Voyou Désœuvré

DeLillo in White Noise is both funny and astute about the physical embodiment of academic specialization:

The chancellor had advised me, back in 1968, to do something about my name and appearance if I wanted to be taken seriously as a Hitler innovator…. We finally agreed that I should invent an extra initial and call myself J. A. K. Gladney, a tag I wore like a borrowed suit.

The chancellor warned against what he called my tendency to make a feeble presentation of myself. He strongly suggested that I gain weight. He wanted me to “grow out” into Hitler…. I had the advantage of substantial height, big hands, big feet, but badly needed bulk, or so he believed—an air of unhealthy excess, of padding and exaggeration, hulking massiveness.

Which makes me wonder, how should I shape my physical appearance to be appropriate to the kind of academic career I want? Or, have I already, by my sartorial choices, sealed my academic destiny? A troubling thought.

Which brings me to this article discouraging people from doing PhDs (via). There’s something of a cottage industry in this kind of article, and they’ve always annoyed me for some reason. There are, I think, two interrelated problems. One is the academic exceptionalism, the suggestion that academic work is completely different from other sorts of work; to say that academic work is uniquely awful is still a way of maintaining that academic work is special. The second problem follows from this attempt to exempt academia from the rules that shape the rest of the world, because it suggests that you can avoid the problems of academia simply by avoiding academia. But, really, that’s bullshit. Of course academia is unique, like everything; but competition, insecurity, and exploitation are hardly unknown outside of academic work. Maintaining the fantasy that one could simply opt out of the problems of academic work encourages people not to struggle to improve the situation within universities, something that’s particularly unpleasant when the person making the complaints is a tenured professor, someone with at least a small level of power.


  1. duncan, 8:52 am, February 4, 2009

    Yeah, that article’s really obnoxious. Obviously academia is shitty – but the article seems to be written from a space that both fantasises what non-academic work involves (attributing to academia specifically stuff that’s pretty much a feature of capitalism) and yet also fails to hit on problems that really are specific to academic employment. Both these things, as you say, discourage any attempt at change or contestation. There’s a profoundly unpleasant displacemenet of affect, too: justified rage at the exploitations associated with his own industry is rerouted into contempt for the people being exploited; the problem isn’t the system, it’s the naivete of those within it – all those ditzy would-be grad students who haven’t faced up to the school of hard knocks. Of course that naivete is in large part fantasised too. “With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized.” The fact that plenty of people work in unappealing jobs to pay for life in college is outside the scope of Benton’s polemic – which is directed against the stupidity of the students whose enrollment pays his salary. Not to say that lots of the stuff in his article isn’t right, obviously. Just: ugh.

    (Sorry to come out of nowhere with a (probably confused) rant. Done now.)

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