BREAKING POINT: THINKING OF THOSE STILL WAITING FOR TENURE

The last tenured position came up in my Department about 8 years ago, though tenure is here a relative term, as the two colleagues in question were offered permanent contracts rather than the civil servant’s position that I myself enjoy. I just learned this morning that Universidad Juan Carlos I, whose credibility is now in total jeopardy because of the plagiarism the Rector has been accused of, abruptly dismissed last summer, with no previous warning, a dozen teachers with permanent contracts (they were reinstated).

The total security that you will be employed for life is a dream for most people, something which the head of the Spanish national employers’ association considers ‘very 19th century’. However, tenure is, or has been until recently, a foundation of university life, justified by the idea that we, scholars, should be free from the care of finding a job in order to produce our best work. Yes, we all know of teachers who have found tenure so mentally relaxing that they have managed to produce nothing in 40 odd years before retirement. Here, however, I’m thinking of deserving academics, who make the most of the chance to be employed for life.

When I got tenure back in 2002, after 11 gruelling years, I vowed to myself that I would never forget what those 11 years were like–perhaps the many times I visited doctors’ surgeries and emergency rooms would give a clear idea of the anxiety. Also, I swore that I would never ever gamble, as I felt that I could not be luckier than that. Since I haven’t forgotten those days, I have a very clear picture of what some dear colleagues in my Department are going through this morning, when they have received news that not even the chance to fight for a four-year full-time contract will materialize in the immediate future, much less tenure. I’m talking about four persons with an accreditation to be (finally) hired full-time, apart from other associates with hopes that they can eventually be rewarded with tenure. Absurdly, the position we have been expecting to be granted for years has gone elsewhere, where it is was never expected, nor much needed.

I’m going to sound quite incoherent because I’ll argue here that the Spanish university fails to see both each personal case and the impact on a whole generation of researchers of its hiring policies. I know it is the same in Britain, as I have recently written, and in many other countries, but this offers no comfort.

There is much talk of endogamy connected with how people are selected to occupy university positions instead of what really matters: how individual hopes and expectations of an academic career–serious individual vocations–are exploited by a ruthless institution which adamantly refuses to consider personal cases. When I was myself waiting for tenure, I always felt that the vice-rector in charge of signing the petition was a mythical creature, for I never had access to him (or what it her?). I don’t know how business concerns operate and I’m sure that many workers are hired and dismissed without ever knowing who signed their papers. Yet, unlike what it may seem after hearing so much talk of endogamy, I find the whole university employment system oddly depersonalized. Logically, this works in favour of the institution, which needs not justify why it suddenly has no room for a person who has given her best for a dozen years or more.

I know very well that in many other sectors, people are also nonchalantly dismissed or offered low-paid jobs for which they are woefully overqualified. However, the singularity of an academic career is that, as everyone knows, it qualifies you for nothing else, for no other job. This is the situation on which everything else hinges, for, despite all our complains about students who don’t study and so many other little miseries, if you’re a vocational teacher/researcher, once you set your foot inside a university classroom it is very hard to let go. I had a job offer before I was hired by my university, aged 25, and I would have been happy enough, I know, being a secondary school teacher of English, and reading non-stop in my spare time. However, when, aged 36, I considered what I could do if I failed to secure tenure, the prospect was bleak… A secondary school classroom seemed a letdown after so many years of sophisticated academic work. And I took it as a very bad omen that an application I sent to a very different kind of job (connected with communication) was returned by the post, for mysterious reasons.

I understand, then, why vocational teachers/researchers allow themselves to be abused by the system because I would have done the same. This is what the university counted on in Spain, when some anonymous villain made the decision of stopping all pre-doctoral full-time contracts and offering just a handful of post-doctoral positions, with a very vague promise of perhaps, who knows, might happen or not, tenure. This is the equivalent of being hired as an intern with the promise of quick promotion to be told, year in, year out, that you need to wait a bit more… until you’re just told the promotion will never happen. The additional problem, obviously, is that in the university you’re never told that tenure will never materialize for you, only that it won’t do so in the short term. This means that associates are always thinking of a nebulous long term, as, well, life moves on and time passes. This is being done, I insist, not to a handful of unlucky individuals but to a whole generation trapped by liberal economic policies which are not the product of the 2008 crisis but of the mid-1990s mentality declaring all public services a burden rather than a collective benefit.

In the darkest moments, I wonder whether what’s happening in the Spanish university and in other nations is a sinister social experiment to test for how long un-tenured academics are willing to be exploited until they reach a breaking point. Does this happen when you turn 35? 40? 45? 50 perhaps? Or will the life of many academics born from the 1970s onwards consist exclusively of this kind of underpaid, temporary employment? Does it really make sense, in terms of finance, to keep many individuals employed part time rather than grant tenure to fewer? What’s the point of raising expectations only to dash them? Is it merely cruelty, indifference, ignorance, a mixture of all? Could it be a basic lack of human empathy?

I recall a family dinner back at the time when I was waiting for tenure when a well-intentioned relative told me I should consider that the Spanish university could not accommodate all the aspiring academics. It seems to me that as long as we find money to rescue useless, expensive highways from bankruptcy–as we’re about to do–we can find money to employ deserving academics. They’re not asking for football player salaries, just for a dignified, full-time job, and, believe, they’re cheap workers. Also good ones, as we know because despite having the chance to dismiss then as we can do with associates, we have kept them.

I have no words of comfort, really, this is just terrible. I simply don’t know what to tell my friends: cling or, for eventually all valuable people are rewarded; or, stop hurting yourself and find another job. The optimistic message has no foundation, whereas telling someone to seek employment outside the university feels oddly callous, even when you’re thinking of the wellbeing of persons you care for. The worst thing is the survivor’s guilt (why me and not them?) and the impotence for, yes, we complain as loudly as we can to the authorities that be, you can be sure about this, but nothing seems to change.

I’m SO sorry…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DESCRIPTION? (WITH A STORY ABOUT COGNITIVE POETICS)

I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/10465326/Why-dont-books-for-grown-ups-have-illustrations-any-more.html). In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, https://lektu.com/l/aefcft/visiones-2015/5443). He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CYBORG VS POSTHUMAN: OBVIOUS DISTINCTIONS

I’m celebrating this week the success of my doctoral student Jaume Llorens, who has been awarded the highest grade for his brilliant dissertation on the icon of the posthuman in science fiction. It is my aim to publicise here a little bit the main point he makes, which might seem obvious to many but, believe me, is not.

You may perhaps be familiar with Donna Haraway’s famous “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985, 1991), an essay which is possibly the second most frequently quoted academic text in the Humanities after Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. I met Haraway once, already ten years ago, when the research group I belonged to (‘Body and Textuality’) invited her to offer a lecture at MACBA (May 2006). The lecture had the ambiguous title of “An Encounter among Species: Feminism after Cyborgs”, which seemed to point in two radically different directions… The group chose me to present Haraway simply because I speak English and I found myself in quite a bizarre situation: I had a long list of questions to ask Haraway, on behalf of my colleagues, about cyborgs but she only wanted to discuss… her relationship with her dog. That was the core of her lecture, namely, that we should approach humanity as just one animal species among others on Earth. An approach some are beginning to call ‘posthuman’.

This is not, however, the kind of ‘posthuman’ which Jaume Llorens means. He means the new humanoid species that might replace us as the dominant species on Earth. You might think that this is a prolongation of Haraway’s cyborg but it is actually a radically different concept, so let me explain.

Haraway’s manifesto is a declaration in favour of using technoscience for subversive, feminist, socialist ends, in ways very different from those habitually connected with the masculinist, militarist figure of the cyborg. Back in 1985, the word cyborg was mainly connected with James Cameron’s 1984 film hit, The Terminator, although it turns out that the robot covered in synthetic human flesh played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in this movie is not a cyborg at all. You need to think, rather, of the popular 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg (1972) to get the right idea. In this series, actor Lee Majors plays former astronaut Colonel Steve Austin who, after a terrifying crash, develops superhuman abilities thanks to a series of cutting-edge implants inserted in his shattered body. Austin, partly human and partly mechanical, is a cyborg that celebrates the achievements of 1970s utopian technoscience. In contrast, Robocop, which appeared only one year after Haraway’s manifesto, in 1986, presents the cyborg as the human victim of rampant capitalism. Here the victimised body is that of a police officer viciously attacked by criminals, who is resurrected to become the cyborgian replacement of the police force in Detroit. Omni Consumer Products, the corporation that turns Alex Murphy into a dehumanized cyborg, believes there is big business in this.

I am not too keen on Haraway’s manifesto, which seems to stubbornly deny the dystopian direction which the cyborg was taking in the 1980s both in real-life research and in science fiction. I believe, besides, that many readers tend to overlook the opening paragraph in which she warns us that she is being ironic and playful. My student Jaume shares this mistrust with me and, so, he formulated a basic research question: taking into account 1990s and early 21st century science fiction, can we argue that the idea of the cyborg is obsolete? His answer is that, certainly, the cyborg needs to be reconsidered, for the merger of the human and the non-human is no longer central either to science fiction or to real-life research. The dominating model is the transcendence of the human, which is, incidentally, the title of his dissertation. His inspiration, by the way, is another woman: N. Katherine Hayles, author of the indispensable How We Became Posthuman (1999).

The central idea is very, very simple but not that obvious, I insist: whether modified mechanically, digitally or organically, the cyborg is an exception, an individual that, supposing s/he has children, cannot alter the whole human species. In contrast, the posthuman tends to carry genetic modifications or to be part of a digital environment that will substantially alter humankind itself. In short, Robocop is a cyborg, the X-men are posthuman (and so is Frankenstein’s monster, incidentally). Of course, things are never that easy and, so, for instance, in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, there is a mixture of cyborgian and posthuman elements. Takeshi Kovacs, Morgan’s protagonist, has been ‘enhanced’ (as the current by-word is for humans no longer purely homo sapiens) by genetic and bio-chemical manipulation. He’s also part of a digital environment that allows for personalities to be transferred to different bodies by means of inserting a cortical stack (a sort of black box, the author explains) in new ‘sleeves’.

Most stories about cyborgs, then, deal with our fears that our individuality may be radically and tragically disrupted by the insertion of non-organic materials and devices in our bodies (despite Haraway’s optimistic take on this iconic figure). In contrast, stories about posthumans deal with the fears that the whole human species may be altered by the genetic legacy of individuals whose genome is no longer ours. This is mostly associated with the dangerous transhumanist dream of interfering in the course of natural evolution by forcing humanity to move towards a certain posthuman model (read Hayles, please). However, in Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Children it simply happens that a virus alters all unborn babies at the foetal stage. Suddenly, no more homo sapiens are born and, since the new species has abilities quite superior to ours, we risk becoming obsolete. Of course, transhumanist leader Nick Bostrom argues that conventional humans and posthumans could live in harmony, in the same way we, potato-coach non-athletes, accept even with admiration individuals like super-athlete Usain Bolt. This, naturally, is disingenuous, for if Bolt turned out to be a mutant and likely to have posthuman children against whom no human athlete could compete things would be very, very different.

Jaume Llorens, and myself, declare ourselves moderate posthumanists. We both abhor the transhumanist dream of a eugenically modified posthumanity, complete with digital uploadings into supercomputers that will guarantee our immortality (perhaps online, perhaps using synthetic bodies for temporary downloads). We both believe, however, that technoscience will relentlessly advance to eliminate the main human bodily flaws and to free humans who suffer unnecessarily from their pain. The ethical problems posed by eugenics are already looming in the horizon but, let’s be frank, while using genetic selection to breed only blond, blue-eyed babies is monstrous, who would say no to getting rid of unwanted genetic defects? It is already happening on a daily basis.

Jaume claims that science-fiction writers are mainly producing a fantastic version of the posthuman, quite beyond the current state of technoscience. A sort of ‘worst-case scenario’, playing with deep-seated fears. I keep on telling him that by telling stories about posthumans we are actually indirectly facing our secret guilt that we’re responsible for eliminating all other human species from Earth. Yes, think of the Neanderthals but also many others that used to share Earth with us. We fear very much becoming the Neanderthals to a posthuman species because we know what we did to our others. This means that I’m not personally afraid or concerned that homo sapiens might disappear for, in my humble view, we’re nothing but vermin to our beautiful planet. What worries me sick is that we’re replaced by even worse vermin rather than by the superior humans every SF writer imagines. Or by the fascist regime that the transhumanists preach, based on the very selfish idea that we, homo sapiens, are so wonderful that we deserve to become a better version of ourselves, immortality included. Here’s my point: there is no better version, for we are fundamentally flawed. I’d rather support Bear’s mutant children, or the X-men (um, not the Magneto faction…).

Now, read science fiction for, really, this is the only kind of fiction that understands not so much our future but what is going on today, right now, beneath our very noses.

And congratulations, Jaume Llorens!!! May we soon see your PhD dissertation online and in print.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.