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Music: Marconi Union: Different Colours (2012)
Last week bomb threat at Texas A&M led officials to evacuate campus and cancel classes and activities for the rest of the day; just a week prior Texas State University in San Marcos evacuated three buildings in response to a bomb threat; and, of course, here at the University of Texas at Austin we were asked to evacuate campus for the same last month. Colleagues across the country, from folks at Pennsylvania State University to the Louisiana State University have reported similar stories, and I suspect there are dozens of “threats” at schools across the country that we don’t hear about. What is going on? Are we witnessing an “epidemic of bomb threats,” as some have worried aloud?
I think one possible answer is located in the idea of the empty threat. What seems significant, at least in our time, in respect to bomb threats on college campuses is twofold. First, these threats are on college campuses, which indexes the ripe cultural symbolism. Places of higher learning, like many religious places, are considered “safe spaces,” if not sacred, and so a violation of their sanctity is meant to portend a feeling of serious gravity. That spaces of higher learning—virtual and otherwise—continue to be the most visible front of the latest battle in the culture war is not coincidental (college campuses are breeding grounds, you realize, of “radicalism”). What is “threatened” is a perceived radicalism or “liberalism” that is brainwashing students to _____________ [fill in the blank].
Second, the threats turn out to be largely empty, meaning that there is no actual weapon or bomb. There is, at the end, no anchor to warrant concern in a grounded treat to human life. Of course, the mistake is the underlying conclusion that “everything is alright, after all” insofar as the disruption of business as usual—not to mention a sense of security—is violence enough. If the damage of a “real” bomb threat is an actual violent explosion, then the damage of the “empty threat” is the disruption caused by emptiness. One is worse than the other, to be sure, but both are forms of violence.
What ties both forms of violence together is psychosis, which I do not define as a behavioral “loss of contact with reality,” as does the U.S. medical community (in respect to the DSM). By psychosis, I refer more or less to the Lacanian notion that a psychotic is someone who realizes, consciously or semi-consciously, the contingency and fiction of reality in the first place—that what holds our meaningful, symbolic world together is the consensus that the emperor has not clothes, and that at some level we know he is naked, but continue our lives in meaningful ways on the assumption he is not naked. Whether or not someone making a bomb threat is psychotic is beside the point here, insofar as the threat itself is an acknowledgement of the fragility or contingency of our symbolically meaningful world. So there is no bomb? No matter: you behave as if there were.
The missing bomb is homologous to a psychotic world view.
What this increase in bomb threats demonstrates, I worry, is that our national culture—by which I mean the symbolic resources you and I share in common—as a national culture the United States is moving from a neurotic society to a psychotic one.
Let me use a dissimilar example, but one that gets at the same form of realization. Here, the idea is that no one will see a picture of my junk who can punish me; there is only admiration of my prowess:
The Weiner is gone, although reports are that he will be back to political office in a year or two. “Sexting” is now a technological mainstay that the news media are all-too-ready to hype, replete with the suggestive, blurred images in local news reports, usually of “young teens” who do not realize (it is suggested) that they know what it is they are doing. (Most of them know, I insist, what they are doing; what’s different today is the attitudes toward what they are doing.)
Bomb threats and sexting both concern authority or more specifically, the perception of an absence of authority in the sense that one “might get caught” or, worse, that there are any true consequences to either. In each case, the texter or anonymous tipper operates under the assumption—conscious or unconscious—that there is no oversight for him or her.
What is common to both examples is the disappearance, erasure, or erosion of a “third thing.” In each case we can imagine a paradigm person set in relationship to a meaningful object, which we could designate as “discourse”: a student is set into a relation to a university; a policy maker is set in relation to a presumed “public.” In a world in which sending nude photos of yourself or making bomb threats is “wrong,” that third thing might be something like morality or ethics, and by extension, a government official or even Deity. Yet in these examples, this third thing—at least initially, is perceived to be absent or inconsequential. State authorities are merely kids with experience and power; deity is a fiction; and educators and school administrators are merely pundits in disguise.
As many of you know, this disappearance or erosion of the “third thing” is termed the “decline of symbolic efficiency” by Lacanian psychoanalyst and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is a proponent of post-Freudian, Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, he takes the term “symbolic efficiency” from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.
For Levi-Strauss, “symbolic efficiency” refers to the way communities can communicate quickly and effectively with reference to something all folks hold in common as true, certain, or likely. As political scientist Jodi Dean puts it, symbolic efficiency is a consequence of “what everybody knows.” For example, most of you can follow what I’m writing here because we all share the English language and, to some extent, we share a similar affective Rosetta Stone for tone that is particular to our culture. In writing, I make references between us to a kind of third thing that mediates us and makes meaning possible.
Now, for Zizek the term “symbolic efficiency” means much more than this. He takes the term into the domain of psychoanalysis by suggesting the third thing is also an authority, and in some sense, a kind of deference to something larger—a sort of humility toward something more powerful than ourselves. From a psychoanalytic vantage, this larger, outside something is first experienced in childhood as the parent who disciplines.
Now, abstracted to a formal level, in some discourses this third thing of authority has gone under the name of “Master”—such as in Philosophy with Hegel or in certain Asian modes of thought, where the Master doubles as a teacher and a kind of internalized yet disembodied authority. For the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, this Third Thing is described as the “Big Other.” In fact, for Lacan the Big Other references the symbolic domain of our experience in general, which we often experience as an external authority or limit on our desires. The Big Other is the Third Thing that, Lacan says, we often mistake as a person with the power to punish, or more to the point, with the power to say “No.”
As I have followed her work, Jodi Dean has been arguing for some years that the “decline of symbolic efficiency,” alternately cast as an erosion of the Big Other,” is the problem of our time, and there may be no solution—political, educational, or otherwise. The problem is exacerbated by “democratainment,” or proliferation of communication technologies and the subsequent sense of empowerment—symbolic omnipotence—these technologies seem to inspire in successive generations. Our mediated regimes now enlist “audiences” to co-crate our shared entertainments in such a way as to collapse producer/consumer (for example, how the “news” reports the tweets and opinions of “ordinary citizens” if it is, in fact, “news”). Moreover, this decline is not semantic, but formal and affective in character, a decline of the feeling of possible punishment and, at some level, a limit on narcissism (a tempering, baseline sense of inferiority or insecurity). We might describe this larger transformation as a sort of ascent of feelings of infantile omnipotence—that asserting something repeatedly makes it true, that one’s truth (cast as an entitled “opinion”) is the whole, or that the end always justifies the means.
Making a false bomb threat, either because one perceives the politics of one’s university (or another university) to be distasteful, or simply because one doesn’t want to take his or her midterm exam, is buoyed by the attitude that there is no “truth” or “real” or that my god and our god is not your god. Such attitudes are possibly only when we no longer share a similar sense of the symbolic, that we hold no common cultural moorings together despite our differences (the Symbolic proper). I used to say that being an academic, most especially a successful graduate student, is to labor under the suspicion that one will be “found out”—that we are all faking it. That much is neurotic. The psychotic turn is when one no longer worries about being found out, or worse, that one deserves to be found out because of her inner-greatness and righteous purchase on The Answer.
Music: Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)
I was reaching around to post a synth-pop video to celebrate the arrival of Friday when I realized the gesture was born of guilt: I’ve let my blog go, something like a digital waistline expanding into the flab of wordless blackness. I thought (upon the thought) that, like my waistline, this is as much the product of age and a patterned progress or the march of the inevitable as it is a loss (a mourning over) discipline. That patterned progress—the inevitable—is social networking and the sacrifice of meat for speed (saying something of substance versus saying something that circulates)—Facebook is the new blog. Or something called tumblr, where borrowed imagery takes the place of wordy self-expression. And the second, the loss, this loss is a shift of norms regarding the parceling of time. The decline of the blog is the transformation of Rosechron, a loss of the contemplative for the mark, “contemplation is happening elsewhere.”
I started the work-week on Monday with the decision to track, for the week, where I was spending my time and contemplative efforts. Since this blog debuted a decade or so ago, the intellectual tasks associated with my vocation have shifted, not dramatically but gradually, toward what is called “service.” A decade ago I had class and committees, but much more time dedicated to thinking thoughts for their own sake. It seems now thinking always has an end other than itself, and often it is about the welfare of others. While I moan about the instrumentality of that shift, I have to admit it’s not a terrible trade off: I spent almost two days writing recommendation letters for students—well, I would say colleagues or friends (as I wouldn’t write a letter for just anyone). I spent a morning prepping for class, then began writing (well, retrofitting a previous thing, but still creating a new thing nonetheless) a presentation for a civic group on a topic I know a little about (occultism in U.S. popular culture). On Tuesday I woke early to brush up on the talk, went to school and delivered it to the group, visited with them a bit, then rushed off to teach my undergraduate class, after which . . . . Wait a minute. You don’t want to read about that. Nor do I want to write about the laundry list of the week . . . sorry. The point of running through the list of “what I did this week” is that I’m engaging people intellectually in “real space” more than I have in my career. This much is different, different from five years ago in a dramatic way.
The increasing temporal demand of “face time” is not a new realization, but it is something important to underscore about the academic life: the more you do it, the more “face time” you get and perhaps want, the more “face time” asked of you or that you volunteer. Or perhaps this is simply the way professorship goes: the more you do it, the less and less you are allowed to, or want to, sit in front of screen?
Well, there’s a familiar refrain: “I don’t know.” I don’t know exactly how to think about the decline of blog writing, even taking the take-off of short, social-networking “tweets” or “status updates” into account. There are smart, academic accounts of the decline of the blog in general (Jodi Dean’s marvelous Blog Theory comes to mind), many of which concern the eclipse of what Katherine Hayles termed “deep learning” (or contemplation) versus “hyper learning,” or what we might call the thought of circulatory affect: blip here, sentiment there, the landing of an opinion-and-quip bomb. It—whatever “it” is at the moment—gets your attention, raises the jib (but where are we sailing, Josh?), at least for a moment. There’s the “truthy” resonance of the hyper after a long week of teaching and meetings and face-to-face exchange: It’s 1:30 a.m. here and I’m tired and digging deep to say something of substance, but still, it’s a lot less taxing to express myself like a DJ: see the next post, because it is synth-pop Friday, after all. That’s the substance. I’m not sure being honest about it is a good thing, but to put the sentiment appropriately (if you’re into that sort of thing), “it is what it is.” Ugh. I think.
Music: Japandroids: celebration rock (2012)
Tis the season for academic service, which means writing letters of recommendation for the associate and full professoriate: letters of recommendation for grad school, law school, visiting and tenure track positions, Fulbrights . . . but mostly letters to help graduates and colleagues secure a “tenure track” position (for those of you reading who are not keyed to what that means, it basically means a position for which there is the possibility of becoming a “partner” in a university or college—in law firm analogy—which means the employer has decided to “invest” in you after a six year trial run).
Letter writing is a kind of labor that is surprisingly time-consuming, but also one I’m coming to realize may be a luxury only ten years hence—maybe sooner, deity forbid. I don’t say letter writing is a luxury because writing them is a total pleasure. Ah, but were that so. It is a pleasure to praise a student or colleague whom one adores, to be sure; there’s a joy in writing that first draft of a letter for someone pursing a job. But gone is the day in which someone applies for a handful of jobs for which she is suited; today (and even when I was on the market), one applies for dozens of jobs and hopes to get one or two bites. So letter writers are often writing dozens of versions of same letter.
Or at least, in my field; in other fields, like English, a single, generic letter is written and sent to a service or clearing house that then doles them out as the applicant requests. We can reflect on what the development of this kind of service represents, but we won’t. And I evoke “we” not in the royal sense, but rather, in the sense that Sister Sledge made famous, with bubbles.
In any event, writing a letter today and thinking about the person I wrote it for, whom I adore, I recalled a conversation I had recently with some very smart, friendly, and engaging graduate students in a cognate program in my home state of Georgia. I was visiting with a seminar a friend and mentor was conducting on a topic that is close to my heart/mind (psychoanalysis). We were talking about the “publish or perish” mandate that has been circulating in the academy for decades, at least at research-oriented colleges and universities. I cannot remember the context, but a student quipped in response to a comment, “but will there be tenure track positions when we’re on the market?”
It was a good question, couched in a cynical tone—and that in the key of the rhetorical—but a question that still opened to possibility. I responded in kind: I said that I thought his, and perhaps the cohort after him, may be the last cohort for whom tenure as we know it today is a possible achievement. As higher education finally admits to itself that the for-profit model has taken over management, as higher education realizes that the “reforms” that have taken over and over-made secondary and primary education as a “race to the top,” the coming concession is all but imminent. We’re already there; we’ve just not fully owned up to the sell-out.
Tenure as it was is no more. I’m not sure what it was, frankly, because my generation came up through promotion and tenure as the achievement of a kind of “due process,” that tenure means one cannot be fired without a hearing, and this after or over many years.
I gather that tenure used to mean one could not be “fired” except by gross negligence or crimes of moral turpitude. Once one achieved tenure, she could stay on indefinitely as a faculty member, and in many cases, whether or not one continued to publish or teach well. Tenure was granted with the expectation that one would continue to teach well and publish as one had before the honor was granted (a tacit agreement). As I understand it, tenure reform came as a consequence of folks taking advantage of this kind of job security: they didn’t publish and teaching worsened. “Post-tenure” review was established as a way to keep tabs on, admonish, and possibly get “rid” of the proverbial “bad professor,” dubbed “dead wood” during my graduate school days. On the face of it, this is not a bad turn of events, especially when I hear about stories concerning the academy of old (naughty professors, the sort featured in, say, The Man Who Fell To Earth by Rip Torn).
When I took my first job as a professor, however, “post-tenure review” was a different mechanism—a way to measure “productivity,” but with a metric external to the discipline in which one toiled. The measure of one’s productivity was determined by the institution and less so one’s peers. Post-tenure review seems to rest now at this stage across the country as a default—not a guarantee of continued employment, but rather the promise of due process in the event of one’s firing. In Texas, however, post-tenure review is something different: it is now the province of the political—politicians demanding “outcome based education” and so forth. “Accountability.” A couple of years ago our state was featured in the national media: a partisan policy “think tank” pushed through an initiative to evaluate a professor’s performance in respect to student teaching evaluations (basically, customer surveys) and the amount of tuition and grant dollars the professor brought into the university as compared to her salary. The measure of tenure—here code for job security—became an economic metric.
This “new” metric shifts value from a measure of quality to quantity. “We” are hardly surprised; Robert M. Pirsig made this Marxian thematic famous with his 1974 oddity Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: to economize the soul is something like shock treatment (or as I would prefer, the lobotomy: WHAM! quick adjustment). Nothing I say here is news, as the story is rehearsed in so many ways over so many decades, really; it’s the academic’s “inherency,” the trending status quo that higher education is supposed to (perhaps always?) resist. To put it efficiently: neoliberalism is the death of the academic romance that goads so many of us to follow the life of the mind in the first place, and we must resist the forces that seek to turn teaching into a profit-making venture.
I so often want to check what I identify as a “chicken little” tendency implanted in me by the apocalyptic “structure of feeling” of my Baptist upbringing; surely I exaggerate the demise of tenure? But then, I have had so many conversations with older, more experienced academics who say things like, “in my forty years of teaching I have never seen higher education under assault like this.” Or worse: “Josh, it’s over. There’s no going back. The university has changed.”
My viewpoint is admittedly colored by my experiences in Texas public education. The university I work at is a political football; indeed, I’ve never been at an academic institution that is not that, but it seems to me in Texas the politics of education is much more blatant. Our self-identified “conservative” vice governor (“lieutenant governor”) just ousted the democratic senator in charge of the higher education committee in favor of someone who would bring “conservative” solutions to the issues faced by the public university system. I do not think my job is in jeopardy, nor that what I do in the classroom is necessarily in danger. What I worry about is that those who come after me, who have to teach and research in the brave new world of post-tenure review—this benefit-less world, this adjunct land of “accountability” in which the number of degrees granted is more important than what they are supposed to represent. What I worry about is this evaporation of what Pirsig dubs “quality” in exchange for the number.
What I worry about, in the thick of the Texas skew, is the death of a certain kind of idealism. Not the idealism that I am quick to critique as a “materialist” (mind over matter, dreams trumping structural change, Oprah Winfrey), but the idealism that is invested in the conviction in scholarship as a form of battling the demons of darkness, of teaching as a way of inspiring curiosity, free thinking, and critical acumen. The kind of idealism at work in a graduate seminar, the freedom to “work-through” difficult ethical problems concerning how to be in the world with others. The kind of idealism that prods a budding academic to ask the question, “but will there be tenure when I’m looking for a job?” Such a question is not only about dutiful employment and job security. Such a question is also just as much about the freedom of thought, the enterprise of thinking, and the value of thinking for its own sake.
Rest assured a total cynicism about the academic enterprise will kill it. I do not ever want to come around to the position of saying, “hey, don’t do grad school. It will lead to a job of unrewarding drudgery.” I’ve been reading that sort of sentiment a lot in academic trade publications, and it makes me angry because it seems to buy into the a larger, cultural transmutation of critical thought into an economic measure of worth. Still, as an educator of educators, I think we need to be clear about the stakes now: pursuit of the life of the mind is no guarantee of job security. You don’t pursue this for that. If you pursue a vocation in higher education, realize that justifying your existence is now part of the job . . . and the calling. And without the help of the coffer. Academic endeavor has become, effectively, a religious practice.