Tuesday, 10 July 2007

"I want more life, fucker", as a postgraduate student might say to their supervisor

Some time ago a friend suggested to me the possible terrifying analogy between the scene in Blade Runner when Roy Batty confronts his "maker", Tyrell, and the predicament of the postgraduate student who comes to experience their highly specialized skills as not readily transferable either inside or outside of academia. In time this experience can amount to an experience of the self as what Marc Bousquet has described as "The Waste Product of Graduate Education" (Social Text, 20, 1, 2002, 81-104). In combination with the casualised "flexible" employment as a non-unionised tutor (that is, if such work is available), the experience of abjection may also be magnified by working other, even less skilled, "flexible", work to finance one's studies. In keeping with the mission statement of this blog to at times utilise a "contrarian" perspective, it is therefore incumbent on me to quote the depressing underlying logic of Bousquet's piece, which has to do with casualisation as the most efficient way for the university to pass off the most mundane aspects of academic administration (marking, teaching undergraduates) onto postgrads who can only be paid at casual rates. Once they get their degrees, however, the postgrad becomes too much of a financial liability for the university, who would then be more obligated to pay them a professional salary. They are therefore made redundant and replaced by the next stream of postgrad students, even though the latter are, by definition, comparatively unqualified and inexperienced:

"In suggesting the need for an excrement theory to replace market theories of graduate education, I am in a way only insisting upon the urgency of recognising the already excremental circumstance of the degree holder. Persons who actually hold the terminal degree are the traumatic Real puncturing the collective fantasy powering this system. Degree in hand, loans coming due, the working partner expecting a more fair financial contribution, perhaps the question of children growing relevant, the degree holder asks a question to which the system has no answer: if I have been a splendid teacher and scholar while nondegreed for the past 10 years, why am I suddenly unsuitable? The answer to this question is the one that makes us writhe in humiliation: only the degree itself renders the splendid teacher suddenly an undesirable waste product. Nearly all of the administrative responses to the degree holder can already be understood as responses to waste: flush it, ship it to the provinces, recycle it through another industry, keep it away from the fresh meat"

Now all of this would be overwhelmingly depressing, what with the "administrative touch on the flushchain", were it not for the fact that the author also identifies a constructive response in the way of labour reform that could ameliorate these abjection effects in the future. The problem is though that it will become dependent on the professoriat becoming indentured intellectually and politically indentured to graduate employees. Perchance to dream. Until this happens, the experience of remote control, of empathy only on an intellectual level, is destined to continue. And as long as it does, students will be left to feel like half-grown adults attempting to please a capricious parent. The darkest side of this from the student perspective is how it may feed fantasies involving challenging this indifference, where the experience of abjection is tantamount to planned obsolescence. Imagine an awareness of this taking the form of a fantasy where the student plays the part of Blade Runner's Roy Batty confronting their advisor, the part of Tyrell. It certainly adds a heightened sense of brinkmanship to the classic dialogue I've reproduced below. One would have to imagine the confrontation taking place in the more mundane setting of the academic's office:

Tyrell: I'm surprised you didn't come here sooner.

Roy: It's not an easy thing to meet your maker.

Tyrell: And, what can he do for you?

Roy: Can the maker repair what he makes.

Tyrell: Would you like to be modified?

Roy: Stay here. [pause] I had in mind something a little more radical.

Tyrell: What... what seems to be the problem?

Roy: Death.

Tyrell: Death. Well, I'm afraid that's a little out of my jurisdiction, you...

Roy: I want more life, fucker.

Tyrell: But, uh, this... all of this is academic. You were made as well as we could make you.

Roy: But not to last.

Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!

Roy: I've done questionable things.

Tyrell: Also extraordinary things. Revel in your time.

Roy: Nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn't let you in heaven for. [Roy kisses Tyrell on the mouth. Tyrell screams as his eyes are gouged out.]

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