Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Academic Freedom and the right not to publish

Against the background of a wider institutional-epistemic shift in universities away from knowledge as ‘end in itself’, and towards a demand for the ‘value-adding’ utility of knowledge as a product or commodity, public policy in New Zealand has adopted a set of ‘national goals’ intended to shape the future of tertiary education and research. These new ideas were revealed in the government’s Tertiary Education Strategy (2002–7) (see my earlier article on this), and are now visible in the working lives of university faculty members through the application of the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) – a system that links a portion of state funding to an assessment of ‘research quality’ derived from an aggregation of assessments of all eligible faculty. Noting a trend toward ‘performativity’ (as described by Lyotard), the PBRF has begun actively to shape the behaviours of university managers and individual researchers. Although there have been repeated assurances that the PBRF does not interfere with academic freedom, the values and practices of free scholarly inquiry and scientific investigation have been challenged by this system. There is less attention to the content of one’s actual scholarly work, in favour of the appearance of ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ as indicated by, for example, the status of journal publications and the ability to demonstrate ‘peer esteem’. The new significance of research is not only its ability to ‘drive’ the knowledge economy, but also its ability to assist the universities in ‘improving their share of scarce research resources [i.e. money]’, to quote an internal Massey University policy. Research is performed in order to earn the university money, rather than funds being provided in order to support research that emerges from intellectual curiosity and debate. Staff who fail to ‘perform’ research thus represent a ‘financial risk’ to the university, and disciplinary efforts are proposed to marginalize them. So, have research and publication become the expression of academic freedom, or the output of an academic treadmill? If research activity comes to perform the role of making money for the university, and if the lack of research on the part of an academic may then lead to disciplinary action, is the principle of academic freedom thereby undermined at its very foundations? If cash-strapped university departments find it sometimes difficult to reciprocate by appropriately supporting staff in the ordinary course of their scholarly activities, should information about any resulting ‘research outputs’ be withheld from university records, thus depriving the university of fiscal and reputational credits for work it has not supported? The very purpose of scholarly integrity is undermined when, instead of telling oneself ‘publish or perish’, one’s host institution now says ‘publish or be fired’. Rhetorically, one must now ask: ‘Does academic freedom include the freedom not to publish?’ – assuming that is not the result of mere laziness or incompetence. The new ethics of the knowledge economy, as they are evolving in New Zealand’s universities, can be understood as a redistribution of power relations in these institutions, effecting the disciplining of faculty, accompanied by changes in intellectual norms and organizational customs. Lyotard’s original analysis of knowledge and performativity takes on a prophetic tone when re-read today.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Hapless Victim

Why is the fantasy of victimhood now being claimed by the Right?

The word ‘hapless’ suggests unfortunate, and so a ‘hapless victim’ is a person to whom some bad thing has happened, without his choosing or deserving it. But, with a bit of a twist, the word ‘hapless’ also suggests the lack of any hap-pening. The hapless victim could thus be a victim to whom nothing actually happened. It is politically dangerous, it seems, to suggest today that the self-appointed victim has not had anything bad happen to him. The victim has a morally self-validating subjectivity that is rarely questioned, and he is supposed to excite our sympathy. But the more we elaborate scientifically and technically the sources of risk – and the more we insist on the adoption of protections from the multitude of risks – the more, in effect, we are turning the status of actual or potential victimhood into a form of masochistic enjoyment.

But, just as we know that the relationship between pain and injury is not a simple, linear one, ‘what happens’ in a person’s life is not clearly, in a simple or direct way, related to the experience of trauma, the essence of being a victim.

The hapless victim must fantasize a sadistic subject who is supposed to know – one who has deliberately singled out the victim for special persecution and who knew in advance what would hurt the most. The hapless victim only becomes a victim retroactively, following the elaboration in fantasy of a sadistic subject. The fantasized sadistic perpetrator becomes a focus for putting the question ‘Why did this happen to me (and not to someone else)?’ There needs to be some Other to whose desire this question is being addressed. ‘This happened to me because it gave you enjoyment’. The bad thing that happened is thus the perverted outcome of a sadistic urge, intended personally for the victim, and the knowingly sadistic subject who initiated the traumatic event can thus be identified and blamed.

This takes us to the extreme hypothesis that ‘nothing happened to me’ could in itself become traumatic.

People who are involved in a ‘near miss’ in a tragic accident or disaster where some other persons have been harmed will often report a ‘bystander’ trauma of a kind that arises from the question ‘Why was I spared while another person was so seriously harmed?’ The fact that no harm happened to me (it happened to someone else instead) may result in a sense of disbelief, unworthiness and guilt that could persist and be considered a kind of trauma in its own right. One was sadistically singled out in being spared – or so this ‘victim’ may imagine.

But, taking the above hypothesis even further, could those who experience the greatest good fortune and privilege in life (those to whom nothing extraordinarily bad has happened) validly claim a new form of victimhood? Is there an intriguing contemporary form of victimhood which says that society’s ‘oppressed’ have come to victimize the victors? In other words, can the political Right – who represent the more privileged sectors of society – legitimately claim a kind of victimhood arising from the various social movements that have attacked their various powers and privileges?

Certainly, the desire to disempower or emasculate the Master that is evident in supposedly emancipatory social movements has some effect on the social balance of power. One of the catch-phrases of the Left used to be ‘Blame the System, not the Victim’. But, it seems now that those who have benefited most from ‘the [capitalist] System’ want to co-opt the figure of the Victim for their own purposes. Hence, men are now the victims of a feminist conspiracy to deny them access to their children, with the backing of recent laws; decent white folks are now the victims of affirmative action and ‘special privileges’ enjoyed by ethnic minority groups; the rights of criminals and prisoners are said to cause a neglect of the victims of crime. In short, the Right now sees itself as upholding the rights of a new subject-position of Victim, one which has been created by a Leftist conspiracy (often captured by the phrase ‘political correctness’). The Victor now identifies with the Victim, and seeks, supposedly, to foreclose any further strategic victories for the Left. Those to whom nothing really bad ever happened can now also enjoy the masochistic privileges of victimhood.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Desire and Happiness

Freud’s pessimism about happiness may be viewed in the context of a tradition, especially among Continental thinkers, that expresses reservations about, and even hostility towards, the concept of happiness. Zizek argues that happiness in political discourse is ‘inherently hypocritical’. The demand to fulfil numerous social rights is not only an impossible one, but those who demand them do not really wish them to be realized. The power to make such demands assuages the social conscience of those who make them and exposes the impotence of ‘the Master’; whereas, the meeting of such political demands would confront privileged intellectuals and critics with the threat of genuine popular liberty and equality, and thus undermine their positions of privilege. But his analysis of ‘happiness’ seems inconsistent, as he also says: ‘[in countries] like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people actually were in a way happy’, in part because they were dreaming of things they could not have (1) – revealing perhaps a nostalgia for the period prior to the transformation to capitalism.

Zizek’s thoughts derive from the psychoanalytical tradition of Freud and Lacan, and hence this introduces the theory of desire, which is pertinent to understanding happiness. As Lacan (2) described it, desire emerges with our entry into the symbolic order. While all organisms have unconditional needs for various objects as a matter of survival and reproduction, humans acquire the necessary skill of asking for what is needed. Speech thus creates an unbridgeable gap between a pre-existing network of signifiers (by means of which we negotiate the terms of our relations with others) and inner drives and needs. In humans, then, satiable need re-presents itself as open-ended desire.

In thinking, then, of relations between people and commodities, happiness as ‘good feelings’ that arise from the ‘satisfaction of needs and wants’ is insufficient in the light of a theory of desire. The goal of marketing, for instance, is to make of the mundane ‘need-satisfying’ commodity an object-cause of desire, a condition of access to enjoyment (sex, status, etc.). It must have that X-factor, ‘the Real Thing’ that constitutes ‘something in it more than itself’. Production and consumption under advanced capitalism are premised upon the ceaseless and unbalanced search for growth, innovation and ever-new objects of desire that serve to incite Desire per se. Capitalism’s reigning discourse, in Lacanian terms, is that of the hysteric: ‘this vicious circle of a desire, whose apparent satisfaction widens the gap of dissatisfaction . . . [or] as in capitalism, where a growth of production to fill out the lack, only increases the lack’. (3)

Capitalism, rather than providing for happiness and satisfaction, manufactures an ever-widening field of desire, and innovative ways in which commodities create invidious distinctions, and hence ever-widening gulfs of resentment, dissatisfaction and anxiety. While happiness blandly evokes the pleasure principle, the ‘organization of enjoyment’ (jouissance) underlying the injunction ‘consume!’ (or ‘desire more!’) cannot be equated with unalloyed pleasure. Instead, it is predicated upon envy and upon the anxiety that accompanies not having something. The fantasy of happiness may help to sustain our desire in a capitalist economy, but it is in the very nature of the desiring subject not to satisfy desire. (As Proust puts it: ‘every paradise is a paradise lost’.)

A Lacanian psychoanalytical account of the politics of happiness would base itself on the notion of the constitutive role of ‘lack’: the idea that existence and identity are founded upon a negativity that cannot be represented symbolically, and that must be repressed in the interests of the coherence of the symbolic order and of the imaginary constructs of self and community. Symbolic systems of identity formation, including broader social institutions such as political ideologies, seek to construct an illusion of completeness or universality, focused upon a ‘master-signifier’, such as Liberty or Equality, that acts like a ‘quilting-point’ in the field of discourse. This serves to exclude elements that may erupt to disturb the impression of universality – but this exclusion is violent in origin and must be disavowed or repressed. From this kind of theory, Happiness would simply be viewed as another master-signifier, necessarily masking the foundational violent act. It would not be hard to identify retrospectively what was excluded through a political discourse of Happiness in an affluent society, by pointing to phenomena like depression and addiction, or by balancing the wealth of the North against the poverty of the South. For social critics who argue that the affluent society has failed to maximize human happiness, the most disturbing revelation would be that there is really no ‘obstacle’ to a happier society – because there is no such thing to aim for. The enjoyment of these critics is thus invested in their identification of these very ‘obstacles’ (materialism, competitiveness, SUV owners, etc.) because these are the images that sustain the fantasy of a happiness-to-come.

1. Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 58–60.

2. J. Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London: Routledge, 2001).

3. S. Zizek, ‘Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead’, New Left Review, 1/183 (1990), pp. 50–62, p. 60.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Recent Publications

Here are my publications for the years 2003-5, inclusive:

Duncan, G. (2003). Workers’ compensation and the governance of pain. Economy and Society, 32(3), pp. 449-477.

Duncan, G. (2003). Moral hazard and medical assessment. Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, 34(2), pp. 433-441.

Duncan, G. (2004). Avoiding tick-box compliance. New Zealand Education Review, 9(5; 28 April–4 May), pp. 14–15.

Duncan, G. (2004). Advancing in employment: The way forward for vocational rehabilitation. Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, 35(4), pp. 801–809.

Duncan, G. (2004). Society and Politics: New Zealand social policy. Auckland: Pearson Education.

Duncan, G. (2004). Pouvoir et savoir: The Tertiary Education Strategy and the will to know. New Zealand Journal of Tertiary Education Policy, 1, 1–9 [e-journal at URL: http://www.aus.ac.nz].

Duncan, G. (2005). What do we mean by “happiness”? The relevance of subjective wellbeing to social policy. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, no. 25, pp. 16–31.

Browning, J. and Duncan, G. (2005). Family Membership in Post-Reunion Adoption Narratives. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, no. 26, pp. 156–172.

Duncan, G. (2005). Child poverty and family assistance in New Zealand. Zeitschrift für ausländisches und internationales Arbeits- und Sozialrecht, 19(4).