1. The university’s disindividuating promise of otium

With the discretisation and specialisation of knowledge into disciplines and institutions, the labour sustaining it has been delegated to the university which itself has been at once separated from society and corrupted by the private sector and the state. In the hyperindustrial society’s university, the distinction between ‘our work and ourselves’ is blurred (Gill 2010:240). Further, this ‘toxicity reduces my/our immunity and leaves us addicted to our status as all that we have. And all that we have is a reified, anxiety-infused identity’ (Hall 2014). In turn, the student-as-consumer, socialised into instrumentalising education for career progression, may willingly follow the marketing-induced norms of life which by default inhibit any possibility of psychic and collective individuation (Stiegler 2011a:106). They no longer experience education as a practice of elevation for they undergo training, acquire skills (potentially at risk of automation), and adapt to an unhealthy work ethic, disindividuating themselves. In short, they adhere to a system that does not allow for becoming, for invention, but to one which stultifies (2011a:68).

The university flourishes upon its perpetually delayed promise of otium to its workers and students; when otium is fulfilled, it is often experienced with an underlying anxiety, inasmuch as otium within the academy is generally devalued or denigrated through institutional appropriation (lower-ranked workers’ labour and gendered emotional labour), or by being considered damaging to the institution’s reputation (political challenges). Through standards and casual contracts leading to overwork, the university furthers its poisonous demands upon workers who internalise them as expectations, fostering competition rather than solidarity. Concurrently, otium may be an unsustainable means for survival: ‘my culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value’ (Hall 2014).

According to University and College Union, education staff work ‘an average of more than two days unpaid every week’ (2016). This extra work is often conducive to elevation, opening new horizons, but its temporality clashes with that of negotium. As a result, ‘we are structurally never good enough’ (Barcan 2013:196 – emphasis in original) for the corporate university. Even in the face of this unbearable condition, overworked academics and students continue to sacrifice themselves in the name of spirit, desire, and disciplinary knowledge. Henceforth, otium as positive pharmakon could emerge in spite of, and as resistance against, the corporate university’s imposition of audit culture (Gill 2010). Put simply, it can be an individual or collective act of care and self-care to preserve desire and invent pre-individual funds for new conditions of possibility.

Without this work of love and commitment, the university would not function (Birmingham Autonomous University, forthcoming 2017). Thus, through the imposition of negotium, rankings and metrics, workers’ passion and desire are channelled against their individuation. Addiction becomes part of academic practices of coping with their workload and the requirement of always being ‘on’ – for instance, responding to emails (Gill 2010:235-236). Thus, perceiving work as a positive form of libidinal endeavour and identifying their passions and themselves with their work has transformed academic workers’ struggle for otium into a ‘culturally acceptable self-harming activity’ (Hall 2014). Pain is necessary, but only when it is individuating; for instance, transformative learning and work can be experienced as painful, and there must be willingness to embrace it. Notwithstanding, ‘struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable’ (hooks 1984:28).