Monday, 15 June 2009

Thank you Melissa Gregg for this honest, damning indictment

God help you if you're a young scholar just starting out. Why isn't it mandatory then for academic departments to hand out copies of this article to their aspiring postgraduate students? Don't be fooled that you will be pursuing your research interests wherever they take you, and answerable only to your peers, when key decisions about research impact factors are made by bureaucrats and publishers. To be sure, what Gregg says here basically echoes something I had read years ago about the "crisis of scholarly publishing" written by John B. Thompson in Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States, but I still feel her article is invaluable by offering local evidence of a more global trend.

But Gregg's testimony should also be a sobering reminder for bloggers, given how much of the research produced in universities later becomes fodder for the blogosphere. It puts paid to the thinly disguised, self aggrandising recent claim of kpunk, for example, who argues that the best work in institutions are produced by those who had faced a period of destitution "outside". The problem is that his category is simply too broad (given the continual influx of "new blood"/postgrad students, along with young academics just starting their careers) and that the kinds of authors kpunk routinely cites as his confirmatory authorities where theoretical matters are concerned are themselves among the most successful byproducts of the institution, rather than shaped by any formative experience of "destitution". Perhaps such a characterisation holds to some extent in the independent/avant garde vs "the mainstream" music circles kpunk moves in, but if it is up to the critic to "redeem" these artists by interpreting them through academic concepts, then "destitution" starts to look more unconvincing as an apriori indicator of quality in that context as well.

Here's why: if you're a "teledon" like Badiou or generally otherwise renowned as per Fred Jameson, you will have so much autonomy in your work that the vagaries of anything like the ERA need never be of any real concern: you will be a nodal point in the academic network that exerts a huge gravitational pull, meaning you will be orbited by a large number of "satellites" i.e. other academics writing second order observations of your work, thereby consolidating your centrality in the collective attention space. As highlighted by the concept of "mundane excellence", the monopoly on resources available to you and the associated high comfort level act as a feedback mechanism, in turn generating more confidence and, not least, the ideas that power your productive output. This means it's not necessarily any experience of destitution "outside" the institution that makes a qualitative difference, given how the internal networks of each institution, and the larger interpretive community of which they form a component part, are themselves internally divided. Melissa Gregg really drives home this point. Oftentimes the central figures are able to produce the best work simply because they have the biggest monopoly on the resources needed to get things done.

But for those less fortunate academics, the only major problem used to be that you had considerable latitude to work to your own standards, with the result that you were never sure if you had achieved them or not. It is a problem that has been relativised since, rather than removed, given how the government now prescribes more targets. Then as now, this working environment can lead to a lot of depression and burnout (confirmation of this plight can be found in Fred Pahl's ethnographies of his fellow sociologists, virtually anything written by my sociological hero, Ian Craib, as well as in Andrew Metcalfe and Anne Game's Passionate Sociology). The academic might find themselves in a state of constant anxiety: no matter how many or how quickly the buckets are filled, they can still potentially spring a leak as soon as a peer identifies an omission in the argument or even the cited literature. Leaky academic papers can result in leaky selfhoods, which means a leaky agency lacking the resilience needed to push on through a fallow period. If nothing is ever definitively accomplished, in the same cut and dried manner as something as mundane as, for example, winning a tennis match, one becomes more susceptible to the structure of feeling known as melancholy (cf Gershom Sholem). It too can be understood as a kind of feedback mechanism, but one that fails to indemnify those who experience it. This results in a curtailing of creative expression and sometimes even dropping out altogether. Once this occurs the dominance of the more central figures in the interpretive community becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

And then there is the feeling of powerlessness, of being fatuous, forced to live with a Cassandra complex in a world where revolutionary change is not close at hand. This is exactly the kind of dilemma that Adorno talks about in Minima Moralia. So basically the problems Melissa Gregg describes compound the earlier ones by adding a level of pressure from publishers and government alike. No doubt accountability is required to some extent, but surely not if it seriously compromises the historical function of the university as a site of free enquiry to the point where Australian academics can no longer even write about their own country!!

I don't have an institutional affiliation, so I have no vested interest in saying these things to damn bloggers and independent researchers alike tout court. To be sure, I've written before about academic "peer review" as a potentially more democratic distributive mechanism than the blogosphere, but I'm forced to concede it can be open to abuse too, in the sense that the "invisible college" can mean editorial panels can be stacked by personal acquaintances, acting under the pretence of anonymity, meaning that decisions are not always truly merit based. And of course, anonymity can make it harder to prove that someone has appropriated your ideas for their own gain if your work is rejected. But I am still confident that these reviews can be "blind" enough in most cases to ensure that abuses are not always the order of the day.

I've also previously mentioned how bloggers and independent researchers could be empowered if they could break the deadlock of publishers protecting their intellectual property rights: let's hope a greater push towards "open access" is not far away then. Academics could be held more accountable too if they were obliged to more often meet the independents "on their own turf" (i.e. journals), thereby having to respond to criticisms rather than just dismissing them as usual because of the medium in which they appear (i.e. blogs, or smaller publishers without the same standard [sic] of recognised gatekeepers). Open access would be a great way too for academic libraries to save on the hefty journal subscription costs that publishers force them to pay.....

Sadly though, this reference to libraries also leads me to think that the "Right Foucauldian technicism" that characterises theoretical research in cultural policy has come back to bite us on the arse, in the sense that the people who graduated with this mindset in the late 1980s have since gone on to staff the government departments that are now reshaping our educational policies in terms of the ERA "targets". Putting to one side, for the moment (as this mindset dictates), how education is supposed to be critical, the fact that it should also be practical has been subsumed by the understanding that it is primarily a technology for reshaping the conduct of liberal subjects. This in effect means that your subjectivity is perpetually problematised by being made aware of contingency. Capitalising on the dilemma Adorno spoke about (my "buckets" analogy), these Foucauldians then argue that culture offers a range of "solutions", that the citizen will then buy at the marketplace (I'm thinking here of Toby Miller's The Well Tempered Self, but I could also be talking about Tony Bennett, or older texts, such as Culture and Anarchy). Of course, these solutions only hold for a short time, and then new answers will be sought. It's the "society of control" described by Deleuze all over again, but the great irony is that many of those familiar with this text, be they in academia or the blogosphere, seem not to have thought too reflexively about their own information seeking habits in these terms. This is no trivial matter to consider: I certainly can't think of even one case when any of these people have explained how they found the current text they're writing about by visiting a library. Why this blindspot then? Is it because the required voracious reading habits can only be accommodated by the liberal solution of private consumption? Is this what it really means to always be on the "cutting edge"?

So Melissa's article has haunted me, as I've started to think more about how academia, and its variants in the blogosphere, can be easily co opted by the society of control. Indeed, this may well be the dark truth of Foucault's remark, "people know what they do and why they do it. Fewer of them know what they do does......" For example, this critical dimension regarding institutions is unfortunately lacking in Jodi Dean's contribution to Framing Theory's Empire. Dean contends that some people will become so disenchanted with difficult continental theory that they will turn back to simplistic empiricism. Dean compares this reactionary attitude to her own Southern Baptist upbringing, when she was told that all that was needed was the Holy Spirit contained in the Bible. I am arguing though that it is worth looking for a more reflexive, critical approach in the interest of navigating between the Charybdis of [certain strands of] continental philosophy and the Scylla of positivism. Clearly then it is not just the privatisation of research habits I'm concerned about, but how Dean writes as if the "difficulty" of her preferred texts somehow automatically exempts them from the locus of control, when in fact the opposite may be true. It hardly seems coincidental either that she also make disparaging references to "mainstream" and "conventional" theorists in a way that reminds me of the shortcomings in kpunk's piece (he's on her blogroll too, offering some proof of the continuities in their thought). In short, I was disappointed by Dean's response as Framing Theory's Empire was supposed to be focused on institutional histories, and such "social epistemologies" are in short supply nowadays. It's not clear to me that the dozen or so Zizek texts (!!!) Dean says are awaiting her attention next will offer any real assistance in this regard.

My argument therefore is that more thinking about what we do does, and its relationship to our information seeking behaviour, is a step in the right direction. Melissa Gregg offers a useful guiding light in her critique of business as usual in academia, and for this we owe her our thanks.

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