How shall we live? Job vs. Work in the Academy

Photo by Tania Melnyczuk on Unsplash

“as if they were unalive, as

if They were ideas” — e.e.cummings

During a weekly huddle in a small unit in which I worked in my “professional youth”, a colleague who was new to the organization and figuring out the scope of their job said something that I remember regularly. In a sincere yet detached manner, they asked all of us gathered on our rolling chairs in the corner of the corporate tower floor: “What is it that I do here?” And indeed, many of us labouring in libraries, whether public, academic, or special, have undoubtedly had similar moments of uncertainty. I believe this question, while appearing flippant and sarcastic, is actually at the heart of many paradoxes, challenges, and “issues” we experience in our regular professional life. How often have we sat around a bored room table and had the impression that colleagues around us were proceeding to solutions to questions that were assumed to be self-explanatory, rational, and definitively urgent. Yet pausing to ask whether the proposed strategies are addressing the right problem in the first place would have been seen as reactionary, obstructionist, and uncollegial. Have we not all felt like impostors who snuck into spaces where serious, legitimate work happens fearing to be suddenly revealed to know nothing of the goals of the organization. And yet, what are the goals of the organization? For whom does, indeed, the library toil?

In their paper “the university: last words”, Harney and Moten[1] zero in on this precise issue by distinguishing between the concepts of the job and the work. In their discussion of the academy, the job (or the role) is the character we play for the institution in the production of the experience of education, which is constituted through things like degrees, idea of “the campus life”, athletics, and the university as a brand more broadly. In contrast, the work is the actual labour of teaching that has to be done by someone, whether a sleep-deprived teaching assistant, a hurried sessional, the librarian, or the tenured faculty member. The job is the title, the position in the organization, the expectations of what is performed, but the work is the embodied act of trading away lifeforce for wages. The job is rarely rewarding in a deeply human sense, because all jobs are alienated labour under capitalism. Conflating the two concepts is an ideological mechanism, which comes at a cost. Harney and Moten explain that “while the nurse or Mickey Mouse know they are in a role, the university teacher — especially the critical/subversive/fugitive teacher — thinks this role, this job [is] the work; that what they provide in the seminar room or in the lecture theater or, especially, in office hours is the work, not the job as purchased experience”[2]. Does the library not mystify in the same manner, by telling the workers that what we do is crucial to the function of democracy, that without us, surely society would fall into misinformation, chaos, and barbarism? To mystify is imperative to enculturating us into the performance of the expectations, to ensuring that experiences are delivered, that degrees are conferred, and graduates sent on their way.

So what does the library want, then? To say that the library is engaged in any kind of project, that it wants and works toward a goal, is to betray the Liberal tradition in which it trains its recruits — the ideology of the abstract, the idealized, the ahistorical. But the library wants and works, for the university cuts the cheque. The library greases the wheel of professionalization, stepping in to smooth the bumps of the perpetual crisis of capitalism in which the university operates. It seeks to be at once unnoticed and ever at the service, discreet yet available, like the lobby boy of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Since the cycle of crises has shortened exponentially, bringing wildfires, data breaches, icecap melt, market crashes, genocide, terror, negligence, and viral infection on a seemingly hourly basis, libraries too must remain ahistorical and ever in the moment to address the latest need of the university. We have no tradition on which to rely on. Books about the institution are written and immediately forgotten, pushed aside in the face of some urgent requests. In a restructuring process, the university does not know where to place the library: is it infrastructure or service, academic or support? The library wants to create as many successful techno-managerial subjects as possible. It wants to prove its value but not be too visible lest it be interrogated for the strange practices in which it engages. If the university works “for the day when it will be able to rid itself, like capital in general, of the trouble of labour”[3], then the library provides the labour while seeing itself as the problem. If only the journals didn’t cost so much, then we might truly be valued by the university!

Those who dare speak up will be labelled unprofessional [4], because this is, in fact, the worst crime under the logic of neoliberalism. After all, as Moten and Harvey frame it, there is no longer (or perhaps never was) a “distinction between the American university and professionalization”[5]. But the library does not wish to recognize the seeds of radicalism it contains, the bricks with which it is built: people and organizing. The library has space, and it has collections, but most importantly it has people. If there is one thing the library knows how to do is, it’s to organize.

In her lecture “Biting the Hand That Feeds You,” Eve Tuck argues that the question posed by Vine Deloria Jr. “How shall we live?” should be central to researchers and individuals in the pursuit of social change. The library works to be unalive, to pay lip service to thriving in the world, but tames any sense of jouissance that transgresses its policy. Because the library emerges out of liberalism and understands life in the abstract, in the ideal rather than the real, its answer to “how shall we live?” is to follow rules, to deny the specificity of experience, and to manage dissent and disagreement by casting them outside its field of reality. The library can center its work around providing a meaningful answer to “how shall we live?”. Doing so, however, would require the abolition of the library as it currently exists, much like reforming the university will not integrate the job with the work.

At the end of the lecture, Eve Tuck shares several ways to resist the mandate of the university to produce work that feeds the neoliberal, settler colonial project, which include:

  1. Refusing to traffic in pain (of the marginalized, over-surveilled, and exploited communities)

It is a sign of hope that emerging scholars are already committed to such goals. However, this list does not extend to the contingent, to the student, to those who toil in the undercommon. Or rather, this list is concerned with intellectual labour only rather than with the physical, emotional, and other forms of labour both the researcher and the librarian must exchange for wages. I am skeptical about the limits of resistance. Resistance wears on the human, but it wears on us unequally.

In contrast, Moten and Harney state that we need to abolish the university as such, the path to which is a general strike: “If you think you can’t leave because the students will be bereft, robbed, of the experience of the university, you’ll never go. You’ll just wait for the master to come back, and he will.”[6] Arguably, this is precisely what happened during the two days of the Scholar Strike protest, a temporary resistance to the ideological mechanisms of the academy. Was it a sign that faculty are beginning to recognize themselves as labourers? I most certainly hope so. I interpret this event as an expression of solidarity across the provinces, challenging the construct of the academic as an independent contractor willing to engage in self-exploitation. The salt mines may be intellectually stimulating, drafty, and brutalist in design, but they are nonetheless a place to trade energy for wages. Yet headlines are not written about censoring our dreams and shutting off our creativity. The Scholar Strike may indeed be a time when organizing is required instead of research. Better yet would be if such events committed to exploring what a general strike would look like in the contemporary moment. I would love to see exploration of what dual power looks like in the university, in the city, in rural areas. Organizing ought not to be left to the privileged, to the aristocracy of labour. However, in the absence of a universal basic income, guaranteed housing, and provision of care, is it truly possible to bite the hand that feeds us without actually starving?

[1] The full text of the paper referenced is available for download from Stefano Harney’s Academia.edu account.

[2] Harney, S. & Moten, F. (2020). “the university: last words”, 6.

[3] Harney, S. & Moten, F. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions, 29.

[4] Sloniowski, L. (2016). Affective Labour, Resistance, and the Academic Librarian. Library Trends 64(4), 645–666.

[5] Harney, S. & Moten, F. (2013). The Undercommons, 30.

[6]Harney, S. & Moten, F. (2020). “the university: last words”, 7.

Speculative librarianship, labour, power, technology. I am interested in land education.

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