One time a friend of mine, Mike Bishop, asked me an interesting question about the ethics of deviating from norms:
“In what sense is deviance important for its own sake, rather than merely being necessary (perhaps even regrettably necessary) because “the good” is not socially acceptable in all contexts?”
A few ways of thinking about this came to my mind:
1. Deviance is always morally necessary because all (known) social systems are imperfect, so it’s just guaranteed that some good things will come across as deviant, no matter what social context you inhabit. Thus, deviance gives flesh to the inevitable clash between normativity and virtue.
2. Deviance is necessary as a way of demonstrating anti-authoritarianism, that is, as a counterforce pushing back against social discipline and authority. While some kinds of authority are admittedly better than others, every authority structure needs to be reminded constantly that it is not absolute or without flaws. Thus, deviance expresses a primordial resistance to domination.
3. Deviance is a good thing because vast seas of cultural likeness are just hideous. Thus, deviance expresses a basic aesthetic of diversity.Continue reading Why deviate?→
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman Minister of Education in France, in office since 2014 in the second half of François Hollande’s presidency. (Before becoming Minister of Education she was also the Minister for Women’s Rights and subsequently also Minister for Youth, Sports and of Urban Affairs; it turns out she isn’t the first French Minister of Education to use Twitter.) She was born in Morocco (and has had to think plenty about eluding the “diversity” pigeonhole); I’ve long been struck by her charisma as a public speaker (which isn’t to say that her political projects have always been unproblematic, needless to say).
In any case, I came across a recent interview in which she makes an interesting comment on the cultural value of education in France:
Back in 2011 I facilitated a workshop at the University of Chicago on “actually scary critique.” The workshop didn’t really work out because it never really reached its object; it just ended up getting swallowed up by its own conceptual preliminaries.
Anyway, I just rediscovered a self-critical postscript that I had started writing afterwards about why that workshop didn’t really work out. Here it is, in the spirit of the thought that dwelling on our unsuccessful projects is a good idea.
The original workshop announcement:
This workshop aims to develop a mostly nonexistent genre that we could call the genre of the actually scary institutional critique. The premise: that many people have nestled away somewhere in their brains something about their institution (or department, discipline, campus, job, world, whatever) that to them is utterly intolerable, inexplicable, unjustifiable, ludicrous, unlivable, some little huddled kernel of lingering rage that can almost never be expressed, or at least that remains unresolved, because the genres in which we express institutional critique are generally either nonexistent, routinized by collegial etiquette, trivialized by being expressed only in private to friends, or else dismissed as activist hysteria or some other form of irrational excess feeling. The further premise: that it would be worth trying to develop a genre that would be equal to these non-normative moments of intense critical feelings. A genre that would break with the conventions of courtesy that make critique into an academic mode of social reproduction, that would exceed the routinized forms of mild annoyance that are normative for everyday differences of professional opinion.
Not that everyone does or ought to go around in a state of fury or other intense feeling, not at all. But it remains troubling that there are people who are really upset by various aspects of the academic world (I’m assuming we can all think of examples of this) who have no available genre with which to make their experience into something public that would actually threaten and change the people around them. Who have no genre equal to moments of real antagonism. Of course, universities have systems of unequal authority, mass complacency, self-interest, disinterest, etc, that make the inefficacy of critique far more than a question of genre. But the problem of making a critical genre that can actually scare (or touch, move, change) people in spite of all the defense mechanisms is one that seems to deserve our time.
Format: We’ll start with a discussion about critique and emotional intensity, and then move to a series of writing exercises in this possible genre.
It is an exaggeration to say that all Marxist theory people are men. But the historical masculinity of that little world — let’s face it —is hard to underestimate. I’m not talking about political Marxists here— though if we look at France, for instance, the Trotskyist Nathalie Artaud is essentially invisible compared to the Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, though both are running for president. (An aside for French analysts — obviously my claim is not that this political difference is entirely determined by gender, just that the gender difference here is symptomatic. Obviously, the French far right is doing pretty well this year with a woman candidate.)
In any event, I have long been struck by the usually-unmarked masculinity of Marxist theory, in both the United States and France. To draw on my personal experience in the academy, I might mention dominant male figures like Terry Turner, an activist Marxist-structuralist anthropologist who taught me an introduction to Marx’s work in college, or Moishe Postone, who has long led an intimidating Marx seminar at the University of Chicago. In these sorts of seminars, you’re not likely to hear much about gender, and the presumption of universal reason usually seems to lodge just a little too comfortably in the figure of the male teacher. It’s the usual critical theory paradox: ostensibly emancipatory ideas get drenched in the conventional authority of male power.
I just came across Pierre Bourdieu’s curious comment on American universities and their set-apartness from society:
American universities, especially the most prestigious and the most exclusive, are skhole made into an institution. Very often situated far away from the major cities — like Princeton, totally isolated from New York and Philadelphia — or in lifeless suburbs — like Harvard in Cambridge — or, when they are in the city — like Yale in New Haven, Columbia on the fringes of Harlem, or the University of Chicago on the edge of an immense ghetto — totally cut off from the adjacent communities, in particular by the heavy police protection they provide, they have a cultural, artistic, even political life of their own, with, for example, their student news paper which relates the parish-pump news of the campus. This separate existence, together with the studious atmosphere, withdrawn from the hubbub of the world, helps to isolate professors and students from current events and from politics, which is in any case very distant, geographically and socially, and seen as beyond their grasp. The ideal-typical case, the University of California Santa Cruz, a focal point of the ‘postmodernist’ movement, an archipelago of colleges scattered through a forest and communicating only through the Internet, was built in the 1960s, at the top of a hill, close to a seaside resort inhabited by well-heeled pensioners and with no industries. How could one not believe that capitalism has dissolved in a ‘flux of signifiers detached from their signifieds’, that the world is populated by ‘cyborgs’, ‘cybernetic organisms’, and that we have entered the age of the ‘informatics of domination’, when one lives in a little social and electronic paradise from which all trace of work and exploitation has been effaced?
From Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, p. 41.
In so many ways, academic work is hard to recognize as being work in the standard wage-labor sense of that word. It can take place at all hours of day or night, outside of standard workplaces, without wearing standard work clothing — in bed with the laptop at midnight, perhaps. American popular stereotypes allege that teaching is outside the realm of productive action and thus second-rate — “those who can’t do, teach.” That’s a maxim which devalues the feminine work of reproduction in favor of an implicitly masculine image of labor, but I digress; my point here is just that such claims reinforce the image of academic work as being in a world of its own.
The motivations for academic work are similarly supposed to be other than pecuniary. One is supposed to work for existential reasons, or out of commitments to higher values that go beyond the purely economic — the “pursuit of knowledge” in some quarters, the dedication to making citizens or producing social justice in others. Yet it’s no criticism of these values to observe, as many have already observed, that these higher values can become alibis for an amplified self-exploitation. “You’re doing it out of personal commitment,” they tell you as you donate your weekend to the institution.
A strange moment in this process, though, is the moment where colleges and universities beg their own employees for charitable donations.
Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake is a well-documented and systematic analysis of what we might call American-style neoliberalism, which applies itself more through market pressure and managerial ideology than through direct state regulation (as in many European cases). The book focuses on what he terms the “devolutionary cycle” of privatization of U.S. public universities. While these universities have remained legally public, Newfield defines privatization not in terms of formal legal status or ownership but in terms of practical “control”: who wields influence, sets expectations and creates incentives. One of the great conceptual strengths of the book is its demonstration that privatization as process can be at once partial and paradigmatic, a totalizing system that may nevertheless benefit from leaving occasional gaps that can serve it as alibis. As he observes, ”the privatization of public universities is a complicated pastiche of mixed modes, which is why so many people can plausibly deny that it is happening” (28). Nevertheless, as he discovers firsthand, the decline of public support and financing has become an unquestionable fact (rather than a contestable policy choice) for many senior administrators. “State money isn’t coming back,” Newfield gets told bluntly by an assistant to the University of California’s chair of the board (188).
I have my doubts about whether precarity is always a good category for academic labor organizing. But from within the universe of European precarity discourse, I especially admire Mariya Ivancheva’s recent summary of the situation of early career researchers in her 2015 paper “The Age of Precarity and the New Challenges to the Academic Profession“. First she comments on the poverty wages and immense structural sexism that characterizes the post-PhD situation:
… a whole generation of junior academics is exposed to an ever growing casualization of labor. In Ireland alone, as a study of the collective Third Level Workplace Watch shows, a growing number of casual academics win on average 10 000 € annual income for an average of eight and a half years after finishing their PhD. In 63% of the cases this income is generated by hourly paid work, done in 62% of the cases by women. In Ireland again, a recent study by the Higher Academic Authority has shown that men still get 70% of all permanent academic positions in all seven universities in the country. The situation is similar in other countries where despite the fact that women make for the majority of completed PhD dissertations, the ratio of employment is still at their detriment. Women are particularly exposed to vulnerability with less access to permanent positions, and more emotional labor and care-giving functions both in and out of the academy. While those who have children feel losing the academic game because of the domestic burden of care in ever decreasing welfare conditions, those who do not have children feel deprived of private life due to growing imperative to do replacement teaching and administrative work.
The actual data (from 2011) is quite revealing as well: women are 57.6% of French public university undergraduates and Master’s students, 48% of doctoral students, 42.4% of junior faculty (maîtres.ses de conférences), only 22.5% of senior faculty (professeur.es des universités), and only 14.8% of university presidents. (French University presidents are elected from among the permanent faculty, so it makes more sense to put them on this scale than you might think.)
I’m planning on writing more about French higher education policy in the next few years, since even after my dissertation there’s a lot to learn. For instance, there’s something curious about the national origins of the French system of diplomas. Here are the standard types of university degrees in France:
A License of 3 years is approximately analogous to an American Bachelor’s.
A 2-year Master, similar to an American Master’s, can be either a “Research Master” or a “Professional Master.”
The Doctorat (Ph.D.) theoretically takes 3 years, but often more, after which one gets to be called Docteur. (The doctorate in French had a great deal of institutional complexity over the years which I won’t go into here.)
The Habilitation à Diriger des Recherchesis derived from the German Habilitation: it’s a post-PhD degree usually given mid-career and required to supervise doctoral students. (Fortunately, this has no equivalent in Anglophone academia — though overproduction of PhDs is such that one might venture that something like it would logically have to be created as a new form of status differentiation.)
Thus the most advanced degree types are both named after German precursors; the License is strictly a French invention; and the intermediate degree, the Master, borrows its name from English. If this was a hierarchy and not a historical accident, one would see that the academic system put Germany at the top, Anglo-America in the middle, and France at the bottom. (German and American universities have been the dominant foreign references in modern French academia, as Christophe Charle has shown.)