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Re: <nettime> Mona Cholet/ le Monde Diplolmatique: France's precarious g
Keith Hart on Sat, 20 May 2006 12:25:52 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Mona Cholet/ le Monde Diplolmatique: France's precarious graduate


>On her anonymous blog, Séverine, a 28-year-old Parisian graduate, 
>posted this: "I'm from the intellectual underclass. One of those who fry 
>their brains, read megabytes of books, magazines, web pages, political 
>pamphlets and petitions, and never get anything out of it. I'm like an 
>engine guzzling fuel just to stay in overdrive, burning up mental energy 
>for nothing" (1). Séverine's working life has bounced between 
>internships, welfare benefits, temping and unemployment.

Thanks for posting this, Patrice. I know quite a few of these people.  The
situation ie often heart-breaking, for individuals and the cohort as a whole. But
I have trouble placing it in a framework of comparative social history. What is
new and what old about it? It may be that what is new is rising militancy (compare
the New York graduate student union) and a higher incidence of acute despair. At
least people are speaking out now and the new media give them a means for
expressing oneself without censorship. The universities everywhere are facing a
crisis of function and funding, but especially in the state-regulated higher
education systems of Europe. Excess supply in the job market is probably higher
than ever before. And I am well aware that I came into the job market at a time
(1970) when conditions were much more favourable than now.

But. But... Universities have long specialised in exploiting precarity, none more
than my alma mater, Cambridge. It is a scandal that permanet jobs are being
replaced with casual employment at low piece-rates and senior academics take leave
to write their books in order for replacement teachers to do their job for a
pittance. But this system was pioneered by universities like Cambridge long before
I turned up there.  The powers always knew that they have a pool of excess
teaching and research fodder who would rather stay in school that get out into the
world and probably feel that anywhere else than where they are would be a personal
loss. So they keep them all stringing along for an irregular supply of peanuts. At
the extreme, those who stay in have opted for self-exploitation.

I spent the last two years of my PhD without any overt source of income.  I even
got married in this period. I recall eating spaghetti with red wine in a small
rented flat. It wasn't a bad life. We got by. I felt a lot poorer later when I was
a lecturer with a mortgage, car and the rest of it. I took on bits of teaching and
research assistance, calculating that if I wrote my thesis instead of doing the
work, my professors wouldn't have th ecourtage to call my out for it, since they
knew it was exploitation. I got away with it. Now I probably wouldn't. It was a
more benign time for sure, but the system was already in place. It is not new.

Or take the way of life of countless American students who spend ten years
completing a PhD (an average figure in some subjects). A bit of TA-ing, wait at
table in a diner for a few hours, smoke some pot with friends, write a page of the
thesis, cruise the mailing lists. The life is so seductive, it is not surprising
they prefer to remain an ABD than join the army of unemployed PhDs.

The main difference between this and Severine's plight is that she thinks she's
frying her brains and gets nothing from it all. And she has a public for this. I
don't know what to make of it politically or of this whole precarity movement. The
old Stalinists and ATTAC-ers of mondediplo obviously think there is some mileage
in it. At the very least, if the crisis of late academia (my label for
universities past their sell-by date) is to be addressed, we need to be able to
place the predicament of young people daye within a framework of realsitic
comparison. But then I joined stayed in school for the rest of my life in order to
avoid having to get a real job.

Keith




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