“I’m not not not not not not not not / your academy”
-Mission of Burma, “Academy Fight Song”
For my generation of humanities scholars, the promise of stable employment has become the punchline of an unfunny joke. Born of financial collapse, the story goes, our fate is temporary and contingent employment in an unfeeling, bottom-line institution: fed through Ph.D. programs like so much grist for the mill. The job-market is, depending on how you look at it, a naturalist tragedy or a biblical scouring: it’s the end of a Tarantino movie, the end of a Zola novel, End Times themselves.
But such large-scale institutional collapse always takes shape intimately, one story at a time. And right now, my story is one of morbid fascination with that strange genre arising from this crisis: Quit Lit. Circulating on various academic, para-academic, pseudo-academic blogs, websites, and fora (including that high bastion of print-capitalism itself, TheChronicle of Higher Education), frustrated, elegiac voices cull together essays, posts, and fragments of desperation announcing failure, withdrawal, or that confused and heady combination of the two. Drawing out the quiet everydayness of our calamity, Quit Lit seeks to do familiar (if endless) reparative work.
Still, I am conflicted. While the genre amounts to a horror-show of portent for one of my as-yet-credentialed status, I am unable to look away. Despite my unchecked consumption of these tales of resignation, I remain signally unable to imagine my own. What declarative future might I assemble in the face of the truly unexceptional reality of being out of work? This failure of imagination seemed like a good enough reason to try to write one: to track my development through these familiar sick scenes in the hopes of understanding what this degree might do in the absence of it doing anything it was supposed to.
So, to borrow a well-worn phrase: let’s begin in medias res!
I. My Time Outside the Womb
“your life is over”
-Titus Andronicus, “Titus Andronicus”
It is 2007, I have just failed at least two university courses in my presumptive major, and I am standing in the back of a ratty, overhot music hall in Long Island City (which, for reasons still unknown to me, smells of two-day-old Chinese food). Girded by these unpromising trappings, I am about to be changed, for I am about to see a show. More properly, it will be a punk show: a beery, out-of-tune, public self-exorcism soliciting before me a fractured and bizarre and totally unforeseen collectivity wrought of social exhaustion and anxious energy. Though it will also and more modestly be very, verybanal: five dudes playing for an hour before loading their shit-broken gear into their shit-broken van to retreat back across the river to more-or-less shit-broken New Jersey. Between these two truths is a problem of narrative memory: a problem of howto remember, of how to give shape to memory.
This is a problem that has to do with firsts. Those moments of singular refinement where something that will go on to become a core part of your worldview — some object, some hazy aesthetic force, some underdefined shape — first asserts definition. For me, it was punk. And then, and only then, was it literature. But then it was both, entangled and inflected with all manner of contradiction. But to understand this, we should, I think, begin at the beginning. We should begin with that night.
This is difficult. As it turns out, the particulars of the evening — what songs were played, who played them, and for what audience — remain, narratively speaking, unimportant. I would later locate a recording of the show only to find that the performance was exceptionally bad. But then it’s not important what happened so much as how what happened embedded itself in my pneumonic archive. What it signaled to me as possible in a world otherwise reined in by routinized consumption. For the first time in my then-barely adult life, an aesthetic encounter knocked me totally and fully out-of-joint.
The wake of that encounter is the stuff of post-adolescent lore, which is to say it is common, typical, comfortingly plain. Invigorated by my newfound aesthetic frame, I doubled-down on my delinquent academic standing with a sort of slovenly intensity — abandoning all that remained of collegiate pretensions to the fires of an even more, we might say, unmoored mode of being. And with this revelry came a far more subtle change. That night was with me still, stuck like pissbeer to my shoe.
I began to try to understand where that particular experience came from. To what histories did it belong? Then, all at once and far too quickly, I wanted to hear everything: to repeat something of that inaugural evening in more intimate patterns of reference and inflection. I began to dredge up comparable moments that would irrupt into strange otherworlds: the menacing bubblegum snap of Rocket to Russia, the disquieting abjection of Songs About Fucking. I began to ask questions: what exactly does one do with the Butthole Surfers? Why is Ian MacKaye so sad? I began, modestly, to critique: Mission of Burma never got their due! Sonic Youth peaked at Bad Moon Rising!
This form of obsession is likely familiar to many reading this: the impossible need to limn with words what is so plainly too rarified for language, to mark out in some way that illegible and overtopping rush of aesthesis. I had not yet learned to call this groping spiral of attention “close reading.”
And this is because my first and most naked form of that practice happened in institutions wholly other to the spaces where it is our professional mandate. Flop houses, not lecture halls, provided the stage for this exegesis, a methodology in which lay buried some perverse paranoia: a commentary without end, trying to scratch out the secret history of every 7-inch pressed from Minneapolis to Akron.
But this change, as changes so often are, was also a crisis — totally and wholly mystifying, a tear in the fabric of things. So, without much thought beyond keeping my exceedingly affordable lease ($190/month, internet included) this crisis eventually led me, wanderingly and bleary-eyed, back to the very institution I had so righteously abandoned. A tear and a suture, then — that watered-down dialectic of quarter-life spat me out here, in this desert of employment.
This essay is trying to understand and preserve something of that initial tear. It is about trying to think together two apparently incongruent institutions. First, it is about my specific relationship to a body of music; my relationship to something called punk at 20, and my relationship to it at 30. But it is also about my relationship to an intellectual institution — theinstitution for so many of us — that has both detailed and derailed my life for well over a decade. It is about that institution’s failure. It is about my failure. It is, of course, about the university.
This essay, then, is a kind of mourning. But not of the university as an institution or the profession (these eulogies can be found elsewhere, tuned by more careful words than mine). This essay rather mourns a future that was, in some profound sense, always-already lost. It is the mourning of a future that never was; and one that finds ballast in a phrase now weakened by its persistence in time: the affirmation of that McClarrenion call, no future at all.
II. The Profession; or, Hot Deuce on Silver Platter
“no hope! / See? That’s what gives me guts / big fucking shit / right now, man”
-D. Boon, “History Lesson, Pt. II”
I should state in the clearest of terms: I became an academic entirely by mistake. This does not mean, however, that I came to it not knowing with strict precision just how bad an idea it was. But, as it happened with so many of my cohort of doomy, over-rejected graduate students, I elected to pursue this bad idea with unprecedented vigor. By the time I decided to get a Masters’ degree (and eventually a Ph.D.) the profession had long been broken. It takes a special kind of broken, though, to seem like a somewhat natural transition from playing in punk bands; that punk rock and graduate school appeared equal to me on the precarious scales of future employment should give you some sense of just how utterly fucked the university had become before I haunted its halls.
And yet, I came. I signed on with clear eyes and open heart. No one deluded me into thinking I was the mind of my generation, or that I would somehow outlast the fickle gauntlet of the job market. That I would not suffer. I had no delusions then, and I have none now. This mustn’t be misunderstood.
And, right now, I’m not suffering — not yet, not like that. I remain in an institutional cocoon, still relatively shielded from that true slaughterhouse of literature: the academic job market. But I will one day (nearer today than the last) face this field of wreckage. And that is why the present essay is important to me. I want to attempt here, in the face of the swift and steady hunger-game, a certain temporal impossibility: I want to wrest time from its joints and declare my future quitting now. I want to make an impossible gesture and quit in advance.
This is important for two reasons. The first is to cheat the melancholy of quitting-when-coerced. I want to — I think reasonably — avoid being left behind. But while I will quit, I will also finish. Because it remains important to me, and, I think should remain important to us all, to distinguish rigorously between an intellectual life and the material support that has been taken from us over years of structural disassembly. The intellectual work matters. The work of making a life carved from the inertia of ideas, from the bewildering, druggy astonishment that emerges before an art object: this matters. The jobs — and really, I can’t insist upon this enough — do not. They don’t matter mostly because they aren’t matter. They don’t exist. We need to stop letting ourselves live as though they do.
Maybe then the movement from gutterpunk to academic isn’t as much of a movement as it seemed. Anyone who has been in a Ph.D. student’s office lately knows it’s a flop house. Anyone who has seen the JIL knows we are but squatters in this university. Anyone who has had the fortune of academic publication to a phantom readership knows we are truly a Blank Generation.
So: we are living in a sort of end times. The cultural work of the humanities, in this particular historico-political configuration, never stood a chance. Demonstrable, repeatable, quantifiable metrics have never been — nor will they ever be — our bag. (Regardless of what a certain choir of digital humanists may want to insist.) Amidst the wreckage, we might now wonder what our disintegrating institution would look like if we all begin from this reality. How could our time be spent, our meagre wage distributed, our classes taught? What would these 5-7 years of squatting and thieving look like if directed toward no future at all? If it were rather driven by the need to preserve and dwell with those inaugurating moments of obsession and adore with friends and lovers and students who refuse to go quite so peaceably? This is not a plea for affective identification, it is a commitment to those moments that brought us all here in the first place. What if — and I know, I know, I know how this sounds — what if we were all a little more punk about this?
For the very people who so blithely took our future — those smug architects of the service-industry university, the entrepreneurs of the self, those whose interim-assistant-to-the-assistant-vice-provostship carries more in benefits than we make in a year — they have asked that we live on pittance wages, taught us how to do our work for nothing, forced us to hone our devotions on cans of Schlitz and bags of dirt weed. These are the people who have up until now sequestered us in broken buildings and darkened corridors. Crassly dangling the carrot of employment before us, they have kept us more or less in stables, under their thumb.
But as their institution continues to crumble and short itself, we will scatter to the winds. What if every day looked less like a paranoid means-end parody, and more like a collision of bodies and minds mobilized for dissent, for community, for living in the fire? Rather than drifting and listless melancholy, what if we instead take as our raison the utter rejection of that trapping epistemic claustrophobia called, for lack of any term more precise, the future? What happens if before we go, we make some noise? Break our syllabi? Make them feel us tremble? This kind of quitting announces a future that is not and has never been. A future in the ruins: an extravagant and improvised infrastructure, a series of ever-widening circles of companionship for me and my friends.
I suspect the languages that have been our professional mandate might serve us in this, as the ligature of a communality, a synecdoche for a world more adequately made for human life. I suspect the apparatus that has kept us endlessly in wait might have granted us resources completely antithetical to market-expectation. This is to say that we may already be living in this other realm together. It may be as simple as turning on the lights.
For my part, I quit.
And without a future, we are all already here.
–Robert Cashin Ryan is a Ph.D. candidate and Minutemen fan. He is co-editor with Sarah Osment of hyped on melancholy, a quarterly magazine featuring smart words on sad sounds and the reasons we cleave to them, coming soon to an internet near you.
Featured image: Mission of Burma, 2008, Wikicommons.