Monday, June 07, 2010

montreal - part three: sketch of a note on the state of academia

At the EPTC conference, one person thanked me for my paper and added that it was good to hear me give a paper again. It had been a while since I'd been to any kind of general continental philosophy conference. But that, and the general discourse of the conference, triggered another kind of reflection for me, on the business of academic conferences in general.

People who go to academic philosophy conferences might be aware of the phenomenon of Projects. Projects give everyone something automatically to talk about. Most papers are prefaced by allusion to an overarching Project the presenter has, of which this presentation is a part. After a presentation, there's often a comment, and the commentator will often relate to the paper in terms of his or her Project. Then there's a Q&A session, during which most questioners ask about the paper in relation to their own Projects. Projects pervade. Projects are everywhere!

And that's good. It gets things done. It gets people published. It gets them book contracts. It even gets some of them tenure. And this gives them greater access to resources for... more Projects.

And that's good. Philosophical Projects are good.

From my contingent standpoint, it's harder to take philosophical Projects seriously. I didn't win a tenure-track job. I didn't publish (much). So I didn't get more access to resources. I got more contingency. When I fully recognized this, my energy turned toward making precarious academic labor a little less precarious in whatever way I could - which isn't a philosophical Project in most respects.

Besides which, I can't help but notice some ways that philosophical Projects obstruct. They intrude on various conversations and interactions. Constant reference back to one's own Project makes a lot of the discussion following papers rather non-discursive. It can reach the level of being 8 people in a room, each talking to himself or herself.

What I've been able to do, in contrast, and following the rhythm of my labor (contrasted with the academically productive labor of the Projecting class), is more local and has less reference to the ongoing academic philosophical 'discussion.' For lack of a better name for them, I'll provisionally call the kind of philosophical engagement I mean philosophical behaving or conduct. The goal has less to do with public demonstration of my Project being publication-worthy or me being tenure-worthy, and more to do with trying to practice, to demonstrate, and to teach ways of living that are more self-reflectively provisional. It's not easy to maintain recognition of where my understanding falls apart, or of how little I know. It's humbling, but it's also just difficult because of how much of our everyday experience we take for granted. That's the sort of thing I mean by philosophical conduct.

It's odd. Among continental philosophers, especially among phenomenologists, there's often talk about our reflections are connected to lived experience. This is so in two dimensions: reflection begins from and should in the end be brought back to lived experience. I take it that the lived experience in question is not only the lived experience of tenure and promotion, nor even the lived experience of teaching. In effect, ultimately, and somewhat embarrassingly, I think it means we should be concerned about the state of people's souls.

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