Your input here

I’ve seen some proposals for resistance to the corporatization of the university being circulated among anthro colleagues recently. These range from ideas about boycotting the peer review process of for-profit academic journals, to the Cost of Knowledge campaign, to the widespread action by academics to free their work from paywalls in the PDF Tribute in response to the tragic death of Aaron Schwartz, to the call not to pay (as many) conference fees by minimizing/strategizing conference attendance. The other day some colleagues of mine also suggested subversive, pro forma mass-co-authorship of articles in response to the pressure of quantitative publication norms as a criterion for good scholarship.

While I’m supportive and agree with the statements these proposals make, they also make me wonder. If it’s important to pay attention to the processes of production within which we are (and our academic work is) implicated, then aren’t our relations to our universities especially worthy of attention? Moreover, aren’t our universities the places where, as students and employees, our voices are already supposed to count? So what about the role that our institutions play in perpetuating the conditions of the underpaid academic precariat? (that is, the conditions that make those conference fees a stretch for us in the first place).

It brings me back to the questions I posed here earlier this month: what knowledge have we each gained from our own struggles for the future of our universities, at our universities? How are our (anthropological) insights about the intersection between academia and contemporary capitalism informed by our own practices of struggle? And is it worth building an exchange of these stories and strategies between locales in some way or another? I tend to think so. And I’d like to experiment with that here. That’s why I look forward to telling you about the conflict that’s been playing out these past two weeks at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam over the failed reorganization of the university library. But in the meantime, this is just a little reminder that this experiment needs your input, too. So feel free to voice any thoughts.


Donya Alinejad is a PhD candidate at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She does research on the role of internet media in the formation of selves among the children of immigrants from Iran in Los Angeles, California.

19 thoughts on “Your input here

  1. Thanks for this post Donya. I’m looking forward to the rest!

    First of all, I really like the idea your colleagues came up with–the mass-publication idea is a good one. Hmm. I like that kind of thinking…

    Second, what I really appreciate about your questions is that you’re asking for something more specific here–what’s our relationship to the institutions that we are actually a part of. Those relationships are definitely worth examining, since universities are places where our voices supposedly count (our money counts, that’s for sure). Thinking on these terms is quite different than making general complaints about “academia” or “the system” or whatever. I also like the idea of building some sort of exchange between institutions about these stories and experiences.

    Of course, along with getting more specific and addressing more concrete experiences, there is going to be more of a need to proceed in a way that avoids backlash. My guess is that a lot of people do not talk about specific problems at their own universities because of fears of repercussions, etc. So it might be good to think about ways of communicating and sharing experiences while remaining protected, anonymous, etc.

  2. A few suggestions:

    A more critical understanding of characters such as Simon Sinek, Danah Boyd and Grant McCracken, and the role of futurism and anti-humanism in intellectual life, inside and outside the academy.

    No discussion of Zero Dark 30 without context. If we can refer to race–as a “political technology” we should ask about performative reinforcement in the use of the terminology of machines. What kind of esthetic is manifest?

    “Discuss White Privilege”, can we talk about Palestine?
    I read Arabs on the Arab spring, before I read anthropologists. Or I read Arab academics.

    Aaron Swartz killed himself facing the risk of 6 months in a low security federal pen, because “data wants to be free”. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails facing open ended sentences are on hunger strike, ready to die because people want to be free.

    Palestinians are the next wave of civil right movement: shopkeepers, housewives and husbands. They’re leading themselves just as in the past, American blacks, women and homosexuals led themselves. When forced to face real engagement Judith Butler became an articulate, and plain spoken, defender of Palestinians’ claims to basic civil equality. She defended liberalism when liberals who’ve attacked her refused to. That’s the important fact, not the theoretical gobbledygook that came before. Could it be that gobbledygook was emotionally necessary as a way to defend humanism in an anti-humanist age? Maybe “theory” as poetry kept humanism alive, the poetry of technocracy, fighting against itself.

    We’re the products of our culture. Our language forms us. The rise of technology and the technological imperative, has resulted in a culture of pseudo-objectivity and a language and culture of happy-faced pseudo-autism:the effaced, elided self.

    Who watches the watchmen? Who naturalizes the naturalizers?
    How about the end of arguments from an assumption of a stable self? Not the idea instability by the fact of it.

    How about a relentless assault on the moral esthetic and political foundations of geekdom.

  3. . A debate organized around the topics of futurism, anti-humanism, and the moral, esthetic, and political foundations of geekdom could be fascinating, not least because, for once, we have serious ethnography to draw on that is easily accessible to all of us. I am thinking of Chris Kelty’s Two Bits and E. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom to which Rex has directed our attention. Both give us the opportunity to compare accounts of geeks’ native perspective with analyses proposed by non-geek or anti-geek contributors. In addition, beyond these two books, there is also a world of material to consider, Edge, TED, Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, the work of Lawrence Lessig, as well as the works of the authors whom Seth Mentions: Sinek, Boyd, and McCracken. We might even get some of them to chime in.

  4. @Seth: more than happy to discuss Palestine. Not interested in parochial discussions, tunnel vision. Definitely think about racialized dispossession in both Israel/Palestine and the US, both settler societies. Actually posted a link to airport harassment at LAX of a Palestinian Oscar nominee, on Kerim’s recent profiling post. So yes, happy to talk about Palestine too.

  5. What is the neoliberal academy?

    Lawrence Lessig vs Zadie Smith.

    McCracken is to marketing what HTS is to war.

    The Convergence Culture Consortium and the Futures of Entertainment, and TED (the E is entertainment) are defined by optimism. Art includes the tragic. It’s Burkean by definition. Zero Dark 30 and The Wire are not optimistic and they are not “entertainment”.

    If you want to argue with Diamond, Chagnon, DeLong et al, you have to argue with what they represent, and ask what you share of their assumptions.
    “Savage Interview: ethnographer and entrepreneur theorist Simon Sinek” That’s from this site. Why? What’s the relationship of the life of the mind to “entrepreneurship?”
    In French entrepreneur means contractor. In Italian barista means bartender.
    What do they mean now in english and why?

    Stanley Hoffmann reviews “Distinction”
    “But if “using rare words and tropes in place of common words and phrases” is a strategy of “deliberate transgression” of the norms of clear prose characteristic of the dominant classes and is opposed to “the hyper-correction strategies of pretentious outsiders,” then Bourdieu is a master strategist. Words such as lexis, allodoxia, chiastic, askesis, espace hodologique, hysteresis, and of course habitus (and, indeed, hysteresis of habitus) are scattered throughout the text.6 That a work of social science should—”unlike the sometimes illuminating intuitions of the essay”—require an effort on the part of the reader is fair enough. Here, however, reality disappears into the hypertrophied rhetoric of the Ecole Normale.”

    Zadie Smith again, on “living variously”

    “But to live variously cannot simply be a gift, endowed by an accident of birth; it has to be a continual effort, continually renewed. I felt this with force the night of the election. I was at a lovely New York party, full of lovely people, almost all of whom were white, liberal, highly educated, and celebrating with one happy voice as the states turned blue. Just as they called Iowa my phone rang and a strident German voice said: “Zadie! Come to Harlem! It’s vild here. I’m in za middle of a crazy Reggae bar—it’s so vonderful! Vy not come now!”

    I mention he was German only so we don’t run away with the idea that flexibility comes only to the beige, or gay, or otherwise marginalized. Flexibility is a choice, always open to all of us. (He was a writer, however. Make of that what you will.)

    But wait: all the way uptown? A crazy reggae bar? For a minute I hesitated, because I was at a lovely party having a lovely time. Or was that it? There was something else. In truth I thought: but I’ll be ludicrous, in my silly dress, with this silly posh English voice, in a crowded bar of black New Yorkers celebrating. It’s amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment. A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own. You will think that a novelist’s screwy leap of logic. Well, it’s my novelist credo and I believe it. I believe that flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things. My audacious hope in Obama is based, I’m afraid, on precisely such flimsy premises.”

    I’m not interested in parochial discussion. And I’m not quoting Hoffmann or Smith to celebrate them.

    What is the neoliberal academy?
    It’s defined by first order curiosity without second order curiosity: by the enthusiasm without question of gamers geeks and bureaucrats. But under that is fear.

    Bourdieu was a petty bourgeois moralist with an authoritarian streak. I almost cannot comprehend how that would be possible to miss. His work manifests a moral economy of crap.
    What is the neoliberal academy!!?

  6. White liberal hypocrites, guilty white liberals. Angry black Americans who pretend they know something about Africa. Zionists who remember a horrendous crime, and yet the fascists were their greatest teachers.
    What does Glenn Greenwald know about Mali? Nothing. Does that mean he’s wrong?
    I don’t have an answer.
    The US is backing Al Qaeda again, in Syria. Should I back Assad?
    How do you compare feminism of the women in the IDF with the feminism of the women of Hamas?
    How do we tell the difference between pity and concern? What is “engagement”?

    I assume you know that Obama could never be the black president that many imagined he’d be. He rose by stealth. He’d never get to where he is by being angry. When did being conciliatory become being corrupt? A cousin of an old friend was with him the night before his speech at the convention in 2004. “They’re treating you like a rock star.”
    “Wait till tomorrow.”
    Obama was a prep school negro

    For a while I assumed you were a white male grad student.
    The author of the piece at Salon is a professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire.

  7. Seth, I’m not really sure what your comment is getting at, but your ‘angry black Americans’ comment is a ridiculous stereotype. In combination with assuming that I was a white male grad student, what exactly are you trying to imply as you really know little about me, include whether or not I am an African immigrant such that your comment about stereotypical angry black Americans is even more offensive and racist.

    Moreover, in posting the Salon link I was not myself making any claims about white liberals, posting a link to an article that showed a thought-provoking link between the extrajudicial killing of Osama Bin Laden/Strong’s post (on ZDT and affect) and racial profiling/Kerim’s post.

    I don’t appreciate your racist stereotyping of what king of caricatured black (non)person you imagine me to be. And as for anger: yes, negatively racially stereotyping people is generally not a great way to endear yourself to them.

  8. Or is your ‘angry black Americans’ comment a reference to Toure’? If so, my apologies for reading your comment as attacking me personally. But would still question the unqualified use of a term like ‘angry black Americans’ (as well as ‘white liberals’).

  9. Moralists and technocrats both rely on crutches, one of morality as an idea, and the other on ideas as morality.

    The focus either on moralism or technics flattens the experience of selfhood. We’re always of two minds. Consciousness is internal conflict. Democracy is defined by the ability of people to negotiate their own contradictions, and from there to negotiate conflicts with others. Technocrats and moralists denying their own complexity, deny it of others, weakening democracy.

    Zionism is Garveyism for Jews, with the added call for conquest. I’m no more Zionist than Garveyite, but I understand the roots of both. I know what anger is, believe me.

  10. The focus either on moralism or technics flattens the experience of selfhood. We’re always of two minds. Consciousness is internal conflict. Democracy is defined by the ability of people to negotiate their own contradictions, and from there to negotiate conflicts with others. Technocrats and moralists denying their own complexity, deny it of others, weakening democracy.

    Seth, I am of two minds about this. One agrees with considerable feeling. Both moralism and technics do evade the tragic (and comic) conflicts with which human life is permeated. That flattening you mention does occur.

    The other asks, Where is Nature in this analysis? The indifferent universe and the brute facts of life with which negotiation is impossible? What do we say when action is urgent and there is no time for negotiation, with ourselves or with others? Saying that both moralists and technocrats rely on crutches is an artful rhetorical thrust that invites us to see both moralists and technocrats as fundamentally crippled and weak. What if we said “tool” or “weapon” instead? Is a surgeon weak because he requires a scalpel? A farmer weak when he uses a tractor to plow his fields? A general weak when he raises an army?

  11. What Price Better Health?: Hazards of the Research Imperative. by Daniel Callahan

    —Though unfamiliar to most scientists and the general public, the term expresses a cultural problem that caught my eye. It occurs in an article written by the late Protestant moral theologian Paul Ramsey in 1976 as part of a debate with a Jesuit theologian, Richard McCormick. McCormick argued that it ought to be morally acceptable to use children for nontherapeutic research, that is, for research with no direct benefit to the children themselves and in the absence of any informed consent. Referring to claims about the “necessity” of such research, Ramsey accused McCormick of falling prey to the “research imperative”, the view that the importance of research could overcome moral values.
    That was the last time I heard of the phrase for many years, but it informs important arguments about research that have surfaces with increasing force of late. It captures, for instance, the essence of what Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate for his work on genetics and president emeritus of Rockefeller University once remarked to me: “The blood of those who will die if biomedical research is not pursued will be upon the hands of those who don’t do it.”—

    War communism in the war on disease.

    The difference between a tool and a crutch is in the people who wield it. A diagnostician is a connoisseur, not an expert.

    I got drunk a few weeks ago with two veterans of 4 tours, 2 each in Afghanistan and 2 in Iraq. At the end of a long night one asked me what it felt like for me to be drinking with criminals. It was the opposite of bragging. I said I’d gotten drunk with killers before. I know life can be hard.

  12. “Saying that both moralists and technocrats rely on crutches is an artful rhetorical thrust that invites us to see both moralists and technocrats as fundamentally crippled and weak…”

    As in… disabled?

    Oh sorry, forgot we weren’t talking about that! Now, back to the ‘autistic’ technocrats…

  13. Interesting comment, Seth, but very much an evasion. What about Nature? That big universe out there that doesn’t give a damn and will kill us if we dither. You haven’t answered that part.

  14. Seth, reverting to ad hominem does not an argument make. I thought you were prepared to engage in a serious discussion. It appears that all you want to do is vent. Adieu.

  15. My comment concerned judgment and what it means, the form of intelligence required etc. to be good diagnostician.

    Your response was directed at something else, not to what I wrote but to what you wanted to read. You prove my point.

  16. Wow this thread took a serious turn for the tangential while I wasn’t looking. In an effort to respond to the comment that made an effort to respond to my actual post, I’d like to say to Ryan: thanks very much and I’m glad to hear someone’s interested in the idea of setting up exchange.

    Anonymity is an important point. You raise it with regard to exchange between people at different universities but it’s also been an issue for us a the VU in mobilizing people locally – some experienced intimidation. We dealt with it as a group by publicly highlighting it as problem with the organizational culture at the university (in the uni paper) and also by having the union set up and publicize an anonymous hotline.

    On an inter-university scale I would think possibilities for protecting participants would be various, but it would depend on the specific platform of exchange and what precisely is being shared. At the same time, anonymity helps avoid risk, it but should be taken into account that people speaking under their names and titles has a particular value and impact.

  17. @Donya:

    Ya, I think anonymity can be an important tool–and using things like a collective voice, or the school paper, or hotlines sound like good avenues. There are a lot of problems that crop up in the halls of academia, and there aren’t always effective ways to counter them. A lot of people stay silent because they are afraid of losing funding or some other backlash. I do think there needs to be a way to strengthen the position of those who happen to be in more vulnerable places in the academic food chain.

    But, you’re right that sometimes there is a certain power in speaking with your real name. It’s a gamble though, and requires some strategic thinking (and backup).

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