At the Margins of Academia

At the Margins of Academia

Aslı Vatansever, At the Margins of Academia: Exile, Precariousness, and Subjectivity (Boston/Leiden: Brill, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Aslı Vatansever (AV): I started to develop the idea for the book in 2017, during my first year in exile. I remember feeling a mixture of duty and urgent emotional need. On the one hand, I strongly felt that it was my (or our) responsibility to tell our own story—the story of the exiled Peace Academics—and to do so in a way that would shake off the romanticized aura of exile. After having observed what kind of an “exotic” niche the media and the academic establishment had pushed us into, through the discursive construct of exile and the risk-oriented temporary funding schemes, I was convinced that it was essential to reveal the unromantic truth about our situation. We are neither quixotic freedom fighters, forever at political risk, as the discourse on academic freedoms portrays us; nor have we all suddenly become poets, as the common conception of exile suggests. In our host countries, we are basically yet another, albeit more precarious and less integrated, segment of the disposable mass of surplus academic labor force.

On the other hand, there was the surmounting need to deal with the emotional burden of what had happened. We could not exactly make sense of or even name it while it was still going on—especially in the first months, where we each had to rebuild our entire lives from scratch. Life in exile is anything but poetic; it is a never-ending, soul-crushingly dull series of errands and trivialities. Readers may understand what I mean by that, when they read the narratives of my fellow signatories who kindly confided in me their side of our collective experience. They almost unanimously described life in exile as “living in a purgatory.” We all use(d) different methods to deal with this limboesque feeling, but writing, talking, producing, and participating in whatever forms of resistance that are available in a certain context have certainly proven effective. As for me, I resorted to the two main “weapons” at my disposal: sociological analysis and collective solidarity. This is how and why this book came to be.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AV: I touched upon a variety of topics, from precarity and subjectivity, to mourning and resistance—all against the backdrop of exile as a particularly precarious setting. And, consequently, this put me in dialog with a number of scholars, from Marx and Polanyi to Freud, and from Edward Said and Judith Butler to Isabell Lorey and Rosi Braidotti.

I started with the structural background of academic labor precarity, using Marx’s categories of commodification and reserve army of labor, as well as his distinctions between “productive versus non-productive labor” and “potential versus actual labor force.” My point was to first overcome the analytical emptiness of the concept of “exile as identity.” I described the displaced scholars as a segment of the precarious and disposable academic labor force. From there, I moved on to the socio-emotional corollaries of precarization as a process of downward mobility. This prompted new questions such as the role of mourning in dealing with loss, because precarization always involves loss—be it the loss of a job, or the loss of social status, or, in the case of the exiled academics, the loss of all hitherto established parameters of life, including our home country.

This may sound like an ambitiously wide range of themes. But in the last instance, it all boils down to the interaction of structure and subject, which is also pretty much the essence of sociology itself in my opinion. A final, concluding idea that I referred to in this respect was the “nomadic subjectivity,” which I discussed in the book with reference to Rosi Braidotti’s “affirmative ethics,” Emmanuel Levinas’ “Otherness,” and Isabell Lorey’s idea of turning precarity into a new mode of collective existence. My insistence on drawing parallels between exiled academics and the domestic academic precariat in the host country was mostly inspired by Lorey. Following from there, nomadic subjectivity then involved an attempt to unthink the conventional binary oppositions like “refugees versus residents” or “host versus scholar at risk” and to understand what binds us amidst the multiplicity of the human condition.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AV: As a sociologist of work, I had been working on the transformation of academic labor relations and, more specifically, on precarious academic work long before I emigrated. As a result of my Marxian political-economic orientation, I habitually tend to reflect on the attack on scientific freedoms and forced migration from the perspective of the neoliberal restructuration of the academic sector. Thus, in this work, I took a step further and tried to illuminate the conjunction of political insecurity and economic precarization.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AV: I do not have any preferences regarding the audience. I only know that I do not wish this book to be seen as “exile literature”—or at least primarily as such. Exile certainly is an important theme here, but it only serves as an example of the many possible settings against which more fundamental questions, such as the interaction between precariousness and subjectivity, can be reposed in a new light.

In a more practical sense, I hope that the book contributes to a more holistic understanding of academic freedom and academic work in the twenty-first century—one that is capable of recognizing that there can be no academic freedom without job security, and that the attack on the latter ultimately means an attack on the former as well. The relation between the political threats against academics and the neoliberal market interventions to precarize academic labor is remarkably missing in the entire discourse on academic freedom. So much so, that one cannot help but wonder whether the academic community has become so aligned with the fragmented neoliberal logic that it is now unable to connect the dots and recognize the structural connections between different social phenomena.

The entire risk narrative is based on the assumption that the political oppression in the periphery and the economic precarity in the core countries are two completely separate phenomena. But in reality, they are the two sides of the same coin. Displaced academics go through the double pressure of political oppression and economic precarization simultaneously. Their case shows that the academic labor force is faced with insecurity everywhere—be it the political threats in the periphery or economic precarity in the core. To recognize the concurrence of political risk and economic precarity is not only crucial for understanding the real scope of the threat that we are facing globally, but it is also probably the most promising one in terms of establishing a real connection between the displaced scholars and the massive domestic academic precariat in the host countries. I would like to think of my work as a contribution in this regard.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AV: Currently, I am working on various manuscripts that take up on academic precarity from different angles and with slightly differing foci, including a book chapter on the labor market situation of exiled academics and an article on the precarious researchers’ initiatives in Germany. But my main project, on which I will be working on for the next two years at the Bard College Berlin and which really gives me thrills, is a comparative typology of the existing instances of academic labor activism in Europe.

J: You emphasized the parallels between the exiled scholars and the academic precariat in Germany several times. You also made the case for viewing political oppression and job insecurity as equally dangerous for academic production. Would that mean that you describe the state of academic freedom in your host country as equally alarming as in Turkey?

AV: The overt political oppression of scholars which we now witness in an increasing number of countries worldwide is certainly frightening. I definitely have no intention of downplaying it. But I refuse to put job security and academic freedom on a scale and make a choice between them. The absence of violent forms of political oppression automatically does not imply limitless academic freedom. We must ask to what extent freedom of research can exist where researchers have no job security, or where market incentives dictate the research agendas.

As a Scholar at Risk, I emigrated from a country that is in the bottom bracket of the Academic Freedom Index, to another that is in the top bracket. Germany is one of the favorite destinations for displaced scholars due to the plethora of third-party funding opportunities. But what looks like an advantage is actually a sign of the lack of public funding. In the German academic system, the only form of job security is the full professorship, and everything below is fixed term. Currently, the full professors make up only 7% of the entire academic workforce in the country, which means that 93% consists of precarious researchers working on fixed-term contracts and third-party funded projects. According to the 2017 report of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research on early career researchers, the percentage of the early career academics dependent on external funding has increased by 76% since 2000. During the same time period, the number of tenured professors has only grown by 21%. Meanwhile, only about 25% of the full professor positions are occupied by women (BUWiN, 2017). This should give us an idea of how precarity is gendered and how political freedoms do not necessarily imply gender equality (or equality of any sort, for that matter). Under these circumstances, I think it is legitimate to ask to what degree academic freedom can be maintained in a system where researchers have to live in constant fear of dropping out.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, Section 1.2., “The Exiled Academics for Peace as a Segment of Academic Surplus Labor Force,” pp. 48-51)

Despite the general (false) conviction about an alleged exceptionality of academic labor, there is no reason for assuming that the general law of capital accumulation would not apply to the sector of knowledge production and higher education, in which the academic/intellectual labor force operates. In fact, as discussed in the previous sections of this chapter, one of the most tangible manifestations of this law in the sphere of academic production can be observed by the casualization and underemployment trend in academia: The overwork of the employed portion of academic laborers through forced flexibilization and ultimately, the precarization of academic work, are conditioned by the ever-expanding ranks of the academic reserve army, and vice versa.

In the peripheral parts of the capitalist world-economy, such as Turkey, the global systemic drive to produce and re-produce an ever-growing reserve army of labor is backed and reinforced by autocratic governmental measures, as can be observed – among others – in the massive re-structuration of the public sector via authoritarian interventions such as statutory decrees. Currently, an increasing portion of the existing academic labor force in Turkey is being completely excluded from formal employment in the domestic labor market. In the meantime, it is being set “free as a bird” in the Marxian sense onto the global labor markets. Following Marx’s distinction between different forms of relative surplus population as “floating” ( flüssig), “latent”, “stagnant” (stockend), and “pauperized” (Lumpenproletariat) reserve, it can be argued that this academic surplus labor force, now expanded through forced geographic displacement, falls into the category of “floating reserve”, which comprises of the occupationally downgraded faction of workers (Marx [1890]2007: 670–673). As opposed to the latent reserve, that includes people oscillating between paid and unpaid employment, and the stagnant pool, that refers to the marginalized segment with a continuously unstable work situation, the floating reserve refers to the people experiencing downward mobility. The floating reserve pool also includes those members of the skilled labor force that recently joined the ranks of the unemployed. In view of their educational background and occupational skills, and still holding on to the basic meritocratic premises of liberalism, this segment usually believes that their situation is “conjunctural”, i.e. that they would return to formal, high profile employment. However, considering the abovementioned inherent features of capitalism, it seems more likely that the majority will soon be joining the ranks of the pauperdomi.e. the homeless, the deprived, the “unemployable”.

The current position of the forcibly displaced Peace Academics can be summarized as a floating segment of the huge reserve army of surplus labor. This definition is painfully accurate in their situation, as they do not only represent an institutionally detached workforce, moving adrift on the labor market, but they are literally “floating” in the geographic sense as well. As “refugee”/ “exiled”/ “at-risk” scholars, they wander from city to city, country to country, in search of an opportunity to re-enter the academic market, while in the meantime struggling to survive on emergency solutions like short-term scholarships.

Most of the time, their socio-economic coordinates within the academic production relations are obfuscated by the political background of their expulsion and occupational dismantling. In the last instance, the emphasis on their role as dissident intellectuals, and not as a part of the working population, is also related to a general confusion regarding “academic labor” as a distinct category to which the typical capital-labor-relations supposedly do not apply. Yet, the nature of the work they provide notwithstanding, they are (or used to be) wage-laborers, subject to the administrative as well as economic rules and laws of work, as much as any other segment of the labor force. Their dismissal (either by regular contract cancellation or per statutory decree), regardless of its political meaning for Turkey’s human rights record, meant their exclusion from the sphere of formal employment. Their current profile as persecuted dissident intellectuals from Turkey may lend them a romanticized aura, but it does not change their position as “academic surplus labor force”, kept in reserve and outside of regular employment through short-term and politically conditioned scholarships, on which also their residence statuses in the receiving countries depend.

The common prevalent labels like “endangered” or “at-risk” scholar tend to primarily refer to the political threats facing the displaced academics as dissident scholars. As such, they provide merely conjunctural explanations to a wide-ranging structural issue broadly outlined in the previous section. The general approach to the situation of the Peace Academics is paradigmatic in this regard: The current happenings in Turkey, including the issue of Peace Academics, are mostly being discussed with regard to the rise of authoritarianism and the undermining of civil and human rights. Similarly, the situation of the emigrated Academics for Peace is being dealt with mainly as a political problem within the sphere of human rights and academic freedoms. However, focusing solely on the political aspect of the situation does not only omit the economic aspect of the AKP government’s anti-intellectualist populist policies, but also prevents us from grasping the possible structural impact of the sudden influx of surplus labor that might volatilize further the already congested European academic labor markets.

The AKP’s current anti-intellectualist offensive is not an isolated phenomenon. It is in fact a part of the worldwide neoliberal strategy to spread precariousness and eradicate rational agency, various examples of which can be observed in a growing number of countries from Brazil to China at the moment – albeit with different intensity and relying on different methods. This is in no way to downplay the severity of the current happenings in Turkey, nor does it mean to repudiate the peculiarities of the Turkish case. To be sure, the violent methods with which this neoliberal policy is being implemented in the Turkish context is related to Turkey’s peripheral position within the capitalist world-economy.

It is a known fact that neoliberalism has always tended to pursue its agenda via undemocratic means in the peripheral regions. And, certainly, we shall not oversee the historical peculiarities of the Turkish society that serve to reinforce this harsh course. The deeply rooted, class-based feud between the laymen and the intellectual strata and the organic ties of the universities to the state since their foundation count among these said peculiarities.

The idiosyncrasies of the Turkish society notwithstanding, the AKP government’s brutal intervention into the sphere of knowledge production and higher education can be seen as a neoliberal tactic to kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand, the government is pursuing a policy of systematic de-institutionalization in the sphere of intellectual production. On the other hand, it intensifies the structural anxiety over exclusion from formal employment by gradually undermining all normative standards in the public service sector. On that score, economic precarization and political oppression constitute the two sides of the same neoliberal coin.

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