“Gratuitous Mischief:” Tenured Faculty


I came across an article in The Symptom (over at lacan.com) entitled “Towards a Theory of the Tenured Class,” and there were some passages that just made me giggle out loud (I’m not sure because it rings true or because it’s just plain silly-I’m going with a combination of both!). For one:

To professors with a taste not just for jargon incomprehensible to common people but also for otherwise unacceptable contradictions, tenure offers authoritarian leverage in mind-fucking.

And this one:

Predisposed to pontificate, if not to bluster and bluff, they develop a resistance to doing first-hand research as beneath them, something strictly for the lower academic classes, much as those who become bosses become incapable of doing menial work. Indeed, especially if trained in philosophy, literature, and sociology, rather than history or economics, tenured profs are in my observation prone to making stuff up, often outrageously. When George Orwell once quipped that only intellectuals with a taste for peculiar ideas could be so stupid it was obvious that he didn’t know tenured profs, some of whom can be yet stupider at no cost to themselves, who are, in effect, a licensed jerks. The inspiration for this critique was a sociologist who seems to take particular glee in demonstrating how sociologically dumb an academic sociologist can be. A Victim of Tenure I rank him to be. Outrageous Stupidity becomes for the tenured the analogue of Conspicuous Consumption-an inexpensive privilege that Thorstein Veblen attributed to the “leisure class.”

And for good measure:

Few classes of people are more gratuitously mischievous, creating unnecessary problems for those around them. Yet even more dangerous are retired tenured profs, mostly because nothing else is as self-enhancing to them as gratuitous mischief. Whenever I’ve asked tenured profs whether job security had any negative effects upon themselves, as I have, none of them could think of a single thing, though some complained, often vehemently, about negative effects it had on certain other professors.

However, this points to something rather interesting:

Not even academic Marxists could deal seriously with the question of how differences in material conditions might affect consciousness. Likewise rare is the rich person who understands the negative effects, sometimes visible to outsiders, of having too much money. Indeed, when a Marxist told me that without university tenure he could not have written his books, I thought him implicitly self-deflating, measuring himself as inferior to those who write books without his secure advantages. (Many do it, including myself.) A Libertarian told that he doubted if academic colleagues of his political persuasion would survive without tenure, while another editor told me that, “there are no antiwar conservatives employed outside of academia, as the think tanks are pretty much run by neocons.” Thus does a similar anxiety in defense of certain privileges make uncomfortable bedfellows.

Overblown? Or awkwardly suggesting? But then the concluding words of the article which links tenured faculty to monarchism, for one:

The more I think about the tenured class, the more dangerous I regard any process that institutionalizes elitism for life.

Hmmm….there is the whole academic freedom thing. Then there’s the service, teaching and cycle of publishing, but I think it’s less elitist than it is, er…let’s say, “incestuously courtesan.”

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15 thoughts on ““Gratuitous Mischief:” Tenured Faculty

  1. Well this guy’s certainly one up on those rascally tenured sociologists, because unlike them making things up he has real anecdata (n=1) and objective personal impressions!

    I see your bemusement. On the one hand it nails some real possibilities that occasionally do get embodied. On the other hand it’s so pungently saturated with resentment and bad faith that the only thing it’s properly about is the depth psychology of its author.

    “Incestuously courtesan” is awesome. I was going to suggest feudal, but I like yours so much better.

  2. Interesting article, I haven’t seen much written on that.

    In my experience, the biggest difference between professors and non-professors is not that professors have job tenure — the postal carrier has job security — but that professors don’t have bosses or clients. Whereas even the hotshot businessman in the Porsche has to get on the phone and ask for the deal or take orders from his client, there’s a kind of childlike “I’ll hold office hours if I damn well feel like it” attitude that’s common among academics.

    And there’s also the attitude that the university is a racket in which the goal is to do as little teaching as possible. The problem with rackets is that they can be demoralizing, even for the racketeers, even while they slap themselves on the back for making the system work for them.

  3. Thanks, and certainly feudalism works. Really though, I find this method of sociology to be intoxicating! As for the depth psychology school of sociology, how could I have left this out:

    As a single gent with a taste for women with advanced degrees, I can testify that I have never dated for long a tenured professor (and that I didn’t recognize this fact until drafting this essay). Since I’ve known intimately women in a several professions, not to mention graduate students and junior professors who weren’t yet tenured, shouldn’t I assume that tenured royalty wouldn’t accept untenured me, elite literary recognitions notwithstanding? They sleep only with their kind, I’m told.

    I mean, really. Or is it tongue and cheek mockery/irony? If those tenured profs weren’t so busy mischievously colluding with each other they’d have time to sex it up with everyone else…Again, it did make me chuckle…

  4. Great catch! I always find it surprising how ultra-orthodox Marxists with tenure I know suddenly seem to shift to discussions of meritocracy and individualistic self-creation when it comes to discussing hiring practices and how they got their positions.

  5. DR SINTHOME: I claim responsibly that the non-reducible, absolute, axiomatic core of all ontology is my obsessive desire to prove to the world that there are always two paths to grandma’s house and not just ONE. I spent my whole life arguing with Bible thumpers on that issue. I also put this in my book on difference and analness, should readers care to buy it, I mean read it. Already the title of the book contains the anal contrast between monolithic belief and liberal-democratic pluriformity that so prominently marked my career, Mikhail. Just ask professor Harman, he’ll bear witness to my good intentions. Not in any axiomatic or institutional fashion, mind you.

    MIKHAIL: You’re a slobbering infant. You’re the one who’s selling a FAD. I mean what are you going to say next, like, we should stop going to the ballet and reading Dostojevski and stop wearing 18th century tuxedos just because – WHAT? – what are you saying, Sinthome, that I am getting TOO OLD FOR THIS???

    DR SINTHOME: Really snarky of you, Mikhail, to use this kind of a frat boy antic. At this point I do not feel motivated to continue this discussion, but since you’re insisting, I of course do not think that you are too old for this discussion, although the way you say it suggests to me that you might be finding YOURSELF too old for the discussion, Mikhail.

    MIKHAIL: Don’t you dare psychoanalyze me you Butthead! You and your incessant obsessive ZAPPING through philosophy. Francis Fucking Fukuyama had more decency than your ontic dictatorship. At least he declared the end of history. You’re ERASING history, and pretty soon you’ll be putting my TENURE under scrutiny. I mean what is this, some kind of a MICKEY MOUSE ONTOLOGY? Rewind back to the basics. You stand there responsibly claiming that just because you say Donald Duck is real, I’m supposed to believe you. You know what BORSCH is tastier than your MTV philosophy.

    (to be continued)

  6. parodycenter is alive! Risen from the ashes of its fatally dull solipsism a’ deux with the beautiful but compulsively prolix Camembert.

    Ontic dictatorship is awesome, two paths to grandma’s house is even better. But you eased up on “bear witness,” not like you at all. Is everything alright? Can we do your depth psychology once we get done with this chump from lacan.com and his banal daddy issues?

  7. Oh wait, it was a dialogue between me and Levi, I get it now, at first I thought it was a series of abuses directed at specific individuals and then I noticed the repetition of characters. I do like that I have the last word in that imaginary exchange, because ultimately it’s all about dominating the conversation, isn’t it? I do not, however, think that the use of ALL CAPS is justified, I hate when people do that, it’s like I’m being yelled at by a computer screen… Looking forward to the next installment!

  8. Carl, I second your appreciation of “ontic dictatorship,” even though I have no idea what that is.

    I just realized that I’ve listened to Il Trovatore twice already today, it’s a nice way of keeping time, but now I think that it is certainly an indication that I am way too old and unfashionable – if I were to psychoanalyze my own self, I would say I’m just trying to resentfully ruin all the fun the kids are having out there with their exciting new philosophies, I think I’m going to call it:

    GET-OFF-MY-LAWN-ISM

  9. In between wasting time on the Internet, I’m reading the First Critique for the first time. I’m about halfway through. It’s great, much more interesting and readable than I anticipated! And the arguments it offers against speculation in general are highly apposite, even aside from the question of noumena/phenomena. For instance, he makes the point that transcendental speculation not grounded in experience (and so “encountering no resistance”) leads to dogmatism, which, because any dogma can be opposed by another equally specious one (as the old Pyrrhonians used to love doing), produces an irresolvable skepticism. That’s an excellent argument. You claim objects are separate and mysterious? Fine, I claim they’re unitary and exhausted by their relations! Where’s the tribunal that’s going to reconcile us?

    I think the label of Kantianism being slapped on such objections has really had a bad consequence–people assume that Kant has been refuted because he’s old, and see no need to read him. But even outside the label and the Cliffs Notes, the arguments themselves are still worthwhile. Perhaps we’re due for a neo-post-neo-Kantian revival.

  10. Greg, I think you will quickly realize, if you haven’t realized already, how frustrating it can be then to read a sort of new “first principles” based philosophical effort, despite my sympathies towards everything new and awesome. Yesterday I’ve decided to give Terry Pinkard’s new translation of Phenomenology a chance – the full text is available on Pinkard’s website, I think I mentioned it already – and I’m struck with how much of what Hegel is writing about in the Preface deals precisely with this notion of starting philosophy from a scratch – nothing wrong with it, of course, but so many metatheoretical issues (as Alexei, I think, called them). For Hegel of course the issue is that beginnings only really makes sense once we know the whole system…

  11. Yeah, I definitely see what you mean. I’m a big fan of the ancient Skeptics, because of the ruthlessness with which they attacked any attempt at “making shit up as you go along”-style philosophizing.

    I haven’t gotten to Hegel yet. My friend and I are doing a German Idealism reading project, Kant through Schopenhauer. Incidentally, can you recommend anything by Fichte aside from the basic Science of Knowledge stuff, or anything by Schelling?

  12. (continued)

    DR SINTHOME: I feel myself disinclined to react to your vituperations, Mikhail, and I would like this conversation to continue in an egalitarian and above all liberal-democratic fashion. The meaning of my psychoanalytic provocations is never to debase or patronize my interlocutor, but to gently prod him towards realizing the intrinsic simplicity of my highly democratic concepts. And in this context, my good-willed advice to you, Mikhail, is to THINK THE PRESENT. I am not, as you snarkily suggest, ignoring the importance of the past, the prominence and the value of the historic dimension. I am simply toning it down somewhat in order to allow for the ontic principle to push through, past your… moderately rigid prejudice.

    MIKHAIL: You’re still psychoanalyzing me, aren’t you, you American burak. You’re relegating me to the Ice Age just because I’m not willing to take Kant to the gallows so that you can sell your fucking ONTIC I-POD on the Continental cellular market. And don’t you dare bring professor Harman into this, using this object-orientation fad as an excuse for your ”subversive” black marketeering!

    DR SINTHOME: Alright, Mikhail. I can see I pushed some highly strung Tchaikovsky wires here. I am going to take a break now and wash my hands again – when I return, I would like to have seen that this conversation is unfolding in a friendlier fashion.

    (intermission)_

    (to be continued)

  13. Greg, I think Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom is great, as for Fichte, there are his 1804 lectures on Wissenschaftslehre or some more popular stuff, or if you like Ethics or Right discussions, he has both a book on Foundations of Natural Right and a System of Ethics.

  14. Greg and Mikhail, I also remember my reading of the first critique with unexpected pleasure. Kant turned out to be really quite sensible after all the dismissal I was used to from growing up marxist/existentialist. He gets a lot of underbrush cleared.

    The making shit up danger was nicely sussed also by Nietzsche with that great crack in Beyond Good and Evil about every philosophy being autobiography. I don’t want to push that because I’m very sympathetic to the anti-reductionism of this new philosophy, especially since the reduction move so transparently expresses a will to power.

    As for encountering resistance, which is a fantastic point, I think they might want to say that actually our pre-Copernican anthropocentrism truncates our experience so that we encounter less resistance than we should. That is, our fields of relations are much more saturated with effective objects than we’ve hitherto addressed – ?

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