What is Para-Academia? I extracted the following definition from an advertisement for a symposium which occurred in New York last year:
The term ‘para-academic’ captures the multivalent sense of something that fulfills and/or frustrates the academic from a position of intimate exteriority. Para-academia is that which is beside academia, a place whose logic encompasses many reasons and no reason at all (para-, “alongside, beyond, altered, contrary,” from Greek para-, “beside, near, from, against, contrary to,” cognate with Sanskrit para “beyond”). The para is the domain of: shadow, paradigm, daemon, parasite, supplement, amateur, elite. The para-academic embodies an unofficial excess or extension of the academic that helps, threatens, supports, mocks (par-ody), perfects and/or calls it into question simply by existing next to it. Following a series of classes organized through The Public School New York on the subject of “Para-Academia and Theory Fiction,” this event brings together a group of editors whose work in publishing falls within the para-academic, in one sense or another. Presenters will address the practice and theory of para-academic publishing, its relation to various areas of life (art, pedagogy, politics), and present some of their recent titles.
I’ve long been fascinated with the para-academic movement. I call it a movement because it seems to me that it has gained a considerable following. In fact, I’ve used the concept many times in my everyday thinking within and without the university. Today, it seems to me that the movement has grown too large. This concerns me.
I confess that I believe that the concept has had a certain use-value within radical thinking. It was a parasitic category of thinking which operated in the last instance against university discourse and in the direction of a new world. It was a tactical concept. Within this world the goal was to infect the university with small bits of radical thinking. As a practice it encouraged radical students and professors to open up some space for thinking outside of the university so as to ensure that the university discourse did not get the final word over their desires.
Today we have a problem. It seems to me that we nullify the power of the concept when we use it to describe job-seeking. In other words, within the context of the neo-liberal university, we find ourselves desperately attempting to maintain the privileges that we once had within academia. The future of the PhD degree in Cultural Studies, for example, is not so bright. As a result, many students are wondering if the degree is worth taking in the first place. Fewer scholarships and funding packages are available for students and, as a result, more students are looking for work alongside the university. Finally, there are fewer tenure track positions and we are witnessing the adjunct-ification of the country. Is it not, therefore, in the interests of the neo-liberal university, to talk about the value of the para-academic job-market?
We nullify the power of the concept when we use it to describe the jobs that are available to those who are rapidly being rejecting from the neoliberal university; there is nothing inherently parasitic about finding work in a non-governmental organization after graduate school, or about volunteering at an art gallery once we lose tenure. It seems to me that we are now deeply within intuitionistic logic. What the concept ought to have given us was a tactical opportunity for movement toward a more classical (and thus revolutionary) logic. At this point I would direct you to my latest hyper-transcription of a lecture from Alain Badiou here. In that hyper-transcription I gave detail to the concept of classical versus intuitionistic logic, and I provided some examples of how they guide our revolutionary thinking. Here, in place of that, I will simply spend a moment discussing why para-academia, as a concept, now encourages accommodation with the current world rather than continuing to offer us a strategic movement toward a new world.
My working claim is that “para-academia” has moved from being a conceptual point toward being a mere intuitionistic concept. A “conceptual point” operates in such a way that it invites its audience to think the possibility of a new world. That is, to think the possibility that not only the world of the university, or the world of neo-liberalism, or, more precisely, the neo-liberal university, is possible. More importantly, a “conceptual point” operates so that one is forced to make a decision between this world and that world. This is what I mean when I say that the revolutionary concept – the conceptual point – proceeds on the basis of classical logic. It is not enough to simply accommodate the university by encouraging hopeless students and professors to seek supplemental employment outside of the university – one must operate in such a way that our concepts move us toward new conceptual points, toward new revolutionary decisions. We need to arrive at the point at which this world, the one we are currently living within, is no longer good enough – and a new world is constructed in its place. When the neoliberal university begins to crumble, when students and professors alike begin to suffer – we can take the easy road. The easy road implies that we pick up a few dollars outside of the university so that we can remain inside the university. This is intuitionistic logic, the logic of the world as it currently exists, insofar as the decision that we are making is not one of either this world or a new world but rather both that world and this world.
The history of the concept of para-academia has been such that it has moved from its radical conceptual point toward being merely a concept of intuitionistic logic. Para-academia, as a concept, encourages compromises with the neo-liberal university rather than revolutionary points against it; and this, truth be told, is because the concept itself has been compromised.
Para-academia, as a concept, once opened up a space for desire outside of the university. This was its crucial first phase. This was its conceptual point, and its tactical advantage. Today it opens up a space for the university. That is, para-academia as a concept operates so that the neo-liberal university, and all of its failures, can keep its students around a little while longer. That space outside of the university that we once needed, is now, paradoxically, the space that the university needs us to have.