Monday, April 25, 2016

Further thoughts on the non-space of the university




At an institutional event today—a forum on unionization sponsored by the faculty senate and the MN Daily—I was reminded of what institutional space does. It frames a debate around the terms of those who represent power but appear as the market, as if those terms were somehow simply “there” to be represented. This is common enough and easily perceptible as the structure and effect of capitalism, but within an institution, such as the public university, where this phenomenon also sits as subject to a critique of power/knowledge, to behold it is yet another thing. This is a comment about incivility, on the one hand—it’s a comment about the space not being able to hold, within the terms it had established, a challenge to this frame itself. In this regard, it’s possible to see the apparent contingency of the event being called to an end before I got a chance to ask my “question” as far less contingent than that. I was about to ask a fairly “civil” “question” (the discussion, it had been stressed, should be considerate and should be civil, as should the Bureau of Mediation Services hearings, which had taken place in the preceding week), but also to call into question the terms that were being put forth, including the terms of civility (from which I also feel myself excluded, as someone who has been identified as too angry or as too aggressive, in tone, which I also feel amounts to my exclusion from the BMS hearings). The fact is, incivility is not an appealing position for unionization, either. The question, my question—How is it that a union could address and be critical of the changes in the public university in the past ten to fifteen years?—is always to be balanced against needing to appeal to individuals’ self-interest, in other words, strategically needing to validate the concerns expressed by both Aaron Sojourner and Joel Waldfogel about the compression of salaries, for example, when Waldfogel’s salary is over three hundred thousand dollars. So this is the point at which my civil question turns uncivil, and I hope that in writing about it, I can also attempt to do some further work on understanding the “work” of contingency in the university.

I have come to use the phrase “contingent faculty” to identify those who work in a position “without guarantee” at the university. This can include non-tenure-track faculty who are already included in the faculty instructional unit but don’t have tenure positions (term assistant professor, contract assistant professor). Here, contingency is seen as a politicized term, which many of these people may not identify with, due to the closeness of their standing to the tenure line and their disinclination to instead identify with those perceived as being still below, or of a different type of employee altogether. This group below, at the University of Minnesota, is understood as part of the P&A category (Professional & Administrative) and what I am writing to address is the unchallenged claim that held at tonight’s event, which was that these two groups of employees—tenure-line faculty and P&A instructional (“professional”) faculty—have separate interests and are distinct groups.

Waldfogel put forth this claim by initiating a distinction between tenure-line faculty and contingent faculty on the basis of research work, that contingent faculty teach “to eat” (and he has sympathy for anyone in this position and hopes they can find a way to get better terms) but that this is fundamentally different from what faculty do. He cited his own “research” study on those who supported the University of Oregon unionization and found that those who had a greater interest in research were less likely to be supportive of unionization. It’s easy to see where the argument goes, but I was struck by this formulation: “More productive, less supportive.” He went on to cite how just like other “amenities” that can be used (like the sports facility and new recreation center) to attract graduate students, amenities are need to bring in research faculty and unionization would be less appealing to those folks.

In my question turned uncivil, I would say, the only difference between my productivity and yours is that yours is paid for and supported by the institution, including this pathetic “research” study put forward to us tonight, which confuses effect for cause and is blind to the conditions of production.

I do research, I publish peer-reviewed articles, and I have a press interested in reviewing a book manuscript for which I will receive no “course release” to work on, no sabbatical to take, and no institutional grants to apply for. The people who are invested in maintaining this distinction, even at a very minimal level, are those who directly benefit from not having to share the responsibility of doing the work done by these employees. These are tenure-line faculty who can afford to “not get” the difference between the way that contingent labor is valued and the way their own is (acknowledging that there are still many who do get it). Is there much of a difference between the elitism espoused by Joel Waldfogel and the structure of this institutional space (the forum event itself) in which such a difference could go unchallenged? I wonder, tonight, how many more of such things I can sit through—the annihilating feeling of no one objecting to these terms (except, thank you, Michael Goldman). Waldfogel called the “method” of his research study “hogwash,” but its terms still stood. His measure of productivity was challenged but its ontological presuppositions were not and do not tend to get challenged even by faculty members in my own department (all of whom claim to be concerned about contingent faculty): the fact that within the university, the adjunct occupies the position, according to the definition in Merriam-Webster of being “added or accompanying in a subordinate capacity.” This is further qualified, in Merriam Webster, as “attached to a faculty or staff as a temporary or part-time member.” It is in this light that the stakes of Waldfogel’s phrase, “more productive, less supportive” emerge. In the humanities, productivity’s more familiar name is publication. The “more supportive, less productive” side, in contrast, is not, in actuality, another side, it is an included aspect of this productive labor, in all of the ways that are described in Marx and taken up by Silvia Federici, Selma James, and other Marxist feminists. Of course, this makes apparent the investment in the invisibility of this work. The way in which the reality-effect of the two sets of separate interests flickers and blinds.

I would go on to say: see here, your productivity is the result and real abstraction of so much other productivity. And this is probably obvious to a number of people in the room. It’s not the “market,” it’s the politics of the university. What’s less obvious, though, is what all the silence is about. Why didn’t I just say—I was right in front of the microphone when it was called done—oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got this question and I really just have to ask it? We’ve all been here, and we’ve been waiting, and we’ve heard enough from you. Silence, complicity (the past participle of adjungere, “to link up, join, add, attach”), “civil” guilt. This is also an a/effect of the terms in which it was all framed. The adjunct is included; she is invited to speak, so long as it’s in these terms; she can stand in line for the microphone, to ask her question, but her turn will never come. She will never get to decide about the terms of productivity, even though, ontologically, she is committed to that productivity. I think when we say that tenure-line faculty “don’t get it,” this is what I we mean, even though it’s often offered as an excuse or justification for this lack of understanding.

I can’t help but think of this “not getting it” in those terms that Brecht uses in explaining his dissatisfaction with how Mother Courage (in his 1938 play Mother Courage and Her Children) was received by audiences. He was disappointed that by and large, audiences felt empathy for Mother Courage (Anna Fierling), who killed, or let die, her three children, in her blind drive to profit off of the war. Brecht was disappointed that audiences empathized with her conflict rather than that they able to perceive that she “didn’t get it.” I often think about that difference when it is described (empathetically) that faculty “don’t get it.” Can Mother Courage be seen differently for not getting it, for not perceiving her life is contingent upon the death of her children? As Rei Terada describes in “Repletion: Masao Adachi, Landscape Film and Real Abstraction,” this distinction is also apparent in thinking about real abstraction, that “understanding real abstraction by definition departs from the sensory experience of real abstraction rather than being constituted in it.” Brecht’s dissatisfaction with the reception of Mother Courage can be seen in this way; it’s no wonder that he gives up on experience. He would have to in order to want to insist upon Mother Courage’s not-getting-it. If, in Terada’s model, understanding real abstraction can be seen as constituted by the sensory experience of real abstraction, not-getting-it is already inside all of that. Not-getting-it isn’t a transcendental position that fails to think outside itself; not-getting-it is the condition in which real abstraction is experienced, sensorily, by contingent faculty. It is a different kind of failure.

Although “contingency” is a term that is located, philosophically, opposite to necessity, perhaps as Merriam-Webster again, “happening by chance : affected by unforeseen causes or conditions : not patently necessary : unpredictable in occurrence or outcome,” contingency bears traces of the same kind of dependence that comes up with the term “adjunct”: “dependent on, associated with, or conditioned by something else.” Etymologically, this goes further, through an association with “touch,” as the present participle of contingere “to touch on all sides.” Contingency is a position whose associated sensorial experience is one of being touched on all sides by not-getting-it, so that one’s merely being the effect of this is equivalent to one’s annihilation, or feeling of being destroyed, even when “included.” It’s not just about the visibility of the work done by these faculty, although I often come back round to that; it’s about the way in which these positions form the basis of a critique of the institution of the university that does not in turn continue to valorize the uncritical linking of power/knowledge.

Last week in the BMS hearings, a senior lecturer in the Carlson School of Management testified, via his experience on the faculty senate, to the percentage of courses taught, across the university at each level (from 1000-level courses to 8000-level courses), by non-tenure-track faculty. Beginning with 1000-level classes, this number was over 50%; even at 8000-level courses, the number was still around 39%. The university maintains a quoted standard that no more than “25%” of courses should be taught by non-tenure-line faculty. These are courses that should be taught by tenure-line faculty; that they are not illuminates the extent to which the university is underfunding departments with enrollments that exceed their faculty teaching capacity. Where does this divestment in teaching come from? It does not come from “the market,” even if the market were some kind of veritable Mississippi, dividing the campus in two; it comes from the political investment in the financialization of the university, its professionalization, and its optimalization of profit (plus everything else and all that). No one can get out of it, but can you feel “dead” to it even as you are touched on all sides? That space that is most appropriated, most exploited, most alienated? How do you not-valorize that space?

Friday, April 22, 2016

there, there


I can still recall the feeling of certain words--words, perhaps, that I read a long time ago. Maybe this is the minimal index of there being a still there, there. It's kind of like thinking back to certain things I was doing or did when pregnant, and being able to viscerally glimpse the clumsy, over-affected way I felt, tinged with a nausea that still remains poignant, when I read or thought about certain things--about Edith Jacobson's book Depression, for example, or the poems in Gr├╝nbein's Grauzone Morgens. Words that I remember from other times retain a place on this spectrum--about the way that they felt going down. I can still recall the feeling of taking them in.

In Don't Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Claudia Rankine explores a tension there, between different ways of feeling, between expressing emotion and feeling loss "to the point of being bent over each time" (57). I'm not endorsing this kind of distinction and its perhaps implicit valorization of the rough form of the latter, as the embodied aspect of an experience, but I am interested in the persistence of associative "feeling." How you are even supposed to "think" about this might be the subject of Feeling in Theory, which I have been coming back round to, largely out of the desire to give it as a gift to a couple of my undergrads, and then realizing that I have forgotten its arguments, though perhaps "forgetting" means internalizing to the point of nonrecognition. "Forgettable living" (Rei Terada, "The Life Processes and Forgettable Living").

On the last double page spread of Rankine's DLMBL, there is an image of a billboard with the words "HERE." Above this, in the text, there is a fair amount of writing that explicates "here" as both a statement of presence (of being in a place) and an assertion of a certain kind of exchange, like a "handshake," Rankine says, referring to a comment of Paul Celan's about the poem being like a handshake, an offering. One of my students observed that this billboard was the same as the image featured on the cover, in which case, these were photoshopped words on the billboard. This provided us with a sort of formal circularity, between the cover and the last pages (at least the last of the pages of poetry, before the many pages of notes). And, as I spun my book around performatively, trying to feel like we could make some kind of cohesive (or complete?) statement about the book in the last 5 minutes we had, I said, what is it that this kind of circularity allows us to see? A student responded, it's a sentence: Don't let me be lonely here." We were all captured, I think, by the simple brilliance of this statement, about the completion of syntax; there was a looking at that, for a while. It was also about the way that completing the sentence undermined the feeling that we had initially had, that the book is announcing its arrival at a particular place, a particular time, that the book gets somewhere, that the speaker gets somewhere. I then asked, what does it mean, then, if it's a sentence? Another student spoke up, "Don't let me be lonely here. But you could let me be lonely there." Another moment, differently felt, of yes. But what is this distinction? What seems to speak in it?

Throughout the book, loneliness seems linked to a certain being towards death. I don't myself know if Rankine is inviting us into this irresolvable space or critiquing the lack of resolve for it not to be. On some level, what's the difference? Where would it be okay to be lonely? Maybe on the "other side," thinking with Fatih Akin's Auf der anderen Seite [translated: The Edge of Heaven, but literally, in my translation: On the other side]. But then, it's the transcendence that cannot be supposed--it's like, waking in the middle of the night, inches away from wall, and thinking of death, thinking of death from within your dreams, waking from thinking of death, inches from the wall. Let me be lonely there.

People talk about the "flow" of the market. Today, in the Gender, Culture, Capitalism Reading Group, talk was about the market as a river. Fuck the river, I thought. What a fantasy of life, what ontology, presupposing life, as if this is all we "know." It's not a "fiction" wherein fiction is a river.  On the other side, there's nothing like this. Imagine the river: don't let me be lonely here. I think Rankine is still on this side. The parts of her text that seem to suggest that living is dying don't seem to go there; they don't seem to say let me be lonely there. They seem to stay on this side of here. Consider that there is no river; there is no flow, except as perceptible entities. The wall is also a perceptible entity, and so is the billboard. So there.

picture: Wisconsin, sunset

Friday, April 8, 2016

"Maybe, I prefer a bit of muddle to the use of a gadget."


This title quote comes from Paula Heimann's essay, "About Children and Children-No-Longer," about which I have been thinking and writing. After making the above statement, she rescinds it, writing, "I must contradict my last sentence. I do not like muddled thinking at all, although I am guilty of it only too often as just now. I meant to express my strong dislike against introducing any gadget into the psychoanalytic relationship. I probably should not be able to handle it correctly" (339). The quick distance Heimann takes from the "muddle"--it's only there to illustrate a kind of option that might represent a state of not having the "gadget" (the "gadget" in question, a tape recorder)--is something I'd like to think about. But the impulse to ask a question about status of the muddle in relation to the gadget also opens immediately into the problem that such a question is, as Winnicott writes, "not to be formulated" (Playing and Reality 17)* and yet: does the renunciation of the muddle take place because it is already too much like a "gadget"--too much of a thing that can be applied to thinking--or because it operates as a kind of fetish, and so threatens to expose a space that might indicate the absence of method in psychoanalysis?

What is interesting to me about Paula Heimann's term "children-no-longer" is that it clearly locates the adult in relation to a state now passed; in contrast, "grown-ups" suggests having one's sites on the movement forward. Philli, the other day, talking about her feeling that it would be "impossible" to grow up, for example, that it "would take so long." The "grown-up" who knows the other side of this feels the pressure to "grow up" in his/her various ways. The pressure to do so is in every place; even when it is not clearly ideological, as in professionalization, or in determining one's identity, it is there, perhaps simply, as time.

The child-no-longer has no better method than anyone else for getting through the day and the way it throws up, at every juncture, something that needs to be gotten through. But since these forms of mediation appear socially, they seem to require a facility with method--with something, I think, that we think of as providing a procedure or process for getting through. It's, I suppose, obvious why "method" is posited here. Or why the question of method is so firmly lodged in the junctures. Conversations in the recent panel I took part in at the ACLA, "From Extraction to Exhaustion" repeated these questions--something like, what if you move backward into rather than forward from/with method? Maybe it's not spatial (backwards) or regressive but one thing to contend with, on the one hand, is the feeling that it is; on the other hand, it registers in the feeling of not being included in the any of the movements are are pushing forward, coming into being. There, the psychotic aspect of the "child-no-longer" comes into play, in the feeling of having hallucinated oneself into the story about how something has come to be.

Today in the bi-weekly installment of a reading group that I've been taking part in on financialization, led by Miranda Joseph, we were joined by Leigh Claire La Berge, who has written about literary aspects of abstraction and representation in relation to finance, and I felt like this conversation somehow took place for me in the above framework, roughly sketched out. Here, the conversation was explicitly about method and interdisciplinarity, proposing the mediation of various dualisms, such as form/content, or abstract/concrete, or representation/reality, as the work to be done (does the child play and not work simply because it is not required to muster the same kind of energy just to keep things going, to maintain the capacity to set things in motion at every instance?).

So I think the question raised for me here--after a day like today, a day that felt like a continuous hallucination of myself into forms of being that no longer count me in, or that have counted me dead, in various ways, which is a very intensely narcissistic thing as well--is why I'm always lingering in these spaces, from which it feels like others have passed on through, or if they haven't, they are aiming to? Or it's this idea of myself as doing so that I can't let go of. But if the insistence on that is not pathological but rather a part of one's being a child-no-longer, does it mean it's a state that you can continue to hold, even though it's dead to others--dead to those who have moved on to other terms, to fields and disciplines where the stakes require justification on other terms? Why, or in what situation, do we see the dead things behind as "everything"--the everything we want to bring along with us--and not the "nothing"? This was a question that arose for me in Michelle Cho's lovely talk, "Genre Worlds," and in the discussion that followed. Here, I lose a sense of what I'm talking about because I'm talking about so many levels, and for much of the time of the talk all I could be aware of was the way that the room like a space of total loss, giving rise to a very acute feeling of suffocation, a form of the feeling of not making it through. That's what it was, anyway.

Winnicott, who discusses the importance it being a "matter of agreement" not to ask and thus decide whether something was found or created, and yet that's always the demand that method makes, to determine this in some way. I wonder if the feeling that going "back" and trying to pick something up is painful comes not so much from one's encounter with reality (i.e. that whatever it is that is being picked up is not "there") but from being compelled to make this choice between what is found and what is created (which is just as unfathomable as the "impossibility" of growing up).

In object relations, this would be the pain associated not with the destruction of the object, but with pain affecting the ego, the "narcissistic hurts" suffered in time. Looking back on this formulation in Heimann's essay, "About Children and Children-No-Longer," it's notable that the description of "narcissistic hurts" comes up when she is talking about the difference between the "regressed" person and the state of original childhood. She writes, "The regressed person, adult or child, suffers from a breakdown of advanced functions, suffers from destructive processes affecting developmental achievements. This implies narcissistic hurts, wounds to self-esteem, shame, a sense of being let down by oneself, failure in many respects" (335). These "hurts" or "wounds" or "shame" seem to point to the vulnerability that the ego must always feel, on the edge of its own destructiveness, as Freud describes, as a border-animal, a Grenstier, whose method, though it might be perceptible to others in this kind of retrospective glance, is nothing other than a kind of hugging to oneself of something--a piece of "time" frozen, an otherwise nothing--about which you have not been compelled to choose, I found it/I created it.

Such was the view out/of the window today in Walter 101: against the backdrop of the fallen classic grandeur of the building of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, which is in the middle of being torn down and so boarded up, an April snow large-flaked and gusty. And there continues to be something about the snow--about the way that I experience it as an enclosure (or the perceptibility of an enclosure) close to the form of an embrace--that seems to lend itself to imagining the afterlife of dead letters, those objects that continue to transmit their messages, as falling down to earth.

*Winnicott's passage reads: "Of the transitional object it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: 'Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?' The important point is that no decision on this point is expected. The question is not to be formulated. (Playing and Reality 17; italics in original)

Note: As always, a form of working through with RT. So much also moves from the totally moving series of conversations had around what is found/what is created with RP, CC, and AL in the Spring 2016 course "Psychoanalysis and Lit II"; this, in turn, was found/created in "From Exhaustion to Extraction" and continues to converse there, after the conversing is past.

Picture: Still from Hirokazu Koreeda, After Life (1998).