academic reorganization · change · race · reflection · solidarity

A New Politics of Loss? A Response to "We Are Not All Jims: The Colour Line and Sadness in the Academy"

Last week my friend and colleague Jade Ferguson wrote a guest post on the colour line and sadness in the university. As she notes, one recent catalyst to her post was a Think Tank that I co-organized with Smaro Kamboureli at the TransCanada Institute. The aim of the Think Tank was to open a frank discursive space for addressing the continual defunding of the university, the ongoing defamation of intellectual work, and – perhaps most pressing for me, initially – the omnipresent experience of anxiety for emergent scholars. The Think Tank was for me an event I am only beginning to work through, for the spaces that were opened there were unprecedented in their genuineness, their affect, and their challenges. I knew going into the weekend that it would be hard, for the room was composed of colleagues in unequal power relations.
While this was part of the organizational point, I was nervous. But then, I live with a certain kind of anxiety that I have naturalized. I am increasingly used to performing my own experiences of occupational precarity as a means of both dealing with and drawing attention to but a few of the systematic and structural problems of the Academy. Indeed, as I stated in my portion of the opening remarks, I approached Smaro Kamboureli in a moment of profound sadness and anxiety. Sadness cleared the way for me to risk approaching a senior colleague. Sadness made me momentarily brave. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the multifaceted and unequal experiences of sadness that constellated in that room over the space of thirty-six hours. My own unpreparedness underscores two emergent issues that Jade addresses: the colour line and what Jade terms “the public feeling of sadness in the academy.”
I was one of the nine emerging scholars. The term “emerging” in this case acts an umbrella term that covers the vastly different subject-experiences of part-time/contingent/contract/postdoctoral/ and newly tenure-track faculty. As we each framed our thinking about and experiences of “shared precarity” in either position or response papers multiple tensions came to the fore. As Jade notes, four of the five newly tenure-track faculty members were people of colour. The two contract workers – of which I was one – were white, and the two people in postdoctoral fellowships were also white. It became quickly and viscerally apparent that there were multiple experiences of “emergence.” Conversant but dissimilar questions surfaced: How do conditions of austerity reify and ossify extant colour lines? How – and can – one tell one’s own story of on-going precarity when one has the tenure-track job? How are stories of academic precarity participating in a recapitulation of racism in the Academy? How many years can one be on the job market and be an emergent scholar? How are public feelings of sadness gendered and aged? While we could all recognize the interconnectedness of these questions, we did not all understand and experience them. And this made us sad, albeit in different ways.
Employing Ann Cvetkovitch’s work on public feeling, Jade writes that our varied and difficult discussion revealed “the emotional colour line” that separates (her) black sadness from (my) white sadness. She uses the term “incommensurable” to articulate the emotional gulf between one form of sadness – for example my anxiety around my own labour precarity that I experience in my white body – and another – her experience of racism, alienation, and disenfranchisement as a tenure-track black scholar. These experiences are incommensurate because of the vastly different scales of historical experience that are marked on our bodies.
If the hard conversations we had opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (Cvetkovitch 117) as Jade suggests, then I see part of my responsibility as attempting to dwell in the uncomfortable spaces of uncertainty and difficulty; to think through the emotional colour line, rather than to attend immediately to concrete political action that might address the lived experiences of precarity we had gathered to discuss. In other words, I want to dwell in sadness, to ask, as Sara Ahmed does, what happiness does when it becomes “a measure of progress – a performance indicator – as well as a criterion for making decisions about resources” (“The Happiness Turn” 7). The neoliberal discourse informing the Academy’s actions is predicated on instrumentalizing happiness as a measurement of progress. What this means is that happiness – that “stupid” form of optimism, according to Lauren Berlant – becomes a regulatory structure that both informs how we operate and how we identify one another. “Happiness” exposes assumptions about who gets to be happy, and whether or not happiness is ever possible in the current social structure. Moreover, “happiness” becomes a normalizing regulatory structure that attempts to level nuanced forms of inequity. As Ahmed suggests, “the face of happiness, at least in this description, looks very much like the face of privilege” (“The Happiness Turn” 9). I fear that without a sustained and careful discussion of what happiness in the Academy means resisting the neoliberalization of intellectual work will recapitulate those deep-seated inequities that are at the heart of politics as usual. That I may uncritically be participating in a reification of the emotional colour line makes me more than sad. It makes me melancholic, and that might not be a bad thing.
In The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief Anne Anlin Cheng suggests that viewing race through a framework of melancholia might productively reveal its instability and “indebtedness to the dis-identity it is also claiming” (24). Its those double-binds and dis-identifications that need attending to if we who affiliate our labour with the Academy wish to embark on a new politics of loss that does not reinstate old and pernicious inequities. After all, it was a while ago that Adam Smith observed the affective sleight of hand employed by capitalism: it moves us from “miserable equality” to “happy inequality” (Wealth of Nations). As Sara Ahmed notes, Smith’s “nineteenth-century utilitarianism involves an explicit refutation … in which inequality because the measure of advancement and happiness” (“The Happiness Turn” 9).
In the last week I have found myself wondering whether melancholia, which I would frame as unresolved grief, might offer a productive framework for addressing the multiple tensions at work in the public feeling(s) of sadness in the academy. That (s) I have added onto feeling is important. It seems to me that one of the risks that resurfaced in the Think Tank was that risk of unintentionally flattening experience in the name of solidarity. My sadness is not another’s, regardless of the similarity or simultaneity of our experiences. And yet, with Jade I too want to think through how we – by which I mean those of use labouring inside/outside/on the margins of the Academy – can form temporary and productive coalitions that do not flatten out our variegated experiences of loss, sadness, and disenfranchisement.

One thought on “A New Politics of Loss? A Response to "We Are Not All Jims: The Colour Line and Sadness in the Academy"

  1. What a sad commentary on the state of the academy today. As a retired professor who lived through much happier times, I admire the courage, tenacity and integrity that this posting shows. Surely people of this quality cannot fail to improve the system…


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