Academia as a Therapy for Despair

Initially, I had a different idea in mind for this paper, I was going to write about the need for solidarity and the practical use of philosophy in challenging times. The subject and the format of my paper transformed as I was working on it and gradually became more self-critical and more honest to myself. I decided to not only follow my initial intention but also to introspectively trace my implicit thoughts and feelings that accompanied the very process of my writing and possibly the process of any academic philosophical writing. This turned my paper into an existential confession of a single mother and an academic philosopher, it discloses what rather has to be kept silent and what one only admits to themselves when they feel they have nothing to lose. I felt embarrassed while rereading it to the point I regretted writing it. Therefore I’m kindly asking you not to read it.

***

It feels like the whole academic game went mad during the lockdown, even more mad than usual. I assume people, including academics, tend to talk a lot when they are scared of uncertainty. There is a constant thought in my head that now it is especially important to keep writing and expressing my voice, not to fall silent when intellectuals have rapidly activated and started to excessively talk and publish on this or that. One must stay afloat amidst the rising academic noise.

So I must find the time and write. When writing, I have to follow both formal and informal academic rules: I have to provide enough cited sources and make sure they are sufficiently recent to demonstrate my awareness of the current intellectual dialogue, meaning I suppose to know what present key intellectuals have already said on this and that, or at least I have to make an impression on a reader that I’m aware of these. In general, I have to play by the rules and look serious. Otherwise I will end up not being published and eventually kicked out of the whole academic game.

Now is surely not the right time to question the game itself (why are we even so obsessively talking and publishing on this and that?), in fact, it’s never the right time if you want to secure your place in the game. All the more so, it’s not the time when against the background of others you feel like a complete failure who is already barely holding on in the game and when you starting to think it would be not too crazy to just to ask the rest to wait for you until you will finally manage to do some decent research and develop worthy thoughts and the courage to join them in their talking: “Dear intellectuals, please slow down there are people falling from the ledges here!” A very tempting thought is that, on the other hand, once you completely fall out of the game, maybe you get into a situation where you can look at all this from outside and finally openly admit its absurdity, something that those inside the game are not in a position to admit.

Recently I came across an article that exposed the injustice of women academics publishing significantly fewer papers than men during quarantine, presumably because responsibilities in families are still unfairly distributed and most of the work of caring for children and households falls on women (Kitchener, 2020). The article never mentioned single parents in academia and did not compare the difference in the number of their publications. This, in a sense, encourages and alleviates my situations — since there exist no such academic species as a single parent, I don’t actually have to bother about leaving or trying to hold on in the academic game, since I was never even a part of it. I never lost the game, I just never existed. At least, this places me partly outside of the game and partly allows the spirit of renouncing its absurdity.

As I’m sitting and writing (actually so far just confessing instead of writing) my daughter is entertained by YouTubers, free babysitters of our times. This helps a lot, not only directly by simply giving me a chance to write (God bless YouTubers), but also indirectly, contributing to the value of what I am writing. This is because to compensate for my pangs of conscience about neglecting my child I’m trying my best to write something really meaningful for others. If I’m ready to sacrifice the quality of my motherhood, at least I must sacrifice it for something really and unquestionably significant. I remember that Maria Montessori succeeded in this strategy by neglecting her son in order to create a revolutionary system of education (glory to the pioneers!).

However, even if my writing would fail to come out as significant enough (which, to be honest, always fails), it should at least look formally correct and smart enough to ensure that it will be accepted for publication. Publications secure a career in academia which means that without directly taking care of my daughter, I’m taking care of her indirectly ensuring that my daughter will get shelter, food, schooling, a less frustrated mother, and YouTubers.

The basic existential academic law is “publish or perish.” According to this law, being published means that you exist, you matter, you belong. The ultra-implicit thought that accompanies the process of my writing, the one I prefer not to admit to myself, is that I’m simply scared and embarrassed by being so pathetic and useless — as I really am when trying to hide behind my adherence to academic duties and formalities, my indirect fulfillment of maternal responsibilities and my pose of self-sacrifice to society — the fact that I’m desperate about having nothing valuable to say, that my absent voice won’t be even noticed and my existence as an academic is totally futile (even and foremost in comparison with the existence of YouTubers). This is what is probably hidden under the narcissism of writing and masked under the surface of selfless intentions — the desire is to reassure my existence.

My more explicit fear is that nobody will read what I wrote or take it seriously. The next stage of the game, if you are lucky to get published, is to wait that someone will notice what you wrote, discover valuable insights, refer to your work, enter into a meaningful dialogue, or, most likely, at least congratulate the very fact of you being published, in a word, will provide the reassurance that you exist and belong. Just in case, at this stage it is better to stoically hide such expectation behind an arrogant pose, pretending that you wrote this not for others, but for yourself, because you are sincerely interested in this topic, or that writing is just your academic or moral duty. An arrogant pose ensures that if you are ignored it will hurt a bit less. The consolation for losers who failed to pretend not to care strategy is the very fact of publication, which can be solemnly added to your list of publications.

It seems to me, though, that I’m not an exception in my fears and confusions. Maybe all of those who write and articulate their voice no matter how they imagine the goal of their writing, no matter whom and how successfully they are addressing it to, at the bottom all are guided by similar fears and aspirations. It might be that the ultimate basic premise of writing is experiencing the same aching existential dread of disappearance, pointlessness, alienation, and loneliness. Maybe those are the only things we implicitly talk about whenever we talk and write about anything else.

Peter Wessel Zapffe, a philosopher known for his hardcore existential pessimism, argued that all human activity, in the final analysis, can be seen as an attempt to avoid or ameliorate the existential suffering to which humans are inescapably doomed, despite the fact that they are extraordinarily creative in inventing ways to cope with it. According to Zapffe, key among these escapist methods are anchoring and sublimation. Both methods work to provide us a feeling of belonging and psychological security. Anchoring mechanisms are fixations on collectively shared illusions. Examples of collective anchoring points are “God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future” (Zapffe, 2004). One can surely add to this list an academic morality I was intended to practice, and the revolutionary solidarity I was going to write about. The other corresponding method is sublimation, a conversion of our distressing existential awareness into art, literature, and philosophical writing. In fact, Zapffe frankly admits sublimation into philosophical writing as his own way of cooping.

It seems likely that Zapffe is correct in his universalization of existential dread. Perhaps this is exactly how the whole writing thing works, and the inner basic component of talking and writing philosophy is that in reality we are terrified and simply have nothing to say, and, absurdly enough, because of that we talk and write. If you think about it, any talking is ultimately reaching out to others, no matter what excuses we may have (like the one that we are writing for ourselves or to rescue society), the necessary component of talking is listening, or at least the illusion that someone listens to us when we talk and reads what we wrote.

Žižek is one of the few philosophers who openly admits that he is a depressed and boring creature. In one of his interviews he confesses, “I’m terribly afraid that if people were to see me, to put it naively, how I really am, they would be terribly bored […] in my private life I am an extremely depressed guy” (Engelhart, 2012). He also discloses, “My big fear is that if I act the way I am, people will notice that there is nothing to see” (Ibid). He further explains his coping mechanisms, admitting that he sublimates (in Zapffean sense) his depression into writing, “But wait! This doesn’t mean that I massively despise myself. No, I like my printed work. I live for that — for theory, really” (Ibid).

One might claim that the whole world is Žižek’s psychotherapy room, listening and reading him, that is providing a setting that enables his philosophical sublimation. The opposite is also true, although he is known to claim that he could never be a psychoanalyst because of his psychological traumas (Zižek, 2017), he is de facto — and massively — performing the function of a psychotherapist by engaging in the dialog with others through his books and lectures (what a thoughtful way to protect others from your traumas).

My assumption is that it’s not only Žižek’s dark side, he is just the one who has enough courage or despair to openly admit the anxious process veiled behind the decent appearance (well, relatively decent). It’s not even only philosophers, intellectuals, and writers, but humans per se. According to Heidegger, anxiety is the basic mood of a human being (how would he know, I wonder?). No matter how cheered and hopeful we might feel sometimes, “Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping” (Heidegger, 2011, p.93). Maybe it’s true, we are all inherently anxious, our personalities and professions reflect our unique ways of coping with anxiety. We only different on the outside, while inside we are in full solidarity with the pathetic and depressive core of Žižek.

In the spirit of Zapffean interpretation, not only talking and writing should be regarded as a therapeutic practice, but also an academic setting can be analyzed as a therapeutic combination of anchoring and sublimation. The philosophical academic world is not only a world of beyond-commonsensical thinking and academic careerism, the perspectives it is commonly comprehended through, but also, like any other human activity, it serves a therapeutic function. In consonance with Zapffe, the academic world can be seen as a specific set up of therapeutic work with socio-existential anxiety, securing its own way to veil or elevate our wretched lonely existence. Considered from such a point of view, all the academic traditions and rituals — starting with the degree awarding ceremony, inauguration lectures, and annual conferences — are a part of a set-up that enables its participants to sustain a shared illusion of their meaningfulness, seriousness, recognition, and belonging. Ideas and theories that are circulated in academia acquire and sustain meaning because of the special status of interaction setting that academics practice. One of the features of this setting is that academia tends to be closed on itself. Its members mostly speak to each other, even when they speak about global issues and call to humankind. This inward-orientedness secures a feeling of an exceptional sacred status of academic scholars and their discourse. Academic discourse is arranged in such a way that it ensures the preservation of its closed character. The basic forms of academic discourse are paper publications and conference talks, each of those supposed to align itself to a certain format to ensure its serious academic status. Academic scholars, especially philosophers, also tend to use self-referential and obfuscatory language, which creates the illusion of its exclusive knowledge not attainable to those who are not initiated. In such a way academia functions as a therapeutic set-up supporting the illusion of mutual support, recognition, and exceptional status.

It seems like during the pandemics the call for cooperation became the leitmotif of academic “this and that”. Continental philosophers (me included) began to obsessively call for cooperation and solidarity. My impression is that most of what is being recently published is “blah, blah, blah, we need to cooperate”. The “blah, blah, blah” part may be shorter or longer, but nonetheless, it seemed optional, perhaps added to make the “let’s cooperate” part less romantic and therefore academically relevant.

For example, in his book written and published already at the beginning of pandemics, Žižek claims that (notice here my relevant quote from a recent source) “the context of a global epidemic, a time when global cooperation is more urgent than ever” (Žižek, 2020, 33). He also admits that this is a widespread tendency in today’s thought, “These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemics. As this little book testifies, I myself am among those spreading this mantra” (86).

To me, too, cooperation and solidarity intuitively appeared as the only thing worth sacrificing my failed motherhood and the realism of my futile existence. However, when you think of it, something is not right with a philosophical call for cooperation, especially when the “blah, blah, blah” part of it is well elaborated. There is a certain absurdity to it since it implies a temporary refrain from actual cooperation and by this only imitates participation in cooperation. But on the other hand, this very refrain and imitation constitute a specific type of cooperation. The tricky thing about intellectuals calling for cooperation is that in order to abstractly call for it, actual cooperation must be left unseen, imaginatively removed from reality. In order to constitute oneself as an agent of cooperation, one should simultaneously assert that cooperation is absent or there isn’t enough of it, or it’s not good enough. Such removal of cooperation from reality creates for intellectuals an empty space by occupying which they acquire their value. In order to imitate importance, they need to interpret reality as if it lacks it, which would mean that there is a lack of them with their call for cooperation in it.

By calling for cooperation in the midst of actual social cooperation, which has manifested itself so vividly during the current pandemic, intellectuals retroactively take credit for it. By filling with themselves the imaginary lack and by appropriating social cooperation, they also create the specific compensatory type of cooperation. Such parasitizing on actual cooperation establishes its own inter-academic cooperation, the one that we articulate during the bonding conferences and in our papers written for each other.

Philosophers and other academic intellectuals are probably the most anxious creatures with the most adverse coping mechanisms. They need to pathetically parasitize on others’ cooperation to feel important. Intellectuals might look like a kernel of solidarity, especially those talking about politics, but this is because in order to compensate for their uselessness and detachment they talk more than others, suppressing their despair and detachment with excessive talking.

The current pandemic has made the therapeutic setting of academia partly dysfunctional. It deprived scholars of a physical space to meet and to exchange reassurance of their importance. For some, it also made it possible to look at academia from a distance and to expose its absurdity. For some, such as single parents, it has made it almost impossible anymore to sustain the feeling of their sacred academic status. But, to be honest, even writing an academic paper that denounces the absurdity of writing academic papers (which, if you think about it, is the extreme level of being pathetic) really helps to survive. So thank you for not listening to me and reading this to the end.

References

Engelhart, K. (2012), ‘Slavoj Žižek: I Am Not the World’s Hippest Philosopher’, Salon, 30 December, www.salon.com/2012/12/29/slavoj_zizek_i_am_not_the_worlds_hippest_philosopher/

Heidegger, M. (2011 [1929]), ‘What is Metaphysics?’ Trans. David Farrell Krell in William McNeill (ed.), Pathmarks. Cambridge: Cambridge.

Kitchener, C. (2020) Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus. ‘Never seen anything like it,’ says one editor. The Lily. Available at: www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-papers-during-coronavirus-never-seen-anything-like-it-says-one-editor/ (accessed 30 August 2020).

Zapffe, P.W. (1933/2004), ‘The Last Messiah’, Philosophy Now, March/April. Transl. G.Tangenes.

Žižek, S. (2017) ‘Is Hegel Dead — Or Are We Dead in the Eyes of Hegel? A Hegelian View of the Present Age‘, lecture https://youtu.be/P1zJFu04C6U (accessed 30 August 2020).

Žižek, S. (2020). Pandemic!: COVID-19 shakes the world. New York and London: OR Books.

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