Fiona Murphy: When gadflies become horses: On the unlikelihood of ethical critique from the academy

Something smells of bullshit. It has for a long time. Caught in the spectacular entanglements of the neoliberal university, academic work is being actively “bullshitized.” Audit cultures, the intensification of administrative duties, the politics of intellectual egos and academic “assholery,” hierarchical academic freedoms, an exploitative publishing industry, and an increase in zero-hour contracts means the precariat of academia are subject to the combination of some very particular horrors. So, something does indeed smell of bullshit. It will, no doubt, linger long in the gloaming of too many precarious academic careers. These inequalities and exploitative practices are the buttresses upon which some contemporary successful academic careers are built, at the expense of others, gadflies turned horses. The key to the ivory tower has been hidden away—with only academic “elites” and senior university management remaining inside—all others must wade knee-deep through work-practice bullshit, deprived of labor dignity, equality, and solidarity.

The recent controversy regarding the anthropological journal HAU and its playing out on social media is a synecdoche for the entrenched and unwavering dominance of such work practices and institutional culture in the discipline of anthropology (and the university at large) (Patrick Neveling, FocaalBlog). Many commentators have highlighted how, at its inception, HAU was presented as an alternative vision for anthropological publishing (Don Kalb, FocaalBlog), part of the open access movement, with much in common with the sharing economy’s attempts to disrupt and circumvent capitalist relations of production and consumption. HAU, however, became little more than a reflection of the neoliberal system of which it was a part, especially in its active debasing of the principles of mutuality, solidarity, and equality on which it was founded. The tense unfolding of HAU’s story on social media, beginning with David Graeber’s apology, is a marker of the extent to which many academics inhabit a twilight of knowing and unknowing in their everyday work, particularly with respect to the complex experiences of early and mid-career academics in their midst. Perhaps it is this Lethean bad faith that is most disappointing and frustrating.

On #hautalk solidarity on social media
Like many of my fellow anthropologists, I followed #hautalk closely, while my various messenger systems intoned pings of distress, disappointment, anger, curiosity, and, of course, relief, finally, at least one silence was broken (Nayanika Mathur). One of my closest anthropologist friends reminded me that a “nasty, brutish, and short” career was indeed all that many early career anthropologists might expect. However, what wounded most in this unfolding simulacrum of structural harm were the obvious entanglements of silence, complicity, power, and disavowal—alongside the delays and absences of particular and necessary engagements.

Controversial or shocking events should neither rob us of complexity of thought nor absolve us from the responsibility of speaking out, of responding, or of being in solidarity. However, in the accretion of HAU’s symbolism as a microcosm of the ills of academic anthropology, a full scholarly reckoning from all actors, including observers is still unfolding. Some argue that social media is not the space for such critique, that the mediatization or condensation of such issues, coupled with the endless plasticity of social media responses only serves as spectacle, an expansive, blurry mess of finger-pointing and name-calling. However, in a world where both academic freedom and freedom of speech are unequally distributed resources, the constraints and affordances of social media have nonetheless created a space, otherwise lacking, for precarious and untenured academics to connect in solidarity. Without some ontological and economic security from one contract to another, those academics in this curious mix of feudal and neoliberal space find critique strangled. Those daring to speak out and speak back fear being shut out. While calls exist for a slowing down of scholarship (Jason Baird Jackson, Allegra), of response, of not fetishizing the digital but of protecting the open access ideal, early and mid-career anthropologists, more than most, need this kind of engagement (see also the digital professor )—away from the binds of tenured approval and thus capable of greater activism. Social media creates just this space to call out the bullshit many have been subjected to in their indentured journey to so-called professionalization. Indeed, the instance of #hautalk arrests the rush to habits of responses that follow scripts of resignation and denialism in its decrying of personal, institutional, and structural abuses. It also reflects a layered, deeply affective, transnational anthropological response with all its points of conjuncture and disjuncture.

Figure 1: Modified dustbin on the streets of Cork (Fiona Murphy, 2018).

Figure 1: Modified dustbin on the streets of Cork (Fiona Murphy, 2018).

In the unmasking of HAU, different solidarities emerged, a kind of digital collegiality permitted by the speed and directness of social media, a speaking out and back often not possible in the slower, structurally harmful neoliberal university and publishing worlds. However, certain kinds of solidarities are still not evident, either remaining outside of social media hashtags, networks, blogs, or petitions, or simply not forthcoming, for whatever that reason may be. Equally, in the more prosaic drudge of everyday work, solidarity of this kind is also not at play for many untenured and precarious academics. The HAU controversy as such is a prism refracting just these absences, silences, and complicities as they exist in the larger anthropological and university environments.

On cabinetmakers and fish fryers
In David Graeber’s work on bullshit jobs, he points to the proliferation of jobs in the contemporary moment that seem to be both pointless or meaningless to both the performer of this type of work and the overall output or impact on the world. Graeber’s thesis resonates loudly, particularly in the context of the intensification of administrative duties in the neoliberal university. Graeber asks us to imagine how if someone was hired as a cabinetmaker but ended up spending large amounts of their time frying fish that they may become obsessed by the fact that some of their colleagues were getting much more time to make their cabinets, thus not engaging in the meaningless, even needless, frying of fish. For the fish fryers, as well as creating stacks of unwanted fried fish, a politics of resentment emerges. This analogy works well in contemporary academia, where some tenured cabinet makers are often complicit actors in the bullshitization of academic work, while precarious fish fryers not only feel resentful and angry but are continually silenced and exploited as second-tier academics, the sous chefs in the academic kitchen. In such spaces, there is a lack of solidarity, basic humanity, and thus a growing inequality between different kinds of academics and networks. #hautalk could be seen as providing, in one way, a kind of moral measurement of some of these kinds of hierarchies and complexities in the discipline of anthropology. It should also remind us to ask in the midst of silencing and structural, institutional limitations, what it is that the fish fryers are owed? What are indeed the ethical responsibilities of the cabinetmakers toward the fish fryers to help achieve “new ways of being” (Hey and Morley) if, as it seems, the neoliberal university is here to stay?

On raging against the machine
An optimist might be tempted to read into the #hautalk and the HAU controversy a break with the silencing that many of us have endured (in whatever capacity) as early and mid-career anthropologists. However, with the growing bullshitization of the academy and increasing limitations on the precarious, a revolution might well be a while off. Nonetheless, #hautalk should encourage us all to speak out of silences, to take back and to push back. #timesup #hautalk

*Thanks must go to my very many precarious and early and mid-career friends and colleagues (both tenured and untenured) who have shared many conversations on this topic with me. It is this community of solidarity that keeps us all going. Particular thanks on this piece goes to Keith Egan and Emma Heffernan for their comments and insights and to Patrick Neveling of FocaalBlog for providing a space for this discussion.

Fiona Murphy is an anthropologist and Research Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She specializes in Indigenous politics and movements, refugees, and mobility studies in Australia, Turkey, and Ireland and Northern Ireland. A number of her publications are available here.

Cite as: Murphy, Fiona. 2018. “When gadflies become horses: On the unlikelihood of ethical critique from the academy.”