on academic hopelessness

It has always seemed strange to me… The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

Steinbeck, J. 1945. Cannery Row. New York: Viking.

My friend Jon told me that he was grappling with how to scale kindness. That he wondered whether the question of “how do we scale kindness?” was the most important issue that we face. This question chimes in-part because increasingly we face an intense sense of Weltschmertz; a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects our deeper sense of hopelessness. Our recognition that the world we hoped for may never be. That the concrete world abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. That the struggle we face to enact kindness is made in the face of those traits that we detest and that we are forced to internalise, lest we be abandoned or worse.

And part of our struggle is our coming face-to-face with sin. In The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard connects this hopelessness to a loss of autonomy/freedom that is itself rooted in our inability to escape from sin. We act, we behave, we are compromised. As the commentator, D. Anthony Storm notes:

Sinfulness brings about a loss of freedom. The anxiety of freedom becomes translated into the anxiety over sin. This anxiety increases as the sinful individual contemplates his entrapment in sinfulness.

The choices that we face are personally sinful for the individual attempting to become humane or moral or ethical, because those very choices are compromised and limit either our own or other’s freedom and agency. And so our choices inside a system of structural domination increasingly alienate us both from ourselves and from our place in the social and natural world. We are increasingly alienated from our practices and ourselves. Our freedom in choosing is between increasingly poor alternatives. Is being kind simply reduced to doing the least worst thing?

For Haiven and Khasnabish (p. 33) the politics of austerity has generated qualitatively new levels of uncertainty and anxiety, and increasing alienation. They note that:

[This] fosters a vindictive politics of punitive cuts, surveillance and loathing. All this permits and enables the displacing of the crisis of capitalism onto the social realm, making the systemic crisis of accumulation a general crisis of social reproduction.

And as we project onto the University new ideas of good and bad, rooted in the public and the private, we develop a new depressive position through which despair restricts our autonomy. Because we incorporate their performativity and control, or we internalise the loss of what we hoped the University might become. And all we can hope for is that we can recover the public university through solidarity. Yet at times we refuse to accept that the overwhelming feeling is one of hopelessness, which itself requires a different level of grief and mourning to be internalised, so that we can address our alienation and lack of autonomy in an authentic manner. Pushing back against these twins demands that we sit with them a while rather than defensively lament what we think we have lost. As Martha Crawford notes: “I mourned for all of those I had to let go.”

I mourned for all of those I had to let go.

Still we are unable to let go because our alienation is rooted in enforced compliance and coercion, and in their refusal to accept that those with whom we might identify or find solidarity have relevance or social meaning. So we are unable to let go, and instead we align ourselves to that which refuses our academic autonomy/freedom. Instead of loss or grief, we internalise their competition and entrepreneurial activity, and the induced behaviour is only made congruent with our inner beings through sanctions, surveillance or performance management. Whether or not it aligns with a deeper set of personal values is a very live issue for those who refuse or who need to mourn what is being taken or lost. As I write in a post on the proletarianisation of the University:

Thus, we witness reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; and we witness postgraduate researcher-led committees that “have been pushing the[ir] University to honour the essential role that teaching assistants play in University life in the form of fair pay and treatment.”; and we witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; and we witness a documenting of the processes and pains of casualisation. As students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal they are forced to contend and compete globally. These proletarianised labourers are forced to compete as technological, entrepreneurial, and impactful.

As increasingly proletarianised academic labourers, we become an “article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto) Where is the space for grief and the acceptance of hopelessness, so that we may begin again?

Our hopelessness is rooted in the loss of our labour, as it is brought into the service of value. As our labour is commodified our sense that it is a service to ourselves and others is scrubbed clean and handed to Capital. Marx knew that this is the logic of capitalism, that defenestrates labour, in order that it can accumulate autonomy:

Is then only the semblance of an activity, only a forced activity, imposed upon me only by an external and accidental necessity and not by an internal and determined necessity… My labour, therefore, is manifested as the objective, sensuous, perceptible, and indubitable expression of my self-loss and my powerlessness.

This is a world that Werner Bonefeld notes is reduced to an atomised, hopeless existence as labour-under-capitalism, in which our spaces, places, identities, and relationships are all means of extracting value or hoarding wealth. In the process our Selves are denied, and in trying to recover our lost humanity we are forced to ask, how do we scale-up kindness? And in-part this is because, as Jehu argues:

If history tells us anything, it is that people will do everything in their power to avoid resolving the contradictions of capitalism.

Pace David Harvey, we might then argue that our sense of hopelessness is our witnessing just how far the limits to our alienation from space, society and nature can be pushed. The limits to our alienation expanded time and again. And against this we witness an academic life rooted in hopelessness that lies beyond anxiety. This is the world weariness of the traveller who knows that the concrete world she moves through can never be that for which she hoped, for it is too abstracted. That as the limits to the creation of value can only be overcome spatially or via intensification, we witness Capital changing the very terrain on which we operate. That our reality is Capital’s intensifying our very alienation in this abstracted, concrete world. As Biffo Berardi argues (p. 73):

To be recognized in the networked universe one must become compatible with the generative logic of the matrix. What does not belong to a codified domain is not socially recognizable or relevant, although it still exists in the domain of irrelevance, of residuality. It then reacts with rage and despair, in order to violently reassert its existence.

This world of data-driven performance anxiety drives academic commodification as alienation, and leads to plaintive cries in the name of the public good or intellectual autonomy orthe intellectual value of British academia as a whole.

Yet we are witnessing the privatisation of the private as well as the public, and for academics and students this includes their cognitive work. This is the alienation and subsequent hopelessness of intellectual dispossession that Stiegler (pp. 125-6) argued forms

[a] toxic economy of regressive tendencies, implemented by consumerism exercising the psychopower of its cultural hegemony through the intermediary of psychotechnologies, in this way controls the becoming of individual and collective behavior, as well as the dynamic processes of the technical system.

Our atomisation and automisation cannot enable liberation or agency or the reassertion of academic autonomy. The technological system that valorises Capital itself co-opts and reproduces social relationships that it then attempts to modify or destroy. We are constantly torn between social (re)combination and individual atomisation/entrepreneurialism. The social relations of production extend their domination beyond the space-time of our work, into the space-time of our life, in order to occupy and valorise our humanity and our kindness. For Marcuse in One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, our hopelessness is a function of our technological instrumentalisation: “The liberating force of technology – the instrumentalization of things – turns into a fetter of liberation; the instrumentalization of man.” (p. 159) For Berardi (p. 101, 153, 162), this technological context is rooted in constant, global acceleration of consuming and producing the world that itself intensifies Capital’s capacity for rapid deterritorialization. Control enacted through the internalisation and adoption of automatic operational systems forces us to incorporate negative internal objects. The anxieties of the machine, and the anxieties of the University as a node in the machine, are incorporated and projected onto others. Competition, entrepreneurialism, data-driven performance, the academic super-ego are all incorporated as forms of self-harm. Incorporated as behavioural norms that shape the tempo of our hopelessness.

And to scale-up kindness we have to find spaces on the edges of the machine. And this reminds me that Matt Rendall, in writing about the death of the professional cyclist Marco Pantani (p. 4), showed how those edges were defined through the chronic self-harm of the over-performer/entrepreneur/competitive super-ego:

Marco, however, specialised in the impossible. He’d train for eight hours, then, on the final climbs, the final fifty, sixty kilometres, he’d take himself to the limit, push himself to the edge of the abyss, gauging just how far he could lurch, how much his body could take. And that was how he won, free-diving within himself to greater depths and darknesses than others dared, surfacing barely alive, testing blood, from the great apnoea. There was self-mutilation in these performances, a shedding of everything worldly.

What this entails for the academic/student is an end to self-care; of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds; of the apparent impossibility of scaling-up kindness. Because to survive, the academic/student has to shred and shed everything concrete and worldly, and become abstracted. This, as Rendall notes for professional cycling demands a culture both of dietrologia, or the desperate search for hidden dimensions to surface reality, and of omertà, the silence of those in the know. This is a culture that makes absolute demands of its participants. For Rendall (p. 7):

The soul is its raw material, no less than the body. “Nothing goes to waste,” as Marco’s adversary Lance Armstrong put it. “You put it all to use; the old wounds and long-ago slights become the stuff of competitive energy.”

Increasingly, in these spaces of dietrologia and of omertà, a set of productive relations rooted in the valorisation process and the expansion of Capital gives other’s systemic claims over the academic and student. And Rendall has a second analogy that is useful in discussing academic hopelessness. As he noted in A Significant Other (pp. 7, 11):

This is the paradox at the heart of [academia]: to compete, even rivals must cooperate. In doing so, the play of accommodation and opposition creates complex systems never quite in equilibrium, yet rarely chaotic for long, oscillating around limits defined by shared interest.

[The academic] embodies the uncertainties encoded in the very structure of [academia] – human, social, even philosophical questions about the division of labour, the limits of altruism and the extent to which even the most fortunate of lives must fail to realise its potential for happiness.

And we note that it is the politics of austerity and the foreclosing on academic/student freedom/autonomy that amplifies the failure to realise our potential for happiness. This is the hopelessness that we must face and move beyond. Not to resist and turn from, but to sit with and hold, so that our grief can be internalised. So that we can move beyond it, and so that we can recover hope as an authentic moment of freedom. In her thesis on Contesting Illusions: History and Intellectual Class Struggle in Post-Communist Romania, Florin Poenaru argues (p. 44) that:

The question of the meaning of life is always posed with greater acuity in moments of great ruptures and transformation in people’s lives. The 1989 moment in Eastern Europe was such a moment, when “everything that seemed forever, was no more”. This entailed a dramatic shift in the perceptions and understandings of the communist regimes that, in turn, generated highly emotional biographical reappraisals of the past. This raises a series of interconnected questions that an anthropology of being in time can investigate, such as: what is to live a good life in turbulent times and world-transforming transitional periods? What does it mean to act politically? How to capture such elusive feelings of optimism, enthusiasm, pessimism, Weltschmerz that are not simply personal, but generational? How are justifications about one’s life decisions and actions are formulated, expressed and represented? How do feelings of resignation, disappointment, renunciation and despair take shape amid the course of one’s life and how do they gather meaning and political relevance? The ontological level that depicts life as a transition through time is compounded by the level of transition through particular political and economic realities, with breaks and continuities.

And this isn’t simply an anxiety-driven catastrophism, which we hope will announce the inevitable post-capitalism. It is engaging with hopelessness as a way of understanding this secular crisis, and the contradictions that emerge from and flow into it. The contradictions of a world dominated by value, against which we wish to reclaim our entitlement to happiness, kindness, humane values. How is it that we allow Capital to dominate? How is it that through our choices we liberate value in motion? We see this in the environment and nature, in questions about Why should we even bother? We see this in the reproduction of authoritarianism across the State, and in the internalisation of brutalism in our social relationships. We see this in the endless reproduction of inequalities that deny so many their lives, and instead instil only hopelessness.

We might remember that Bloch saw this as a form of confusion, fed upon by hopelessness and which incorporated anxiety and later, as that anxiety coalesced, fear:

Many only feel confused. The ground shakes, they do not know why and with what. Theirs is a state of anxiety; if it becomes more definite, then it is fear.

Here sitting with and then teaching hopelessness, as an authentic pedagogic moment that can be worked upon and moved past, becomes so important. For Bloch, engaging with the internalisation of anxiety and its projection into the world as fear is a means to work through this hopelessness, and to recover a more authentic sense of what the Self might be in the world. Yet this demands that we reveal what frames our abstracted concrete reality, and that we accept and engage with what exactly is generating our life beyond our anxiety; our Weltschmerz. And what, exactly we are internalising and then projecting onto the world.

It is a question of learning hope. Its work does not renounce, it is in love with success rather than failure. Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them, cannot know nearly enough of what it is that makes them inwardly aimed, of what may be allied to them outwardly. The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong. It will not tolerate a dog’s life which feels itself only passively thrown into What Is, which is not seen through, even wretchedly recognized. The work against anxiety about life and the machinations of fear is that against its creators, who are for the most part easy to identify, and it looks in the world itself for what can help the world; this can be found. How richly people have always dreamed of this, dreamed of the better life that might be possible. Everybody’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just stale, even enervating escapism, even booty for swindlers, but another part is provocative, is not content just to accept the bad which exists, does not accept renunciation. This other part has hoping at its core, and is teachable. It can be extricated from the unregulated daydream and from its sly misuse, can be activated undimmed. Nobody has ever lived without daydreams, but it is a question of knowing them deeper and deeper and in this way keeping them trained unerringly, usefully, on what is right. Let the daydreams grow even fuller, since this means they are enriching themselves around the sober glance; not in the sense of clogging, but of becoming clear. [emphasis added]

Only with the farewell to the closed, static concept of being does the real dimension of hope open. Instead, the world is full of propensity towards something, tendency towards something, latency of something, and this intended something means fulfilment of the intending. It means a world which is more adequate for us, without degrading suffering, anxiety, self-alienation, nothingness.

If only we can learn to sit with our hopelessness. To internalise it. To grieve for it. To move beyond it. To teach it.


A friend asked me to question whether I was talking about a hopelessness that is rooted in an inability, or whether instead it was grounded in a lack of an ability – an ability that was latent, hidden or undeveloped. And I think that the former, an inability, uncovers defences and anxieties and fears made concrete because we have incorporated too many experiences and relationships that were bad enough. This inability is then reflected in our powerlessness to face down abstraction that is rooted in the financialisation of the University and that amplifies our subsequent alienation from ourselves. The latter, our latent or undeveloped ability, offers a different route away from hopelessness, and one that can enable us to reflect on (and accept or reject or reform) what we have incorporated, so that we can instead internalise the grief of what is and what cannot be, and to emerge renewed through mourning. This is Bloch’s idea that a life that sits authentically with hopelessness moves towards hope because “it looks in the world itself for what can help the world.” This isn’t a melancholic or despairing hope for a return to an idealised “what was”. In Bloch’s idea, it is an active “becoming”.

I know you leave, it’s too long overdue
For far too long I’ve had nothin’ new to show to you
Goodbye dry eyes, I watched your plane fade off west of the moon
And it felt so strange to walk away alone

There’s no regrets
No tears goodbye

Rush, T. 1968. No Regrets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *