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18 February 2014

Conjunctural Analysis of Academy Timid Neurotics

Date: Sun, 16 Feb 2014 15:25:11 -0500
From: t byfield <tbyfield[at]>
To: nettime-l[at]
Subject: <nettime> conjunctural analysis

Brian wrote:


> To do a conjunctural analysis is to expose yourself, not only to
> error, but far in advance of that, to the immediate scorn of those
> whose greed and fear make them toe the dominant line (it most often
> reduces to cynical passivity). The academy, it's sad to say, is
> filled with generations of timid neurotics who wanted to have a
> grand theory but never dared let themselves feel the urgent passion
> of responding precisely to the demands of a conjuncture. The result
> is no theory at all - just the aimless hot air of untested
> theorizing, crafted to please one's betters but discarded by them
> for its minor inconveniences.

I don't have much use for conjunctural analysis, because the name, like many theoretical things, doesn't really tell you what to do, or how, or when -- just that there's a there there, and maybe that you're not entirely alone there. That in itself is important, because conjunctural analysis as you define it necessarily runs the risk of exile. But in the moment, however we want to define it, one can hardly explain that what one is 'really' doing is conjunctural analysis, or that the result will be some theory.

I'm also a bit leery about the idea of daring oneself feel the urgent passion of responding precisely to the demands of a conjuncture -- because passion is precisely what the conjunctural analyst will be accused of by, for example, the ranks of timid neurotics. Institutions only like passions in the modern, commodified sense of some *thing* that you 'find' through study, work, or a hobby. They detest passions in the classical sense of a quasi-spirit that possesses you, works through you, and -- here's the risky bit -- may very well lead to you and other would-be conjunctural analysts being banished to the wilderness of a new career in a new town.

That all might sound like I'm disagreeing with, you, Brian, but I'm not. At all. On the contrary: your description of the academy is one of the best I've seen. And, wording aside, what you say is right on in a very rare way.

The problem is this: the academy is still one of the only places where we can *teach* conjunctural analysis, in substance and form, in the hope that it might actually take root. That's not to say the academy is such a great place -- it isn't. But it does have a few real advantages over most other workplaces, notably in the way that it's resisted complete capture by the naked exercise of 'executive' authority. It's hard to hire and fire academics immediately, because the notional proposition behind the academy is, of course, teaching -- which makes it a seasonal industry, closer in some ways to farming than to manufacturing or governing. A first step in a conjunctural analysis might be to note that students and faculty are structural, maybe even 'natural,' allies. Step two might be for faculty to act accordingly.

I'll talk a bit about the situation of the academy in the US -- first, because it's the one I know best (a low bar, admittedly), but also because it's a pathological case, and in that sense has become a 'model' for other nations around the world.

That model has unfolded along many different lines, old and new: ancient conventions of mendicant tutors and scholars (now called "adjuncts"), the post-enlightenment development disciplinary scholarly societies, industrial-era national-scale strategic research networks (they're not 'postwar' -- see for example, of all things, Mark Twain's _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_), and so on. But one of the most decisive changes to the structure of the US academy came from a cumulative series of federal-level legal changes over thirty years (1976-2005) that made student loans nondischargeable through bankruptcy -- at first governmental loans, then incrementally expanded to cover "private" loans. (There are gradations in this public/private dichotomy, notably the Perkins loans program, which has led to some universities -- Yale, GWU, and U Penn that I know of -- to 'quietly' sue their own students or alumni/ae for defaulting.)

In effect, these changes have amounted to the restoration of indentured servitude -- an inescapable bond of debt associated with a nearly obligatory educational passage. The other thing it did was to reduce creditors' risk to near-zero. With no immediate downside, it's small wonder that the cost of education has skyrocketed. And as the cost of education rises, it's small wonder that the jaw-dropping growth in educational financial would attract every kind of predatory we can imagine, and many more we can't.

There are many other contributing factors to those increases. The pop-media rogue's gallery includes trivia like "climbing walls," which serve as a metonym for the alleged luxuries of student life. The people who are willing to go on record at all about this kind of stuff tend to argue, mainly through a foggy journalistic 'background,' that they have no choice -- that schools have to 'compete' for students by offering 'modern' amenities. And that's true to a limited but real extent. However, it's also true, and more relevant, that blaming students (especially *prospective* students) for generations of misguided policies is churlish and cowardly.

Those policies are, of course, imagined and implemented by administrators (and their larval phase, the 'educator'), who bubble up (or maybe settle down) through the ranks of, as you put it, the generations of timid neurotics who traded in their dreams of grand theories for secure positions within the academy. Those positions, far from hinging the 'publish or perish' dilemma, are driven instead by generic organizational dysfunctions like maximizing and depleting resources, i.e., spending. Administrators spend vast sums on each other and the byzantine processes their proliferating relations entail -- strategizing, drafting, planning, developing, mentoring, scaffolding, coordinating, 'reaching out' (a/k/a emailing), clustering, piloting, consulting, engaging, partnering, observing, implementing, measuring, assessing, evaluating, accrediting, certifying, reconsidering, optimizing, and of course 'succeeding.' (Note how easily a list like that can omit details like admitting, studying, and graduating.) The other favorite bogey of rising educational costs, the 'star' system in which a handful of faculty members get astounding salaries (as well as less hidden forms of 'compensation'), have much more to do with administrative dysfunctions than with students.

But my point isn't to point a finger at some imaginary, malign 'bureaucracy.' For the most part, they're a decent bunch and most of them really do care. And it's a fact -- an important one -- that education has changed in dramatic and often decisively positive ways in the last decades. We can't hold up progressive ideals (about equity, new subjectivities, social and cultural complexities, the environment, and so on) without seriously addressing the deep changes these ideals demand in the fabric of education. Instead, my intent is to think through the main conjunctures that are transforming what it means to be a member of a faculty.

Most of the language we have (again, through pop media) isn't up to that task. For example, we hear lots about tenured-vs-nontenured faculty or vs tenured-vs-adjunct faculty. But those dichotomies don't quite capture the changing contingencies of faculty employment, which more and more involve positions that are neither fish nor fowl -- things like short-term full-time contracts, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not. That's just one example; there are more, but if I started running them down this would start to sound like a think-piece in the _Chronicle of Higher Ed_ (an excellent publication, but not the one I'm writing for). What most of the burning 'issues' we hear about -- even very sympathetic or confessional descriptions of the plight of the adjunct -- have in common is that they implicitly adopt an *administrative* perspective.

What we don't hear much about is, as I suggested earlier, any structural alliance between faculty and students. A simple measure of that is how rare it is to hear any faculty member at all -- or, heaven forfend, a collective *faculty* -- declare that the cost of education is absolutely unacceptable. And do so with the same kind of zeal they'll put into, say, chasing down verey possible implication of some theoretical positions *within* their field or domain. Doing so would be risky for obvious reasons: it's hardly the best career move for a junior faculty member. And for a less obvious reasons as well: if their ability to constitute themselves as a collective depends on an institution, then making that declaration would be either empty posturing or suicidal. (That accounts in part, I think, for the silence of senior faculty members, who could afford a little heresy.) But failing to take a stand is both emptier and, I think, equally suicidal -- just more timid. The more serious cost is that faculty are squandering their credibility.

In the US, faculties will have to face this sooner or later -- sooner than later, I think. They rely on an institution whose 'business model' depends on cumulative annual increases of 3-4% for the principal alone -- I'm not even speaking of the interest that subsequently accumulates. Universities left and right are building "sustainability" into their operations in the form of new procedures and infrastructure, but somehow this overwhelming economic unsustainability produces fewer concrete outcomes beyond the slowing the rate of increase. That's real in the sense that institutions clearly *can and do* charge more every year; but it's also imaginary in the sense that reductions are based on things that never existed outside of a spreadsheet. There are exceptions to these across-the-board increases, and there will be more; but for now they're limited to individual institutions or 'marginal' (a terrible distinction) institutions like community-college systems.

The US academy has papered this trend over by accepting growing numbers of 'international' students, i.e., non-citizen students who don't have access to the same credit facilities and therefore pay more. The growing presence of these students is a good thing in many ways, and it's driven in very immediate ways the kinds of progressive ideals I mentioned above. At the same time, there's little or no candid discussion about the undercurrent: what began, decades ago, as a long-term meritocratic project of attracting bright minds from around the world has devolved into a short-term financial strategy. And, with that, we see corollary failures like the failure to maintain effective international alumni/ae networks.

To acknowledge these changes doesn't say anything about the 'quality' or 'potential' of the students. On the contrary, it points toward a larger conjuncture where the US academy is failing. I think one of the main reasons this is happening is, again, the subtle and not-so-subtle shift in focus away from the natural alliance between faculty and students (and therefore faculty and alumni/ae) toward an institution dominated by an administrative and operational worldview. That kind of effect -- and there are many more -- could be remedied by reorganizing institutions around the fundamental relations between faculty and students; but that would mean a devolution of authority not just to faculty as we now understand them but, rather, to new ways of understanding what the word faculty means. It's not like they can't travel or organize; but 'administering' in the absence of clear models is -- or is seen as -- all but impossible.

Even a decade ago, 'online' education was widely seen as the stepchild of digital diploma mills; that's changed. And despite all the sound and fury (followed by a curious silence) about "MOOCs" and the like, the techniques involved, if not the package, *do* point toward new ways that the academy can build new cultural roles. Informal community-oriented educational projects have been doing it (as have much older formations like reading groups or even public broadcasting). These roles don't need to take the form of a 'course,' which (again) is mainly an administrative convenience. The list goes on. But most of the items on that list point away from education understood as an administrative project, and toward something more immanent and irreducibly educational.

As I said, the faculty (and faculties) of the US academy *will* have to face these issues squarely. But the logic of these institutions is so deeply distorted by the 'individual' tradeoff of grand theories for job security that they'll do so only when they're forced to. And the catastrophic rise in the cost of education guarantees that will happen sooner or later -- sooner *than* later, I think. It won't be monolithic. Instead, the kinds of solidarity that can and should be founded on alliance between faculty and students will be fragmented, squabbling, and desperate. As one department, school, college, or university after another falls under the budgetary axe, others will benefit from the growing supply and weakening demand.

Savvy administrators at wealthy institutions know that explicitly, and are biding their time and 'building their brand.' Meanwhile, faculties sense it but see themselves as powerless, as creatures of the institution rather than creators of discourses, practices, contexts, and networks -- at a crucial conjuncture but unable to analyze it in the ways you described so well.



Brian Holmes follow-up:

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