In which I coin the term venting machine and talk about the Culture of ‘Schadenfreude’ .
[Coming soon, right here, at this blog]
In which I coin the term venting machine and talk about the Culture of ‘Schadenfreude’ .
[Coming soon, right here, at this blog]
There is, today, a lot of conversation about “fake news”. There is, even and already, a bit of a fatigue regarding the intellectual discussion of this issue – not only among those sharing the currently quite en vogue anti-intellectual sentiment, but even among intellectual people themselves. Still, there are a few noteworthy things to be said about the issue, about its emergence, its prevalence, and about how to tackle it in the long-run. I want to focus here on only a select few, and point them out quickly. To anyone familiar with my writings, some of what I identify is going to be very obvious, indeed. This is, also, not a finally word on the issue. It is, like many things on this blog, an initial exploration, open for critical discussion, and meant to be revised and improved over time.
When today I stumbled over the following “news” item Sean Hannity Flips Out After Getting Busted Sharing Fake News (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sean-hannity-mccain-fake-news_us_58af9677e4b0a8a9b780d36a?), which is, actually, a kind of “meta-news”, since it is news about a news-maker (falling for fake-news, and then being enraged over news about his falling for fake news – it’s a meta-news item, then of the third order, no?), I had to laugh, because, well, none of this is, actually, “news” but it illustrates various issues and dimensions packed into the current discourse of and on “fake news”. The whole question here is about some Tweets by Mr. Hannity – a media personality, working for a large US-American media company. This Mr. Hannity tweeted a link to a story by someone, which he qualified with “Wow if true”. Now, let us think about this for a moment: What is or makes news “the news”? We have come to a moment in history, at least in the Global North, where every “item” that may carry information is considered news-worthy if it purports “relevance”; mind you (and pace Habermas), not a truth claim but a claim to relevance. Relevance, I might add in channeling Tyler Burge, as a kind of warrant would be a warrant kind of entitlement not a warrant kind of justification. Tentatively we could say, that this makes for two kinds of possible understanding of what “news” is: News is either current information about the world which is already partially warranted and seeking further warrant through justification, or news is what is deemed relevant (qua an entitlement structure). Anyone familiar with my more recent work and thought process knows that there is this thing I talk about, which I call “economy of relevance” of which “attention economies” are a particular aspect of – which is something that I see as being similar in some ways to what philosopher Bernard Stiegler is writing about, for example in his book Taking Care of Youth and Generations. I do not so much care about this particular “fake news” story then being debunked, Mr.Hannity being called out, then him being upset, etc. What I find interesting is (a) that this falls into one category of what “news” is, or rather has increasingly become (in and of itself, this turn to relevance and warrant qua entitlement over justification is nothing new itself, but more a cascading expansion of tabloid press: the tabloidization of “the news”, if you prefer to call it that. Perhaps, Boris Groys’s book on the question of what is “the new” would be an interesting read here as well); and (b) that any news-person, such as Mr. Hannity, who is working for an organization of the very size and very means as his employer could offer, should(!) have editorial staff at their disposal who would check the claims made in any source – this could sometimes be called fact-checking, but I would refrain from calling it that, because sometimes even news-worthy items in the “justifiable news”-category cannot be fully verified as to their facticity in a given moment (I will admit that I have been wondering about the notion of “alternative facts”, that has been thrown around by members of the Trumpites, as being Heideggerian in origin: after all, Heidegger distinguishes between facticity and factuality; but this may be problematic, with Heidegger’s political affiliation with the original master’s of populism and propaganda, no?), so I would prefer to call it plausibility-checking. But this is precisely my point, the issue is, very often, one of plausibility. What has gone out of the window with the emergent dominance of relevance-driven news-cycles is not so much the question of checking “fact versus fake” in terms of truth, what has really gone out of the window is to check for plausibility. Facts are states of affairs in so far as facts present (as) truth-claims about states of affairs. And in practice, news organizations (regardless of their political couleur) when confronted with an item that might be news-worthy, they should at the very least do a plausibility-check (even if the fact-check as truth-check cannot be conducted to its fullness). But this doesn’t happen (as often) anymore for two reasons: (a) Quite practically (or in terms of social ontology), because there seems to be less spending on editorial staff in both numbers and competence, there are less staff available to work on a news item and there is an ever increasing number of interns and other low-paid, overworked (precariate) workers doing the job that a host of well-trained, well-paid, and well-rested editorial staffers should be doing (just think of the increasing number of typos, grammatical errors, etc. in online-outlets of even the most established news producers); (b) Because (in terms of social epistemology) we have and continue to exchange plausibility with relevance , or at least, we value relevance more than plausibility (btw, this counts for news the same as it does for research grant proposals, which are subject to a similar kind of relevance economy). And relevance is somewhat of a construct. This is, I think, also something where philosophers and intellectuals of various could come to an agreement over, regardless of where they come down epistemologically on the question of what “truth” is. I think that it is worth for them exploring this notion of plausibility here, because intellectuals of various camps (so-called realists against so-called Postmodernists) have been mutually “blaming each other for Trump”.
But sometimes, it’s not even about plausibility, but about how economies of relevance and cultures of relevance clash. Think of the question of the recent “news” about French presidential candidate Macron’s sexual orientation (http://www.zeit.de/politik/2017-02/fake-news-emanuel-macron-russland-rekonstruktion/komplettansicht), which people claim is a “fake story” launched by “the Russians”. I am interested here not so much in the truth or plausibility alone, or even who is “really behind” the story (do I, btw, sense a new genre of “Whodunnit?” stories here – novels that are not murder mysteries but mysteries about who launched these news and why?). What is interesting is the question, why and in what manner do people think that Monsieur Macron’s sexuality is relevant and why would anyone want to use it for political gain? Again, I am not interested in “the Russians” (or any other “collective” ascriptions), but in the fact that there is two news items here: One is about Monsieur Macron’s sexuality, the other news item is about “the Russians” spreading this for political gain. So whoever spreads the news about the sexuality of Monsieur Macron has assumptions about why people would be interested (and these assumptions say something about how these people think of the French people, for example). Those who talk about “the Russians” have assumptions about how “these Russians” think about how “the French” think about sexuality, i.e. that someone being a politician being homosexual might be a problem for the French, or that he is married to a woman while having sex with men might be a problem, etc. etc. But perhaps people in France don’t care, or perhaps the voters “these Russians” supposedly seek to swing to, supposedly, vote for Front National wouldn’t care, etc. Take the comparative case of Germany (which I know a bit better), where sexuality is something people consider something that is best left inside one’s own four walls, i.e. Germans think sex and sexual orientation of their political personnel is something that is their private affair and has no place in political debate – hence, we had politicians in high offices, who were known to be gay and when some news media were trying to make it into something, it turned out that the majority of people didn’t really care and actually rewarded said politicians if they were themselves taking a “so what?” attitude (see the case of Berlin governor Klaus Wowereit, who simply stated “I’m gay, and that is good.”, which basically said: So what, and that’s it.) One could assume, but this is only an assumption, that those voters in France who aren’t already voting Front National (which always had an anti-gay faction, despite current attempts to portray the party as more neutral on this question) may not be too interested in what happens in Monsieur Macron’s bed-room. Or maybe they are. But my point here is, that there are different assumptions in-play about is deemed as relevant, and so are, sometimes, efforts to reconstruct what relevance is: See the disparity of the gravity of offense between the Clinton emails and the various problems the Trumpite camp has in maintaining their digital security. Regardless of how even so-called liberal media who were more on Clinton’s side reported on it, the fact that they reported to such a large amount and degree on the Clinton email issue says a lot about relevance as well as that even their reporting often did jump the gun, forsaking plausibility for relevance.
For news organizations, mainly, the issue of relevance is not only which news are deemed relevant, but (as I have written previously on the issue of, for example, research grant proposals and the prestige economy in academia) but to stay relevant themselves. So they often will report what might be “relevant news” as quickly as possible (hence the inflation of the “breaking news” genre in the past fifteen or so years), in order to not appear “irrelevant”. The logic here is: Better to appear relevant, even if utterly wrong, than to be right but appear as not being able to present what is currently and in the moment deemed (most) relevant. In the same vein, currently US comedians jump on everything the Trumpites do and try and make it funny – they thrive on relevance, too. But one can ask, if this contribution to the economy of relevance – which gives itself a guise of “criticism” – is not contributing to the problem. What if these comedians from Colbert to John Oliver and so on, stopped being funny about and got serious for a while, because what they talk about is serious? For late night shows in the US, their economies of relevance comes in two layers, too: What is relevant in the news cycles, and what is relevantly funny. But if, what is relevant were truly serious and truly serious to them, why make it funny? If the matters were so serious, for example with real lives being (plausibly) at stake, shouldn’t they not stop being funny to also convey the seriousness of the matter? The answer to this question is not an easy one, for certainly many people wouldn’t even listen to the message if it wasn’t presented in a funny way, and that way they at least here the message – though, what is the/a “message” here, one could ask? But it also seems, presently, that comedians as well as many news outlets, after years of decline in audience, have profited from the current political situation. They appear more relevant, again. In the world of news, so many economies of relevance have become entangled that it is nearly impossible to make sense of them with any analytical clarity. What I wanted to point out here, though, is that two main trends over a long time have contributed to the current fray: The substitution of plausibility with relevance, and the decline in quality editing. And these two are dimensions, I claim, we seriously need to talk more about.
After the rise of neo-r/facism and neo-colonialism, after Brexit and the election of Trump, now the core European nations (and universities in the US) must invest in the humanities and liberal arts, as an investment in the future, an investment in the true infrastrucuture. STEAM, not STEM. It will mean to also learn that it takes to provincialize the Western knowledge basis and to create new spaces of learning. Within the academy, we need the move away from university and monoculture to pluriveristy and new, open forms of scholarship and conversation, transdisciplinarity not disciplinary decadence, instead of White Collar Academia we need BluesCollarship. It is white wealthy and wanna-be wealthy voters (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/09/white-voters-victory-donald-trump-exit-polls), it is people who enjoy privileges and, thus, mindlessly execute racism as if it is a privilege, who voted for Trump, it is an anti-intellectual movement, that consumes and destroys the true infrastructure by precarizing knowledge and cultural labor and which now turns to precarize everything. It is a number of people who didn’t vote, who is not participating in the political process, who is not feeling as though they belong at all. It is an increasing lack of political imagination in society, it is the lack of political society, when all that is left as options for belonging and turning belonging into participation is either the remainder of the once colonial idea of Enlightend civil society on the one hand and an imperialistic, neo-colonial privileged anti-intellectual camp. We need to rebuild the real infra-structure in the Global North, but rebuild in using decolonial options and provincialize in the same movement and gesture. The time is now, the place is here, as we are faced with a huge problem, but as I wrote in Digital Coloniality of Power, it is not anymore about doing problem-oriented scholarship, it is about creating opportunities from and within the problem. Let’s think together, learn together, have conversations, and let’s move together, not just occupy but inhabit together: Let us build together the infrastructure, in which it will be possible to inhabit the future together.
[Draft Version of a section intended for publication in Care, Power, Information]
Universities and related institutions dedicated to higher education and/or research have been and continue to be for the (un)foreseeable future subject to a social and political regime bent on demoting, demolishing, and de-intellectualizing them. This is conducted both from the so-called Rights, Lefts, and Neoliberals. This regime has explicit and implicit support both from within these institutions – let’s call these academia – and from populations without an apparent stake in academia (let’s call these, broadly, anti-intellectuals). It’s done both in and under various names, such as the names of progress, freedom, equality, profit, austerity, etc. It’s both conducted in practice as well as given warrant in various ways, too, which, however, both go against many of the pillars of academic discourse itself as well as its particular sub-fields (largely those so-called [mistakenly] ‘soft’, ‘not-STEM nor business’ fields). Reactions by intellectual academics have varied, but more often than not, those already with a membership in academic institutions with a job or with a serious stake in one seem to resort to choose strategies that are of a collaborative nature with the regime of destruction – regardless whether they chose the passive strategy to merely duck and hope not to be noticed if only they keep their mouths shut: a passive-aggressive strategy that means say a few snarky things but overall don’t resist actively (and make it clear you won’t) , or even contribute actively to the destruction (in some schizophrenic cases, academic actors have literally talked an intellectual talk while walking the anti-intellectual walk). However, this destruction of higher education and research is undermining the future of our societies, specifically the future of and in the Global North; and, as a consequence, for some – though not all – dependent institutions, social groups, and countries in the Global South.
Before going deeper into the issue I am trying to elaborate, a few things should be said about the geopolitical aspect of my intervention. While I do understand that some critical voices from or concerned with the Global South, including the decolonial discourse of which I am a supporter, will have good reason to say ‘Why should we care?’ and may even claim that such self-induced demise of the North (by means of causing its own ‘brain-death’, so to speak) might be well deserved, I would say that one could argue that this will not change the global situation and thus the situation for the Global South for the better but may make it worse; it will also not create any kind of justice, since there is a ‘global South’ within the Global North, i.e. people who will suffer from this, who are in many ways except geographically closer to the South than the North, and it is not just in terms of unfairly punishing future generations – without elaborating this point too much, since I already often talk about the different issues of guilt versus responsibility and how to deal with them differently. My own approach here is, precisely, about the need to ‘provincialize’ the Global North (as a geopolitical location) and the West (as an epistemic system), which means to strip away the Norths privilege, entitlement, and the (epistemic-)imperialist claim to universality. Tentatively and somewhat simplifying but for the present purpose adequate, let’s say that doesn’t mean, for example, that knowledge produced by the North in the Western form of knowledge practice cannot be used in a generalized fashion, but that it cannot consider itself as an unprerequisited foundation. Also, and most importantly, I am not defending a mere return to any of the classic University ideas – from Humboldt to the Neoliberal University, or else. Although, I will certainly claim, that we can always learn something from these various ideas and the reasons that were deployed in their inception. But in understanding these reasons, in considering which of their goals and ideas were and still may be worthwhile as partial connections and occasional ideals to try out, I would still say that we must recognize and understand their failures and acts of violence, but recognition also means owning them and the responsibility for them not silencing them (it is here, where I do think many contemporary more aggressive debates on ‘safe spaces’ run into dangers – but this will have to be another discussion for another day). That said, I am, after all, a proponent of new ideas for re-creating the University as a multiversity, but current and recent destruction of these institutions, I am afraid, not only does not help facilitate such a re-creation, it also is counter-productive to it. The destruction of these institutions will result in a remaining type of a University and higher education and research system, which is with regard to the general mind-set that both governs it and that it propagates and instills in its students a universal monoculture.
A dozen or so years ago, I first articulated a basic infrastructural tenet, that I have not abandoned since, namely that any larger territorial state and its society or national or trans-/supranational organized collective has to continually and seriously invest into and own (in terms of guaranteeing freedom from external control) on all its members behalf its infra-structure, and by infrastructure I mean, roughly but in that order of importance (Knowledge enables the others), the following four (partially interlocked) areas:
Something like ‘the Economy’ is precisely not part of the infra-structure for a number of reasons. Including among those reasons, which I cannot, of course, go into detail here, are that the economy – precisely because some parts of it consider themselves(!) structurally global, some local, some constantly transition between both – cannot be an infrastructure; that the subsidy structure for businesses established is often hampering, negatively affecting or in some extreme cases close to destroying other elements of the infrastructure (which precisely is conceptually and empirically prohibited for an element of a structure to be part of its infrastructure); most importantly that infra-structure should be able (en-capable, empower) to enable and constrain actors to participate in the economy on fair and equal terms. Here, one could, for example, also use some philosophical proposals about distinctions between different orders/types of goods, and remind people that there are types of (social) goods that exist to enable the possibility and availability of other goods. Additionally, unlike some overzealous, pseudo-scientific Wikipedia-style definitions, we should understand that, ‘No!’, infrastructure is not what is needed for ‘economy to function’, but it is the term for the explicit structures and institutions that sustain an organized collective; an/the ‘Economy’ can be such a collective itself or considered a sub-system of a higher order collective/system, e.g. society, but it is precisely not (in either case) part of the infrastructure. Respectively, I do think investment in the military is important, but I also believe in the idea that a soldier is a ‘citizen in uniform’ (German: “Bürger in Uniform”), and I do believe in a very demanding concept of citizenship as a form of belonging here (although and yet precisely, citizenship is a very particular, Western form of belonging, and far from the only one, but both an interesting one and for the Global North, a constitutive one). These latter aspects (security and restricted citizenship), which I also will not unfold here further, do not sit well with some Left-oriented colleagues and interlocutors of mine. But they should not be mistaken for the naive views many self-styled (structural) conservatives hold. It is precisely through the provinicializing of a concept such as ‘citizenship’ that its (zones of) usefulness as well as areas of in-applicability, as well as its restrictions can be made to show. By restriction, I do mean, precisely, that being born into a territory or to a parents of a specific nationality should not make one automatically a citizen, because with citizen rights come citizen responsibility, which a citizen must be able to fully understand and willingly accept to fulfill. Again, this would need to be further explored, but it should be clear that I view it as a state’s duty to enable all the people, either living on its territory or claiming another form of (justifiable) belonging to it, to become a citizen; and this is, clearly, an aspect covered in the ‘knowledge&information’ infrastructure. Furthermore, in the ‘hierarchy’ of infrastructural premises, it should be said, that different temporal priorities mean that some individual demands render the hierarchy ‘not fully transitive’: It should be clear that, while generally an investment in research should always be considered more important than an investment in the army, in times of a genuine external threat on the horizon, an ‘informed decision’ would lead to a military investment; but clearly, an ‘informed decision’ requires people who are educated and who have access to knowledge to make these kinds of judgements in the first place. And, of course, the elements are interlocked: Security knowledge occupies a place between or in both sectors. But this also already explains why, if we take infrastructure seriously, blindly investing in weapons and surveillance technologies cannot generate more security: The issues and threats security deals with are very complex and so must any solutions be that aim to be more than a temporary, quick fix – here, such as in other areas, I argue that concepts such as ‘sustainability’ are interesting intra-system demands, for which the knowledge sector has the function to elaborate what the system-specific criteria would have to be that define what ‘sustainability’ would mean in each case. This makes, however, also clear that there is no universal idea of ‘Sustainability’, and ‘sustainability’ is dependent on infra-structure. In this respect, I also argue that concern for the ‘environment’, i.e. what environmentalism practically means (theoretically, also, because of what we have learned about the fact that there is no mere nature nor mere culture, but rather naturecultures), is also dependent on the infrastructure. A final matter that should be mentioned, I think, is that the common idea of ‘the Economy’ is also deeply thwarted, for example since the theoretical premises of its science, economics, in many of its contemporary schools ignore at their own peril many historical premises it it was built on (for example, it still upholds some of Jean-Baptiste Say’s ideas but neglects the constraints these rested upon, for example on the very restrictive functions of money); at the same time, there are different players/actors in the Economy who are not comparable nor even commensurable, when the idea of a ‘free market’ is applied – in part, the problem lies in what is understood as ‘free’, because the often found assumption that ‘freedom’ (or ‘autonomy’) could be something that is unconditional is, as I think should be tragically obvious, both conceptually and empirically a contradictio in adjecto. For many so-called multi-national corporations, a genuine free-market would actually be in opposition to their goals and functions. This is also why infra-structures help make ‘free markets’ possible, whereas ‘the Economy’ is not co-extensive with ‘the (idea of) Free Market’; quite on the contrary, there are sectors of ‘the Economy’ which operate either despite of or antagonistically towards the Free Markets, including a disposition against the infrastructures it is pre-requisited by. Therefore, in a ‘weak’ account: If my argument has merit to at least be taken into consideration as a possibility, then we should be careful whenever considering whether any aspect of ‘the Economy’ should be put in charge of infra-structure in any way, and look for justifications in each individual case. In a ‘strong’ account, it is clear that ‘the Economy’ (nor its ‘actors’) should have no place whatsoever in infra-structural considerations of any kind. Here, I would argue that any critical, reflective reader, even if politically disinclined towards me, should be able to at least be willing to allow for the weak account. Not to do so, would mean to take an extremely ideological (and fully destructvie, antagonistic) view. What I will have to say in the further discussion here, should be acceptable to consider from the position of the weak account, although I will freely admit that I, personally, lean more towards the strong account, although I do think that an intermittent position is, at least in select cases, pragmatically possible, were – within limits – convergence/contact zones can be established, between infra-structural and Economic sectors.
So, to situate and make one long story short, knowledge and cultural work and the institutions that enable and carry knowledge work are part of the infrastructure, which enables economic sectors (and not the other way round). Introducing epistemic monocultures, such as the Economic paradigm, into the infrastructure has, thus, a potentially negative (‘weak account’) or self-destructive (‘strong account’) consequence, which may/will subsequently have negative/destructive effects on the higher level of the organized collective.
One of the many problematic consequences of mono-culturalization is an increasing lack of variability: We end up increasingly with the same types of knowledge, and even what could be considered ‘out-of-the-box’-thinking or alternative thinking is already predetermined in terms of how it must be expressed; in other words, it is already pre-established what is allowed to count as an alternative. Everything that is neither official knowledge or officially recognized as alternative knowledge, is not considered knowledge and effectively silenced. This state of affairs is, of course, nothing particularly new. However, even this type of critique has, in the meantime, become very formalized in the way it is allowed to be expressed. Establishing genuinely alternative discourses is extremely problematic. Our problem with constructs such as any so-called sub-altern is that these are often part of a hegemonic discourse themselves. In other words, this picture that there are two connected processes at work – whether in society or in a knowledge economy -, namely inclusion and exclusion, is insufficient. I have argued this point elsewhere in more detail. But the gist of this argument is that in order to be excluded but to have a claim towards inclusion or towards expressing one’s exclusion and the consequences of exclusion as one’s official status hinge on a form of recognition that not all agents (in a collective) or all forms of knowledge (and cultural labor) enjoy. Besides being an included member or included presenting official knowledge, ‘membership or knowledge that is recognized as excluded’ is still formally a kind of knowledge, namely a knowledge that is excluded but may be allowed to make legitimate claims towards inclusion. My – unfortunately empirically quite pressing – example is the question of who has access to social and/or health services, when access is increasingly dependent on (digital/electronic) information and communication technologies (ICTs), with no more non-ICT access paths available? An important part here, as at least a few studies have shown, is that providing access to (and access to competencies to use) ICTs alone does not suffice to guarantee that all excluded people will be able to use these services. But here the problem really begins: We have people included in society, who do not need to use social services for the excluded, we have people who are considered excluded but who have a claim to these social services, and what about people who – for whatever reason – cannot express their claim, i.e. cannot express their state of exclusion, people who are effectively silenced? Secondly, how do we generate and express knowledge about these silent and silenced people, when knowledge is considered knowledge about inclusion, alternative knowledge is considered knowledge about exclusion? What about knowledge about those who do not exist in the exclusion-inclusion system, those who have been silenced by that system? Making these people heard, giving them a voice, helping them become ‘being known’ in the first place is difficult, precisely because they ‘do not exist’ in the permitted way of being excluded. For a researcher working on knowledges about these silenced people, it is very difficult to be heard by other researchers, by policy-makers, or by the public, precisely because it is very hard to proof the existence of a problem (or of people) the expression of cannot be made in system-permissible forms. In various types of conversations and communications, I have made the experience, that there a numerous experts, specifically among social scientists who work on health care, who flat out deny the existence of ‘people who are silent’, i.e. of people who are not counted by the system as excluded. For these social scientists (and many policy-makers), if people are not considered by the system as existing as excluded, they don’t exist and, thus, there cannot be any knowledge about them. Whereas some people, whose job it is to actually collect official data for care systems, admit that there are indeed people who exist in reality but whose data – even data about exclusion – could not be collected. It becomes a further issue that without acknowledging these people as well as knowledge about them, the problem will only proliferate and expand. But the fact is that the people still are materially present in the world and will require care services, some of which are still provided in (material) ‘vital’ zones that serve as boundary/transitional/contact zones (for example emergency rooms), but the services are then sometimes denied, sometimes delivered but not accounted for. This lack of accountability will, eventually, be countered; but the question is, whether by more denial of service to any person without documentation or by effectively allowing for more comprehensive knowledge production, i.e. the permission to acknowledge other(ed) forms of knowledge and, subsequently, changing the system towards becoming more pragmatic (in the actual meaning of pragmatism). Otherwise, exclusion and silencing become, thus, increasingly excessive.
In the system of knowledge and cultural work, we see a similar effect of exclusion and silencing mechanisms, for example through the proliferation of certain, very specific styles of academic habitus and academia specific forms of symbolic/social/cultural capital (see also for more details on some aspects of funding structures: https://alexstingl.wordpress.com/2016/02/26/matthew-showering-the-burning-of-academic-social-capital-and-economies-of-relevance-of-funding-institutions/). While I do not disagree with the proposition that science (and I include the social/cultural sciences, liberal arts, and humanities here into the general concept of ‘science’) should be somewhat useful, I disagree with the complacent and lazy attitude that many people have when it comes to the meaning of ‘usefulness’, as well as the impoverished (and increasingly shallow and techno-reductionistic) understanding of – not only what science is, but more importantly – how science works. There are numerous infamous caricature version about scientists and even more so about philosophers (as the archetypical arts & humanities scholars), which are all versions of the archetypical story of the Thracian servant who was laughing about Thales of Miletus, when he fell into well because he was thinking without paying attention to where he was walking. This is seen as illustration of the impracticality and, thus, uselessness of all things (too) intellectual. Respectively, the ideal of useful science is the technological or engineering ideal. The problems with this set-up, however, are, first and foremost, that in the minds of most people, the engineering ideal of science and intellectual forms of scholarship are considered as antagonists in general, and, particularly, as rivals in a zero-sum game over scarce (and ever scarcer) resources – thus usefulness becomes equated with impact maximization of minimal resources. While this may fit with a ‘neo-darwinistic’ world-view, we do know that ‘evolution’ does not work in purely antagonistic ways, but that many (if not most) processes work agonistically and/or symbiogenetically. It is important that we understand that we need different types of knowledges that challenge each other, but not in antagonistic destructive ways, but in constructive ways. While also a cartoonish caricature, but the simplified idea that science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurs rex and humanities can tell you why that might be a stupid idea is an interesting illustration – even if you’ve never seen the cartoon, of course you can guess, that the scientists get chased and eaten [and yes, of course, there are reasons why we cannot ever clone a dinosaur; although a lot of people think we can, and here, too, it is alternative types of scholarship that could teach us about how communication works between science and its publics]. Science and technology has never worked in straightforward ways. To begin with, there is this general idea of Progress, which is still ‘publically’ quite popular, which many ‘engineering’-types of scientists also still believe in, but which many critical scholars have long viewed as debunked. And yet, we could counter and say, there may be something like progress, but what counts as progress is always dependent on a variety of contexts, relations, criteria, and so on. The same is true for ideas of usefulness or sustainability. And these criteria and knowledge about relations and contexts cannot be developed from within the engineering-ideal itself, because these are the criteria by which the engineering ideal is measured. In a sense, you do not ask a group of professional basket-ball players what the ideal height for a kitchen table is; what you really want is – actually – a kitchen table with an adjustable height. While this is, of course, both simplifying as much as it is hyperbolic, it serves as a provocation worth thinking about.
But in terms of intellectual knowledge production, the problem that knowledge should be more than just useful but to be actually effective it is being required to take into account varying temporalities is something that intellectual scholarly disciplines are actually good for. And, to uncover these variabilities and express their many potential effects and options requires a lot of work by a lot of people over long periods of time, not to mention many conversations between different disciplines and different ways of thinking and doing. So, it’s not about the ‘engineering’-ideal being bad (or good). It’s about the ‘engineering-ideal’ having almost already become the mono-culture of how science is done: Knowledge, to be considered knowledge, must expressed within the terms and/or structures of this (linear teleology of) ideal of engineering, including any criticism and alternative having to be expressed in permissible form – which means critique of any kind must be either construed in engineering-ideal or antagonistic terms and/or structures. But this denies many effective ideas (I have written elsewhere on the difference between mere efficiency, efficacy, and effectivity). Fewer types of knowledge exist as a consequence of the current way that science is done. Think about the data collection problem and whether it is a problem at all. When would the fact that people are not considered (as included or excluded) in the system become a problem for the system (and not only for a few individuals)? It’s a matter of the scale of the problem. But that’s the very point, we don’t know the scale of the problem, because we do not generate knowledge about it. But this is precisely the point: Science should tell us what it is that we don’t know and help us to turn what we don’t know into knowledge. But that’s not how science is done anymore. Science deals more and more with what is already known: This is precisely the gist of the ‘engineering ideal’ and how it has influenced the funding of research and scholarship. If more and more science requires to be funded by external and/or tax-payer funded institutions, and if this kind of funding seeks to allot its funds according to a blurry concept such as impact, then this way of ‘doing science’ cannot deal with the unknown, precisely because ‘science of the unknown’ cannot say in advance what it’s impact will be. That is why anything unknown is an intellectual problem to begin with – the kind of problem that doesn’t get funded in contemporary society. As a consequence, scholars from the humanities and social sciences either corrupt their scholarship to look like it fits with the engineering ideal or they opt to express criticism in the known forms of criticism and propose known alternatives – the recent resurgence of vulgar Marxisms (or should I rather say Marxist vulgarity?) being a good example.
I want to pin these last points down to an analytical point I have been making repeatedly, namely that one effective analytical tool to deploy is the notion of economies of relevance. I posited, a while ago, that these vague concepts, notions of ‘impact’, ‘usefulness’, and so on, derive from what I call economies of relevance. Of course, ‘relevance’ is itself rather broad, but it seems to me, that that is the kind of umbrella concept that very neatly and comprehensively describes whats going on with these other vague concepts, which are often deployed in actual situations (for example, when explaining your ‘impact’ in a research grand proposal). So, the types of questions we need to ask are, for example ‘What does it take to seem relevant today?’ There are interesting examples, for example, why do politicians both talk so much about ‘the Economy’ and chum up with business-folks, and appear to look themselves more and more like either MBA-trained managers or corporate lawyers, rather than people who tackle by means of policy-making the social problems of the communities and societies they have been given responsibility for? That is, of course, because one of the main metaphorical vectors has become the economic angle, or maybe a kind of ‘business accountant’-speak or ‘business imaginary’. Just think about how austerity politics is presented as ‘household discipline’ on the one hand, while one of the severest moves – but no way the first, nor the most historically meaningful one – towards austerity politics was made following a financial crises but was made hand-in-hand with a politicians saving financial institutes and, subsequently, watering down legal consequences (both punitive ones as well as future-oriented regulative ones). Politicians who do not seem ‘business-talk’-savvy are hardly taken seriously by both their constituents and by ‘business and Economy’ representatives. With voters, the problem is doubly complicated, since voters expect their preferred politicians to be able to both be business-savvy in order to ‘not waste tax-payer money’, i.e. by keeping household discipline like a good common person or ‘housewife’ would (there is an interesting intervention afforded here for critical feminist philosophy to make, of course, which I cannot go into for lack of space but which there are better feminist theorists better suited than I, who is a different kind of theorist), in a sense also ‘investing smartly’, and do as much ‘useful stuff’ with as little of their (tax-payer) money as possible, while at the same time being able to both sweet-talk and tough-talk to business leaders on an eye-to-eye level. So, in order to ‘appear relevant’, political workers (be they politicians or other kinds of political workers) must seem to be able to ‘talk business’. But the more that politicians buy into this relevance economy, the more we find a mono-culture (of Economy-oriented minds) take control in terms of how problems, their origins, and their solutions can be imagined. And the household-metaphor is one prime example within this mono-culture: Most people seem to think of ‘the state’ or a national government in terms of a household; this or similar metaphors are often dragged up, especially during campaign time: It is noteworthy that in some political geographies, such as the US, there is almost always ‘campaign time’, there seems to be no more space for actually acting politically, and the US, and increasingly the UK (and interestingly, for example, also Switzerland is going in that direction) as a consequence have effectively replaced almost all political action with politics – and the equally silly but almost cute thing is that any one who doesn’t do politics or acknowledges that’s how things are actually done, is considered to be very naive. In short, the only realpolitik in town is politics (in the negative definition of that term): This is ‘cute’ – from a sarcastic stance, for, of course, it is ‘ugly’ because of its dire consequences for the lives of many actual people – in so far as this realpolitik only functions because so many believe in it, while any real problems remain unsolved and a status quo of the political structures, including insufficient infrastructure, are preserved – elsewhere, I have carved out a distinction between structural conservatives (to which both the Left and the conservative Right, regardless what name they give themselves Democrats, Social Democrat, Libertarians, Republicans, Labour, Tories, Tea Party, Christian Democrats, etc., belong) and genuinely value conservatives (one can find a small number of individuals who can be considered value conservatives: For example, I would count former German minister of consumer affairs Renate Künast, President of the German Parliament Norbert Lammert, Erhard Eppler, or American politicians such as Elizabeth Warren or Bob Dole among them). Knowledge and cultural work are (and this is a point I will have to flesh out further in the future) important and necessarily receive recognition (and, thus, fair resources and adequate infrastructural power) in a value conservative political framework, but not in a (respectively, in today’s) structural conservative politics framework. This has many reasons, but one is that for politics (and the Economy) to sustain on a larger scale its hegemonic status, knowledge and cultural labor must be over-powered by politics and the Economy, for otherwise it would be revealed how they are only ‘efficient’ in view of their internal problem constructions, but ineffective in helping people overcome or deal with their actual (political, social, etc.) problems. Politics and the Economy is about managing problems, the Political is about overcoming problems, while knowledge and cultural workers stand in a mutually constitutive and interdependent relation to the Political. By forcing politics (and its inherent rhetoric, poetics, and economies of relevance) onto knowledge and cultural labor, this work becomes ineffective and,subsequently, infra-structure suffers. There are various aspects of this development that inhere in very long-running structural and metaphorical mechanisms that derive from our thinking in terms of household-as-oikos to relate back to the Global North’s ancient Greek intellectual-political origins, which kind of shaped the operating software that our (Western/Northern) societies run on [Note regarding this as a blog-post: this forthcoming book of mine Care Power Information, is an attempt to discuss at least some of the origins, developments, and consequences of oikos (the ancient Greek concept for the concept ‘household’)].
If the economy of relevance had a currency, I think it would be ‘attention’. Not for nothing is one of the main areas of medicalization, including the medicalization of childhood, constructed around the idea of attention deficit (aka ADHD). Attention medications are even deployed by the demand of parents, wanting to help their children be successful (and ‘not losers’) in life, in cases where there is no ADHD clinically indicated [‘Good intentions …., and so on, no?’]. Not for nothing do we say ‘Pay attention!’ While this ‘command’ may seem like a mere accident of language, I do not necessarily think so, because there are some social and science historical aspects to the rise of ‘attention’ as a concept of this social and clinical magnitude (which I explore[d] elsewhere), and there is this general treatment of attention in the education, cultural, and labor structures we build, that treat it like a scarce resource. Indeed, I think what we see, instead, is that ‘attention’ is constructed like a kind of scarce currency – it is, in a way, the actual gold of the gold standard for and within the relevance economy. An attention economy seems to be the main type of mechanism of the economies of relevance (I will leave out here the certainly important discussion, in how far this, i.e. the notion of economy with regard to relevance and/or attention should be conceptualized in term of political economy). But doing knowledge and cultural work, I think I have come to understand something crucial here: We should be – careful: irony! – ‘paying more attention’ to the ecologies of attention not the attention economy; who knows, perhaps the Economy is really only the Attention Economy (General). I am not the first, of course, to speak of ‘attention ecology’, but my point is actually about different, diverse, and variable attention ecologies existing simultaneously, while there is only one ‘type’ being constantly co-produced and given hegemony by the attention economy. This is something of a shift of focus from attention economy to attention ecologies that I have been advocating for a while now, most recently and prominently in a keynote lecture at the College of Leuphana University Lüneburg in October 2015. I will, however, have to trouble and complicate this distinction somewhat, because we really must understand that we inhabit always different attention ecologies simultaneously, and these ecologies and economies of attention shape each other mutually (largely through temporalizations and spatializations through practices; practices being the key issue in my theoretical and methodological works, which is why I am not going into to much deeper detail here, since this is not the place for a long theoretical exposition). Think of it this this way: The world around us, with all its lovely complexities, affords us a lot of opportunities that we could direct our attention to: a lot of things to perceive, manipulate, interact with, and so on. There may be an interesting plant, or a plant that needs watering, there might be a trail of ants, there is a car driving, which you hear or see, a cell-phone is ringing, a screen shows an advertisement, etc. But most of us are not really universally receptive to everything that is afforded to us in these manners simultaneously (or even ever at different points in time). Some people may never be able to register the ants marching and always only attend to moving macro-objects that might be dangerous to them and also and primarily the ‘objects of technological civilization’, whereas other people might be constantly distracted by all the little creepy critters and greens around them. Of course, this description is a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea that different people are geared towards existing in different attention ecologies which exist around them. Furthermore, in societies and collectives, we do assign particular values to certain aspects in our ecologies, which are co-related with certain functions and certain practices, etc. (again, let’s not do too much theory here). The point is that, as we continue to fill our world with screen-based technologies and interfaces, more and more people will attend more and more to screen-based affordances and practices and other attention ecological affordances will be part of what they would even be able to understand as a discernible part of their ecology affording perception or interactions with. So, the more certain actors in a society understand, create, and manipulate social practices to function according to the idea of an attention economy, the more the attention ecologies people can live in are transformed by this economy. So, while companies struggle for your attention with advertisements for you to buy their products, considering, qua economic paradigm, that your attention is a scarce resource, they will not only compete over existing advertisement spaces but also also attempt to create or conquer new advertisement spaces. Think about a very simple example: 30 or 40 years ago, a restaurant customer would have looked at a menu and among the various drinks have looked for drink groups and ordered the drink group s/he liked, nowadays instead of drink group one regularly reads one brand name after the other, often presented by the brand logo which is also often replicated in various other places in the restaurant (napkins, shades, etc.). More recently, one can see this gone further at many airports, where restaurants have tablets on the tables which- besides menu information – run advertisements. Now ask yourself, have you ever observed insects that live in an airport? Or considered the – sometimes actually visible – fungi that live in the various cracks and nudges of the table, floor, and wall of that airport? And, be honest with yourself, if you were sitting in an airport restaurant, what would you really think of a person who would notice these things and point them out to you? Now, consider your responses to these questions and why you think these are your responses, and think further, what do you think would the responses of the next generation of people be and the generation after that, given the way the ‘world continually transforms our immediate environments’? The point I am trying to make lies, here, specifically in terms of doing critical thinking (and hasn’t critical thinking become a wonderful slogan for education reforms of late??? ‘We need to teach people critical thinking skills, yeah!’): We need to shift our view from attention economy – from thinking about attention as a scarce resource – to the attention ecologies in order to understand (before we can think about economies at all_ what is afforded to draw our attention and why and how these ecologies transform in the ways they do. Again, this matter could and should be further complicated on various theoretical and methodological levels (for example through French philosopher Gilbert Simondon’s ideas about individuation and milieu, to name only one). But for the purpose of illustrating the most critical issue with the specific way ‘attention’ works when it is constructed as the currency of relevance, this should suffice for now. What should also be clear is that, to a large degree, we cannot afford to be oblivious to what’s going on around us. The simplest example is how people have accidents because they ‘don’t pay attention’ to the street but to their smart phone. Think about how we attempt to solve these problems: We urge people to ‘pay attention’, yes, but in terms of technology, we look for the driverless car. However, while I think in the distant future, driverless car will be a fabulous thing, this is not the solution to the problem. Instead of ‘paying attention to’ we should ‘be mindful of’ attention ecologies. An important aspect here is, too, that if we want to build a driverless car, we need to make these cars function in ways that don’t just pay attention to the street, but that are ‘mindful of’ far more than the elements we think that attention should be paid to. That’s what creating artificial intelligences that can run complex aspects and, thus, are becoming part of the collective organizations we call societies means – don’t kid yourself: a driverless car is an entity exerting social force and causes social transformation, the same way that the introduction of trains did. Carving these complexities out and thinking them through, that’s a lot of knowledge and cultural work that has to be done. But instead of recognizing the many areas where (massive) knowledge and cultural work has, is, and will have to be conducted, the current mood is to diminish the relative contribution of these forms of labor, to diminish their recognition, and to diminish their remuneration (including, above all, the financial remuneration). While there is, actually, an increasing need for knowledge (and cultural) work, the official demand for knowledge work is strictly regulated and diminished in terms of the economy of relevance, leading to a continuous precarization of knowledge workers.
The ‘impact’ of the economy of relevance, remaking for example academia into one of the economies of relevance, on knowledge work can be grasped in many phenomena and illustrated in many examples and also analogies. But whether expressed in fashionable vague terms of ‘being useful’, ‘impact’, ‘efficient’, ‘sustainable’ and so on, knowledge work is generally both criticized (in the negative) and (suspiciously and skeptically) commented on, which always runs back to the same kind of struggle, the struggle for appearing relevant. Something appears more relevant if, for example, it has a ‘practical application’, or an ‘immediate effect’, or ‘creates a patent’, or helps ‘maximize outcome/profit’, or if it is ‘done by a member of a BIG NAME University’, etc. etc. Most people will, I guess, nod knowingly at this list and be able to add to it. Although, it is also clear that while most readers will nod knowingly and agree that there can certainly merits to be had by projects that don’t fulfill this list, many readers when hearing about a project idea will also immediately evaluate in their heads if they think the project is worth doing – yes, we all do that, myself included. And we always look for criteria to make that evaluation. So, what do we do other then ask: But is it relevant (and, if, then to whom)? All knowledge and cultural work lives under that regime of having to justify their existence in terms of relevance. Think about cultural work: How do we determine funding for it? It has to be successful, and to be successful – measured in viewers/readers/profits – it has to be entertaining. Think about it: Reputedly, £31.6 million (45.2 in US dollars) in British tax payer money (in the form of tax reliefs) were contributed to the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which cost £204 million to make and made about £1.4 billion (2 billion US dollars) in sales by March 2016. Did a mega-corporation like Disney, which stood to make a huge profit, need tax payer money? The argument is often made that these subsidies help the local economy and creative industries. But is that so? The problem is that it is indeed very hard to calculate these matters reliably. But it goes without saying that with £31 million, a number of smaller, local cultural projects (and subsequent jobs) could have been financed as well, which, too would have had net effects in the local economy – perhaps even more sustainable ones. So, why, overall, does a mega-corporation receive this funding and why are the reasons brought up in favor being heard and do trump the discussion while reasons for an opposing view are hardly ever being even discussed? Because of ‘relevance’. Again: The same money could be used to to finance, say, 31 smaller projects and these could benefit the local economy in no less positive ways than the mega-corp would, but it still would not be seen as equally relevant. To some degree, this has been discussed under the terms of the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage (those that already have, will be given more, i.e. the rich get richer and so on). The economies of relevance, however, have complicated and worsened the problem, because we find several additional developments that come with it. To begin with, well, there is the issue of lobbying. Relevance work on a grander scale often includes lobbying structures. They also include a buying up of channels and actors that could facilitate are more equal playing field: We see this, in analogy, in the US-American patent/litigation economy or in the ‘stacking the bench’ with talented players that ‘rich soccer’ clubs have been accused of conducting, i.e. in buying far more talented players than they can use, just to make sure no one other club can become a rival. But the most important issue, I think, is that we must consider that relevance often works in a requirement of occupying the attention ecology. We can see this mechanism in the question of ‘why advertise at all’. Advertisement of products used to be thought of in common terms as either informative or manipulative: Advertisement in this simple version was considered as alerting customers to a new or specially-priced product or a new company; alternatively, a (now lay-)psychological view would argue that ads were a clever way of manipulating customers to buy a specific product or prefer one company’s product over the other. And while these accounts are not entirely wrong (especially in terms of pharmaceutical ads in the US), they have been insufficient explanations in the early age of advertisement already and they are almost misleading today. Advertisement does many things, but most importantly, I claim advertising is about ‘being relevant’ at all. Customers have for the longest time been overflowed with ads, many of them constructed cleverly and focused on their target group, and so on. But they are almost all done too well. There is no reason why a customer should prefer car A over car B, or car C, or car (and I am not even entering the [in]transitivity problem of preferential orders here), based on advertisements alone – unless, say the ad for car D, was really shitty or created a shitstorm because of some political issue. But here is the rub: What about car 5. Now you will say, “5? What?” Exactly. There is an economy of what a car company as a product itself needs to be in order to be considered relevant at all; it needs to be in line with certain norms and it needs to be able to receive attention. If a potential buyer has not seen an ad for car 5, s/he will not be very likely to buy it, even if the salesman shows it to him/her. The customer may be looking for a family car, and A,B,C, D, and 5 are – as products – roughly equal, 5 may even be slightly better. The customer will not be too likely consider car 5. Obviously, it still happens sometimes that car 5 will be bought, but the car 5 company will still not rise to be a major player, because it’s not relevant. Car manufacturer A knows that advertisement is not usually making it more likely that their car will be preferred over B,C, or D, but they have a sense for the fact that we have built ourselves an economy of relevance where they must advertise or, like car company 5, they will become non-relevant. Advertisement is more and more conducted to maintain relevance (to remain part of, or even dominate, a market) and less and less to sell more of a product. Many chains (supermarket, restaurants) have opened branches in so many places that some analysts have asked whether some of the branches can even be profitable. But here, too, the decision is made in terms of relevance (which relates, of course, to the whole construction of the stock-market/shareholder idea). A chain has to have a certain presence in order to be considered relevant; sometimes, the idea is to be present in a place to prevent a competitor from being able receive attention. This is not to say that this can’t, sometimes, also backfire. There is such a thing as over-saturation. Even if customers often do not have as much choice in a market as they think (many mega-corps own a lot of smaller companies selling similar products, or control various productions pathways, and so on), it is important that the illusion of choice is maintained. It is the most intriguing phenomenon that some customers are fully aware that the degree of choice in a market is an illusion, but they still act as though there were a high degree of choice. But to reiterate and summarize: It’s all about appearing relevant.
Now, I went through all this explanation, because in contemporary society, we have reconstructed (and devalued) knowledge work in terms of the same economy of relevance. In academia, the world of higher education and research, that’s become all it’s about. Ask in US or British academia (and to a large degree most continental European academia), why a person was hired for a job, and the answer you often get is ‘3P’, which stands for politics in the hiring department/school, pedigree (prestige of their degree’s institution), and publications (in prestigious [e.g. according to impact factor] journals). [I would, however, propose that there can still be, for a few courageous people, an alternative long-term “1P”-strategy, namely to become prolific, i.e. building a unique profile over time by showing that one can make a difference for people – by being a good teacher, for example.] There are many career-building steps, which are built around relevance. The most relevant factor has become third-party funding. There are many relevance markers, career-pathways, and so on, that are built along this academic economy of relevance. For example, the whole issue of status maintenance of Ivy League universities is an interesting example. But to be frank, most Ivy League scholars don’t do better research (let alone good teaching), they only appear more relevant while they really are producing just as much average and mediocre research as everybody else does – and one could actually argue that these Ivy League universities, precisely, must produce mediocrity itself, i.e. that the label of ‘excellence’ which is thrown about so much is merely another mechanism in terms of relevance, and that in truth ‘excellence = mediocrity’. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to get funding for research that is truly inventive and new, because the results of this research are always uncertain by definition. Of course, an Ivy League University still is a place where some of that unique research still happens, because they do offer better equipment than less endowed colleges. But my concern is that these inventive results happen more despite of and not because of the ‘excellence’ status of these institutions. Furthermore, we look to so-called excellent universities to define what excellence is, and measure all universities by these standards of excellence, and the people we vote for (or hire) who have to decide on funding for research and education often come from universities who bought in these ideals of excellence: Tautology and reification, anyone? Who decides, for example, how and by what criteria research grants should evaluated? Research grants are written in a particular writing style and structure, which are non-surprisingly geared towards making the research seem relevant. But this style was developed and is taught by a certain class of people, and it is difficult to learn from people not privy to this type of implicit knowledge. As one person, who used to work for a major funding organization once explained it to me, unlike smaller or less prestigious colleges, at Ivy League Universities students are included in the learning about the style of grant writing by professors who are already part of this grant writing culture and its implicit knowledge stock – meaning they do have a lot of implicit knowledge about the economy of grant writing, an economy that works, largely, by writing a proposal that has as few points it could be negatively criticized for as possible, since peer reviewers are looking for reasons to reject a proposal (as quickly as possible) not to the actual contribution of a project. Even a category such as ‘merit’ itself works through an economy of relevance, i.e. it has to be written in a certain way, rather than actually describing a genuine merit. The problem isn’t that this is something that’s not known. Everyone in academia knows it and sometimes, in certain dark corners, it is even sometimes talked about. But to talk about this in the open and to actually propose how to change it, and say why it really needs to change, is something most people shy away from, because they are afraid nobody will pay attention to them afterward anymore (While I don’t this would count as whistle-blowing, there is the ‘whistleblower’s fate’ of becoming paraih and outcast to consider in this case, too). Giving voice to an open secret one runs the risk of losing relevance, not because one can actually lose relevance, but because the question becomes why a person gives voice to this problem. If a person does that, the question becomes whether they are actually an irrelevant person to begin with. Who but car 5 would complain about how car company A, B, have fixed the market, and car company C and D play along? Only ‘a loser’ will complain about that and reveal how the game is rigged, yes? So, a main reason why in academia we don’t change the way grant writing, job applications, tenure promotion, publication review, peer review, and so on are working and work very badly and unfairly – why we don’t even really talk about the reasons why they work the way they do – is that while we can agree on a collective level (e.g. the Left, adjunct unions) that there are these issues, on the other side, as a collectivity of many individuals, most of these individuals fear that if a dissenting voice was attributed to them individually, they would have no longer a chance of being identified as someone with relevance. Dissent, in a non-permitted form, renders one ‘future silent’, i.e. irrelevant or ‘othered into silence’.
We find the need to ‘stay relevant’ in the world of advertisement and of branching corporations hand-in-hand with an inflation of sites of for advertising and branching, that, paradoxically, intensifies this process of a seemingly reducing of the number opportunities – something we find, similarly, in academia. While it is clear by now that a product is placed, often enough, not to sell more of it, but to maintain one’s position in the market, we also seem to observe markets are growing, that places for opening a business or placing a product seem to grow in number, and yet, these places more often than not seem to be taken up by big brands rather than small businesses or ‘craft/artisan’ products. In academia, we find similar processes happening. While the number of journals seems to constantly grow, acceptance rates (in peer review) seem to be ridiculously small – similarly, whenever research grant funding agencies proclaim a rise in budget, their acceptance rates also seem to decrease. Not to mention that those entries or projects accepted also deserve to critiqued in terms of why certain institutional types or researcher profiles seem to have an edge, why peer review is conducted in a certain way even if it has been shown that it must be reformed, and even though proposals how to do so have been made. It is, clearly, tough to disentangle these processes and to conduct good and critical research on these matters about academia from within academia itself for a number of reasons (and, no, ‘privatizing’ it is not the solution, because the structure behind ‘privatizing’ is at the heart of the problem). But the complexities between publications, third party funding through grants, prestigious (well-funded) institutions, and other biases with regard to peer-review and hiring in academia has been discussed across many discussions forums. Again, what I am concerned with is that the conjunction of what seems like an inflation of opportunities on the one side, and a decrease of non-precarious jobs in academia on the other, seem both to effect an overall decrease in real opportunities to participate in academia in both meaningful and livelihood sustaining ways, and that the mechanism through which all of this works in this way can be reconstructed in terms of what I call economy of relevance. In various ways, relevance is the opposite of or anti-thesis to knowledge and cultural work. I do not mean to say that knowledge/cultural work are not ever relevant, but the precise point is that we do not know when and if it will be relevant, because we can never really know what will become needed as relevant in the future. Some of future relevance we can try to pre-determine, but that is, in a sense, only accomplished by rigging the game. And it never works as well as people think it will, because many parties try to rig the game to their advantage, once again causing additional uncertainty, contingency, and chaos. This is, however, also a basic argument, why we need redundancies in certain systems. Why do we need redundancy with health care (and other) insurance, with police, or many government offices? It is, of course, easy to see only the immediate costs, and, perhaps, also include the ‘probability’ of certain events happening. However, when these events happen and the service is required but not sufficiently available, because redundancies were eliminated, the consequences can be extreme. Let’s try a little thought-experiment: If the argument to reduce the number of full-time firefighters is that over the year there are only x-amount of fires is accepted in a county, what are possible consequences – besides more unemployed people. Let’s say that, indeed, a number of firefighters are let go, some older ones get an early retirement, some recent hires are laid off, and future hires are for part-timers with only short-term renewable contracts. For the firefighters of this county as an organization this will equal – first of all – a destruction of implicit knowledge (knowledge you only learn by working together with the others for a while) by elimination of some of the carriers of this knowledge, and constrain the further communication as well as creation of implicit knowledge, because short-term contract hires often do not have the opportunity to create, learn, and then teach others any implicit knowledge – this is what happens, by the way, in many organizations today, including higher education and research: Precarization is, among other things, the destruction of implicit/tacit knowledge. But for organizations to function not only efficiently but also effectively, implicit/tacit knowledge is crucial. Indeed, efficiency (for example cost-efficiency) can be increased to a point, while effectivity reaches zero levels. The pharmaceutical business is a good example: While it has become extremely efficient as a market and companies profit margins can be substantially exploited, the effectivity of medication, research, coverage, and so on, appears to have decreased dramatically (and only some of the reasons why are understood, while others are under-researched, such as, e.g., the increase in and diversification of placebo-effects). Now, our fighter-fighters are in a process of being reduced dramatically. How do you retain your job or get one the few new (part-time) ones, if these are at all attractive? We can be certain that some way, it’s gonna be about relevance in one way or the other. But, again what is relevant? What interests me more in the thought-experiment here, now, is that the elimination of redundancies erupts when the events why redundancies were built into the system in the first place actually occur. Yes, that’s the very point, redundancies are part of systems for a reason, and while it may be true that some redundancies may emerge for political reasons and some may exist even though they will not be required, most redundancies do not fall under that category – regardless what some austerity-fanatics who promise to lower taxes and bemoan the squandering of taxpayer money claim. While your now super-efficient fire department may be well-staffed to handle a house on fire, what happens if two or three are on fire at the same time? Who you gonna call? And has anyone thought about the fact that there might be an increasing number of bush and forest fires thanks to climate change? And so on and so on. The interplay between contingencies and redundancies is important to understand, but it cannot be understood in terms of relevance because if something is relevant it precisely not thought of as contingent. But deal with contingencies we must – in real life, that is. And one of the ways to enable us to deal with contingencies individually, as communities, as organizations, as societies, is knowledge and cultural labor. Why? Because the interplay between contingency and redundancy is an infrastructural problem.
Another knowledge work area where ‘relevance’ has taken over to dramatic effect is the teaching aspect in higher education. When I am teaching in Germany, one the most asked questions is ‘Ist das relevant für die Prüfung?’ i.e. ‘Is this relevant for the exam?’. There is a noun for this: Prüfungsrelevanz – ‘Exam-relevance’. We have even come to the point that we must mark what is relevant in advance and cannot ask anything but what the students know to be relevant. Administrations even ask us to define more and more ‘relevancies’ in advance, such as in terms of ‘teaching goals’ in a syllabus. We have created a whole market for ‘accrediting’ universities around such practices. Anyone who defies the ‘ways and rhetorics this is done’ is not fit to work in higher education today. It has been remarked by many authors, myself included, that these practices confuse training (for a predefined goal with a predefined temporality) with education (which enables people, among other things, to identify goals, create goals, set goals, or to acquire means to reach goals they cannot anticipate yet). Turning higher education into a place where people train practices and routines for the present job-market is, yes, relevant – but this relevance itself is fleeting, the present job-market, the skills and routines it requires are temporary, and having a job, while certainly an important part of social life, is not the only and, perhaps, not even the most important part of social life or function in society. My argument is, however, that while the infrastructural aspects are more important, being equipped by (education) to help along with these infrastructural aspects will also enable you to acquire skills a future job-market may require. Being trained for the present job-market will neither equip you to help along the infra-structure to function nor to be able to acquire future job skills. The Liberal Arts and Humanities, as well as the core social sciences (such as sociology) in particular are about that infrastructure. The attempts to make them more ‘marketable’, ‘relevant’, ‘quantifiable’, etc. only negate their true infrastructural power, which is, however, increasingly needed. This is, I think the alternative we must choose from: Exam-relevance or Liberal Arts. In choosing Liberal Arts and Humanities, students acquire meaningfulness, mindfulness (in the sense of not only working by rote and routine, i.e. not working ‘mindlessly’, which is not effective and leads to fatal errors), implicit knowledge, and skills for creating, maintaining, evaluating, and transferring implicit knowledge. We must create Liberal Arts without and against ‘economies of relevance’.
I will only hint at this here, it will be part the book Care Power Information and much of my future work. But precarity, precariousness, and the precariate is a major concern for me, precisely because we are witnessing what I consider the Precarization of Everything. I am concerned with the emergence of what I consider a Green Precarity/Precariate/Precariousness becoming the main status of all agents in the emerging Post-Risk Society. The monocultural programmatic that guides the idea of the Bioeconomy is main driver behind this development. The imbrications of biotechnologies and various dimensions and structures of societies need to be understood in meaningful ways, and that refers precisely to concepts such as sustainability and responsibility, which are often deployed as absolute but empty and impotent (meaningless) metaphors. The point is not to say: But who’d argue against sustainable production? The point is to ask: What is sustainable, for whom and why, in what time frame, and so on? The use of phrases like ‘sustainability’ is a way to make something seem ‘relevant’ but it doesn’t make it particularly meaningful. Instead, we must consider ideas such as generative justice and generative values, which are ideas developed and discussed ‘as we speak’, and these are conversations I encourage you to join in to and become active for. For scholars to intervene on this basis in public debates, means considering those contemporary news cycles that are mediated through so-called social media, there are two lines of ‘reporting’ in which I observe the following two generalized trends which I have coined ‘the precarization of everything’ and ‘your doing your brain all wrong’: Liberal Arts, therefore, means studying political cognitive embodied cultures, it means to understand the political and the biological, since the infrastructure of organization (political) is not without its messy, living bodily organisms (biological).
This begs the question, of course, what is the political project of Liberal Arts and Humanities? Some Liberal Arts programs and even the university that host them and often host them for that particular reason (more and more in an act of ‘corporate social responsibility’), enthusiastically, optimistically, and even with a hint of utopianism – and all that is in and of itself not the result of a bad attitude or wrongful intentions – sketch their approach int the formation of citizenship ideas, a citizen’s discourse, and participation in or proliferation of civil society. But there is also a problem, because citizenship is historically a Western and in some ways deeply colonial political mode of belonging, which has undergone some transformation but at its root contains many of presuppositions that are problematic in terms of enabling political participation, of allowing for alternative modes of political action and different ways of belonging. Being a citizen is not the same as participating politically, but often one’s political agency are taken seriously only if one is a citizen or is considered at least eligible for citizenship. But that hinges on a paradox: On the one hand, the ideas that constitute what makes one a citizen are very narrow ideas, but on the other hand, there is also room for arbitrariness, which allows for mechanisms of exclusion that are more a form of – once national, once social psychological – protectionism: As some recent research has shown, for both the US as well as Europe, immigrants and foreigners are the main topic that concerns those social groups responsible for the rise of extremist parties and politicians and for the attacks on welfare state principles and institutions, as well as the rampant anti-intellectualism. It becomes quite dangerous, when even those people who qualify themselves as ‘tolerant’ people (and there’d be a lot to say about the problems with ‘toleration’) say things, such as ‘But one has to, at least, understand that these people have fears…’. The problem is not the fears, but, again the way that these ‘fears’ are about ‘relevance’, namely the relevance of eligibility for the type of belonging that is citizenship. Furthermore, that citizenship has become even narrower and more arbitrary at the same time in the past decades has to do with its re-casting itself as a mode of belonging which some have called neoliberal citizenship, characterized by such as nouns as ‘authenticity’, ‘self’, ‘structured competition’, and so on. But specifically competition means here a competition for relevance and efficiency, on a person-level defined via wealth and/or job, i.e. the model of the rentier on the one hand or, on the other, the pro-/con-sumer-hybrid. But this kind of citizenship is a a mode of belonging without civics (civics is a process, not a defined set of traits for civility and/or citizenship) and solidarity (which I understand in terms of integrative practices of being together with Others). What Liberal Arts, as their political project, therefore must do and ask is ‘What other forms of belonging, for example in ‘the political’ (postfoundational) sense, i.e. in an infrastructural relation, are there, could be there, and how can people become sensitive to them? Liberal arts and humanities as political project, means learning what to ‘think with’ for how to ‘think through’ civics as the never-ending process (becoming/individuation) of figuring out what the transition from political to civic can mean and would look like infra-structurally, and what it means locally (for the local organization of [political] agencies and their translocal ties) – perhaps, therein, it this political project is also a project to develop an empirical, concrete, and integrative ethics of care. In order to follow through with a genuinely political project in general, and in particular a project that is about different and perhaps even new modes of belonging. Liberal Arts and Humanities must cease their ties to what I have called (in various talks, forums, but also publications, including throughout Care, Power, Information) White Collar academia, which is certainly characterized by what others have called disciplinary decadence, urban normativity, and so. What I contrast it with is Blue sCollarship. Blue sCollars are political, empirical, and in the thick of things, as well as they are doing theory, but for them theory means ‘thinking together with Others’: Theory should not be a monologue or a monoculture of mind, and Others is a very open notion that means to take all kinds of Others, and their knowledges and agency seriously. And that is a lot of work. And a lot if happens in, with, and through infrastructure, and it always significantly maintains, transforms, and creates infrastructure. And infrastructure is the basis of everything else, such as the economy or the job market – and precisely not the other way round.
This brings me to the final and important point of this exercise: Why we need higher education and research, why we need scholarship and scholars to thrive, to be funded, to be respected, but also to be committed. Why we need academia, aka insitutions of higher education and research. But also why we need more multiversity than university, Blue sCollars instead of White Collar academicians, and more intellectuals than anti-intellectualism – wherein, however, being an intellectual does not mean that one is ignorant, privileged, or elevated with regard to non-academic knowledges or material concerns . I could expand these lists, but you get the idea, and, yes, it should be an open list to begin with. And Liberal Arts should, perhaps, mean exactly that ‘arts’ (perhaps in the many meanings of the Latin ‘ars’ and it precurors) should be ‘liberal’ in the sense that they are ‘open’ and ‘opening’: they should be open and opening knowledges and techniques – aka Liberal Arts as the open and opening techniques and knowledges of infrastructure. Therein, they become important for the future.
There are now several practical and political consequences that follow from this…..
“To be political is to emerge, to appear, to exist” (Lewis Gordon 2014: 88)
A ‘Sneak Preview’ from my upcoming book Care, Power, Information will be posted here, soon.
When I was a pre-teen, I was growing up in an 1980s German city, in a neighborhood where many families lived who were – back then – called ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest-workers) – a label indicating a collective denial, which was politically transformed only after a Left wing government took over in 1998, that Germany was (and still) is a country that both saw as well as required for demographic and economic reasons immigration. At that tender age, I still had a hard time grasping the reasons for the ‘ethnic’ tensions at my school, where the Turkish kids would cluster in the schoolyard, and conflicts were fueled by ethnic categories and stereotypes distilled into us German by our fathers (more than our mothers). Our own personal and family histories need to be questioned, especially when we work as scholars. I will never forget the day that I was made to sit next to a young Turkish boy in my class whose grades were quite bad, and it was deemed that he would be helped by sharing a classroom desk with me. Most of the Turkish kids were in their own, the ‘Turkish’ class, but this boy’s father insisted that he attended a ‘regular’ class to learn better German – even if they didn’t speak any German at home and he didn’t have any German friends, which was making it hard for him to practice conversing in German. We quickly became friends, as we realized that we could help each other out – in the way 8-year-olds figure out things: I would help him with learning, and he would help me with copying things from the blackboard, which – now that I was seated in the back row with him – could no longer see as well, strictly denying that I needed glasses (which I got a few months later, anyway). My Turkish friend, after a few weeks, confided in me that whenever he brought home an F, his father would ’take off his belt, and severely beat’ him. While he swore me to silence, horrified as I was by his story, I didn’t keep that promise. I informed my parents and attempted to talk to the teacher, but nobody seemed interested or knew how to do anything about it. Ever since then, when I encounter people who seem to prefer to be oblivious to someone actually suffering or – as my later self expanded into questions of the political imagination – are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the wider political implications of something they’re saying or doing, especially when they prefer a form of politics and politicking over the actual political, that’s when I apply some more aggressive forms of sarcasm to hold the mirror to people, especially when these are people who have received (or are active part of) higher academic education.
I found myself very recently at a conference with a lot of graduate student speakers and was rather surprised when a graduate student made a silly joke about whether stealing the artsy conference poster would get her send to a labor-camp, this was in no way offensive by itself so I merely remarked in also somewhat non-serious way (I’ll come back to that) that since I was being German, the joke had a certain flavor when addressed to me – in the same sense that I remark that references to leading the way or leadership have funny ring to German minds. The graduate student, stopped, and then said, while laughing, that she ‘oh, was referring to that US-American student who just got sentenced to 10 years of labor camp in North Korea for stealing a poster’. I wasn’t sure how to take that as a joke, really, because it involved presently living, identifiable persons, and one individual in particular, currently actually suffering in North Korea.
I was curious, given that in some of the PhD-student presentations I had seen while at the conference, also seemed oblivious to some of the more actual political consequences of their research, to crucial ethical concerns, and to aspects of (in)justice that often remained silenced (including such instances in the keynote speaker’s talk).
While I certainly do not go the level of Zizekian tastelessness in jokes, given that I was born in Germany, I have a very unique opportunity of creating provocations, by emphasizing a certain indifference to the aspect of appearing apologetic as many Germans feel compelled to appear in public when abroad. But there is method to my madness – and I will admit, there is method even to Slavoj Zizek’s madness: Zizek’s point, that once people stop making stupid jokes about each others culture/ethnicity/religion that’s when it gets really dangerous, is not far off the mark; he’s onto something. But not liking Zizek’s tasteless jokes too much, I prefer to usually make one or two harmless comments, that refer more to how Germans should not be ruled by guilt and that a healthy way to overcome it is with some mildly obnoxious humor. When there are other Germans present at a conference, they tend to blush at these, US- Americans and British people usually become curious and refer to stories of other Germans they met, who wanted to make sure to demonstrate that they felt guilty and were apologetic for the German misdeeds during 1933 and 1945 – as if, by the way, the invention of modern biological racism by Kant, Blumenbach, and other Germanic scholars, as well as numerous other horrible chapters in German (and European) history didn’t matter. I use my mildly provocative maneuver to open a space in the discourse for a partially political point: My problem with the guilt-apologetic mentality is that it is mainly focused on oneself. Demonstrating that one is apologetic includes an expectation of forgiveness of a sort. ‘Apology’ and its relation to ‘apologetic’ are etymologically interesting, because of the relation to Greek apologētikos and apologeisthei their meaning derives, as far as I understand, from the idea of ‘speaking in one’s own defense’; the German word for apology, Entschuldigung, if taken apart means literally ‘taking off one’s guilt or debt’. When cartoonist Walter Moers published a sarcastic cartoon titled ‘Adolf’ in the 1990s, a story about Hitler emerging after 50 years of living in underground – drawn in the style of Moers famously politically incorrect provocation of Das Kleine Arschloch (The Little Asshole) cartoons -, he faced a lot of moral backlash. But his response was put on a poster: ‘Is one allowed to laugh at the Nazis? No, one must!”
Sarcasm and satire, even if not understood as such by everyone, I came to learn early on, are far more effective than being apologetic in achieving the important political meaning behind these discourses: Namely that we do remember the suffering that happened, and that our culture/society/nation/community/… was responsible for and how and the people who suffered, and that we make sure this kind of suffering does not and cannot happen again. In the German case, the holocaust and World War II stand out as events, but others, such as the Massacre Germans caused to the Herero people and other colonial crimes should not be forgotten nor taken lightly. And with Germany as an economic power from the Global North, we cannot claim that we have done overly well as a nation in preventing suffering of the kind we have been responsible for directly in the past. US American history, too, is riddled with ‘problematic episodes’ to give this a, let’s say euphemistic description, and the discussion of what ‘atonement’ could mean and what forms it should take has not really been led in the US. If Randolph Hohle is right, then ‘American neoliberalism’ was born out of racism in the 1960s and 1970s, when a white business elite decided that all things white were about property and privacy, and that the welfare state and everything public was to be considered in relation to black people. This would mean, following Hohle’s analysis, that calls for austerity and tax cuts are a code for racist politics. Neoliberalism in the US American style (and here, I would correct Hohle, because we all have become so accustomed to saying [in a very colonial way] American when we should say US-American – it was noticeable that in every presentation I heard during the conference and in conversations after, people when talking and on many slides referred exclusively to ‘America’ and not ’the US’) is the oppositional force resisting that US American society and politics fully acknowledge and remember the suffering of African slaves, of Black and of Brown people, as well as of Asian Americans, and also prevents people from actively, politically working on the prevention of catastrophes on a collective, national level – individual activists and groups aside. I make this point about remembrance and prevention often, and I tend to find it maddening, when I encounter educated people who seem to prefer and convey a ’dignified ignorance’ towards political issues they are implicitly raising. That’s when I venture into provocations. It is, however, particularly frustrating, when people choose to ignore the importance of remembering the intertwined issues of past suffering and prevention of current and future suffering, especially when they chose the tactic of not engaging these issues by focusing on the initial provocation and its ‘perceived incorrectness’ instead. To begin with, we would not be in a position to have a serious discussion about the problem of collective attitude towards political events of suffering, if the provocation hadn’t served as the entry point – I have tried making my arguments in various ways over the years, and found that the route via provocation is the one that at least makes people attention. But the tactic of focusing on the provocation by interlocutors is an interesting one, because it’s a sign of a state of complacency that they want to remain in – a bit of a social pathology, if you like. In addition, their focus on the provocation itself exposes other pathological aspects, akin to the Lacanian account (often retold by Zizek) that a persons jealousy of suspecting that their lover is cheating on them is pathological, regardless if the lover is cheat in or not; i.e. fixation on the provocation instead of the argument deriving from it says more about the provoked than about the provocateur. It’s for that reason that I take more risks in pushing provocation even further. (My curiosity is perhaps my, cat-killing, pathology, as is my drive to make people think even if I run the danger of making a few ‘enemies’ along the way). Sarcasm is both a sharp knife and a blunt instrument, and it is interesting to observe when and how people refuse to engage it. As a few graduate students from said conference fell into this trap, I learned a lot about them. As I said, I was initially engaging into this venture because I noticed in their discourse but also in their demeanor a certain ignorance to underlying political consequences as well as to actual cases of suffering and injustice, and also an interesting obliviousness to physical surroundings. In short, we do have to face the question, at which point is a graduate student ‘trending’ towards assuming epistemic entitlement. In the preceding conference, I felt that colonial issues were, with few exceptions aka exceptional speakers, largely sidelined. I was baffled by one person in a conversation describing Jews in general and US-American Jews in particular as ‘colonized and Globally Southern’ – Jewish people have suffered throughout history, and no one could dispute that Jews in the US, too, have suffered from discrimination and forms of oppression and violence, but in political terms the story is certainly more complicated than using the lens of colonialism – it may be a disrespectful to people who suffer(ed) colinialism, and not for nothing can we use the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ when referring to the Western, colonial episteme. It’s also fascinating to take into consideration some of the white male citations during the talks and not wonder: In a few discussions during the conference, Garfinkel, Goffman, and breaching experiments came up – and, of course, we all conduct a lot of ad hoc breaching experiments at social gatherings – so it was interesting, I decided, to see what would happen if I asked one of the graduate students – the person who had a fondness for labor-camp jokes – the question ‘What if I was just conducting a breaching experiment?’ The response was enlightening, because the graduate student failed to address that I deliberately asked a hypothetical question. I was presented with a counter question instead, which was asked seriously and not in jest: ‘What? You did not have an informed consent procedure for that?’ It makes one wonder, how a persons who just spent their day invoking Garfinkel & Co. can ask this question since that would beat the purpose of the experiment. This was my actual yet hypothetically phrased response: ‘If it were one, then wouldn’t that beat the purpose?’ – a question that was the response to a questions receives as response another question…. Interestingly, the graduate student went off to discuss – in earshot – with some of her fellow graduate students the impropriety of my ‘breaching experiment’, which never was one to begin with, since I clearly wasn’t conducting any kind of study [I will however add, that if there ever was any population with whom we could potentially still consider conducting breaching experiments in an ethically at least marginally justifiable way it would be social science graduate students and faculty, precisely because they must understand the stakes of research – again, this is merely hypothetical, but the inherent attitude of a certain harshness of either sarcasm or breaching experiments should never be deployed with, for example, undergraduate students]. If this has resulted in anything, then in this being more like a piece in investigative journalism about the mentalities and sensitivities of primarily White graduate students in some of the ‘upper class’ universities in the US. While there may be understandable reasons why someone who identifies as Jewish or is close to the Jewish community would be more affected by any sarcasm built on ridiculing German apologetics culture, and sarcasm is always a hard bread to stomach, I stay away from references to actual atrocities or individual-related acts of violence, because these come to close to Zizekian tastelesness, which is inherently too antagonistic. Context matters in these cases, which makes it an interesting under what circumstances and for what reason this kind of sarcasm seems to affect someone personally. Provocations, undertaken seriously, have the task of enabling the creation of discursive spaces for discussing political matters – I am very post-foundational here in my thinking. But when even this backfires, a risk we must take, i.e. when instead of creating an agonistic space together, only antagonism ensues, I wonder about my interlocutors: There is, if one recalls, a famous scene in Star Wars: The Empire strikes back, where Luke Skywalker is told to go to place where the Dark Side of the Force resides, as he is packing heat, he ask his master what he all find there, to which Yoda responds, ‘only what you take with you’. Of course, the whole thing goes pear-shaped. And that’s my question: What ‘heat’ were are people packing, who react intensely negatively to sarcasm? I assume that it is a form of ‘entitlement’. I mean this in a particular way in terms of social epistemology, but it relates to how I understand White Collar academia. Namely, my question is about warrant. Tyler Burge (and others) made the argument, roughly, that if a person has a belief that is warranted can either come as ‘being/feeling entitled to that belief’ or ‘being able to justify or having justifications for that belief’. Along those lines, I teach my students that whenever they say or write ‘My opinion is….’ (German students, for example, are very fond of saying and writing this way about their opinion: Meiner Meinung nach…. or Meine Meinung ist…) they need to say or write two or three sentences giving reasons to justify that opinion. On my end, in situations such as encountered at conferences, I follow up on sarcastic, cynical, or satirical statements about ‘German guilt’ with justifying the reasoning behind the provocation: Explaining that it’s not guilt and Entschuldigung that matters but taking (political) responsibility. This responsibility is, to a large degree, of an epistemic kind. And this is precisely what is missing in our political culture or should we rather say culture of politics?
By stating one’s opinion, without even caring to be able to justify it, and by not caring about how another persons statements and beliefs could be justified, but only caring about them appearing ‘antagonistic’ to one’s own, one operates based on entitlement. It is saddening, even frightening, when specifically graduate students seem ‘not to care’, and it makes provocations more and more important. In taking on provocations, we take risks, obviously, and we run dangers (they may never serve as ‘excuses’ [another possible translation for Entschuldigung] for random acts of symbolic/verbal violence). We expose both the vulnerabilities of ourselves, of those we provoke, and at times of those who are subjected to but subject of or in the provocation. But this is an exceptionally interesting point: Vulnerabilities. In the Western university, which is inherently structured as a White, male (and Judeo-Christian) institution, ‘vulnerability’ is given no place in the academic mentality – I will be publishing more on this issue in the future, actually. But if we want to conduct scholarship that makes a difference in people’s lives, we have to accept and deal with vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities are what matters. But we have largely excluded them from academic discourse – to be correctly understood: I am not speaking here about the issues of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ and so on. – We have archives of resistance but we have no archives of vulnerabilities. This, namely dealing with and allowing for vulnerabilities, is something graduate students need to grasp. Scholarship that is meaningful is vulnerable scholarship. That less and less students do, is problematic and it makes provocations more and more necessary but also more and more risky – in part, because the climate that has made students turn to ignore vulnerability is a climate wherein politics is conducted in antagonistic, intentionally hurtful and violent forms – it often calls itself provocation or hyperbole, but the difference is, here, too, one of entitlement versus justification. Therein lie some dialectics, if you like, or, if you prefer, some double-binds. These are hard to escape, as Gregory Bateson and Norbert Elias have shown, but try and break them we must. Herein, I keep heeding lessons from feminist science studies and feminist ethics about epistemic responsibility: If we do not act epistemically responsible and that involves, sometimes, provocation to draw out justifications and justifying process that were hidden or ignored, epistemic injustice will increase and epistemic agency of vulnerable agents be reduced. Acting epistemically responsibly is, however, not always pretty or friendly. Provocation and sarcasm, while brutal in a way, draw out vulnerabilities.
For the better part of my life, I began to follow a learning curve of how to live along lines of Dao and Zen, specifically teachings that deploy humor, sarcasm, and a certain harshness in learning and teaching. The more epistemic responsibility a person should carry, the harsher my response if I observe that the person does not take that responsibility seriously. That means, sometimes, that the provocateur needs to appear as the kind of person that others shouldn’t want to become but are on the verge to. Because being responsible means to uncover vulnerabilities, and we can only do that if we also allow for them and allow for our own to be exposed. This is what political being means, to quote, further, Lewis Gordon: ‘To be political is to emerge, to appear, to exist.’
I never learned what became of the Turkish boy, I shared a desk with so many years ago. I switched schools when I was 11. What I know, for sure, though, is that he was vulnerable, but for my teachers he did not exist as a political subject. So, don’t(!) forgive the sarcastic man for sometimes having to annoy people a lot, think about your political existence instead.
[First version. Revised version considered to appear in Care, Power, Information]
In recent years, colleagues and myself have often talked about our experiences with funding institutions in higher education and research, which I have recently begun to re-evaluate under the conceptual-empirical lenses I call economies of relevance and white collar academia. Using these concepts, I have come to the conclusion that while supposedly ‘helping’ researchers with funding them, these organizations often hamper critical research as well as the careers of scholars with the promise to have critical impetus and clout.
Two short clarifications regarding this paragraph: By ‘critical’, I evoke quite intentionally simultaneously the multiple dimensions of the word. And secondly, before anyone starts the whole ‘how is it a legitimate use of tax-payer money, anyway’, ‘how is any research funding warranted’, ‘academics feel entitled’, etc., etc., that discussion is another discussion entirely and I am more than happy to have it – respectively, I have had it, I have said my bits and pieces here and there (including on this blog as well as in our, i.e. Weiss and Restivo and my book), and I will have it for years to come. But I am after something else here and now.
My concern is, here, about the issue of accountability and transparency, about a ‘culture of suspicion’, and about the deployment of social capital, which has become a lopsided affair for those academics who are not already under the ‘golden Matthew shower‘. I am, of course, referring here to the (in)famous Matthew-effect, as coined by Robert Merton in the 1960s (though hardly the first to notice this), which refers to a quote from the King James version of the gospel of Matthew and basically says that those who already have will be given even more. In academia, as Merton and others noticed, those who are already blessed with credentials of some kind will receive more and easier so; whereas those who do not have them credentials, will not have a chance of obtaining any. Hence, one can hear people saying that the ‘first research grant is the hardest, but afterwards…..’. In the so-called 3P academic job economy of pedigree, (department) politics, and publications, this can be seen in terms of pedigree (where have you graduated and who are your reference writers or where are they from). As one of many consequences, I have argued, several critical research areas and questions receive little or no attention (let alone funding), because they require ‘dirty work’, which does not match up with any one of the 3P’s and is a hard sell. For example, social research questions that are basic research, research questions that are uncomfortable, or research questions that would require developing at the same time an (often genuinely interdisciplinary) line of inquiry and simultaneously new methodologies, revealing how insufficient some of the existing methods are to ask some of the harder questions, or, worse, that there even cannot be any seriously sufficient methods, because some things just can’t be measured,…. . The toughest and yet ‘shooting your career in the foot’ thing one can say is: ‘Look, there is this major issue, and we really know jack-shit about it.’ It’s a no-no to propose research like that – and not only for the quite illustrious use of expletive -, but it’s actually the research we’d need to do. Respectively, I have come to call this kind of ‘getting your hands dirty research’ blue collar scholarship (Blue sCollar, if you prefer), and continue to critique and criticize the prevailing culture of entitled, privileged White Collar scholarship. There are, of course, also (intersectional) issues of class, ethnicity, gender, race, (dis)abelism, etc. included in this notion, which all deserve to be lifted and acknowledged, but for the moment, I can only work with a focus on the one’s I understand best (given that I am a male, white, German, transatlantic scholar with a lower class background, i.e. first in my family to even be eligible for higher education, let alone obtaining a PhD), which are the global mechanisms of White Collar Scholarship and the forms in which they work the ‘class’-differences.
Let me say one thing about the ‘schizophrenic’ issue of social capital and academic prestige: Without profiting from it myself, I do represent a form of ‘prestige coin’ for the German and European Research Area domestically (here, look, one can get a PhD without academic parents) and abroad (my CV, I am told, looks prolific), including the schools I am affiliated with, however loosely. Some time ago, a representative of an institution I enjoyed a ‘contingent affiliation’ with, introduced me – and later explained to me that that this was being said in all seriousness – to an audience as ‘one of the school’s luminaries’. Of course, I would argue, if you are all serious, then let’s change the type of affiliation I have with you into an actual job, eh? Let me be precise here about a misconception my US friends have about the situation of German academia: No, it’s not better, we have our contingent appointments just the same, career paths that are just as shitty and, at times, even worse because there are more ‘career cul-de-sacs’, often to do with age; not to mention the steep institutionalized hierarchies which make assistant professors into servants of full professors, and I could go on and on. The sole thing we do have going for academicians is that we have an actual health care system in Germany (though, like many other smart things we used to have, we will be taking that down as well, piece by piece, wait for it). So, yeah, having an appendectomy or a colonoscopy will not ruin my family as it will yours, my US American friends, but the persistent anxiety, depression, existential angst, and I am pretty sure and let’s be serious here, lots of under-employed knowledge workers carry their own suicide fantasies, these issues are all the same on both sides of the Atlantic. But hey, there’s one other big difference, you are right: At least no concealed guns in a German class-room, where I can still teach controversial issues without having to be afraid some angry white boy will shoot me in the face for it.
Being contingently affiliated makes it hard to receive research funding: Being an adjunct at a minor league college versus being an associate professor at a major research university means that the prior has little chance of receiving funding, often enough they cannot even apply, whereas the latter’s chances are comparatively fairly good. Similarly, think about something as simple and supposedly small-sum as travel funding, when going to a conference. Supposedly small-sum, because for someone with a full-time job that doesn’t count in ‘months of health insurance payments’ (and even if I can receive health care in ways US Americans can’t, I still have to pay for it, and that’s still how I count any costs in ‘health insurance months’). Some conferences, kindly, offer registrations fee rates for un-/underemployed participants, although some don’t and, interestingly, they don’t like to be questioner about reasons – believe me, I tried, often citing that as a member of the parent organization, I could expect some transparency about the cost structure. But when it comes to applying for travel funding – and travel we must, because presenting your work and networking are the only ways of ‘un-contingency-fying’ your academic career – with funders, one can again count on the fact that a funding institution is likely a Matthew shower. Most likely, funding is given to people who are at high maintenance universities, i.e. those who already allot some travel funds to their faculty (and often graduate students, too – helloooo, facebook friends who regularly complain how they used up their travel funding before summer and can’t go to some expensive conference in Asia, which would have been so much fun and how horrible of their Ivy League school not to allow them more travel funding for professional development), not to applicants who actually need financial help, for: ‘How dare they?’ – yes, funding is a reward for being (already) ‘awesome’ and part of the ‘awesomeness of a prestigious elite’. But really, think about it, it makes sense on the part of the funders: They need to show to the politicians, tax-payers, and other stakeholders, that the money they are in charge of, is given to people who go places. And how can you guarantee that people go places? By choosing people who already are at places. So, they don’t give to people who are in ‘no-places’. Of course, there have to be a few poster boys and poster girls to deflect criticism, but even these are, often enough, already somehow and strangely ‘in the game’ – no, I won’t give examples here, because that’s equally unfair to them, but chat me up, should you run into me and I will tell you all about supposed ‘rags to academic riches’ stories where it turns out that these peoples’ daddies or mummies or uncles were famous professors and that their academic advisors were good pals with their folks back in the day.
Now, in many ways, I could just say, why give a shit. But I don’t say that, because we all who are not Matthew Showered, still try for funding, we have to – even knowing how small the chances are, but we do believe in our research, in the importance of the difference it could make, and because ‘we want to believe’ that at least every now and then a worthwhile project can get a win, too, not only a ‘career-trajectory observant one’. And there is this one issue for us Blue sCollars that concerns me, and that is that these funders ask us to burn a lot of our social capital in the process of applying for funding. I use the word ‘social capital’ a bit freely and unspecifically here for a sociologist, but it will become apparent what I mean.
Recently, I applied for travel funding to a large conference where I am presenting a paper as well as having organized an entire mini-conference with 9 panels, several of which I am also supposed to preside over – of course, the mini-conference was on Decoloniality and involved aspects of the Global South, and my own paper was critical of the Global Northern economies of relevance and precarity (how dare I, that’s so not what I should be doing). Did I get funding? No. And normally, I’d be a bit disappointed and that’d be it. But there was something else in the process, and that’s something I find increasingly typical in these affairs, which I find worthy of some hefty criticism, precisely because it displays one of the sources of the inequalities that make the Matthew shower so unfair and perpetually so: I was asked to deploy some of my social capital in order to even be considered eligible for the travel funding, and I had to spend it needlessly. After being accepted into the conference program, I sent the funding organization a copy of the program since, by their own rules, all that is required is an official receipt of acceptance (what’s more official than being on the program?) and only in certain cases a personal letter of invitation (Mind that if you are receiving that funding, you will also be reimbursed only months after the event itself, no one cares if you can afford to travel otherwise in the first place, duh; and you have to give proof afterwards that you actually attended the meeting – had I gotten it, I would have been tempted to include pictures). Now, attending a large academic association’s conference, even as organizer of a small sub-conference, does not normally mean that someone will just write you a personal invitation for laughs – that should be common sense, even for someone working for an official semi-governmentous funding organization. However, that personal invite was what I was told is required of me. So, I headed out (electronically) to ask for some personal favors of people I knew only by mediation through other friends (and that already puts me in a privileged position of sorts, I have worked hard to have some friends who know people who could help here). And, by kindness of strangers, I got my personal letter of invitation – at this point, I should also mention, one of the speakers for the mini-conference already bowed out after he did not receive funding from, I was given to understand, the same organization, which meant I had to ask for program changes (not the last, for similar reasons each time, lack of funding) to be made from the same people who kindly provided me the letter. You see where this is going and how not receiving the funding is then increasing the value of the social capital I burned with these very kind people. And that is one of the many aspects we often do not talk about in the ‘economy of third party funding’, that there are several forms of social capital at stake, and that the social capital of Blue sCollar knowledge and cultural workers gets burned more often and with more severe consequences than for the already privileged White Collar academicians. Let alone that, to begin with, we often have to work harder and in far more fields and contexts to make a living and keep an open profile (to apply for a variety of positions), only to be told, that it makes us a harder ‘sell’ on the job and funding market because either we seem ‘unfocused’/’undedicated’ or we ‘scare’ reviewers/committee members because we can do so many many things – well, we are ‘luminaries’, after all. And once again, if this was just about this instance or me alone, perhaps I’d keep my big mouth shut. But it isn’t. I hear this same shitty story from other people in different contexts. Some research funders ask very specific details about ‘research populations and where to find them’. While they will keep the information certainly confidential for they surely know what they are doing, since most of them ask you to have a elaborate ‘data management plans’ appended to your grant proposals that cover everyone’s ass legally (but probably yours). But here’s the issue, you have to find, groom, and maintain a research population and its gatekeepers. How is that supposed to work, if the decision on a grant takes up half a year or more (longer if you have to revise and resubmit, which for some funders is now the usual procedure as everyone knows that with some ‘you never get funding before the second round and if, only in the third, really, but never after’)? If your chances of getting the grant are small? If you have to try different funders (and aren’t even allowed to submit simultaneously to several)? The point is, you can only seriously groom a research population if you don’t have to depend on the funding to do the research. So, anyone who already has a well-paying job at a good research university is already enjoying an advantage over anyone who hasn’t, because they can just count on the fact that they will do their research, no matter what – funding for them is rather a matter of scale not of ‘if’. It’s also easier to work on a White Collar issue with a White Collar access: So an Ivy Leaguer (Not to be misunderstood: not all Ivy Leaguers are White Collared academicians, not all White Collared academicians work at an Ivy League school; it is actually quite surprising that one can find the White Collar mindset in so many odd places, and often precisely with people who by any right shouldn’t support it) who studies social inequality, using a social welfare program run by a church affiliated with a charity funded by an alumni of another Ivy League school or a program supported by the government and represented by an official with academic credentials, will have an easier time gaining and maintaining access, than a someone currently working at a community college, who is trying to recruit random people in a poor neighborhood to ‘tell it like it is’. Of course, these examples are a bit simplified, but they flesh out the contrast well enough, I think, and they are not too far from real conversations I had. Not too long ago, I approached a person who does an interesting and effective (but very Blue Collared) project combining social developmental work with martial arts training. His response to my approach was, that he would love to have research done around the project, but would only consider allowing me to mention his name once the research funding was already granted, since he already gave his name several times to other researchers for the funding process (none of them White Collar academics, from what I understood between the lines), and no one ever got the funding. This is precisely my point, since with this very involved, energetic project, a lot of social capital has already been burned: In order to apply for funding, his organization would need to be named as a research site with a major funder, something he is no longer willing to do. in the same way, I could ask: How many times will people do people favors in writing letters of invitation, recommendation, and so on? With regard to letters of recommendation, I have repeatedly stated that these are a means of maintaining the current inequalities in higher education in the US: If you are not already at a highly recognized, and thus expensive university (many of which often aren’t as good as they pretend to be, by the way), you will have to be on the job market very aggressively, meaning a lot of applications with a very low chance of success and a lot of letters of reference/recommendation (by writers the more prestigious – and thus busy and disinclined – the better) that need to be written and send off. Yup, social capital at work.
Regardless, whether it is about the decision who will be hired for a job (when often the short list is already clear before the actual process starts) or how a teensy bit of travel funding is decided, we applicants are always told that ‘decisions can’t be explained to us’ for x,y,z, reason. However, as applicants, we are asked to be transparent and to help make sure that the funders and their officers can do their jobs in ways so that they can be considered accountable; only, we applicants have to burn our social capital for it, and if we are Blue sCollared knowledge and cultural workers, the value of social capital we have to burn in order to do so weighs heavier than it does on privileged White Collared academicians who already have higher chances to score the jobs and grants, because they are already under the Matthew shower.
At the end of my day, maybe it is because I am luminary, that I shine and burn so hot and so bright, that I cannot but burn all my social capital because of it.