Scholarly Labour & the Fantasy of Self-Fulfillment

sean-hannanby Sean Hannan

The work that is currently being done on “emptiness” by the University of Chicago Divinity School’s alumnus of the year, John Corrigan, should provoke serious reflection in any student of religion. His recent chapter on the rhetoric of emptiness as applied to issues of the body raises a number of questions concerning the ways that American Christians, especially, have imbued the seemingly material terminology of “empty” and “full” bodies with much-more-than-material heft. Hitting upon issues ranging from asceticism to mysticism to eroticism, Corrigan offers up a sober yet suggestive selection of sources that incorporate notions of both “emptiness” and “fullness” into discussions of Christian praxis that helped shape American (and not just American) history.

Yet the most salient aspect of “emptiness,” as Corrigan explores it, might be its role in rhetorically re-casting the economic alienation of the labourer in religious (or perhaps pseudo-religious) terms. For someone who studies religion—who in almost every case also happens to be someone who works on religion—this is indeed where the rubber hits the road with the greatest frictional force. Quite often, the work of the student—especially, but not exclusively, the graduate student—is framed not as labour in its purest sense, but rather as a kind of devotional practice. To be sure, referring to the scholarly life as a Weberian “vocation” has a long history; but the devotional tones surrounding postgraduate work in the humanities, social sciences, and especially religious studies can at times reach a fever pitch that would make Max Weber’s ears bleed.

On Corrigan’s account, the religious (or, once again, perhaps pseudo-religious) valorization of work ‘as if for its own sake’ has a long and varied history in Christian discourse. Yet Corrigan’s concerns are primarily modern, and so that is where our focus shall stay. Take, for example, this summary of Thomas Carlyle’s appraisal of the situation in the nineteenth century:

“The latest Gospel in this world is, Know thy work and do it.” For Carlyle, “a man perfects himself by working. . . . The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not a purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame! . . . All true work is sacred.” (66)

In the wake of Carlyle and the contemporary Christians he casts as valorizing work for work’s sake, some had reason to pause and consider whether or not such ‘pure work’ deserved to be treated as an ultimate concern. How could the soot-covered, bedraggled workforce of the Gilded Age count as a manifestation of the glory of God? Would the intense extremes of industrialization lay waste to any fading fantasies of the ‘moral value’ of work? These questions rang truest, no doubt, alongside incendiary words like “Pinkerton” and “Haymarket.”

The sobering truth behind such questions continues to resonate in the concerns of labour today. And while it resonates most resoundingly in the fields of manufacturing and material industry, it does not fall silent when we turn to intellectual labour. As students of religion who also work on religion, it is incumbent upon many of us to apply Corrigan’s questions about the ‘spiritualization’ of labour to our own situation. To do so is by no means to diminish the intensity of the industrial exploitation that was the hallmark of the Gilded Age. Rather, it is to suggest that a collective identification of so many of us as labourers can, if executed properly, carve out a new path forward for us as we attempt to understand the dialectic of emptiness and fulfillment in our own working lives.

So how did this rhetoric of “emptiness” and “fulfillment” play out in earlier phases of the moralization of work? Here Corrigan has much to contribute. He argues that “in a Christian ethics that made gradual inroads into the workplace, fulfillment in work comes from losing oneself in work.” (69) Another generation might have cast our daily duties as a form of subtle self-sacrifice, chipping away at our hedonism in the name of the greater good. But this newer ethos implied that work, far from being a voluntary self-emptying, was in fact the medium of fulfillment itself.

Leisure empties; labour fulfills. A less ancient sentiment could hardly be found. Yet it remains remarkably resonant today, especially with those of us who have chosen to labour upon the fertile fields of religion. Laborare est orare: “to work is to pray.” (70) This is the closer to the operative maxim in our era. Could it be the case that cultured leisure (otium), rather than bustling busywork (neg-otium), might more closely model the ideal medium of research? Perhaps—but that is ancient logic, ill-suited to the debates of today.

So what are these ‘debates of today?’ One of the most common asks us whether or not academic work counts as “labour” in the fullest, most impossibly robust sense of the term. This is a question that is not alien to graduate students in the field of religious studies, because it is a question that pertains to graduate students of all stripes. All the recent headway made by organizations like Graduate Students Untied (GSU) at the University of Chicago stands as a testament to this fact.

The core of the question is this: does the fact that graduate students find more-than-economic fulfillment in their work negate the labour-value of that work? In other words: is their work a form of solipsistic self-fulfillment or a display of self-sacrifice in the name of society? Can it not be both? Refraining from offering up some sort of definitive conclusion here, we should at least admit that the dialectic of emptiness-and-fulfillment continues to wield force in ongoing debates about the meaning of student work as labour.

A similar debate has arisen closer to my current academic home in Canada. Just this year, our provincial government passed a bill that (to oversimplify) transformed vague ‘faculty associations’ into full unions with the right to strike. This was less an act of itinerant ideology than it was an attempt to bring our provincial system into legal harmony with certain judgments made by our federal Supreme Court. The result, however, has proven somewhat ideologically explosive.

To some, this is an act of socialist subversion, forcibly transmuting friendly faculty associations into fierce foes of our administrative partners. To others, this is an act of governmental overreach, throwing under-prepared proto-unions into a do-or-die battle with the very administrative bodies tasked with cutting their budgets. To a precious few, this is a fairly neutral bill aimed at bringing a provincial law into harmony with federal standards, however many side-effects it may bring along with it.

Refraining once again from offering any silver-bullet answers, we can at least say that the debate about the nature of academic work lives on. When “we,” as faculty, teach and research, are we not engaged in labour? When “we,” as graduate students, teach and research, are we not likewise engaged in labour? Does this labour, furthermore, take the shape of ascetic self-sacrifice or that of personal fulfillment? Is there no way out of this emptiness-fulfillment dialectic, after all?

The pessimist in us may want to argue that the economic landscape of the academy today is little more than a perverse imitation of the “Gospel of Prosperity” that Corrigan so helpfully categorizes for us in his manuscript. (81) If you ‘do well’—if you are ‘good,’ according to certain circumscribed categories—you will continue to do well. If you placate the deity, it will reward you—not later, but now(-ish). If you ‘do poorly’—again, usually according to deeply obscured metrics—you will continue to do poorly. And who have you, the academic worker, to blame for this situation? “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:20)

We seem to have reached an impasse. If academic work is self-fulfillment, it is its own reward. How then is it “work,” in the socially meaningful sense? If academic work is self-sacrifice, it is perhaps deserving of compensation, but at the same time it loses the seemingly distinctive character of its intellectual vocation. The work of the scholar is either pure self-fulfillment or pure self-emptying. Is there no via media?

Perhaps there could be. There could be if we were willing to dispense with the notion that the emptiness-fulfillment dialectic is one that can be overcome only through individual effort. Time and time again, the current vagaries of the academic job market have proven that the myth of individual exceptionality must be put to rest. It is no longer a question of who “self-fulfills” or “self-empties” to a degree sufficient to deserve just compensation for their labour. Any dream of fulfillment we might still harbour resides not in the atomized unit of our own individual identity as a commodity on the market, but in the collective labour in which we engage together.

We all work on religion together; to most scholars of religion, this is uncontroversial. We all work in the humanities together; to most scholars in the humanities, this too is uncontroversial. Let us all work together to ensure that the following statement becomes just as uncontroversial: we all work together—full stop.

One thought on “Scholarly Labour & the Fantasy of Self-Fulfillment

  1. Pingback: Scholarly Labour & the Fantasy of Self-Fulfillment – Dr. Sean Hannan

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