Monday, February 20, 2017

Message, Politics, and Form: Debates in Science Fiction

            This essay was published on my most recent failed blog project, and I thought I would reprint it here with some minor revisions.  I thought it was one of the better things I wrote for the project, but it didn't get a lot of attention, so I thought I would see if it got more attention over here.  The essay opens with the now close to defunct debate over the Hugo Awards, but it uses the controversy to explore the nature of science fiction through a discussion of the concept of message fiction.  Rather than simply taking a side on the debate, the essay both rejects the concept of messages a good way to understand science fiction and argues that politics are inherent to the genre at a formal level.  It does so by drawing from the critical work of Samuel Delany and Darko Suvin, and their understanding of the genre.  In any case, here is the essay....


            In the past few months, I have been fairly faithfully following the controversies surrounding the Hugo Awards, which was created by the expansion of what is called the Sad Puppies slate, along with the creation of a mirroring, Rabid Puppies slate.  Rather than getting into the details of that fairly baroque debate, I thought I would focus on one small rhetorical feature of the conversation.  Throughout the debate, the puppies have focused on condemning something called ‘message fiction’, which they define as the imposition of the political on the form of science fiction.  In response, the critics of the puppies tend to make two arguments, either noting the ‘messages’ or political aspects of the puppies texts, or arguing that all texts have a message, or political dimensions to them.  Not surprisingly, my views are far closer to the critics of the puppies, but they make a common mistake, collapsing the broader implications of the political into the narrower framework of message, which doesn’t necessarily operate within political terms.  I plan on showing the distinction between message and politics, and then use the literary criticism of Samuel Delany to examine how the political dimension of science fiction is better understood as a formal dimension of the genre.

            The concept of message fiction is probably most easily understandable by referring to its earlier antecedents, notably morality tales, fables, and folk tales.  These stories are explicitly constructed to pass on a lesson, which can often be expressed in sentence or two.  These lessons might express an abstract concept such as the golden rule, or may express the far more concrete danger of wandering alone, away from home, in the dead of winter.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this form of literary construction, and, indeed, it is a far older form of literary creation, and deeply contributes to all forms of literature.  However, the authors were far less concerned with literary form and quality, which was in service of the lesson. Not surprisingly, the structure of this traditional approach is most easily found in pedagogical literature produced for either children or adolescents.  We might reference Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, or the Canadian television series, Degrassi Junior High, as examples of this sort of ‘message fiction,’ along with a great deal of religious fiction.  It’s significant to note that we are far away from the narrative structures of science fiction, when we discuss is sort of literature, and that while this form of pedagogical fiction has political implications, it rarely is intended to act as a political intervention.  However, another subsection of ‘message fiction’, which might be called polemical fiction, interventions into the events of the day, can be constructed with explicitly political purposes in mind, and utilize science fictional narrative structures.

           However, the politics of science fiction and other dominant literary forms takes a distinctively different approach than the messages discussed above.  That politics can be found in the explicit and implicit background assumptions of the writer that are embedded in the narrative form of the story.  They are produced in the effort to create a sense of ‘reality’ that constitutes the background of the story, and the norms and expectations of the characters interact within social institutions.  Indeed, even within the polemical fiction discussed above, the story is judged far more on its ability to engage an audience on these formal questions.  Perhaps, this argument is better explained through a concrete example.  A recent debate has opened up around conservative John C. Wright’s nostalgic invocation of the literary trope of the ‘princess in distress,’ which he marks as part of the origins of the genre, before the accursed introduction of political messages.  A critic argued that this trope itself constituted a message, a political dimension to the text.  At a larger and more substantial level, I’m largely in agreement with this critic.  The ability to imagine women as only in need of rescue has a disturbing and deeply hierarchical implication to it.  But, it isn’t a message.  Instead, it’s a narrative convention, created to engage with a set of audience expectations to produce a sense of enjoyment.  Its political implications are embedded in a set of common assumptions about the role of women in a society and about what it means to be feminine. 
  
          All fiction, whether escapist or engaged, fantastic or realistic, focused on a past or a future, engages in this unmistakably political process through their construction of a world that is both recognized and enjoyed by an audience.  In his effort to define the genre of science fiction in his essay, “About 5,750 Words”, author and critic, Samuel R. Delany understands this process through the concept of ‘subjunctivity,’ which he draws from an engagement with the linguistic theorist, Ferdinand Saussure.  Delany notes, “Subjunctivity is the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’:) sound-image and sound-image.”  (Delany 10)  To break that fairly opaque statement open, Delany is noting that narrative is constructed by a string of words being joined together to produce a narrative.  The subjunctivity of a piece is defined by the relationship of that narrative to its relationship to the world of the author.  Reportage is defined the “blanket indicative tension… this happened,” while  naturalistic fiction is defined by “could have happened,” fantasy is defined by “could not have happened”, and  science fiction is defined by “have not happened.” (Delany 10-11)  Within this series of generic descriptions, Delany shifts from the narrative conventions of ‘reportage’, which must correspond with the facts of the empirical world, to a variety of fictional narrative structures, which produce worlds that critically engage with that world through a variety of rules sets, which define what can and not occur within that world.

            In every case, the author has to make a series of critical interventions about what the world is, and how will their fictional world engage with those expectations.  Science fiction attempts to largely imagine what might be called ‘potential worlds’, worlds that could exist, but do not, whether in the form of a future to come, an alternative present, or a past that never occurred.  In each case, we break away from the ideological horizons of the present to imagine a different, and even alien society that could exist.  At the same time, the author has to produce that alternative with a meaningful engagement with the available natural and social sciences, history, and critical theory.  The ‘have not happened’ has to be plausible within the knowledge of its time, and it has to show that plausibility through its narrative structures.  It therefore has to engage with the question of politics, amongst other questions.  Delany stresses these demands on the genre in his lengthy critical investigation of Ursula Leguin’s Utopian novel, The Dispossessed,

Mundane fiction can get by with a clear and accurate portrayal of behavior that occurs merely because it occurs.  Science fiction can not.  In an alien culture—both Anarres and Urras are alien cultures—we are obliged to speculate on the reason behind any given behavior; and this speculation, whether implicit or explicit, must leave its signs in the text.  The scenes and paragraphs are signs of limitations on the social egalitarianism of Anarres; they are not sighs for the causes of those limitations.
            Nothing prevents an SF writer from writing a story about an intelligent species in which adolescent male bonding behavior is imprinted on the genes.  (The species might biologically and genetically bear a resemblance to birds, who exhibit much complex behavior that may well be genetically controlled.)  Similarly, nothing prevents the SF writer from writing about an intelligent species in which such behavior is completely the product of intrasocial forces.  Indeed, the writer if she chooses can write about a species in which the reason switches back and forth according to the changes in the moon.
            What we must remember, however, is that once mundane fiction has accomplished its portrait of behavior at some historical moment, from the here and now to the distant past, if we ask of it: “But what do you think the surrounding cause are?” mundane fiction can answer, without fear that it is shirking its job, “Frankly, I don’t know.  It’s not my concern.” But because science fiction is not constrained to answer such a question “correctly,” within its generic precincts, the “I don’t know. It’s not my concern” of mundane fiction not only becomes self-righteous and pompous, it signifies a violation of the form itself.   Science fiction may ultimately end with an “I don’t know” about any given point, but only after a good deal of speculation, either implicit or explicit, has left its signs in the text. (Delany 128-129) 

            Delany opens his engagement with the genre by contrasting its narrative horizons with that of ‘mundane’ or what he may have earlier called ‘naturalistic fiction.’  The latter can simply represent the world ‘as it is.’  It need not explain why a social phenomenon exists; it merely has to exist to be represented.  However, science fiction has to live up to a much higher standard, due to its speculative nature.  Delany goes on to show how open ended this process can be, allowing for the imagination of radically different worlds, with structures of gender and sexuality that have radically different biological and social explanation.  However, the author produces the rules for the universe of the novel, and therefore must be able to show either the natural or social rules for such a world, in either an ‘implicit or explicit’ manner.  Anarres fails, Delany argues, not because it represent inequality, but because it fails to offer an explanation for that inequality.  It naturalizes the social expectations of the present, and therefore fails in its obligations as a science fiction novel.  In effect, the science fiction novel demands a sort of political engagement with why its social structures work the way they do, even if that explanation imagines an alternative biological structure.  To draw on the work of Darko Suvin, science fiction "does not ask about The Man or The World, but which man?: in what kind of world?: and why such a man in such a kind of world?" (Suvin, "Estrangement and Cognition", 2.1)

            It should be noted that the political engagement that Samuel Delany demands has no partisan markers.  It doesn’t demand that the author be a radical or a conservative, commit to the views of a particular party, or even understand the social structures of the present in the same way.  It simply demands that the world that is represented has some sort of explanation of how its culture came to operate in the way it does in the book, either in an implicit or explicit fashion.   It’s why radical critics are more than happy to recognize that novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Keith Roberts’s Pavane, and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series are great science fiction novels.  They produce richly imagined worlds, with complex social and political structures that are formal political engagement with the present through those author’s conservative political framework.  They ask substantial political questions that are worth following in the narrative form, even if you profoundly disagree with the answers.  To use the language of Darko Suvin, science fiction is a literature of cognitive estrangement, which means it’s a literature of critique, in its richest and most open ended sense.

Friday, January 27, 2017

No Nostalgia for George W Bush: A Critique through Wendy Brown's Regulating Aversion

     One of the curious by products of the election of Donald Trump as president has been a sort of reevaluation of the presidency of George W. Bush.  A lot of this work has occurred through comical memes with slogans such as, "I bet you never thought that you would miss me!"  Not surprisingly, these forms of comical expression are not simplistic in their expression.  They are not precisely endorsements of the former president, but they seem to express the notion that somehow the very real problems of the past may be preferable to the present.  On one hand, I think this sentiment operates through a sort of forgetting, a forgetting of the violence associated with the war, of the sorts of repression that defined the era, but at the same time, perhaps they are right to see the present as containing a greater, fascist threat.  At the same time, this sentiment has taken a more serious form in a nostalgia for the kinds of tolerance that were expressed by Bush just days after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  This sentiment posits a greater feeling of genuine humanitarian sentiment on the part of Bush expressed through this desire for tolerance.  It's also the sentiment that I believe drives the earlier comedic statements.  It's precisely this nostalgia that I want to challenge, and I plan on drawing on Wendy Brown's analysis of Bush's invocation of tolerance in her 2006 text, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire.
      
      In her engagement with Bush's invocation of the concept of tolerance, Brown registers her critique at two levels: the tension between the call for tolerance and the brutal nature of the war, and at the same time, the contradictory nature of the call for tolerance of Muslim citizens, who were to be at the same time embraced as fellow citizens and closely monitored as threats.  She opens this by noting, "But while Bush continuously urged citizen regard for the rich diversity of the American population, while he preached respect and tolerance as model citizen behavior, this was hardly the state's bearing either in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan or in "fighting terrorism" on the domestic front.  Even as the populace was suborned to civility and tolerance, state practice was immediately and flagrantly extralegal, violent, race-conscious, and religion-conscious." (Brown 100)  Brown notes that these polices could be seen in the interrogation of thousands in their homes, the intense forms of surveillance allowed for in the Patriot Act that also circumvented "judicial powers that protect civil liberties." (Brown 100-101) More dramatically, the Bush administration sanctioned the torture of detained prisoners at Abu Ghraib and in domestic custody.  The administration also refused to recognize the rights granted to prisoners under the Geneva Conventions.  In effect, as Brown points out, the calls for tolerance on the part of its citizens went hand in hand with "The state's own vigilantism, violence, and racial profiling, at home and abroad." (Brown 101)

     Perhaps more significantly, Brown maps out a profound gap between the call for tolerance and the call for citizen vigilance.  As she notes, "But in addition to mutual respect and tolerance, and the newfound patriotism of shopping, the state hailed its subjects in yet another way in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, one that seems at odds with the above analysis.  In the domestic war against terrorism, Americans were asked to become the "eyes and ears of the government," and to heighten vigilance about strange people and strange behaviors: we were to be wary of mail we didn't recognize, people we didn't know, actions that seemed out of place.  This need for wariness, of course, justified racial profiling undertaken by the citizenry--for example, suspiciousness toward an Arab man sitting in an office reception with a package on his lap or towards a "foreigner" on a airplane who was nervous and fidgety.  Indeed, such "intolerant perspectives" were not only justified, but patriotic, insofar as they constituted the suspicious citizen as member of a citizen militia in the war on terrorism.  Patriotic, too, as the very name of the congressional act licensing it indicates, was the embrace of curtailed civil liberties and thus our tolerance of curtailed civil liberties and thus our tolerance of racial profiling in airport security stations, reductions or loss of access to public buildings, searches and seizures without warrants, detainments without cause and without Miranda rights, wiretaps on phone conversations, surveillance of book buying and library habits, and the interception of mail between prison inmates and their lawyers.  In this interpellation, we are no longer distant and passive subjects of the state but rather its agents and mirror image, appendages of a nonliberal raison d'etat." (Brown 102-103)

     Brown then uses this rather lengthy engagement with the practices of the Bush administration to analyze the nature of the contemporary nation-state, but I want to linger on the concrete practices of the administration itself.  As Brown notes, the administration both demands that the populace of the United States both embrace and observe these 'strangers' among us.  Perhaps more significantly, as she notes, the passive embrace of a kind of forbearance of vigilante violence was opposed to the entrance of the citizen (to be sure, coded white) into a kind of grid of intelligibility that demanded that the citizen channel those energies into the active surveillance of those marked as "foreign and hostile."  In effect, just as the administration asked for a set of practices that would allow for "tolerance and inclusion," it created the mechanisms to create the very opposite behavior.  More significantly, these forms of racially coded surveillance seeped into the pores of daily life, profoundly transforming the ways we engaged in public space with the injunction that "if you see something, say something."  'We' were disciplined through these acts of being watched, searched, and searching ourselves.  Within this context, rather than seeing George W. Bush and Donald Trump as expressing radically different value systems, we should see the rise of Donald Trump as a product of the very contradictory set of injunctions placed on us by the Bush administration, between the need to tolerate and the need racially profile as an agent of the state. 

      Trump openly embraces the racialized citizenry already implicitly embedded in the practices enacted by Bush administration. He draws off the forms of knowledge and power produced through the calls for surveillance on the part of that administration, the experts that arose to explain the "Muslim mind" and the kinds of anti-Muslim organizing authorized by those calls.  By drawing from that paralegal structure, he actively played and plays on the tensions between the injunction to 'tolerate' and the more powerful injunction to monitor.  In doing so, he presents himself as the sole escape from this agonizing tension.  But the Bush administration created the conditions for this setting, and he shouldn't be allowed to dodge this responsibility.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Some thoughts on Frederick Pohl's Memoir

        I finally managed to finish Frederick Pohl's memoir, The Way The Future Was a couple months ago, but was distracted by work.  I finally have a little time to write something up about the text now.  Pohl's memoir is one of many texts of science fiction history and criticism from the 1970's that remains unpublished, despite the boom in republishing.  Unlike some of those texts, such as the work of Darko Suvin during the same period, Pohl's memoir is still fairly reasonably priced in the used market, costing only a few dollars.  As a text, it provides a useful complement to Damon Knight's history of the Futurians produced around the same time (a text that is also out of print, but reasonably easy to find used at this point in time.)

        Within that context, it provides some well needed context about the political context of the group, working through Pohl's involvement in the Communist Party, and the idiosyncratic views of other members such as Donald Wollhelm and James Blish.  Some of these points are dealt with by the Damon Knight text, but Pohl deals with the questions of politics with a great deal more substance, discussing his relationship with the party as its positions dramatically shifted with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  Unlike a lot of ex-communists, Pohl still maintains that the part was right in its fight for workers' rights, civil rights and other domestic issues.  He focuses his critique of the party on the apologism for the Soviet Union.  Additionally, Pohl gestures towards some of his limitations in regards to his treatment of women throughout the text, but doesn't ever deal substantially with his relationship with fellow author, Judith Merril in the text.

       However, the most valuable aspect of the text is Pohl's discussion of his role as an agent within the genre, a role he played during the period of time when the genre moved from a pulp magazine based genre to a primarily novel based genre.  Because of those contingent circumstances, he is able to offer a unique perspective on how authors such as Isaac Asimov became respected figures.  It also provides an interesting perspective on the messy process of turning the genre into something commercially viable.   He maps out the shift to more establishment publishers, the formation of a number of science fiction writers' associations, as well as the publication as a number of important novels.  It's also the point in the text where it is most evident that Pohl is trying to offer an explanation for the collapse in his own business, despite it's immense success.  Pohl not only went bankrupt, but wound up not paying a number of writers for many years, an error he claims to have corrected.

      Beyond that, Pohl is pretty enjoyable memoirist.  If he doesn't offer the kind of experimental writing provided by Judith Merril and Samuel Delany, he provides an entertaining set of vignettes about the formation of the genre, and the role the Futurians played in that formation.  A lot of this material isn't terribly shocking.  At this point, most people who study the genre know that Hugo Gernsbeck was a bit of a charlatan, and that  John Campbell had some problematic political views, but Pohl's description certainly adds color to the understanding of those figures.  Probably more significantly, he captures the sense of science fiction as a genre working within a commercial market, while being run by people who were either uninterested or unable to operate within the terms of those markets.  Pohl continually exemplifies this himself, as he both contributes to the commercial and critical success of the genre, while remaining unable to translate that success into anything that vaguely looks like a profit. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Cozy Catastrophe: The Dystopian Turn in Public Education

            To provide a brief introduction, I gave this talk at a session of this year's MLA, for a panel with the initial title of "The New Material Circumstances of Academia."  In a sense, the talk represents my current liminal position within academic life, reflecting not only on my present position, but also on my activism as a graduate student.  It's still a little rough, but worth putting up on the blog.

            
            Perhaps, to enter into this talk, I should mention the origins of the title.  The term “cozy catastrophe” is used to describe a subgenre of science fiction novels, written in the mid-twentieth century.  Exemplified by the work of John Wyndham, this work imagined any number of catastrophes that killed millions, but nonetheless, left the protagonists of the novel relatively unscathed.  Those individuals would then go on to build some kind of future, attempting rectify the conditions that created the catastrophe in the first place.  That gap, the space between catastrophe and roughing it in the wilderness, struck me as somehow apt to describe how the transformation of public college education is narrated.  To give a concrete example, in the middle of my time as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, the president of the system described the schools as an enormous graveyard.  That catastrophist language can be seen not only at the top of the system, but in the language of the day to day activism of those who operate within the university system, primarily in the form of the blogs and other publications of countless graduate and undergraduate activists.  Our system of ‘education’ is in ‘crisis’ and is about to reach the level of catastrophe.

            At the same time, the vast majority of us producing this writing remain in the system with some relative comfort.  This applies not only to the tenured faculty, who have job security and access to benefits, but to most of us who participate in the academic side of daily university life. It certainly applies to life as an adjunct as well. Our troubles, as real as they are, rarely fit comfortably into the narrative of catastrophe, and instead are defined by the grey reality that Leon Trotsky argued constituted middle class life.  We look for better employment, worry about paying for insurance and our school loans, and fret over our lack of a meaningful retirement fund.  Most of us are concerned about the kind of education that we are providing, and feel a keen sense of regret about the corner cutting that frequently occurs while teaching in multiple institutions without access to offices or many other resources.  These are real concerns, but the language of crisis does little to help us understand those issues.  At best, the language creates an excitement absent from those grey reality of daily life, and inspires us to become active in the politics of our campus. At worst, and more often, it creates the logic for inaction, to keep our noses down and focused on the next day.

            However, the language certainly captures something of the intensity of the transformation.  As Wendy Brown notes in her 2015 talk on the topic, the university is undergoing a substantial transformation in its governance structure.  Moving from what she calls the corporate structure of the university that existed through most of the 20th century, the university has broken away from the previous system of shared faculty governance and has become a system that reflects the processes of neoliberalization and financialization.  That system now shifts the system of governance away from the disciplinary concerns of its faculty members and gives that control to a wide array of administrators, who govern the university based on a variety of matrixes that classify and individuate faculty members, and judge their worth on grants, rankings systems, and other markers of excellence.  The system moves from the holistic, vertically integrated structure of corporate capitalism into the fragmented, market driven system of the present. At the other end of the system, the one that Brown leaves unremarked, is a vast collection of adjuncts, who take the unwanted work off the hands of the financialized tenured faculty, and more significantly, give the university a workforce that no longer has the kinds of economic and academic protection that were promised under the guise of ‘shared governance.’

In that sense, our positions as adjuncts are a key linchpin in the reshaping of the governance structures of the university.  We provide the flexible, and instrumentalized labor that allows for the small grouping of the neoliberal professoriate to escape from the dreary labor of introductory classes, and more significantly, we provide a labor force that is even more flexible because of our relative precarity.  In a sense, the new precariat is an updated, and far less disciplined version of Marx’s old concept of the mobile army of the unemployed.  For ourselves, these years are frequently experienced as a kind of waiting room, a space to make a living and to remain within the academic setting as we try to apply for other jobs, jobs that are increasingly unavailable, but nonetheless often define the horizons of our professional life.  To look at the system from this perspective, we find ourselves examining the system that Brown describes, but a system that looks radically different than the system of self-marketing and self-promotion that she describes in her talk.  Instead, we find a process that does not emphasize excellence, but is defined by checking off boxes, filling competency requirements, and moving students through conversations that they frequently see as distractions to their real educational goals.  More often than not, we represent the effort to continue the hollowed-out functions of a liberal arts education, the old belief in a broadly educated citizenry.  We are the grey apparatus that allows for excellence, but is excluded from that possibility ourselves. 

            The experience of being an adjunct at a community college only intensifies that process.  Like most community colleges within the California system, Irvine Valley College is designed to move students from its hallways to the hallways of the California State University or University of California systems.  That matrix becomes the most significant instrument of measurement for the success of the college, and Irvine Valley College features it prominently in its advertisements.  Just as significantly, the college reminds its students of this goal every day, through a myriad of posters offering advice on how to transfer to a variety of universities.  In addition, Irvine Valley College promises to streamline finishing at the transfer institutions, offering to check the boxes off any number of university requirements.  This is particularly true of the classes that I teach, introductory writing classes.  These classes are largely seen by my students as a somewhat tedious hurdle to jump over, and are looked upon with little enthusiasm.  This, obviously, is not very surprising, but is nonetheless important to restate because it provides a concrete, if banal, example of the tension between the instrumentalization of college requirements and the complex and recursive process of learning to write.  Our students are continually presented the intellectual work of the university as a series of hoops to jump through, and the unsurprising result is that the students frequently view the work as a distraction to other concerns.

            The mirror image of that situation is ours as adjuncts.  We are disconnected from the communities and institutional histories that define our workplaces, and are only tenuously tied to the institutions themselves through temporary offices, and our classrooms.  Most of us our committed to our students, but are limited in our commitments by our fragmented complex of workplaces.  It’s something I find myself thinking about quite a bit, while waiting for class in the adjunct office at IVC.  It’s clear from the imagery of the office space that there is a long running struggle within the college.  The office is festooned with satirical images of the college administration, and points to efforts on the part of the faculty to both unionize and protect its academic freedoms.  They also point to a series of far more basic, if still significant, struggles, the need for classrooms free of ants, simple cleanliness, and other necessities.  We also have a faculty union that is in communication with us, at least on email.  But my knowledge of the struggles of the institution don’t move much beyond my recognition of the traces of the struggle.  Despite my substantial involvement in the graduate student union at UCI, I haven’t taken the trouble of contacting my union representatives, or gotten a sense of how the union works.  I don’t even really know most of my ostensible colleagues beyond the vague recollection of a few faces and short conversations.  My primary engagement with the college remains with my 20-50 students, and doesn’t substantially go beyond this.

            Nothing that I’ve said is terribly shocking, and has been regularly reported on in the pages of the Journal of Higher Education along with a variety of other publications.  It’s been discussed in the academic blogs of Chris Newfield, amongst others, and has been extensively discussed on the blogs and other informal publications of adjunct faculty members.  The explosion of adjuncts has been seen as the mirror image of the explosion of upper administration in the fight against the privatization of public education.  Within this context, not only can the adjunct speak, but has a polyphony of voices.  Those voices are not central to the conversation about the transformation of the education system, but it would be a substantial exaggeration to say that they have been ignored.  Instead, they have been an ongoing thread of marginalia that enters the mainstream of academic conversation through irritated responses on the part of tenured faculty and administrators, through apologies with those with academic security, and through informally distributed articles that catch the attention of larger media. Frequently marked as abject, the voice of the adjunct has been significant, while certainly not central, point of conversation within academic life.  If the construction of a voice was the main point of political intervention to transform the marginalized existence of adjunct life, that intervention would have already occurred. 

            The issue is probably apparent to most of you.  Adjuncts have voices, often quite eloquent ones, but we have very little social power within our institutions, and the reasons for that are quite simple. We are disconnected from the meaningful social relationships of academic life, and are just as disconnected from each other’s lives.  Perhaps, at a more powerful level, we are given very little incentive to be invested in the futurity of the institutions that we work at.  We are, after all, supposed to be in the process of looking for jobs, of grasping for the ring of a tenured track position, or some sort of work somewhere else.  In this sense, our very alienation precludes us from being able to maintain an investment in the defense of the public university, a university not only accessible to all, but committed to a critical engagement with the world.  Such an investment would, by necessity, need to be both collective and move beyond the concern of the classroom, and involve thinking about the larger context of the educational process.  In this sense, the terms ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ obfuscate the problem, which is tied to this very successful process of hollowing out, instrumentalizing, and restructuring the university.   The terms ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ imply systems out of control and moments full of meaning, where we find ourselves in an opposite situation, one in which we are structurally encouraged to disinvest and not to find meaning.  In short, we find ourselves in the opposite condition of the tenured faculty, not a part of a collapsing system of governance, but the alienated, disconnected labor of the new system.

            To change that, we must in some way transform our relationship to these institutions, but the creation of the forms of collectivity to enact that transformation are daunting for the very reasons they are needed.  Organization takes time, intellectual and emotional labor, and above all, a long-term investment in the process, all of which are difficult to create amongst us.  Despite our exclusion from the forms of excellence that defines the neoliberal professorate, an exclusion we share with our tenured colleagues at the community college level, we are still shaped by the individualizing disciplinary processes that define them.  We, after all, continue to look for an entrance into tenured work, we attempt to publish, and establish ourselves as worthy scholars.  Our labor intensely depends on one another, but that social aspect of our labor is occluded from us, and is difficult to build upon.

However, we have a pair of obvious forms of organizations to try to develop this form of deliberate collectivity.  The first is the professional organizations that we can still join.  We have a space to discuss these issues within the MLA, and we can call upon that body to contribute to our struggles.  The first of those possibilities should not be ignored.  After all, we have the space to discuss these issues at the conference, and more significantly, to meet each other and reduce the isolation and alienation of our workplaces.  These aren’t insignificant factors, but if we think about the possibility of seeing these professional associations as a place to push a struggle forward, I’m considerably more pessimistic.  At the more immediate level, I’m skeptical of the ability to get the clear majority of these organizations to sign on to such an engagement.  While there are certainly a significant minority of tenured faculty members who are willing to contribute to such a struggle, I have not seen this commitment on the part of most tenured faculty.  As we have seen, tenured faculty often attempt to protect their own professional status through defending the distinction between themselves and adjuncts, either through inaction or through defenses of the system in the face of attempts on the part of precarious faculty to organize.  Tenured faculty have largely remained outside the fights for more rights on the part of precarious faculty, and have, on occasion, defended the systems that divest precarious faculty of rights.  However, even if it were possible to get such a commitment on the part of professional bodies, I’m equally skeptical of the efficacy of such bodies to affect change.  After all, their power primarily lies in the now gutted structure of faculty governance, and has less and less impact on the university.

The next obvious form of organization is forming a union, and this will take a bit longer to discuss because it is a more complex issue.  The possibilities of the project are significant.  After all, forming a union gives the workers the possibility of negotiating the conditions of their employment at the bargaining table with management, and gives those workers an ability to draw on the larger resources and expertise of a union structure.  Not surprisingly, there has been some real effort to begin this process, with attempts to organize at several institutions including the University of Minnesota.  Indeed, as I already noted, my own current employer has a relatively long standing contract that benefits both tenured and adjunct faculty.  Moreover, a few unions have seen entering the academic sphere as a real opportunity to increase their numbers and strength.  This work has played a role in improving our condition as workers, and such struggles can be used to fight for the public university as some of the struggles of the UC grad student union and the Chicago Teachers’ Union has shown.  While these fights have been uphill ones, both examples show that a contract fight can be used to create alliances in defense of a public education.

However, there are some real downsides to this process as well.  The most immediate downside is the often-brutal fights that are involved in creating a union.  Our current system for recognizing and creating unions heavily favors employers and the creation of unions often takes years and even decades.  Certainly, this has been the case at the University of Minnesota and the fight to organize the UC system took even longer.  Once that rather arduous task is completed, our entire system of contract negotiation is designed to facilitate contracts that are concerned with the economic concerns of employees as stakeholders, rather than to meaningfully transform the social relations of the industry where they work.  Both the initial NLRA and the additional restrictions placed on unions by the Taft-Hartley Act place emphasis on the sole control of the workplace remaining in the hands of management.  This restriction often places unions in the position of trying to gain as much as they can within the neoliberal strictures of the workplace, rather than challenging the structures of that economic system.  Indeed, most unions are both unaware of and are uninterested in challenging such systems, comfortable with living within the decaying system of business welfare capitalism and the long dead labor peace.

That situation places us in a bit of quandary.  The most obvious interventions into the system have significant drawbacks to them, and are structurally difficult to create and/or implement.  Furthermore, the effective privatization of the college and university structure has translated into a withdrawal of the always precarious public support for such institutions. Moreover, we are likely to see a withdrawal of federal funds from the public education system for at least the next four years.  Unfortunately, the democratic alternative has shown little interest in supporting liberal arts education, either.  It’s a situation in which I don’t see any easy solution, and is most likely going to be defined by a series of defensive responses to a multitude of attacks on the system of public education.  The question is then, how to build forms of cooperation and solidarity within a system that is designed to make us, as students, faculty, and staff, think of ourselves within the logic of the market.  Despite its problems, I see the formation of unions as a significant force within that process, but it’s a process that will involve challenges to the logic of the international unions as much as the university.  In addition, there needs to be pressure put upon professional organizations to demand more institutional support for those who teach an increasingly large portion of the classes, and would demand a transformation of those organizations, as well.  In each case, we need to recreate those institutions to deal with the present, a lengthy process that is impossible to imagine, at present, a final form.

Reviving the Blog

I closed down this blog slightly over two years ago, although, in practical terms, the blog had closed down some number of months earlier.  At that point, I was burnt out by the process of finishing graduate school, the attempt to negotiate a new contract, and was in the midst of watching the attempt to reform our graduate student union collapse on the Irvine campus.  I found myself in a place where the act of writing simply felt futile, a feeling that it has taken some time to shake.  Since then, I've made a number of attempts to reestablish my connection with my somewhat limited public through two or three new blog projects, none of which really fully succeeded.  In each case, the project felt forced and artificial.  At the beginning of the year, I found myself thinking about trying to create a new blog project, and found myself thinking of the name of my old blog.  I could simply not think of a better name for a blog than the title I came up with at the beginning of that project.  More significantly, the emotional charge from the end of the blog had lost its power, and I began to think about simply revising this project, rather than jumping into another.  In a sense, the same impetus is driving the revival of this project as the one that started the project, the need to give myself the incentive to write everyday, and more significantly, to have a low stakes writing space, rather than the more high stakes, failed attempts at revising my dissertation for publication.  I figure if I'm not going to get my materials into the journals, I might as well try to converse with a perhaps equally small if less official public.  Along with the process of writing new posts, I also plan on mildly revising earlier posts, largely for legibility, but in some cases, I also might do some rewriting.  My intellectual interests haven't changed substantially, and I would recommend looking at my first post for a sense of how I named the blog and my larger intellectual interests.  I'll probably put up a slightly revised version of a talk that I gave at the recent MLA, but I think I'll end this particular post now.

Friday, September 5, 2014

End of an era

       I haven't posted much on this blog in the past year or so, and haven't posted any material since mid-May.  With that in mind, I've decided to close this particular project down.  I have finished with two significant parts of my life, graduate school and my participation in the attempt to reform the student worker union, which constitute a considerable portion of the material discussed on the blog.  While I could provide a laundry list of moments that I wished I approached differently in both cases, I'm glad I was a participant in both the institution, and the formation of AWDU.  I feel similarly about my involvement in the student movement, which managed to play a substantial role in challenging the privatization of the university despite its many flaws and explosive conflicts.  I plan to keep the present blog up as a memory of that activity.  However, unless I finally decide to finally write the systemic critique of the local that I've considered producing for a while, there will be no new activity on this blog.

         However, I plan on starting two new blog projects in the near future, one focused on the critical study of science fiction as a genre and a subculture, which I plan on calling future ruins, and a second project that will deal with other areas of interest, which I most likely will call notes on damaged life or the children of marx and coca-cola.  I'll post links for those projects when I get them set up.  Producing these new venues will allow me to break away from the concerns of my past, while preserving a record of those interests.  I'm always interested in working with collaborators.  Please get a hold of me if you are interested in either project.  I should also note that I am also happy to contribute my thoughts to anyone who would be interested in challenging the reactionary individuals who have largely taken over the union at UCI.  One of my greatest disappointments was the inability to continue the legacy of reform unionism, and I hope folks take over that mantle, and make less, or at least more interesting mistakes.

Here is the new blog: The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola