Fuck Pessimism: Embrace Youngsterism
Thanks to Jeffrey’s Cohen’s recent post at the medieval studies weblog In The Middle on Tweeting the MLA Conference [a conference, moreover, that included a concerted attention upon the digital humanities and its possible future(s)], a very lively set of comments emerged, and I’m glad they have because they arrived at the exact moment I was contemplating writing a post titled “Fuck Pessimism,” and gave me some extra fuel. Late December and early January is a queer time of year–on the one hand, it heralds [if even as a mirage] new beginnings and re-tooled ambitions and second [and third and fourth and so on] chances as well as a chance to pause and rest and refresh; on the other hand, for many of us working in literature, history, philosophy, cultural studies, new media, and foreign languages departments, it signifies that annual meeting [MLA, AHA, APA, etc.] where hundreds and hundreds of anxious and well-trained and talented job seekers gather to make the best pitch they can for some future job security, and this at a time when the economic picture for those in the humanities does not look so hot [although recent numbers do indicate a slight up-tick in available jobs], and the American economy in general kind of sucks, and everyone is admittedly worried about the future of academic publishing. This worry might take the form of being concerned about whether or not the age of a beloved-by-many print culture is ending [along with all of its cherished protocols of "review"] or it might take the form of hand-wringing over whether or not tenure committees will take digital publications seriously or it might take the form of despair over shrinking library budgets coupled with corporate academic publishers continuing to privatize at prohibitive rates the scholarship that *we* produce and review and edit and shepherd through over-burdened gift economies, and so on. At this time of year, we see and read many essays, articles, and various social media posts bemoaning this state of affairs. At the same time, I’ve been struck this year by how many essays have been published [primarily in The Chronicle Review, but also in many other publications, in print and online] that voice only complaints and worries about the state of our profession ["quick and dirty" publication is destroying "serious" scholarship, no one is really reading academic scholarship (so why bother to keep doing so much of it?), students' language and ability to communicate has degenerated to new low levels, the digital humanities is yet another false "new religion" that has perhaps lamentably replaced the literary studies that used to trade in valuable meaning, the golden age of the theory journal is over, professors and students in the Univ. of California system are spoiled and whine too much about their state's so-called higher education disaster scenario, the digital humanities remains "impenetrable" to most people who sit on tenure committees, and I could go on and on . . . but I won't. And thanks to Ian Bogost, we can also recognize, perhaps sheepishly, that "what one [often] does in the humanities is talk about the humanities,” and that a lot of professors “are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work.” Hopefully, this post will not be yet one more instance of blogging about the humanities as a form of what the humanities talk about. Indeed, one of the main things I want to say with this post is WILL EVERYBODY PLEASE SHUT UP AND START DOING AND MAKING THINGS? [And this relates as well to Jeffrey's even more recent post, "Additional Readings May Be Found Here," and the links you will find there -- like this one -- to pieces by professors who want to re-envision and put into place new core interdisciplinary programs in the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level, designed around *making* and *doing* and *building* things with new technologies, which does not, nevertheless, necessitate *not* still continuing to *think* about things, I might add].
In the comment thread to Jeffrey’s post about tweeting the MLA [cited above], a rich discussion emerged regarding whether or not it is appropriate for some people to “tweet” other people’s papers at conferences, and if so, what sort of protocols might be developed to make some feel more comfortable about this practice [or even allow them to opt out of it completely--being tweeted, that is], to also protect various intellectual property interests as well as to make Twitter feeds more accessible and “plugged in” to larger, more inclusive academic conversations. Along with this, discussion also emerged relative to how various forms of e-publication [whether blog posts or Twitter lectures or whatever] might prohibit some work from being accepted later in more conventional print media, such as the academic print journal, and whether or not we should worry about this, and this all also led to talking about how we might now start re-defining [or defining anew] what we mean by “publication” and how any of that might be assessed in relation to things like tenure review. Jeffrey brought up the fact that the profit motives of corporate academic publishers [like Brepols or Ashgate or Palgrave or Wiley-Blackwell] “is not compatible with the desires of scholars to have their work disseminated as widely as possible,” which is especially maddening when the it is precisely the volunteer efforts of scholars [as authors, as editors, as reviewers, etc.] that keeps this system in place. Jeffrey also wrote,
I understand why publishers worry that too much work is already out there, and why they then hesitate to publish things that haven’t been raised in a seclusion. Publishers can be as wrong as they’d like. But look at publications that succeed — like not-for-profit U Minn Press and its success with Ian Bogost’s work, much of which has appeared via Twitter and his blog. Come on: getting work out through multiple channels is publicity that can only aid a scholarly project. We shouldn’t convince ourselves that we need to write in cloisters and keep our books in noncirculating scriptoria.
It will not be my intention to spend time in this post re-hashing all the points I’ve made a gadjillion times about why I believe in open-access publishing, in open peer review, in using social media to do “real” scholarship, and in working toward a more “open,” misfit, and co-affective university in general. [Those who want to know my more specific pleas on behalf of some of those things can look HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.] What I want to say here is something like, “I know we need critique in the university, and strong debate and dialogism — don’t remind me, it’s not like a gadjillion academics would ever stop doing those things — but what we really really really really need now is some collective optimism, some collective risk-taking, and some collective project and institution building,” especially in relation to Jeffrey’s points regarding the often-cloistered state of our academic affairs. And we need to stop being so afraid all of the time that every time we think of doing something differently that some cabal of academics will quash our freedoms and careers while also telling us, “that’s not how we do things around here” or “it will never work for X, X, and X reasons, all of which are founded on what never worked BEFORE.” And we also need to stop acting as if every time someone comes up with a new idea [whether a theory or a method or a subject area or an entity of some sort: like a machine that can read texts] they must have done so cynically or with only careerist ambitions in mind or because they vapidly like to chase shiny, new things or because they want to destroy Western civilization and everything that is good in it. And we need to stop being so fucking pessimistic about everything. I can personally vouch for the fact that one can change a LOT in our profession, and for the better, with a handful of friends dedicated to one another and a common vision [that also honors difference and dissensus], a laptop, and endless carafes of coffee [and maybe some cigarettes and whiskey and karaoke]. Add in foolish bravado, boundless non-naive optimism, and being smart and creative as hell, and it’s amazing what you can make happen. I am not kidding.
I had a conversation with someone who I respect VERY much at the recent MLA meeting in Seattle who told me that it seemed like my/our projects [the BABEL Working Group, punctum books, postmedieval, In The Middle, etc. -- all initiated and enabled collectively, I might add] were aimed, successfully, at creating an alternative, parallel universe to the university, or to medieval studies as a field [this was intended as a compliment], and that I should remember that it is also important to effect change from within the university, and from within medieval studies, that there is still much important work to be done on the inside of traditional academic structures, such as the MLA, or Medieval Academy, for example. Who could forget? I could argue and say, no, I’m not interested in effecting change from within [there will always be others to work on that and I can't stand the glacier pace of much of that kind of bogged-down-in-bureaucracy labor], but that would be laughable since pretty much my whole career, has been concerted upon effecting change from “within” [after all, am I not a tenured Assoc. Professor who teaches at a regional institution of higher learning and doesn't that institution pay my salary and also support and reward my extra-regional academic endeavors? and have I not served on and even chaired committees to revise guidelines for tenure and promotion and also to revise curricula, etc.? and have I not always attended the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies and worked tirelessly on its behalf? and do I not constantly organize academic events at traditional academic institutions? etc. etc.].
BUT, at the same time, I think I also want to embrace the idea that what I am ultimately interested in *is* something like COMPLETE AND RADICAL CHANGE of whatever is going on “within” the university, but undertaken from a position that is partly “extra” to or “para” with or “outside” the university, especially if, by “outside,” we mean something like, “I will not let what is happening, or that which is status quo, *within* the university ever deter me from pursuing what MIGHT be a better vision for the university.” And sometimes you have to stop asking for permission to do everything you want to do [from those *within* the university placed in positions of power] and just do exactly whatever it is you want to do, with the hope that it might make you feel good, that it might shed some light in the dark corners inhabited by others who need a little light and warmth, and maybe also even add to the general store of this thing we call “knowledge,” which might actually effect, in the long term, some change [for the better] in the largest possible share of a general well-being of everything. One can fail in these endeavors, but one also has the *right* to do so. One also has the right to engage in extra-curricular experiments in building new para-academic collectives and alternative-academic careers which might only endure for a short period of time, but which make important things *happen*, nevertheless, that are self-enriching, *pleasurable*, and also contribute to the work of the so-called “university.” I want to state this again because I believe in it so much: one has the RIGHT to fail. Failure is necessary. Try working on behalf of grandly visionary likely-to-fail projects. Otherwise, nothing is ever going to happen.
And here’s another thing: can we maybe try a little bit harder to expand our definition of what a university IS and what it is capable of DOING? For me, the university is everywhere and anywhere I am at any given moment, and this also extends to all of you who work alongside me, in whatever “location,” virtual, material, or otherwise [so I kind of wish we would dispense with this idea of the alt-ac career and realize that we are actually all alt-ac together]. The university is not just the buildings and lawns demarcated by specific geographical coordinates [42° 22′ 25″ N, 71° 6′ 38″ W: Harvard], but anywhere we gather to disseminate: I define this as a practice of, quite literally [following the Oxford English Dictionary], “scattering [knowledge] abroad” and “sowing” things and “spreading [knowledge] here and there,” and “dispersing (things) so as to deposit them in all parts.” Obviously, in some cases, specific locations matter a great deal, and the very hard work of the professor and student activists to save the Univ. of California system or to preserve the discipline of philosophy at certain universities in the UK system are extremely worthwhile and important political causes that we should all support however we can. But if *some* of us want to create alternative “campuses,” shorn of much of the top-down and corporatized administrative structures so prevalent at so many institutions of higher learning, and located where you might not expect them to be [like in a gallery in Brooklyn or an architectural bookstore in Manhattan: witness the work of the The Public School all over the world, and also in New York], then . . . it’s all to the good. It gives me great joy, actually, to think about starting entirely new alternative schools, new markets of intellectual production and exchange, new presses, new journals, etc., while at the same time, of course I care about the “institution” of higher education and of medieval studies, and it’s entirely possible that I can do *more* good for those institutions on the periphery or more proper *outside* of them. In fact, we’ve never really taken inter- or cross- or multi- and extra-disciplinarity seriously enough [partly because going all the way with it would mean dispensing with things like "departments"]. I think the most enjoyable and productive career [for me, anyway] would be one in which I spent as much time as possible searching out and cultivating vagabond and extra-institutional spaces for intellectual and creative work, while also acknowledging that the players who join me in these spaces will mainly be comprised of academics . . . at first. And then, one day, hopefully soon, I’ll really be on the outside, but still playing with those “within.” In other words: screw this inside/outside business. It’s mainly an illusion, plus a lot of techno-bureaucratic structures that we can happily leap across or walk through or re-shape and bend and twist, if only we had the courage.
When I was a little kid, I used to watch marathons of old movies on Sundays on Channel 20, one of two independent stations beyond the 3 major networks and PBS that were available in Washington, DC in the early 1970s. One of my favorite often-recurring movies was Babes In Arms (1939) with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. I can’t remember anything about the plot of the movie [and had to check Wikipedia to recall that the plot concerns some "youngsters" who try to convince their parents they can "make it" on Broadway], but one scene that always stood out in and never left my mind [and I probably have this wrong, somehow, since memory is tricky] is when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland get all excited about the possibility of putting on a musical and everyone’s, like, you can’t do it, you’ll never be able to do it, you don’t have the stuff you need to do it, and Mickey Rooney is, like, “we can use my parents’ barn!” and Judy Garland is, like, “And I can use my mother’s sewing machine to make the costumes!” and then they run off gleefully to start putting everything together. UNFORTUNATELY, what I also learned from my research, is that the show they end up putting on is [gasp] a minstrel show. YUCK. Now I hate this movie.
But let’s just pause and end the movie at the moment Rooney and Garland run off to make their theatrical preparations [after all, that's the only part of the movie that ever stuck in my head, and I think I know why, given my own general outlook on life]. Do you know what is happening in this scene? It’s youngsterism. We need more of that in the university. It’s not the same thing as being critically naive, by the way. It’s just a kind of foolish belief that anything is possible. If you have a barn. And a sewing machine. And anything else at hand. Embrace youngsterism.