To be honest, I’ve never been a true aficionado of the work of Adrienne Rich. Too second-wave funky for my tastes, too much unreconstructed lesbian separatism lingering around the corners, not the least of which was her assertion in the 1970s that gay men were responsible for all the problems of pre-Stonewall lesbians (per Faderman). As well, the attachment of young white liberal undergraduate women to her famous poem “Frame” always seemed a bit too much like guru fetish, even if I secretly liked that poem myself. In any event, I have always been taken, however, by the title of her 1979 prose anthology, which has stayed in my memory even as any meaningful details of the volume itself have faded into the white noise of having led a life too full of books and ideas to keep any of them straight anymore.
Her inspired title always stood for me as a rubric for the parameters of social life, a feeling only intensified by working in the Biz. If indeed the infrastructure of the Byzantine workings of the academy are grounded in lies, secrets, and silence, then a key to success is developing the skills to gather and process information selectively and cogently, skills not anathema to our training as intellectuals and professionals, but also a skill-set that some of us do not bring to bear upon the inner mechanisms of our daily professional lives.
Once upon a time, in describing some controversy, the Fierceness used the metaphor of the purloined letter, the secret hidden in plain sight. The image has stayed with me, not only because of the persuasive reasoning of the Fierceness’s mind, but also as a modus of the university. Scandal, corruption, and bad tidings are usually in plain sight, laying about like the detritus of university life, someone’s hopes and dreams burnt to a crisp, and as such pass by the trained eye searching for the elaborate hiding place. Competition between junior and senior faculty, corrupt hiring and promotion practices, people hired because of nepotism and fired for no cause, racism and sexism and homophobia ingrained in evaluatory mechanisms, these and other horrors typically live not hidden, but right before our eyes, folded into the manner of living that is the academy, through paradigms such as collegiality, mentorship, “fit,” process, and undergirded and supported by the lies we tell everyday (to ourselves and others), the secrets we keep, and the silences we engender, for survival and power.
Inspired by several sources, Rich’s title, and the memory of The Fierceness’s purloined letter, let’s take a closer look at how this trinity works in the academy of here and now, as in right now …
On one of the pages of the Academic Job Wiki there has been a heated conversation going on about a particular tenure-track job search at a private baccalaureate college in the Eastern United States. Perusing the listings, keeping up with the Joneses of course, it caught my eye about a month ago, and every time I check back there is another shocker. The line of conversation seems to have begun around questions about the search process, and whether or not there was an inside candidate. But as the thread grew and expanded, the tone shifted from the job itself (which remarkably features comments from a member of the search committee itself defending their process [!], among others) to the role of questioning itself, with some comments gesturing towards the idea that those (other, questioning) commentators engaged in criticising the search process are potentially bad colleagues, insecure, angry, and overly subjective.
Whether or not there is an inside candidate for this position is less important to me as a voyeuristic reader than parsing the institutional politics on display in this thread: on one hand, the role of the internet and anonymity to question and undermine the total and secretive power of the search process; on the other, inchoate forces of reaction that seek to shut down the conversation with veiled threats and insults directed at the questioners themselves. What this intriguing dynamic demonstrates is the depths to which some of us inculcate the culture of official lies in the university. We all know, for instance, that the academic hiring process is inherently, tragically flawed. Those of us with experience in these matters also know the depths of chicanery involved in even the most banal searches. These are not matters open to debate, but frankly acknowledged by most academics familiar with the processes of the university, most often with a shrug of the shoulders.
For me, what has been most exasperating about the progression of this conversation thread is the way in which some writers have displayed a total colonisation of their minds (to get a little retro) by the system, how they have come to believe (whether unconsciously or deliberately) the lies of the system in reassuring us, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that all is well in the Religious Kingdom of Academic Meritocracy that is the root of our perception of the academic hiring process. How deeply they (we?) have become slaves to the system! This involves a whole series of interlocking and embricated belief systems that, like a house of cards, must exist as a whole, or else face imminent collapse. The faith community of Academic Meritocracy, like most faith communities, cannot brook dissent, however, which is one reason why the tone of this particular thread on the Wiki has become somewhat ugly. But what happens when the Messiah doesn’t come? What about the crisis of faith? To reveal the lie, to speak of the illusion, to reveal the mimesis, is also, in the minds of some, to mark oneself as a troublemaker, a bad colleague, or rather a bad slave. It is vulgar, impolite, and unpleasant. Rather similar to our current political moment, and perhaps as such reveals more about the American character than the academic one, or perhaps reaffirms the lessons of hegemony as a sophisticated, persuasive system of control.
A couple of nights ago, at a dinner party celebrating a visiting scholar in town, in response to some mild-mannered queries, I went off on various things, a soliloquy more informed by hunger, tiredness, and missing Mr. Gordo than by any tangible material dissatisfaction (at least, tangible in a new and different sense). Afterwards, I felt mildly embarrassed and self-conscious. Nothing I had said was untrue, per se, but no one really wants to hear it. Revealing the lie in one case can have the unhappy consequences of stripping other, disassociated lies of their glamour. And when you have a life built on lies, as we academics have, then such a process of consciousness can overwhelm. Many of us prefer to dream, stay asleep in our individual cocoons, although the reaction of my dinner compatriots, to be generous, may have been more akin to the awkwardness that comes from the revelation of personal pain and our individual inability to do much about it, other than be supportive as we can be.
The desire on the part of many to stay asleep, however, also strikes me more as a human failing rather than a particular indictment of academics themselves, although the tension between our refined intellectual powers of delineation and the base conditions of our working lives leads to irresolvable contradiction, and in some cases, yes, madness. In fact, I’m surprised more academics don’t lose their marbles in a system as cruel as ours. The useful application of anger in these situations seems to resolve some of the tensions of living in a house of lies, as anger speaks to a consciousness of the system in all its ugly manifestations and a resistance to the hegemony of that system, although anger is not a socially appropriate emotion in our tranquilised society. This is why one of the accusations hurled at critics on the Wiki is that they are “angry.’ Well, hell, why shouldn’t they be angry? To quote the old Lefty-feminist bumper sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention!” In the gulf between Stepford Wife automation (“Would you like more coffee?”) and insanity, there has to be some or several islands that stand apart from either extreme. Finding them, and making a home on them, however, is almost like finding Pitcairn, the proverbial needle in the haystack, a secret hiding place for outlaws and mutineers such as we.
Following this, I recently had a long talk with an old mentor, someone who was incredibly important to my success at Prestigious Eastern U. and remains embedded in my life. Mentor had recently served on a search committee at their institution, and we spoke about the excruciating nature of the conference interview, in their words, “from the other side of the bed,” a metaphor I liked because of its associations with the intimacy of the academic hiring process. We are not only hiring co-workers, we are also hiring lovers, confidantes, children, parents, and the whole realm of messy, subjective, personal relationships we associate with collegiality in the academy. Mentor spoke of the parade of lackeys, flunkies, and the qualified that passed through the hotel suite, and how it was not the latter category that got invited for campus visits. All in all, not terribly surprising. But Mentor’s commentary on the nature of the academic hiring process, and the academy in general, I found compelling. Mentor observed that the system was rotten to the core, with little or no oversight or accountability. It was a completely unexamined process, rife with ridiculousness and illegality. Mentor observed that not even in the ziggurats of Mammon was so much entrusted into the incapable hands of so few, with no repercussions for bad behaviour or a job badly done.
I had never thought of it in this particular way, and I found the idea shocking as well as depressing. This infrastructure of incompetence is dependent on secrecy. Search committees are riddles wrapped in enigmas entombed in lies, secrets, and silence. There is no accountability of their process, no public measurement of fairness and success (if you discount the beauty pageant that is a series of job talks, that is). In fact, the whole process is so shrouded in secrecy that candidates have no idea about basic things in many searches, like for instance who eventually got the job, never mind more important information like where the candidate may have flubbed, or if one of their letters of recommendation is suspect. Nowadays, some committees don’t even bother with a formal rejection letter, even for candidates on the short list. Those of us who have done our time on search committees know the messy internal functions and petty compromises one must make with infantile senior faculty or sensitive constituencies. But from the outside, the academic search committee is the very definition of the Star Chamber, inscrutable and random.
Talk about extraordinary rendition! Every year, thousands of hopeful candidates send out reams of paper in a process relatively similar to tossing pennies in fountains, or wishing on a star. And this process, random and inchoate and opaque, has been naturalised for us, normalised as the way it is. But why should it be this way? The story of how our profession came to this stage is more a story of the banality of evil than meritocracy, a corruption and misapprehension of market forces and the constant, drum beat raising of the bar, illusions and delusions of the professoriate, as well as a total collapse of the guild structure that ironically follows the end of formal white supremacy in the academy and society. Brutal economic conditions masked as the socio-cultural are not unique to the academy, but are perhaps most pronounced in the abuses of the academic hiring process, a cesspool under the basement floorboards that at any given moment threatens to bubble over into scandal or legal action. When this happens, ever so rarely of course, the mess is cleaned up by paid professionals, settlement checks are issued (if you’re lucky), confidentiality agreements are signed, and everyone goes back to business as usual, maintaining the secret.
Clearly, the system of lies and the structures of secrecy are dependent on silence as a compulsory condition in the academy. The concept of silence is interesting in the ways it can imply resistance as well as acquiescence. Silence may in fact be the a standard methodology for dealing with the ugly business of the university, but it is also one that has always as well been full of holes, like a leaky boat. Gossip, knowledge exchange, and the confidence game all have their honourable roles in the profession, and one road to academic success is mastering the art of information and recognising the purloined letter in one’s midst. To return to the Wiki and more largely the culture of blogging and web reportage, of which this very blog is but one example, one of the most absorbing uses of the Internet in the academy has been the unauthorised telling of secrets, naughty facts, and hard realities. In other words, a sort of inchoate breaking of the codes of silence upon which the entire trinity of lies, secrets, and silence depends (per Culture Cat’s discussion of the Invisible Adjunct).
To wit, at the end of the long and meandering conversation thread on the Wiki, one commentator introduces a rupture in the discussion, writing,
“[P]eople should know that [baccalaureate college] is in fact an insane institution that treats many of its visiting faculty, among others, like dirt. There is a real price to be paid for living in paradise, which is intense paranoia: people meeting in parking lots to whisper about job searches in code... like something out of THE PARALLAX VIEW. Some depts are worse than others, of course. But sometimes paranoia and deep suspicion are in fact the correct and rational response to certain situations.”
Click, dial tone, buh-BYE! What a delicious nugget of information! The relative truth-value of this statement is not what is at issue (as if we really care), but rather the rupture of the official line, the questioning of the process, and the unauthorised revelation of experience is what makes this statement breathtaking. What formerly lived as asides in the hallway or private conversations in hotel bars at national conferences are now intensely public, and subject to wide diffusion, commentary, and information collection. Some may observe that in fact such utterances can be ill informed, subjective, or grounded in personal antipathy or bitterness. To which I have to say, “So what?” To return to the trinity, one of the reasons for the “paranoia and deep suspicion” is not just subjective disappointments and resentments of individual academics, but the implacable nature of the system itself, which depends and lives on lies, secrets, and silence, and as such informs a sort of collective delusion, as well as a collective illness. We have reached a point where nothing can be believed with any reasonable assurance, where everything is a house of mirrors, reflecting distorted and multiple images back to us. The “real” story increasingly becomes a barometer, of which side you are on, which sources you trust, and whether or not you value the ruptures of the official story.
Perhaps this is always where we have been, but the acceleration of electronic resources that spread gossip and unauthorised information at the click of a mouse and guarantee a certain amount of anonymity are a deep threat to the structure of the trinity of lies, secrets, and silence in the academy. As more and more of the skein of illusion is removed, we can expect to see more, not less, pitched battles between those who wish to tell, wish to question, and others with a vested interest in defending the system, and aiding and abetting the functions of the Biz. It won’t be pretty.