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Social Text 20.1 (2002) 81-104

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The Waste Product of Graduate Education
Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible

Marc Bousquet

Leftist universalism proper does not involve any kind of return to some neutral universal content (a common notion of humanity, etc.): rather, it refers to a universal which comes to exist (which becomes "for itself," to put it in Hegelese) only in a particular element which is structurally displaced, "out of joint": within a given social Whole, it is precisely the element which is prevented from actualizing its full particular identity that stands for its universal dimension. The Greek demos stood for universality not because it covered the majority of the population, nor because it occupied the lowest place within the social hierarchy, but because it had no proper place within this hierarchy, but was a site of conflicting, self-cancelling determinations—or, to put it in contemporary terms, a site of performative contradictions (they were addressed as equals—participating in the community of logos—in order to be informed that they were excluded from this community).

—Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject

Like many scholars of my cohort, I entered graduate school in 1991 informed by a common sense about academic work significantly influenced by the projections of the 1989 Bowen report, which projected what it emphasized would be "a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences" by the mid-1990s, with the consequence that early in the new millennium we could expect "roughly four candidates for every five positions." The department administrators who recruited me into the profession were of the thoughtful and concerned variety: they were up on the literature and very glad to inform me that something called the "job market" would radically improve just six years in the future. There had been a cycle of bad times for holders of the Ph.D., they admitted, but prosperity was just around the corner. During the early 1990s, buoyed in part by the election of a Democrat to the White House, liberal newspapers and major disciplinary associations recirculated the Bowen projections with a sense of relief and general optimism: with the certain onset of universal health coverage, could full employment for English faculty be far behind? David Lawrence, MLA's staffer for its association of chairs of English departments (ADE), wrote with typical emotion when he enthused, "Friends, the future we've all been waiting for is about to arrive" (1). As late as 1995, disciplinary associations and scholars on the state of the profession such as David Damrosch gave serious credence to the Bowen [End Page 81] projections of "increased demand" for the academic employment of holders of the doctoral degree. (In fact, as of this writing, the report of the American Philosophical Association on employment issues, republished on many department Web sites, still gives credence to the Bowen projections.) It wasn't until 1994 that the Chronicle of Higher Education finally ran a short item questioning the validity of the report (Magner 1994). Over the next couple of years, most disciplinary associations, somewhat reluctantly, gave up citing the Bowen projections of a rosy future.

It is easy enough to measure the difference between the five jobs for every four candidates projected by Bowen and the reality of .25 or .30 jobs per candidate. The reporters of the Chronicle and one or two angry reviewers of Bowen's subsequent work have made a point of revisiting the rather startling gap between projection and reality (Magner 1994; Rice 1999). But the more important and interesting question is analytical: what was wrong with Bowen's assumptions that he strayed so outrageously into fantasy? And what was it about these projections that generated such a warm and uncritical welcome? Essentially, Bowen's "method" was to impose neoliberal market ideology on data that attest, instead, to the unfolding process of casualization. Most egregiously, for instance, when confronted with data that increasing numbers of doctoral degree holders had been taking nonacademic work since the 1970s, Bowen ignores the abundant testimony by graduate students that this dislocation...