Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Thought at the Speed of Social Reproduction

There was an interesting article recently in the journal Management Learning by Martin Parker and Elke Weik: “Free spirits? The academic on the aeroplane.” They start off by countering the conception of the academic conference as this sort of grand fun filled activity that is outside of the usual realm and understanding of labor. Going to a conference, eh? That’s not really work. Cue that Dire Straits song, right? Money for nothing and checks for free, ye lazy academic slobs! Or at least this is often a common image associated with the conference.

But as Martin and Elke point out this is far from the truth, not just in the sense that academic conference indeed are very much forms of academic labor, with emphasis more on the labor depending on the conference. More interestingly they make an interesting argument about the role of the academic conference in broader patterns of academic labor. As they say
“Their freedom to travel, which entails a freedom from certain local obligations, is not always voluntary but part and parcel of professional expectations and is subject to peer and managerial evaluation. In this article, we argue that there are a lot of structural and institutional constraints built into academic mobility.” (2)
In other words, you’re at the conference more often then not because it’s a part of the job rather then a jolly good laugh. The conference is a form of interaction and academic labor that articulates that academic labor in a particular way, one that is detached from the conditions and circumstances of everyday life. Thus this tends to reward those whose ‘academic freedom’ can sustain and support this demand for making appearances at an ever-growing series of international conferences and chances for ‘visibility’ at them. Thus we get the notion of the academic free spirit who can attend such events and develop ideas at them, the global glitterari of the good and the clever, or something like that. As they note, the notion of the free spirit has long been associated with intellectual work, although more in the sense of freedom from political interference then geographical mobility. This is where it gets trickier, in the sense that it moves the question to what kinds of conditions are necessary to support these labors, and who finds themselves excluded from advancement because they are not capable of sustaining them. Sarah Brouillette recently wrote a quite good piece on this.

Sam Durant, This is Freedom?, 2008, Electric sign with vinyl text, 63 1/2 x 84 1/2 x 9 1/8 inches Edition of 3. Image courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

In short this points towards the connection created between academic work and detaching from the labors of social reproduction. It may be unclear to many people what happens at academic conferences and how it is work (is it really), but it now involves going away from the home, away from the everyday cares. Although this is perhaps not a new condition in itself, as historically (i.e. 800 years) the position of the academic entered the world as one of celibacy, a particular and more extreme form of detaching oneself from the labors of social reproduction.
This is the approach that Martin and Elke use to raise some broader points about the relationship between social reproduction and academic labor, which they then approach drawing from the sociology of knowledge (particularly Mannheim), as well as from Bourdieu. But the guiding thread that they want to work through, and against, is the notion that the ‘free floating’ thinker because he (or she) lacks a clearly defined social position is capable of understanding society more clearly. This notion underpins the idea that academics, through a certain kind of detachment, are serving a higher duty.
I’m noting that in the last paragraph I wrote he (or she), but that is not correct, and precisely the issue that is of most concern here. What are the broader effects of this argument for detachment, particularly in relationship to choices around career path, family structure, and how is capable of building an academic career (to the degree that is even an option anymore). Here it seems that the argument for academic labor as underpinned by detachment tends to benefit those who can work this detachment. To quote them again
“the pram in the hall and the insistent demands of the domestic simply do not allow for the cosmopolitan detachment required for a dedication to research. Yet this is not merely a matter of a personal dynamic of guilt and evasion, as if we were simply finger pointing at bad people, because these assumptions are also increasingly built into the structures of academic careers and university decision-making.” (8)
The academic conference then is not just a bit of fun that is not labor, but rather a certain kind of interaction that makes demands of its workers in the sense of what the must be able to detach themselves from in order to participate. Those who cannot find ways to do so will find themselves unable to make career advancements because of this, as they will be unable to accrue the social and intellectual capital developed through these networks and spaces.

The overall effects is to create a set of conditions where the academic labors that are most rewarded are those that can detach themselves from social reproduction, thus socially reproducing a particular form of the academy, namely for those who are attached from broader patterns of social reproduction. This is perhaps most obvious in the effects on the career paths of female academics (and in the ratio of male to female academic staff particularly in senior positions). They note, for instance, that the only research funding body that will cover childcare costs is L’Oreal, through its science fellowships. But this also connects to broader patterns in the reproduction of the academy, for instance by rewarding those who are less loyal to their place of work or locality (gotta move on to move up!), or in the production of an overly English centered standard in academic cultures and standards. Or for that matter in the development of an academic super-elite, particularly admin staff, who are hell bent on maximizing certain key indicators of performance at university while they’re there, but are not so focused on issues of continued research and original thought, working conditions, long term plans, or anything that does not lead to benefits in the short term (i.e. that they can take credit for).
Overall the effect is to make me want to rethink what is the connection between social reproduction and intellectual work, and academic work more generally. Partly this is personal, part of becoming a new parent, and finding it difficult to juggle these different roles and expectations without melting down occasionally. For all the various trainings and courses universities offer I’ve yet to see one focusing on this, although I have gotten some good advice from friends and colleagues (as well as a lot of discussions around how difficult this is). It’s very easy to fall back into a conception of intellectual work as needing that detachment, that separation from the labors of social reproduction. But this is not an adequate or acceptable response, and not one to fall back on, because of the way that as Martin and Elke argue, doing so ends up recreating some pretty crap gender politics. And the generalization of this notion of detached academic work has more broadly negative effects as well.
But what that leaves us with is the question of how to bring together continued intellectual work and social reproduction is more fruitful ways. How to sustain and support intellectual work at the speed of social reproduction rather then as a flight from it. If one of the main points of a blog is engaging more people with ideas, that’s exactly what I’d like to do hear, to start more conversations about ways to bring together intellectual work and social reproduction in ways that benefits and enrich both of them. And hopefully do that in ways that don’t just become a discussion about how cool places like Sweden and Denmark (18 months parental leave that can be split up to the parents? Awesome! So much more so then the UK’s crappy two week paternity leave, which inscribes in law the notion of who should care, unless they can afford to take unpaid leave).

A few weeks ago as mane people were sharing their tributes to Stuart Hall one of the most common images shared with them was one of him helping to run the crèche at the first Women's conference at. Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but this is perhaps one of the nicest things about all these tributes, that they didn’t just honor Hall as a thinker, but also as an organizer of spaces and possibilities for others, a practice that extended from keeping opening the possibilities of Cultural Studies through to the running of crèche at a Women’s conference. All of these are necessary for sustaining intellectual work and should be rewarded as such, rather then just the forms of academic labor that lead to articles, grants, and teaching materials.