Friday, March 29, 2013

Nerds, Love, Amateurs: Reflections on How Soon Is Now

First, before you read this post, go look at Karl Steel's writeup of an event celebrating the publication of Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. Second, let me say I loved this book. I need, in fact, to re-read it because I felt myself swept away by just how thoughtful and enchanting it is, and consequently I did not take as many research notes as I would have liked. It's a manifesto for the desire to touch the past, one that I will be happy to return to. 

I hope to put up a more positive response to the piece soon, but for now, I wanted to respond to Karl's post, which touches on a concern that has been nagging at me. Karl notes that "[t]he q&a bogged down for a while in the distinction between professionals and amateurs, with Dinshaw, if I remember correctly (and I probably don't), emphasizing that she's describing differing modes of engagement rather than, say, job titles." In place of amateur, he suggests "nerd" -- I find this preferable, for reasons I'll get into.

My frustration with the distinction Dinshaw makes between professional and amateur is, perhaps, unfair. But it proceeds directly from my own relationship to professionalism. To get at this, let me quote a few sizable chunks from her introduction (I am using the Kindle edition, so forgive the lack of page numbers).

Here is her account of the relationship between professionals and temporality:
Professionals are paid for their work, and their expert time can be seen to share characteristics with money: it is abstract, objective, and countable. Professional work time is clock-bound and calendrical, regulated abstractly and independently of individuals, and the lives of professionals conform to this temporality. Measurement-that one side of the Aristotelian temporal problematic-is the essence here. Consider the sequence of school nights and workdays, weeks, weekends and vacations, fiscal quarter following fiscal quarter, semester following semester, year following year. Such time is homogeneous and empty. It is secular: Weber's analysis, for example, contended that the "rational" scheme of monastic hours was the precursor of secularized Protestant time-consciousness. And, like money, it is to be saved, budgeted, and spent. A life regulated in this way is marked by significant milestones: on the quotidian scale, there are deadlines to be made; on the scale of the life course, there are schools, higher education, early apprenticeship, employment with benefits including life insurance, then promotions and eventual retirement, with the shining gold timepiece at the end.
Now, I have to admit, this rendition of the temporal progression of professionals strikes me as inadequate and, perhaps, anachronistic. (I doubt it jives with the tenure-track or tenured academic either, given the schedule-busting activities of teaching, grading, mentoring, research, committee work, etc.) Right now, I am probably stuck in some hybrid of "apprenticeship" and "employment with benefits," and for those like myself (having a PhD, but not yet landed in a tenure-track job) the optimism of forward movement here seems like a distant dream, or an oasis that I keep trying in vain to drink from. (Does that make sense? Need coffee.) In contrast to this orderly and regulated set of temporal rhythms, here is what she says about the amateur:
If amateurs are not paid -and defined as such they are not remunerated for work -what do they get at the end of their efforts? What, indeed, defines the end of amateurs' labors? Operating on a different time scheme from professional activities, amateurs' activities do not require punching a time clock and do not follow a predestined career path, since they are not wage labor. Amateur temporality starts and stops at will; tinkerers and dabblers can linger at moments of pleasure when the professionals must soldier duly onward. Professionals must bring all elements of an operation into place in order to complete a replicable task-say, the making of a perfect omelet-but amateurs can enjoy the chance irruptions that occur when all is not synched up. Amateur time is not dictated by a mystified scientific method that requires not only a closed system and the elimination of chance but also, and most fundamentally, the separation of subject from object. In fact, not "scientific" detachment but constant attachment to the object.
Part of the problem that has been nagging me is that I see myself as neither the professional she describes in such sterile tones, nor do I identify fully with the amateur she lauds. But, I identity more with the amateur. My career path seems far less "predestined" than it ever has, and I am certainly not paid for all of my work. My teaching work is paid for, according to the levels of remuneration for a postdoc, but all the other work I do is not. Writing conference papers, revising an article, providing a reader's report for peer review, developing a book project--all of this is on my time. I do not punch a time clock, and there is no clear milestone this leads to. Yes, the general idea is that I do these things to land a more permanent position. And, that is one of the major reasons I do it. Yet I don't need to. There is no guarantee that there will be another job after this, and there are no significant penalties for not doing this work. Well, there are (of course there are), but for now it seems like these penalties exist in the abstract. I mostly continue this work because I choose to, because, even when I am at my most frustrated, I still love the work. My continued scholarly activity comes from a place of desire, albeit one not yet able to attach itself to the comforting temporalities and remunerations of the professional.

Strictly speaking, according to her definition, I am not an amateur simply because I am paid. But the main point I'm making is that I occupy a hybrid time, both professional (I still have a place in the University as a teacher) yet amateur because I pursue my activities for myself, without definable milestone or pay. (Side note: I discuss academic time in an essay I wrote for postmedieval. /endselfpromotion) 

To be fair, though, Dinshaw is aware that there are limits to a celebration of amateurism:
Lest this description of amateurism seem purely idealizing, let me acknowledge that amateurism is not miraculously free of the shaping institutions of modernity; it may indeed be a kind of ruse of late capitalism. Amateurs might have wealth enough so that they don't need to work; that hardly puts them outside capitalism. Or they may be out of work and so have plenty of time for their hobbies. Amateurs might embody traits that are a neoliberal fantasy: they may be not only creative, but flexible and adaptable, too. They might be especially celebrated in a recessionary economy for being able to convert their passions into pounds sterling- all the while still staying passionate. They might be complicit in a culture and economy of deskilling.
If anything, I'd like to see more attention to the economic horizon for such amateur activities. Karl suggests the term "nerd" over "amateur," and I think it's a better term. For one, it somewhat sidesteps the messy conversations prompted by amateur and professional. As Dinshaw noted at the roundtable, she is more concerned with types of engagement as opposed to job titles.  The sorts of engagement that she lets the past penetrate the now, rather than be kept at a cool, neutral or professional distance. This can cause discomfort and affection in equal measures, as any passion often does. As Karl suggests, "Nerdery, then, is a bit queer, a bit off, a bit unpleasant, and also, of course, unfortunately agonistic. It works well, then, to describe the overripeness of passionate attachment to what we do for love, where love, remember, is always a bit awry or repulsive." To make an overly broad claim, though, many people that I know who display such "nerdery" are often those who derive little satisfaction of the "closed system" of professional time. They are in jobs that are not challenging, or that are going no where. Or, they're fine enough but not stimulating in the ways our passions can be. I suspect, but can only provide anecdotal evidence, that there is a higher probability for such nerdic (yeah, I did that) engagement or creation among those not working, or holding jobs that aren't satisfying or consuming in the ways I just mentioned.

Reading How Soon Is Now, it was a little difficult not to feel alienated at times by the celebrations of the amateur. On one hand I feel that my amatory intellectual work must be "amateur" because of complicated and changing economic conditions. On the other, I feel unable to identify (not that I need to) with the figure of an individual who has enough economic freedom to pursue their projects as they wish. 

I do have to admit, again, that this response is unfair, since the current economic conditions of PhDs in the humanities is not Dinshaw's subject. I just could not help but reflect on these issues by her choice of terms. And, I know that much of this post can seem bitter or frustrated, and yes at times that is what I feel, but my motivation to do this work still comes from an amatory impulse. 

There is much to take delight in in Dinshaw's book. But the amateur sort of engagement she holds up already feels anachronistic, while the amateurism I feel participant to is painfully modern. 

I am still working out my response here, and I'd love to hear others' take on the issue. I think I am coming across as far more critical than I necessarily feel. Having said that, I would have liked more attention to the concerns she raises in the third chunk I quoted.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am not much inclined to be harsh or dismissive to Professor Dinshaw, but if I were so to be, I might say that that reads like someone who is fed up organising projects in which they aren't primarily interested and feels that `amateurs' have an easier run at it because of not being answerable to anyone for the work. Maybe some are, but others will feel the jab of this Onion article a lot more keenly...