Professional Purpose

“Transnationalism” is currently in vogue in my field. The word is everywhere in conference proceedings, titles of edited volumes, CFPs. Of course, we are all supposed to be very much in favor, even though nobody knows what it really is. But the term seems to point to “open borders,” and we are all supposed to be very much pro-that.

The more lucid among us have begun to realize that the concept of a national literature was invented to support the nation-state. And people who specialize in national literatures only exist for as long as there is a need to keep alive the myths of the nation-state order. Of course, they still can’t go against the sacred cow of transnationalism but it’s cute to see them wriggle.

The answer that they have found is that well, we should all just specialize in literature as a transnational phenomenon. What will happen when the corporate university cancels their positions and hires one, single, and only specialist in “transnational literature” is not discussed.

I’m not usually possessed by a sense of a higher professional purpose. The whole point of me being a scholar is for me to live a comfortable life that offers as few distractions as possible from my enjoyments.

Recently, however, I have felt that a purpose has been forming itself almost against my will. I want people to stop reciting polite mantras and start thinking at least about this single issue. You know how we are. Censorship is fierce. Anything on a subject like this that departs from the party line by half a millimeter is simply banned.

I understand that one can’t stop liquid capital. But can’t we at least be a little bit critical of it? Can we at least not dismantle our own disciplines so eagerly in order to help it flow?

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46 thoughts on “Professional Purpose”

  1. Cue this video in which we learn (from BBC teach no less) that Britain is simply a place on the map where people of different ethnicities, religions, races live next to (but not with) each other speaking various languages and the only thing they need to have in common is respect for a handful of undefined (and therefore meaningless) slogans.

    Interestingly it so far has about 50 likes and over 10,000 dislikes.

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  2. Well, if you could get over your hatred of linguistics, critiques of transnationality in the post-nationalist/liquid era is basically my subfield :-). Honestly, I think everything is already dismantled or headed that way, and I’d rather be an active participant in building what’s next than watching in dismay and entrusting it to neoliberalism. I don’t think we can stop liquid capital, but I think we can shape its path–do you really think there’s nothing to be done?

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    1. It ain’t over until it’s over. The belief that it’s all settled and there’s nothing that can be done is a bit too convenient, for my taste. I don’t want to participate in building what’s next because what’s next doesn’t presuppose the existence of scholars of literature like me and it definitely doesn’t include the existence of public schools like mine. I’m not ready to accept it’s all doomed and we should be satisfied with the unequal gift of fluid identities, which is all we get in return.

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      1. So do you think we can go back to nationalism? What exactly are you advocating for? What’s next doesn’t include my job or my school in it’s current state either, but it’s not like those have no issues in the current situation–for me the question is how to keep what is valuable about the position and institution, and not just accept that they have no value, which is what I think will happen without interference.

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        1. Yes, I’m in favor of strengthening the nation-state model. As academics, what we could do is to stop yammering on and on how it’s all an imagined community with arbitrary borders and artificial institutions – and yes, of course, it is but that’s ancient news – and start concentrating on how it’s the only model that has produced public education, public health, welfare, old age protections, etc.

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          1. Yes, but what about all the people who died for the nation? Or are harmed because they can’t fit into the nation-state model of the ideal citizen? Is this the only model that can produce public education, public health, welfare, and old age protections? Sure liquidity kills and harms too, but the nation state is hardly ideal either. I still think there must be a third better option, but maybe I’m just more optimistic πŸ™‚

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            1. The nation-state was invented to enable fighting truly massive wars. And it did, as we all know. Now it’s all moot because nobody needs mass conscription. The deadliest wats can be fought long-distance.

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              1. Nation-state was needed to produce the conscription model. Now the conscription model is not needed thanks to technology. So the nation-state is dying off. Today the technology is the source of the killing, not the nation-state. Dismantling the nation-state will not prevent any wars because the nature of warfare has irretrievably changed. The violence will be just as virulent in the fully fluid world. So what’s the gain of dismantling the nation-state?

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              2. Well, the nation-state provides an ideology for using the technology to kill and harm, so that is one reason. I guess I just don’t find either option satisfactory.

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          2. What I used to dislike, in theory, about the nation-state was how hard it was to move countries. Looking at how generic so much has gotten in Europe, as people speaking English as a common language float between one UNESCO-funded old city to the next shopping at the same stores, while African migrants swelter in camps, I have changed my mind.

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    2. “critiques of transnationality in the post-nationalist/liquid era is basically my subfield :-)”

      that sounds interesting but I can’t say I’ve heard much in the way of linguistics that critiques anything transnational, it’s more rabid cheering and/or absurdity like courses in translation studies carried out entirely in English…

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      1. I have a very dear friend who is a linguist, and we have stopped talking on professional subjects because we just end up screaming at each other. Everything he does is ideologically geared towards making teachers dispensable. And it’s all done in the name of progress and social justice. One of the ideas that drive me up a wall is that it’s racist to teach students not to use double negatives in English and not to say “diecidos” or write “llendo” instead of “yendo” in Spanish. And I’m tired of having that debate.

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      2. “courses in translation studies carried out entirely in English”

        I was totally confused by this concept the first time I heard someone talk about it. But it’s apparently a thing and gets reasonably good enrollments. Part of me really hates to say that a colleague is teaching a course that is worthless, but I really don’t understand what students are supposed to learn from these sorts of courses.

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      3. There are small subfields that critique the rapid cheering of the transnational (for example I do critical study abroad which is a subset of Applied Linguistics). We also critique the nation-state though (a good example of which is Clarissa’s comment about double negatives and diecidos below) so it doesn’t appeal to her. In general, I’d say we find the transnational (which we call multilingual turn or plurilingualism) more appealing, but feel that there is a lot of lauding of it (most “multicultural” events) without substantive political changes addressing global inequalities.

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  3. I went into Comparative Literature because I did not want to join a nationalist project. This was when I declared my major at 17, in 1974. How do you distinguish between world, comparative, and transnational literary projects?

    I say “world” is dilettantish — people read in translation and ignore contexts. That’s fine for general reading but it isn’t scholarship. Goethe’s Weltlitteratur isn’t as superficial and may not be as Eurocentric as it seems, but “world”in US tends to be both.

    Transnational seems to mean looking at a phenom across national borders, which one does in Hispanic Studies all the time. I don’t trust it because I think it probably entitles people to make pronouncements on things and places about which they know nothing. “Transnational” work can be done but you’ve got to speak the language, go to that place, not just use it as raw material for some “application” of second-hand theory.

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    1. I’m naturally very predisposed towards comp lit. But look at what happened in reality. One person is hired to do the work of two and now increasingly even three. Everybody wants a “generalist” because then you can just close down the medieval and the golden age position and have this one person teach three fields. And now, more and more often, everybody wants “a linguist” because then you can veer away from literature altogether. Literature is handed over to “a comparatist” in English lit who teaches in translation.

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      1. Yes, but that is because of the economy and the ignorance, arrogance and provincialism of English professors. I’m for the discipline itself, and transnational studies of different things have been undertaken in different fields since forever. So you are saying that now “transnational” is code for generalist / maid of all work?

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        1. Okay, this is where I also have the opposite opinion, shocking I know :-). I think by maintaining that we do “literature” or “linguistics” or “Spanish” or “Arabic” we set ourselves to be lopped off one by one (who needs any of that if you can learn 100 words in 20 languages from DuoLinguo?). I think instead we need to show that what we do together/transnationally with all of the language resources we have (so much more than an English department!) is so valuable you need all of us and more. Implementation of this, I’m still not sure how, but I’m working on it πŸ™‚

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          1. I’m not seeing any trends in the economy that go towards creating or maintaining more workplaces. Redundancy is the order of the day. If you can have one person teaching French and Spanish, who will hire two instead? Most importantly, which entity will pay for two if not a strong nation-state that has an interest in keeping its citizens occupied and settled down behind one stable picket fence?

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            1. The local entity that wants to participate in transnational processes is what I’m hoping for as an alternative. Do you just mean a physical workplace? Because I think the trend is towards the ultra-local or the global.

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          2. Well, that’s one thing I like about FL as opposed to national literature departments and you are right, most FL profs are only interested in their island, and plurilingual is more interesting. And/but I am not yet convinced that the “glocal” is sufficient…I mean, we’ve had city-states involved in global processes before.

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            1. I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to co-opt me into the teaching of Russian or somehow doing some of the work that the Russian tenure-line was doing before being discontinued. Of course, I was supposed to provide these services for free. I know how to repeal such attacks. For me, it’s easy. I go all self-righteous and wounded and say, “What makes you think I speak Russian? I’m Ukrainian. We are postcolonial victims of Russian imperialism. Do you know how it FEELS?” So they leave me alone. But other people get trapped into providing free labor by appeals to multicultural solidarity. AND THEY ARE HAD AS A RESULT.

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              1. If you don’t have 18 graduate hours in Russian you can’t teach it. If you don’t have college level work in it, you cannot even teach it formally in K-12. No matter how well you speak. I’ve taught Portuguese for free but I did it as a mental health and service activity, so it was different.

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              2. Exactly! That’s what I’m saying! Let’s respect the language and not try to farm out the teaching to clearly unqualified individuals, such as myself. I stopped putting it on my CV that I even speak Russian and Ukrainian because I didn’t want to be hired with the expectation that I’d teach them. (This actually happened to me before. I was hired based on such an expectations and then had to disappoint when I said I wasn’t willing to do it.)

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              3. I refuse to teach English as a second language, I’ve got 18 graduate hours in English so I might be legal but I have no ESOL training.

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            2. I’m not advocating for you teaching Russian, or Z and me English, quite the opposite actually. But you have to recognize that this expectation (you should teach your “native” language) comes from the nation-state ideology of language, and if you’re not willing to give that up, then you have to live with it always being there.

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              1. Sure, but you have to also realize how job ads and hiring work. “Transnational” means hiring one person not two.

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              2. Oh sure, but nationalism isn’t going to save the job market either, it’s your choice between a “transnational” position or one in “Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese”.

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              3. If there is no strong nation-state, who will invest in public institutions of higher or even secondary learning? Who will fund public research? We are all seeing how these institutions are getting defunded as the nation-state weakens.

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              4. Nobody cares what the language of one’s native country is. Russian isn’t the language of mine, by the way. It’s all about getting getting people to work for free. Where you learned the language you can get exploited in is beyond irrelevant.

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              5. So my issue with this is that there are a lot of problems with public education (like making people conform to the imagined model national citizen) and public funding of research (bureaucracy, trends, and timelines) under the nation-state model. So, I don’t see strengthening the nation-state as the best alternative, although like I said I’m not sure what the third alternative is yet, I’m just hoping there is one πŸ™‚

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  4. Transnational sounds like a desperate attempt to disguise that you study literature at all. It’s a crude attempt to make people think of finance and/or diplomacy (basically finance).

    A field that is ashamed of what it studies is on its last legs and a new shiny name can’t cover the stink of decay.

    “The whole point of me being a scholar is for me to live a comfortable life that offers as few distractions as possible from my enjoyments”

    In this we are ideological twins….

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    1. I am terminally p.o.’d at English and FL professors who have decided to hate literature. A special place in hell is reserved for those who love creative writing but hate literature.

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  5. \ Well, the nation-state provides an ideology for using the technology to kill and harm, so that is one reason.

    Nation-state can argue in various ways for the legitimacy of its existence, such as providing social support nets or solidarity. Post-nation state some describe may have only (claiming to provide) security as its main argument for legitimacy.

    \ The local entity that wants to participate in transnational processes is what I’m hoping for as an alternative. Do you just mean a physical workplace? Because I think the trend is towards the ultra-local or the global.

    I am unsure what wanting to participate in transnational processes means.

    I remember Clarissa telling about her state’s reluctance to invest into students’ education partly since they are not expected to stay near home and give back.

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    1. “Post-nation state some describe may have only (claiming to provide) security as its main argument for legitimacy.”

      • It’s also maximizing the opportunities of individuals. Obviously, at the expense of any collective solidarity.

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      1. \ It’s also maximizing the opportunities of individuals.

        Depends what you mean by it. I doubt it’s maximizing the opportunities of your students to receive quality education as a ticket out of poverty, for instance.

        People, who use the opportunities provided by mobility, were the ones most mobile in the nation-state model too.

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        1. The mobility of enterprising individuals to get whenever they want in life and beyond is enormous. But it’s a very special kind of person who can take advantage. The nation-state was making life more difficult for such individuals because it values conformity. Now they are freer than ever. But this a small minority. Everybody else is screwed in order to make their lives better.

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          1. What makes you think this is possible for only a small minority? I would agree not everyone is adapting well right now, but I don’t see why they are doomed to never adapt.

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            1. “What makes you think this is possible for only a small minority? ”

              Human nature? Humans are social species (we literally lose our minds when deprived of company). Fluidity requires severing contacts and not reestablishing them.

              The desire of most people to have children (most of whom benefit more from stability and routine than from chaos and fluidity).

              Even the desire to settle down (whether marriage or another arrangement). Distance and/or commuting relationships mostly don’t work long term. I think the rise of what Clarissa noted (girlfriends following their fluid boyfriends around and then being completely dependent on them) is an alternative but not very attractive for most people.

              Armed with enough capital, the wealthy can overcome all these obstacles. Normal people? Not so much….

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              1. Yes, the current fluid trend serves only the wealthy, but again, why does this have to be the only possible way of doing fluidity? I don’t think it has to require severing contacts or having unstable environments for children. I think the reason people aren’t coping is because they aren’t recognizing the full nature of the problem, and thus can’t address it, it’s not a lack of ability. I admit I haven’t figured out the third alternative yet, but surely if more people devoted attention to this they could figure it out for me πŸ™‚

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              2. Even if everybody decides to participate enthusiastically (at what psychological cost let’s not even consider right now), it’s not going to work. Technology and the liquid economy work in the direction of shrinking the labor force. That’s unavoidable. That’s happening no matter what we do.

                Now. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether there will be strong nation-state institutions to cushion the fall for the “permanently superfluous.” Public education, welfare protections, some sort of efforts to keep capital tied in place, at least temporarily. There should be an entity in place that has some sort of vested interest in providing these things. What can that entity possibly be if not the nation-state?

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              3. “There should be an entity in place that has some sort of vested interest in providing these things. What can that entity possibly be if not the nation-state?”

                To be cruel, what is the vested interest of a state in this? Providing protections to most of its citizens used to provide certain benefits, specifically wilful and eager participation, as well as staving off the threat of large scale violence. What use is the participation by the permanently superfluous? And what threat do they pose when the main instruments of violence require technological superiority rather than a numerous populace?

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            2. Look at all our colleagues who are permanently stuck in adjuncting jobs. There are so many of them. They can go to any lengths to adapt but they are simply not needed. And these are ultra smart people with PhDs.

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              1. I’m not convinced this is true. Permanent adjuncts may be superfluous in the current university system, but as you say they are ultra smart people, so I think they could certainly find places they are not superfluous outside of this system, and possibly do better than those of us in it in the long run πŸ™‚

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