20 February 2006

Fine Young Cannibals

Mr. Gordo has departed and arrived safely back in Big Eastern City, after what was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, even if my budget is busted until next payday. We had a small cocktail with local friends on Friday and an absolutely sublime meal last night at one of Cold City's hidden gems of a restaurant. I would tell you the menu but that is just pushing it a little bit too far. Suffice it to say, it was to die!

One of the interesting things of being with Mr. Gordo is that we are both intellectuals but of different stripes: he is a poet (with all that may entail: fragility, sensitivity, three-dimensional perception) while I think of myself as more analytical: straight-forward, talk-and-taking no shit practical girl, eyes fixed on the how as much as if not more than the why. These are of course in some ways gross generalizations, but the paradigm speaks to me, at least at this moment. We make sense.

I bring this up because our simultaneous blogging has led to some productive thought patterns and directions in our discussions of the various topics we address, and seek to address, in these public forums as well as in our private time together. And over the weekend, as we were (again) discussing the profession and the endless back-and-forth ambivalence I have about it (which should be pretty clear to careful readers of this blog), a thought bubble came to me in regards to something I posted in Part Two of my writing on Job Searching and Committees in Academia.

It has, in my experience, been rather unfortunately true that the most disappointing intellectual colleagues have achieved the most prominent professional success: Ford Fellowships, this and that visiting plum postdoc, tenure-track negotiations that resemble a champers-with-whiskey-chaser fueled auction where Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour are engaged in a bidding war over Jackie O's knickers. Whereas, those colleagues who I have felt, over the years, had some sort of real intellectual promise, in the sense of engaging the world and expanding the realm of human knowledge, have either been driven out of the profession altogether or are parked at mid-level institutions where the work load generally keeps their light hidden under the collective bushel of exhaustion, worry, and struggle.

Now, obviously, this is disturbing in a kind of global way, but only if we truly believe in the university as it desires to be situated historically and contemporarily: that is, as the avatar of excellence. The late Bill Readings pretty much eviscerated this position almost ten years ago, but it remains a powerful locus of our social and cultural desires, both for academics (nobility and peons alike) as well as the general public, even in their increasing distaste for the university, especially in the USA. In any event, most discussions of this sort are fighting in concert with or against this idea of excellence, of the university as an agora of intellectual truth. And at root in these debates, if they can even be called that, is the naive idea of meritocracy that is deeply seductive to many Americans because it speaks to our desire to think of ourselves as a just and fair society. I'm not terribly interested in all of that because, quite frankly, I think the whole pot is bullshit. What I am interested in is thinking of the personal and professional desires and drives of the gifted networkers: the fine young cannibals.

The Fine Young Cannibal (FYC) is someone you may know well. You may in fact be a FYC yourself. I first met Fine Young Cannibals in graduate school (the people I knew and/or disliked in college were just nuts, in the old-fashioned sense), which was quite a sentimental education in the distaste of the contemporary academy for anything which remotely upsets the apple cart. The FYC is a striver, a bit like Hoggart's "Scholarship Boy" paradigm, or perhaps the doctoral version. That is to say, a student who is not actually intellectually gifted, but has an innate sensibility of mimicry: a verisimilitude of, in Hoggart's model, the desires and habits of the teacher. We may think more broadly of the doctoral version of Hoggart's model as someone who has an innate sense of timing and camoflage. In short, a line and an attitude.

And in fact, most FYCs have in fact worked some singular, and invariably ludicrous, idea down to the nubbin. Two examples quickly come to mind, of young professionals, colleagues if you will, in my field. One, an unctuous character of little intellectual gift but a remarkable networker, has worked and reworked the same essay in various forms since about 1994, through several grants and at least two tenure-track positions. The book was published last year, with, surprise surprise! excellent blurbs from figures in the field and, ready, hold on to your hat Mary, the same essay, worked and reworked, of course, DOWN TO THE NUBBIN! This FYC was recently awarded tenure, but not without detractors in the department spreading the real story: politically it would have been impossible to deny it even though Unctuous remains completely undistinguished in terms of teaching, service, or indeed research, if you count research as more than one essay worked and reworked over several years off on grants. I guess that counts for something (ya think?)...

In the second example, another colleague bien-située. On the strength of one essay, innumerable connections, and a certain politics, this one has, like the first, traipsed from grant to grant, across several contract and now tenure-track posts, eyes firmly fixed on some elusive goal of success ("to get back to California" was the way it was put the last time I bothered to pay attention). This one had the annoying habit of refering to any well-known scholar or cultural producer they had met once as "my friend."

Now, both of these people are fairly horrible, ceaselessly networking and ass kissing to the extent that they will walk away from you in conversation when a fragrant opportunity passes by. Loathsome behaviour, to be sure. But, what is the secret to their success, you ask? Well, in the niche economy of the academy, there is always an ego to be stroked, always a politics to be represented, always a micro-phenomenon to be engorged with meaning. And politics are key here, or rather the representational politics of positionality, which is to say a rather uncritical reliance on identity.

As academics of colour, we come into the university compromised. Anyone who has earned a PhD can be safely assumed to be completely and totally assimilated into the American hegemon. That doesn't mean there's not room for criticality, but it does mean that simple Gramscian notions of organic intellectualism are fantasy projections. Let's be real, shall we? All of which is to say, the tensions of representation, history, and background lie heavily upon our shoulders. Some of us choose to shrug, others choose to ingratiate, and yet others turn the representational burden to their advantage. The FYC is a strange hybrid of the last two. Early in their careers, they uncannily recognize the political dimensions of being in the academy, and work tirelessly to secure themselves a place, above and beyond the normal quotidian bootlicking required of doctoral candidates. In this sense, the FYC is extraordinary. They could network Truman Capote into the ground.

But the crunch time is always the work, the inevitable return to work. And here is where things fall apart, at least intellectually, for the FYC. Because the work itself is usually an empty signifier, a void where thinking should be, a string of political terms and identity markers that lack meaning in the real working world where you and I and most other people live, slogans missing a movement. In the end, however, this is a minor inconvenience for the FYC, as work for the most part no longer matters in the academy. What uncomfortably reveals their inadequacies can be dismissed out of hand as reactionary, or conservative, or neo-conservative, or whatever terminology that Radically Chic BoBo academics are using nowadays, for you see, I wouldn't know. In my job, I actually work (you know, teaching, advising, admin, trying to get my own shit done on the side without the philanthrophy of the Ford Foundation, thankyouveryfuckingmuch), so I have little time to keep up with the ever-changing terminology of paranoia and oneupmanship that characterizes the lives of "activist-scholars" making $15,000 more than I am at Research One universities and who seemingly have a lot of time to think about these things between bitching about their white students and planning their next mochachinolatte adventure.

In conversation with Mr. Gordo, I discovered the elusive hypothetical key to the success of the Fine Young Cannibal. It is that, consciously or unconsciously, they recognize their lack, that is, their lack of intellectual talent, and therefore work all the harder on the infrastructure (i.e network) which will secure their sinecures. I thought this was an interesting thought, and goes a bit towards explaining the annoying ability of FYCs to succeed in spite of all odds against them (stupidity, for one, seems a pretty big obstacle, but Goddess knows the academy will surprise you again and again).

The late Lora Romero published an excellent proto-analysis of the Fine Young Cannibal paradigm in her brilliant essay "'When Something Goes Queer': Familiarity, Formalism, and Minority Intellectuals in the 1980s" (Yale Journal of Criticism 6 [1993]). Romero was interested in what happens when scholars of colour, whose contemporary presence was largely predicated on the existence of communal social movements outside of the academy, have to make sense of their role without the social movements which gave their presence legitimacy. Well, Romero critically dices and slices some of the most precious pretensions of the theoretical 1980s, critically tracing how scholars of colour now reenact traditional intellectual formations while retaining a sense of political distinction (i.e. radicality). I am parsing and paraphrasing here, and I urge you to consult the original essay, as it is mind-blowingly stunning. But I think a lot of Romero's criticism and how she connects the depoliticization of the scholar of colour (through professionalism) with a revived symbolic politics of resistance (ringing any Cultural Studies bells, dear?).

All in all, the Fine Young Cannibal, at least its coloured variant, is indicative of this situation of disconnection and justification. Their success depends on associations of radicality and resistance which are, I would argue, pretty empty when you're teaching at R1s or private universities. Come on down to my world, with my classes full of immigrants and suspicious white students, come on down to teaching working students, and students with families, and students with lives. But this is not a step down, but rather arguably where whatever remains of the mission of the university, and the radical ethos of the 1960s, now lives. It is exhilirating, exhausting, and remarkably underpaid, let me tell you. And no one describes themselves as "activist-scholars," because they don't have to. No one cares about that anyhow. Working class students don't get terribly excited with symbolic politics. They want to know what you can offer them, not what you can represent for them. And that is the true challenge for any scholar and teacher: what can you offer the collective us (thinking, stretching, expanding, knowledge)?


La Lecturess said...

Ooh, I have a strong suspicion that I know the FYC whose ambition was to return to CA. And just for the record, if we're talking about the same person, he really is a SHIT.

I don't know if I'd agree that these folks are, on whatever level, aware of the emptiness of their intellectual work. It would be nice to think so--that all their networking and schmoozing is desperately compensatory--but that suggests more insight than their work usually demonstrates. And if you get rewarded enough, often enough, you do start to believe that you deserve it.

(PS--very much enjoying your blog!)

Anonymous said...

Wow, this rings so true for me, it hurts. Love the blog.

Anonymous said...

This is totally right on and wonderfully expressed. I also lvoe the gay icon post! Just discovered your blog and will be a new happy regular reader.

Anonymous said...

You put into words so many of the suspicions I've had over the years about similar performances.

While wanting to believe that "good work" leads to academic advancement, I've instead seen that some of the best work gets past over for slickly packaged products that sound and buzz like what's already been done.

This is the most painfully honest post I've read on any blog in a long, long time. Thank you, Oso Raro, thank you. (spencer @ http://metaspencer.com)

Anonymous said...

This is such a brilliant analysis of the whole phenom.

And this has been the problem, and diagnosis, of all of my mentors.

"It is that, consciously or unconsciously, they recognize their lack, that is, their lack of intellectual talent, and therefore work all the harder on the infrastructure (i.e network) which will secure their sinecures."