on academic bewilderment




a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome: “he felt a surge of anxiety”

Synonyms: worry; concern; apprehension; apprehensiveness; consternation; unease; fearfulness; disquiet; perturbation; fretfulness; agitation; angst; nervousness; stress; trepidation; foreboding; suspense.

when once you had believed it

now you see it’s sucking you in

to string you along with the pretense

and pave the way for the coming release

Get Innocuous. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

What do we do in these half-days between £9,000 fees and what is to follow? When what we know will follow will be the grinding everyday of future earnings and employability records, and teaching excellence frameworks, and an obsession with learning gain, and the circuit of impact.

And all the while we wonder what is happening to the public-facing, public good that we hoped this academic life was about. As those with power argue for a removal of the ceiling on indenture. As those with power argue for outsourcing the fabric of the institutions which we thought were safe spaces. As those with power seek to monitor our every moment. As those with power seek to make us responsible for the safe running of the machine that destroys the fabric of our being. Forced to reproduce their alienation of our lives, inside the machinery of the institution, and inside the fabric of our public engagement, and inside our relationships with our students-as-customers, and inside our very selves.

Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself.

Marx, K. 1857. Grundrisse. Chapter 14.

I knew you were low man,

But the truth is I was shocked

(Of) power eyes, eyes never lie

Kids, Kids never lie.

Time to Get Away. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

And we can see that those governing networks that enforce learning gain, and the national student survey, and the research excellence framework, and the higher education achievement record, and the future earnings and employability records, and performance management, and new public management techniques and methodologies, and internationalisation strategies, and precarious labour rights, cannot care about all the ands. They cannot care that as well as teaching and assessing and administrating and researching and scholarship, that this is too much.

They cannot care that this reduces the capability of people and relationships to withstand stress.

They cannot care that this is too much.

They cannot care that this makes us anxious.

And this anxiety is driven by the need for us to live two half-lives. In one we try to be partners in a social construction; in social sustainability; in a willingness to address those global issues that will fuck our world over. Partners in trying to find solutions that are not beholden to the structuring logic of the market. Yet this half-life decays quicker than the other half-life – the demands made of us to treat our lives as services that can be commodified and exchanged. Our whole lives now reproduced as labour-power. Lost to us.

And in making sense of the loss our cognitive dissonance places the use-value and the exchange-value of our work in screaming tension.

And how can we survive this?

But there’s no love man there’s no love and the kids are uptight

So throw a party till the cops come in and bust it up.

North American Scum. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

How do we survive as we see vindictive actions taking place against trades unionists and students who go into occupation? How do we survive when the police are invited onto campus to maintain a very particular narrative of democratic order? How will we survive when the senior management of universities increasingly resort to banning orders against protest? How will we survive when senior management are content to refer to students who question governance and power as “yobs”?

How will we survive when the tactics that were trialled and practiced and refined during the Coalition are amplified just as austerity is amplified?

How do we build an alternative when there can be no alternative?


And it keeps coming,

And it keeps coming,

And it keeps coming,

Till the day it stops.

Someone Great. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

And the question becomes what now for academics and students, in this “how”? What now in the face of a recovery that demands continual, Keynesian stimulus, and the attrition on wages and living standards and labour rights and welfare in order to maintain the rate of profit, and indentured study, and precarious life and work, and the permanence of deficits and debt, and narratives that hate and which demonise.

What now for academics and students as this crisis of over-accumulation, and its political impacts, flood into the University?

What now for academics and students as the value of their labour-power collapses in order to maintain the rate of profit?

What now for academics and students as their labour-power is alienated from them, and turned into work for which they have little use, beyond its ability to let them survive physically in a world that is cognitively and emotionally broken? And yet at the same time we can see that this physical survival is time-limited, as we continue to refuse to divest because we must consume.

You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan

And the next five years trying to be with your friends again

All My Friends. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

Because at the level of the State and in the hierarchies of universities, there is increasingly limited understanding of the political economic value of the labour of academics and students. And there is limited willingness to enable that labour-power to support the wider public good, as a form of mass intellectuality. There is just the attempt to scrub that labour-power clean of any risk.

The risk that is embedded in autonomy.

So that the activities of the University are governed by risk management as a futures-trading activity. So that anxiety about potential risks can be internalised inside the organisation and inside each of us. So that we can never focus on the present, because that present is immanent to past performance and mitigating future failure Where future failure is anything other than total quality excellence, all the time.

So how can we focus on this essay or this tutorial or this viva or this paper or this presentation, when our lives are governed by the demand that we are persistently and permanently alive to the next entrepreneurial possibility? How can we be present with ourselves and others in the present, when we must be internalising and reproducing continual improvement and learning gain and teaching excellence and research impact?

When we are trying to finesse the future and learn from the past, how can we be? In the face of entrepreneurial excellence, how can we be other than anxious?

Avoid all the plans cuz we’re making our day jobs

Into a steady career

We’re both high high high, high high on lemon sips

We all claw claw claw, cli-climb-on to sinking ships

And ah ooh! avoid all the cold sideways glances

And ah ooh! celebrate! celebrate! celebrate!

And then turn to stone

All the Tapes. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

And where do we look, in order to overcome the duality of an uncertain landscape for our labour and the certainty that our labour is no longer ours? The reality is that it never was, but it felt momentarily like we were the lucky few. With agency and power-over our work, and doing a job that we loved and which was worthy, and that made our families believe in our and their status. That we were someone with something to say. With a voice. With a purpose. With lots of badges.

And now what? Subsumed inside the market.

And now what? Waiting to find out how our labour will be co-opted once more. Even more. Ever more.

And now what, in that co-option by privateers seeking rents from our work, and by publishers seeking rents from our work, and by politicians seeking impact and tradable services from our work, and by transatlantic trade and investment partnerships seeking to open and dominate our labour for exchange, and by investment banks seeking to monetise the future and past of our work as derivatives?

And what now when these privateers and politicians and publishes and trading networks and investment banks act as an association? As a joint venture?

Fight or flight? Or just give up?

Sound of silver talk to me

Makes you want to feel like a teenager

Until you remember the feelings of

A real life emotional teenager

Then you think again.

Sound of Silver. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

And what are the feelings we remember now? When we teach? When we present our work? When we listen to others teach or present?

What are our feelings when we hear about the foreclosing of opportunity beyond the market?

What are our feelings when we hear about how marginalised groups are fighting to be heard inside the academy? When we hear women protesting sexual harassment on campus? When we hear students and academics who wish to dismantle the university as a form of colonialized and colonializing house? When we hear postgraduate students and precariously employed academics voicing concerns about casualization? When we hear students and academics calling for divestment and to leave fossil fuels in the ground?

How do we address our silence?

What does it mean to speak?

And oh… Take me off your mailing list

For kids that think it still exists

Yes, for those who think it still exists

New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. 2007. LCD Soundsystem.

Perhaps what it means to speak is to register that this space and time of higher education is not what we thought it might be. And that what we hoped it might be will be way beyond our comprehension in the next five years. So that it might just have been a dream.

And that what we hoped it might be is not the institution or the idea of the campaign to defend what never was and never could be. Nothing and nowhere.

Perhaps what it means is to take their instantiation of risk, and their trading in our psyches on our fears of being punished for being anything other than excellent, in every way and all the time. Perhaps we take this past and futures trading and show what it is doing to our individual and collective selves, and our individual and collective ability to face socio-environmental crisis. To face a crisis that is rooted in our political economic; our very material history.

To try to find spaces and times to refuse and push-back against their trading in our psyches.

To try to find spaces and times to refuse and push-back against the demand for entrepreneurialism and exchange. Because entrepreneurialism and exchange just demonstrate the fleeting nature of our status and the self-harm of a constant need to reproduce ourselves anew.

To try to find spaces and times to refuse to download and install their fear of their potential loss of control. Because their control risks blinding us to wider, structural and societal iniquities. So that we risk reinforcing those iniquities of debt, precarity, outsourcing, the attrition on labour rights, delegitimation, the militarisation of the campus, through our silence.

And we cannot do this on our own. Alone inside higher education. When we are through the looking glass.

And it keeps coming until the day it stops.

Fight or flight? Or just give up?

Because sometimes we forget that we spent t he last five years discussing and planning in occupations and social centres and co-operatives. And we remember that people are fighting austerity and organising foodbanks and fighting for the right to a home and for asylum. And in the face of this all they could do was militarise against that organisation.

As James Butler wrote in 2011:

Any movement is what you make of it – I won’t be ceding the ground to conspiracy theorists, or the liberal centrists, or the nationalists. There is a real chance here, and to pass it up without any engagement is jawdropping.

Sometimes I forget that we might be stronger than we think.

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