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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, March 02, 2009

When “Bad” is Right

Posted by Marc Bousquet on 03/02/09 at 08:07 PM

Crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com

If modern man’s producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, why then, in the United States to-day, are there fifteen million people who are not properly sheltered and properly fed? Why then, in the United States to-day, are there three million child laborers? It is a true indictment. The capitalist class has mismanaged. In face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave-man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged, that you have mismanaged, my masters, that you have criminally and selfishly mismanaged. --Jack London, The Iron Heel (1908)

Lately I’ve been fooling around with the hypothesis that there’s a growing split in the professional-managerial class.

On the one hand, there’s a strong movement to proletarianize professionals, conspicuously college faculty, but also physicians, lawyers and accountants. For more, read AAUP General Secretary Gary Rhoades on the concept of “managed professionalism.”

In this vein, “professionalism” is today more of an ideology than a lifeway. As an ideology useful to one’s employers, for instance, professionalism as devotion to one’s clients, the public good, and the culture of one’s field is clearly a vector for the super-exploitation of all kinds of other workers, from retail sales to schoolteachers.

Like professionals, millions of service-economy and clerical workers are now expected to donate hours of work off the clock, donating time to email and other employer-related communication, engaging in unpaid training and “keeping up,” etc. Throughout the economy, workers are urged to give freely of themselves--to serve--in exchange for psychic returns. All of this “acting professional,” however, doesn’t come with what used to be a professional’s paycheck.

On the other hand, management is increasingly professionalized, via the worldwide triumph of the business curriculum--the first true global monoculture, with the keywords and master concepts (excellence, quality, change, accountability, learning organization, eg.) framed by the “great authors” of our time: W. Edwards Deming, Peter Senge, etc.  And yeah, the managers still get a professional’s paycheck and more. They get paid in close relation to their hypocrisy: the better they play “Ya Gotta Serve Somebody” and extract donated work-time from everyone else, the more dough they whack down in their own “pay for performance.”

(If I were writing a grant to study the patterns of Ritalin abuse on college campuses, I’d actually be very curious to see whether it’s higher in undergraduates self-identifying as pre-professional versus those with a business major.)

Anyway. One way of looking at certain trends in the mass culture of the professional managerial class (yeah, with 900 channels and a global audience, you can have multiple mass cultures) is in reaction to the proletarianization of the white collar worker, and the tension between the residual culture of professionals, the dominant culture of management, and the related management-engineered faux-professional cultures of other workers.

The recent “Retreat to Move Forward” episode of 30 Rock once again lampooning GE managment’s “Six Sigma” culture captures this neatly, but really the whole premise of the series is the running war between the workplace culture of entertainment professionals and the junk culture that GE management is trying to impose on them. The episode’s true-enough version of the six pillars of Sigma: “Teamwork, insight, brutality, male enhancement, handshakefullness, and play hard.” (It falls into the not-really-a-joke category, though, when you think about how your university president got the job.)

AMC, the channel that butchers American Movie Classics to the standards of the 400 Club, has somehow tapped into this structure of feeling with two hit series. For viewers of, ahem, a certain age, it offers Mad Men, which radiates nostalgia for comfortable professionalism.  For the rest of us it presents the highly-anticipated second season of Breaking Bad, premiering Sunday, March 8. (Missed season 1? Set your Tivo for a re-run of all seven episodes on Friday, March 6.)

The premise of BB is the murderous logic of putting profit-seeking dolts in charge of social goods, like health care and education (or fighting wars, or food security, for that matter).  When diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, the scales fall from the eyes of high-school chemistry teacher Walter White, a role for which Bryan Cranston deservedly won an Emmy. 

He puts the energy he formerly dedicated to the idealistic service of others into providing security for his family. He becomes a manager, taking over a former student’s small-time meth business, re-structuring the operation to maximize profits. (And before you complain about it exploiting the scourge of methamphetamine to capture the crisis of the PMC, consider that Ritalin and meth are close chemical cognates, frequently taken for similar purposes.)

White’s turn into ruthlessness--he abruptly “breaks bad"--resolving overnight to become the exploiter rather than the exploited, is what separates the show from Showtime’s Weeds, which features a soccer mom dealing pot to keep up her sense of entitlement.

BB is more like the Sopranos, where half-smart gangsters in McMansions allegorize the organized criminals actually running the country, or The Wire, where the actually-existing thuggery of management theory in public service is continuously thematized. 

All three of these shows repudiate the soggy liberalism and nostalgia of Weeds or Mad Men. They feature what to me is a welcome populist strain of literary naturalism and proletarian sensibility, a hint that we might be returning to an awareness of Jack London’s sense of the eat or be eaten ferocity of the class war from above on the rest of us.  I hope so, anyway.

At the dinner party where London’s hero calls the capitalist class on their mismanagement of the vast productive powers at our disposal, they finally reveal the inner Dick Cheney:

“We have no words to waste on you.... We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain.”

If your only experience of Jack London is Call of the Wild and White Fang, do yourself a favor and read The Iron Heel or The Abyss. 

I always ask my students to consider the question London poses in the epigraph: with the technological resources to feed, clothe and provide health care for everyone, why don’t we?

With what used to be called “labor-saving devices,” why do we all work so hard?

Still damned good questions a century later.

Even if, like Marx himself, you’re inclined to give capitalism credit for innovation, it’s hard at the present moment not to grant London’s point: the capitalist class and their generously-paid servants have spectacularly, gloriously, world-historically mismanaged the powers they helped to unleash. The pursuit of profit isn’t a big part of most areas of most people’s lives, and those areas have generally been degraded, not enhanced, by the brutal, forced introduction of the profit motive.

Future global humanity may or may not find a role for those who actually enjoy spending their one trip on this planet compulsively rooting around after spare change to enlarge the money mountain. 

And there are probably circumstances where we can make good use of anti-social jerks with unusually acquisitive and unusually competitive natures--just as one can find a dog’s ferocity occasionally useful.  But I think we might agree to keep these folks on a much shorter leash. 

One way of doing that is to take professionalism back from the managers--to create a world in which Walter White’s idealistic service of others is rewarded with the modest things he expects, like health care. 


Comments

Outstanding. Absolutely outstanding. I would suggest editing it a little to improve readability, but you’re bulls-eye here.

By on 03/03/09 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As above.

Colleagues and I have been talking a lot lately about the way that an inherited and/or cultivated sense of professionalism sees us (continuing and sessional academics) performing so many professional tasks (i.e. labouring) either for free or for bargain-basement rates: e.g. peer-reviewing of journal articles, examination of Honours, Masters and PhD theses, membership journal editorial boards, rewriting of course materials outside scheduled course revision times, etc..

At a time when continuing appointment or tenure was standard, this labour could be understood as simply part of what a working academic was paid for. But they also have their “professional” value, in the sense that you would be seen (and would likely see yourself) as something less than a proper academic if you did not perform these tasks.

We are now in industrial environment in which the professional value of such activities remains, but the fact of continuing full-time employment is all but gone. Of course, if you want to have any hope of ‘earning’ or one of the few stable, fairly-paid positions still available, you need to demonstrate your professional credentials, to show yourself worthy of a professional appointment. And so sessional academics (hired largely for their teaching labour, and not for their coordination, curriculum development or research work) are forced to work for free, doing the things that a “professional” academic is expected to do—not because they are being employed as a professional academic but rather in the hope that one day they may be so employed.

Could anyone imagine a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant who would work under those conditions?

By on 03/03/09 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe I’m missing something.  Not to dispute the points in original post, but in the US at least almost all peer-reviewing of articles and reading of dissertations is done by the tenured or tenure track faculty.  You’re not asked to be on an editorial board unless you are pretty well established professionally already, and you can’t even be on a dissertation unless you are graduate faculty (a category not including adjuncts, usually).  Nobody moves into the tenure track through ancillary activities like peer-reviewing articles, so it would not be advisable to waste time on that just to seem more professional. I’ve never looked at a job candidate’s cv and been impressed by how many articles they had reviewed for journals.  The people who have done a truly impressive amount of that kind of thing have also published a ton as well, so you hardly even notice the service to the profession they have performed as a separate category.

By on 03/04/09 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In *The Critique of Everyday Life*, Henri Lefebvre talks about something very similar. London’s argument anticipates what Lefebvre says 50 years later: that everyday life lags behind what is possible, that the nature of capitalism and its course of development continues to widen that gap.

By on 03/04/09 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

in the US at least almost all peer-reviewing of articles and reading of dissertations is done by the tenured or tenure track faculty

That perhaps goes to suggest that conditions in Australia are worse than in the US.

I imagine that they’re not radically different, but rather that the apparent distinction between tenured/tenure-track and sessional obscures the reality of the range and variety of employment contracts. In Australia at least, such contracts range from sessional/casual teaching (X hours per work tutoring and marking, which finishes as soon as the teaching semester ends), through fractional or part-time fixed term contracts (say, 0.5 appointment for 6 or 11 months) and full-time fixed term (1-3 years) positions, and to continuing employment (kind of like tenured, but not quite as interminable).

In Australia, that last mode of employment—certainly at entry level within the humanities—has all but disappeared. I’m not 100% on the career structures and levels of appointment in the US, but in Australia we have 5 levels, A through E: Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and Professor. The first is largely used for short-term fractional contracts to employ someone to run (i.e. coordinate, lecture in, and often tutor in) a unit of study in a department that can’t cover it with its continuing academic staff. Level B is nowadays considered the “entry level” position, because Level A is virtually never advertised as continuing. At level B, you need to have a PhD and you would be expected to conduct research, publish papers, etc. as well as coordinate units, teach, sit in committees, etc.

Of course, universities would prefer to appoint people with “demonstrated success” in research and publishing, and so anyone looking for a future in academic work will either have to be content with a future of overloading on sessional teaching and fractional appointments (so that they earn enough during a teaching semester to cover them for the non-teaching periods; no annual leave provisions in 6-11 month contracts) or, if they want to have any shot at an entry level position, have to take on all that work and conduct independent (and unpaid) research, write articles, apply for research funding grants*, etc. And, while no one would expect you to, say, sit on an editorial board, or supervise a research student, or whatever, all of these things are recognised as measures of your “research esteem”, count as “demonstrated success” in research and thus make you more employable.

Things are made worse by the fact that the university funding system in Australia encourages universities to enrol as many PhD students as they can, such that there are up to 1000 new PhDs graduating each year (in a country that has less than 40 universities). At the same time, the sector has been going through a massive “rationalisation” phase over the last decade and a half, such that the vast majority of advertised positions (of which there are not many) are replacement rather than new positions. And on top of that, the trend is to advertise Level Bs as fixed term (2-3 years) rather than as continuing. You can be “established” as a professional academic—sitting on editorial boards, in the middle of research supervision, working with others on grant applications—and then suddenly find yourself without any full-time employment, because the contract wasn’t renewed and there were no other positions being advertised. (Let’s not even broach the issue of what you are to do if family or other personal reasons demand you relocate to a city or state other than the one in which your current position is located.)

So the job “market” is incredibly competitive: your choices are to do massive amounts of work for free in the hope that it will eventually secure you a continuing position; embrace a future of variable, unreliable sessional and short-term employment, in which you work 80 hour weeks during semesters to ensure you can afford to live for the other 26 weeks of the year; or leave the sector, having spend 4 or more years attaining a qualification (at the government’s and the universities’ zealous encouragement) which is largely unvalued outside the university sector and a few limited non-university research organisations.

*There’s a whole other, insane story to the absurdities of research funding, but I’ll save that for another time.

By on 03/04/09 at 09:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Breaking Bad seems as much or more like parts of White Fang and Call of the Wild as The Iron Heel. While Breaking Bad doesn’t lack for some of the quality aspects you note, it stereotypes minorities, does it not? – today in 2009 – and it scarcely shows the horrific effects of methamphetamine (any more of course than the fallout of Ritalin). Breaking Bad is variously artful and compelling, but the most fundamental problem as art and artifact is the show’s function as escapist and emaciated tale. Escapist in obvious ways and emaciated in that, well, it’s full of escapism rather then much social criticism through drama or otherwise, even much that is new. I’m not saying don’t watch, I’m saying it plays like a sort of domestic crime spree tale. It’s not that it’s not gripping. But how is it consistently or even more than meagerly illuminating? Or even provocative, let alone affirming? And why would we expect it to be given its creation/production? The universities have not stepped into the breach of emaciated fiction dramas, though one would think by most of their mission statements they ought to.

Some of this ground was covered previously at the Valve here: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/you_know_i_blame_the_system_the_wire_barrack_obama_and_omar_for_president/#comments

“One way of doing that is to take professionalism back from the managers--to create a world in which Walter White’s idealistic service of others is rewarded with the modest things he expects, like health care.”

Sure, that’s a drama worth imagination and action both.

By Tony Christini on 03/09/09 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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