The University in the Community

On Monday, I joined Trish and her fellow graduate students at Binghamton University to protest an administrative decision that would increase pay for incoming graduate assistants while keeping current graduate assistantship pay the same. It’s all part of a plan to attract a “higher caliber” of graduate student by increasing stipends to levels similar to premier universities around the country, which is great, but, in order to save money, the university is refusing to give its current students the same pay increase, thus creating a massive wage gap (between $2000 and $7000 per year depending on the department) between students doing the exact same jobs. It’s another example of the corporatization of the university, in which higher-paid faculty positions are on the decline, existing faculty are asked to do more for less, and low-paid graduate students and adjuncts are used to make up the difference. If we value education – and I think most people do – then we should be treating it as a public benefit, and making sure that the faculty and graduate assistants (not to mention all of the support staff) are being paid enough that they can do their work without having to worry about debt, health care, paying rent, buying food, etc. This fight for equal pay is one part of the struggle for comprehensive higher education reform.

Photo credit Trish Markert
Photo credit Trish Markert

Taking part in the protest yesterday and reading some of the comments (I know, just don’t) on an article posted to the local news station, I’m realizing how little the general public actually knows about what universities do and how they are run. I’m afraid this makes any kind of university reform a serious uphill battle. This highlights to me the need for all of us to be more engaged with the communities in which we live and work. Not to place the blame on faculty and students – it is certainly the responsibility of the administration to ensure that universities have a good public image and do their part within these communities – and I don’t want to undermine the excellent work that faculty and students already do. But too often, I think, we just think of these communities as temporary residences where we have to live for a few years while we get our degrees – whatever level of degree that might be. Having lived in college towns almost my entire life, I know that universities bring a lot of benefits to the cities and towns in which they live, but these benefits are often invisible to the people who live there whereas the costs are often explicit and highly publicized. This can create a tension between the university population and the general public. I think this is behind a lot of the anti-intellectualism we see in public discourse today – academics are seen as an elite, and any requests for reform look like privileged whining. This makes it all but impossible to convince members of the public that our concerns are valid and the dismantling of higher education affects them too. It’s something that will need to be addressed if there is ever going to be comprehensive higher education reform in this country.

As academics, I believe that we have a responsibility to use our knowledge and skills to work towards a better life for everyone. There’s no better place to start than in our local communities. Rather than using the resources we have access to (grants, university infrastructure, etc.) to go off and do research in remote and exotic places (something anthropologists are notorious for doing), let’s direct some of those resources to the people who live nearby and who often need help just as much as the people in those remote places. I don’t expect everyone to do this, and I don’t think it should be a mandate, but think of it as an ethical practice – something to do when planning research projects. Just ask yourself, how can I make this research involve people in the local community? How can I make it direct some of these resources to them? Obviously, there will be a lot more to addressing anti-intellectualism than this, but it’s part of the solution and something we can do now to build solidarity within our communities.

What if this is the best we can do?

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What if this is the best we can do? What if this is already the best world we can make? What if, after we’ve made amazing leaps in technology that enable us to explore space, cure illness, provide food and clean water for everyone; after we’ve dismantled all of the bombs and guns; after we’ve provided everyone with their basic needs; after we’ve ended racial, religious, gender, and nationalistic bigotry – after all of that, what if there are still people who want to hurt other people, still people who want to claim everything for themselves, still people who are brutal, violent, destructive? Worse, maybe, what if we can’t achieve all of those dreams?

The Paris attacks – and yes, I know there were attacks in Beirut too, and I feel for those people as well, but if it weren’t for Paris, I honestly probably would not have known about them, which is itself unfortunate, but also the truth – remind us that for all our advancement, all our technology, all our critical thought and striving for peace and justice, the world is still a violent place. The attacks hit home, and bring the violence that people around the world experience on a daily basis back into our own sheltered and secured lives. They remind us not only that the world is a violent place, but that, perhaps, our lives are peaceful because there is violence elsewhere.

Maybe it’s good – as my pessimist friends might point out – to remind ourselves of this, though preferably not in such violent and destructive ways. Maybe it’s good for those of us who care, those of us who struggle to make the world a better place, to remember that it’s possible – maybe even probable – that the world won’t or can’t be any better than it is. Maybe it’s good, not because it’s defeatist – I doubt anyone who really cares would be stopped – but because it reminds us that our dreams of a bright future of peace and justice are just that, dreams. Dreams alone cannot confront the brutality that permeates the world we live in today, and it’s possible that nothing will.

Maybe there will always be violence, and destruction. Maybe we can do no better than what we have right now. Maybe every victory is fragile, and limited. Maybe there’s no such thing as victory. So what if this is the best we can do? The struggle continues…

The Big and the Small, and the Work that Needs to Be Done

There has been a lot of interest in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s recent book Inventing the Future. I haven’t read it – only a handful of posts about it (from Steven Shaviro, McKenzie Wark, and Arran James) – but it sounds like an interesting analysis of our current situation and a worthwhile strategy for confronting Capitalism. I look forward to reading it when I have a chance. This post isn’t about the book per se, but about one of the common threads I’ve seen in the various posts about it. Since it’s an issue I’ve thought a lot about and is embedded within the philosophy of Struggle Forever, I want to share my own perspective.

The issue I’m talking about is the critique of what S+W call “horizontalist” approaches – or, in a less forgiving phrasing, “folk politics.” Over the last few decades, and largely because of the failures of grand vision and big organizing (e.g. unions, left-wing party politics, etc.) there has been a lot more attention among the left to localized politics and small-scale actions. Critics (and my sense is that S+W are among them) argue that these localist projects have been ineffective, and have essentially allowed the neoliberal global elite to run rampant with no globalized movement to confront them. It’s not a new critique – I would bet that something like it has been floating around and pops up periodically since the 1960s drop-out era. What sets these two apart is not the critique of “horizontalism” but the content of their vision.

In place of the valorization of “folk politics,” S+W propose a reclamation of the modernist project for leftists, and a new modernist – one might even say science fictional – leftist future. Arguing that the success of the left depends on a kind of seizure of the global economic system, they propose a four-fold platform on which to build a global movement:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

Those all sound great to me, and I have no contention. It seems to me that success at any of them – assuming we can accomplish them while also reducing greenhouse gasses and other environmental destruction (the most common critique of S+W’s book is its failure to confront the realities of the anthropocene) – would bring a greater amount of freedom and agency to a significant amount of people. Success at all of them would be truly liberatory for the majority of the human population of the world. That said, there are things missing – the politics of race and gender, for example, which are often dismissed as “identity” politics, but are also material-social constructs that can’t necessarily be reduced to economic issues alone. Also, I would agree with Steven Shaviro that there’s no reason we can’t have both horizontalism and verticalism – both “folk” politics and “modernist” politics. It’s true that horizontalism has been insufficient in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it – rather we need to supplement it with the grand and forward-looking visions that S+W advocate. Additionally, I think Zizek’s comment about Picketty might also apply – that if we had a system in which achieving these goals was possible, then we would have already won.

That’s all somewhat beside the point. I think S+W’s platform is good, and well worth fighting for however we can. However, what I want to address is the privileging of scale that’s sometimes embedded in these critiques (not necessarily in S+W’s approach). In developing the conceptual framework underlying Struggle Forever, I have advocated a kind of localist approach to politics. I’ve said that we need to work through political issues within our communities, and even that all politics is, ultimately, local. But I want to be clear – I don’t see this as claiming that we can only have small-scale politics solving small scale problems. I agree that that would be fundamentally ineffective. What I’m talking about is not an issue of scale – since scale, for me, is something that must be produced – but of recognizing the work that has to be done – the struggle that must be engaged – in order to effect any kind of social change. I think often what these grand visions want – and I’m not saying that S+W want this because I don’t know – is to bypass the work and move right to the revolutionary transformation.

What S+W have done is to begin the possible construction of a globalized movement – they’ve published a manifesto calling for people to take up their vision. Publishing the book, no doubt, took a lot of small acts and engagements. I don’t know how many copies have been produced, but as they are dispersed each one has the potential to influence people. Then there are electronic copies – the potential for distribution increases exponentially. And every time someone reads it and writes a review or a commentary – like those linked above and this post you’re reading now – that proliferates the ideas even further. Eventually, perhaps, the ideas will trickle out into social media, will be discussed at cocktail parties, in the local bars, or over a coffee. Maybe a large group of people will adopt S+W’s four pillars and start taking direct action to implement some of the changes needed. And finally, out of all of these proliferations and engagements, a movement might develop that will push for new policies, economic transformations, technological developments, and so on. Maybe – but without all of these localized processes, the globalized movement doesn’t happen, and with every engagement, new frictions emerge which people must work through, with, around, or despite. Making the process uncertain and tenuous, and the results fragile and inconsistent. As a result, even if we achieve all four of the pillars S+W promote and more, the struggle will continue – the hard-won gains will need to be defended, and there will, inevitably, be new problems that arise. Thus Struggle Forever.

So I agree with S+W that we need grand visions or as China Miéville put it that “we should utopia as hard as we can.” But let’s not forget about the work that has to be done to get us there, and let’s also not mistake achieving policy goals for the end-game. I’m on board for a global movement, but not if it tries to bypass the politics of struggle or the engagements that will be needed to construct it. Sign me up – let’s get to work.

AcWriMo

I’ve always wanted to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which takes place every November. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of the month – it’s meant to get writers over the mental blocks that keep them from writing and completing a project. I started it once with a few friends when I was a teenager, but didn’t finish. Now, since I’m in graduate school and trying to finish my dissertation in the next year, I can’t justify spending time writing a novel – even a short one. So this is where AcWriMo comes in.

AcWriMo is just like NaNoWriMo except that there are no word-length requirements, and it’s for academic writing (Academic Writing Month). I’m participating this year, with the encouragement of some friends and colleagues. I have two goals: 1) to finish a review that was due late October, but I’ve put off due to other important obligations, and 2) to finish an article that will also serve as a chapter of my dissertation.

The first I hope to have done by the end of the week, since it’s well past due. The second by the end of the month. And I plan to do it by writing consistently everyday except the days that I teach – Tuesdays and Thursdays (because I always have a ton of preparation to do those days). The point is not to have a perfect draft by the end of the month, but to have a very rough draft that can be refined over the next few months with feedback from my advisors and colleagues. The challenge will be overcoming the mental block I get every time I think about writing a dissertation chapter or full research article. It seems like such a big step and such a huge undertaking that I can’t imagine completing it – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I usually don’t. Hopefully with a little perseverance, though, I will do it this time.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress… wish me luck!

Software and Hardware

In talking about my research and my anthropological practice in general, I’ve often used dichotomous concepts like the “ontological” versus the “epistemological” or the “performative” versus the “representational.” I still think these concepts hold value by making us (mainly me) think about things in a different way than we normally would, but, at least in terms of my dissertation research, it might be more appropriate to step back into the more familiar dichotomy of software and hardware.

I can see a number of values here. First, and most obvious, is that hardware and software are familiar concepts. It won’t require a lot of extra explanation to talk about them, and I can reasonably extend them to areas in which they are not traditionally applied – more on this in a minute. Both software and hardware permeate our lives to such an extent now that it’s hard to imagine anyone needing the terms to be defined or struggling to understand what I’m referring to.  Ontological and epistemological or representational and performative are often difficult concepts to grasp – I wonder if I even do sometimes – and, particularly for a non-academic public they require a lot of explication. Why waste all that time and do all of that work when I have a readily available pair of concepts that most people can understand in a general sense.

Next, the software/hardware distinction is not so much a dichotomy. Rather the two are intertwined with one another. Without hardware, we would have nothing to run the software. Without software, computers are just big machines with millions of microscopic switches manipulating electrical current. Often times I think “ontological” and “epistemological” or “representational” and “performative” are played against one another – as if there’s something wrong with one and right with the other. But I think that’s generally not the case – there are different ways of approaching a particular topic or issue, and they intersect and intertwine with one another in a lot of interesting and complex ways. How can we talk about these things without playing them separately and antagonistically? Hardware and software resolve this problem – they only exist together in an inter-relationship. The kind of hardware you have, in many ways, enables and constrains the kinds of software you can run. I cannot, for example, run the Bay Model on my little Apple Macbook, but I could run a smaller, simpler model on it. Similarly, the kinds of software we use in many ways shapes the structure of the hardware that we have. We have keyboards, mice, trackpads, screens, etc. because that is what makes the software we use the most works best. In fact, it’s difficult to disentangle these two to the extent that one could identify cause and effect – was the hardware structured for the software or was the software built for the hardware? Instead, we have to think of the two as co-emergent.

Third, hardware and software are directly applicable to my research, and, with a little extension, can be made to do some interesting things. I study computational modeling, and the effects it has on environmental management structures. Computational models are software, of course, and they run on hardware – in many cases supercomputers. But the hardware/software concept can be applied even further. If we think of cognitive structures as software, and people and things and the relationships between them as hardware, then it’s clear that the Bay Program – and even the Chesapeake Bay itself – is a kind of hardware/software system (I’m reluctant to say computational, since it’s not clear what it’s computing, but it may be interesting to see where this takes us). And, as with computer hardware and software, the two are interdependent, and co-emergent. Laws, for example, are a kind of software that require hardware – people and things and relationships between them – to run. Certain organizations of people and things cannot run certain kinds of laws, and the laws, to some extent, shape the organizations of people and things that we construct.

I’m not entirely sure where this conceptual approach is going, but I want to explore it more. I know I’m not the first to extend the hardware/software concept beyond its original scope, but I’m curious if there are any applications similar to this one – looking at institutional and organizational structures. If anyone can point me in the right direction, that would be helpful – I need more context to draw out these ideas and see if they’re useful or not.