“We often experience and imagine the employment relation
— like the marriage relation—not as a social institution
but as a unique relationship.”
—Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work
Summer, for many whose lives are organized by U.S. universities, is the season of disavowal. If you work in academia, you don’t get summers off: For the great majority of today’s academic workers—graduate students and those off the tenure stream—it’s a two-to-three-month period when academic wages threaten to disappear into the ether, to be replaced or combined with (more) debt, another teaching scramble, another hustle. Even for many of the privileged, summer makes itself felt not as reprieve but as a torrent of anxiety, as a scramble to submit work in time for reviews, as a compulsion to dispense with much-needed recovery time so as to recommence long-overdue work, as the creeping onset of the mental-health consequences of work that feels distant, as confrontation-by-individualization with the direct consequences of institutional exploitation.
Those of us on the tenure stream, whose salaries, job security, and leave eligibility are bolstered by the precarious majority, are organized by the disavowed summer. Though we receive checks during all 12 months, the majority of the 11,000-ish tenure-stream faculty employed by my institution are paid at a rate based on the idea that they only work for 9. (Faculty-administrator hybrids, paid on a 12-month scale, are the small minority made whole in this labor arrangement.) And yet here I am, amid this break which is not one, basking in the skyscraper shadow cast by all the writing and research I’ve failed to do. What appears as vacation, in a moment of punitive time-to-degree compression, casualization, and skyrocketing publication expectations for graduate students and junior faculty, takes the form of the university’s disavowal of the very work it demands of its workers.
And still the virtue that academia refers to as “productivity” could not exist if not for summertime, where dispersal outside of the collective workspace and a relative reduction in teaching and service individualizes the injunction to be productive. “At long last, I now have the space to do my own work”—this is a statement made possible by an institution that imagines research and writing as the exterior to the service component of the job, as the source of individualized distinction. Teach 500 students in the span of a few terms? Thank you for your service. Write three articles in three months? Now we’re talking productivity. The ideology of research quietly pivots on a distinction between intellectual production (research/writing) and socio-institutional reproduction (teaching/service) that jealously guards the valor of research qua production, enshrining it as evidence of proper self-governance. The properly disciplined subject, in this regard, is the one with the social and institutional resources to navigate past the Scylla of leisure without drifting too much into the Charybdis of recovery time.
As an institutional space of disavowal, material effects accompany summer’s visitation upon the academic’s work. Across the profession, summer brings with it an overall net reduction in the hours spent working in and in commute to brick-and-mortar campuses. University administrators and governing boards have savvily learned to exploit the reduction in on-campus personnel to introduce policies that might otherwise be more directly opposed. But the reduced gravitational force of the campus also generates the time and space for other kinds of academic sociality to emerge free of particular institutional affiliations. Predictably, in recent years, social media has come to capture a remarkable number of those “free” hours. In summer, we might say, social media has come to informally replace the campus as the academic worksite. In this regard it provides a critical, if informal, locus of academic production, and of the reproduction of the relations of academic production. This informal economy sometimes competes with and sometimes complements other measures of academic productivity. As Jeffrey Williams puts it, under the reign of this manner of academic brand management, “You do not exist unless you fire up your personal publicity machine.”
This is especially the case for left-identified academia, where social media enables the cultivation and, in some cases, the curation, of publics and collectivities. I should qualify this, I guess. Of course: Brand management is not all that social-media practices amount to. But it would also be ridiculous to say that brand management is not an irreducible component of the turn to social media. For left academics in particular, social media enables consolidating political and professional identities, and yet doing so in a way that appears to be disaffiliated from particular institutions. Our tweets, we’re at pains to remind others, don’t necessarily reflect the positions of our employers. They are ours and ours alone. The boilerplate disclaimer distracts from the property claim that is its fellow traveler.
The will to branding makes of everyone an entrepreneur of the self. Occasionally, this entrepreneurialism finds itself meaningfully challenged by the claim that that our work is political, or by struggles to make it so. And sometimes, the earnest confidence that our scholarly output can, or must, or should, create political change is one of the most novel promotional mechanisms we have. The idea that “good” politics adds value to work speaks to how much the political has become a professional formation. But since the profession is a stratified one, the burdens and benefits of the political-professional convergence are distributed unstably and unevenly. For some, social media offers a platform of engagement and intervention that extends and enriches one’s already-secure employment status. For others, the objectified selfhood that appears on social media may translate into new forms of vulnerability or extend already-existing ones. Think here of Steven Salaita, who in the summer of 2014 was “un-hired” from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his public criticisms on Twitter of Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military campaign responsible for the death of thousands of Palestinians.
Salaita’s “un-hiring” effectively terminated his career in higher education. There is of course much more to say about this case, but for the moment let’s consider it a paradigmatic instance of neoliberal governance. The university, too, has a brand to manage, and with its increasing reliance on risk-management protocols, its summertime self is one preoccupied with strategy. The University of Illinois Board of Trustees rescinded a job already offered to Salaita. Salaita, in fact, had already resigned from a tenured position elsewhere to accept the offer. In the summer, that is, the Trustees found the opportunity to make a break where Salaita and his erstwhile colleagues in the UIUC Department of American Indian Studies had every right to expect continuity.
Salaita’s case has been rightly read as an instance of the Palestine exception to free speech and academic freedom. It is that and more. The campaign against Salaita proceeded to significant effect through the refusal of Salaita’s summertime self. It situated him as the overlord of a theoretical classroom, and in this abstract space, his public commentary on Twitter became evidence of his conduct at work. Pro-Israel students and donors, even those who would never appear in his classrooms, were positioned in this phantasmatic space as injured consumers of university resources. In an effort to deny Salaita a job, in other words, it was necessary to force the university to react to a fictive scenario in which Salaita, on social media, had already been at work.
No wonder, then, that the summertime self appears as a form of refuge. Even in its entrepreneurial inclinations it represents an effort to wrest the power to define the job away from an employer that, as Janet Jakobsen reminds us, is inevitably a church, a state, or a corporation. But in declaring itself independent from its own structural predications, the summertime self is beset on all sides by disavowal. It claims the political as evidence of autonomy and, if it is lucky, saves the receipts to submit later as evidence of productivity. To retain the capacity to depart for summertime with one’s job intact is, to reiterate, an increasingly rare privilege in the labor ecology of today’s academy. When summer marks that moment in the seemingly natural rhythms of academic life when I can, at long last, throw myself into my own work, the logical conclusion is that teaching and other forms of “service” belong to something other than the self.
Even in the absence of other pursuits, summer leads me to recognize my autonomy in my distance from the most immediate necessities of institutional reproduction, an autonomy typically concretized in the figure of the student. And perhaps it is that same autonomous appearance that enables me not to experience myself in the forms of hierarchy that would trouble my political identity. The summertime self is the enclosed self, a property strategically severed from that which might drag down its value. From this enclosure I am freed from the encumbrance of categories like “boss” or “manager” that might align my work itself with processes of subordination, or that might align me with the power that my politics would seek to contest.
The summertime self is nothing if not the effect of professional-managerial class struggle. But you’d be forgiven for disregarding this vintage—to do so would be on-brand.
In the idealized narrative of the summer, the realization of selfhood is achieved through the disappearance of the student as consumer.
One summer during graduate school, I began to work as a research assistant for a professor who worked at an institution thousands of miles away from mine. She liked the work I did for her and asked me to stay on during the academic year, eventually arranging to have me prepaid for labor that we’d agreed I would do for her down the line. The prepayment arrangement wasn’t a standard one. It was a result of the fact that she was about to leave her institution for another and needed to spend the money in her research account in order to avoid losing it. We’d had a decent working relationship thus far, and I was a great admirer of her work, which was canonical in feminist postcolonial studies. So while I was confused about her current project, which read like liberal hogwash to my uncredentialed eye, and while I didn’t particularly love her habit of scheduling phone meetings with me only to answer her phone, announce with a hint of annoyance that she was at the grocery store, and tell me to call her back in two hours, the fact was that I was verging on six figures in student loans. In order to make rent without loans, I needed this near-minimum-wage academic work to supplement my TA salary. Notwithstanding all this I felt rather fortunate: I had neediness and ambition in spades; here was an opportunity to use the former as a vehicle for the latter. By continuing to work hard, maybe I could build a meaningful relationship with an influential scholar in my field. In a tight job market, this might pay dividends.
Not long after I’d been paid, the professor disappeared and was out of touch for several months. This was mostly a problem because she’d left me without directions or a schedule for completing the work I’d agreed to do. It wasn’t until June that the professor resurfaced, and in true summertime fashion, she moved to simultaneously disavow and dissolve our working relationship. In an email she informed me that she had an “urgent” new task for the funds I’d been paid. She would therefore need me to mail her a check immediately. Having not understood that my effective role had shifted from low-wage worker to research-money-launderer-cum-ATM, I informed the professor regretfully that the money had long since been frittered away on various luxuries that belonged to the order of rent and food.
This revelation opened onto a half-year-long campaign of low-grade aggression in which the professor insisted first that I continue to work on an unspecified schedule as a research assistant on a murkily defined project of hers. My summer belonged to her. When I informed her that I’d need to decrease my hours once school returned to session, she continued her insistence that I pay her for those as-yet-unworked hours. The remuneration requests persisted through the Fall term until, in January, I relented. I took out another loan and sent off a check to the professor’s new address. She was in residence there for a prestigious fellowship. When I mentioned what happened to other professors, including my dissertation adviser, the response was a kind of surprise that rarely rose to the level of shock and certainly never verged upon outrage. Nothing about the response fed back to me a sense that what had happened to me was exceptional, nor was the fact that a senior feminist-of-color postcolonial scholar had done it. Whatever had happened between us was just that—between us and no one else. To be sure, fuckery of this sort made for good dish for the conference bar, and dish I did, because it was clear that there was nowhere else it belonged. This was not legitimate material for the unceasing train of workshops and panels in which tenure-stream faculty disingenuously dispense individualized solutions to graduate students navigating structural problems in the market and on the job. No: My and the professor’s relation, that is to say, had been privatized.
My colleagues and superiors in the profession were generally at a loss when describing the logic of this minor saga. It took talking to a union organizer friend to realize that mine was a rather straightforward, if dramatic, case of wage theft. The lack of a vocabulary to name this particular form of injustice stems from a profession ill at ease with regarding its interpersonal and intergenerational relations as work relations. My point is not to introduce what happened to me as some example of tragedy—far from it. My point is rather that the accumulation of nontragedies like mine is the stuff that makes up collective lifeworlds, the elementary matters of the ordinary. And perhaps that is what the responses to this extended instance of harmful behavior offered to me—a place in which to slot the narrative in my imagination. I already knew, from the stories of my colleagues and my mentors, that many had it much worse. This knowledge was useful: My story was notable without being exceptional. And in its usefulness, knowledge of this kind disciplined me for the profession I hoped to enter. Certainly I too have passed this toxic discipline on to others. Which is to say, enacted it.
To call this kind of discipline a code of silence would be to miss the mark. Wage theft is one thing. It is quite another to be able to expect to get away with it with your reputation as a radical scholar intact. Such conduct belongs to a range of abusive behaviors that derive not from what academics grudgingly tolerate but from what they hold dear. Hear me out: Part of the Enlightenment legacy of this profession consists in the idea that your moral standing in society is radically incommensurate with your capacity to tell the truth. In theory, this is a good thing: It means that the oppressed, the queer, the marginalized, the impoverished, the feminized, the racialized, are no less or more suited for truth telling than their socially advantaged counterparts. But in practice, this principle is often run in the opposite direction: The more of an unrepentant ass you are, the stronger the case for the truth-value of your utterances. To appear radically indifferent to the quality of your relations is interpreted as your having withdrawn so thoroughly from the production of goodness in the form of social capital that you must be entirely committed to truth; truth in its homeliest, unvarnished state; truth liberated from the pesky encumbrances of care, consideration, and custom. There’s an occupational commitment, that is to say, to the idea that the asshole intellectual is the intellectual in the purest form.
But what happens when that asshole intellectual—or one of that intellectual’s many accomplices—is your boss? Or your adviser? And what happens when that intellectual’s understanding of what it means to be an intellectual means that they don’t see themselves as your boss? Perhaps nontragedies like these stack up in the way they do because they remove from view those essential but inconvenient relationships that make our work possible.
To the extent that the summer brings with it an academic workplace that is increasingly virtual, the virtuality of social media itself takes on the character of a workplace. We plan and cowrite there, we develop our ideas there, we build relationships there, and it is there that, stashed in bags and pockets, our workplaces find new ways of finding us. In a workplace governed by peer review, reputation, letters of recommendation, etc., informal relations are work relations. In a workplace that occasionally hews to the idea that the formal is oppressively normative, the informal spaces—the conference bar, the comradely cadre—become celebrated spaces of resistant sociality. When we regard our corners of the academy as hard-won spaces of refuge, peopled predominantly by the queer, the nonwhite, the non-cismale, we don’t worry too much about reproducing the dynamics of that other informal network of white, male, heteronormative dominance—the old boys’ club. We’d prefer to have our rise through the ranks of academe branded narratively as the unlikely ascent of scrappy heretics rather than as the outcome of a minorly rejiggered patriarchal structure of inheritance.
And isn’t it pretty to think so? For better or worse, it’s become harder to sustain this fanciful notion in the wake of the Ronell affair, last year’s case study in summertime sociality. In the summer of 2018, a leaked letter of support revealed to many of us that famed post-structuralist theorist Avital Ronell was facing sexual-harassment charges. Addressed to New York University’s president and provost, the letter referred to a confidential investigation undertaken by the NYU Title IX office and referred to the investigation as one stemming from “malicious intention” that amounted to a “legal nightmare.”
The letter was signed by a group that included around 50 professors. And not your garden-variety professors. These motherfuckers came dripping with titles. Title titles. I’m talking rich-and/or-dead-white-folks-dropped-primitive-accumulation-level-wealth-to-graft-their-name-on-my-job-type titles. The kind of titles that can’t help but flex, like a microaggressive Lou Ferrigno, on that ass. Some of the signatories were well-known feminist and/or postcolonial scholars, including among them Manthia Diawara, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Judith Butler. (Butler, one of a very small minority of U.S.-based signees affiliated with a public institution, was no stranger to defending the property claims of other academics.) Though certainly for different reasons, the indignity that Ronell faced suffering—the possibility of moving into the summer without salary—is an indignity now faced regularly by a solid majority of academic workers as summer, or the end of a teaching term, approaches. Nowhere apprehensible in the letter, that reality was replaced by an old-boys’-club approach, if a nominally queerer, swarthier, and, uh, feminist-ier one.
The prospective loss that Ronell faced might be usefully contrasted with that of the former Ph.D. advisee Ronell had been found responsible for harassing and inappropriately touching. The former advisee, Nimrod Reitman, was finishing the academic year as an unwaged postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. Ronell’s punishment, in other words, looked like ordinary conditions for quite literally thousands of academic workers hired to teach on term contracts or in just-in-time arrangements. Treating the threat of dismissal that Ronell faced as an excessive form of punishment, the letter’s appeal to NYU officials politely implored them to respect NYU’s own property interest in the nontermination of Ronell’s employment. They euphemized this property interest in an appeal to “the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation” and the negative impact that Ronell’s termination could have on NYU’s own standing.
To hear Lisa Duggan tell it, the Ronell property flex worked. Apparently if your group is stacked with gratuitously titled white folks, the notoriously union-busting NYU will miraculously develop the willingness to bargain collectively with you. The NYU administration backed down from revoking Ronell’s tenure, opting instead to place Ronell on a year of unpaid leave. The story, however, took on a life of its own as summer 2018 crawled to a close. Likely due to its New York provenance, and, one might speculate, owing to the fact that press outlets of the highbrow variety share meaningful social overlap with at least one of the parties involved, the Ronell case garnered an unusual amount of attention from the mainstream press of the more highbrow variety. It generated two stories in the New York Times and pieces in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the German-language journal TUMULT, which was translated and reprinted on Salon.
Then there was the Bully Bloggers response. For the uninitiated: Bully Bloggers, now in its 10th year, has long offered an important site for interventions in academia, culture, and politics. Its party line consisted less in a specific mantra than in the seemingly untrammeled confidence that you could be in the university but not of it. With a core of contributors who often seemed to view irreverence as a good in itself, Bully Bloggers held out the promise that you could, from an academic position, have fun, have good politics, and maybe even be kinda cool all at the same time. If nothing else, its contributors seemed to believe that they were having fun and making space for more of the same. Just maybe, it implied, you could have your summertime self—the self that remained outside of the normative grind of the institution—all the time, without losing your career. You had nothing to lose, it seemed to propose, but your most normative and pious attachments. Widely read and circulated among the academic and academic-adjacent left, Bully Bloggers articulated a vision of public intellectualism confined neither by paywalls nor by the slow pace of double-blind-peer-review-governed academic scholarship. In the process, it made an important case without having to argue it explicitly: The vanguard of the academic left was queer, anti-racist, and feminist. And it knew how to make a joke.
Bully Bloggers initially developed its brand of critical discourse contemporaneously with the Great Recession, during the same time that tuition costs were ballooning, student debt was skyrocketing, and the first classes of Baby Boomer Ph.D.s were retiring from tenure-stream jobs. With a convenient economic alibi in hand, the increasingly robust ranks of academic administration were emboldened to accelerate a project in which they had been engaged for decades—the replacement of tenure-stream positions with low-wage, no-benefits, term- or yearlong casualized academic jobs, along with efforts to systematically dismantle efforts at graduate student unionization. The Bully Bloggers core, composed of tenure-stream academics (the most senior of whom were late Boomers), embarked on a project that could certainly be called edgy, but at a moment when edginess of scholarship was less and less a determinant of risk, because of the way that risk, as a factor in making a living in the academic world, was being downwardly redistributed in the direction of increasingly diverse undergraduates, graduate students, and newly minted Ph.D.s. The edginess of Bully Bloggers was closer to that assumed by, say, the practitioner of suburban BDSM, or the purchaser of a 45th-birthday Harley. Risky? OK, sure. But most likely scenarios point to you returning to a comfy home at night’s end.
With many of its core members being scholars of gender, sexuality, and power located in the elite stratum of the New York academic orbit, it was no surprise that Bully Bloggers would have much to say on the Ronell case. NYU Professor and Bully Blogger Lisa Duggan, still one of our most brilliant strategically inclined thinkers on sexuality and political economy, wrote a piece on Bully Bloggers that, in the speed, breadth, and impact of its circulation, demonstrated how far the Bully Bloggers brand had come. Shared extensively on Facebook and Twitter, Duggan’s post was also linked to and praised in the nonacademic world—namely, the New Yorker. Duggan’s piece, written in that mid-August moment when the reality principle rudely encroaches on the summertime self, offered a master class in that self’s strategies of preservation under duress. It solicited identification with the queer professor as under threat and aligned the mechanism of Title IX complaint entirely with the power of the institution itself. It was as if nearly everything “structural” about power consisted in that which makes the professor vulnerable rather than in what makes the professor possible. The queer professor, in other words, gets to claim suffering the negative consequences of neoliberalism without risking being a neoliberal herself.
Here we have a kind of queer exceptionalism, an exceptionalism of a particular class and generational character in a moment when generational differences map onto class differences. It is a queer exceptionalism that, I am willing to bet, does not accurately describe the reality of most queer scholars—especially those entering graduate school and the lower ranks of the profession these days. That is, extrapolating from prevailing trends in all academic work, queers too belong to that emerging but significant majority of scholars who cannot flex their reputations and enjoy none of the due-process rights that would entitle them to the kind of investigation Ronell experienced as a “legal nightmare.” (Ronell elsewhere described the investigation as having felt like “Guantánamo NYU.”) That our profession produces that kind of hierarchy scarcely shows up in Duggan’s discussion. The queer professor takes center stage as the object of the neoliberal machinations of #MeToo; the queer student filing the sexual-harassment charge disappears, only to rematerialize as a part of those neoliberal machinations themselves.
On Facebook and Twitter, Duggan and fellow Bully Blogger Jack Halberstam repeatedly denied that they were defending Ronell. By insisting on reading the Title IX charges as an instance of institutional complicity and a corporate-neoliberal cooptation of feminist antisubordination politics, they argued that they were pushing back against the misogynist will to punishment manifest in the level of scrutiny that this case was receiving. Suggesting that this case revealed a larger structure of the revanchist deployment of Title IX against queer faculty could thereby free us from the interpretive frames offered by the university (as the case of a bad individual) and the mainstream press (as an instance of feminist hypocrisy). For Duggan and Halberstam, the convergence of these frames was authorizing the public punishment of this queer woman professor.
I don’t think Duggan and Halberstam were wrong in seeing a reversal fantasy here. The Ronell case was one that, in the right hands, could be deployed as an alibi for the surveillance and disciplining of queer (and) women’s sexuality based on the idea that their ascendancy to positions of relative power was now, miraculously, enabling the abuse and oppression of men. Duggan, as a veteran of the feminist sex wars, has seen firsthand how sex panics driven by one high-profile story could lead to the absorption of these surveillance and disciplinary practices by dominant institutions. And she has seen, moreover, that that absorption could be partly enabled by feminists themselves.
But the seen-this-before sensibility that underwrote the Bully Bloggers response spoke to something more complicated than a metacritique of feminist strategy. It bore the imprint of some of the bloggers’ specifically generational apprehensions. It’s not a coincidence, in other words, that a queer (former) student’s claim to have been harmed by his queer (former) adviser’s conduct triggered a defensive response from the scholarly cadre in question. Complaints that millennial queers don’t appreciate how good they have it are usually matters reserved for polite company in conference bars. Halberstam is at least to be applauded for saying it publicly, decrying (in a piece published a few years before the Ronell affair) the alleged tendency of “younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s” to now claim to have been harmed by their queer elders. Anticipating Duggan’s claim that Reitman’s charge signified the forward march of neoliberal logics, Halberstam claims that younger people now deploy discourses of injury and harm that obscure “the violent sources of social inequity.”
Levity is the self-help strategy Halberstam prescribes (and attempts to model) in order to gird against litigiousness and state-institutional complicity. According to Halberstam, feminism, once racked by white-woman infighting, realized political progress and inclusiveness partly by “loosening up,” learning to laugh, and getting over itself. Feminists got their groove back by learning to externalize their “enemy,” which, as Halberstam puts it, “was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems.” But we really never see much substantive reflection from our queer academic elders about where they themselves fit in this new economy. Partly because, as Halberstam unwittingly demonstrates, the sense of humor—which is to say, the sense of collectivity—purportedly shared by many belonging to these generations is rooted in a disidentification with their location within the economic systems out of which it emerged. To disrupt that disidentification is to lose the guarantee that one’s antagonist is exterior to the self. What is gained in this loss is the perspective offered by attending to the discomfiting possibility that your adviser may well also be your class enemy. Staged in the summertime self is an archive of generational antagonism. It documents a class struggle disavowed by the protocols of professionalization.
Ultimately, the “sexual” dimension of the sexual-harassment charges against Ronell was both central and a considerable distraction. Central because sex made the institution take notice of abuses otherwise treated as natural features of academic training. Had Reitman’s charges lacked components of sexual misconduct, they might have simply been considered relatively normal. Institutions like the union-busting NYU are eager to expel such behavior from consideration as part of a hostile labor environment precisely because of how ardently they struggle to maintain that students are not workers. It is this that is at stake in dealing with undergraduate students as consumers, or with graduate students as “apprentices” in need of institutional protection. By “guarding” students from consideration as laborers, universities guard the capitalist ideology of higher education itself, where students either pay or (in the case of some graduate students) are given a meager stipend in order to work.
This is part of what makes the sexual component of the charges against Ronell a distraction. Because Title IX violations can threaten a university’s brand, as well as its eligibility to receive federal support for research and financial aid, sexual harassment is often granted the status of so exceptional a form of abuse that it triggers an entire set of institutional risk- and reputation- management protocols. Set into motion, these protocols work to atomistically individuate instances of harm and thereby reproduce their exceptional appearance. But maybe a better way of understanding sexual harassment is as one form of abuse among others, and perhaps not a uniquely damaging one. It is a gendered and gendering form of abuse, no doubt, but not exclusively one that unfolds along the masculinized-dominant/femininized-subordinate axes. It is enacted alongside and is reinforced by other forms of abuse that never rise to the requisite level of exceptionality or visibility. Perhaps the notion that sexual harm constitutes an exceptional mode of harm has as its underside the production of other quotidian forms of harm as nonexceptional. We are back, in other words, to the accumulation of nontragedies necessary to give the ordinary its look and feel. My point here is not to normalize abuse. My point is that abuse is already normalized, and that that normalization is less a moral failing—though it is that, too—than it is a logical consequence of the organization of academic work.
One of the reasons that universities police sex is that they are in the business of commodified intimacy—sex included. The organization of such intimacies, and the unstably limned boundaries that they entail, set the university’s labor environment into motion. In our context, professorial work has no time sheet—it never quite clocks out. Neither is there a timesheet for student work, which never clocks in. The student, wageless by definition, works under the sign of work denied and refashioned as a consumer experience. Professorial work continues to occult itself, jealously guarding the sociological vestiges of a privilege derived from its relation to the clerical world. Our work is not work but rather a calling; our abuse is not violence but rather a time-tested method of amelioration.
The summertime self, like the modern academic calendar, the tenure system, and the formalization of sabbatical leave, is an inheritance of the secular bourgeoisification of academic work. In its early formation, it shares a genealogy with the modern corporation and the settler-colonial land-grant university system; in its mid-20th century explosion, it grew in direct proportion with U.S. military capacity and other scaled-up technologies of dispossession. The waning of the cold war was the death knell of the summertime self. Though in a markedly uneven and internally stratified manner, academic professionalization is joining the bachelor’s degree as a site of increasing proletarianization. The anxieties about the Ronell case, the weird reactions to student demands for trigger warnings, and the odd injunctions to “get over ourselves” simply don’t make sense outside of the light of the generationally stratified class hierarchy of the contemporary academic world. Refused intergenerational intimacies mark out the space of a still inchoate but significant front of class struggle.
Last summer Andrea Long Chu, a graduate student at NYU (and a former teaching assistant of Ronell’s) wrote probably the most illuminating and incisive situated analysis to appear on the Ronell affair. It was followed quickly by a condescending and dismissive tract by José Quiroga on Bully Bloggers. Quiroga chides Long Chu for the latter’s description of the web of inexplicit but forceful expectations that clustered around Ronell’s low-grade cult of personality in the classroom. Accepting such expectations, Quiroga seems to suggest, is just the right way of approaching the job. Sage counsel like this involves Quiroga’s conjuring up of the trope of the hardworking entry-level worker who, willing to do grunt-level shit work in exchange for meager wages and osmotic proximity to greatness, demonstrates their fitness for upward career mobility. It’s the kind of parable you tell to the out-of-line worker whom you’d like to remind that there are many people out there who’d happily replace them. It’s a pretty straightforward instance of lightly coded management-speak. Labor discipline.
Perhaps a little while ago it would have been easier to brush this off as a well-meaning recommendation to keep one’s head down and do the teeth gritting, ego stroking, and ring kissing necessary to keep an asshole-valorizing profession from torpedoing your career before it takes off. But yesterday’s bootstrappy rites of passage were always outright class hostility; today’s academic precariat is simply staging the confrontation on a different scale. The racial, gender, and sexual minorities of today’s senior professoriate have no doubt endured alienating, extractive, and often abusive conditions in the courses of their careers. The difference is that the infrastructure that enabled some of us to regard that subordination as part of—or as part of what we think we overcame in—the process of career advancement no longer exists.
Intimacy finds itself refused when the structural conditions that made a joke funny no longer obtain. The laughter no longer generates the oceanic experience of unbounded selfhood that we imagine as being in on the joke. Summer without end: a fun idea, but maybe one that only felt within reach because of a much deeper climate change at work. Those of us privileged within the professorial ranks—including me, a newly tenured academic functionary of the state of California—are long overdue for a confrontation with our professional constitution. Barring such a reckoning, we perform an interested refusal all our own, remaining enclosed in the habit-structure of solidarities we will not recognize. Those solidarities, formed not too long ago, bound us to robber barons, imperialists, and a self-valorizing conception of intellectual work as superior to the physicality of “mere” labor. They are solidarities that need not inhabit our explicit beliefs in order to organize the practical ideology of the profession. To seek to withdraw from (or to remake) the constitutive solidarities of the profession, we would need to learn to describe them. We’d need to audit ourselves rigorously: from the tuition-backed low-interest loans that leverage wageless and low-wage labor to turn many of us into property owners, to the disavowals and disidentifications that have calcified the certitude that one can be in but not of the university into a dangerous idealism. The summertime self, in spite of itself, discloses the logic of this utopian university fantasy: Probably never are we more of it than when we think we’re outside of it.
Nick Mitchell teaches feminist studies and critical race & ethnic studies at UC Santa Cruz while reckoning with the repayment of over $150,000 of student-loan debt. This essay is from a book-in-process titled The University, in Theory: Essays on Institutionalized Knowledge. Nick can be reached at nmitchel (yes, only one L) at ucsc dot edu.