Posts tagged ‘existentialism’

December 21, 2008

Kool-Aid cocktails

by Carl Dyke

I’m still chewing on the conversation at the earlier lumpenbourgeoisie post. Profacero remains firm that whatever merits academic employment may have cannot justify the poor pay. She keeps the high expectations and high self-subsidized costs of our work in view, with specific examples like research and conference expenses, adjunct stints at less than a living wage, crushing personal debt. This is all real stuff. We have no dispute about what actually happens. All of it has happened to me and many people I know, although I am somewhat insulated more recently from some professional costs by the relatively low formal scholarship requirements at my nice teaching-oriented regional slac — which means gaps in the cv that, along with my status as a tenured associate professor, pretty much take me out of play on the market and bind me to this job.

Profacero would also like to be able to afford a small boat. I wouldn’t have minded being able to afford my divorce, which despite everyone’s good intentions cost nearly twice my annual salary. Other colleagues have aging parents to provide for. Ponies are always nice. These things are relative, but the point is that we’re not paid enough to afford many things we might reasonably need or want. And at many places the belt is tightening, as Dr. Crazy discusses in an incisive post following up on others by herself, Historiann, and Tenured Radical, with whom I completely agree. Of course there’s also much to be learned and pondered about conditions and compensation for academic work from Lumpenprofessoriat, e.g. here, and What in the hell…, e.g. here, and Marc Bousquet at Brainstorm, e.g. here.

I’m all for doing what’s possible to enhance conditions and compensation for work, for everyone. I’ve argued that there may be costs along with the obvious benefits to academics specifically for resorting to unions to do that, just as there are costs and benefits to pulling a gun in a bar fight or putting Pavarotti on the jukebox at a party. The situation inevitably gets structured in a certain way you may or may not like when you make those moves; it would be good to consider alternatives. I’m a real fan of the aikido ethic, but to my knowledge we’ve not even begun to think of how something like that might apply. I’ve also argued that dire though the plight of tenured/tenurable faculty might be, for whingeability it doesn’t sort real high on the priorities compared to other folk with genuinely crappy lives, ranging from permanent adjuncts to some of our support staff to starving Haitian babies.

OK, so what’s this post about? It’s about ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’.

I’ve been arguing that whatever influence we may or may not have over the material realities of our employment, we completely control our attitudes toward them. We get to choose how we think (and, to a lesser degree, feel) about these facts we all agree on. We become what we pay attention to, as Mead and the interactionists say. Or Nietzsche: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” So while we ponder available remediation or transformation strategies, we also get to direct our attention, think and be ourselves in the now. And I’ve remarked that in the context of this particular now, given the available alternatives, I’m pretty pleased to be drawing a comparatively decent salary to be doing work I notice is personally and relationally affirming. Profacero thinks that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, this is a delusional form of pathetic sacrifice, and “they’ve got” me where they want me.

Perhaps. I agree that sacrifice is pathetic, but what I do doesn’t seem like sacrifice to me. “We are all conformists of some conformity or another,” Gramsci said. It’s not whether you’ve drunk Kool-Aid, it’s which Kool-Aid you drank. You can drink the angry, alienated Kool-Aid or the woeful, victimized Kool-Aid or the contented, peaceful Kool-Aid. These are all interpretive stances. None of them are more or less ‘true to life’, and none are inconsistent with working to make things better, but the latter will take some of the sting out of your day. What we do has value; or at least, it’s what we do. This is Existentialism 101, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Our fate belongs to us. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill our hearts. We can be happy.