Precarious Love: On Solidarity in Times of Collapse

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

Recently, a senior anthropologist advised me that “academia is dead, but you might as well keep applying. After all, it’s a job.” While this advice provocatively skewers the idea of academia as calling invoked by David Platzer and Anne Allison, its invocation of a dead zone offers insight into how we deal with precarity in anthropology. It advances the question of how the specter of collapse shapes scholars’ understanding of precarity and their moral relationship to it. If our field is to endure the crises at its door, we need to take stock of how we attach to—indeed, care for—one another at a moment when some of us believe that the battle is already lost.

But first, is academia actually dead? I have found that explaining the academic job market to nonacademics is like convincing skeptical students that in mid-twentieth-century Bali, men of limited means had good reason to bet big money on evenly matched cockfights (see Geertz 1973). Beyond the arbitrariness of “the market,” tenure is under threat at numerous institutions. Budget cuts loom over the most robust of programs, and public funding for evidence-based research is endangered. In such a climate, concerned onlookers might ask what motivates any scholar—junior or senior; tenured, tenure-track, or contingently employed—to cleave to the idea of tenure as safe harbor.

Yet despite ongoing bureaucratization and mounting precarity, anthropology endures in some form. Platzer and Allison present some of the diverse, often contradictory stories that academics tell themselves about why things are the way they are; they rightly ask how these narratives feed forms of exploitation that otherwise seem to operate in spite of the best intentions of all involved. To Platzer and Allison’s proposals, I would add a call for anthropologists to attend ethnographically to the intimate ways in which precarity connects and disconnects us—and how this shapes our struggles for equity.

What figural space do contingent faculty occupy in the moral imagination of their disciplines, particularly in times of crisis? What are the actually existing conditions of life and love in that space? Tenured senior academics know that their precarity is different from that of junior colleagues, but if my conversations with the former are any indication, privilege does not preclude senior scholars from wondering what adjunctification and neoliberalization mean for them. This is not to say that privileged academics necessarily identify with the contingent workers in their midst. But it is to say that the specter of the precariat freights scholars we might identify as precarious with certain kinds of figural work, on their own behalf as well as for the profession.

Consider how both “precarious” and “safe” academics can speak of adjunctification as a harbinger of doom, with adjuncts as canaries in the proverbial coalmine of neoliberal academe. Such statements convey genuine concern and alarm, but they can also cast contingent workers as a species apart from full-time academics—ancillary actors who refer back to the humans that are the real objects of concern rather than subjects in their own right who feed into the system, even if they are paid differently or excluded from faculty meetings. With the struggle happening elsewhere, to other animals, full-time academics are free to turn inward, boarding up their moral and intellectual property against an oncoming storm—strangely unaware that the waters have already flooded their home.

Consider, too, how we may romanticize contingency’s potential for noble suffering or heroic subversion. When academics praise adjuncts for persisting “in the trenches” or speculate that true visionaries will change the system from the margins, contingent workers hear that precarity can be ennobling if they go about it the right way. Idealized images of precarity delimit proper feelings and practices that contingent workers are expected to embody, leading nonconforming modes of innovation, protest, or intervention to go unrecognized or worse. It took me years to realize that my veneration for public intellectuals like Walter Benjamin was partly predicated on how they dwelled in precarity—in Benjamin’s case, as he was steadily worn down by fascism, heart disease, and other exigencies. It’s worth considering how assumptions about precarity can transform heartfelt expressions of care into rituals of exclusion. In so reflecting, perhaps we can better meet one another where we are, rather than where we expect each other to be.

Figurations of contingency magnetize the ways in which once and future scholars learn to love and consider themselves worthy of love. Following Max Weber, Platzer and Allison argue that attachments to the tenure model arise out of a sense of calling that co-opts hard work at the expense of survival. But how else is one called to the life of the mind but through relations between people—that is to say, through relations of love? This is particularly true for anthropologists, whose work arises not only through attachments to mentors, but also through connections to collaborators in places that we come to know (or have long known) as home.

As authoritarian appeals to love empty the term of its revolutionary connotations, it is more necessary than ever to consider the diverse ways that scholars love each other—how we become attached to the ideas of each other as people to be championed, feared, or held close in hard times. Job-market sociality is saturated with love—not only love embedded in cruel optimism, but also love between peers as competitors collaborate to strengthen each other’s job applications. Cast as the most abject zone of academic precarity, such interactions are actually bountiful spaces of knowledge production and pedagogical innovation, even as those activities are exploited and unremunerated. Heeding the call to transform our profession, perhaps we can look to contingent worker solidarity as a ground for equitable ways of loving one another in uncertain times. Collaboration across contingency speaks to Benjamin’s (2016) insight that to know someone truly, one must love them without hope. Jettisoning the expectation that something will attain a certain outcome allows us to attune to its living form. We would all do well to ask “what is your situation and how can I help?” rather than insisting, “This is what will save you.”


Benjamin, Walter. 2016. One-Way Street. Edited by Michael W. Jennings and translated by Edmund Jephcott. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Originally published in 1979.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” In The Interpretation of Cultures, 412–53. New York: Basic Books.