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.

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.

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.

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].

Boundaries and barbarians: ontological (in)security and the [cyber?] war on universities

baradurPrologue

One Saturday in late January, I go to the PhD office at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge’s New Museums site (yes, PhD students shouldn’t work on Saturdays, and yes, we do). I swipe my card at the main gate of the building. Nothing happens.

I try again, and again, and still nothing. The sensor stays red. An interaction with a security guard who seems to appear from nowhere conveys there is nothing wrong with my card; apparently, there has been a power outage and the whole system has been reset. A rather distraught-looking man from the Department History and Philosophy of Science appears around the corner, insisting to be let back inside the building, where he had left a computer on with, he claims, sensitive data. The very amicable security guard apologises. There’s nothing he can do to let us in. His card doesn’t work, either, and the system has to be manually reset from within the computers inside each departmental building.

You mean the building noone can currently access, I ask.

I walk away (after being assured the issue would be resolved on Monday) plotting sci-fi campus novels in which Skynet is not part of a Ministry of Defense, but of a university; rogue algorithms claim GCSE test results; and classes are rescheduled in a way that sends engineering undergrads to colloquia in feminist theory, and vice versa (the distances one’ s mind will go to avoid thinking about impending deadlines)*. Regretfully pushing prospective pitches to fiction publishers aside (temporarily)**, I find the incident particularly interesting for the perspective it offers on how we think about the university as an institution: its spatiality, its materiality, its boundaries, and the way its existence relates to these categories – in other words, its social ontology.

War on universities?

Critiques of the current transformation of higher education and research in the UK often frame it as an attack, or ‘war’, on universities (this is where the first part of the title of my thesis comes from). Exaggeration for rhetorical purposes notwithstanding, being ‘under attack’ suggests is that it is possible to distinguish the University (and the intellectual world more broadly) from its environment, in this case at least in part populated by forces that threaten its very existence. Notably, this distinction remains almost untouched even in policy narratives (including those that seek to promote public engagement and/or impact) that stress the need for universities to engage with the (‘surrounding’) society, which tend to frame this imperative as ‘going beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower’.

The distinction between universities and the society has a long history in the UK: the university’s built environment (buildings, campuses, gates) and rituals (dress, residence requirements/’keeping term’, conventions of language) were developed to reflect the separateness of education from ordinary experience, enshrined in the dichotomies of intellectual vs. manual labour, active life vs. ‘life of the mind’ and, not least, Town vs. Gown. Of course, with the rise of ‘redbrick’, and, later, ‘plateglass’ universities, this distinction became somewhat less pronounced. Rather than in terms of blurring, however, I would like to suggest we need to think of this as a shift in scale: the relationship between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’, after all, is embedded in the broader framework of distinctions between urban and suburban, urban and rural, regional and national, national and global, and the myriad possible forms of hybridisation between these (recent work by Addie, Keil and Olds, as well as Robertson et al., offers very good insights into issues related to theorising scale in the context of higher education).

Policing the boundaries: relational ontology and ontological (in)security

What I find most interesting, in this setting, is the way in which boundaries between these categories are maintained and negotiated. In sociology, the negotiation of boundaries in the academia has been studied in detail by, among others, Michelle Lamont (in How Professors Think, as well as in an overview by Lamont and Molnár), Thomas Gieryn (both in Cultural Boundaries of Science and few other texts), Andrew Abbott in The Chaos of Disciplines (and, of course, in sociologically-inclined philosophy of science, including Feyerabend’s Against Method, Lakatos’ work on research programmes, and Kuhn’s on scientific revolutions, before that). Social anthropology has an even longer-standing obsession with boundaries, symbolic as well as material – Mary Douglas’ work, in particular, as well as Augé’s Non-Places offer a good entry point, converging with sociology on the ground of neo-Durkheimian reading of the distinction between the sacred and profane.

My interest in the cultural framing of boundaries goes back to my first PhD, which explored the construal of the category of (romantic) relationship through the delineation of its difference from other types of interpersonal relations. The concept resurfaced in research on public engagement in UK higher education: here, the negotiation of boundaries between ‘inside’ (academics) and ‘outside’ (different audiences), as well as between different groups within the university (e.g. administrators vs. academics) becomes evident through practices of engaging in the dissemination and, sometimes, coproduction of knowledge, (some of this is in my contribution to this volume). The thread that runs through these cases is the importance of positioning in relation to a (relatively) specified Other; in other words, a relational ontology.

It is not difficult to see the role of negotiating boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in the concept of ontological security (e.g. Giddens, 1991). Recent work in IR (e.g. Ejdus, 2017) has shifted the focus from Giddens’ emphasis on social relations to the importance of stability of material forms, including buildings. I think we can extend this to universities: in this case, however, it is not (only) the building itself that is ‘at risk’ (this can be observed in intensified securitisation of campuses, both through material structure such as gates and cards-only entrances, and modes of surveillance such as Prevent – see e.g. Gearon, 2017), but also the materiality of the institution itself. While the MOOC hype may have (thankfully) subsided (though not dissappeared) there is the ubiquitous social media, which, as quite a few people have argued, tests the salience of the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (I’ve written a bit about digital technologies as mediating the boundary between universities and the ‘outside world’ here as well in an upcoming article in Globalisation, Education, Societies special issue that deals with reassembling knowledge production with/out the university).

Barbarians at the gates

In this context, it should not be surprising that many academics fear digital technologies: anything that tests the material/symbolic boundaries of our own existence is bound to be seen as troubling/dirty/dangerous. This brings to mind Kavafy’s poem (and J.M. Coetzee’s novel) Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an outpost of the Empire prepares for the attack of ‘the barbarians’ – that, in fact, never arrives. The trope of the university as a bulwark against and/or at danger of descending into barbarism has been explored by a number of writers, including Thorstein Veblen and, more recently, Roy Coleman. Regardless of the accuracy or historical stretchability of the trope, what I am most interested in is its use as a simultaneously diagnostic and normative narrative that frames and situates the current transformation of higher education and research.

As the last line of Kavafy’s poem suggests, barbarians represent ‘a kind of solution’: a solution for the otherwise unanswered question of the role and purpose of universities in the 21st century, which began to be asked ever more urgently with the post-war expansion of higher education, only to be shut down by the integration/normalization of the soixante-huitards in what Boltanski and Chiapello have recognised as contemporary capitalism’s almost infinite capacity to appropriate critique. Disentangling this dynamic is key to understanding contemporary clashes and conflicts over the nature of knowledge production. Rather than locating dangers to the university firmly beyond the gates, then, perhaps we could use the current crisis to think about how we perceive, negotiate, and preserve the boundaries between ‘in’ and ‘out’. Until we have a space to do that, I believe we will continue building walls only to realise we have been left on the wrong side.

(*) I have a strong interest in campus novels, both for PhD-related and unrelated reasons, as well as a long-standing interest in Sci-Fi, but with the exception of DeLillo’s White Noise can think of very few works that straddle both genres; would very much appreciate suggestions in this domain!

(**) I have been thinking for a while about a book that would be a spin-off from my current PhD that would combine social theory, literature, and critical cultural political economy, drawing on similarities and differences between critical and magical realism to look at universities. This can be taken as a sketch for one of the chapters, so all thoughts and comments are welcome.