Archive for June, 2010

Academia: An Epicurean plentitude of good food and conversation?

Graham Harman has responded to my earlier piece on Academic Nihilism. Unsurprisingly, for those who have followed his career advice strand of commentary on his blog, he doesn’t suffer from academic nihilism.

In the piece he sees a certain self flagellating, masocistic tendency representative of ‘killjoy puritanical’ moralism amongst leftists around the continental philosophy scene. He also objects to the argument’s assertion that academics have it pretty good on the whole in terms of salary and working conditions.

This isn’t really a debate that will run and run—since the starting premises and overall worldviews are probably incommensurable. But I do take objection to the killjoy charge. Although there is certainly a tendency around parts of the left to engage in a kind of relentless miserabilism, that is certainly not underwriting this post I hope. If anything, the present author objects to the academic day job (although still desperately hopes that the post PhD world will deliver one) precisely because it is not ‘enriched by good food, conversations with friends, excellent reading, and the teaching of students.’

The Epicurean plenitude of simple pleasures Harman lists here have been somewhat absent in my experience of academia so far. The PhD world seems to be (with, thankfully, a few exceptions) full of weirdly antisocial types whose catchphrases when faced with the prospect of good food, drinks, or conversation seems to be ‘I have to run’ or ‘Have to shoot off’.

To where? Why? Who knows. One would like to think it is because they have work commitments, baby sitters waiting at home, or at least something similar. But that is far from the case in many instances. So why the precocious drift into late middle age?

Similarly, one can’t help but notice that most academics seem a little depressed. Its hard to put your finger on it exactly. Its like a world weary burden that drags them down. However, Harman is right that given the right circumstances teaching can be a joy. Indeed, the life in the undergraduate body is one of the few things that kept me from sinking to the lower depths of academic nihilism in the past year or so.

So I think the killjoy charge is a bit of a red herring.

He probably gets is right, though, that those of us on the left who see things just getting worse and worse ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ do feel pretty barracked up in our monastic academic communities.

But I think the argument—and this is probably my fault for ordering of the piece—goes deeper than just pertaining to political commitments. More fundamentally, it is about the every increasing research and knowledge production that is getting diced ever thinner and thinner to the point where at some point we have to wonder what the point of it all is? As Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting (or something similar at least): ‘If you build a house that’s a house that a family gets to live in; building is an honest profession.’

And is he not right in some way? Could not the weariness that afflicts a lot of academics, the endless gripes about teaching, and the endemic cynicism, actually stem from the realisation of the futility and irrelevance of the majority of intellectual labour? The fact that is merely sinks into an ever widening void; the academic sink hole of proliferating journals and conferences.

I intend to write a further blog post  emphasizing more this political economy aspect of academia. It seems to me that academia nihilism is almost certainly connected to the expansion of university education, and a field of intellectual discourse that has not expanded at similar rate. Hopefully from this angle killjoy charges won’t stick so easily!

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An exagerration?

Here’s an experiment. At the pub, on your Facebook wall, or wherever, criticise environmentalism and see what reaction you get from your friends on the left. My prediction is that what will result will probably be one of the most heated arguments you ever have.

Environmentalism has become a near sacred belief on the left; moreso than even what should be the left’s central concerns—class struggle and forwarding the cause of the working class against capitalism. That is not to say it is wrong, but at this stage just to point out that it comes endowed with an emotional attachment that goes beyond almost every other topic one can think of. At the launch event of Richard Seymour’s ‘The Meaning of David Cameron’ even the lack of environmentalism in the talk caused one audience member to get visibly upset. ‘All this talk of parties’ she said ‘but I don’t hear anything about the millions, yes millions, who are going to die; we have to do something and all we do is talk.’

Indeed, the stakes do seem much higher for environmentalism than anything else. Rightly or wrongly it is an apocalyptic argument that rests or falls on the heavy consequences it claims will result from inaction. For what we are talking about is not local struggle against pollution, for clean beaches and rivers and so on, but the environmental predictions related to climate change, peak oil, overpopulation and water shortages. All measure their arguments in terms of millions who may, or may not, die as a consequence of policy choices.

It is practically a given on the left that since these are consequences of capitalism that the left should take responsibility for. Foremost amongst these is growth. Since the world economy is growing and consumption rising, and the world is now governed by capitalism, ergo capitalism is responsible for ecological crisis.

These are obviously massive issues and link back to questions of our relation to Enlightenment, technology, the true meaning of Marx, utilitarian decision making, risk evaluation, if the non-human world has intrinsic value, the source of wealth being natural or derived from labour, the remit of science, and so on and so on.

Since I am one of the very few people on the left who does not buy into environmentalism, obviously in order to make a case against it (or even to have my own mind changed on the matter) it is practically a duty to take on this long and complex web of issues and presuppositions to give a rigorous, analytic take on the foundations of an anti-environmentalist left position.

To start I will begin with two books taking very opposite positions: John Bellamy Forster’s ‘Marx’s Ecology’ and Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Cool It’. I will post commentaries on these books as I read them and hopefully begin to build up a coherent response to this thorny issue. Contributions, if not denunciations, are welcomed.

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Academic nihilism: a virtuous recognition?

Like Mark Fisher’s excellent epithet ‘capitalist realism’ describing the cultural response to the doctrine of ‘there is no alternative’, I believe there is another closely related phenomenon that deserves to enter every intellectuals’ vocabularly: academic nihilism.

Academic nihilism is, I believe, something experienced by all truly critical thinkers who spend enough time behind the walls of universities. It is what comes after the realisation that what one is doing, all that heartfelt critical thought, all that deep probing for truth, and digging under the illusions of common sense, that it all adds up to very little. It can, like Tom Cruise’s life changing realisation in Jerry Macguire, come late at night during the long dark teatime of the soul. Or it can just come about through a creeping sense that grows until breaking point. But there is usually an event which triggers it’s realisation—perhaps right after spending considerable time completing a journal article, giving a conference paper, finishing your first book, or gaining your final qualifications. An emptiness; an ‘is this it?’ moment.

Not wanting to come across as yet another whiny academic, it is important to clarify the argument here. Because given the fact that academics, despite their current predicament, enjoy generally good salaries, long holidays, and relative autonomy for self determining their work, this is certainly no call for sympathy on labour market grounds.

No—academic nihilism is something immanent to the labour of the academic intellect itself. Books can cast a magic spell. They speak of debates, raging polemics, untold mysteries, and philosophical riddles to be cracked. They give the impression that if one can find the time to read just one more text, triangulate just those precise arguments, then one can deliver a killer blow and set the world to rights. The illusions begin here, in the library.

The first disillusionment comes when you meet these intellectual brawlers. For the most part there is something a bit dispiriting about the fact that the witty, passionate, learned and all knowing figure you read in the text, in real life is defensive, unable to justify their work, and whose knowledge is strictly limited to the narrow niche of their field.

The second disillusionment is when you realise the gap that separates these academic debates from the real world; and worse, the fact that most academics realise this, but seem untroubled by the knowledge and plough on nonetheless. In a politics department this second disillusionment is all the more attenuated. One learns with horror that your colleagues do not seem to have much interest in politics. They are content with their work being an abstract intellectual game; and are quite happy to admit in response to awkward questions regarding real world relevance or applicability that they are unsure, or unbothered by such quibbles.

* * *

Contrary to common sense nihilism is not just the realisation of meaninglessness. Rather, it is the repetition of behaviour that one knows to be meaningless but carries on with regardless. So in a certain sense, once academic nihilism has been recognised, one is already partly released from its grasp. For the post-academic nihilst nothing is more comical than the academic who cannot see with any perspective how banal their self regard for their ever-so-important research is.

At the same time, the post-academic nihilist faces a possibly even worse temptation: cynicism. These wise cynics believe they have extricated themselves from the illusions of academic nihilism with their Machiavellian careerism and knowing irony. Is the pragmatic cynic really released from the grasp of nihilism though? Or have they simply accommodated themselves to it whilst spinning comforting lullabies to themselves about the irrelevance of it all—a kind of inner distantiation that, for example, Slavoj Zizek associated with the appeal of Tibetan Buddism for the late capitalist office worker.

Whatever the case, it is not altogether clear that the cynic is any better than the childlike naivity of the unflective academic nihilist. In some way, better to have someone who truly believes their work is meaningful and important (no matter how deluded) than the wry cynic who knows it is all just a game and will follow any latest trend, or drum up any argument whatsoever to keep carving out their unique academic niche.

* * *

What can the post-academic nihilist do? One option would be to try to wilfully regress to the state of the naive academic. But making yourself forget is impossible; everyone knows that. Another route would be to leave academia—that route obviously makes a lot of sense, although only insofar as one is fully prepared to have their worst fears about academic nihilism painfully confirmed out there in the real world. Yet another route would be to make academia relevant by revolutionising it from within: a good idea in principle, but likely to be infuriating in practice.

Perhaps prefiguring all this needs to be a more sustained critical reflection on the source of academic nihilism. I hope I have not given the impression here that I am merely presenting a psychological malaise of the intellectual class. There are real facts and figures underlining this phenomenon. For example, the average academic article is only read twice. That is, up to six months of research and writing for an audience of two persons. I have personally also given conference papers to an audience of a single person. Academic imprints are usually published in initial runs of 100-200 copies, many of which are destined just to gather dust on library shelves. And in terms of the split between the academy and public intellectual discourse, it is large and generally unbridged.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Calls for academics to become populist or relevant usually have deleterious effects (of a pro status quo bent). For now, all I can plea is for those critical academics to maintain this anxious state of awareness of academic nihilism.

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Werner Herzog's 'Fitzcarraldo'. Is Fitz an Enlightenment hero, or megalomaniacal villain?

Slavoj Žižek once insightfully noted that the only time your ever see productive labour on screen is in the villains’ lairs of the James Bond films. This sounds about right. Take any number of films or tv programmes based around work—even of a white collar kind—and you won’t find many backs to the grindstone. In the 1990s series Ally McBeal, for instance, work seemed to generally involve coffee breaks, watercooler gossip and late night prattling about. When work does make it to the screen nowadays it is in the form of such programmes as BBC 3’s documentary series ‘Blood, Sweat and Luxuries’ where a group of generally posh, young layabouts from London (supposedly representative of an idle culture of consumption in Britain) fly around the world to sample the hardships of manual labour and low wages in assorted developing countries. The moral of the series is cashed out when they are all disturbed by the low wages and go back home to endorse fair trade and send some of their second hand clothes out to help the people—their blissful ignorance preserved, even reinforced, of the fact that their own lifestyles are supported by daddy’s exploitation of workers much closer to home.

Recently, however, I watched two films that put productive labour at the centre of their narratives. The first was Werner Herzog’s 1982 ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and the second the more recent ‘There Will be Blood’ by director Paul Thomas Anderson. In both films a megalomaniacal entrepreneur sets his sights on a grand vision. Fitzcarraldo, played by Klaus Kinski, endeavors to take a steam boat up the side of a mountain and down the other side again. In order to achieve this task he enlists the help of thousands of the local indigenous population to build a monumental pulley system. Similarly, in Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will be Blood’ Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Plainview, sets his sights on building a 100 mile oil pipeline from the oil fields to the coasts.

Whilst superficially both films serve an indictment of the mentality of the Enlightenment figure fixated on the mastery of the world via grand engineering projects, the result is rather one of entrancement. Where our productive infrastructure is generally just taken as a given—to the extent that allows certain sections of society to get quite snooty about it—both films show the sheer ambition necessary to accomplish these groundbreaking feats. Cinematographically there is nothing more awe inspiring than seeing the coordination of mass labour in the service of the construction of a common goal. The building of something from nothing is spectacular to watch and an underexploited theme for filmmaking. Both movies manage to fill the viewer with awe at the construction and sheer force of will invested these projects.

So the question is: are Fitz and Purview heroes or anti-heroes? On one level surely the answer is obvious: they put lives recklessly at risk for their bloody minded determination to achieve their goals. In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw wrote of ‘There Will be Blood’: “The movie speaks of oil’s savage, entrepreneurial pre-history; in one haunted man, it shows our dysfunctional relationship with capital and natural resources, and even hints at a grim future in which our addiction to oil can no longer be fed.” Which is one way of looking at it. Another would be to see in the relentless psychological drive of figures like Purview the Enlightenment project to extricate us from the savagery of scarcity and underdevelopment.

Hegel wrote of the passions of world historical individuals as driving history forward through their unreflexive drive for mastery of the world. Yes, there would be blood split and heart aches aplenty, but through the processes of reason these resolve themselves in the creation of rational, more advanced social forms. Marx took this one step further: the world historical individual had his day and was to be replaced by the world historical class forcing their way into history. Lenin’s centrality in the October revolution, however, showed that even with the collective class forces at work there was still a place for Hegel’s world historical individual too. The Bolshevik party changed the world. Even for die hard anti communists it is hard to argue against the fact that the presence of large communist powers in the 20th century were responsible for the development of social democracy and Keynesianism to guard against revolution at home.

Thus, the megalomaniacal Enlightenment mentality is neither exclusive to the capitalist entrepreneur, nor to the revolutionary communist. Obsessive drive to accomplish goals without the anxious moral quarms and hangups of the reflexive post modern liberal is what actually accomplishes things and moves history forward in a dialectical sense. Fitz, Purview, and possibly even James Bonds’ villains are all in this sense  Enlightenment heroes, even if they will have to be beaten on the battlefield by their properly communist rivals.

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