When Greed Is Good: On Love and Academic Labour

Image: Mayur Gala

Sunday 3rd September, 2017

Mona Mannevuo

Fabian Cannizzo’s paper You've got to love what you do: academic labour in a culture of authenticity is an important, timely attempt to grasp the problems in academia today by moving beyond the dichotomy of managerial/academic values. The research draws on interviews with Australian academics, so one could argue—as Cannizzo notes—that the findings are not representative of the international academic workforce. Nevertheless, the argument holds true. The affects circulating in the paper surely are familiar to all working in academia: the love and passion for one’s subject alongside the alienation and exhaustion caused by constant competition and the awkward conformity as a proper neoliberal entrepreneurial subject.

Cannizzo connects these affects to the culture of authenticity that encourages academics to seek a passionate, personal connection with their labour. Consequently, he argues, academics develop survival strategies and future-oriented discourses that connect their intrinsic (pleasurable) and extrinsic (unavoidable) motivations to create a sense of self in the academic labour. Personal values and managerial norms morph into an organizational culture where researchers, especially early- and mid-career researchers, appear to have accepted the normalization of managerial imperatives. Building on the paper’s suggestion that further research investigate the routines and techniques academics develop to maintain attachment to their work, I propose two points regarding affects and passionate attachments worth considering. This commentary draws on my own research on affective attachments in contemporary academia and on Lauren Berlant’s work on cruel optimism and the affective ambivalence of love.

My first point concerns moving beyond the dichotomies of managerial and academic values. Although Cannizzo attempts to make a theoretical move beyond dualisms, he seems to, albeit implicitly, separate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings by making a hierarchical distinction between the pleasurable love for one’s profession and the unpleasantness caused by competition and career trajectories. This reading is certainly not wrong but misses the ambivalent elements and self-exploitative tendencies inherent in a passionate attachment to work.

Excessive work rhythms and their exhausting compromises allow not only the expressive performance of authenticity but also maintenance of the subject’s coherence. Following Berlant’s theory on cruel optimism, academic work can be defined as the object of desire that endows the subject with a sense of endurance. Indeed, the cycles of passion, love, hope and disappointment reveal obsessive appetites and their costs; however, the motivating drive is not to feel good or bad but to keep on going. Love is not the victim of vicious neoliberal governance but its partner in crime. As Berlant powerfully argues, love is a relation inherently ambivalent and uncertain:  ‘love is one of the few situations where we desire to have patience for what isn’t working, and affective patience that allows us to iron things out, or to be elastic, or to try a new incoherence’.

Berlant draws attention to the exhaustion passionate attachment causes and how the affective attachments modulate and capture infrastructures, in this case, neoliberal academia. Cannizzo does acknowledge that personal values and managerial norms coexist and are mutually constituted in academia today. Nonetheless, he concentrates on how governance and discourses shape subjects rather than asking how subjects shape the affective atmospheres where they move and accordingly evaluate their possibilities. He addresses neither the ontological insecurity scholars experience in academia nor the ambivalent mixture of actions, inactions and decisions made in compromised conditions of possibilities.

My point is not that Cannizzo should have done so as the paper focuses on the discursive aspects of academic nostalgia, self-authenticity and the feelings they create. However, future analysis of the passionate dimension of academic labour should be more attentive to the different ways subjects affect and become affected. This perspective could provide new insights about academics, affective infrastructures, our limits of endurance and our prospects for the future. After all, Cannizzo concludes that ‘future studies could consider cases where academics have found collective, non-managerial practices and techniques to orient their self-conceptions’. Here, affect theory can offer fruitful, provocative tools for analysis.      

My second point concerns the location of the techniques of self-inspection in the 1960s therapeutic cultures (with references to Rose and Miller and Rose). Instead, I situate these technologies in the larger historical framework of calculation as a technique to evaluate one’s possibilities in life. This provides a productive framework to rethink the hierarchical separation between the spheres of intimacy (authentic love and passion) and the economy (inauthentic neoliberal managerialism). To paraphrase James Thompson, this oft-repeated separation arises from the classic discursive structures of the Western modes of thought. The danger is that it separates and defines the seemingly private zone of affect as a safe haven from the cruel, competitive world. However, consider that love and capitalism are historically linked and formed under the same performance template. We should analyse more deeply how intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are two sides of the same coin, both shaping the various models of measuring, calculating and evaluating one’s possessions of interest.  

Cannizzo’s paper offers interesting observations about the connections among love, passion and the academic lifestyle. Although the declaration makes me slightly nervous, I have to admit: in love and in academia, greed is good. As Mae West put it, too much of a good thing can be wonderful!

Mona Mannevuo is a post-doctoral researcher at the School of History, Culture and Arts Studies at the University of Turku, Finland. Her research interests include capitalism, affect theory and labour history. She is one of the editors of a special issue on Affective Capitalism for the journal Ephemera. Find out more about her research on her personal website

Here's more you may be interested in: