Monday, December 28, 2015

capitalist accumulation and education

Ernest Mandel discusses the tension in the relationship of university education to capitalist accumulation in p260ff of Late Capitalism. Late capitalism, i.e., capitalism in which technological advancement has become the main impetus for continued accumulation, depends on the production and reproduction of intellectually skilled labor. For this purpose, universities were drafted or converted from humanist institutions into knowledge and knowledge-worker factories. By 1970 when he was writing this book, it was already clear that universities would become centers for technological innovation and hence workplaces of capitalist production. That is, humanities education, moral education, and other traditional notions of the purpose of higher education, were dissolved. Only very few intellectually skilled workers need any type of humanist or artistic education—specifically, those who will produce the ideological arts (science fiction, comic books, TV, movies).

An inevitable clash occurs when a large number of people begin to demand higher education in order to enter more lucrative fields, because this drive for upward mobility conflicts with the aims and needs of capitalists. Not many intellectually skilled workers are needed, and always a dwindling number in comparison to the quantity of constant capital (dead labor in the form of extant technology): the more technological sophistication and automation the intellectually-skilled workers produce for capitalists, the fewer intellectually-skilled workers are needed for capitalists to accumulate wealth and profit.

Thus far, the rise of political conflict related to de-funding higher education makes perfect sense. Capitalists, represented by legislators, or directly acting politically in the form of tax revolts, refuse to pay for mass scale higher education, for the simple reason that it is not in their interests. The vanishing middle class continues to expect and make rather feeble demands on the state for funding of higher education. The bargain struck between them has led to the erosion over time of tax supported higher education and the shift to debt funding.

There’s another story, less economic and more political, that I think is true and helps explain the situation. Mandel’s analysis sets higher education somewhat outside the main capitalist economy (oddly, similarly to the way economists he criticizes heartily later on set the arms economy outside the main capitalist economy). Viewed another way, what has happened is that capitalists have pressed a demand for the territory of education as a new market. In fact, capitalists have demanded not only higher education, but the entire territory of education, from pre-K on up. This makes perfect sense: enormous amounts of money are spent on education, meaning that there is a pool of potential capital circulating through these institutions. While capitalist accumulation is threatened by diminishing rate of profit in the established territories of capitalist production (Marx’ famous Departments I and II), opening a new territory, gaining access to new pots of money to convert into capital, and restructuring the entire territory on the capitalist factory model could avert further crisis, until the money runs out. (This, by the way, is very similar to theories of the permanent arms economy that Mandel agrees most with—tax funding supplies a source of previously untapped capital, and the production activity itself provides a way to valorize accumulated capital. That maintaining the arms economy as a profitable venture depends on deliberately destroying both the arms and people has an analogy in education that I will leave to the reader to contemplate for now. Enjoy.)

Education is being rapidly capitalized, through direct seizure of some schools (the so-called charter schools), but mainly through imposition of curriculum, through legislation that requires use of particular pedagogies, textbooks, standardized tests, etc. that are published by major firms. Standardizing the K-12 curriculum is precisely the replacement of variable capital (labor) with constant capital (technology), which lowers the value and cost of labor by simultaneously minimizing numbers of workers needed and allowing for a reduction of wages. The effort to extend this process into higher education is already well underway.

Then there are the labor conditions to consider. Here, higher education has been in the vanguard, because of the resistance of organized labor in the K-12 sector. Real wages, and the job protections of tenure, have been largely eliminated from higher education, as the result of a bargain not at all unlike that struck infamously between auto manufacturers and UAW leadership beginning in the 1970s or so: a smaller more permanent workforce, grandfathered in, were guaranteed continuing employment, income, and pension rights, at the expense of all future employees. The work conditions, income, and real job protections of workers in the auto industry or higher education in the 1970s look like unbelievable dreams to the workers of today—such has been the destruction of labor conditions in these industries. Labor in higher education has been entirely subjected to “free market” competition, which is to say, labor on the terms dictated by capitalists. This is why tenure has to be eliminated, after all, according to every education manager: it interferes with “flexibility” that the university needs to hire according to “market demand” (which means, in reality, the absolute authority to create and control an industrial reserve army, lower wages, and exploit workers).  

Sunday, December 20, 2015

year in review, 2015

It has been a while since I wrote a year-in-review post--over three years, in fact. It may seem inapposite to post a year-in-review rather than three-years-in-review, but because, in the terms of the CFA-CSU Collective Bargaining Agreement, a three-year review is pursuant to the re-hiring of us long-time temporary faculty, the idea makes me anxious.

With that preface, my year in review, 2015.

Much as in recent years past, I confined the bulk of my activities to teaching, reading, writing, cycling, having debilitating vertigo attacks, faculty labor activism, guitar playing, and cooking. You will notice the conspicuous absence of larceny on that list. 

I would like to say that I feel as if I accomplished many great things in 2015. I suppose many others would also like that, about themselves. But how many of us can say this in good faith? And how many others who do say it are in actual fact university administrators instead? 

I tried burning the candle at both ends, and realized that whoever coined this expression must not have been using jar candles. I tried going the extra mile, but the result of that was that I had to return from that extra mile, because I had overshot the campus by approximately one mile. I attempted to give 110%, only to find that I had a 10% deficit. Since then, I have decided to just do it. When I discover what it is, and how to do it, I will update my progress. 

We continue to live with three cats, despite their efforts. This year, Alexander had surgery to remove a foreign body from his gut. Last year it was Valentine, so presumably this coming year it will be Arthur. On the other hand, perhaps it will be me, even though I am still not a cat, despite my efforts.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

culture, language, racism, and capitalist relations of production

I know I need to learn more about critical race theory, and I know the reason I have not done so is that I’m afraid to confront my own racism. (I take it for granted that there is racism embedded in my consciousness and experience.)

I posted something on Facebook about the only real issue in the Presidential campaign being the class warfare of the capitalists on all the rest of us, and one comment I received was that this isn’t true — there’s rampant racist violence, and attacks on the reproductive and health care rights of women, to name two others. My response was that the only real issue in the campaign was the economic one because the base builds the superstructure. This is a standard Marxist line, taken to explain that culture is produced and reproduced in capitalist society by capitalist social relations of production, so that every cultural phenomenon is a phenomenon of class division, commodification, alienation of labor, and the mystifications and contradictions of capitalism. I think that’s true, but not a complete story. What I want to explain here is why it's a true story.

Culture is produced and reproduced by capitalist production in capitalist society—which by now means the entire global society. Some implications of this follow.

(1) What does it mean to say that culture is produced and reproduced by capitalist social relations of production? It means that there is a class of workers whose only commodity for sale, their labor, becomes the variable capital consumed in the production of cultural artifacts. Those cultural artifacts include books, newspapers, television programs, food, language, art objects, ideas, etc. (Right now, I’m contributing surplus labor by producing the ideas that I’m writing. These words are products of capitalist relations of production because I am not the owner of the means of production, even though I nominally own the labor that I exert. Once they leave my hands, it is not clear that I am any longer the “owner” of the ideas or words, for a variety of reasons, among them that I’m using MS Word that I acquired through the university.)

Language and ideas are produced under capitalist relations of production. They are commodities with potential for becoming capital in the production of something further—more language and ideas, or a new-fangled toothbrush, or whatever. For instance, a person once wrote in an email “;-)” in order to indicate sarcasm. That has become a cultural icon, and has been capitalized upon in the production of the cultural artifacts called emojis, and emojis are now commodities that are sold to users of various social media by way of the advertising revenue generated by users. Emojis, and “;-)” are now parts of culture, parts of language, that in our ordinary dealing with the world do not appear as products of capitalist social relations of production, or as commodities. They have become “naturalized” parts of the language.

(2) In order to understand what emojis are, we have to understand not only how to apply them in social media messages (i.e., how to consume them), but how they are produced. If we follow Marx still further, that understanding is not the point, the point is to change the world, that is, to change the social relations of production that are to be found by analysis of emojis. Every analysis of culture should go in the direction of a ruthless criticism of capitalist relations of production.

(3) In as much as language and (presumably) racism existed prior to capitalism, Marxist analysis can’t explain the origin of these phenomena. That does not mean Marxist analysis is not relevant. Whatever language was prior to capitalism, it’s not the same thing now, because language is a cultural phenomenon that is produced and reproduced by current relations of production.

While it is apparently clear that those from whom we begin to acquire language are close-by cohabitors who aren’t commodifying language by speaking in the household, it does not follow that spoken language is not a consumer object. There are obvious examples of consumer object language in everyday household talk, like cultural buzzwords that derive from media consumption. But further, all language is reproduced in capitalist society by capitalist production.

Like language, so too racism. While those from whom we learn racism are also our close-by cohabitors who do not intend to commodify racism, racism is still a consumer object. There are obvious media messages that reproduce racism through stereotypes, racist images, and so on. Racism is a cultural phenomenon, and in capitalist society, all cultural phenomena are produced and reproduced through capitalist relations of production.

(4) Why does anyone produce racist images in consumer media messages? The answer to that is simple: they’re paid to do so. Now, the workers who create racist messages might or might not “believe in” the messages, but from the standpoint of capitalist production, their belief is not relevant. Only the valorization of capital advanced by the capitalist in the form of profit is relevant. From the standpoint of the capitalist, the content of the message is irrelevant as long as it is saleable and profitable. Those messages that generate more profit will be reproduced again and again as long as they are profitable. Whether this produces or reproduces a culture that suffers violence, hatred, fear, and dysfunction is also not relevant to the capitalist, except in so far as those sufferings can be treated as needs for which consumer objects can be produced for a profit.

It is important to emphasize that this does not explain the origin of racism (or of language). But I’m not sure discovering the origin of racism is important for dealing with racism. I am sure that dealing with racism will require dealing with profiteering from it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

note on some lousy ways people think about Marx

One of the simple ways to dismiss Marx is to say that his communist society could never exist because human nature is greedy and competitive—or at least, that some people’s human nature is greedy and competitive. This assumes that Marx establishes the grounds of communism on a speculation about human nature being generous and cooperative. People who assume that haven’t read or haven’t understood Marx.

A secondary assumption about Marx that is used against him in ignorance is that Marx presumed that the establishment of a communist society was inevitable and the necessary outcome of history. This is also not true. What he does argue, in Capital, is that capitalism will not be able to endure its own contradictions, for instance, the contradiction that capitalist accumulation depends on the exploitation of labor as its necessarily diminishing source of wealth.

I am not sure from what writing by Marx, if any, the argument from human nature is supposed to come. I would guess the 1844 Manuscripts, and the analysis of alienated labor that refers to capitalist production alienating labor from “species-being.” I would make the point that in this early stuff, Marx has still not fully formed his own philosophical architecture, and continues to borrow from Hegel and the Young Hegelians (viz., “species-being” is from Ludwig Feuerbach). Even so, the inchoate concept of labor is the only extent to which there is something like a human nature invoked in the 1844 Manuscripts. What makes humans human is that we work, and that our work is the basis for our social world. Nothing determines that one form or another of that work is inevitable or natural. Alienation is not unnatural. The estranged form of labor is not estranged from human nature, it is estranged from the worker.

By the time he wrote Capital, Marx retained only the most basic Hegelian logic of contradiction, but in a form that’s hardly recognizable. In Capital, Marx analyzes historical documents, contemporary economic and social conditions in England, and writings by capitalist economists, to demonstrate the multiple contradictions inherent in capitalism. These are bound to fail not because of some alleged human nature but simply because they are contradictions. For instance, the familiar boom-bust cycles in capitalist economies are inevitable, because they are driven by the capitalist’s demand for accumulation of wealth, the need to generate surplus-value through unpaid labor, and the need to sell the commodities produced with that labor at their cost (including the profit created by not paying labor). When there’s a boom, production increases, leading to stockpiles of unsold commodities, which drives down prices, which drives down profit, which leads to lower employment or lower wages, which leads to decreased purchases of commodities by consumers. The boom creates the bust. The bust creates hoards of unemployed capital that needs to be spent in order to accumulate wealth, and the cycle starts again. The capitalists themselves do not need to be particularly poor examples of human beings (other than, you know, the unconscionable willingness to exploit workers) in order to be compelled to play their roles as cheap buyers of other people’s work, often with other people’s money. That’s the game, and individual capitalists are no more in control of what they do to play the game than are the workers they exploit. Marx does not need to say anything about human nature to demonstrate this. He only needs to show that the cycles have repeated in obvious sequences with the same obvious results—and that’s easy to do when the British business and bourgeois economic communities and the British Parliament keep such detailed records and testimony about economic conditions.

And not to be gloomy and doomy about it, but the catastrophic end of capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to communism. It could just be catastrophe.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

and now for a brief rant about popular culture iconography

Too often, when Marxists write about popular culture, they come off as grumpy, unhip old poops. Exhibit A: Theodor “Don’t Call Me Sweetie” Adorno. (And although I am aware that Teddy Baby’s reputation for hating jazz is a bit overblown, I think anyone who really understands music can't possibly think that he did. This is in fact why he is Exhibit A.)

At great risk of self-poopifying, I would like to call attention to what I think is a sure sign of the decadence and depravity of consumer culture in our day and age—the cynical, meaning-destroying, emptying contextless repetition of iconic images. I hope to do more than complain, but to sketch an analysis of this capitalist spectacle.

Marilyn Monroe has been dead longer than I’ve been alive, and her image has continued, zombie-like, to roam among us. The image “Marilyn” is a reference without meaning, an icon of sex appeal that is by now rendered totally sexless. It merely indicates when and where one is supposed to respond according to an overdetermined habit of “belief.” That is, as a normal subject, the image “Marilyn” cues you to associate “sexuality” with some object. It operates like a sticky note, if you’ll pardon the expression, that labels an otherwise inert object with the message that you are supposed to believe is sexually charged and obtainable by purchase, contrary to all reality. “Marilyn” is obscene and prurient, an image of sexual death that normalizes the necrophilia of consuming behavior.

Furthermore, I am convinced that normal subjects know this and are capable of appropriate shame about it. As in the case of all our cultural addictions to obscenities, we consume “Marilyn” in guilt, and that guilt provides the excuse for continuing to use, continuing to consume.

In some ways a more curious case is the iconography of the film The Wizard of Oz. Reconfigured as it is here, as imagery in a computer game that functions as a non-gambling form of gambling, it means nothing. It does not actually refer to The Wizard of Oz—not to the film, not to the plot or characters in the film, not to the actors in the film. The “ruby slippers” are only the icon, without reference.

We generally expect cultural signifiers to signify, even if all they signify is the universal command to consume. As part of an advertisement for a game whose primary purpose is to expose users to more advertisement, these signifiers can barely be said to add value as a brand for consuming. These icons simply float, purposelessly and meaninglessly, in a nebula in which all images are juxtaposed without interacting or reacting. It is degree-zero of communication, as Baudrillard put it: the staging of an image that is a non-image because it is not an image of anything. Baudrillard called this the hyper-real, but this is because he was nostalgic for meaning, and such images can only appear as hyper-real in reference to a reality that they deny or destroy. They are hypo-real and hypo-realizing for experience. They defy any attempt to compose meaning.

What does it mean for us, or about us, that we spend so much time among these sepulchral artifacts?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

a brief interpretation of higher education, inspired by Georg Lukács

As long as higher education is construed through ideology, it will be impossible to develop the basis for overturning the social relations within. The ideology prevents us from confronting the contradictions of education in capitalist society.

1. Education provides access to socially produced goods—job security and income being the most commonly cited. The ideology tells us that this access is on the basis of merit earned by students’ academic and social-benefit work through the auspices of the institution. In fact, education is an institutional state apparatus that determines access to goods through sorting candidates, then subjecting those admitted to disciplines that produce a consciousness perfectly suited to the tasks of upholding and reproducing status quo predominant social relations. Power, wealth, and prestige are reproduced in a docile subject.

2. Education develops democratic citizenship. The ideology addresses democratic virtues of critical thinking, autonomy, and social responsibility. It develops these as the skills of individuals, in service to the prevailing social order. The possibilities of collective action are marginalized both by institutional policy and architecture, but also by the standards and protocols of evaluation. The democratic citizen produced by education is a individualist-bourgeois consciousness, prepared for fulfilling a role established by nationalist, capitalist aims. Meanwhile, this consciousness believes in individualist concepts of rights, merit, property, etc.—i.e., it does not believe in collectivism, cosmopolitanism, or the free ability to form social bonds through the collective will.

3. Education creates whole human beings through transformative experience. The ideology refers to the individual as a being whose transformation is needed and valuable. The self-regard of this form of consciousness further naturalizes individualism by producing a reality effect in which the individual is held up in opposition to the social whole. The cult of the fetishized individual makes it unintelligible that this effect is the result of being caught up in the social whole that is constructed through education (among other institutional state apparatuses). In fact, even the individualism worshipped in education is a false and mistaken one—individualism as the development of a “personality” composed of “lifestyle choices” which are nothing more than selections of consumer objects.

4. Education creates public good. The least tangible and plausible claim of the education ideology is that it benefits the social whole. Because education reproduces and recapitulates the class divisions in capitalist society, and naturalizes these along with the notions of merit, productivity, individual responsibility, etc., the product of education can only serve the class interests of capitalist society. The “public good” so named is an orderly (i.e. compliant) society where class divisions themselves can be occluded.

Yet these self-destructive, exploitative principles are marshaled in defense of education by “progressive” educators and their collaborators. Tax support of so-called public higher education is advocated on the grounds that education is the key to economic and social progress—for individuals, entry into the “middle class;” for society, creation of an army of professionals to provide ameliorations for various ills.

Here yet another contradiction is hidden: the ills for which the “middle class” needs amelioration are created by “middle class” consumption. Indeed, the ills of the society as a whole, and of the planet, are created by religious devotion to consumption. That consumption further drives worldwide exploitation of people and planet that enriches capitalists while it impoverishes everyone else. While those in the “middle class” perceive themselves to be beneficiaries of consumer society because they live among technological means, it is nearly impossible to discover, and really impossible to perceive the real effects and costs of consumption.

Education provides the ways and means of consumption: consumers and consumer objects. And of course, the amelioration of the ills of consumption is brought about by more consumption. For alienation from other people, consume “communications media” devices! For physiological and psychological malaise, consume medicine!

Meanwhile, real power and wealth not only remain in the hands of capitalists, but they accumulate still more. Their own false consciousness prevents understanding that their own power and wealth is dependent upon a fatal addiction to consumption and is destined to end. A despoiled, smoldering planet uninhabitable by humans is also uninhabitable by capitalists.

To the extent that any of this is true, education as it is currently formulated can not benefit anyone. The only form of education that could, would be a thoroughly critical education, aiming not to contribute to the prevailing social order but to bring about its destruction. This critical education could not promise any individual a better life, because the destruction needed will be costly and painful, and the conclusion of the revolutionary period is in an unknowably distant future. Critical education could not promise any kind of advance in the power or wealth of individuals—on the contrary, it would lead them to be ill-suited to the labor routines and compliance demanded by every workplace. Critical education could promise pain and suffering. It could promise exposure to forms of thinking that are unrecognizable in bourgeois culture. It could promise exposure to severe disciplinary tactics and state violence.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

the subject of pain

This is a proposal I wrote this morning for a book chapter. It’s for an anthology about phenomenology. 

While pain has been medicalized, pathologized, and subjected to normalization, the lived experience of pain has been pushed to the margins, misunderstood, and misrecognized. Pain remains mysterious even while its neurophysiological mechanisms are more precisely and intensively investigated. In part, this is because the predominant biomedical discourse all but eliminates the experiencing subject of pain.

Yet in counter-discourses, including those drawing from phenomenology, pain still presents mysteries. Pain seems to be most subjective, that is, most one’s own, least shareable, and almost inexpressible. It is perhaps the most indubitably and ineluctably certain embodied experience for oneself, but most doubtable and refutable to others, as Elaine Scarry proposed.[1]

In the accounts of many raised to be culturally North American or European, experiences of acute or chronic pain are described as an invasive assault. Strategies for living with chronic pain are struggles at this limit. Susan Wendell presents a strategy of distancing self from the body in pain, “objectifying” both, yet acknowledging this to be a “strategy of embodiment.”[2] Reinterpreting this strategy phenomenologically, what Wendell proposes reveals the paradox of the subject of pain. Pain appears as what is most one’s own, most intimate, but most alien. Pain threatens the sense of embodiment, and disrupts the appearance of body as organ of the Ego. Pain expresses a limit of embodiment as “I can”—the encounter with what the “I can” cannot master.

The subject of pain calls for reexamining this fundamental understanding of embodiment in the phenomenological tradition. For Edmund Husserl and for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, embodiment exhibits a typical and “normal” situation, the situation of “I can.” Against this normal situation, pain is represented as “abnormal” or as pathological (as is disability, among other conditions). Wendell’s strategy, and the struggles of many with chronic pain, could be not only a “renormalization” as reorientation to a “new normal,” but an encounter with embodiment as “I can’t.”

The classic texts of phenomenology offer only scattered hints of an approach to the embodied “I can’t” of acute or chronic pain and other limit-experiences. Further, by pathologizing pain (disability, etc.)—that is, by valorizing ability, mastery, and fluidity of the body-subject—the classic texts of phenomenology fail to account for limit-experiences as an ordinary, normal dimension of embodiment.

Without rejecting Husserl or Merleau-Ponty, and without rejecting the notion of the “I can,” I will offer a phenomenological account of embodiment as both “I can” and “I can’t,” avoiding the pathologizing tendency of both medical and earlier phenomenological discourse. From an initially paradoxical representation of the subject of pain, I will develop an alternative account of the experience of embodiment/embodied experience. I will conclude with a proposal for a new investigation of the normal and the abnormal as structures of embodiment and hermeneutic concepts in phenomenology.

[1] Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
[2] Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

non-tenure-track faculty labor

I see two ways of interpreting the situation of non-tenure-track faculty, drawing from Marx in Capital. If we think of higher education as an industry, and a university as a capitalist enterprise on the factory model (obviously, omitting layers of exchange between the “non-profit” sector of higher ed and overall social capital and accumulation), then tenure-track faculty are regular faculty workers and non-tenure-track faculty can be understood either as cottage industry “piece work” laborers, or as an industrial reserve army. These are not mutually exclusive, I believe.

Cottage industry, as Marx used the term, refers to production taking place outside of the factory. Marx distinguished ordinary cottage industry in which the commodity products of factories are transformed into more finished commodities by individuals with specialized abilities or at the convenience of the industrial capitalist, from cottage industry taking place as after-hours piecework by ordinary wage-laborers. Either form of cottage industry applies to non-tenure-track labor.

As routine, non-tenure-track faculty are often relied upon as labor for specific functions outside normal production of the university. At Cow State Santa Claus, many work as “special consultants” on special projects, to score qualification exams of various kinds, etc. Tenure-track faculty also avail themselves of these “opportunities,” including working in summer sessions through the for-profit extended education unit. Because faculty wages are held below what affords many faculty a reasonable income for their various debts, the university creates the need for additional wages for subsistence. This is similar to mandatory overtime, or extension of work-time.

But many non-tenure-track faculty do cottage labor of a different sort, producing themselves as means of production, by preparing courses that they may or may not teach, doing research and other work without compensation or paid expenses to maintain field currency, contributing to their field’s base of knowledge, etc. Unlike tenure-track faculty who are at least nominally paid for this work, and who can typically predict what classes they need to prepare to teach and thus what areas they need to be current in, non-tenure-track faculty simply have to be ready, or else their labor will lose its saleable value. This is specialized work performed entirely outside the factory setting, and only paid on the basis of its sale as ready labor-power.

That is also the condition of the industrial reserve army. To maintain low wages, it is necessary that there always be a large stock of ready labor-power that is unemployed or underemployed. The value of labor as a commodity is lowered by this reserve stock. The costs for developing and maintaining that labor-power are unpaid, or paid via charity or social welfare systems. Capitalists call upon this reserve at the moment it is needed, and dispose of it as soon as possible. As a reserve, workers in this class are themselves immobile, but to the capitalist, transferrable and exchangeable at whatever distance and to whatever locale. The workers experience their relation to the means of production as interrupted and fleeting; for the capitalist, this labor-power is always available.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

University Education as consumer object

Much consternated hand-wringing is devoted to the seeming disconnect between college education and career paths. The mantra that college prepares people for careers is repeated despite the easily available information that roughly half of college graduates enter careers in their degree major field. This has raised questions about the legitimacy of college education as career preparation, about the legitimacy of certain disciplinary fields (i.e., those without “career paths,” overwhelmingly in arts, humanities, and disciplines of critique like ethnic or gender studies). If students go to college in order to start careers, goes the “thought,” then higher education has failed if graduates don’t enter those careers.

Oddly (revoltingly), the empty rhetoric of administrators offers keener insight. Our wise administrators can’t be bothered with linking degrees to career paths. They speak only of “student success,” which, if it means anything at all, means only that a student graduates. What such a student actually does during college is irrelevant. The only important measures of degree programs are how many students graduate, at what cost, and at what speed. The only additional measures of universities are rankings by national media in one or more of the following categories: time-to-degree, starting salaries of graduates, major sports teams.

Subjectively, graduates may have acquired significant academic and intellectual abilities, begun to master complex knowledge bases, or gone through profound personal and social transformation. Objectively, systemically, this does not matter. Individually, graduates may have developed saleable skills that allow them to command decent salaries. Systemically, whether or not this happens, higher education has succeeded.

In the understanding of many critical commentators, a significant problem faces the university because of the disconnection between individual students’ experiences, goals, and outcomes, and the priorities and rhetoric of university administrators. They have failed to comprehend higher education as a commodity and consumer object.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explains that consumer culture arises after the capitalist industry shifts from solving the problem of sufficient production to meet demand, to the production of demand. Spectacle is a quasi-ideological apparatus for the production of demand. The marketing of brands and lifestyles are its basic mechanisms.
I don’t know when exactly it happened, but some time between the end of the 1960s and the turn of the millennium, this shift overtook higher education. Prior to this shift, higher education produced technology and labor-power for capitalism. Since the shift, it has mainly produced consumers of higher education. There are multiple tracks of this consumption, more or less sumptuous depending on the tier of higher education.
Higher education is marketed and sold as brand and lifestyle in all tiers. Online for-profits, regional public comprehensive universities, local community colleges, R1 research institutions—all have niche markets and demographic targets. The consumer object they sell is sometimes called Education, sometimes Success, but whatever it is, it is desirable.

University of Phoenix is, by many measures of Education/Success, a failure. The university has poor graduate rates, iffy job placement rates, and a poor academic reputation. Nevertheless, again, our administrators wisely note that University of Phoenix and its ilk are the real competitors of regional comprehensives and community colleges.

To comprehend why this is so, we have to remain impervious to the false charms of academic standards, and instead take up the austere rigor of Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of consumer objects and the hyperreal. First of all, we must recognize that consumer objects are consumed not in their use as “real” things, but as hyperreal, spectacular objects. It is not the noxious fumes emanating from the can that one consumes, but Axe Body Spray—i.e., the hyperreal heterosexual copulation between young men and young women. It is not learning, struggling, striving, failing, thinking that one consumes, but Education. (Of course, this is not to deny that copulation, etc., do happen, but to deny that copulation is consumption. Copulation comes to an end; consumption is an endless circuit of desire-consumption-desire/consumption-desire-consumption. I omit here further elaboration of the circuits of consumption à la Volume II of Capital.)

In advertising, which provides the most significant portion of brand benefit of any consumer object, the barest link is maintained between Education/Success and other desirable goods like careers or income (for legal reasons, no doubt). Like advertising for perfumed body spray, beer, cars, or disposable cleaning wipes, there is mention of no specific effort by the consumer, no actual use, no real qualities of the product, and no demonstrable claims about the effects of the product. University of Phoenix used to advertise with the slogan “I’m a Phoenix,” which tells us that the graduate has been branded by the University. Like body spray’s effect on relations between heteronormed young men and women, branding by Phoenix is presented as having such an effect on relations between Success-normed graduates and employers.

That is to say, Education/Success begins and ends in an exchange relation among consumer objects, which now includes in its orbit the branded graduates themselves, and their employers. Students rely on that relation to acquire the means of further consumption. Employers consume the branded graduates in much the same way that one consumes beer. Universities parlay the relation into the circulation of capital in the forms of donations and additional students.

It’s remarkable how little apparent this is in my everyday work. I am confronted daily by the university brand and by the high-concept expression of it by administrators. But in classes, in talking with students or reading their papers or email messages, I labor under the apprehension of them as real people with real challenges to real learning. Because this real life goes on constantly, it’s easy to fall into believing that the brand is unreal. Some people even take it for an insult when they first hear that University Education is hyperreal, or in Bill Readings’ phrase, “in ruins.” The hyperreal is a dimension of everyday life that defies subjective understanding or mastery; it is the reality-effect of ongoing relations of symbolic exchange according to circuits of capital consumer production, in no one’s control. As such it is determinative of the conditions of real production, and appears in the guise of the real, or at least bears the same names. No wonder it is so difficult to tell whether what’s at stake in our struggle is Education or education, Student Success or students’ success, the University or the university.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

writing and "teaching" writing

I have believed for several years now that I should not be teaching writing in my classes, because it's not my job. I teach philosophy, not writing, except to the extent that students need guidance in explaining philosophical ideas in writing.

I'm uncertain I still believe that it's not my job to teach writing. For one thing, I've accepted at last that the implicit form-content dualism of that belief is untenable. Writing is not a container, and ideas are not pre-existing stuff to fill it.

On Thursday, I went on a bike ride after finishing grading 108 student papers, and thought about how to begin teaching something about writing to my students. I began by telling them that reading student papers causes me great pain, because I empathize with the pain I can see in their writing.

I then asked about their pain and anxiety about writing, and when I asked them what they do in response, the first answer in each class was, of course, procrastinate. They listed a number of other responses: they stress-eat, lose sleep, plagiarize, rush through, or give up. I asked how well those strategies work out.

It's hard for me to understand this, because I write all the time. I love constructing sentences and paragraphs. I delight in playing around with words. It's easy. It's easier for me to write than not to write. I struggle to refrain from writing. (That's not entirely true. Some days I can't write easily or well. I just don't have any words. When that happens, I don't push it. The next day, it's back.)

It's also perplexing because I believe most people I come across who have to write as part of what they're doing dislike or even dread writing. How--or more to the point, why--anyone who hates writing becomes a successful academic is beyond my comprehension.

If I state everything I know about good writing, the dilemma of teaching writing is clear. What I know about writing is that good writers learn by copying good writing. Duh. You fall in love with a writer, read everything you can find by that writer, and attempt to write in that writer's style. Then you fall in love with another, and repeat. After 7 or 13 repetitions, your own writing has become a bad pastiche of these styles, and with any luck, someone tells you this or you notice it, and start taking out all the obvious thefts you can identify. You continue this, and add new stolen pieces and removing them, until you die. 

I have my students for a 15-week semester. I can tell them what good writing takes, but they typically lack even the basis of reading and mimicking good writing for years. This extends to fundamentals. Even correcting punctuation and usage on five-page papers is meaningless, if my students lack the habit and the models of conventional style.  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

contingent faculty activism, part 1

The usual approach to contingent faculty* activism is to drive for inclusion, recognition, and security within our institutions. Contingent faculty are underpaid, usually ineligible for benefits, have little or no job security, are relegated to marginal positions as “adjuncts” (as non-faculty), and systematically barred from participating in shared governance over their own work. These have appeared to be the natural targets for activism. In unfortunately many cases, the targets also include faculty leadership and faculty unions, who often mirror their institutions in marginalizing and discarding contingent faculty.

This seems like a contradiction, to some of us. The tenure-track faculty surely ought to be our natural allies. We do the same work, in the same institutions, with the same students. We share commitments to our fields of knowledge and to the social good of higher education.

Obviously, tenure-track faculty are benefited by the current institutional system. For many in the tenure-track, the current arrangement appears to be merit-based, rewarding the deserving and leaving the undeserving to their fate. I am not interested in that here, so I will simply assert that it is untrue, and that the faculty who believe this are wrong about their own merit, their merit relative to the contingent faculty, and the notion that the current system is merit-based.

It is more interesting to consider the tenure-track faculty who acknowledge that the current system is unfair to contingent faculty, is arbitrary to some degree in its distribution of rewards, and yet do not support contingent faculty activism or the usual institutional reforms contingent faculty advocate. I sometimes imagine that they view us as the monstrous creatures of evil genius, or as ghosts haunting them as a reminder of how fickle even their fates are. Few tenure-track faculty quietists would recognize themselves in my gothic fancies, I’m sure. They would explain their inaction with a wan smile and the admission that they are too busy with their own work and their own institutional struggles.

In fact, whether or not I’ve diagnosed their unconscious motivations, they typically are too busy. Most of the contingent faculty are too busy, as well—though more often with driving to another campus to teach two more classes, or to another job, to make ends meet.

Now let me see if I can recapitulate this. The primary goals of mainstream contingent faculty activists are to gain very much or all of what tenure-track faculty currently have in compensation, job security, and self-determination and professional status. What protects those privileges of tenure-track faculty right now? If I’m not mistaken, it is the current institutional system of power and distribution—the very same system of power and distribution to which mainstream contingent faculty activists want access. If this system is what guarantees unfairness, why should the goal be inclusion in it?

So it goes in reformism. (Cf. the same-sex marriage “rights” “victory” that has provided same-sex couples access to the discriminatory institution of state-sanctioned marriage. If marriage were not used as a way to discriminate regarding access to healthcare, survivor’s benefits, and access to other social goods—that is, if marriage were not an administrative means for allocating social goods to certain categories of approved-of lives—this would be a completely empty “victory.” As it stands, it’s certainly Pyrrhic.)


* "Contingent faculty" is a misnomer, one of many, for the faculty who work off the tenure track. It delights me that there is no proper name for us. "Contingent" is technically untrue in my case, under our Collective Bargaining Agreement, and is also vague. "Adjunct" is inappropriate and derogatory: non-tenure-track faculty are around 75% of college faculty in the US, and more than 50% are part-time employees at one or more institutions, so there is nothing "adjunct" (ancillary, additive, inessential) about our work. "Precarious" (a term more often used in Mexico and Québec) is nice. I like the little bit of homophony of "tenuous track," which I claim to have coined in around 2008 or so. My three-year appointments all contain the word "terminal," so we could be called the "terminal faculty."

In any case, although it is not a proper name for us, it is in common usage as an alternative to the obnoxious term "adjunct," so I'll adopt it here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

then it's war!

The "War on Terror" doesn't seem to have gone so well, after all. Whodathunkit?

No doubt, it's the wrong target. No, I don't mean that the US has bombed the wrong brown people, although in large part that's true. And I don't meant that bombing brown people isn't solving the problem, although that's true too. I also don't mean that there's no moral justification for the policy, although that's abundantly clear.

I mean "Terror." Maybe we can't really commit war against "Terror." Plus, I don't know, but isn't war itself kind of terrifying? It's certainly terrible.

Terror is paralyzing. So - follow me here - it's not the people in terror who are turning into terrorists. It's more like people who have something wrong with their lives, and they can think of no other way to solve it but to lash out violently against the supposed perpetrators, in an atavistic and doomed attempt to kill their way out of their problems.

To target the right affect, what we need, I've realized at last, is this: a War on Malaise.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

university education and opportunities to do stuff on campus

This is the text of something I posted for my students to read. It's related to class discussions in my Philosophy and Education class (aka Phil and Ed, nice guys, really), and starting Lani Guinier's Tyranny of the Meritocracy, and other stuff goin' on.

Last Thursday was the Academic Freedom Forum that I organized. One of the primary goals of the event was to contribute to the intellectual life of the university at large, and to invite all members of the university to take part. By my count, 8 of my 108 students attended. I expect there are basically three reasons more of my students didn’t attend: because they weren’t interested, because they had a schedule conflict, or because they didn’t feel comfortable going.

Those who were uninterested may not have understood what the event was about, or why it would be relevant to their lives. They might also have not cared about the issue. I expect that some didn’t care because they don’t consider education to be about doing anything except attending classes and fulfilling requirements for graduation. What is the purpose of university education? How does that purpose relate to fulfilling graduation requirements? Is that purpose related to doing anything outside of fulfilling graduation requirements?

Those who had schedule conflicts may have had a class at the time of the event, but many had work or family obligations. It’s obviously impossible to schedule anything such that no one has any conflicting events. But scheduling is made more difficult by the many obligations most of our students confront daily. Many of those obligations should take precedence over engaging in the intellectual life of the university. What is the relative value of engaging in that intellectual life of the university compared to these other obligations?

Those who were uncomfortable about attending may feel alienated from the life of the university. That could be because of language or culture gaps: even the notion of “intellectual life” may make someone feel unwanted or uninvited. Others may have a health or mental health related reason. I know I often skip events on campus, even events I am interested in, because of anxiety. I know it’s not avoiding anxious situations is not a very positive response to anxiety, but after a long work day, with my energy reserves low, it’s sometimes too much of a burden to summon the fortitude to tough it out. Whose university is it? Whose intellectual life is it?

This is a complex issue. I usually think about it in simple terms, based on my own experience as an undergraduate student. My life as an undergraduate student was not similar to most here at Stan State. I come from a relatively privileged background, and my parents paid my tuition to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (tuition would have been a bit higher there, in constant dollars, than tuition here at Stan State now). I had a job, 20 hours a week, in the library, to pay for books and other expenses. I lived on campus. In addition to classes and work, I spent hours and hours every week, on campus, talking to my professors in their offices, reading in the library, and just prowling around the academic buildings, seeing what was going on. I went to some kind of university academic-related event about every other week—a public lecture by a visiting scholar, a film screening, a play, an art display, a poetry reading, you name it, I would go, especially if there was free food. None of this was for class, or for graduation requirements, or for credit, but just because I saw there were opportunities to do these things, and I wanted to do them. It mattered to me because I had an actively curious intellect, and because I wanted to be an active member of the university. Not only that, but I felt like the university was mine to explore and even exploit in those ways. My feeling was that faculty in their offices were fair game for me to go talk to, about anything at all; that the library was an open invitation to read anything at all about anything at all; and that the art studios, theaters, and architecture department were there for my own entertainment and stimulation. Nobody told me I wasn’t allowed in.

My way of approaching college life was unusual then, and would be even more unusual now. For one thing, my economic situation was very different from what a larger and larger majority of students face today. A lot has changed about the financing of so-called public higher education: fees are higher, and textbook costs are astronomically higher. A lot has changed about the economic conditions of everyday life, and about public funding for a great many human needs.

I imagine it is also the case that the culturally prevailing ideas about the value of higher education have changed. If it was unusual in my undergrad days for students to think of college as an intentional, transformative set of experiences, I think now it sounds almost goofy to suggest this. The cultural idea we have of higher education now emphasizes job preparation to such an extent, that it’s hard for many people to imagine it can do anything else.

The cultural role of higher education has changed also because the demographics of college student populations have changed. Back when I attended, UNCC had more than the usual number of “non-traditional” students—which means students who are not 18-22 years old, and who did not begin college immediately after high school and expect to complete college in four years. At Stan State today, most of our students are non-traditional students. On top of that, a huge majority are first-generation college students, many are immigrants, many more are the children of immigrants, and many do not primarily speak English (the de facto language of teaching on our campus).

When I take all that into consideration, I realize that my own experience of undergraduate education was incredibly privileged, but also that I took every last advantage of it that I could. That immeasurably enriched my education and my life. Because I know how full, rich, and happy the experience of participation in the intellectual life of the university was for me, I want that for everyone. This also indicates what I think university education is, what it is for, and what value it has.

But who is it for? Remember, I was privileged. I didn’t doubt where my next meal was coming from (not until grad school). I had the resources to take advantage of the university. I didn’t receive the message, not once, never ever ever, that university education was not for me.

What do you value about university education? What are you getting from it? What could you get from it? How?

If you did not attend the Academic Freedom Forum because you couldn’t afford to (i.e., your schedule made it impossible), because you weren’t interested, or because you were uncomfortable about coming, this is not your problem. It is a problem concerning the institution as a whole and all of our relations to it. It is a problem regarding our economic, cultural, and social statuses, and, yes, of classism, racism, sexism, prejudice against different ethnicities, against different linguistic groups. The university is not somehow outside of the society, and the social conflicts and problems in our society are reflected in everything that goes on in the university.

My question is what we can do to make university education as valuable to you as it can be, and as it should be?