APRIL 2, 2017
IN AN ATTEMPT to view its treasures in less than nine minutes and 43 seconds, three youths run recklessly through the Louvre, laughing breathlessly. The scene, from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 Bande à part, is one of French cinema’s most famous. Invoked in the conclusion to Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution, it is made to capture the malaise that grips contemporary philosophy in its institutional context, where the demands of speed and efficiency dominate at the expense of considered contemplation, and where the rapid production and consumption of knowledge have almost completely displaced the pleasures of the text. As Boulous Walker bluntly asserts, “this is not how we look at art.”
Godard’s image is striking for its visual poetry. By contrast, the dominant if somewhat covert image of Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy is striking for its banality. Teenagers working casualized jobs on a minimum wage serve homogenized products devoid of nutritional or aesthetical value to obese, diabetic, and utterly docile consumers. Fluorescent lights accentuate garish plastic furniture and everybody smiles, although nobody knows why. Welcome to McUniversity.
Much has already been written about the corporatization of higher education, the state of the contemporary academy, and particularly the state of the humanities. There has been enough diagnosis. What is needed now is a response that seeks to identify and cultivate a space for resistance within the modern corporate university, for keeping “alive the craft.” It is against the consumptive “student experience” model of education, the productive “publish or perish” culture and their corollaries, that Boulous Walker and Berg and Seeber set themselves. And they do so with a much-needed sense of optimism that such resistance is still possible.
Berg and Seeber are literary critics with positions in English departments. Their own disciplinary affiliation, however, sits very lightly on their book; they have deliberately avoided writing a “300-page scholarly tome [their] colleagues would likely be too busy to read.” While the subgenre of the “campus novel” makes a significant contribution to their task, rather than studying literature directly, Berg and Seeber have successfully adopted a personalized, testimonial, and self-consciously anecdotal approach. The result is that, regardless of disciplinary identification, very few academics will fail to find their own experiences reflected in those of the two authors. Recognizing that policy responses to the malaise of the university would only exacerbate problems caused by an already top-heavy institution, Berg and Seeber take the locus of resistance to be the working life of the individual professor. Their manifesto is structured around the quotidian and very practical aspects of the academic life: time management, teaching, researching, collegiality, and collaboration.
Boulous Walker’s project is, by contrast, to ground a specific rejoinder from within philosophy. In the terms she deploys throughout her book, philosophy as the love of wisdom is increasingly set against philosophy as the desire to know, a forensic and exhaustive desire that all too often stands in the way of the transformative potential of wisdom. Philosophy as contemplation is set against philosophy in the service of mechanistic appropriation, technological enframing, calculative thinking, and instrumental reason.
There are echoes here of the idea that the only locus of resistance to modernity is art: rather than running through galleries, we need to “understand how much there is to gain and to experience in standing for extended periods in front of major art works.” For Boulous Walker, “complex works of philosophy require a similarly committed viewing.” The cheap version of the idea that “only art can save us” is that in the face of ever-increasing technological enframing, and given the death of God, salvation can only come from the pen/brush of a brilliant artistic Messiah in a stunning work of avant-garde art. Much more plausibly, Boulous Walker makes it clear that salvation lies less in the work itself — be it artistic or philosophical — than in the form of contemplation with which we regard the work. She, too, takes the individual to be the locus of resistance to the McUniversity.
The idea of slowness — of slowing down — is central to articulating a response to the crisis of the contemporary university. Boulous Walker and, much more explicitly, Berg and Seeber draw from the slow food movement as a curative to the modern McUniversity. Yet while the slow movement does challenge the pace and standardization of contemporary culture, it need not do so in the name of sloth or of a pre-urban pastoral romanticization:
The slow movement is not a counter-cultural retreat from everyday life, not a return to the past, the good old days … neither is it a form of laziness, nor a slow-motion version of life […] Rather it is […] a process whereby everyday life — in all its pace and complexity, frisson and routine — is approached with care and attention.
For her part, Boulous Walker has written an extremely classical work of philosophy that serves a progressive agenda. It is “classical” in the sense that it is a return to the discipline’s oldest and most enduring self-conception: philosophy as philosophia, the love of wisdom. And her agenda is “progressive” in the sense that at the heart of the work there is a reframing of philosophy that is simple, powerful, and startlingly original. Various traditions within modern philosophy have held that the locus of knowledge is internal to the subject and is to be found in the self-sufficient resources of the thinking self. By contrast, the attractiveness of Boulous Walker’s manifesto is its turning of philosophy outward. Philosophy is reconsidered as a fundamental engagement with the other, and the preeminent activity of the philosopher is the act of reading.
Boulous Walker’s observation that philosophers do not so much think as read is simultaneously startling and utterly banal. Yet in a tradition widely obsessed with the pure act of thinking, the shift in self-understanding is profound. If the model of the philosopher as thinker encourages the fantasy of the self as a heroic, self-reliant, first-person agent, the model of philosopher as reader necessitates a rethinking of this. A reader reads what is written by another; to read well is to open oneself to the authorial voice of the other. If the model of philosophy as pure thinking encourages the chauvinism that is too often a feature of philosophy’s self-conception, the model of philosophy developed by Boulous Walker is intrinsically open to disciplines that philosophy often defines itself against: history, literature, and aesthetics more broadly. Reading, and reading well, can never be conceived of as something that is the exclusive purview of philosophy. Nor can what is read be limited to philosophy narrowly construed, but it must include literature, the arts, or film.
The real innovation of Boulous Walker’s book is its understanding of philosophia — the love of wisdom — in terms of the love of reading. The point is not that philosophers do not read, or that they ought to read more, but that philosophy needs to rethink what it is to read, and to think carefully about what it is to read better. Hence the importance of slowness.
The sense in which slowness is deployed here is very broad. “Slow reading” is not to be understood in opposition to “fast reading.” There is nothing per se problematic with speed- or skim-reading; there are occasions when speed is necessary. Sometimes, for Boulous Walker to read slowly means returning to a text to reread and reconsider it at whatever speed. At other times, slowness means carefully ruminating on a text while doing something entirely different: jogging, swimming, staring out the window, sitting in traffic. At other times, it means leisurely and carefully sinking into the mood of the work. Slow reading is often characterized by its intensity: it involves a fine-tuned attention to detail and nuance. And openness: “Slow reading is important precisely because it provides us with the attentive quality necessary for openness to occur.” Pleasure is important here, but so is a certain amount of discomfort. Boulous Walker is advocating reading as an act of meditative contemplation that has transformative potential, which opens the self to the possibility of a reorientation vis-à-vis knowledge and the other.
Berg and Seeber generally understand slowness in a more literal, temporal sense. This is especially true in their chapter on time management and timelessness, which is in direct response to a body of literature that includes such inviting titles as The Efficient, Effective Professor and which, among other things, suggests that professors “be smart about which work [they] save for the weekends,” and perhaps rise at 3:30 a.m. in order to write undisturbed from 4:00 to 6:45 a.m. This is apparently not suggested in jest. Berg and Seeber respond in part by using less frenzied literature to indicate that once we work past our productive peak, we begin to simply waste time; we can in fact achieve more by working less. They also invoke the idea of “timeless time” by which they mean objective time that effectively passes unnoticed.
“Flow” is the major metaphor here. Although it has some purchase in psychological research, the idea of “flow” has become something of a New Age-ism and so is resistant to deeper analysis. What Berg and Seeber are really calling for is perhaps better described as “free time” within which to work in an unscheduled, non-purposive, and therefore creative mode. “We need time to do nothing.” Here Boulous Walker’s deployment of the philosophical tradition allows her to say more, even if she does so in a genre that perhaps not all readers will find inviting.
Like the idea of slowness, reading too is understood by Boulous Walker in a very broad sense. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is a discussion of reading as listening. The point is made against a tradition that generally takes sight to be the privileged metaphor for knowledge; sight permits a certain distance between the object and the subject. But for sight to operate well, it requires interdependence with the “lower” senses such as hearing and touch. It is particularly the act of listening that provides a useful alternate metaphor for knowledge. Listening promotes proximity and nearness: immersion. Yet “the patience of attentive listening involves an open exchange where listening is not mediated by shared understanding, but by difference. Attentive listening respects the other’s difference.”
The return here to an understanding of philosophy as fundamentally dialogical is not accidental: listening to the other is the precondition for knowing. Attentive listening provides the necessary interval or hesitation that makes it possible to avoid consuming or integrating the other.
Reading is not a neutral activity; there is no innocent reading. Reading never is, nor ever ought to be, a complete abandoning of the self in favor of the text. Boulous Walker exemplifies what this means, as she draws on large parts of the established canon of philosophy — including Plato, Nietzsche, Levinas, Adorno, de Beauvoir, and Irigaray — but also from less well-known figures such as Luiz Costa Lima, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, and Robert Musil. It is in her focus on Simone de Beauvoir’s reworking of Sartre’s philosophical ontology that Boulous Walker’s own model of philosophy-as-reading is exemplified: “Beauvoir remains philosophically connected and yet independent from Sartre.” This reading, which has been characterized by Michèle Le Dœuff as “operative philosophy,” only occupies a few pages of direct discussion in Boulous Walker’s book, but is an important exemplification of the model of philosophy she advocates. Without becoming side-tracked in a performative display of the language’s inability to refer to anything other than itself, Boulous Walker carefully reads Le Dœuff as she reads de Beauvoir who in turn reads Sartre.
What is needed is a rethinking of the relationship between professionalism and amateurism within the university. To be a professional academic is to be paid to work in a specific discipline. The professional academic teaches several courses a year to (hopefully) interested, engaged students; grades diligently and quickly; answers emails and attends to administrative duties; supervises their graduate students conscientiously; publishes regularly; applies for and hopefully occasionally gets external research grants. In this sense, the professional is contrasted with the person who does not perform these duties well enough.
The professional is also marked out as opposed to the “amateur,” the person who may read in their spare time and discuss what they read with friends, but who will likely not take it upon themselves to submit to the rigors of the professional life. The amateur may read an interesting article or whole books, but they will probably not read an oeuvre in full, nor will they read the voluminous and often boring secondary literature.
In both these senses, professionalism is marked out as a positive term through a disjunction with its negative other: you cannot be both a professional and an amateur at the same time. But there is another, older sense in which amateurism can be understood. The word itself stems from the Latin amator — lover. The amateur is motivated by love. In this sense, professionalism and amateurism are, in theory at least, perfectly compatible with each other. It is often forgotten that philosophia in its Socratic form is love of wisdom in the sense of an erotic desire for the good and the beautiful. Boulous Walker reminds us of this and develops the point using Plato’s Symposium and Irigaray’s reading of that text. But there is much more to be said about the modes of love, as well as the possibilities and dangers. Here Boulous Walker develops some of the most interesting and applicable sections of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: the discussion of romantic and authentic love.
Berg and Seeber’s defense of amateurism takes the form of a call to retrieve the pleasures of the profession. The theme is developed throughout the book, but it is in the chapter on the pleasures of teaching that the theme is addressed most directly:
[P]ositive emotions facilitate learning, so it seems reasonable to suggest that they will also enhance teaching. It is neither frivolous nor incidental to ensure that we enjoy ourselves in the classroom: it may be crucial to creating an environment in which students can learn.
Their analysis here is quite specific with sections on nervousness, timing and non-verbal communication, breathing, laughing and humor, listening, pacing, and the use of narrative and storytelling. Pleasure is inimical to corporatization. It is here that the McUniversity model of homogenized product delivery can be most directly and successfully countered.
It goes without saying that an excess of amateurish behavior by those paid to behave otherwise is a threat to the contemporary academy. But this is hardly the problem. A far more serious danger is that posed by an excess of, or a misconstrual of, professionalism. Where professionalism is understood merely in terms of speed or haste, of the mechanistic, efficient, and too often thoughtless performance of professional duties, it sets itself against amateurism in the sense of love, desire, and pleasure. It is this malignant professionalism that prevents academics from being both professionals and amateurs.
In quite different registers, both of these books offer a much-needed curative to the rampant McUniversity. Neither relies on the hope that the upper administration will suddenly find a policy response to stop the rot. Both affirm the agency of the individual, and argue persuasively that they can effect change through the manner in which they construct their professional amateurism. Berg and Seeber offer a therapeutics ground in the pragmatic and practical, and their book deserves to be widely read for this. Boulous Walker operates at a higher level of abstraction drawing on a tradition that has since its ancient beginning taken philosophical therapeutics as central. In doing so, neither succumbs to the idea that the university can only survive if it can professionalize sufficiently to remain effective in the context of late capitalism. Nor do they suggest that the only future is a flight from the academy or for that matter from modernity.
Together they reconstruct a professional amateurism that is neither amateurish nor ill from malignant professionalism. The university continues to bring together willing students with professional academics and the moments of learning that continue to occur have transformative and subversive potential. Within the corporate university, love of wisdom, desire, and pleasure can still be found.