Project-Oriented Philosophy

UPDATE: Reid of Planomenology takes on some of the issues in his recent post here.

The recent surge of project-oriented philosophy and its bellicose denial of such wonderful things as procrastination and idleness* made me think about a number of issues, but primarily about the projected work ethic of such philosophical attitude – why should one get a project and why does this attitude remind me so much of a “time is money” late capitalist attitude of middle managers trying to get as much value from their employees as possible?  In other words, what are the ideological underpinnings of such drive for productivity and originality?  Is it possible that an unexplored dimension of such calls for philosophical productivity is a simple influence of late capitalist model of production where original ideas are commodities to be exchanged for higher and higher academic positions and philosophical “work ethic” is a new religion of producing as much philosophical capital as possible in order to justify one’s existence as a philosopher?

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue in their excellent The New Spirit of Capitalism that we are looking at a new ideological mode, a new (third) capitalist spirit:

Whereas the first spirit of capitalism gave more than its due to an ethic of saving, and the second to an ethic of work and competence, the new spirit is marked by a change in terms of the relation to both money and work.

In the form of the spirit of capitalism that dominated the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth, saving constituted the main means of access to the world of capital and the instrument of social advancement.  It was, in large part, by means of inculcating an ethic of saving that the values of self-control, moderation, restraint, hard work, regularity, perseverance, and stability prized by firms were transmitted. [151-2]

So the old attitude toward money was to save it and to advance oneself socially by accumulating more and more money (“I am worth X amount of money”).  The new spirit of capitalism, however, is not about saving and accumulation but about allocating time:

In this [new] world, to save is thus in the first instance to prove sparing with one’s time and judicious in the way one allocates it.  Obviously, this applies in the first instance to the time one devotes to others: not wasting time involves reserving it for establishing and maintaining the most profitable connections… as opposed to squandering it in relations with intimates or people with whom social intercourse brings only pleasure of an affective or ludic variety. [152]

People must not be prodigal with their time, or reserve it for themselves – save it up to no purpose.  They should devote their time to seeking information about good projects and, if they have saved up time, not squander it on useless things, but keep it in reserve to exploit opportunities to invest in a new project, which is unexpected but potentially interesting. [152]

This new attitude toward time directs one to ignore things one does for oneself (leisure, making friends, starting a family and etc, i.e. “saving up”) and to invest time into projects (or the project).  At the same time, the changing attitude toward work follows directly from this attitude toward time and effort one must put into one’s projects:

Associated in the first state of capitalism with rational asceticism and then, in the mid-twentieth century, with responsibility and knowledge, it tends to make way for a premium on activity, without any clear distinction between personal or even leisure activity and professional activity.  To be doing something, to move, to change – this is what enjoys prestige, as against stability, which is often regarded as synonymous with inaction. [155]

So, an ascetic scholar (old school types with a couple of books and a dozen of articles to his/her name, but all of the highest quality) is replaced with an expert scholar (a specialist, and therefore highly knowledgeable and therefore academically responsible) and now a new emerging type of scholar, corresponding to this new spirit of capitalism, is a project manager scholar who is making important connections, creating new projects that would connect him/her with other project managers with a goal of mutual amelioration  and increase of scholarly status and thus exposure to more projects and more connections.  In this sense, blogosphere is an essential medium replacing conference shmoozing and networking – or so it seems.**

So we go from idle and societally useless Socrates to a highly efficient and well-connected project manager scholar.  Idlessness and reflection, irresponsible ranting and “just thinking aloud” are no longer productive modes of scholarly acitivities – death is the ultimate limit, make an important contribution to contemporary philosophy or die trying.


* See all that talk of “trolles” and “vampires” and “nitpicking” and so on, I don’t have specific links, as it was all over this corner of blogosphere.

** Boltanski/Chiapello talk of an emerging new normativity, not a simple adjustment from previous forms of capitalism – one might think of it as a new gospel.

54 thoughts on “Project-Oriented Philosophy

  1. M.E.: Is it possible that an unexplored dimension of such calls for philosophical productivity is a simple influence of late capitalist model of production where original ideas are commodities to be exchanged for higher and higher academic positions and philosophical “work ethic” is a new religion of producing as much philosophical capital as possible in order to justify one’s existence as a philosopher?

    Kvond: As I have argued before, Academia is basically a text-producing factory (which also haply produces the consumers of texts). The recent turn to the middle mangagment productivity that you outline among internet professors are simply in many ways those that have found that they can produce texts (and consumers) much more cheaply, expediantly, via electronic communications. How the Mother Ship Industrial Academia will deal with this sudden influx of cheap labor (and productivity), remains to be seen. In the meantime, fast article producers have gotten a little bit high on the illusion that they are “making something”, not having a rich enough understanding, it seems, that a change in the means of production is a change in product, and resource. One cannot simply apply the old Academic cheats (my favorite was Harman’s advice to simply insert an old forgotten philosopher into your paper, you remember Mikhail), do not automatically produce the “real work” that this not-so-new “work ethic” seems to claim for itself.

  2. Isn’t that why ultimately “project managers” are so into realism, even if it is some sort of weird realism? I mean how can you promote management of projects (the very language smells of corporate capitalism) without affirming the reality of whatever it is out there that one is trying to manage? If philosophy is not about some nebulous openness to the truth or some stoic day-to-day survival, then it must be a task for bureaucratic heroes and managerial geniuses – “get to know the system” (this is how you read a book, this is how you write a book, this is how you get a job etc etc) and “work the system” – that’s how real philosophers do it! All we are doing here is wasting our time, time that can be used to get ahead of the game, publish more (and be listened to by those who already published), get a better job, smarter students – it’s all or nothing, do or die. Well, I have to go sleep for 4 hours before getting back to my project (thanks god I have one or two laying around somewhere).

  3. You’re not trying to suggest that such things as Harman’s “demystification” series of posts on how to write a book of philosophy actually reflect his thoroughly capitalist mode of production, are you? His posts are pretty valuable, even if only because they show that anyone can write a book of philosophy, that there’s nothing “special” to it. I wonder if this backlash against “project-oriented philosophy” is a kind of voice from the margins, a sign of “jealousy” as Harman and Co. would point out? You’d like to be busy with projects and such, you just don’t have the opportunity.

    In one sense, I agree with you that students/workers are made to believe that it is ultimately up to them to make it in the academia (i.e. there’s no institutional bias against them) which is, of course, not the case – see statistics of graduates with PhD getting TT jobs – but that’s how it works in the West and the academia is not an exception. People without jobs are made to think that it is their fault, their lack of “projects” and their lack of motivation/originality – if they had all those things, they would easily get a job – the system works to create more and more students/tuition money so that in the end it can give jobs to some and dismiss others without a serious challenge to its workings, because every year more students will be inspired by their professors to go to graduate school and find their “projects” and so on – that’s how the system reproduces itself.

    • Jackson, you are making some valid observations, including those about jealousy – maybe you’re right and I’m just a jealous loser without a project of my own constantly picking on others and I need to be ignored, I’m not going to try to defend myself against such accusations. I’m merely saying that creating a set of rules when it comes to philosophical engagements smells of vulgar pragmatism of middle management (see your favorite episodes of The Office) – it’s probably extremely useful in real professional life, I am sure, but it sticks of careerism (which used to be a negative term, remember?)

      Would I want to be one with an original project? Certainly. Would I want to be a genius exploding with wonderfully fresh ideas? Would I want to have a cult following and acolytes eating up my every word? Of course. Is it annoying to ask questions and then to answer them yourself? You bet. My point is this: where do all of these ideals come from? why is it that every graduate students wants to be like their professors (knowing down deep that they will not, the odds are against them, you can’t fight numbers – unless you buy lottery tickets, of course) – Lee talked about it in his interview:

      Our training in graduate school, by its very nature, gives a highly distorted picture of the profession: we study with prominent scholars, who get invited to speak all over the world and whose writings are avidly discussed and reviewed. By default, this moulds our impression of the profession, but they represent a highly atypical, tiny minority of professors. The vast majority, if they get jobs at all, work at teaching schools and, if they publish, their publications sink beneath the surface with barely a ripple.

      And that’s not a new thought, most everyone knows that already, but chooses not to think about it. 50% of first-time marriages in the US end up in a divorce, but no sensible minister/judge would include that statistics in their address to the newlyweds, right? No best friend would incorporate it into their toast. We all know it yet we choose to ignore it because it’s part of our culture (knowing implicit rules about following explicit rules) – the same is true of academic culture, we know the numbers but we keep playing the game, hoping that it’s the other student that fails, not us. That’s called ideology, I think, and it’s working just fine because there are so many willing servants.

      • That’s called ideology, I think, and it’s working just fine because there are so many willing servants.

        That sounds right to me, Mikhail. Graduate students from day one have to be “careerists.” That is, latch onto someone, find some hot issues, strategically publish articles etc. Honestly, I don’t know all that many first year graduate students who are ready/qualified to do this, I certainly wasn’t. And really, one of the reasons is that our interests change, but in the project oriented labor situation you describe (correctly, I think) market conditions would prohibit, or minimally, work against this as “flip flopping.”

      • Though, I would hate to give the impression that being a careerist as a grad student is any more effective. It’s completely possible (and in fact, probable that this will happen) to do everything “right” and still get thrown into the ocean with an occasional adjunct gig thrown at you to keep you (barely, if at all) above water. Marc Bousquet’s book is good on explaining how this logic of flushing grads out of the system and the infiltration of the logic of management science into higher ed. I wrote about some of it here a good while back:

      • Oh boy, apparently we’ve both been writing and bitching about it for a while (click on Shahar’s self-citation), so we’re going in circles – Bousquet should be given a medal for all that he does on these issues. I think I mainly wanted to point out some of the intellectual consequences of project-oriented philosophy that, as you point out, influences not just how we approach the professions, but how we ultimately end up thinking (Jon’s points are in this area as well, I think – when profession forces us to specialize and write larger and larger books on smaller and smaller issues, everybody loses) – this project-oriented thinking might work just fine in corporate management, but in philosophy? Next thing you know, we’ll have project-oriented poetry or project-oriented love affairs…

  4. Interesting stuff all around. Really thought provoking.

    (1) Bracketing and a poria

    I think project oriented philosophy is kind of the unavoidable end result of the current labor situation in academia and American society at large.

    It’s a very weird paradigm that I think does place strange selective pressures on people’s beliefs and practices. If it is a priori that any of your engagements with philosophy must yield publications, then you are going to be forced to bracket a tremendous amount of possibly relevant issues along the way.

    Which is to some extent fine. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that. And which is also to some extent unavoidable.

    But when you add to that bracketing the psychological terror most academics go through in graduate school and then the job market, and then (if lucky) to get tenure ugly things happen. When someone insistently brings up issues that you desperately need to bracket in order to further your “project” (get your Ph.D, get a job, get tenure, not get slammed in post-tenure review, etc.) high blood pressure can result. And then people who don’t bracket the issues that you do seem really threatening.

    People who are happy to follow things to a silencing a poria seem really threatening (and again, project oriented philosophy a priori precludes silence as an appropriate response to philosophical enlightenment).

    I think that the major portion of the stupidity of the analytic/continental split comes down just to this, the professional aspect of philosophy making someone who doesn’t bracket the issues and thinkers that you do incredibly threatening. With the crap job market a thousand projects cannot bloom. If it becomes normal to bracket the issues and thinkers you take to be central (or contrariwise to not bracket the ones you need to bracket), then the chance of you getting published and getting a job or even getting good tenure review letters are lessened. When you are hanging on by a thread, anything like this is magnified.

    Certainly some portion of internet stupidity and unethical behavior (e.g. being abusive to people less professionally powerful than you,* posting private e-mails without permission of the correspondent,** etc.) comes down to the same issue. . . Though not all (rams’ horns exist primarily to allow the males just beat into each other, and unfortunately philosophy functions this way too). . .

    (2) Weird slippage

    One strange ethical thing I’ve noticed from blogging is how easy it is for hypothetical maxims to become categorical. “If you want to pursue a certain career track, then you should probably do x,” somehow becomes “everybody should do x.”

    Mikhail’s point is interesting in light of this. Let’s take a break from asking whether everybody should do x and ask why it is the case that so many people believe that everybody should do x.

    (3) The complete scam of the “information economy”

    It is more than passing weird that academics as producers of quantifiable stuff has become so central during the exact same decades that the United States more and more stopped producing actual goods, in favor of the “information economy” scam, where the Chinese fund our deficits so that we buy the stuff they create as tremendous amount of resources are skimmed by parasitical institutions that don’t really do anything (huge chunks of the financial sector, the insurance industry, pharmaceutical advertising, etc.) other than increase wealth inequality here.

    While filling out one of the many laborious reports to my administrative overlords at my institution, I can’t help but feel that all of this management school garbage in academia is a very Freudian reaction to the sense that the broader economy, where the overwhelming majority of the riches go to people who don’t really produce anything, is a scam. The reason half the Harvard BAs go into finance is because state policy has ensured that rate of return from scams and usury is now so much higher than for people who actually produce helpful goods.

    To deny the utter dishonesty and immorality of the broader societal scam, the ideology of producing helpful goods has to be enforced in every field in a way it never really was for people that actually produced helpful goods.

    (4) Tie to Braver

    To get back to the previous point about how philosophical projects necessitate bracketing- One of the great things about Braver’s book is that it is an existence proof of how valuable it can be to negotiate around what seem to be incommensurable bracketing strategies, showing that project orientations don’t have to kill philosophy.

    It would have been nice to have done the group prior to Harman’s pretty insulting dismissal of this blog (which everyone here dealt with in a classy manner by submitting jokes that riffed on the insult, rather than turning around and insulting his blog).

    I’m *not* putting down the SR folks for not participating. Again, it should be obvious that everybody should be able to do their own thing without gratuitous insult. I mean, I don’t need to insult anyone else to justify doing my thing.

    But given the virtue of Braver’s book, there is slight irony that the earlier dismissal seemed to come about because of the failure of all parties to negotiate communication given what the SR people feel they need to bracket at this point in time. Prior to that I really enjoyed reading the debates. . . as an outsider I learned a lot more from that than from festivals of mutual admiration. I still learn a lot from their books, but their blogs, not so much since the divorce.

    The reading group has worked as philosophy (and not just book reports, which would still be valuable in the case of Braver’s book) in part because arguments from all over the realism/anti-realism spectrums are getting charitably addressed (see the really nice interchange between Gary Williams, Braver, and Shahar at Gary’s post to which we linked).

    (5) Buddhist philosophers have for a very long time (Indian philosophy starts with Buddhism and Hindu responses that predate Hume and Kant by over 1500 years, but track many of the same issues) argued that the spiritual point of philosophy is to transcend the self through aporia.

    If they are anywhere close to being right, then there is an acute danger to taking the project orientation necessitated by late/phoney capitalism and making too much of it. This too might explain why philosophers who should learn humility are so often so nasty to each other.

    I hope that in an academic setting and in an internet setting these things can be negotiated by an ethic of openness and following the muse wherever she leads. Hopefully, publishable projects can be report cards along the way without deforming the way itself.

    *I’m not claiming to be above this.

    **For what it’s worth, any lawyer worth her salt would strongly, strongly advise you not do to this as: (1) private correspondence has copyright protection, and (2) libel law kicks in pretty hardcore in all sorts of ways even in countries with really lax standards such as the United States. But mostly, it’s s**t thing to do.

    • Jon, thanks for your thoughts on the matter (your comment being longer than my original post too) – surely, your take counts especially since you’ve already jumped through so many academic hoops. Let me address the “divorce” issue first – as you know, there have been plenty of cross-pollination and intense interaction between me and Levi before and I always really enjoyed it. I get the point of project-oriented philosophy, I just don’t think that it should be presented as an unavoidable fate of anyone who is interested in philosophy. I’m sure being associated with certain known philosophers and making valuable connections is eventually going to help some careers, even if one has to disavow certain types of conversations, that’s academic life – that’s professionalization of philosophy with all the consequences that you are pointing out: productivity and so on are easy to measure when you’re making toys, not so much when you are making thoughts. If there’s anything that killed certain blog interactions that you are referring to is this professionalization – time management, productivity, connections, risk management and so on. These new philosophers really are project managers and they like it that way too.

      My point is (and I take it to be your point as well) that we don’t have to like it. To throw in Zizek (as always), it’s one thing to say “I want you to do X” and a completely another thing to say “I want you to want to do X” – if this is how one gets a job and gets promoted and so on, then surely we must do it, but we also have to resist this drive to completely collapse the personal and the professional – Can one be a philosopher and also have a family and friends? Can one stop being constantly anxious about one’s employment and dedicate one’s energy to students?

      Shahar and I talked about AAUP some months back and how faculty really needs to fight for their rights but how it is also extremely frustrating because of the increase in contingent faculty and general apathy and fear when it comes to confronting certain abuses – good old union-busting mentality is still very much in vogue in this country…

      As for the reading group, as far as I am concerned, it’s been an incredible experience mainly because I tend to read 10 books as the same time and never really finish one unless I have to – this exercise of sticking with one argument, especially with an author present to explain himself, is a great thing – I hope it catches on (many blogs already do it on the regular basis, I don’t mean to suggest its something novel, I mean our blog and my hope we’ll do more of this)…

  5. Interesting discussion, and I say that as someone who quite happily subscribes to this project-oriented view. Importantly, though, I’ve been extremely lucky to be able – as Jon says – to follow my muse and use publishing as a report card, without having to twist my desires. Undoubtedly that’s partly because I’m still a grad student and have the freedom to do that; but to me, that just makes it all the more important to do as much as possible while I can!

    And I just wanted to reply to Jon’s comment about SR people not participating as much in the Braver reading group. I personally have been reading all of the posts and comments and really thoroughly enjoying the discussion. I’ve learned a lot, and I really appreciate the effort everyone has put in to making it a success. I’ve been too busy with other stuff (those damn projects) to add anything interesting or substantive though, but it really has been a pleasure to read through.

    • I have been following the reading group closely as well, I’m sure many others would de-lurk if given a chance – the point is not who does or doesn’t participate, the point is why. I have little to add because most of it is either above my head or I have nothing to add.

      If by “SR people” you mean Graham Harman (the other SR people do not have blogs, do they?) then two things strike me about his blogging:

      1) Despite the name – object-oriented philosophy – his blog is almost entirely about his personal life (not just “subject-oriented philosophy,” but a particular subject, i.e. Graham Harman), it’s not a blog about object-oriented philosophY, but a blog about object-oriented philophER, his daily activities, writing habits, travelogues etc etc. In fact, I’ve learned almost nothing about his philosophy from reading his blog.

      2) For all of Graham’s disavowals of academic ranking and status, he is extremely status-conscious – one does not have to be a “hater” to see that in almost every personal post/story of his, and I am not saying this to offend him or those who like him personally, it’s just a simple fact. It is this influence, I think, that is most clearly visible in the changes that Larval Subject is undergoing these days: before he used to engage everyone who commented, including those who abused his hospitality, now that he is more or less semi-famous, he does the same things that Graham does: self-indulgently informs everyone of his personal life (past and present), promotes his own “project” rather than engage others (“about this point I argue that X, about that point I argue that Y”), and so on. I guess it’s fine, he’s clearly a brilliant thinker, it was only a matter of time before he stopped engaging his readers completely, closed the comments and went on to the academic glory he clearly deserves, it’s just sad for the regular joes like myself who’s been reading blogs for a while without having much to say or to comment about.

      • Hi James,

        By ‘SR people’, Graham and Levi were certainly included, but also myself (on the Speculative Heresy blog), and the other SR-influenced bloggers like Naught Thought, Planomenology and Splintering Bone Ashes, to name just a few. You’re right that none of the other main SR thinkers (Brassier, Meillassoux or Grant) are blogging, but there is a quite vibrant SR community emerging. My lack of commentary on the Braver reading group is particularly egregious since Mikhail was kind enough to personally ask me to participate (if it makes you feel any better, Mikhail, I do feel guilty for not being able to!)

        As far as any change on Levi’s blog, as a blogger myself, I can attest to the time and effort that responding to all the comments can take. Particularly, with the depth and insight that Levi always brings! Comments are unquestionably always wonderful to have, but if one is wrapped up in a particular project (these projects seem to be getting in the way of everything), then the path of an online discussion can inadvertently take you away from the path your project is aimed at. In that case, one of them has to give. We only have a finite capacity for thought, after all, and even the most brilliant people have to focus their energies somewhere, and neglect others. (I’m reminded of a quote from a Deleuze interview where even he admits that his knowledge is limited to what he’s working on at the moment. If he can’t juggle 5 different lines of thought at once, what hope is there for the rest of us?)

      • P.S. Mikhail, the new avatars are hilarious. I’m not sure what to make of mine having it’s mouth taped shut! But Kvond’s monocle is pretty fantastic.

      • I know, although I thought of it more in terms of clientesque (me being a client, not a patron of those I chose to inform of the group) – thanks for mixing it up with avatars, although it would be nice if you included it on the weekly PE agenda-setting and talking-points discussing 4 hour meetings we’ve all been sitting through so faithfully…

      • Re: Agenda setting. Sorry, I’m sick of your project-oriented approach to this blog that results in a management procedure that pretends to be democratic by providing a forum with talking points and votes, but then simply does whatever it wants. Oh wait, that’s the relationship between the faculty senate and the administration. Whoops…

      • I learn from the best, you know? I am a bit concerned with this blog’s progression from what used to be known as a “beer hall talk” to some sort of serious book-reading and serious philosophy-discussing club of careerists and middle managers…

    • Hey Nick (I’m a big fan of you guys’ blog, by the way).

      Yeah it sounds like I inferred too much from an irritated comment by Harman, who I sometimes take to be the mouthpiece of all things S.R. (which is more a reflection of my estimation of him as a philosopher than anything having to do with blogs). It’s good to be set straight by you and Mikhail.

      In this context I should maybe make clearer that any of the negative remarks about “project oriented philosophy” above were self-directed. In the words of my favorite philosopher (David Bowie):

      “Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree.
      And I looked and frowned and the monster was me”

      O.K. That’s from his “cribbing from Nietzsche” phase. I probably should have just cribbed from Nietzsche, but honestly his music (you can actually buy a C.D. of some piano pieces) is nowhere near as good as Hunky Dory/Man Who Sold The World/Ziggy Stardust.

      • Hey Jon, I’m a big fan of your blog too (I’m now the proud owner of a Graham Priest book thanks to you!)

        I think, like you said above, part of the problem with ‘project-oriented philosophy’ (POP?) is simply the tendency for discussions on the internet to slip into universal imperatives. I certainly would never wish for everyone to be like that, not least because ‘having a project’ can be draining, mentally, socially and physically. I’m in the (very) lucky position where I can do that type of thing without sacrificing my other priorities in life, but certainly not everyone shares the same priorities that I do, nor the same situation. The problem, then, with academia is precisely that it does operate according to that same universalizing logic – everyone needs to have a project, regardless of whether they want one or not. (A similar argument could be made for education – everyone must write essays, regardless of whether they’re better at conversation or some other means of testing.)

        I admit, though, that I find the denunciation of projects by association with ‘evil capitalism’ less than compelling. Surely projects have existed prior to capitalism, and surely everything that capitalism produces isn’t tainted with evil. It’s not a matter so much of falling into the precepts of capitalism, as it is of recuperating the terms that have been maligned by their association with its excesses. Anyways, that’s my brief and not particularly interesting two cents on it!

      • Nick, I suppose if I were in fact saying projects=evil capitalism, then indeed it would be quite objectionable. I think what I intended to do was simply express my astonishment at the language of project-oriented philosophy and Boltanski’s analysis of the “new spirit of capitalism” and how the two seem to be similarly de-emphasizing “saving” or “expertise” and promoting “project-management” as a prime form of philosophizing. Take Jon’s observations about the need to choose one’s niche and the institutional requirement (not just personal preference) to stick with it. As graduate students we are like children who are allowed to play with all sorts of toys, pick up and leave all sorts of hobbies, but that cannot last, we are told, we must choose our “project” and manage it successfully without unneccesary distractions and so on. “Project” here is not a simple paper or a line of thought, it is the project, the life-project the one you choose and the one you stick with, ignoring all else, the one that would define you and your philosophical contribution – that’s “project-oriented philosophy” – gone are the days of careless reading here and there, of following the theme wherever it leads, because that’s not going to get you hired and that’s sure not going to get you tenured (if you’re lucky enough to get a TT job). That’s the general gist of it. The question is then what sort of philosophical consequence does this “new spirit of capitalism” (as discussed by Boltanski) produce? It seems to be that “project-oriented philosophy” is exactly the type.

      • I was logged out earlier and didn’t realize it (hence the silenced avatar), but now I’m back with the normal one.

        I think there’s 2 sorts of issues here that are getting a bit confused – one is the institutional pressure to produce, and the other is the personal desire to have a project. The latter doesn’t at all reject the sorts of wandering and interdisciplinarity that you are suggesting. It also isn’t necessarily a life-long project, but rather the desire to work on a problem and devote oneself to it (for some extended period of time). It’s also, I would argue, a desire to produce something (which almost always means publishing, in philosophy). I’m in complete agreement with Latour and Graham here – if you want to contribute to philosophy, you have to produce something. This isn’t, to me at least, an imperative for everyone to publish, or a denunciation of downtime or of wandering through texts. I mean, wandering through unrelated texts is one of the main ways I get motivated for a project, and get ideas for a project. And reading philosophy is an intrinsic pleasure for most of us, regardless of whether we produce something from it or not. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But this is all on the personal level.

        On the more institutionalized side, I think you’re completely right, and I have no qualms with the argument that capitalist logic has shifted the university system in almost entirely negative ways (negative for real thinking, that is). I think your final question is a good one too, although as a grad student still playing around with all the toys, I don’t feel I have the institutional experience yet to answer it.

        So while I can understand suspicion about the language of capitalism infiltrating the space of personal projects, I don’t think it’s necessarily significant. To put it simply, it’s new words for things that have always been done.

      • I’m in complete agreement with Latour and Graham here – if you want to contribute to philosophy, you have to produce something.

        You mean “with Bruno and Graham,” right?

        I think that you are right in pointing out the distinction between “personal” and “professional” that Boltanski argues practically disappears from this late capitalist form, but leaving his analysis behind – I’m not arguing that he’s talking about what I’m talking about, simply pointing out similarities (which might be, as you say, just coincidental and insignificant) – let’s look at “contribution = production = publication” matrix: it’s certain true, I don’t think anyone is denying that in philosophy, if you think deep thoughts late at night over a cup of tea, you’re not really making a contribution, you must put it in words and you must share it with an audience (which is easy for Bruno/Graham because they are already at the professional level where they have an easy access to publishing and it is not at all the case with, I’m not afraid to say, a majority of those in the field of philosophy who have to persuade publishers not that they have ideas, but that their ideas are ‘marketable’ – check out this guide from Verso, a progressive and independent publisher) – but it’s one thing to say that this is how it should be – think your thoughts, put them down on paper, publish them – and saying that this is how it actually is. I think one has to only mentioned such things as publication reviews taking up to a year while one’s livelihood depends on a tenure-review scenarios or more recent tendency for graduate students to publish more and more in a kind of careerist attitude Shahar mentioned to make an obvious point – it’s not just about new words for old ideas, it’s a completely new professional and personal situation because the very attitude will soon kill even that precious time that most of us enjoyed so much in graduate school, i.e. playing with toys. Professors who got their jobs in the 60s and 70s could do so without publications or projects, today this would be next to impossible – projects, performance, production and other technocratic terms are here to stay, and I am only wondering why they are not giving us at least a pause to reflect on what has become to philosophy. Of course, all of this depends on our differing views of what philosophy is and should be, and I think that “project-oriented philosophy” is only bad from a certain perspective and is probably an awesome angle from another.

      • I basically agree with all of this, since it points to the effects of institutional problems onto the personal level – which is a problem. I wholeheartedly support the idea of stepping back and critiquing what professional philososphy is becoming. I just don’t think that project-oriented philosophy is bad in and of itself.

        All that being said, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this video I just came across. It gives me some ideas for how Realism Wars might best get settled:

      • Nick,

        I agree with everything you write here.

        I think on the whole capitalism is a very good thing (understood as made sustainable by anti-monopoly laws and a strong redistributive government and labor unions).

        The weird educational industrial complex we have in the United States now is in part effected by the fact that we don’t have enough capitalism. I don’t mean this in a libertarian way (see previous parenthetical).

        The late Roman Republic was characterized by Senators enriching themselves in financial schemes that were ruinous for others. Prior to the Marian reforms Roman and Italian ally soldiers had to pay for themselves, so they took out loans, which had to be repaid by their widows when they died. The same senators who gave them the loans then took the lands of their destitute families. In addition, foreign policy was a scam to enrich more senators which led to war after war when the new colonies and the Italian allies revolted (the same senators that caused the wars were the ones being enriched by loaning money). And as these senators got richer the average Roman citizen and Italian ally got poorer.

        This combination of corruption, increased income disparity, and deformation of the economy by too high returns in the financial as opposed to manufacturing sector is taken to be characteristic of declining Empires by some scholars (the British, Spanish, Netherland’s trade empire). [Of course in Rome Gauis Marius, Julius Caesar, and then Augustus instituted successive left wing reforms (pay and retirement for soldiers, free food, taking colonies away from the senate, vastly expanded citizenship starting with the Italian allies, etc.) that stopped this. They had to fight several civil wars to do so, but the end result was the thriving of the civilization for hundreds of years.]

        The unraveling of the New Deal in the United States (recently somewhat obliquely but still roundly condemned by the Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church in his last encyclical) is scarily similar to what the Senators of the “good men” faction managed to accomplish to the destruction of Republican Rome. Median income has dropped for the last thirty years in this country as GDP goes through the roof, yet much of this GDP growth comes from monetarization (the financial sector) and foreign policy (weapons sales to client states), as the manufacturing sector declines more and more.

        I think at some level people know what’s going on and it makes them weird. Management and Education schools have a set of hoops devised to justify the pay of accreditation agencies and professional administrators that result in faculty spending a great deal of time writing insultingly useless reports (e.g. multiple reports concerning annual review of individual faculty, a “strategic plan” for the department, reports every semester on how General Education classes are fulfilling the six desiderata for such classes including sample tests, reports on how majors are writing, every five years another book for “external review,” etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.) None of these reports change anything! They just give the vice provosts and their staff and the accreditation agencies something to justify their existences with.

        Now here’s the weird thing. Any company actually producing a useful product (i.e. trains) would go out of business if it did so much “assessment” to the detriment of actual work. Yet the ideology behind all of this assessment is the idea that we are going to become more productive like industry.

        Why is becoming like industry such a neurosis now in the public sphere? All of Clinton’s privatizations (e.g. the Long Beach ship yard, Blackwater security) resulted in a worse product for more money. The Navy spends more money to get their ships repaired by private companies and the repair is demonstrably worse than when it was done by unionized federal employees (see the data in the footnotes to that book “Stiffed”).

        I think it’s Freudian. Everybody is trying to convince themselves that they are actually producing something just because members of the so-called “creative class” (Richard Florida’s euphamism for people who don’t manufacture things) have completely shat on the actual producers of material goods. So we recreate a simulacrum of the factory floor in every other field too (and the very fact that it has to preclude unionization for the income disparity to exist dooms it to being a parody).

        All this being said. Your broader point is correct. Intellectuals have always had projects.

        However I think in the New Deal era in the United States there was a somewhat different relation to these projects. What’s happened to the academic job market (see “How The University Works”) makes it a lot more terrifying if anything. Projects in the sense of “I want to see what happens when I consider X in light of Y” or “I want to learn about Z” always have to be subsumed into projects in the sense of “I’ve got to write two new papers this summer and resubmit these three.”

        Harman’s advice can be so valuable just because in his own work he has clearly successfully negotiated this tension. But it’s obviously required a great deal of the kind of asceticism that Nietzsche actually praises in the scholar. And Shahar’s point that you can do all this stuff, give everything to it, and still get stuck as contingent labor is sobering. . .

        I know that Britain has had a weird time with the assessment metrics the government has pushed on departments. I wish someone like Bousquet would write a book comparing how the hegemony of assessment works in Britain and the United States. I think here it’s the result of (and part of) the scam of what Europeans refer to as “liberalism” (but not Americans who sometimes mean the opposite by the phrase). I don’t know if it is in Britain.

  6. I think your mistake here is that you use terms like “project-manager” and “careerism” and “managerial style” and such as negative terms while I’m sure those you label “project-oriented philosophers” love capitalism and all its wonderful consequences. I am sure if they were talking to you, they would say something like this: “Of course we are project-oriented working philosophers, contemplation and quiet reflection is for losers, “publish or perish” is not a curse but a blessing, it weeds out the weak” and so on, i.e. your typical capitalist rhetoric of “get rich or die trying”.

    • True, I haven’t thought of that actually – in case someone thinks that when it comes to philosophy terms like “project-oriented management” are actually positive and should be embraced, then I really have nothing to say on the matter as it would take me all the way to explaining how… well, that exploitation sucks and capitalism is built on maximizing exploitation.

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  8. I have a lot of thoughts on this issue, but I think I missed out on much of the back-and-forth that forms the background to this discussion, so I’ll limit myself to just one or two.

    I think that Graham is doing the profession a great service in de-mystifying the process of writing. How often have you heard the nuts & bolts of writing a book discussed? Do you remember (for those of us past this stage) how cryptic and intimidating the prospect appeared? “How the hell am I going to produce a BOOK? That’s what scholars do, and I’m just a student.” I certainly found the whole affair perplexing and anxiety-inducing, and I survived mine relatively sanely. It’s great for someone who is productive to intentionally turn off the great fire-breathing shouting head and pull back the curtain on the little man behind it scribbling away.

    There is a bit of an unfortunate blowback, however, in the fact that Graham’s writing appears to flow so easily. I can’t imagine writing an entire book in one summer! Although he notes the bumps and bruises along the way, and constantly reminds us that he gained this facility over a long period and with much effort, I certainly feel a few pangs of jealousy in seeing how productive he can be (as well, let’s admit it, in hearing about the whirlwind invited traveling he does–I want to eat strawberries in the morning in Zagreb!). For me, writing involves a whole lot more bare-chested wrestling with texts (who usually win) and tedious chasing down and herding of quotes (those who’ve been reading my book can see how obsessive I am about this, to the point of tiresomeness and absurdity). But I think that the overall goal of showing the craft-side of writing is extremely beneficial, and I would’ve loved to have had it when I was a grad student (one of the things I like so much about Heidegger is the way he shows us his thinking rather than his thoughts; the beginning of WCT is really good on this).

    On the need of having a project, yes the professional pressure to publish is unfortunate, esp. for grad students who are most in need of it and least in the position to produce worthwhile work. On the realist/cynical side, I don’t see how one can responsibly do anything but urge job-seekers to fatten their CV as much as possible even tho, in a game-theory paradox, that harms the profession as a whole by flooding us with tiny slices of wisdom packed in massive amounts of styrofoam. And yes, lots of “wasted” time wandering among texts and idle thoughts churn up the soil in which good ideas can grow. I can’t imagine that Graham would deny that.

    But the important idea that the need for projects gets at, besides the professional point, is the fact that writing forms an integral part of thinking. We don’t spill fully formed ideas onto the blank page; articulating them is an essential part of thinking them through. It’s too easy for a half-baked idea to sit smugly in one’s head, appearing to be mature and insightful, letting the mists of the mind cover all its gaps and ugly spots. It’s only in clearly setting it out that we discover where it needs more work and where it just doesn’t work. Add in the Hegel/Gadamerian idea that conversation is also integral to the thinking process of social animals like us, and you get the claim that putting things out there to work over with others (who might not share your assumptions) is crucial to thinking well and, if you want to push it, even to thinking in a full sense. This was the mistake I made in grad school, poo-pooing research because it sits on library shelves collecting dust. I didn’t understand the effect that writing has on the writer.

    Obviously, this doesn’t simply collapse into publications; blogs perform this, as does just having conversations. Publishing is privileged in that it makes the ideas maximally available, both diachronically & synchronically, but there are plenty of other ways. The epistemological point is that these processes are not accidental after-effects of thinking, but internal to it.

    OK, maybe more than one or two thoughts.

    • Lee, thanks for your observations. I should certainly add that I have nothing against “career advice” or any sort of demystifications that one can discover – in a sense, that’s what a doctoral adviser is for or should be for – and I would also distinguish simple “career advice” from a “careerism” of which I see plenty of examples and I don’t have Harman in mind here (in fact, I didn’t have him in mind while writing the post, it’s just that the word combination – project-oriented philosophy – sort of sounded good). “Careerism” in this sense would be an advice like this: “when deciding what topic to choose for your graduate work, make sure it’s a sexy enough topic so that you can get a job.” I mean everyone heard a variation of that advice, I think – don’t write about X, no one cares about X – it’s probably a great advice in business (don’t specialize in finance, do real estate or investments), but philosophy really suffers from this sort of attitude. However, if we consider philosophical ideas to be commodities (think-formulate-publish) that we can exchange for higher academic position (or an academic position to begin), then I wonder what the consequences for the profession will be? That’s of course a whole other aspect of the conversation.

  9. “I’m in complete agreement with Latour and Graham here – if you want to contribute to philosophy, you have to produce something.”

    Kvond: Alas, Socrates missed this memo.

  10. I think these are all great observations, I’m glad someone is talking about these issues, it’s important to know all sides of the story.

    One thought about demystification of writing/publishing though: see latest posts on Harman’s blog, he gives you a break down of how many characters he put down in how many hours and how many cups of juice he drank with it and how many times he went to the bathroom etc etc. This demystification reminds me of some hippy parents having sex in front of their child instead of the good old “the bees and the birds” talk – it’s probably very educational, but it kills the spirit! Can someone please go back and re-mystify the process of writing again or I will begin counting my characters and trips to the store.

    (plus, does Harman have a wife/kids? every time I read “Well, it’s 5:30pm and plenty of time to write” I wonder if his family is quietly tip-toeing out of the room and then sits in the dark room waiting for him to finish writing…)

  11. Mikhail,
    I read the post quickly and only skimmed the comments so I apologize if I’m repeating stuff or am off topic. I can’t speak to productivity (I wish!) but with regard to the drive for originality, that was among the many things I found offputting in the grad program I left. This may be naive, but I just sort of want to read Marx and Wittgenstein and Kant (and … ad infinitum) and think the sorts of things folk think when they read those great books. I want the transformative power of reading and discussing those books to work on me, I don’t need unique insights. I found the rush to have (ostensibly) original insight was intellectually stultifying.

    I think there’s a degree to which this fits with my liking to teach and the way I want to teach – I want to help students wrestle with great books and important ideas, that’s most of it. I’m not particularly fussed if they think *I* have good ideas. Nor am I fussed if they end up agreeing with what I or the text think (though I did teach a strike at the campus I work at only to have some of them say “I was sympathetic but after our discussions I think they shouldn’t have struck,” that really hurt).

    take care,

    • Nate, I think I share this attitude completely, if it was up to me, I would never publish anything unless I felt that it was entirely original and people needed to know about it, which is unlikely to happen if my main concentration is to help my students, not to advance my career. Yet the academic career path is set up in such a way as to mostly disregard good teaching (unless of course someone is absolutely horrible, most teaching goes unnoticed, administratively speaking) – I think the point that Bousquet and others are trying to make is that delegating more and more teaching to contingent faculty makes colleges devalue that only “product” they have, an education (a diploma). As far as reading all you want and helping students think, I say that’s a model of education that university (before the recent corporation-style change) must aspire to. The answer is not only the activism of contingent faculty as Bousquet writes, but also a larger public debate about education, debate that now only comes to the public’s attention in strange xenophobic terms – “foreigners are taking over because they really do study their math and they will soon be in charge because American kids are stupid etc etc.” I wish there was more talk of what education is and how to improve it, but it’s too polluted with profit-motifs with faculty and graduate students too caught up in their imaginary “project-oriented” disciplines, those who are affected the most compete against each other for the small number of jobs and then pull the ladder up once they get there – it’s do or die attitude and if you do die, it’s your fault entirely (didn’t publish enough, didn’t go to a well-ranked schools, didn’t suck up to enough people, didn’t work hard enough). What do you think? It seems that it is the same thing as with general unemployment – you lose a job, it’s your fault, not the system’s… Imagine a newly minted PhD not getting a job regardless of jumping through all the hoops (“Invisible Adjunct” story, if you don’t know, google it, it’s fascinating), working your ass off publishing, making connections, going to conferences to a point of disregarding having friends, having family and so forth – you end up in the late 30s alone making little money in a system that is programmed against you. That’s reality for many many graduate students, not some paradise eating strawberries in Zagreb and such – professors perpetuating the myth that “everyone will get a job” are as responsible for this mess as administrators who set up the system where there will always be 100-150 candidates for every TT job opening, always – that’s how it works…

  12. Nate: “This may be naive, but I just sort of want to read Marx and Wittgenstein and Kant (and … ad infinitum) and think the sorts of things folk think when they read those great books. I want the transformative power of reading and discussing those books to work on me, I don’t need unique insights. I found the rush to have (ostensibly) original insight was intellectually stultifying.”

    Kvond: I like this very much, and it reminds me of what Rorty once said a university is good for: a place to find interesting books, and people to talk with about them. Seldom though is it understood in this way. Or course Rorty stood against the conceptual importance of the “philosophical project”. One wonders if novelists should be judged by their “projects” or painters.

  13. M.E.: “Imagine a newly minted PhD not getting a job regardless of jumping through all the hoops (“Invisible Adjunct” story, if you don’t know, google it, it’s fascinating), working your ass off publishing, making connections, going to conferences to a point of disregarding having friends, having family and so forth – you end up in the late 30s alone making little money in a system that is programmed against you. That’s reality for many many graduate students, not some paradise eating strawberries in Zagreb and such – professors perpetuating the myth that “everyone will get a job” are as responsible for this mess as administrators who set up the system where there will always be 100-150 candidates for every TT job opening, always – that’s how it works…”

    Kvond: The funny thing is that philosophers as a rule pride themselves as being something of an acme of intelligence, or at least doing the kind of work that really bright people do, yet they are duped into this deadend system, like a bunch of simple-minded cattle. You do not highlight that, at least in the US, the hidden deciding factor of a tremendous burden of debt. This in many ways drives the system. Somehow “they” get you to “bet” a 100,000 dollars you don’t have that you are going to have a career that is both intellectually satisfying and financially sustainable, and once you have made this incredibly ridiculous wager, you then can be forever committed to chasing this absurdity, attempting to make the bet pay off.

    • You’re right about the financial side of it, I missed that – my wife’s MA cost her a ton of money, but she’s not in philosophy and has a real job, but still, I can’t imagine having a PhD with such a debt and trying to survive adjuncting. I was lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to college and fellowships to get me through my MA and all of my PhD’s coursework tuition, I don’t know how natives are doing it without financial support – someone’s making a shitload of money on this…

      • M.E.: “someone’s making a shitload of money on this…”

        Kvond: The odd thing is, “no body” is really making money on this (with the possible exception of secured loan companies). Instead it seems to be instutionalized slavery of a very strange kind, one in which people voluntarily commit a huge portion of their future based upon, what can we call it, the very (ideological?) image of the university itself. A rather innocent (at first) “I want to be part of that!”

        Bizzare set up that has gone pretty much out of wack from its ideals. But considering the origins of the university (out of Paris and whatnot) are the orgins of an expanse of bureaucracy, perhaps really true to the university system from the start.

  14. hi again Mikhail,

    You and I are totally on the same page about this stuff, heated agreement.

    With regard to public discussion about education and so on, I agree with that. This may be only partly related but a few years ago I was at one of the big professional historian conferences, I saw an excellent panel on the history of privatization in the US, focusing largely on healthcare if I remember right. In the audience was a guy finishing his PhD in history while teaching high school history in Chicago, where school teachers are unionized. After the presentations a great discussion broke out about a common difference between teachers unions and healthcare unions. Historically in the US, at least in recent history, healthcare workers unions have been somewhat successful in making a case publicly that healthcare workers interests coincide with patients interests. More power for nurses means more power to advocate for good patient care – nurses and other direct care providers are among the people who spend the most time with and most care about patients. Education workers unions have largely failed to make the analogous case, even though the actual situation is quite similar. This seems to me something to think about with regard to graduate education focused on publication and how teaching and undergraduates fit in. At least where I work, it’s us grad students who do the bulk of the undergraduate teaching and particularly the small group and individual contact time is done by graduate students. That works for me – it’s the best part of my job – except that I get nervous about how to juggle that with the need to have a project, publish, make a contribution… It seems to me that the emphasis on publishing etc and the undervaluing of teaching is at cross purposes with both justifying higher ed funding – or at least the humanities – over all (I mean, seriously, does anyone believe that humanities research is going to justify our existence?), it’s also at cross purposes with building more power for the people on the lower rungs of the ladder.

    On this –

    “they are already at the professional level where they have an easy access to publishing and it is not at all the case with, I’m not afraid to say, a majority of those in the field of philosophy who have to persuade publishers not that they have ideas, but that their ideas are ‘marketable’”

    Yes. In many ways, to the degree that junior scholars run up against publish-or-perish and all that, more established scholars should just stop publishing altogether in professionally qualified outlets and should instead put their work and ideas out in other venues. ‘Merit’ pay is one institutional obstacle to that actually happening, one of many.


    • Thanks, Nate – I do think the analogy with healthcare workers unions is interesting. I think the argument against much of contingent teaching has recently been, in addition to poor working conditions, low pay and no job security, that in such a situation, a teacher is unlike to try very hard, i.e. impacting the students negatively. Unionization or any other sort of organization that allows for negotiating power is the only way to go, hoping for “good will” or “consideration” on the part of administation is silly, not because they are evil or some such (most are nice and supportive), but because the educational system is set up this way and disposable adjuncts/lecturers are what drives it for the most part. In that sense, every faculty governance in many places is pretty weak – I can tell you a couple of stories about issues coming in front of the senate, decisions made one way and then administration reversing them via a good old “executive order” and such. In general, again, I think it’s a matter of public debate as such, however weakened the public sphere really is in the US, and I’m sure the time of crisis will come (the same way things are now changing, even if not much, in healthcare) – we’ll see.

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