Higher Education and The Temporal Conditions for Critique

I’m aware that I probably come across like I hate Slavoj Zizek but there are many aspects of his work which I really like. My favourite is his account of neoliberal ideology which I understand to be an argument about how subjective disavowal goes hand-in-hand with objective complicity: we maintain a critical distance from a system while nonetheless behaving in a way conducive to its reproduction. Rather than labouring under illusions which, if absented, would lead to action, we see things as they are but in a way that engenders passivity. We expressively repudiate our conditions while nonetheless continuing to acquiesce to them. In fact the former reinforces the latter. We invest ourselves in having seen through the mystification of the system but the pleasure we take in this cynical distance leaves us able to pragmatically continue as if the mystification was still operative.

It seems obvious to me that this cynicism is rife within higher education. Consider the REF: widely scorned yet near universally acquiesced to. My point is not to minimise the practical obstacles to resisting it but simply to suggest that the contrast between the vehemence with which it is discussed and the pragmatism with which it is adapted to is, to put it mildly, rather curious. However I think Zizek’s account helps illuminate the tension here but doesn’t entirely explain it. I’m curious about whether there’s a temporal dimension to critique that needs to be invoked in order to explain this tendency. For a while now, I’ve been trying to develop the notion of cognitive triage: coping strategies on the part of overburdened subjects in which they prioritise the most immediate and urgent demands upon them.

The urgent things which we must attend to tend to be situational. The more time we spend triaging, the more situational factors occupy our decision making. Given our finite attentional resources, we can therefore talk about situational factors crowding out trans-situational considerations. Our decision making doesn’t cease but its temporal scope diminishes. Urgent requirements for next week, tomorrow or later today crowd out considerations of next month, next year or next decade. People adapt to this in all sorts of ways and I would argue that things like digital detoxes can be understood as a coping strategy under conditions where triaging is proving frequently necessary. These coping strategies in turn act back upon the subject when they are pursued habitually. If we are what we habitually do then when, say, one draws on life hacking techniques to cope with their burdens one eventually becomes a life hacker. I’m not sure this is a good thing but reasons I’ll do my best to explain.

My suggestion is that many second-order coping strategies actually intensify the tendency towards triaging. One finds oneself in this state of cognitive triage (first-order) and begins to consult resources to develop techniques to avoid this overburdened fire fighting (second-order). But these techniques will usually involve cultivating a more refined process of self-management: deliberate triaging rather than desperate coping. These techniques involve greater scrutiny of first-order responses in order to better facilitate policing of reactions e.g. measuring and controlling a proclivity towards distraction. In doing so, the slide into situationalism is actually reinforced. The strategies we draw upon to help us cope with the intensity of situational demands leave us more embroiled in situationalism. We do it more gracefully and more efficiently but the tendency towards a narrowing of our temporal horizons is entrenched.

The problem is that critique is necessarily trans-situational. Lay normativity rests on personal concerns which by their nature transcend particular situations. If we’re embroiled in coping with day-to-day demands then it’s very difficult to step back and reflect critically upon the conditions within which those demands occur. It’s more difficult still to consider potential courses of action through which we could individually, let alone collectively, work to change conditions that generate these ceaseless demands that leave us pushed and pulled by forces beyond our immediate control. Under such circumstances, it seems to me that expressive disavowal occupies an important psychological role as a safety valve. It lets us vent and moan. It lets us experience an ephemeral feeling of moral agency over circumstances that frustrate and impede our sense of what a good life could and should be. When we do it collectively, it has the feel of collective repudiation of that which we reject in common. But unfortunately it rarely, if ever, will lead to action. There’s a character in the John Lanchester novel Capital who continually fantasises about leaving his job:

That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.

I’m suggesting inertia of this sort is a common phenomenon under conditions of social acceleration. As things get faster, as the demands upon us increase, we are left scrabbling to cope with immediate demands. We don’t lose the capacity to think about the longer term but we do it less and it becomes harder to sustain. The better we become at coping with these situational demands, the more we become locked in the immediate and urgent. The longer this continues, the more we recognise these conditions as ‘life’ and fail to imagine anything else. We don’t cease to be agents but the scope of that agency begins to change in a radical way. Critique and the action to which it leads increasingly gives way to cynicism and inertia. The fact this is occurring in institutional environments where those in charge are “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest“ only makes it worse.

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