The psychic realm of neoliberal academia

We turn now to the psychic realm. We have argued above and elsewhere (Boden and Epstein, 2006; Boden et al., 2009) that regimes of neoliberal control in universities are constitutive of governmentality – that building the neoliberal university involves putting in place structures that govern the academic soul (Rose, 1999). This is imperative given the post-Fordist nature of academic work – flexible, mobile, relatively unstructured and, with regard to research, largely self-directed.

This psychic state has to be created and held in place by a combination of intra- and inter-psychic factors. To a significant extent, academics still bear the trace (Derrida, 1976) of a previous professional and collegial status in which universities facilitated their work as independent scholars. Despite radical changes to their conditions of employment, including the increasing micro-management of their work, academics generally do not see themselves as blue-collar workers in the knowledge economy. This means that whilst universities are being translated into conventional hierarchical business organisations, academics have not necessarily yet identified themselves fully as workers in an employment situation in traditional industrial relations terms.

A spectrum of surveillance and control mechanisms encourage and facilitate correct comportment (Foucault, 1977), holding the academic psychic condition in place. These include such measures as research quality audits and, indeed, systems of human resource management which, through technologies of individual performance management, seek to align the identity of the academic worker with organizational strategic objectives (Waring, 2009). The panoptical gaze of such regimes, with their aspirational discourses of organisational and individual ‘excellence’, shapes behaviour in a number of ways. In the classic Foucauldian sense, we regulate ourselves because we know that we are being watched – all the time. Further, such regimes accord recognition and approval for correct comportment to individuals. Such ‘strokes’ (Berne, 2010 [1964]) are seductive, offering psychic rewards, a kind of quasi-parental ‘love’, which entices and induces us to perform as ‘excellent academics’. Finally, such judgmental regimes engender a spirit of competition that may be antithetical to traditional notions of collegial, collaborative academic work.

To a significant extent academics are collusive in the successful operation of such systems of psychic regulation. Some enfold themselves in them entirely, through belief, fear or even a lust for power. Others may collaborate for the best of motives; caught in a prisoner’s dilemma, many academics believe that they should participate in the management of surveillance systems because they might be able to ameliorate their worst effects and/or maximise the benefits for their own institutions.

These psychic factors of the trace, self-discipline and technologies of control combine in the constitution of academics’ identities, sense of agency and, therefore, their psychic freedom. Butler (1993) argues that gender and other identities are achieved through performativity. It is not, she suggests, that we are men or women; rather, we do man or woman and, through repeated iterations of performance, these identities come to be written on the body. Similarly, managerial technologies incite and seduce us to do academic in particular ways, constantly reiterating the performance of excellence. Academics come to embody the neoliberal discourses of the contemporary university and, thus subjectified, their freedom to imagine defiantly is inhibited.

The psychic effects of such subjectification can be extreme. Butler (1994) builds on Freud’s concept of melancholia (Freud, 2006 [1917]) – the affective result of an unconscious sense of loss. She suggests that gender and particular sexual identities are established and held in place only through the suppression of alternative forms, leading to an unconscious sense of loss that bears the trace of other possibilities. Academics, we posit, may be similarly steeped in a largely unconscious, unarticulated sense of loss of collegiality and of professional autonomy.

When the melancholic individual can no longer maintain their defences, perhaps because of some critical incident, they lose their sense of relationship between self and other. That is, their capacity to operate in a world of symbolic meaning collapses and they become abject (Kristeva, 1983).4 But the sociological imagination is all about dealing in the symbolic realm of meaning. An inability to work well with the symbolic thus stultifies the ability to imagine and thus to work defiantly.

Boden, R. and Epstein, D. (2011) “A flat earth society? Imagining academic freedom”.The Sociological Review, 59:3

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