The Secondary Gains of Neoliberal Pain: The Limits of Consolation as a Response to Academic Anguish

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  • 1 Central European University

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The contemporary global academic is an exemplary neoliberal subject. This condition is, of course, not unreflected upon, even if those communities of scholars dubbed ‘critical’ and ‘problem-solving’ might address it in different ways. The critical crowd is, however, caught in a particular predicament: We enact and embody neoliberal discourse in our daily practice, all the while raging about the psychosocial harm it inflicts. Indeed, though working within an industry ever more industrialised in conformity with the violent economic technologies of precarity, competition, quantification, standardisation, and individualism, considerable professional rewards remain on offer for those who master ‘the game.’ We become academic subjects in and by ‘making deals’ at the juncture of productive and coercive power—that is, by reproducing hierarchies. The discourse of personal triumph against neoliberal adversity—performed, if in different ways, by critical and mainstream scholars alike—is part and parcel of becoming a good player, of generating affective and socio-economic payoffs, and, ultimately, of re-entrenching the neoliberal condition. This essay does not argue for a second-order responsibilisation of this already tormented subject—to radicalise not-yet-brutal-enough self-appraisals. Rather, it is concerned with a certain disavowal of responsibility which derives from the implication in our own and each other’s suffering, as formulated in Lynne Layton’s work. Instead of offering consolation in response to the neoliberal suffering, and thus deepen the collusion, I suggest a re-thinking of responsibility in response to the concreteness of the neoliberal pain. Expressed and theorised from within the lived experienced of academic anguish, this is as much an autobiographical as a sociological tale.

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