Back in 2011 I went for a bike trip in southern Illinois and made it just across the river to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I wrote about my trip at the time but I’m embarrassed to say that I mainly saw the place in terms of class — it was a largely run-down, working-class place — and, in racial terms, I only noticed that it was largely white.
As I write, night is falling slowly and heavily, like a train gaining momentum gracelessly. It’s easy to feel sleepy when I come home after the all-day heat, which still lingers in the house, but I eat dinner early and make myself go for a walk, the better to sit down afterwards to prep for class tomorrow morning.
It’s a Sunday.
The ants are everywhere around the kitchen sink, swarming through the crack in the dishwasher door. Afterwards, every time you feel the tiniest itch, you suspect the ants of crawling on you.
In my email right now, there are 10,364 messages signed with American academia’s standard valediction:
The University of Paris-X at Nanterre is now just called Université Paris Nanterre. I went there this week to poke around in the archives of my fieldsite. On the way to the library I stopped to find something to eat, and it turned out that the nearest campus eating establishment was an ethnographically useful site. Admittedly, I am getting somewhat out of practice as a campus ethnographer, but I still noticed a few things.
I’ve been thinking lately about how, in ethnography, some objects of inquiry seem to come ready-made, almost pre-packaged, while others are so unclear, blurry, flou (in French), that it’s hard to decide how to examine them.
I’ve been re-reading Butler’s work lately because I’m thinking about political mimesis, and I was struck along the way by her very frank and admirable comments about the fact that if you write a bunch of things over time, you don’t necessarily want to go back over them to make sure that your view is the same everywhere.
Since last month, I’ve been teaching in Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. There’s a lot to say about this new and very intriguing teaching context — the first thing being that university politics are a very live issue, and so there’s a lot for me to learn, given my work.
1. Packing my library
Twelve or fifteen standardized brown boxes of books, covered in dollar store tarps and dust from lizard corpses and asbestos toxins — I’m lining them all up, three by four, three by five. Each box is stamped identically with bar codes, and green icons certify that they are all made from recycled paper, but nothing says where the recycled paper came from, so you wonder, does it come from dead books? Obsolete books? All those textbooks that your students don’t really read — do their carcasses get recycled into your moving boxes?
I realize it is meaningless to harp on the failures of past authors, but I was still struck by this very blithe statement from a psychoanalytic scholar in 1970, in a paper on “The Concept of Reality Testing.” I suppose I usually think of the 1970s as the beginnings of our intellectual present, rather than as a past epoch.
I’ve been exceptionally dismayed this year by the retrograde, anti-open-access, profit-oriented publication philosophy at the American Anthropological Association. Earlier this year they announced that they were renewing their publishing contract with the corporate behemoth Wiley Blackwell. Now I notice that they also have a horribly misguided commenting policy for their online news site, Anthropology News.
Sometime earlier this spring I asked the students in my Digital Cultures class to each write down a sentence (on a post-it) about what education was for.
One could write numerous things about masculine domination in French philosophy, and many have done so. Right now, for instance, I’m engrossed in Michèle Le Doeuff’s programmatic 1977 essay on this question, “Cheveux longs, idées courtes (les femmes et la philosophie),” which appeared in Le Doctrinal de Sapience (n° 3) and was translated in Radical Philosophy 17 (pdf).
I was struck today by something Harry Brighouse remarked at Crooked Timber (drawing on his own graduation remarks).
Last Friday, as my last work event at Whittier College (since my postdoc contract is finishing up), I went to graduation. A few observations on graduation as seen from the faculty perspective seem to be in order.
I’ve taken to writing little end-of-class reflections, which I read to my students on the last day. Here’s my reflection on my last day teaching at Whittier College. (The class was about digital cultures; you can find some of the course materials online at GitHub.)
If Noam Chomsky had done nothing else, he would have given us one of the strongest critique of the New York Times as the guarantor of nationalist ideology for the U.S.’s professional-managerial classes. But there’s another good reason to not read the Times besides its obvious ideological problems. Namely: that it promotes an intellectual monoculture. Too many scholars and academics read it to the exclusion of anything else.
One time a friend of mine, Mike Bishop, asked me an interesting question about the ethics of deviating from norms:
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.)
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.
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-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, though both are running for president.
I just came across Pierre Bourdieu’s curious comment on American universities and their set-apartness from society:
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.
I just sent in a review of Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them to LATISS. The book’s out already; the review should be coming out in LATISS before long.
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“.