on academic labour and performance anxiety


ONE. The bleeding of our souls.

There is no escape from the living death of capitalist work (Dinerstein and Neary). This leads Cederström and Fleming to argue that our whole existence bleeds our souls in the name of value. The corporatisation of our lives bleeds our souls because:

The real fault-line today is not between capital and labor. It is between capital and life. Life itself is now something that is plundered by the corporation, rendering our very social being into something that makes money for business. We know them. The computer hackers dreaming code in their sleep. The airline stewards evoking their warm personality to deal with an irate customer…The aspiring NGO intern working for nothing. The university lecturer writing in the weekend. The call center worker improvising on the telephone to enhance the customer experience.

This is the world-for-acccumulation, against which Kate Bowles notes universities and academic labour are being restructured so that shame becomes a central tenet of everyday academic life.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing.

Yesterday I argued that there is a broader set of questions for academics here, about how they approach organisational governance co-operatively, in order to generate solidarity that militates against the practices that devolve corporate leadership and responsibility for actions, and thereby enable performance management to become an internalised disciplinary activity. For Bowles, this is academic labour as labour that needs to stand against shame and being shamed through performance:

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.

TWO. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.

The internalisation of performativity, alongside managerialism and marketization/the commodification of everyday practices, is as present inside the University as they are outside. Thus, academic labour is labour that needs to resist its reification and its alienation from its species. As Petrovic argued, as life, relationships, values, the soul, is recast for value or as value-laden, we witness:

[The] transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modem capitalist society

For Stephen Ball this is amplified by performativity that in-turn pivots around mechanisms for control and autonomy, and the deterritorialised nature of performance management so that it both appears and reappears inside-and-outside of the workplace. Thus, performativity is our lack of personal control over our labour, so that we seize on the enforcement of:

a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. The issue of who controls the field of judgement is crucial. (p. 216)

This is the entrepreneurial turn inside the University, as that working space mirrors the need to generate the creative-commodity economy outside. This turn recasts the academic as innovator whose formation inside-and-outside the University can be witnessed and judged as creative and valuable, not because it is useful but because it can be exchanged. This is not about the relationships that the academic has either with her peers, her students, or most importantly with herself. It is about the enclosure and commodification of that life under the organisation of the market.

THREE. Zero autonomy and performance anxiety.

Elsewhere I wrote that the impact of this need to perform and to be seen to perform is a function of a lack of autonomy. However, it is also formed of the systemic myth that is peddled about how if only we were more resilient then the world would be ours.

We are conditioned to rely on the rugged, resilient individual. To develop the rugged, resilient individual. And in the process we are all demeaned. In the process we are all alienated from our humanity.

In this, recognition of our alienation not as academics, but as labour and as labour-power, matters. This is an alienation from our very selves, as more is demanded of us: more extensive lists of projects to manage; the next EU bid to chase; your team’s development reviews to finalise faster; your own research to be done on your own time; your need to bring in external income to justify performing at that conference; more value to create; more capital to set in motion; more surpluses to be generated. This is the restructuring of the University as a business through your work and your alienated self.

This alienation is witnessed in Miya Tokumitsu’s connection of the relationship between academic practices and academic psychology:

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

This underpins the increasing exploitation of the academic soul at work. It I why I was awake at 4am yesterday and today, worrying about those essays to be marked, about whether the three journal articles in review and the eight conference presentations accepted and the two book proposals and the proposed new Centre for Pedagogic Research are enough (enough already!) or made me a good enough academic (when I feel like a shameful fraud), and whether I am giving my team enough direction, and whether I need to find more time for trades union activities because solidarity is a weapon. Am I enough? Am I good enough? How am I judged, by you and by me? What is my value? Alienated from my self and my relationships through capitalist work.

And these fears and anxieties remind me that as I internalise a structural and structuring performance management, this is overlain on top of a hackneyed academic psychology that is prone to intense negativity, including: over-analysing my performance and my thinking until my mind bleeds; being convinced that everything has to be perfect for everyone forever, except for me; being unforgiving and overcritical of me; being unable to be in this world; being too deliberate in my use of language/discourse/action and search for hidden meanings where there may be none; making myself too responsible about stuff for which I am not responsible; and lacking faith in myself.

As Tokumitsu argues, this enables those in-power or with power-over the world to entreat educators to “do what you love”, and to give everything. This is hardly harmless. It reifies certain forms of work as loveable because they are intellectual or creative or social, rather than proletarianised, whilst its demands are made competitive and outcomes-focused and routine so that this very work underpins self-hatred. It is the sublimation and the very negation of the self; it is the identification of the ego with the performance; it is the bleeding of the soul. And the governor for this is the interplay between structural, organisational management, and crippling, personal, psychological self-doubt. Just work that bit harder, that bit faster, that bit better and we’ll tell you we are proud of you… And I read this into The Underbelly of Putting Yourself Last: Mental Illness, Stress, and Substance Abuse, and I read this into reports on mental health and Ph.D. study.

All this reminds me that a while back I wrote about courage and a friend’s cancer diagnosis that had been too long in arriving, and the realisation that “and now here we are.”

And now here we are. And for all sorts of reasons I read those five words with an intense scream against the pain that this life has become and the choices we are forced to make, in order to justify our lives as hard-working and worthy of justice. And I scream against the pain of the compromises that are contained in those five words. And I recognise that it is in the moment of a crisis that the things that we do, and the compromises that we make, to be a manager or a co-worker or for the clock or for impact or for efficiency or for whatever, resolve.

My alienated self; my soul at work; my mind bleeds; am I good enough? And I wrote to my friend over the weekend that this lack of autonomy was a form of structural domination, which wears us out socially and collectively, and which doesn’t matter to management because there is such a reserve army of labour to fill-in. The precariously employed, the casualised, the hourly-paid, the hopeful post-graduates, the lower-cost. So you have to perform, and this is their domination over us, reproduced through the logic of competition; competition between universities; competition between individuals; competition inside yourself.

FOUR. And it wears me out. It wears me out.

“You wear out, Ed Tom. All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it… Anyway, you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from…”

“They sat quietly at the table. After a while the old man said: She mentioned there was a lot of old pictures and family stuff. What to do about that. Well. There ain’t nothing to do about it I don’t reckon. Is there?”

“No. I don’t reckon there is.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2005. No Country for Old Men.

The logic of academic competition that owns you as you ask “do I do enough?” “Prove it.” The future owned by fear. The future of “I do enough”, “I am good enough”, owned by the past of “do I do enough?”, “was I good enough?” Never thinking “I am” because the shadow of “am I?” is unforgiving. The logic of academic competition that uses the National Student Survey, Research Excellence, impact metrics, restricted promotions processes, and so on, as forms of academic cognitive behavioural therapy; as forms of restructuring what it means to be an academic; reifying what it means to labour in a University, so that performance is internalised. So that guilt and shame trump solidarity, unity and faith. So that in the battle to survive we forget that capitalist work is ‘a form of living death’ (Dinerstein and Neary (ht @josswinn)).

This means that, in Ball’s terms, we are subsumed under an imperative that makes:

management, ubiquitous, invisible, inescapable – part of and embedded in everything we do. Increasingly, we choose and judge our actions and they are judged by others on the basis of their contribution to organizational performance, rendered in terms of measurable outputs (p. 223).

This is the battle between an academic ego-identity that is increasingly status-driven and reified, a managerial cadre that seeks control through its own autonomy and performance management techniques, and the possibility of a socialised self that might refuse capital as the automatic subject. In this we need to recognise the duality that, first academic labour is labour and is locked in a struggle with capital over the production of value, and second that increasingly this form of labour is revealed as kettled inside a structure that exists for the autonomy of Capital.

This autonomy is a battle over productive and useful time. As Marx notes in Capital Volume 2:

It is plain that the more the production time and labour-time cover each other the greater is the productivity and self-expansion of a given productive capital in a given space of time. Hence the tendency of the capitalist production to reduce the excess of the production time over the labour-time as much as possible. But while the time of production of a certain capital may differ from its labour-time, it always comprises the latter, and this excess is itself a condition of the process of production. The time of production, then, is always that time in which a capital produces use-values and expands, hence functions as productive capital, although it includes time in which it is either latent or produces without expanding its value.

Inside a competitive market, all of life must become productive of value, and idle or working time, has to be annihilated. The self that produces things that cannot be exchanged has limited value and must be annihilated. The life that is consumed by working time rather than productive time is inefficient, and must be recalibrated by speed-up, always-on, the annilhilation of space by time. This is our internalisation of the capital’s necessity for perpetual time-space transformations, in order to generate and accumulate surplus-value and wealth. This is the time-space transformation through student debt, financialisation, the international university, the MOOC, and the University as an association of capitals.

This is the demand that academic labour fights against its fixity inside the walls of the University.

This is the demand that academic labour is always-on, always circulating, always looking for spaces to generate value.

This is the bind that academic labour now finds itself in: based in a belief system based on love or care or the student experience; courted and reified as special and high status and as commodity; kettled by performance anxiety and performance management; disciplined by academic cognitive behavioural therapy; forced to be responsive to the university as competing business in a landscape that is being reterritorialised on a global scale; forced to reinvent itself for expansion and accumulation; never allowed to be.

Never allowed to be.

Never allowed to be.

And it wears you out.

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