The proximate cause of all this immediate distress is, to be sure, the state of emergency in which we have lived since the start of the pandemic. There are also a range of deeper causes, many of which have been discussed
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
The proximate cause of all this immediate distress is, to be sure, the state of emergency in which we have lived since the start of the pandemic. There are also a range of deeper causes, many of which have been discussed in these pages. But there is also a more nebulous factor contributing to our shared misery: the astonishingly low priority we in higher education have placed, and continue to place, on the value of pleasure.
We have never made pleasure central to our work, much less central to who we are. Even worse, our profession has trained us to be suspicious of happiness in all forms, to scrutinize every morsel of good feeling until it is rendered mute and sterile. Higher education has a pleasure problem.
Instead of cultivating a grounded vocabulary of pleasure and studying its moods more discretely, we too often practice what Rita Felski calls in The Limits of Critique (2015) a “style of interpretation driven by a spirit of disenchantment.” We assume that pleasure is the wood for our critical fire and that its going up in flames reveals our divinatory power. Such disenchantment used to get many an academic hired: It rather easily generates seminar papers, guest lectures, monographs. But while disenchantment can claim to be dispassionate, it is seldom neutral. It privileges solitary critical acumen over the ambiguities of human relations.
Our profession has trained us to be suspicious of happiness in all forms, to scrutinize every morsel of good feeling until it is rendered mute and sterile.
Felski has been accused of suggesting that we should entirely abandon critique. Her thesis might have been more compelling had she not tethered her conclusions to the mysticism of actor-network theory. And as Sarah Tindal Kareem recently noted in a review of Felski’s follow-up book, Hooked (2020), Felski sometimes seems interested in “atmosphere rather than … argument.”
Yet Felski’s premise is still worth taking seriously: That suspicion and disenchantment have limits. We see those limits most obviously in dwindling enrollments, administrations that have swept humanistic study aside, and a public skepticism, if not hostility, toward the work we do. And we see them less obviously in more-silent forms of disengagement. Even now that travel restrictions have been lifted, academics are ambivalent about returning to conferences. And even though many campuses have taken off their masks, faculty office doors are barely open. If disenchantment was going to save us, it already would have.
Our pleasure problem begins early in our careers and only worsens as we develop in the profession. When I was applying to graduate school, it was axiomatic that one did not write of one’s love of literature: It was assumed. As Gerald Graff and Andrew Hoberek once advised, “Those who would argue that love of literature should be the primary requirement for joining the academic club would be loath to commit themselves to the care of a doctor whose only qualification was that she really loved the human body.”
Looking back, I see only danger in this premise. Placed in the subordinate position, pleasure was assumed to be a permanent, ever-renewing resource — always supplemental, never foundational. Pleasure was there for you to fall back on when your paper was hammered in seminar, when the day’s teaching left you agog, when you had to crank out one more page of the damn dissertation. Love existed to stanch pain. But it was never flexed, stretched, developed. As a result, pleasure remained stilted, unarticulated, uncirculated.
Earlier this year, a new trend appeared on the perpetual paroxysm that is Twitter, a site in which happiness can be made problematic in mere seconds: An early-career scholar, having just accepted a faculty position, pulls on a college sweatshirt from their new employer and snaps a selfie, then posts it online. The response was as predictable as the leg swing that follows a tap to the patellar tendon:
A trend on here is announcements of acceptance of a place in a PhD program or, increasingly, a TT academic job, with a photo of the happy person wearing the University's sweatshirt and so on. Odd to see this diffusion of a form I associate with high schoolers' college decisions.— Kieran Healy (@kjhealy) April 16, 2022
If this is how academe’s veterans welcome a new colleague — by critiquing them as a “happy person” — we have a problem.
The good academic, the tweet implies, is sober, critical, and mostly disaffiliated from their employer. (Bad to smile and sport a university sweatshirt; good, I presume, to appear sober in a black and white headshot and namedrop your employer in your Twitter bio.) The good academic diagnoses other people’s pleasures as a problem. No fun for you, the good academic says, and in doing so, delegitimizes pleasure for all of us.
It’s a dead end that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick warned us about long ago: the cheap thrill of exposure. Sure, it is possible that the new colleague has bought into the institution a little too much. Possibly they risk being commodified on the next billboard or advertisement. But the goal of such tweets is not to offer insight but to perform disdain, a lazy move that relies on an aura of authority and an unfortunately long tradition of academic censoriousness.
Yet surely it is pleasure that drives us to think, to return to a puzzle again and again until it is solved. Pleasure is at least half of what we call passion. Without it, our intelligence remains stiff and pallid. And if we continue along the path of endless critique, we will become complicit in our society’s devaluation of humanistic thought. Why pay for a literature course when you can get cynicism for free?
Affiliation is one of the strongest bonds higher education can provide. The word harkens back to the establishing of parentage: Affiliation shows us whom we are obligated to care for, whom we should nurture. Affiliation in this sense is not just a logo on a sweatshirt but a commitment to a larger community — of thought, certainly, but also of particular people. Your dissertation director, your students, the colleague whose sly smile makes committee work bearable. Part choice and part chance, it is a nervous and bittersweet entanglement, one we are willing to commit years of study and small fortunes to attain.
With these connections in mind, there is another, more generous reading of those sweatshirts. Perhaps those who don the sweatshirt are not dupes blinded by commodity fetishism or hegemonic ideology. As the digital humanist Roopika Risam reminded me recently, many of those who post such pictures come from marginalized positions in our society. They may be, like myself, first-generation college students. Their photos capture a personal victory against structural conditions. Perhaps they wear the sweatshirt to signal to others that they, too, belong in academe. Perhaps their smiles signal a new direction for the humanities, an orientation that makes pleasure not the subject of critical disdain but the root of thinking itself. From this angle, the selfie does not signify blind, thoughtless attachment. It signifies the widening circle of attachment that constitutes higher education’s future.