Friday, November 09, 2007

On Engaging Exciting Work and Running out of Time

I've just finished the first two chapters of Jon McKenzie's 2001 Perform or Else, a performance theory text that transcends the field and, in my mind, is perhaps the most exciting thing I've read since grad school.

The book argues essentially that in the late 20th and 21st centuries, performance has replaced the notion of discipline of the 18th and 19th centuries as the onto-historical knowledge regime that most drives western culture. I'd go into it more, but I have a feeling that I'd simply end up quoting most of the first 20 pages. So suffice it to say that if you're doing any work on postmodern culture, you must read this book.

What is frustrating about it is that right now, it only tangentially touches upon the work I'm doing, and while the gears were turning at full speed as I read, there was a warning sign going off the whole time: You don't have time for this! You don't have time for this!

Of course, that's part of the whole argument, that the shift to maximum performance (as opposed to minimum misbehavior) as a measure of social complicity and use value, has us measuring everything in terms of a technological efficiency, including knowledge production. I'm working on a longer post on university assessment initiatives in the humanities, and this strikes me as deeply inflecting that drive,. I am unsettled by the demands for efficiency and productivity placed on our scholarship, demands that seem to me to actually inhibit the kind of thoughtful critical reflection we require.

This manifests in the amount of scholarship we are asked to produce in the early part of our careers, the amount of reading and production we demand from graduate students in a short time (and the amount demanded of new PhDs to be competitive on the job market), or even the comparative difficulty of doing the work needed to even stay abreast of our fields, like, say, carefully reading difficult but exciting criticism, while still maintaining our teaching and our service.

I'm currently wading through applications for our search, one that garnered over 100 applications. We asked for writing samples up front, and I'm trying to read them all, to give them their due, which is turning out to be nigh on impossible. This is a problem on many fronts. One, each sample was sent in good faith, and should be read in good faith. Moreover, I want to read all of this writing, much of which is magnificent. I'm coming to believe that being on this search committee is giving me a better education in the field than a graduate course would've, but an education I have to complete quickly. This may be a selfish complaint in the face of the 100 applicants who want this position, but it's ALL symptomatic of the demands for efficiency and the sacrifice of critical thought and reflection.

I don't talk much about my blogging IRL...indeed, I'm often vaguely ashamed to admit that I read academic blogs. It's an inefficient enterprise at best, though no doubt a valuable one. I can't help but think that the regime of performance as a metric for social value, while often a site for transgression and resistance, is also one that stunts the very promise of academic life. This argument will certainly invite criticism from those who say "Well, that's how we do it in the real world, so suck it up." So therefore I'll amend to assert that the regime of performance also stunts the very promise of any life.

Anyway, read McKenzie's book. It's brilliant and important.

3 comments:

Michael Faris said...

Thanks for the tip for the read. I'll add it to my ever-extending to-read list (what a performance in and of itself). Thanks!

JM said...

I will go to the library this afternoon and get this book, as it actually will be useful for a paper I'm writing at this very moment. Thanks! Hooray for academic blogging! :)

neophyte said...

the shift to maximum performance (as opposed to minimum misbehavior) as a measure of social complicity and use value, has us measuring everything in terms of a technological efficiency, including knowledge production.

That's exactly what the world was saying to me when it sounded like it was saying, "Welcome to grad school."

Thanks for the tip.