Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.

The Internet Conspiracy Machine

About a month ago, a post that felt weird to me started circulating within my small circle of Tumblr mutuals. To make a long story short, there was a smart post by a popular Tumblr artist that someone had reblogged with an inflammatory addition. The inflammatory addition was from 2018, so I was curious why it had started circulating again in December 2020.

I asked my mutuals if they were reblogging the post because something specific had happened recently, but they couldn’t give me any background. It seemed that the reblog was nothing more than clickbait making the rounds while riding on the back of the original post. Tumblr being Tumblr, this happens all the time.

But this reblogged addition still felt strange to me. The user who created the reblog had deactivated their account, so I searched for their username to try to figure out who they are. I wanted to figure out if the inflammatory addition was referring to something specific or whether it was just someone venting on Tumblr – which, again, is fair. I honestly didn’t expect to find anything, but I was working on an academic essay on the general topic of the original post and thought it might be interesting to follow up on this lead.

What I found was that the inflammatory addition had originated in 2018 and spread within a circle of blogs dedicated to video games whose users openly identified as male. All of these blogs were only briefly active and hadn’t been updated since 2018. Their reblogs alternated between memes, game release announcements, and incendiary “social justice” posts.

I’m not sure how to explain the particular flavor of circa-2018 “social justice” posts on Tumblr, save to say that they are totalizing, polarizing, and extremely aggressive to an absurd degree. In aggregate, these posts engender a sense that there is an elite group of enlightened people who all share the same position and values, and who must foster their anger in order to stand against their enemies, who are presumed to be an equally monolithic group. Let me be clear that these posts are not about any specific real-world issues or political groups, but more along the lines of general ideological programming spread through discourse surrounding fictional characters and entertainment media. Such posts have nothing to do with critical readings or cultural critique, but instead take the form of brief and easily digestible “this thing is bad” slogans with jingoistic “people who don’t agree are also bad” insinuations.

In any case, what I found regarding the circle of video game blogs on Tumblr seemed suspicious, so I tried to figure out who these users were and where they’d gone. (I was no longer doing research for my essay, by the way; now I was just morbidly curious.) Tumblr has an optional function that allows users to crosspost to Twitter, so I ended up tracking down a few of these blogs via reposts on Twitter, where I ran across a surprising number of deactivated accounts. Between one thing and another – and this was a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m afraid I didn’t document my process as well as I could have – I ended up on Parler, a social media platform for the sort of alt-right people who tend to get kicked off Twitter.

Along with 8kun, Parler is one of the main seeds of the QAnon material that makes its way to Facebook and YouTube, and the conversations I saw on the site were completely divorced from consensus reality. There’s an excellent article about this on The Atlantic (here); but, to summarize, “the QAnon conspiracy” holds that the American government is rotten to its core, and even conservative politicians are almost literal comic book villains. Donald Trump, as someone coming from outside these evil political circles, is only person that “real” Americans can rely on, and he must therefore be defended from Democrats and Republicans alike.

At the time I encountered Parler in mid-December 2020, it was filled with people talking about contesting the election results, by force if necessary. Many of the hashtags, like #HoldTheLine, were military in tone, and people were sharing state-specific resources for obtaining firearms. There were a lot of links to videos associated with the Dorr Brothers, who oversee various regional organizations devoted to “no compromise” “Second Amendment rights.” (NPR has a limited-run podcast about this, if you’re curious.) There was also an extraordinary deal of antisemitism, with coded references ranging from “global capitalists” to “lizard people.”

I did not stay there long. I got super creeped out, to be honest.

The worst thing was that, between all the “Take Back America” rhetoric, links to QAnon videos on YouTube, and announcements for the Facebook Live events of reactionary political groups, people were sharing memes and joke posts about video games… and a lot of them were really good. To my shame, that’s why I stayed on the site for as long as I did, even after it had become painfully clear what I was looking at.

The appeal of QAnon conspiracies is that they speak to the marginalized in their own language, whether that language is video game memes, “traditional feminist” slogans, or decontextualized Bible verses. These conspiracies provide both an “it’s not your fault” justification for why individuals don’t succeed in neoliberal capitalism and a concrete path of action that elevates a normal person sitting at a computer to the status of a righteous crusader.

This sort of messaging is designed to appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re under attack from forces they don’t understand, which is perhaps why it has appealed so strongly to Donald Trump himself. Once I started picking up on QAnon codewords and hashtags, some of Trump’s more bizarre tweets from 2020 (such as “Nothing can stop what is coming”) started to make much more sense.

When Trump posted a video telling the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6 that they’re “special” and that he loves them, this also made sense to me. Trump seemed to genuinely believe, as the rioters did, that they were on the righteous side of a holy war to protect the rights of the marginalized and prevent the fall of civilization at the hands of a nebulous and unspeakable evil.

Given my actual research interests, which have very little to do with American politics, you can probably guess that this whole thing started with Legend of Zelda. There may be some people reading this essay who might feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that the Zelda series is to blame for fostering an apocalyptic mindset because [insert racist generalization about Japanese people here]. I’m not saying that the Zelda games – or gaming culture and video games in general – aren’t without their problems, but please don’t let that be your take-away point.

I’m also not suggesting that the people on Tumblr who reblogged a post I found upsetting are ignorant. After all, most people on the platform are fully aware of how misinformation spreads, and we rely on a carefully curated grassroots social vetting system that serves as something of a Geiger counter to make sure we’re not getting close to anything radioactive. We’re all doing the best we can, and a few isolated posts from malicious actors aren’t going to hurt anyone.

Rather, what has struck me about this whole mess is how the tendency toward authoritarian thinking transcends political lines. I can’t say whether the Tumblr blogs that were active in spreading inflammatory “social justice” posts in 2018 were real people who ended up gravitating to the far right or the sock puppets of people already involved with far-right groups, and I don’t know who started circulating their posts again in December.

What I do know is that “us vs. them” essentialism is just as appealing to online communities in favor of progressive social justice as it is to online communities that propagate QAnon theories. Because of the way social media algorithms privilege content that evokes “engagement,” this type of thinking can spread far beyond these communities and become normalized even for people who don’t know anything about Wojak memes or video games or Tumblr or 4chan, whether they’re financially precarious retirees or recent college graduates who have just started to understand that they will never be able to pay off their student loans.

The key word here is “normalization,” because this is what makes extremists feel as though they have broad support for what they’re doing. For every one person who creates a social media account solely for the purpose of telling an artist or showrunner that she should kill herself because her content is “problematic,” or for every one person who showed up to the riot in DC on January 6, there are thousands of people in each of their extended communities who are directly supporting their actions online.

I think that, if both young people and older people could envision an actual future for themselves as valued members of society, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so invested in fantasies about destroying society. I know this makes me sound like a moderate apologist, but I’m not advocating for “compromise” or “seeing both sides.” What I’m trying to say is this: If there are multiple generations of people who are unemployed, underemployed, deeply in debt, and one random accident away from complete financial ruin, of course they’re going to be upset and looking for guidance, especially while they’re stuck at home or trapped in “essential worker” jobs during an ongoing pandemic. This is not a controversial statement to make.

Neoliberal capitalism is irreparably broken. So many people wouldn’t be in such a precarious position if it weren’t. Something needs to happen, because people need to be able to live without feeling as though they have to fight each other to survive.

In the meantime, social media corporations need to change their algorithms. It’s unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible to destroy the platforms on which authoritarian and apocalyptic discourses are created and disseminated. That being said, these fringe beliefs should not be as accessible, widespread, and normative as they are.

The individual and social formation of identity and ideology that happens online is real, and it has real consequences. I think it’s high time to start taking this seriously.

Neoliberalism in Higher Education and the Two-Body Problem

In January I notified my department at George Mason University that Spring 2020 would be my last semester at the school. I had been having difficulty with the university for the past two years, and I ultimately decided that it was not healthy or sustainable for me to continue working there.

Even though it’s far from perfect, I still have a lot of respect and admiration for the American university system, and I value every single day that I was able to work with my students, who are a brilliant generation of young people who give me hope for the future.

That being said, I think it’s fair to admit that I’ve had a lot of trouble adjusting to the institutional culture of George Mason University, which requires extraordinary work and commitment from its faculty without providing any resources to facilitate productivity. Because this trend toward neoliberalism – which emphasizes individual responsibility within an institutional structure – is far from uncommon in academia, I’d like to write about my experiences with the hope that my story might benefit someone else.

In retrospect, I think a lot of the trouble I experienced stems from the fact that it was impossible for me to live close to campus.

I’m married, and my partner is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. George Mason is in Fairfax, which is one of the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. My partner is more comfortable with driving than I am, so we decided to live together in DC, where we share a modest one-bedroom apartment in a rent-controlled building in a neighborhood by the National Zoo.

I commute to Fairfax (which is about an hour away from DC), and my partner commutes to Philadelphia (which is about two hours and fifteen minutes away from DC). It’s possible for both of us to use public transportation, but it’s expensive and adds at least an hour to our respective travel times. We therefore share a car, which I use on Tuesdays and Thursdays and my partner uses on Mondays and Wednesdays.

This is not an ideal situation, obviously, but it’s far from uncommon. In fact, it’s so pervasive in academia that it’s referred to as the “two body problem” (here’s the Wikipedia entry). To summarize, most universities in the United States aren’t located in major cities; so, if someone gets a job at a university, it’s unlikely that their spouse will be able to find the same sort of job in their field close to campus that they could in a city. There is a gendered component to this, of course. If the professor is male, it’s easier for them to convince their non-academic spouse that it’s reasonable to leave their job in order to accept a lower-paying or “work from home” position near the university.

This problem is also gendered in that people who aren’t male are expected to perform more emotional labor and make more personal sacrifices as a matter of course. If a man isn’t physically present on campus because he lives far away, he is “making the best of a less-than-ideal situation.” If someone who isn’t male isn’t physically present on campus because they live far away, they are “selfish” and “not taking their job seriously enough.”

I’m openly nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, but I present (mostly) as female at work in order to avoid unnecessary discrimination (which can be a serious issue, especially at a notably conservative school like GMU). As you might imagine, then, I’ve been on the receiving end of numerous comments from my department chair that I’m “selfish” and “not taking my job seriously enough” because I can’t come to campus on Mondays and Wednesdays without enough advance notice to allow my partner to get Amtrak tickets to and from Philadelphia (and, if necessary, a hotel room). Amtrak being what it is, tickets aren’t always available, and a one-way ticket can cost well over $100. My partner and I do what we can, but we can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars so that I can drive more than two hours to attend a twenty-minute meeting on campus.

I should add that my partner, who is cisgender and male, is never asked to come to meetings on campus when he’s not scheduled to be there. He is “making the best of a less-than-ideal situation,” after all.

Both my partner and I understand that my situation would be better if we were to live closer to GMU, especially because of the gendered double standard. My partner is a good and decent person, and he’s expressed willingness to spend even more time on the road so that I’m able to spend more time on campus – even though he receives a substantially higher salary than I do.

Unfortunately, Fairfax is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. For various reasons relating to class and privilege, real estate prices in and around Fairfax are astronomical. There are relatively few apartment buildings, and those that do exist have prices comparable with those in Washington DC, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

For these reasons, George Mason University is a commuter school, a fact that’s openly acknowledged in written profiles of the university. Not only do the majority of students commute, but many faculty and staff do as well. GMU is a public school, and we’re all paid public school salaries – and, given GMU’s relative lack of prestige, our salaries are on the low end, generally lower than the salaries of faculty and staff of the same rank at the University of Virginia.

GMU has been attempting to promote on-campus engagement by building dorms (that are still quite expensive) and providing a block of single-family homes close to campus that are temporarily available to new faculty members. What happened with the faculty housing, however, is that everyone who moved into these houses couldn’t afford to move out, because of course they couldn’t. The university allowed them to stay, and there’s no longer any subsidized university housing for new faculty.

I know this because, during my first two years at GMU, I set up meetings with various people in the university administration to try to find a solution that would allow me to live closer to campus.

What I was told, over and over again, was to separate from my spouse. That way, I could live in one of the undergraduate dorms. With the undergraduates, what fun! I could only stay in the dorms for nine months out of the year, but I could always travel and do research for the other three. I study Japan, right? So I could get a new research grant every year to spend the summer in Japan. For holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, when students aren’t allowed to be in residence on campus, I could travel and get an Airbnb next to the library of a major university. Think of the research opportunities!

I was shocked the first time a senior colleague suggested this, but it kept happening. I set up formal meetings with about a dozen people to ask how I could be closer to campus, but I stopped trying when it became clear that such meetings accomplished nothing more than making me extremely frustrated. I also kept an eye on local real estate and apartment listings (which became something of a guilty hobby), but I never saw anything that was the right combination of not out of my price range, not abjectly miserable, and not already taken by the time I could schedule a viewing.

As a result, I remained in DC and continued to commute to campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I put a lot of effort into being able to make it to campus for events or meetings for which I had been given sufficient prior notice.

Because George Mason University is a commuter school, I’m far from the only person who isn’t on campus every day. In fact, the corridor that contains most of the faculty offices for my department is always lined with closed doors and very quiet. Almost all of the department mailboxes are overflowing, since very few people check their mail more than once or twice a month.

As a result, when I first came to GMU, no one invited me to have coffee with them. No one invited me out to lunch, and no one invited me to a house party. I sent friend requests on various social media platforms to other people in my department, but they never responded. There were very friendly campus cultures at University of Pennsylvania (where I went to grad school), Haverford College (where I first started teaching), and University of Notre Dame (where I was a visiting professor), so I was a bit put off by this chilliness. I was actually more than a little hurt, to be honest, but I realized that this was just part of being a faculty member at a commuter school.

I was gradually able to become friendly with a few people, but I ended up becoming much closer to many of my students than I ever was with most of my colleagues. Based on various interactions I’ve seen over the past five years, I don’t think many of my colleagues are particularly close to one another.

This isn’t the worst situation in the world, and I’m sure that other people have had to deal with more difficult circumstances. I’m an adult, and I can perform well at my job even despite a lengthy commute. After all, it’s not the commute itself that’s the problem – it’s the unreasonable expectation that I behave as if I lived in the same (exorbitantly expensive) neighborhood as George Mason University.

Because it was extremely difficult for me to live close to the university, I was never able to establish a strong physical presence on campus. People in positions of power – especially my department chair – accused me of being uninvolved and uninvested in “the intellectual life of the department,” and I wasn’t able to cultivate a close relationship with a tenured senior colleague who might have been willing to sit down with the department chair in a friendly meeting and help him tone down these sorts of accusations.

And again, just to emphasize the point that there is a gendered double standard at play, I want to repeat that my male partner spends less time on campus than I do and has never had to deal with any of this.

You might be reading this essay and thinking, “I don’t know what this person is complaining about; I was successful at my university while facing even greater hardships.” If that’s the case, that’s wonderful, but I can guarantee that you were successful because someone, at some point, saw you struggling and either helped you out or let the small things slide.

Or it could be the case that there was never any need for anyone to assist you or forgive you because you were always exactly where you were supposed to be and always did everything perfectly. If that’s the case, you are in the .001% of human beings, and you deserve to be proud of your accomplishments.

Still, you have to ask yourself about the necessity of everything being perfect all the time. For example, does your car have to be in the top .001% of cars, or is it enough that it has good gas mileage and gets you where you’re going without breaking down? Does the sandwich you ate for lunch have to be in the top .001% of sandwiches, or is it enough that it was healthy and satisfying? Does the person who delivers your mail have to be in the top .001% of postal carriers, or is it enough that your mail arrives undamaged and on time every day?

What I’m trying to suggest is that, even though perfection is wonderful, it’s not strictly necessary.

So if you have a professor who – like many professors – lives far away from the university and can’t come to campus at a moment’s notice, that’s not ideal, but isn’t it enough that they show up when they’re supposed to and do their job well?

Sometimes it’s reasonable to expect excellence, of course. If you’re going to make that demand, however, you have to be willing to expend the necessary resources. In my case specifically, if my university truly expected me to be physically present on campus and highly engaged in campus life, there should have been someone at some point who offered to make this possible, especially when I reached out to multiple people to ask for help.

It should go without saying that I would have preferred to live close to campus, ideally without having to separate from my partner – or without having to live in student dorms or a low-budget student apartment for the rest of my life. Because George Mason University is a commuter school, there was never that much happening on campus, but I enjoyed the events and lectures and performances I was able to attend, and I genuinely would have liked to feel as if I were part of a larger university community. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to concrete limitations of resources, especially time and money.

What hurt more than not having access to a supportive community, however, was constantly being made to feel as if this was because I was a lazy and irresponsible person who was not willing to make the necessary sacrifices and commitments. The people involved in this sort of mean-spirited bullying are specific individuals who should have known better yet made the decision to be cruel instead of kind. That being said, the institutional culture at George Mason University not only enables but actively promotes this sort of toxic behavior, and that’s a much more serious problem than the pettiness of a few grumpy old professors.

When I talk about neoliberalism in higher education, this is what I’m talking about – institutional cultures that promote the interests of the university-as-corporation by keeping workers in a constant state of economic and emotional precarity. Employees will work harder if they’re constantly being made to feel that their labor is never sufficient; and, when the stress causes them to pass their maximum point of productivity, they can easily be replaced by younger and fresher workers who can be hired at lower salaries. The same goes for students as well, in that students who drop out can be replaced by students who come in already paying a higher base tuition.

This is not healthy, and it’s not sustainable.

For me personally, it wasn’t healthy or sustainable to continue commuting, and it was unreasonable to expect that I would separate from my spouse in order to be more “productive.” In addition, it wasn’t healthy or sustainable to continue making enormous sacrifices of money and time only to be accused of “laziness” by senior colleagues. I like to think I did good work – and every metric used to evaluate me supported this – but developing a serious anxiety disorder because I was never “good enough” was also not sustainable, especially when this negative assessment was directly connected to factors completely beyond my control.

It’s a fair question – Why should the evaluation of someone’s professional performance be dependent on something as notoriously difficult to control as the real estate market?

I think it’s an even more critical question to ask why the evaluation of someone’s professional performance should be dependent on the privilege they bring with them to the position, especially in terms of wealth, mobility, and gender.

This post is the first half of a longer essay. In the second half, I’m going to elaborate more on how the neoliberal emphasis on “individual responsibility” creates serious problems when combined with a systematic denial of basic resources.

I Blame Capitalism

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I’d like to write about the department meeting. There’s a lot to unpack about what goes on in these things, and I think a lot of professors probably have similar feelings regarding the more unpleasant aspects of their own department meetings. Without trying to make any generalizations, however, I want to try to get to the heart of what I find so upsetting about my experience.

My university is an extremely neoliberal institution. What I mean by this is that everything is measured and judged according to its quantitative value. To give a concrete example, almost all classes with an enrollment of less than fifteen students are canceled, regardless of whether it’s a class that, by its very nature, should ideally have a small enrollment (such as a graduate seminar or an upper-level language class). These classes are usually canceled less than a week before they begin with no regard for the concerns or wellbeing of the students (who may need a specific course to graduate), the academic programs (who may lose majors or minors as a result of required courses not being available), or the instructors (many of whom are adjunct faculty paid by course) simply because they’re not “cost effective” in terms of numbers.

Faculty are accordingly evaluated almost entirely on how “productive” they are in terms of how many “points” they can accrue from certain activities and accomplishments listed on a spreadsheet. This results in bureaucratic inefficiency, as everyone needs to serve on a certain number of committees (to give one example), and it also results in everyone’s time and energy being spread dangerously thin across multiple competing commitments, some of which are of dubious necessity. This emphasis on “productivity” not only makes people tired and bad at their jobs, but it can also make them bitter and competitive.

Relying on “positive” discourses of “productivity” in order to make workers so exhausted that they’re unable to find the resources to free themselves from the mentality of being chained to their jobs is a major part of the ideology of neoliberal capitalism, which relies on an authoritarian cult mentality to perpetuate itself. You must devote the entirety of your life to the cult, and there is no room for diversity, difference, or disagreement. People in administrative positions literally go to “retreats” to learn how to better serve the institution, and they come back with an almost religious fervor.

What I find so distressing about department meetings, then, is that there’s always a strong undercurrent of “you’re not doing enough.” This is especially upsetting to me because I feel like I work all the time, even if what I’m doing – like preparing lectures for classes, giving productive feedback on assignments, and meeting with students to talk about their career goals, for example – can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet. And don’t even get me started on how many emails I have to write over the course of any given day.

So, when I already feel stretched way too thin, it’s just about the worst thing in the world to walk into a meeting where the underlying message is “you should be doing even more.” It’s like, haven’t I already sacrificed enough of my life for this job? I’m already pushing myself way beyond a healthy work/life balance, and I’ve been doing it nonstop for years, and it’s still not good enough?

Basically, a department meeting is a highly concentrated collection of external confirmations regarding many of the most common intrusive thoughts stemming from anxiety: You’re not good enough. Your best is not good enough. You will never be good enough. Your work is without value. You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve the privileges you’ve been given. You haven’t accomplished anything, and you never will. Everyone knows this, and everyone hates you. Everyone is judging you. You’re just causing trouble for other people, and they resent you.

What I mean by “external confirmation” is that this is literally what is being said in these department meetings. It’s probably best to leave that discussion for another day, though, because OH MAN it’s not fun to talk about any of this.

I really wish that more powerful and experienced people in academia were willing to talk about this sort of thing in a way that transcends useless corporate HR pablum and the hand-wringing “academia is broken now and forever” clickbait that people always seem to be sharing on social media. I wish I could do something myself, but I’m just as mired in the tenure-track swamp as anyone else. It’s like, Sure, I’ll fight neoliberal capitalism, right after I work on my article and my book chapter and respond to some emails and prepare a lecture and put together a handout and go teach two classes and sit in traffic and come home and then respond to more emails and update the course websites and maybe do some grading. Right after all that’s finished, I’ll get right on it.

Just for the record, however, I do want to say that I love my job.

My colleagues are all good people, and it’s nice to be paid a comfortable salary to read and write. I don’t particularly care the for the administrative aspects of teaching, but I have a lot of fun in class. This semester, for instance, I’m teaching an actual college course that counts for actual college credit about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and it’s magical. Every day is an adventure.

I could do without the panic attacks, but anxiety is what it is, and we’re all doing the best we can.