Academic anxieties

“You start with herbal meds, you end up with Xanax”. This formula summarizes the psychological trajectory of many researchers in academia today. I don’t want to pity them more than other professions that are so much more exposed to the effects of neoliberalism and global burnout. Not all researchers are taking anxiolytics either. Research in the social sciences (I am an anthropologist) is, above all, pleasure: jubilation to solve a scientific puzzle, accumulate facts, read endlessly, the pleasure “to not understand” (says French anthropologist Jean Pouillon) and to propose theoretical models to explain the world (1).

However, unlike the stereotypical view of the researcher as a butterfly collector (for anthropologists: a kind of Indiana Jones always traveling to some exotic country), contemporary academics need to be on many fronts: to publish in the best journals and in different languages​​; to attend dozens of conferences per year while pursuing their research; to teach at their local university and on other continents; to head research programs that will generate money for their universities; to be international and national militants; to mentor their doctoral students; to be useful to their university administration; and so on. These obligations make the researcher a true entrepreneur of his own intellectual life (2). As a matter of fact, the world of research leaves no room for hesitation, wander, doubt and serendipity. Our era is that of the neoliberal intellectual, caught in an economy of citationality, obsessed with its editorial visibility and always with an eye on Academia.edu and Google Scholar. Especially in the social sciences, this neoliberal scholar is nevertheless a fierce and ironic critique of the system. A kind of “neoliberal revolutionary”, as I call it… Beyond the oxymoron, such posture holds incompatible values between claimed romanticism and strategic hyperproduction.

There is, indeed, growing cynicism against these neoliberal conditions in academic worlds. Some, like Rosalind Gill, invite us to break the silence (3). Suffice it to read some posts of The Professor is In (a forum about mental illness in academia: http://theprofessorisin.com/category/mental-illness-and-academia/) to get a sense of the psychological distress experienced by some colleagues. Many academics, young and old alike, are paralyzed by doubt on the legitimacy of their scientific practices. Few researchers still dare to claim this useless part that is essential to research. Is there a place for the researcher who needs time to write (taking into account that one must usually “wait until our fifties to write something worthwhile”, said Bukowski)? Many of us have the feeling of being consenting victims of a system that limits our intellectual freedom. The well-known formula “Publish or perish” is indicative of the alienating regime in which we operate, where access to the most prestigious journals, mostly based in the US and the UK, is the essential criterion for obtaining the best jobs in the best universities (although there exists great initiatives, particularly with regard to Open Access journals such as Hau and Cultural Anthropology). To be efficient, knowledge is compartimentalized to the extent that one can nostalgically dream of a time when an intellectual was at once a physician, an inventor, a naturalist, a philosopher and a poet. Today, “Powerpoint thinking” dominates: simple ideas, concise formulas ready to be consumed fast. Goodbye complexity and interdisciplinary? Adieu the intellectual quest?

At these anxieties of the neoliberal time, increasingly denounced by academics as the success of “manic depression in culture” (4), one can add others inherent to the practice of research, writing and teaching. One of my anthropology students, Edgar Tasia, has just written an excellent Master thesis about these issues (5). Anthropology, because it questions the stability of our certainties, is an anxiety-riddled discipline, as brilliantly discussed by Devereux in his book “De l’angoisse à la méthode” (1980) (6). The deconstruction of these things taken-for-granted, our most familiar and intimate representations of the world, is a destabilizing intellectual enterprise triggering a lot of anxieties. Similarly, for many, writing does not rhyme with inner peace. In the process of writing, the whole organism tenses up. Insomnia is never far away. Teaching is also a real physical exercise. After school, Wittgenstein used to watch movies to let go the tension triggered by teaching. To these one must add: competitions between researchers in an unequal international world; local academic hierarchies (e.g., mentor/PhD student relationships summarized by Georges Steiner as: “I’ll never equal my mentor, but I’d like that, one day, he takes me seriously” (7)); the loneliness of research; rampant gender inequalities; uncertainties about the future (what to do after a PhD? And after the postdoc?); but also the profound psychological identification of researchers with their intellectual production. An article rejected, some aggressive comment from a colleague, and the world seems to collapse. Gregory Bateson, the eminent British anthropologist, wrote: “Some men seem able to go on working steadily with little success and no reassurance from outside. I am not one of these. I have needed to know that somebody else believed that my work had promise and direction, and I have often been surprised that others had faith in me when I had very little in myself” (8).

I have long felt that there was something necessary, exhilarating and suffering in the current academic ethos, torn between romance and overproduction. I participated in it 200%. I met with scepticism discussions about “slow science” inviting us to “slow down” as Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers puts it (9). Not that I wanted to emphasize quantity over quality. Not that I found neoliberal temporality adequate for research. Quite the opposite. But I wanted to accelerate, passionate and excited by my desire to contribute to anthropological knowledge. It also seemed to me that, in some European Universities, we needed more international evaluations and a certain dose of meritocracy against localism and clans. Yet I was also greatly mistaken. In the face of multiple pressures, in the midst of the current evaluative craze, academics also deserve a politics of care, an attitude of concern and responsibility about their vulnerability. This requires, above all, the recognition of the anxieties inherent to their work and the real risk of psychological exhaustion carried out by the neoliberal ethos.

(1) David Berliner. 2013, Le désir de participation ou Comment jouer à être un autre, L’Homme 206 : 151-170.

(2) See Shore, C. N., & McLauchlan, L. 2012. ‘Third Mission’ Activities, Commercialisation and Academic Entrepreneurs. Social Anthropology, 20 (3), 267-286.

(3) Gill, R. 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections.London: Routledge

(4) Emily Martin. 2007. Bipolar Expeditions. Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton University Press.

(5) Edgar Tasia. 2014 Anxiety anthropologists. The emotional impact of anthropology on the anthropologist. Master’s thesis. ULB.

(6) Georges Devereux. 1980. De l’angoisse à la méthode dans les sciences du comportement. Paris: Flammarion.

(7) Georges Steiner et Cécile Ladjali. 2003. Eloge de la transmission. Paris: Albin Michel.

(8) Gregory Bateson. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(9) Isabelle Stengers. Une autre science est possible. Paris: La Découverte.

© 2014 David Berliner All Rights Reserved©


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