Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Selling Ourselves

In a very trenchant essay on why (contrary to common belief) there really isn't much innovation anymore, David Graeber expresses a frustration that has deeply affected my life and those of others near and dear.  Graeber's essay in The Baffler says that real innovation and invention slowed in about 1970, and what has passed for technological breakthroughs since then are mostly recombinations of existing technologies fashioned into marketable products.

His thesis very briefly is that political, consumer-driven and bureaucratic priorities have dominated and stifled scientific research.  He may also have put his finger on what has stifled artistic and intellectual breakthroughs as well.  In any case, he describes a context that I've observed as well-- though (like the previous post) I've felt I've sounded crazy for my solitary grumbling.  He writes:

"What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet."

To this I would only add that it is largely the case not only in academia but in the world of trade publishing.  The writing of book proposals is more important than the writing of books, as is the marketing of books.  It seems it's becoming true of university press publishing is largely true already of e-publishing.

That doesn't mean good books don't get written and published anyway, and some of these books justly find their audience.  It just takes more nerve, perseverance and luck.