The Para-academic

ONE ALTERNATIVE for those who wish to produce radical political, critical, or experimental research that is difficult to audit and gain immediate economic impact from (or who just want to have an opportunity to do less and think more) will be to try to survive by operating on a part-time basis as teachers in the corporate sharing economy or by finding other work to support themselves and their research—much as increasing numbers of musicians are finding that, with record sales falling and there being less money in the music industry, they have to hold down other jobs, even when they have a recording or publishing contract. As Stevphen Shukaitis points out, while once it may have been possible to use music or writing to escape from more regular forms of work, “today it much more seems that it is work which escaped from us, in the sense that there [are only a small] number of decent paying jobs left within publishing and media industries more generally.”[1] Is something similar going to happen to those who are employed by universities? Will working solely as an academic and nothing else become largely a thing of the past? To do interesting creative labor, to live a stimulating life comparatively free from postwelfare capitalism’s control, surveillance, and deskilling, will they too have to find work outside of the university?

Has a change of this nature not in fact already begun to take place over the course of the last decade or so? I am thinking of those members of the academic precariat who, having successfully studied for a postgraduate qualification, might in other eras have expected to acquire a full-time tenured or otherwise permanent position in the academy. What they are finding now, however, is that there is no longer secure—let alone interesting or satisfying—employment to be had in higher education, or even in the arts and cultural industries (museums, art galleries, and so on).[2] So they have developed what Eileen Joy dubs “alt-cult” or “alternate-cultural” organizations and projects that occupy the institutional interstices instead: autonomous universities, schools, presses, journals, and magazines. It is a section of the population that is still interested in scholarly research and ideas—in critical theory, continental philosophy, and so forth—and who often collaborate with those who are employed in higher education on a more secure footing. Only now it is from “the position of the ‘para’ [the ‘beside’], a position of intimate exteriority, or exterior intimacy.”[3]

The much-vaunted ability of artists to “contest bureaucratic management and other forms of regimentation” is no longer unique today, then, as Brouillette acknowledges. Whether they occupy a position inside, outside, or beside the university, academics are likewise coming up against the kind of “contradictory imperatives” that are a feature of the creative economy. They too are finding themselves in a situation where they are “critical of the institutions that employ them but devoted to the work they [now perhaps just at times] do within them; enjoined to make work an expression of who they really are but in circumstances that leave them little time for thought about what that might mean and that ask [them] to package that expression into a readily tradable form.”[4] Consider the small “artists” bookshops operating somewhere between the scholarly and trade markets that have appeared in cities such as Los Angeles, London, and Amsterdam in recent years to cater to this demographic. It is also this para-academic community that the “radical press” Zero Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., is appealing to.[5] “Intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist,” as the mission statement printed at the back of each of its volumes puts it, Zero Books is particularly fashionable among para-academics, being somewhere they can publish shorter-form, reasonably priced books on radical theory, philosophy, and politics. Zero has a comparatively quick turnaround, in large part because John Hunt Publishing doesn’t insist on spending as much time and money as a more traditional academic press on providing services such as rigorous editorial input, copy editing, and peer review.[6] Yet, as a publisher of “critical and engaged” intellectual work, the lack of such mandatory services does not do Zero as much reputational harm as it might have done in previous eras. This is because extensive copy editing and peer review are nowhere near as important to the current generation of para-academics as they are to those who are more firmly ensconced within the institution of the university and who still need them for professional reasons to do with academic legitimation and accreditation.

The Uberfication of the University by Gary Hall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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