11 December 2007
I never read Camus in high school. Perhaps it was too highbrow, or maybe our teachers didn’t realise the importance of existentialism to the teenage mind. We read American classics, which were almost as obscure, things like The Red Badge of Courage, Sister Carrie, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, stalwart examples of 19th century American literature that were meant to communicate something about ourselves to ourselves. We did not read JD Salinger, interestingly enough. Maybe our teachers did not want to loosen that particular nut on the developing American mind. In any event, this was before the ubiquitous school shooting experience and the mediagenic telegraphing of personal pain, when most teenagers, including myself, mercilessly applied their angst and fear secretly and relentlessly to themselves, in the privacy of the bedroom and bathroom and mind. While The Red Badge of Courage gathered dust on the dining room table, we read Judy Blume or Marion Zimmer Bradley, or watched the utopic possibilities unfolding on The Brady Bunch in afternoon reruns.
But Camus has been on my mind lately, specifically his creepy The Stranger. When I did finally read Camus in college, I was struck not only by the great David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars cover art of that particular edition, but by the misunderstanding the text attempts to trace out in understanding what exactly is The Stranger (or the Outsider or the Foreigner, in some translations). Society wants to understand Camus’s protagonist as a stranger to its values and norms, but in that attempt, violently circumscribes him within misapprehension and confusion, which the text implies is indicative of a society that refuses to see itself clearly, and uses the ill-formed concept of the Stranger to define itself in hysteria and denial.
The concept of the Stranger has been important to most human societies, of course. It is the basis for the concept of xenophobia, and reveals quite a lot about human collectives. Some of my experience this past semester speak to the power of the concept of the Stranger in our own professional worlds. For all the talk we make in the profession on universal commonality of goals, purposes, and interests in research and teaching, through our national organizations and journals and newspapers of record and shared discussions of teaching and peer review, most often our professional worlds and expectations are shaped most immediately by the local, by the institutions and human collectives we work for on a daily basis.
There is the truism, of course, of all politics is local. We are trained and inculcated into the profession on almost exclusively local levels even if we might imagine, in a Benedict Anderson sort of way, there is, out there, a larger profession: first our doctoral institution, with all its peculiarities in modes of thought and approach, and then our subsequent experiences at our probationary positions, then through to tenure and beyond, for those of us left with any energy and wanderlust after tenure.
I have been thinking a lot lately of the local, the local culture, the local milieu, as I am circulating this year as The Stranger: an official visitor whose powers and talents are vaguely known, imagined, but not fleshed out, and therefore, remain suspect. My role is a little different from that of a visiting professor, as I am circumlocuted within a specific role and title, within a specific window of time. I am open to the possibilities of learning and growth within this context, of course, but am not terribly interested in assimilation, for institutional assimilation makes no sense in my particular placement. A year from now, I will be back at Cold City U., far away from the honey-dipped precincts of Presitgious Lil' College (PLC). What is curious is that many institutions, however, cannot understand their processes outside of assimilation, not only as a statement of their own value, but as a system of comprehension. In other words, there remains insider and outsider, and no medium in between, for comprehending both individuals and ideas within our institutions.
Since the university is a human concept, this is not terribly surprising, natürlich. And we can think of global corollaries that reflect this dynamic as well. The problem, with the global and local, is the way assimilative strategies, or at the very least they way we typically understand these strategies, inscribe and reinforce notions of identity (institutional, intellectual, social, cultural, or otherwise) that are deeply reactionary. As much as we might like to believe that we as academicians and intellectuals are more enlightened, more open to the possibility of difference, we in fact often also operate as brutal enforcers of the known order, through things like “fit,” or concepts of appropriate or inappropriate methodology. This was certainly the story of my experience at Sadistic College.
I have also been feeling this tension at PLC, especially from students (well, one student in particular, actually) who have strong opinions on what constitutes the purported PLC method, and certain faculty and administrative interlocutors who have urged me to accommodate these conceptual threads into my teaching. On some level, of course, I recognise the necessity of assimilation, of change and flexibility in method. I have, after all, held positions both as tenure-line faculty and adjunct at several universities with rather strong self-conceptions. However, this year, I have felt empowered, through the curiosity of my own placement professionally and emotionally, to also stand up for the talents and seductions of The Stranger, to be confident and safe enough to insist on difference, and all the chaos it implies for academicians.
For ultimately, The Stranger brings, not only in Camus’s pathological example of fear and loathing but also ideally in a rather more humane context, different knowledges and experiences that are valuable. Again, intellectually, most of us understand and honour this in theory, but in reality can practice assimilative coercion in its most vicious forms. The challenge is maintaining calm in the face of the vertigo such confrontations with difference trigger. As I mentioned in a meeting a few weeks ago with an administrator, adaptation to the PLC model is not a useful idea for me.
The shock of the administrator was palpable, and as we talked more, I outlined the professional and institutional parameters for such an utterance, namely time for my own research agenda in a position that was not tenure-line and terminal (and therefore relatively value-free on both sides of the contractual form), but most importantly in the skill set I bring as a stranger to PLC: transitory, temporal, and ultimately fleeting, but useful nonetheless. The shock that would greet my rejection of simplistic adaptation speaks to rudimentary ways of understanding assimilation, in its many guises, as a straightforward adoption of a host society’s norms and values. But this does not occur in such a clear-cut manner, of course. Assimilation is a complicated nexus of values and decisions that as a process is uneven, unique, and specific.
And where the rubber met the road, so to speak, in this particular conversation was in the fact that I have a job already, another placement that is secure and different and awaits me elsewhere, and therefore I was empowered to think and speak freely, as The Stranger from and with another place. As I indicated in this conversation, the point was not that I was unconcerned with the effectiveness of my teaching methodology, but rather that I wanted a recognition of the value of different systems in transitory contexts, as well as some sort of acknowledgment that adaptation and assimilation are also maneuvers of power, but that that power must, ideally, flow both ways. In other words, institutions need to invest and nurture their faculty in consensual ways, but there also must be space in that nurturing for multiple positions vis-à-vis the institution, from temporary to permanent and everything in between, from The Stranger to The Distressingly Familiar. This strikes me as fundamentally pragmatic, but as we know, pragmatism as a methodology gets rather short shrift in our place and time.
I recently read that the Puritan voyagers, one of the socio-cultural roots of American society, called non-Puritans “strangers.” There was something rather instructive in that factoid, something that spoke to the strong bonds we form within collectives, as well as something about the American character that was reflected in the 19th century literature I was forced to read in high school. What seems harder to me, and the potential point for conflict, in the profession and otherwise is where we insist intellectually on those differences but then act in a different manner when we meet them in flesh and blood.