Category: Academia

A Little Calcitrance

Blogging has slowed down, if you haven’t noticed, because I’ve just emerged from the academic job market (unsuccessful, but still in one piece), and that experience does weird things to your psyche, your day-to-day functioning, and your outlook on the future. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. Also, I’ve had a cold for something like 85 weeks — this fact is not unrelated — and the virus just does not want to let me go. But I wanted to pass this article along, since she is absolutely right that “one of the least-acknowledged aspects of the job market” is that “it is incredibly time-consuming”:

As candidates, we write cover letters tailored to each institution, craft two-page dissertation or book abstracts alongside writing samples, compose statements about our philosophy of teaching that take into account the needs of different institutions, and develop syllabi that line up with each department’s ideas about its major.

Candidates who make it to a first-round interview spend countless hours doing research on the faculty members and curricula of the departments and imagining answers to questions about how their research, teaching, and personalities might fit. If candidates are selected for a campus visit, they write job talks and prepare teaching demonstrations that meet the unique requirements of each search committee. And then applicants spend one or more days visiting each campus, where meetings, presentations, receptions, and meals make each day a 12-hour slog of “being on.”

I discovered that failed spring that I had spent so much time writing about my research and teaching that I hadn’t spent as much time as I should have doing either of those things. If I wanted to be competitive on the market, I was told, I needed to get another article out, seek out more external grants, develop more new courses, and find even more opportunities for professional service.

But if you want to have a new publication or a new course on your CV for the next hiring season, you need to have those materials ready to go just as the last job market is spiraling into its death spin. And by then, you are already behind if you take into account the deadlines for getting new courses approved, or the four-to-six month review period for journals, or the possibility that an article will be rejected or require revision and resubmission.

April must be the cruelest month for unsuccessful job candidates. It’s like finding out that you have to run a sprint after you’ve just run a marathon.

This is close to how I’m feeling. Of course, this was only my first year “out” and I return to a reasonably secure position in Berkeley; life, for me, is still quite good and I’m not complaining, not really. But it’s such a waste, this entire experience. I know the world doesn’t particularly value what academics do, but the social good of compelling graduate students to spend hundreds of hours  crafting a persona, rather than its substance (not to mention the equal number of unproductive hours occasioned by stress and anxiety), well, there isn’t any. It may or many not be worse than what all job seekers must do — certainly it isn’t substantively different in its broad contours — but it’s still a particularly pointless exercise: what limited good there is in the process (in terms of making you assess and clarify the purpose of your work) is more than cancelled out by the massive amount of time you have to take from actually doing that work (not to mention the psychic tax on the energy and enthusiasm for the work that you desperately need).

And since the academic job market is changing so quickly, it’s worth noting that we’re reaching a point where this pointless exercise is not just normal, but unavoidable and omnipresent, a years-long rite of passage that every academic has to spend their formative period engulfed by. As the job market has contracted — we’re talking about the number of jobs dropping to a quarter of what they were a few years ago — the chances of getting a job without spending years of your life spinning in this wheel is diminishing to negligible. All the people I know who have gotten jobs were going on the market for at least the second time, which means that you don’t just spend one six month period being consumed with one of the most pointless activities the universe could have concocted for you — writing about the things you do, such that you have much less time to actually do them but you go through this cycle again and again. And since you’re competing against people who are three, four, five years ahead of you in the process — people who got jobs in places they didn’t like, or just post-docs, and who are therefore returning to the market — you can see your future stretching ahead of you in the competition you can’t, yet, out-compete, because you haven’t failed enough.

Again, I say this not to complain. I’m well aware that this is 2011, and that nobody who’s not a possessor of a reasonable quantity of finance capital is doing particularly well. It could be a lot worse for me, and it is, in fact, a lot worse for most people. I like my life. In fact, I want to emphasize that I’m not complaining or playing for sympathy, because I want those of us who are academics to think, just for a moment, about what this does to the collective psyche of an entire profession, the way it really is becoming the foundational experience that unites us all: if you are not being stewed by this process, you are busily stirring the pot; if you aren’t wasting your time crafting a persona to seduce a hiring committee with work that you are therefore not able to take time to do, then you are probably on hiring committees, and have  a vested interest in not thinking too clearly about how the sausage gets made. Survivor’s guilt is a potent force, after all.

This is why cynicism is such a great way of deflecting the uncomfortable feelings this whole process provokes, for both sides. And which is why we have to guard from it. Far from being “realistic,” cynicism gives you an excuse not to think about the problem, or deal with it. For example, by refocusing on the imaginary fantasy of the naive PhD candidate who thinks he/she should be handed a TT job just because of how special he/she is, or by sadly shaking your head and playing the game of “more aware of how shitty it is than thou,” we convert an institutional stupidity into a social drama, a disciplinary socialization which we learn to perform to our peers. We transform ourselves to fit the factory, rather than putting our bodies on the gears.

On the one hand, by focusing the power of our contempt on the person who doesn’t  know what it’s really like — or refuses to believe — we get to take our focus off the stupidity of those realities. The harsh reality becomes, instead of a problem we all have to own and take responsibility for, a thing which can be safely blamed on the people who suffer from it, and who are — by their refusal to accept it — coded as ignorant, naive (not victims). And on the other hand, doing the thing of trying to demonstrate that you’re deeply, deeply realistic about the process — that you really know how shitty it is — allows us to pretend that it’s a given thing, that it’s unavoidable, that it’s just the way it is. That it is not, in fact, a thing which was made by human beings and could also be changed by them, that the fact it lacks any coherent rationale doesn’t seem, any longer, to be a damning indictment of it.

This is worth saying, periodically. No one would have planned a system of professionalization which involved — right in the middle of what would be, for most scholars, their most productive period — a indeterminately years-long process of pointless, existential limbo. No one ever said to themselves:

“You know what would really prepare young scholars for their profession? Making them periodically put their work on hold, for unpredictable and unknowable periods of panic and fear and self-loathing. And also, make them focus all their efforts on pretending to be doing important work — rather than actually doing it — so that the work itself comes to seem like a game of self-representation, rather than real intellectual labor.”

Yet the fact that this is an incredibly stupid and pointless process can so easily scan — through the framework of “realism” — as a thing which you survive not by changing, but by accepting. Idealism (or a refusal to accept) comes to be naive, ignorance, laughable. We have to be realistic about it, you know? And if you start to suggest that maybe another way might be possible, preferable, you will find yourself told that even if you get a job, it only gets worse…

I don’t have anything new to offer, I suspect. I have no power to change this system, nor do most of the people implicated in it, which is exactly the problem. We don’t know how to make the machine work any more, if we ever did. But I do want to register — at least once — that being aware of the some of the pointlessness inhumanities required by this system — of showing at least a recalcitrance of the will to what our bodies and our wallets require us to accept — is an important first step towards enabling the tiny and few and desperately necessary little gestures we’re still capable of making.

Ripley’s letter to her students on being kicked out of Wheeler Hall by the police


Those of you who tried to come on Thursday, I apologize – the police let several of us in and we were inside the building until police came and told us the chancellor was closing the building at which point we had to leave. A question this course should lead you to ask is: by what right does the chancellor get to close Wheeler Hall? Whose property is it?Know that this university exists because the land was donated by the state to the university in exchange for it providing free education to the citizens of California. In terms of labor theories of value, if the labor of teachers is part of the educational mission, at what point do teachers get to decide what happens on school property? If you believe, as I do, that students labor is also part of education – helping create what is learned by all in the classroom, what right do students have to make use of the spaces that were given as sites of education? If there is disagreement or diversity of opinion, who or what should arbitrate these rights?

I later got an email from the chancellor saying there was a “health and safety issue” in Wheeler which necessitated closing it. This seems odd to me.  I also heard from a friend who was stopping by Wheeler (a volunteer medic) that police had pepper-sprayed and beaten protesters with batons while attempting to remove them from the area. (was that the health and safety issue? if so, I can think of a few ways short of closing the building that could have protected people)

I encourage you to think about the primacy of property rights in what happened at Wheeler Hall. Property rights in objects were supreme over rights  over people’s own bodies. The rights to bodily integrity of the students were not as important as the rights of the chancellor to control what happens in Wheeler Hall. Its true there may have been a concern about damage to the building – but during the first occupation a police officer smashed the hand (and nearly took off the finger) of a student who was participating in the protests (nonviolently and not causing property damage), and yet police are still allowed on campus. The costs and the harm of  batons and pepper spray are not as much concern to the university as the right of the university to control property.

Whose rights are being protected by this? (note that we were carrying on our section without a problem until this happened, it was the police who were limiting access).Of course there is the question of students right to pursue an education without protest. As above, who should be the arbiter between those different opinions about educational priorities in situations where protesters ARE disrupting classes?

But also, what happens if you include the rights of the students and former students, and also the janitors (speaking of keeping the building in good shape) who are no longer on campus because of the policies like fee hikes and the layoffs dictated by Operational Excellence? Did they have any rights? Milton Friedman (whom we read this week) would say no. But what about the founders of the UC system and its mission?

Franco Moretti and the Chinese Novel

I went to a talk by Franco Moretti, more or less because it had been a long day and inertia made it easier to stay in the department than to venture out into the cold rainy night. And while I tend not to take notes at talks (not because it trains me to better use my memory, as I sometimes rationalize, but because I’m lazy), I quickly started writing things down on the back of a course reader very quickly. Taking off from Adorno’s attack on Veblen for explaining culture in terms of kitsch, not vice-versa, he said that he disagreed with Adorno but found the point aptly put: we shouldn’t see a “high” cultural form — say a Henry James novel — as a stand-alone object of aesthetic achievement, and from that conclude that pulpy dime-novels, kitsch, or other forms of “low” cultural writing are simply poor versions of the same thing, efforts that lack the same achievement as a great aesthetic object. Instead, he argued that the high aesthetic novel is more of an epiphenomena of a mass commodity culture than the transcendence of then. Far from a Darwinian battleground, in other words, in which the critics job is to weed out the weaker novels by ignoring them, literary culture is something like an ecology, in which the great novels feed and are dependent on the great mass of “lesser” novels.

This was just the opening salvo, though; the major question of his talk — the real provocation — was why the Chinese novel didn’t develop like the novel did in Europe. And the interesting thing about Moretti is that he seems smarter than this, seems to see the foreclosures structured into that question, yet asks it anyway. That intrigues me.

For example, his obvious unspoken answer to that question is Capitalism!, the great unmoved mover and ideological structure of feeling that can always be relied upon to “explain” the difference between Europe and not-Europe, the common horizon of European capitalist modernity in which non-Europe has, for what ever reason, been unable to share. For this reason, narratives of the rise of capitalism, from Marx to Weber, all have the same problem explaining the capitalist structures of non-Europe: by assuming that capitalism developed internally out of largely internal structures (albeit with certain gestures towards exploited others), the spirit of capitalism gets so clearly identified with the West that effectively capitalist structures (or alternately capitalist structures) cannot appear within the schematic. Weber is the classic example of using ethnocentric glasses to derive a structuralist account of capitalism and modernity, but so many other accounts share in this tendency that when anyone refers blithely, as Moretti did, to “feudalism’s transition into the bourgeois age” I start glazing over, confident in my presumption that I’m not missing much. The fact that China was more powerful and more “modern” than “the West” for most of the last two thousand years is simply not thinkable in such accounts; similarly, that the West derives so much of its core values from Islamic civilization, the paradigmatic non-West, as to make the term historically incoherent is something that a narrative of “the West” cannot address. If you want to understand what makes the Chinese novel work and why it’s different than the Western novel, in other words, the most central factors for your inquiry have been obscured by ideology from the start.

So that wasn’t winning him many points. And the rhetorical construction that Moretti adopts — why is the non-Western form different than the Western form? — is, also, the sort of argument that normally makes me gag. Why shouldn’t it be different? Why is that what needs to be explained? Only if we assume a Hegelian model of historical convergence, in which all societies tend towards the same telos of implicitly Western capitalist modernity, do we need to worry about why this doesn’t occur. The question for me is why the Chinese novel even gets called a novel in the first place, why a term of art derived from the French word for “new” under a very historically contingent set of circumstances, in Europe, would be considered appropriate (to anyone) for reference to the classic long fictive prose narratives in China.

Still, what saves Moretti for me is the productiveness of these questions, the way he manages to ask them so carefully, so knowledgeably, and so cleverly, that the foreclosures of his formulation are not as limiting as they would be in the hands of someone with a similar project but lacking his sense of critical responsibility. Capitalism seems to be a place-holding structure for him; he is aware of the limitations of it as explanatory term (indeed, I think this is why he’s constantly implicitly referring back to a capitalist narrative without explicitly saying so), but such narratives do reference particular explanatory factors that he wants to make use of; the explosion of commodity culture, for example, in “bourgeois” Europe, may be problematized by pointing out both the incoherence of terms like “Europe” and “bourgeois,” but that problem doesn’t ultimately take away from the explanatory work that it is possible to do by that reference. It becomes possible, for example, to suggest that the “high” aesthetic novel developed in ecological economy with the “low” trashy novel because aesthetics needed an impermanent commodity form to supercede: to be more than a commodity, the “high” novel needed a “low” novel that embodied that commodification.

Using the Chinese novel as foil for the rise of the novel in the West seems a more helpful way of explaining the Western novel, of course, than the Chinese novel, and the fact that Moretti’s own expertise in Sinology is impressive only relative to people in English departments demonstrated this quite clearly. In this sense the question he asks — why didn’t the Chinese novel do whatever the Western novel did — can’t ever really be answered. It can only be, in being posed, a new way of approaching the Western novel itself. But it’s a marvelously productive one: struggling to define the Chinese novel’s divergence from the model might strike me as the wrong way to understand the Chinese novel itself (since making divergence into a problem incorrectly presumes convergence as the normal state of being), but it does help cast a variety of formal features in the baseline expectation, hitherto taken for granted, in a new light.

In this sense, the major conceptual problem of his approach — the clash of theory with history — needs to be addressed as contradiction, but it also needs to be seen a productively unsolvable problem. There are some real logical problems that need to be addressed in Moretti’s approach, and it came out clearly in the Q and A: is he a theorist or a historian? This isn’t the first time the question has been asked, but its persistence points to the intractable problem at its roots, which is whether a novel is a novel because of historical or formal characteristics. One narrative of the rise of the novel points to the historical circumstances, the social factors that produce a particular kind of textual object and invest it with particular meanings and significance. Another narrative derives it from a structural form: the novel is a fictional narrative which is long and written in prose. That these “objective” features are historically defined (what it means to be fictional, for example, requires a secular consciousness) needs to be suppressed, as does the fact that giving history a legible form requires treating unreliably contingent objective forms as if they really were objective. But while history and form define each other, and are really separable, neither do the narratives collapse into each other. Is Robinson Crusoe a novel because that’s what it was called at a certain point in history, or because it achieved some essentially novelistic form? If the former, a historical paradigm, then there can be no Chinese novel at all, just something that looks superficially similar from a distance. Yet if its the latter, a formalist definition, then how can a Chinese novel be Chinese? Ian Watt and other older scholars could rest comfortably on the Weberian assumption that the spirit of the West made such questions a tautology, that the form was derived from history. But in such a narrative there can be no Chinese novel, except as an offshoot of the West, and even introducing the term (which is why, I think, Moretti wants to) upsets the comfortable assumption that some Hegelian spirit produces the novel as aesthetic epiphenomenon.

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