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.