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

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

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

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

Publish or…publish 

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

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

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

For an ecology of knowledge production 

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

One way is to, simply, publish less.

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

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

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?

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:

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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].

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


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


Revival of theory?


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

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

The meaning of theory

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


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Competitive behaviour among social theorists


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

Theory is performance

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

Theory is power

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

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

Theory is predictive

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

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

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

Theory is political

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.