject? The absent centre of [academic] political ontology

The academic political subject, which is why the pun on Žižek, is profoundly haunted by its Cartesian legacy: the distinction between thinking and being, and, by extension, between subject and object. This is hardly surprising: critique is predicated on thinking about the world, which proceeds through ‘apprehending’ the world as distinct from the self; but the self  is also predicated on thinking about that world. Though they may have disagreed on many other things, Boltanski and Bourdieu – both  feature prominently in my work – converge on the importance of this element for understanding the academic predicament: Bourdieu calls it the scholastic fallacy, and Boltanski complex exteriority.

Nowhere is the Cartesian legacy of critique more evident than in its approach to neoliberalism. From Foucault onwards, academic critique has approached neoliberalism as an intellectual project: the product of a ‘thought collective’ or a small group of intellectuals, initially concentrated in the Mont Pelerin society, from which they went on to ‘conquer’ not only economics departments but also, more importantly, centres of political power. Critique, in other words, projects back onto neoliberalism its own way of coming to terms with the world: knowledge. From here, the Weberian assumption that ideas precede political action is transposed to forms of resistance: the more we know about how neoliberalism operates, the better we will be able to resist it. This is why, as neoliberalism proliferates, the books, journal articles, etc. that somehow seek to ‘denounce’ it multiply as well.

Speech acts: the lost hyphen

The fundamental notion of critique, in this sense, is (J.L Austin‘s and Searle’s) notion of speech acts: the assumption that words can have effects. What gets lost in dropping the hyphen in speech(-)acts is a very important bit in the theory of performativity: that is, the conditions under which speech does constitute effective action. This is why Butler in Performative agency draws attention to Austin’s emphasis on perlocution: speech-acts that are effective only under certain circumstances. In other words, it’s not enough to exclaim: “Universities are not for sale! Education is not a commodity! Students are not consumers!” for this to become the case. For this begs the question: “Who is going to bring this about? What are the conditions under which this can be realized?” In other words: who has the power to act in ways that can make this claim true?

What critique bounces against, thus, is thinking its own agency within these conditions, rather than trying to paint them as if they are somehow on the ‘outside’ of critique itself. Butler recognizes this:

“If this sort of world, what we might be compelled to call ‘the bad life’, fails to reflect back my value as a living being, then I must become critical of those categories and structures that produce that form of effacement and inequality. In other words, I cannot affirm my own life without critically evaluating those structures that differentially value life itself [my emphasis]. This practice of critique is one in which my own life is bound up with the objects that I think about” (2015: 199).

In simpler terms: my position as a political subject is predicated on the practice of critique, which entails reflecting on the conditions that make my life difficult (or unbearable). Yet, those conditions are in part what constitutes my capacity to engage in critique in the first place, as the practice of thinking (critically) is, especially in the case of academic critique, inextricably bound up in practices, institutions, and – not least importantly – economies of academic knowledge production. In formal terms, critique is a form of a Russell’s paradox: a set that at the same time both is and is not a member of itself.

Living with (Russell) paradoxes

This is why academic critique of neoliberalism has no problem with thinking about governing rationalities, exploitation of workers in Chinese factories, or VC’s salaries: practices that it perceives as outside of itself, or in which it can conceive of itself as an object. But it faces serious problems when it comes to thinking itself as a subject, and even more, acting in this context, as this – at least according to its own standards – means reflecting on all the practices that make it ‘complicit’ in exactly what it aims to expunge, or criticize.

This means coming to terms with the fact that neoliberalism is the Research Excellence Framework, but neoliberalism is also when you discuss ideas for a super-cool collaborative project. Neoliberalism is the requirement to submit all your research outputs to the faculty website, but neoliberalism is also the pride you feel when your most recent article is Tweeted about. Neoliberalism is the incessant corporate emails about ‘wellbeing’, but it is also the craft beer you have with your friends in the pub. This is why, in the seemingly interminable debates about the ‘validity’ of neoliberalism as an analytical term, both sides are right: yes, on the one hand, the term is vague and can seemingly be applied to any manifestation of power, but, on the other, it does cover everything, which means it cannot be avoided either.

This is exactly the sort of ambiguity – the fact that things can be two different things at the same time – that critique in neoliberalism needs to come to terms with. This could possibly help us move beyond the futile iconoclastic gesture of revealing the ‘true nature’ of things, expecting that action will naturally follow from this (Martijn Konings’ Capital and Time has a really good take on the limits of ‘ontological’ critique of neoliberalism). In this sense, if there is something critique can learn from neoliberalism, it is the art of speculation. If economic discourses are performative, then, by definition, critique can be performative too. This means that futures can be created – but the assumption that ‘voice’ is sufficient to create the conditions under which this can be the case needs to be dispensed with.

 

 

Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

OOOresearch
Object-oriented representation of my research, Cambridge, December 2017

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.

 

Between legitimation and imagination: epistemic attachment, ontological bias, and thinking about the future

Greyswans
Some swans are…grey (Cambridge, August 2017)

 

A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.

Ontological security or epistemic positioning?

It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.

But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production (universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.

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From: Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde: Unknowns, Black Swans and the risk/uncertainty distinction, Cambridge Journal of Economics 41 (5), August 2017, 1279-1302

 

Unknown unknowns

In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.

The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.

The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledge that can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.

Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.

A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?

Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.

Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslavia came out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).

Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably,  would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.

For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.

This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.

Onwards to the…future?

What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.

 

———————————-

(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.

(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.

(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.

(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.

The biopolitics of higher education, or: what’s the problem with two-year degrees?

[Note: a shorter version of this post was published in Times Higher Education’s online edition, 26 December 2017]

The Government’s most recent proposal to introduce the possibility of two-year (‘accelerated’) degrees has already attracted quite a lot of criticism. One aspect is student debt: given that universities will be allowed to charge up to £2,000 more for these ‘fast-track’ degrees, there are doubts in terms of how students will be able to afford them. Another concerns the lack of mobility: since the Bologna Process assumes comparability of degrees across European higher education systems, students in courses shorter than three or four years would find it very difficult to participate in Erasmus or other forms of student exchange. Last, but not least, many academics have said the idea of ‘accelerated’ learning is at odds with the nature of academic knowledge, and trivializes or debases the time and effort necessary for critical reflection.

However, perhaps the most curious element of the proposal is its similarity to the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE), a two-year qualification proposed by Mrs Thatcher at the time when she was State Secretary for Education and Science. Of course, DipHE had a more vocational character, meant to enable access equally to further education and the labour market. In this sense, it was both a foundation degree and a finishing qualification. But there is no reason to believe those in new two-year programmes would not consider continuing their education through a ‘top-up’ year, especially if the labour market turns out not to be as receptive for their qualification as the proposal seems to hope. So the real question is: why introduce something that serves no obvious purpose – for the students or, for that matter, for the economy – and, furthermore, base it on resurrecting a policy that proved unpopular in 1972 and was abandoned soon after introduction?

One obvious answer is that the Conservative government is desperate for a higher education policy to match Labour’s proposal to abolish tuition fees (despite the fact that, no matter how commendable, abolishing tuition fees is little but a reversal of measures put in place by the last Labour government). But the case of higher education in Britain is more curious than that. If one sees policy as a set of measures designed to bring about a specific vision of society, Britain never had much of a higher education policy to begin with.

Historically, British universities evolved as highly autonomous units, which meant that the Government felt little need to regulate them until well into the 20th century. Until the 1960s, the University Grants Committee succeeded in maintaining the ‘gentlemanly conversation’ between the universities and the Government. The 1963 report of the Robbins Committee, thus, was to be the first serious step into higher education policy-making. Yet, despite the fact that the Robbins report was more complex than many who cite it approvingly give it credit for, its main contribution was to open the door of universities for, in the memorable phrase, “all who qualify by ability and attainment”. What it sought to regulate was thus primarily who should access higher education – not necessarily how it should be done, nor, for that matter, what the purpose of this was.

Even the combined pressures of the economic crisis and an uneven rate of expansion in the 1970s and the 1980s did little to orient the government towards a more coherent strategy for higher education. This led Peter Scott to comment in 1982 “so far as we have in Britain any policy for higher education it is the binary policy…[it] is the nearest thing we have to an authoritative statement about the purposes of higher education”. The ‘watershed’ moment of 1992, abolishing the division between universities and polytechnics, was, in that sense, less of a policy and more of an attempt to undo the previous forays into regulating the sector.

Two major reviews of higher education since Robbins, the Dearing report and the Browne review, represented little more than attempts to deal with the consequences of massification through, first, tying education more closely to the supposed needs of the economy, and, second, introducing tuition fees. The difference between Robbins and subsequent reports in terms of scope of consultation and collected evidence suggests there was little interest in asking serious questions about the strategic direction of higher education, the role of the government, and its relationship to universities. Political responsibility was thus outsourced to ‘the Market’, that rare point of convergence between New Labour and Conservatives – at best a highly abstract aggregate of unreliable data concerning student preferences, and, at worst, utter fiction.

Rather than as a policy in a strict sense of the term, this latest proposal should be seen as another attempt at governing populations, what Michel Foucault called biopolitics. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the fact that people learn at different speeds: anyone who has taught in a higher education institution is more than aware that students have varying learning styles. But the Neo-Darwinian tone of “highly motivated students hungry for a quicker pace of learning” combined with the pseudo-widening-participation pitch of “mature students who have missed out on the chance to go to university as a young person” neither acknowledges this, nor actually engages with the need to enable multiple pathways into higher education. Rather, funneling students through a two-year degree and into the labour market is meant to ensure they swiftly become productive (and consuming) subjects.

 

IMAG3397
People’s history museum, Manchester

 

Of course, whether the labour market will actually have the need for these ‘accelerated’ subjects, and whether universities will have the capacity to teach them, remains an open question. But the biopolitics of higher education is never about the actual use of degrees or specific forms of learning. As I have shown in my earlier work on vocationalism and education for labour, this type of political technology is always about social control; in other words, it aims to prevent potentially unruly subjects from channeling their energy into forms of action that could be disruptive of the political order.

Education – in fact, any kind of education policy – is perfect in this sense because it is fundamentally oriented towards the future. It occupies the subject now, but transposes the horizon of expectation into the ever-receding future – future employment, future fulfillment, future happiness. The promise of quicker, that is, accelerated delivery into this future is a particularly insidious form of displacement of political agency: the language of certainty (“when most students are completing their third year of study, an accelerated degree student will be starting work and getting a salary”) is meant to convey that there is a job and salary awaiting, as it were, at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

The problem is not simply that such predictions (or promises) are based on an empty rhetoric, rather than any form of objective assessment of the ‘needs’ of the labour market. Rather, it is that future needs of the labour market are notoriously difficult to assess, and even more so in periods of economic contraction. Two-year degrees, in this sense, are just a way to defer the compounding problems of inequality, unemployment, and social insecurity. Unfortunately, to this date, no higher education qualification has proven capable of doing that.

If on a winter’s night a government: a tale of universities and the state with some reference to present circumstances

Imagine you were a government. I am not saying imagine you were THE government, or any particular government; interpretations are beyond the scope of this story. For the sake of illustration, let’s say you are the government of Cimmeria, the fictional country in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler...

I’m not saying you – the reader – should necessarily identify with this government. But I was trained as an anthropologist; this means I think it’s important to understand why people – and institutions – act in particular contexts the way that they do. So, for the sake of the story, let’s pretend we are the government of Cimmeria.

Imagine you, the Cimmerian government, are intent on doing something really, really stupid, with possibly detrimental consequences. Imagine you were aware that there is no chance you can get away with this and still hold on to power. Somehow, however, you’re still hanging on, and it’s in your interest to go on doing that for as long as possible, until you come up with something better.

There is one problem. Incidentally, sometime in your long past, you developed places where people can learn, talk, and – among many other things – reflect critically on what you are doing. Let’s, for the sake of the story, call these places universities. Of course, universities are not the only places where people can criticise what you are doing. But they are plentiful, and people in them are many, and vocal. So it’s in your interest to make sure these places don’t stir trouble.

At this point, we require a little historical digression.

How did we get so many universities in the first place?

Initially, it wasn’t you who developed universities at all, they mostly started on their own. But you tolerated them, then grew to like them, and even started a programme of patronage. At times, you struggled with the church – churches, in fact – over influence on universities. Then you got yourself a Church, so you didn’t have to fight any longer.

Universities educated the people you could trust to rule with you: not all of them specializing in the art of government, of course, but skilled in polite conversation and, above all, understanding of the division of power in Cimmeria. You trusted these people so much that, even when you had to set up an institution to mediate your power – the Parliament – you gave them special representation.* Even when this institution had to set up a further body to mediate its relationship with the universities – the University Grants Committee, later to become the funding councils – these discussions were frequently described as an ‘in-house conversation’.

Some time later, you extended this favour to more people. You thought that, since education made them more fit to rule with you, the more educated they were, the more they should see the value of your actions. The form you extended was a cheaper, more practical version of it: obviously, not everyone was fit to rule. Eventually, however, even these institutions started conforming to the original model, a curious phenomenon known as ‘academic drift’. You thought this was strange, but since they seemed intent on emulating each other, you did away with the binary model and brought in the Market. That’ll sort them out, you thought.

You occasionally asked them to work for you. You were always surprised, even hurt, when you found out they didn’t want to. You thought they were ridiculous, spoiled, ungrateful. Yet you carried on. They didn’t really matter.

Over the years, their numbers grew. Every once in a while, they would throw some sort of a fuss. They were very political. You didn’t really care; at the end of the day, all their students went on to become decent, tax-paying subjects, leaving days of rioting safely behind.

Until, one day, there were no more jobs. There was no more safety. Remember, you had cocked up, badly. Now you’ve got all of these educated people, disappointed, and angry, exactly at the time you need it least. You’ve got 99 problems but, by golly, you want academia not to be one.

So, if on a winter’s night a government should think about how to keep universities at bay while driving the country further into disarray…

Obviously, your first task is to make sure they are silent. God forbid all of those educated people would start holding you to account, especially at the same time! Historically, there are a few techniques at your disposal, but they don’t seem to fit very well. Rounding academics up and shipping them off into gulags seems a bit excessive. Throwing them in prison is bound not to prove popular – after all, you’re not Turkey. In fact, you’re so intent on communicating that you are not Turkey that you campaigned for leaving the Cimmeropean Union on the (fabricated) pretext that Turkey is about to join it.

Luckily, there is a strategy more effective than silencing. The exact opposite: making sure they talk. Not about Brexi–elephant in the room, of course; not about how you are systematically depriving the poor and the vulnerable of any source of support. Certainly not, by any chance, how you have absolutely no strategy, idea, or, for that matter, procedural skill, for the most important political transition in the last half-century Cimmeria is about to undergo. No, you have something much better at your disposal: make them talk about themselves.

One of the sure-fire ways to get them to focus on what happens within universities (rather than the outside) is to point to the enemy within their own ranks. Their own management seems like the ideal object for this. Not that anyone likes their bosses anyway, but the problem here is particularly exacerbated by the fact that their bosses are overpaid, and some of academics underpaid. Not all, of course; many academics get very decent sums. Yet questions of money or material security are traditionally snubbed in the academia. For a set of convoluted historical and cultural reasons that we unfortunately do not have time to go into here, academics like to pretend they work for love, rather than money, so much that when neophytes are recruited, they often indeed work for meagre sums, and can go on doing that for years. Resilience is seen as a sign of value; there is more than a nod to Weber’s analysis of the doctrine of predestination here. This, of course, does not apply only to universities, but to capitalism as a whole: but then again, universities have always been integrated into capitalism. They, however, like to imagine they are not. Because of this, the easiest way to keep them busy is to make them believe that they can get rid of capitalism by purging its representatives (ideally, some that embody the most hateful elements – e.g. Big Pharma) from the university. It is exactly by convincing them that capitalism can be expunged by getting rid of a person, a position, or even a salary figure, that you ensure it remains alive and well (you like capitalism, also for a set of historical reasons we cannot go into at this point).

The other way to keep them occupied is to poke at the principles of university autonomy and academic freedom. You know these principles well; you defined them and enshrined them in law, not necessarily because you trusted universities (you did, but not for too long), but because you knew that they will forever be a reminder to scholars that their very independence from the state is predicated on the dependence on the state. Now, obviously, you do not want to poke at these principles too much: as we mentioned above, such gestures tend not to be very popular. However, they are so effective that even a superficially threatening act is guaranteed to get academics up in arms. A clumsily written, badly (or: ideally) timed letter, for instance. An injunction to ‘protect free speech’ can go a very long way. Even better, on top of all that, you’ve got Prevent, which doubles as an actual tool for securitization and surveillance, making sure academics are focused on what’s going on inside, rather than looking outside.

They often criticize you. They say you do not understand how universities work. Truth is, you don’t. You don’t have to; you never cared about the process, only about the outcome.

What you do understand, however, is politics – the subtle art of making people do what you want them to, or, in the absence of that, making sure they do not do something that could really unsettle you. Like organize. Or strike. Oops.

* The constituency of Combined English Universities existed until 1950.

Why is it more difficult to imagine the end of universities than the end of capitalism, or: is the crisis of the university in fact a crisis of imagination?

neoliberalismwhatwillyoube
Graffiti at the back of a chair in a lecture theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London, October 2017

 

Hardly anyone needs convincing that the university today is in deep crisis. Critics warn that the idea of the University (at least in the form in which it emerged from Western modernity) is endangered, under attack, under fire; that governments or corporations are waging a war against them. Some even pronounce public university already dead, or at least lying in ruins. The narrative about the causes of the crisis is well known: shift in public policy towards deregulation and the introduction of market principles – usually known as neoliberalism – meant the decline of public investment, especially for social sciences and humanities, introduction of performance-based funding dependent on quantifiable output, and, of course, tuition fees. This, in turn, led to the rising precarity and insecurity among faculty and students, reflected, among other things, in a mental health crisis. Paradoxically, the only surviving element of the public university that seems to be doing relatively well in all this is critique. But what if the crisis of the university is, in fact, a crisis of imagination?

Don’t worry, this is not one of those posts that try to convince you that capitalism can be wished away by the power of positive thinking. Nor is it going to claim that neoliberalism offers unprecedented opportunities, if only we would be ‘creative’ enough to seize them. The crisis is real, it is felt viscerally by almost everyone in higher education, and – importantly – it is neither exceptional nor unique to universities. Exactly because it cannot be wished away, and exactly because it is deeply intertwined with the structures of the current crisis of capitalism, opposition to the current transformation of universities would need to involve serious thinking about long-term alternatives to current modes of knowledge production. Unfortunately, this is precisely the bit that tends to be missing from a lot of contemporary critique.

Present-day critique of neoliberalism in higher education often takes the form of nostalgic evocation of the glory days when universities were few, and funds for them plentiful. Other problems with this mythical Golden Age aside, what this sort of critique conveniently omits to mention is that institutions that usually provide the background imagery for these fantastic constructs were both highly selective and highly exclusionary, and that they were built on the back of centuries of colonial exploitation. If it seemed like they imparted a life of relatively carefree privilege on those who studied and worked in them, that is exactly because this is what they were designed to do: cater to the “life of the mind” via excluding all forms of interference, particularly if they took the form of domestic (or any other material) labour, women, or minorities. This tendency is reproduced in Ivory Tower nostalgia as a defensive strategy: the dominant response to what critics tend to claim is the biggest challenge to universities since their founding (which, as they like to remind us, was a long, long time ago) is to stick their head in the sand and collectively dream back to the time when, as Pink Floyd might put it, grass was greener and lights were brighter.

Ivory Tower nostalgia, however, is just one aspect of this crisis of imagination. A much broader symptom is that contemporary critique seems unable to imagine a world without the university. Since ideas of online disembedded learning were successfully monopolized by technolibertarian utopians, the best most academics seem to be able to come up with is to re-erect the walls of the institution, but make them slightly more porous. It’s as if the U of University and the U of Utopia were somehow magically merged. To extend the oft-cited and oft-misattributed saying, if it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is nonetheless easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities.

Why does the institution like a university have such a purchase on (utopian and dystopian) imagination? Thinking about universities is, in most cases, already imbued by the university, so one element pertains to the difficulty of perceiving conditions of reproduction of one’s own position (this mode of access from the outside, as object-oriented ontologists would put it, or complex externality, as Boltanski does, is something I’m particularly interested in). However, it isn’t the case just with academic critique; fictional accounts of universities or other educational institutions are proliferating, and, in most cases (as I hope to show once I finally get around to writing the book on magical realism and universities), they reproduce the assumption of the value of the institution as such, as well as a lot of associated ideas, as this tweet conveys succinctly:

Screen shot 2017-10-11 at 11.06.11 PM

This is, unfortunately, often the case even with projects whose explicit aim is to subvert existing  inequalities in the context of knowledge production, including open, free, and workers’ universities (Social Science Centre in Lincoln maintains a useful map of these initiatives globally). While these are fantastic initiatives, most either have to ‘piggyback’ on university labour – that is, on the free or voluntary labour of people employed or otherwise paid by universities – or, at least, rely on existing universities for credentialisation. Again, this isn’t to devalue those who invest time, effort, and emotions into such forms of education; rather, it is to flag that thinking about serious, long-term alternatives is necessary, and quickly, at that. This is a theme I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I hope to make one of central topics in my work in the future.

 

So what are we to do?

There’s an obvious bit of irony in suggesting a panel for a conference in order to discuss how the system is broken, but, in the absence of other forms, I am thinking of putting together a proposal for a workshop for Sociological Review’s 2018 “Undisciplining: Conversations from the edges” conference. The good news is that the format is supposed to go outside of the ‘orthodox’ confines of panels and presentations, which means we could do something potentially exciting. The tentative title Thinking about (sustainable?) alternatives to academic knowledge production.

I’m particularly interested in questions such as:

  • Qualifications and credentials: can we imagine a society where universities do not hold a monopoly on credentials? What would this look like?
  • Knowledge work: can we conceive of knowledge production (teaching and research) not only ‘outside of’, but without the university? What would this look like?
  • Financing: what other modes of funding for knowledge production are conceivable? Is there a form of public funding that does not involve universities (e.g., through an academic workers’ cooperative – Mondragon University in Spain is one example – or guild)? What would be the implications of this, and how it would be regulated?
  • Built environment/space: can we think of knowledge not confined to specific buildings or an institution? What would this look like – how would it be organised? What would be the consequences for learning, teaching and research?

The format would need to be interactive – possibly a blend of on/off-line conversations – and can address the above, or any of the other questions related to thinking about alternatives to current modes of knowledge production.

If you’d like to participate/contribute/discuss ideas, get in touch by the end of October (the conference deadline is 27 November).

[UPDATE: Our panel got accepted! See you at Undisciplining conference, 18-21 June, Newcastle, UK. Watch this space for more news].

A fridge of one’s own

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A treatise on the education of women, 1740. Museum of European Students, Bologna

 

A woman needs a fridge of her own if she is to write theory. In fact, I’d wager a woman needs a fridge of her own if she is to write pretty much anything, but since what I am writing at the moment is (mostly) theory, let’s assume that it can serve as a metaphor for intellectual labour more broadly.

In her famous injunction to undergraduates at Girton College in Cambridge (the first residential college for women that offered education to degree level) Virginia Woolf stated that a woman needed two things in order to write: a room of her own, and a small independent income (Woolf settled on 500 pounds a year; as this website helpfully informed me, this would be £29,593 in today’s terms). In addition to the room and the income,  a woman who wants to write, I want to argue, also needs a fridge. Not a shelf or two in a fridge in a kitchen in a shared house or at the end of the staircase; a proper fridge of her own. Let me explain.

The immateriality of intellect

Woolf’s broader point in A Room of One’s Own is that intellectual freedom and creativity require the absence of material constraints. In and of itself, this argument is not particularly exceptional: attempts to define the nature of intellectual labour have almost unfailingly centred on its rootedness in leisure – skholē – as the opportunity for peaceful contemplation, away from the vagaries of everyday existence. For ancient Greeks, contemplation was opposed to the political (as in the everyday life of the polis): what we today think of as the ‘private’ was not even a candidate, being the domain of women and slaves, neither of which were considered proper citizens. For Marx, it was  the opposite of material labour, with its sweat, noise, and capitalist exploitation. But underpinning it all was the private sphere – that amorphous construct that, as feminist scholars pointed out, includes the domestic and affective labour of care, cleaning, cooking, and, yes, the very act of biological reproduction. The capacity to distance oneself from these kinds of concerns thus became the sine qua non of scholarly reflection, particularly in the case of theōria, held to be contemplation in its pure(st) form. After all, to paraphrase Kant, it is difficult to ponder the sublime from too close.

This thread runs from Plato and Aristotle through Marx to Arendt, who made it the gist of her analysis of the distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa; and onwards to Bourdieu, who zeroed in on the ‘scholastic reason’ (raison scolastique) as the source of Homo Academicus’ disposition to project the categories of scholarship – skholē – onto everyday life. I am particularly interested in the social framing of this distinction, given that I think it underpins a lot of contemporary discussions on the role of universities. But regardless of whether we treat it as virtue, a methodological caveat, or an interesting research problem, detachment from the material persists as the distinctive marker of the academic enterprise.

 

What about today?

So I think we can benefit from thinking about what would be the best way to achieve this absolution from the material for women who are trying to write today. One solution, obviously, would be to outsource the cooking and cleaning to a centralised service – like, for instance, College halls and cafeterias. This way, one would have all the time to write: away with the vile fridge! (It was anyway rather unseemly, poised as it was in the middle of one’s room). Yet, outsourcing domestic labour means we are potentially depriving other people of the opportunity to develop their own modes of contemplation. If we take into account that the majority of global domestic labour is performed by women, perfecting our scholarship would most likely be off the back of another Shakespeare’s (or, for consistency’s sake, let’s say Marx’s) sister. So, let’s keep the fridge, at least for the time being.

But wait, you will say, what about eating out – in restaurants and such? It’s fine you want to do away with outsourced domestic labour, but surely you wouldn’t scrap the entire catering industry! After all, it’s a booming sector of the economy (and we all know economic growth is good), and it employs so many people (often precariously and in not very nice conditions, but we are prone to ignore that during happy hour). Also, to be honest, it’s so nice to have food prepared by other people. After all, isn’t that what Simone de Beauvoir did, sitting, drinking and smoking (and presumably also eating) in cafés all day? This doesn’t necessarily mean we would need to do away with the fridge, but a shelf in a shared one would suffice – just enough to keep a bit of milk, some butter and eggs, fruit, perhaps even a bottle of rosé? Here, however, we face the economic reality of the present. Let’s do a short calculation.

 

£500 a year gets you very far…or not

The £29,593 Woolf proposes as sufficient independent income comes from an inheritance. Those of us who are less fortunate and are entering the field of theory today can hope to obtain one of many scholarships. Mine is currently at £13,900 a year (no tax); ESRC-funded students get a bit more, £14,000. This means we fall well short of today’s equivalent of 500 pound/year sum Woolf suggested to students at Girton. Starting from £14,000, assuming that roughly £2000 pounds annually are spent on things such as clothes, books, cosmetics, and ‘incidentals’ – for instance, travel to see one’s family or medical costs (non-EU students are subject to something called the Immigration Health Surcharge, paid upfront at the point of application for a student visa, which varies between £150 and £200 per year, but doesn’t cover dental treatment, prescriptions, or eye tests – so much for “NHS tourism”) – this leaves us with roughly £1000 per month. Out of this, accommodation costs anything between 400 and 700 pounds, depending on bills, council tax etc. – for a “room of one’s own”, that is, a room in a shared house or college accommodation – that, you’re guessing it, almost inevitably comes with a shared fridge.

So the money that’s left is supposed to cover  eating in cafés, perhaps even an occasional glass of wine (it’s important to socialise with other writers or just watch the world go by). Assuming we have 450/month after paying rent and bills, this leaves us with a bit less than 15 pounds per day. This suffices for about one meal and a half daily in most cheap high street eateries, if you do not eat a lot, do not drink, nor have tea or coffee. Ever. Even at colleges, where food is subsidised, this would be barely enough. Remember: this means you never go out for a drink with friends or to a cinema, you never buy presents, never pay for services: in short, it makes for a relatively boring and constrained life. This could turn writing, unless you’re Emily Dickinson, somewhat difficult. Luckily, you have Internet, that is, if it’s included in your bills. And you pray your computer does not break down.

Well, you can always work, you say. If the money you’re given is not enough to provide the sort of lifestyle you want, go earn more! But there’s a catch. If you are in full-time education, you are only allowed to work part-time. If you are a foreign national, there are additional constraints. This means the amount of money you can get is usually quite limited. And there are tradeoffs. You know all those part-time jobs that pay a lot, offer stability and future career progression, and everyone is flocking towards? I don’t either. If you ever wondered where the seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labour at universities – sessional lecturers, administrative assistants, event managers, servers etc. came from, look around you: more likely than not, it’s hungry graduate students.

 

The poverty of student life

Increasingly, this is not in the Steve Jobs “stay hungry” sense. As I’ve argued recently, “staying hungry” has quite a different tone when instead of a temporary excursion into relative deprivation (seen as part of ‘character building’ education is supposed to be about) it reflects the threat of, virtually, struggling to make ends meet way after graduation. Given the state of the economy and graduate debt, that is a threat faced by growing proportions of young people (and, no surprise, women are much more likely to end up in precarious employment). Of course, you could always argue that many people have it much worse: you are (relatively) young, well educated, and with likely more cultural and social capital than the average person. Sure you can get by. But remember – this isn’t about making it from one day to another. What you’re trying to do is write. Contemplate. Comprehend the beauty (and, sometimes, ugliness) of the world in its entirety. Not wonder whether you’ll be able to afford the electricity bill.

This is why a woman needs to have her own fridge. If you want access to healthy, cheap food, you need to be able to buy it in greater quantities, so you don’t have to go to the supermarket every other day, and store it at home, so you can prepare it quickly and conveniently, as well as plan ahead. For the record, by healthy I do not mean quinoa waffles, duck eggs and shitake mushrooms (not that there’s anything wrong with any of these, though I’ve never tried duck eggs). I mean the sort of food that keeps you full whilst not racking up your medical expenses further down the line. For this you need a fridge. Not half a vegetable drawer among opened cans of lager that some bro you happen to share a house with forgot to throw away months ago, but an actual fridge. Of your own. It doesn’t matter if it comes with a full kitchen – you can always share a stove, wait for your turn for the microwave, and cooking (and eating) together can be a very pleasurable way of spending time. But keep your fridge.

 

Emotional labour

But, you will protest, what about women who live with partners? Surely we want to share fridges with our loved ones! Well, good for you, go ahead. But you may want to make sure that it’s not always you remembering to buy the milk, it’s not always you supplying fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s not always you throwing away the food whose use-by date had long expired. That it doesn’t mean you pay the half of household bills, but still do more than half the work. For, whether we like it or not, research shows that in heterosexual partnerships women still perform a greater portion of domestic labour, not to mention the mental load of designing, organising, and dividing tasks. And yes, this impacts your ability to write. It’s damn difficult to follow the line of thought if you need to stop five times in order to take the laundry out, empty the bins, close the windows because it just started raining, pick up the mail that came through the door, and add tea to the shopping list – not even mentioning what happens if you have children on top of all this.

So no, a fridge cannot – and will not – solve the problem of gender inequality in the academia, let alone gender inequality on a more general level (after all, academics are very, very privileged). What it can do, though, is rebalance the score in the sense of reminding us that cooking, cleaning, and cutting up food are elements of life as much as citing, cross-referencing, and critique. It can begin to destroy, once and for all, the gendered (and classed) assumption that contemplation happens above and beyond the material, and that all reminders of its bodily manifestations – for instance, that we still need to eat whilst thinking – should be if not abolished entirely, then at least expelled beyond the margins of awareness: to communal kitchens, restaurants, kebab vans, anywhere where they do not disturb the sacred space of the intellect. So keep your income, get a room, and put a fridge in it. Then start writing.

 

The poverty of student experience

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“Be young and shut up”, poster from the demos in France in May 1968, Museum of students, Bologna, Italy, November 2012

 

 

One of my favourite texts back from the time when I was writing my Master’s thesis is the Situationist International’s On The Poverty of Student Life (De la misère au milieu étudiant). Written in 1966 and distributed in 10.000 copies at the official ceremony marking the start of the new academic year at the University of Strasbourg, it provoked an outcry and a swift reaction by the university authorities, who closed down UNEF, the student union that printed it. Today, it is recognized as one of the texts that both diagnosed and helped polarize conditions that eventually led to the famous 1968 student rebellions  in France. This is how it begins:

 

“We might very well say, and no one would disagree with us, that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the priest and the policeman. The licensed and impotent opponents of capitalism repress the obvious–that what is wrong with the students is also what is wrong with them. They convert their unconscious contempt into a blind enthusiasm. The radical intelligentsia prostrates itself before the so-called ‘rise of the student’ and the declining bureaucracies of the Left bid noisily for his moral and material support.

There are reasons for this sudden enthusiasm, but they are all provided by the present form of capitalism, in its overdeveloped state. We shall use this pamphlet for denunciation. We shall expose these reasons one by one, on the principle that the end of alienation is only reached by the straight and narrow path of alienation itself.

Up to now, studies of student life have ignored the essential issue. The surveys and analyses have all been psychological or sociological or economic: in other words, academic exercises, content with the false categories of one specialization or another. None of them can achieve what is most needed–a view of modern society as a whole.”

 

This diagnosis is pretty much relevant today: most discussions of tuition fees avoid tackling the bigger question, which is the purpose of education and its role in society, beyond the invocation of the standard slogans related to either economic development or social justice and fairness. However, neither clarity of its analysis nor its resonance with contemporary issues are the main reason why I believe the Situationist pamphlet is worth reading. Instead, I would like to draw attention to draw attention to one of its underlying assumptions, reflected in the broader cultural imaginary of the ‘misery’ of student existence, life and social position, and then contrast it with current trends in the provision of student ‘experience’. Last, I want to bring this conversation to the question of tuition fees, which recently re-gained prominence in England, but has been at the back of higher education policy discussions – both in the UK and globally – for at least the last 30 years, and then use it to reflect on the changing role of higher education more generally.

The misery of student life?

There existed a time when being a student was really an exercise in misery. Stories of dank rooms, odd jobs, scraping by on half a baguette and half a pack of cigarettes used to be the staple of ‘the student experience’. Nor were such stories limited to France; I often hear colleagues in the UK complain about not being able to stand cider as they drank way too much of the cheap stuff as undergrads. All of this, as the adage went, was in preparation for a better life to come: stories of nights spent drinking cheap cider only make sense if they are told from a position in which one can afford if not exactly Dom Perignon, then at least decent craft beer.

In fact, these stories are most often told in senior common rooms, at alumni gala dinners, or cheerful reunions of former uni classmates, appropriately decked out in suits. In them, poverty is framed as a rite of passage, serving to justify one’s privileged social and professional position: instituting a myth of meritocracy (look how much I suffered in order to get to where I am now!) as well as the myth of disinterestedness in the material, creature-comforts side of life (I cared about perfecting my intellect so much I was prepared to lead a life of [relative] material deprivation!).

These stories do more than establish the privilege and shared social identity of those who tell them, however. They also support the figure of ‘the student’ as healthy, able-bodied, and – most of all – with little to focus on besides learning. After all, in order to endure between three and eight years on packets of noodle soup, cheap booze, and no sleep, you need to be young, relatively fit, and without caring duties: staying up all night drinking Strongbow and discussing Schopenhauer is kind-of-less-likely if you’ve got to take kids to school or go to work in the morning. This automatically excludes most mature and part-time students; not even to mention that negotiating campus sociality is still more difficult if (for cultural, religious, health or other reasons) you do not drink or do drugs. But, most importantly, it reinforces the idea that scarcity is a choice; the ‘student experience’, in this myth, is a form of poverty tourism or bootcamp from which you emerge strengthened and ready to assume your (obviously advantageous) position in life. This, clearly, excludes everyone without a guaranteed position in the social and economic elite. Poverty is not a rite de passage for those who stay poor throughout their life, and there is no glory in recalling the days of drinking cheap cider if, ten years down the line, you doubt you’ll be able to afford much better. Increasingly, however, that is all of us.

Situationists recognized the connection between the ‘poverty of student life’ and generalised poverty back in 1966:

 

“At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of ‘economic life’ .But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our ‘society of abundance’, he is still a pauper. 80% of students come from income groups well above the working class, yet 90% have less money than the meanest laborer. Student poverty is an anachronism, a throw-back from an earlier age of capitalism; it does not share in the new poverties of the spectacular societies; it has yet to attain the new poverty of the new proletariat.”

 

This brings us to the misery of student experience here and now. For the romanticisation of the poverty of student life makes sense only if that poverty is chosen, and temporary. Just like the graduate premium, it is predicated on the idea that you are ‘suffering’ now, in order to benefit later. And, of course, in the era of precarity, unemployment, and what David Graeber famously dubbed ‘bullshit jobs’, it no longer holds.

 

The gilded cage of student experience

 

Of course, university degree, in principle, still means your chances on the job market are better than those of someone who hasn’t got a degree. But this data skews the bigger picture, which is that the proportion of bullshit jobs is increasing: it’s not that a university degree guarantees fantastic employment opportunities, it’s that not having one means falling out of the competition for anything but the bottom of the job ladder. Most importantly, talk of graduate premium often omits to take into account the degree to which higher education is still a proxy for something else entirely: class. The effect of a university degree on employment and quality of life is thus a compound of education, social background, cultural capital, and race, gender, age etc., rather than an automatic effect of enduring three to eight years of exam taking, excessive drinking, and excruciating anxiety.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most visible reflections of the changing socio-economic structure of student existence is the growth of high-end or luxury student housing, and the associated focus on ‘student experience’. Of course, in most cases universities and property developers do this in order to cater to foreign, ‘overseas’ fee-paying students, who are often quite openly framed as the institution’s main source of income (it is particularly interesting to observe otherwise staunch critics of ‘marketization’ and defenders of the ‘public’ status of the university unashamedly treat such students or their parents as cash cows, or at the very least, consumers). But, to a not much lesser degree, it is also a reflection of (if still implicit) recognition that studying no longer guarantees a good and well-paid job. In other words, if you’re not necessarily going to have a better life after university, you may as well live in decent conditions while you’re in it.

The replacement of dank bedsits and instant noodles with ensuite rooms and gluten-free granola, then, is not ‘selling out’ the ideals of education in order to pander to the ‘Snowflake’ generation, as some conservative authors have argued. It is a reflection of a broader socio-economic shift related to the quality of life and life chances, as well as the breaking of the assumption of a direct (if not necessarily causal) link between education, employment, and status. In this sense, Labour’s plan to abolish tuition fees is a good start, but it does not solve the greater question of poverty and precarity, both of which will increasingly impact even those who have previously been relatively shielded from the effects of the crumbling economy – graduates.

 

Beyond fees

 

Even with no tuition, graduates will either need loans to cover living costs, or – unless they rely on their parents (and here we are stuck in the vicious cycle of class reproduction) – engage in bullshit work (at least until there is an actual effort to integrate part-time study with decent jobs, something that the Open University used to do well). In the same vein, Graduate Tax only makes sense if the highly educated on the whole actually earn much more than the rest of the population (see an interesting discussion here) – which, if current trends continue, is hardly going to be the case. In the meantime, the graduate premium reflects less the actual ‘earning power’ a degree brings and more the further slide into poverty for those without degrees, coupled with the increasing wealth of those in top-tier jobs, hardly representative of graduates as a whole (in fact, they usually come from a small number of institutions, and, again, from relatively privileged social backgrounds).

 

Addressing tuition fees in isolation, then, does little to counter the compound effects of deindustrialization, financialization, and growing public debt. This is not to say that it isn’t a solution – it’s certainly preferable to accruing a lifetime of debt – but it speaks to the need to integrate education policy into broader questions of economic and social justice, rather than treat it as temporary solution for rapid social, technological and demographic change. Meanwhile, we could do something really radical, like, I dunno, tax the rich? Just a thought.

 

Theory as practice: for a politics of social theory, or how to get out of the theory zoo

 

[These are my thoughts/notes for the “Practice of Social Theory, which Mark Carrigan and I are running at the Department of Sociology of the University of Cambridge from 4 to 6 September, 2017].

 

Revival of theory?

 

It seems we are witnessing something akin to a revival of theory, or at least of an interest in it. In 2016, the British Journal of Sociology published Swedberg’s “Before theory comes theorizing, or how to make social sciences more interesting”, a longer version of its 2015 Annual public lecture, followed by responses from – among others – Krause, Schneiderhan, Tavory, and Karleheden. A string of recent books – including Matt Dawson’s Social Theory for Alternative Societies, Alex Law’s Social Theory for Today, and Craig Browne’s Critical Social Theory, to name but a few – set out to consider the relevance or contribution of social theory to understanding contemporary social problems. This is in addition to the renewal of interest in biography or contemporary relevance of social-philosophical schools such as Existentialism (1, 2) and the Frankfurt School [1, 2].

To a degree, this revival happens on the back of the challenges posed to the status of theory by the rise of data science, leading Lizardo and Hay to engage in defense of the value and contributions of theory to sociology and international relations, respectively. In broader terms, however, it addresses the question of the status of social sciences – and, by extension, academic knowledge – more generally; and, as such, it brings us back to the justification of expertise, a question of particular relevance in the current political context.

The meaning of theory

Surely enough, theory has many meanings (Abend, 2008), and consequently many forms in which it is practiced. However, one of the characteristics that seem to be shared across the board is that it is  part of (under)graduate training, after which it gets bracketed off in the form of “the theory chapter” of dissertations/theses. In this sense, theory is framed as foundational in terms of socialization into a particular discipline, but, at the same time, rarely revisited – at least not explicitly – after the initial demonstration of aptitude. In other words, rather than doing, theory becomes something that is ‘done with’. The exception, of course, are those who decide to make theory the centre of their intellectual pursuits; however, “doing theory” in this sense all too often becomes limited to the exegesis of existing texts (what Krause refers to as ‘theory a’ and Abend as ‘theory 4’) that leads to the competition among theorists for the best interpretation of “what theorist x really wanted to say”, or, alternatively, the application of existing concepts to new observations or ‘problems’ (‘theory b and c’, in Krause’s terms). Either way, the field of social theory resembles less the groves of Plato’s Academy, and more a zoo in which different species (‘Marxists’, ‘critical realists’, ‘Bourdieusians’, ‘rational-choice theorists’) delve in their respective enclosures or fight with members of the same species for dominance of a circumscribed domain.

 

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Competitive behaviour among social theorists

 

This summer school started from the ambition to change that: to go beyond rivalries or allegiances to specific schools of thought, and think about what doing theory really means. I often told people that wanting to do social theory was a major reason why I decided to do a second PhD; but what was this about? I did not say ‘learn more’ about social theory (my previous education provided a good foundation), ‘teach’ social theory (though supervising students at Cambridge is really good practice for this), read, or even write social theory (though, obviously, this was going to be a major component). While all of these are essential elements of becoming a theorist, the practice of social theory certainly isn’t reducible to them. Here are some of the other aspects I think we need to bear in mind when we discuss the return, importance, or practice of theory.

Theory is performance

This may appear self-evident once the focus shifts to ‘doing’, but we rarely talk about what practicing theory is meant to convey – that is, about theorising as a performative act. Some elements of this are not difficult to establish: doing theory usually means  identification with a specific group, or form of professional or disciplinary association. Most professional societies have committees, groups, and specific conference sessions devoted to theory – but that does not mean theory is exclusively practiced within them. In addition to belonging, theory also signifies status. In many disciplines, theoretical work has for years been held in high esteem; the flipside, of course, is that ‘theoretical’ is often taken to mean too abstract or divorced from everyday life, something that became a more pressing problem with the decline of funding for social sciences and the concomitant expectation to make them socially relevant. While the status of theory is a longer (and separate) topic, one that has been discussed at length in the history of sociology and other social sciences, it bears repeating that asserting one’s work as theoretical is always a form of positioning: it serves to define the standing of both the speaker, and (sometimes implicitly) others contributors. This brings to mind that…

Theory is power

Not everyone gets to be treated as a theorist: it is also a question of recognition, and thus, a question of political (and other) forms of power. ‘Theoretical’ discussions are usually held between men (mostly, though not exclusively, white men); interventions from women, people of colour, and persons outside centres of epistemic power are often interpreted as empirical illustrations, or, at best, contributions to ‘feminist’ or ‘race’ theory*. Raewyn Connell wrote about this in Southern Theory, and initiatives such as Why is my curriculum white? and Decolonizing curriculum in theory and practice have brought it to the forefront of university struggles, but it speaks to the larger point made by Spivak: that the majority of mainstream theory treats the ‘subaltern’ as only empirical or ethnographic illustration of the theories developed in the metropolis.

The problem here is not only (or primarily) that of representation, in the sense in which theory thus generated fails to accurately depict the full scope of social reality, or experiences and ideas of different people who participate in it. The problem is in a fundamentally extractive approach to people and their problems: they exist primarily, if not exclusively, in order to be explained. This leads me to the next point, which is that…

Theory is predictive

A good illustration for this is offered by pundits and political commentators’ surprise at events in the last year: the outcome of the Brexit referendum (Leave!), US elections (Donald Trump!), and last but not least, the UK General Election (surge in votes for Corbyn!). Despite differences in how these events are interpreted, they in most cases convey that, as one pundit recently confessed, nobody has a clue about what is going on. Does this mean the rule of experts really is over, and, with it, the need for general theories that explain human action? Two things are worth taking into account.

To begin with, social-scientific theories enter the public sphere in a form that’s not only simplified, but also distilled into ‘soundbites’ or clickbait adapted to the presumed needs and preferences of the audience, usually omitting all the methodological or technical caveats they normally come with. For instance, the results of opinion polls or surveys are taken to presented clear predictions, rather than reflections of general statistical tendencies; reliability is rarely discussed. Nor are social scientists always innocent victims of this media spin: some actively work on increase their visibility or impact, and thus – perhaps unwittingly – contribute to the sensationalisation of social-scientific discourse. Second, and this can’t be put delicately, some of these theories are just not very good. ‘Nudgery’ and ‘wonkery’ often rest on not particularly sophisticated models of human behaviour; which is not saying that they do not work – they can – but rather that theoretical assumptions underlying these models are rarely accessible to scrutiny.

Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why this is the case: it is easier to believe that selling vegetables in attractive packaging can solve the problem of obesity than to invest in long-term policy planning and research on decision-making that has consequences for public health. It is also easier to believe that removing caps to tuition fees will result in universities charging fees distributed normally from lowest to highest, than to bother reading theories of organizational behaviour in different economic and political environments and try to understand how this maps onto the social structure and demographics of a rapidly changing society. In other words: theories are used to inform or predict human behaviour, but often in ways that reinforce existing divisions of power. So, just in case you didn’t see this coming…

Theory is political

All social theories are about constraints, including those that are self-imposed. From Marx to Freud and from Durkheim to Weber (and many non-white, non-male theorists who never made it into ‘the canon’), theories are about what humans can and cannot do; they are about how relatively durable relations (structures) limit and enable how they act (agency). Politics is, fundamentally, about the same thing: things we can and things we cannot change. We may denounce Bismarck’s definition of politics as the art of the possible as insufficiently progressive, but – at the risk of sounding obvious – understanding how (and why) things stay the same is fundamental to understanding how to go about changing them. The history of social theory, among other things, can be read as a story about shifting the boundaries of what was considered fixed and immutable, on the one hand, and constructed – and thus subject to change – on the other.

In this sense, all social theory is fundamentally political. This isn’t to license bickering over different historical materialisms, or to stimulate fantasies – so dear to intellectuals – of ‘speaking truth to power’. Nor should theories be understood as weapons in the ‘war of time’, despite Débord’s poetic formulation: this is but the flipside of intellectuals’ dream of domination, in which their thoughts (i.e. themselves) inspire masses to revolt, usually culminating in their own ascendance to a position of power (thus conveniently cutting out the middleman in ‘speaking truth to power’, as they become the prime bearers of both).

Theory is political in a much simpler sense, in which it is about society and elements that constitute it. As such, it has to be about understanding what is it that those we think of as society think, want, and do, even – and possibly, especially – when we do not agree with them. Rather than aiming to ‘explain away’ people, or fit their behaviour into pre-defined social models, social theory needs to learn to listen to – to borrow a term from politics – its constituents. This isn’t to argue for a (not particularly innovative) return to grounded theory, or ethnography (despite the fact both are relevant and useful). At the risk of sounding pathetic, perhaps the next step in the development of social theory is to really make it a form of social practice – that is, make it be with the people, rather than about the people. I am not sure what this would entail, or what it would look like; but I am pretty certain it would be a welcome element of building a progressive politics. In this sense, doing social theory could become less of the practice of endlessly revising a blueprint for a social theory zoo, and more of a project of getting out from behind its bars.

 

 

*The tendency to interpret women’s interventions as if they are inevitably about ‘feminist theory’ (or, more frequently, as if they always refer to empirical examples) is a trend I have been increasingly noticing since moving into sociology, and definitely want to spend more time studying. This is obviously not to say there aren’t women in the field of social theory, but rather that gender (and race, ethnicity, and age) influence the level of generality at which one’s claims are read, thus reflecting the broader tendency to see universality and Truth as coextensive with the figure of the male and white academic.

 

 

Universities, neoliberalisation, and the (im)possibility of critique

Last Friday in April, I was at a conference entitled Universities, neoliberalisation and (in)equality at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was an one-day event featuring presentations and interventions from academics who work on understanding, and criticising, the transformation of working conditions in neoliberal academia. Besides sharing these concerns, attending such events is part of my research: I, in fact, study the critique of neoliberalism in UK higher education.

Why study critique, you may ask? At the present moment, it may appear all the more urgent to study the processes of transformation themselves, especially so that we can figure out what can be done about them. This, however, is precisely the reason: critique is essential to how we understand social processes, in part because it entails a social diagnostic – it tells us what is wrong – and, in part, because it allows us to conceptualise our own agency – what is to be done – about this. However, the link between the two is not necessarily straightforward: first you read some Marx, and then you go and start a revolution. Some would argue that the reading of Marx (what we usually think of as consciousness-raising) is essential part of the process, but there are many variables that intervene between awareness of the unfairness of certain conditions – say, knowing that part-time, low paid teaching work is exploitative – and actually doing something about those conditions, such as organising an occupation. In addition, as virtually everyone from the Frankfurt School onwards had noted, linking these two aspects is complicated by the context of mass consumerism, mass media, and – I would add – mass education. Still, the assumption of an almost direct (what Archer dubbed an ‘hydraulic) link between knowledge and action still haunts the concept of critique, both as theory and as practice.

In the opening remarks to the conference, Vik Loveday actually zeroed in on this, asking: why is it that there seems to be a burgeoning of critique, but very little resistance? For it is a burgeoning indeed: despite it being my job, even I have issues keeping up to speed with the veritable explosion of the writing that seeks to analyse, explain, or simply mourn the seemingly inevitable capitulation of universities in the face of neoliberalism. By way of illustration, the Palgrave series in “Critical University Studies” boasts eleven new titles, all published in 2016-7; and this is but one publisher, in English language only.

What can explain the relationship between the relative proliferation of critique, and relative paucity of resistance? This question forms the crux of my thesis: less, however, as an invocation for the need to resist, and more as the querying of the relationship between knowledge – especially as forms of critique, including academic critique – and political agency (I do see political agency on a broader spectrum than the seemingly inexhaustible dichotomy between ‘compliance’ and ‘resistance’, but that is another story).

So here’s a preliminary hypothesis (H, if you wish): the link between critique and resistance is mediated by the existence of and position in of academic hierarchy. Two presentations I had the opportunity to hear at the conference were very informative in this regard: the first is Loveday’s analysis of academics’ experience of anxiety, the other was Neyland and Milyaeva’s research on the experiences of REF panelists. While there is a shared concern among academics about the neoliberalisation of higher education, what struck me was the pronounced difference in the degree to which two groups express doubts about their own worth as academics, future, and relevance (in colloquial parlance, ‘impostor syndrome’). While junior* and relatively precarious academics seem to experience high levels of anxiety in relation to their value as academics, senior* academics who sit on REF panels experience it far less. The difference? Level of seniority and position in decision-making.

Well, you may say, this is obvious – the more established academics are, the more confident they are going to be. However, what varies with levels of seniority is not just confidence and trust in one’s own judgements: it’s the sense of entitlement, the degree to which you feel you deserve to be there (Loveday writes about the classed aspects of the sense of entitlement here). I once overheard someone call it the Business Class Test: the moment you start justifying to yourself flying business class on work trips (unless you’re very old, ill, or incapacitated), is the moment when you will have convinced yourself you deserve this. The issue, however, is not how this impacts travel practices: it’s the effect that the differential sense of entitlement has on the relationship between critique and resistance.

So here’s another hypothesis (h1, if you wish). The more precarious your position, the more likely you are to perceive the working conditions as unfair – and, thus, to be critical of the structure of academic hierarchy that enables it. Yet, at the same time, the more junior you are, the more risk voicing that critique – that is, translating it into action – entails. Junior academics often point out that they have to shut up and go on ‘playing the game’: churning out publications (because REF), applying for external funding (because grant capture), and teaching ever-growing numbers of students (because students generate income for the institution). Thus, junior academics may well know everything that is wrong with the academia, but will go on conforming to it in ways that reproduce exactly the conditions they are critical of.

What happens once one ascends to the coveted castle of permanent employment/tenure and membership in research evaluation panels and appointment committees? Well, I’ve only ever been tenure track for a relatively short period of time (having left the job before I found myself justifying flying business class) but here’s an assumption based on anecdotal evidence and other people’s data (h2): you still grin and bear it. You do not, under any circumstances, stop participating in the academic ‘game’ – with the added catch that now you actually believe you deserved your position in it. I’m not saying senior academics are blind to the biases and social inequalities reflected in the academic hierarchy: what I am saying is that it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to simultaneously be aware of it and continue participating in it (there’s a nod to Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith‘ here, but I unfortunately do not have the time to get into that now). Ever encounter a professor stand up at a public lecture or committee meeting and say “I recognize that I owe my being here to the combined fortunes of inherited social capital, [white] male privilege, and the fact English is my native language”? I didn’t either. If anything, there are disavowals of social privilege (“I come from a working class background”), which, admirable as they may be, unfortunately only serve to justify the hierarchical nature of academia and its selection procedures (“I definitely deserve to be here, because look at all the odds I had to beat in order to get here in the first place”).

In practice, this leads to the following. Senior academics stay inside the system, and, if they are critical, believe to work against the system – for instance, by fighting for their discipline, or protecting junior colleagues, or aiming to make academia that little bit more diverse. In the longer run, however, their participation keeps the system going – the equivalent of carbon offsetting your business class flight; sure, it may help plant trees in Guinea Bissau, but it does not obfuscate the fact you are flying in the first place. Junior academics, on the other hand, contribute through their competition for positions inside the system – believing that if only they teach enough (perform low-paid work), publish enough (contribute to abundance), or are visible enough (perform unpaid labour of networking on social media, through conferences etc.) – they will get away from precarity, and then they can really be critical (there’s a nod to Berlant’s cruel optimism here that I also unfortunately cannot expand on). Except that, of course, they end up in the position of senior academics, with an added layer of entitlement (because they fought so hard) and an added layer of fear (because no job is really safe in neoliberalism). Thus, while everyone knows everything is wrong, everyone still plays along. This ‘gamification’ of research, which seems to be the new mot du jour in the academia, becomes a stand-in term for the moral economy of  justifying one’s own position while participating in the reproduction of the conditions that contribute to its instability.

Cui bono critique, in this regard? It depends. If critique is divorced from its capacity to incite political action, there is no reason why it cannot be appropriated – and, correspondingly, commodified – in the broader framework of neoliberal capitalism. It’s already been pointed out that critique sells – and, perhaps less obviously, the critique of neoliberal academia does too. Even if the ever-expanding number of publications on the crisis of the university do not ‘sell’ in the narrow sense of the term, they still contribute to the symbolic economy via accruing prestige (and citation counts!) for their authors. In other words: the critique of neoliberalism in the academia can become part and parcel of the very processes it sets out to criticise. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the content, act, or performance of critique itself that renders it automatically subversive or dangerous to ‘the system’. Sorry. (If you want to blame me for being a killjoy, note that Boltanski and Chiapello have noted a long time ago in “The New Spirit of Capitalism” that contemporary capitalism grew through the appropriation of the 1968 artistic critique).

Does this mean critique has, as Latour famously suggested, ‘run out of steam’? If we take the steam engine as a metaphor for the industrial revolution, then the answer may well be yes, and good riddance. Along with other Messianic visions, this may speed up the departure of the Enlightenment’s legacy of pastoral power, reflected – imperfectly, yet unmistakably – in the figure of (organic or avant-guarde) ‘public’ intellectual, destined, as he is (for it is always a he) to lead the ‘masses’ to their ultimate salvation. What we may want to do instead is to examine what promise critique (with a small c) holds – especially in the age of post-truth, post-facts, Donald Trump, and so on. In this, I am fully in agreement with Latour that it is important to keep tabs on the difference between matters of fact, and maters of concern; and, perhaps most disturbingly, think about whether we want to stake out the claim for defining the latter on the monopoly on producing the former.

For getting rid of the veneer of entitlement to critique does not in any way mean abandoning the project of critical examination altogether – but it does, very much so, mean reexamining the positions and perspectives from which it is made. This is the reason why I believe it is so important to focus on the foundations of epistemic authority, including that predicated on the assumption of difference between ‘lay’ and academic forms of reflexivity (I’m writing up a paper on this – meanwhile, my presentation on the topic from this year’s BSA conference is here). In other words, in addition to the analysis of threats to critical scholarship that are unequivocally positioned as coming from ‘the outside’, we need to examine what it is about ‘the inside’ – and, particularly, about the boundaries between ‘out’ and ‘in’ – that helps perpetuate the status quo. Often, this is the most difficult task of all.

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Here’s a comic for the end. In case you don’t know it already, it’s Pearls Before Swine, by the brilliant Stephan Pastis. This should at least brighten your day.

P.S. People often ask me what my recommendations would be. I’m reluctant to give any – the academia is broken, and I am not sure whether fixing it in this form makes any sense. But here’s a few preliminary thoughts:

(a) Stop fetishising the difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Leaving’ the academia is still framed like some epic sort of failure, which amplifies both the readiness of precarious workforce to sustain truly abominable working conditions just in order to stay “in”, and the anxiety and other mental health issues arising from the possibility of falling “out”. Most people with higher education should be able to do well and thrive in all sorts of jobs; if we didn’t frame tenure as a life-or-death achievement, perhaps fewer would agree to suffer for years in hope of its attainment.

(b) Fight for decent working conditions for contingent faculty. Not everyone needs to have tenure if working part-time (or going in and out) are acceptable career choices that offer a liveable income and a level of social support. This would also help those who want to have children or, godforbid, engage in activities other than the rat race for academic positions.

(c) This doesn’t get emphasised enough, but one of the reasons why people vie for positions in the academia is because at least it offers a degree of intellectual satisfaction, in opposition to what Graeber has termed the ever-growing number of ‘bullshit jobs’. So, one of the ways of making working conditions in the academia more decent is by making working conditions outside of academia more decent – and, perhaps, by decentralising a bit the monopoly on knowledge work that the academia holds. Not, however, in the neoliberal outsourcing/’creative hubs’ model, which unfortunately mostly serves to generate value for existing centres while further depleting the peripheries.

* By ”junior” and “senior” I obviously do not mean biological age, but rather status – I am intentionally avoiding denominators such as ‘ECRs’ etc. since I think someone can be in a precarious position whilst not being exactly at the start of their career, and, conversely, someone can be a very early career researcher but have a type of social capital, security, and recognition that are normally associated with ‘later’ career stages.

Zygmunt Bauman and the sociologies of end times

[This post was originally published at the Sociological Review blog’s Special Issue on Zygmunt Bauman, 13 April 2017]

“Morality, as it were, is a functional prerequisite of a world with an in-built finality and irreversibility of choices. Postmodern culture does not know of such a world.”

Zygmunt Bauman, Sociology and postmodernity

Getting reacquainted with Bauman’s 1988 essay “Sociology and postmodernity”, I accidentally misread the first word of this quote as “mortality”. In the context of the writing of this piece, it would be easy to interpret this as a Freudian slip – yet, as slips often do, it betrays a deeper unease. If it is true that morality is a functional prerequisite of a finite world, it is even truer that such a world calls for mortality – the ultimate human experience of irreversibility. In the context of trans- and post-humanism, as well as the growing awareness of the fact that the world, as the place inhabited (and inhabitable) by human beings, can end, what can Bauman teach us about both?

In Sociology and postmodernity, Bauman assumes the position at the crossroads of two historical (social, cultural) periods: modernity and postmodernity. Turning away from the past to look towards the future, he offers thoughts on what a sociology adapted to the study of postmodern condition would be like. Instead of a “postmodern sociology” as a mimetic representation of (even if a pragmatic response to) postmodernity, he argues for a sociology that attempts to give a comprehensive account of the “aggregate of aspects” that cohere into a new, consumer society: the sociology of postmodernity. This form of account eschews the observation of the new as a deterioration, or aberration, of the old, and instead aims to come to terms with the system whose contours Bauman will go on to develop in his later work: the system characterised by a plurality of possible worlds, and not necessarily a way to reconcile them.

The point in time in which he writes lends itself fortuitously to the argument of the essay. Not only did Legislators and interpreters, in which he reframes intellectuals as translators between different cultural worlds, come out a year earlier; the publication of Sociology and postmodernity briefly precedes 1989, the year that will indeed usher a wholly new period in the history of Europe, including in Bauman’s native Poland.

On the one hand, he takes the long view back to post-war Europe, built, as it was, on the legacy of Holocaust as a pathology of modernity, and two approaches to preventing its repetition – market liberalism and political freedoms in the West, and planned economies and more restrictive political regimes in Central and Eastern parts of the subcontinent. On the other, he engages with some of the dilemmas for the study of society that the approaching fall of Berlin Wall and eventual unification of those two hitherto separated worlds was going to open. In this sense, Bauman really has the privilege of a two-facing version of Benjamin’s Angel of History. This probably helped him recognize the false dichotomy of consumer freedom and dictatorship over needs, which, as he stated, was quickly becoming the only imaginable alternative to the system – at least as far as imagination was that of the system itself.

The present point of view is not all too dissimilar from the one in which Bauman was writing. We regularly encounter pronouncements of an end of a whole host of things, among them history, classical distribution of labour, standards of objectivity in reporting, nation-states, even – or so we hope – capitalism itself. While some of Bauman’s fears concerning postmodernity may, from the present perspective, seem overstated or even straightforwardly ridiculous, we are inhabiting a world of many posts – post-liberal, post-truth, post-human. Many think that this calls for a rethinking of how sociology can adapt itself to these new conditions: for instance, in a recent issue of International Sociological Association’s Global Dialogue, Leslie Sklair considers what a new radical sociology, developed in response to the collapse of global capitalism, would be like.

As if sociology and the zeitgeist are involved in some weird pas-de-deux: changes in any domain of life (technology, political regime, legislation) almost instantaneously trigger calls for, if not the invention of new, then a serious reconsideration of old paradigms and approaches to its study.

I would like to suggest that one of the sources of continued appeal of this – which Mike Savage brilliantly summarised as epochal theorising – is not so much the heralding of the new, as the promise that there is an end to the present state of affairs. In order for a new ‘epoch’ to succeed, the old one needs to end. What Bauman warns about in the passage cited at the beginning is that in a world without finality – without death – there can be no morality. In T.S. Eliot’s lines from Burnt Norton: If all time is eternally present, all time is irredeemable. What we may read as Bauman’s fear, therefore, is not that worlds as we know them can (and will) end: it is that, whatever name we give to the present condition, it may go on reproducing itself forever. In other words, it is a vision of the future that looks just like the present, only there is more of it.

Which is worse? It is hard to tell. A rarely discussed side of epochal theorising is that it imagines a world in which social sciences still have a role to play, if nothing else, in providing a theoretical framing or empirically-informed running commentary of its demise, and thus offers salvation from the existential anxiety of the present. The ‘ontological turn’ – from object-oriented ontology, to new materialisms, to post-humanism – reflects, in my view, the same tendency. If objects ‘exist’ in the same way as we do, if matter ‘matters’ in the same way (if not in the same degree) in which, for instance, black lives matter, this provides temporary respite from the confines of our choices. Expanding the concept of agency so as to involve non-human actors may seem more complicated as a model of social change, but at least it absolves humans from the unique burden of historical responsibility – including that for the fate of the world.

Human (re)discovery of the world, thus, conveys less a newfound awareness of the importance of the lived environment, as much as the desire to escape the solitude of thinking about the human (as Dawson also notes, all too human) condition. The fear of relativism that postmodern ‘plurality’ of worlds brought about appears to have been preferable to the possibility that there is, after all, just the one world. If the latter is the case, the only escape from it lies, to borrow from Hamlet, in the country from whose bourn no traveller has ever returned: in other words, in death.

This impasse is perhaps felt strongest in sociology and anthropology because excursions into other worlds have been both the gist of their method and the foundations of their critical potential (including their self-critique, which focused on how these two elements combine in the construction of epistemic authority). The figure of the traveller to other worlds was more pronounced in the case of anthropology, at least at the time when it developed as the study of exotic societies on the fringe of colonial empires, but sociology is no stranger to visitation either: its others, and their worlds, delineated by sometimes less tangible boundaries of class, gender, race, or just epistemic privilege. Bauman was among theorists who recognized the vital importance of this figure in the construction of the foundations of European modernity, and thus also sensitive to its transformations in the context of postmodernity – exemplified, as he argued, in contemporary human’s ambiguous position: between “a perfect tourist” and a “vagabond beyond remedy”.

In this sense, the awareness that every journey has an end can inform the practice of social theory in ways that go beyond the need to pronounce new beginnings. Rather than using eulogies in order to produce more of the same thing – more articles, more commentary, more symposia, more academic prestige – perhaps we can see them as an opportunity to reflect on the always-unfinished trajectory of human existence, including our existence as scholars, and the responsibility that it entails. The challenge, in this case, is to resist the attractive prospect of escaping the current condition by ‘exit’ into another period, or another world – postmodern, post-truth, post-human, whatever – and remember that, no matter how many diverse and wonderful entities they may be populated with, these worlds are also human, all too human. This can serve as a reminder that, as Bauman wrote in his famous essay on heroes and victims of postmodernity, “Our life struggles dissolve, on the contrary, in that unbearable lightness of being. We never know for sure when to laugh and when to cry. And there is hardly a moment in life to say without dark premonitions: ‘I have arrived’”.