The Cognitariat and the Precarity of Speaking


Having just launched the journal, few of us sat together and talked till late night about this new and fascinating project. What came across through our conversation was the very essence of our project: the unacknowledged anxiety of invoking the very experiences that this journal hopes to record and materialize.

One of us was worried that if he shared a story, it could not only harm his current work situation, it might also affect the life and livelihood of another friend from the past. Another colleague had so much to say about a part time teaching job but was not yet ready to publicly share this for fear of reprisals. Each one of us, it seems, was suddenly made aware of our own precarity exactly at the moment of launching a journal that hopes to foreground this precarity, this insecurity.

Though I am not in a precarious work situation, I have also had moments when I had to weigh my words for fear of some form of consequences. We all have experienced this feeling: and this feeling, this anxiety is the very narrative of current state of capital. The so-called cognitive capital has a mode of production that relies heavily on a mass of contingent, precarious work force spread all across the globe. This precariat, this cognitariat, however, is absolutely essential to this new economic order. For the current neoliberal capital can only maintain the hierarchical division of labor by fixing labor in its precarious, contingent status: that is how labor is kept cheap!

So, why launch this journal? Especially since because of my own privilege, I am not subject to the systemic ignominies that my brothers and sisters working under precarious conditions have to swallow just to keep their jobs. My answer simply is that if I cannot change the status quo, I must, at least, stand in solidarity with all those who suffer under the current regime of capital.

This project has been long in the making: over the years in the academia, I have constantly observed the nature of division of labor particular to the universities. Not only are the universities organized hierarchically with administrators on the top and the faculty below, the faculty are also organized along a stratified horizontal but uneven plane. And while those of us privileged to have tenure-track jobs are enabled by the toil and labor of those who make our privilege possible[1], we never stop to acknowledge their contributions. We internalize the idea that we are, somehow, better than the lecturers, the adjuncts, and the teaching assistants.

This cognitariat in the state of precarity is crucial to the corporatized university model. These are also the “objects” upon whose bodies the administrative power inscribes the recognizable marks of its effects to shape human bodies and souls. In an interesting faculty meeting a few years ago, one of our deans came to speak to the faculty. Only the tenured or tenure-track faculty members were included in this meeting. During the meeting, the dean, a former scientist-turned-administrator, broached the subject of undergraduate performance and its connection to university funding. His remedy to improve retention: make a chart of drop out rates for every class a lecturer teaches and if one of them has more attrition than the others, then call her in your office, show her the charts, and tell her that she needs to improve the statistics or lose her job.

There was a certain irony in this explanation. The university’s future was dependent upon the labors of the most unacknowledged and the most precarious group of workers: the lecturers, the adjuncts, and the graduate teaching assistants. But the solution to the attrition problem was simply punitive. The solution also did not take into account that most of the times the college drop out rates in freshman year are not really related to the quality of teaching but mostly to the level of preparation of the incoming class and their own particular conditions of existence. This solution could only be proposed because the workers in question had no job security, no union, and no voice.

When asked as to why the solution was only punitive or why could we not provide incentives for better performance, the dean had no clear answer but a very pronounced scowl. Even more disheartening was that none of my other, mostly liberal and progressive, colleagues saw it fit to join me in this line of questioning.

This is a great example of general apathy that this divided, unjust system creates. Yes, we are divided and these divisions are partially inscribed in the system that we all work within, and maybe our voices are silenced simply by the general apathy that has become the norm in treatment of labor, but we must continue attempting to speak and to point out the every-day humiliations that are offered to our peers as the norm, as natural. For as Deleuze once taught us, in another lifetime, it is in the nature of power to totalize itself. Resistance to any form of totalization or naturalization must come, then, as a form of constant murmur, constant critique (as Foucault insists) so that for every new act of appropriation, the system is forced to rethink itself instead of just marching on, plowing forward on its task of exploiting differences and mobilizing us against each other.

So, here we are. We have launched this platform to speak truth to power, but to also enable all of us from across the globe to create our own truths, to publish a body of diverse, rich, and incisive critique of power. To work as gadflies. We may not, in the end, change the world but, as they say in my native language, sometimes the intention to accomplish something is more important than the act itself.

So, in the name of all that makes us decent, compassionate, and caring let us act. Let us speak!

(Posted from Cognitariat: Journal of Contingent Labor)


[1] According to a recent report by MLA on state of the profession “Part-time faculty members now make up 40 percent of the faculty teaching English in four-year institutions and 68 percent in two-year institutions.” For details read: Jaschik, Scott. “The Adjunctification of English.” Accessed March 3, 2013.

By M R

Originally from Pakistan, Dr. Masood Ashraf Raja is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature and Theory and the editor of Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies.
Raja tweets @masoodraja

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