Notes on the University as anxiety machine

There is a point that Joss Winn and I make in a critique of academic labour that is against hypostatizing labour as ‘identity’ because this can only lead either to learned helplessness in the face of governmentality or performativity, or to resistance based on recapturing a golden age of labour. The argument here is that inside the University as it is restructured for value, and as it is recalibrated as a means of production, academics and students are separated and exploited through their abstract labour. Even worse, this separation afflicts and undermines the relationships that emerge between those with tenure (who are transformed into the impacted), and the precariously employed graduate student or post-doc, or the undergraduate who is forced into a precarious existence rooted in unpaid academic labour that is disciplined through a financialised existence. This precarious, unpaid academic labour is grounded in the abstract production of first, notes, coursework, exams, projects, groupwork, and second, of entrepreneurial skills and capacities, and digital literacies. This precarious work takes the monitoring that is internalised inside universities through the growth of student satisfaction and future earnings and employability data, and around league tables, and around research impact, and force feeds the same levels of performance anxiety to its students. This is realised in the normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.

And all the while the labour of the professoriate is unhelpfully reified and acts not as a conduit for hope or courage, but as a container for disappointment and anxiety. This reminds me that Kate Bowles wrote a while back about why academics overwork. She compared the recalibration inside the university as an anxiety machine to that inside the peloton in pro-cycling as it is recalibrated around the leading cyclist, who maybe doping or have a better, quicker machine, or better nutrition, or better whatever. She wrote the following.

This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.

This is why I’m finding Daniel Coyle’s book (co-written with pro cyclist whistleblower Tyler Hamilton) about the culture of doping such a thoughtful companion to this difficult time. In the past 24 months, armchair fans like me have asked why so many elite athletes took up performance enhancement, at such personal risk and cost.  The answer’s pretty simple, it turns out. In the Darwinian world of pro-cycling at the end of the 1990s, racing teams learned that the only way to level out competitive opportunity was to meet the standards set by the most committed. To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.

This book has made me think differently about the question of why academics overwork. I now think we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.

This resonates for two reasons. The first is that, just as the high-performing athlete recalibrates the performance of those around her, and creates a productive new-normal, so the workaholic professor does the same. And the irony of my sitting here at 11.22pm writing this is not lost on me. And maybe this is because I am committed. And maybe this is a form of flight or a defence against the abstract pain of the world. Maybe it is a form of self-care, through which I am trying to make concrete how I feel about my past and my present. And maybe as Maggie Turp argues, this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. I am performance managed to the point where I willingly internalise the question “am I productive enough?”, which aligns with “am I a good academic?”, which aligns with “am I working hard enough”, which risks becoming a projection onto those around me of “are you working/producing enough?” My example is potentially toxic because being good enough in this productive space is never enough. My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value. The defining, status-driven impulse is to increase my value as an entrepreneur, and to demonstrate that through the traces I leave in publications, or managing a team, or in leading research bids, or in blogging and emailing at all hours. And the toxicity reduces my/our immunity and leaves us addicted to our status as all that we have. And all that we have is a reified, anxiety-infused identity.

The second reason is that the high performing athlete is competing. We are locked into a system that leaves us all played out. The logic of competition inside capitalism is rooted in the production of value and the accumulation of surplus value, and this tends towards an ongoing technological arms race designed to give competitive edge. This arms race is rooted in time, and more especially the socially necessary labour time it takes to produce. If my neighbour can turnaround exam papers in four weeks but I can do it in three, or if she has time to produce two peer-reviewed papers but I can squeeze out three, and if I can get my team’s appraisals done in two weeks, and if my performance is based on making my labour time more efficient, then what are the implications for those around me? What are the implications for academic labour more generally, in the drive to reduce the socially necessary labour time it takes to valorise the labour of academics on a global scale?

We might also ask whether this drive both for performance and to make the labour of academics and students productive of value has implications for the work of precariously employed academic staff? Does the valorisation of this work and its co-option inside globalised circuits of capital disconnect those with tenure from those without? Does the valorisation process rooted in impact measures and knowledge exchange/transfer, and commercialisation, and entrepreneurship, mean that the work of the academic peloton is always recalibrated around the highest performing academic athlete? Is this why we do not see the professoriate resisting the financialisation of the university? Because they have a stake in the university as a generator of status and power; a stake in the transnational circuits of power that define their work? The only problem with grounding a concrete existence in the abstract and reified labour of reproducing power is that you fear that power to be transient and scarce and to be hoarded or defended. The defence of the scarcity of power and status amplifies and transmits anxiety; it projects anxiety throughout the academic peloton, reinforced through signalisation and dressage.

Elsewhere I wrote about the University as anxiety machine, where the projection of anxiety emerged through the fabric of relationships.

This is the dissolution of the University as a means for the domination/hegemony of a particular world view or a specific class. This is the dissolution of the University as a coercive space that is re-forged inside-and-against student-debt and impact and research excellence and analytics and employability and entrepreneurship. This is the dissolution of the University as the civil society of tenured professors versus casualised precariat.

I wonder if the University’s functions now are being redesigned so that they reproduce a sense of anxiety as a permanent state of exception inside teams and individuals. I wonder whether the focus on productive labour, on the socially necessary labour time of abstract academic work, and the entrepreneurial turn across higher education, each create an atmosphere of anxiety. I wonder whether the reproduction of an ambiance of anxiety is a co-operative endeavour that emerges from inside the University as a means of production that is governed by metrics, data and debt, and out of which value is scraped through the alienation of time. This reminds me of persistent inferiority and internalised responsibility, and of the shock doctrine that recalibrates what is possible.

Are defence or refusal possibilities inside the University as an anxiety machine? What is the psychic impact of: alienated labour; the disciplining of academic labour; the cognitive dissonance inherent in the contradictions of abstract/concrete labour; the rule of money? How do we learn to self-care as opposed to self-harm inside the University? One of the ways in which self-care might emerge is in looking at who is pushing back against financialisation and alienation, be that in casualised labour, or trades union anti-casualisation strategies, or through a precariat charter, or in actions like 3cosas, or in post-graduates for fair pay. These are not organisations of those with tenure, but they force us to consider both the university as anxiety/performativity machine and the idea of making opposition public, as an association of the dispossessed or impacted. They reignite the concrete/abstract relationship between higher education and the public.

This feels more important to me, in questioning the public role of my work, and in making my work feel concrete and about doing/being, rather than feeling abstract and for value. As a result, I begin to think about self-care in terms of my relationships to my public activities, and these are rooted in specific communities that have deliberation, a critique of work (rather than labour), and the idea of “the public” at their heart. The first is the DMU Policy Commission, which developed a charter of 100 ideas to change Britain, and which had a deliberative, co-operative, critical scholarly production process at its heart. The second is the Digilit Leicester Project, which has teacher agency and collegiality, not as a fetishized, aristocracy of labour, but as a means of self-empowerment, at its heart. The third is the Social Science Centre, which has a deeply politicised approach to relationship-building that is against academic dilettantism, and which is rooted in inclusive and co-operative production of the world. The question is whether and how these projects as activities or as doing, enable me to be in the world beyond my reified academic labour. Do they thereby enable me to overcome the concrete/abstract tensions that my labour produces and which are potentially projected as anxiety-inducing on those around me?

6 Responses to Notes on the University as anxiety machine

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Notes on the University as anxiety machine

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  4. I rather like this analysis – I think the anxiety machine angle stands deep exploration. I would say that anxiety is a useful psychological tool for those that would shape the movement of the university machine in a certain way. It is particularly powerful in that it easily make a system autopoietic in that the very existence of the anxiety reproduces the system causing the anxiety (not wanting to get too much into the dispute about definitions of autopoesis). In this I am reminded of the power of Thatcher’s appeal to the possibility that all can be the “working class man made good” – it induces a way of looking at the world that, once embedded, means that an actor will reproduce a system-machine detrimental to their own interests.

    My opinion is that it can never be fully dealt with from with the state of mind / frame of reference, because whilst in that state one retains a sense that maybe one could have done more / worked harder / been more cunning etc. This is a burden we have to bear and I know we disagree on the possibility of stepping outside vs. within-and-against.

    Sadly, the analysis of university as anxiety machine also works when one considers that parts may break, be replaced, be reconfigured etc.

    Probably shamelessly mixing the sense in which the word machine is used, I take courage from a bit of Wittgenstein I found here

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his explorations of the relations between meaning and use, discusses the machine as symbolizing its actions. (Philosophical Investigations, paragraphs 193-4) “We talk as if these parts could only move in this way, as if they could not do anything else. How is this–do we forget the possibility of their bending, breaking off, melting, and so on?” He concludes that “the movement of the machine-as-symbol is predetermined in a different sense from that in which the movement of any given actual machine is predetermined.”

    We must remember that the machine can be reconfigured, that we are potentially resistant parts. What is required is not running the machine a little harder. We must throw in the spanner.

    P.S. Your link to the policy commission is bust (your-student-experience should be your-dmu-experience) Maybe it has recently changed.

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