I read an interview with David Graeber this morning that captures one of the reasons I never felt like I fit in in the academy. I always thought that the point of being an academic was to have fun. Books are fun, words are fun, ideas are fun; the fun of those things were about all that got me through high school and college. Along the way, in the midst of all the fun, we might all learn something, of course. I always thought, though, that we should at least be having fun, and showing our students how to have fun, too.
But no, friends, it doesn’t work like that. Graeber captures it nicely:
The reason to go into academia is because it’s pleasurable, it’s fun, it’s basically a form of play—you get to play with ideas. But somehow academics manage to convince themselves that—what with the insecurities of the job market—in order to get that security, that comfort, you have to give up the pleasure. You have to become this boring, pedantic academic politician, saying the right things, thinking the right things, publishing in the right places. It all becomes this careerist, professionalized cage, and you hate yourself for it, and thus what you really hate is anybody who seems to be having fun.
Over the course of my academic life, a steady drip of seriousness wore down any sense of fun there might have been in the whole enterprise. I was a “Continental” philosopher, one of the ones most committed to the notion of fun, at least in theory. (Don’t get me started on analytic philosophy, which is basically just English common law without state-sanctioned judges.) Even there, though, fun was difficult for me to maintain.
I think it started to go downhill with my second dissertation committee chair. (I ended up having three.) The second one ultimately left his wife, his children, and the entire country in disgust; his last e-mail message to me from France was a rambling (possibly drunken) missive stating various non-specific deficiencies in my work. Before he left, though, he commented on a chapter I had written, a not particularly rigorous, but fun, examination of the problems of materialism from Descartes through Marx and Lenin (in a dissertation about Edmund Husserl). He said, “This is… interesting, but not very professional. You need to cut this out.”
He was right, of course. It was not very professional. It was not world-historically insightful. I was still disappointed, though, because before all else it was fun. It was exciting. It made me excited to research it and write about it. My director’s message, though, was clear: Your fun is not professional.
Of course, we academics get sent this message over and over again. Fun, we are told, is something that has to wait until after you get tenure. (Except, of course, that hardly anyone gets tenure anymore, and the process makes it so that most who get it need years of therapy to learn how to have fun again.) Fun doesn’t get you published in the “right” journals, doesn’t get you promoted. Fun doesn’t solve all of the depressing problems of the humanities and higher education. Fun is for your private life, assuming you retain the capacity to maintain one that goes beyond drinking and canoodling with students. (I never had the slightest inclination or desire to canoodle with students, by the way.) Fun is no way to become a respected functionary in the university and disciplinary bureaucracy.
Yet I kept insisting on making the work fun. I am not sure I know how to do anything else.
I had to struggle to get a dissertation completed and defended–long, complicated story there, and I won’t tell it today. The finished product was an awkward, goofy failure. I look back on it and I giggle a bit that a research university approved it, actually. My committee was complimentary, but their primary substantive remark was that what I was doing was “exciting” and “original.” I now think that they were in effect saying “Here is someone who insists on making this academic research thing fun.” It was possibly the kindest thing they could say. My dissertation stank. It was, though, the clear work of someone who was having fun.
I have a lot of complicated regrets and griefs left over from my old academic career. One thing I can say, though, with some pride is that, as bad an academic as I ended up being, I managed, at the core of it, to enjoy myself.
At least I had fun.