On the writing of talks

This semester, I am giving several talks each over the devil and creepiness, and I’m finding the experience of both very different. On the devil front, I’m also in the early stages of drafting the book itself, so the talks provide a good opportunity to try out material and experiment — in short, to present the argument of the chapter I’ve been working on and venture a little further. In the process, I’ve become more confident in the shape of my argument as a whole, and I think I’ve also hit upon something that could work as a framing for the introduction. Overall: very helpful.

Creepiness is paradoxically more challenging, precisely because I’ve already written a whole book on the topic. The project feels “done,” and I’m still figuring out the best way to open the thing back up and say something new (and, for practical reasons, something that doesn’t require deploying the full Freudian apparatus from the book). My initial attempt at Wayne State was very well-received and generated some good questions, but I worried about whether it really fell together into a coherent argument. Perhaps I should trust my audience and not stress out about it.

This is also a new experience for me in that I have the opportunity to give essentially the same talk in multiple locations. While I find that I need to do something at least partly new or exploratory when I’m writing the talks, so far I’m quite content with delivering the same material. The performance side of it becomes smoother with practice, and I find that I can improvise more fluently.

What about you, dear readers? How do you relate your speaking opportunities to your work? Do you have the same struggle with presenting over finished works vs. works in progress?

The case for faculty self-governance

As Gerry Canavan has eloquently pointed out, the perpetual crisis mentality of higher ed is an indication that the very large and expensive management class that has taken over universities in recent decades is an utter failure. Well-managed universities should not need significant “flexibility” in their course offerings semester to semester, for example, nor should they be blindsided by demographic trends that were easily predictable decades ahead of time. Gerry notes, of course, that the apparent “failure” of the autonomous administration class actually reflects a success on another level: they want to destroy the traditional university, and using constant crises to force budget cuts is a great way to destroy anything.

The exact form this destruction took was perhaps not predestined, but in retrospect, it was inevitable that putting people without a deep investment in academia into administrative positions would lead to the undermining of traditional academic institutions (such as tenure, etc.). This tendency became exacerbated once administrators began jumping from campus to campus as a routine part of their career path. At that point, your focus is on building the resume to get the next better position, not on the future of your current institution.

It doesn’t require any individual to be a bad person — it’s a structural problem of incentives. And the only way to align incentives appropriately is faculty self-governance. I’m in favor of a very strong system of self-governance, where all academic administrators are appointed out of the regular tenured faculty of the university with limited, renewable terms.

In my ideal system, literally no university would ever do an outside search for dean or provost, ever, and there would be a minimum time served requirement before any new faculty hires could do administrative tasks. This would ensure that all administrators are absolutely tied to the future of their current institution and would be anticipating rejoining the regular faculty in the future. If they screwed over their colleagues, they would have to live among them as a peer for decades to come.

This system would also presumably inculcate broader loyalty to academia as such, pushing against the destruction of the teaching profession via adjunctification, etc., etc. But even if it didn’t have such wide-ranging effects, it would at least keep administrators from actively destroying their own institutions, simply out of self-interest.

Now I know that self-governed faculties are to blame for the rise of the current situation. They chose their short-term interests over the long-term interests of the profession, and we’re all paying the price. The same could be said about labor unions more generally — they sold out and began looking solely inward, allowing a two-tiered system of labor to emerge. But just as something like a union is the only conceivable way to increase workers’ collective bargaining power, so also is something like faculty governance the only way to preserve academia as an autonomous, self-reproducing institution. The only alternative is to hand all the power over to the bosses, and the bosses as a class — no matter how nice or kind-spirited an individual boss might be — only care about enriching themselves and destroying anything that could challenge their power.

New issue of Crisis and Critique

A new issue of Crisis and Critique is out, featuring articles by Zizek, Roland Boer, Michael Löwy, Catherine Tomas, and me.

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The scourge of political correctness on campus

Noted online leftist Freddie deBoer has seen some shit. No lie. And though he once weirdly castigated me for being paralyzed by political correctness — indeed, for being exemplary of the self-hating white man terrified of offending anyone — it seems, as Angus Johnston points out, that our dear Freddie is so paralyzed himself that he can’t bring himself to intervene when college kids use p.c. rhetoric as a weapon against each other. What should he have done in those cases? I don’t know in detail, since I was thankfully spared the profound trauma of witnessing those horrific events, but I think the baseline is, you know, something. Something in keeping with his role as a teacher and mentor of young people.

I’ve spent a lot of time with college-age kids in my day, and I too have seen them be mean to each other. When I was in college, I was mean to people and had others be mean to me as well. That’s because college is a really intense period in most people’s lives. In college, you’re trying to stake out your own identity while navigating complex social situations in a setting that is most likely much more diverse than you’ve experienced in the past. The whole process is pretty stressful, especially when we note that most college campuses are also extremely competitive environments — academically, socially, etc. In that context, it should not be surprising that some individuals will reach for any weapon at hand to police boundaries and show themselves to be better or more in the know than someone else. “Politically correct” rhetoric unfortunately fits the bill sometimes, but so do traditional gender expectations or class markers — indeed, I would venture to guess that the latter two are resorted to much more frequently at almost every college in the world.

If we can still embrace leftist politics despite the Gulags, I daresay we can still embrace the concerns behind what is pejoratively called “political correctness” despite the fact that college kids sometimes express their jerkiness and insecurity through the misapplication of half-digested “politically correct” rhetoric. I would even go so far as to say that if we’re concerned about people being turned off of leftist politics by such abuse, we should actually step up and intervene in the (likely rare!) cases when we see such abuse getting out of hand.

Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?

I want to thank Daniel for offering a reply post. If only we had time for a second round of discussion where we all referred to the exact same source material, but alas. -MWW

UPDATE: Seth Ackerman generously agreed to translate Daniel’s reply. The translation is provided above the original. -MWW

Daniel Zamora is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Later in 2015, a translation of Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale will appear in English. Two recent discussions by Zamora on Foucault and Neoliberalism can be found at Jacobin.

First I would like to thank the four contributors and AUFS for devoting this series to the theme of Foucault and neoliberalism. All the interventions are highly stimulating and take us to the heart of a debate of great current moment. Obviously I am not able to undertake a general discussion of all the interventions and all the central questions they pose. But I am sure that the debate will not end here, that it will continue when the book is published in English. However, I would like to revisit the reasoning behind my argument, and why I do not think that it is a problem of interpreting Foucault’s words.

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Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist

Thomas Nail is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) and The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, forthcoming). His publications can be downloaded at http://du.academia.edu/thomasnail

The Debate: So far the debate over Foucault’s relationship to neoliberalism is split between two positions. On one side there are those (Daniel Zamora, François Ewald, Michael Behrent, and others) who argue that Foucault’s “sympathy” for neoliberalism marks his later work as at least partially “compatible” with neoliberalism. On the other side many more (Stuart Elden, Peter Gratton, Steven Maynard, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and others) argue that although “Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with [neoliberal] arguments, he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on.” Furthermore, given Foucault’s commitment to Leftist groups like Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons, GIP and others, the argument goes, Foucault could not have been a neoliberal.

But perhaps this debate has been made unnecessarily polemic. The question of the debate is not, “was Foucault a neoliberal or not?”. As far as I can tell, no one is explicitly arguing that he was, only that he shared “some sympathies” with neoliberal theory: some anti-statism, some anti-authoritarian values, and so on. Is it not possible to share some points of interest or critique with a position that one does not fully accept? Thus, the more interesting question I think we should be asking is, “what commonalities or shared interests might exist between Foucault’s political thought and certain neoliberal ideas, and to what degree?”

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Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us?

Johanna Oksala is currently Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2012-2017) in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, USA (2013-2015). Oksala is the author of Foucault on Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), How to Read Foucault (London: Granta Books, 2007), Foucault, Politics, and Violence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012), and Political Philosophy: All That Matters (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013).

Daniel Zamora’s recent interview in Jacobin titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?” has sparked another discussion on Foucault’s alleged endorsement of neoliberalism. For those of us who did not know Foucault personally, the evidence for such a claim can only be found in his writings. I, for myself, have not found any such evidence yet. Zamora’s revelations that Foucault met with Lionel Stoléru several times seem inconclusive at best.

More importantly, this debate itself seems misguided to me. Whether Foucault had some secret sympathies for neoliberalism might obviously be of some biographical or historical interest, but theoretically the answer to this question would only be relevant if it disqualified his thought as a useful toolbox for the academic left today. Zamora’s aim seems to be to show that this is in fact the case. In a follow-up article to the initial interview he claims that Foucault was not asking the “right questions” due to his neoliberal leanings, and that his thought has therefore contributed to the disorientation of the left and to the dismantling of the welfare state.

In this short response I want to suggest that it is Zamora, and to some extent us too, as participants to this debate, who are not asking the right questions. We should not be asking whether we can criticize Foucault, nor should we be asking whether he endorsed neoliberalism. The answer to the first of these questions is an obvious yes: we have criticized him repeatedly and we should continue to do so. And when the answer to the second question is supposed to determine the theoretical and political relevance of his thought today, we are ultimately engaging in biographical speculation and ad hominem reasoning, the problems of which I do not need to point out here. Read the rest of this entry »

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