I’ve just finished looking over William Cheng’s nice new book, Just Vibrations (Michigan, 2016). It’s caused a bit of a firestorm on a certain website (essentially, a music gossip blog that doesn’t deserve a link) and on the listserv of the American Musicological Society, the AMS-L. I wouldn’t touch that controversy with a ten-foot pole. I don’t really want to weigh in too much, either. I like the book and think it has prompted a healthy discussion (however frustrating some of that discussion was). Anyway, I mostly just want to publically express solidarity with his work while he’s still precariously employed.
The book did prompt a lot of thoughts about a related thing: labor in music studies. Cheng’s book is not just interesting as a manifesto about doing better music scholarship. It also calls attention to how we do it. In other words, Cheng foregrounds the character of academic labor. He focuses in particular on the tone of scholarship today. Drawing on Eve Sedgwick, Cheng argues that paranoia constitutes the dominant attitude in academic thought. Cheng writes, “driven by negative affects and a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ such scholarship aims to outfox, to enact power, and to produce results beyond reproach… With seductive rhetoric and logic, they produce self-satisfying critiques, which in turn affirm, after the fact, that no one can ever be paranoid enough.” Cheng echoes a broader current of scholars especially in literary criticism, including Sedgwick, Felski, and others questioning the abundance of critique (I recently wrote a blog post about Felski’s The Limits of Critique in particular).
Cheng helpfully makes it clear this is not just a pervasive strategy for interpreting literary texts, but a mode of behavior driving the academy at large. Paranoia abounds because
academics frequently view their work and workplace as institutions under budgetary and ideological siege. Hardly a day goes by without multiple articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education reporting the financial gutting of universities. Anti-intellectualism evokes barbarians rattling the gates of the ivory tower, but adversariality also rages within the tower itself: notwithstanding the conventions and collegiality of mutual citation, scholars learn not just to write, but to write against—to uproot status quo, fill in lacunae, and change up the game.
(That’s a quotation from the second chapter, “Sing the Ivory Tower Blues”). In what follows, I’ll mostly use Felski’s term critique over paranoia, since it’s more neutral and less psychologically speculative. But generally, I think the argument is right on.
Cheng’s alternative, like many others, is to call for a reparative strategy, one rooted in care, hope, and love. I won’t review that end of the argument, especially because I’ve written at length about the reparative approach in my Felski post. I mostly want now to think alongside Cheng and bring the questions of labor and university even closer to the fore.
Shifting gears away from Cheng toward literary studies: the focus on suspicion by Sedgwick and co. can lead to an omission. There is a lack of differentiation that can accompany generalizations about paranoia. Sedgwick argues that paranoia is “contagious” (familiar readers may recall the phrasing isn’t accidental, given that the pretext for her essay is LGBTQ politics and AIDS activism). It has spread like a virus, gradually shifting from an oppositional strategy to the dominant attitude of academia as such.
The problem isn’t really that such a position is too heavy-handed (I’d be fine with that on the grounds of its utility alone). More exactly, it isn’t properly differentiated in a way that recognizes the structure of the academy. Yes, the university is a collection of scholars working, trends do spread quickly, people do try to uproot the status quo, and so on. But it isn’t a homogenous mass of people. It has a very specific shape.
More precisely, it’s a class structure. The university is a giant economic system. This is not only true because of the reliance of academics on a large service population of working class people (many of whom are people of color who are easily forgotten in discussions of scholarly tone and topic). It’s also not just true because our students - themselves often ignored when we theorize about our own importance - are passing through the revolving doors of the academic debt machine.
It’s also true within the academic ladder itself, which functions as a massive caste system. In the upper echelon sits an executive class of administrators. At the bottom sits a massive rank of disposable and flexible labor: adjuncts, tenure-track faculty, graduate students, and so on. And standing in between the hoi polloi and the CEO sits the great big middle class: the associate professor. Materializing a theory of academic life – that is, making it not just about tone but trade – gives a slightly different picture. Living in the academy isn’t making us paranoid. It is making us antagonistic.
The academy is a massive mechanism of class struggle. It exploits hierarchies of race, class, and gender; encourages revolutions in technologies and neoliberal reforms; and it thrives on a model of aggressive turnover to manage its reserve labor force. The class character of the academy is transparent today when we imagine the top tier of the academy. You don’t need to read Capital to understand why administrators have tightened belts (if you want to, start with Chapter 10, “The Working Day”). But we should also keep in mind how it inflects those below. Associate professors - the middle managers of the university - battle to preserve their careers, while graduate students battle to launch them. And from there, chaos ensues.
I was recently sitting in a coffee shop in an unnamed city, and I overheard a young tenured professor reviewing applications for his unnamed department’s job search. He was sitting there with a colleague, who herself was hastily grading papers. Frequently, he would stop to mock the applications he was reading, and she would laugh with him. He ridiculed the desperation that came through in one cover letter, the adjunct position at a lower tier school held by another, the lengthy time to completion of a third. This went on for hours.
I was horrified. It’s a bit scary to hear someone who, though he won’t actually be an arbiter of my work, might share hostile sentiments with those who will. It called to mind all of my inadquacies and the likely possibility I won’t find a job. I was also furious. It was a blatant moment of someone enjoying the power that comes at the expense of two hundred precariously employed graduate students and junior faculty (I stopped myself from saying something, since even though I doubt we have any mutual colleagues, the academy is a small and fickle place).
I don’t actually blame him (even though his behavior was particularly nasty). I know why a guy who has to spend his afternoon frantically reading 200 applications is angry. He probably had grading to do, article proofs that are overdue, a second book manuscript growing dusty on his desk (not to mention a family that also doesn’t care about the bluff-filled cover letters sitting on his lap). It’s a systemic problem, not a personal one. The guy is middle management, forced to make the hard choices about his underlings while also worrying about protecting his own career. And given who stands above him, pretty much all he can do is punch down at a bunch of grad students. It’s especially easy, since most of them won’t be in the business much longer.
Shifting toward this context helps explain the pervasiveness of a certain mode of critical intervention, what gets construed as paranoia. It isn’t just paranoia driving the cart. It is the antagonism that arises as we are forced to squabble over the few positions that are dangled like carrots to keep disposable labor on hand. This, I think, is a more helpful grounds to understand the pervasiveness of bad behavior in the academy. It is why a recently tenured professor is so critical of applications he reads. It also lines up directly with my experiences of the interpersonal dynamics of the university. Hostility is abundant within the graduate student world. The shouting at panels, the name-badge checking at cocktail parties (“you go there?”), the closed door gossiping and resentment… this is an obvious response as we struggle to avoid the painful descent into the academic Lumpenfakultät.
We should also think about how this constitutes the positive content of academia, not just our negative self-understanding. Antagonism is different from paranoia, because it isn’t just a worry. It also includes the shrewd manipulation of academic codes. Struggling is figuring out how to create something novel in a business that thrives under a model of innovation. Critique pervades because it fulfills the demand for innovation in the realm of ideas, and promises to help us climb the ranks. Tearing down last year’s ideas is a way to squeeze out a bit of surplus value, to revolutionize the aging machinery of scholarly production.
Thinking in these terms also shifts us toward a more dialectical account of the relationship between reparation and paranoia. I’ve often lamented the tendency for reparation theorists like Sedgwick to overlook the ways in which reparation itself stems from the world of critique (again, see my Felski piece).
Reparation too can be understood in line with the demands of the academic labor market. If you can’t overthrow the old academic producers, you might as well play nice. One great reason to do so is because if you don’t, the person reviewing your article or your job application might just remember your scathing critique of their friend. Of course, I’m all for solidarity and being nice. But, let’s not forget that the incentive to play cautious in our scholarship is brought about by careerist circumspection. Reparative readings constitute their own form of gaming, of figuring out who will respond well to praise and heaping it on. So much so that smoke-and-mirrors interventions or hagiography starts to resemble critical work. When there is little room to speak freely, better to share the love.
More realistically for us at the bottom of the ladder, the only option is to bite our tongues. I hear all the time from friends who were forced to fake a smile while some dean tossed around some sexist barb at a cocktail party, or a professor pontificated on a topic despite being wildly unaware of its recent literature. I’ve heaped praise on dated work and cited what I despise, shook hands with those who wronged me, played the game as desperately and pitifully as I could. In an academy that denies a wholly robust critical life to even its inner sanctum, praise comes with a mandate. In such moments, what is called repair can reall be a form of what Adorno calls “reconciliation under duress.” There is no repair available for those who feel the need to stay silent, lest they invite critiques from management.