Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Run! The Future is Coming! Or, Maybe Stand Still and Help to Manifest It? That's the Clockless Nowever Present, Bitches!

Figure 1. Tippi Hedren and children as the University + public commons; ravens as neoliberal uptake/collapse of everything


Though [climate change] is the most critical of the threats which face humanity, a series of lesser but potentially equally destabilising problems exist alongside and intersect with it. Terminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves, offers the prospect of mass starvation, collapsing economic paradigms, and new hot and cold wars. Continued financial crisis has led governments to embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatisation of social welfare services, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages. Increasing automation in production processes – including ‘intellectual labour’ – is evidence of the secular crisis of capitalism, soon to render it incapable of maintaining current standards of living for even the former middle classes of the global north. In contrast to these ever-accelerating catastrophes, today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled. 
~ #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics

. . . better to take the risk and engage in fidelity to a Truth-event, even if it ends in catastrophe, than to vegetate in the eventless utilitarian-hedonist survival of what Nietzsche called the 'last men.'

~ Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times 

Unlike upon other returns from the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I don't have some sort of upbeat "this is what I loved about this year's Congress and all of humanity in general" post. Indeed, I mainly feel depressed. This is an unusual feeling for me, since I am so upbeat most of the time that I'm pretty sure I have a clinical condition -- something like a uni-polar diagnosis where it's mania all of the time and never any depression. I'm typically the person who, whenever someone is pronouncing the death of everything or any other sort of doom-and-gloom scenario, I run into the room and shout, "it's not that bad! I've got some ideas! We can put on a play where we make our own costumes!" It's very conducive to getting things done and throwing a sort of continual party, and of course, it's very wearing on those closest to me. I actually did have a lot of fun at the Kalamazoo Congress [carousing with friends I don't see often enough, due to geographic distances, and experiencing some really beautiful/provocative sessions, and also getting to meet new people]; it's just that, hanging over all of it was a kind of generalized gray pall having to do, quite frankly, with something I've never quite experienced before: real fear over the future of the humanities, and more largely, the University [and maybe, also ... the Earth?]. Steve Mentz has urged us more than once in his writings to learn to cultivate shipwrecks as well as gardens [At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean], and in a recent talk he gave at GW-MEMSI at a symposium on "Ecologies of the Inhuman," he asked us to consider the ways in which disaster can be culled for artistic transformation, and also how we might see shipwreck, not as an always nostalgic tragedy, but as an opportunity to "stop hoping for solid ground" in order to get "drenched in reality." In another recent symposium, "Critical/Liberal/Arts," held at UC-Irvine last month, Gaelan Gilbert asked us to think about critique as a practice that is "at home in an emergency." I want to be that person who can cultivate shipwrecks and be "at home" in an emergency, but sometimes I think it's important to admit, if even just as a temporary pausing-point along the way to a hopefully better state of the union, I'm scared. Sometimes. Sometimes, I'm scared.

Don't worry, I haven't given up on my perpetual optimism; it's just that, the more I read and listen to what is going on around me -- relative to MOOCs, legislative slashing of budgets for higher education, the growing academic "precariat feudalism," the continuing inability of content/information/culture agents to sustain their enterprises [whether a newspaper journalist or a musician], the increased "locking down" of intellectual property simultaneous with the over-eager initiatives to make everything open-access without any regard for the real costs of doing so, especially in terms of dedicated and always-already-undercompensated human labors, the concentration of wealth in fewer and and fewer hands, the hyper-speed of technological innovation with hardly any time to assess its possibly adverse social impacts, the seemingly unchecked powers of commercially-driven "big data" in the surveillance of nearly every aspect of our lives, the flattening out of culture in fewer and fewer outlets [Amazon, iTunes, Google, you get the picture], etc. -- I get a little ... anxious. And I get anxious, partly because so much of my own work has been fixated on making the humanities more artful/liveable, but with the implicit understanding that there is a specific and somewhat stable space [the University, writ large across a wide variety of specific sites] in which this might be accomplished. This is how I put it in a post assessing the BABEL Working Group's 1st biennial conference held at the University of Texas-Austin in 2010:
As intellectually stimulating as so many of the individual talks and sessions were, what was most important for me about the conference was its aim to transform what might be called the molecular atmosphere within which "we" [whatever "we" might be, and it certainly isn't a consensus on anything and shouldn't be] work and also play together. And in these temporary zones, that we call conferences, where we briefly come together, however pell mell, and with or without fully formed intentionalities for our work and the impact we might want it to have upon others, the humanities live, they flicker and aspirate [they "breathe"], among us.
I have become less and less sanguine about the durability of the university as a public institution that would serve as a central location for the open [and joyful-agonistic] cultivation of intellectual, artful, and other forms of inquiry [conducive, I would argue, to well-being], as well as of freely-purposed forms of knowledge production, while I also lament the possible loss of such a public space [an "agora" for the free exchange of ideas], underwritten by a public faith in the necessity of such. The university as a publicly-supported institution [in all of it various forms, from the Ivy League school to the community college] has long served as a critical site for some of the most important humanistic-scientific-technological-etc. innovations in human history, while it has also fostered the value and practice of lifelong learning, of critical thought, of experimentation, of open and perpetually unsettled inquiry, to what might be called the arts of everyday life. And I don't believe this institution is just going to disappear in some sort of cataclysm, although I would place my money on some severe, austere diminishments in the near future. And all of this has been much on my mind lately, as I have been working [as an editor-publisher] with Aranye Fradenburg's new book [forthcoming], Staying Alive, a series of fierce defenses of the liberal arts + life sciences in an age of neoliberal capital and techno-corporatization run amok, which also describes, in frightening fashion, the "terrible narrowing of the mind and of mental experience ... ongoing in our country."

But I see in my comments above, reflecting on the 2010 meeting in Austin, that I also value the ontological anarchy of what Hakim Bey names the "temporary autonomous zones,": the places where we gather, whether at conferences, dinner parties, late-night bars, or otherwise, to practice our work as rogue agents in search of semi-anonymous hook-ups and what Bey calls the "clockless nowever." The fact of the matter is -- whether we inhabit student desks, tenure lines, adjunct positions, or post-graduate/never-graduate somewhere-other-than-here positions -- now might be the time to take a bit more seriously alternative spaces [which might never be "permanent" or "institutional"] for learning, for inquiry, and for knowledge-culture production. It turns out [and didn't we already know this?] that the future actually has to be constructed, and let's remind ourselves that this is the work of the present, and we need to enlarge our scope of collaboration beyond our specific institutions [if we have one], beyond our disciplines, beyond our so-called position/rank [faculty vs. adjunct, professor vs. student, etc.], and beyond the University proper [the real University should comprise everyone who wants to be a part of it, whether or not they have an official position or desk]. And it will be in this work -- the present-ing of the future, the future-ing of the present -- that we will manifest ourselves. It is to manifesting ourselves [making ourselves more present to each other, which is to also say, more responsible to each other] in some sort of collective endeavor that works on behalf of the future without laying any claims upon it, that we might craft new spaces for the University-at-large, which is also a University that wanders, that is never just somewhere, dwelling in the partitive -- of a particular place -- but rather, seeks to be everywhere, always on the move, pandemic, uncontainable, and yes, precarious, always at risk. While always being present/between us [manifest]. At the same time, we insist on perversely-hopefully laying claim to specific subject areas -- medieval studies, for example -- as collocations of objects and trajectories of thought that we desire to hold close to us, while also placing them in certain perpetual tensions with everything else [even ourselves]. Forms of thinking matter, and there is no need to discard anything. Every area requires special curators and we should seek to increase the ranks of those, for this is a matter of the care as well as of the increase of knowledge.

That is all ideational-aspirational, of course, and what manifesting ourselves [and our profession] also requires is persons willing to actually dream something different into being -- something that might foster the production of knowledge while also somehow escaping the techno-bureaucratic-capture of everything. This might require tactical maneuvers of dispersing/disappearing into networks [virtual and otherwise; here I take some pointers from works like Rita Raley's Tactical Media, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker's The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, and dj readies' Intimate Bureaucracies] and of acceleration [see the #Accelerate manifesto, cited above], and of also giving up on the idea of a singular, GPS-locatable home-base, like a brick-and-mortar building, although such "homes" and buldings serve as important, temporary gathering sites. It means asking if it's possible to create institutions that somehow escape institutionality, while also providing real [non-heavy] infrastructure for the sustenance of long-range intellectual-cultural inquiry and academic-social activism [and I nominate some of these folk as possibly doing just that: HASTAC, The Public School of New York, continent., Kickstarter, Urmadic University, The Wayward School, Bruce High Quality Foundation, D.U.S.T.: Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought, #Occupy, The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, The Saxifrage School, punctum books, Figure/Ground Communication, Autonomedia, The New Inquiry, The Material Collective, BABEL Working Group -- yes, shameless plug -- and I could go on, but I won't right now]. And we have to stop saying/believing it's really hard to work with others: it is, but you just have to fucking do it, regardless. It would be a lot easier to keep one's head down and just concentrate on one's own, individual "work," but you'll get sucked up in the neoliberal vacuum anyway, and you'll be amazed at the pleasures and enjoyment [and even love] that comes with collective endeavours, despite their agonies and headaches. And this way, when the ship goes down, we've got company, we can put a "band" together for a little last-night music.

The occasion for all of this depressive and partly-hopeful sputtering is my favorite session from this year's Kalamazoo Congress, "The Future We Want: A Collaboration," sponsored by GW-MEMSI, and featuring paired talks from Anne Harris/Karen Overbey, myself/Aranye Fradenburg, Allen Mitchell/Will Stockton, Lowell Duckert/Steve Mentz, Chris Piuma/Jonathan Hsy, and Julian Yates/Julie Orlemanski. I will not attempt to describe all that was said, especially as these pieces will soon be forthcoming in a volume from punctum books, paired [tête-bêche style] with "Burn After Reading: Tiny Manifestos for a Post/medieval Studies," based on a panel sponsored by postmedieval held during the 2012 Congress [more on which, below]. Mainly, I wanted to say that I found myself profoundly inspired by all of the really creative presentations, some focused on varying conceptions of desired futures for premodern studies [and some for worldly-earthly futures, for humanistic-pedagogical futures, and in the case of Julie's talk, which affected me the most profoundly, and even sadly, for collective, groupifying futures -- can the collective have a future that doesn't require a sacrificial economy and that isn't always melancholically retrospective (?) seemed to be one question inherent in Julie's remarks], while I also found myself feeling melancholy for a future I sometimes fear will never arrive. This is what scares me, you see: that I myself am throwing all of my labors into a no-future, that I'm just going to be swept away in a tide of economic-climactic catastrophe, that nothing I do will matter "in the end." IN THE END. But then I realize: it isn't really the future I want to focus on; it's the present. Putting aside all of the obviously admirable and sound reasons we need a politics focused on securing some sort of future [with regard, for example, to issues like climate change, but also to matters like universal health care, access to education, fair labor practices, social justice, etc.] -- I am not against the future, or a politics oriented to such -- I find that what concerns me most right now is how to build semi-attached/semi-autonomous zones in which the present can materialize in ways that might be called sustaining -- of persons, places, things, groups, arrangements, situations, etc. -- right now. And screw waiting for that. The powers-that-be always want you to be patient and wait for shit. As long as we have shelter of any kind, and are willing to make room in that shelter for those more vulnerable than us, there is no reason to wait. Do you want to know want kind of medieval studies you want? Simply enunciate it, and be willing to do so Outside, and in makeshift shelters. We are in Lear's company now.

Whether desiring a future or simply trying to determine, how shall we live now? [increasingly, my preferred orientation, but really, the two are steps in the same fruitful direction], one needs collaborators [the other side of the colon in the Kalamazoo session, "The Future We Want"]. Which is to say, I desire a future in the Now with others, which can be an agon, to be a sure, but a necessary, and even enjoyable, one [if, by "enjoyment," we mean to exult in our own difficulties with others]. It has to be deliberative, and [again] difficultly so, but as Aranye Fradenburg has written, "what enables us to to risk change is the feeling that we are ... accompanied" ["Living Chaucer"]. I'll choose thriving [and yes, change, and struggling] in the present, over surviving into the future. It shouldn't be about, "can we keep all the stuff we have now ... forever?" so much as it should be about, "how can we not just live through change, but be agents of our own changes?" Manifestos can be hackneyed, and even dangerous, especially when they assume a ground-clearing maneuver [i.e., whatever exists now must be destroyed to make way for the new], but I think we increasingly need them, because they help us to outline our commitments and desires in a [writerly] action that presences those commitments and desires. That is Step 1 [Step 2 would be doing something about it], but it is an important step. In the manifesto [albeit, in the manifesto that does not desire the violence of erasing the past or the Other], we express in an always-fleeting yet still phenomenologically palpable present a radical form of desire that seeks an alteration of the status quo, and while the manifesto often looks silly and hyperbolic and always unaware of the demise of its [vain?] hopes in the future [in retrospect], there is something sincere about it. It presents a radical opening to [or window upon] the risk of a terrible [and possibly embarrassing] honesty. We could do worse than to be honest with each other. We could do worse than to actually want things that we haven't been told in advance to want. This is also a matter of contributing to the political imaginary that some believe is withering away.

So this is my [typically] long-winded way of asking everyone [AGAIN!], to consider contributing a "tiny manifesto" to punctum's Burn After Reading volume, which will be bundled [tête-bêche style] with the presentations from GW-MEMSI's "The Future We Want" session at the 2013 Kalamazoo Congress. We seek contributions in the neighborhood of 1,500-2,000 words, relative to your beef(s) about the "state of the field" and/or to your impassioned plea for a field-that-could-be-Now (we're talking premodern studies here, of any temporal bent from Year Zero to 1800). The idea is to create a cacophony of things we want, and then to see how that might materialize into actual initiatives. This volume will not be a book; it will be a blueprint. And it will be a gathering, a "rave." Please inhabit your present tenses. They look good on you.

Please send manifestos by JUNE 30 to:


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Much of this seems simply right, and gets at why so many of us find ourselves toppling into a lingering funk when contemplating the future of humanistic study within increasingly corporatized educational systems. It kind of sucks.

One thing I heard several times after the MEMSI panel that I did quibble with, though, is something along the lines of "it would be better to make the present what we want rather than to focus upon the future." FALSE BINARY. There is no present outside of the vectors within which the moment of the now is caught up. To think futurity critically is to think what needs to change immediately, not to defer action to some infinitely receding time. The Future We Want = The NOW We Want. And as you have pointed out, Eileen, the best way to achieve that change has to do with what was on the other side of the session's colon: A Collaboration.

Steve Mentz said...

Wonderful stuff, Eileen. Remind me to talk more TAZ with you at the next round-up. This is a great snapshot of that post-conference vibe, in which all the miracles that seemed suddenly tangible have flown to distant coasts. I agree with JJC about now being also the future, though I think bringing a full "now," a "very now" (to repurpose Iago's phrase) into awareness in a way that produces change is tricky. But it's the best thing we do, when we do it.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for these comments, and I totally agree about that false binary between the present/future, and realize in my post I both inscribed it and erased it, and this was partly what I was trying to get at with Bey's "clockless nowever" -- that the future we want is, indeed the now we want, and maybe inscribing any sort of clock-time always obscures our vision for things, although in many politics and many sedimented-over-time institutions, it would be unavoidable. So, when I sometimes say, forget the future, what I really mean is forget all of those technocratic-beaureaucratic-governmental structures and protocols of oversight that always ask you to defer your plans while they "check"/authorize your procedures and projected outcomes. I'm trying to think of how there might be a way for a an institution to disperse and somehow live/thrive outside of regularizing institutional time. The future, of course, is that thing we are always making happen in the present: we are always future-ing -- the question then becomes ones, as JJC says, of vectors/directionality/movements. What I'd like to see now, vis-a-vis the university, is some sort of outward movement unconcerned with arrival/destination, if that makes sense. But endurance matters, too: it's important to expend and donate one's labor to the durability of certain things that provide shelter--for thought, for experimentations, for persons who want to think, experiment, etc. While some are hanging out in the groovy nowever, others have to build certain structures for that, even if those are somewhat ephemeral, wandering structures [like migrating tents]. This is partly what I think the Urmadic University is up to, and admirably so.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Yes YES. This about THE NOW WE WANT in the sense of a dynamic or "very now." Eileen, having just submitted my annual report wonder how we might (as you state in the comment above) live/thrive "outside of regularizing institutional time" and directionality. I felt the BABEL/GWMEMSI sessions offered -- and BABEL will continue to perform/enact/encourage -- more creative modes of interaction and motion.

Anonymous said...

This resonates sharply with me as I prepare mentally for what seems now to be an ineluctable exit from university employment. The bit that sticks most of all is this:
"the increased "locking down" of intellectual property simultaneous with the over-eager initiatives to make everything open-access without any regard for the real costs of doing so, especially in terms of dedicated and always-already-undercompensated human labors",
not because it's the most serious but because, being most solely concerned with the propagation of intellectual endeavour, that is, our main purpose, it is dispiriting how very much we the Academy have not solved it. If not this, which is almost ours alone, how any of the rest which is also the world's? I suppose that the answer, to both, is to carry on taking `the world' into our confidence, but, my normal worry, someone still has to pay for us. But again the same answer: if `the University' will not, mayhap `the world' will, since lots of it seems to like what we do.

I will try and write something for this book. It will be less educated than all your stuff because I live too deeply in my field and in a position of temporary privilege, but I would like to try and say something useful.

Eileen Joy said...

tenthmedieval: Your comments here depress me, but also hearten me. Please DO send something: it would be most welcome by me.