The institutional conditions of possibility of David Harvey

In a 2015 essay by David Harvey (need I add, “the venerable Marxist geographer”?) that reflects on the relations between different radical currents in the academic field of geography, he gives an interesting comment on his own conditions of institutional survival:

Given my situation, in a university that was ruthless about publication, the only way to survive was to publish at a high level. And yes I will here offer a mea culpa: I was from the very beginning determined to publish up a storm and I did emphasize to my students and all those around me who would listen that this was one (and perhaps the only) way to keep the door open. It was more than the usual publish or perish. For all those suspected of Marxist or anarchist sympathies, it was publish twice as much at a superior level of sophistication or perish. Even then the outcome was touch-and-go, as the long- drawn out battle over Richard Walker’s tenure at Berkeley abundantly illustrated. The Faustian bargain was that we could survive only if we made our radicalism academically respectable and respectability meant a level of academicism that over time made our work less accessible. It became hard to combine a radical pedagogy (of the sort pioneered by Bill Bunge in the Detroit Geographical Expedition) and social activism with academic respectability. Many of my colleagues in the radical movement, those with anarchist leanings in particular, did not care for that choice (for very good reasons) with the result that many of them, sadly, failed or chose not to consolidate academic positions and the space that we had collectively opened was threatened.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this kind of comment about the aftermath of the 1960s — in short, that many radicalized academics washed out of the academy for lack of academic legitimacy. That kind of details are good counterpoints to the stereotypes about how the American academy is populated by “tenured radicals.”

I would also underline Harvey’s remark that, “For all those suspected of Marxist or anarchist sympathies, it was publish twice as much at a superior level of sophistication or perish.” Harvey has always come across to me as a particularly thorough type of scholar — even to the point of being verbose — and now I see why.

Dijon vous craignez

I’ve been working on a paper about the failure of left-wing internationalism at the “European counter-summits” (at least the two that I was able to observe in 2010 and 2011), and I’ve gotten interested in this love letter to the organizers of the 2011 Dijon counter-G8 university summit. A student left it on the ground in marker as they left the event, which was politically pretty unsuccessful, as my paper explains.

The letter reads as follows:

Camarades, merci de votre accueil, c’était sympa, on a bien ri, ici, il fait beau, pour une fois!

Votre fac c’est joli (si on regarde Bron) mais c’est un peu mort quand même. C’est vrai qu’on peut pas tout avoir. Si vous venez pas le 14, je sais où vous habitez.

Je n’oublierais pas de vous inscrire sur le ML de XYZ.

Voilà. Je me casse et je rentre à ma maison. Gros Bisous. 💘

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Teaching and bad affect

I’m teaching an Anthropology of Europe class and I decided we’d end by talking about current events. So the week before this, we talked about the Greek economic crisis and Syriza. This week, we talked about Brexit. On Thursday, we talked about Islam and political violence in Europe (France in 2015 — Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan — and then, by way of contrast, Germany in 1993 — the Solingen burning of a Turkish family’s home).

So we talked about crisis, basically. But this was only a crisis within a crisis, because crisis was already omnipresent in our classroom environment. The whole class has been a slow-moving affective crisis, for me. (This is saying something redundant, admittedly, since most crises feel like slow motion at the time, the slow motion of shock at least, or the slow motion of ambiguity, even if they get reframed in hindsight as events; and most crises are affective, except for the ones that you don’t yet know how to sense…)

It’s been the sort of class where, a lot of the time, after you leave the room, as the teacher, you feel obscurely broken down and sad, and then the feelings linger into the evening, and then they emerge again with the next class, or at most they get vaguely attenuated without dissipating. I actually do think my students have learned a number of important things about Europe (they had barely heard of Franco, or even of socialism), and their papers and homework show a lot of thinking and knowledge, but I don’t think they think they’re learning something. Instead, they largely feel disaffected about the whole endeavor. So this — how shall I put it? — this collective mood of detachment frowns down on the classroom as soon as I open my mouth. It just hasn’t gone away in months.

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Papers on French philosophy, precarity and protest

It’s been a fun year for me (leaving aside here, you know, many disturbing political events, trends, pomps and circumstances, because this isn’t that kind of blog) because some of my post-dissertation work is actually in print:

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Plato and the birth of ambivalence

I’ve been teaching a class on anthropology of education this fall, and we spent the first several weeks of class reading various moments in educational theory and philosophy (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Dewey, Nyerere, Freire). The first week, we read Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, which (famously) explains how the need for an educated “guardian class” emerges from the ideal division of labor in a city. Our class discussion focused mostly on Plato’s remarkably static and immobile division of labor, a point which rightfully seems to get a lot of attention from modern commentators on the Republic. (Dewey put it pretty succinctly: Plato “had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals.”)

But I was more intrigued by Plato’s remarkable, zany account of the origins of ambivalence, which I don’t think has gotten so much recognition. We have to be a bit anachronistic to read “ambivalence” into this text, to be sure, since the term in its modern psychological sense was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Nevertheless, I want to explore here how Plato comes up with something that really seems like a concept of ambivalence avant la lettre. It emerges in the text from his long meditation on the nature of a guardian, which is premised on the initial assumption that the guardian’s nature (or anyone’s nature) has to be singular and coherent.

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Self-governing schools in Tanzania

“Neoliberalism” is always an unsatisfying category, but as it does broadly designate a cluster of policies and institutional logics, it tends to stick around as an ideal type. David Harvey puts it like this:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

I usually prefer to talk about “New Public Management” instead of “neoliberalism,” though, because it more directly picks out a set of governing techniques (audits/markets/contracts + incentives) and leaves aside the question of the “philosophy” (if any) that lies beneath.

One of the papers that made a major impression on me in thinking about neoliberalism/NPM, in any event,  was Alexander Mitterle’s excellent “Un socialisme académique?” Mitterle shows that many of the institutional governance mechanisms that we call “academic capitalist” were already found in socialist East Germany. As I summarized his findings in my review of the edited collection where he published: Continue reading Self-governing schools in Tanzania

Does academic informality matter?

Since I started teaching at Whittier, I’ve been thinking about how I like my students to address me. There’s something of a local norm of just calling everyone “Professor.” It cuts down on cognitive overhead, no doubt, to be able to address all of one’s teachers by their title; it saves on having to keep track of their names. Not to mention that my last name is hard to pronounce, so perhaps students don’t know how to say it, or don’t care to risk getting it wrong…

I’ve started to tell them they can call me “Eli,” as a sign of… a sign of what? Familiarity? Informality? Friendliness? Being easygoing? Not wanting to reinforce the old-school hierarchies? Some combination of these. But it also occurs to me that telling my students what to call me is still a way of inhabiting authority, even if I ask them to call me something less-hierarchical. So instead of requesting that they call me “Eli,” I just frame it as giving them the option of calling me by [firstname]. They can exercise it as they choose.

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Is writing composition or improvisation?

In my corner of the academy, one isn’t really taught much about writing.

One is taught constantly to produce texts and to judge texts, but that isn’t the same thing, because writing is a process, and the text is merely the product. A theory of a product isn’t a theory of its production.

There is of course a cottage industry of advice, guidelines, tips, “rules for writing,” writing strategies, and so on. Generally this advice is instrumentalist. It tells you, “Picture your reader!” “Write short sentences!” “Always revise!” “Have modest goals!” It tells you, in sum, “Write like this if you want to succeed.”

The problem with this sort of writing advice is that it isn’t really about writing. It is about career success, behavioral self-optimization, and complying with norms.

The second problem with writing advice is that it constantly equates writing with composition. But composition is only one metaphor for writing. Perhaps improvisation (to borrow a sibling musical category) is another possible metaphor for writing. Maybe it’s even a good one?

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Whittier College at the end of summer

I grew up partly in a college town, and I’ve been around college campuses most of my life. One of my favorite times of year is this late-summer empty moment that happens after summer sessions finish and before classes start for the fall. It’s peaceful; you get a clearer view of the space.

Here’s what Whittier College looks like this time of year.

whittier-summer - 1
Courtyard of the Campus Center

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Derrida on complacency and vulgarity

In Benoît Peeters’ biography of Jacques Derrida, there is an intriguing interview with Derrida that was never published. Peeters writes:

In 1992, Jacques Derrida gave Osvaldo Muñoz an interview which concluded with a traditional ‘Proust questionnaire’. If this text, meant for the daily El País, was in the end not published, this is perhaps because Derrida deemed it a bit too revealing:

What are the depths of misery for you?: To lose my memory.

Where would you like to live?: In a place to which I can always return, in other words from which I can leave.

For what fault do you have the most indulgence?: Keeping a secret which one should not keep.

Favourite hero in a novel: Bartleby.

Your favourite heroines in real life?: I’m keeping that a secret.

Your favourite quality in a man?: To be able to confess that he is afraid.

Your favourite quality in a woman?: Thought.

Your favourite virtue?: Faithfulness.

Your favourite occupation: Listening.

Who would you like to have been?: Another who would remember me a bit.

My main character trait?: A certain lack of seriousness.

My dream of happiness?: To continue dreaming.

What would be my greatest misfortune?: Dying after the people I love.

What I would like to be: A poet.

What I hate more than anything?: Complacency and vulgarity.

The reform I most admire: Everything to do with the difference between the sexes.

The natural gift I would like to have: Musical genius.

How I would like to die: Taken completely by surprise.

My motto: Prefer to say yes.

[From Derrida: A Biography, p. 418]

One could say many things about this. But for now, I mainly want to observe that I am struck by the open sexism of admiring “thought” as a woman’s virtue while singling out “vulnerability” (in essence) as his preferred “quality in a man.” Of course, one of Peeters’ interviewees remarks that “In spite of his love of women and his closeness to feminism, he still had a bit of a misogynistic side, like many men of his generation.”

critical anthropology of academic culture