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What have we lost in the accelerated academy?

A sense of loss pervades critical accounts of the contemporary academy. There’s little uniformity in what these accounts regard as having been lost, or explanations of how this was lost, but mourning nonetheless unites them in a critique of the university system we now work within. This easily lends itself to nostalgia, as Fabian Cannizzo has pointed out, contrasting an imagined past to a real present in a manner which overlooks the many flaws to be found in the former and (perhaps) the quiet virtues which might co-exist with the hidden injuries of the latter. As he puts it elsewhere, there’s a performance of positioning inherent in this contrast:

The discourse of nostalgia for a Golden Age of scholarship is not just an expression of personal values, but a public act of aligning oneself with the spirit of scholarship (or ‘personal experience’, as Weber terms it). To be anything less is to admit that one is a technician among scholars, whose heart lies elsewhere. To reject the ideal of authenticity in academia is a loss of status and mystique. (And that’s not altogether a negative outcome.)

The problem is that, as Jana Bacevic’s work has explored so brilliantly, there’s a startling lack of reflexivity in the scholastic self-conception. I can’t do justice to her account of the richness of this as a philosophical problem but engaging with her work has left me unable to see these narratives of decline as anything other than therapeutic. This is the category in which I’d place ‘the slow professor’ (as well as much, though not all, literature on slow scholarship more broadly) as a discursive palliative intended to numb the pain without addressing the underlying condition.

Because I do think there is an underlying condition, explored by myself and Filip Vostal in our work on the accelerated academy. It’s just one that’s difficult to disentangle from the therapeutic, diagnostic, analytical and political imperatives which surround it. To distinguish between these isn’t a rejection of them (though I do think the academy would be better if political responses squeezed out therapeutic ones) as much as a simple request that we be clear about what it is we’re doing when we talk about these issues. It occurred to me today that Fromm’s account of activity and passivity might be useful in such a project, helping us move beyond a framing which counterpoises the formal freedom of the lost university to the managerial overreach of the neoliberal university. This is how he describes it in To Have Or To Be? pg 94-95:

Activity in the modern sense refers only to behavior, not to the person behind the behavior. It makes no difference whether people are active because they are driven by external force, like a slave, or by internal compulsion, like a person driven by anxiety. It does not matter whether they are interested in their work, like a carpenter or a creative writer, or a scientist or a gardener; or whether they have no inner relation to and satisfaction in what they are doing, like the worker on the assembly line or the postal clerk.

The modern sense of activity makes no distinction between activity and mere busyness. But there is a fundamental difference between the two that corresponds to the terms “alienated” and “nonalienated” in respect to activities. In alienated activity I do not experience myself as the acting subject of my activity; rather, I experience the outcome of my activity—and that as something “over there,” separated from me and standing above and against me. In alienated activity I do not really act; I am acted upon by external or internal forces. I have become separated from the result of my activity.

To Have Or To Be? Pg 94-5

I think this internal relation to our work is at the heart of a sense of loss because an active orientation to issues that fascinate and motivate us stands in tension with accelerative pressures which incline us to want to produce more in order to secure our futures (in the process ratcheting up the pressure which everyone else faces). However the ambivalent character of this predicament gets lost in nostalgic accounts of the imagined golden age of the university, as does the possibility that these accounts might help us cope with that ambivalence in the lived reality we face as workers within the contemporary university system. For example I’ve often thought of the sense in which accelerative pressures take on the structure of an objet petit a: an unattainable object of desire which ‘being on top of things’ constantly recedes from grasp in a lifestyle defined by the pleasures of acceleration. If we mourn our present reality as a site in which we have lost something we once had then I don’t see how we can move forward in a therapeutic, diagnostic, analytical or political register.

Categories: Post-Pandemic Scholarship

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