On 6 May 2018, David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article–a longer one–opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor–especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on “Chloe, the nonexecutive dean” is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe–although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.
As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading up on and contributing to the study of bullshit–such as this piece and some panels I’ve chaired–the piece immediately attracted my attention. One of the things I have striven to do across several years is find joy and humor in the work I do, and getting to read about bullshit and to write about it–as well as to write the word itself, many, many times–helps me to do so. As with other words, the simple juxtaposition of a scholar writing with and about such language reads as humorous–and not only for outside readers, whom a Chronicle piece might well not reach, but for academics, as well; as I said, I have worked with such material before, presenting it at conferences, and even “stuffy” academics have been audibly titillated by the work. And having a working definition of bullshit labor–the performance by workers aware of its uselessness of useless work–offers a good rubric to apply elsewhere. So that much was good to see; additions to taurascatology as a field, even if at a middle-brow level, are decidedly welcome.
Similarly welcome was the core discussion of the piece; rather than being merely a chance to write the word bullshit or a variation of it 27 times in an article, Graeber’s piece offers a frank treatment of the often-unseen-by-those-outside-academe parts of academic labor that annoy and distract. As an academic expatriate–it’s the most accurate term I have to hand for my own status relative to academia–I’ve been in a position to see both the bullshit labor of the academy (whence my end-of-session reports, originally) and the bullshit labor of the outside world (a previous job abounded in it, and there are elements of it, to be sure, in my current work). What Graeber reports largely aligns with my experiences and the reports I have from others, and what does not can, in most cases, be put down to the differences among individual institutions and departments.
That does not mean, however, that all in Graeber’s piece is well with me. I’ll be taking up one major thread of it in another webspace (and please read the Tales after Tolkien Society blog!), but there are several issues that need to be addressed. One of them is that the piece makes several assumptions, overt and otherwise. An early example is the parenthetical assumption that “the provision is made such that those whose jobs were eliminated [by the excision of bullshit labor] continue to be supported,” which seems far less than likely in the increasingly profit-driven social environment in which Graeber writes, I read, and many others languish amid spreading manure. Similarly, the notion that “the easiest way to de-bullshitize academic life would be to do something about the current precarity of intellectual life” seems at odds with the experiences and attitudes I have seen reported; the tendency, so far as I have noticed, has been towards the large-scale elimination of academic life–and demolition is far easier than reconstruction.
Too, the sudden shift in the last two paragraphs to the idea of universal basic income is jarring. While the idea itself is attractive to me, since I have had times when an assured minimum income would have been a blessing (my job searches were not short, folks, although they were diligently pursued and far-reaching), the presentation of it as 1) a useful remedy to academic precarity and 2) briefly and at the end of an article on bullshit labor seems forced and tacked-on. Honestly, it reads as the kind of disjunctive organization for which students are often (rightly) criticized, and it weakens the rhetorical force of Graeber’s argument–as well as the idea, itself, which already labors under a broad onus. In the end, then, Graeber’s argument offers some disappointment; its central tenets, explicating what the bullshit labor is and the conditions of its emergence and spread, are good, but there is enough that falters in the presentation of those tenets that they are all too likely to be lost in the fray.