The Contemporary Condition

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Orange is the New Black as a Risky Act of Consciousness-Raising

Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado

By blurring the lines between entertainment and political advocacy, Orange is the New Black expresses a novel and risky form of mass political consciousness-raising. It simultaneously educates, outrages, and diverts its audience. In so doing, it has tremendous potential to generate empathy for the poor and the incarcerated among the complacent American middle-class, but it also risks undermining critique of our justice system through its use of melodrama and marketing. Whatever its ultimate impact on our culture, it is worth understanding how Orange simultaneously operates as entertainment and political incitement.

I contend that Orange engages in a kind of consciousness-raising through entertainment that is indirectly political. It focuses on stories about individuals, peppered with brief discussions of political issues: along the way the viewer is educated in questions about sentencing and prison justice, but the show does not make these issues the overt object of the action. It raises consciousness in a subtle fashion, without just telling us what to believe.

Precisely because its politics are so subtle, Orange has the radical potential to illuminate how our justice system works and the ways in which women prisoners are particularly disadvantaged within it. Yet this potential to raise awareness and even to mobilize viewers to take action is simultaneously undermined in four ways.

1) The Netflix series deploys melodrama in a way that keeps the storytelling light and satisfies viewers’ desire for justice, but may also keep viewers from reflecting on the actual injustices of the prison system. Consider this in contrast to what we see in a series like The Wire. Where The Wire is primarily dark and aims at portraying realistic characters and situations, Orange often exaggerates scenarios in a way that seems designed to satisfy viewers’ desires for some kind of justice in a prison world that is (in reality) unrelentingly unjust. The Wire’s deployment of the tragic form, I believe, makes it very difficult for viewers to treat it as mere entertainment, and to disengage from the political questions it brings to the forefront. The use of melodramatic forms in Orange, however, while perhaps it makes the show easier for a broader audience to enjoy, may also risk obscuring the real injustices of the prison system that the show serves to highlight.

Orange couches consciousness-raising in the more entertaining and palatable forms of hot lesbian prison sex, humor, and melodramatic justice in which bad people ultimately suffer for their misdeeds. While based on a memoir, the Netflix series takes creative license with reality in ways that may obscure or at least deflect serious attention from the injustices of the prison system.

2) My second worry about the potential effectiveness of Orange’s political consciousness-raising has to do with how Netflix blurs the lines between entertainment, marketing and political advocacy. When political advocacy is presented as marketing for entertainment, I worry that audiences may experience this either as confusing (i.e., they may not experience the political issues as issues), or as a turn-off (i.e., they may see the advocacy as self-interested rather than the result of more noble motivations).

For example, consider the “paid op-ed” that Netflix produced for The New York Times around the time Season 2 was released. Entitled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work,” this op-ed presents a visually appealing graphic representation of the status of women in the American prison system, interspersed with video and audio interviews with women who are serving or have served time. It is an incredible act of political pedagogy: it educates readers about the specific issues faced by women in the justice system; it raises awareness about many of the injustices faced by women both leading up to, in, and after prison; and it offers a solution in the form of the Hawaii Women’s Community Correctional Center, which treats women prisoners as in need of sanctuary and a place to heal during their time in incarceration. At the very end, it provides some links to “additional resources,” including to some activist and service organizations addressing women prisoners in particular.

I find this ad intriguing because of how it blurs the lines between politics and marketing. Netflix may benefit reputationally from being seen as a corporation that is not merely making money from the show, but is advocating for the kind of women the show portrays. But I think the blurring of the lines here raises questions of motive that are difficult to dismiss. Is the Netflix leadership truly in favor of prison reform (in which case, why does this appear to be the only such effort at consciousness-raising sponsored by Netflix)? Does it hurt the cause of justice reform to have it associated with a media company that is profiting off of a fictional and melodramatic portrayal of the issues? Or does it help to have the corporate money to reach a broader audience with the political message?

3) Either way, neither the series nor the op-eds provides us with a viable model of what political action to change the system would look like. The op-ed references the women’s prison in Hawaii as a role model for other prisons, yet it does not give readers any sense of how this model could be taken up elsewhere. The resources listed at the end of the op-ed give readers a chance to learn more about the topics mentioned and to find ways to take action, but the organizations listed are lumped together with no additional information to distinguish between them, or to explain why they were included. There is no suggested political action to take, and no information given to encourage readers to find out more about the organizations listed. It is unclear how a reader would even get to more information about the Hawaii prison, the one that is upheld as a role model for reform.

Matters are even worse in the series itself. Those who have political convictions about justice are mocked in Season 2 with its hunger strike. The hunger strikers cannot agree on a meaningful platform, and ultimately their conviction weakens in the face of a mediocre pizza. Sister Ingalls encourages them to leave the movement saying, “Go ahead, girls. Take a break from your values” (Season 2, Episode 11: "Take a Break from Your Values"). The hunger strike serves primarily as comic relief – no one takes it seriously, least of all the prison staff.

So even as the marketing and the series urge us to see the injustices of the system, they offer no clear path to create change. In a culture in which the general population is largely depoliticized, and which often treats political activism as futile, self-aggrandizing, or naïve, this is an opportunity missed. What’s more, the deployment of consciousness-raising as a form of marketing reinforces the cynical view that political actors have hidden agendas.

4) Finally, because Netflix has chosen to release an entire season all at once, annually, the show enjoys only a brief media spotlight. Women in prison get a big boost of attention in June, which subsides by the end of July when many viewers have finished binge-watching. This limits the impact that Netflix’s advertising campaign, and news articles about the show can have in terms of raising awareness and keeping the issue of prison justice in the forefront of media attention. Except for the occasional award show or guest appearance on a talk show, there is no real occasion to bring up Orange in the media until we are approaching the release of the next season. The spotlight on prison reform is intermittent, as a consequence. Again, I worry that this means that sustained attention on reform is unlikely to result from the show.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hands Up Dont Shoot: Democracy's Casualties, Democracy's Heroes

Steven Johnston 
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Last month, when the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, took to their own streets to protest the police killing of one of their own, would-be college student Michael Brown, they converted otherwise ordinary roads into public political spaces. One incarnation—necessarily imperfect—of the people themselves decided they must assemble, voice their outrage and indignation, and demand immediate redress from public officials. The people deployed on the streets in support of Michael Brown and his family, but more than Michaels Brown was at issue on the streets, as Ferguson, like many other small American towns around major cities, suffers from all manner of social, political, economic, and racial inequities and injustices. 
The shooting of Michael Brown thus functioned as both cause and occasion for politics. This is one example of American democracy at its best, the horrible circumstances notwithstanding. Democracy presupposes that citizens respond to questionable exercises of state power, especially the use of deadly violence. To remain silent in the face of state violence is to become mere subject, a Hobbesian creature who knows his place in the order of things and stays there. The police, accordingly, should have left Ferguson’s democratic citizens alone and remained in their barracks.
American police, of course, do not appreciate politics exercised on the streets, perhaps especially when it’s conducted by minorities—whether racial, economic, or otherwise. 

Since the late 1960s in Los Angeles, local police have created military-style assault forces to deal not only with all manner of crime, but also and more importantly with whatever political opposition, dissent, resistance, or tumult may be developing in the community. Los Angeles invented SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams in response to the urban uprisings in Watts in the mid-1960s. They were first deployed as part of an ongoing war against the Black Panther Party, one reason Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates originally wanted to name his creation the Special Weapons Attack Team, a fitting moniker.
Given Los Angeles’s success it became the model for the country. America’s police forces have been thoroughly militarized in the decades since LAPD’s Frankensteinian creation, thanks first to the War on Drugs and later the War on Terror. American police resemble military units and act as occupation forces, treating citizens, as countless commentators have remarked, like enemies in need of surveillance, control, and subordination. There are critics of the militarization of America’s police forces who argue that SWAT originally served a legitimate purpose, to respond to extraordinary situations that standard police elements could not handle. The problem, they say, is mission creep. SWAT-style teams now handle routine police matters in which their equipment, training, tactics, and mindset are not only inappropriate but deadly inappropriate
Examples abound of SWAT teams entering the wrong home or the right home at the wrong time and wreaking great damage. Yet, as LAPD’s history reveals, the problem is not—or not just—mission creep. SWAT was a political instrument and expression from the get-go. It was a military response to a political condition. Rather than address and correct what engendered America’s urban uprisings in the 1960s, the American state at all levels assumed effective suppression was the appropriate response. 
Given this problematic history, it comes as no surprise that American police would be unleashed against democratic citizens enacting their civic responsibilities at national political conventions in New York (2004) and St. Paul (2008) or against democratic citizens calling attention to the cancerous, anti-democratic maldistribution of wealth in public spaces across the country as part of Occupy Wall Street (2011-2012). Darryl Gates’s vision of America has been largely realized.

The democratic resisters in Ferguson teach us not only that it is time to disarm and rehabilitate American police forces across the country, stripping them of their armored vehicles, riot gear, Kevlar vests, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, assortment of gases, and military sensibility, but it is time to recover and revalue the art of democratic politics as forceful, militant resistance. When police fire tear gas at democratic citizens exercising their political rights and responsibilities, it is legitimate for those citizens to fire back those very same canisters. When the state imposes a curfew against democratic citizens mobilized on the streets to hold public officials accountable, they should refuse orders to disperse and hold their ground
If the police move against them with violence, their response is now a matter of legitimate self-defense—and the practices of nonviolence might be best. But they might not be. It is only because democratic citizens in Ferguson fought back that there is any prospect for further democratic—and democratizing—action in its aftermath. Barack Obama intoned, “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting.” He then added: “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” It’s not just that Obama is apparently blind to his own double standard, namely, that while citizens commit “violence against police,” police only exercise “excessive force” against citizens (of which throwing protestors into jail does not even seem to be an instance). It’s that Obama’s political reflex was to express concern for the police, not democratic citizens, reversing the order of priority in a democracy, where the people rule and police are their servants.
Obama, much like Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, was unduly concerned with the protection of private property. Looting and vandalism are also political phenomena, uncomfortable truths American politicians are largely unwilling to confront. Besides, denial allows for easy moralizing and excuses a resort to arms. Democracies should remember that tumults like the one in Ferguson are part and parcel of American history. Response should center on correcting the conditions that made them necessary in the first place, not slandering, discrediting, and suppressing them. If democracies, always feeling vulnerable from threats foreign and domestic, are willing to pay whatever sums of money national security requires (because you can’t put a price on safety), they should be willing to pay whatever sums of money the often unruly exercise of democratic politics requires—because you can’t put a price on freedom, equality, and justice. Some may suggest that this threatens to render democracy a suicide pact. Well, in many respects democracy is a suicide pact. Democracy’s enactment, as in Ferguson, does leave us vulnerable—which is precisely why we don’t need the police on the streets to exacerbate it. We’re fine on our own, even if it doesn’t always appear that way to some, to those allergic to and frightened by democratic politics.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violette and Simone: Politics in the Encounter

Lori Marso
Union College

The biopic is most compelling when a strong narrative message is not imposed on a life. Life unfolds in response to the unpredictable, idiosyncratic occurrence tossed one’s way, and we, as individuals or collective, mobilize freedom or opportunity in the random events of life and politics. Violette, Martin Provost’s 2013 biopic about Violette Leduc and her encounter with Simone de Beauvoir, is a visceral and unnerving film about a difficult woman. The film reveals the anger, bitterness, rejection, sexual energy, and depression that saturated Violette’s emotional life, fueled her creativity, and dominated her writing. It not only illuminates an individual life in a non-narrative mode, it also tells the story of macro social forces. The complicated choices in presenting Violette’s life demonstrate how freedom is grasped and sustained. By the end, we see that the efforts of several people, most importantly Simone de Beauvoir, have combined to free Violette to live on her own terms. 

When we first see Violette she is smuggling black market goods at the end of World War II somewhere in rural France. She is living with the writer Maurice Sachs. When he abandons Violette for good, he sneaks out in the middle of the night hoping to avoid her desperate pleading. Maurice is depicted as a flamboyant gay man, and Violette experiences his lack of desire not as a rejection of her sex but a rejection of her specifically. When she hears him leaving and runs after him to claw at his back and beg him to love her, we get the feeling that this tawdry incident is but one in a long series of personal rejections. “Ugliness in a woman is a mortal sin,” she will write later, as well as remembering, “My mother never took my hand.”   

But Maurice Sachs did do one thing for Violette Leduc: he urged her to write. This is one of many encounters depicted in this gripping film that has no clear dramatic arc or formal structure. Unlike many biopics depicting the lives of women, Violette leaves almost every question unanswered.  Viewers themselves have to tease out the meaning and implications of Violette’s frustrated sexuality; whether she is depressed due to mental illness or what Ann Cvetkovich (2012) would call a “public feeling;” why she so urgently clings to every person she meets and demands that they love her; whether her ambivalent and confusing relationship with her difficult and narcissistic mother is the main or just one reason Violette sees herself only as ugly and unwanted, a bastard; whether her intense awareness of bodily sensation was her savior, awakening her to life’s pleasures and pains, or her curse, making her too sensitive, too easily harmed; whether writing was her true calling or merely a means for survival.  

At the heart of the film is Violette Leduc’s encounter with Simone de Beauvoir. Violette discovers Beauvoir’s writing by chance but subsequently seizes every opportunity to draw herself into Beauvoir’s orbit. Delivering black market goods to a bourgeois client, Violette discovers a book by Beauvoir on a table and slips it in her purse. The book is She Came to Stay, the bold story of a ménage à trois with a woman’s feelings, desires, anxieties, and emotions at the center. Seduced by this book and its author, Violette seems to feel she has found her everything in Beauvoir long before meeting her: soul mate, role model, lover, and friend.  

Several critics have noted that Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) is depicted as “stern” or “aloof:” Manohla Dargis (NY Times) says she comes off as “a cross between a dominatrix and a mother superior.” Beauvoir’s life and circumstances are indeed more orderly and disciplined, and one imagines that Violette would appear desperate and disheveled to her. After stalking Beauvoir, Violette shoves the manuscript for In the Prison of Her Skin into Beauvoir’s hands. Beauvoir firmly assures Leduc that she will indeed read it and such begins their relationship, and Beauvoir’s praise for Leduc’s writing: “You talk about female sexuality like no woman before you; with poetry, honesty, and more besides; Go further! Tell it all: trafficking, love lives, the abortion; you’ll be doing women a favor.”

To Leduc, Beauvoir is inscrutable. To Beauvoir, Leduc is an open book.  Beauvoir recognizes Leduc’s talent and the political and social significance of Leduc’s work for women and for the world (she promises that her own The Second Sex will appear with Leduc’s L'Asphyxie, or In the Prison of Her Skin, and people will see that the latter is the best example of the meaning of the former), while Leduc continues to flounder, complain, and rage against the world, seeing every single thing as a personal affront, especially the fact that Beauvoir doesn’t love her and nor does anyone else. Unrequited love and extreme poverty feed Violette’s insecurity and frustration. Never able to see society’s role, she understands her problems as personal idiosyncrasies. And indeed, she is difficult. Violette not only chooses the wrong partners; she also never seems to learn a lesson, to fully appreciate her benefactors, or to take anything in stride. In one scene, perhaps the best in the film, Leduc enters a bookstore to search for her book only to find a few copies hidden in the back. This is an amusing scene, one that resonates with every author as Violette surreptitiously places her book in a more prominent place. Rather than slink out of the store after asking about “Violette Leduc’s” book (pretending to be someone else), she exclaims that she certainly is “not a friend of Leduc” and screams at the clerk: “Come out and say it! It’s all Julien Green here!” 

Two things about the film are especially striking and original. One involves the centrality of the relationship between Beauvoir and Leduc and how it unfolded. No one except Beauvoir seems to understand or entirely sympathize with her. It is not even clear that Beauvoir sympathizes with her; she seems to find her exasperating, but still recognizes her brilliance as a writer and her experience as illuminating the lives of other women too. In short, Beauvoir sees the political in the personal. Leduc, too, with Beauvoir’s help, starts to see connections between her own and other women’s lives. Leduc comforts Beauvoir after Beauvoir confides that her mother has just died and she admits that though she felt only ambivalence towards her mother in life, her mother’s too-sudden death has affected her profoundly. Here we witness the risking of a dependent relationship between two women constituted by their ambivalence to their own mothers. It is to some extent a healing of prior wounds, and in another very different sense a manifestation not of the vertical mother-daughter bond but the horizontal sororal bond between two very differently situated women.  

Indeed, the themes of ambivalence, affinity, friendship, and bonds of situated oppression between women builds as one of the most affecting features in the film though it is never too obviously announced. The film also instances solidarity between women across class lines, something far from dogmatic to feminism although exemplary within it. It shows us how a comfortable woman allows herself to be drawn to one who is discomforting. We cannot know Beauvoir’s motives; regardless, the two women share an encounter, and their relationship changes history and each of them. The chosen episodes make it clear that Beauvoir’s influence on Leduc made her the writer that she was and helped Leduc to find the meaning in her work, her creative impulse, and even her afflictions. Because Leduc is always in the grip of extreme poverty, Beauvoir supported her with a monthly allowance; we feel the claustrophobia in Leduc’s apartment where she eats only potatoes, as contrasted with Beauvoir’s deep couches, good wine, and built in bookshelves. Beauvoir also read and edited all Leduc’s manuscripts; she encouraged her to travel, to feel and explore nature and the countryside; she paid for her stay in a mental hospital, visiting and sustaining her too; and always urged her to take up her pen: “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere; writing will!” In addition, Beauvoir wrote a preface to La Bâtarde (The Bastard), an act that may have been what finally propelled Leduc to fame in 1964. 

The film is also extraordinary insofar as the meaning Beauvoir gleans from Leduc’s writing, that a singular woman’s lived experience is important for all women, is felt as sensation revealed through language and image. Through Violette’s words we feel the physical sensation of love between young girls, of the sun on one’s face, of poverty, of her late term abortion and its aftermath, of having to fight and traffic for food during the War, of being unloved and unwanted, of never hearing god’s voice. We feel too, with Violette, how life is always too much, too volatile, too painful or pleasurable, simply too intense. The film makes one uncomfortable and yet it is deeply moving. The film’s techniques that depict sensations as lived through the body make it an experience to live through rather than a story to view and evaluate. 

Moreover, we understand each episode or encounter in Violette’s life as vitally open. We never know which way things will end up. If we are familiar with the life and work of Violette Leduc, we will already know she will find success rather than die in the mental hospital or kill herself in the countryside. Nevertheless, the film is able to keep each moment surprising and new. 

The film also resonates with several aspects of Beauvoir’s own depiction of how politics happens and how life unfolds. In The Second Sex and elsewhere, Beauvoir asks us to experience a singular life both as a singular life and as refracting social forces. At the same time that she illuminates and critiques structures, material conditions, and patriarchal fantasies that oppress women and deny freedom, she also affirms the struggle to live and thrive, the pleasures of nature or the beauty of a moment, and the surprising sources and locations of resistance. Beauvoir’s critical attention to affect, to bodily sensation, to the importance of feeling and emotions for politics, all are present, too, in Leduc’s account of her world—her experience of being female, lonely, and loveless. The film conveys not only how women’s lives are connected, but also how life and politics turns on the encounter—how we experience it, what we do with it, whether freedom is seized, affirmed, rejected, or simply missed. Violette Leduc encountered Beauvoir’s writing in She Came to Stay and seized onto it. Her reaction, to contact Beauvoir, and Beauvoir’s reaction to her, to acknowledge and encourage Leduc’s talent, made all the difference in Leduc’s life, and for the women who continue to read these women’s brilliant work. 

*Thank you to Tom Lobe, Bonnie Honig, Nancy Luxon, and Melissa Moskowitz for thoughtful comments on this essay.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Diasporic Politics Boomerang

Bonnie Honig
Brown University

Israel cultivates support from outside. The Jewish diaspora is its lifeline. Many North American Jews are raised to identify with Israel, many go visit or donate money, some even learn Hebrew! (What more proof of devotion could you need?) But -- then if we criticize their "policies", Israel says "wait, why such a double standard for Israel? Why don't you criticize Syria, Libya, Iran?" The answer is: “Syria, Libya, and Iran didn’t ask us to plant trees in their soil for tu b’shevat (the holiday of the trees, chag ha’elanot). They didn’t send us tree stamps to lick onto sheets of paper to illustrate how many trees would be planted with money we, as schoolchildren, raised in the diaspora. They did not ask us for money to help build hospitals to care for their wounded. They did not enlist us as their diasporic support community and they did not encourage us to personally identify with them. Their bloodshed is horrific but it feels less like it is on MY hands...."
When I was growing up I attended Hebrew Day School, and for a year or two our teacher for Jewish Laws, Norms, and Customs (I think) was a man named Aggassi, I think, or Agas. I remember because Agas means “pear” in Hebrew and the man had precisely that unfortunately shaped body. So he stuck in my (otherwise terrible) memory.
  I also remember one lesson he taught. He was describing Moses praying on the mountain and said Moses miraculously held his arms up in prayer for 40 days and 40 nights (or something like that). My seat in the class of 20 or so girls was in the back row. I surreptitiously held up my arms to see what was so hard about that? The teacher saw me and chuckled at my scepticism. He asked me to come to the front of the class. Did I not believe it was difficult? That holding one’s arms up like that was a miracle? He said I should stand in the corner in front of the classroom with my arms up to see how long I could last. It wasn’t long.

I think Mr. Aggas(si) was a shaliach. A shaliach is someone who is “sent,” an emissary. He was sent from Israel to us, as were others, usually for 2-year terms, to live in our Jewish community. Shlichim (the plural of shaliach) led our youth groups, taught in our Hebrew Schools, served as counselors in Jewish summer camps, and lent support in synagogues and after school activities.
There was in my youth, as now, a vast and diverse system of shlichim, sponsored by a variety of organizations with sometimes disparate goals and ideals. But they all overlapped in their aim and methods: Israelis cycled in and out of our communities, breathing their enthusiasm for Israel into us, inspiring and inspiriting us with love for that distant land. They secured our affective support, loyalty, identification, donations and, often, a commitment to one day move to Israel, to become part of this great Jewish nation that sent us these young men. (I only knew male shlichim. Perhaps there were also women – shlichot?)
All that work, all that infrastructure, created a web of communities with deep affective and intergenerational ties to the Land and – for a long time -- unflinching support for Israel and its security ‘needs’. We learned a lot about Israel, but we hardly heard anything about displacement, occupation, Palestinian refugees. When we did hear something, it was said their crisis was manufactured by the unwillingness of other Arab countries to take them in and that they had left voluntarily, in any case. Not “our” concern. Israel was always precarious, we learned, but it had a promising virility (personified for us, tween girls, by all those male shlichim in their 20’s and 30’s), and a will to survive. We learned that we needed Israel and that it needed us. (Well, “she” needed us, is what we were actually told). We were both surrounded by enemies, after all: Israel by hostile Arab nations, and we by a pervasive anti-semitism that may have gone underground since Nazism but was always waiting to spring back up. Sharing a precarious existence, we were told again and again, we had only ourselves to count on and we needed each other to survive.
The shlichim were just one part of a vast array of messagings and messengers that impressed us into the fate of the struggling Jewish democracy in the Middle East. In my middle school context, no one entertained the thought of a possible conflict between those terms – Jewish, ethno-national state and a democratic state. I had to go to college for that thought to become a thinkable thought.
Why do I suddenly recall all this now? Because the affective machinery has malfunctioned. Affect has a life of its own. Once installed, it does not always obey the law, norms and customs to which some try to harness it. Even corporeal lessons can have a variety of impacts. Being made to stand alone in front of a classroom can return a child to the fold. But it can also habituate children to stand alone in front of others when situations call for it. That very devotion to the “Land,” cultivated with such care and detail in my own youth, is what forces many of us to stand apart now, to recoil and protest. As families do when confronted with violence committed by one of their own, we members of the cultivated Jewish diaspora now find ourselves split into two: loyal members of the fold and shocked critics. And we look uncomprehendingly at each other. This is not something new. It has been going on for over thirty years, for me. For some more; for others less.
What I have described here is just a piece of the puzzle. It explains why some of us criticize, confront, protest, and boycott in particular in response to what is done by Israel because (even if we have not been to Israel for decades, or never at all) we know, we know – because we were taught so well – that all of this IS being done in our name. We know, because as children we licked those tree stamps onto those sheets of paper every year for tu b’shevat and I, anyway, can still taste them.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Toward an Eco-Egalitarian University

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University
Neoliberal university presidents, corporate trustees, military research contracts, super-rich donors, the gang of five on the Supreme Court, hyper-professionalized administrators, the Republican Party, Fox News: the university faces a constellation of reactionary forces today. Such a neoliberal machine, with additions and subtractions depending on the target, has gone after organized labor, the news media, cities, racial minorities, the extant distribution of income and wealth, and now the university. The idea is to fold the university into an anti-intellectual agenda that disparages liberal arts research and teaching as it prepares students to forfeit critical skills and become cogs in a machine. There are forces within some universities that resist this machine. The recent rebellions at New York University, the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Texas are cases in point. These constituencies are to be celebrated, because the machine is primed to make us both discount their actions and forget them as soon as possible. Recently, for instance, nonacademic employees at Hopkins won an impressive wage settlement, but we have yet to hear the administration publicize or celebrate this sweet union victory.
There are also critical intellectuals in and around the academy who point out how neoliberal policies accentuate inequality, create horrible exclusions, foster disciplinary society, and create economies punctuated by periods of crash and burn. They also show how those who do not initiate such irrational policies are set up to become the victims after each crash. They see how neoliberalism has retained hegemony for over thirty years as states ignore the authority structure of firms, enact neoliberal policies, generate legislative vetoes of new ventures when neoliberals officially hold a legislative minority, and draw authority from the gang of five on the Supreme Court. There are many faculty and students prepared to resist the intrusions of the neoliberal machine into their colleges and universities, whenever the latter act as if the administration has a natural right to manage students and faculty and they have an obligation to obey blindly. We must thus celebrate those who have fought off coup attempts from the top, even winning sometimes. And we must laugh off attempts by reactionary faculty and administrators who pretend after each of victory that this or that change was in the cards all along, even without staff, faculty or student activism. Such propaganda is designed to deactivate senior faculty, demoralize students, and discourage younger faculty from joining the fray when the forces of anti-intellectualism, top-down rule, authoritarianism and vindictiveness intensify. Divide, demoralize, and depoliticize the rank and file to create maximum room for political rule from the top.
Resistance, then, is indispensable. But is it enough? Note that the neoliberal/corporate/administrative machine has a well worked out agenda to enact. Perhaps, then, we need to articulate a positive agenda too, one that links critical intellectualism to an eco-egalitarian organization of university life. One in which universities and colleges become vibrant centers that challenge the neoliberal machine by their very mode of organization. Today I focus on the economic organization of such a university.
Start with the adjunct world. The more adjunct faculty there are the fewer full time appointments are available to young scholars and the fewer faculty there are to be independent voices in the life of the school. The more the adjunct model threatens tenure the less willing some younger faculty members are to take risks in their research, teaching and college participation. The weaker tenure is the more powerful the neoliberal machine becomes. These are some of the reasons budget cutbacks have been used to create the world of the adjunct. So the university will gather together adjunct positions and create a smaller number of tenure track positions out of them, inviting existing adjunct faculty to become candidates and drawing upon the records they have already achieved in considering them for the new positions.
With respect to salary, all staff members in the university will receive a living wage, and their incomes and job security will grow as they continue to work. The faculty will initially be governed by a 2/2/1&1/2 model. The highest paid senior professor will make no more than two times the median salary of assistant professors; deans and provosts will make no more than two times the median salary of senior professors; and the president will make no more than 1 & ½ the median salary of deans. Perhaps this scale can and should be squeezed down even further. The key point is that with such a sliding scale a salary increase at any level will be marked by corollary increases at other levels. Equally important, a decrease at any level—to respond to a new budget crunch created by neoliberal adventurism and then passed down the line--will meet with corollary decreases everywhere else. After reducing the current proportion of administrators to faculty to an earlier ratio, any decrease in the size of the faculty will be matched by a corollary reduction in the size of the administration. As time goes by these differentials can be reduced further. The underlying idea, to paraphrase Rousseau, is that no one becomes so rich that they can buy another and no one so poor that they can be bought by another. Staff, faculty and administrators will all receive remuneration that enable them to participate effectively in the larger infrastructure of consumption. That means that the larger infrastructure of consumption, too, will need to be reconstructed.
Such policies mean that we are all in this together rather than encouraging a few to impose their imperial will upon the rest of us. Savings that accrue can be deployed to help students reduce the crushing debt they currently face, and the university will now be in a better ethical position to press the state for more support to reduce those pressures further. Deans and Presidents will feel more tied to the faculty than to high rollers outside it. They will come from the faculty and can return to it with dignity rather than having to forfeit a life of royalty. They are thus apt to feel more closely tied to intellectual life and to act with courage against the neoliberal machine when necessary. If they are forced to resign while fighting for academic principles they will return to the faculty as heroes, presenting living models of how to be academic intellectuals. All this will help to modify the ethos of performance and governance in the university, pulling it away from subordination to the neoliberal agenda and toward a critical education and student/faculty participation in governance.
Of course, some faculty and administrators will depart when such policies are established. That is okay. They will be replaced by faculty members and administrators who prize intellectual life and seek to work in a place in which the faculty has a major voice in university life. The arrival of new recruits will further amplify support for the new university.
The university will also become a model of eco-experimentation, as it divests both from using carbon based power and making carbon based investments. It will encourage faculty in the humanities, social sciences and sciences to purse eco-friendly research as it enacts several practical experiments itself. Again, all these things will require a shift in the internal governance of the school. In this way the university becomes a living model appropriate to the world of today and tomorrow, and some other institutions may even be encouraged to emulate it. We enact practices needed in the twenty first century.
 No president will be allowed to milk donors for huge donations to be used for that president’s “signature projects’ and new faculty appointments, unless those actions have first gone through the relevant departments and faculty assembly for review and acceptance. Such practices are based on the sound understanding that the most creative, educational and socially useful innovations do not come from the top. They flow up from intellectual ferment by faculty and students. The top down myth is merely a neoliberal strategy designed to centralize power. It has no basis in experience. The new practices will thus reflect the realization that the neoliberal model of university governance has been an abject failure. It has been installed not because of its success, but because of the constellation of power and privilege it expresses.
 There is much more to explore here. But perhaps we can close for now by posing an obvious question. Is not such a model of the university utopian? Yes it is. It is at odds with the existing hierarchy of power in a neoliberal society. But it is only utopian in that sense, not in the sense that the neoliberal project is utopian. The neoliberal model is utopian in that it can be imposed but has been proven to be top down, anti-intellectual, and at odds with teaching students to become critical citizens. That is, it is grounded in arbitrary power and privilege rather than speaking to the needs of university life and a democratic society. It is tethered to a boom and bust practice of economic life that repeatedly recoils back on low-income workers, urban areas, racial minorities, old people, schools, health, colleges, students, and universities, even though none of the latter have initiated these crashes. Presidents, administrators, trustees and faculty who still profess the neoliberal model should be ashamed of themselves.
Today the need is to move beyond the top-down utopia of the neoliberal academy as more faculty and students both become active inside the university and pursue alliances with workers, teachers, feminists, racial minorities, the unemployed, battle scarred and wounded soldiers, and other forces outside the university who have also been screwed over by the neoliberal agenda.
Does this mean, then, that we seek to politicize the university? No. That, my friends, happened a long time ago, though the neoliberal terms of politicization have not been publicized enough. Indeed, it is today considered insulting to the neoliberal machine to publicize this fact. It means that we must work hard to shift the terms of the politicized university.
Sometimes the thought of another possibility shakes up practical thinking, allowing it to fester and then to respond creatively to new threats, issues and opportunities as they arise. Make no doubt about it. The neoliberal machine has both eyes focused on the university today and we must have ours focused on the neoliberal machine.