Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adjuncting Love

Recently, questions about desire and love have come out of the woodwork in conversations about graduate/adjunct labor, the work of academia, and intellectual occupations more generally. Meanwhile, student workers at the University of California are on strike protesting unfair labor practices. In the last five years, writing on the working conditions in California public education has been instrumental in communicating the terms of this struggle to those located within and without; the website Remaking the University and the blog/journal Reclamations are prominent examples of places where this writing is taking place. Even while not the explicit subject matter of this writing, the affective intensity of such work is evident here as well as in the on-the-ground organization, activism, and struggle that much of the writing work grapples with, describes, inspires, and responds to. Two recent examples of work that exhibits this affective intensity are "Why We are Striking," a document signed "some strikers, some friends," which puts forth the terms of the current strike at the UC over unfair labor practices; and Earl Perez-Foust's "Why Solidarity Is Important, or an Open Letter to UC Faculty," which addresses the importance of faculty members supporting the strike as a way of making conversations about the conditions of the academic workplace more transparent.

One thing about the intensity of this work that's worth noting is the way that it considers itself to be destructive, or it understands that this is its potential; this is to be understood in opposition to the do what you love ideology that allows the labor of academic work to go unacknowledged as such. While such a naive "love" is widely recognized as "too much," it also becomes quite clear, as Hannah Black describes in "You Are Too Much," that a model, or perhaps better, a narrative, of love that affirms the fitness of the object is long past. Black identifies the way that the model of heterosexual love is not only not available to those who don't identify with this narrative, but "how blackness or queerness or even being gendered female in a white male supremacist world can make it hard to accept love because you are encouraged from childhood to hate yourself." I'm extending her discussion about race and sexuality to academia, because I think that her central insight about love, that the choice we have about it is reserved for the attitude we have toward hate, poses something worthwhile for the discussion. As she finds, there are two positions indicated by the White Family: over-attachment (the maintaining of a belief in attachment as health, as figured in the overly attached girlfriend) and hate or destructiveness (being foreclosed from the narrative, refusing the narrative). Black writes, "For the White Family love is health, but for us love is at once a symbol of a possible future, a vanishing present, and the sign of the patriarchal white permafrost that threatens to destroy us. If we are ambivalent about love in its present form, it is only because, against the odds, we choose to feel something other than hatred."

We might export these two positions to the realm of academic labor: over-attachment or destructiveness. This invites a brief (as brief as possible) discussion of an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elizabeth Segran's "The Danger of Victimizing Ph.D.'s." Her argument can be surmised from the subtitle, "No one but you is forcing you to accept low-paid adjunct work," and what's shocking about the piece (in addition to the fact that there's no mention of the "productive" ways that people at her former graduate institution are also, on the same day, attempting to influence the "labor market") is that there's no account of the complexity of "choice," as an instance of coerced volition in a narrative that's not just ideological, but "bad" psychology.

Segran's presentation of this choice ("Yet Ph.D.’s have the power to resist. They can choose to reject academe altogether and find satisfying work elsewhere.") and her valorization of professionalization (if you fail in being a professional academic, you just need to choose another field in which you can be a professional success) is laughable, perhaps, on certain days, at certain times, because the other side of what she presents is all that cannot be included in such choices, including the very idea of a "choice" as something that can be made "freely" by an individual. As 1970s Marxist feminism has shown, and as this article by low end theory also notes (thanks to Michelle Ty for the reference), choices, in particular about objects of love, are always also coercions. I keep dwelling on this insight, now outdated—perhaps too outdated to explain love now, but also, I suspect, not—in thinking about the close residence of love and hate and the role of destructiveness in love. For as much as Black writes against "love," she also gets that the joke about overattachment is not that funny: "One side of the joke — that a woman would have to be crazy to long for entry into a couple — is negated by the other — that a woman who can’t negotiate her way into a couple is crazy." Put otherwise: One side of the joke—that a PhD has to be crazy to long for entry into academia—is negated by the other—that a PhD who can't negotiate her way into academia is crazy. This ambivalence cannot be resolved by simply choosing another object to love, another profession, another .com identity.

At least, it's not a choice of the sort that I'd want to make. There's no "choice," for example, in some strikers, some friends' phrasing "Today’s strikers, tomorrow’s adjuncts." But there is something to think about in the continuity that is asserted between these positions, which are often seen as occupying different places in society: one, choosing to feel something other than hatred (i.e. choosing destructiveness) and the other, overattached, atomized, nostalgic, failed. The continuity is further asserted at the end of the document with the statement, "We are striking so that we do not end up like the fortunate ones."  In other words, I think, we are striking so that we don't have to be the professionals, the ones for whom choice is both a matter of production and consumption.

Although throughout grad school I resisted professionalization and I was a striker, it's taken me quite some time to see where this leaves me, outside of feeling like I am not a part of anything--too far from the UC (and from my life as a grad student) to be anything but a spectator and too alienated from the University of Minnesota (and my life as an academic) to do anything there. But the insidious component, which I've been trying to describe, is the way that my market failure has contributed to my feeling that I also am not worth enough to contribute to these conversations—the ones at the UC that I described above and read so avidly—as anything more than an overattached spectator. It's been harder to resist feeling like my lack of success on the job market is not tied to wanting "too much," harder to think in an un-atomized, de-individualized way about the plethora of rejection and nonadmittance to the institution.

In other words, it's hard to go from being a striker to an adjunct; it's hard to feel like overattachment is your fate (or that the White Family is) and to come up with a way to articulate a resistance to this structure of affective relations when your relation to the institution seems to affirm that fate. But what the continuity that is described by some strikers, some friends suggests is finally quite helpful for thinking about the very real reasons that are there for not wanting to count oneself as part of the "fortunate." For the Tenure-Track Professor and the White Family (and with the understanding that these are not social categories but upheld and often invisible ideals), there is no longer a reason to feel ambivalent about love, or perhaps better, there's always another reason to feel ambivalent about love, but perhaps too there's no longer a reason to feel ambivalent about one's love objects. In addition to the fact that this is "too bad," the loss of such ambivalence, of a relation to a loved object that does not involve the capacity to hold one's destructiveness, is a profound but perhaps less apparent price to be paid for professionalism.


TB said...

This is really wonderful. Thank you.

Erin Trapp said...

thank you, TB :)