The Chronicle Review

Andrew Ross's Second Act

The cultural-studies theorist has become a scholarly reporter of work and labor

Yunghi Kim for The Chronicle Review

Andrew Ross, near his office at New York U. One of his most striking insights is how contemporary corporations have changed the culture of work.
August 31, 2009

In "Queen of the Jungle," the lead story in James Hynes's Publish and Perish, the protagonist is writing a book that he hopes will gain him the grail of a tenure-track job at the prestigious "Chicago University." His wife is already there, but he's stuck in an adjunct position at the University of the Midwest. During a week of wild creativity, he rewrites his otherwise pedestrian dissertation on modern literature, coming up with chapters like "The Sitcom at the End of the New Frontier: The Brady Bunch and The Wild Bunch in Contrapuntal Perspective." His wife takes one of the chapters to show to the chair at Chicago and reports, "Frankly, it was a little too Andrew Ross for me," but the chair "loved it, called it very cutting edge."

It is not every day that a literary and cultural critic is immortalized in popular fiction, even a story set in academe. When Publish and Perish came out in 1997, Andrew Ross was just over 40, but he had already published eight books and had had a hand in editing one of the leading journals in cultural studies, Social Text, for a decade. Trained as a literary critic and writing his first book on modern poetry, Ross had moved on to explore a capacious range of topics, including New Age culture, pornography, technology, and the Weather Channel. The edge he cut was cultural studies when cultural studies was still new in the United States. It drew along a rising generation of critics.

Being cutting edge has its downside. Ross's work gained him a substantial academic reputation, Ivy tenure, and then a professorship directing the American-studies program at New York University and more than a little media coverage. (While he did not get his picture in Rolling Stone, he did get his picture in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and New York Magazine.) But it also made him a target, drawing attacks from those who charged him with being a postmodern relativist, merely trendy, and unscholarly, criticisms that came to the fore when he edited an issue of Social Text on science that included an article on "postmodern physics" later revealed to be a hoax.

Academic reputations, though we assume they rest on a bedrock of scholarly work, are really an amalgam of partial surmises, hearsay, and actual scholarship. Once established, they are hard to dispel. For many, Ross's reputation is fixed in the 1990s, his name synonymous with popular cultural studies. This impression relies more on legend than on fact, especially when considering his work over the past decade, which has focused on work and labor, exemplified by his new book (his 17th and his 10th monograph), Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (New York University Press, 2009). His reputation has not caught up. To remedy that, I recently spoke to Ross to ask about the direction of his work and the course of his career.

Ross has never stayed still. As he recounts, "I certainly have moved across different fields, from the perspective of an academic career or academic profile." It began with his first job at Princeton "at a time when there was a kind of breach in the walls of what was a very four-walled discipline," meaning English, "with inner and outer fortifications. … Once you broke down the inner fortification of the canon and then moved on to the other fortifications, it's not easy to go back. I just went through one breach after another and never really stopped."

Ross's second monograph, No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture, published in 1989 by Routledge, then the hottest press in literary and cultural studies, established Ross's reputation for dealing with things popular, but he notes that is "something of an unearned reputation," as the book is largely a study of midcentury intellectuals who often disdained the popular. Ross adds that his books, such as Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (Verso, 1991) and The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society (Verso, 1994), "were really working at the margins of cultural studies at the time … engaging with the history of technology and environmentalism."

Most people would call what he does interdisciplinary, but Ross is wary of that label, saying when "people ask me, 'What's your discipline?' I say 'an agnostic' rather than 'an interdisciplinary scholar.' In an intensely religious culture, to be an agnostic was never easy, and in an academic environment I don't think it's all that easy either." At first he gravitated toward American studies rather than cultural studies, because it "looks at society as a whole and deploys whatever methods are necessary to do so," and he is founding chair of a two-year-old department at NYU called social and cultural analysis that is a confederation of gender, ethnic, urban, and other areas of study. Nice Work, published by New York University Press, is the inaugural volume in a series arising from the department.

Ross's approach is based less on disciplinary or methodological questions than situational ones; as he puts it, "A lot of [my] shifts were the result of responding to circumstance, political conditions, gaps in scholarship, and opportunities to do the kind of writing I felt I could find my own voice in." His breakthrough was The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town (Ballantine Books 1999), on the planned community near Orlando, Fla., developed by Disney. He had done some "bargain-basement ethnography" early in his career, he reflects, but it really wasn't until he had the chance to spend some lengthy time in Florida that he could do it more fully. He bought "a Cadillac of a certain age," moved there for a year, and developed a hybrid mode incorporating extensive interviews with residents and officials as well as scholarly commentary on urbanism and housing.

Part of his motivation was to remedy the gap in urban and suburban studies, which is his other major interest of the past decade. He observes that "it was a long time since sociologists had gone out to do residential observation studies of communities," and that he was responding to the "wave of journalistic scrutiny of Celebration," which he felt was one-dimensional, often to the chagrin of residents.

He calls his approach "scholarly reportage," which he defines as a "blend of ethnography and investigative journalism that makes sense to me as a writer." So as not to trespass on anthropologists, he and his colleagues call it "people-based research"—which seems vague, but serves to distinguish it from text-based, as in literary studies, or statistics-based, as in much social science. His goal, rather than projecting one's frame on one's object, is "meeting people where they are."

To do this, he had to leave behind two habits of literary studies. He was trained as a reader, which "meant that I was not a very good listener." The other was that he was "an armchair theorist," with a suspicion of the empirical. He admits that "theory can be a pretty good way of getting from A to B, but it's not the only way, and a lot of people got stuck spinning their mental wheels in the air. I've been in recovery from that." He adds, "Overcoming these obstacles was by no means easy, and it took several years to acquire the confidence to pursue research against [my] academic instincts."

One thing he did not have to overcome was writer's block. In contrast to a lot of academics who go through sheer hell writing anything, he reports that he writes very quickly and has never had any trouble writing. "I like to do deadline-driven work and research. I wouldn't publish so much if I didn't." He describes his process: "I don't do sketches before I write the way a lot of folks do. I always encourage my graduate students to do that, but I've never done it myself. I'll be drawing on notes, but there's a force of gravity that kicks in." Which explains his prodigious bibliography, all the more remarkable given his periods of chairing American studies and social and cultural analysis.

Especially since he had published so much early on, I was surprised to hear him say, "It took me many, many years to find my own voice, which I think is the most difficult thing for people to do with a standard academic training." One is taught to "work with the voice of the disciplinary consensus or to ape some master thinker who has been influential in the discipline, and that's not unrelated to your choice of research topics." I asked if his recent writing reflected a more genuine voice, but he said no, and he quickly distinguished it from creative nonfiction. It tacks more to the kind of social reportage that people like the writer Barbara Ehrenreich or Ross's NYU colleague Richard Sennett, the sociologist, have done.

Another element of Ross's breakthrough was that The Celebration Chronicles was a trade book, published by Ballantine and reported in this newspaper to have gained a six-figure advance. While several of his previous books, published by Routledge and Verso, teetered on the hinge between academic and trade, a string of his subsequent books have forthrightly crossed over. After The Celebration Chronicles, they include No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (Basic Books, 2003); Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor (New Press, 2004); and Fast Boat to China: Corporate Flight and the Consequences of Free Trade—Lessons From Shanghai (Pantheon, 2006).

That cluster of books, along with Nice Work, deals especially with the way labor has been reconfigured in the age of information and globalization. Drawing from a year and a half of interviews, No-Collar recounts the work habits of employees at two high-tech companies in New York, Razorfish and Though there was much coverage of the dot-com boom, there was little that considered "the emergence of that kind of casual workplace," Ross tells me, and "my hunch was that was what would be durable." As he puts it in a chapter in Nice Work, "no-collar employees emulate the work mentality and flexible schedules of disinterested research academics," or, as he observes in an influential essay included in Low Pay, "The Mental Labor Problem," of artists and musicians.

This flexibility has been celebrated in books like Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class—you don't have to be tied to a desk but can do your work in a coffeehouse at all hours of the day!—but Ross is less sanguine, noting how it allows work to permeate one's time. He describes the new contract in Nice Work: "In return for ceding freedom of movement to workers … employers can claim ownership of ideas that germinate in the most free, and downtime, moments of their employees' lives."

Ross's next step was to look at how globalization affects labor. Arising from the work he'd been doing in the antisweatshop movement, he recalls, he was thinking about offshore workplaces but realized he had never actually visited one. So he studied Mandarin and moved to China for a year to research Fast Boat to China. He found that development was guided not by Chinese policy but by corporations perpetually seeking cheaper labor. Again correcting some of the more celebratory views, this time those like Thomas L. Friedman's in The World Is Flat, Ross found the new organization of work "a much more insidious process, especially for employees who are expected to collude in the effort to upload the contents of their brains," as he writes in Fast Boat. That so-called "knowledge transfer" allows outsourcing, driving wages down and making jobs constitutively insecure.

Ross sees these new conditions as beckoning the future of work, when most jobs will be short term and people will have many throughout their lives. This creates a precarious way of life for workers, even previously secure professional workers, whom Ross renames "the precariat." Rather than having nostalgia for the old model of a job with one company over a career, though, he suggests in Nice Work that a more fitting political solution would be "a guaranteed income or social wage, decoupled from the circumstances of employment."

Alongside his research, Ross has not been afraid to get his hands dirty, advocating for better labor conditions in the university, prominently supporting the graduate students at NYU who went on strike a year ago, calling NYU to task for labor practices at its new campus in Abu Dhabi, and serving as chair of the American Association of University Professors chapter at NYU. With the NYU grad students he co-edited the collection The University Against Itself (Temple University Press, 2008), which includes his essay, "The Rise of the Global University" (also reprinted in Nice Work). In the book, he sums up the ways in which "the research university is behaving more and more like an adjunct to private industry," in the "concentration of power upward into managerial bureaucracies, the abdication of research and productivity assessment to external assessors and funders, … the pressure to adopt an entrepreneurial career mentality, and the erosion of tenure through the galloping casualization of the work force."

In our conversation, however, Ross had no nostalgia for a halcyon era of the university. He expressed some impatience with the "siege mentality" of many academics about corporate changes in the university, which he think impedes a realistic response. He attributes it to the fact that "they don't get out a lot and are not aware of what's happening in other workplaces." Instead, he believes "the traffic of ideas and customs is two-way" and "the modern research university and the modern knowledge corporation are becoming more alike, evolving into species that didn't exist before." He maintains that "we need a lot more research" to chart and analyze this coevolution.

One could see Andrew Ross's recent decade of work as a second act, as he shed his early interests in flashier aspects of culture to focus more directly on social concerns. But there is also a deep consistency, both in approach and topic. His argument in No Respect is that intellectuals should not disdain the popular but meet it on its own ground. He has carried that out in his interviews with people about their everyday work and lives. And, probably more than anything, the center of his concern has been cultural politics. One of Ross's most striking insights is how contemporary corporations have changed the culture of work.

As a historian of modern criticism, I'm tempted to chide those who see Ross as a one-note commentator on popular culture. Though they complain of Ross's lack of scholarly rigor, their view of Ross is simply unscholarly. To be more charitable, part of the problem might be that he has written so much—it's the price of being prolific. A little less charitably: For all our bruiting of the interdisciplinary, we don't quite know what to do with someone who actually crosses over to other fields and disciplines. Their books are shelved in sections of the bookstore or library that we don't ordinarily peruse.

Another element of Ross's reputation might be a question of narrative convention. Reputations tend to take the form of the bildungsroman: Much of the action occurs during the initial rise. We tend to be fascinated with the new scholar forging a new field, like the new singer who wins American Idol and puts out a platinum album. It's not nearly as striking to tell the middle story.

But Ross's middle story shows one way to be a public intellectual. In some ways, he is an heir of the New York Intellectuals, who were influential at midcentury and are now vaunted as the last of the titans. Though he is Scottish born (he's lived in the United States since 1980), Ross seems a quintessential New Yorker, and not just because he wears a lot of black. In his range, he resembles not the resolutely literary Lionel Trilling but the more socially oriented Paul Goodman. Goodman gained fame with his diagnosis of midcentury life, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960), but he was trained in literature, his first book in the theoretical vein of his time, The Structure of Literature (1954). Goodman, however, also wrote a range of social commentary, on urban planning in books such as Communitas (1947), and also on the university in The Community of Scholars (1962).

Though Ross favors ironic twists on clichés like "Nice Work if You Can Get It," he might also have titled the book Working Absurd. And though he would probably resist the high-handed aspect of the public intellectual, he has fleshed out the precarious and inequitable terms of contemporary labor, meeting people where they are.

Jeffrey J. Williams is an editor of "The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism," the second edition of which will appear in January 2010. He is also the editor of "the minnesota review," for which he recently gathered a special issue on "Critical Credos" that includes an essay by Andrew Ross, "The Case for Scholarly Reporting."