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!