Does academic freedom extend to social media?

There is a longer discussion about this that has been going on in the US, continental European, and many other parts of the academic/policy/legal/media complexes and their intersection. Useful points of reference are Magna Charta Universitatum (1988), in part developed to stimulate ‘transition’ of Central/Eastern European universities away from communism, and European University Association’s Autonomy Scorecard, which represents an interesting case study for thinking through tensions between publicly (state) funded higher education and principles of freedom and autonomy (Terhi Nokkala and I have analyzed it here). Discussions in the UK, however, predictably (though hardly always justifiably) transpose most of the elements, political/ideological categories, and dynamics from the US; in this sense, I thought an article I wrote a few years back – mostly about theorising complex objects and their transformation, but with extensive analysis of 2 (and a half) case studies of ‘controversies’ involving academics’ use of social media – could offer a good reference point. The article is available (Open Access!) here; the subheadings that engage with social media in particular are pasted below. If citing, please refer to the following:

Bacevic, J. (2018). With or without U? Assemblage theory and (de)territorialising the university, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 17:1, 78-91, DOI: 10.1080/14767724.2018.1498323

——————————————————————————————————–

Boundary disputes: intellectuals and social media

In an analogy for a Cartesian philosophy of mind, Gilbert Ryle famously described a hypothetical visitor to Oxford (Ryle 1949). This astonished visitor, Ryle argued, would go around asking whether the University was in the Bodleian library? The Sheldonian Theatre? The colleges? and so forth, all the while failing to understand that the University was not in any of these buildings per se. Rather, it was all of these combined, but also the visible and invisible threads between them: people, relations, books, ideas, feelings, grass; colleges and Formal Halls; sub fusc and port. It also makes sense to acknowledge that these components can also be parts of other assemblages: for instance, someone can equally be an Oxford student and a member of the Communist Party, for instance. ‘The University’ assembles these and agentifies them in specific contexts, but they exist beyond those contexts: port is produced and shipped before it becomes College port served at a Formal Hall. And while it is possible to conceive of boundary disputes revolving around port, more often they involve people.

The cases analysed below involve ‘boundary disputes’ that applied to intellectuals using social media. In both cases, the intellectuals were employed at universities; and, in both, their employment ceased because of their activity online. While in the press these disputes were usually framed around issues of academic freedom, they can rather be seen as instances of reterritorialization: redrawing of the boundaries of the university, and reassertion of its agency, in relation to digital technologies. This challenges the assumption that digital technologies serve uniquely to deterritorialise, or ‘unbundle’, the university as traditionally conceived.

The public engagement of those who authoritatively produce knowledge – in sociological theory traditionally referred to as ‘intellectuals’ – has an interesting history (e.g. Small 2002). It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that intellectuals became en masse employed by universities: with the massification of higher education and the rise of the ‘campus university’, in particular in the US, came what some saw as the ‘decline’ of the traditional, bohemian ‘public intellectual’ reflected in Mannheim’s (1936) concept of ‘free-floating’ intelligentsia. Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987) argues that this process of ‘universitisation’ has led to the disappearance of the intellectual ferment that once characterised the American public sphere. With tenure, he claimed, came the loss of critical edge; intellectuals became tame and complacent, too used to the comfort of a regular salary and an office job. Today, however, the source of the decline is no longer the employment of intellectuals at universities, but its absence: precarity, that is, the insecurity and impermanence of employment, are seen as the major threat not only to public intellectualism, but to universities – or at least the notion of knowledge as public good – as a whole.

This suggests that there has been a shift in the coding of the relationship between intellectuals, critique and universities. In the first part of the twentieth century, the function of social critique was predominantly framed as independent of universities; in this sense, ‘public intellectuals’ were if not more than equally likely to be writers, journalists, and other men (since they were predominantly men) of ‘independent means’ than academic workers. This changed in the second half of the twentieth century, with both the massification of higher education and diversification of the social strata intellectuals were likely to come from. The desirability of university employment increased with the decreasing availability of permanent positions. In part because of this, precarity was framed as one of the main elements of the neoliberal transformation of higher education and research: insecurity of employment, in this sense, became the ‘new normal’ for people entering the academic profession in the twenty-first century.

Some elements of precarity can be directly correlated with processes of ‘unbundling’ (see Gehrke and Kezar 2015; Macfarlane 2011). In the UK, for instance, certain universities rely on platforms such as Teach Higher to provide the service of employing teaching staff, who deliver an increasing portion of courses. In this case, teaching associates and lecturers are no longer employees of the university; they are employed by the platform. Yet even when this is not the case, we can talk about processes of deterritorializing, in the sense in which the practice is part of the broader weakening of the link between teaching staff and the university (cf. Hall 2016). It is not only the security of employment that is changed in the process; universities, in this case, also own the products of teaching as practice, for instance, course materials, so that when staff depart, they can continue to use this material for teaching with someone else in charge of ‘delivery’.

A similar process is observable when it comes to ownership of the products of research. In the context of periodic research assessment and competitive funding, some universities have resorted to ‘buying’, that is, offering highly competitive packages to staff with a high volume of publications, in order to boost their REF scores. The UK research councils and particularly the Stern Review (2016) include measures explicitly aimed to counter this practice, but these, in turn, harm early career researchers who fear that institutional ‘ownership’ of their research output would create a problem for their employability in other institutions. What we can observe, then, is a disassembling of knowledge production, where the relationship between universities, academics, and the products of their labour – whether teaching or research – is increasingly weakened, challenged, and reconstructed.

Possibly the most tenuous link, however, applies to neither teaching nor research, but to what is referred to as universities’ ‘Third mission’: public engagement (e.g. Bacevic 2017). While academics have to some degree always been engaged with the public – most visibly those who have earned the label of ‘public intellectual’ – the beginning of the twenty-first century has, among other things, seen a rise in the demand for the formalisation of universities’ contribution to society. In the UK, this contribution is measured as ‘impact’, which includes any application of academic knowledge outside of the academia. While appearances in the media constitute only one of the possible ‘pathways to impact’, they have remained a relatively frequent form of engaging with the public. They offer the opportunity for universities to promote and strengthen their ‘brand’, but they also help academics gain reputation and recognition. In this sense, they can be seen as a form of extension; they position the universities in the public arena, and forge links with communities outside of its ‘traditional’ boundaries. Yet, this form of engagement can also provoke rather bitter boundary disputes when things go wrong.

In the recent years, the case of Steven Salaita, professor of Native American studies and American literature became one of the most widely publicised disputes between academics and universities. In 2013, Salaita was offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois. However, in 2014 the Board of Trustees withdrew the offer, citing Salaita’s ‘incendiary’ posts on Twitter (Dorf 2014; Flaherty 2015). At the time, Israel was conducting one of its campaigns of daily shelling in the Gaza Strip. Salaita tweeted: ‘Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already. #Gaza’ (Steven Salaita on Twitter, 19 July 2014). Salaita’s appointment was made public and was awaiting formal approval by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, usually a matter of pure technicality once it had been recommended by academic committees. Yet, in August Salaita was informed by the Chancellor that the University was withdrawing the offer.

Scandal erupted in the media shortly afterwards. It turned out that several of university’s wealthy donors, as well as a few students, had contacted members of the Board demanding that Salaita’s offer be revoked. The Chancellor justified her decision by saying that the objection to Salaita’s tweets concerned standards of ‘civility’, not the political opinion they expressed, but the discussions inevitably revolved around questions of identity, campus politics, and the degree to which they can be kept separate. This was exacerbated by a split within the American Association of University Professors, which is the closest the professoriate in the US has to a union: while the AAUP issued a statement of support to Salaita as soon as the news broke, Cary Nelson, the association’s former president and a prolific writer on issues of university autonomy and academic freedom, defended the Board’s decision. The reason? The protections awarded by the principle of academic freedom, Nelson claimed, extends only to tenured professors.

Very few people agreed with Nelson’s definition: eventually, the courts upheld Salaita’s case that the University of Illinois Board’s decision constituted breach of contract. He was awarded a hefty settlement (ten times the annual salary he would be earning at Illinois), but was not reinstated. This points to serious limitations of the using ‘academic freedom’ as an analytical concept. While university autonomy and academic freedom are principles invoked by academics in order to protect their activity, their application in academic and legal practice is, at best, open to interpretation. A detailed report by Karran and Malinson (2017), for instance, shows that both the understanding and the legal level of protection of academic freedom vary widely within European countries. In the US, the principle is often framed as part of freedom of speech and thus protected under the First Amendment (Karran 2009); but, as we could see, this does not in any way insulate it against widely differing interpretations of how it should be applied in practice.

While the Salaita case can be considered foundational in terms of making these questions central to a prolonged public controversy as well as a legal dispute, navigating the terrain in which these controversies arise has progressively become more complicated. Carrigan (2016) and Lupton (2014) note that almost everyone, to some degree, is already a ‘digital scholar’. While most human resources departments as well as graduate programmes increasingly offer workshops or courses on ‘using social media’ or ‘managing your identity online’ the issue is clearly not just one of the right tool or skill. Inevitably, it comes down to the question of boundaries, that is, what ‘counts as’ public engagement in the ‘digital university’, and why? How is academic work seen, evaluated, and recognised? Last, but not least, who decides?

Rather than questions of accountability or definitions of academic freedom, these controversies cannot be seen separately from questions of ontology, that is, questions about what entities are composed of, as well as how they act. This brings us back to assemblages: what counts as being a part of the university – and to what degree – and what does not? Does an academic’s activity on social media count as part of their ‘public’ engagement? Does it count as academic work, and should it be valued – or, alternatively, judged – as such? Do the rights (and protections) of academic freedom extend beyond the walls of the university, and in what cases? Last, but not least, which elements of the university exercise these rights, and which parts can refuse to extend them?

The case of George Ciccariello-Maher, until recently a Professor of English at Drexel University, offers an illustration of how these questions impact practice. On Christmas Day 2016, Ciccariello-Maher tweeted ‘All I want for Christmas is white genocide’, an ironic take on certain forms of right-wing critique of racial equality. Drexel University, which had been closed over Christmas vacation, belatedly caught up with the ire that the tweet had provoked among conservative users of Twitter, and issued a statement saying that ‘While the university recognises the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing and do not in any way reflect the values of the university’. After the ironic nature of the concept of ‘white genocide’ was repeatedly pointed out both by Ciccariello-Maher himself and some of his colleagues, the university apologised, but did not withdraw its statement.

In October 2017, the University placed Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave, after his tweets about white supremacy as the cause of the Las Vegas shooting provoked a similar outcry among right-wing users of Twitter.1 Drexel cited safety concerns as the main reason for the decision – Ciccariello-Maher had been receiving racist abuse, including death threats – but it was obvious that his public profile was becoming too much to handle. Ciccariello-Maher resigned on 31st December 2017. His statement read: ‘After nearly a year of harassment by right-wing, white supremacist media and internet trolls, after threats of violence against me and my family, my situation has become unsustainable’.2 However, it indirectly contained a criticism of the university’s failure to protect him: in an earlier opinion piece published right after the Las Vegas controversy, Cicariello-Maher wrote that ‘[b]y bowing to pressure from racist internet trolls, Drexel has sent the wrong signal: That you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence. Such cowardice notwithstanding, I am prepared to take all necessary legal action to protect my academic freedom, tenure rights and most importantly, the rights of my students to learn in a safe environment where threats don’t hold sway over intellectual debate.’.3 The fact that, three months later, he no longer deemed it safe to continue doing that from within the university suggests that something had changed in the positioning of the university – in this case, Drexel – as a ‘bulwark’ against attacks on academic freedom.

Forms of capital and lines of flight

What do these cases suggest? In a deterritorialised university, the link between academics, their actions, and the institution becomes weaker. In the US, tenure is supposed to codify a stronger version of this link: hence, Nelson’s attempt to justify Salaita’s dismissal as a consequence of the fact that he did not have tenure at the University of Illinois, and thus the institutional protection of academic freedom did not extend to his actions. Yet there is a clear sense of ‘stretching’ nature of universities’ responsibilities or jurisdiction. Before the widespread use of social media, it was easier to distinguish between utterances made in the context of teaching or research, and others, often quite literally, off-campus. This doesn’t mean that there were no controversies: however, the concept of academic freedom could be applied as a ‘rule of thumb’ to discriminate between forms of engagement that counted as ‘academic work’ and those that did not. In a fragmented and pluralised public sphere, and the growing insecurity of academic employment, this concept is clearly no longer sufficient, if it ever was.

Of course, one might claim in this particular case it would suffice to define the boundaries of academic freedom by conclusively limiting it to tenured academics. But that would not answer questions about the form or method of those encounters. Do academics tweet in a personal, or in a professional, capacity? Is it easy to distinguish between the two? While some academics have taken to disclaimers specifying the capacity in which they are engaging (e.g. ‘tweeting in a personal capacity’ or ‘personal views/ do not express the views of the employer’), this only obscures the complex entanglement of individual, institution, and forms of engagement. This means that, in thinking about the relationship between individuals, institutions, and their activities, we have to take account the direction in which capital travels. This brings us back to lines of flight.

The most obvious form of capital in motion here is symbolic. Intellectuals such as Salaita and Ciccariello-Maher in part gain large numbers of followers and visibility on social media because of their institutional position; in turn, universities encourage (and may even require) staff to list their public engagement activities and media appearances on their profile pages, as this increases visibility of the institution. Salaita has been a respected and vocal critic of Israel’s policy and politics in the Middle East for almost a decade before being offered a job at the University of Illinois. Ciccariello-Maher’s Drexel profile page listed his involvement as

 … a media commentator for such outlets as The New York Times, Al Jazeera, CNN Español, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Washington PostLos Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and his opinion pieces have run in the New York Times’ Room for Debate, The NationThe Philadelphia Inquirer and Fox News Latino.4

One would be forgiven for thinking that, until the unfortunate Tweet, the university supported and even actively promoted Ciccariello-Maher’s public profile.

The ambiguous nature of symbolic capital is illustrated by the case of another controversial public intellectual, Slavoj Žižek. Renowned ‘Elvis of philosophy’ is not readily associated with an institution; however, he in fact has three institutional positions. Žižek is a fellow of the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory of the University of Ljubljana, teaches at the European Graduate School, and, most recently has been appointed International Director of the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. The Institute’s web page describes his appointment:

Although courted by many universities in the US, he resisted offers until the International Directorship of Birkbeck’s Centre came up. Believing that ‘Political issues are too serious to be left only to politicians’, Žižek aims to promote the role of the public intellectual, to be intellectually active and to address the larger public.5

Yet, Žižek quite openly boasts what comes across as a principled anti-institutional stance. Not long ago, a YouTube video in which he dismisses having to read students’ essays as ‘stupid’ attracted quite a degree of opprobrium.6 On the one hand, of course, what Žižek says in the video can be seen as yet another form of attention-seeking, or a testimony to the capacity of new social media to make everything and anything go ‘viral’. Yet, what makes it exceptional is exactly its unexceptionality: Žižek is known for voicing opinions that are bound to prove controversial or at least thread on the boundary of political correctness, and it is not a big secret that most academics do not find the work of essay-reading and marking particularly rewarding. But, unlike Žižek, they are not in a position to say it. Trumpeting disregard for one’s job on social media would, probably, seriously endanger it for most academics. As we could see in examples of Salaita and Ciccariello-Maher, universities were quick to sanction opinions that were far less directly linked to teaching. The fact that Birkbeck was not bothered by this – in fact, it could be argued that this attitude contributed to the appeal of having Žižek, who previously resisted ‘courting’ by universities in the US – serves as a reminder that symbolic capital has to be seen within other possible ‘lines of flight’.

These processes cannot be seen as simply arising from tensions between individual freedom on the one, and institutional regulation on the other side. The tenuous boundaries of the university became more visible in relation to lines of flight that combine persons and different forms of capital: economic, political, and symbolic. The Salaita controversy, for instance, is a good illustration of the ‘entanglement’ of the three. Within the political context – that is, the longer Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and especially the role of the US within it – and within the specific set of economic relationships, that is, the fact US universities are to a great degree reliant on funds from their donors – Salaita’s statement becomes coded as a symbolic liability, rather than an asset. This runs counter to the way his previous statements were coded: so, instead of channelling symbolic capital towards the university, it resulted in the threat of economic capital ‘fleeing’ in the opposite direction, in the sense of donors withholding it from the university. When it came to Ciccariello-Maher, from the standpoint of the university, the individual literally acts as a nodal point of intersection between different ‘lines of flight’: on the one hand, the channelling of symbolic capital generated through his involvement as an influential political commentator towards the institution; on the other, the possible ‘breach’ of the integrity (and physical safety) or staff and students as its constituent parts via threats of physical violence against Ciccariello-Maher.

All of this suggests that deterritorialization can be seen as positive and even actively supported; until, of course, the boundaries of the institution become too porous, in which case the university swiftly reterritorialises. In the case of the University of Illinois, the threat of withdrawn support from donors was sufficient to trigger the reterritorialization process by redrawing the boundaries of the university, symbolically leaving Salaita outside them. In the case of Ciccariello-Maher, it would be possible to claim that agency was distributed in the sense in which it was his decision to leave; yet, a second look suggests that it was also a case of reterritorialization inasmuch as the university refused to guarantee his safety, or that of his students, in the face of threats of white supremacist violence or disruption.

This also serves to illustrate why ‘unbundling’ as a concept is not sufficient to theorise the processes of assembling and disassembling that take place in (or on the same plane as) contemporary university. Public engagement sits on a boundary: it is neither fully inside the university, nor is it ‘outside’ by the virtue of taking place in the environment of traditional or social media. This impossibility to conclusively situate it ‘within’ or ‘without’ is precisely what hints at the arbitrary nature of boundaries. The contours of an assemblage, thus, become visible in such ‘boundary disputes’ as the controversies surrounding Salaita and Ciccariello-Maher or, alternatively, their relative absence in the case of Žižek. While unbundling starts from the assumption that these boundaries are relatively fixed, and it is only components that change (more specifically, are included or excluded), assemblage theory allows us to reframe entities as instantiated through processes of territorialisation and deterritorialization, thus challenging the degree to which specific elements are framed (or, coded) as elements of an assemblage.

Conclusion: towards a new political economy of assemblages

Reframing universities (and, by extension, other organisations) as assemblages, thus, allows us to shift attention to the relational nature of the processes of knowledge production. Contrary to the narratives of university’s ‘decline’, we can rather talk about a more variegated ecology of knowledge and expertise, in which the identity of particular agents (or actors) is not exhausted in their position with(in) or without the university, but rather performed through a process of generating, framing, and converting capitals. This calls for longer and more elaborate study of the contemporary political economy (and ecology) of knowledge production, which would need to take into account multiple other actors and networks – from the more obvious, such as Twitter, to less ‘tangible’ ones that these afford – such as differently imagined audiences for intellectual products.

This also brings attention back to the question of economies of scale. Certainly, not all assemblages exist on the same plane. The university is a product of multiple forces, political and economic, global and local, but they do not necessarily operate on the same scale. For instance, we can talk about the relative importance of geopolitics in a changing financial landscape, but not about the impact of, say, digital technologies on ‘The University’ in absolute terms. Similarly, talking about effects of ‘neoliberalism’ makes sense only insofar as we recognise that ‘neoliberalism’ itself stands for a confluence of different and frequently contradictory forces. Some of these ‘lines of flight’ may operate in ways that run counter to the prior states of the object in question – for instance, by channelling funds, prestige, or ideas away from the institution. The question of (re)territorialisation, thus, inevitably becomes the question of the imaginable as well as actualised boundaries of the object; in other words, when is an object no longer an object? How can we make boundary-work integral to the study of the social world, and of the ways we go about knowing it?

This line of inquiry connects with a broader sociological tradition of the study of boundaries, as the social process of delineation between fields, disciplines, and their objects (e.g. Abbott 2001; Lamont 2009; Lamont and Molnár 2002). But it also brings in another philosophical, or, more precisely, ontological, question: how do we know when a thing is no longer the same thing? This applies not only to universities, but also to other social entities – states, regimes, companies, relationships, political parties, and social movements. The social definition of entities is always community-specific and thus in a sense arbitrary; similarly, how the boundaries of entities are conceived and negotiated has to draw on a socially-defined vocabulary that conceptualises certain forms of (dis-)assembling as potentially destructive to the entity as a whole. From this perspective, understanding how entities come to be drawn together (assembled), how their components gain significance (coding), and how their relations are strengthened or weakened (territorialisation) is a useful tool in thinking about beginnings, endings, and resilience – all of which become increasingly important in the current political and historical moment.

The transformation of processes of knowledge production intensifies all of these dynamics, and the ways in which they play out in universities. While certainly contributing to the unbundling of its different functions, the analysis presented in this article shows that the university remains a potent agent in the social world – though what the university is composed of can certainly differ. In this sense, while the pronouncement of the ‘death’ of universities should be seen as premature, this serves as a potent reminder that understanding change, to a great deal, depends not only on how we conceptualise the mechanisms that drive it, but also on how we view elements that make up the social world. The tendency to posit fixed and durable boundaries of objects – that I have elsewhere referred to as ‘ontological bias’7 – has, therefore, important implications for both scholarship and practice. This article hopes to have made a contribution towards questioning the boundaries of the university as one among these objects.

——————–

If you’re interested in reading more about these tensions, I also recommend Mark Carrigan’s ‘Social Media for Academics’ (Sage).

Modern and contemporary sociological theory, AY 21/22

This is a shorter version of the draft syllabus for the Modern and Contemporary Sociological Theory module (course) that I am teaching at Durham’s Department of Sociology. MCST is a 20-credit mandatory undergraduate module in Year 2, covering the period from mid-20th century (roughly, end of World War II) until the present. I run only half the module, so these are 10 sessions.

Disclaimer/FAQ:

This is a sample of the syllabus and teaching material. The full and updated version, including preparatory, mandatory and extended reading, seminar activities, and lecture notes/powerpoints are available only to registered Durham students. Please note that the version here is provided for public use under CC_BY_NC_ND 4.0 license, which means you are free to share it with proper attribution, but not use it or any its derivatives for commercial or profit-generating activity, including your own for-profit teaching.

Q1: Why are there only 10 sessions for a year-long, 20-credit course?

A1: Because I teach only half of it.

Q2: Why is there so much content?

A2: Because I want students to get a grasp of the width and breadth of contemporary sociological theory, rather than just focus on a few theorists.

Q3: Why are so few theorists mentioned by name?

A3: Because I teach an approach to theory that is explicitly anti-canonical, which means it aims to encourage thinking theoretically and working with concepts/problems, rather than learning theologically about sociological thinkers, even if they are made a little more diverse than before.

Q4: Why are X, Y, Z absent?

A4: See A3 (it’s possible they’re not) and A1.

Q5: Why is there not more about A, B, C?

A5: See A1, A4. Also, it’s work in progress, suggestions are always welcome.

Q6: Where is Marx?

A6: In Year 1. Also, everywhere.

Q7: Where are Marxist bros?

A7: In Hell, I hope.

Michaelmas Term (Dr Bacevic) 

  1. Introduction: what is theory? 
  2. What is theory for? Critical theory
  3. What is theory for? Decolonial and postcolonial theory
  4. Agency and freedom: existentialism, existentialist feminism, and race
  5. Structure and reproduction: structuralism, structural Marxism, post-structuralism
  6. Theories of social reproduction: practice theory, reflexivity, social reproduction 
  7. Power and oppression: knowledge, ideology, hegemony
  8. Power and oppression: gender, race, intersectionality
  9. What acts? Pragmatist sociology, performativity and affect
  10. What acts? Posthumanism, necro/ontopolitics and the Anthropocene

This term gives an overview of the development of social theory from the end of World War II until the present. It focuses on the intersections between social and political processes (decolonization and independence movements, crises of social reproduction, new forms of inequality, climate change) and theory as mode of thinking about these processes.

  1. Introduction. What is theory?

This session explores the concept of social/sociological theory and its different meanings. To some people, ‘theory’ primarily consists of reading and understanding the work of a selected body or group of theorists, also known as ‘the canon’. To others, ‘theory’ primarily consists of ideas or statements about different elements that make up the social world, their relations, and how they shape our lives – and how, in turn, we can shape them. To others, yet, the role of theory includes thinking how to shape these elements to make life as liveable for the greatest number of people; others think this is not the role of theory, or disagree on the kind of objects and actors that should be included in this group. In this session, we will examine the history and examples of these different approaches, and explain the specific approach to theory taken in this part of the module.   

Readings 

Preparatory

Essential (at least two of the following):

Krause, M. (2016). The meanings of theorizing’, British Journal of Sociology 67 (1) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1468-4446.12187_4 [OA]

Abend, G. (2008) The Meaning of Theory, Sociological Theory 26 (2), 173-199 [26]

Haslanger, S. (2012) Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, Introduction (pp. 3-32). 

Additional:

Swedberg, R. (2016). Before Theory Comes Theorizing, or How to Make Social Sciences More Interesting.  https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1111/1468-4446.12184  

Bacevic, J. (2017). Theory as practice: for a politics of social theory, or how to get out of the theory zoo. https://janabacevic.net/2017/06/12/theory-as-practice-for-a-politics-of-social-theory-or-how-to-get-out-of-the-theory-zoo/ 

Connell RW (1997) Why is Classical Theory Classical? American Journal of Sociology, 102(6): 1511-1557. [you have encountered this text already in Classical Sociological Theory in Year 1).

  1. What is theory for? Critical theory, social theory, and social change 

In this session we introduce the body of theories usually known as ‘critical’. While many kinds of theory can be said to offer a critique of different social conditions, the epithet ‘Critical’ (with a capital C) has most often been applied to the strands of Marxist theory associated with what is known as the Frankfurt School, and its successors. In this session, we discuss the origins of critical theory as an attempt to come to terms with the destruction of World War Two, its post-war focus on the role of ideology and mass media in the maintenance of capitalist and American hegemony, as well as discussions around public spheres, the role of democracy, and the crisis of the European Union. Secondly, we engage with the most recent contributions of critical theory, including attempts to deal with the rise of populism and renewed forms of nationalism, fascism, and violence, including that against women, migrants and refugees, and the environment. 

  1. What is theory for? Postcolonial and decolonial theory

This session introduces postcolonial and decolonial challenges to the canon of sociological theory. Focusing on both ‘theory from the South’ and theory developed in the ‘Global North’ that sought to challenge the Eurocentric ‘canon’ of sociology and associated disciplines, it asks: (1) What kind of sociological concepts, ideas and processes are foregrounded or, conversely, omitted when ‘theory’ is written from a Eurocentric perspective? (2) How can we think about the work of theorizing in ways that incorporate non-Western(-centric) ‘ways of seeing’ and thinking about the social? 

  1. Agency and freedom: existentialism, existentialist feminism, and race

In this session, we begin to explore one of the key questions 20th-century social theory: what does it mean to act? Are humans free to act, or is what we do a product of largely impersonal structural forces outside our control? Furthermore, are all humans equally free to act?

We will be approaching these questions through the encounter with a form of philosophy that profoundly shaped European social and political thought leading up to and after World War II: existentialism. While applied to thinkers who both supported and opposed the project of Nazism (Martin Heidegger stands as a clear example of the former, Hannah Arendt of the latter), existentialist thinking was crucial to the development of post-war social theory as it approached human existence as always already social, and thus fundamentally defined by our relationships with and duties towards others. While for Marxism (with which existentialist thinkers maintained a productive dialogue, though not always agreed), these relations were primarily those of production, and thus inequality stemmed primarily from being embedded in capitalism as a fundamentally exploitative mode of production, existentialism highlighted the relevance of mutuality and freedom in the reproduction of some of these relations. In existentialist terms, we are ‘thrown into the world’ which is not of our choosing; however, what we do in that world – how we choose to act – matters. This, of course, does not mean that existentialism ignored differences in power or the historical constitution of conditions for action; but it highlighted the role of responsibility, as well as its abandonment (‘bad faith’).

In this session, we will examine early post-war reflections on agency through the work of three thinkers: Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, and Frantz Fanon. The work of all three can be read as an attempt to understand the consequences of World War II, but they emphasized different elements. Arendt was primarily concerned with political and social conditions, such as totalitarianism, under which human beings give up on their freedom. De Beauvoir became famous for reading of inequality through the reproduction of patriarchy, locating the source of constraints to agency in the construction of gendered difference, and women as the ‘Second Sex’. Fanon, meanwhile, developed an analysis of the conditions of unfreedom and oppression that were rooted in racism, colonial exploitation, and capitalism. Their work, which remains enormously influential to this day, asked some of the key questions that would shape 20th-century theorizing: are all of us equally free to act? Are the choices we make an expression of free will, or cultural and social conditioning? Most importantly, how would we know the difference? 

  1. Structure and reproduction: structuralism, structuralist Marxism, post-structuralism

In the 20th century, the question of freedom and agency was pitted against the other fundamental question of social theory: if humans are free to act, how come are some social formations surprisingly stable? While functionalist thinkers (many of which you will encounter in Term 2) argued social elements can be explained through their ‘function’ or ‘purpose’, structuralists focused on the question: what is the origin of these formations? Where do they come from? Are they material, or are they just ‘in our heads’? Do they serve everyone equally, or do they serve to maintain social inequality? In this session, we discuss sociological and anthropological answers to these questions known, variously, as structuralism, structural/cultural Marxism, and poststructuralism.

Structuralism built extensively on structural linguistics and semiotics (the study of meaning), as well as on anthropological research in European colonies, which enabled the construction of an enormous comparative ‘archive’ of human cultures and customs – in which researchers were (sometimes willing, sometimes not) partners in the project of colonial expansion and administration. Scholars in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century were mostly inclined to study human variation from an evolutionary-historical perspective (with different forms of social and cultural organization supposedly representing different stages of ‘development’, which was often synonymous with licensing the exploitation of those who were seen as less ‘developed’). Structuralists had a different idea: there existed a universal, cross-cultural and transhistorical set of universal characteristics shared across all human societies in time and space, which took different forms – in languages, rituals, customs, organization of space, and other ways of living – but could, with sufficient analytical skill, be ‘excavated’ and studied comparatively.

In social sciences, structuralism is usually associated with the name of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist who constructed interpretative schemata for systems of meaning governed by ‘binary opposites’ – concepts like male/female, raw/cooked, and nature/culture. Structuralists, of course, didn’t claim these binaries existed in ‘pure form’ anywhere in nature, but rather that it is through perception of opposites that humans establish categories, boundaries, and other phenomena relevant to the ‘social’. In addition to linguistics, structuralism was profoundly shaped by Freudian psychoanalysis, from which it inherited the notion of psychic unity of humankind – the idea that all humans shared a fundamental psychological ‘makeup’. In this sense, while still in some ways complicit in the colonial project, structuralism was crucial in discrediting the racist notions of ‘superiority’ or ‘inferiority’ of human groups as an outcome of biological or ‘natural’ factors. 

Similarly to existentialism, structuralism was fundamentally shaped by the experience of two World Wars, colonialism and postcolonialism. The attention to the unconscious (or, in Lacan’s later formulation, sub-conscious) factors shaping human action furnished an alternative explanation for the horrors of WWII that departed both the pessimism of the Frankfurt School and from existentialism’s particular form of humanism. The notion of deep, shared, underlying structures chimed with the idea of universal human rights, developed precisely as bulwark against the repetition of large-scale conflicts like WWII (we can, obviously, discuss how well that worked out in the later parts of the 20th century). But it also legitimized forms of knowledge production built on the colonial encounter, with native populations and cultures providing ‘raw’ material for the analytical work conducted, almost exclusively, by academics in the West. 

Post-structuralism shared the focus on the role of unconscious determinants of human action, but with a deeper and more sustained engagement with relations and practices of production in the ‘West’. This was in part through a sustained dialogue with Marxism (evident in the structural Marxism of e.g. Louis Althusser as well as what is sometimes known as ‘Cultural Marxism’ of e.g. Stuart Hall and the British School of Cultural Studies) and feminism (through work of theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and many others). The boundary between structuralism and post-structuralism is not clear-cut; there are authors who could fall into both categories (Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Mary Douglas), and those who share post-structuralist precepts while not always being classified as such (Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Angela Davis). Overall, poststructuralism is defined by the attention to culture as both the locus of meaning and signification and a potential source of power relations, rather than just ‘superstructure’ supervening on economic relations at the ‘base’, as some interpreters of Marx were likely to claim.

  1. Structure and agency: practice theory, reflexivity, social reproduction 

The relationship between structure and agency in 20th century social theory came to be known as the structure/agency debate. If humans have free will, how can we explain the reproduction of inequality, injustice and exploitation? At the same time, if structures are all-encompassing or determining, how can we explain resistance, social change, and cultural variation? In this session, we will be examining this problem from the perspective of three theoretical schools. One is the theory of practice, most often associated with the name of Pierre Bourdieu, which focuses on practices as embedded and embodied forms of relating to the world. These forms are mediated through what Bourdieu dubbed ‘habitus’ – dispositions often attained early in life and largely unreflexive – which frame choices people see as available to them. By contrast, Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic theory emphasized reflexivity – the ‘internal conversation’ through which people think about and narrate their choices – as the key vector of social reproduction. Last, but not least, social reproduction theory presented an influential challenge to Marxist theories of production by re-centering questions of gender and race in the context of the historical divisions of labour, and thus paved the way for the recasting of these questions in the arena of late 20th and early 21st century social struggles.  

  1. Power and oppression: knowledge, ideology, hegemony

What people can do depends not only on where they are born, but also on relations of power. It is not difficult to notice that power is unequally distributed within societies, as well as across social categories. But what is power? Where does it reside? Can we conceive of social life without power? Finally, is it possible to have power without oppression?

In this session, we encounter some of the most influential theoretizations of power and its sources in 20th and 21st-century social theory. We start by discussing Michel Foucault and his knowledge/power nexus, including the role of the state in identifying, classifying, and ordering citizens. Second, we discuss Judith Butler and her interpretation of the way discourses constitute the power to act, including collectively. Last, but not least, we discuss late Marxist or neoGramscian notions of ideological power, including the reproduction of discursive-ideological hegemony in the work of e.g. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. 

  1. Power and oppression: gender, race, intersectionality

Questions of power cannot be separated from the question of classification, measurement, and comparison of human populations. Historically, these forms of classification have often been used to justify privileging some humans (men, White people, owners of property) over others. In this session, we discuss three theoretical lenses that have critically engaged with the positioning of human beings in relation to their embodiment: gender, race, and their intersection. 

While gender has been a preoccupation of theories of society from the very start of social and political thought, a major reconsideration of the relationship between sex, gender, and social structure came with 20th-century feminist theorists. Starting from Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal ‘The Second Sex’, theorists sought to engage the ways in which perception and negotiation of gendered difference shaped how social relations were structured, negotiated, and reproduced. In this session, we will be surveying the evolution and contestation of feminist theories throughout the 20th and 21st century – from early focus of liberal feminism to ‘second-wave’ feminism and questions of labour, care, and social reproduction, to contemporary challenges to feminist theorizing, including the rise of ‘post’ and anti-feminist discourses, and their intersection with populism and the far Right. 

Late 19th- and early 20th-century theorists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, argued that race as a social category was systematically constructed in ways that positioned non-White, non-Western people as inferior. This led to the recognition of the concept of ‘race’ as in itself a racialized discourse, rather than a scientific, ‘neutral’ category. In the second half of the 20th century, however, attention increasingly turned towards the ways in which racialized categories, and racialized experience, shaped not only the ‘lives of Black folk’, but the very fabric of society – including the tools and concepts of social theory. One important theoretical strand to come out of this reconsideration is known as Critical Race Theory.

Principally developed in the US, Critical Race Theory engages with the ways in which race and racism permeate social institutions and relations – from policing and prisons, to access to high-esteem professions such as universities and the judiciary. Theories of race formation emphasised the role of ‘race’ as, at the same time, a cultural, economic, and political signifier. A significant engagement in CRT is with the legal system, and issues such as affirmative action/proportional representation, but its implications for social theory go beyond that: they suggest that forms of understanding power, inequality and oppression cannot be ‘transposed’ from the experience of Whites to the experience of people of colour, and other differently marginalized ‘Others’.

The concept of intersectionality builds further on this insight. Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks, Audre Lord, and Angela Davis argued existing theories universalized the experience of a specific group (e.g., liberal feminism that of white, educated, upper-middle-class women; some theories of racism that of straight, black, men). Using Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work as spring-board, Patricia Hill Collins argues that power and social stratification cannot be understood from a singular perspective (class, gender, ‘race’/ethnicity), but have to take into account how multiple social positions intersect to create specific conditions of oppression.

Intersectionality has both a political and a theoretical, or epistemological, side. In other words, we can see it as a critique of dominant modes of engaging with injustice, power and privilege; or we can see it as a critique of dominant models of conceptualizing them, including in social theory. This includes the very notion of ‘society’. Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills, for instance, argued that the idea of ‘social contract’– an idea that is at the centre of Durkheimian sociology – is itself a racialized construct: that is, predicated on the (unacknowledged) division of humans into ‘races’, and exploitation based on this. Indigenous thinkers in Canada, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and the US have drawn on a similar argument to emphasize the role of settler colonialism in constructing native inhabitants of colonies as ‘other’ – ontologically, culturally, and morally – thus enabling the exploitation of both natural and human resources.

  1. What acts? Pragmatist sociology, performativity and affect

In this section, we engage with some of late 20th and early 21st century reconsiderations of power and agency that seek to disrupt the relationship between structure and agency. The theory of performativity, initially developed by the Oxford school of ordinary-language philosophy, sees social reality as constituted through a series of ‘speech-acts’ – statements that enact and reproduce relations, including relations of power. In this session, we will be introducing three major theoretical frameworks that built on this insight: pragmatic sociology, theories of performativity, and affect theory. 

Theories of performativity are principally associated with Judith Butler, as well as with Jeffrey Alexander’s revision of 20th century sociology. Butler initially developed her concept of performativity in relation to questions of power, sexuality, and gender. Butler argued that there are no ‘fixed’ gender categories; rather, gender is learned through behaviour – certain kinds of agency are seen as ‘gendered’, and in turn become identified with certain kinds of bodies. The necessity of agency for the constitution of structural categories means that there is no ontological (‘natural’) category of ‘sex’ vs. the ‘social’ category of gender; the distinction itself is an outcome of social performance. Performativity further builds on this insight to ask how social categories are constituted through action. Though in some ways converging with Goffman’s micro-sociology, the important distinction here is that most theorists of performativity do not assume social categories (including gender, race, and class) pre-date or exist independently of social performance. 

Pragmatist sociology shares a common set of assumptions, and considers not only how social categories are constituted, but also how social interaction – relations and events – constitute ‘sites’ of both material and symbolic creation of categories and norms. In this session, we will be engaging with post-Bourdieusian pragmatic sociology of Michèle Lamont, Luc Boltanski, Laurent Thévenot, Eve Chiapello, as well as with the STS-inspired work of theorists like Donald Mackenzie, Michel Callon and Anne-Marie Mol. 

Theories of affect address another important aspect of the social: the question of how structures and relations (including relations of power) shape the emotional and affective life of individuals and collectives. Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’, for instance, argues that capitalism works through a displacement of the framework of hope and striving. Sara Ahmed’s work engages in particular with the gendered and raced politics of affect in institutions, including the ways in which anger, ‘complaint’, and unhappiness are channelled in ways that reproduce social inequalities.

Affect theory intersects with the earlier Marxist-feminist critique of labour of social reproduction through an emphasis on affective, emotional, and care labour – that is, ways in which gender inequality shapes expectations of affective conduct (for instance, women are expected to be ‘nice’, or ‘kind’, or told to smile). While liberal and early Marxist feminists were mostly critical of care as a gendered expectation, more recent calls for a rethinking of the politics of care – including in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic – emphasise possibilities for reframing social relations, both between humans and between humans and non-human environment, with this in mind.

  1. What acts? Posthumanism, necro/ontopolitics, and the Anthropocene  

This session brings our journey through social theory to a close by reconsidering what happens if we extend our theorization of power, structure and agency in ways that recognize that not only humans have power to act. While the traditional concept of ‘society’ pitted human societies as opposed to ‘nature’, late 20th and early 21st-century social theorizing has significantly challenged this notion. In this session, we engage with three main contributions to this reframing. One comes from the concept of bio-, necro-, and ontopolitics, as developed by Michel Foucault, Achille Mbembe, and Elizabeth Povinelli. These notions build and intersect with feminist research into sexual and reproductive politics to highlight the fact that what is recognized as life – and, thus, as a potential agent – depends on political and juridical decisions and processes. This reaches an apex with the concept of ‘Anthropocene’ as a distinct geological epoch, which recognizes the fundamental (but also unequally distributed) impact humans have on changing the climate, and thus shaping the life chances and odds of survival of different human populations. This concept, however, can be criticized from multiple persectives – including that of the hierarchies implied in giving primacy to ‘the human’, something that the broad group of approaches known as posthumanism tend to question. By engaging with these notions, we consider how contemporary social problems – including neonationalist mobilization, the refugee crisis, and the multifaceted impacts of climate change – challenge what we call ‘the social’, and thus call for an extension of both the practice and object of theorizing.  

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

For an Online University of the Left

This proposal started from an observation I made on Twitter this morning about the A-level results ‘scandal’: the fact many working-class and underprivileged students are finding themselves turned away from institutions that they were their first choice because their grades – being from state schools – were algorithmically predicted in ways that made it less likely they will have sufficient scores for elite universities. For many students (and their parents), this is an obvious disappointment – among other reasons, because inferring actual scores from previous grades is both imprecise and unfair. For many of my colleagues in higher education, it was yet another sign of the classism of British HE, which, predictably and consistently, privileges those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Both are true, but both avoid engaging with the potentially bigger problem that awaits.

The bigger problem, in this case, is that a large number of angry, disappointed young people, stuck either at home behind the screens, or in shit jobs, during a pandemic and a recession, is a recipe for breeding hate and resentment. My guess is that alt-right recruiters are on it as we speak – indeed, have been on it for a while now. The Left has been atrociously slow and on the back foot ever since the December election; we need to step up. Thus, this proposal is brief and necessarily rather general; I do try to address two biggest pitfalls (credentials and funding) but other than that, if people want to try this, details can be worked out as we go along.

The point is not to create a perfect institution that would at the same time solve the problem of social inequality in Britain, neoliberalism and precarity in higher education, and the rise of the far right; no policy can do that anyway. The idea is to move, start doing something now, and then adjust if necessary – or just give up.

Ignore the typos.

 

What is Online University of the Left?

Simply, it would be a platform offering enrolment/attendance in a number of courses, which could take the form of a ‘foundation year’ degree that some students enrol in before starting ‘official’ uni. My proposal on Twitter was some combination of liberal arts and practical skills, but that’s mostly because my own background is in social sciences and humanities, and I’ve found that most students, if left to their own devices, tend to choose something along these lines (this is much more evident in the US, where students are encouraged and often required to acquire at least some ‘credits’ from a field other than their own, so it’s not uncommon to encounter e.g. biologists taking social science credits in sociology, or poetry students taking science credits in astronomy). In all cases, it could be something that many of us know and would like to teach, and that we also believe would be useful for young people’s future lives, employment, and study: how about a course in British history, but the kind that *actually* engages with colonialism and slavery? How about a course in social and political thought that includes thinkers that are not White men? How about a course in basic statistics, so that even students who are very far from A-level maths could potentially understand figures like R? How about introductory economics, so next time students go to the voting booth they know what ‘GDP’ actually stands for?

In addition to this, we could offer talks (or online chat sessions!) on really practical skills: for instance, how to write a CV? How to search for literature? How to conduct interviews? Etc.

As I had mentioned, Tom Sperlinger, Richard Pettigrew, and Josie McLelland of the University of Bristol ran something not too far off from this (obviously, before the pandemic), and wrote about it in their book ‘Who Are Universities For?‘. There are many other places and experiences we can learn from.

So who teaches at this university?

The best part is, no-one needs to do much. All you need to do is think up a topic/course, propose a lecture, and coordinate with a few people who’d like to do something similar. Students could literally pick & choose topics, creating their own courses. If you want to run a series of lectures by yourself, even better, but odds are that we’ll all find out there are many people out there we’d love to develop courses with, given the opportunity. One way in which universities monopolize their staff’s labour is by making sure we cannot collaborate in this way across institutional boundaries; here’s a way to change that.

But who does all the work of preparation and delivery?

Odds are, we are all teaching online at least this term, right? Even if you’re super-strapped for time and cognitive space, nothing prevents you from making one of your lectures available outside your uni’s platform. Clearly I can’t get into more details, but let’s say that even if your recording software is proprietary and the platform is as well, you can always do a slightly different version of the slides and record yourself on your mobile phone. As far as the literature/reading lists are concerned, while it is true that students with access to libraries are enormously privileged in this respect, there are plenty of websites that often this kind of literature for free. Most of us are not able to use them or direct our students to them in our uni teaching, but nothing prevents students from discovering them, um, anyway.

Assuming you do have some time and extra cognitive space, you could use this chance to develop your dream introductory course to…anything, and make it available online, and for free, for ever. For instance, I always say I wished my students had a better understanding of the basic philosophy of science (as in, what is a hypothesis, what is proof, what is an observation, what is the difference between causation and correlation, etc.). Their background, in most cases, provides none; yet this makes most arguments in social theory more difficult to get across, and turns methods teaching into a nightmare. So, I’d be thrilled for an opportunity to develop a series of talks on this.

 

But who puts this online?

There are a number of free platforms for this type of content that can be used; Pat Lockley, who is one of most talented (and experienced!) developers I know, has already offered to help. I am sure I know many learning technologists who would. This isn’t about running a super-complicated multi-sited real-time collaborative simulation of secrets of the universe; it’s basically a series of Ted talks with some links to further reading.

 

Where does the money come in?

Here’s another part of the proposal. Imagine parents were saving, taking out loans etc. for their children to go to college. Odds are, they are saving some of this money anyway, because due to pandemic children are probably staying at home. So if they would be willing to pay some of that – really, a tiny portion of what they would be giving towards tuition and living costs anyway – it could pay precarious colleagues who would be teachers, teaching assistants or supervisors, offering one-to-one or small group online tuition to students. Private tuition, I hear, is anyway a massive business, and also one of the reasons why students with rich parents tend to get better grades and score better at admissions. So this would be an opportunity for more students to access this kind of supervision, thus also – and this is an argument for parents, primarily – increasing their future academic success and employment skills. This isn’t, clearly, to condone this system – it’s awful – nor is it to ignore the fact that graduate students and other precarious colleagues are getting massively shafted over in the current pandemic. This isn’t a way to solve this problem; it is a way to offer a stopgap/livelihood to those who were counting on income from supervisions and are not getting it this year.

It goes without saying that those of us who are permanently employed would need to be teaching for free; if you have a problem with volunteering your labour (I don’t), think of it as an opportunity for public engagement and impact. For those who would be getting paid, there would be fiscal/economic elements to figure out, obviously (tax? Insurance?), but I’m guessing something like a flat-rate per hour + centralized payment platform (Patreon?) could work. Anyway, I’m sure people will have ideas about this.

 

So this is basically a mini-MOOC?

Nope. See above for supervisions – this isn’t just a series of Youtube clips you can watch in your spare time. Also, it’s not run by a single institution (like Harvard or Stanford), which means that prestige does not accrue to a university.

 

But what about credits? Why would anyone want to attend this?

This is the tricky bit, of course – in the current situation most students wouldn’t want to waste their time (and parents their money) on something that is not recognized as a degree or at least as counting towards a degree. The first is a long and formal process, so there’s certainly no way to do the accreditation now; the second, however, is not impossible. A little policy excursion below.

Most education systems have something along the lines of ‘recognition of prior experience’.  (Imagine you were a self-taught violinist who’s played in a local band for 20 years, but never had any formal qualification, and that you wanted for whichever reason to get a degree in composition: this is the route you would take). You would submit evidence of experience relevant to the topic of your studies, and odds are, it would get recognized. So while it would be overtly optimistic to claim the Online University of the Left would count as a formal degree, it could, certainly, be recognized as other qualification or training.

 

Wouldn’t students rather go to any university – even not their first, second, or third choice – that offers them a formal degree, rather than watch online lectures?

On the one hand, probably, and that’s a great thing – it might save many non-elite institutions from premature closures (and their employees from redundancy!), not to mention (hopefully) disrupt the perception that not getting into Oxford, Cambridge or the LSE means you (or your future degree) are worthless (this, in itself, is a terrible perception, but again unfortunately one very resistant to change). On the other, regardless of where students choose to enrol ‘formally’, post-clearing, nothing prevents them from attending a few ‘extra’ courses online – and taught by academics from all, including ‘elite’ institutions, for free! Imagine that. So again, sadly, while this would not in itself ‘disrupt’ the hallowed place Oxford and Cambridge hold in the national imagination, it would (1) give students access to (hopefully) high quality teaching (for free) and high quality supervision (for a small fee) (2) create income for precariously employed colleagues (3) teach us to collaborate across institutional boundaries (4) get us thinking about how to organize and own our labour in ways that do something other than generate profit for our employers.

Oh, also, Online University of the Left is a bit lame; let’s call it the National Higher Education Service. 🙂

 

Edit, 17/08/2020:

Just going through a host of lovely responses this proposal’s had since posting yesterday (570 views since last night, which is pretty good), but one thing that worries me is the amount of people who said they’d be quite happy to participate as long as I did all the organizing labour. But no single person can do that (even if she weren’t a recently employed, immigrant academic). As they say in the policy world, I’ve given you the ideas; I’ve also pointed to some of the existing experience and additonal expertise out there (thank you to people in the thread who mentioned precursors I didn’t have time to in this hastily written post, like AntiUniversity, Social Science Centres etc. and some I didn’teven know about!). Only you can put them into practice.

Or, in more labour-specific lingo, it took about two hours of labour to produce that post (I am counting mostly writing, possibly another hour or so of thinking); if everyone could match that, we’ll be very far ahead already.

 

Two more edits (17/08, evening):

Got reminded that there has been a very similar initiative in place since 2012 with the Free University of Brighton

and there is also the Online University of the Left, mostly US-based

— Which means that all we need to do is bring these initiatives together/expand further! Easy 🙂

 

 

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!

——————————————————-

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 Austin’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 Austin’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.