Life in the Accelerated Academy, part 2

The idea that a part 2 to yesterday’s post would be less rushed seems rather naive in retrospect. Feeling rushed in the morning is different to feeling rushed in the evening but it is nonetheless feeling rushed. Much of my motivation for the Accelerated Academy project comes from a desire to understand this aspect of my daily experience in a sociological way. It’s not quite linking ‘personal troubles’ to ‘public issues’ however because I’m aware that I like speed. Much like the experience of rushing reflects something more than my own psychology, so too do the pleasures which can be taken in acceleration. Here are some suggestions about what they are:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

I think this conveys the feeling I’m trying to conceptualise more effectively than I can using the abstract words which are the only tools too many years of higher education have equipped me with:

It’s a feeling that provokes ambivalence but does so in a way that can be thrilling. C Wright Mills once wrote that “My plans have always exceeded my capacities and energies”. This is a sentiment that resonates with me in the sense that it describes my own experience. But I think there’s more to it than that. There’s some latent moral force to this resonance, as if part of me thinks that a life of which this was not true would be in some sense a life wasted. I’m not sure if I believe this reflectively but something in me endorses it nonetheless. Part of me believes that a failure of one’s plans to exceed one’s energies would point to a failure of imagination, an inability to keep pace with the possibilities for creative activity afforded by digital capitalism.

I find myself fantasising about working on one thing at a time. If I play the game, mark myself out in the right way then I could win funding and immerse myself in one project. But I’m not sure I really want this. I may think that I do but all the evidence I have suggests that at the first sign of frustration or boredom, I would seek out new distractions to which I could commit myself, justifying this as structured procrastination – perhaps we are veering into individual psychopathology after all… more to the point though, even if I did this and committed myself to it, would it be possible any longer? The schemes I’d be applying to demand impact strategies which presumably have to be put into practice. There is monitoring and assessment, consultation with mentors and demonstration of progress. The Rortyean image of unstructured immersion in creative work reveals itself once more to be a fantasy, at least under present circumstances.

The further problem is that, as Ana Canhoto pointed out in a comment on part one, Rorty’s image of slow academia is still the one held by many non-academics. Friends, family, partners fail to understand the relentless pressure to do more, ascribing situational demands to individual pathology (and perhaps this leads to a tendency for all three groups to be composed heavily of other academics). The three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic. It would be interesting to know how much respondents to this Yougov survey know about the conditions of working life faced by authors, librarians and academics. Perhaps authors are free – if social media is my most practical escape hatch then being a writer is my most desirable one – in the way that only the truly precarious can be, with it becoming effectively infeasible to live full time as a (non-superstar) author, all the more so if one has dependants. Is it a desirable freedom?

In many ways, I’m probably as free as I’m going to get right now. The problem is that embracing that would mean stasis. It would mean wanting to hold things in their current place. It would mean foregoing the pleasures of acceleration. It would mean, crucially, investing myself in circumstances that are by their nature transitory. This is the dilemma of acceleration: any resting place we find, any point of respite from speed, by its very nature cannot be assumed to be anything other than temporary. The stable career trajectories, as well as their associated life narratives, which Richard Sennett announced the end of in the early 90s involved a different temporality: a slow and steady movement through life (and the firm). Could acceleration be something that we seized upon as an alternative? Defining ourselves through perpetual motion, identifying with going somewhere even when the ‘somewhere’ perpetually shifted?

In part 3, I’ll talk about social media and craft, given that this is what my talk was originally intended to be about.

2 responses to “Life in the Accelerated Academy, part 2”

  1. I don’t find any mention of Steven Ward’s ‘Neoliberalism & the global restructuring of knowledge & education’ on your blog, but I assume you already know it (although it’s possible he’s an obscure American sociologist). He comments on something that relates to the idea you mention here — how those outside academia are unaware of the time pressure academics feel these day. His point is that to the extent people are aware of the audit society nature of academia (and medicine), they find it only logical. Why should the professions be immune from what the rest of the workforce experiences?

    (Sorry for how lengthy this quotation is.)

    “[T]he transformation of knowledge and other public professions under neoliberalism is not unlike that experienced by most occupations within the primary labor market over the last few decades. Within this transformation occupations, such as those in the automobile, airline or steel industries, that once offered stable and permanent work, life-long employment, fringe benefits, union scale and contractual protection have become victims of neoliberalist political and economic policies. … [T]his does not mean that the public professions themselves are necessarily dying out only that their guild-like power to control their own fate is being seriously challenged. NPM [new public management] in practice is only an extension into the public domain of the new managerial and business policies and practices that many workers have experienced for several decades as a response to the ‘realities of the market’ and the ‘inevitabilities of globalization.’ With the extra insularity that working in public bureaucracies created, professionals often saw themselves as somehow outside of the labor process or at least shielded from its more onerous effects. The professions, with their historic monopoly on expertise and political power, have also largely seen themselves apart from and elevated above other occupations and the uncertainties of the labor process in general. It was, after all, that independence that allowed the public professions to operate in a public regarding capacity and to propagate the ideals of ‘inner dedication’ in the first place. As these occupations slowly became reshaped by neoliberalism and its cries of competition, choice and globalization, public professions rarely did anything to show their solidarity or to offer assistance. Indeed, in some instances their mutual funds and retirement plans seemed to buy their acquiescence or at least silence. This has created very little sympathy from other occupations about what is now happening to the public realm and public professions. After all, why should they be trusted when all other workers are monitored, evaluated and often fired at will? Why should these professional groups not be transformed into ‘productive labor’ by being exposed to the same policies and processes that have now long affected most other workers in the so-called new economy for decades?”

    I would take “inner dedication” to include the priority given to the intellectual pleasures of academia in Rorty’s time. Things certainly have changed in my lifetime.

  2. That’s very interesting (and another book to add to the list) – it seems like a form of ‘negative solidarity’: we suffer so why don’t they?

    It occurred to me recently that the discourse of fulfilment through work (and the corresponding sense of failure if one can’t experience this) has emerged at the same time as the growth of managerialism and the (partial) deskilling of the professions. What interests me is how to make sense of the interface between the discourse about work and the changing experience of work in a sociological way.

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