The contingency of academic labor

26 09 2009

There are a number of methodological and theoretical similarities (and differences) between journalism and what I call ‘soft’ science (i.e. mostly qualitative, social science like media anthropology or linguistic ethnography). In essence, journalism and soft science are eclectic sense-making practices that produce accounts which are situated (socially, geographically, topically) and interpretive.

There is another link between news work and academic work: the labor conditions in these two fields are becoming increasingly precarious, contingent or otherwise ‘atypical‘. The arts faculty at my alma mater no longer offers post-doc positions because it simply cannot afford them. External funding, downsizing, increased teaching loads and productivity demands (publish and perish) have become symptomatic of an ongoing trend towards the commercialization and marketization of tertiary education.

I am writing this down not just out of self-indulgent frustration over professional insecurity but because I share Mark Deuze’s concern that if the market orientation of the university

does not come with specific caveats, protections, checks and balances, the university as we know it becomes just another factory workplace – not a place for independent and critical reflection; a place that teaches people to make up their own minds.

This post is loosely based on Michael Bérubé’s feather-ruffling Op-Ed and Mark Deuze’s eloquent rant on the precarity of work in academia.





Hunter S. Thompson’s Puerto Rico

25 08 2009

The Rum Diary. Escapism at its best. Never fails to capture my imagination.

[H/T: Totally Gonzo]





The indexicality of fake German in Brüno

13 07 2009

The ‘gloriously provocative’ [H/T: Xan Brooks] Brüno is remarkable in at least three ways. First, the film is at times hand-over-mouth appalling yet lavatorially hilarious. Say what you want about Sacha Baron Cohen (infantile, neurotic, bourgeois), but the man has balls (no pun intended). Hasidic hot pants in Jerusalem, anyone?

Second, while some of the scenes were clearly staged, others (like the grande finale) apparently were not. I bow humbly before the producers for gaining access to all those political figures, subcultures and social settings. I also found it quite revealing to learn how Baron Cohen dupes his interviewees. That takes time, practice and preparation. And ignorance, bigotry and prejudice too. Lots of it.

Third, I credit Baron-Cohen’s linguistic performance in Brüno for extending the indexical range of mock German. This is more difficult than it sounds. I normally associate a fake German accent with dispassion, authority and expertise (just ask David Cameron, Herr Flick ‘from ze Gestapo’, Frau Farbissina). Baron Cohen’s umlaut-friendly performance (“vassup?”) in Brüno adds an effeminate, camp flamboyance to fake German.

Put more technically, by endoginizing a “gay electro-Austrian-Germanic” figure of personhood, Baron Cohen makes Brüno socially performable and (instantly) recognizable as an aggressively homosexual Viennese fashionista. Similar processes of enregisterment are brilliantly described in Asif Agha‘s work.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Bruno. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP (The Guardian)

Sacha Baron Cohen as Bruno. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP (The Guardian)





Tim Ingold, the disciplinary liberator

7 06 2009

Enough with political talking heads; elections coverage is incredibly strenuous. Interwebs, talk some sense to me. Let’s see, there’s a quality Gil Scott-Heron tribute available on sixmillionsteps.com (love the Brian Jackson bit), an interesting discussion on history in media anthropology and then there’s a programmatic but very verbose paper by Tim Ingold on anthropology and ethnography.

My real purpose in challenging the idea of a one-way progression from ethnography to anthropology has not been to belittle ethnography, or to treat it as an afterthought, but rather to liberate it, above all from the tyranny of method. Nothing has been more damaging to ethnography than its representation under the guise of the ‘ethnographic method’. Of course, ethnography has its methods, but it is not a method. It is not, in other words, a set of formal procedural means designed to satisfy the ends of anthropological inquiry. It is a practice in its own right – a practice of verbal description. The accounts it yields, of other people’s lives, are finished pieces of work, not raw materials for further anthropological analysis. But if ethnography is not a means to the end of anthropology, then neither is anthropology the servant of anthropology.

Ingold, Tim (2008). Anthropology is Not Ethnography.  Proceedings of the British Academy 154: Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology, 69-92.





As seen on TV: gender stereotyping

5 02 2009

Gotta hand it to the producers of The Millionaire Matchmaker: every heteronormative gender stereotype rolled into one reality show.  Botox beauties by the dozens? Check. Perfectly mannered, well-spoken, deep-pocketed but lonely bachelors who have learned “not to rush things”? Check. Annoying hostess? Check. Social theorizing? Check.

In short, The Millionaire Matchmaker is every man’s dream come true: a 90-day, no-sex dating stage so you can really get to know your future ex-wife as you spoil her rotten. In return, she shows off her mommy skills by ironing your shirts, making dinner and dancing erotically (okay I made that up). ‘Non-millionaire men’ can also apply. They receive unlimited, all cavity access to premium, self-lubricating rubber models.





Journalism in times of moral panic

30 01 2009

What kind of journalism do we want in times of moral crises? For the majority of Flemish news media, no theory is too far-fetched, no source too irrelevant, no ethical concern too important. Yesterday, VTM news broadcast the voicemail message of the 20 year old nursery assailant. I cannot think of any journalistic context in which that would be appropriate.

In the days after the attack, several news media linked the attacker’s complexion to that of the Batman character The Joker, adding that the most recent actor to play the role, Heath Ledger, died exactly one year before the nursery killings took place and that the actor’s name is “an exact anagram” of the attacker’s surname.

Yes, the public has the right to know what took place on that fatal Friday morning in Dendermonde, but we do not need cameras covering the ceremony in honor of the three victims. That’s voyeurism, not journalism. I take my hat off to Piet Buyse, the history teacher/Dendermonde mayor who is taking every measure necessary to ban all newsmedia from these ceremonies.

De Morgen)

Piet Buyse, Dendermonde Mayor (photo credit: De Morgen)

Mr Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?
You’ll be doing us a really big favor

A Tribe Called Quest – Can I kick it (Jive, 1990)





We need more journalism like this

24 01 2009

A human tragedy of the worst kind unfolded yesterday in the Flemish town of Dendermonde. A 20 year old man went on a killing spree in a day care center. Two babies, 6 and 9 months old, and one adult were stabbed to death, 10 other toddlers and 2 adults were seriously injured in the attack. The assailant fled the scene by bike but was quickly arrested in a nearby town. He is now in custody but is uncooperative police say.

This horrific event has deeply shocked the country. What transpired in the Fabeltjesland nursery defies belief. Of all the media coverage, I was moved to tears by Valerie Droeven’s article in De Standaard: Verweesde mannen in pak (‘Forsaken men in suits’). This is the kind of journalism we need: authentic, transparent, involved. The first person style of reporting makes for an intimate, honest and emotional eyewitness report of absolute horror.








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