Reading, Anxiety, Possibility

Every so often you come across That Book, the exact thing you need to read, and a lot of the time it’s something that you might not have run into before and that you certainly had no idea you needed to read, and probably wouldn’t have except that more than one person pointed you toward it, and then it’s so much the thing you needed that you kick yourself for not having found it sooner yourself.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyhow: Anne Gere’s Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920 is this week’s That Book. And I’m more than a little bruised from all the self-kicking I’ve been doing.

I might be willing to forgive myself, if the title turned up in my previous research, for assuming that it was a history of turn of the century women’s clubs, and thus that it didn’t have much to tell me about my own current project — but a slightly deeper glance might have given me a hint that there was something I needed here. The book focuses on those clubs’ reading and writing practices at the heart of their self-formation and their public and private work. Even more, her chapter on “(un)professional reading and writing” makes a compelling argument about the ways that scholars of literature came to professionalize in no small part in opposition to the models of reading and writing embraced by clubwomen. This bit of the narrative of how we got to be the way we are is exactly what I’ve been missing, so completely at the heart of the argument I’ve been trying to make (about the dominant role that competition plays in today’s university structures, and the ways that a more generous engagement with the “common reader” might help promote a recommitment of our institutions to the public good) that I’m both overjoyed to have found it and mortified not to have found it sooner.

This is why I wish I had time enough to stop and read all the things.

That Intimate Practices is That Book, if it hadn’t already become clear, would have been made glaringly obvious when I ran into one uncanny bit of overlap. In a section that I’ve entitled “Why Do Readers Read?”, I note that dismissing pleasure in reading (whether as illicit, or unserious, or whathaveyou) opens space for anxiety to become one’s dominant reading affect, and particularly “anxiety about whether we’re reading the right stuff, or reading for the right reasons, or reading in the right way.” Gere, for her part, describes professionalized scholars of English, claiming for themselves a role as arbiters of taste, as having the effect of “making nonprofessionals fearful they were reading the wrong books or reading them in the wrong ways” (217). I’ve scoured my notes, as well as the texts I previously cited around that spot, to be sure that I didn’t somehow pick Gere’s phrasing up at second hand, but I’ve found nothing. So I’m taking this coincidence as a sign of deep connection, if an unknowing one, and I’m working on how I might build on it, what the rest of my argument might still have to learn.

Strategy and Solidarity

As I noted in my last post, I recently read Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community as a means of thinking a bit more deeply about the ways that Generous Thinking deploys the notion of community. As Joseph’s analysis suggests, the concept is often used as a placeholder for something that is outside the dominant structures of contemporary public life, a subcultural relation that harkens back1 to a mythical premodern moment in which people lived and worked in more direct connection with one another, without the mediating forces of modern capitalist institutions. It’s also often an imagined relation, in Benedict Anderson’s sense, as the invocation of “community” is designed to yoke together groups whose singularity is largely constructed, “the gay community” being Joseph’s primary referent. Calls to work on behalf of the community or to the community’s values wind up not only, as I noted in my last post, ignoring community’s supplementary role with respect to capital but also essentializing a highly complex and intersectional set of social relations.

And it’s that last that got me wondering, first, whether a key part of the problem with “the community” might be less “community” than “the” — whether acknowledging and foregrounding the multiple and multiplicitous communities with which we interact might help us avoid the exclusions that the declaration of groupness is often designed to produce, the us that inevitably suggests a them. And second, whether the model of identity politics might lead us to a community politics that can similarly deploy a strategic essentialism in thinking about community, a recognition that our definitions of whatever community we’re discussing are always reductive, but also at least potentially useful as an organizing tool. Can we develop a strategic sense of community that is based not on a dangerous, mythical notion of unity, but rather around solidarity, around coalition-building?

It’s the pragmatic, organizing, coalition-building function of community, or communities, that I’m most interested in, both in thinking about identifying the publics with which the university might work and in thinking about the structure of the university itself. As I discussed in my last post, Joseph compellingly analyzes the function of the non-profit organization, an entity very often associated with community in the underconsidered sense she critiques. Under late capital, the non-profit has been asked to take over the space of providing for community needs or supporting community interests that had formerly been occupied by the state as the entity responsible for the public welfare. The impact of that transition on higher education has been enormous: state universities, which had long functioned as state institutions in the most literal sense, have themselves been privatized, transformed almost wholly into non-profit organizations.

So what might be possible if instead of allowing institutions of higher education to be understood as giant nonprofits, required to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on fundraising, we were instead to adopt a strategic sense of “community” as the basis for their structure? Are there particular forms of voluntary community — the labor union, for instance — that might provide models for the development of self-governing, activated collectives that are directly responsive to member needs? Would a deployment of community in this sense, always recognizing its complexity, help commit us to a sense of the common good?

And — the $64,000 question — what would it take for us to actually get there?

Community, Privatization, Efficiency

Thanks to a recommendation from Danica Savonick, I’ve been reading Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community. Danica pointed me toward it as a corrective for some of the ways my gestures toward community flirted with the romanticized notions Joseph seeks to question, and hard as it is for me (an optimist, for better or for worse) to open some of the ideals I hold to harder questioning, that questioning is proving fruitful.

Joseph explores the extent to which discourses about community suggest an antidote to or escape from capitalism’s depredations, while distracting us from the supplementary role that community actually serves with respect to capital, filling its gaps and smoothing over its rifts in ways that permit it to function untrammeled. The alternative presented by community allows the specter of socialism, or genuine state support for the needs of the public, to be dismissed. This relationship becomes particularly clear in Joseph’s discussion of the role of non-profit organizations — entities highly likely to participate in and benefit from the idealized discourse of community — which often fill needs left behind by a retreating state, allowing that retreat to go unchallenged.

As Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier explore in Austerity Blues, the state’s ongoing disclaimer of its responsibilities for the public welfare, from the Reagan era forward, makes itself felt across the social sphere — in housing policy, in environmental policy, and, of course, in education. Throughout Generous Thinking, one of my interests lies in the effects of, and the need to reverse, the shift in our cultural understanding of education (and especially higher education); where in the mid-twentieth century, the value of education was largely understood to be social, it has in recent decades come to be described as providing primarily private, individual benefits. And this, inevitably, has accompanied a shift from education being treated as a public service to being treated as a private responsibility.

As Fabricant and Brier note, this transition is just one manifestation of the state gradually displacing its responsibilities for the public welfare onto private citizens and, as Joseph’s reading suggests, onto a range of socially-oriented nonprofits supported largely through private philanthropy. This displacement is of course operative in the de-funding of public universities, effectively transforming them into non-profits rather than state institutions. The effects of this program of neoliberal1 reform run deep, not least that the dominant motivator behind these privatized institutions becomes sustainability rather than service, leaving universities, like non-profits, in an endless cycle of fundraising and budget cuts.

The argument in favor of this privatization, one largely accepted on both sides of the aisle, is in significant part based on the inefficiency of government bureaucracies and the far more streamlined and therefore ostensibly effective practices made possible in the private sector. Reversing the trend toward privatization will thus require not just massive public mobilization and demand of elected officials, but also a hard turn away from efficiency as a primary value, a recognition that the building of relationships and the cultivation of care is slow and difficult and of necessity inefficient. In fact, that its value lies in its inefficiency — but making the case for such inefficiency as a necessary value requires a lot of effort, and a lot of caution.

All of which is surfacing a bunch of related thoughts that I’m still working through, and about which I hope to write more in the coming days, including strategic uses of the notion of community, potential forms that collectivity might take other than “community,” and — and I swear this is connected — the relationship between obligation and voluntarism. More on which soon.

Oh, this this this:

I’m increasingly feeling that the old debates (what’s a reasonable cost, green vs gold, hybrid vs pure) are sterile and misleading. That we are missing fundamental economic and political issues in funding and managing a global scholarly communications ecosystem by looking at the wrong things. And that there are deep and damaging misunderstandings about what has happened, is happening, and what could happen in the future.

Cameron Neylon, “The Political Economics of Open Access Publishing: A Series”

#HelpAhmedMake

I am utterly, utterly crushed by this story. What a way to destroy the inventive spirit not just in this kid, but in so many surrounding him. But some folks are seeking ways to respond:

Update:

Library of America

David Skinner’s fascinating history of the Library of America details both the slow path to overcoming ingrained resistance to the project (including then Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin’s “serious doubts about the very idea of an American canon”) and the ways in which the project was connected with the MLA’s Center for Editions of American Authors, a progenitor of today’s Committee on Scholarly Editions.