Critique and Competition

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 11 However much we might reject individualism as part and parcel of the humanist, positivist ways of the past, our working lives—on campus and off—are overdetermined by it. The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly finally, the tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic: there are some metrics for quality against which applicants are measured, and the best—whatever that might mean in a given context—are rewarded. In actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another. Sometimes literally: it’s not uncommon for an institution to ask external reviewers in tenure and promotion cases to rank candidates against the best two or three scholars in the field. But always, always, in the hidden unconscious of the profession, there is competition: for positions, for resources, for acclaim. And the drive to compete that this mode of being instills in us can’t ever be fully contained by these specific processes; it bleeds out into all areas of the ways we work, even when we’re working together. The competitive individualism that the academy cultivates makes all of us painfully aware that even our most collaborative efforts will be assessed individually, with the result that even those fields whose advancement depends most on team-based efforts are required to develop careful guidelines for establishing credit and priority.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 7 This competitive individualism contradicts—and in fact undermines—all of the most important communal aspects of life within our institutions of higher education. Our principles of shared governance, for instance, are built on the notion that universities best operate as collectives, in which all members contribute to their direction and functioning, but in actual practice, our all-too-clear understanding that service to the institution will not count when we are evaluated and ranked for salary increases and promotions encourages faculty members to avoid that labor, to reserve our time and energy for those aspects of our work that will enable our individual achievement. The results are not good for any of us: faculty disengage from the functioning of the institution and the shared purposes that it serves; some of the work that we might have done is instead taken on by academic and administrative staff; university governance becomes increasingly an administrative function, with an ever-growing phalanx of associate vice provosts creating and overseeing the processes that structure our institutions and our work within them, ostensibly freeing the faculty up to focus on the competitive work that will allow us as individuals and our universities as institutions to climb the rankings. This is no way to run a collective. It’s also no way to structure a fulfilling life: as I’ve written about elsewhere, this disengagement from community and singular focus on the race for individual distinction is a key factor in the extremely high risk of burnout among college faculty and other intellectual workers (Fitzpatrick). It is all but impossible for us to structure our lives around the things that are most in line with our deepest personal values when we are driven to focus on those things that will create distinction for us, that will allow us to compare ourselves—or our institutions—favorably with one another.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 This individualistic, competitive requirement is inseparable from the privatization that Newfield describes as the political unconscious of the contemporary university. Competition and the race for individual distinction structure the growing conviction that not only the benefits of higher education but also all of our categories of success (both in educational outcomes and in intellectual achievement) can only ever be personal, private, individual rather than social. And no amount of trying to persuade ourselves, or our administrations, or our legislatures of the public good that we, our fields, and our institutions serve will take root unless we figure out how to step off the competitive track, to live our academic lives another way.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 6 The need for a different way of being extends to all aspects of scholars’ lives, including—to return to the agonistic approach to advancing knowledge in the humanities that I mentioned earlier—our critical methodologies. This sense of agon, or struggle, leads us to reject the readings and arguments that have gone before us and to focus on advancing new ways of looking at the material we study. It is this mode of argumentation that leads Fluck to posit a pressure to “outradicalize” one another, given the need to distinguish ourselves and our readings from the many others in our fields. My sense, however, is that the political orientation of our critiques is ultimately of lesser importance than the competitive drive that lies beneath them. Distinguishing our arguments from those of others working in our fields is the primary goal; that we often choose the terrain of the ideological, or wind up embroiled in what Paul Ricoeur describes as the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in order to effect that distinction is a mere by-product. So when my graduate students began their engagement with the article I’d asked them to read by critiquing—and in fact dismissing—it on ideological grounds, the key force at work was not just what Rita Felski describes as our suspicious “conviction” that both the texts that we study and the ways that we have been led to study them are “up to no good” (58). Far more important to the problem in that moment was that my students had no other position than the critical available to them, that the need to stake out their own individual, distinctive positions within the seminar room left them unable to articulate in any positive sense what the article was trying to accomplish because that articulation would have left their own readings somehow indistinguishable from those of the author. So they—we—reject, dismiss, critique. We outradicalize, but in the service of a highly individualistic form of competition. And however much this mode of reading has done to advance our fields and their social commitments—and I will stipulate that it has done a lot—competitive engagement like this too often looks to the many readers just outside our scholarly circles, including students, parents, administrators, and policy makers, like pure negativity, a rejection of the materials of our shared culture, not to mention a seemingly endless series of internal arguments, all of which might well lead them to ask what is to be gained from supporting a field, or an institution, that seems intent on self-dismantling.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 Worse, scholars’ internalization of the individualistic imperative to compete and its manifestation in arguments whose primary work is that of rejection has provided an inroad into higher education for some forces that are hastening its dismantling. Bill Readings, in The University in Ruins, powerfully traces the transition of the purposes of higher education from the propagation of the culture of the nation-state and the training of its citizens therein, through an important period of resistance and protest that did the crucial work of opening up both access to higher education and the canon that it taught, to its current role, which seems to be the production of value (both intellectual and human) for global capital. This is to say that many of our concerns about and critiques of the goals of our institutions of higher learning as they were established are well-founded: they were developed in order to cultivate a particular model of citizenship based on exclusion and oppression and focused on the reproduction of state power. The problem is that in the absence of those defining goals, the purpose of higher education has drifted, and not in the ways we would have hoped: as in so many other areas of the contemporary public world, where the state has lost centrality and certainty, corporate interests have interceded; we may no longer promote exclusion and oppression in training state citizens, but we reinstantiate it in a new guise when we turn, however inadvertently, to training corporate citizens. Even worse, rejecting or critiquing that purpose is simply not working: not only is capital extraordinarily able to absorb all critique and to marginalize those who make it, but our inability to stop competing with one another ensures that our critique is contained within the forces of the market that we serve. Perhaps we might have reached, as Felski’s title suggests, the limits of critique; perhaps we might need to adopt a new mode of approach in order to make a dent in the systems that hem us in.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 9 But that is not to say that I am rejecting critique, or critical thinking, or that I think scholars need somehow to find a way “beyond” critique. In fact, the critical approach is at the heart of what scholars do. Not only would we be justified in bristling against any suggestion that we abandon critique, or abandon the social commitments that underwrite it, in favor of an approach to our work that might be more, as the kids would say, “relatable,” but we’d also be well within reason if we were to point out that the critique of critique is still critique, that it makes use of criticism’s negative mode in the very act of negating it. Moreover, the critique of critique is too often driven either by a disdain for difficulty or by a rejection of the political in scholarly work. Scholars, perhaps unsurprisingly, take the rejection of the political critique that grounds our work, often accompanied by calls to return to the traditions that made “western culture” great, as further evidence of our basic correctness: see, contemporary culture is dominated by conservative, even reactionary forces that must exclude our ideas as a threat to their very being. We also take the resistance to difficulty, especially in the humanities, whether of language or of argument, as a sign of dismissal, of a refusal to take us and our work seriously: no one, after all, scoffs at the uses of jargon in high-energy physics. I want to suggest, however, that though these rejections and dismissals are undoubtedly there behind the calls for comprehensibility and the return to tradition in our work—see again Bruce Cole—they aren’t the only things at work. These calls may be at least in part a sign of the degree to which people care about our subject matter, about literature or history or art. They might indicate the degree to which people feel the cultures we study to be their own, leading them to want on some level to engage with us, to understand and participate in what we’re up to. There is grave political opposition to much of the work that is done on our college campuses today, and I do not at all wish to dismiss the threat that opposition can pose, but I also want to suggest that even that glimmer of care for our subject matter creates the opportunity, if we take it seriously, to create forms of connection and dialogue that might help further rather than stymie the work that we do.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 9 Some of my thinking about ways that attention to such care might encourage scholars to approach the work that we do from a slightly different perspective has developed out of a talk I heard a couple of years ago by David Scobey, then the dean of the New School for Public Engagement. His suggestion was that scholarly work in the humanities is in a kind of imbalance, that critical thinking has dominated at the expense of a more socially-directed mode of what he called “generous thinking,” and that a recalibration of the balance between the two might enable us to make possible a greater public commitment in our work, which in turn might inspire a greater public commitment to our work. This book, having drawn its title from Scobey, obviously builds on his argument, but with one key revision: generous thinking is not and should not be opposed to critical thinking. In fact, the two should be fully aligned, and my hope in what follows is to help guide us toward modes of working that allow us to more fruitfully connect the generous and the critical in scholarly work. Rather, the dark opposite of generous thinking, that which has in fact created an imbalance in scholarly work—and not just in the humanities; far from it—is competitive thinking, thinking that is compelled by what sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen called invidious comparison, or what Fluck refers to as the race for professional distinction. It is the competitive that has undermined the capacity for community-building, both within our campuses and between our campuses and the broader public. What kinds of new discussions, new relationships, new projects might be possible if our critical thinking practices eschewed competition and were instead grounded in generosity?

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