by Jess Cotton
– Sigmund Freud, ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’ (1937)
The easiest job I have worked was the one I liked least, and I performed it with the utter mediocrity that made me neither a threat to those I worked with, neither prone to promotion, nor desirous of it, and thus wholly indifferent to anything that happened in the office or after hours. The work was mind-numbingly dull, and the boss, whose foibles were so disarmingly transparent, made the work of pleasing him as simple as oiling a machine, which was exactly the last thing that my ego wanted, but it was, my super-ego reasoned, the easiest thing to do (I grew up with an authoritative father), the thing that would take least work and leave me not-so-exhausted at the end of the day when I would continue preparing for the other work I was doing (I was raised by a father to believe in aspiration, who, in the Thatcher years, moving down from the North, had made this story his own).
It was about as exploitative and unexploitative as any other job, but it was, in its way, thankfully, work that could be left in the office. It would not be inaccurate to refer to this job as a bullshit job, as if most weren’t, which is how the think pieces on late capitalism tend to frame them, and, of course, it was, but the not liking a job makes it easier to see the boundaries around that job, and when someone stepped outside them (having enough of a safety net to make that protest tenable), I simply left.
It is harder to do the job you love: the kind of job that we were told in careers advice meetings we had as teenagers, growing up in the early and mid and late 2000s, we would be entitled to. It is harder still to know when you’re not doing the job you love, to know when the job you loved has turned into the bad object of your attachment: the ‘cruel optimism’, to borrow Lauren Berlant’s phrase that has become the catchword of the last decade in critical studies, which keeps the system running and keeps the bad objects in their place. Love, as Amia Srinivasan writes on the stakes of the strike in higher education in an LRB blog post published during the last strike in higher education in the UK, often conceals a lot of exploitation.
It’s hard to teach five modules, and to also work weekends. It is, more accurately, insane. It is hard to teach five modules, and also work weekends, and keep being a person, and keep having desires and relationships, though these are the conditions that are created by higher education at the moment, conditions that are unsustainable; the conditions that have prompted a second wave of strikes in a short period of time.
It’s hard to talk about the labour that gets done in higher education, and who does it, because that labour is so often mystified – so much of it goes on after hours, so much of it goes unspoken, assessing how much work goes into, and is split between, teaching and research and administration from week to week is always the losing game of this moveable feast. For years, so much academic work has been done by white middle-class men, propped up by a female administrative labour force, allowing academia to maintain its auratic allure, populated by the special and the gifted and occasionally by the grifters: it’s the space where elitism, entitlement and aspiration blur and mix in the illusion of education for all. Being a lecturer was seen as a status bestowed upon the academic rather than something they worked for. This was still how it seemed to me when I was an undergraduate in the late 2000s.
From my faint knowledge of disciplines acquired on the picket line (where else do we move outside our specialisations), striking is both easier and harder in the humanities where much of the work we do is reading, mostly off hours, and teaching others how best to read. It’s hard to know when reading is work, and work is not reading. The academic’s eternal lament is that we no longer have time to read, reading seems inefficient and less productive than writing, and there is always another job deadline for the precariously employed to be met.
Meetings that go on endlessly about what we expect students to read consume the business of life in an English department. In a recent office meeting, up for discussion was whether Bleak House, Middlemarch, Tess and Portrait of a Lady could be taught in one half-term, by which we meant: would students read them? Half the room thought that Middlemarch needed three weeks’ attention; half the room thought that Middlemarch needed no attention at all.
Over the strike period, I reread Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, and thought of her characters – the women’s – ‘strong, strained, worn-out’ bodies and the work of unfeeling that they do propping up everyone else’s sentiments, managing everyone else’s fear of ambivalence, how the bodies that work so hard in modernism die quietly in its corners, and are only seen by work that centres feminist and queer networks of care, that make visible the banal and the affective work that women do. (Stein shadowed her brother Leo’s education at Harvard, and so saw the university’s strange practices at a remove.) It was not a text I read as an undergraduate. Stein is thought of as too difficult: her work doesn’t give us what we want, and it teaches us that wanting may be more complex than we know, and that wanting more complexly may be a way of accounting for the labour of those characters that don’t always get our attention: lives that are lived as endurance.
We read Marianne Hirsch’s ‘Feminist Archives of Possibility’ and thought about how sometimes we might read an archive forward rather than backward. Rather than excavate retrospective knowledge of the setbacks and successes of political projects in climates that were not always conducive to them, we might read the archive for the possibilities that thinkers have envisaged; read for fresh answers and new possibilities. Students are constantly surprising me (it’s a teaching experience as much as it’s a student experience), and although we all aim for perfect lessons when a lesson is going well, students steer the class off-track, into uncharted territory.
At night, during the strike, I dream of my precariously employed colleagues and friends on a gnomic pilgrimage-whirlwind through a Decameron-Toyland landscape. We’re wearing hats, funny ones mainly, sometimes headscarves, anything that isn’t a hat and gown. When I arrive to greet a friend, the most inventive academic I know, she recounts her dream of anti-phenomena that are invisible but everywhere that look like black bowler hats with no rims.
In one class recently discussions about modernist techniques led to an argument between one side of the room, which consisted mainly of women, and one side of the table, which consisted mainly of men, on what kinds of narrators really represent reality. We talked about how reality isn’t something that’s given but is something that is constantly being constructed. Side-eyes flared and glistened from one woman to another as male students described the validity of the unreliable narrator’s perspective. Stream-of-consciousness can be hard work: we’re confronted with thoughts and desires that say yes one minute and no the next. It brings us close to the unconscious which is a pretty murky place to find ourselves.
When I was taught modernism, it was a coldly formal affair (I was taught modernism by someone who was later charged with sexual harassment). When I teach students, I begin with the caveat that modernism is still of our time, politically as well formally, and so they better be good close readers, for a lot is at stake in how we read, in what we refuse to leave unsaid. Fascism is always in the room when we talk of modernism, and stream of consciousness is seen as a way to think outside it (a way of turning a radically unmasterable subjectivity into a way of bearing witness to what cannot be mastered). I believe this, sometimes, and sometimes, students do too. Then again, I see endless stream-of-conscious rants on the internet, and I think is this not, too, fascism’s language. Is the unconscious not, as Freud said it was, full of violent psyches making their own composite portraits in the tradition of eugenicist Francis Galton.
When I taught May Sinclair recently in a module on psychoanalysis, it was only in re-reading The Life and Death of Harriett Frean in class that the students began to unpick the narrator’s stream of consciousness, saw the trauma emerge in the text, and make sense of it. Once recognised, they saw its markings as unmistakable, not understanding how they could have missed before what was so apparent to them then.
I don’t underestimate my influence as a teacher, and, as a woman, I don’t overestimate it either (women invariably score much lower on student feedback forms, even though the female teachers I know put in far more work). The idea that teaching is not political, that it can be impartial, as the university experience would tell us, is nonsense, a fiction spun by the neoliberal institution that sees its staff as workers when it wants to squeeze them and as ideal liberal subjects when it wants to perpetuate the mystification of academic labour.
When the seminar is a space of work, a space where texts are read hard, where everyone is engaged, things are not left unsaid. We speak of difficulty and prepare ourselves not to master it. We acknowledge that not everything about a text, or a period or a writer can be fully known. Reading is hard work: it brings us up against the psychic conundrums that have brought us here in the first place. To my mind at least, inviting this complexity is also a way of resisting the resistance to complexity in what is becoming the default position of the academy: ‘the marketplace of ideas’ where people can debate (in the tradition of a marketised public school forum) their ideas in a very civilised manner, but which, in reality, results invariably in the accommodation of transphobic discourse, and the silencing of voices that are already marginalised (while the dominant ones shout from a very hospitable British press, about how they’ve been silenced), and academics are, against their will, made an extension of the state’s policing apparatus, nowhere more overtly than in the government’s Prevent initiative.
Pockets of resistance to this climate emerge most obviously from teaching histories of resistance in the classroom, which can be galvanising, and from introducing complexity, from starting small, but also from thinking about the limitations of the small, especially when a focus on damning the snowflake-perceived-outrage of microaggressions has allowed macro aggressions to go unaccounted for. When neo-fascists take to hauling around their Deleuze and Guattari, theorists whose reputation has, in part, been founded, on revealing latent microfascisms, we are to understand that the zany deconstruction of networks of power (as if everything were a virtual system reliant on no one) without historical context is its own enabler. Just as Andrea Long Chu might not be entirely wrong to say that the accusations of abuse that were filed against NYU Professor of German and comparative literature Avital Ronell might be read in the light of her obsession with deconstruction and her failure to write on feminism. Disavowal can take root in a climate of deconstruction.
The aforementioned Bad Job had a subdivision that was a psychotherapy unit, where therapists were meant to attune their practice to the business brand. In meetings with therapists, I would try to scan their faces for evidence of mistrust. The therapy room, however the company would want it otherwise, was necessarily a private space where therapists could conduct the practice they thought best represented the highest forms of care that are required of their work.
In his 1910 essay ‘Wild Psychoanalysis’, Freud stipulates the danger of turning psychoanalysis into an institution. He observes the work of a contemporary physician who provokes further anxiety in his female patient by giving her a reading of her symptom without carefully allowing the dynamics of transference to allow her to revisit those symptoms on her own terms. Psychoanalysis, as Freud suggests, is more complex than that. It is not a simple input-output process but a space that is carefully cultivated between analyst and analysand, that is arrived at progressively. Freud saw that psychoanalysis needed, in the face of the possibility of its abuse, to lay down some rules. But it needed, by the same token, to be able to evade those rules: to not allow those rules to crystallise into a deadening system.
The university’s futures depend on finding a politics of work and a politics of care adequate to this moment – a moment that has shifted, in the time of writing, from the ever suffocating conditions of working in higher education, as it congeals around new forms of neoliberalism and fosters incipient fascisms, to being a time of pandemic, of breakdown, of strike, but also, hopefully, of solidarity, a time when care in common breaks through the ordinary and becomes the arsenal of political possibility.
I have felt possibility circulate in a few hours on the picket line in a way that I have rarely felt possibility in my job – though don’t get me wrong, I love teaching (which is not the same thing as to say that I love my job) – or, it might be more accurate to say, I have felt it without being at the same time exhausted. Recovering care and knowledge from systems that are destructive to them is hard work, but it is important work because the quashing of this possibility and the grounds of its resistance shapes the institutions in which we work, and the possibilities of the health and life of millions.
The most recent strikes in higher education might, in this way, lay the groundwork for thinking about how the changes that are happening right now might intensify social struggles and how we must promote certain adaptations of the moment (mutual aid) whilst pushing back against others (online teaching). The moment which puts a national strike on the political horizon points to the possibility of new horizons of unionisation and a centring of the politics of care – central to which we need to render visible how it is women, and women of colour in particular, who do the double and sometimes triple shifts to keep the nation reproducing itself (a birth strike is a moot point). There has never been a better time to read or reread Sophie Lewis’ brilliant work on surrogacy as a revolutionary call to care.
The strike should be first and foremost about withdrawing labour, and about providing a ‘quarantine income’, but it should also be the place where we imagine other ways of doing things (and becoming political stubborn on these points), and also bring what is often eradicated in the drive to eternally maximise student experience: a way of creating networks of care and solidarity that resist an untenable future, resist the demand that we trade in our current health for a flimsy promise of future health and stability.
Our demands must not only be about fair pay, equality, workload and casualisation but also about drawing on the history of queer and feminist organising in difficult times, establishing care networks that acknowledge that mental health – and now health – is at a crisis point, especially in the academy, and that we need to be able to offer, and have ourselves access to (a sophisticated pedagogy needs to understand the work of transference in the classroom), proper psychological support. We need to know that when students come to us with serious issues that we have somewhere where we can confidently send them. This means, too, having the proper channels of address that allow students and staff to feel secure that sexual harassment cases will be adequately handled, and that the university will not say that this case happened outside our gates, as if its community was only conceivable as a building complex.
The campus is right now the site where the unfinished business of historical struggles is being played out. It is not surprising that so much of the impetus for organisation on campuses globally has been initiated in South Africa where collective unresolved trauma is creating new conditions of political protest on campus that constellate around two core ideas: Rhodes must fall (the legacy of imperialism and apartheid in the institution) and fees (the continuation of forms of inequality through the withdrawal of government funding). The campus has become the most politicised of spaces at the moment that education has become increasingly commodified, and the terrain where unresolved past histories are playing out with a particular intensity. In the classroom, we need to make sure that student movements that have defined the academy are taught. An attention to these movements is crucial, as Roderick Ferguson argues, to understanding how the academy has become the laboratory wherein the state and capital reorient their sensibilities toward the affirmation of difference and stage the ideological and discursive shifts through which they maintain their power.
One of my favourite articles, by Sarah Crook, looks at how the women’s liberation movement was the impetus for the founding of new institutions of psychological care for women in the 1970s. These grassroots movements will likely prove crucial in the weeks and the months ahead, as the nation’s resources fail to provide, and they will, too, become important in the university where there is always a dearth of care because, in spite of the ever expanding bureaucratic apparatus of university administration, no one talks about what pedagogy should look like. It might also be a model for the research that we produce in times like these: research that challenges chronologies of movements, which demonstrates that discontent is political and should be the impetus for new sites of political activism and therapeutic care. Care has always been predicated on the assumption that women will step in to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the state – a hope that will, inevitably, be confounded by the pressure that the impending pandemic poses to the nation’s health.
If the university feels like an impossible profession right now, the bad object of our love that we cannot quite rationalise (which is not to say that any profession does look particularly possible at this moment, particularly the precarious ones and the short-term contracts that leave people without income), we should, in the vein of these movements, use these bad feelings as a magnet around which a politics that centres on care can be articulated within the academy to create new animating possibilities within the complex web of personal and professional relations that characterise the dynamics of learning.
The history of the therapy room is a history of wants, and their ambivalent objects, where we go to unknow everything that we cling to most forcefully. It is also the place where go to unpack our bad objects and learn that having ambivalent desires can be desirous. In therapy last week, I expressed the feeling of tipping over the edge, of feeling paranoid, feeling hysterical when I’m exhausted with overwork. My therapist gave me a questioning look and responded: those are the words men have historically used to describe women. I think what you’re trying to tell me is that you feel a rage that you haven’t yet quite expressed, but that you will.
In therapy, we learn to talk about the things we have been silent around, and things that feel unsurmountable, things that, undiscussed, turn into paranoid ways of knowing. To know something in a paranoid way, as all good Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick graduate students know, is to know how knowledge is performative – how it moves among its causes and effects – and that new ways of knowing are often blunted through standardised forms of knowing, which can have stultifying side effects, making it less rather than more possible to unpack the contingent relationship between a piece of knowledge and its narrative entailments.
Sedgwick opens her essay by talking about the speculation around the AIDS pandemic that was so ubiquitous, especially around whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether it could be thought to represent a plot or experiment by the US government, as were the sinister rumours spread about its origin, as a white man, too, saw fit to enquire, at a Teachout about coronavirus and racism last week, about its origins, to which its female speakers of colour responded collectively: we need to think not of origins but of transmission and the forms of care that we have to protect one other.
Outbreak narratives have consequences and in the face of a government whose economic and social principle, of hardly latent fascism, is predicated on the survival of the fittest, takes form as an epidemiological fact, how we place ourselves in the path of the virus is also a question of how we respond to fascist attitudes about social change. It means saying no one is worth sacrificing. It means building a ‘herd immunity’ to the destructive logic of neoliberalism and the Malthusian forms of politics favoured by the current government. A new kind of scholarly premise, as Sedgwick observes, emerges from the question that activist scholar Cindy Patton poses: ‘Supposing we were ever so sure of those things – what would we know then that we don’t already know?’
We need to keep centring questions like these in our scholarly practice and building networks of care that allow the discontent we feel around impossible professions to become the magnet for the rage that we didn’t quite know we had. As the wonderful Tweeter and all-round good queer daddy of the internet ‘notoriousSBG’, otherwise known as Renaissance scholar Stephen Guy-Bray, wisely said: ‘You will probably take a number of risks. Both for yourself, because you have to live your life, and because you cannot bring yourself to desert people you love when they are in need. And not just people you love’. Or as the wonderful poet Etel Adnan puts it (courtesy of Ed Luker’s Twitter feed): ‘Spring is dangerous, like love. And love survives like lovers’.