Revisiting field interviews

I’ve been going back lately to my interviews with French philosophy teachers and students. I just never had time to transcribe or work on most of them during my dissertation, so I have a backlog of dozens of taped interviews, most of which are quite long and rich. I’d like to transcribe all of them, since I’m under less pressure to finish a manuscript right now, and I think they may have some documentary value in their own right.

It’s a strange, intense experience to relive conversations that took place five, six or seven years ago. All the anxieties of fieldwork come back to me; I’m annoyed by my own vague, poorly structured questions, and by the imperfections in my French accent. Often I’m amazed by the richness of my interlocutors’ experience, and their impressive ability to recount things to me, in spite of my limits as an interviewer.

One thing that becomes inescapably clear from these interviews is that the structure of a narrative is a shared accomplishment. I was quite entertained today by a moment where my interviewer took more responsibility for narrative continuity than I did:

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Overproduction as mass existentialism

Earlier this year, I observed that there are two kinds of scholarly overproduction, “herd” overproduction and “star” overproduction. I’d like to come back to that line of thought to push it a bit farther.

I previously argued that if academic overproduction is in many ways market-like we might want to push for a better regulated market in knowledge. I suggested that this could be a complementary strategy to the usual denunciations of market forms in academic life. There is nothing the matter with critiques of market forms, I will stress again; but for all that, they need not be the end point of our thinking.

Continuing that line of thought, I’m wondering whether mass overproduction of academic knowledge may not have some unexpected effects. Its most obvious effect, of course, is the massive amount of “waste knowledge” it generates — the papers that are never read (or barely), citation for its own sake, prolixity for institutional or career reasons, pressures to publish half-finished or mediocre work, etc. All of these are the seemingly “bad” effects of mass overproduction.

But does mass overproduction have any clearly good effects? I like to imagine that one day, machine learning will advance to the point where all the unread scholarly papers of the early 21st century will become accessible to new syntheses, new forms of searching, and so on. We don’t know how our unread work might be used in the future; perhaps it will be a useful archive for someone.

More immediately, I’m also wondering if mass overproduction is creating new forms of self-consciousness in the present. In Anglophone cultural anthropology, it seems to me that mass overproduction is forcing us to constantly ask “what is at stake here?” Older scholarship seldom needed to ask itself that question, as far as I can tell, and certainly not routinely, with every article published. It became common, somewhere along the way, to ask, “so what?”

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American representations of French social movements

So over in France these days there’s a pretty major protest movement against efforts by François Hollande’s Socialist Party government, and its current Minister of Labor Myriam El Khomri, to reform French labor laws. These reforms go in the general direction of “fewer protections for labor, more flexibility for employers,” and the details are still being negotiated, in the face of substantial public pressure. The reforms, however, have not received a great deal of coverage in the English-language media, and what there is seems to be more about reproducing worthless stereotypes about French culture than about any actual analysis. I was going to actually write about the protest movement today, but instead I got distracted by an embarrassingly bad article in today’s New York Times, which begins with the following attempt at comedy:

It was published several years ago, but a cartoon on the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde roughly summed up the situation across the country last Thursday when several hundred thousand public employees and students went on strike.

“What if we went on strike for nothing,” asks one demonstrator in the cartoon, which appeared in 2010 during one of France’s periodic strikes. “Ah! Not a bad idea,” another answers.

OK, so the premise of the article is that this is a strike that is basically “for nothing.” The title, incidentally, was “Crippling Strike in France May Have Been About More Than Labor Law,” in case you were in any danger of taking seriously the political issues at stake here. The journalist — Celestine Bohlen, apparently a former European bureau chief for the Times — thereby makes clear from the first that the article is going to be organized around a smug, dismissive, and depoliticizing interpretation of French politics, as if strikes were simply a sort of periodic, dysfunctional gag reflex in the body politic.

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Philosophers without infrastructure, Part 2

Following up on my last post (and indirectly on a couple of older posts), I came across an interesting interview extract that comments in a bit more detail on the lived experience of being a philosopher with practically no work infrastructure. Here’s a philosopher from Paris 8 commenting on his workspace:

Professor: “I don’t think I’m giving you any scoop in saying that, on the material level, the Philosophy Department is the poorest one in the country. It’s clear — it’s very clear, even. When, for instance, young colleagues were arriving after I got here — at the moment I’m thinking of Renée Duval who sent me a message asking, so, where was her office [Laughter] although she didn’t have an office. And, you know, even at Paris 7, if you want to meet, I don’t know, Frédéric Gauthier, I say Frédéric Gauthier because we know each other pretty well, so, indeed, he will make an appointment with you in his office.”

A department secretary interrupts: “Still, they don’t have their own offices, they have a shared office for teachers.”

Professor: “Non non non non non non non. Gauthier, he has an office, and there are other offices. At most, they’re two to an office. Of course! No, here, it’s on the edge.”

Secretary: “Yes, it’s on the edge.”

Professor: “Yes, here, it’s borderline scandalous. Meaning that, for example, we wouldn’t have to be meeting here [in the staff office space].”

Secretary: “Mais non, I agree with you.”

Professor: “Mais oui. And, well, there’ll be an office, we would be in the office, indeed, we could both of us shut the door. So for example, the master’s thesis exams happen here [in the staff office space].”

Me: “Really, they’re here?”

Professor: “Yes, it happens — and so people who show up, we can’t prevent them, it’s the office — where they turn in their homework, where they come for information, but, still, it’s scandalous. The first year, when I came, throughout practically the whole first year, I spent the first twenty minutes of class with the students looking for a room. It’s since been stabilized, but—“

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Philosophical lab infrastructure

The short version of this post: Philosophers have practically no lab infrastructure.

The long version:

Coming back to my research about philosophy departments in France, I was recently reading an institutional document describing the (highly-rated) research laboratory for philosophers at the University of Paris-8. Apparently it was a bureaucratic requirement to write a section describing the “infrastructures” available to the laboratory. But since Paris-8 is a typically underfunded public university, operating in cramped quarters on a small campus in the Parisian banlieue, the sad reality is that their infrastructure was quite limited. To the point of comedy.

I quote:

Infrastructures

L’unité dispose d’une salle de 35 m2, équipée d’un téléphone, de deux ordinateurs fixes et d’une connexion par WIFI. Elle est meublée de tables, chaises, et bibliothèques. Elle est située dans un bâtiment neuf de moins de deux ans. La surface disponible par chercheur membre de l’équipe à titre principal est de 1,5 m2.

The unit possesses a room of 35 m2, equipped with a telephone, two desktop computers and WiFi access. It is furnished with tables, chairs and bookshelves. It is situated in a new building less than two years old. The available surface per principle laboratory researcher is 1.5 m2.

One and a half square meters per researcher is just about enough to cram a chair into, and clearly not enough for any sort of individual workspace. Accordingly, there were none; the room in question was purely used to hold small seminars. The whole laboratory staff would never have fit inside it, and when they did have meetings, they took place elsewhere.

There is, of course, something charming about the plaintive note that at least the tiny room is “situated in a new building less than two years old” (the building pictured above). It’s as if the author felt obliged to put only the most positive spin on a clearly inadequate situation. Nevertheless, there is something to learn here about what counts as infrastructure for philosophers at Parisian public universities: in short, all the productive infrastructure (the books, the libraries, the computers, the desks) is elsewhere, generally at home, and the campus becomes purely a place of knowledge exchange, not of knowledge production. Which is why it it is possible to have a philosophy lab with practically no facilities.

Scholarly meetings with a “Disclaimer and Waiver”

I’m guessing that most anthropologists don’t read the Disclaimer and Waiver to which you must consent when you register for conferences through the American Anthropological Association. It is a decidedly legalistic document, full of odd stipulations about liability, privacy, copyright, and responsibility. In principle it is an “agreement” between the user and the association, but as an exchange, it is decidedly one-sided: you the user are asked to give various things away, in return for which you get nothing in particular. And in form, it is identical to the End User License Agreements that, as we know, the vast majority of users accept without reading. It does not really seem to be written to be read; it seems to be written to be invoked in extremis in some moment of unexpected (yet planned-for) crisis.

In any event, it is a curious document. Here it is as of March 2016; I’ll highlight a few important passages.

Disclaimer and Waiver

As a condition of my participation in this meeting or event, I hereby waive any claim I may have against the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its officers, directors, employees, or agents, or against the presenters or speakers, for reliance on any information presented and release AAA from and against any and all liability for damage or injury that may arise from my participation or attendance at the program. I further understand and agree that all property rights in the material presented, including common law copyright, are expressly reserved to the presenter or speaker or to AAA.

I acknowledge that participation in AAA events and activities brings some risk and I do hereby assume responsibility for my own well-being. If another individual participates in my place per AAA transfer policy, the new registrant agrees to this disclaimer and waiver by default of transfer.

AAA intends to take photographs and video of this event for use in AAA news and promotional material, in print, electronic and other media, including the AAA website. By participating in this event, I grant AAA the right to use any image, photograph, voice or likeness, without limitation, in its promotional materials and publicity efforts without compensation. All media become the property of AAA. Media may be displayed, distributed or used by AAA for any purpose.

By registering for this event, I agree to the collection, use, and disclosure of contact and demographic information. This information includes any information that identifies me personally (e.g. name, address, email address, phone number, etc.). AAA will use this information to: (a) enable your event registration; (b) review, evaluate and administer scholarships or other AAA initiatives; (c) market AAA opportunities you may potentially be interested in; and to (d) share limited information (e.g. title, company, address and demographic information) with third parties that perform services on behalf of AAA. AAA does not distribute email address or phone numbers to third parties or partners performing services on behalf of AAA. AAA may use this information for so long as AAA remains active in conducting any of the above purposes.

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Academic hands

Jeffrey Williams wrote in his excellent essay Smart that academics’ hands are remarkable for their contrast with working-class hands:

My father has a disconcerting habit, especially for people who don’t know him, of pointing to things with his right pinky. Why it’s disconcerting is that his pinky is only a stub. Its top half was sheared off on a conveyor belt while he was working in a feed mill that supplied the many duck farms then dotting a good part of Long Island east of Queens. As a teenager in the early 40s, he loaded eighty-pound bags of feed, then after coming back from driving a half-track across Africa, Italy, and Germany, he forewent the GI Bill to drive a tractor trailer delivering those eighty-pound bags to the duck farmers. While Long Island metamorphosed from farms to suburbs, he took a job as a dispatcher—as he puts it, telling the truckers where to go—at a cement plant that flourished with all the building.

When I was an undergraduate at Stony Brook, founded with the sluiceway of postwar money to universities and serving the people in the new suburbs, I would sometimes show up at the office hours of a well-known Renaissance scholar and Shakespeare critic. He was born the same year as my father and also served in World War II, but after the war signed on for the GI Bill to get through the University of Chicago. He always seemed surprised to see someone appear at his door; he was tough-minded, with a neo-Aristotelian, analytical edge common to Chicagoans of his generation, which put some students of my generation off, but I saw the gleam of ironic humor underneath, plus I liked the challenge. He would typically fuss with his pipe (this was when professors still really smoked pipes, and in their offices) while we were talking. One afternoon in his office, watching him light his pipe, I remember noticing that his fingernails were remarkably long, and polished to a low gloss.

If you’ve ever done what used to be called manual labor for any extended period of time, you’ll know it’s hell on your hands. Or if you’ve ever read Life in the Iron Mills, you’ll realize that class is not just a question of what money you have or don’t have, nor solely a question of status conferred by cultural capital, but that it marks your body. If you look at most fellow academics’ hands, you’ll rarely see calluses.

But personally, if I look at most academics’ hands nowadays, ten years after Williams was writing, I mainly see the capacity to feel pain. The whole image of ourselves as “mental laborers” all too easily leads us to undertheorize the fact that our work process consists largely of interacting with machines. We are professional machine operators, even if we don’t think of it that way, because our work process is computerized: we operate computers for a living. That’s not the only thing academics do, to be sure, but it takes up a great deal of our time, as reading, writing, research, grading, and communicating all get redirected into digital formats.

And these machines can readily damage our bodies. Particularly our hands.

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Reading as caching

When you spend a few years writing code, the principles of programming can start to spill over into other parts of your life. Programming has so many of its own names, its own procedures, its little rituals. Some of them are (as anthropologists like to say) “good to think with,” providing useful metaphors that we can take elsewhere.

I’ve gotten interested in programming as a stock of useful metaphors for thinking about intellectual labor. Here I want to think about scholarly reading in terms of what programmers call caching. Never heard of caching? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

In computing, a cache is a component that stores data so future requests for that data can be served faster; the data stored in a cache might be the result of an earlier computation, or the duplicate of data stored elsewhere. A cache hit occurs when the requested data can be found in a cache, while a cache miss occurs when it cannot. Cache hits are served by reading data from the cache, which is faster than recomputing a result or reading from a slower data store; thus, the more requests can be served from the cache, the faster the system performs.

Basically the idea is that, if you need information about X, and it is time-consuming to get that information, then it makes more sense to look up X once and then keep the results nearby for future use. That way, if you refer to X over and over, you don’t waste time retrieving it again and again. You just look up X in your cache; the cache is designed to be quick to access.

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Failed research ought to count

Failed research projects ought to count for something! It’s too bad they don’t. They just disappear into nowhere, it seems to me: into filing cabinets, abandoned notebooks, or forgotten folders on some computer. The data goes nowhere; nothing is published about it and no talks are given; no blog posts are written and no credit is claimed. You stop telling anyone you’re working on your dead projects, once they’re dead.

I’m imagining here that other social researchers are like me: they have a lot of ideas for research projects, but only some of them come to fruition. Here are some of mine:

  • Interview project on the personal experience of people applying to graduate school in English and Physics. (It got started, but didn’t have a successful strategy for subject recruitment.)
  • Interview project on student representatives to university Boards of Trustees in the Chicago area. (I got started with this, but didn’t have the time to continue.)
  • Historical research project on what I hypothesized was a long-term decline of organized campus labor at the University of Chicago. (I only ever did some preliminary archival poking around.)
  • Project on faculty homes in the Paris region. (I only had fragmentary data about this, and it was too hard to collect more, and never the main focus of my work.)
  • Discourse analysis project on “bad writing” in the U.S. humanities. (I did write my MA thesis about this topic, but it needed a lot more work to continue, and for now it just sits there, half-dead.)

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critical anthropology of academic culture