Sunday, October 18, 2009

depressed? oppressed?

On Friday I was talking with a friend on campus about my lack-of-employment prospects at the university. As happens, the topic of the general condition of the university came up. My friend said the university is suffering from depression.

This struck me two conflicting ways. On the one hand, it's as good a diagnosis as any for the overall malaise and incredibly low morale among faculty and staff. Budget cuts, hostile relations between administration and other constituencies on campus, strategic efforts to divide and to cast a pall of doubt, confusion, and mistrust - all of this has had the predictably effect of making most people who are aware of the situation despair. In public meetings about the situation, most faculty and staff are dumbstruck. No, strike that. Most faculty and staff don't go to these public meetings, because most of them, though aware of the terrible straits we're in, are paralyzed with fear, or with whatever it is that convinces them to keep blinders on, do their work, and imagine that their quiet acquiescence will keep them safe.

They do what they do because they feel they have to do it, to avoid the repercussions they have heard of or witnessed others suffering for standing up a little. This makes sense, because most people don't want to be yelled at by people with more power than they have, and almost no one really wants to be fired. Subjectively, they may not feel themselves to be depressed at all - nor perhaps fearful, over-stressed, or over-worked.

But if we accept the premise that an organization can have a general level of well-being, and that, as a complex system, it can have a set of attributes constituted by the interactions of its members, then the university could be depressed, even if a handful of individual faculty or staff (or administrators) aren't depressed themselves - and more to the point, even if they don't recognize the organization's depression.

I ran a quick Google search this morning trying to find something cogent written about this phenomenon, with no real luck. (I'm not particularly interested in organizational change in response to the Great Depression, for instance.) What I did find was a checklist of symptoms, causes, and treatments written by a "corporate coach," which in many respects doesn't apply to universities.

That led to my second reaction, which is to remember that the whole notion of a corporate organization having attributes of this sort is linked to the ideology of the corporation being a person - that dangerous legal fiction so central to US corporate law.* Diagnosing the university as depressed, taking that systematic view, psychologizing and even medicalizing the situation, shifts this discourse in ways that are a little disturbing. For one thing, they offer a rationale for avoiding political confrontation that might in the end be our best hope.

What if, unlike human beings suffering depression, this diagnosis misidentifies what is better called oppression? The two conditions call for two very different reactions, I believe. Depression calls for treatment - pharmaceutical, cognitive, psychotherapeutic, electro-shock, instituionalization,... - to make the patient better. Depression treatments in the capitalist medical context are inextricably linked to an ideology of individual responsibility and productivity, in service to capital accumulation. Why cure it for the sake of maintaining the status quo of economic and political relations? Oppression calls for resistance, developing solidarity and power, direct action and regime change.

I suppose most oppressed people suffer depression. But a lot is at stake in identifying whether the cause is institutional "depression" or political oppression.

*(And now, part of me is considering the ways in which the human person is an anthropocentric fiction which is employed across many disciplines for assigning attributes, especially praiseworthy and blameworthy ones, to the complex organizations we are. For an individual human person, depression is a felt subjective condition and orientation to the world, but it's not clear to me that the neurons and chemical reactions in my brain experience themselves as depressed, and I'm not sure what it means to the teeming bacteria throughout my body or the cells of my body which are not entirely genetically my own.)


Jennifer said...

My take:

The University, or at least the CSU and each campus therein, is not a whole, and therefore cannot be said to be a coherent sort of personage, and therefore cannot be said to be suffering any sort of depression as a whole.

The CSU is a teaming mass of different constituencies, a veritable petri dish of class war. On my campus, admins are not depressed, in fact many appear to delight at the opportunity the "crisis" affords them to erode the liberal arts and still build a new stadium. As important as it is to stay vigilant, I feel powerless in the face of our CFO conducting another cheerful dog & pony budget forum, explaining to staff and janitors that admins have their iPhones paid for. But that's not even the real issue, the rder of magnitude of the cuts is WAY bigger than iPhones or stadiums. These are distractions from the real problem, which is the systematic dismantling of higher ed. in CA that's been going on since both you and I landed here.

"Autocratic" does not even begin to describe the shift in the atmosphere at East Bay this year.

Admins will leave patting themselves on the back for helping to weather the storm (Bush's FEMA), faculty (who ever's left standing) will look around and wonder WTF happened to their disciplines and avocations (folks stuck in the Superdome).

Only some of us are depressed; the institution is not.

In Solidarity,
Emma Goldman

Robert Kirkman said...

There's often talk of such a thing as corporate or institutional culture - a set of working assumptions and attitudes, habitual ways of doing things, even a pervasive mood. Much was made, for example, of the institutional culture of NASA in the wake of each of the shuttle disasters.

I've been involved with institutions in which the culture included a pervasive mood of mutual mistrust, complaint, and recrimination among various constituencies, within my department and beyond it. Sure, there were individuals with a sunny disposition and an optimistic outlook, but they stood out as exceptions . . . and some of them either burned out or faded away.

So, I'm perfectly willing to accept the idea that an institutional culture may fall into pathology . . . or perhaps that underlying pathologies can flare up under difficult circumstances.

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

I find the whole goddamned thing depressing, in the most oppressive sense of the term.