Academic boredom and ambivalence

Always strange what one can find in the more obscure corners of the academic world. I get the impression that there are a lot of academics who have written one or maybe two odd articles on academic culture, seldom as their primary research project, and left them to languish in odd corners of the literature.

In 2005, Amir Baghdadchi of the University of Cambridge published an article called “On Academic Boredom.” His argument proceeded in several stages. Boredom, he said, is an institutionally induced affect in academia. It is “the sense that the seminar is never going to end, that the speaker will never get to the point, that the articles one is reading are proceeding at a glacial pace, that one simply cannot get into a discussion, that one dreads getting into it in the first place” (319). Although he doesn’t phrase it in temporal terms, the gist is that boredom is what you feel when time has stopped and you are stuck in a bad present, with no capacity, for the time being, to picture a desirable or livable future.

He then argues that academia in general wears people down and tires them out. “Boredom is corrosive. I have seen my classmates begin their graduate work with great vivacity and curiosity, and I have seen them slowly ground down into duller, quieter, less omnivorously interested people” (320). So boredom, over the long term, is what happens to you when you are saturated or “corroded” by your bad situation, when you become where you are. Boredom, over the long term, makes people permanently more boring. A sensation, an affect, becomes habitual. A moment becomes a regime.

Boredom, he continues, has more than purely subjective origins, since one is bored by some external stimulus; and yet no outside object, he observes, is ever boring in itself, but only boring in relation to its audience. What kind of relation to one’s academic audience elicits boredom, then? He suggests that “boredom occurs when we are unable to make use of a work” (321). But this boredom, he claims, need not be sheer accident. To induce boredom, on the contrary, is to defend one’s work by precluding potentially hostile engagement with it. You (mostly) give up your chance to criticize me if you are too bored to listen to what I’m saying. “Sometimes,” he continues, “it even seems as if we have a Mutually Assured Boredom pact. I get up and bore you, you get up and bore me, and, at the end of the day, we are all left standing. It would not be hard to find graduate students whose measure of a successful conference paper lies entirely in whether they were ‘shot down’ or not. In this situation, being boring is a very good policy indeed.”

The real intellectual advance here, it seems to me, is to view affect as something that circulates in a reciprocal system of social exchange. (I guess this is where I should finish reading Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect for a more sophisticated version of this argument.) And it’s one thing to say in the abstract that affects are reciprocal, but Baghdadchi gives us a brilliantly concrete case. For instance: everyone knows that conferences are boring. (Not all of them, perhaps, but lots and lots of them.) But is this boringness just an inherent quality of the genre? No, Baghdadchi would argue; conferences are boring because their participants have tacitly agreed to bore each other and tacitly consented to be bored each in their turn. This thought, I have to confess, rings true.

Baghdadchi goes on to draw some conclusions about the lack of rigor apparent in an academic system that precludes intellectual confrontation by masking it in an aura of dullness. Boredom is “a sign that our system is not functioning the way we think it is,” he comments. This, I think, one has to agree with also: affects and feelings are powerful social symptoms, potential signals of the dissonance between practice and ideology.

But boredom is not the only affect circulating in academia. And boredom itself is in a way only the negative feature of a more mixed affective relation to one’s context. After all, the kind of slow-motion boredom that Baghdadchi describes is only possible if, at some other level, one is actually deeply committed to academia, full of suppressed optimism for academic pleasure, utopian hope for some intellectual scene that reality doesn’t measure up to. Academic boredom occurs in relation to some standard of what would be interesting. Incidentally, Stuart Davis, in an old and intriguing phenomenological article, once suggested that academic work is interesting if it somehow denies its audience’s assumptions, but whether or not this is correct, the point is that there are social norms for what’s not boring, and if you’re bored, that implies that you are in fact also inhabiting some sort of optimistic fantasy of living up to your norm of intellectual excitement. (Non-academics may be bored by academic work, too, but for very different sociological reasons.) So boredom implies ambivalence. When you feel bored, unconsciously, you’re optimistic. That’s more or less the structure of emotional ambivalence — you consciously feel one way, but unconsciously you also have the opposite feeling — that Freud described in Totem and Taboo.

I’ve gotten interested in ambivalence lately, because it seems to be such a tremendously well-established institutional affect in academic life. Ambivalence, one might claim, is what keeps academia livable when it tempts us and hurts us at once. But when we know things aren’t perfect but still entertain illusions of self-awareness as we don’t do anything, then ambivalence can become a substitute for politics or institutional reform. It often seems to me, when I meet colleagues who will say, yes, it’s not perfect, but I just don’t feel strongly enough to get involved… that ambivalence is both depoliticizing and the precondition for the reproduction of the status quo. (Activism, of course, is also filled with ambivalence, but a very different type.)

It turns out that this argument I’m making isn’t one I just invented here for the first time. In another odd essay, Hans Weiler’s “Ambivalence and the politics of knowledge: The struggle for change in German higher education” (published version), he suggests that “the realm of higher education reveals, comparatively speaking, an unusually and quite exceptionally pervasive, persistent and unmistakable quality of ambivalence. This ambivalence, furthermore, is not just something that inheres in the culture of academia, but is in turn a function of societal and political contradictions about the role of knowledge and the purposes of the university” (177). He goes on to examine some of these contradictions — about autonomy, about change, about social exclusion, about the relation to the nation — and in each case finds that some academics want it one way while others want it the exact opposite. This is an interesting kind of structural ambivalence because any given person may not be ambivalent (about change for instance), but the institution itself becomes ambivalent, and comes to function ambivalently, because it is composed of such opposed interests and opinions. And since the university produces the contradictory spread of social positions and intellectual claims that are possible within it, it would seem to indirectly reproduce its own ambivalence at every moment.

Weiler, predictably, is ambivalent about this institutional ambivalence. On one hand, it makes the university a space of dissensus, a place where divergences of function and opinion are possible in a way that they’re not in other state institutions. On the other hand, he speculates that “ambivalence about its own goals and purposes could serve as a wonderful mechanism of defense for an institution such as a university that tries to avoid accountability for its results and accomplishments: as long as there is ambivalence about exactly what an institution is supposed to accomplish, it makes little sense to hold it accountable for whether or not it has achieved its goals” (180). In other words, ambivalence about institutional purpose thwarts any rational auditing process (a point that would be interesting to explore in British universities and other neoliberal audit contexts). One suspects that tacitly Weiler would prefer universities to be slightly less ambivalent in some respects.

At any rate, if boredom (so says Baghdadchi) is a defense mechanism for the individual, but is itself the product of unconscious ambivalence, then ambivalence (so says Weiler) is a defense mechanism for the institution at large — but this ambivalence is itself the product of underlying structural dynamics. There’s a lot more to explore here about what it means to have “institutional ambivalence” and whether this is really analogous to psychological ambivalence in any serious way. Not to mention about the problems of analyzing all of academia in terms of a single affect.

But for the time being I just want to ask: can we envision an unambivalent life in academia? A progressively more vivacious life? A progressively more vivacious institution? I always find it hard to believe in the more cheerful narratives of academic success, the puff pieces that fill the alumni magazines, but maybe there’s something to take more seriously there as an antidote to the pervasive circulation of negative, ambivalent moods and narratives in the academic world.