stuck in the mess of life: anticipation and disappointment

In recent papers Ruth Müller has offered what I think is the very important concept of anticipatory acceleration to make sense of how subjects, in this case post-doctoral researchers, wilfully participate in social acceleration. Drawing on the work of James Scott, she outlines an attitude of ‘disregard for the present’:

The present figured not as important in and of itself, but as valuable because of its potential to become the future. Discomfort and sacrifice in the present were hence normatively acceptable and reframed as potentially beneficial. If the present is only a moment of transition towards a golden future, no serious attention needs to be paid to the trials and tribulations of the now. Uneasiness with a new system is recast as a period of adaptation, critique is washed away with the final argument of where we need to go.

This immediately makes me think of Ian Craib’s work on disappointment. Craib argues that we are increasingly unable to live with frustrations, denials or uncertainties. We seek to ‘escape the mess of life’ by looking forward when we meet disappointment, rather than recognising that some element of disappointment is an unavoidable facet of human existence. We turn ourselves to the next person, the next job, the next city as a place where we hope that everything will be ok. But it never is because we can’t transcend the nature of our own being-in-the-world simply by trying really hard to arrange the pieces of our life in a perfect configuration that always exists in potentia. When we actualise it and come face-to-face with its imperfection, we go on looking, assuming that we can make the world as we wish it to be by finding the circumstances in which the representation in our minds can match the reality of our lives.

Under these circumstances, the anticipatory acceleration Müller identifies in higher education becomes remarkably alluring. We bring ourselves closer to this imagined future through an “anticipatory orientation that aims to create future possibilities and tentative certainties, and ensure an ongoing trajectory that is somewhat recognizable as a good (future) life”. Or at least we hope to do so. But within higher education, we find those conditions further in retreat because so many others are chasing them:

VOSTAL (2014) proposes that junior scholars, who often work on temporary contracts and aim at establishing themselves in academia, are particularly exposed to the demand to produce more units per time. “It seems that early career academics are particularly vulnerable to the restructuring of higher education in comparison with more established and tenured/permanently employed senior scholars and professoriate” (p.12f.). This includes a heightened vulnerability to the changing temporal frameworks of academic cultures. Similar to the differences between career stages, the focus on speed appears to be pronounced more or less strongly in different fields. While the imperative to “Speed up!” seems to interpellate a wide range of scholars across the disciplines and faculties, fast growing fields that are receiving high policy attention and investments, often due to hopes of economic return, and that are exhibiting high degrees of internationalization and competition appear to be particularly prone to processes of acceleration. One such field is the life sciences. GARFORTH and CERVINKOVÁ (2009) point out that scholars in this field are faced with a growing standardization of possible career trajectories in the context of increasing international competition. This would result in a “rigid, narrow and increasingly formalised career path […] in the biosciences” (p.172) along which particularly junior scholars must run as fast as possible to outpace a growing number of known and unknown, local and international competitors. The article at hand focuses on a distinct category of junior scholars1) in the life sciences that are, as the empirical work shows, particularly strongly affected by experiences of competition and hence acceleration: postdoctoral researchers

So how do we respond? By going faster and faster. Wilfully hopping with ever more enthusiasm while management heats up the floor (to use the lovely image Will Davies offers). Or we quit. What’s the excluded middle: collective resistance that becomes ever hard because it entails a social hope about potential shared futures, one grounded in a communal attentiveness to the present which becomes ever more unlikely under prevailing conditions of acceleration.