Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fuck Pessimism: Embrace Youngsterism


To become adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is . . . to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars.
--Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager

Thanks to Jeffrey's recent post on Tweeting the MLA Conference [a conference, moreover, that included a concerted attention upon the digital humanities and its possible future(s)], a very lively set of comments emerged, and I'm glad they have because they arrived at the exact moment I was contemplating writing a post titled "Fuck Pessimism," and gave me some extra fuel. Late December and early January is a queer time of year--on the one hand, it heralds [if even as a mirage] new beginnings and re-tooled ambitions and second [and third and fourth and so on] chances as well as a chance to pause and rest and refresh; on the other hand, for many of us working in literature, history, philosophy, cultural studies, new media, and foreign languages departments, it signifies that annual meeting [MLA, AHA, APA, etc.] where hundreds and hundreds of anxious and well-trained and talented job seekers gather to make the best pitch they can for some future job security, and this at a time when the economic picture for those in the humanities does not look so hot [although recent numbers do indicate a slight up-tick in available jobs], and the American economy in general kind of sucks, and everyone is admittedly worried about the future of academic publishing. This worry might take the form of being concerned about whether or not the age of a beloved-by-many print culture is ending [along with all of its cherished protocols of "review"] or it might take the form of hand-wringing over whether or not tenure committees will take digital publications seriously or it might take the form of despair over shrinking library budgets coupled with corporate academic publishers continuing to privatize at prohibitive rates the scholarship that *we* produce and review and edit and shepherd through over-burdened gift economies, and so on. At this time of year, we see and read many essays, articles, and various social media posts bemoaning this state of affairs. At the same time, I've been struck this year by how many essays have been published [primarily in The Chronicle Review, but also in many other publications, in print and online] that voice only complaints and worries about the state of our profession ["quick and dirty" publication is destroying "serious" scholarship, no one is really reading academic scholarship (so why bother to keep doing so much of it?), students' language and ability to communicate has degenerated to new low levels, the digital humanities is yet another false "new religion" that has perhaps lamentably replaced the literary studies that used to trade in valuable meaning, the golden age of the theory journal is over, professors and students in the Univ. of California system are spoiled and whine too much about their state's so-called higher education disaster scenario, the digital humanities remains "impenetrable" to most people who sit on tenure committees, and I could go on and on . . . but I won't. And thanks to Ian Bogost, we can also recognize, perhaps sheepishly, that "what one [often] does in the humanities is talk about the humanities," and that a lot of professors "are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work." Hopefully, this post will not be yet one more instance of blogging about the humanities as a form of what the humanities talk about. Indeed, one of the main things I want to say with this post is WILL EVERYBODY PLEASE SHUT UP AND START DOING AND MAKING THINGS? [And this relates as well to Jeffrey's even more recent post, "Additional Readings May Be Found Here," and the links you will find there -- like this one -- to pieces by professors who want to re-envision and put into place new core interdisciplinary programs in the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level, designed around *making* and *doing* and *building* things with new technologies, which does not, nevertheless, necessitate *not* still continuing to *think* about things, I might add].

In the comment thread to Jeffrey's post about tweeting the MLA [cited above], a rich discussion emerged regarding whether or not it is appropriate for some people to "tweet" other people's papers at conferences, and if so, what sort of protocols might be developed to make some feel more comfortable about this practice [or even allow them to opt out of it completely--being tweeted, that is], to also protect various intellectual property interests as well as to make Twitter feeds more accessible and "plugged in" to larger, more inclusive academic conversations. Along with this, discussion also emerged relative to how various forms of e-publication [whether blog posts or Twitter lectures or whatever] might prohibit some work from being accepted later in more conventional print media, such as the academic print journal, and whether or not we should worry about this, and this all also led to talking about how we might now start re-defining [or defining anew] what we mean by "publication" and how any of that might be assessed in relation to things like tenure review.  Jeffrey brought up the fact that the profit motives of corporate academic publishers [like Brepols or Ashgate or Palgrave or Wiley-Blackwell] "is not compatible with the desires of scholars to have their work disseminated as widely as possible," which is especially maddening when the it is precisely the volunteer efforts of scholars [as authors, as editors, as reviewers, etc.] that keeps this system in place. Jeffrey also wrote,
I understand why publishers worry that too much work is already out there, and why they then hesitate to publish things that haven't been raised in a seclusion. Publishers can be as wrong as they'd like. But look at publications that succeed -- like not-for-profit U Minn Press and its success with Ian Bogost's work, much of which has appeared via Twitter and his blog. Come on: getting work out through multiple channels is publicity that can only aid a scholarly project. We shouldn't convince ourselves that we need to write in cloisters and keep our books in noncirculating scriptoria.
It will not be my intention to spend time in this post re-hashing all the points I've made a gadjillion times about why I believe in open-access publishing, in open peer review, in using social media to do "real" scholarship, and in working toward a more "open," misfit, and co-affective university in general. [Those who want to know my more specific pleas on behalf of some of those things can look HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.] What I want to say here is something like, "I know we need critique in the university, and strong debate and dialogism -- don't remind me, it's not like a gadjillion academics would ever stop doing those things -- but what we really really really really need now is some collective optimism, some collective risk-taking, and some collective project and institution building," especially in relation to Jeffrey's points regarding the often-cloistered state of our academic affairs. And we need to stop being so afraid all of the time that every time we think of doing something differently that some cabal of academics will quash our freedoms and careers while also telling us, "that's not how we do things around here" or "it will never work for X, X, and X reasons, all of which are founded on what never worked BEFORE." And we also need to stop acting as if every time someone comes up with a new idea [whether a theory or a method or a subject area or an entity of some sort: like a machine that can read texts] they must have done so cynically or with only careerist ambitions in mind or because they vapidly like to chase shiny, new things or because they want to destroy Western civilization and everything that is good in it. And we need to stop being so fucking pessimistic about everything. I can personally vouch for the fact that one can change a LOT in our profession, and for the better, with a handful of friends dedicated to one another and a common vision [that also honors difference and dissensus], a laptop, and endless carafes of coffee [and maybe some cigarettes and whiskey and karaoke]. Add in foolish bravado, boundless non-naive optimism, and being smart and creative as hell, and it's amazing what you can make happen. I am not kidding.

I had a conversation with someone who I respect VERY much at the recent MLA meeting in Seattle who told me that it seemed like my/our projects [the BABEL Working Group, punctum books, postmedieval, In The Middle, etc. -- all initiated and enabled collectively, I might add] were aimed, successfully, at creating an alternative, parallel universe to the university, or to medieval studies as a field [this was intended as a compliment], and that I should remember that it is also important to effect change from within the university, and from within medieval studies, that there is still much important work to be done on the inside of traditional academic structures, such as the MLA, or Medieval Academy, for example. Who could forget? I could argue and say, no, I'm not interested in effecting change from within [there will always be others to work on that and I can't stand the glacier pace of much of that kind of bogged-down-in-bureaucracy labor], but that would be laughable since pretty much my whole career, has been concerted upon effecting change from "within" [after all, am I not a tenured Assoc. Professor who teaches at a regional institution of higher learning and doesn't that institution pay my salary and also support and reward my extra-regional academic endeavors? and have I not served on and even chaired committees to revise guidelines for tenure and promotion and also to revise curricula, etc.? and have I not always attended the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies and worked tirelessly on its behalf? and do I not constantly organize academic events at traditional academic institutions? etc. etc.].

BUT, at the same time, I think I also want to embrace the idea that what I am ultimately interested in *is* something like COMPLETE AND RADICAL CHANGE of whatever is going on "within" the university, but undertaken from a position that is partly "extra" to or "para" with or "outside" the university, especially if, by "outside," we mean something like, "I will not let what is happening, or that which is status quo, *within* the university ever deter me from pursuing what MIGHT be a better vision for the university." And sometimes you have to stop asking for permission to do everything you want to do [from those *within* the university placed in positions of power] and just do exactly whatever it is you want to do, with the hope that it might make you feel good, that it might shed some light in the dark corners inhabited by others who need a little light and warmth, and maybe also even add to the general store of this thing we call "knowledge," which might actually effect, in the long term, some change [for the better] in the largest possible share of a general well-being of everything. One can fail in these endeavors, but one also has the *right* to do so. One also has the right to engage in extra-curricular experiments in building new para-academic collectives and alternative-academic careers which might only endure for a short period of time, but which make important things *happen*, nevertheless, that are self-enriching, *pleasurable*, and also contribute to the work of the so-called "university." I want to state this again because I believe in it so much: one has the RIGHT to fail. Failure is necessary. Try working on behalf of grandly visionary likely-to-fail projects. Otherwise, nothing is ever going to happen.

And here's another thing: can we maybe try a little bit harder to expand our definition of what a university IS and what it is capable of DOING? For me, the university is everywhere and anywhere I am at any given moment, and this also extends to all of you who work alongside me, in whatever "location," virtual, material, or otherwise [so I kind of wish we would dispense with this idea of the alt-ac career and realize that we are actually all alt-ac together]. The university is not just the buildings and lawns demarcated by specific geographical coordinates [42° 22′ 25″ N, 71° 6′ 38″ W: Harvard], but anywhere we gather to disseminate: I define this as a practice of, quite literally [following the Oxford English Dictionary], "scattering [knowledge] abroad" and "sowing" things and "spreading [knowledge] here and there," and "dispersing (things) so as to deposit them in all parts." Obviously, in some cases, specific locations matter a great deal, and the very hard work of the professor and student activists to save the Univ. of California system or to preserve the discipline of philosophy at certain universities in the UK system are extremely worthwhile and important political causes that we should all support however we can. But if *some* of us want to create alternative "campuses," shorn of much of the top-down and corporatized administrative structures so prevalent at so many institutions of higher learning, and located where you might not expect them to be [like in a gallery in Brooklyn or an architectural bookstore in Manhattan: witness the work of the The Public School all over the world, and also in New York, or on Twitter], then . . . it's all to the good. It gives me great joy, actually, to think about starting entirely new alternative schools, new markets of intellectual production and exchange, new presses, new journals, etc., while at the same time, of course I care about the "institution" of higher education and of medieval studies, and it's entirely possible that I can do *more* good for those institutions on the periphery or more proper *outside* of them. In fact, we've never really taken inter- or cross- or multi- and extra-disciplinarity seriously enough [partly because going all the way with it would mean dispensing with things like "departments"]. I think the most enjoyable and productive career [for me, anyway] would be one in which I spent as much time as possible searching out and cultivating vagabond and extra-institutional spaces for intellectual and creative work, while also acknowledging that the players who join me in these spaces will mainly be comprised of academics . . . at first. And then, one day, hopefully soon, I'll really be on the outside, but still playing with those "within." In other words: screw this inside/outside business. It's mainly an illusion, plus a lot of techno-bureaucratic structures that we can happily leap across or walk through or re-shape and bend and twist, if only we had the courage.

When I was a little kid, I used to watch marathons of old movies on Sundays on Channel 20, one of two independent stations beyond the 3 major networks and PBS that were available in Washington, DC in the early 1970s. One of my favorite often-recurring movies was Babes In Arms (1939) with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. I can't remember anything about the plot of the movie [and had to check Wikipedia to recall that the plot concerns some "youngsters" who try to convince their parents they can "make it" on Broadway], but one scene that always stood out in and never left my mind [and I probably have this wrong, somehow, since memory is tricky] is when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland get all excited about the possibility of putting on a musical and everyone's, like, you can't do it, you'll never be able to do it, you don't have the stuff you need to do it, and Mickey Rooney is, like, "we can use my parents' barn!" and Judy Garland is, like, "And I can use my mother's sewing machine to make the costumes!" and then they run off gleefully to start putting everything together. UNFORTUNATELY, what I also learned from my research, is that the show they end up putting on is [gasp] a minstrel show. YUCK. Now I hate this movie.

But let's just pause and end the movie at the moment Rooney and Garland run off to make their theatrical preparations [after all, that's the only part of the movie that ever stuck in my head, and I think I know why, given my own general outlook on life]. Do you know what is happening in this scene? It's youngsterism. We need more of that in the university. It's not the same thing as being critically naive, by the way. It's just a kind of foolish belief that anything is possible. If you have a barn. And a sewing machine. And anything else at hand. Embrace youngsterism.


Roger Whitson said...

Great post! I completely agree. Suspicion and critique are fine, but there's also something else going on in DH that is really refreshing - collaboration, welcoming, etc., that I feel most traditional scholars who are used to the suspicious culture of critique can't quite wrap their heads around.

I fumbled through my own analogous thoughts on this post ( There needs to be more connections between OOO and DH - I'm trying to do so in a book on William Blake that I'm writing and an article I'm publishing on connecting Meillassoux's "the great outdoors" with a "disseminated philosophical network" of people that, I feel, is becoming more accepted due to social media.

More voices like yours are needed!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Great stuff, Eileen. The ending (with its praise of youngsterism) brought to mind Judith Jack Halberstam's work on queer time (aligned with youth time: unruly; undisciplined; won't straighten or grow up) in _In a Queer Time and Place_.

The more I think about, the more your post seems like queer digital humanities futurism.

ASM said...

Hear, hear, hot-damn, hear hear. Eileen, you always have the courage to say it. and yes, more optimism. I think that the 'cool' approach of griping and putting everything down is ultimately self-defeating and, frankly, dull. So more optimism, and when you found your insider/outsider school, please give me a call.

Melissa Ridley Elmes said...

Facebook has sucked my soul, but I honestly need a "love this so much I want to take it to bed and roll around with it" button for this post.

I just think academia has forgotten that it is at its core a self-reflective and self-perpetuating entity. In this age of information systems, if you're still working on the "hide your work and set out a fake document to ward off your potential idea-stealer" model, then you just can't expect to be widely read anymore. If I write a blog post with the germ of an article idea in it, it's posted to the Web with a date on it and recorded as being done on that date and at that time in my computer's hard drive. That ought to be enough to "prove" it was "my idea" in the instance someone else then swipes it and writes an article before I do. ("Yes, Your Honor, these certified printouts of my hard drive's contents show that I posted that idea two months before her article came out, as you can clearly see here..."

But- I mean, here's the thing: WHATEVER. I am writing and thinking, and discussing my writing and thinking, because I want other people to write and think and talk about the same things I am doing - and, gee - when I think, and then write about and talk about what I have thought with others, and then they in turn take that and apply it to their understanding of the things I'm writing and thinking and talking about, it's called education.

Go figure.

In the traditional way of doing things, as you and JJC here have noted, this process is interminably slow and expensive and the big publishing companies are the ones benefiting. Because yeah, right, our grad students and fellow scholars are shelling out $90.00 for the hardback version of our book from [We all know Which Big Publisher I'm fingering here]. The people who ostensibly could have most use of our work - our colleagues and students - can't always access it, and with dwindling budgets, there are university libraries that can't/won't, either. It makes no sense, not anymore, when you can digitally publish and charge $8.00 or $10.00 a view per article.

I'm not in Corporate Capitalist Publishing; I'm in education. So I don't really care how my ideas get out there - I just want people to tell me what they think of them, or use them to further the greater conversation. I'm not passionate about money [or I wouldn't be doing this] I'm passionate about All Things Medieval and Medievalist. I'm passionate about teaching, researching, and writing. I'm passionate about ideas.

There are more than enough ideas to go around. Ideas are like the proverbial rabbits. If you've got two, two thousand will eventually pop up. We all of us have more to do than we have years to do it in - why is it such a big deal if someone else finds what we are doing to be so interesting/valuable/noteworthy that s/he decides to take it on as well? How is it bad to be validated in the work we are doing through someone else's desire to "do that, too", even if it means blatant imitation and/or plagiarism of our ideas? Backhanded compliment - or the proof that our work "works"?

I mean, if someone else stole my idea... at least s/he was listening to me. And, if s/he then has his or her article published, then at least s/he writes well enough for that to happen. Which totally negates all of these fears that out current students are the worst writers, ever, and never pay attention in class.

This is all rather tongue-in-cheek -- I do understand the importance of academic publication and the tenure review process and the competition for limited jobs and resources -- all too well, as one just entering the fray - but I also think, as you all write so eloquently here, that academia-at-large is widely, deliberately and self-consciously ignoring the Internet when it needs to be exploring and mapping its own territory in the virtual geography it will - like it or not -- ultimately inhabit.

Anonymous said...

you're my hero ej, on the subject of sharing inspiration and other forms of conviviality see:

Jane Bennett said...

Great post Eileen! Cheered especially at the "let's just start making stuff" bit. Onward alternate universe(ity)!

andrea said...

Great post, Eileen. I have often thought that cynicism (or realism, as the cynic will claim it to be) is a form of cowardice, because the cynic fears either the imperfect (ie life), or the risks of joy. I agree wholeheartedly with the "just make something" plea: I'm sick, too, of all the complaints about everything. My mother's constant directive, while I was growing up, was "Don't complain about the dark: light a candle!"

BLB said...

Right on, as always, EJ!

i said...

Eileen, this is an inspiring post, and it's taken me some time to digest. I have a minor point of contention and a major point of agreement, so let's do them in that order:

1. It's all well and good to say, "Leap into the unknown and damn the consequences," but I think there needs to be some understanding that this is advice that people can only follow to varying extents, depending on their job status, desires for money and job, tenure, and individual risk tolerance. It's one thing for me to say that I loved grad school and didn't worry too much about fitting into all the academic strictures because I knew I could always start from the bottom in some other field, but can I really accuse someone who's on the job market with, say, two kids to feed, of being too cautious, too protective of their work, too careful to publish only in venues that will reap direct rewards on the "market"?

My own bushy-tailedness has little to do with technologies or digital-anything (in fact, I've been systematically scaling back my use of those technologies that don't make me a happier person, with great results), but it has everything to do with what you talk about later in your post: intellectual activity that is not bounded by the strictures of the university (or a single field), living a life in which everything -- the books I read for "fun", the books I read for "work", the food I cook, the dance I dance, the friendships I cultivate, the things I keep learning, the non-academic things I write -- make sense together. My role models, both in academe and out of it, model precisely that kind of endless curiosity. And yet I've learned that I have to be careful, not necessarily in what I do or make but in how I manage how it looks. Most people I deal with do subscribe to a vaguely similar vision of the intellectual life, and have been supportive of my naivete and bushy-tailedness. But it was not fun learning that not everyone does. If you'd like to know how many anxiety dreams this little lesson has caused me over the past few months, I'll send you a PM Eileen and give you a rough estimate. Let's just say it's hard to repaint the old barn when you haven't had a good night's sleep.

i said...

2. That said, I cannot agree enough with the idea that the intellectual life (and in this case, I use "intellectual" in a way meant to be broad and include art, movement, love, creation and reflection and conversation of all kinds) is not and should not be bound by the university. Sometimes I think it's a wonder that the intellectual life happens in a university at all, given the university's personal and political allegiances. To use a very crude simile -- I'm sorry, it's all I have these days -- thinking in a university is like peeing in a toilet. It's the most convenient place to do it, the structure is set up precisely for this use, but you might pee more happily and more freely in the woods or while swimming in the ocean.

I think part of what makes it a little more difficult to see our way out of this in North America is structural. For humanists, most of the obvious job routes are through the TT, and that is such a rigid and unforgiving process. Part of what's interesting about spending time in Germany is seeing how many humanities institutes, research centres, etc. there are outside of universities, and how many "in-between" jobs there are inside universities too -- a job might be part administrative, part teaching, and still support research, conference travel, etc. I'm wary of romanticizing this too much, as I think we have more money flowing around here and things are often easier on this side of the pond (my friends there spend a lot of time applying for funds), but I think the more freeform model speaks to a dynamic intellectual culture.

In the end, I think the focus on the work is what I chime with most. It would never occur to me to think that only a poet with an MFA or a novelist who teaches creative writing in a university is a "real" poet or novelist. Why is it then that we so often think of an intellectual as someone who has a PhD and a job at a university? The university is a wonderful place to get bodily needs taken care of, but it comes with certain strictures on behaviour (you have to flush, turn out the light, replace the finished roll, etc.) But it does not define -- or should not define -- the work itself.

Eileen Joy said...

I really appreciate everyone's comments here: thank you so much.

To i, I'm not sure what to say because I can't disagree with any of the points made here relative to the frustrations, anxieties, sleepless nights, understandable risk aversion, and so on. No, it certainly isn't "fun" when you learn, the hard way, that some people [who may also be placed in positions to make your life and career feel miserable at times, or who can maybe even stand in the way of the career you've envisioned for yourself] don't embrace, endorse, or make room for the unfettered intellectual life or wild experimentation: I've dealt with this myself firsthand, but . . . I have just chosen, only in the past few years, really, to stop paying attention to that. Yes, I have tenure now, but even before getting tenure, I had let go of worrying about those things, and yes, I'm a risk taker [and I also work at a university that, in a sense, leaves me alone to do exactly what I want to do: I recognize my good fortune in that regard], but I never said, or meant to say: everyone take risks now, regardless of the consequences. I'm not encouraging *everyone* to jump off cliffs with me, but at the same time, I admit that I AM arguing that, if some of us aren't willing to jump off cliffs, we're not going to move the university [or intellectual life in general] forward in the ways I think it really needs to move forward. Maybe this means being willing to leave the university, which is a terrible thing to say with so many people wanting a foothold IN the university, and not enough jobs to go around. But what I'm also trying to say is: have faith. You don't have to jump off the cliff with me right now, but I'm going, I'm jumping, and what I'm really trying to do, what I've been trying to do for a long time now, is build a better institution, or PARA-institution, that will be MORE liveable for a greater number of people. Which is also a form of belief IN the university. Am I saying: everyone, right now, do this, or else? No. But I am kind of begging, too, for *some* people to join me and help me make this a more liveable, a more creative, and a more progressive university. Institutions such as universities tend to have clay feet when it comes to change [they are the epitome of "moribund," while also providing important spaces for dynamic innovations in thought and intellectual labor], so some change likely really does have to come from the outside, but partly engineered with those on the inside. I won't and can't stop in my tracks every time someone says, "but I'm worried about getting/keeping my job," because you see, that's precisely why I do what I do: so that we can "get away" with more of whatever it is we want to "get away" with, and if we don't succeed, at least we can say something like, "well, we made some stuff, and it was worth it, and it felt good to be alive while doing it." Success would actually be the death of us, because that would just be another route toward a newly bureaucratic institutionality that would go on to stifle more people in the future.

But as i says, the university is a great place to get work done, but it does not nevertheless ultimately define or control what that work might be. That's why the university is necessary, isn't it? And certain forms of affective [if also dissensual] collectivity, I really believe, help to carry us through the more personal and darker times of our professional careers [we "bear" things for each other]. That's necessary, too.

i said...

Maybe this means being willing to leave the university, which is a terrible thing to say with so many people wanting a foothold IN the university, and not enough jobs to go around.

You know, as bad as it sounds, sometimes I think that's an option we all should keep in mind, whether or not we got "in." A colleague who was on the job market for many years before getting a university gig (and is now tenured and established and all that jazz) once told me about his realization that he was an intellectual whether or not he had a TT. I've held on to that thought for years, both as a grad student and, now, on the TT. Because as much as I love my job -- and I do have a sweet job, with great colleagues, good students, and much more of everything than I could ever deserve -- I'm really unwilling to let this job define me as a writer or thinker. Or as a human being.

But how to do that? I think it means being able to say goodbye. Being able to say goodbye to a PhD that isn't going well or helping you to do what you want to do. Being able to say goodbye to years of fruitless job searches that destroy your love for a subject. Being able to say goodbye to a job that's excellent but not the final chapter in a life story. This is why I love reading those Chronicle articles in which someone talks about leaving their tenured position to do something else. Yes, they seem ungrateful. But they're also free, and their choice to give up this golden prize underscores the fact that no one should be defined by their ability to navigate precisely one career path.

Which is to say -- and maybe this is a crazy thing to say -- I think the university would be a better place if everyone left when they were miserable, and if everyone, miserable or happy, truly kept open the possibility of leaving. (Like, you know, other affective relationships...)

Anonymous said...

or maybe folks who are in a miserable system could first try to work to re-form it by getting directly involved in the politics of their institutions. if you can't speak up in such a relatively safe environs chances are you never will...
time to practice parrhesia academic peeps

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I saved this post for a rainy day -- ironically, one of the sunnier ones this past week in the Northeast. Eileen and i, where you speak in the comments about being willing to leave is something that I think a lot of students and non-students in non-tenure track positions need to keep in mind. And what a wonderful idea, to not let the tenure-track (or the lack thereof this particular job marketing season) define me as an intellectual. Good reading, here, comments and all -- there must be a way to keep a universe(ity) as a living and breathing organism rather than the a petrified mass of "the way we do things." It'll be interesting to watch the field over the next few years as its definition and contours change -- as I try, as i so eloquently puts it, to not let the field I've tried to be a part of since I was nineteen define me. An interesting prospect, and one I'm intrigued by.

medievalkarl said...

Thanks for this, EJ, and thanks for the great conversation (to which I'm coming, typically, late).

A favorite point, here:

I'm not in Corporate Capitalist Publishing; I'm in education. So I don't really care how my ideas get out there

YES. Yes, again. Whatever works. Whatever's going to get me on a syllabus. Or, to think like the DJ I once was, whatever's going to get the kids dancing is what we ought to do.

i said...

My own response to:

I'm not in Corporate Capitalist Publishing; I'm in education. So I don't really care how my ideas get out there

Around the same days as this post and the twitter one went up and were being discussed, a scholar on one of my listservs (I think an early modern one) mentioned how her work was heavily plagiarized and published in a CUP monograph when she was just starting out. She was advised that there wasn't much she could do about it, so the senior scholar who stole her material basically got away with it.

I was horrified to read this, as were the other folks on the list. It was academic dishonesty, sure, but just as bad or worse, it was abuse of a young scholar's lack of power. And frankly, I think horror was the correct reaction.

Karl and Melissa, I sincerely hope no one ever steals your work. To my knowledge no one has ever stolen mine, and I'm not particularly paranoid about it, but I think if it were to happen I would not be sanguine about it. I think I'd feel violated, powerless, upset. And I suspect you might too, though perhaps you really have evolved beyond an identification with the crafting of your ideas and prose. I certainly haven't. I'm not in this gig for the money, obviously, but I am in it because I put a lot of myself into my scholarship. Because it's personal. It's passionate. There's nothing "corporate" about it.

Eileen Joy said...

To Anonymous's comment about parrhesia [and I'm actually reading Foucault's writing on that right now, collected in "Fearless Speech"], and no offense, but:


Doing that ALL THE TIME already. This isn't a question of either reform things from the inside or he outside but of doing both all the time. There is nothing wrong, either, with building new para-institutions. The "university" is not just one time and place.

Anonymous said...

I see that I should have been clearer that I was responding to:
"I think the university would be a better place if everyone left when they were miserable"
if only working to make things better was the obvious/duh choice...

medievalkarl said...

Hi I. I was thinking not in terms of plagiarism (and I don't think Melissa was either?) but in terms of whether it gets out there as a book, as a blog, as whatever, so long as it's read and discussed. I definitely see the use, say, of Brill (who else is going to publish that huge monograph on early medieval Romanian history?). But the $90 or $140 book isn't going to get terribly far, not likely.

But, yeah, I want my name on it! I'd be outraged and confused if someone plagiarized my work.

In re: that story of the work being ripped off....HOW HORRIBLE. I'll bend your ear in person about that sometime.

i said...

Anonymous, I'm all for people changing institutions from the inside, slow process though it may be. But if someone has work they deeply want to do that will not be rewarded in the university structure, chances are they're also not going to reach the ranks at which they'll be able to exercise greater influence. They might be better off leaving and doing the work, rather than playing someone else's game until reach full prof, serving on the right committees, and then hoping they'll live long enough to do the other stuff. And maybe universities should become more aware of the great minds they lose/waste/etc.

Karl, I had read that particular line in the context of Melissa's comment together with:

I mean, if someone else stole my idea... at least s/he was listening to me. And, if s/he then has his or her article published, then at least s/he writes well enough for that to happen.

And as Melissa was careful to say, she was being tongue-in-cheek, but I was struck by the coincidence of a similar issue being discussed on my listserv, and how unamusing it was in reality. I may have misread both of you, in which case I apologize! But I think my mind was also on the original context for this discussion, i.e., the ethics of tweeting someone else's conference talk, or reproducing it in any other way, without their permission.

My stance on that was rather conservative, not because of the technologies involved, but because of the violation of an assumed-oral situation. (A student once recorded one of my seminars without my permission, and when I found out about it I asked hir to erase it -- the assumption everyone in the room was working with was that we were sharing the experience of discussing and learning together, but that it was *not* for posterity.)

i said...

Re: Eileen's latest comment:

Or, to put it in medieval terms, the university is just where the scholars and teachers are. I'm thinking especially of the U. of Poitiers, first a group of intellectual refugees, then "incorporated" as a university. But the people came first, not the organization -- as with many of your undertakings.

Anonymous said...

i, matter of priorities I suppose. not sure how that kind of brain drain would make universities better places but maybe that wasn't your point of interest.

i said...

Anonymous, I just don't think institutional universities are the be-all and end-all of intellectual life. Just one of the most convenient places to do intellectual work, and even that only depending on historico-political circumstances. I could provide you with one or two examples, but I suspect you don't really need them.

Jeb said...

I dropped out of what everyone in my game thought would be a highly successfully career in my twenties which I had worked very hard for and was strongly urged not to do by an industry that general does not bother when folks leave, moved into a squat and lived that way for many years.

Culture was utterly D.I.Y built by us for us. As Thatcher was in power and schools and libraries were being shut down in large numbers the opportunity to open large venues to host a range of interesting activities that drove authority nuts was not difficult.
It never is.

It had many good points but I think in our out of institution's people do seem to develop the usual ideas about hierarchy and status and similar fault lines do seem to develop until it becomes controlled by small competing cabals, rigid demanding utter uniformity and can become rather like the thing it professes to despise.

Still, it can also be rather fun and is certainly far less predictable.

Anonymous said...

I too found it pretty exhilarating to read you expressing such excitement; there's always room for that. No new intellectual production starts out as a waste, just because it may struggle, perhaps for years, to find an audience.

Your post touched indirectly on a slippage that causes a lot of harm. Like a lot of my peers, I arrived at graduate school thinking of myself as a "radical." By that, I meant that I wanted to be part of social change. Pretty quickly, though, I could make out the message, coming from so many mainstream megaphones: you can be as radical as you want, as long as its always about critiquing yourself and your (relatively puny) institutions. Ultimately, though, this increasingly desperate, relentless mode of self-critique just vitiates the very humanities programs it is supposed to rescue. It makes them seem intellectually confused and unattractively petty.

I'm not actually looking to push the envelope when it comes to traditional practices in our work. Expending energy on censorship -- don't Twitter this, don't close read that, don't ever post to a blog -- is even less worthwhile.

I'll admit -- as much as I rooted for William Morris and before him little Emile -- that I'm not particularly drawn to the craft vocabulary. I really was born with two left feet and ten thumbs, and those memories die hard. But I do think that your instinct here is right. If you aren't looking for manna, you aren't going to find any.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks to everyone for the further comments here. To Jeb, I just wanted to say: bingo--it's true [and history proves it] that certain radicalizing movements often start out with the right intentions and then quickly harden or sediment or whatever [get too big? too accepted? too mainstream?] into the same sort of rigid status quo they set out to contest. That is why I've always loved Bill Readings's idea [in his book "The University in Ruins"] that we should have the courage to conduct collectivizing [yet always dissensual] projects that we would also be willing to abandon as soon as they served their purposes.

ValerieMWilhite said...

Yes! Yes! Yessity Yes Yes!

to so many different points you make here. Yes to youngsterism, to pushing the boundaries of the university (higher ed, academia, whatever), and YES to accepting and even embracing an alternate space for thinking, learning, and the appreciation of beauty. You mention a gallery, a bookstore, but also twitter, blogs, and U Minn P. The move to the streets is happening in Europe with the Euskal Etxea for Basque Culture in Barcelona and the Centre interregional de desvolopament de l'Occitan in Besiers and many other such institutes that are blurring the lines between academia and public cultural centers. As students drop my Medieval Iberian Cultural History course because they are in business and literature and art isn't relevant I find peace by thinking of these centers where people with no college education come to listen to people talk about medieval troubadour poetry or the linguistic origins of Catalan. College may not be where or when my ex-business student takes the time to develop an interest in history or poetry but she has decades to get to a place where she can.

Jeb said...


Not read 'The University in Ruins' yet. Reading the description I got a strong sense of what passed through my mind as a student about the monumental structure and its keepers from the ministry of well ordered ornamental lawns.

I always felt I was being trained to sell cultural french fries for a heritage burger industry.

Its refreshing to hear you're ideas, energy and passion on these issues.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeb: Readings's book is kind of like my bible/most cherished book about the university and what it could be. It's been critiqued and rightly so by some scholars [such as Dominick LaCapra] for not getting the history or present state of the university 100% accurately, but . . . nevertheless, it's a hell of manifesto.