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

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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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

Varieties of neoliberalism, varieties of critique?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speech acts: the lost hyphen

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

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

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

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

Living with (Russell) paradoxes

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, we require a little historical digression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The constituency of Combined English Universities existed until 1950.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2017-10-11 at 11.06.11 PM

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

 

So what are we to do?

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

I’m particularly interested in questions such as:

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

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

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

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

What is the relationship between universities and democracy? From the purposes to the uses of university (and back)

Screen shot 2017-09-18 at 9.39.41 AM

[Lightly edited text of a keynote lecture delivered to the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology’s Graduate conference at the Central European University in Budapest, 18 September 2017. The conference was initially postponed because of the problematic situation concerning the status of CEU in Hungary, following the introduction of the special law known as ‘Lex CEU‘].

 

 

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here – or rather, I should say it’s a pleasure to be back.

The best way to evaluate knowledge claims is to look at how they change over time. About three and a half years ago, during the launch event for From Class to Identity, I stood in this exact same spot. If you asked me back then what the relationship between universities and democracy is, I would have very likely told you at least one of the following things.

Conceptual, contingent, nonexistent?

Obviously, the relationship between universities and democracy depends on how you define both. What democracy actually means is both contested and notoriously difficult to measure. University, on the other hand, is a concept somewhat more easily recognisable through different periods. However, that does not mean it is not changing; in particular, it is increasingly becoming synonymous with the concept of ‘higher education’, a matter whose significance, I hope, will become clearer during the course of this talk.

Secondly, I would have most likely told you that the link between universities and democracy is contingent, which means it depends on the constellation of social, political, economic and historical factors, implying correlation more than a causation.

Last, and not least importantly, I would have told you that, in some cases, the link is not even there; universities can and do exist alongside regimes that cannot be described as democratic even if we extended the term in the most charitable way possible.

In fact, when I first came to CEU as a research fellow in 2010, it was in order to look more deeply into this framing of the relationship between universities and democracy. At the time, in much of public policy and in particular in international development discourse, education was seen as an instrument for promoting democracy, peace, and sustainable prosperity – especially in the context of post-conflict reconciliation. The more of it, thus, the better. This was the consensus I wanted to challenge. Now, while most universities subscribe to values of peace and democracy at least on paper, only a few were ever founded with the explicit aim to promote them. In that sense, I came to the very belly of the beast, but in the best possible sense. CEU proved immensely valuable, both in terms of research I did here and at the Open Society Archives, as well as discussions with colleagues and students: all of this fed into From Class to Identity, which was published in 2014.

For better or worse, the case I settled on – former Yugoslavia – lent itself rather fortuitously to questioning the relationship between education and values we usually associate with democracy. In Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which was, it bears remembering, a one-party state) higher education attainment kept rising steadily (in fact, at a certain period of time, in exact opposition to governmental policies, which aimed to reduce enrollment to universities) up until its dissolution and subsequent violent conflict.

The political landscape of its successor states today may be more variegated (Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the semblance of a peaceful order in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia is maintained through heavy investment and involvement of the international community, and Serbia and to a perhaps lesser extent Montenegro are effectively authoritarian fiefdoms), but what they share across the board is both growing levels of educational attainment and an expanding higher education sector. In other words, both the number of people who have, or are in the process of obtaining, higher education, and the number of higher education institutions in total, are growing. This, I thought, goes some way towards proving that the link between universities and democracy is contingent and dependent on a number of political factors, rather than necessary.

Under attack?

Would I say the same thing today? Today, universities and those within them increasingly find it necessary to justify their existence, not only in response to challenges to autonomy, academic freedom, and, after all, the basic human rights of academics, such as those happening in Turkey (as we will hear in much more detail during this conference) or here in Hungary, but also in relation to the broader challenges related to the declining public funding of higher education and research. Last, but not least, the election of President Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the UK have by many been taken as portents of the decline of epistemic foundations of liberal democratic order, reflected in denouncement of the ‘rule of experts’ and phenomena such as ‘fake news’ or the ‘post-truth’ landscape. In this context, it becomes all the more attractive to resort to justifications of universities’ existence by appeal to their contribution to democracy, civil society, and sustainable prosperity.

Universities and democracy: drop the mic

I will argue that this urge needs to be resisted. I will argue that focusing on the purposes of university framed in this way legitimises the very processes of valorisation – that is, the creation of value – that thrive on competition, and whose logical end are inflated claims of the sort, to paraphrase you-know-who, “we have all the best educations”.

In doing this, we forgo exactly the fine-grained detail that disciplines including but limited to sociology and social anthropology should pay attention to. Put bluntly, we forget the relevance of the social context for making universities what they are. For this, we need to ask not what universities (ideally) aim to achieve, but rather, what is it that universities do, what they can do, but also, importantly, what can be done with them.

Shifting the focus from purposes to uses is not the case, as Latour may have put it, of betraying matters of concern in order to boast about matters of fact. It is, however, to draw attention to the fact that the relationship between universities and democracy is, to borrow another expression from Latour, a factish: both real and fabricated, that is, a social construct but with very real consequences – neither a fact nor a fetish, but an always not-fully-reconciled amalgam of the two. Keeping this in mind, I think, can allow us to think about different roles of universities without losing sight neither of their reality, nor of their constructed nature.

Correlation or causation?

Let me give you just two examples. In the period leading up to as well as in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US elections, much has been made of the difference in education levels of voters for respective candidates, leading some pundits to pronounce that the ‘university educated are voting for Clinton’, that the ‘single most pronounced difference in voter preference is college education’. That is, until someone bothered to break down the data a bit differently, which showed that 44% those with a college degree voted for Trump. Within this group, the most pronounced distinction is being white or not. In other words: it’s the race, stupid – possibly just about the most salient distinction in the US today.

 

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The other example is from a very recent study that looked at the relationship longitudinal data concerning outgoing student mobility from former Soviet countries, and levels of attained democracy. It concluded that “…Cross-sectional data on student mobility and attained democracy shows that former Soviet countries with higher proportions of students studying in Europe have achieved higher levels of democratic development. In contrast, countries with higher proportions of students studying in the most popular, authoritarian destination – the Russian Federation – have reached significantly lower levels of democratic development. This suggests that internationalisation of European HE can offer the potential of facilitating democratic socialisation, especially in environments where large proportions of students from less-democratic countries study in a democratic context for an extended period of time”.

Now, this is the sort of research that makes for catchy one-liners, such as “studying in the EU helps democracy”; it makes you feel good about what you do – well, it certainly makes me feel good about what I do, and, perhaps, if you are from one of the countries mentioned in the study and you are studying in the EU (as you most likely are) it makes you feel good about that. It’s also the sort of research that funders love to hear about. The problem is, it doesn’t tell us anything we actually need to know.

It’s a bit too early to look at the data, but how about the following: both the “level of attained democracy” and “proportion of students studying in the EU” are a function of a different factor, one that has to do with the history of international relations, centre-periphery relationships, and, in particular, international political economy. Thus, for instance, countries that are traditionally more dependent on EU aid are quicker to “democratize” – that is, fall outside of the Russian sphere of influence – which is aided by cultural diplomacy (whose effects are reflected in language fluency, aptitude, and, at the end of the day, framing of studying in the EU as a desirable life- and career choice), visa regimes, and the availability of country- or region-specific scholarships. All of which is a rather long way of saying what this graph achieves much more succinctly, which is that correlation does not imply causation.

 

dicapriocorrelations

 

Sociology and anthropology are particularly good at unraveling knots of multiple and overlapping processes, but history, political science and (critical) public policy analysis are necessary too. It’s not about shunning quantitative data (something our disciplines are sometimes prone to doing) but being able to look behind it, at the myriad interactions that take place in the fabric of everyday life: sometimes visibly in, but sometimes away from the political arena. However, this sort of research does not easy clickbait make.

What universities can do: making communities

In the rest of my talk, I want to focus on the one thing that universities can and do do, the one thing they are really good at doing. That is, creating communities. Fostering a sense of belonging. Forging relationships. Making lasting networks.

If you think that this is an unequivocally good thing, may I remind you that (a) this is a university-fostered community, but (b) this is also a university-fostered community. (For those of you unfamiliar with the British political landscape, the latter is the Bullingdon club, an Oxford University-based exclusive society whose former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson). In other words, community-building can be both good and bad thing: it always means inclusion as well as exclusion. Universities provide a sense of “us”, a sense of who belongs, including to the elite who run the country. They help order and classify people – in theory, according to their aptitude and ambition, but in practice, as we know, all to often according to a host of other factors, including class, gender and race.

The origin of their name, universitas, reflects this ambition to be all-encompassing, to signify a totality, despite the fact that the way totality is signified has over time shifted from indexicality to representation: that is, from the idea that universities project what a collectivity is supposed to be about – for instance, define the literary language and canon, structure of professions, and delineate the criteria of truth and scientific knowledge – to the idea that they reflect the composition of the collectivity, for example, the student body representing the diversity of the general population.

This is why universities experienced a veritable boom in the 19th century, in the period of forging of nation-states, and why they are of persistent interest to them: because they define the boundaries of the community. This is why universities, at best a collective name for a bunch of different institutional traditions, became part of ‘higher (or ‘tertiary’) education’, a rationally, hierarchically ordered system of qualifications integrated into a state-administered context. This is why being able to quantify and compare these qualifications – through rankings, league tables, productivity and performance measurement – is so important to nation-states. It becomes ever more important whenever they feel their grip is slipping, either due to influences of globalisation and internationalisation or for other, more local reasons – such as when a university does not sit easily with the notion of a community projected by the political elite of a nation-state, as in the case of CEU in Hungary.

On the other hand, this is why universities police their boundaries so diligently, and insist on having authority over who gets in and who stays out. In fact, the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy were explicitly devised in order to protect universities’ right to exercise final judgment over such decisions. Last, but not least, this is why societal divisions and conflicts, both nascent and actual, are always felt so viscerally at universities, often years in advance of other parts of society. Examples vary from struggles over identity politics on campus, to broader acts of political positioning related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance.

This brings me to my final point. The biggest challenge universities face today is how to go on with this function of community-building in the context of disagreement, especially when disagreement includes things as fundamental as the very notion of truth, for instance, as with those who question the reality of climate change. Who do universities reflect and represent in this case? How do we reconcile the need to be democratic – that is, reflect a broad range of positions and opinions – with democracy, that is, with the conditions necessary for such a conversation to endure in the first place? These are some of the questions we need to be asking before we resort to claims concerning the necessity of the relationship between universities and democracy, or universities and anything else, for that matter.

Incidentally, this is one of the things Central European University has always been particularly good at: teaching people how to go about disagreeing in ways that allow everyone to learn from each other. I don’t know if any of you remember the time when the university mailing list was open to everyone, but I think conversations there provided a good example of how to how to discuss differing ideas and political stances in a way that furthers everyone’s engagement with their political community; teaching at CEU has always aspired to do the same.

That is a purpose worth defending. This is a purpose that carries forth the tradition not only the man who this room was named after, Karl Popper, but also, and perhaps more, a philosopher who was particularly concerned with the relationship between modes of knowledge production and the creation of communities: Hannah Arendt. Thus, it is with a quote from Arendt’s Truth and politics (1967) that I would like to end with.

 

“Outstanding among the existential modes of truth-telling are the solitude of the philosopher, the isolation of the scientist and the artist, the impartiality of the historian and the judge (…) These modes of being alone differ in many respects, but they have in common that as long as any one of them lasts, no political commitment, no adherence to a cause, is possible. (…) From this perspective, we remain unaware of the actual content of political life – of the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new. However, what I meant to show here is that this whole sphere, its greatness notwithstanding, is limited – it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world s existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will.

And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

 

Thank you for your attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A fridge of one’s own

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

 

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

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

The immateriality of intellect

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

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

 

What about today?

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

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

 

£500 a year gets you very far…or not

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

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

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

 

The poverty of student life

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

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

 

Emotional labour

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

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

 

On ‘Denial’: or, the uncanny similarity between Holocaust and mansplaining

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Last week, I finally got around to seeing Denial. It has many qualities and a few disadvantages – its attempt at hyperrealism treading on both – but I would like to focus on the aspect most reviews I’ve read so far seem to have missed. In other words: mansplaining.

Brief contextualization. Lest I be accused of equating Holocaust and mansplaining (I am not – similarity does not denote equivalence), my work deals with issues of expertise, fact, and public intellectualism; I have always found the Irving case interesting, for a variety of reasons (incidentally, I was also at Oxford during the famous event at the Oxford Union). At the same time, like, I suppose, every woman in the academia and beyond with more agency than a doormat, I have, over the past year, become embroiled in countless arguments about what mansplaining is, whether it is really so widespread, whether it is done only by men (and what to call it when it’s perpetrated by those who are not men?) and, of course, that pseudo-liberal what-passes-as-an-attempt at outmaneuvering the issue, which is whether using the term ‘mansplaining’ blames men as a group and is as such essentialising and oppressive, just like the discourses ‘we’ (feminists conveniently grouped under one umbrella) seek to condemn (otherwise known as a tu quoque argument).

Besides logical flaws, what many of these attacks seem to have in common with the one David Irving launched on Deborah Lipstadt (and Holocaust deniers routinely use) is the focus on evidence: how do we know that mansplaining occurs, and is not just some fabrication of a bunch of conceited females looking to get ahead despite their obvious lack of qualifications? Other uncanny similarities between arguments of Holocaust deniers and those who question the existence of mansplaining temporarily aside, one of undisputable qualities of Denial is that it provides multiple examples of what mansplaining looks like. It is, of course, a film, despite being based on a true story. Rather than presenting a downside, this allows for a concentrated portrayal of the practice – for those doubting its verisimilitude, I strongly recommend watching the film and deciding for yourself whether it resembles real-life situations. For those who do not, voilà, a handy cinematic case to present to those who prefer to plead ignorance as to what mansplaining ‘actually’ entails.

To begin with, the case portrayed in the film is a par excellence instance of mansplaining  as a whole: after all, it is about a self-educated (male) historian who sues an academic historian (a woman) because she does not accept his ‘interpretation’ of World War II (namely, that Holocaust did not happen) and, furthermore, dares to call him out on it. In the case (and the film), he sets out to explain to the (of course, male) judge and the public that Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) is wrong and, furthermore, that her critique has seriously damaged his career (the underlying assumption being that he is entitled to lucrative publishing deals, while she, clearly, has to earn hers – exacerbated by his mockery of the fact that she sells books, whereas his, by contrast, are free). This ‘talking over’ and attempt to make it all about him (remember, he sues her) are brilliantly cast in the opening, when Irving (played by Timothy Spall) visits Lipstadt’s public talk and openly challenges her in the Q&A, ignoring her repeated refusal to engage with his arguments. Yet, it would be a mistake to locate the trope of mansplaining only in the relation Irving-Lipstadt. On the contrary – just like the real thing – it is at its most insidious when it comes from those who are, as it were, ‘on our side’.

A good example is the first meeting of the defence team, where Lipstadt is introduced to people working with her legal counsel, the famous Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott). There is a single woman on Julius’ team: Laura (Caren Pistorius), who, we are told, is a paralegal. Despite it being her first case, it seems she has developed a viable strategy: or at least so we are told by her boss, who, after announcing Laura’s brilliant contribution to the case, continues to talk over her – that is, explain her thoughts without giving her an opportunity to explain them herself. In this sense, what at first seems like an act of mentoring support – passing the baton and crediting a junior staff member – becomes a classical act in which a man takes it onto himself to interpret the professional intervention of a female colleague, appropriating it in the process.

The cases of professional mansplaining are abundant throughout the film: in multiple scenes lawyers explain the Holocaust as well as the concept of denial to Lipstadt despite her meek protests that she “has actually written a book about it”. Obvious irony aside, this serves as a potent reminder that women have to invoke professional credentials not to be recognized as experts, but in order to be recognized as equally valid participants in debate. By contrast, when it comes to the only difference in qualifications in the film that plays against Lipstadt – that of the knowledge of the British legal system – Weisz’s character conveniently remains a mixture of ignorance and naïveté couched in Americanism. One would be forgiven to assume that long-term involvement in a libel case, especially one that carries so much emotional and professional weight, would have provoked a university professor to get acquainted with at least the basic rules of the legal system in which the case was processed, but then, of course, that would have stripped the male characters of the opportunity to shine the light of their knowledge in contrast to her supposed ignorance.

Of course, emotional involvement is, in the film, presented as a clear disadvantage when it comes to the case. While Lipstadt first assumes she will, and then repeatedly asks to be allowed to testify, her legal team insists she would be too emotional a witness. The assumption that having an emotional reaction (even if one that is quite expected – it is, after all, the Holocaust we are talking about) and a cold, hard approach to ‘facts’ are mutually exclusive is played off succinctly in the scenes that take place at Auschwitz. While Lipstadt, clearly shaken (as anyone, Jewish or not, is bound to be when standing at the site of such a potent example of mass slaughter), asks the party to show respect for the victims, the head barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is focused on calmly gathering evidence. The value of this, however, only becomes obvious in the courtroom, where he delivers his coup de grâce, revealing that his calm pacing around the perimeter of Auschwitz II-Birkenau (which makes him arrive late and upsets everyone, Lipstadt in particular) was actually measuring the distance between the SS barracks and the gas chambers, allowing him to disprove Irving’s assertion that the gas chambers were built as air raid shelters, and thus tilt the whole case in favour of the defence.

The mansplaining triumph, however, happens even before this Sherlockian turn, in the scene in which Rampton visits Lipstadt in her hotel room (uninvited, unannounced) in order to, yet again, convince her that she should not testify or engage with Irving in any form. After he gently (patronisingly) persuades her that  “What feels best isn’t necessarily what works best” (!), she, emotionally moved, agrees to “pass her conscience” to him – that is, to a man. By doing this, she abandons not only her own voice, but also the possibility to speak for Holocaust survivors – the one that appears as a character in the film also, poignantly, being female. In Lipstadt’s concession that silence is better because it “leads to victory”, it is not difficult to read the paradoxical (pseudo)pragmatic assertion that openly challenging male privilege works, in fact, against gender equality, because it provokes a counterreaction. Initially protesting her own silencing, Lipstadt comes to accept what her character in the script dubs “self-denial” as the only way to beat those who deny the Holocaust.

Self-denial: for instance, denying yourself food for fear of getting ‘fat’ (and thus unattractive for the male gaze); denying yourself fun for fear of being labeled easy or promiscuous (and thus undesirable as a long-term partner); denying yourself time alone for fear of being seen as selfish or uncaring (and thus, clearly, unfit for a relationship). Silence: for instance, letting men speak first for fear of being seen as pushy (and thus too challenging); for instance, not speaking up when other women are oppressed, for fear of being seen as too confrontational (and thus, of course, difficult); for instance, not reporting sexual harassment, for fear of retribution, shame, isolation (self-explanatory). In celebrating ‘self-denial’, the film, then, patently reinscribes the stereotype of the patient, silent female.

Obviously, there is value in refusing to engage with outrageous liars; equally, there are issues that should remain beyond discussion – whether Holocaust happened being one of them. Yet, selective silencing masquerading as strategy – note that Lipstadt is not allowed to speak (not even to the media), while Rampton communicates his contempt for Irving by not looking at him (thus, denying him the ‘honour’ of the male gaze) – too often serves to reproduce the structural inequalities that can persist even under a legal system that purports to be egalitarian.

Most interestingly, the fact that a film that is manifestly about mansplaining manages to reproduce quite a few of mansplaining tropes (and, I would argue, not always in a self-referential or ironic manner) serves as a poignant reminder how deeply the ‘splaining complex is embedded not only in politics or the academia, but also in cultural representations. This is something we need to remain acutely aware of in the age of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-facts’. If resistance to lying politicians and the media is going to take the form of (re)assertion of one, indisputable truth, and the concomitant legitimation of those who claim to know it – strangely enough, most often white, privileged men – then we’d better think of alternatives, and quickly.

Against academic labour: foraging in the wildlands of digital capitalism

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Central Park, NYC, November 2013

I am reading a book called “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy”, by two Canadian professors, Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. Published earlier in 2016, to (mostly) wide critical acclaim, it critiques the changing conditions of knowledge production in the academia, in particular those associated with the expectation to produce more and at faster rates (also known as ‘acceleration‘). As an antidote, as the Slow Professor Manifesto appended to the Preface suggests, faculty should resist the corporatisation of the university by adopting the principles of Slow Movement (as in Slow Food etc.) in their professional practices.

While the book is interesting, the argument is not particularly exceptional in the context of the expanding genre of diagnoses of the ‘end’ or ‘crisis’ of the Western university. The origins of the genre could be traced to Bill Readings’ 1996 ‘University in Ruins’ (though, of course, one could always stretch the lineage back to 1918 and Veblen’s ‘The Higher Learning in America’; predecessors in Britain include E.P. Thompson’s ‘Warwick University Ltd.’ (1972) and Halsey’s ‘The Decline of Donnish Dominion’ (1982)). Among contemporary representatives of the genre are Nussbaum’s ‘Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities’ (2010), Collini’s ‘What Are Universities For’ (2012), and Giroux’s ‘Neoliberal Attack on Higher Education’ (2013), to name but a few; in other words, there is no shortage of works documenting how the transformation of the conditions of academic labour fundamentally threatens the role and function of universities in the Western societies – and, by extension, the survival of these societies themselves.

I would like to say straight away that I do not, for a single moment, dispute or doubt the toll that the transformation of the conditions of academic labour is having on those who are employed at universities. Having spent the past twelve years researching the politics of academic knowledge, and most of those working in higher education in a number of different countries, I encountered hardly a single academic or student not pressured, threatened, or at the very least insecure about their future employment. What I want to argue, instead, is that the critique of the transformation of knowledge production that focuses on academic labour is no longer sufficient. Concomitantly, the critique of time – as in labour time – isn’t either.

In lieu of labour, I suggest we could think of what academics do as foraging. By this I do not in any way mean to trivialize union struggles that focus on working conditions for faculty or the position of students; these are and continue to be very important, and I have always been proud to support them. However, unfortunately, they cannot capture the way knowledge has already changed. This is not only due to the growing academic ‘precariat’ (or ‘cognitariat’): while the absence of stable or full-time employment has been used to inform both analyses and specific forms of political action on both sides of the Atlantic, they still frame the problem as fundamentally dependent on academic labour. While this may for the time being represent a good strategy in the political sense, it creates a set of potential contradictions in the conceptual.

For one, labour implies the concept of use: Marx’s labour theory of value postulates that this is what it allows it to be exchanged for something (money, favours). Yet, we as  academics are often the first to point out that lot of knowledge is not directly useful: for every paradigmatic scientist in a white lab coat that cures cancer, there is the equally paradigmatic bookworm reading 18th-century poetry (bear with me, it’s that time of the year when clichés abound). Trying to measure their value by the same or even similar standard risks slipping into the pathologies of impact, or, worse, vague statements about the necessity of social sciences and humanities for democracy, freedom, and human rights (despite personal sympathy for the latter argument, it warrants mentioning that the link between democratic regimes and academic freedom is historically contingent, rather than causal).

Second, framing what academics do as labour makes it very difficult to avoid embracing some form of measurement of output. This isn’t always related to quantity: one can also measure the quality of publications (e.g., by rating them in relation to the impact factors of journals they were published in). Often, however, the ideas of productivity and excellence go hand in hand. This contributes to the proliferation of academic writing – not all of which is exceptional, to say the very least – and, in turn, creates incentives to produce both more and better (‘slow’ academia is underpinned by the argument that taking more time creates better writing).

This also points to why the critique of the conditions of knowledge production is so focused on the notion of time. As long as creating knowledge is primarily defined as a form of labour, it depends on socially and culturally defined cycles of production and consumption. Advocating ‘slowness’, thus, does not amount to the critique of the centrality of time to capitalist production: it just asks for more of it.

The concept of foraging, by contrast, is embedded in a different temporal cycle: seasonal, rather that annual or REF-able. This isn’t some sort of neo-primitivist glorification of supposed forms of sustenance of the humanity’s forebears before the (inevitable) fall from grace; it’s, rather, a more precise description of how knowledge works. To this end, we could say most academics forage anyway: they collect bits and scraps of ideas and information, and turn them into something that can be consumed (if only by other academics). Some academics will discover new ‘edible’ things, either by trial and error or by learning from (surveying) the population that lives in the area, and introduce this to other academics. Often, however, this does not amount to creating something entirely new or original, as much to the recombination of existing flavours. This is why it is not abundance as such as much as diversity that plays a role in how interesting an environment a university, city, or region will become.

However, unlike labour, foraging is not ‘naturally’ given to the creation of surplus: while foraged food can be stored, most of it is collected and prepared more or less in relation to the needs of those who eat it. Similarly, it is also by default somewhat undisciplined: foragers must keep an eye out for the plants and other foodstuffs that may be useful to them. This does not mean that it does not rely on tradition, or that it is not susceptible to prejudice – often, people will ignore or attribute negative properties to forms of food that they are unfamiliar with, much like academics ignore or fear disciplines or approaches that do not form part of their ‘tribe’ or school of thought.

As appealing as it may sound, foraging is not a romanticized, or, worse, sterile vision of what academics do. Some academics, indeed, labour. Some, perhaps, even invent. But increasing numbers are actually foraging: hunting for bits and pieces, some of which can be exchanged for other stuff – money, prestige – thus allowing them to survive another winter. This isn’t easy: in the vast digital landscape, knowing how to spot ideas and thoughts that will have traction – and especially those that can be exchanged – requires continued focus and perseverance, as well as a lot of previously accumulated knowledge. Making a mistake can be deadly, perhaps not in the literal sense, but certainly as far as reputation is concerned.

So, workers of all lands, happy New Year, and spare a thought for the foragers in the wildlands of digital capitalism.

Out of place? On Pokémon, foxes, and critical cultural political economy

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Isle of Wight, August 2016

Last week, I attended the Second international conference in Cultural political economy organized by the Centre for globalization, education and social futures at the University of Bristol. It was through working with Susan Robertson and other folk at the Graduate School of Education, where I had spent parts of 2014 and 2015 as a research fellow, that I first got introduced to cultural political economy.

The inaugural conference last year took place in Lancaster, so it was a great opportunity to both meet other people working within this paradigm and do a bit of hiking in the Lake District. This year, I was particularly glad to be in Bristol – the city that, to a great degree, comes closest to ‘home’, and where – having spent the majority of those two years not really living anywhere – I felt I kind of belonged. The conference’s theme – “Putting culture in its place” – held, for me, in this sense, a double meaning: it was both about critically assessing the concept of culture in cultural political economy, and about being in a particular place from which to engage in doing just that.

 Cultural political economy (CPE) unifies (or hybridises) approaches from cultural studies and those from (Marxist) political economy, in order to address the challenges of growing complexity (and possible incommensurability, or what Jessop refers to as in/compossibility) of elements of global capitalism. Of course, as Andrew Sayer pointed out, the ‘cultural’ streak in political economy can be traced all the way to Marx, if not downright to Aristotle. Developing it as a distinct approach, then, needs to be understood both genealogically – as a way to reconcile two strong traditions in British sociology – and politically, inasmuch as it aspires to make up for what some authors have described as cultural studies’ earlier disregard of the economic, without, at the same time, reverting to the old dichotomies of base/superstructure.

 Whereas it would be equal parts wrong, pretentious, and not particularly useful to speak of “the” way of doing cultural political economy – in fact, one of its strongest points, in my view, is that it has so far successfully eschewed theoretical and institutional ossification that seems to be an inevitable corollary of having (or building) ‘disciples’ (in both senses: as students, and as followers of a particular disciplinary approach) – what it emphasises is the interrelationship between the ‘cultural’ (as identities, materialities, civilisations, or, in Jessop and Sum’s – to date the most elaborate – view, processes of meaning-making), the political, and the economic, whilst avoiding reducing them one onto another. Studying how these interact over time, then, can help understand how specific configurations (or ‘imaginaries’) of capitalism – for instance, competitiveness and the knowledge-based economy – come into being.

My relationship to CPE is somewhat ambiguous. CPE is grounded in the ontology of critical realism, which, ceteris paribus, comes closest to my own views of reality [*]. Furthermore, having spent a good portion of the past ten years researching knowledge production in a variety of regional and historical contexts, the observation that factors we call ‘cultural’ play a role in each makes sense to me, both intuitively and analytically. On the other hand, being trained in anthropology means I am highly suspicious of the reifying and exclusionary potential of concepts such as ‘culture’ and, especially, ‘civilisation’ (in ways which, I would like to think, go beyond the (self-)righteousness immanent in many of their critiques on the Left). Last, but not least, despite a strong sense of solidarity with a number of identity-based causes, my experience in working in post-conflict environments has led me to believe that politics of identity, almost inevitably, fails to be progressive.[†]

For these reasons, the presentation I did at the conference was aimed at clarifying the different uses of the concept of ‘culture’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘civilisation’) in cultural political economy, and discussing their political implications. To begin with, it might make sense to put culture through the 5W1H of journalistic inquiry. What is culture (or, what is its ontology)? Who is it – in other words, when we say that ‘culture does things’, how do we define agency? Where is it – in other words, how does it extend in space, and how do we know where its boundaries are? When is it – or what is its temporal dimension, and why does it seem easiest to define when it has either already passed, or is at least ‘in decline’, the label that seems particularly given to application to the Western civilisation? How is it (applied as an analytical concept)? This last bit is particularly relevant, as ‘culture’ sometimes appears in social research as a cause, sometimes as a mediating force (in positivist terms, ‘intervening variable’), and sometimes as an outcome, or consequence. Of course, the standard response is that it is, in fact, all of these, but instead of foreclosing the debate, this just opens up the question of WHY: if culture is indeed everything (or can be everything), what is its value as an analytical term?

A useful metaphor to think about different meanings of ‘culture’ could be the game of Pokémon Go. It figures equally as an entity (in the case of Pokémon, entities are largely fictional, but this is of lesser importance – many entities we identify as culturally significant, for instance deities, are); as a system of rules and relationships (for instance, those governing the game, as well as online and offline relationships between players); as a cause of behaviour (in positivist terms, an independent variable); and as an indicator (for instance, Pokémon Go is taken as a sign of globalization, alienation, revolution [in gaming], etc.). The photos in the presentation reflect some of these uses, and they are from Bristol: the first is a Pikachu caught in Castle Park (no, not mine :)); the other is from an event in July, when the Bristol Zoo was forced to close because too many people turned up for a Pokémon lure party. This brings in the political economy of the game; however, just like in CPE, the ‘lifeworld’ of Pokémon Go cannot be reduced to it, despite the fact it would not exist without it. So, when we go ‘hunting’ for culture, where should we look?

Clarifying the epistemic uses of the concept of culture serves not only to prevent treating culture as what Archer has referred to as ‘epiphenomenal’, or what Rojek & Urry have (in a brilliantly scathing review) characterised as ‘decorative’, but primarily to avoid what Woolgar & Pawluch dubbed ‘ontological gerrymandering’. Ontological gerrymandering refers to conceptual sliding in social problems definitions, and consists of “making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and explanation, while backgrounding or minimizing the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis depends. (…) Some areas are portrayed as ripe for ontological doubt and others portrayed as (at least temporarily) immune to doubt”[‡].

In the worst of cases, ‘culture’ lends itself to this sort of use – one moment almost an ‘afterthought’ of the more foundational processes related to politics and economy; the other foundational, at the very root of the transformations we see in everyday life; and yet, at other moments, mediating, as if a ‘lens’ that refracts reality. Of course, different concepts and uses of the term have been dissected and discussed at length in social theory; however, in research, just like in practice, ‘culture’ frequently resurfaces as a blackbox that can be conveniently proffered to explain elements not attributable (or reducible) to other factors.

This is important not only for theoretical but also, and possibly more, for political reasons. Culture is often seen as a space of freedom, for expression and experimentation. The line from which I borrow the title of my talk – “When I hear the word culture” – is an example of a right-wing reaction to exactly that sort of concept. Variously misattributed to Goering, Gebels, or even Hitler, the line actually comes from Schlageter, a play by Hanns Johst, written in Germany in 1933, which celebrates Nazi ideology. At some point, one of the characters breaks into a longish rant on why he hates the concept of culture – he sees it as ‘lofty’, ‘idealistic’, and in many ways distant from what he perceives to be ‘real struggles’, guns and ammo – which is why it crescendoes in the famous “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning”. This idea of ‘culture’ as fundamentally opposed to the vagaries of material existence has informed many anti-intellectualist movements, but, equally importantly, it has also penetrated the reaction to them, resulting in the often unreflexive glorification of ‘folk’ poetry, drama, or art, as almost instantaneously effective expressions of resistance to anti-intellectualism.

Yet, in contemporary political discourse, the concept of culture has been equally appropriated by the left and the right: witness the ‘culture wars’ in the US, or the more recent use of the term to describe social divisions in the UK. Rather than disappearing, political struggles, I believe, will be increasingly framed in terms of culture. The ‘burkini ban’ in France is one case. Some societies deal with cultural diversity differently, at least on the face of it. New Zealand, where I did a part of my research, is a bicultural society. Its universities are founded on the explicit recognition of the concept of mātauranga Māori, which implies the existence of fundamentally culturally different epistemologies. This, of course, raises a number of other interesting issues; but those issues are not something we shouldn’t be prepared to face.

 As we are becoming better at dealing with culture and with the economy, it still remains a challenge to translate these insights to the political. An obvious case where we’re failing at this is knowledge production itself – cultural political economy is very well suited for analysing the transformation of universities in neoliberalism, yet none the wiser – or more efficient – in tackling these challenges in ways that provide a lasting political alternative.

——-

Later that evening, I go see two of my closest friends from Bristol. Walking back to the flat where I’m staying – right between Clifton and Stokes Croft – I run across a fox. Foxes are not particularly exceptional in Bristol, but I still remember my first encounter with one, as I was walking across Cotham side in 2014: I thought it was a large cat at first, and it was only the tail that gave it away. Having grown up in a highly urbanised environment, I cannot help but see encounters with wildlife as somewhat magical. They are, to me, visitors from another world, creatures temporarily inhabiting the same plane of existence, but subject to different motivations and rules of behaviour: in other words, completely alien. This particular night, this particular fox crosses the road and goes through the gates of Cotham School, which I find so patently symbolic that I am reluctant to share it for fear of being accused of peddling clichés.

And this, of course, marks the return of culture en pleine force. As a concept, it is constructed in opposition to ‘nature’; as a practice, its primary role is to draw boundaries – between the sacred and the profane, between the living and the dead, the civilised and the wild. I know – from my training in anthropology, if nothing else – that fascination with this particular encounter stems from the feeling of it being ‘out of place’: foxes in Bristol are magical because they transgress boundaries – in this case, between ‘cultured’, human worlds, and ‘nature’, the outer world.

I walk on, and right around St. Matthew’s church, there is another one. This one stops, actually, and looks at me. “Hey”, I say, “Hello, fox”. It waits for about six seconds, and then slowly turns around and disappears through the hedge.

I wish I could say that there was sense in that stare, or that I was able to attribute it purpose. There was none, and this is what made it so poignant. The ultimate indecipherability of its gaze made me realise I was as much out of place as the fox was. From its point of view, I was as immaterial and as transgressive as it was from mine: creature from another realm, temporarily inhabiting the same plane, but ultimately of no interest. And there it was, condensed in one moment: what it means to be human, what it means to be somewhere, what it means to belong – and the fragility, precariousness, and eternal incertitude it comes with.

[*] In truth, I’m still planning to write a book that hybridises magical realism with critical realism, but this is not the place to elaborate on that particular project.

[†] I’ve written a bit on the particular intersection of class- and identity-based projects in From Class to Identity; the rich literature on liberalism, multiculturalism, and politics of recognition is impossible to summarise here, but the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a decent summary overview under the entry “Identity Politics”.

[‡] I am grateful to Federico Brandmayr who initially drew my attention to this article.

Do we need academic celebrities?

 

[This post originally appeared on the Sociological Review blog on 3 August, 2016].

Why do we need academic celebrities? In this post, I would like to extend the discussion of academic celebrities from the focus on these intellectuals’ strategies, or ‘acts of positioning’, to what makes them possible in the first place, in the sense of Kant’s ‘conditions of possibility’. In other words, I want to frame the conversation in the broader framework of a critical cultural political economy. This is based on a belief that, if we want to develop an understanding of knowledge production that is truly relational, we need to analyse not only what public intellectuals or ‘academic celebrities’ do, but also what makes, maintains, and, sometimes, breaks, their wider appeal, including – not least importantly – our own fascination with them.

To begin with, an obvious point is that academic stardom necessitates a transnational audience, and a global market for intellectual products. As Peter Walsh argues, academic publishers play an important role in creating and maintaining such a market; Mark Carrigan and Eliran Bar-El remind us that celebrities like Giddens or Žižek are very good at cultivating relationships with that side of the industry. However, in order for publishers to operate at an even minimal profit, someone needs to buy the product. Simply put, public intellectuals necessitate a public.

While intellectual elites have always been to some degree transnational, two trends associated with late modernity are, in this sense, of paramount importance. One is the expansion and internationalization of higher education; the other is the supremacy of English as the language of global academic communication, coupled with the growing digitalization of the process and products of intellectual labour. Despite the fact that access to knowledge still remains largely inequitable, they have contributed to the creation of an expanded potential ‘customer base’. And yet – just like in the case of MOOCs – the availability or accessibility of a product is not sufficient to explain (or guarantee) interest in it. Regardless of whether someone can read Giddens’ books in English, or is able to watch Žižek’s RSA talk online, their arguments, presumably, still need to resonate: in other words, there must be something that people derive from them. What could this be?

In ‘The Existentialist Moment’, Patrick Baert suggests the global popularity of existentialism can be explained by Sartre’s (and other philosophers’ who came to be identified with it, such as De Beauvoir and Camus) successful connecting of core concepts of existentialist philosophy, such as choice and responsibility, to the concerns of post-WWII France. To some degree, this analysis could be applied to contemporary academic celebrities – Giddens and Bauman wrote about the problems of late or liquid modernity, and Žižek frequently comments on the contradictions and failures of liberal democracy. It is not difficult to see how they would strike a chord with the concerns of a liberal, educated, Western audience. Yet, just like in the case of Sartre, this doesn’t mean their arguments are always presented in the most palatable manner: Žižek’s writing is complex to the point of obscurantism, and Bauman is no stranger to ‘thick description’. Of the three, Giddens’ work is probably the most accessible, although this might have more to do with good editing and academic English’s predilection for short sentences, than with the simplicity of ideas themselves. Either way, it could be argued that reading their work requires a relatively advanced understanding of the core concepts of social theory and philosophy, and the patience to plough through at times arcane language – all at seemingly no or very little direct benefit to the audience.

I want to argue that the appeal of star academics has very little to do with their ideas or the ways in which they are framed, and more to do with the combination of charismatic authority they exude, and the feeling of belonging, or shared understanding, that the consumption of their ideas provides. Similarly to Weber’s priests and magicians, star academics offer a public performance of the transfiguration of abstract ideas into concrete diagnosis of social evils. They offer an interpretation of the travails of late moderns – instability, job insecurity, surveillance, etc. – and, at the same time, the promise that there is something in the very act of intellectual reflection, or the work of social critique, that allows one to achieve a degree of distance from their immediate impact. What academic celebrities thus provide is – even if temporary – (re)‘enchantment’ of the world in which the production of knowledge, so long reserved for the small elite of the ‘initiated’, has become increasingly ‘profaned’, both through the massification of higher education and the requirement to make the stages of its production, as well as its outcomes, measurable and accountable to the public.

For the ‘common’ (read: Western, left-leaning, highly educated) person, the consumption of these celebrities’ ideas offers something akin to the combination of a music festival and a mindfulness retreat: opportunity to commune with the ‘like-minded’ and take home a piece of hope, if not for salvation, then at least for temporary exemption from the grind of neoliberal capitalism. Reflection is, after all, as Marx taught us, the privilege of the leisurely; engaging in collective acts of reflection thus equals belonging to (or at least affinity with) ‘the priesthood of the intellect’. As Bourdieu noted in his reading of Weber’s sociology of religion, laity expect of religion “not only justifications of their existence that can offer them deliverance from the existential anguish of contingency or abandonment, [but] justification of their existence as occupants of a particular position in the social structure”. Thus, Giddens’ or Žižek’s books become the structural or cultural equivalent of the Bible (or Qur’an, or any religious text): not many people know what is actually in them, even fewer can get the oblique references, but everyone will want one on the bookshelf – not necessarily for what they say, but because of what having them signifies.

This helps explain why people flock to hear Žižek or, for instance, Yannis Varoufakis, another leftist star intellectual. In public performances, their ideas are distilled to the point of simplicity, and conveniently latched onto something the public can relate to. At the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia in 2013, for instance, Žižek propounded the idea of the concept of ‘love’ as a political act. Nothing new, one would say – but who in the audience would not want to believe their crush has potential to turn into an act of political subversion? Therefore, these intellectuals’ utterances represent ‘speech acts’ in quite a literal sense of the term: not because they are truly (or consequentially) performative, but because they offer the public an illusion that listening (to them) and speaking (about their work) represents, in itself, a political act.

From this perspective, the mixture of admiration, envy and resentment with which these celebrities are treated in the academic establishment represents a reflection of their evangelical status. Those who admire them quarrel about the ‘correct’ interpretation of their works and vie for the status of the nominal successor, which would, of course, also feature ritualistic patricide – which may be the reason why, although surrounded by followers, so few academic celebrities actually elect one. Those who envy them monitor their rise to fame in hope of emulating it one day. Those who resent them, finally, tend to criticize their work for intellectual ‘baseness’, an argument that is in itself predicated on the distinction between academic (and thus ‘sacred’) and popular, ‘common’ knowledge.

Many are, of course, shocked when their idols turn out not to be ‘original’ thinkers channeling divine wisdom, but plagiarists or serial repeaters. Yet, there is very little to be surprised by; academic celebrities, after all, are creatures of flesh and blood. Discovering their humanity and thus ultimate fallibility – in other words, the fact that they cheat, copy, rely on unverified information, etc. – reminds us that, in the final instance, knowledge production is work like any other. In other words, it reminds us of our own mortality. And yet, acknowledging it may be the necessary step in dismantling the structures of rigid, masculine, God-like authority that still permeate the academia. In this regard, it makes sense to kill your idols.