The Trauma of Absolute Freedom From Academia

I can not tell you how many of my friends and colleagues have confided in me throughout the last 16 years of my ‘higher’ education that they wished to depart entirely from academia. Their reasoning was rather simple: academia, they believed, impeded their otherwise productive tendencies. Naturally, if that is the underlying belief system, it only follows that a departure from academia would usher in a new dawn of creative freedom: one might publish poetry, short fiction, new and more ingenious musical productions, and so on. However, in each and every case that currently comes to mind I have noted the following: a frightening and noticeable decline in artistic productions, an alarming decrease of intellectual interest in ‘big’ questions, and an insanely quick retreat into the day-to-day world of necessity. Paradoxically, it is the departure from academia that has secured a world of drunkenness, depression, and resentment.

Mikhail Bakunin once claimed that even if God existed it would be necessary that we kill him. This is where the anarchists have misunderstood the basic notion of freedom. Freedom is guaranteed precisely by God. Lacan was quick to invert the Dostoyevskian axiom that “if God is dead then everything is permitted” with “if God is dead then nothing is permitted.” It is precisely the big master obstacle, whether it be the State, the mode of production, or, truth be told, academia itself, which permits the freedom to do everything and anything. However, this fundamental truth always comes at a price. When confronted with this paradoxical freedom we can not help but complain. One ought to boldly accept a world where the price one pays for freedom is the need to complain about one’s boss, master, institution, organization, government, or religious authority. Behold, the more brutal world of trauma awaits the one who accepts a world without complaint only to find oneself without the world of freedom.

In my second year of the PhD Program at Trent University I was tested about the “Cultural Studies” canon. I recall very precisely that I felt that the person who administered the test asked problematic questions. The problem was not with my answer but with the question itself. This provided me with a very convenient alibi: if I had failed the comprehensive examination then I could very easily avoid responsibility by claiming that it was the fault of the examination committee and no fault of my own. Thankfully, I passed and was not afforded the luxury of having to blame my master figures. At the European Graduate School things were a bit different. Slavoj Zizek administered a test wherein he asked his students to ask themselves a question and then answer it. What kind of authoritative bullshit is that? Here, if we were to fail to answer the question we were robbed of the alibi. The symbolic Other figure has removed himself and forced us to confront our own desire, our own question. Can you imagine the sort of existential trauma this might inflict on some of the poor students? If not, I invite those of you who are teachers in academia to produce precisely this test for your undergraduate students. You will immediately be confronted by a 95% failure rate.

So, what is my lesson? My lesson to you is this: hold on to academia. The institution is not so bad after all. There are far worse things out there. Things like absolute freedom.

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3 thoughts on “The Trauma of Absolute Freedom From Academia

  1. This is an interesting post, but I disagree with the last paragraph, both empirically and conceptually.

    1) From many years of experience, as I am a teacher in a French technical high school. One requirement for many classes is a year long unit called TPE, Travaux Pratiques Encadrés (guided practical work), done as the collective work of 3 students collaborating. The TPE involves setting up a problematic and asking a question, then producing a response (not necessarily a single answer). At first I was surprised at the ability of our students to accomplish such a task, but now after 15 years I am used to it.

    2) Conceptually, the way is traced by the use of the noun “problematic”, a word that all French high school students know. They learn from the age of 14 to create a problematic, in both French classes and in History/Geography, and later in Philosophy. I think it is not only excellent training in thinking, but epistemologically and heuristically advantageous.

    Some students are so used to thinking in terms of problematics that when I give them a task where I ask no question but give them a theme to analyse in terms of their own Anglophone culture (articles, books, films, series) they ask me if they can include a section elaborating a problematic, which I accept readily.

    So I think that the example of Zizek’s classes is more a case of initiating students formed into the Continental mode of proceeding. Conceptualising this in terms of an opposition between absolutes (the Master, Freedom) is missing this intermediary realm of “guided freedom”. This thinking in absolutes may be behind your interesting observation of self-demolishing behaviour by those who leave academia.

  2. Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    This is an interesting post, but I disagree with the last paragraph, both empirically and conceptually.

    1) From many years of experience, as I am a teacher in a French technical high school. One requirement for many classes is a year long unit called TPE, Travaux Pratiques Encadrés (guided practical work), done as the collective work of 3 students collaborating. The TPE involves setting up a problematic and asking a question, then producing a response (not necessarily a single answer). At first I was surprised at the ability of our students to accomplish such a task, but now after 15 years I am used to it.

    2) Conceptually, the way is traced by the use of the noun “problematic”, a word that all French high school students know. They learn from the age of 14 to create a problematic, in both French classes and in History/Geography, and later in Philosophy. I think it is not only excellent training in thinking, but epistemologically and heuristically advantageous.

    Some students are so used to thinking in terms of problematics that when I give them a task where I ask no question but give them a theme to analyse in terms of their own Anglophone culture (articles, books, films, series) they ask me if they can include a section elaborating a problematic, which I accept readily.

    So I think that the example of Zizek’s classes is more a case of initiating students formed into the Continental mode of proceeding. Conceptualising this in terms of an opposition between absolutes (the Master, Freedom) is missing this intermediary realm of “guided freedom”. This thinking in absolutes may be behind the phenomenon of self-demolishing behaviour by those who leave academia.

  3. Pingback: IS THE ACADEMY A POROUS STRUCTURE? Remarks on the logic of “leaving” | AGENT SWARM

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